Continuing to respond to your requests for blog posts about particular topics, I turn my attention this week to the question of how I’m able to write about my parents again and again while coming at that material from fresh angles.
To be honest, sometimes I worry about my returning to the story of my family over and over. I worry that readers will eventually tire of my writing about the accident that cost my father both of his hands when I was barely a year old and the rage he brought into our home throughout my childhood and on into my teenage years. Then I think about what a notable writer said—maybe it was Fitzgerald, maybe it was Flaubert (some of you will surely know)—about a writer being lucky to figure out early on what his obsessions were and to spend a lifetime writing about them.
I remember a story about Yogi Berra trying to explain the fine arts of hitting a baseball to another player and then realizing that he really couldn’t explain. “Let me show you,” he said, and he proceeded to demonstrate. Yogi was also known to say at some point, “How can you hit and think at the same time?”
I’m thinking about this as I start responding to readers’ requests, the first being to discuss the flash form of creative nonfiction. Let’s say we’re talking about 750 words or fewer, the size of essays that our friends at Brevity publish. Believe me, there are plenty of folks who are smarter about this form than I, but I’ll do my best to make what I hope will be some useful points, and maybe, like Yogi, I’ll even try to show you.
I want to thank everyone who responded to last week’s invitation to submit requests for future posts. I received some really good suggestions, and I meant to respond to one of them in this post, but then I saw the sad news that Kent Haruf, author of Benediction, Eventide, Plainsong, The Tie That Binds, and Where You Once Belonged, had died, and my mind turned from issues of craft to issues of how to carry oneself as a writer. Kent was expert at both.
I’ve recently seen a Facebook post that allows you to track all of the states that you’ve visited. That got me wondering about how many states I’ve visited to do a reading or to teach a workshop. The total is twenty-eight and spans from Alaska to Florida to Vermont and a whole lot of other places in between—all thanks to the kindness of folks like you.
A brief post after a power outage on a snowy day. I’ve been thinking about the fact that teachers of creative writing often teach us something when they don’t seem to be offering much instruction at all.
When I think of all the workshops that I’ve taken, it occurs to me that what I remember most aren’t specific techniques that I learned, but how I learned to think about writing the way my teachers did.
A teacher of creative writing is someone who’s been thinking about craft much longer than his or her students have—not only thinking about it, but coming to a deeper understanding of how a piece of prose or poetry works.
This is a passage of fact and nostalgia:
This is a post about teaching, but it starts with a visit to my doctor’s office to have some blood drawn for a routine check of my thyroid levels.
I smile at the nurse who draws my blood because she seems just a tad weary, or harried, or both on this cold, rainy day just after Halloween.
“Did you have many trick-or-treaters?” I ask.
She shakes her head. “No, we live out in the country, back up a long lane. Not many folks find us out there.” Then she looks at me, and I see a tremor of a grin at the corners of her mouth. “We lived in town when the kids were young and I loved to see all the little ones in their costumes.”
My cousin likes to tell the story of the time when she was a girl, about ten years old, and she was on vacation on Sanibel Island with her parents. They went to a gator farm, and there she was given a stick with a marshmallow on the end and told to hold it out to an alligator and the alligator would come and take the marshmallow from the end of the stick.
I’ve seen the photographs. I’ve seen my cousin crouching at the water’s edge, holding out the stick, less than three feet away from an alligator, just waiting for him to snap up the marshmallow.
I was thinking recently of all the ways that we sometimes keep ourselves from writing. Here are but a few:
1. We wait for inspiration to strike: Sometimes, particularly in the early years of a writing career, we get the idea that our writing is the result of being inspired, and if we just don’t feel inspired, well, then, we just don’t, period, and we wait for that inspiration to come, and we wait, and we wait, and we wait. . . . We need to recognize that when we write, we practice a craft, and the more we practice it, the better we become. It’s not inspiration that we need; it’s time, a quiet place, and effort.
One thing I always tell my students is that they have to learn to read the way a writer must if he or she is going to develop a deeper understanding of craft, but what does that really mean? How does a writer read?
I’ll speak only for myself. Years ago, I started reading with an eye for how a writer made a particular piece of writing. What artistic choices did she or he make to create particular effects? I’ll restrict myself to prose, but I suspect the poets among you might be able to apply what I have to say to poetry. Writers should read not only to identify and eventually internalize specific artistic choices, but also to further define their own aesthetics.