Category Archives: Memoir

children

More poetry, please.

Children should read more poetry, and not just the rhyming, humorous kind in the style of Prelutsky or Silverstein, though I love those poems too. I guess what I’m saying is that children should read more for the experience of language and how it effects you without having to puzzle out a central idea, because I think it’s extremely difficult to do the work it takes to makes sense of difficult text if you haven’t already developed an appreciation for how words can pluck away at your senses in endless compositions.

The other day I gave my students the Robert Hass poem “TIme and Materials” to read and respond to. Their response in some cases was strong and surprising. “These aren’t even words!”, one student remarked about how as the poem moves on, letters start to disappear, a trick that if you’re open to the play of language strikes you as brilliant. But, if you’ve come to expect that words follow rules and our primary objective is to understand, the tricks of poets can be maddening.

I had a conversation recently where a friend remarked that she couldn’t believe how much homework there is in first grade these days. It’s true. And have you seen the nature of that homework? Is it any wonder that so often the struggle with our best students as English teachers is they are so concrete? Even when the write about poems or fiction, their default is to say “the writer explains”.

I’m probing the edges of other topics here, finding it difficult not to follow the tangents. I started with “children should read more poetry”, and I’m tempted to say what I really mean is something about the impact of over-testing or global economic terror or the information age, but no, what I really mean is just that. By the time they come to me in high school, poetry is far more strange to them than it should be.

 

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Skipping class

I’m not sure how it started, exactly. One day I must have been walking to school and instead of turning left toward the tall gray concrete building, climbing the stairs to sit in Mr. Lokken’s Algebra II class, I turned right toward the public library.

I spent the first few hours browsing. First flipping through cards filed alphabetically, kept in long pull-out drawers that sighed when you opened, then closed them. Next, walking up and down the aisles, pulling books off to browse because the title or a familiar author or the color of the spine.

I must have checked out five or six books that day, one was Rukeyser’s selected poems, which I carried around in my backpack way past the due date. Returning books to the library on time is not a skill I ever mastered. Messenger bag heavy with books, I walked out into the cold, quiet, empty streets of downtown Aberdeen to the new, hopefully to stay this time, cafe. I ordered a bagel with sun-dried tomato cream cheese and a cappuccino, found a table with a windowed view. I wrote through the afternoon with my new roller-ball blue pen–poems, snippets of stories, quotes from the books I browsed through. I jotted down pieces of conversation overheard at other tables.

“You wont’ believe what she said, Grace.”

“Well, you tell her she can go to hell for all I care.”

Not unusual for any day in Aberdeen, rain drummed the sidewalk. The tables were all different, but all varnished wood. Probably picked up at the consignment shop down the road, the one whose storefront took up an entire block. On my table a small faceted glass vase held a bouquet of fake pansies. I used most of the surface of the table to stack all the books from by bag, lay down my open notebook, set out some pens, a pencil, a highlighter, plus a corner for my coffee and my empty bagel plate.

An hour after I would have been getting out of school for the day, I stepped out onto the sidewalk, green umbrella popped open. I walked the entire eight miles home.

When my mom asked, “How was your day today?” I said, “It was okay”, then took a bite of the peanut butter honey sandwich I’d just made and went upstairs.

I believe that this is how it started, with this day. A whim. A trip to the library. An afternoon at the coffee shop. A long walk home. After that, I couldn’t stop skipping class. I skipped school  so that I could haunt downtown Aberdeen: the library, the coffee shop, one of three thrift stores. No stranger seemed to notice or care and my mom didn’t figure it out for months.

I suppose there were lots of reasons I started skipping class. A better day for an introvert. A day spent pursuing my own curiosity, reading the books I wanted to read. The compulsion to find some solitude to write. That compulsion that continues even to this day. At least once per week, sometimes more, I find myself walking to work so tempted to turn left toward downtown.

 

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dandelion

A reminder to Make Time.

Hello writer friends!
By this time of year I’ve normally posted an anxiety fueled post about the start of the school year, the subtext of which is always HOW IN THE HELL AM I GOING TO FIND TIME TO WRITE? The title of this blog is called Make Time for good cause. Make Time is a tip of my hat to a truth that’s taken me a youth to arrive at. We don’t find time for anything. If it matters, we Make Time.
What can really drive you crazy is when you can’t find time because you are making time to please and impress everyone else around you. Your laundry is folded on Sunday. Your lesson plans are hot enough to post on Teachers Pay Teachers (yet another potential distraction promising immediate monetary compensation for your ideas). And by crazy I mean dreadfully unhappy, jealous, and resentful. That is what happens when you don’t Make Time for the creative impulse that is calling you particularly.

Why have I not posted such a blog yet? When we’re now six weeks into the school year already?

Well, I’ve been busy writing. I just looked at my writing logs, and–WOW–I’ve been keeping a regular schedule since April 1. No fooling! I get up between 4 and 4:30 most weekday morning to write, plus I write Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and on weekends. When I wake up to write in the morning, I open a word file, not my web browser (distraction!)

When I stop to think about it, I fall to my knees and kiss the ground. I’ve been trying to find time since the 90s and much of that time has been me wishing time would fall in my lap while I dutifully went about making other people’s lives easier.

This morning, after writing, I spent some time sifting through old files on my computer, getting organized. I found this folder FULL of articles I’d downloaded from EBSCO Host in 1995, all on the craft of writing. I smiled to recall myself then, eager as now to write. That was the year my son was born. He’s twenty now. What other permission do I need than that to carry on? That’s no short lived impulse.

Writing exposes us, along with all our fears and doubts. Good writing requires solitude in the drafting, an audience in revision. You must take what matters to you and make it matter to readers. This is not something you find time for. You can do better than that, my friend.

Make Time.

 

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Washing the dishes

Just like the themes we are threading in our stories, these topics about the creative life resurface again and again. I’ve written many times before about focus, about staying in the room until the work is done, about committing to a particular project and seeing it through. But this is easier said than done and our talent of complicating the work is insidious.

My current process for writing is to sit down and first write the date at the top of a page in my writing log, then list out my writing goals for the day in the order I’d like to achieve them. I’ve been doing this since April. I use this writing log to journal about the work, especially if I’m stuck on something, and also to track word count for the day and to sketch out scenes for the story/chapter I’m working on. This new habit of keeping a writing log has benefited me in so many ways, a couple of them unexpected. First, because I keep a log each day, it’s easier the next day to jump in where I left off because I’ve left some clues about what I was working on/struggling with. Second, and the topic that is the focus of this blog entry, is that as time has passed, as I’ve become more regular in my writing routine, my ambition and impatience have reared up: My list of goals get longer and longer.

What occurs to me as I look at my expanding list of creative must-dos is that I am headed toward a writing practice that is joyless, each act one stone that must be turned over to get to the end of the day. I’m at risk of becoming a suffering artist. Friends, when I get there, it’s time to abandon the work. The writers I admire most are the writers who when you read them you can tell they enjoy the work of stringing sentences, that it brings them joy. This is why I’m spending my time here.  So I am recalling this morning how Thich Nhat Hanh describes washing dishes:

 

“To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you aren’t doing them.Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in the warm water, it is really quite pleasant. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to eat dessert sooner, the time of washing dishes will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity,for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and that fact that I am here washing them are miracles!”–Thich Nhat Hanh
If you are feeling that the writing is work lately, perhaps it’s because you aren’t writing at all. You are moving through the act of writing, but your thoughts have skipped ahead or are looking behind. When this happens, what are your tools for bringing yourself back to the work? I tend to follow my breath, dive into a scene. Blog about it, so I can really know what I think. Another trick I use is setting my meditation timer for writing goals. Until now, I did this with a chuckle, because I was using something meant for one practice, for a completely different kind of practice.

Is it all that different, though? When you are really in the flow of the work?

 

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Go ahead, unfriend me, Facebook.

My best friend is the queen of unfriending. She has rules that define who to unfriend. Those who make passive-aggressive comments are the first to go. The signs are clear that everyone is dropping friends for all sorts of reasons. Yet, when someone drops off your friends list, you are never quite certain whether the unfriending was personal. People quit Facebook, take breaks. A probably-myth even purports that Facebook itself will randomly unfriend people without your knowledge. I believe this myth arises from our inability to admit to someone when confronted that we unfriended them. Thus goes the drama of friends here. Of particular interest to me is when people post shout-out status update letting all their friends know that some of them are about to get the ax. The barrage of comments that follow begging to stay are particularly wince-worthy.

As a person who doesn’t like crowds, prefers one-on-one, and who cares deeply about whether people I like like me (don’t we all?), this virtual middle school can be a real downer.

So, go ahead. Unfriend me. If you could, please send me a message letting me know you’ve done so. I resolve not to give it a second thought. Nothing that happens here is personal. Which is why I also endeavor to make more personal connections here and in my life. Hand-written letters. Coffee dates. Personal messages. Post to individual walls. If I ever friended you, you are someone who I want to see happy and thriving in life. If you doubt that, send a personal message asking how I am.

Most of the communication that happens here is in our own heads as we scroll through our newsfeed and click like again and again. Chances are, we’ve missed something big in our perception of what’s happening here. Why not reach out and see?

I have a teacher friend who responds to my activity here mostly through personal messages, and I think he’s on to something. What if every time we arrived here, we send three personal messages to people who haven’t connected with in a while? How would that change our experience here? I’m going to give this a try and I’ll let you know.

If you feel the urge at all, please unfriend me. If you would, send me a note that goes something like this:

I am clearing out my friends list and you didn’t make the cut, though I wish you love and happiness, always.

 

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being a vegetarian

The downside of being a vegetarian now that it’s cool.

I used to spend a lot of time in the used bookstore downtown Aberdeen, sitting on the musty carpet floor with a stack of books to taste-test. I bought a lot of books I never read that way, some I did. One book I found this way and did read is Diet For A Small Planet, groundbreaking in 1971  when it became a best seller, still relevant when I read it in 1991, and still relevant today. Shortly after reading DFSP, I proudly announced to my meat and corn family that I was a vegetarian.

A what?!

Remember this was Hoquiam in 1991. For ten years after that my mother still asked on every visit, “Are you still a vegetarian?”

She doesn’t ask any more and I am still a vegetarian. I raised my child as a vegetarian. Nearly a quarter century has passed and now being a vegetarian is cool. While people used to ask questions like, “Where will you get your protein?” or “Do you eat chicken?” because they were sure that I must be malnourished without flesh, now they respond differently. “I’m mostly vegetarian” or “I used to date a vegetarian”. Times have changed for sure and there is a downside to being a vegetarian now that it’s cool.

This past school year I had an after school meeting to attend. The email specifically said dinner provided, which was great since I had to head out right after my last student left and the meeting would last to 8:30 that night.

An hour into the meeting, dinner was served. Four giant platters of ham and turkey sandwich wraps, one small bowl containing six or so servings of kale salad. As I waited in line, I watched the salad dwindle, watched person after person heap their plate with sandwich rolls, plus a spoonful of kale salad. By the time I came to the front of the line the salad bowl sat empty. For dinner I had Fritos and Mini assorted Mars candy bars. At another event, a meat-eating friend reached for a slice of the four veggie pizzas on the banquet table, out of thirty total pizzas provided and I said, “But don’t you eat meat?”

“I do, but I love veggie pizza. I could almost be a vegetarian. If it weren’t for hamburgers.”

*sigh

At least people who host these things now at least think of us?

Another trouble spot for me in being a vegetarian now that it’s cool is how much vegetarian junk they are trying to sell us. Just how huge must that Morningstar farm be?

I know, I know. It’s my choice. But it used to be sooo easy. If I wanted veggie burgers, I had to make them from scratch or buy a portobello. Now, there’s a whole two cases in the frozen aisle just for me.

While mostly I enjoy the credibility we’ve gained, there is a downside to being a vegetarian now that it’s cool. Remember that next time you reach for the kale salad. There may be a vegetarian starving somewhere in the room.

 

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nostalgia

Nostalgia is a funny thing.

Summer is ripe for nostalgia. As children, upon the arrival of summer, we become suddenly free to choose. Choose our own books (in my case by the armload taken from the library along with a summer reading program log), choose our own camps or classes from a range of options, mostly extracurricular, therefore feeding a mode of personal expression. Certainly there is an economic divide in terms of this option, but even kids who grow up drinking powdered milk as I did have options to ride horses, make art, and go to camp. We have more time and more freedom, more opportunities to create memories to be nostalgic about.

And nostalgia is a funny thing, if you think about it. Defined as a sentimental longing or affection for the past, we feel many types of nostalgia, but tend to tie that nostalgia to a particular thing and that fascinates me. What I really feel nostalgic about cannot be touched. I long for a time when I enjoyed greater leisure, when my child depended greatly on me and every day I watched him reach a milestone of some sort in his journey to become independent of me. I long for a time when I took time to hang out with my closest female friends, when that that was my top social priority, and we shared everything. I feel nostalgic for my need to rebel against authority (before I became the authority to rebel against).

But how does this nostalgia manifest itself? Certain moments caught in a single photographic image. Candy cigarettes. The onesie he came home from the hospital in. The smell of baby oil used for tanning. Those colored tassels for bike handles. Library check out cards, the date due stamped in blue ink. These are the carriers of nostalgia. A sight, or sound, or taste, or touch, or smell can transport us to the past at any time. So much of who we are is made up of a life time of sensory experience, and thatGloria went on a hike with us. We are still driving back and won’t be to town until around 10. She’d still like to come see you and wants to know if that will be too late. experience is deeply connected to our thought and emotion. The fact that certain things tend to be prevalent in certain times tie us to our age. Walkman. Need I say more?

As writers we must pay attention to nostalgia in our selection of detail. I find this to be true in at least two ways when editing. Nostalgia can lead to cliché because you choose the detail that emerges strongest, not the one that most accurately fits the moment of the particular fiction you are building. Also, if we’re writing a story that takes place in a time you lived through, you might be tempted to embed objects of your own nostalgia even though they are not the objects that best create the character you are writing about. In essence, nostalgia can lead us to be always writing ourselves into stories. Now I’m not saying objects of your own nostalgia have no place in your fiction. t I am saying that you must pay attention to each particular detail you choose and be sure it serves your story, not merely your own longings.

 

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comfort zone

Get out of your comfort zone

This is easier said than done, yet this is the message I’m hearing loud and clear. A message without pretense or subtlety. Let me explain what I mean, and also how it applies to my writing life–and, perhaps, applies to you and the work you’re doing too.
I am a cautious person for good reason. There has been little security or stability in my life. Until now. In response to a tumultuous life, I have nurtured certain aspects of my character: strength, independence, and shrewdness among them. I am not comfortable in vulnerability, dependence, or non-judgment. Like everyone else I have zones of comfort I prefer to stay in. This is the nature of survival. Yet, as an educator, I understand that after basic needs are accounted for, we each have exponential potential for growth and the way to expand our potential as human beings is to get uncomfortable. This is how we get better at math and it’s also how we develop compassion.

So, back to this message I’ve been receiving. In these past couple of years I’ve gotten away from a regular yoga practice, and lately I’ve been trying to get back to the mat. I am not as strong, not as balanced, not as flexible, not as focused. Classes for me have never been a necessity, just an occasional treat. I began practicing yoga at fifteen and had no idea classes even existed. I’m sure in 1989 I wouldn’t have found one in Aberdeen or Hoquiam anyway. But I had books, and books are definitely my comfort zone. I’ve practiced yoga over the years with dozens of books propped open next to my mat. However, that wasn’t working for me this time. I’d lost the passion and curiosity, needed to be led back into practice. So I signed up for two yoga series, one with my husband, one on my own.

The series I’m taking on my own turns out to be way out of my comfort zone. It’s all women and what I call woo-woo. There’s hugging, chanting, and all sorts of verbal sharing, plus tea and conversation for an undefined length of time after class. I am introverted and struggle when called to make small talk. From the first class I knew this group would not be without awkward moments for me ( though I do like the class and the people in it), but being out of my comfort zone is precisely what is calling to me right now. I just figured this out, on a walk after my second class. And just as this insight came to me, my phone buzzed. Regarding a different matter, my Dad had texted me “thanks for stepping out of your comfort zone”.

Here’s where I come to the part about writing. As I walked on, my mind went to Suz, the central character in a collection of short stories I’m writing about food and body image, and how both are connected to love and happiness. As I walked, I imagined Suz in my new yoga class and understood whether that exactly needed to happen, it definitely needed to happen. Meaning I need to get Suz out of her comfort zone. You see what I’m getting at here? Good fiction demands we put our characters in uncomfortable situations. As writers, we’ll be better at that if we’re willing to do the same.

 

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A celebration of the pause.

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I can be an intensely goal-oriented person, and mostly this has served me well. I wrote a semi-autobiographical novella in part about resiliency, or at least that was the seed. You see, directly and indirectly I have heard all my life that for me, success was unlikely, that my success is a particular miracle, unexpected. So I wanted to explore how it is that I don’t feel particularly resilient at all. I wanted to put a character in a situation somewhat like mine and see just how she might come to save herself. It’s true I was a welfare kid, a victim of childhood abuse, an intensely shy child who suffered severe allergies for all of my pre-adult life. It’s also true that genetically I am predisposed to self-destruct through addictive behavior and that I have suffered anxiety as long as I can remember.
My ability to set goals and work toward them has enabled me to manage anxiety without medication, to go from being unable to run at 24 years old to running my first marathon at 30, and to be a now National Boards Certified Teacher, 15 years of teaching experience behind me. I am a compulsive list maker and goal-setter. I can read through old journals and see that this pattern established itself early. But I’m not writing this blog as a celebration of goal-setting. I’m writing in celebration of the absence of moving toward a goal, a celebration of the pause, something I’ve come to appreciate these past few weeks.
Certainly my lists and goals serve my writing. It is this tendency that has inspired me to wake up at 4 and 5 in the morning to write first each day, that allows me to add practices to my work that keep me moving forward, like keeping a writing journal on my desk and writing down short and long term goals. But what I’ve discovered in this early morning writing time is that in the writing itself, I am best served when I can let go of all goals and give myself up to the writing itself. When I try to write fast, when I try to finish a work before it is ready to be done, when I rush editing, I ruin the work. I’ve done this over and over again.
Fortunately, I am a fan of Whitman’s insight about contradictions and I too believe I contain multitudes, thus am capable of writing slow, pausing to take walks or just stare out the window in spite of the anxious, goal-oriented me. Practices that strengthen my ability to pause include the writing itself, yoga and meditation, and time spent in nature. As I write this, I am thinking of this work we do as writers as a kind of dance where we are called to move through many aspects of ourselves to do our best work.

 

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The importance of place.

I’m four pages in to chapter two of my new book, a book I’ve outlined, made character sketches for, and even bought markers and big pieces of white paper to make visual maps of motifs and character relationships. I feel so ready to write this book!
Until, I don’t.
I’m on my second week of getting up at four in the morning to write, and I’m in the thick of chapter two. This morning I was writing a scene in a kitchen with two teens and their Dad, a primary setting in this story. As I visualized the scene in my head, moved the characters in space, rendered their words, thoughts, and actions, I realized a piece I had forgotten to plan.
I hadn’t planned the layout of the house my characters lived in, or the individual rooms. The story takes place in Olympia, but I hadn’t even planned what part of town, let alone the details of the house. For that matter, there’s a chunk of it that takes place at a school. What does it look like? In 2005?
Without an intentional plan, in order to write forward, I picked a house I used to rent as a model for my story. The point here is, though, that I did this without any awareness. Once I realized what I had done, I had to decide whether the choice was a good one or merely a familiar default. Should the story be in a different place? Where?
It is in this way that we continue to plan our stories, add to our outlines as we get deeper and deeper into the writing. The key is to recognize when to pin down the details. I noticed where I had placed my story because I was struggling with some of the details. You see, I hadn’t committed to that old house, that particular setting. I just used it to keep writing.
I have committed to it now, but I could just as easily have moved the story to a different house, across town. Two understandings emerged for me in this moment of attention. The first is that when you are writing about people in a place, you should know that place in as much specificity as possible. What color are the curtains? Does a faucet leak? Whether it’s a real place or imagined—set your story down somewhere with walls of a certain color and doors that creak, with smudges of dirt on the light switches. Draw it or pick a place you know, or both. The second thing?
Welcome these moments that demand that you add to your outline as a critical part of the process. There is such an urge to write, let nothing get in the way, because writing is hard enough. But I think I’ve caused myself more trouble than necessary writing this way.
When I print out first drafts of chapters to edit, I highlight all the specific details that emerge, mostly as a tool to keep them in the visual landscape I move through in my mind as I put words to page. Shouldn’t we welcome these breaks to draw, list, and diagram as part of creating a place for your story that seems real?

 

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house

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