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.

 

Authors Talk: Natalie Young

Natalie Young

Today we are pleased to feature author Natalie Young as our Authors Talk series contributor. Natalie begins by reading “Notes on Earth Life” before explaining how the poem is part of a larger series about a human woman, an alien, and a monster. She shares that her “goal is to combine actual history and reality with speculative fiction to explore identity and human absurdities, as well as culture and environment.”

Natalie also explains how her manuscript attempts to “show a different perspective of things our culture does that we tend to accept as normal, but when seen from fresh eyes can be peculiar.” She reveals that using the voice of an alien helped her achieve this because putting on a mask adds distance. Natalie also delves into her inspiration and the process of choosing what topics to include in her poem.

You can access her poem, “Notes on Earth Life,” in Issue 18 of Superstition Review.

Authors Talk: Sarah Carey

Sarah Carey

Today we are pleased to feature author Sarah Carey as our Authors Talk series contributor. In her podcast, Sarah reveals the background of her piece, “Exotic Taste,” and explains how it acted as a way for her to vent while remodeling her house.

Sarah also discusses her reference to Andrew Marvell’s “On a Drop of Dew,” the double meaning of her title, and the process of writing the poem. She even reveals that “Exotic Taste” was written, revised, submitted, accepted for publication, and published in less than two and a half months! Finally, Sarah concludes by discussing her newfound fascination with “the juxtaposition of old and new, with new materials and new lives really being built on top of these layers of the past,” which is the inspiration for some of her current projects.

You can access Sarah’s piece in Issue 18 of Superstition Review.

Authors Talk: Timothy Liu

Timothy Liu (and Karthik)Today we are pleased to feature author Timothy Liu as our Authors Talk series contributor. In his podcast, Timothy is interviewed by Karthik Purushothaman, one of his graduate students, about his newest book, Kingdom Come: A Fantasia, which released March 1, 2017.

Kingdom Come A FantasiaThe pair discusses the book as a hybrid novel, and they explore the way it blends poetry and prose. Timothy also shares his process for this novel and reveals how he completed the first draft in 2008 after writing every day for three months. Karthik then asks Timothy about his inspirations, and Timothy talks about the different books that he kept on his desk while writing and how they influenced the book.

Finally, Timothy discusses the concept of time, “the idea that the act of writing can somehow change our past,” and the “weird belief that time can flow in two directions.”

You can read Timothy’s poems in Issue 4 of Superstition Review, and you can purchase Kingdom Come: A Fantasia here.

Authors Talk: Mathew Michael Hodges

Mathew Michael Hodges

Today we are pleased to feature author Mathew Michael Hodges as our Authors Talk series contributor. Interestingly, Mathew begins his podcast by discussing how he used to feel claustrophobic in the confines of the short story form, though he has now become “more comfortable in the cozy space of the short story.”

Mathew goes on to describe the variety of ways that his ideas come to him. Specifically, he discusses the process of building “A Sound Man,” which was featured in Issue 18 of Superstition Review. For Mathew, the story started with Rory’s job as a sound designer before the other layers of the story fell into place. Mathew also offers insights regarding the creative process and revision. He describes his “write-and-stash method,” which has helped him be more objective when revising.

You can access Mathew’s piece in Issue 18 of Superstition Review.

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.