CRAFT Essay: Kleines Cafe, Vienna

Read the first draft of the piece here and the finished essay here


I wrote the first draft of this essay in Kleines Cafe, on a three day trip to Vienna from Budapest. When I returned to Budapest I set my laptop on a dresser in the front bedroom of our apartment there and typed from the notebook, posted with a quick look for minor errors. I always miss something.

(One time when I was six or seven years old I drew a woman wearing a dress made of ruffles, a dress so long that I used two sheets of paper. I put the drawing on the fridge and a day or two later noticed that under her puffy sleeves, I’d forgotten her arms).

That summer we were in Budapest, preparing for our last year in Kuwait. We understood the school year ahead would be made of decisions that shaped our individual and family life. I was thinking about my history of passive decision making and how I now wanted certainty as we chose a new country. What I didn’t want was to just land somewhere. What I really wanted was to have a place in mind and go there. At that point I could not guess where I might be when I was writing notes in December 2017 of my new dayplanner. The thought was promise. The thought was fear.

I returned to the essay – thinking of the first thoughts as potential essay – last autumn when I reread the piece and found more to explore, particularly the faith element. I also asked an editor to read through the first draft, to help with verb tense and structure. A couple of years ago, I decided to practice expansion as revision. Paring down is great. Knowing when to open is also great and my editor helped me see what a reader might want answered.

I grew the essay from its first typed draft by writing around ideas (identity and faith) I wanted to expand. While I am less afraid to write about what I believe, I am more wary of getting something really wrong and misleading readers by not fully examining my faith – even the tricky bits  which necessitate faith. Always I find starting in my notebook best. I see my thoughts in my hand. I use the pages to pace. I jump around and repeat, cross out. During this process I questioned why I write about anything personal. There are two impulses when I write from my mind heart body spirit: tell all like I’m naked, or shut up. What I wanted from this revision is a piece that looks at my past to understand the present of that summer, to better explain why I wanted to make a good decision – perhaps less for the country we’d move to, and more for the process of trusting God to lead as I listen.

 

Midwinter Rant – & Revision

It’s day three hundred and seventeen of winter. We’re halfway to spring!

I underestimated the work of just getting through a transition year. This week I nearly missed the bus home from school. I sat in my seat, whispered a gentle fuck and then quietly cried for most of the commute. Three nearby colleagues noticed, patted my shoulder or said a kind word when they stood for their stop, offered a little commiseration, sympathy. Later in the week when Claire stood in front of me on the sidewalk and declared, You don’t get it! I am having a tough week! All week I am sad! You don’t understand! I thought of being the grown up who two days earlier cried on the bus ride home from school.

Because rants are allowed transitionless tangents:

I spent the week thinking about one essay I am revising. I worked on this essay a little each day. I thought about this essay on my morning runs. I dreamed this essay. I actually dreamed a paragraph to add, woke up and made a note.

Personal narrative is exhausting. This particular essay is a challenge because it centers on the years following the death of my friend’s infant and after two years of drafting and revising it is near completion though, as I added in a line, the conclusion I reach is that I will continue to ponder these things for years to come. There is no neat, tidy or uplifting package for the initial loss or grief and what I saw as I allowed time to write and think about that summer and my intersection with the event and lives involved – what I saw is that a first grief can open other griefs.

This must be true at any tragedy. We think we are sad for one thing because we are sad for that one thing, but then we are also sad for this other thing and soon our grief for the two entwines.

I was angry for three years after this infant died. I thought I was angry at the loss or the situation or even certain people present then, but the anger may also have been for the way this one grief made me see another, different sorrow I was holding.

If I didn’t keep a notebook or draft personal narrative, I might be better at sitting on a bus and pretending everything was fine.

This essay. I might have ruined it with the latest revisions. At the least I have taken the term personal literally and explored desires and fears circling motherhood, desires and fears I was already examining when my friend’s infant died and, in the years since, I linked those desires and fears with that summer’s grief.

One afternoon I took the kids to a small cafe for hot chocolate. I sat with my laptop open, adding to this essay, and Claire asked why I like to write. I said I want to make art. But when I consider why I write personal narrative, I have no good answer. A couple of weeks ago I was out to coffee with my friend Erin and I found a way to say why personal narrative is difficult: there is a pressure to really get it right. Especially the tough parts. I often start writing about something just because I need to write about that something but when I decide to turn the idea into a (someday) shared essay, there is terrible dread I won’t say what I need to say in a way that translates to understanding.

Early in the week my friend Sarah messaged me a quote from Australian author John Clarke.

“Writing another draft” sounds exhausting. “Having a bit of a tinker” sounds delightful.

And a day or two later Erin messaged me a link to a Reading My Tea Leaves post about writing or creating while also being a mother, a thoughtful reminder that what I am doing piecemeal adds to my craft. More, that motherhood adds to my craft.

Yesterday Grant looked at my engagement ring and asked if it is a real gem. I said yes. He asked, A diamond? A real diamond? Yes. His eyes got big. He said, We’re so rich! We are, in so many ways.

Well, this rant wound down nicely. It is still cold. We are trading coughs. Strawberries cost as much as a dollar apiece. And it is still cold.

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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