Guest Post: Alissa McElreath, Flying Lessons

Silhouette of small plane against the clouds

Photo by Alissa McElreath

Three weeks ago I stood in a grassy field in Bunn, NC, and wondered – not for the first time since September – how it could be that I was so impossibly far away from my sixteen-year old son. Oh, I could see him: a dark cross moving slowly across a backdrop of fluffy white, but he was some 3,000 feet above me, gliding soundlessly, on his first solo flight.

Solo. Alone. Just a boy and an airplane, the way he must have dreamed it a thousand times over from the day he could first hold a toy plane in his hands and zoom it through the air. He’s worked so hard since he started soaring lessons this past fall. I’ve had ten months to get used to the sight of him in the sky. The first time he flew with an instructor I felt my stomach drop away in a sliding lurch as they took off in tandem with the prop plane. At 3,000 feet the tether was released, and there they were: gliding in graceful loops above me and there was simply nothing I could do.

Standing in that field on that important, incredible, milestone afternoon, I could have burst open with a mixture of pride, terror, and, once he was safely on the ground again (textbook-perfect landing!), an outpouring of relief, but I didn’t. Most amazing of all to me at that moment was not that he had survived this incredible achievement because of course he had done so remarkably well, but that I had. This whole journey, from that first flight to the day I watched my son fly solo, has been one long and obvious metaphor for the process of letting go. It shouldn’t have been much of a revelation to me that day in the field, but it was.

Parents, of course, are very familiar with the bittersweet piling up of milestone after milestone after milestone – familiar with the lump-in-throat choking back of emotions that follows the first steps, the first lost tooth, the first day at school, the first broken heart, the first job, the first driver’s license, the first metaphorical, or literal, spreading of the wings. Writers are also very familiar with the process of letting go – we have to be, or we won’t survive very long. As a teacher, I have to help my creative writing students understand that if they want to succeed, whatever success as a writer inside or outside of the classroom looks like to them, a big part of the journey is about letting go. They may have to steel their hearts and cut loose a beloved character, or passage, or shiny sentence (my students always love it when I pull out the “kill your darlings” quote). They might have to delete pages and chapters, and save certain ideas for some uncertain future time. When they are more confident writers they may send their work out into the big, wide, world but then they will have to let it go, for obsessing about it will drive them mad.

I tell them that sometimes moving forward as a writer can mean letting go of the dream you have for one story, or book, or poem in order to allow another to take root and grow. But I wrestle with this advice even as I give it, because letting go of a dream – even if to allow for room for another – seems fundamentally wrong. If we let go, don’t we risk losing what we need and want the most for our hard work? Yet, it makes sense that we have to let go in order to move forward – if we spend too much time mired stubbornly in any one particular version of our dream, anchored to one spot on the ground, turning around and around in circles, we risk going nowhere.

There was a time this fall when I was ready to chuck it all in – this writing business, that is. I am only now beginning to emerge from a sort of delayed onset mourning over the shelving of my latest book. After acquiring an agent, after two rounds on submission, an almost-offer, a handful of near-misses, I had to let it go, as so many other writers have had to do with their own work. I thought I had handled it all quite well– deluded self-preservation, maybe? The loss suddenly became raw this past year, in ways it hadn’t been initially. Up until very recently I was wallowing in that self-pitying phase of the process that I suspect many writers know well – the one where we hunker down miserably, and declare that we are done with pouring our hearts into stories that no one will read. The one where we want throw away the bits and pieces of writing begun and abandoned, and select and delete the files on our computers (I may or may not know anything about this, mind you) that make up the digital roadmap of a journey to nowhere. I didn’t want to set aside that book. Shelving it felt like beginning again, except several steps back from the place where it had all begun. Somehow, I had become too focused on the outcome and not on what I had learned along the way. I thought about this after asking my son what the best part of flying solo had been for him. He shrugged. Being able to do it, he told me. Using all the stuff I know. Being capable, qualified, and confident, and putting the work and courage and persistence into doing what he loved to do the best. For me, being able to write means I must move past the what could have beens and should have beens and focus on using the stuff I know in order to do what I love the best.

As it turns out, you can let go of things – and people, too – and have them return to you again. You can let go of one dream to make room for a bigger one. You can let go of years of hard work on a favorite book, but know that its spirit is housed in another one just emerging. You can even send your heart some 3,000 feet up into the air and watch it glide effortlessly into view, closer and closer – first a small, impossible shape, until there it is, come back to you again.

 

Guest Post, Alissa McElreath: Getting to June

sun and treesMy car rolls to a stop at the red light. I’m on my way to stake out a position in the carpool line at my daughter’s school. I look to the left, and see a boy on a bicycle, zooming down the sloping sidewalk. It’s February, and he’s wearing a puffy blue parka. A backpack bounces up and down on his back and he’s got a wide grin on his face, and eyes intently fixed on the sidewalk in front of him. There is something about the boy that stirs me suddenly, and I feel overcome with the need to write. Not about him. I am overcome with the urge to dive back into my work-in-progress, and to make some progress, after weeks of uninspired dabbling – you know the kind, opening the document, changing a word here and there, deleting a line, hitting ‘save’. I don’t know why the boy ignites this need to write in me, but he does. My fingers tingle. In the carpool line I lever the driver’s seat back and open up my laptop. I exhale. I start to write. It’s that easy.


It’s not, though. I wish I could say that from that point forward my fingers flew across the keyboard and the words poured forth. Writing isn’t like that. There are so many in-between times; there are moments when you feel mired in the soul-sucking everydayness that is so often life and can’t see the way up over the edge and out of it. Inspiration can be so elusive, so demanding of time and space. The older I get, the less my brain can contain all at once. The older I get, the more I seem to take on, the less time and space there is available to me – for me. The less time I have to create, the more frustrated I grow, the less I feel like who I want to be, really and truly, 24/7: A writer.


February turns into March, which turns into April. Two questions bother me:

How can you call yourself a writer, if you are not writing?

And,

What was it about that boy on the bicycle?


I’m all about self-affirmations lately. Not à la Stuart Smalley, not yet, but the kinds of affirmations that make you accountable to others. It’s May now, and last week, I told someone that I was, first and foremost, a writer. I tend to keep that information bottled up inside, private, the way we keep our political affiliation, or our religion private. I have tried to work on this, because I’ve been a writer for almost my entire life. Own it! I tell myself over and over again, so I do, when I can.

I am a writer, I said out loud.

“Oh?” this person replied, head cocked to one side. “That’s so nice! What are you writing?”

And, just like that she morphed in front of me into the boy on the bicycle. He turned to look at me. What ARE you writing? he seemed to be asking as he whizzed on by, this time in a t-shirt and jeans. And, more importantly, why aren’t you doing it?


Writing is not easy. The mechanics of it might be – the act of stringing together words to form sentences, but wading through the negative noise to get the mechanics to work for you – that’s the daunting part. I’m in that in-between space now. If I stand on my very tippy-toes I can see the edge leading out of this place, but I’m still working out how to reach it. The process of transitioning away from the noise of the semester, and into reclaiming the time and space I need to create, is a hard one for me. I liken it (unoriginally) to peeling off a scab, or (more originally) recovering from jet lag. I have to cut loose all the weighty odds and ends I’ve been carrying with me for months, and re-enter a world where I belong, but which feels unfamiliar at first – all right angles and unusual shadows – until one day everything shifts into place again.


One May five years ago, during this recovering-from-jet-lag, transition-to-writing period, I wrote 20,000 words in just under three weeks – most of them while sitting in the carpool line at my son’s school. That is not my usual writing space, but the ritual of that process became such a part of me that my mind would begin racing almost before I had put the van into ‘park’ and turned the engine off. In the summers, when I am most prolific, my ritual is to get up earlier than my family, make myself a pot of tea, and to sit at my desk in my home office. If I start early enough, I can get in almost four hours of writing time before my family begins to stir. With that first cup of steaming tea poured, I feel the familiar urge to write – to create – take hold of me.


Mired in final exam grading, and assessment report-writing, and used car shopping, I fantasize about going on a writer’s retreat, somewhere remote and extraordinary. It would be just me and endless pots of tea and the words would stream out from my fingertips like sparklers on the 4th of July.

If I can just get to June, I tell myself, I’ll have the time to write.

In the meantime, I block out word count goals in my calendar. 20,000 words by Week 2, 30,000 by Week 3, and so on until I reach a decent goal for a working draft. Word counts are like mile markers, I tell myself out loud while I lace up my sneakers for a run. If I can map them out, I can get there.


Two miles out, two miles back. The landscape is thickening around the edges, settling into early summer at last. A quarter of a mile from home a neighbor crosses the street with his little white dog. I stop to pet her. She scrabbles against my legs, licking and wiggling. Sweat tickles my back. I wish the neighbor a good night and, as I pull away, picking up speed down the hill towards home, something unexpected happens: I feel a shift – something comes loose. In the most marvelous of full-circle ways, the little white dog has made me think about the boy on the bicycle, who has made me realize this: that the most valuable writing, not unlike the most valuable living, takes root in the everydayness — in the midst of the most mundane, in the absolute ordinary.

Guest Post, Alissa McElreath: We Read

I teach English for a living. I primarily teach the composition sequence to freshmen students at my university, but I also teach creative writing, and now and again, literature classes. Sometimes, getting my students excited about reading and writing feels like trying to coax my kids to eat the green stuff on their plates. I know why reading matters in my life – helping my students see why it is relevant in their lives is often another thing entirely.

This semester, on the first day of classes, I asked my Studies in Literature students why it was important to read literature. It was one of those general, ice-breaker-type questions that I tend to throw out into the mix on the first day. It helps me gauge where my students are coming from – and to get a sense, early on, of the dynamics between them. There was an awkward silence for a few minutes, until the answers began to flow. I wrote their responses on the board.

We read:
To learn
To be entertained
To discover
To escape
To transcend loss
To confront big truths (life, and death, and everything in-between)
Because we have to

“Do we?” I asked. “Do we have to read?”

Of course, the answer to that question was ‘yes’ – because, the students told me, if they didn’t read they wouldn’t get the grades they wanted. But I encouraged them to think about reading as a necessity for living; that books provide us with the roadmaps we need to navigate through life. Books are like manuals created just for us – we can even personalize them to our needs and liking. Through them we can learn to be more empathetic and compassionate; we can learn our histories, and those of others; we can learn how to treat the living, and the dying, too. We can learn about hate, and love, and forgiveness. We can learn about motherhood and fatherhood, and sisterhood and brotherhood, and try those roles on from the safety of our couches. Without reading, everything is one-dimensional. Without books, our worlds are narrow and impossibly limited. Sure we can live that way, I pointed out, but would we want to? I mean, really, and truly?

reading boyI am lucky in that I get to see firsthand the impact that literature has on a life. While my students do not find all that they are assigned to read entertaining, I know they learn from some of it. Only last week, a student came shyly up to me after class to tell me how much she got from Helena Viramontes’s story The Moths. This story, narrated by a 14-year old girl, is about family, and loss, and love (how often it is difficult to separate the three). While my student did not see herself perfectly mirrored in the narrator’s story, she had an epiphany-type moment after reading it, and she was able to look back on her own 14-year old self with a new clarity. She could now confront some Big Truths about her own family – ones that she had buried deep inside of her. I’ll never forget the student athlete who gobbled up Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone (I never knew people could write about stuff like that, he told me), or, when I taught a night class one semester, the veteran whose voice (and hands) shook with emotion when it was his turn to share a favorite passage from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

I see the impact of books reflected all the time in my own kids. For example, driving to Harris Teeter with my 11-year old daughter last weekend, I found myself, improbably, discussing T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. It began when she unexpectedly quoted the first two lines while we sat in traffic at a light.

“Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky…Do you know that poem? she asked from the backseat.

“I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled,” I replied. “One of my favorite poems! How do you know it?”

She reminded me that Hazel Grace recites the poem in her Favorite Book of All Time: The Fault in Our Stars. She read the book earlier in the summer and, at the time of writing this, has re-read it five times, and watched the movie twice. (This excludes all the viewing and re-viewing of the movie trailer that happened before I decided she was allowed to watch the entire film.) The book changed her life as a young reader – threw the door to a whole new reading experience (and world) wide open. Green’s book led her to Eliot’s poem, which in turn led us into what can only be described as an absolutely delightful yet mind-blowing discussion of Eliot’s poem while we were headed to complete a very mundane errand. Talking with her about The Love Song absolutely made my day. If she hadn’t read TFIOS when, unprompted by teachers or homework obligations, would she have otherwise turned to the Internet to look up the poem by herself? I couldn’t stop thinking about this. The fact that Green took Eliot’s poem and, coming as it does from Hazel Grace, made it new and accessible and interesting and cool and relevant to countless young (and yes, old) readers all over the world – young readers who would perhaps not even have given the poem a second glance outside of the world of the novel – that right there is what books can do; that’s the kind of power they have, and it’s pretty staggering when you think about it.

So, why do we read? We read:
To learn
To be entertained
To discover
To escape
To transcend loss
To confront big truths (life, and death, and everything in-between)
Because we have to – we really, really, just have to.

Guest Post, Alissa McElreath: Place

Can a place still hold its inherent importance in a life– its spirit and meaning, when the people who are inextricably tied to it are gone?

I have been turning this question over in my head and exploring the answer in my writing for some time now. Loss, and longing for Place: these have been themes for me that seem to reoccur almost unconsciously in my own work.

This summer I was able to step outside the “boundaries” of the written page to explore the question for myself when I finally travelled back to my mother’s home country, Greece, after too many years away. The last summer we were able to visit, eight years ago, my son and daughter were 5 and 2, respectively. That summer was also the last one that saw my grandmother alive and well, although “well” is not the right word, as the tumor in her brain that claimed her life one year later was already working its damage. My grandfather had passed away two years before, only a matter of weeks after my daughter was born.

With both my grandparents gone, there was no one left to lift their arms in greeting to us when our family of four tumbled out of the taxicab in front of their apartment building this past July. Yet I still craned my head to look towards the side balcony, where my grandmother had stood eight years ago in her soft housedress and waved to us when we first arrived. In the years since their deaths, I haven’t been able to shake the sense that a gigantic door in the universe somewhere had slid closed; that behind the door my artist grandfather still sits painting and there, in her kitchen, is my grandmother, making jam from the sour plums that hung heavy on the tree by the front veranda. In these intervening years, I couldn’t imagine Greece without my grandparents in it. If they were gone, surely the place was gone, too? How could one exist without the other?

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When I was a newish mother, I remember leaving my son for the first extended length of time when he was about ten months old. He seemed impervious to my departure, yet when I came back home a few hours later, and took him from his grandmother, he burst into violent tears.

Why had my return saddened him to that extent?

Later, when talking to an older and wiser friend, she told me what she had learned years ago and what I hadn’t known until then: that very small children separated for periods of time from their mothers (and fathers, too) often cry upon their return because it is only then, upon being returned to the familiar landscape of their bodies, that they realize just how much they missed them.

Perhaps his tears were a response to the knowledge that he had existed, for a time, in a space without the person most connected to it. The child misses his mother, without even knowing it. Place, existing separate from the attachment to the people most important to it, can be frightening.

Place is rooted deeply inside of us – it is like the ultimate time capsule. Its value lies not in just the geographical parameters that we can identify, but in the sounds, smells, and feelings that arise when we think about a particular location. A smell can shake us from the present and send us spinning back in time. A sound can make us pause and close our eyes, as we struggle to bring to mind some other place, some other time. Yet I always thought place had value the most because of the people who were tied to it. Like an empty house on moving day, place without the people who make it alive for us would seem hollow.

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I know, intellectually, that it is possible to miss something without even realizing it. Last year, for example, my parents came to visit one weekend and brought with them a box of correspondence – from old but good friends I had made during a semester I spent in London – that had been in the wardrobe in my former bedroom back home. I hadn’t thought about the existence of that box and its contents in over two decades, yet each letter, note, and postcard brought back a piece of me that I had been unconsciously missing, and filled me with questions:

What would have happened if the box had ceased to exist? What if it had been discarded, or destroyed?

How can you miss something you forgot existed?

Would I ever have remembered any of the things inside of the box, or the people attached to them, if the box had vanished?

It’s actually a terrifying thought — to miss something, or someone, only because a sudden reappearance triggers the memory of their existence in the first place. No matter how hard we might try and tell ourselves that things don’t matter, that we need to unmoor ourselves from attachment to place and possessions, the truth is that they do matter, in real and compelling ways.

I thought about that box of letters when I stood in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens this summer, in front of my favorite piece, this bronze statue of the Jockey of Artemision:

Jockey of Artemision

As a child and young adult, I had been to the museum so many times that I can’t count them all. I know I always rushed through most of the rooms until I came to the one that housed this statue. There, I would stare and stare at the horse and boy, and imagine what it must have been like to be the fishermen who found them in fragments at the bottom of the sea. When I was in college, I had a postcard of this statue taped to the wall of my dorm room. Yet, in the eight-year gap between visits to Greece, I had not thought about this statue once; in fact, I had forgotten about it entirely until I entered the room. Away from Greece for so many years, the jockey and his horse had simply ceased to exist for me.

I am not sure why that fact seemed so terrible to me as I stood looking at the horse and boy that afternoon. I think there, in front of that beloved statue, the enormity of what it had meant to be away from Greece – from my second home country, from a place that is so inextricably tied to who I am – hit me full force, and along with it, all the other losses attached to it. I was a child again, crying at the return of something precious.

Guest Blog Post, Alissa McElreath: Rooms I Have Known

Alissa McElreathOne day in late August I came home from work, deposited my school bag on the floor in my office, took a look around, and noticed immediately that things were just not right. My daughter’s hand-me-down laptop was on the desk, crowding out my own precious MacBook.  A purple pencil topped with a feathery plume lay diagonally across a couple of sheets of half-drawn on printer paper, and there was a discarded branch of grape stems in one corner of the desk.

“Who’s been in my office?” I grouched, sounding just like one of the three bears from Goldilocks. “Someone’s been using my desk!”

I knew who the someone was, of course, even before my husband called back cheerfully from the kitchen that it was my daughter who had been in there earlier in the day. I just knew that the someone had been her.

“It’s my office,” I grumbled to myself in a low voice as I set about tidying up my desk. I was tired—that day had been the first one back after a too-short summer break sandwiched between teaching summer school and a week of mandatory faculty development meetings and soon, too soon, the start of classes. Gone were my gloriously productive mornings when I would get up a little before 7:00 and feed the cat, make myself a cup of tea, and sit at my desk, the promise of two whole uninterrupted hours of writing time spread before me like a flat beach at dawn. Yet as I tidied the desk area I scolded myself for being so melodramatically, disproportionately put out by the violation of my sacred space. It’s just a desk, I told myself. Just a room.

My room. My desk.

Reclaiming home office space as my own after years of not having a room with a desk and a door to call my own had been a major triumph. I had an office at work, of course, but it was shared space—work space, not writing space. I graded papers at the sunny kitchen table, but that wasn’t writing space. Writing space is a different kind of space. How it should look and feel depends on the person who must inhabit it. Like fingerprints, I bet no two writing rooms are alike. I couldn’t ever describe the ideal writing space to another person and come close to capturing just what makes it work for me. I couldn’t ever presume to tell another writer what their ideal space should be; it either works, or it doesn’t. Your space should fit around you, like a hand in your own, or like the way a small child’s body fits yours in all the right places, arms and legs curling against your own curves and edges.

***

My first “real” writing room was a bright, sunken sunroom in the upstate, New York apartment my husband and I rented for two years, before the landlords raised the rent and drove us to find cheaper digs. I loved that room. It had a heater running along the baseboard and my toes were always warm and cozy during the winter months (if you’ve never tried writing while warm air is blowing onto your toes then you should—it’s blissful!). When I sat at my desk, in front of my little Mac Classic, I could see through the interior window into our large living/dining room. My husband’s office was in the second bedroom—far enough away so he wasn’t a distraction, but close enough that we could shout to each other if we needed to. I shared the space with our aging gray dwarf rabbit and with the cat’s litterbox. I like to think that out of respect for my own creative processes, the cat refrained from using her box when I was working.

When we moved apartments, the cat, rabbit, and I shared a large closet off the corner of our master bedroom. The room was significantly smaller, but I was in front of a window again, and I liked the feeling of being tucked away, surrounded by the smell of wool and leather. The cat would jump onto one of the closet’s sweater shelves and sit there while I worked, surveying (perhaps critiquing) my progress. I took my Ph.D. qualifying exams in that closet office. I wrote essays for class, poems, short stories, letters, tinkered with a novel I had written back in college. When I became pregnant with my first child I kept a journal for him, and wrote the entries at that desk. The first time I felt my son moving inside of me I was in my closet office, gazing out at the dismal early winter landscape, and trying to feel inspired enough to write.

And then, somehow, between the birth of our son, our move from New York down to North Carolina, my new job teaching full-time, the birth of my daughter, I lost my room to write, and my writing self along with it. I was busy: mothering, teaching, still recovering from the shock of our move away from life in a vibrant section of a city to the numbing expanse of the suburban South. I could have fought for the right to have an acceptable room of my own to write but I didn’t. I had my office at work, and how could I have time to write, anyway? We moved first to a rental house, then took the plunge and purchased our first home—a small, one-story ranch with a partially-finished basement. We set up our desk and computer in the unfinished section of the basement, and in my mind I was already transforming the space into a writing nook—it could work, I convinced myself, trying not to look up at the exposed duct work, or down at the flat, bright green outdoor carpet at my feet. In the winter I had to share the nook with large, brown crickets, who popped spastically against my ankles, but still I persevered—until March of that first year, that is. One afternoon I checked the mail and found a letter addressed to a Mr. Beaumont* care of Beaumont’s mortuary—at our very same address. I asked our affable neighbor Mr. Rod if he could shed some light on this mystery and he laughed heartily like it was the best joke he’d heard all year, and told me that Mr. Beaumont used to live in our house, and had run a mortuary service out of the unfinished portion of our basement. Exposed duct work and crickets I could do; former mortuary I could not. If you want to know what does not make for a good writing room, I can tell you that would be a place where dead bodies once were stashed.

We moved. Our new (and current) house is bigger and better, and—bonus!—came with home office space. Life continued to be extraordinarily busy, in all the marvelous ways it is when you are raising small children, but also in bone-tiring, frightening ways, too. I needed every ounce of my emotional reserves and then some at times. Writing self would have to stay away. I kept the guiding light away from the front windows; barred the door; turned my back. We turned the office space over to our son, since it housed the family computer, and no one else had the time to use it, anyway. He took over the space enthusiastically, and from that point on the desk was always smeared with sticky fingerprints, and littered with half-finished glasses of water and mugs of milk, straws poking out at right angles. As time passed, and I began to feel that familiar tug to write—to write deeply and properly—again, I began to resent his appropriation of the space. I felt a restlessness stirring inside, like someone had reached through my chest and poked a long, hard finger straight into my heart. I wanted that room. I wanted that space. I wanted my writing self back. I missed her, I needed her.

Victory! My new office is a fabulous fusion of those other two beloved, upstate, New York rooms. I still share my space with a cat’s litterbox, and now with two fat guinea pigs, who will sit back on their haunches and place their tiny pink feet on the front bars of the cage and squeal for their salad when they hear my voice. Sometimes I read my writing out loud to them and they seem to listen, their jaws moving back and forth thoughtfully while they munch pellets. I like the smell of their warm, animal bodies, and sweet timothy hay. Sometimes the dog will wander in and plop her old bones down on the carpet with a heavy sigh. If I work too long the cat will walk across my keyboard and butt her head into my own. My window overlooks the screened-in porch. In the summer months, if I look to my right I can sometimes see the hummingbirds dipping into the nectar at the feeder. If I look to my left through the window in the spring I can just see the heavy, red blooms of the large camellia outside the porch.

It’s no wonder I am fiercely possessive of my writing room. My room. My desk. Yet even while I grouched to myself that August afternoon about my daughter’s trespass into my sacred space I realized, quite simply, that she had missed me, that was all. That evening I sat on her bed and told her about a great lady named Virginia Woolf, and about the importance of rooms, and I told her about the rooms I had known, (except I left out the mortuary part), and my search for my writing self. Then, right before I turned out her light, I helped my daughter rearrange her own desk: Purple pencil on the right, lava lamp on the left; framed print of the Wright brothers’ flyer above, sewing boxes below. I watched her try out the space for size. I made a wish: let this be the first space of many for her. Let her always have a place to write, to dream, to draw, to invent, to imagine, to soar.

*not his real name