Authors Talk: Carolyn Guinzio

Carolyn Guinzio

Today we are pleased to feature author Carolyn Guinzio as our Authors Talk series contributor. Carolyn discusses both her inspiration and her writing process for her poems from OZARK CROWS.

In particular, she discusses her encounters with crows and how her love for them has “grown into a book length exploration.” She is fascinated by the ways crows converse with each other and with her. She discusses the strike of inspiration after reviewing crow photos from a gloomy day. The dark crows reminded her of letters, and she began experimenting with the unique format of crow images and text. She emphasizes that the pieces in this project have forced her to be truly engaged with the outdoors, which is a great comfort. She concludes that watching the crows makes her feel “as if the world will keep turning and time will move forward.”

In her poems from OZARK CROWS, Carolyn uses a creative format that intertwines text and images. Her podcast reveals this process as she captures her screen and shares the way that she constructs her poems.

You can access Carolyn’s poems in Issue 18 of Superstition Review.

Guest Post, Gregory Wolos: Rosebudding

Be warned: if you haven’t seen Orson Welles’ classic 1941 film Citizen Kane, spoilers follow! This post takes for granted knowledge of the mystery at the heart of the film, the “last word” that gives Citizen Kane its narrative drive, a mystery revealed only in its final frames. If you haven’t seen the film, leave now and come back after viewing, or read on and take your chances.

Rosebud still“Rosebud”: Charles Foster Kane’s last word; discovering its meaning is the film’s putative objective. Not until the movie’s final shot do we discover that “Rosebud” is the name printed on Kane’s childhood sled—it’s tossed into a furnace as workmen in a vast storeroom sort through the thousands of material possessions the great man accumulated during his lifetime. Just a sled— but important enough as a symbol of lost innocence to be the final, private word an important public figure leaves behind. The sled burns in a furnace, the irony dramatic as the audience learns what the seekers in the film never do. A close-up on the sled, “Rosebud”: its lacquer bubbles, it blackens, it’s gone, nothing more than smoke pouring from a chimney into the night sky. If we can’t know this great, public figure, who can we know? Who will know us?

In a culture consumed by the new, we too often consider nostalgia to be an indulgence, but don’t we all depend on our own “Rosebuds”? As a writer willing to go to virtually any length to unmask myself to myself, I find that I return again and again to a practice I call “Rosebudding.” Rosebudding is an active process of physical or mental investigation: its elements are rediscovery, intense reflection, recovery, and, ultimately, reconfiguration—the creation of something new out of something old. Through Rosebudding we can work from a physical item or an experience and its associations, eventually loosening the object or memory from itself to get to its essence, which is the living breathing, malleable core of inspiration all writers seek.

Moving—sorting through junk—the detritus of an actual attic or one of the mind: “Rosebud,” again and again. A memory of a moment or a new insight, or Rosebuds in juxtaposition: flint and steel, a spark—a flame rises, and we toss an old sled into the fire. But maybe as we watch the sled burn, we find something new.

A while back, my wife framed my father’s WWII medals with a photograph of him in uniform. This tribute had actually been displayed for a few years before I noticed that mixed in with my father’s purple hearts, campaign ribbons and service medals was an odd pin that portrayed a musical note: somehow included in this honor to my father’s service was a badge awarded to either my son or my daughter for exceptional performance at a New York State Music Association competition—approximately sixty years after the end of WWII. Rosebud on my father’s purple heart—the grenade that exploded behind him in a French foxhole leaving him flat on his belly in a hospital in Europe for half a year, a chunk of shrapnel fused to his backbone; Rosebud on the scar from this wound, freshly exposed every summer to my brothers and me and the rest of the world on crowded Long Island beaches; Rosebud on the letters my parents shared while my father recuperated in Europe and the picture of my mother he tucked into his helmet; Rosebud on my daughter’s trombone playing and my son’s oboe playing and the way their hours of lessons, rehearsals, concerts and competitions helped shape our family’s weekly life for a decade and a half.

Rosebud on Purple Hearts and high school music awards being pinned to the same piece of felt within the same wooden frame under the same pane of glass. Finally, Rosebud on the storage unit where the display sits in a box because there’s no room for it in our present apartment.

Rosebudding. Writers are miners—we pry the ore from deep underground, and process out the precious metals, ever mindful that the dross may be of equal or greater value. Rosebud.

Guest Post, David Meischen: Hiding in Plain Sight

Hiding in Plain Sight: How Ambient Noise and Clutter Feed a Story

 

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf poster“Clink. Clink.”

We’ve spent an hour and a half with them at this point, with repeated eruptions—Martha savaging her husband, George setting off timed explosions from his store of resentments. Then suddenly: the voices go silent, no sign of George and Martha, of Nick and Honey, the bested guests. Moonlight through tree branches, a yard we see from above, as if from a bedroom window. In the background, stringed instruments, serene. Then Martha’s voice calling for the others and, before Elizabeth Taylor appears onscreen, the sound of ice cubes in her drink, something we’ve been hearing since the opening scene: director Mike Nichols’ brilliant use of ambient noise.

The dialogue dazzles, of course, thanks to Edward Albee, in this case so perfectly delivered that sometimes as I watch “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”—at least a dozen times I’ve indulged the pleasure of this viewing—I take the words, the execution, for granted and marvel at what the director is doing to riff on what the words are getting at. In the scene referenced above, I am not surprised to hear ice cubes clinking before the camera reaches Martha, meandering drunkenly across the yard to her car. The camera has not followed the station wagon here from the foursome’s drunken dancing excursion, but it feels as if we’ve seen the inebriate braking—front tires up over the curb at an angle so that the vehicle lists slightly, passenger-side turn signal winking, winking, winking, rear passenger door flopped open. Nichols doesn’t waste the turn signal. Martha staggers around the car, opens the driver’s door, reaches in, and the turn signals wink back and forth between each other before they blink out. Martha wanders the yard, then, calling out intermittently, her drink glass clinking the while. Finally, the screenplay gives a nod to what the director is doing: Martha says, “Clink. Clink.”

*

I recommend “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” to fiction writers. Consider it a tutorial in the uses of your characters’ environment, the details of their surroundings—indoor clutter, appliances, items of food and drink, features of the outdoor landscape, sounds so common (clinking ice cubes, anyone?) a writer might overlook them, and so forth. Always in this film there are things for George and Martha and Nick and Honey to do while they speak the language of wreckage.

In what is for me the funniest moment, Elizabeth Taylor leans into a cluttered refrigerator, opened by Richard Burton, grabs a drumstick from a platter of chicken sitting inside uncovered, grabs a salt shaker from the messy table Burton is clearing, salts and devours her piece of chicken, her mouth open as she chews, talking around mouthfuls. Then the perfect capstone: Taylor returns to the refrigerator, still open, tosses the chicken bone onto the same platter, and shuts the door, all without pausing in her run-on monologue about a movie Martha can’t remember the title of. We see a woman, her husband, their relationship, their way of life here. If you didn’t know a word of English, the details would tell you all you need to know.

*

A decade ago, I took a weekend fiction workshop with Daniel Mueller, author of the stunning short story collection How Animals Mate. Our focus was landscape, Mueller’s mantra:

Let the landscape of your story tell your story.

If a story stalls, look around. Something in your story’s landscape, its environment, will get it moving again.

As an exercise, Mueller asked participants to picture an odd item, oddly out of place in its setting. We went around the workshop table then, each participant volunteering such an item, all of us recording the items on our own list. Our assignment was to select an out-of-place item from the list and write a scene for it.

I chose a wristwatch buckled to the branch of a tree. I already had fragments for a story about a boy named Berndt whose father has committed suicide. For Daniel’s assignment, I imagined that Berndt’s father had taken off his watch on the morning of his suicide and buckled it to a mesquite tree branch before slashing his wrists. The scene I wrote was set several weeks later. Berndt is on his way to feed pigs on the family farm, when morning sun flashes off the crystal of his deceased father’s missing watch. Berndt unfastens the watch and beats it against the mesquite trunk until the crystal smashes, crying and cursing his father. This scene became the closing scene in a story about a mysterious watch and the riddle of a father who owned it. My challenge was to make the watch real and then to build a story around it, leading to the father’s suicide and his son’s subsequent discovery of the watch buckled to a tree.

What might have been peripheral, unimportant, became the story’s vehicle. The story of a watch becomes the story of a difficult father. A son puzzling over the watch itself provides a way of expressing an inner life that is not accessible to or expressible by the son himself. I loved writing this story, loved unfurling the watch’s story, letting the watch carry the bigger story of son and father. Unanswered questions about the watch stand in for unanswered questions about the father. The discovery of the watch, in the closing scene, provides a believable stimulus, without sentimentality, for the protagonist’s anger, his grief. When I was done, the watch even provided a title, “Center Wheel, Balance Wheel, Escape Wheel” (available at Prime Number).

*

This approach carries one of my first published stories, “In the Garden,” online right here at Superstition Review. A husband and wife converse over breakfast in their backyard. By increments, without intending to, they say things that can’t be taken back, irreparably damaging their marriage. Talking heads cannot carry a short story, at least not one I am capable of writing, so early on, a mockingbird sings out from a live oak near the breakfast table. Then the household tomcat slinks in from the creek. Turns out his name is Tyger, which opens a window onto the protagonist and his wife. The yard has room for a tomato garden, the wife’s—and a pesky squirrel hanging out among the cages. A newspaper at center table has a photo of Ronald Reagan above the fold, spurring an exchange that gives away the year—1982—when the husband says, “Look on the bright side. Two more years and we’ll vote him out.” The husband has a bit of a thing for his best friend; the wife suspects as much. This is a breakfast just for two, though—no reason for the best friend to drop by. Except then a repairman arrives to address hail damage on the roof. Wife notices that husband has noticed the repairman. Both turn at the sound of the repairman’s hammer. Then this: “A patch of sweat, like the map of a harbor Blake wanted to explore, darkened the blue of the man’s shirt in the space between his shoulder blades.” And so it goes. The conflict reaches a peak vicariously, when the mockingbird dive-bombs the squirrel and the cat leaps at the bird’s sudden accessibility.

*

Ambient noise is my personal catchall for the material stuff, auditory and non-, that surrounds us, often without our notice, the material stuff upon which we can launch credible and engaging stories. This “noise” includes any and all sensory details, any and all physical aspects of the landscape, any and all items at hand in your characters’ environs. A caveat, though. Ambient noise is not a fiction writer’s sole tool. A story can overwhelm itself and its readers with this kind of detail. Nothing impedes narrative momentum like a margin-to-margin thicket of details. Nothing is more tedious.

*

Watch “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Let yourself revel in the many ways by which the characters interact with facets of their environment—ice cubes, drink glasses, liquor bottles, cigarettes, a platter of fried chicken, a child’s swing hanging in the tree outside, door chimes, a chain lock on the front door. . . .

Read good stories. Here I’ll mention only two—and very short. In “Say Yes” by Tobias Wolff, a husband and wife wash dishes and prepare for bed. That’s it. But the meandering path of talk over dishes leads this couple into a hypothetical question about mixed-race dating, with an answer that changes everything. A younger couple, five years married, figures at the center of “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” by Irwin Shaw. As they walk New York City on a lovely day, the wife catches the husband more than once distracted by the girls of the title passing by on the street. Questions lead to defensive answers, and as in “Say Yes,” things are said that cannot be taken back, that change everything between man and wife.

Immerse yourself in the quiet noise of Wolff’s story, in the vibrant noises of Irwin’s city walk. Then settle into the noises that will tell your next story.

 

Editor’s Note: David served as co-editor of Wingbeats and Wingbeats II, collections of poetry writing exercises from Dos Gatos Press.

Guest Post, Elizabyth Hiscox: Expressing the Abstract in Three Easy Steps, or Destination: Poetry

Destination and destiny: same root, same idea. You have got an idea of where you’ll be, and so does the universe. If this pitch doesn’t sit quite right or has overtones of religiosity, then a disclaimer that for the purposes of this post and this prompt I access the concepts in the mostly-secular, but highly spiritual concept of E.M. Forster’s “only connect” variety.

Several destinations may inhabit any travel itinerary, and they may all have a shared destiny: the poem. A bit of structure, a road map to poetry if-you-will, can be a good way to get to both. One can become easily distracted in this world. By purple, for example. Using an easy-as-1-2-3 approach to composition can keep a writer from losing all the minutiae of the moment. It can be a comfort to have a prompt in mind when falling into experiences or off of commuter trains in strange places.

One of the best recommendations I received while trying to write during travel was at the Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia. I was overwhelmed and finding it hard to wrench away from the pure experience of the place to a page. A fellow poet reminded me that we are never the first in our struggles with the art. She suggested that since haiku has been the catch-all of moment-oriented travelers for generations it might help me synthesize a portion of what the Hermitage and the Neva and the Cyrillic alphabet and the dazzling All of It had sent reeling. Haiku has helped generations in other languages, granted, but is no less available to us in the syllabic lost-in-translation-but-still-useful English-speaking world. 5.7.5. Yes? 1-2-3.

Thus, I give you a three-part travel prompt in honor of the three approachable lines of the haiku. It is not haiku. That works too. Write haiku. Do.

This is something different and is not, of course, the essence of haiku. The haiku has many constraints (season, unexpected revelation, quantity as well as quality of syllables) that this prompt completely ignores. Also, I use “approachable” advisedly: a prompt is meant to start the process, not guarantee an end product. So, this approach is only one strange articulation of a three-part way into a poem that I have used in the past to “get there” (poem) while being gone.

The set-up: Go somewhere. A well-placed park bench can work as well as another continent.

The scribble:

  1. The basics of the information/experience. What is the heart of the destination.
  2. Anything that is auxiliary, but floats to the surface. Can be in terms of image, sound, tone, concept, or just more information from the moment. What is crafty (as in craft).
  3. A connection with the anything that you knew before for which these two points ring a bell.

Destination: The poem or series of poems written from this vantage point. Like most good trips, once you get to your destination you can see roads to other places.

..

An example follows from which to discern, distill, and/or depart.

..

The set-up: Denver, Colorado. “Women of Abstract Expressionism” exhibit at the Denver Art Museum

The scribble:

  1. Heart of information/experience: Quote from Lee Krasner next to one of her stunning paintings on the exhibit wall: “I’m always going to be Mrs. Jackson Pollock—that’s a matter of fact—[but] I painted before Pollock, during Pollock, after Pollock.”
  2. Auxiliary: Krasner went through a period where she was working in a studio denied daylight and suffering from severe insomnia. She chose to abandon chromatics and thus some of Krasner’s most famous pieces are simply umber and white paint. // In order to take a picture of Krasner’s work, I had to enter my passcode to get away from my phone’s lock screen. My phone’s lock screen is of a Jackson Pollock painting. I took that picture on the same phone at the MOCA in Los Angeles this past spring. I do not know what my lock screen was before it was Pollock.
  3. What Beast Must I AdoreConnective tissue: The 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, Brazil were just beginning at the same time I found myself at this exhibition. They are just ending as this post finds its way into the world, so there will be a new set of issues for commentators and those who comment on the commentators. At this moment, however—when I was standing in front of a Krasner painting titled “What Beast Must I Adore?” (from a Rimbaud poem)—backlash against newscasters’ handling of the gender politics connected to reportage of women athletes was what was getting headlines. The Chicago Tribune had just reported the accomplishment of Corey Cogdell-Unrein (trap shooting) with the tag “Wife of Bears’ Lineman Wins a Bronze Medal Today in Rio Olympics.” They didn’t bother with her name. Elsewhere, NBC’s Dan Hicks expounded for quite a while after a world-record swim by Katinka Hosszu on her husband who, apparently, was “responsible” for the feat.

Destination: In 2016, The Guardian has an opinion piece called “How to Talk About Female Olympians Without Being a Regressive Creep—A Handy Guide.” Lee Krasner’s monochromatic masterpiece, “What Beast…” is from 1961. All the color drained from the dreams Lee Krasner could have had in those years is in brightly colored interlocking rings that serve to delight, but still deny female accomplishment at the cutting edge. One can discern chaotic unconnected rings in the painting if one is inclined. All the color drains.

So, there is the ringing bell. One connection. One coherence of thought that might make its way into the poem or poems that arise from this day. But, more direction of synapses than would have been available otherwise. 1 then 2 then 3. After all, Joan Mitchell’s paintings were in the next gallery and her purple, well, it can distract…

And, then you may be noticing all the other poems lurking. Where’s the epigraph from Rimbaud? What about the culpability of the speaker/author with the iPhone set to husband-of-Krasner? What about all the implicit possibilities in the jargon of trap shooting?

And, you are right to wonder. Usually my three-step plan (heart/craft/connection) actually has sub points that I flesh out for a while on the return home.

And, you may be writing a different poem with any material on offer. I hope you are. Because Krasner said later of the infamous title that she realized as she finished the painting that “[t]he beast [was] peering at me.” As creators, the next stare-down is always within. As we move through the world our travels are often routes to our own terrain. 3-2-1.

Guest Post, Leslie Standridge: An Interview with Tanaya Winder

Words Like Love coverWhat is the source of inspiration for “Words Like Love?”

Good question! I suppose that is the question, too and it’s complicated because I’d have to say that it comes from, well…everywhere. The inspiration came from my life, events I’ve experienced, things I’ve born witness to, and people I’ve crossed paths with along the way. It comes from my own unpacking, attempts at deconstructing, questioning, interrogating, and re-examining what it means to love. For me, questions like “what is love” and “how do we live love” have made their home at the back of my mind. Love is the lens through which I view the world; I’d like to think everyone (family, relationships, friends, etc) and everything (my home, the land I grew up on, the earth we inhabit) I have had a connection with has somehow influenced my understanding of love. One of the main driving forces of the book was a deep connection I had with a friend who ended up taking his own life. The combination of who he was, the role he played in my life, how he died, and where I was at physically, spiritually, emotionally, and mentally at that time in my life forced me to look deeply at my own understanding of love in all its forms.

 

You discuss the idea of cultural love in an interview with Indian Country. How does your heritage impact and shape your work?

I think for any writer “who you are” deeply impacts how you live in this world and how you live impacts and shapes your work. For me, my heritage is who I am. I’m very blessed to be grounded in my culture and heritage…they’re a big part of my identity. My worldview is shaped by the beliefs I grew up with. I write from that beautiful, strongly rooted identity and it is my love for my culture and Indigenous people that also fuels my motivation as a writer. I want the youth who follow in my footsteps to know that there are many talented writers from all backgrounds and different walks of life. I hope that Native Americans can continue to be more present in the literary landscape that often leaves us out of the conversation.

 

What was your writing process like?

My writing process was basically: put on my “writing” playlist, get some coffee, read over the poems, and edit. During this time I was also reading other poems as well as books of poetry by writers I admire and look up to. Also, whenever I write I always take notes (pen to paper) in my journal. It always starts out organic like that, my mind works better when I can feel the words being penned onto the page. From there I usually take the notes and translate lines that resonate with me to my laptop. I write rushed and not as methodically as I wish I did. By that I mean I need to develop more of a daily routine. Right now, I’m a writer who writes when I’m inspired, although when it comes to revision I’m more of a sit down daily and work out lines like I’m a sculptor constantly chiseling away piece by piece until the form slowly reveals itself.

 

What was the process for organizing the poems?

I’d compare organizing the poems within the theme of the book to the way one would organize stanzas within an individual poem just on a grander scale. I thought about the bigger picture, the overall theme(s), and emotions I wanted the reader to feel before the release at the end of the book. In my mind, the metaphor for the book is a person’s heart unfolding with each page; I wanted each poem to open into another room into the spaces we try to keep locked and private. For me, that meant breaking it down into sections that related to one’s understanding of love from life’s fragility, the way time impacts our living to the lessons we learn without words (the power of actions, things done and undone), to questioning ways we’ve been taught (perhaps even unhealthy) to love, express ourselves, and view the world, to finally contemplating the order in which things happen to us. Some might call it fate or relate it to the expression “timing is everything” and honestly, I think it is. I wanted to bring home that point extra hard at the ending.

 

Can you tell us a little bit about your favorite poem from the collection?

I have a few favorites from this collection but right now I’d have to say my favorite is “in my mother’s womb” because it gets to the “heart” of ancestral memory and the historical and personal traumas that can be passed down from generation to generation. Our duty as human beings is to figure out within our own lives how does that happen and then we must ask ourselves – am I (or is my generation) going to be the one to break cycles of hurt and/or trauma to bring about the healing we all deserve.

 

What are you working on now?

Right now, I’m at the tail end of an 8-month book tour. I’ve been very fortunate that it’s been going on this long. Later this month I have a reading at the British Library in London and will be reading/performing at the Lincoln Center La Casita Out of Doors in NYC later this summer so writing new work has been on the backburner though I’m slowly working on a second collection and dabbling in writing my first play. I’m also working more on music (singing) and finding ways to experiment with my voice in that capacity.

Guest Post, Charlotte Holmes: On Not Writing

Just last fall, I couldn’t write fast enough to keep up with words that came—came for nearly a year, water after a dam breaking, quenching the barren silence I thought would not return. Every time this happens, I think I’m in the clear at last, as if silence is an addiction I’ve finally beaten back.

But once again, days of not writing stretch to weeks, then months. Silence becomes emptiness, and emptiness becomes a sensation that I carry inside me. How does it look, the place where the words are pent? The dam that holds them back, I know its texture and composition—thick, stringy muscle, the kind that starts in the neck and reaches up to the skull. I’ve seen those diagrams in the chiropractor’s office, waiting for the doctor to pull my body from its hunched posture, evidence of years bent over book, desk, notebook, laptop.

Though the dam is muscle, the place where the words stay is smooth and empty, polished bone. Its emptiness is what I carry inside. How can it be both empty and full of all the words that will not come? It is like the skull without a brain inside, a rib cage without a heart. It’s arid as hell. It never lets me forget that it’s a real place.

And where is this place? In the body, without doubt—and not in a single location. It floats effortlessly from head to heart to hand, bumps against the liver and lights, flutters around the reproductive organs, circulates through the blood. I wonder that it doesn’t kill me, this hard marble passing through the tiniest vessels, pinging off the cells. It stops my throat as I am reading, a constriction that I interpret to mean you will never write again.

GardenWhen I walk in the garden I feel it rolling around inside, growing smoother and harder. I stoop to weed and feel it knock against my heart, knock when I look up and see the neighbor’s scruffy tom pluck a bird right out of the air. I cry out, and the cat startles, drops the bird, leaps into the brush.

I pick the bird out of the grass—a finch—and turn it from side to side. Its black legs like twigs poke from its underbelly. Its head is wet, a red smear that looks like blood but may be feathers. Its heart is pounding. I sit on the step, cupping it in my palm. I think I can do this much, keep it from harm until it dies. It watches me, its eyes black and sharp. After a moment, the lids flutter closed. Its heart slows. The cat comes out of the bushes, flops into the grass, licks his front paws. Five minutes pass, then ten. My husband, who’s been weeding the bed of Casablanca lilies, walks over, looks into my hand, says, “Bird’s a goner, I’m afraid.”

The bird seems both dead and alive. Its stiff legs don’t move, even when I brush them with my finger; immobile are the passerine toes, two forward, one back, an ingenious clamp. Its eyes remain closed. My hand is its bier. But though I wait for it to falter, the rhythm of its heart stays steady as my own pulse. I catch myself wondering how long this is going to take, feeling guilty because this is an amazing moment of communion with nature, etc. and here I am, thinking about what I need to do, what needs to be accomplished before the day is over. I’ve sat beside the dying; I know that ushering someone out of this world is as important and meaningful as ushering someone in. Even a bird deserves that respect.

I scowl at the cat and wonder why my neighbor won’t keep him inside. Sitting idle seems odd. Usually when I’m in the backyard, I’m working—weeding, planting, mowing—or waiting for my two red dogs to finish their business. What’s the point of carving out this green oasis, if one never has time to enjoy it? And will the poor bird’s heart never falter? I look away from the bird, at the honeysuckle arching over the path, fragrant with blossom.

The heart doesn’t falter. One minute I’m sitting on the step with the bird on its back in my hand. The next minute it’s shot into the apple tree over my head, and then airborne, it’s on to the rest of its life.

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.