On Annie Dillard and Lifting Through Literature

February 26, 2020 § 12 Comments

Nathan Strobel photoBy Nathan Strobel

Exactly three months after my wife told me that she wanted a divorce, I sat on the floor of what used to be our bedroom and watched the dull flash of Roanoke’s Fifth of July fireworks through the window. The show had been rained out the night before. Our four-year-old daughter was asleep across the hall and my wife, who by that time was paying me rent to live in the basement, was, I could only presume, out with someone else. A thick volume containing all of Jane Austen’s novels was on my bedside table. I was halfway through Sense and Sensibility.

The day after our separation that April, I did only what had to be done, which seemed outsized in its cruelty: listen for the morning rustlings of my daughter; brush her hair and teeth and give her a waffle and strawberries for breakfast; tell her that we were going to visit her grandma, my mother, for a week but that she would see mommy when we got back. My efforts at normalcy felt like a lie that would widen into a chasm and swallow everything I thought my life had been. Words like “custody,” “visitation,” and “attorneys” were already rising out of this breach and choking me with anxiety as I shoved my daughter’s Elsa suitcase into the back of the minivan.

We left for the four-hour drive across Virginia to my hometown. During a stop at Bojangles’, I texted my brother that it seemed like I should be taking notes on this day for posterity. If one is lucky enough to live the fairly insulated middle-class life that I do, there are only a handful of such ruptures in a lifetime. So, I remember the man in the blue shirt in the restaurant who handed me a straw when he saw me standing behind him, and the minimum-wage cashier who carried our tray to a table for us because she saw that I had my daughter on my hip. They were kindnesses that would normally be noticed in the moment but quickly forgotten. But in the darkness of personal tragedy, they felt like pricks of light, and I wanted to ask, “Do you know?” But they couldn’t have.

When I finally reached my family and hugged my mother on the doorstep of my childhood home, the kindnesses widened: offers for dinner or coffee from old friends, unsolicited nuggets of calming wisdom, phone numbers of divorce lawyers. But most of the advice consisted of encouragement to pursue what I loved and from which I’d been restricted by the toxicity of the relationship that had been the dominant feature of my entire adult life to that point.

I decided that I needed to start reading again, really reading. In the preceding months, as I had felt my marriage dying, my books had become nothing more than a frame around the IKEA shelf on which the TV sat. They gathered dust as my wife and I sat down for another desultory night of Netflix surfing.

In what was now my bedroom, I started Susan Anderson’s The Journey from Abandonment to Healing. I was embarrassed to be reading it because it had a sunrise on the cover and looked like a self-help book. But she described the last stage of post-divorce grief not as “acceptance” but as “lifting,” a sense that one deserves better than a plain peace with the facts, that life after loss can be a work of art rather than a newspaper article.

So, I picked up Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” which, when I read it as a college student, had filled me with a sense of inestimable possibility. Now I was picking it up as a 32-year-old soon-to-be divorcee looking back on a decade crisscrossed with decisions and events that served as a mesh preventing me from going back and recapturing that fire for the written word with which I had been so wholly consumed. When I’d first read Dillard, it was like a lightning strike, and I’d spent the months afterward devouring Dostoevsky, Henry James, George Eliot, and dozens more that I can’t even recall. This time it would need to be more of a slow burn.

Sometimes I wish I could go back and tell that college student to choose a different path, to pursue his PhD in literature instead of moving to New York in the depths of the Great Recession with his then-girlfriend on the fantastical notion of either becoming a big-time editor or a fiction writer. It seemed like the best thing to do at the time, until my dad died and we found ourselves back in my hometown with my pursuit of an MFA aborted. I know what I love: I love reading words, analyzing them, discussing them. But no one particularly cares about your reflections on Jane Austen and her exigency in modern life unless you hold a doctorate.

That takes me back to Annie Dillard, who went into the woods just a few miles from where I live now and wrote about what she saw. It was as simple as that. The result of her observations opened my heart to a beauty with which it’s still being filled today, even as I sit in the midst of a failed marriage wondering what could have been. But what if she’d said to herself, “No one will care about my musings on elm trees and muskrats and hoop snakes,” and put her manuscript away? What if she had been terrified by her awe instead of inspired? In my new life, I want to be like Annie Dillard: so filled with love and wonder that it can’t help but overflow into creation.

Nathan Strobel is an editor of corporate risk reports who lives in Roanoke, Virginia with his daughter and an Australian shepherd.

Betting on Words

January 27, 2020 § 9 Comments

Marcie Fry Copyright (Full)By Jill Quandt

I was raised on Texas Hold’em, and knew the odds of faceless, suited hole cards winning

the hand were too low to raise pre-flop before I knew how to do long division. I could hold my own in poker games with my dad’s friends, all engineers, before I knew the formal word for what my brain was doing: statistics. As I’ve gotten older, I’m still a proficient poker player, but betting on cards is only a hobby. These days, my real vice is betting on words.

You see, I’m obsessed. My family, even my dad, is starting to wonder if I have a problem. “It seems like all you do is stare at that laptop,” they chide. They are not writers, except my little sister who is working on her doctoral project and has been writing a lot lately. She will be a nurse anesthetist come August. She will make more than thirteen times the thirteen thousand I make at my current job. Her bet is a safe one, so no one worries she is wasting her time.

But as for me, I’m a gambler. That’s why after five years of teaching seventh graders, I quit that low paying, difficult job to go back to school and take an even lower paying, difficult job. I’m an almost-thirty-one-year-old graduate teaching assistant in the English department at my local university. What can I say, I like a little risk. I already threw all my chips down on the table, and now I have to play.

The problem is even when I think I have a good hand, sometimes the river card comes out of nowhere to mess everything up. The other day, I was getting ready to submit this very piece of writing. The submissions guidelines for Brevity Blog require a short bio, so I was skimming through the blog looking at other writer’s bios and trying to decide if I should add a little humor to mine. I happened to come across Kathy Stevenson’s “On Playing Cards and Literary Rejection: Betting on the Come.” With the exact feeling I get when think I might just win a hand, and my opponent turns up her cards to reveal the nuts, I start wondering what the odds are two posts that compare being a writing to gambling would be published on this blog within one year’s time. They can’t be high.

Unfortunately, the only things that seem to be high are my stakes. Oh Baby! The stakes are high in this dangerous game of learning to be a writer. Lots of people, many of them with much bigger stacks than mine, are chasing the same pots: articles, books, awards, and the biggie — jobs. I’m the little stack at the table, and boy I know it. I hear there will be more than eighty people applying for the job in my department I desperately want, the one that pays ten grand less than the job I could take teaching English at a high school. I definitely wouldn’t bet on those odds in a poker game, but I’m not a problem card player. I guess I’ll admit that I understand why my husband, a lawyer who won’t prosecute a case he can’t win, thinks I have a problem. Heck, maybe I do.

Luckily, I have a masterful poker face. When people ask me what I’m going to do with my degree, I say I’m going to be a writer. The really nosy ones will probe deeper: “Can you make a living doing that?” At moments like this, a convincing bluff is key. “Yeah,” I respond casually, “I’m working on a couple pieces that have some potential, and my university is hiring composition instructors for the fall.” Then, I get out of there and cry over a glass of wine with the other TA’s in my office, the ones who know the odds. Later, I lay in bed at night staring at the ceiling and ruminating on the first rule of gambling which is, of course, never risk anything you can’t afford to lose. I’ve lost countless evenings and weekends, hours I could have spent being present with my husband, snuggling my baby, or getting some much needed sleep. I’ve forfeited job security, a living wage, and a decent retirement. The kicker is I spend most of my time typing words destined to be deleted.

So why do I do it?

It’s simple, I suppose: I’m hooked — couldn’t stop if I tried. Even when I’m losing (harsh feedback from a professor, rejection letters, writer’s block), I am thinking about the next hand because what if it’s a winner? It’s not that I’m an optimist; I’m realistic enough to know that I might never hit the jackpot. Then again, when my Grandpa Dale was sixty-one years old, he spent a nickel and won a $117,000 prize on a slot machine, so you never know. All I know for sure is that I’m a gambler. For better or worse, richer or poorer (almost definitely poorer), I’m going to keep betting on my words.

A former middle school teacher, Jill Quandt is working on an M.A. in English at the University of Nebraska at Omaha where she is currently teaching Composition II and helping facilitate the Oxbow Writing Project. Her work is forthcoming in the Kenneth Burke Journal. When she’s not writing or playing cards, she enjoys other precarious activities such as wakeboarding, skydiving, and trying to get her kid to eat veggies.

Feeding the Compost Pile: Finding Sources of Inspiration that Expand Our Writing World

January 17, 2020 § 8 Comments

jayevinerBy Jaye Viner

I recently finished Paul Tremblay’s collection of short stories, Growing Things. In the back matter, he talks about how he envies writers who always have more ideas than they have time to write. After graduate school, I was anxious about keeping my idea trough full. Neil Gaiman calls it the ‘compost heap,’ which is still stinky but has more positive associations with growing things than with pigs overeating in the mud. For four years prior to graduation, writing classes and the community of teachers and fellow students had provided that constant idea stream that Tremblay so envies. I didn’t have money to spend on more tuition and I had no idea what a writer does to feed themselves. What follows is a list of inexpensive ways I learned to add fuel to my compost heap after school.

The first thing I did was what every writer is always being told to do: read. ‘Best of’ lists, recs from everyone I’d ever met, every source listed in an article I liked. I tried to read about things I didn’t know. But it’s hard to find books when your only search parameter is ‘what I don’t know.’ It was easy to get overwhelmed by the infinite possibilities.

The second thing I did was pay for a year of Masterclass. This was cheaper than getting my hair done and it gave me access to the expertise of people I would never have thought to learn from like Jane Goodall, and Natalie Portman. Not only have these classes broadened my understanding of the world, they’ve given me specialized vocabulary and access into their worlds. Each class comes with a workbook and references, your own curated reading list on a topic you’ve just begun to explore. One caveat, the nonfiction writing experts on Masterclass are limited. But for school addicts like me, it can be a playground of new craft tools and new concepts.

The third thing I did was dedicated time to being online. Note: I do not mean procrastination or floating aimlessly on a newsfeed. This was a strategic, ten minutes in the morning, ten at night to do specific things. I followed the people whose books I read and set alerts so I would know when they texted, because otherwise you never see what you want to see, especially on Twitter. I also joined several Binders groups on Facebook to expand my network of writer friends. Binders groups are a great way to see what a diverse cross-section of people are doing and draw from their successes and stories of common struggle.

The fourth thing I did was download the Duolingo app and commit to studying Mandarin for fifteen minutes as a daily mental practice. Those fifteen minutes take me out of my reality. They give me access to means of expression that are fresh and vibrant. I come back to English seeing it differently.

The Fifth thing I did was take classes on Coursera. Many are free, college-like classes you complete at your own pace. I took a class on Transmedia Storytelling which transformed how I think about author branding online. I’m about to start an entry-level programming class. I’m terrified, but I’m also thrilled.

Obviously, sources of inspiration can come from anywhere. I might be the only person on the planet who worries about where my ideas will come from next. Well, me and Paul Tremblay. Maybe this list isn’t something to inspire so much as broaden. Another book I read recently, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David J. Epstein, argues that the most successful people got that way by doing more than the specific thing they’re famous for. In grad school, I believed that specializing in one genre, and studying only writing, would equate with success. These last two years have been about giving myself permission to generalize and trust that the broad can be just a valuable as the specific.

Jaye Viner is a dabbler in language and color and narrative. She likes cohabitation with walking fur bombs of the feline variety and eating the food. All of the food. She knows just enough about a wide variety of things to embarrass herself at the parties she never attends. Find her on Twitter @JayeViner or Instagram @Jaye_Viner


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