Every Time I Draft A Piece I Ask Why

Here is something I’ve been thinking, in essay form. Well, in a first draft form I’ll let sit for a while. I always think I’ll let a draft sit, get ready for that magic day when I have the best way to finish the piece. But then I think, For what. Why am I writing this. I get apathetic enough that I don’t bother with question marks. Instead, it’s flat, unanswerable. Why am I writing this. For the piece below, I have an answer: I couldn’t not. There’s a memory that’s hard to look at and spiritual truth I barely touch and as is usual of my personal essay drafts, the writing itself was unpleasant because I think there is something more to say and a better way to say it, but I can’t yet. I hope there is a reason I commit any of this to a page. More, I hope I find a magic day to rework this draft to honor two of my repetends.

With that. I know I am not the only one.


I keep thinking about this boy who died. I was junior in college and he was freshman. We lived in the same residence hall at the edge of campus and fell into step one afternoon. I was a community advisor who put up bulletin boards and hosted ice cream parties and floor meetings but I rarely saw him around the hall. He lived on the third floor, went home on the weekends and ducked his head when walking by the front desk. I remember the day being cold. Maybe an in between day in Wisconsin when autumn is over but air doesn’t yet bite. He had his hands in his front pockets. He was lean like some boys are when they just graduate high school and he walked like he felt too tall, making his shoulders narrow. Maybe because we were walking side by side he could talk a little, tell me he was from a small town on Lake Michigan and that’s where he went every weekend to fish. He had a boat or his father had a boat.

I think we talked about siblings. I think he had a sister still in high school. I think he was studying in the College Of Natural Resources.

I keep thinking about this boy. His name was Nathan. That first afternoon, walking side by side back to our residence hall on an almost winter day, he smiled. I remember feeling like I won because here was this quiet boy who ducked when he walked by people and he’d just smiled at something we said.

He went home on the weekends to take his boat or his father’s boat out on Lake Michigan so I didn’t see him much and had no reason to knock on his door and ask about his day. One night I couldn’t sleep. I laid in bed thinking of his sloping body he hadn’t yet grown into, thinking of that smile I caught when I glanced up.

I thought about boys like that. Boys I’d just met or boys I knew and saw in a different way, suddenly. I constructed so many lives from chance smiles or gestures, from a name called on a roster the first day of a history class, from a long bike ride with childhood friend. At twenty, the years spin out in any direction. I could see myself in Ireland, Alaska or Kenya as easily as I could see myself married to a bank teller, artist or fisherman. When I had class with a boy from Portland I imagined us walking under a shared umbrella. So when I met Nathan, I imagined his whole family I’d never meet. His mother cooked a full breakfast and put an arm around her son’s waist when he came in from an early morning on the lake. Her cheeks flushed like his did. His father was as silent as he was. The house had windows in the right places to send squares of sun on scuffed hardwood. At breakfast his sister and mother talked, pulled Nathan and his father into conversation, and after, each carried his or her own plate and glass to the kitchen counter.

That winter I came in from a night class, carried my bike to the basement room where the residence hall staff had weekly meetings. I opened the door and there was a group of guys having a Bible study. I was surprised. They were surprised. Nathan ducked his head. I rolled my bike to its place against a wall, apologized and left. I thought, He is a brother.

Nathan drowned that spring. He and a friend or cousin were out on the lake when a storm came up and capsized the boat. I remember hearing the boy he was with lived. I remember hearing Nathan saved the boy he was with by pushing him toward floating debris. I remember seeing this story in my mind, the thrash of Nathan’s legs, the heaviness of his wet clothing and boots, the whiteness of his face and hands in the frigid water, the last energy in his limbs propelling another to safety. I remember feeling a little sick. I remember being conflicted that I’d imagined meeting his mother.

I google combinations to find the story again: Nathan uwsp lake michigan drowning, 2001 lake michigan drown uwsp student, uwsp student Nathan drown, uwsp student Nate drown 2001. I can’t find anything. Instead I dredge articles about annual numbers of drownings, reasons why the Great Lakes are dangerous, drunk college students walking into water. There’s an article about another underclassman who killed himself over Thanksgiving weekend that year, after dropping out of college to go live with friends in Madison. I try to remember Nathan’s hometown. I try to remember was it 2000 or 2001. I think about emailing the alumni office but I’m not sure what they could tell me about a freshman (was he a sophomore) who drowned in Lake Michigan before graduating from the College Of Natural Resources, before deciding to move north to Superior or west to Denver, before falling in love and staying awake thinking how to marry this woman, before losing his heart or holding his firstborn, before waking tired each day, before eating slivers of ripe peach on a long summer morning.

I used to think about dying all the time. I’ve wanted death at different times. In middle school I was on a youth group camping trip and a few of us went to a playground, spun around in tire swings and talked about the best way to die. One girl said she wanted to drown because it sounded romantic to drown. She leaned back to watch the sky circle above.

My family camped on Lake Michigan for a few summers, going for a week after the season was over when the water was the warmest it’d be for the year. The campground was nearly empty, the beach ours. Mom talked to us before going into the water. She told us about the undertow and what to do if we got pulled under, how to swim parallel to the shore, not to panic. We were strong swimmers. I went into deep water,  where the waves rolled before taking a cap and crashing. In water up to my chest, I could feel the suck of the water, pulling back into the lake, but my feet didn’t go from under me, the sand didn’t slip. I didn’t drown or almost drown or save anyone from drowning. I put goggles on, sank my belly to the bottom of the lake to pretend I was in the bigger ocean, touching the undulating sand and, for short moments, holding everything in my body still to feel the weight and weightlessness of water and death.

When Nathan died, we must have talked as residence hall staff. One of my friends lived on Nathan’s floor and told me the guys made a bulletin board in remembrance, writing notes about Nathan on small construction paper fish. I heard his parents were coming to clean out his side of a room he shared with another freshman boy. I had this idea that Nathan, now dead, could see the story I’d made up for us. Still when I think of this I am embarrassed, a little defensive, a little angry at all the alternate lives I’ve made and loosed while I wound my way to now – a small apartment in a suburb south of Seoul, a late thirties version of myself I couldn’t have thought up when I was twenty because this present version has stretch marks, Legos underfoot, a pretween daughter. But I keep thinking of this boy who died because he isn’t here to be any version of who he made up when he was out on his boat or his father’s boat each weekend.

We can be rich, easy with fantasy when we are nineteen or twenty. We can’t know any different then. Our years are long.

My brother was teaching in India when one of his students died in a car accident over a break. My brother wrote that as teachers we think we are adding to early parts of a person’s life with the introduction and encouragement of passions or pursuits, the space we make to hear a student’s theory or doubt, the sense we have about a student, that he or she will -. But sometimes we are adding to the last lines of a student’s life.

I think about how to close a piece of writing. I think about the revision and edits I make when I write. What makes a last line. One of my college composition classes I took my junior year, the year I met Nathan and the year he died, my professor told us to write a page from our autobiography. Page two twenty-something. I can’t remember what I wrote but I remember wondering how long the book was. Now I am thirty-six and thinking about Nathan and I can’t answer why that smile stays in my mind, why now I want to understand why he was finished then and I am not now. My page two twenty-something might be years away. I might have written it yesterday. I have this wrong view of how death might work.

A couple of years ago we were visiting my brother and his family in Nairobi, my niece’s friend Anna died. Anna was playing on a jungle gym in the yard of her family’s compound when she fell. She was in a coma for a couple of days. She was brain-dead. My sister-in-law came down the stairs one morning and I saw her tiredness, knew she had been awake praying for this family, praying for her own daughter who was going to lose a good friend. We were in Nairobi for the week after Anna died. At different points, we talked about the accident and death. Anna was eight or nine. She loved Jesus. At Anna’s memorial, her family described her kindness toward others, a sense of compassion already whole in short years, love in her conversation with and care for the needy around her. I look at my own daughter differently. I have this animal need to wrap my body around my daughter, around my son, when I think of either of them leaving this earth. I am not afraid but I am aware.

My sister-in-law, in her grief for this girl, wondered if God is merciful like this, allowing death to spare a greater suffering. Life is hard, she said. She spoke carefully. She spoke like she’d been thinking how to say why Anna died when we believe a God of miracles. And she said what some of us (how many of us) think when a person dies at the cusp of more because we want to think it matters, when a person dies. A death at eight or nineteen is different from a death at eighty-one. There must be reason.

When Nathan died I was sad in an abstract way. I was secure and insecure in my youth. I glanced at Nathan’s death. I was sad for his family but I didn’t know them and felt weird I’d even imagined knowing them at all. The made up visit to his home, the made up rock of his boat or his father’s boat, the made up smiles I’d win. Now I am sad in this way: he was spared but this suffering is sweet. This hard life is sweet. I have wished its end. I have made up escape.

Sometimes I think what I still need to get right. I forget the gospel. I am whole in Christ. The Spirit works in and through me to finish the good work begun. My wrong view of death comes from this idea that it’s the good work in my life that needs to finish – the good work in my small, forgettable life. But the good work spans time and place to tell God’s glory, to show his great power and love and I am a stroke of the pen. I might be a smudge in the margin. I might show up on two pages. I might be a footnote. I believe Nathan and Anna had more good life. They had suffering ahead, and sweetness. They had days of wonder and sorrow and rest ahead.

Nathan and Anna are repetends to me. I think of each irregularly. I did not know Nathan and I did not meet Anna but I think of them. I think of how their lines in the story show up in all sorts of books. How many of us in how many places know their lines in the story and how many of us in how many places are now shaped by their lines in the story, thinking about what it means to love a merciful and frightening God who can work the drowning of a boy, the sudden death of girl into a plot that holds. I don’t know how the plot holds. I haven’t gotten to that part yet.

Finding Form

Finding Form

I still want to figure out the lyric essay so I am practicing with baby essays. I don’t think the following is quite a lyric essay. But it’s a chunk I can work with, developing the strands of settling a new home, being a substitute teacher and running along the river. Maybe I’m too hung up on the idea of writing lyric essays and what I really need to do is write so prolifically I find my own form.

(Which I still hope is lyric essay).


Yesterday I subbed the last block before the weekend, a middle school strings class. About twenty kids came in the room, opened their instruments and started tuning. A few didn’t know how to tune their cellos or violins. One told me the teacher helps them, could I help them? I don’t know how, I said. To the class I asked anyone having trouble tuning to raise their hand and someone nearby would help and that’s what happened. Kids got up, stepped around open cases and music stands, plucked strings, drew a bow across. Heads bent to listen. The first violin played a note for everyone else to tune to. For the first minutes after, everyone practiced their own part of a song. I was standing where the conductor would stand but not on the box. I watched. I thought it was a mess but I liked it so I got out my phone and started to record.

Parts of this transition to Korea are easy. Running outside is easy, even in the rain, even in the humidity, because it feels like my whole body is lifting when I look up and see green hills or heavy clouds. There is so much rain that the river is muddy from runoff. Grasses on the banks and along the paths are flattened by sudden floods. One morning the river licked the path I raced. It was adventure.

Walking across the street for groceries is easy. I shop here the way I shop when we are traveling. I go into a store for milk and carrots and think it’d be nice to buy a zucchini too. I stop at the wines and pick one that doesn’t sound too sweet. I wander back across the street and cook something unremarkable which we eat at our big table before playing Uno or drifting to end the day.

Right now our apartment might be one we booked for a summer out of Kuwait. We learned places in the neighborhood, like where to get kimbap or fried chicken; we found a bike loop and ventured on a few longer rides with promises of a treat midway. I walk a little farther to get a latte served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and that feels like a holiday. Right now our apartment looks transient. One woman told me her boys referred to their apartment as the hotel, for two years. When I couldn’t find the colander to drain pasta, Justin didn’t know where it was either because we haven’t divided our cupboards much beyond where the plates go, where the flatware goes. My dresser drawers are full of winter running gear and the soap, shampoo, toothpaste and powder deodorant I wasn’t sure I’d find here (most of it is here) while the top of my dresser is a mound of clothes. I may as well have a suitcase open on the floor.

We have lived in Korea for one month. We just got our Alien Registration Cards (ARCs). We just got phone numbers and data plans. At school we are all learning something new. I told Justin my brain is full. My brain is like all those middle school strings students practicing their parts. If you listen you’ll pull measures of music from the cacophony. This is why I am so glad I have a river path to run in the morning.

When I run outside, I meditate imagine wander pray draft. The morning run is a gift. I return to the Lord’s Prayer. I don’t mind the repetition. I ask the same provision again and again. I want the Gospel in my heart. I count my sin, seek forgiveness, think how to repent this day. Such promise in the Lord’s Prayer. Give us this day our daily bread: because my daughter announced she doesn’t want to eat rice anymore and I miss cauliflower and I still haven’t figured out our oven. And lead us

I like to break there. I like to think about what it means to choose, what it means to follow.

not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Such mercy.

When I ask for God’s kingdom to come here, for his will to be done here, what I am asking is for the love of our Father and his righteousness to work in and through us. I think what our apartment is when God’s kingdom is present, when his will is at work in each of us individually and together. I want that so I ask again and again. What do we become, in love?

What cacophonous practice. God works our hearts in different ways so we are what the people near us need.

This is what happened yesterday: the middle schoolers finished practicing their parts and one boy counted the tempo, the rest of the students readied their bows and they started to play. It held together and then started to come undone. The boy looked around, nodding at his classmates to tell them faster or slower or it’s your part now. I only watched. They all continued to play. A couple of students spoke aloud, directions to one another. For a moment it seemed the song would quit. Then the melody found itself and the students were at the same measure at the same tempo and it sounded like music I would close my eyes to hear better.

Found Sonnet: Comments On Charlottesville

A couple of years ago I thought it’d be fun to write a found sonnet composed of comment snips. I got the idea when one of my advanced creative writing students led a writing exercise via YouTube music and I got lost in a very impassioned comment scroll. Back then I pictured humor or snark or dreamscape lifted from rage, sincerity and screed.

Last week I was thinking about finding a sonnet in the comments when Charlottesville happened. I read a lot. I delved into comments. There are so many voices. I kept thinking about the issues surrounding the Charlottesville march and protest, how anguished I am by racial hate. Living abroad, I sometimes feel useless as an American citizen, watching and thinking about my country but not present to effect immediate change. I wrote about all of this. I’m still writing about it. I pray. For years I’ve asked God to help me see people as people. I don’t want a burden of assumptions. So I ask the same for all of us, that our prejudices are stripped and we see the inherent worth of the men women children here and far away. While that doesn’t answer centuries of oppression, seeing clearly reshapes our daily interactions with neighbors. I ask for more love. I ask Christ for heart change.

My rule for a found poem is to keep as much of an excerpt intact as possible, including errors and typography. I may shorten an excerpt to fit a line or space but not to change its meaning. I may play with syntax of an excerpt but not to change its meaning. For a mixed found poem, I do not identify one excerpt as different from the next. For citations, I reference the piece(s) from which excerpt(s) are pulled.

The following sonnet is sonnet-ish. I kept the line count, aimed for the Petrarchan structure of eight-line stanza answered by a six-line stanza but squidged the per line syllable count and chucked the rhyme scheme.


After Charlottesville, After Heather Heyer

Mr. President – we must call evil by its
name. These were white supremacists and this
was domestic terrorism. It’s all about
upholding the debased ideal of the white
male as earth’s ruling class. I’m sick of the
idea that “both sides are causing this” — which
is exactly what DT’s tweet said. Just once
can an official say, This is right, that is wrong?
Just effing once? BOTH sides are not the same.

– always will.” 25 years ago a co-
worker, angry and envious I was moving
ahead, walked into work one night, handed me
a letter that said “Hitler was right.” “You
[we] will fix it, as you [we] always have and –

 

 

 

From comments on this NY Times piece and New York Magazine piece

Long Narrative Poem

The story behind this poem and a link to the full piece is below.

Amy And Ali Get Married

Our marriage is not just a piece of paper
Our marriage is many pieces of paper

First, a letter via the US Embassy in Bayan,
by appointment. First, a letter with signatures
and stamps vouching Amy is presently
unmarried so able to marry Ali who is allowed
(but will not take) three more wives
after this first marriage, his to Amy

This letter in hand, Amy takes a number
251
waits under fluorescent light in a big room
before she is redirected to a small room
off to one side, the ladies’ waiting room
which provides women privacy from stares
and which is also mostly ignored. She sits
alone, watching through the doorframe
all the men go to the counters. She calls Ali
to say she doesn’t think anyone will
remember her here. She returns to the big
fluorescent room and the electricity flickers,
the red number counter goes black, the lights
hum back on but no one is counting whose
turn it is

She waits with letter in hand so she can
marry the Lebanese man she didn’t imagine
when she left Illinois five years ago. She waits
among men who shuffle around her to make
their way to a counter where papers are
thumbed. She waits until the red number
counter blinks on and now
1083
she has missed her
turn! She weaves, nudges her way forward,
shows her number
251
smiles winningly
and waits for the man to look at her letter,
reach for a stamp, sign it so she can chase
the next piece of paper. But the man doesn’t
reach for a stamp or pen. He looks up at Amy who
is still smiling and he says, Go to America, get this
stamped, come back
No
and I will stamp
No

Amy leaves the big fluorescent room, walks into
midday winter, calls Ali who arrives in his car, leaves
it running while they sit in the front seat thinking
how to get married now

Read the complete poem: Amy And Ali Get Married Story behind the poem:

One day I sat at the teacher table during lunch and caught the end of Amy’s story about getting married here. The story has a lot of parts. I asked her to retell it. While I listened I thought two things: one, this should be an essay; two, is this mine to tell? But even as Amy was finally standing before a judge and legally marrying Ali, I could see her story in paragraphs and dialogue. I was imagining how many people might love to read the absurdity, not of marrying, but of marrying here, of the many turns you must take to get anything done within this particular bureaucracy. Paperwork snags here. It might be another stamp you need or a particular official who is now traveling or a law that changed two weeks ago. So while many of us haven’t been married in Kuwait, we recognize the wait times, the scavenger hunt, the comic frustration of compiling and re-compiling documents for (seemingly) whim approval. We recognize the exhausted or furious relief at obtaining chased visa or certificate or registration.

I thought about interviewing Amy and Ali, writing their marriage in those blocks of text I saw as Amy spoke. But as I’ve been considering whose story [this] is to tell, I’ve also been thinking about audience and purpose. So when I first thought about writing Amy and Ali’s marriage story, I wondered why their particular paperwork chase appealed to me and why I wanted anyone else to read it and the answer is: I am curious. I like to read and watch and listen to other peoples’ stories because I only get one life. There is a lot of the world I will never see. There are a lot of adventures and routes I won’t take. And the answer is: you are curious too. The purpose of writing Amy and Ali’s marriage story is to show you what it’s like to navigate paperwork. But more. Amy and Ali are a cross-cultural couple who encountered some prejudice as they pursued legal marriage. This is a rich and challenging commitment, choosing to love someone whose family/ religion/ ethnicity/ culture is so different than your own.

As for whether this is my story to tell, I spoke with Amy shortly after that lunch. I rethought my essay approach. Instead, I chose to draft a narrative poem. I chose poetry for the flexibility offered to form and language. I drafted just enough to know the piece could work and then spoke with Amy. I asked permission to write their marriage story. I decided the final piece would be to her and Ali, a wedding gift of sorts. Knowing that helped me choose which details to include. I took some liberty with narrative voice. I had direction too, to trace Amy and Ali’s love over each step. Early in the drafting, I returned to Amy to get a better sequence of events. I spoke with her about using some of my own images in the piece, pulling from my own experience of waiting rooms or government offices here. I did not speak with Ali before or during drafting, relying instead on one version of the story to tell the whole, but I also trusted my intent to honor Amy and Ali with this work. At the end of drafting, I shared the whole piece with Amy, fact-checked and revised a few things and waited for her to read the final version with Ali before sharing here. Ali corrected a piece of information which I included in the poem with an asterisk.

This poem is to Amy and Ali but it is for all of us to read. Both are fine with me sharing this work with you. As I continue to play with this piece, I will share its revisions with Amy and Ali. When/ if the piece it published in some form, it is first to the two of them, with my hope for their good marriage.

Long Pause, Planning & Please Let This Work

I have two projects I wanted to work on throughout the school year and now it’s April. I have been thinking about these two projects while doing nothing. Usually I say count daydreaming as drafting. Perhaps I can. One of the projects is to write about the bathroom ladies. In Kuwait, there are bathroom ladies who keep the bathrooms cleaned and stocked, who sit on plastic stools when they aren’t wiping down sinks and faucets, who accept leftovers from The Cheesecake Factory as a tip, who stay inside a bathroom longer than my working day.  I just think, what an interesting life. Maybe it’s great employment given prospects in their home country. Maybe it’s degrading. Maybe it’s weird to accept someone else’s leftover pasta as a thank you for wiping an already clean toilet seat. Or maybe the pasta is really good. Sometimes I wonder why people come to Kuwait. Some workers here are promised one kind of job and arrive to another. So I wonder, what did these women expect? What have they found? What do they enjoy? What do they wish? I wonder what workers here left behind and if they think this day is worth that loss.

These aren’t new thoughts for me. I know a few of the bathroom ladies I see regularly. And now I want to tell their stories. Even then, there are barriers. Language. Purpose. I started to wonder how one-sided this project might feel. I want to interview these women about why they chose to leave their homes and the minute I form that question with her face in my mind, I also see my face and wonder why I’m asking. Over the year I’ve wondered about my intent. I think speaking with bathroom ladies, telling their stories, gives voice to a microcosm of Kuwait. There is this idea of examining something small to tell a bigger story. The thing is, I don’t like the bigger story I see when I zoom out. There are a lot of unchecked labor practices in the region. Part of me wanted to examine recruitment, contracts and visas, the unfulfilled promises given these workers. Part of me wanted to hold these women up as martyrs of a kind, paid nearly nothing to send money home to children they see once every two or three or four years. And I do think that’s a story worth telling. This region can be difficult to document. So much about poor treatment of laborers, maids and nannies is hearsay and anecdotal but that doesn’t imply a story isn’t there to tell. Just that as I thought about my intent – writing about bathroom ladies – I had to reckon my reflex to tell a flat story of a poor bathroom lady against an oil rich backdrop. I don’t have the desire or resources to write a sweeping vilification of labor practices in a country dependent on migrant workers. More, I do not believe that honors the women I want to write about.

My first thought about the bathroom ladies was only to know more who they are. Several years ago I met a woman who likes to draw once her bathroom is tidy. I saw a few of her sketches. There is one woman I see who reads her tiny Bible in a corner. A couple of ladies watch an Indian soap opera on the tiny screen of a phone. So I am returning to that first thought, shaping an essay that tells more who these women are.

Last month I asked one woman if she’d sit with me and talk, tell me a little about her life. She agreed. I’ll speak with her soon. This week I will ask two others to speak with me, but the challenge is language. I remember the first time one woman, newly arrived from Nepal, said hello to me in English and I just thought how lazy I am that I live abroad so easily, assuming everyone everywhere knows a little English. The two women I want to include in the essay do not speak much English. We’ve communicated with facial expression and gesture. I have to figure this part out. I may check my church for translators.

My vision for the bathroom ladies piece is to write a lyric essay. There are so many beautiful and startling images to include and I believe the strength of this piece will be its pauses. What I want is for the essay to show who these three women are.

Perhaps I have been working on this piece all year. I’ve talked about it with a couple of friends. I’ve thought the best way to go about it. For a while I was unsure how much I wanted to appear in the essay. My complicated feelings about entitlement, shame and pity. My alternate apathy and anger at my fortune and others’ (perceived) misfortune. My mess of self-righteousness and prayer for humility. My wrestle with how much blessing Christ really bestows on the poor. I feel like a lot of this comes up for me when I think of my relationship to and with bathroom ladies in Kuwait because for years I’ve asked my perception to shift to see these women as women, not any way lesser for their poverty, not to be pitied, only as equal in worth and counted better than myself. One day I might find a way to say this, what is to love the poor and the rich when I might be called either in this country. But right now, with the months I have left here, my writing work is to listen first.

Considering Criticism & Rewriting As Revision

In December I submitted this essay for publication. I received brief editorial comments on the piece earlier this month:

Need to stick to a focus/theme and tell a story that supports it. I think the theme is that she was going through similar life changes, questioning, forming an identity much like her senior class. But there is no story to show this. As I read it, I can identify this theme, but then if you were to ask me for examples from the story that support this theme, I couldn’t tell you. I have no idea why this class was so memorable to her because there is no small story to show it. She jumps form “this class meant a lot to me, we were going through the same thing” to “I was sad to say goodbye” There needs to be a middle part.

Everything that doesn’t support this theme should be cut so that the focus is maintained throughout the piece.

Sentence structure is very loose. It is hard to follow at times. I get lost in run on sentences and fragments. It sounds like a stream of conscious thinking instead of well formed sentences.

I thought What a jerk. I do not know the editor. I don’t have a name. She is a she but I don’t know if that matters. I reread the comments at each stoplight on my drive home, adding to my argument against her points. This isn’t supposed to be a five paragraph personal narrative. This is associative on purpose. It’s a lyric essay (or another of my half dozen attempts). Fragments aren’t evil! The core of her critique is not knowing why the class matters at all and I thought about that between lights, tried to list scenes that illustrate why that group is important to me and I realized those senior English classes matter mostly because people and places near us when we figure something out or grow or stumble are entwined with our figuring out, growing or stumbling.

What I don’t understand is why I entwined my growth with three dozen teenagers whose names and faces, along with mine, fade to single memories summing a whole year, or why I felt urgently sentimental enough to write an essay about it.

But I did. And then I got a critique. And called a faceless editor a jerk. But when I got home and reread my entire essay I cringed. It is hard to follow. You really  have no idea why I like this class. I cram too much in a small space, ruminations that might sound whiny or didactic. I copy/ pasted the whole piece and kept the word cut in my head, paring down to the idea of parallel experiences. I still didn’t have a good single story to illustrate love for a class roster I’d need to look up to fully remember. But I found a better way in to explaining the year. Revision included a lot of new writing, big cuts, and rearranging. I did this because I want to publish and how will I ever manage that if I don’t practice applying editorial critique? The following essay is different and better than the original.


Growing Into Who I Am

The college essay feels intimidating from the start. Admissions committees judge your merit on GPA, letters of recommendation and the essay you hope shouts like me! Choose me! When I introduce the essay in September, students stress about which prompt might show them best. The first week of drafting is like watching a group of friends pose for pictures, turning a head first this way and then that, popping a hip, kissing the camera, brushing hair from the face, trading a smile for a smirk. They don’t know what they want to say about who they are. They don’t totally know who they are.

Last year I felt much the same. My seniors were choosing a future they couldn’t see. During their college essay drafting and revision work, conversations echoed from one student to the next. Tareq wanted to be a doctor, maybe, or an engineer. Nadine was interested in business. No one wanted to be a literature teacher. I thought how I got here. One afternoon I drafted my own essay, written from the other side of college after things have mostly turned out alright: Why I Am Still An English Teacher. Just as my classes were thinking up small stories to illustrate how compassionate or curious they were, I was mining my years in the classroom for reasons why I’d returned that fall. For years, I admitted, I held my profession at arms’ length, uncertain I really was a teacher. I thought I was more a writer. I was waiting to be more a writer.

But what happened, I explained, is that I practiced teaching day after day after day and became a good teacher. What happened is we moved abroad and teaching was my job. What happened is I found enough joy in the classroom to stay. As I wrote my essay and then modeled expansion and cuts with my classes, I thought how much becoming a teacher mirrors the writing process. So much messy work at the start. A few gorgeous images. But over the academic years, smoother transitions and more hearty middle paragraphs, perhaps even a bold imitation of another’s style.

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2017 Writing Goals

I don’t think I actually set 2016 writing goals unless they’re listed in a buried notebook. I did challenge myself to revise work and while I had a tantrum and didn’t manage to knock out the one-a-week revision edition, I did steadily  practice revision all year, sometimes playing for the sake of playing (like with poetry), sometimes finishing a story because it was time, and twice revising to publish (here and hopeful). A year ago I also started exploring creative nonfiction through an online course. That class woke up an interest in telling true stories and showed me the time involved in telling a story well. Meaning that while 2016 is the year I decided I can be a teacher and writer, 2016 is also the year I realized there are some stories/ projects I need time to commit to doing well.

But this post promised my 2017 writing goals. So, here they are:

  1. One notebook a month
  2. FINISH Canyon Edge story
  3. Practice looooonger essays/ expansion as revision
  4. Write a sonnet composed of found comments on a single article/ issue/ video
  5. Submit five pieces for publication to at least three different magazines/ sites

I can do that.

A Poem That Waited For Me

Four years ago, I found a blog out of Syria. Citizen journalism, mostly cell phone video and unedited, graphic descriptions of the daily violence parts of the country suffered. For a short while, I checked the blog often. One night I saw a video of a man carrying a girl, looking for help that was clearly beyond reach. I watched the video twice. I felt sick. I cried. Someone knocked on our apartment door and I answered. Our friend Harvey asked what was wrong and I said, Syria. I asked if he ever got caught up with a story like that, sad for a country you’ve never been to, hurt for people you won’t meet. Of course. I can’t remember how he explained the line he draws to keep from feeling consumed by tragedy but it was something like: know what is happening but look away when you need to, live.

Watching clip after clip of rubble streets, dust-covered bodies and women shouting to the sky breaks the heart. I think we need to feel broken for others. Empathy, deep sorrow, births prayer and action, even as we live in safe places. I still follow what is happening in Syria, and once checked to see if that blog was still up. It isn’t. But what I saw then, at the opening of Syria’s war, stays with me as horror that continues.

That clip of the man and girl is a scene I’ve written around before but last week I found a new way into the idea of what that girl’s life might look like now, if. I asked students to write a poem using a pre-Socratic epigraph to open. This is an exercise from The Practice Of Poetry that moves your poem in unexpected directions. A philosophical quote prompts wandering thought. The challenge is to tether your thoughts to images. Some epigraph options include

Actions always planned are never completed.
Democritus

The path up and down is one and the same.
Heraclitus

All things were together. Then mind came and arranged them.
Anaxagoras

I chose

Worlds are altered rather than destroyed.
Democritus

and because my seniors are finishing a unit on satire, I thought about the crass irony of calling a destroyed world altered. Yes, altered. Terribly altered. I thought of Syria, those before and after photos we’ve seen of market halls and streets, showing a world altered. I wrote and revised the following over a few days. I can’t include the epigraph in the final poem. Syria breaks my heart. This girl breaks my heart.


She Might Now

The video is jumpy, drops and whirls like
the men it follows, the men circling
a father carrying his dark-haired daughter
He carries her last minutes in his arms
Her lips move like a fish breathing
Her eyes are open, looking it seems, looking
Her voice does not speak or cry. The only
sounds come from the mouths of men,
noise that needs no translation because
I understand when the father turns
so the camera shows this girl’s dark hair
cut away at the back, a hole the size
of a fist in her skull, pink brain slipping out

When the camera returns to the girl’s face
I wonder does she see anything at all or
is her being now made from the fabric of her
father’s shirt, the smell of midday sun, the
muted waves of men’s voices in an alley,
the whisper of air on her lips as her father
turns and turns looking for someone to
come, take his daughter, make her whole

She would now be twelve or thirteen
She might now tuck her dark hair under
hijab and help her mother in the kitchen,
walk with her brother to a reopened school,
kiss her father’s cheek at his return late
afternoon, before they sit in slanting light
to eat food from chipped plates. She
might write songs with her shiny pink
brain, its delicate stem running nerves the
length of her limbs so she spins, arms
open, turning and turning in the last slip
of light day gives

A 50 Minute Paragraph

About a year and a half ago I drafted a story in three parts about a town somewhere out west. The story came to mind as I read my way through Psalms.

From Psalm 135

15 The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
    the work of human hands.
16 They have mouths, but do not speak;
    they have eyes, but do not see;
17 they have ears, but do not hear,
    nor is there any breath in their mouths.
18 Those who make them become like them,
    so do all who trust in them!

The passage startled me. It’s vivid and frightening. I thought what it might look like if a group of people went mute, deaf, bowed before silver and gold idols. If they became as those chunks of metal, without breath. I wrote the draft quickly. About a year later I workshopped the story with some friends, all of whom wanted the piece to be expanded.

I agreed. And tucked their notes away. I took the notes with me to Budapest this past summer. I flipped through the pages, thinking how to revise. But I didn’t write. I didn’t make any new notes.

I’ve had this story in my head since I first drafted it. I can see the landscape. The faces of the Edges. I want to get it right and I know any revision risks getting it only almost right. (Like the butterfly Ann Patchett talks about in “The Getaway Car,” the beautiful vision we’ve got for a piece that we pin down on the page at the cost of smudging its wing). Even so, today I sat at the dining table with the notes out again, opened my notebook, and started writing more. One paragraph more. The first wedge of expansion.

The one paragraph felt good to write. Lately I’ve opened my notebook to journal or pray or think in loops but this afternoon it felt good to return to fiction and better to start a revision I’ve put off. At the end, I had a page of writing, most of it with lines drawn through, a single paragraph hidden in the sticks, a single paragraph that opens the way for more paragraphs to tell the better story.


The discovery of gold in surrounding fields.

The gold rush was already five years on. In forty-nine and fifty, a few townsmen cut south to join wagon trains west, sending occasional letters home reporting rain and sun but no news of gold. Most of the men and women in town didn’t have an appetite for gambling on a stream bed. Their great risk taken a few generations before, the very risk that planted them at a yawning canyon, was tempered by a sense of practicality, also traced back a few generations, that supposed the land at the canyon was enough and there was no need to find clearer air than this, or a deeper river or darker soil. Most of the town agreed the sun turning the canyon to gold in late afternoon was rich enough. Before forty-nine, settlers continued to find their way to Canyon Ledge by way of misreading maps, following the wrong river or falling out with wagon masters. Those settlers arrived surprised by the tidy grid of a town, the surveyed acreage. There was no need to push on after a night’s rest. But Californian gold calibrated hearts due west so the town received no more stragglers, no more accidental settlers, so that when Marshall Severson turned up yellow metal with his plow, the only men and women in town were those who could’ve gone on quite happily without the  gold or the ribbons, shoes, pianos, bridles, window panes and pigs it might buy.

I Felt Like My Seniors: Writing A Personal Narrative That Says “Like Me, Choose Me”

English 12 started the school year with the College Essay. The all important personal narrative that matters more now that more college admission boards read applications holistically. When I applied to state university nearly twenty years ago (!) I remember handwriting a couple of paragraphs in pen. I do remember thinking about what I wanted to say first but I don’t remember worrying if those sentences would sell me as a student because I was weirdly unworried about where I went to college, thinking I’d move on to an art and design school later. This passive approach to major life decisions was a pattern I kept through dating, career choice, marriage, jobs and children up until maybe two years ago. It’s mostly worked out. But this year Justin and I are looking for a new country and while I’m not anxious about where we’ll land, I also want to be wise about the search, upping our chances at choosing a place rather than taking what seems the easiest or most practical option.

So as my seniors were thinking how to frame themselves in a single, short narrative, I was also worrying what I look like on paper. I spent a couple of months picking at my resume, counting the many times I opened the document, sighed, and closed it. Then I had to write a bio for the international teaching placement service we’re using. I was in the thick of reading college essay drafts and revisions. During conferences with students, we’d look at whether they were telling a specific story to illustrate their character or ambition. We’d point where to expand, where to cut. We’d commiserate over the difficulty of conclusions. All the while, I penned bio starts in my notebook and thought it was hopeless, I wouldn’t find a way to say to potential employers: This is who I am!

One Friday afternoon the kids were out and I made myself write the bio. A lot of my essays get a first draft like this, the just-write-it-now draft. After I’ve written an idea again and again in my notebook, I surrender it to a typed page, see how I might shape it.

My first draft was long. I had to cut nearly a third of the words. Concision appeals. Having to pare a piece forces precision into your work. I don’t totally like the short version best. However, some of the revised diction and syntax works better. While I posted the short version as my bio, I decided to create a last draft combining my long and short version in a piece I think works well. What is gained or lost in the expansion or cuts?

First, the combination draft at 971 words:

This summer I learned to bake French macarons. I can buy them at a bakery for a half dinar or about two dollars apiece but I wanted to see if I could bake a tray myself. I do this sometimes, pick a pastry and learn how to make it. When we first arrived in Kuwait, I spent a few months perfecting the croissant. For a while I baked our bread. I spent a year playing with chocolate chip cookie recipes until I found one I like enough to use exclusively. And now, the French macaron.

I bought a kitchen scale and weighed one hundred twenty grams of almond flour and two hundred grams unrefined powdered sugar which I then sifted between two bowls half a dozen times. Making macarons is meticulous. Recipes use words like “just” as in, whip the egg whites until they just form a stiff peak, and warn against over folding the almond flour and sugar with the egg. But you don’t know you’ve done it right until the macarons are in the oven forming crinkly feet at their edges. Even then, the shells might be hollow in the center. Macarons are maddening. I’d finish a batch and guess what to change on the next round. I ate a lot of macarons in one month. I sent plates to neighbors. I found my favorite flavors – pistachio, salted caramel, and raspberry. Most of my macarons were imperfect, the rounds a little lopsided, the filling too thick or thin. I had fun though.

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