January 15, 2020 § 12 Comments
By Sheila McEntee
Though I am an essayist, not a poet, I recently discovered that esteemed poet Billy Collins and I have much in common. For one, we both love words. For another, we are fellow alums of Holy Cross, a small, Jesuit, liberal arts college in Worcester, Massachusetts. Third (and coolest of all), we both write haikus while walking our dogs. For Billy, it is a practical way to practice his art. For me, it is an avenue to awareness and to deepening my prose.
I’ve never met Billy Collins, but I know about his poetic promenades because he mentions them in his introduction to Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years. Billy says he first discovered haiku in high school, when he was just beginning to explore Beat literature and Zen sensibilities. He dabbled a bit but then gave it up, considering his works “unwitting travesties to the ancient and honorable tradition.”
Decades later, he rediscovered the form after he rescued a dog from the local animal shelter. A mixed-breed female, he named her Jeannine, after a Cannonball Adderley tune. Billy and Jeannine take long, daily walks around a reservoir, she sniffing and he counting syllables on his fingers. He tries to return home each day with a new haiku.
“I like to think of the haiku as a moment-smashing device out of which arise powerful moments of dazzling awareness,” Billy writes. “But I also like to think of it as something to do while walking the dog.”
I was both affirmed and delighted when I read about Billy’s haiku dog walking, for I had begun the same practice some months before. My loyal companions, Murphy and Missy, and I log many miles together, walking in our densely residential neighborhood. The dogs never fail to find fascinating scents, while I muse on countless haiku-worthy subjects, some of which find their way into my prose. Like Billy, I stick to the 5-7-5 syllable structure, counting them out on my fingers.
Most mornings, it is all too clear that the pups and I have different agendas:
Brisk walk or sniffing
expedition? Ever a
Here’s one from a walk in deep summer, when I thrilled to the light, lilting flute song of my favorite bird. The wood thrush and its captivating voice have appeared in my nature writing time and again:
July morning, baked
air too thick to breathe, and yet,
a wood thrush singing
Here is a lonely image I discovered on a recent winter walk:
At the tips of bare
branches, a tiny bowl of
twigs long abandoned
When I attempt a haiku while walking with Murphy and Missy, I begin my day with a small stab at creativity. I like the idea of preserving an image, a moment, that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. I also like being fully present to something. As Billy says, a haiku declares “that someone was present—actually there, living and breathing—at that particular intersection of sight and sound.”
The gentle gathering of ordinary moments is important to me as a writer. It keeps my mind stoked and attuned to the world around me. It also gives me a feeling of accomplishment. I sometimes think, “If I write nothing else today, I have recorded this.” My haiku collection has since become a sort of poetic diary.
When I get home, I quickly scribble down my haikus before I forget them. Often I marvel at their brilliance. Days later, I come back to them and see that they are clunky and utilitarian—indeed, “unwitting travesties.” Sometimes I refine them. Most times I let them be. I won’t enter them in a contest. It’s unlikely I’d publish them in a book, though I once used some of my better ones to introduce the sections of a segmented essay. In any case, they remain evidence of sweet moments I’d have otherwise missed or forgotten.
Of course, composing haikus can happen anywhere: on the subway, in the car, at the DMV. No need to be an esteemed poet, and no one will notice your gentle finger counting. You just have to remember to write them down, for
they vanish quickly,
like dreams, or dew, or wisps of
fog in morning light.
You may find, like me, that writing them heightens your awareness and primes you for deeper, richer prose writing.
Sheila McEntee is a writer, editor, nature lover, and musician living in West Virginia. Her articles and essays have appeared in Wonderful West Virginia magazine, Goldenseal, and the Charleston Gazette-Mail, and aired on West Virginia Public Radio.
Author (with Murphy and Missy) photo by Al Peery
January 13, 2020 § 6 Comments
By Lisa Kusel
A week after my family and I fled Bali and flew back to the states, I met my literary agent for lunch at Todd English’s Olives restaurant. Over fig and prosciutto flatbread, we talked about my future. I asked him if he thought I should continue writing the novel about a character who suffers from anosmia, or if I should rewrite the WWII book; the one that garnered ten rejections and sent me scurrying off to Bali in the first place.
“Neither,” he replied. “You should write the Bali book.”
“What’s the ‘Bali book’?”
“Come on, those emails you sent—the ones about the snake hunter, and the cremations? They were hilarious.”
“Yeah, but who cares that a forty-something woman ran away to Bali and almost lost her marriage because she was such a whiny b—”
“Did you?” He wiped his mouth and threw his napkin down.
“Did you lose your marriage? What really happened?”
“Well, I guess I learned—”
“Don’t tell me. Tell them,” he said, pointing at a foursome of women munching on beet salads at the table next to us. “Tell them,” he said gesturing out the window to the pedestrians passing by. “It’s everyone’s story. Everyone who ever thought it’d be the greatest thing in the world to move to Bali.”
“But it wasn’t great. It didn’t turn out at all like I wanted it to.”
“Really? I’m not so sure,” he said as he stood to put on his jacket. “I hear Vermont winters are really long,” he added before swirling out the revolving door.
As I watched him disappear into the swarm of humanity down East 17th Street, I thought back to our time in Bali—to the lovely people, our crazy bamboo hut, the ants, the heat and the monkeys. Sure, it was chaotic and horrible, but it was also pretty fantastic.
Should I tell the Bali story?
More to the point: I’ve been writing fiction ever since I discovered I had a talent for creating imaginary worlds out of thin air. Now my agent was suggesting I write nonfiction.
Could I tell the Bali story?
I mean, how would I do that? I usually get inspired to write a new book when a long-forgotten memory, a glance at a photograph, or something in the news cuts in line in my crowded brain. If it’s dressed nicely and smells good, I unlock the red velvet rope and usher it over to the table reserved for COOL IDEAS.
I order the IDEA a few drinks and get it to let its hair down. Then I look around the room and invite some other CHARACTERS to join us, and now the conversation gets loud and heated; all of us yelling over each other to be heard. What do you do for a living? What are you reading right now? Do you believe in God?
I push us out onto the dance floor, where I sweat and sashay to the ever-changing beats until I figure out genre, point of view, setting.
By the time it’s last call and the musicians are winding their electrical cords into tight loops, I’m ready to funnel this bubbling brew of imaginary people and their adventures onto the blank page.
But…if I were to write THE BALI BOOK, I couldn’t make up a main character—I’d have to be the main character.
And forget about making shit up: I’d need to deliver meticulously re-enacted accounts of what really happened.
I’d have to bow to the goddess of TRUTH.
Writing nonfiction—writing about me—meant taking the IDEA to a different venue altogether. No drinks or frenzied dancing. I’d have to to sit it down and stare deeply into its eyes.
So I took the Bali idea to a quiet café and ordered two double lattes. I reminisced with it. Tried to recollect, in as much detail as possible, the thousands of conversations I had while I lived in Bali. I replayed my days waking up covered in sweat, spraying my daughter’s clothes with DEET, fighting with my husband, trying to write, walking through the jungle.
I gazed deeply into my own navel.
And you know what? I hated it. I hated thinking about me and talking about me and writing about me.
I lied to the Bali IDEA, saying I had to run out to a doctor’s appointment, and instead went home and wrote a novel about a sex-hating housewife who lets her husband have affairs, then uses the details to write bestselling erotica.
Making up Love Lies Here felt wildly freeing and refreshing. I was giddy, I was, allowing utter strangers to take up residence in my psyche, traipsing and tramping through my imagination like a bunch of drunk teenagers breaking into their high school on a Saturday night. I loved having them inside me, plotting, scheming, writing, talking, eating, screwing.
After I finished it I returned to the café where I found the Bali IDEA still sitting where I’d left it.
“Hi there, Bali story,” I said. “Sorry I left you for so long.”
“No worries,” it replied with an expectant smile. “I knew you’d come back.” It placed its hand in mine and gave it a firm squeeze. “Ready?” it asked.
“Sure,” I said, because this time I was. This time I knew I could give the Bali idea my full attention. Whether it was because I’d gotten another novel out of my system, or because enough time had passed, or because I was actually starting to think I had a really rich story to tell, I couldn’t say. What I did know for sure was that my agent was right: I should tell the Bali story.
More to the point, I could tell the Bali story.
And I’m really glad I did.
Lisa Kusel s the author of Rash, a Memoir, as well as the short story collection Other Fish In The Sea and the novel Hat Trick. She is presently writing a young adult novel at her desk overlooking Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont. You can find her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LisaKusel12 and Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/lisa_kusel/
January 10, 2020 § 6 Comments
By Suzanne Fernandez Gray
The first few times it happened, I tried not to look at the clock. Then I decided to make a game of awakening in the middle of the night by trying to guess the hour at hand. 3:11 a.m? 4:13 a.m.? 1:45 a.m.? By checking things out like the shade of the sky’s blackness, the heaviness in my body, the level of silence on the nearby roads, my guesses sometimes hit the mark.
Somewhere along the way in my life, I read that if you wanted to fall back to sleep you should stay in bed and keep the light off, so I dutifully stared at a dark ceiling sometimes for hours, careful not to look back at the clock to confirm what I already knew. The night was long, and I was not sleeping.
As a writer with side hustles as a public art consultant and website manager for my husband’s small business, I already knew how to juggle a day. If taking care of pennies (so the dollars will take care of themselves) is an asset in finance, its chronological equivalent is managing spare minutes in a day, and I was good at that.
I carried a notebook in my purse just about everywhere I went to take advantage of an inspired thought or overheard snippet of conversation that might fit in my work somehow. If I stopped for coffee, I pulled a book or magazine from my bag to indulge in a short essay along with my beverage. And, I kept lists of things that needed to be done on a given day and inserted them into open pockets of time between bigger tasks (though I confess to losing those lists often). Still, I treated daylight hours with a kind of respect and value I had never given to those at night.
So, I decided to change that. I moved the clock out of the way and replaced it with a clipboard loaded with fresh notebook paper and a favorite pen. I don’t wake up every night, but the next time I did, I only lay in bed for a few minutes, still taking in the all the qualities of the night I had become familiar with, before switching on the light and writing. It started with a page here, two pages there. I journaled about my day or continued a thread I’d begun unraveling on a piece started earlier. In time, I added a small book of writing prompts to my bedside and on some nights started something new. I found that really good work sometimes comes when the house, my husband, and my three dogs, are deep in sleep. Paradoxically, my mind feels almost rested in the middle of the night and I write with a clarity that’s hard to come by in the course of a cluttered day.
I look at my sleeping problem differently now. Though I’d still prefer seven consecutive hours of shut eye, when I don’t get that, I get precious time for my writing. I know I’ll still be tired the next day, but the stress of having a sleep issue isn’t in the forefront of my mind anymore. There is too much good work to be done.
Suzanne Fernandez Gray’s work has appeared in several publications including Fourth Genre, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Huffington Post and Solstice Literary Magazine, where her essay “Bridge of Cards” won the 2017 Nonfiction Award. She holds an MA in Art History and an MFA in Creative Writing. You can find her at www.SuzanneFernandezGray.com.
January 8, 2020 § 9 Comments
By Alison Alstrom
Once in a writing class I was asked to explore the words I use, especially those that are my “signature words.” I still have no idea how to know what those words are. If I had to guess, I’d probably say they are words like death, grief, and sad, because those are the kinds of things I write about.
One student in that class said she wasn’t comfortable writing about herself and was working in memoir in part to accustom herself to doing so, to break through the discomfort, or grow numb to it. Funny, because I’m not comfortable writing about death, even though that seems to be the topic of everything I write. I’m not comfortable writing about my grief, about how the deaths in my life have affected me. Twenty years ago, I gave up painting because death kept creeping in. I didn’t want to be that dark girl that paints about death all the time. More than “didn’t want to be”—it was a desperate visceral kind of avoidance.
So I poured a bunch of my writing from the several months prior into the website Wordle.com *, a site that shifts through your prose and coughs your words back in cloud form, ordered by font size from most-often-used to less-often-but-still-often-used. I was happy to see that my biggest words were not death words, but life words, like love, family, and brother and sister. Also among the largest were words about time, like later, still, and moment and hours, and remember. I realize that this exercise is probably meaningless, that words that would strike us as signature to someone’s writing would not necessarily be the ones that appear most often in a piece of their prose, but would rather be words that are specific to the choices they make when writing, like saying “gaping maw” and “terrifying hollow” instead of just “hole” or “space,” both examples from my recent writing that didn’t make it into the word cloud.
Yet the word cloud speaks clearly to why I tell stories and make paintings to begin with, and made me think of an earlier writing class, when I was asked to consider the “what” of my writing—what it is, and what motivates us to make it. I wrote then that I wanted to stop time, to hold on to the magnificence of moments before they slip away, and to write portraits of the heroes and saints that populate my world.
Giving up painting 20 years ago was a mistake. It turns out that sometimes, not telling your stories is more painful than the stories themselves. I guess I took this writing class in part to accustom myself to that, to break through the discomfort of telling my sad stories, because I have learned that not telling them is worse.
Then just for fun, I put a single piece I’m working on into the Wordle site. It’s a story about a friend, Jack, who died suddenly just as our relationship was beginning to shift toward romantic intimacy. It was after Jack’s death that I stopped painting. The words from the word cloud that jumped out at me the hardest fell easily into a little summary of the piece:
One time work,
loved, shared, held
(Then) long night happened
Deep conversation, desire
Something took –
Man left –
Walked away, died.
Make painting always, tiny self.
Jack’s big body
Make painting always, tiny self. I wrote those words out by hand, and taped them to the wall above my bathroom mirror.
* Wordle.net no longer functions (nor does the iteration of Alison’s essay that produced the word cloud she writes about above) but readers can find a similar resource and make their own word clouds at wordclouds.com
Alison Alstrom lives in Portland, Oregon, where she recently completed the Atheneum Fellowship year at the Attic Institute. Previously, she attended the San Francisco Art Institute with a focus on oil painting. She is fortunate to be companion to the best dog ever (a provable fact), and is committed to maintaining a creative life both in spite of, and in service to the demands of work and family.
January 7, 2020 § 20 Comments
by Sandra A. Miller
Half dozing on the train from New York to Boston with a snowstorm raging outside the window, I grabbed the Amtrak magazine from my seat pocket and mindlessly flipped to an interview with Patti Smith. I read along, engaged but not fully moved, until I came to this line in which Smith talks about performance:
You have to stay with the night, because some nights are a bit rocky. And some nights are explosive. But whatever the night is, you have to stay with it until you feel that people have a release.
I gasped and sat up so fast that my seatmate actually pulled her coat tighter, as if to shield herself from my sudden effusion. Yes! I thought. Yes!
Over the years, dozens of writing students have asked me, how do you know when an essay is finished, but I never quite had the language for it. I once tried to describe it as a click you feel inside, but it’s more than that. Yes, the writer, after years of practice, likely has an intuitive sense of an ending and knows when the piece locks into place, but I never accept that an essay is done until I’ve seen a reader get what I now know to call—thank you Patti Smith—“release.”
This is what release in an essay means to me: Did the reader not only connect with my words, but was he or she also a little loosened by them?
I grabbed my journal and started scribbling as the Acela zoomed me toward home, now going far too fast for all that I wanted to write. I began by brainstorming a list of essays that made me sit back and say “holy shit” because over the course of reading them, something changed in me. The kind of work that my friend Gary and I say we want to “throw across the room,” as in we are so moved/jealous/awestruck that we can’t bear to hold onto it for another second.
I thought about “Chimera,” an essay in which Gerald Callahan examines the workings of memories and immune systems to explain why his children’s mother, who committed suicide ten years earlier, still regularly appears in his physical world. Every time I read it the piece weakens me a little. Is that release? I think so.
Ditto for some of Joan Didion’s more personal essays—“In Bed” comes to mind—where her complex syntax and content hold me in thrall. Sometimes, after being so profoundly tugged along by Didion’s intellect, so yoked by her language, I find myself almost adrift when the piece ends. Release? Yes, a version of it.
I keep scribbling: Alice Walker’s “Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self.” Andre Aciman’s “Lavender.” Essays that when you look up from the page, you are in a different place than when you began. And with so much to read and so little time, I don’t want to settle for anything that doesn’t, if only in some small way, move me.
My husband, Mark, a clinical psychologist who helps people with their feelings, is always my first reader. I will hand him an essay and watch—his face infuriatingly placid—as he pores over each line, making faint gray marks with his pencil. Pretending not to be looking, I’ll glimpse over as he nears the end, and I’ll watch, hoping, for that catch in his eyes. A tightening. Not necessarily a tear, but sometimes. Or maybe just a pause, an outbreath. When he hands me back my pages, I know, even before he says anything, if it worked or not.
When I arrived back home in Boston, I couldn’t stop thinking about release and wanted to hole up in my office and start reading essays. But my husband had done several rounds of shoveling while I was galivanting around New York, so I went out for one final scrape.
Just then, my friend Amara walked by with her hyper miniature poodle, Oscar, and stopped to say hello. Amara’s husband died suddenly two years ago, leaving her to raise their two young children alone. She adopted the dog to help with the healing, but he had turned out to be far too much. “We need to re-home him” she said. I can’t do it anymore.”
I nodded as Oscar, fluffy and strong-willed, tried to yank Amara away from our conversation.
“Maybe you needed him when he appeared,” I suggested. “Maybe he brought something into your life in that moment of crisis and transition that you could not have gotten in another way.”
“That’s it,” she said. “He was my release.”
“He released me from the idea that I could do this parenting thing perfectly. I thought I could power through anything, but I had to let that go.” Her eyes glistened with tears, and I wanted to hug her, but a high snowbank loomed between us. So I held her gaze and nodded, briefly, feeling that click of connection. When Oscar started dragging her down the street, we wiped our cold tears and shouted out good-byes.
I kept shoveling, thinking about the way we share our stories. Some are passed, friend to friend, in the hush of a December night. Others are crafted carefully, with the hope that they might affect people we will never meet.
Once I had finally removed the light, top layer, I struck ice, intractable with the freezing temperature. But I knew in the morning the sun, warm and persistent, would reach the pavement, eventually releasing what, in that moment, wouldn’t move.
Sandra A. Miller‘s memoir, Trove: A Woman’s Search for Truth and Buried Treasure, is available through Indiebound, Amazon, and Brown Paper Press. She teaches at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell and is a regular correspondent for the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine.
Author Photo by Holloway McCandless
December 23, 2019 § 2 Comments
By Susan Tiberghien
Writing the afterword for the 20th Anniversary Edition of my spiritual memoir, Circling to the Center: Invitation to Silent Prayer, I uncovered the alchemy of the narrative arc.
When first working on the book, I realized how each chapter brought more light into my life. I saw this as alchemy, almost magic. I saw how the first chapter circled around a small five petalled flower, a cinquefoil. And how the fifth and last chapter circled around a double buttercup, a renunculus. My little wildflower had become the golden flower of innumerable petals. Alchemy!
Memoir is story-telling, telling the story of one facet of our life. In every story there is a beginning, a struggle, the narrator (in memoir, the author) wants something. There is a middle, the narrator encounter difficulties which lead to a climax. And there is an end, a resolution, the narrator has a transformation, however small. We are story telling creatures. When we relate an experience to a friend, we tell it in story form. Otherwise the friend may lose interest. When we remember our dreams, we are telling ourselves stories. And best to write them down lest we forget.
When I would sometimes take care of a few of our grandchildren, and when they were being rambunctious, I would ask them to sit still just a moment. Then I would say, “Once upon a time…” Two or three pairs of eyes would latch on to mine. All was quiet, attentive, expectant. And I would relate a fairy tale, a folk tale, a tale which has withstood the centuries. Or I would make up a new one, remembering the climax.
In my memoir. I was writing about darkness in my life, about deeply difficult experiences. As I I progressed, I saw the three steps of alchemy. First, putting the base metals into the furnace to burn away the dross. I would go into the dark to relate stories of adoption, of anorexia, of Alzheimer’s – nigredo, the blackening. Then the second step, washing and distilling, looking for the gold. I would come to grips with each ordeal– albedo, the whitening. And finally polishing the bits of gold and bringing them to the light. I would claim my own transformation – rubedo, the reddening.
I saw that these three alchemical steps are the three parts of story. The alchemy lies in the story arc. Without it, our memoirs may be beautifully written but they are flat. As memoirists, we are sharing not only a busy profile, a heart-breaking profile, or an attention-grabbing profile. We are sharing part of our being. We are pulling back the curtain and saying this is how I survived, this is what it felt like. Or this is how I stood up for justice, this is what it felt like. This is the narrative arc that pulls the reader to the climax. How we overcame, or did not overcome, the odds.
This is the sharing that readers are looking for. We are all interconnected, writers and readers. We learn from one another. In writing memoir, we share an experience. It lights a candle in the darkness for the reader. We remember the metaphor of Indra’s net. How over the palace of the great God Indra, there was strung a net of thousands of jewels. They were arranged in such a manner that if one of them caught the light, it was reflected in all the other jewels.
Let your memoir catch the light by shaping its story arc. Be an alchemist!
Susan Tiberghien, an American writer living in Geneva, Switzerland, is the author of four memoirs, two writing books, One Year to a Writing Life and Writing Toward Wholeness, and most recently the 20th Anniversary Edition of Circling to the Center, An Invitation to Silent Prayer. She teaches at C.G. Jung Societies, the International Women’s Writing Guild, and at writers’ centers and conferences in Europe and the U.S. She founded and directed the Geneva Writers’ Group for 25 years. Recently she did two master classes for the Jung Society of Washington,.
December 18, 2019 § 8 Comments
by Victoria Lynn Smith
Thanks to writing, my worries have shifted. (So has my ability to make sure I put the milk in the refrigerator instead of the cupboard, but that’s another blog.)
I take a break from writing to get some water. In the kitchen I discover dishes are piling up and all the cereal bowls are dirty. But I worry about a story I want to submit to a contest, so I go back to my desk. I reread the story and forget to start the dishwasher. In the morning I’m handwashing cereal bowls.
“The truck needs an oil change,” my husband says.
“I’ll call,” I say, as I worry if a clause at the end of a sentence is nonessential or essential—to comma or not to comma. I don’t seem to have an ear for distinguishing between nonessential and essential clauses at the end of sentences.
Before I started writing, I worried about what to cook for supper. These days supper is a fleeting thought and easily evicted from my mind while I hunt for publications to submit a story. I play matchmaker. Is my story like their stories? Might it be considered even if it’s a little different? Or will some editor ask everyone in earshot, “Did she even read our journal?” My story doesn’t seem to fit. I read it again and wonder, Will I ever find it a date?
When my husband gets home, I’m reminded about supper. But it’s always another five minutes before he comes up from the basement. I keep looking at publications. When he gets upstairs, supper becomes a multiple-choice question: A) heat up leftovers, B) cook a frozen pizza, or C) go out for dinner.
Up from the basement, my husband asks, “Did you call the mechanic?”
“I forgot,” I say.
But I did rewrite the sentence I was fretting about. It lost its rhythm, so I changed it back. I played with the comma again. I put the comma in and read; I took the comma out and read. I raised my hands to the ceiling, threw back my head, and yelled. I thought about meditation, but I’d only think about commas. And comma meditation is an oxymoron. So, when he asks about the mechanic, I’m still worrying: nonessential or essential?
The real fear? I’ll make the wrong choice. An editor will read my story and notice a missing comma, in what she obviously knows is a nonessential clause. She’ll ask everyone in earshot, “How can this person call herself a writer?” It’s of no comfort that Oscar Wilde spent a whole day wrestling with one comma.
I give the comma a break and call the mechanic. If I wait until tomorrow, I might be prewriting a story in my head, and unless the story is about a mechanic . . .
After supper I go outside to pick up dog poop. I hardly notice the robust weeds in my gardens. Before I started writing, they’d registered in my brain like a 6-point earthquake. Embarrassment would lead me to pull the largest ones. But I’m looking for dog poop and trying to decide between two different endings for a short story that I’ve been working on for months. I don’t have any leftover brain capacity to feel shame about rogue weeds. Maybe I should abandon the story. But it taunts me when I ignore it, so I keep rekindling our relationship. I cut the story more slack than I’d give a person who gave me that much grief.
Maybe it would be easier to quit writing, but then I’d have to go back to my old worries.
Victoria Lynn Smith writes short stories, essays, and articles, and she is working on a collection of short stories. Her short short story “Tossed” won first place in the Lake Superior Writers’ 2019 Contest for short-short fiction. In October she received two honorable mentions in the Indianhead Writers’ 2019 Contest, one for fiction and one for nonfiction.