I can never believe how quickly the time passes between entries. I’m tapped out tonight, but just trust that I have a bunch of half-finished posts in my drafts folder, and I recently remembered that queuing is a thing. So I won’t post five entries in two days and then go a month without saying anything. I’m on it.
Tonight I’m heading to Skidmore College in Saratoga to hear a reading by Russell Banks and Chase Twichell. I’m really not all that familiar with their work, but I’m pretty sure they came and did a reading four years ago when I was at Skidmore for the NYSSYWI. What a ridiculous acronym, right? It stands for New York State Summer Young Writers’ Institute. The summer before my senior year of high school, I applied and was accepted to this thing, and I was out of my mind with nerves and excitement when the time came to go.
In this program, students took three classes with professional writers: non-fiction, fiction, and poetry. We also had meetings with an editor to learn about collaborative revising and workshops, and to polish at least one piece for the reading at the program’s end. We stayed up all night most nights working on our pieces. Some nights or afternoons a group would get together and do readings just with each other. We were just past that age where everybody else quits writing just for fun and nobody really gets poetry. Writing stories used to be cute, but as we aged it started to get kind of…not weird exactly, but certainly unusual. Our friends couldn’t give us the feedback we wanted. We’d show them something we’d written and they’d reply, “Sure, it’s cool. What’s it for?” It’s not for anything. It’s just because.
So when I found myself among other people who aspired to be or already considered themselves writers, I was overjoyed. They understood if I scribbled down something random and helped me try to turn it into something coherent. We got to be very close very quickly, because we had something so immense and strong to bind us. It was a powerful and incredible experience of friendship, cooperation and camaraderie. And here’s the crazy part.
It was only a week long.
With all the memories and all that I learned, it feels like it should have been a month or two. But it was terribly brief. It was so sad saying goodbye, especially since most of us haven’t really kept in touch beyond Facebook friendship. I miss having that community of writers always at hand to give diverse and constructive input. I kick myself for not taking more advantage of it when I had it available to me. Because as much as writing is a solitary and introspective activity, the process itself demands collaboration. It demands feedback and discussion and suggestions and seemingly endless revision. If writing is an attempt to express one’s thoughts so that another might understand them, the writer must make sure that that other can in fact understand them. And having someone else who writes is absolutely invaluable, even when the prospect of sharing your stuff is difficult or frightening.
So I’m anticipating some bittersweet nostalgia when I go to Skidmore tonight. We used to go to these readings and end up dozing off since we’d hardly slept the night before, or the night before that. I hope I can stay awake this time.
A few weeks ago I went to a used book sale at my local library. This is probably the main reason my family calls me a nerd, but I get e-mail updates and Facebook updates from the library, always keeping an eye on the calendar for their quarterly book sale. Come on, paperbacks are 50 cents and hardcovers are $1.00! You can’t beat that! If that makes me a nerd, so be it. Anyway, I’m hardly supportive of the word “nerd” being a derogatory term (full post to come).
One of the books that caught my eye was small and yellow, titled Surviving A Writer’s Life (by Suzanne Lipsett). Considering myself a writer, I picked it up and flipped through. The first passage I read was the following scene: The author was sitting with a friend, listening to stories from a recent trip abroad. Her reaction was basically to ask, “Well, what are you going to do with that experience?” She couldn’t understand how someone could simply experience something and not also (or only) see it as raw material that could later be sculpted into some piece of writing.
Reading those few paragraphs, I had one of those moments where I realize that my thoughts, feelings, and experiences are not unique to me. I have all these things I discover or decide about myself, and think I’m the only one. Obviously, obviously that’s not true. I always try to focus on the moment I’m in, enjoying it, thoroughly experiencing it, being present in it, but there’s something in the back of my mind that’s stashing the moment away greedily, thinking, “Ooh, this is gold.” A tragedy turns into a poem. A frank, liberating conversation becomes fodder for a personal manifesto. Even just a reflective log of the day’s events (the essence of my travel blog during my stay in Argentina) makes me feel more complete.
When I experience something, I have to write about it. I was talking to my roommate about this yesterday. She’s been trying to get the guy she’s seeing (a close friend of both of ours) to start his own blog, knowing his fondness for and talent in writing, specifically comedy writing. She mentioned she was enjoying reading my blog (if for no other reason than having something to occupy the long hours and days before summer work begins) and thought he would enjoy writing one. It was here that I admitted, thinking that perhaps the same would be true for Brennan, who is also a writing major, that writing out my thoughts, examining my experiences in a journal or a blog, was part of how I function as a human being. It sounds extreme. But I don’t sift through things in my head. I sift through them on a page. I have to see it in writing.
So I could relate to Lipsett when she expressed shock at her friend, who had no intention of writing about his travel experiences. I get it. If you aren’t going to write about it or use it later, what was it all for?
How ridiculous is that?
I know that experiences matter and are valid in their own right; they don’t need to be validated or made significant by writing them down. There are plenty of things in my life that I’ve done or that have happened that I’ve never felt the need or desire to write about. But there’s still something in the back of my head that files it away and says, “Okay, good. We can use that later.”
This is a writer’s curse. This is how I know I can call myself a writer. My roommate and I discussed this too– I guess this was more the train of thought that led to my earlier revelation. She said, yeah, she liked to write, but she wasn’t compelled to pen her every thought. When she’s thinking about something and wants to express or explore it, she says it aloud (often to me). She talks it out.
I’m not so great at that. I’m an introvert, and it’s taken me a long time to be okay with that. I think I mentioned this before: I write things out before I talk about them. It’s a fundamental facet of how I approach things. Sometimes it’s frustrating when everyone else finds it so easy to openly discuss thoughts and problems, while I have to work it out in a journal first.
I have this compulsion to write. I jot possible lines of poetry in blank text messages (actually, my new phone has a notepad tool, which I find convenient); I save bullet points about short stories in e-mail drafts or scribble them on Post-Its. When I think something, I write it. That, more than anything, is why I call myself a writer. Talent is a blessing, practice and dedication are important, but I write because I need to. I suppose that’s why I picked up that book in the first place: I have a compulsive habit and need some solidarity.
…and why I don’t do a whole lot of Tweeting.
Every time I attempt to clean my room– thoroughly clean it, and throw out some of the clutter that I just can’t bear to let go of– I end up sitting in the middle of the floor, surrounded by categorized piles, with an old journal in my hand. There’s the navy one with a duck-and-hound pattern on the cloth cover, from when I was very small; there’s a pretty orange one with a tropical flower on it, from when I went to Hawaii (and for a few months after that); there are some ratty old spiral notebooks covered in bumper stickers from my middle school years; there’s a plain brown Ann Taylor LOFT notebook, a hand-me-down from a friend’s uncle who was cleaning out his home office; there’s a beautiful hardcover one that was a gift from my boyfriend; and finally there’s the thin, pale one my grandmother gave me to write in while I was abroad. It was in this journal that I really became aware of the prevailing themes in my private writings.
I’ve never been one for keeping a diary– every time I tried to force myself to write daily it felt like an obligatory assignment and turned into a mere recap of the day’s events with no insight into my thoughts at all. My old diaries are things like “Went to the mall today. My birthday is coming up.” The entries in my journals, though, tend to be few and far between: I’ll write for a week or so and then go six months without penning a word. It’s because sometimes I just don’t have a whole lot to say.
I read something the other day about uninformed kids Tweeting stupid stuff. In the comments I found something that rang true: “I completely relate to that! I have several drawers full of journals, sources of intense shame. So glad nobody else knows what’s there.”
It’s not just shame, though. I mean, yeah, there’s plenty in those old journals that makes me want to put a clause in my will about burning them after my death. But there’s also plenty of content that I’m not ashamed of, that I actually take a bit of pride in, but that I would still never want anyone else to read. Most of it’s difficult or sad or scary. It’s because of the way I approach my journals. I turn to private writing when I have something I want to mentally work through and am not quite ready to talk it out yet. I need to get some things straight in my own head before I can hear someone else’s take on it. So my journals are filled with me trying thoughts out. I write something and try to determine if it’s true or genuine. Is that how I really feel about this? I explore every angle. If someone had no other experience with me than reading some of my old journals, the conclusions they’d draw about me would be that I was sad, selfish, and entirely incapable of formulating an opinion.
I have so many other outlets to turn to for good news or everyday frustrations, and such a strong aversion to over-publicizing more serious things, that my journal becomes an refuge for my dark, sad, angry, and defeated sides.
I’m so glad that I didn’t have social networking when I was younger and moodier. I’m so glad that what is private stays private. I love re-reading my journals, because I think I can learn a lot about myself (and my bad habits). But I’m so glad no one else will ever see them.
I’d like, please, to leave on your sill/ just one cold flower, whose beauty// Would leave you inconsolable all day./ The secret of poetry is cruelty.
Above I’ve quoted the final lines of a poem by Jon Anderson. These are some of the most memorable lines I’ve ever encountered. I would like, please, to offer something so small and simple that would drive people mad with some brutal quotient of beauty or truth. I’d like to string together a line that sticks with you.
Below are some lines that stick with me. They come from published writing, personal letters or essays, or just conversations. Sharp in their brutality or startling in their vulnerability, they’re what I always remember.
I’m feeling sort of blue today, and like I can’t quite say what I mean. But these lines hit their mark beautifully.
“You know you’re my best friend, right?”
“My father drank. He drank as a gut-punched boxer gasps for breath…”
“My palm meets my palm, and I pull myself out.”
“Time doesn’t matter, distance doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. I love you so much and always will.”
Summer reading used to be a curse of the most wretched order, a phrase designed to make children shudder. I mean, I was never really one of those shuddering children, being the avid reader that I was (my mom stopped letting me buy books at the book fairs because I’d be done with them by the time I got off the bus that afternoon), but there were a few assigned books in middle and high school that made me groan.
Now, though? I look forward to the semester ending and being able to read what I want just because I want to. No deadlines, no papers to write, no need to force my brain to muddle through history or philosophy that I just don’t feel like reading at the time. I am free.
This summer I made a list for myself– some titles recommended to me by professors or friends, some I’d seen referenced in articles or blogs I’d read, some semi-classics I’d been meaning to read for years. Then my friend Suzanne, in her continuous effort to organize her life into lists, made a “bucket list” on which was the goal “read every book that won the Pulitzer prize for fiction,” bringing into play yet another list. What can I say, she likes lists.
So we started a book club of sorts. Well, we intended to. I read the first book we agreed on (Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth), she didn’t. I started the second book (she didn’t), but I didn’t finish it and moved on to other things (like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores and El amor en los tiempos del colera). Maybe it’s something about having a decided list that discourages me, or maybe I’m just realizing that the books I thought I’d like to read aren’t actually the ones that interest me.
I don’t really subscribe to the idea of “summer” books– you know, that light, maybe kind of trashy literature that we read like candy for our tired brains. I mean, I have no problem with that stuff; it’s fun and often funny. But just because it’s sunny and you’re on the beach doesn’t mean you can’t read something great. I read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood two summers ago in sunglasses while sitting in a hammock chair on my back porch. Seems incongruous, sure, but I enjoyed the hell out of that chilling book, in spite of, or maybe because of, my sunny surroundings. You don’t need a serious setting for a serious book, or a beach umbrella for a cheesy paperback. Read what you want when you want. And if you’re looking for a book to get absorbed in this summer, here are some recommendations, no seasons assigned.
- The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. I’ve mentioned this book before and will always recommend it to pretty much anyone. It’s brilliantly done, the characters are full and believable, and it’s rich with both language and history. It’s very long, but very compelling, so don’t be intimidated. Give it a shot. Oh, did I mention it’s about comic books? And won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 2001?
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. My friend Sonia loaned this to me a few years back. I’m actually thinking of re-reading it this summer. It’s a tragic and terrifying story– though quite simple and ordinary– told in a very unique voice and definitely worth a read or two. (It’s also on Suzanne’s list).
- Answering the Ruins, poems by Gregory Fraser. This is the book of poetry I reviewed. It’s absolutely incredible, and hopefully someday soon I’ll be able to link you to my review so you can know exactly what I thought and why I loved it.
- We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates. Oates gets a bit dark and creepy for me at times, but I thought she did a remarkable job with this story of a family. Tragedy, unraveling, and piecing back together: it’s tough at times, but definitely worth your time.
- The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Yes, this was recently made into a movie. Yes, I actually do recommend the movie, too. I thought it did a pretty decent job of staying true to the book. This is sci-fi for people who don’t really like sci-fi. Niffenegger takes a fantastical premise (a time-traveling man, a bit of a sci-fi classic) and makes it so integral to the story that you forget it’s such a strange idea. The book isn’t about the time traveling, but about the characters, who are, I think, believable and true.
- Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. While this one got a little strange for me at the end, it was still well-written and I genuinely enjoyed it. I wasn’t terribly pleased with the ending, but read it and let me know what you think! Fun and strange and pretty beautiful.
- Wally Lamb. Wally Lamb does this cool thing where some of his characters and settings cross over. It’s like the Marvel universe. He dances a little bit close to the kind of authors I don’t like (churning out books like there’s no tomorrow, very pointedly addressing certain social issues, relying heavily on historical and scientific research) but I love him. He writes great characters and his books really draw you in. She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True are my favorites.
- The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. You probably read this in college, if not high school. I love this play. When I go on trips, I tuck it in my bag to read on the bus or train. I’ve read it dozens of times and seen two movie versions (I think they’re the only two out there?), and it never gets old. It’s fun and playful and, since it’s a play, quick to get through. Grab it in paperback and take it to the beach! Or the office! Wherever you are, get your hands on this play and read it. Again.
- Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell. This is definitely not what anyone would consider a beach book. It’s over 1,000 pages with lots of strategical analysis of the Civil War. But it’s my favorite book ever. It’s huge and sweeping and believable, and best of all? I hate the protagonist. I hate Scarlett O’Hara; she’s a manipulative, selfish brat. But maybe that’s what makes her such a great character. This one definitely takes some time and dedication, but at some point, you’ve got to go for it. (The movie cuts out a lot and while it’s a great film, it’s no substitute).
Okay, I think that’s enough for now. If you have any recommendations for me or any reactions to what I mentioned above, go ahead and comment! Let me know what you think!
On my first foray into the writing world…
I mentioned in an earlier post my internship at a communications company and the articles I wrote. I was published (here and here) and it was an absolute thrill. I mean, it’s not quite the same as seeing my name in print, but hey, print journalism is dying anyway, right? So it was still exciting.
Then, at the end of the semester, my poetry professor had me over the moon when he told me he wanted to work with me on getting me published again. This time it would be not an article for a magazine, but a review I had written of a volume of poetry. My professor stressed how important writing reviews could be if any of us wanted to pursue poetry as some form of a career (though he also stressed that many poets had multiple careers in order to sustain themselves), and thought it was important that we learn how to do them.
I’ll go ahead and admit, being the procrastinator that I am, I was writing my review at 1:00 a.m. the day it was due. I had read the volume of poetry and loved it, and had some notes for my piece. It was just a matter of actually putting the words into sentences (often the hardest part). But, to my surprise, my professor found it impressive and promising and said that after a quick bit of revising, it would be publishable. In our e-mail exchange he went on to inform me of a potentially-interested editor, a writing friend of his. We deemed the draft complete and I sent it off, hopes high and fingers crossed. I got the following response from the editor of the journal:
Thanks for sending this my way. I’ll look over it and let you know what I think. I’m excited to see this; Greg was one of my teachers and he’s a wonderful poet and even better man. Send my love to Ned!
Friendly, positive, and most of all, promising! I thought I was in.
But that was two weeks ago, and since then I have heard nothing. Do I send another e-mail or is that unprofessional and annoying? Do I keep waiting and just hope he hasn’t forgotten about me and my piece completely? I think a required course for Writing majors should be something like, The Writing World: Rejection, Professionalism, and Learning How to Stretch a Buck. Freelance writing must be just terrifying and stressful and yet, I’m pretty sure it’s what I want to do. I just wish I knew how to do it.
If you have any advice, want to commiserate or whatever else, send me a message or leave a comment below.