Tuesday, May 31, 2011

When I First Fell in Love

I was sixteen years old the first time I became so immersed in writing, I lost hours to it without realizing it. I was alone in the house, writing a story upstairs at the family computer, and when I finally finished and started down the stairs, the light had changed. The outside world had gone from full daylight to dusk, and I experienced that beautiful displacement. I’d forgotten myself completely, so deep was I in that story.

It is that feeling, that disconnection—a kind of un-being, of escaping into my own head--that I have sought like a drug ever since.

In many ways, it was a heck of a lot easier in those days. I had no idea what I was doing, so the writing was fitful, bold, sentimental. Even better: I had no idea how bad the writing was. Not knowing gave me a certain brazenness. A courage. I plunged in, blissfully ignorant of the distance between the story as it existed—whole—in my imagination, and the barely coherent jumble of sentences before me, both too messy and overly tidy, too abstract, simultaneously melodramatic and intolerably boring.

John Cheever says he can’t write without thinking of the reader, but I have to peel the world off completely. As completely as I can, anyway.

There’s a price to be paid for experience. For learning, in some small degree, bit by bit, what the heck I’m doing. Because it gets so much harder to peel the world off, to enter that place. In fact, the longer I write—the better I get—the more discriminating I am. The more I can see just how much I suck.

I think that when people say writing requires bravery they mean a number of things. In a sense, it’s what I keep writing about here, in this blog. How to overcome your writerly fears. You’re afraid of what you’ll encounter—what truth you don’t want to see—and you’re afraid you’ll give too much of yourself. You’re afraid you’ll give years of your life to a pursuit that will never pay off. You can do the math, count up the number of aspiring writers versus the number of success stories. You’re afraid you are a fool to keep at this. You think: I’m wasting my life! I could be out there, jumping on the trampoline with my kids.

You’re afraid, as I am, that you suck. You’ve been writing for a while, reading, learning, discussing, studying, and now, God help you, you no longer simply fear it: you know it. You know you suck.

Here’s your chance for bravery. Prove your mettle. Because good writing is not about not sucking; it’s about writing anyway. It’s about having eyes to see your own weaknesses and pushing past them. You have to see how bad it is before you can make it better.

I love what Michael Cunningham has said about dealing with your own shortcomings: “Fearlessness in the face of your own ineptitude is a useful tool to have.”

So there it is: be fearless.

You’ll never fully regain the euphoria you first felt that made you fall in love with writing. Or, maybe you’re not like me: maybe you experience it all the time.

Or, maybe, like me, you’ve decided there’s something really wonderful to the act of pursuing. To trying to recapture the giddy recklessness of those early writing days. To writing with that kind of heart and with the discriminating eye of experience. The pressing on, trying to get better, trying, always, to find your way in.

Finally, that’s all any of us have, isn’t it? The reaching?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Winners!

Thank you so much to those of you who commented on my Short Story Month post, thereby entering to win one of my favorite short story collections!

And, the winners are...

Mary Akers will receive a copy of Bret Lott's How to Get Home.

Pamela Erens will receive Aimee Bender's The Girl in the Flammable Skirt.

And, finally, Katrina Denza will receive Stacey Levine's The Girl with Brown Fur.

AND, speaking of short stories, my friend Sheryl Monks has a really fabulous post on short story endings at her blog, 50 Shimmering Pages. You should check it out!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

I Used to Be a Star

I used to be a star.

On Thursday mornings, from nine a.m. to noon, at Lower Creek Baptist Church in Lenoir, North Carolina. I arrived with my toddler and her suitcase of toys, everything she needed to keep occupied while I did my magic. My TEACHER AT WORK bag, full of graded papers, candy, my homemade version of Balderdash, highlighter pens, poems, Thirteen Steps to Better Writing, chart paper already marked up with writing prompts and story-openers, sentences to imitate, brainstorming space. I had a roll of masking tape to put it all up with, my once-a-week writing classroom in a bag, and a 20-oz. bottle of Diet Dr. Pepper to keep me juiced up. Energetic. The perfect pitch of happy-crazy-enthusiastic.

Ready for them: three classes of homeschoolers, ages 9 to 17. The boys who came with a pencil behind their ear and a scraggly spiral notebook. Who sat back, tipping their chairs while I did my thing. Writing exercises. Writing workshops. Critiques. The older girls in cowboy boots and lip gloss. Giggly, everybody half-flirty with each other, ready to show off a little to me, a lot to each other. Me yammering on about parallel structure and the fluidity of really good prose. Me, the co-op writing teacher, the one who liked to talk about strong verbs and concrete nouns.

I wanted to give them to the tools to write about their own lives, lives they carried with them in their trinkets and souvenirs. Ordinary pocket-stuffings. The younger girls with their sparkly purses and photographs of their pets, their airplane trips, their snowy backyards. They came to me with their whipped-cream-topped coffees, their bubblegum, their music instruments, not to play, but just for me to see, nestled into the padded, soft cases. I had a boy who played the banjo like nothing I’ve ever heard, who aspired to be Earl Scruggs. A girl who hand-knit dozens of outfits for her dolls. They raised tadpoles and bunny-rabbits, hunted deer and turkeys. They wrote science fiction. Essays. Opinion papers on tattoos and Edgar Allan Poe. They wrote about the history of cheese and the glory of skate parks.

I asked a lot of them, workshopped their papers until their eyes glazed over, unable to hear another word about where they could be clearer, which sentences needed more punch. I threw pens at them when they weren’t paying attention. They wrote and they wrote and they wrote. I tried to make things fun, or at least, lively, and they repaid me with over-the-hill birthday parties, hand-woven oven mitts, and some of the best-written, funniest, and most touching papers any teacher ever got to read.

They also wrote really awful papers, boring ones, stuffy ones. Ones that relied too heavily—almost comically—on their thesauruses. Illegible ones. Bare-bones papers, run-on sentence papers, papers without any direction whatsoever. Really, really bad papers.

But, we worked through the awful together. We worked through and they each—every single one of them—came away with something great.

That’s why they loved me. Why they prattled after me in the hallway, Mrs. Susan, Mrs. Susan, guess what? I want to show you something. I wrote five pages! I was a star on those Thursday mornings—the mothers loved me, too; I had saved them from the task and struggle of teaching writing--but it wasn’t really me at all. It was them. The students. It was what they wrote. Their own lives. The accomplishment of working through the awful, getting to the good.

I love teaching writing. I love it. I love it almost as much as I love writing. I love helping my students, young and old, cut through the awful, find the truth of what they’re trying to say. Turn a portion of their lives, their experiences, their passions into a glimmering, wonderful thing on a piece of paper. Recorded, there, in black and white. Tangible.

One boy, a boy named Luke, came to me first as the brother of a star student. His sister wrote fluidly, beautifully, expansively about nature and God and family; Luke, a little guy then, hid under the table. Created mayhem. Talked too loud. Interrupted. His mother shooed him out, but then, a few years later, and there he was, looking uncertain, worried, and maybe just a tiny bit hopeful. There, in my chart-paper and masking-tape classroom. Ready. Luke was not the natural writer his sister was, but he was a natural story-teller. He was ready, readier than he thought he was.

Do you know what I remember best about my students? I remember their hand-writing. The way their words actually looked on the page. Luke wrote a story about spiders, and I can still see that single word—Spiders—on the top of the loose-leaf paper. His mother helped, and it was a good paper. Then, with revision, it was a great paper and Luke, the non-writer, the boy who hid under tables, who created the occasional mayhem, earned the coveted check-plus, the highest grade I ever gave—and gave sparingly. He wrote a thing about his own life, wrote that word Spiders at the top of the page, and came away with something wonderful.

I got to be a part of that. That one moment in that excitable, talkative, passionate, outdoorsy, non-bookish boy’s life.

He died, unexpectedly, last week. Sixteen years old. In the picture in the newspaper, he was a great, big, hulking fellow, a football player. But I remember the ten-year-old. The look of that word—Spider—at the top of his paper and the look on his ten-year-old face. A check-plus. He earned it, dear boy. He had written something wonderful about his own life.

I was no star. They were the stars. I am so grateful I got the chance to work with them, to help them discover the power of writing. Such a gift! The writing, the sharing of it. To see them see the amazing and the funny and the powerful and the poignant and the deeply, deeply true things in their own lives. To help them struggle through, pin it down on paper. I was blessed those Thursday mornings. Blessed beyond measure. Blessed always, remembering.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

It's Short Story Month: A Give-Away

My very first short stories were usually about a woman performing some domestic task and agonizing internally, invisibly. I was in love with Tillie Olsen’s “As I Stand Here Ironing,” and Bret Lott’s Jewel, particularly a scene where the protag is drying a dish and watching her children play through the window.

I wanted to do what they were doing, to sculpt such beautiful, powerful interior monologue that little else was needed.

Ever notice how your writing evolves with your choices in reading? Or vice-versa?

A few years of trying to be Bret Lott, and I found another, drastically different writer to emulate: Aimee Bender. Here, this wild woman of surrealism and the wonderfully bizarre. She did for fire-handed girls and fathers with soccer-ball sized holes in their stomachs what Lott and Olsen did for heavy-hearted mothers: she told their stories. Everywhere, in domestic fiction, deeply committed to reality, or in fantasy and surrealism, deeply committed to exposing a kind of reality beyond this present, seen reality, the aim is always, always, the story. Tell the story. Make it real.

“My lover is experiencing reverse evolution. I tell no one. I don’t know how it happened, only that one day he was my lover and the next he was some kind of ape. It’s been a month and now he’s a sea turtle.” So begins the first story, “The Rememberer” in Bender’s second collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. “Drunken Mimi” begins, “There was an imp that went to high school with stilts on so that no one would know he was an imp. Of course he never wore shorts.” And, the last sentence of the entire collection killed me. (You must read this book!)

Ultimately, I gathered courage from both Lott and Bender. Courage to fully imagine what was before me: the woman at her kitchen sink, the girl setting free her lover, devolved into a salamander.

And now, I’ve discovered another fiction writer whose work both emboldens me and humbles me. It’s the best thing for an aspiring fiction writer: work that challenges, that makes you see again the possibilities—what fiction can do!—and yet also chastises: if you’re going to do this, do it all the way. Fully imagine.

That work is Stacey Levine’s The Girl with the Brown Fur. In this short story collection, humanity is shown at its bleakest, most yearning, its most bizarre. Every character is an outsider; every character’s humanity is shown in its quest for comfort. For companionship. Reassurance.

Again, as with Lott’s pining mother, as with Bender’s mourning lover, the genius is in the rendering of human want. “Milk Boy” begins: “Everyone called him ‘Milk Boy’ because he was just like milk: thin, rushing everywhere, tinged with blue; he poured himself all around because he needed to; he was nervous and jiggled all day just like a happy little clown, as a matter of fact, he was a clown, laughing all his life, compromising himself, jerking upon the office floor.” And sometimes, non-human want: “Imagine being a bean,” Levine’s story, “The Bean” begins: “a pale supplicant, rimy dot, a belly-wrinkled pip, lying enervated on the kitchen chair, trying too hard all the time.”

Levine’s book is a must-read for writers. It is precise and bizarre in the most beautiful, frightening ways. It edifies the writerly soul.

So, I’m giving one away. It’s short story month and it’s spring: let’s just go crazy. I’ll give all three books away: Lott’s “How to Get Home,” Bender’s “Girl in the Flammable Skirt,” and Levine’s “The Girl with Brown Fur.”

Thank you, blog readers. Beautiful writers. Thank you for reading and for commenting and for, some of you, the extraordinary and heart-felt emails you send my way. Comment below. Please. Tell me your favorite short story or how you're feeling today or anything else you want to share. I'll put your name in the hat. Me and each of my kids will draw a name. Oh, happy May! Long live short story collections!

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Last Alchemist

The last alchemist was a poor German man named Hennig Brand. He married a rich woman, used up all her money on his experiments, then married a second rich woman. Carried on with his work.

He was seeking what all the alchemists who had come before him had sought: the philosopher’s stone. A magical substance that would turn a base metal, such as lead, into a precious metal, like gold.

Maybe there was something Freudian about his obsession with urine. Or possibly, despite his fortuitous coupling, he opted for a material that was cheapest and easiest to come by. Perhaps, it was its golden-amber hue that convinced him that by boiling the stuff down to a thick syrup, skimming off the frothy top (think of the stuff you scoop off the top of jam), cutting out the salt layer at the bottom, remixing the top with the middle layer, and voila, the philosopher’s stone.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. What he discovered instead was a substance that glowed on its own. That was highly dangerous; left unattended, it burst into flame. This was, his contemporaries claimed, solidified fire. (When they found out, of course. Brand, like every other alchemist, kept his discovery under wraps at first.)

What it really was was phosphorus. Fertilizer.

Though he didn’t find the philosopher’s stone, he found a substance that glows in the dark, as if from its own life force. And he made it from pee. Not strictly a miracle, I suppose, but still, pretty bloomin’ spectacular, wouldn’t you say?

You, writer, are an alchemist. You mix real science—procedure, observation, and logic—with hope and courage and imagination and the result is a new substance. An impossible discovery. True alchemy.

Or, more practically, it’s an element that’s always been here, on this planet, isolated now, at last, in a beaker over your fire. In your own dark attic. And the glow of your distillation—solidified fire—lights the window, burns the house down, warms your hands, shocks the world.

Go. Write.