‘Tis the Season to Write: A Teacher’s Tale

December 13, 2017 § 4 Comments

shawnaBy Shawna Kenney

After my first book was published, I visited a writing class as an invited author. Following my visit, the professor asked why I wasn’t an instructor myself. His question sparked my imagination. I was a cubicle jockey in a mind-numbing corporate job by day, a freelance writer in the wee hours, and a touring author on weekends and holidays. Teaching seemed like it would be a better fit for my writing life.

Plus, get paid to talk about stories all day? Yes, please.

I went and earned my MFA in a program with pedagogy classes and a 3-year TA-ship. I took my piece of paper and taught American Literature to Marines at Camp Lejeune, photojournalism to teenagers in a juvenile detention center, English composition to immigrant students in community colleges, developmental writing to women in a Catholic college. As an adjunct, sometimes I taught six classes at three different schools at a time, which left little time or energy for writing. Some of my colleagues taught even more. I was lucky to publish two pieces per year with that schedule. Finally I landed the classes of my dreams—memoir and personal essay, which I’ve taught online and in person now for 10 years, rarely more than one or two at a time, leaving much room for writing productivity. Between semesters I am most active, sending pitches, revising essays, and finishing books. I come back to classes armed with stories from the front—samples of editorial rounds for them to see, links to new work, and shares of disappointing rejection.

Semesters have given rhythm to my writing life. Between reading early drafts of other people’s stories, I scratch down ideas for my own to be pursued over the summer or on holiday break. They simmer in my journal and my brain until the metaphorical school bell rings. Then when the last grade is entered, I clean off my desk, file the handouts away, reorganize my books, bust out a good tea, and sit down to write. By then the words are retching up out of my gut like a looming flu virus, eager to infest the page. Of course sometimes there are also fits and starts, the proverbial “shitty first drafts,” and there’s some searching around in the dark for what it was I wanted to say, exactly. When I get stuck, I take on an editing project or take a walk. Remembering that this is my window for self-care, I get myself to yoga three times a week, schedule a massage, make more time for friends. Sometimes I brush up by taking a writing class (last summer it was sketch comedy). Inevitably, I do get words down on the page, partly because there is a syllabus in the distance calling my name.

Yogi Bhajan says, “If you want to learn about something, read it. If you want to understand something, do it. If you want to master something, teach it.” I don’t know that I have mastered anything, but between semesters, I am indeed protecting my inner life, as Lan Samantha Chang advises in her Lit Hub essay. I am teaching myself that this ebb and flow of giving and receiving words works for me.
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Shawna Kenney is the author of I Was a Teenage Dominatrix, editor of the anthology Book Lovers: Sexy Stories from Under the Covers  and co-author of Live at the Safari Club: A History of Punk in the Nation’s Capital. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Vice, Playboy, Ms., and Creative Nonfiction, among others.

From Scraps to Stories

December 7, 2017 § 26 Comments

A guest post by Anne McGrath

Memories are slippery to hold. Many of what I suspect were my most brilliant story ideas were written on bits of paper too small to keep track of. The tiny notes ended up in the wash, returned in library books, or illegible.

Not any more.

For the past two years I’ve used a deceptively simple system to collect the seeds for stories. My ideas are in a central, easy-to-access place, and the method is enjoyable, helps me pull up things I’d otherwise forget, and is much easier than keeping a detailed journal. I was introduced to the system by novelist Matthew Dicks when I attended his storytelling workshop. As we made up stories on the spot, it was abundantly clear that Matt, a twenty-eight-time Moth StorySLAM winner, had an endless supply of tales to tell. We all wanted to know his secret and he gave it to us. In his TEDx talk, Matt calls his system Homework for Life.

Here’s how it works:

At the end of every day, after I brush my teeth, no matter where I am or how tired I feel, I reflect on the day, asking myself “What happened that was interesting?” It doesn’t have to be anything shocking or fantastic. Matt says many of the best stories are small, “Infinitesimal, really. If it speaks to something about your heart, reflects your experience as a human being, or offers some fundamental truth about who you are.”

Sometimes I list a description of an image or movie I saw, a conversation I overheard, or a personal interaction, typing a kernel of the idea beside the date, in an Excel spreadsheet. You could write it in a notebook, an app like Things (iOS only) or Evernote (all platforms), or Word document, but the spreadsheet comes with lines and boxes and works well for me. It only takes a moment. Most of the notes wouldn’t make sense to anyone else:

  • hawk died
  • what if I never had kids
  • the art of napping
  • no longer know people in People mag
  • when dad’s work bench turned messy
  • birds – make them come to you
  • wearing uniforms
  • computer passwords
  • phantom pony tail

It might not look like much, but this list thrills me. I could turn any one of these ideas into an essay right now. More often than not I don’t so much write about these topics as from them; they stir up sensory memories in the same way music or photos might. When I read these small details they remind me of the big details and it all comes flooding back.

This system has helped me to some of my best writing. Keeping a daily log, I began spotting stories all over the place and living more in the moment, through my senses, because I know I will be reflecting back on events at the end of the day. Memorable lines I would have forgotten, like what the technician said to me when I was in the MRI machine that time, or events that would usually go unnoticed, like the ants moving en masse in Costa Rica, are now stories.

But here’s the most incredible thing I’ve discovered: this habit of collecting ideas has changed something in my mind and how I am in the world. It has instilled in me a sense of patience, made me see with wonder, be more willing to try new things, and look with fresh, curious eyes. The process of writing has become more important than the outcome for me and I feel fortunate every day that I am able to create something. I have stumbled upon things in New York City I might have missed if I was less attentive – an exhibit of Nabokov’s butterflies at the public library, a baby squirrel fallen from its nest in Central Park, the homeless woman outside the subway station who had been a Jackie Gleason dancer. Visceral stories are floating all around us, waiting to be brought to life.

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Anne McGrath lives in the Hudson Valley with her adorable husband, sons, and dogs. Her work has appeared in Antioch University’s Lunch Ticket, Chapman University’s Dirt Cakes, The Caterpillar Magazine, and the One Hundred Voices anthology. She is an assistant contest editor at Narrative Magazine and is pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Anne’s short story, “Performing with the Dead,” was featured on NPR’s Listener’s Essay segment and she has participated in story slams at The Mount, Edith Wharton’s former house in Massachusetts, and the Noah Webster House in Connecticut.

Remediation: Creative Revision in the Comp Classroom

December 6, 2017 § 2 Comments

StacyMurison14_005SmallThe second installment of a series of blog essays by Stacy Murison discussing her use of creative nonfiction prompts and approaches in her first-year composition classes.

As we near the end of the semester, my thoughts turn from creation to revision as our composition students complete one last assignment: a Remediation project. This concept was borrowed from rhetoric studies, where students are asked to transform a piece of existing writing into a new medium such as a video essay, or to consider using an existing medium (Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat) to re-imagine their essay in a new format. Remediation in this case is an opportunity for revision of both form and words.

A challenge always is that students can’t imagine returning to work already submitted and graded and sometimes hope this means that they will get a better grade on their first project. When I explain that remediation is an opportunity to imagine their work in a different way, there’s some hesitation. And, by hesitation, I mean groaning.  Like most of us, it’s also difficult initially to imagine exactly how we can revise and improve on our work. For me, I fall in love with the arrangement and emotion of a piece and usually have to step back from an essay for several weeks, or ask a friend to critique it, in order to see clearly revision opportunities. For students, there is some confusion (even this late in the semester) between surface-level editing and a more global revision approach, coupled with the feeling of wanting to move forward with projects, not backward.

I have also heard from students that they don’t often get to write creatively or infuse their own ideas and personality in their work at the college level. I leverage this feeling into a combination of three writing exercises to help students understand the revision process. These exercises are focused on how they tell their own personal stories, which leads into discussions later on how they can use these techniques to revise their essays for the Remediation project.

The first exercise encourages students to write a brief movie trailer about a day in their life. I use YouTube throughout the semester to show students commercials and movie trailers coupled with writing and group activities that help them identify narrative elements, audiences, and appeal techniques. After consuming this type of media all semester, they are primed to write their own trailer. The trailer I show as an example for this exercise is for Jerry Seinfeld’s movie Comedians (2002) and plays with typical movie tropes for action films; part of the humor is that the film is not an action film.

Students can use a “Mad Libs” template I provide or write their own, borrowing the elements from the Comedians trailer or other trailers they’ve seen throughout the semester. I provide index cards so they can write their trailers and set a timer for 5 – 7 minutes. Is their own day-in-a-life story a rom-com? An action film? A comedy? I give examples of a blind date gone wrong, a roommate who chews too loudly, or the pain of waking up for an 8 a.m. writing class. The audience is their classmates and me, who by this time know each other pretty well.

The template looks something like this:

In a (PLACE) where (SOMETHING HAPPENS), one (PERSON) (ACTION). One day (A TURN OF EVENTS). Coming this (SEASON), (MOVIE TITLE).

After they write their trailers on index cards, I shuffle the cards and pass them to another classmate to read. Some students insert dialog and notes on sound effects or cues for the type of music we could expect to hear as part of their written trailer for their reader. Readers will sometimes read in “voice-over” voice. We then guess who wrote the trailer and talk about the identifying elements used and why it might have been easy or difficult to guess the author. This becomes a discussion of their personal writing styles which they have developed over the semester. The exercise introduces a new aspect to consider as they revise a project—who they are in relation to the piece and, because they know their audience, ideas for how to infuse their personality and voice in a new medium.

Students in one of my sections this semester encouraged me to run this exercise as a “true” Mad Libs, where they start writing their story as a trailer and a classmate finishes it. I think this is an excellent idea—it might demonstrate exactly how well the audience knows them, or how to be even more specific in their word choices for an intended audience.

The next exercise involves writing a personal “warning label.” With another round of index cards and five minutes of writing time, I ask them to write a warning label they would wear all day to help others understand how to interact with them. I keep this exercise to 15 words or less—t-shirt slogan-length—and show them some t-shirt images from on-line catalogs such as Signals and Think Geek. We again share these as a class and try to guess who the author is. This exercise helps students distill aspects of themselves and their ideas into a few words—a seemingly impossible task made possible.

The final exercise is a further distillation—the Six-Word Memoir. I have used this writing exercise a few different ways. It works well for the Remediation project because it demonstrates the power of a few well-chosen words. I have also used it for one-minute papers (or “exit tickets”) to check in and see how students are doing in the course overall or with a specific project. For additional fun on the last day of class, I ask the students to write a new six-word memoir that encompasses their journey as a writer throughout the semester.

Re-imagining and repackaging their life stories through the exercises help students access new ideas for potential revision opportunities for their previous projects. Through these exercises, students develop a strong sense of voice, tone, audience, and word choice delivered in active and fun ways that are centered on who they are and how they present themselves. Now they are ready to revisit their previous projects in order to transform their essays into a new medium and with well-crafted and chosen words.

So, what do these projects look like? I had a student reimagine her review of a local pizza restaurant (she thought she could make a better pizza at home) as a Tasty video using her iPhone and posting the video to Facebook. She used the Tasty conventions of an ingredient list and fast-and slow-motion video capture of the pizza making. Another student loved reality television shows and reimagined her review project (a camping trip gone wrong) into a short YouTube video with her roommates as the actors. She followed specific show conventions (Keeping Up with the Kardashians) such as a staged fight and fast-motion photography between scenes. Other students have captured their work in Instagram formats creating new hashtags and writing micro-essays for their photos. Still others use Twitter for a series of connected tweets (or threads) about a specific topic. One student explored folk music for his I-Search project and wrote original lyrics and melody, which he performed in class on his acoustic guitar. Another took his I-Search project on depression and wrote lyrics and a melody, which he recorded to SoundCloud and shared with the class. This type of revision through the Remediation project gives students an opportunity to use platforms they are familiar with and use regularly, as well as showcase their talents. Even students who tell me they are not “creative” have made videos, written hip-hop lyrics, performed comedy routines, or shared photographs on VSCO, Instagram, or Tumblr. As part of the Remediation, students present their work to the class and talk about the choices they made during the revision process.

The results often surprise and humble me, and I think even surprise the students, especially when they hear all of the positive feedback from their classmates during their presentations. Through this entire process, revision is viewed less as an odious task and more as an opportunity for re-invention and re-imagination for both the students themselves and the work they have produced through Remediation.

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Additional Resource  

Tarsa, Becca. Remediation. Digital Rhetoric Collaborative. 25 April 2014. Accessed 1 November 2017 http://www.digitalrhetoriccollaborative.org/2014/04/25/digital-lessons-remediation/

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** Very special thanks to students Carly, Ethan, and Dmitrius for sharing your work with us.

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Stacy Murison received her MFA in Creative Writing from Northern Arizona University where she now teaches composition. Her work can be found in Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, River Teeth, Hobart, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, among others.

In You We Trust

November 28, 2017 § 9 Comments

Picture of Meryl Streep as a fashion magazine editor in The Devil Wears Prada

…maybe just stop talking.

We’re settled into our seats, ready to watch Meryl Streep perform in the new musical adaptation of Gone Girl (“Gone!”). We’re leafing through Playbill, counting up Oscar nominations, when suddenly Ms. Streep steps out in front of the curtain to address the audience.

“Hi everyone, I’m really excited you’re here for this show, based on the book about a woman who fakes her own disappearance and sets her husband up for a murder rap. I hope you’ll especially enjoy the scene where I write all the journal entries at the same time with different pens.”

Wait, what?

Or she says, “In rehearsals for this show, I worked on my high E notes with a noted vocal coach at Julliard, maybe you’ve heard of him?”

Um, no.

We’re already here, Meryl. We’re ready to watch. We trust you to deliver. Just let us watch you–don’t tell us the story you’re about to tell us. And if it turns out the show isn’t to our taste, your pre-show explanation won’t fix that.

Reading submissions is a lot like being in that audience. Around the Brevity Podcast house, we’re settling in with pages of Submittable entries for the One-Minute Memoir episode. Each essay is the curtain going up on a show we’ve never seen before, enjoying how much humor, sadness, quirkiness, reflection, action, and adventure can be packed into under 150 words, sometimes many fewer than that. There are pieces totally unique in content, and others with universal situations but new approaches. Every author has something truly, beautifully theirs…and some of them tell us about it in advance.

Cover letters everywhere range from a single sentence of author bio to a full page of credits, context, and background information, and every variation in between. Sometimes, authors get nervous that the editors won’t get it. Or they’re really excited about their time working with a prestigious teacher. Maybe they feel like they don’t have enough publication credits, and explaining the story fills up that space. Or there’s a backstory that’s totally amazing.

These things don’t suck, but they’re not helping your submission. I don’t actively read the cover letter until I’ve read the essay–though I end up seeing some of what Submittable displays before clicking through to the submitted piece. Most editors want to come to your words as readers do: a fresh impression on the page. They don’t get to sit down and explain to subscribers what they meant when they picked that piece, why they think it’s great. As authors, we rarely get to discuss why or how we came to write something unless we’re talking about it with our friends or being interviewed. But that’s bonus material for the true fans, not a base to start from with first-time readers. Don’t give away the game.

For example, when submitting your terrific flash essay about knitting with a women’s circle in Guangzhou:

This essay focuses on the time I gave birth in China surrounded by my knitting class.

I wanted to tell the stories of the amazing grandmothers I met while doing handicrafts in China. They all had children who had emigrated, and I saw how conflicted they felt.

Nope.

For the purposes of submission, one sentence maximum about the circumstances directly affecting the writing (not the story).

I wrote this during my missionary work in China.

I’m a professional knitting teacher.

Will detailing parts of your story get you rejected out of hand? Not by us. In the long run, this isn’t a huge issue. For most journals, it doesn’t really matter what you write in that space–at this point in the process, they’re interested in the story and the writing. Explaining neither fixes nor destroys a submission. So don’t sweat it if you’ve fallen into this category before. Just stop doing it.

Reading your story is more powerful than reading about your story. Let us be surprised and delighted and astounded–the way we want our audience to be when they get to read your work.

 

Edited to add: Aerogramme offers some more terrific cover letter advice from Tahoma Review Prose Editor Yi Shun Lai.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her travel-adventure-writing newsletter can show up twice monthly in your inbox, if that’s not telling too much.

Stop Making Sense

November 21, 2017 § 25 Comments

Have we got an offer for you!

Black and white picture of David Byrne dancing in a boxy oversized suit from the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense

How did I get here?

Would you like to improve your writing craft today? By, say, 10%?

This doesn’t apply to everyone of course, but after editing essays and books and posts for the Brevity blog, for experienced writers and new writers and everyone in between, I’ve noticed a lot of repetition.

Not from book to book, although I see that. Not even from paragraph to paragraph, although I see that too.

Within the same sentence.

Sometimes it’s telling as well as showing:

He looked like an old man with his grey hair and gnarled hands.

Tell it once:

His hands were gnarled.

Better yet, show it in an action:

He ran a gnarled hand through his grey hair.

He picked at the tablecloth with a gnarled hand.

Sometimes it’s showing the same thing multiple times:

Jane patted my shoulder, gently massaging my arm to calm me down as she said, “Shhh, there, there.”

Show it once:

Jane rubbed my shoulder. “Shh, there, there.”

(Using an action as a dialogue tag is a great way to avoid repeating information.)

Sometimes it’s a festive riot of showing, telling, and over-explaining:

I picked up my phone and texted my boyfriend:

Mike rhutho wywugeybk ajboaubuo huhis ihi abidvyts

Although the only thing I spelled correctly was his name, when I sent him the text I thought it was very clear.

 Pare it down:

I texted my boyfriend:

Mike rhutho wywugeybk ajboaubuo huhis ihi abidvyts

I thought it was very clear.

Texting implies the phone is in the narrator’s hand. There’s comedy in the juxtaposition of the garbled text and “I thought it was very clear.”

As writers, we worry we’re not good enough to get our point across in fewer words. That our audience won’t “get it.” As memoirists, this hits even closer to home—what if someone reads my book and they don’t understand me? What if I don’t sound logical, or reasonable? What if I don’t make sense?

But spelling everything out distances the reader. Instead of offering the whole picture, spread out the pieces. Putting together clues to understand behavior, noticing dialogue and actions that seemingly contradict each other, guessing a character’s thoughts from their gestures—all these moments of detective work engage the reader more fully in the story. Don’t lay the evidence out neatly with an explanation—let them meet you on the page to investigate the scene of the crime.

This also applies to “filtering”:

I looked at James as he stomped over.

I knew his balled-up fists meant trouble, and I felt terrified.

I heard him shout my name.

“Looked,” “felt,” and “heard,” all remind the reader, “There’s a narrator seeing and feeling and hearing these things. You’re reading a book.”

James stomped over, his fists ready for trouble. “Caroline!”

Removing the filtering lets the reader imagine themselves in the narrator’s shoes. It’s subtle, but it puts the reader a tiny bit more in the emotion of the scene. It lets them feel for us, instead of telling them what we felt.

If you’re having a wildly creative day, by all means go generate new material. But if you’re having a day where you should do some writing…and you’ll feel better if you do…but it’s all kind of looking like a slog—start slogging. Pick some pages and use the Find tool to spot “looked” “felt” “heard” “thought” and variations on those verbs. Ask of each one, “Do I really need you here?” Scan your sentences for repetitions and over-explaining. Ask in each place, “Can I make the reader work a little harder?”

It’s not our job to make everything make sense. Our job is to lay out enticing clues and let the reader solve the puzzle with us. To immerse them in our world–but learning, feeling, and making their own sense.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Sign up for her bimonthly travel and writing newsletter here.

Photo credit: Cinecom Int’/Island Alive/REX/Shutterstock (5871592c)

Evidence: A Creative Writing Prompt in the Composition Classroom

October 16, 2017 § 9 Comments

zz nglishTwitterAvatarOver the next few months, author Stacy Murison will occasionally explore how she uses basic principles of creative nonfiction with students in her first-year composition classes. This is the first in the series.

We regularly ask our students for more supporting evidence in their essays, whether they are writing a rhetorical analysis, an argumentation paper, or a research paper. But it’s often challenging for students to understand what kind of evidence will support their ideas. Even with evidence, they don’t always feel confident making a hypothesis or developing a research question that may challenge them.

As their beginning research project for the semester, my students write an I-Search, which is a student-directed inquiry project. The main paper component is a 1,200-1,500 word narrative describing how they develop their question and conduct research. For this project, it’s the story of their research process that is important, not necessarily the results of their research. I spend most of the unit stressing the development of the best question they can ask rather than finding an answer to their question. This concept is often challenging as it is not a traditional research paper where students can expect to find at least the beginning of an answer to their question. The other challenge is getting students to write narratively about their research and question development, something beyond “And then, I went to Google Scholar.”

I decided to develop a creative writing exercise to help students understand how to craft a research question, how to gather evidence, and how to write their search narratives. While doing my own research for a young adult story I was writing, I had an idea for a group of teenagers who discover a well-preserved abandoned home to make their own. I spent weeks searching for “perfect” abandoned house photographs, which eventually became more interesting than my story. I was fascinated by the condition of some of these places, and was surprised to see that many of the articles that accompanied the photograph listed the contents of the houses, but the reporters often didn’t go the extra step of finding the family, interviewing neighbors, or sharing an educated guess with readers about what may have happened to the homeowner.

To guide students with both research and storytelling, I share my fascination with the abandoned house stories and photographs. I then show them a photo of this abandoned living room that also appeared to have functioned as a music room:

zzmusic

The prompt involves opening with the question: What Happened Here? I ask students: what was this room used for? and what time period was this room “frozen” in? The first is often answered quickly: a living and music room (guitar case, multiple record players, and chairs possibly arranged for “listening”). This helps students develop their “research question.” The next step involves some actual research—usually we look at the furnishings and the stereos/record players, but also the books, using image searches on the internet. I might give them some hints, such as stereos from the 60s and 70s and furniture from the 40s and 50s. I even allow them to use their cell phones to search the internet.

Instead of asking them to write an essay with supporting evidence, I then ask them to write a story about what happened to the family using the evidence as descriptors of the space—the molded guitar case, the water-damaged bay window, even the fake flowers looking like just picked from a garden, etc. After they complete the exercise, we spend time reading and talking through some of the stories and what led each writer to their story of the place and the homeowners.

The challenge with this example is that we all want to know what happened to the homeowners from the photograph. I then share the full article with the class. Although personal papers were found on the premises, the reporter doesn’t reveal the homeowner’s name, nor does it appear that she attempted to find the homeowner. Each piece of photographic “evidence” presented—vacant, fully furnished rooms, silverware, beauty products—only adds to the question of “what happened.” The questions become more refined as we discuss the images and the article, such as “Why would someone leave all of that expensive audio equipment behind?” and “a guitar in a case is easy to carry—why didn’t someone take it?”

When the students get more excited about the types of questions they can ask based on the evidence, then I know it’s time to introduce the full prompt for the project. As they prepare their research questions and start to find some evidence, they can discern what makes a more complex research question and how to tell the story of their search. I see students take more risks with the questions they ask, and also in refining their question through ongoing research. One student is at the point now where each new piece of evidence she discovers helps her reframe her question. She is not going to settle on one question for this paper—instead, as she garners more evidence, her question continues to evolve. What she’s writing about now is how to craft the “right” question. And she’s still excited about the project, rather than being frustrated at not finding an easy answer.

Resources:

Filkins, Scott. “Promoting Student Directed Inquiry with the I-Search Paper.” National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). Accessed 30 September 2017

Rahman, Khaleda. “Untouched for decades: Photographer captures perfectly preserved home that was abandoned for years.” Daily Mail Online. Accessed 15 September 2017
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Stacy Murison received her MFA in Creative Writing from Northern Arizona University where she now teaches composition. Her work can be found in Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, River Teeth, Hobart, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, among others.

Letting Your Neighbors Inspire Your Writing

October 13, 2017 § 12 Comments

zz Caren-TakenByRobTBy Caren Lissner

Each year around this time, as the temperature gets colder and the nights grow longer, I spend more time sequestered in my small fifth-story apartment, writing. Luckily, the neighbors always provide extra inspiration. It’s not that they stop up to visit or that I see them more often in the streets now that they’re back from their summers away. Rather, this is the time of year when they remove the air conditioners and fans from the narrow windows of their apartments and brownstones, and my view changes dramatically.

At night, I start to notice a beautiful contrast: rows and rows of glowing windows juxtaposed against a cobalt sky. But I notice something else: more clues to the occupants’ personalities, the decorations that were obscured by their hardware — the jaunty sports pennants, flags from other countries, swirling suncatchers.

I also notice much more, a glimpse of their daily routines, providing both a distraction from my solitude and a reminder of the types of quirks I need to include to deeply shade the characters in my work.

For instance, take the guy directly across the street, who lives on the fifth floor of a beige row-home. From January through April, I spy him up into the wee hours, hunched over a desk beneath a small metal lamp. He takes breaks to head to the kitchen, and then it’s back to work. Since he’s only up so late during tax season, I have a pretty good idea what he does for a living. When we’re both at our desks at 2 or 3 a.m., I feel a camaraderie with him, another soul who understands the value of being productive during the most quiet time of night.

I’ve seen neighbors go through family changes. A new pet appears, an orange kitten who climbs onto the sill to stretch in the sunshine, its eyes turning to contented slits. Or the side of a crib suddenly presses against the window like a temporary safety gate against the world.

A week ago, I noticed that all the shades and curtains disappeared from a window on the fourth floor of the building across the street, affording me a view of a cavernous room with shiny wood floors. Days later, a regiment of cleaning products lined the sill, and a young man moved in. I caught glimpses of him in his t-shirt and baseball cap. He’s probably one of the young people who flood this area to start their first job in Manhattan after college graduation, as I did two decades ago. Perhaps he doesn’t know anyone in this town yet, or maybe he has many friends who will fill his apartment this weekend for his first party. Perhaps he expects, as I once did, to be here only a few years before leaving for the suburbs. I may cross paths with him tomorrow when he’s dashing for the bus in suit and tie, and not even recognize him. But will he recognize me?

In the last few years, I’ve found out, through conversations on social media, that various childhood friends of mine lived in this town right after college, but moved to the suburbs before either of us realized that we were around the corner from each other. There was no social media to connect us then. It’s too bad that we didn’t at least meet up for a drink before our paths diverged. In fact, right now, there may be people all around me who have something deep inside that would amaze me, but we’re looking at each other’s glowing window and neither of us knows it. Perhaps we will never know.

As a writer, I often use my imagination to fill in the blanks of people’s lives, to make more sense of the world. But perhaps I should forsake imagination for a little initiative. Because I really don’t know enough of my neighbors. As the cold weather settles in, it’s tempting to hole up all weekend. The next time I go out, I’m going to say hello to a few more people I pass, perhaps ask questions about their dogs. If they don’t find it too much of a trespass in these isolated times, perhaps they’ll smile back. It might make autumn feel a bit warmer – that, and taking the fans out of the windows.
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Caren Lissner is a novelist and essayist who’s been published in the Atlantic, the New York Times, LitHub, and McSweeney’s. Her humorous first book, Carrie Pilby, was made into a movie that premiered on Netflix in September. She’s presently finishing up a new novel and a funny memoir.

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