The interesting thing about getting old is watching it unfold. This is applied science: biology in action, psychology and sociology revealed in real time as I experience the changes in my body and brain. I can react to others’ responses or my own, or I can step back and withhold all judgment. I’m both participant and observer.
I’ve written about aging, about post-seventy tattoos and half-marathons, physical decline in spite of excellent health, dwindling opportunities and increased invisibility, a thicker skin and fuck ‘em attitude about things that used to bother me. The challenge, though, as a writer, is to make this process and my experiences appealing to readers young and old. The former may be inclined to glaze over and think, what has this to do with me? B-o-r-i-n-g. The latter might appreciate commonality, feel less isolated in their own experience, or they might choose to avert their eyes, say I’ve got my own shit to deal with, she doesn’t know the half of it.
Since Baby Boomers entered their seventies they’re writing about aging too, as if they discovered it, expressing the indignity of it all, their painful joints or purported joys, or just plain denial as they grasp at perpetual youth, pronounce seventy to be the new fifty. But I got there first by a few years, and I intend to stay in the conversation. If all else fails, I’ll beat them to eighty and have new stories to tell before they catch up again.
Date: Thursday, March 21, 2019 Time: 6:30 p.m Location: Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W Rio Salado Pkwy, Tempe, AZ 85281 Cost: Free
One of the tragic consequences of being confined to a single body is that we will never know what other people experience when they meet us for the first time. We can’t know how someone will register the slight change in the atmosphere that our presence causes when we enter a room. We will never know what another person feels while keeping us company. Memoirists choose to make themselves, someone they can never objectively grasp or fully represent on the page, the primary subject of most of their writing. But there are ways to cultivate a kind of out-of-body-relationship to the self that does get on the page. Voice is the messenger we send to greet the reader. We can craft voice the way one might craft a social media presence. Voice can conjure an entire world in a few phrases, images or references. The question is how do we want to be represented on the page?
Join Pulitzer Prize-winning author Gregory Pardlo for his talk, “The Messenger is the Message: Voicecraft and the Personal Essay” on Thursday, March 21, 2019 at the Tempe Center for the Arts (700 W Rio Salado Pkwy, Tempe, AZ 85281) at 6:30 p.m.
While encouraged, RSVPs are purely for the purposes of monitoring attendance, gauging interest, and communicating information about parking, directions, and other aspects of the event. You do not have to register or RSVP to attend this event. This event is open to the public and free.
For more information and to RSVP, visit the Eventbrite page here.
About the Author:
Gregory Pardlo’s collection Digest (Four Way Books) won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. His other honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts; his first collection Totem was selected by Brenda Hillman for the APR/Honickman Prize in 2007. He is Poetry Editor of Virginia Quarterly Review and currently teaches in the graduate writing program at Rutgers-Camden University. Air Traffic, a memoir in essays, was released by Knopf in April.
About the Book:
The long-awaited extraordinary memoir and a blistering meditation on fatherhood, class, education, race, addiction, and ambition from beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gregory Pardlo.
Gregory Sr. is a charismatic air traffic controller at Newark International Airport, leading labor organizer and a father to two sons, bookish Greg Jr. and musical-talent Robbie. But, when “Big Greg” loses his job after the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Strike of 1981, he becomes a disillusioned presence in the household and a disconcerting model for young Greg’s ambitions. As Big Greg succumbs to addiction and exhausts the family’s money on ostentatious whims, Greg Jr. rebels. He hustles off to boot camp at Parris Island, falls in love with a woman he follows to Denmark, drops in and out of college, and takes a job as a bar manager-cum-barfly at the family’s jazz club.
Rich and lyrical, Air Traffic follows Gregory Pardlo as he learns to be a poet, father, and teacher, as he enters recovery and hosts an intervention for his brother on national television. Throughout, Pardlo grapples with the irresistible yet ruinous legacy of masculinity he inherited from his father. This is his deeply-felt ode to Greg Sr., to fatherhood, and to the frustrating-yet-redemptive ties of family, as well as a scrupulous, searing examination of how manhood is shaped in contemporary American life. (Knopf)
The high school classroom is standard issue. I’ve grown up in this mill town, but it’s really dying now. None of the students around me in this creative writing class have aspirations to become a writer. They want to go to college and get a job that they won’t get laid off from. My teacher Mr. Moore tells me: it doesn’t matter where you go to school. Anywhere you go, you’ll find great professors to work with. He says, yes, I think you have what it takes to become a writer.
I’m in a standard issue professor’s office for my mid-semester conference in fiction 101. It’s probably the first workshop I’ve ever taken in my life. The professor looks up at me, squints, and says: The problem with you is that at some point in your life someone told you you were creative.
I’m 23 years old and about to get into my boyfriend’s puke green Chevy. It’s parked in my parents’ driveway. We’ve stopped to visit them as we head west after I’ve graduated from the University of New Hampshire. We’ll travel across the country for months without any real destination, although we end up in San Francisco for 4 years. My parents don’t understand what in the hell I’m doing, although they wouldn’t say it that way. My dad tells me: always make sure you’re making enough money per month so that one week goes to rent, one goes to utilities and bills, one goes to savings, and one is for spending money. I follow this advice for years and in many ways it’s how I am able to write and work and live and be happy in many different places.
My friend Pam on many different occasions: If you’re not having fun, leave.
I’ve just met my roommate Mallory Tarses at Sewanee Writers’ Conference and by dinner time everyone thinks we’ve been friends forever. I write flash fiction, have been writing it for many years. Everyone tells me I need to write a novel. Everyone. Mallory says, or why not just get really, really good at writing flash fiction?
At that same conference Tim O’Brien says: Don’t forget to look around while you’re in there writing the story, take the time to look around.
My friend Jonah Winter: Knock it off.
I’m four years out of graduate school and living in Pittsburgh with a real job working in museum education. It’s 40+ hours a week and stressful. I feel lost so I email my mentor Marly Swick (See #1) and tell her I’m ungrounded and out of touch with any kind of national writing community. She says, “Why don’t you apply to some writing residencies? I think it’s time for you to do that.”
I’m at Atlantic Center for the Arts studying with Jim Crace and a great group of fiction writers. Armadillos rustle through the grasses below the boardwalks. Jim Crace says: “Slow down. Look at each sentence. Craft each sentence. Vary the length. Think about word choice. Avoid repeated words. Use active verbs. You already do this instinctually, now I want you to do it deliberately.”
Pam Painter: Start with a list. A list is never intimidating.
I’m running the Gist Street Reading Series in Pittsburgh. The writer John Dalton gets up to read from his debut novel Heaven Lake. He finishes and immediately sells out of books. Later he tells me: Summarize the novel in your introduction and then read a strong section that doesn’t logically follow from the summary. People buy books because they want to find out how the two connect.
There’s a big round table and 21 of us sit around it. The Creative Capital retreat is like a boot camp in professionalism for artists. They tell us: Always introduce yourself using your first and last name. They tell us: Have a 1-year plan and a 5-year plan. They tell us: If you’re not being rejected, you’re not working hard enough.
I am in a wheelchair. It’s the first thing that people notice about me—unless, of course, they’ve been hypnotized by my haunting blue eyes. But excluding that surprisingly uncommon occurrence, those who focus on my disability might conclude that my life is more difficult than the average bear. But actually, sometimes, I have it too easy.
Strangers praise me for maneuvering my chair successfully in public without plowing down innocent bystanders or careening into walls; they praise me for smiling or laughing; they praise me for being able to maintain a job and my own apartment without parents to look after me, or they praise me for making attempts at humor, even if I use bottom-of-the-barrel puns or the spare Dad Joke.
“You’re so amazing,” they tell me. “You’re really just…something.”
I smile and say thank you. But inside, I don’t know how to feel exactly. When I articulate this ambivalence to friends, some tell me I should be angry. I’m being condescended to and, dammit, I need to make the person understand how wrong that is! Or else, they tell me I should be pleased, as the person is simply trying to be kind—and besides, my friends go on, maybe they’re used to people with disabilities who just can’t do what I can do!
Neither reaction suits me. Frankly, I don’t have the desire or will to be angry about every accidental slight, especially when such compliments arise out of a desire to be kind. Or perhaps people imagine particular tasks or good humor would be nearly impossible for them if they were suddenly in my wheels—I’m sure that would be difficult. But only at first. For me, everyday tasks in my wheelchair are simply everyday tasks. Should I really believe the most trivial of accomplishments are the exception rather than the rule for people with disabilities? Shouldn’t our assumptions err less on the side of being surprised by ability?
There is a flip side to this scenario.
At the Senior Awards Night when I was in high school, I took home three of the top awards. One voted on by my peers and instructors as that year’s Best Girl, one for Excellence in English Studies, and one for Excellence in Social Studies. Years of hard work were finally being publicly recognized! But that night, my friend, toting two of his own awards, said, “I mean, of course the girl in the wheelchair won the Best Girl trophy.” I looked to my then-boyfriend for support, but he simply laughed and said, “I mean, you know why they voted for you.”
They were teasing me, but beneath their smiles I felt a jab. I wanted to fight their claims. I wanted to remind them how hard I worked—that I was 4th in our class because I loved school and learning, that they couldn’t diminish my accomplishments with the suggestion that it was unearned simply because I am disabled. But my arguments died in my throat. Maybe, I thought, they were right.
That same year, I won a full-ride scholarship to an Indiana university of my choosing. As part of the application process, I was required to write an essay about any barriers to my education that I’d successfully overcome. I wrote about my disability and the number of school days I missed for health reasons. I wrote about the time the school administration tried to keep me from enrolling in the Honors block for fear I couldn’t keep up with its academic rigors. And I wrote about the encouraging teachers and mentors who called me special without it being code for handicapped.
Again, there were those who said the scholarship was given to me simply because I’m disabled—because I have a story to tell. But it’s not a story I parade around like a show horse when it suits me. My disability comes up again and again in my work because the car accident that left me paralyzed is the lens through which much of my life has been focused. It is an integral part of who I am.
A friend of mine recently told me she once opened the door for a woman in a wheelchair and the woman yelled at her for doing so, for assuming she couldn’t do it herself. Such a reaction is almost unfathomable to me, to repay kindness with rudeness rather than with appreciation or even a gentle correction. I never want to be like that woman; I never want my words to paralyze someone into inaction. I merely wish to acquaint others with one aspect of my experience.
I want others to know the questions I ask in regards to my life and to my writing that don’t seem to have good answers. Like how can I ever really “earn” something important when even the smallest accomplishments elicit praise? Or how many of the accolades I receive are simply because the bar for someone with a disability is so ridiculously low that even I could jump it? And even if those accolades have nothing to do with my chair, will there always be those who are ready to cast their doubts upon my worthiness?
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