Guest Post, Scott Russell Morris: Uncommon Experience: Notes on Writing “The Common Area”

When I wrote the first draft of “The Common Area,” I was in a strange place, figuratively and literally. Having just broken up with and then made up with my girlfriend a few days prior and feeling insecure, I was also on the other side of the world, day one of a two-month study abroad, jet-lagged, hungry, and trying not to be too eager about my first excursion away from America.

That strangeness, the physical and emotional discomfort, made writing “The Common Area” one of the most unique in my writing life: Though I normally revise and revise and revise, never “confident that the phrase first seized is for [me] the phrase of inspiration”—h/t, Agnes Repplier—this essay’s final draft came out more-or-less how it did when I wrote it by hand at 3 a.m. in a basement in Edinburgh, describing in real time the eccentric interaction I had with a stoned Frenchman. Sure, I did clarify a few details, but for the most part, the essay remained true to its original form and content as I transposed it from journal to computer and revised it for publication.

To emphasize the point: this never happens to me. I agonize over drafts. I cut and paste. I kill all the darlings, only to resurrect and kill them again. I have files and files of failed attempts. My first drafts are clunky without regard for transitions or clever juxtapositions. When I finally send a draft out to journals, I agonize over each rejection, seeing what could make my essay tighter. And though “The Common Area” was certainly turned down by several journals, I never felt I could reasonably change much of its original form, content, or conclusions.

So, now, it found its home and I am left to wonder why this essay was such a different experience than the others? The strangeness, certainly, was an important part of it. Ander Monson talks about this in his essay on hacking, describing an exercise for his students where they must write in new places: “I want them to try to feed it [their brain] different stories, different stimuli, in an attempt to get it to generate different sorts of texts.” This new stimuli technique works to make us insecure, much like a child who experiences the world fresh, guileless, and eager to make connections (all reasons to travel regularly). Over the years, my best essays have been ones where I felt insecure in my own knowledge. Since this essay, I’ve written about teaching in Kazakhstan, watching a baby be born, trying to raise that baby with some measure of grace, eating a meal so perfect it could never be replicated, all experiences so odd I was completely unprepared for them. So this was perhaps one key to the “The Common Area’s” uncommon birth: I was grasping for new information, looking at all the new connections coming my way.

Of course, reaching for such ineffable understanding is implied in the word essay’s weighing and measuring, but normally, when I journal or essay, I have to work to get to that measurement. I must first get the facts down and then see how they might connect, but with this essay, I was already in what Amy Leach calls a “guessing mood”—guessing how to connect with others, guessing what I was going to experience while abroad, guessing what would happen with my tenuous girlfriend. And though I still preach and live the gospel of merciless revision, writing “The Common Area” has reminded me that to write an essay, you must be willing to move outside yourself and yet question everything about yourself. This is always what I strive for, but with this essay, it happened while I was also writing, struggling with real-life concerns. It was a reminder, too, that to essay is not just something you write, but a way of approaching the world, sometimes with needful urgency.

Guest Post, Neema Avashia: Finding the Right Angle

I wrote about my cousin’s death in at least six different essays before I came to write “Finding the Holy in an Unholy Coconut.” I started writing very shortly after his death, in the days I spent with my aunt and uncle trying to help them sort through all of the logistical complexities that accompany unexpected death. It’s not enough to grieve, in America. We also need you to contact Social Security, close out credit cards, and notify banks as quickly as possible. 

My first writing was accounting—asking questions about who knew what and when. It was very much the “bleeding into the typewriter” that T Kira Madden critiques in “Against Catharsis: Writing is Not Therapy” and that Penny Zang referenced in her post on the SR Blog last month. 

From extremely raw accounting, I moved to narrating, and trying to patch together a complete story even though so many of the details were missing. And, once again, it took very little time to realize that this stage of writing was strictly for me. 

The only person who read these early essays was my mentor, Jane McCafferty, whose gentle response, effectively, was to say, “I love you. And no one else should read this.” Jane’s point at the time was that there is a difference between writing as a way of grieving and writing about grief for an audience. I would find my way to the second eventually, but it was going to take time. Still, she urged me to keep writing the story as many times as I needed to.

It took three years to move from accounting, to narrating, to actually crafting. In Geeta Kothari’s creative non-fiction workshop at the Kenyon Review last summer, she asked us to use description of a concrete object to enter into an essay. I had brought a tiny silver bell with me that usually sits on the altar in my pantry, and this bell somehow allowed me to write about my cousin’s death, and my grieving, through the lens of faith and ritual. The next day, she asked us to visit the art gallery on campus at Kenyon, to choose a piece of art that resonated for us, and to use that piece of art to enter the story a second way. And again, I found the themes in my story shifting.

By entering the story from these different angles, I found myself able to move further and further from the specific details surrounding my cousin’s death, and closer to a story about how faith and ritual can both be essential to mourning—and also fall completely short. 

After Kenyon, I went to Los Angeles as part of a West Coast road trip. I attempted to submerge my unholy coconut. And last fall in a writing class at Grub Street, a writing organization here in Boston, I found my way into the essay published at Superstition Review this spring, a full four years after my cousin died. The coconut allowed me to enter our story from a different angle, one that enabled me to write an essay that was no longer just for me.

Ultimately, the coconut at the center of this story serves three functions in the piece: It serves as the concrete vessel for the character Neema’s grief. For the writer, Neema, it serves as a symbol that makes the abstractions of grief less abstract—something that can be described, can be held, and can eventually be cast away. And, for the readers, the coconut is the central image that they can carry with them through the entire piece. It gets introduced in the first paragraph, appears even when the story shifts in place and time, and is still sitting on the shoreline at the very end of the story. 

It took four years, six vastly different versions of the story in structure, content, and style, and four different entry points to arrive at this published essay. I try to remind myself of these facts when I am stuck in the middle of a draft and can’t seem to find a way forward. If the story is worth telling, I say to myself, then my task is to find the right angle from which to tell it. 

Most importantly, I tell myself to be patient. I may have not yet lived, or seen, the angle from which the story is best told. 

Guest Blog Post, Alice Lowe: About Chocolate Donuts

Photo Credit- linked

Now and then, if we’re lucky, writing ideas burst onto the scene fully formed, like Botticelli’s Venus on the half-shell. More often they emerge from our routines of list-making, mind-mapping, trial and error. We’re offered prompts or we select them randomly, like choosing a vacation spot by sticking push pins in a map while blindfolded. It’s hit and miss, sometimes an arduous and tedious process, painful as prolonged labor. Will this brainchild ever be born?

We may develop a stockpile of ideas to be developed with the right impetus … or not. When I was invited to submit a guest post to Superstition Review I didn’t say, “Aha, I know just what I’ll write.” Nothing came to mind. I looked at my list of possibilities, hand-printed in alternating blue and purple ink on the dry-erase board over my desk. I eliminated them from consideration one by one: no, not that one; no; uh uh; no, that won’t work. My mind went blank. I explained my dilemma to my husband on one of our morning walks, five miles to Balboa Park and back. This was before breakfast or even coffee, and we’d agreed to stop at Donut Star on the way home, so perhaps he was a bit single-minded. “Write about chocolate donuts,” he said.  

I write creative nonfiction, personal essays—my own stories—so it isn’t as if I have to create new worlds out of wisps of cloud. I am my own protagonist, and the people and experiences I write about are real; I don’t have to design or disguise characters or events. Is this a blessing or a curse? On the one hand the raw material is there for the harvesting, even if it’s covered over with years of accumulated debris. On the other hand I can’t invent—I’m limited by the facts. If I don’t like the way an episode ends, I can’t change it. If I behaved badly, my choices are to tell it truthfully or not tell it at all.

I’ve written essays about family and childhood, about men and mistakes, fear and failure, success and sadness, about getting old (and older still). Extending beyond myself but still in the context of personal experience, I’ve written about crows and cats, sushi and shellfish, science and polar exploration (inspired by a folk song), about baseball and opera, writing and writers. The notes currently on my dry-erase board, potential themes waiting to materialize, include bookstores, boycotts, and breakfast (with donuts?).

My affinity for maps might not have struck me as a prospective topic if I hadn’t seen the blurb in an AARP bulletin that included glove box maps—along with land lines, desktop computers, and analog watches (all of which I continue to use)—among things likely to become extinct in the next fifty years. A lover of fold-out maps, for pleasure reading as well as directions, the idea of writing about them resonated. But what about them? I have a box of maps that I’ve collected from my travels, but I didn’t want to write a travel piece. I needed an in, a hook. The idea hibernated in the “ideas” file that preceded the white board. Periodically I would nudge it and its dormant companions to see if there were signs of life, if anything was ready to emerge into daylight.

My daughter and I went to New York last October to, among other things, run a 10K race. When I printed out a map of the race route, she teased me: “It’s Central Park—why do you need a map?” That was it, the opening of what became “Flȃneur with Baedeker, or, Student of the Map,” published this spring in Superstition Review. In the course of research and dredging my memory, I was able to pay homage to my Long Island birthplace and my Anglophilia, to some of my favorite literary works, and to my mentor/muse Virginia Woolf, and to weave them together into what I think of as a self-portrait in maps. The ingredients were waiting to be assembled, but it couldn’t happen without that first spark, the recognition that here was an idea I might be able to develop.

Perhaps there’s no difference in that respect between fiction and nonfiction. Authors of both are mining the real world as well as their memories and imaginations for themes and stories, for characters and settings, for detail and drama.

When I’m idea-starved and one doesn’t pad over to me like a well-trained terrier, I get a little anxious. I don’t believe in writer’s block, though I might if it was called “idea block.” These are the times when my mind feels a little stodgy, when I even get a little panicky, and I wonder “What am I going to write?” It’s always that initial catalyst that eludes me. Once an idea presents and plants itself, I’m fired up, ready to nurture and cultivate it. If it doesn’t germinate I put it away—that hibernation file—and see if a long winter’s rest might revive it.

Virginia Woolf would swirl her ideas around in her diary, test their validity on paper, often long before she knew what they might become. In a January 1920 entry she writes that she’s “happier today than I was yesterday having this afternoon arrived at some idea of a new form for a new novel … I must still grope and experiment but this afternoon I had a gleam of light.” She goes on to describe the barest skeleton for what would become Jacob’s Room, her third novel and the first to delve into the modernist style that she would develop in subsequent work. A holiday in St. Ives, Cornwall, her family’s summer retreat during her childhood, prompted the inspiration for To the Lighthouse. She’d visited several times in her adult life—she might have written about it any number of times—but it was on this particular trip that she recognized it as a rich foundation for her novel.  

Food is a foundation—one of many but an especially evocative one—from which I’ve explored life and culture and history. I’ve written a number of food-themed essays, from the autobiographical sweep of an abecedarian to more focused pieces on assorted seafood, on noodles, New Orleans food, Cornish pasties, rutabagas, mom’s cooking, and cookbooks. It’s also a wellspring for sumptuous verbal displays, as many authors, including Virginia Woolf, have discovered. Writing about chocolate donuts isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. Pastries I have known and loved? Muffins and biscuits and scones, oh my?