August 2, 2018 § 27 Comments
I’m sitting at my desk, getting ready to write.
Translation: I’m checking Facebook.
I hear a rustle, followed by a sigh, and I see movement out of the corner of my eye. When I look up there is a tall, slim woman with spiky blonde hair lounging on my upholstered chaise. She is wearing black Vans, ripped jeans, and a black t-shirt with “Rabid Feminist” in white letters. Her scent is that of excellent coffee; the to-go cup she’s holding must be from the Slow Train Cafe.
“Who are you?” I ask. “How did you get here?”
“I’m your angel, Gloria. Never mind how I got here. So, how many words have you written this morning?”
“Um, I don’t do word counts. That doesn’t work for me. I just write, mostly when I’m inspired. Sometimes for a long time, sometimes not for very long.”
She snorts. “So, then, none? Zero? You haven’t written anything and it’s almost noon?”
“Wait, are you the Angel of the House that Virginia Woolf wrote about? I thought you’d be smaller, and wearing gauzy robes, with long hair in a loose knot. But if you are that angel, you should know I cleaned the refrigerator this morning.”
Gloria rolls her eyes. “Are you kidding me? This is the 21st Century. I’m here to make sure you’re writing. So, what’s the problem?”
“The fridge was really dirty. I found sticky stuff that had dried in all the ridges of the vegetable crisper. And in the fruit drawer, bits of the orange plastic mesh bags from the clementines we ate six months ago. Oh, and a couple of cat hairs. We don’t even have a cat!”
“Great. Next time write first, then clean. And now that you’ve cleaned, why aren’t you writing?”
“Well, right now, I’m composting.”
Gloria sniffs. “In your office? Why don’t I smell anything?”
“No, no, it’s a term from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. It’s when you’re thinking about what you’re writing, but not actually writing.”
Gloria squints at me. “What’s that noise? Oh, it’s Natalie. She’s groaning at the way you’ve used her idea about the need to process some experiences before you can write about them, and turned it into a procrastination device. How many books about writing have you read, anyway?”
“Oh, I don’t know. A few.”
Gloria rolls her eyes again. “I have something for you. Catch!”
I usually miss when someone says “catch,” but this time I reach up at just the right time. It’s a good thing, too, because the object is small, but heavy and sharp.
It takes me a minute to realize: it’s a one-inch picture frame.
I smile. “Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird! Right? It’s a metaphor for focusing on one small part of a piece, instead of constantly worrying about the bigger picture.”
Gloria groans. “So, you’ve read that one, too.”
I nod. I squirm in my desk chair, hoping to block her view of the shelves behind me, which are crammed with writing manuals, collections of essays about writing, and memoirs about writing.
“So, it’s not as though you don’t know what to do,” she says. You just need to get out of your own way and write. My work here is done.”
Gloria disappears as quickly as she came. I stare at the empty chair.
Perhaps I imagined her.
As my eyes wander back to my computer screen, I read a card I’ve placed on my desk, in my line of sight. It’s a quote from Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind:
And, finally, I do.
Melissa Ballard composts, checks Facebook and, occasionally, writes from her desk in Oberlin, Ohio. You can read her essays at https://melissaballardsite.wordpress.com/
March 15, 2018 § 22 Comments
Family history. Why would anyone waste their time with it?
In the summer of 1993, I agreed to do just a bit of ancestral research, at the request of my great-uncle. I was quickly lured into the mysteries of century-old handwriting, sepia-toned photographs, and the personal details in local newspapers from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
I began to write essays about my ancestors, who were much more interesting than I’d thought. My publication record for these pieces is scant, but I persist. At first, I had to go to libraries or historical societies and do battle with microfilm machines. Now I can do most of my research online, from my home office.
So when the newspaper database I use added two decades of issues from Muncie, Indiana, I set aside some time to search. I already knew a line of my family had lived there from 1888-1912, where my third-great uncle, A. A. Arnold, owned a small manufacturing business. His own education ended when he was twelve, and began to learn a trade, but he sent all three of his children, two boys and a girl, to college before 1910. His older son became a priest and eventually, a bishop.
Skimming my search results, I stopped dead at this, from September 3, 1905:
followed by my uncle’s business and home address, across the street from the Catholic church, where he and his wife were godparents for a good portion of the families in the congregation.
This can’t be right, I thought. Surely, if he had some kind of illicit side business, he wouldn’t have advertised so blatantly…would he?
My negative stereotypes about power and institutions have been reinforced daily of late, and I know things were even more skewed toward powerful men 113 years ago. It’s not that I expected my ancestors to be perfect, but this didn’t fit with anything else I’d learned about them. I did a bit of research: in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the age of consent in Indiana had been raised from 12 to 16, but the laws were not applied consistently. This did not make me feel any better.
As I put away my papers and poured a pre-dinner glass of wine, the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl” morphed into “Stripper Girl” and settled in as my personal earworm.
The next morning, after some strong coffee, I sat down with my folders of notes on my Muncie ancestors. I am only an amateur historian, as evidenced by the stacks of photocopies I constantly—and unsuccessfully—try to organize. I began to search through them, not sure what I was hoping to find. My persistence was rewarded when I removed the binder clip from a stack marked “Background/Misc.”
One of the first steps in cigar-making is to remove the thick vein from the middle of the dried tobacco leaf. Now it’s mostly done by machines, but pulling out the stem by hand doesn’t require a great deal of strength, so before automation it was often a job performed by women. My uncle was a cigar manufacturer.
Occupations were included in the early city directories and by searching for “A. A. Arnold,” I could identify some of his employees. In the 1893 directory I found a Katie Gallivan, “tobacco stripper.” A quick search of the census showed she would have been twenty in 1893.
Health hazards from tobacco hadn’t yet been established. But my uncle advertised “union made” cigars, so I like to think his workers were treated well, at least by late 1800s-early 1900s standards.
The Beach Boys quietly surfed out of my head.
If I had the sort of neat and legible journal that could serve as a reference for future essay writing, I would turn to a fresh page and start a list. Instead, I’ll blog it here:
- Remember: words matter, but they can have multiple meanings.
- Consider context.
- Maintain a sense of humor.
- Write your own stories, and the stories of other people, with care. If something doesn’t fit, it’s worth trying to figure out why.
When I found the “stripper” want ad, I could just see my dad shaking his head and saying, “Always let sleeping dogs lie.” I prefer to poke them with a stick, gently, and see what I can learn. It’s risky, but far more interesting.
Melissa Ballard’s work has appeared in Brevity, Compose Journal, Full Grown People, Gravel, and other publications.
May 3, 2010 § 1 Comment
We’ve launched a truly outstanding Summer 2010 issue, featuring twelve beautiful concise essays from Fleda Brown, Steven Church, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Sarah J. Lin, John Calderazzo, Marcia Aldrich, Melissa Ballard, Erin Murphy, Danny Goodman, Lisa Groen Braner, Diane Seuss, and Jenny Spinner.
In our Craft Section, Drema Hall Berkheimer visits those moments when the muse seemingly has better things to do, and Sharon DeBartolo Carmack outlines the ways a writer can put proper flesh onto the bones of ancestral stories.
Also Book Reviews from Michelle Wittle, Kelly Ferguson, Patty Wetli, and J. Luise, and stunning photographs from Ryan Rodgers.