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?

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.

Weekend Write-In: Making Big Things Small

Want to be a better writer? I say to my students. Then here is the most important thing I have to tell you: The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. It isn’t my original idea. I heard it over twenty years ago from poet and teaching writing guru, Ralph Fletcher, and I have used it ever since (check out Ralph’s website: http://ralphfletcher.com). What it means is, when you want to write about the big things – love, loss, fear, your feelings about someone, etc. – you think of what concrete, definable object, setting, or scene conveys that overwhelming emotion, that characterizes a loved one.

For example, my father was an easy person to write about: undersized and powerfully strong, world-famous in cattle circles for a bull he once owned, capable of incredible physical exertion and then, impossibly, pausing to pick May flowers at the edge of a field.

My mother, however, felt short-changed. “You never write anything about me,” she said.

Well, you know how it goes with mothers like mine, mothers who do absolutely EVERYTHING for you. A poem about my mother would rival the Iliad, so I started thinking small and came up with this: she loves purple passions. Those velvety-leaved vines? And when she loves something, anything, she overindulges (Suzi Q’s, soap operas, the New York Yankees, etc).

And here’s the thing, I think, that Ralph Fletcher was talking about: I can’t describe my mother to you in one tiny poem. But I can describe a purple passion and, of course, I knew my mother’s kitchen intimately.

Try this: think not of adjectives, but of objects, favorite pieces of clothing, collections, gestures, anything that you could run your fingers over, that you could capture in a photograph. Start there, tiny, tiny details and see if something big doesn’t bloom.

Here’s my poem:

My Mother’s Purple Passion

When her children left, my mother

bought a purple passion at the grocery store,

raised it on game shows on the kitchen TV

until it learned to solve giant crossword puzzles,

guess the price of popcorn to the nearest nickel.

She kept it away from boiling potatoes

burping angrily on the stove and from cupboards

pushing pans out in clattering crowds.

It grew quickly on warm water, soil dark

as chocolate cake and my mother’s gossip.

My mother bought a bigger pot, painted it

yellow to flatter the jealous curtains. Later,

she made new plants from the first,

and when her children came to visit, they found

plants in every window, as comfortable as cats.

They rubbed the leaves velvetless, said, “Mother,

too much purple.” My mother laughed, watched

a lady win a diamond necklace, peeled potatoes

and winked at the plant, quiet over the cupboard

of too many pans, always restless.

Weekend Write-In: The John Ball Inaugural

The first writer I ever met was Robert Cormier who came to the Westerly Public Library during my senior year in high school. But the first writer I ever spoke to was John Ball. He sat beside me in advanced fiction writing during the spring of our senior year. I’d taken a few writing courses but John was the first person I met who wanted to be a writer, who stated his intentions clearly. I’d read one of his stories in the campus literary magazine, a magazine that had routinely rejected my own prose, and I’d loved it. I had no crush on John, nice as he was, nor did we spend any time together outside of class, but his in-workshop friendship thrilled me. It made my own aspirations seem so reasonable, so concrete.

On the final day of class, he said to me: “I can’t decide if I should get into a graduate writing program or get married. What do you think?”

Until that moment, I had no idea you could go to graduate school for creative writing. The idea seemed as absurd and as miraculous as marriage did. I hope I wasn’t so desperate for a boyfriend that I told him to get married, but the truth is, I have no idea how I responded. I’m sure it took me a while as the idea that school didn’t have to end here, that, in fact, at the next level, the opportunity to immerse myself even further in the world of writing, derailed my thoughts.

But here’s the point: for the first time in my life, a life in which I always knew I wanted to be a writer, I understood how valuable another writer could be: Writers know stuff other writers need to know.

For this reason, I have started a new feature on my blog called Weekend Write-In (I will also continue the personal essays I’ve been writing this past year). I’ll be offering my own advice to writers, sharing tips and encouragement, but I’ve also invited several writers, artists, musicians, architects — all kinds of creative types — to guest blog on topics they would like to share with a community of creative people.

And if you have an idea, I’d love to hear from you! You can message me here or at carlapanciera@gmail.com.

I don’t know what happened to John Ball. I tried googling him but, wouldn’t you know, there’s a very famous crime writer of the same name (but much older) so my search turned up nothing. I hope he did continue to write. I hope he is happily married. I hope all his dreams came true.