Category Archives: the writing life

five dials

Five Dials is a digital literary magazine. Each issue is excellent (especially the Paris issue, the David Foster Wallace issue, and the Festival issue). The latest, Number 14, is a single essay by Orhan Pamuk entitled My Father’s Suitcase. Not only is the essay about a father and a son, but “it’s about literature and the reasons a person might choose to sit at a desk all day making marks on a page”.

So many wonderful moments in such a small space; a must-read, for writers and readers and anyone who feels a little more human, a little more connected, a little less alone when surrounded by words on pages.

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55 words

For those of you who don’t already know, I’m taking another creative writing workshop this summer. Aside from weekly reading assignments and discussions, peer workshops (a very rough draft of a story I’m working on was critiqued (and complimented) last night), and general lessons on craft, we are typically asked to complete a writing exercise for each class. Last night’s exercise: create a “full” story in 55 words. This turned out to be more difficult than it sounded, but the assignment provided an excellent opportunity to really think about what makes a story, to think about plot, and character, and beginnings and middles and endings. I wrote a few examples for class and thought I’d share one here:

The Park

I held my daughter by her bony shoulders and told her the one thing that everyone should hear: you were meant for amazing things. A mass of birds took flight above us, their white bodies and gray wings working furiously. The mass moved together, fighting against the wind, rising and diving as one. Like that?

Is it a story? I’m not sure. Truth be told, it’s a moment from a longer story I started writing a few months ago. But condensing that story to a 55 word scene, a single moment, helped me determine what it was really about, which elements and details were essential, etc. Good stuff. More to come.

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steps

I’ve been playing it safe. I’ve been busy. I’ve been moving fast and living large and while there’s nothing wrong with that, while I think I needed it for a while…I’m fulfilling only a portion of my initial intentions for this space, and it’s time to re-focus.

Yes, I’m sharing little bits and pieces of my days, my life – that alone was a step for me, and I don’t want to discount it. But. That was the simple part. That’s easy, and fun…I’ll post pictures and little comments about them all day long. I’ll write summaries of New Yorker articles and I’ll be better about sharing crushes and links to websites I find interesting and worthy of others’ time and consideration. But sharing my own work…sharing things that I create – that’s why I’m here. That’s the challenge, and I’ve allowed myself to be distracted by the wonders around me, and to be scared into silence…to be lazy, to settle for the easier, more comfortable aspect of this project and keep the most important, the most fragile pieces to myself, for no one else to see.  And worse: the pieces I have to keep to myself are few. I talk and talk about writing more and creating/committing to a schedule and then moments and days dissolve and disappear and I’m left feeling a little lost, a little empty. Because I still have stories to tell. I have ideas to share. I have things that I don’t understand, that I want to understand, and I think, I know, that writing about them will push me closer towards understanding. And if I can become a writer, if what I write touches one other person, stirs something inside them, makes them feel, well then that would be even better. That would be incredible.  And then I remember that I’ve already touched people. That I’m already a writer (!).

Verbalizing intentions often actualizes them, solidifies them.  So.  Here I am, verbalizing and actualizing and solidifying. For real, this time. Less worrying about edits and criticism and imperfections and incomplete stories, and more…writing. Sharing. Courage.

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the writing life

I’ve been working, the past few months, on my writing – on the thing I love more than most anything, the thing I depend on to interpret and explain the world around me, the thing that becomes almost burdensome (that becomes actual work) when neglected and over-thought. I’m still in the midst of a semi-permanent affair with the short story, but have found myself drifting quite naturally towards a mangled, skeletal version of prose poetry, as well as testing the flash fiction/short short waters. I’ll confess to struggling with keeping a consistent schedule, with fretting over the imperfect written results of ideas that are perfect in my head (which often leads to abandoning the idea altogether), with motivation and laziness and most importantly, with inspiration. I get all tangled up in this “what the heck am I going to write about” mentality and end up not writing anything. For days. Weeks. And if I step back and examine the effects of “not writing”, of not creating and exploring and imagining and nurturing this thing I love…they are severe.

Back to the lack of inspiration issue: I’ve realized/become aware it’s actually a non-issue. I simply use it as an excuse, a justification for not writing. Which is such a waste and such a lie, when stories stare me down daily, begging to be written. I see them everywhere, everyday, and think “there’s a story” or “I should write about that, about him or her, about this place“. And I collect little ideas and moments in a nice neat pile, until the pile grows to an overwhelming height and topples into a cluttered jumbled heap. And nothing is written.

I’m fumbling my way slowly towards change; towards a place where I create and share and connect with others, with an underlying hope that we’ll walk away gripping a better understanding of the world and the things we see and feel while we’re part of it. Sharing alone is a step, for me…a toe dipped cautiously in an icy lake, a timid invitation extended to an acquaintance, a hesitant departure down a path whose end cannot be seen.

Arriving at “the point”…inspiration has been everywhere for me, recently. Just watching: people giving and receiving directions on a crowded street. People sharing things: passing plates during meals, huddling under a single umbrella.  People running when they shouldn’t be, after buses, through stores, down stairs…wanting an explanation for the overwhelming excitement or fear propelling them forward at such an unnatural speed. People falling asleep (or fighting to stay awake) in public places…slipping into such a vulnerable, pure state amongst strangers.

And the tiniest woman, who sat across from me on a late-night bus. She sat so still, so close to the window, clutching a single pink rose in a plastic shell, the kind you’d grab as an after-thought from the grocery store check-out line. But the way she held it, you’d think it were the last rose in the world, the most precious item anyone could possess. The biggest black plastic-framed glasses balanced on her nose, swallowed most of her face. Her hair was short and neat and gray, her mouth a small thin line resting above her chin. She wore black; a simple black coat, with simple black knit gloves covering her hands and simple black shoes dusted white with street salt dangling just above the ground. She’d fixed her gaze straight ahead ages ago and held it there, calm, patient, determined. Her eyes would close gently now and then, her only detectable movement. We rode together for ten minutes, and I realized that during that short time I’d built up the highest hopes for her. I left the bus hoping so hard that the recipient of that pink rose, which had suddenly become the sweetest most thoughtful gesture I could imagine, would gush with gratitude, would thank her and draw her in and hold her tight. Hoping so hard that she wasn’t lonely, that she wasn’t mourning but celebrating something, anything…hoping her stillness and silence was a temporary shield from the outside world, a shell she’d shed as soon as she encountered a familiar face. I was surprised, at how affected I was by an unassuming ordinary stranger, at the lump in my throat I forced down quick. And in my confusion I was reminded that I have a way to explore these moments, a way to dissect and rebuild and interpret them to see what’s lurking just below their surfaces. I was reminded that writing really isn’t an option or a choice, for me; it’s a need. I must write.

Anticipating and hoping that occasionally sharing moments like these, that forcing myself to craft sentences and attribute language to images and emotions, will nudge me along that path, that road carefully paved with story after story, whose end I cannot yet see.

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RIP, Salinger

Very sad news, today.  Plenty of thoughts/favorite quotes/musings to offer, but saving them for the time being and allowing myself to be surprised at how much this loss affected me.

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were most of your stars out?

(I apologize in advance for the length of the passage I’m about to reference. I just couldn’t cut any of it out…)

About once a year, for the past few years, I go on a J.D. Salinger rampage, re-reading anything by or about him that I can get my hands on…published works, unpublished short stories, biographies, etc. This year’s happened a few weeks ago, and I was moved, inspired and nearly destroyed by a passage from Seymour – An Introduction.  Which, of course, made me want to share it (selfishly hoping it would evoke a similar sentiment from someone).

A little context: Buddy Glass (the narrator of the story and an aspiring author) is writing about/remembering his older brother, Seymour. What follows is a portion of a note from Seymour, to Buddy, in response to a short story Buddy shared with him:

“…Do you know what I was smiling at? You wrote down that you were a writer by profession. It sounded to me like the loveliest euphemism I had ever heard. When was writing ever your profession? It’s never been anything but your religion. Never. I’m a little overexcited now. Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die? But let me tell you first what you won’t be asked. You won’t be asked if you were working on a wonderful, moving piece of writing when you died. You won’t be asked if it was long or short, sad or funny, published or unpublished. You won’t be asked if you were in good or bad form while you were working on it. You won’t even be asked if it was the one piece of writing you would have been working on if you had known your time would be up when it was finished – I think only poor Soren K. will get asked that. I’m so sure you’ll get asked only two questions. Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions. If only you’d remember before ever you sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself. I won’t even underline that. It’s too important to be underlined. Oh, dare to do it Buddy! Trust your heart. You’re a deserving craftsman. It would never betray you. Good night. I’m feeling very much overexcited now, and a little dramatic, but I think I’d give almost anything on earth to see you writing a something, an anything, a story, a poem, a tree, that was really and truly after your own heart…”

…and then I feel overexcited and a little dramatic, for days.

A note: this passage gained additional relevance yesterday, as I watched my little bro graduate from college (and remembered watching my other little bro graduate from high school earlier this year). The usual suspects were present and accounted for…lots of feelings involving pride and love and “It seems like just yesterday when…”. But I also found myself wishing I was better prepared, better established in my own life, so I could bestow piles of advice and wisdom upon him and convince him that the future wasn’t scary, that he would succeed and make a difference and live a mighty life. And as I struggled with what to say, I was reminded of this passage again…in a different, non-writerly way. I read it this time simply as an elder sibling writing to a younger one, honest and excited and straight from the heart…reminding him to live with his stars out, and to do something, anything, he loves.

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