How I Do This Thing

Rarely easily.

Sometimes while wearing earplugs.

Often with a clock ticking down to draining the pasta or bedtime routine or my own sleep.

Often knowing there are half a dozen other things I should be doing instead: stretching my hamstring, stain treating a pile of kids’ clothes, unpacking the last boxes from our move, reading a book, cleaning the fridge, reorganizing art/ craft supply cupboards.

With much joy and doubt.

Right now my husband is folding laundry. He is working efficiently. He promised Grant they’d build Lego in a moment. Grant wants to know where the dark gray pieces are. Where’s the dark gray bin, Papa? Justin points toward Grant’s room. I put it in there, he says, It’s there. Go look. Justin is so good at supporting my writing. I don’t think he reads most of what I put up here unless I tell him to, or want his opinion. The content of my writing is of occasional interest to him, though when I give him a piece or ask him to sit and listen while I read, he usually likes what I say. Or has a question. I did not marry a man who thinks my art is hot. And he knows it won’t make money. But still, he tells me to go write. He sends me out to a cafe or folds the laundry while I sit at the dining table with my laptop open. Once or twice a year he braces when I start to weep because I don’t know why I write this much when I haven’t got a way forward I can’t see where it goes I don’t know who will read this I have no connections I am afraid I am too tired each day to make anything really go with this work what is this work why am I doing this I just can’t see what for and why didn’t I start publishing fifteen years ago because no one knows my name I haven’t been anywhere maybe I should self-publish or maybe I should quit.

I can’t quit. Knowing that makes me feel a little ill. I do this on purpose, even when the writing drags and the intrinsic motivation is more habit than hope.

Keep writing, I write in my notebook. Drafts are interrupted with all caps commands: KEEP WRITING KEEP WRITING. I feel a tilt in my work. I have new stories in my head that I put on the page in different ways. KEEP WRITING. I have old stories that deserve work. When I run or while I bike or on the subway platform, I’ll think how to reset a character, reshape the plot.

How I do this is slowly.

Maybe a month ago my friend Tara, a poet and writer, and I talked about how we fit writing in our regular life. Writing is part of our regular life. But we have more hours of practice elsewhere. She is an accomplished educator. We are mothers. She said we should go away for two weeks sometime. Go away and write without distraction.

Around the same time she and I talked, I had another conversation with Justin. I said, I’m not getting an MFA. This is it. That might be the moment I really decided I can’t do an MFA just to do an MFA but I am going to write like I’m earning one. This is good. I can push my writing as far as I can go.

Also around this time I saw a student art show and learned a little about Sammie Kim. Her art is precise, wild, imaginative, odd. She appreciates risk. I told her I wanted to buy one of her pieces because her work is what I want from my own practice: what pleasure to leap, what diligence to work, what trust to risk. I am buying two of her pieces. One, an exact ink drawing of two pinecones and the other a memory of her and her brother during childhood, with thoughts and sketches floating in the air. I love that two such different pieces are from the same creative mind.

From the other room I hear Justin ask Grant if he knew eleven was a prime number. You mean a good number? Grant asks. A prime number, Justin says. It means eleven is divisible by one and itself.

On the living room floor is the art project Claire started. Miniature watercolor paintings the size of playing cards.

Our night is quiet now. I’ve written through bedtime routine. Now to bed. Finally.

(759 words)

Absolutely Not A Shock

Shelly Wheeler was ready when her sons’ school got shot up. She was standing in line at Starbucks when her phone dinged. It was around nine am. Her oldest twin Dylan messaged

Mom somethings wrong were on lockdown i’m ok

Later in interviews, Shelly recalled the next part differently. In interviews with local and national television news crews, Shelly said she knew at that moment her children were in danger. She said it was a mother’s heart. But what happened was she looked at the message and her body and mind paused. The man in line ahead of her ordered his venti americano but she couldn’t move her feet forward to order her usual latte. So maybe she did understand, at a molecular level, that this text signaled a shift in her world, but when her feet would not move and her mouth could not form a word, Shelly didn’t think she was entangled with her sons’ present experience. She thought she was having a stroke. The barista leaned forward a little and asked if Shelly was okay. Before Shelly could will her head to nod or her tongue to work, a woman at nearby table shouted, Oh my God! Oh my God! And jumped so quickly from her seat the chair tipped over. Oh my God, the woman shouted again and then, There’s a shooter at the school!

Shelly turned as though underwater and saw a woman who looked like any number of mothers of teenagers. This woman was already at the shop entrance and then half jogging twenty steps toward a Toyota, key fob in hand, headlights winking. Shelly turned back to the barista whose mouth was open and said, My sons are there. She held up her phone. My twins, she said. Shelly’s legs would still not respond but her thumbs worked again. She messaged Dylan

Put your phone on silent
Tell the others your with
I love you

She messaged her younger twin, Gabe

Baby, are you ok?

She messaged her husband, Don, who was already at his construction site an hour east. Neither Gabe nor Don replied immediately. Shelly looked up to see the barista still waiting, perhaps not for an order but for further news about her boys or the shooting. Another barista called, Jacob, americano. The man and woman in line behind Shelly asked if she needed to sit. That’s what shook her awake again. No, she said, No. I need to go. Thank you. And like that her legs worked and she floated toward the door, across the parking lot, to her sedan. She called her supervisor and said she’d be a little late, that something was going on at the boys’ school. Sirens screamed by. Shelly was split between her body and the space just above. She pushed the ignition start. She used a turn signal to exit her parking spot. At the light she checked her phone but there were no new messages.

By that evening, anyone clicking on an article or news clip about the shooting at Bayfield United High School would see her face, hear her voice and in the following days as she refined her narrative, she would emerge as a representative for the tragedy. Her sons lived and yet she could speak most eloquently about the loss. That morning on the drive across town, Shelly whispered soundbites and dug through her bag with one hand to find her lipstick which she reapplied at the red light before calling Don to tell him he should get in his truck and head home. Don asked was she sure it was a shooter and for the first time since receiving Dylan’s text, she considered the possibility that the lockdown was overprotective. Maybe nothing was wrong. Three years ago when the boys were in eighth grade there was a school shooting in Austin that killed seven kids and she’d watched all the interviews with students, teachers, and parents, and read all the op-eds, followed the trial of a fourteen year old boy who was mad because his girlfriend broke up with him the week before. The girlfriend was among the dead. Shelly devoured the tragedy. She did not understand why anyone was shocked at the tragedy, especially after the photo and story of the ostracized shooter ran on the nightly news. The kid looked nuts.

After Austin, Shelly followed every school shooting, even the under-reported ones like Milltown and Chattanooga where the loss of two and three students respectively did not garner national interest. If Don noticed the tabs on her computer, he didn’t say anything. Shelly joined the PTO and pushed the district to adopt a program that educated the student body about the effects of bullying and funneled troubled students into counseling. At each new school shooting she recognized herself in the semicircle of parents gathered at the fire station or holding candles at a vigil or speaking in the weeks or months after in the halls of state and national government offices.

Shelly said to Don, It’s real. I know it is. That exchange played well when Pepper Nelson of NBC spoke with Shelly while Don was at her side. Don nodded solemnly and said to Pepper, My girl knew and I’m glad I had the sense to listen.

Shelly knew just what to say when Pepper cued the cameraman. Shelly turned her face a little to the right and said it was such a shock that this kind of thing could happen in Bayfield. This wasn’t the kind of place where something so tragic could happen. This was fabulous against the backdrop of the now empty school building whose doors were wrapped with yellow police tape. This was fabulous interspersed with footage of the evacuation of students with hands on their heads, FBI and law enforcement in crouched positions on rooftops, behind cars in the lot. Shelly sniffed a little and said she mourned with the other mothers and fathers. We are all Bayfield today, she said.

That evening at home, jittery from adrenaline and rank from fear and worry, Shelly sank on the couch between Dylan and Gabe and pulled them to her, awkwardly. They were sixteen years old, tall and muscular, probably the kind of students who walked by the shooter without saying hi. The boys let their mother hold them pressed against her breasts. Shelly relaxed her arms and the boys sat up. Mom, Dylan said, I was really scared. I thought I might die. For a moment, Shelly wished he’d said that when Brock Evans interviewed the family an hour earlier, because it was so vulnerable and perfect for the story. If a boy like Dylan could be afraid, what was America coming to? She kissed his cheek, patted his hand. I’m sorry, sweetie, she said. Gabe cleared his throat. Gabe hadn’t talked since she’d picked him up from the football field where the student body congregated after the shooter was apprehended. Shelly turned to her younger son. He opened his mouth as if to speak. She looked just above his head where she knew he was.

(1185 words)

When I Decided To Write Forever

During freshman year of college I met Andy Pech who read my poetry with a neutral face and then asked what was the point of all the different fonts. We were sitting knee to knee in a tiny cubicle of the Writing Lab in the campus library. He tapped the page with his pen and waited for an answer. I burned. I said something about emphasis and his sigh made clear several fonts in a skinny poem did not emphasize anything. At another session Andy asked if I really wanted to learn anything about writing. I was showing up for writing feedback once a week or so, getting a few pieces together for the campus literary magazine but not actually trusting Andy to spot necessary revision. Rather than accept criticism, I defended my fonts. (Somewhere in central Wisconsin there is a tiny paperback 1999 edition of Barney Street with a wildly fonted poem by sarah burchell or Sarah Burchell or however I was signing my name then). But a decade later in my own creative writing classroom I waited for answers from my own students because Andy taught me to have a reason for your writing choice. And, perhaps, don’t hold a draft too tightly.

During my sophomore year I got a B- on an essay and scheduled an appointment with the professor who said, You are wordy. The end. He was right. He glanced at my paper and said, For example here… A handful of extra words, a redundant sentence. Four or five years ago I worked with a woman who gave me the Vicious Editor game which I adore: cut one third of the words.

I was often one of the best writers in my college workshops. Sometimes I met with another strong writer outside of workshop so we could have a rigorous discussion of our pieces. I won awards from the English department and it gave me pleasure to know these men and women who instructed my craft also appreciated my craft. One November, to celebrate my twentieth birthday, I read poetry at the Mission Coffee House. My dad drove three hours to surprise me in the audience. At the podium, I looked out at friends. I looked out at my dad who tells me every year or so that I should write a book. I looked out at Andy, leaning against a door frame with his arms crossed, smiling just a little.

Sometimes I google one of the names I remember from writing workshops. Or I think of emailing my old professors. I want to know who is still writing. I want to say I am still writing.

The semester I decided I would write forever was when I took a fiction workshop with Larry Watson. At this point I was already enrolled in the School of Ed., and starting the English methods block. I supposed I would teach a few years before enrolling in an MFA program. The day before winter break I had an appointment with Professor Watson. He held my story. He wasn’t effusive but he told me I was good writer, asked if I was going to go to grad school, said he’d be happy to write me a letter. Very likely, Larry Watson does not remember me, or if he remembers me it is only a smudge of my face or a part of the story I wrote that semester. The story he held was “Rose Petal Lips” and it was while drafting that story that I knew I would write forever. I only recall a couple of images and plot points of “Rose Petal Lips” but the process of drafting that story is what stays. I remember running in the dark early morning with scenes and dialog in my mind, trying to hold the turns/ details/ lines until I could get back to my notebook. I remember stopping and crying because I figured out why a character was so broken. I told Professor Watson I wasn’t sure.

Daydream drafting. Parking at a table to fill pages. Revising until the piece is what I want, or as close. This is a practice I choose. I am compelled to shape stories and poems. I cannot only journal. Truly, I do not understand why I open to a story, why I want to explain that time or place, why I find myself thinking a line of poetry when I look at my son. What I need to do is set explanation aside and write without fear why or how, without fear no one reads, without fear. Maybe what I am doing is writing and writing so that when a story comes along, I am not afraid to commit its words to paper but am instead prepared to use those words perfectly. No wild fonts or wordiness or pride or uncertainty. Only a story shot through my mind, shaking my body.

(818 words)

Sustain Creative Momentum

Earlier this year I was reading my colleague David Lee’s manuscript about what it looks like to shape curriculum around design thinking and applied learning. David is finishing his fifth year at Korea International School and has spent a great chunk of his time learning how to implement design thinking in his makerspace and working with his colleagues to develop applied learning transdisciplinary units. He writes about process. One part of the process is to sustain creative momentum.

I paused at that phrase. Sustain creative momentum. I wrote it at the top of a page in my notebook. And in the time since, I’ve turned the phrase over in my mind, written it in the middle of my writing practice, considered what it means to sustain creative momentum when I don’t know why.

This transition year is tough. I expected my role as a school wide utility teacher (I’ve stepped into PK and AP rooms) to afford me more creative energy to write – after all, as a substitute I don’t plan or grade. But just the move to Korea made everything new: neighborhood, routine, transportation, food, apartment. And at school I am constantly in the middle of new situations: an age group I haven’t taught before, a subject I don’t understand, another teacher’s space. While I might be able to leave school at school (I try), our family life is a flux of whatever any one of us is dealing with re: transition, change. So much about this move is good but the difficult parts feel like absolute disaster.

One of my personal disasters is writing. The other night I told Justin that I am not working as I expected to, not starting anything new, just sorta picking at work that’s done, sending revised pieces out with the slimmest hope any editor decides to print one of my essays or stories. When I sit to write, I journal or pray. I’m fortunate to write/ edit a little for the school and I don’t discount that work as useful or good practice. But years ago I decided writing matters enough to me that I want to keep at the craft. More, I decided I want to share what I write. This year I am not doing much of either. And that makes me sad. I cannot develop my craft without developing my craft. I doubt I will touch art if I don’t write prolifically. But this year I thought would deliver flow is as fragmented as any other so when I read

sustain creative momentum

I knew that’s what I need to do as a writer, but how?

I have a project. In a week I will probably think it’s the stupidest thing I could do with my time. (Looking at a file of unpublished stories I sometimes think how great a cook I could be if I quit bothering the words). But I will do this project because it will teach me something I don’t know yet. This project is manic. But whatever. For the month of May I will write daily and post 500-1000 words on the odd days. Narrative and/ or poetry. Stand alone or serial posts. Personal, outlandish, boring, safe, fun. I’ll pick up and drop themes. I’ll probably whinge. For sure I’ll write a lot of junk and it’s a little frightening to think of spending a month being less precious about what I toss up on this space but whatever. Really. This project is about choosing to sustain creative momentum when I don’t know why.

Rules

  1. Have fun most of the time
  2. Experiment: structure, tense, POV, syntax & usage
  3. Reuse ideas but don’t pick at old drafts
  4. Daydream draft
  5.   

At some point during the month I’ll add a fifth rule. I can already feel my shoulders tightening, a slight pull in my neck at the anticipation and dread of making this project work, and a stone in my belly at the thought that this month, like so much of my other writing, will only pile on the practice while failing to call out a fuller writing life. I am good at calling my pessimism or apathy realistic and I am good at cutting tiny sprigs of hope from my heart. This year, this wonderful and tough year in a new country, this year of feeling out of place or inadequate, this year I occupy my mind with sorrow and fear, this year of faded, renewed and early friendship; this year wondering why I am here – this is the year I realized I am missing deep hope. I want hope like a wildflower garden spilling down a hill or crowding a yard. My hope is more like a row of marigolds edging the vegetable garden, more practical than pretty, present because I’m supposed to have hope, but kept in line.

I want to practice hope this month. I practice craft with the hope I write art one day. I draft with the idea someone will read this piece and respond. But those tiny sprigs are crowded by stalks of fear and doubt. What happens if I decide to write without any expectation beyond: practice craft, have fun. What happens if this month I hope for thousands of words and two or three really good starts? What a nice, safe hope. What happens if this month I hope for a clear idea of what comes next for my writing work? Start before you’re ready. This month I will sustain creative momentum, with hope.

(915 words)