Weekend Write In: Real Cows, Imaginary Heroes

A very real cow. A very real me. At least in this instance.

A very real cow. A very real me. At least in this instance.

When our cow Darcy escaped from the farm and wandered along Route One until she ended up in someone’s backyard, I was not the one who went with the police officer to retrieve her. I had gone out to the barn and had told my father, who sent the young hired hand, instead. But when I wrote about this adventure, I made myself the protagonist. Had to, as the essay was about my dawning understanding that life did not begin and end on the farm. Darcy’s wanderlust, I wrote thirty years after it happened, made me see that the world awaited.

Pleased with the final results, I sent the piece off labeled: non-fiction and was thrilled when it was both accepted and mentioned in a review of the literary magazine itself. A literary magazine the real hero would probably never read.

For several years after that, I continued to work on a series of “essays” about my life on my family’s farm.

Then two things happened:

#1 I published a book, a collection of poems, and, suddenly, people I knew were reading my stuff. Uh-oh, I thought. Good thing it’s poetry and not the cow “essays”.

#2 I met Scott Russell Sanders.

As a non-fiction tuition scholar at Bread Loaf, I was assigned to his workshop. He also delivered the conference’s first lecture in which he admitted he “committed memoir.” Scott spoke of the liberties memoirists take with the non-fiction genre, liberties he insisted made what was written another form of fiction. When, later in the week, a woman read from her well-received book and described, in vivid detail, a poker game that her family had played twenty years earlier — complete with specific cards and razor sharp dialogue — it was clear that, unless she had videotaped the encounter, some of this supposedly true stuff was made up.

That had been okay with me, perhaps because I, too, was guilty of it, but Scott’s influence was profound. He gave me two options: re-work the pieces so that I told the truth. This would include taking out of quotes whatever couldn’t possibly have been said. Or, re-label the collection as short stories.

I decided to tell the truth and thus embarked on a massive revision. The result according to my critic friends? I had destroyed the pieces.

I also struggled to complete. For example, I wanted to write a new piece about my father’s love affairs with bulls, the dangers they posed, his fearlessness or foolhardiness when it came to handling them. I took Scott’s advice and began researching. I called my brother, my cousin, former hired hands.

Writers believe they have good memories, though it may be just that we convince ourselves of the truth of something and there it is: a story crystal. However, people who don’t write pretend nothing of the sort. Thus, no one had much to give me. If I had to tell the truth, so help me God and Scott Russell Sanders, what was I supposed to do with the scraps this research provided me?

I believed Scott and I wanted to do right by the genre. But I was also tempted by my desire to tell a well-constructed and full detailed story, and by a marketplace that often seeks good creative non-fiction.

Then, two things happened:

#1 I added The Things They Carried to the sophomore curriculum at the high school where I teach. Tim O’Brien wrote these connected short stories because his memoir based on his service in Vietnam didn’t capture what it really felt like to be there. In one story he says, “I want you to feel what I felt.” What’s true about The Things They Carried is how it makes its readers feel. The horror of the war, the difficulty in telling a story, these things are very real.

#2 My bookclub read Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman, the fictional story of the death of the author’s young wife. Once again, his grief was as real as the readers’ responses to this story of love and loss, but he had chosen to write a novel.

These writers freed me. I went back to work on my story about bulls. This time, I added a fictional frame that had only one small kernel of truth. Wow. That was easy (and guilt-free) and someday, if I’m very lucky and this book gets published, I won’t have to worry about leaving out that boy who, long ago, led Darcy home along Route One, police car keeping pace behind him, blue lights flickering over a scene I only wish I had been in.

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Tell Us Something We Don’t Know About You

He could have been modeled after Alex Keaton, Michael J. Fox’s character in Family Ties. A shorter than average young Republican who roamed the halls of UNH’s business school toe-walking in his Docksiders. At a dorm party, when I told him what my major was, he snorted. “English?” He said this the way some other soul who never stumbles into anything might say: You stepped in dogshit. “What are you going to do with that? Teach?”

I snorted right back at him. “No,” I said. It was not a lie. I had no earthly idea of pursuing that profession. I wanted to be a writer, but had no idea how one went about that, so I just moved off towards the garbage pail of spiked punch. He wanted to be an actor: he confessed this after a few more glasses of this particular poison, but he thought it too impractical. I shrugged. What do you say to someone who feels forced to make that decision? We were nineteen years old.

He became an international businessman. I’m sure he’s very happy. I did become a teacher, of course, and despite the anxiety a new school year inspires in me, I’m pretty sure once again: I’m happier than he is.

I don’t resent his long-ago derision (Okay, I do, but it was the 80s. Who didn’t want to make a soulless billion or two?). But I do remember it often.

The next few months, for example, the memory will surface as the seniors in my school (and in my house!)apply for college admission. By the time we set the clocks back, I will have met with a succession of apprehensive young people wielding what they hope will be the college essay that convinces their heart’s desire school to fall in love with them. They will follow me into my room every morning as I unlock the door and take off my coat, knock on my door during lunch, hunt me down during my prep period, write their names on my whiteboard during study, find me after school just as I’m digging my keys out to lock the place up. “Do you have a second?” they will ask, their parents will ask, their guidance counselors will ask.

Some will need a pre-writing conference. They will sit with me to brainstorm ideas. Many of these students will be kids I have never met before, but they will confess vulnerabilities, delineate their failures, share with me descriptions of vacation homes, grandparents’ hands, how it feels to be powerless in the face of tragedy. I’ll ask probing questions: I’ll have to. But they will answer. They will do the work of fleshing out an idea with someone who is almost a total stranger.

Some will slide an early draft across my desk and then sit quietly as I read it. Out of the corner of my eye, I’ll note how their hands are clasped; I’ll hear them sigh; I’ll feel the desk move as they jiggle a leg.  I won’t necessarily look at the writing at this point, but at the ideas. Where is the energy? What’s this really about? More discussion follows. They discover something they’d forgotten. The general idea becomes a specific memory. We’re not brainstorming anymore; instead, they’re telling stories.

They’ll come to me with essays their parents suggested they write, things that don’t sound like them at all. They’ll come to me after the professional their parents hired to help them has finished his work. “Where are you in here?” I’ll ask, and often, we’ll start over.

They’ll email me late at night: One last question. How’s this look? What if I added this?

They’ll drop by so I can double check the spelling, their use of apostrophes.

“I really want to get into Brown/Middlebury/UMass Dartmouth/a nursing program/my mother’s alma mater, etc,” they’ll say, imagining I’m holding the magic lamp in my hand instead of their laptop.

Websites, how-to manuals, advise them to tell the admissions office something they can’t know from the rest of the application, something not listed in their resume. The essay prompts ask them to describe a failure, or what defines them, or the place they feel most content. And guess what happens? They do. They write down things they won’t show their parents – things they don’t want their peers to see. They take the kind of risks they can’t take in essays of literary criticism or informative papers for any school subject. And they hand them to me.

My days will have little time for planning, correcting, overseeing make-up work, socializing with colleagues. Instead, I will sit at my desk with their essays in my hand, and I will ask myself: “Who am I that I get to do this?”

You’ve most likely jetted all over the world; I’ve sat behind my desk. But, my god, the worlds I have seen from there, the glimpses I have had into people’s lives, those invitations that humble me, that make me grateful for where I ended up.

So how about you, Mr. International Businessman? What can you tell us that we don’t already know about you? Perhaps it begins with that dream you once had of being on stage? If you wanted to figure it out, I could help you, once the early application deadline has passed, that is.

Weekend Write-In: Go Ahead, Get Away

The Loyalsock Creek, Barbours, PA. Our 2012 writing retreat.

“Our Own Little Bubble” Our cabin on the Loyalsock Creek, Barbours, PA, 2012 writing retreat. The porch is where we gathered every morning to work. (photo by Hudson Rush)

Weekend Write-In: Go Ahead, Get Away

What are the chances I’ll receive this? I thought, as I applied for the Provincetown Fine Arts scholarship that would allow me to take a weeklong poetry workshop for free. Pretty good, as it turned out, and then the truly inconceivable thought: how will I leave my 3, 4, and 5 year old daughters to do this?

My friend Miriam, also a mother and a writer, said, “You’ll miss them until you step onto the ferry, and then, in a weird way, you’ll forget all about them.”

That prophecy had a lot of help coming true: my mother signed on to help my husband that week, I found an apartment in an antique Cape directly across from the bay that was quiet and affordable, I chose a workshop with a poet, Jim Moore, who turned out to be the perfect mentor for me. I woke every morning at dawn, wrote for a couple hours, went for a run where I revised in my head, returned to a house exactly as immaculate and silent as I had left it and reworked the new poems. Workshops and readings in the afternoon and evening and days devoted to being solely a writer.

In six days, I wrote at least as many poems, poems that completed my first manuscript. I met writers whose careers I have followed these past ten years. Most importantly, I discovered that getting away to write is essential and (despite the fact that my 3 year old broke her arm mid-week and I wasn’t there when she had it set without morphine), should be guilt-free.

Despite knowing this, when I headed to Bread Loaf three years later, it was for what I thought would be an agonizing eleven day stretch away from my family. This time, I left behind a box of surprises for my girls: one card and one gift for every day I was gone. I tried to leave them something that might amuse them for a few hours: jump ropes, press-on tattoos, a jigsaw puzzle, a few dollars for ice cream. And then I left, teary, forgetting my Provincetown lessons.

In Vermont, I was introduced to writers are various stages of their careers. I spoke with agents, editors, writers whose books I had devoured. I reveled in Scott Russell Sanders’ nonfiction workshop and hurried off to readings several times a day. I danced my fool head off. At the end of every event, I returned to my tiny, shared room at Brandy Brook, and collapsed beside Sarah, Brenda, and Rebecca to share the details of our days. Nights, when I called my children, their voices reminded me of the world I wanted to return to, though it was clear that I did not need to hurry back. They were fine and I? I was being a writer.

Last weekend, I sat with a view of Lake Cayuga. On the loveseat to my left, Sarah worked on the fourth draft of her latest novel. Beside me on the couch, Rebecca drafted a poem in the notebook she bought exclusively for our yearly retreats. On the floor in front of us, Brenda cobbled together notes for a teaching grant. We would break for lunch, return to our separate spheres for a couple hours, then regroup for cocktails, dinner, sharing the day’s successes and difficulties.

In a documentary on her work and her life, Anne Lamott reminds an audience that no one cares if you get to work or not. So, if you want to write, write. She’s right, of course, but sitting alone with that kind of truth can paralyze us. Instead, we can head off to a conference like Bread Loaf or AWP and feel overwhelmed by everyone else who’s writing, trying to do what we want to do.

But once a year, my writing friends and I gather to work side by side. In this context, the conviction that abandons us sometimes when we are alone with our tasks or alone in a mass of strangers, returns. This is the only kind of camaraderie that will sustain us through those long, cold, lonely times when we are alone with certain truths about the writing life.

What about you? What stops you from squirreling away this time for yourself? Or, how do you getaway to write?

Webs

Sorry. The original cut and paste didn’t have the correct opening paragraph. Let’s try this again.

Carla Panciera

Webs. Everywhere along the dock. Elaborate, fantastic, larger than large hands unfurled. Sunset and I’m trying not to think of the spiders who made these, who might, as we sit admiring the colors, cloud formations, be waiting beneath us, who might be looking for a way back into the fading light. I’m listening to my friends, but I’m watching the webs. One spider appears, repairing the day’s damage before the night’s insects arrive. A healthy specimen, not the pale dust spiders I’ve learned to share my space with, but not the enormous dock spider I feared, either. Conversation continues. I sip my Magic Hat. Colors change, deepen. Ospreys hunt and so absorb me that, by the time I check again, every web is busy with spiders preparing for their evening meal. The dock narrows; the sky darkens. Time to leave, I say, meaning: time to leave this space to them.

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Webs

Webs. Everywhere along the dock. Elaborate, fantastic, larger than large hands unfurled. Sunset and I’m trying not to think of the spiders who made these, who might, as we sit admiring the colors, cloud formations, be waiting beneath us, who might be looking for a way back into the fading light. I’m listening to my friends, but I’m watching the webs. One spider appears, repairing the day’s damage before the night’s insects arrive. A healthy specimen, not the pale dust spiders I’ve learned to share my space with, but not the enormous dock spider I feared, either. Conversation continues. I sip my Magic Hat. Colors change, deepen. Ospreys hunt and so absorb me that, by the time I check again, every web is busy with spiders preparing for their evening meal. The dock narrows; the sky darkens. Time to leave, I say, meaning: time to leave this space to them.

We move to the outside deck and, as we open the sliding door, an even larger spider scurries in and loses itself in the dark space behind a wood stove. Someone tries to catch it and free it, but it is gone, and really, truly, not gone at all. I hear what I’ve always heard: spiders do good work; spiders won’t hurt you; spiders are more afraid of you than you are of them. Oh, Logic, you are lost on me. My fear distracts me the rest of the weekend. Despite that I am surrounded by three of my closest friends for a rare weekend together, I am always wondering where that giant arachnid is lurking.

My husband, Dennis, has been extolling the benefits of spiders for years now, usually as he is ushering one of them out of our house and back outside per my request, while I watch from a few feet away to make sure he is not lying when he says it’s gone. He also tells me that certain people and certain things are put in my way intentionally. That they will become obstacles until I learn how to accept them. And I have learned to accept many spiders, most of those I encounter anyway. I also have a snake-y yard, live with the knowledge (and the shed skins) that snakes winter in my basement. Beetles, I love. Moths (except my arch nemesis the pantry moth), worms, many creatures fascinate me. But a large spider defeats any evidence of my evolving tolerance.

So do some people.

I have to say it: that there are those (few) people who, just as that giant brown arachnid scuttled into my perfect weekend, creep into my life and undo some serious work. I’ve saved the vitriolic emails from one of them under the title: Shit I Don’t Get Paid Enough to Deal With. I’ve researched ways to block people’s Facebook posts and Goodreads updates so that they won’t be able to confirm what they might already suspect: I don’t really want to be their friend. I have (and here I’ll use the word as it is intended) LITERALLY crossed the street to avoid passing too closely to the obstacle who lives next door and frequently shows up on MY walking route.

My husband, Zen master, says to be thankful for these people who remind me to be empathetic (necessary prompting for me, I admit), to be tolerant (ditto), to understand that the universe is not laid out for my ease and amusement. I say, “Can’t you just wrap them up in a piece of toilet paper, open the screen, and set them outside the way you do with spiders?”

This weekend, we played Cards Against Humanity (I took a seat that afforded me a view of the corner into which the spider had hidden itself), and I thought: if I was a heroin addict, this would be like bellying up to a large vat of the poison. I didn’t win, in part because other players, overdosing on the disgusting suggestions, often opted for the tamest (rhymes with lamest) responses. Those people? Those who matched Alternative medicine has just embraced the healing powers of ___ with Saying I love you, they’re put in my path, too. Thank god.

So I came home, inspired to continue working on being a better person. I started (small) by taking my hot and bored dogs for a swim. I’ve ignored them recently, busy as I’ve been avoiding certain people. When I have a nastier impulse, I ask myself: What would someone who was excited to get the Cuddling card in Cards Against Humanity do?

My metamorphosis is far from complete, of course. For example, the very first thing I did when I walked in the door? I unpacked my suitcase directly into the washing machine without touching any clothes into whose folds a spider might have traveled, knowing full well, no creature could survive a wash cycle.

The Longest Sunday Night

In my first back-to-school anxiety dream, we have two days left in the year and the seniors must complete a research paper so that I can use the data for my evaluation. I sign out the computers by using a stick to scratch their names onto the side of the machines. This isn’t very efficient, I’m thinking, but, in my panic, no other option presents itself. We only have two days! No time to worry about school property!

So goes the longest Sunday night of a teacher’s existence: August.

The thing is: I like my job. Love it, really. (The part of it, at least, that happens with my students. The state and federal mandates, the superintendent’s vision, the new superintendent’s vision, the principal’s goals, the new principal’s goals, the principal’s revised goals — those I can do without.) But on the cusp of completing my second decade in the classroom, I still sleep poorly every Sunday night and the entire month of August.

One year, I sat at my desk in Burlington after Day One, which used to be (blissfully) a half day where we met briefly with each of our five classes and then sent them home to cover books while we prepared our classrooms and lined up at the mimeograph. So great was my dread, that I walked down the hallway to my friend Kathy’s room seeking solace.

“What’s the matter?” she said. She sat at her desk, peering up at me over her reading glasses, her hand marking her spot on the newspaper article she had been reading, as calm as if this was the final day in June.

“Do you ever think you just can’t do it?” I asked. “That there’s just too much material to get through even though you’ve done it before?”

The two of us taught British Literature which covered roughly nine hundred years.

“No,” she said. “Never.” The she returned to her reading.

Kathy was not, is not, cold. In fact, during the ten years that I taught in Burlington, she was my confidante and mentor. But she was experienced at teaching (and, possibly, at denying a few of the things that cause any human beings some discomfort).

Once upon a time, I had a job where nothing was required of me, where I sought to fill my days with some activity that made me look as if I was busy because there really was no work to be done. It was my first real job. I got to take the T to work and go shopping in Downtown Crossing during my lunch break. I had to buy nice shoes to tuck underneath my empty desk for eight hours a day before I slipped out of them and into my sneakers for the walk back to North Station.

“How was your day?” my roommates would ask, and I would have no response.

Sunday nights, however, were still torture. How could I go back there and pretend to be busy? For how many more hours could I stare at my blank cubicle walls, a folder of old memos opened before me in case anyone peeked over the partiction at me? What if, god forbid, we had something to celebrate and got summoned to a mandatory Sunshine Party? I started calling into work sick on Mondays, a pattern that became recognizable to my not very observant boss (who also did nothing, but who didn’t seem to fret about it). When he asked me to explain myself, what could I say: I can’t bear it here? I can’t stomach how little purpose so many hours of my day have? I had a business card!! Someone had to teach me how to put calls on hold on a phone that never rang! So I told him I really was sick and, when he asked me to bring him a doctor’s note as proof, I somehow produced one. It should have read: Diagnosis — Acute Lack of Purpose.

But those days of idleness exist now only in the museum of myself.

As I have said, this September marks year twenty in the classroom for me and it is a busy place. My August nightmares never come true and those first day (or so) jitters don’t haunt me any longer. Perhaps some of my younger, more overwhelmed colleagues view me the way I viewed Kathy that day, with fear that I was alone in the universe, with envy.

But these days, I understand why Kathy could stare down those first hours of the school year, could squelch the panic that threatened to suck up the final joys of summer: she wasn’t thinking about teaching the way I was — with seating charts and lesson plans and revised tests. Instead, she was thinking about teaching the way English should be taught. She was looking forward to discussing great literature with great kids.

Because, despite my night terrors, that is — and I am very grateful for it — the job that fills my very busy days.

Weekend Write-In: What Would Freud Say? Who Cares, So Long as He Read the Thing

Mushrooms pretending to be just mushrooms.

Does it matter that I did not intend to create a character who looked like a penis? That, readers, is today’s question.

My short story collection was published in October. Since then, I have turned promoter, a role I am not comfortable with. I have learned, for example, how difficult it is to have your book reviewed, so I was incredibly grateful when, nine months after the book’s launch, a review appeared on a popular blogsite. Even more thrilling was that the review was positive. The reviewer wrote, “Though the stories vary in tone, theme, and subject, they’re unified by the author’s gift for the incisive one-liner, the wry observation that illuminates the whole.”

That’s the good news. Later on, she says “the overall strength of this fine collection made weaker moments stand out.” Uh-oh. But it’s the final paragraph, and I’m thinking: who reads these things all the way through, anyway? The dread is personal, primal, even, but I’m a writer now. I can take the criticism.

Except, I didn’t quite understand it.

The reviewer notes that, in one story, a school secretary has a “‘large head of gray hair shaped like a mushroom’ and her name, we’re told, is Hedda Horn — a joke that only distracts.” For two days, I wandered around my house wondering what she thought the joke was. Wrong haircut? Too cliche? Overdone alliteration? I had based the character physically on a woman I’d seen in my own school building, her bowl cut and stocky figure leaving her Minion-shaped (though the story was written several years before I might have applied that particular allusion). Then, one day when I was out on my walk, it hit me: the reviewer thinks I deliberately made my character look like a penis.

I’m not sure which is worse: the fact that she mistook my intentions, or the fact that something I wrote so completely misfired. Believe me, my writing friends think my unintentional phallic symbol is hysterical. Even funnier? That it got pointed out to so many hundreds of readers. But I am plunged back into that part of myself that wants everyone to be happy. That wants everything I write to be perfect. Why didn’t I just give the woman a Dorothy Hamill wedge? A Shirley Partridge shag?

This reminds me of when my first book of poems was published and one of my distant cousins (there are zillions) approached me at a signing. She told me her husband didn’t come with her because he was mad at me. I had never met the man, but I had written a poem about two friends who argued about whose wine tasted better. The argument ended with one friend shooting the other. True story from my mother’s old neighborhood. “He forgives you now,” my cousin several times removed said. “But the guy that died was my husband’s uncle.”

When I told my mother this, worried I’d offended someone, she said, “You’re missing the point.”

“Which is?”

“People are reading your book.”

Oh. That.

What was obvious to my mother, was not so clear to me: that, after years of toiling away in obscurity at my dining room table or propped up with pillows on my bed, people were actually reading what I had to say.

For all I know, readers might imagine my stories populated with a race of penile people. They might see their own stories in whatever I’ve put down on paper. But the key word here is READERS. Those people (like you!) we writers can not live without.