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I am still planning my syllabus.  I rake the shelves in my study for samples of poems and stories that my students will hopefully either love or hate–better off not being anywhere in between.

English: A vintage ampere meter. Français : Un...

Photo Credit: Wikipedia.

I searched for a poem that would make them unafraid.  I picked up a copy of Ploughshares from 2005, wondered briefly how and why I have this, then flipped through.  I stopped at Adrienne Rich‘s “Life of the Senses.”  I stopped for a number of reasons.  But mostly that I had heard a faculty member at Goddard’s MFA program read about her recently.  I had found this poem right then for some reason.  Magic, my 4-year-old would say.

Adrienne Rich’s “Life of the Senses” will alert my students to what they are hopefully not missing out on, or perhaps make them aware of the white space of life before constant interruption.  I tell myself that being aware of this helps, but it is a strange compromise between control, and loss of it.  The hope was this poem would make them unafraid of poetry, but the more I read it, I become frightened, myself.

Here’s how she begins:

1.

Over and over, I think

we have come to a place

like this,

dead sound

stopping the soul

in its eager conversations

Or, a classical theme

repeated over and over       interrupted

by a voice disguised as human:

Please

stay on the line

Your call is very

important to us

(from Adrienne Rich’s “Loss of the Senses”)

In 2005, I was in the middle of my grad degree at Brockport.  I had just started dating my husband.  I had free time.   I had just joined Facebook.  I had no children.  I had time to write, and didn’t.  I had time to read when I wasn’t.  I didn’t yet know I was sick .  At the same time, I revised stories about failed marriages and car mechanics and the Chinese Immigrant who answered the phone at the take-out on Main Street.  It’s still there.   And I edited papers under a desk lamp in my strangely trendy Main St. apartment–in Brockport.  I was making mentors, but Googled shortcuts through my education.  I still do, sometimes.  That knowledge is hard to erase.  It’s 2012–no, 2013, suddenly–and I have two boys who don’t know Facebook except for when I post them there like little entertainers.  I type this on my blog when I should be writing for packet work or watching cartoons with my sons, or recovering from a bad injection, but sometimes I crave social media like an entire bag of microwave popcorn that I inhale before bedtime and then curse at the heartburn when 2 a.m. comes and my children are already sleeping.  If it isn’t already, I know that tomorrow all of me could be numb.

3.

No, it’s worse than I’m saying:

Have you ever woken on a hot night

tangled in a sheet you’d been trying

to throw off

wanting to clutch the dream

you’d been wrapped in

as long as possible?

(from Adrienne Rich’s “Loss of the Senses”)

After I finished the last section of the poem, I closed the book.  The cover wore a pale sticky note from a friend, and I read it: “For you.”  I imagined the first time I picked up this book he had given me, how this person had been a mentor, then, but now, how much had changed, how life goes on without us knowing, and how I know only Facebook posts of so many people.  People who were once in the flesh are now thumbnails.

When I spread the pages of the book to make a copy on my printer and the spine cracked neatly in half, I promised myself I would concentrate fully on the hum of the machine.

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fiction: Jan at the Circus

The Tightrope Walker Deutsch: Die Seiltänzerin

Jan and Lou went to the circus.  Originally, they started dating because both their names had just one syllable and this was all meant to be simple.  Their lives were organized in a syllabus of sorts—a schedule of what everyone else wanted to see them do.

June 11th read, “Go to the Circus.”  So they did, only they took the number 9 bus instead of the number 82 train, and ended up five minutes late, cutting Jan’s favorite part, the tightrope walker, short.

Instead of watching the whole performance, Jan saw only the tail end, the part where the lady dipped her toes beneath the rope into air like tepid bath water, then simply climbed down.

The little girl in the seat next to her said, “Ma, when I get older, I want to walk the ropes.”

“We all do,“ Jan meant only to think, but said aloud instead.  The little girl looked at Jan as though she’d said nothing, but the little girl’s mother glared at Jan because she, too, had wanted to walk the rope.

All three girls sat in awe of the lady in the leotard, who crouched on the mat below the rope, now, and rubbed her eyes with her hands.   If she was sad, they all wanted to be sad.

Lou asked what Jan was looking at, but instead of answering, Jan asked Lou to buy her cotton candy.  She thought it might make up for missing the leotarded woman stretch her legs taught over the braided rope and twirl over the crowd.   Lou walked to the concession stands with a few quarters in his hand.

Lou had brought back periwinkle fluff instead of the carnation-colored candy that Jan wanted.  She ate it anyway, and smiled, but its taste soured on her tongue.

Lou crunched on popcorn so loudly Jan couldn’t even hear the girl in front of her clapping robustly at the lion tamer’s whip and cane.  The little girl’s hands tapped together and came away and went back again, but her muted glee fell so low on Jan’s ears that she could only hear Lou’s crunching of popcorn, the kernel skins wedging themselves between his teeth and gums.   He offered Jan a sip of his flat soda, and the bits of kernel stayed on her tongue after she gulped.  She sipped more to rinse them away, but they kept coming.  More and more kernel film stuck to her tongue until she had taken the last sip of the pop.

The little girl’s mother dangled a fiber optic souvenir wand over the girl’s head, and the girl leapt at it like the seal with the circus ball.  The little girl missed.  Whenever her fingers should have reached, the mother pulled it centimeters higher than she could touch—even on her toes.

She hoped that the next day the syllabus would read, “Write your own list, then do everything on that list in reverse order.”  Jan would write, “Buy a leotard and something fiber optic” at the bottom.  Just above that, “Buy blue cotton candy.”   Jane looked at Lou’s nose, how the tip of it twitched every time he spoke or laughed.  She wondered if he ever hoped for anything on the syllabus.  Maybe he wondered why they had a syllabus.  Jan knew she wondered, but instead of thinking too hard about it, she imagined that her balanced letters on the list would dip just below the lines on the paper, like toes, their curves caressing the edges steadily like the arches of feet.

Every day could be a circus.   She could read the list again.


Step 5: Begin a Short Story

Living chair

Image via Wikipedia

…continued from John Smolens’ “How to Get Your Story Started” in The Writer, is step 5.

5 Now you’re ready to begin a short story (60 minutes).  Keep it simple.  Have at least two characters in the same place at the same time and have them respond to each other in some way.

I sometimes call this “The Last Vacant Seat on the Bus session.”  If nothing else, have a character take the last available seat on the bus (or a train or a plane) and start the story the moment she sits down.

The key, as with nearly all stories, is that there needs to be some kind of conflict.  I’ve had students begin with someone who reeks of garlic, or someone who immediately begins asking the other character personal things (“What does your mother think of that tattoo on your neck?”)…

This is probably my third try on this step.  Really, my “narratives” from steps 3 and 4 were more entrances to story than anything.   I rarely experiment so often with different perspectives in one piece of short fiction.  It’s an interesting process I’ll probably do often to force myself out of a failing piece, which is the most comfortably sad place for fiction to be.  This piece requires a lot of research–I feel committed to keeping Andrew as a pilot, so here goes.

start time: 8:45.

I never cared to fly with Andrew, but he never begged like he did that afternoon, with his eyebrows all overgrown and upward-arched as though they might give him some sort of innocence I knew he didn’t have.  I went just so he would quiet down.  My head pounded worse than normal, like all the noise in the world fell asleep in my ears and woke to a rotten alarm clock, a horrific concert of pain and thought, so many violins, laughing children, drum beats and then, Andrew.

“So you’re coming for sure, right?  You aren’t going to sit in the copilot’s place, then bail on me before buckling the belt, last second, like usual?”  Andrew asked.

“I never did that,” I said.  Sometimes he just liked to hear himself talk. “Why did I marry you, again?”

He didn’t answer.  I couldn’t either. The birds loomed, bawking against the clouds like little terrors.  I prayed for one to unleash on me, so I could go home and shower, taking flight myself.

He called this plane Laney, and gave her a pronoun that oozed from his mouth like honey into his morning tea.  Sickening, if you ask me.  My legs ached when I saw the white plane.  The familiar black striping down the side seemed to lock me out of the ethereal part of Andrew’s life.

“You ascared?” he asked.  His brown eyes sharpened, nearly black, his smile widened, the creases nearest his temples deepened. Perhaps this is what frightened me about the plane deal.  How can he have such appreciation of something without a pulse?

“Afraid, you mean?  And no.  I’ve never been afraid of one thing.”

“Not those mice from last fall?  The ones in the pantry?”

“No,” I said.  We would be able to see our house from the air here, I bet.  Maybe my rheumatologist’s office or the supermarket.  My life would disintegrate into specks.

Andrew extended his arm from the doorway of the plane.  Surprised it was strong enough to pull me up, I gasped at the effort I had to put into it.  Was that satisfaction in his face?  There, in his forehead, right below his widow’s peak.  Satisfaction.

“Well I’m glad that was so easy for you,” I snapped.

“Take a load off,” he said, gesturing to the seat beside him.

“No, I’ll sit in this back seat,” I said.  He seemed a stranger, to me, in this place–mostly because his back was curved slightly towards the dials, his hands were lax like paws, and there was no recliner, no breakfast nook, no place for me there.

end time: 9:52.


Step 4 of John Smolens’ “Get Your Story Started”

Continuing in the fiction mode, here comes Step 4 of The Writer magazine’s “Get Your Story Started,” by John Smolens, verbatim:

4 Now write again, trying a different approach or perspective (60 minutes).  Consider the material you gathered from Step 3 again; this time, however, vary your approach.  If in the last session you wrote in the third person, this time work in the first person; if your last session was primarily narrative, then this time try to create a scene with dialogue. 

The point is to mix things up, to see things from different perspectives, which to a large degree is what fiction is all about–it offers the writer a unique sense of freedom.  It asks you to explore not only the exterior world through a character’s eyes, but to explore her inner world–why she sees things the way she does.

Since last time I wrote in first person with much dialogue, this time I will write primarily narrative in the third person.  Here is my response.

Start time: 9:02.

NYC2123 Laney

Image via Wikipedia

When Andrew left, Arlene was sleeping and had all the shades pulled down against the sunshine.  This kind of sun was unusual for Western NY in February, so Andrew took the clear skies as a sign he wouldn’t find any resistance.

Arlene insisted she couldn’t drive, so she wouldn’t miss the car.  Andrew didn’t wake her to say goodbye because she knew he was leaving and hadn’t bothered to say a word to him since she found out.  Andrew didn’t think about when she’d see him next or if she’d see him at all.  She planned that Andrew would return for her rheumatology appointment next Friday.  He knew better.

When he saw Laney, it was his life calling him back.  Sure, Arlene allowed him to fly Laney around the region, but she reacted like Laney was his mistress.  Really, she had more reason to be jealous than she knew.  Laney was a small plane–a single engine, a dove-gray beauty that had been mostly idle since Andrew’s last flight, a night he’d almost left.  About five months ago, Arlene had checked herself into the ER with pain so searing she claimed she was dying.  By midnight, she felt fine, and the doctor confirmed she could leave.  When they walked into their house, Arlene’s cave, she poured some Shiraz in a glass to toast her recovery.  That’s when Andrew took Laney out last.  Arlene passed out after a few more glasses, so Andrew flew Laney around the Lake Ontario, glimpsing how the waves kissed at the shore.  With each breaking wave, he imagined the fish pushing further into a warm hibernation, and Arlene falling further into herself.

Today was the matrimonial flight, Andrew kept telling himself.  He left his wedding ring on the speckled counter at home, next to the wine rack, where Arlene would be sure to find it.  Even his fingers could feel the difference.  There wouldn’t be much left for him to say.

Jordan, his nephew, had been managing the airport since Andrew’s retirement.  He agreed to get Laney ready for Andrew’s flight today, but didn’t know he wasn’t coming back.  Arlene resented that Jordan inherited Andrew’s airport and the air crafts.  Besides Laney.

Even the control Andrew felt, the palpable lifting of the wing flaps with the push of the hard charcoal lever, signaled that Andrew might have nothing to do with the passing birds, but could navigate this aircraft without worry about its body and how it might fail.  When he pulled the throttle to its full position, he was assured the plane would move clearly and swiftly into flight.  He would lift off, over the hospital, over his home at Lakeview Terrace, past the town limits and off of the unforgiving land.

End time: 10:16.

 

 

 

 


Shared Prompt: “Get Your Story Started” from The Writer magazine

English: penulis = writer

Image via Wikipedia

I came across an exercise in The Writer magazine that I thought would be fun to assign in workshop.  But first, I need to test it. “Get Your Story Started,” by John Smolens, is featured in the January 2012 issue, and is a five-step process to jump-start a piece of fiction.  Lately, especially in this blog, I’ve been focused on nonfiction for whatever reason, so really, I’m not too far from the self-focused students in my soon-to-be ENG 210 class.  I am a pretty good specimen for this experiment.

Smolens prefaces his process by saying he’s used it with both novices and experienced fiction writers.  This exercise is meant to concentrate not on length, but on time spent writing.  The five steps are meant to be followed on five nights, respectively and consecutively, and each step has a prescribed amount of time.  I am following the steps exactly as they are described.

So, taken verbatim from The Writer magazine, January 2012 issue, is the first step:

1. Focus on where you write (45 minutes).

Write for a minimum of 45 minutes, describing where you are as you write, how you are writing (using pencil and paper, computer, etc.) and why you have chosen this particular time of day to write, Simply describe your physical location, what about it makes you comfortable–or uncomfortable.

…the first step prompt continues on for a while, so I won’t bore everyone with its description here.  If you’d like it, let me know, and I’ll find a way to get the article to you.

Here’s my response to the test.  Start time: 9:20 p.m.

1. To my left, there is a banker’s lamp from my grandfather.  My father meant to discard the lamp because he was skeptical it would work.  The glass shade was tilted, dusty, and loosely screwed on.  I took it from the back of his Jeep and told him I’d work on it.  Though I won’t leave it on unattended, it really brightens up my writing area.  I also like the irony of the “banker’s lamp” on my writing desk.

I’m sitting at the desk in my purple study, which was finished shortly before my second son was born.  I chose the color, and now I can’t remember the name of the specific shade, based on the responses I received on a Facebook poll.  Ridiculous.  Cory says it’s purple.  It’s more complicated than that.  A purply-brown, maybe?  The walls are covered with found art, photographs (new and old), and gifts from friends.  Some things on the walls are not photos or pictures at all:  I have a menu from Java’s on Gibbs, that I’ve framed.  I have a cowgirl coaster set from my friend, Anne, that is tiled precisely square, with looming horse heads on each, just below an old vintage bird “silhouette” art piece that my husband, Cory, bought for me for our four-year anniversary from the failing antique shop north of Main St.

Cory is nearly sleeping, leaning up against the wall on the built-in bench/hidden storage area he and his father installed for me.  I’ve just turned off the Sabres game, which was playing on the radio from a window behind my blog post.  They won, so I’m guessing he’s having a good dream.  He’s asleep at this point.  Though he was reading Darkly Dreaming Dexter, the novel that the Showtime series, Dexter, is based on, so maybe his dream is not so pleasant.  When I’m writing and he’s reading he takes a deep breath, and that’s when I know he’s going to interrupt me.  Then he’ll say, “Sorry to interrupt you, but…”  This time it was, “Do you remember the first person Dexter killed in the first season?”  Oh, seriously? I think.  Aren’t you about to read about it?  Dexter came into our life via Netflix (is this the right spelling?  I guess the spell check probably wouldn’t recognize it).  Cory found the series one day when he was off work and I was teaching.  Since, we’ve been pretty hooked.  We watched all five (or maybe six?) seasons before this last season began.  Now it’s over, and I have to wait until next fall, I guess.  This is probably why Cor bought the book.  He needed a fix.  Now, he’s snoring.  In twenty-five minutes, when the experiment is over, and I get up from the computer, he will deny falling asleep, like he always does.  It bothers me, and I’m not sure why.

I’m drinking a pomegranate martini.  This is unusual for me.  I’m not a desperate housewife, or raging alcoholic, but I had a rough day today, as far as cleaning up Johnny and Sammy’s messes go.  This was part of the reward.

Cory is still sleeping, but has sighed and rubbed at his nose.  I stop to look at him, and think the absence of the clicking will wake him, but it doesn’t.  He is so sleeping.  When he sat down to read, he said, “Man, sitting on this is like getting into a coffin.”  I know he’s never been in a coffin, but I let that go.  “At least you’re alive,” I said.

Directly in front of me is one of my favorite pictures.  Partly because it’s so unbelievably believable, and also because it’s of my brothers.  In the background of the picture is a large wall calendar.  It’s 1971, a year that I really believe I should have lived through.  My brother, Darrin, is sitting on a formica table in a white overall jumpsuit with what looks like a matching conductor’s hat.  It’s cute, but he’s a dork.  No, he’s actually only three.  Three-year-olds get a pass.  My other brother, Jamie, is barely able to sit up on the table.  My mother’s arm is holding him up, but I can’t see her fully.  All I can see is the dark outline of her arm, the shadow cast slightly just beneath.  Her arms haven’t changed.  They even had burn marks from the oven racks then.  Between my brother’s legs is a liquor bottle that reads Penn.  I’m not sure what type this is (if I wanted to stop, I could Google it), though I’m betting it’s whiskey.  In his mouth is an unlit (I hope) cigarette.  He is also wearing a conductor’s hat, though his is either pink or orange, not white.  He is not yet a year old.  I’m guessing less he is less than six months old.  I wonder where that table is now.  I would like to have it.  Gladly, I  know exactly where my brothers are: Darrin is the smoker.  Jamie is not.  Hmm.

My martini glass is persimmon in color.  I hadn’t heard that color in ages, and then I heard it on Phineas and Ferb, and have been dying to use it since.  Dalmation-like spots pepper the glass.  I love this glass.

Before I started writing, Cory and I were watching Teen Mom 2.  It’s one of my guilty pleasures.  Very few television shows can captivate me like this.  I almost didn’t write at all, but Cory turned off the tv before the second episode came on.  The third episode starts in one minute.  There were a couple reasons I didn’t want to stop watching: A baby girl had to be sedated for an MRI, and her parents were crying wrecks while she was slid into the machine, her big toe monitored by a gray plastic apparatus to be sure her heart didn’t stop.  Another reason, a little boy’s mother had left him to be with her boyfriend, and when she broke up with her boyfriend after a domestic dispute, his mother returned to the boy, who was being cared for by his grandmother.  He ran, smiling huge, with his arms outstretched to his mother.  I wanted to swoop in and pick up the poor boy, and then trip his mother.  (I think Cory just woke himself up with his own snoring.  It scared me a little.)

Cory just sat up and asked, “What time is it?”

I told him, “It’s 10:03.  I have two more minutes I’m supposed to write.”

He squinted at me.

“How was your nap?”  I asked.

“I didn’t nap,” he said.

One last sip of the martini.

End time: 10:05 p.m.


why blog?

if you could see the behind-the-scenes (a grandiose term for my minor little piece of the internet) drafts i have, you could tell that i’m not sure where to start.

here it is: i need to get writing. this is that nagging space that i cannot ignore–the cursor in a blank document on my mac, or my ipad, or empty surface on the antique desk i should sit at to make notes. children, husband, family, work, and sleep all seem more immediate. living is important, but i can live better if i write, too. “teen mom” is not more important than writing, so this blog will make me turn off mtv to write.

in class today, we workshopped two nonfiction pieces. these students had experiences that begged telling. we had the discussion of what was too much information, too personal to share, as i’m sure every cnf workshop has. i had to tell them, “listen, it is your story, but we can only know what you write. you can withhold what you want, but it won’t help your piece discover itself. and your reader will notice the gaps in your words.”

and then i decided i needed to take my own advice.
so here i am, typing the stories of myself, my family, the things that boggle my mind: why my grandmother has an extensive panty hose collection, why my son cries when i read him excerpts of my fiction (and why i read my son excerpts of my fiction), how i handle an invisible disease, my dog shedding on the floor, etc. if i can’t reconcile these pieces, i at least need to make some sense of them.

so i’ll write…