Sundays often tempt me to give in to nostalgia. Probably because I’m getting older and there’s more to look back on than there used to be, or maybe there’s something about the day that’s still a day of quiet for me, the way it was when I was younger and Sunday meant church and then afternoons of leisurely visits and stories told, a time of pause before the work and school week took up again. I still feel the rhythm of those Sundays, even this is a much different time than it was, and I go more inside myself and often end up looking backward. I’ve often thought that this is the way the writer (well, at least this writer) operates best. I move out into the world and then retreat from it so I can process what’s been happening out there for me. I guess I need to let things settle and leave their mark on me so I can make something of the experience later.
Tomorrow, for example, I’ll start the new Spring Quarter here at Ohio State, engaging with thirty new students, fifteen in each class I’ll be teaching, an advanced undergraduate workshop in fiction and another one in nonfiction. I’ll spend ten weeks moving back and forth between the two genres. This Friday, we’ll be hosting our Open House for newly admitted MFA students, and I’ll be doing my part to welcome them and to try to sell our program to them so that by April 15, the national day of reckoning for such matters, they’ll be willing to say yes and become Buckeyes in the autumn. Then on Saturday I’ll be off to Cullowhee, North Carolina, to appear at the Western Carolina Literary Festival along with a group of writers I’m looking forward to getting to know. The world made big and then small, shrinking from classrooms and airports and auditoriums to the 200 square feet of my writing room.
Just recently, I made my first Facebook connection with someone I knew when I was in the seventh and eighth grade at Arbor Park Middle School in Oak Forest, Illinois, and our pleasant exchanges have made me nostalgic for those days. Although I was born in Lawrence County, downstate, my parents and I moved to Oak Forest when I was in the third grade. My mother was a grade school teacher, and she took a teaching position in Arbor Park District 145. Thus began six years of moving back and forth between Oak Forest and our farm in southeastern Illinois. We spent our holidays and summers on the farm, and the school year in Oak Forest. As a result, I always felt like a “tweener,” not fully belonging in either place. I’ve read that the creative impulse often comes from this being caught between two cultures, which was certainly the case for me. Folks in Oak Forest had customs and language that were different from what I’d known in our rural part of the state. In Oak Forest, folks ate lunch at noon and not dinner as we did on the farm. Their dinner was the evening meal, which we called supper. Up north, as my father always called Oak Forest, people said “wash” instead of “warsh.” They said “root” with a short “o” sound instead of the long “o” common downstate. As a child, trying my best to fit in, I had to be a careful observer. I had to watch and listen and then try to match the customs. I had to be the sort of person that Henry James said a writer had to be, that person upon whom nothing was lost.
It makes me think of the Miller Williams poem, “Let Me Tell You,” one of those poems whose title leads into the first line:
Let Me Tell You
how to do it from the beginning
First notice everything:
The stain on the wallpaper
of the vacant house
the mothball smell of a
Miss nothing. Memorize it.
You cannot twist the fact you do not know.
So reads the poem’s first stanza. It’s a poem that offers a number of excellent writing tips: “Invent whatever will support your line./Leave out the rest.” Or the following: “Be suspicious of any word you learned/ and were proud of learning.” Then it turns to its stark and yet ultimately redemptive end:
When your father lies
in the last light
and your mother cries for him,
listen to the sound of her crying.
When your father dies
If there is a heaven
he will forgive you
if the line you found was a good line.
It does not have to be worth the dying.
It’s a poem that I share often with people, and on this day of rest, I think particularly of its first piece of advice to notice everything, a skill that serves us well whether we’re writing poems, stories, novels, essays, or whether we’re just doing our best to live a well-considered life. “Miss nothing. Memorize it.”
Tomorrow, I’ll probably ask my new students to remember pairs of shoes that they wore when they were very young. I’ll ask them to choose a pair that still carries some sort of emotional resonance for them. I’ll ask them to do a freewrite that begins with the words, “I was wearing them the day. . . .” I’ll trick my students into recalling a moment that left a mark on them, and from there we’ll spend ten weeks building essays and stories. I’ll try to convince my students that those shoes if they “put them on” again, will carry them far. They aren’t just shoes, anymore than what I recall from Oak Forest days (the Yankee Woods Forest Preserve where I both lost my first-baseman’s mitt and then a few years later had my first kiss, Tony’s Corner Store where my mother sent me up Laramie Street from our apartment , the lagoon near the Pick ‘n’ Save where I watched my friends skate and play hockey, the 159th Street viaduct that during a hard rain would fill with water, the bakery where my friends and I stopped on the way to school to buy long johns and brownies) are just things. Our lives are in the details. Everything matters.