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Archive for June, 2012

We hear so often how precious life is, how we should live every day to the fullest, how we should stop and smell the roses, never go to bed angry, and to always say “I love you” to those we do love.

It’s so easy to get swept away in the angst of our day-to-day existence, worrying about bills or the job or the kids, or the class we might fail, or the person who won’t drive slowly down the street. Small and big things worry us, take us away from that concept of “living in the now,” which I’m still not completely sure I understand.

Today I’ve been thinking a lot about how things can so quickly change in just one minute and that awful something happens to make us slow down, sit still, look around, think about our friends, families, loved ones, and look at them in a different light. When that awful something happens, I also look inward and do a quick self-assessment, wondering if I’ve wandered too far away from the person I want to be, because I’m so worried about every other thing on the planet.

A sweet student at my school, someone quite beloved by probably every single person she’s ever met, lost her brother today. Recently married, he was a police officer, and he was two hours away doing some police training when he collapsed, from the over 100-degree heat that has been plaguing the state for the past three or four days.

I didn’t know this man, but my heart aches for him, his new bride, his sweet sister, his entire family who are now, suddenly, without someone they love and care about very much. No one could have foreseen something like this happening. We go forward and suddenly the road bends to the left. We are caught off-guard. What we thought would happen, doesn’t happen. The time we thought we had, we suddenly no longer have.

And there’s a deep hole, a deep ache, something that never, ever gets filled again, no matter how much time goes by.

So I found the recording my sister had made, when she upgraded her old phone. On that old phone was a voicemail left by our mom, who left us herself almost two years ago. I put the CD into the computer, and waited.

And there was that wonderful, beautiful voice I never thought I would hear again. And I can hear it whenever I want, only she’ll just be saying the same thing over and over. It doesn’t matter. I have that voice. Something to always hold onto.

I hope my sweet student and her family have that too. I hope they have something beautiful and wonderful to hold onto that will always remind them of that brother, son, husband. It will always hurt, but we go on nevertheless.

We do take things for granted; we are only humans, and humans are frail, jealous, selfish. But we are also fragile, vulnerable, hungry, and alone. We can, if we so choose, take the time to breathe and enjoy each other, sing and smile and care for each other. It’s not always easy, but I think if we get up each morning and smile in gratitude for another day, and ask ourselves “what good can I accomplish today” and then really try to be that good, maybe it will make the journey that much more pleasant.

We all have loves; we all have loses. We need to remember that everything changes in just one second and live the life we need to live, and take all of our memories with us. Always.

 

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I was driving in Nashua, New Hampshire, showing the sights to people, on June 5 when I received a “breaking news” email informing me that Ray Bradbury had died. It will probably be one of those things that I always remember–like where I was and what I was doing when Reagan got shot, when John Lennon was murdered, when the announcement of Arthur Fiedler’s passing came on the radio. Even though I connect Nashua, New Hampshire with the first time I met Andre Dubus, now it will have another remembrance link for me.

I wanted to write something about how I felt, hearing this news, and of course it wasn’t even 12 hours after hearing this that the inevitable accolades started being posted, tweeted, read on the radio, passed in general conversation. I wanted to think about it for a while.

I teach Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 in my Composition 1 course. I’ve used it as the jumping off point in a course on dystopian literature. I know there is more to Bradbury than this one book, but I have to be honest and admit that other than his book on writing–Zen in the Art of Writing— and Something Wicked This Way Comes, my knowledge of his writing is somewhat limited.

So I started researching. I looked up things Bradbury had to say and write about writing and about his own writing, for the most part. I was pleasantly pleased to find out that Bradbury and I agree on so much when it comes to writing, only he was able to follow through on a much more regular basis and I’m still trying to work through the old “I haven’t got enough time” crutch.

But after reading so much of what Bradbury had to say along those lines, I think the crutch is almost ready to be cast aside.

I absolutely demand of you and everyone I now that they be widely read in every damn field there is, in every religion and every art form and don’t tell me you haven’t got time! There’s plenty of time. You need all of these cross-references. You never know when your head is going to use this fuel, this food for its purposes.

Sometimes my creative writing students look at me oddly when I keep pressuring them to read or I make references to novels, stories, poems, or pop culture and they look at me in such a way that I know they haven’t got the first clue what I’m talking about. And that hurts my heart, because it means they don’t read, they don’t observe, they don’t want to absorb as much knowledge as they can from this planet. And they should.

Or I ask my online creative writing students to write about their favorite short story writers, or a favorite poet and I so often get, “Oh, I don’t read, I don’t like it very much.” Then what in the name of all that’s holy are you doing in a creative writing class? (Please don’t tell me because they think it’s going to be a fluff course, because one look at my syllabus and they know—it isn’t.)

The only good writing is intuitive writing. It would be a big bore if you know where it was going. It has to be exciting, instantaneous, and it has to be a surprise. Then it all comes blurting out and it’s beautiful. I’ve has a sign by my typewriter for 25 years now which reads: DON’T THINK!!

This is a very difficult lesson for students of creative writing to learn. Most of them are products of 14 or more years in the public schools and it has been drilled into them to outline papers, think it through, know where they are going before they sit down to construct their thesis and body and conclusion.

And then they meet me–or someone like Ray Bradbury–and they get that blown out of the water.

“But I wanted Pete to find Angela and live happily ever after!” Alrighty, then, that might be what YOU wanted, but what about what Pete and Angela wanted? I try to get them to understand that they have to let the characters live their own lives, go where they have to go—surprise not only the reader (when it gets that far) but the writer too. I love it when my characters do that and I sit back and think, “well, I wouldn’t have figured that’s where they would have ended up.”

You will have to write and put away or burn a lot of material before you are comfortable in this medium. You might as well start now and get the necessary work done. For I believe that eventually quantity will make for quality. how so? Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can quality come. All arts, big and small, are the elimination of waste motion in favor of the concise declaration. The artist learns what to leave out. His greatest art will often be what he does not say, what he leaves out, his ability to state simply with clear emotion, the way he wants to go. 

Students—and a lot of writers—fight against revision, fight against deleting, fight against any sort of constructive criticism. Students often say, “but that’s exactly what I wanted to say, exactly how I wanted to say it” and my response to that is always “good. Then put it in your drawer and take it out for you and only you to read.” They want to fart out a poem or a story and not revise and just say, “It’s done” and they want to hear everyone say “Oh, that’s wonderful.” But it’s not. And if I was a crueler person, I’d say, “honey, even your fourth draft isn’t very good.” I can’t get them to understand that it’s a craft and as such it has to be practiced on a daily, regular schedule—as Bradbury says, in “quantity”—in order to improve.

I always say to students, give me four pages a day, every day. That’s three or four hundred thousand words a year. Most of that will be bilge, but the rest…? It will save your life!

One step at a time. One tree at a time builds into a forest. Or as one of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott has written, just take it bird by bird. I like how Bradbury says all that writing will save your life. I think he’s right.

Young writers shouldn’t kid themselves about learning to write. The best way to do that is to train yourself in the short story. Read every damn one that’s ever been written and there aren’t that many really good ones. You must live feverishly inside a library. Colleges are not going to do you any good unless you are born, raised, and live in a library every day of your life.

One of the things I do with my advanced fiction writing course is to have the students pick a writer as a mentor for the duration of 16 weeks. I can’t have them read “every damn one that’s ever been written” in the space of 16 weeks, and I think they’d probably report me to the Dean and/or President if I even tried to go down that route. But I know—and try to get them to understand—the value of reading a lot. In addition to the anthology out of which they read almost every story, they pick a mentor, that I mentioned at the start of this paragraph.

During the course of 16 weeks, they are supposed to read as much of the body of work of the mentor they have chosen as possible—fiction, poetry, nonfiction, biography, autobiography—but I insist that the pick a writer whose main body of work is short story (when I teach the equivalent of this course in poetry, of course they pick a poet). Through a semester-long study of just one writer, they come prepared at the end with an oral presentation as well as a paper that discusses what they learned through the study of that mentor. I can’t get them to read every story that’s ever written in 16 weeks but I can get them to do an in-depth read of one important writer.

(That’s the catch, it can’t be schlock–it has to be an important, literary writer. They fuss, but by the end of the semester they understand the value of what’s been done to and for them.)

Don’t worry about things. Don’t push. Just do your work and you’ll survive. The important thing is to have a ball, to be joyful, to be loving and to be explosive. Out of that comes everything and you grow.

Just do your work and you’ll survive. My students have heard that. Many many times.

Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.

Bradbury makes it sound so simple. Maybe it is.

Don’t talk about it: write!~

Which is probably the best advice of all.

So this is just my long-winded way of saying a belated “thank you” to Ray Bradbury. He’s made me think, he’ll continue to make my students think. And he had an awful lot of very good writing and ideas. The world will continue, but it’ll definitely have been changed for Bradbury having been here.

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I didn’t really think I needed a GPS, but when my sister lent hers to me for a trip last year, I thought it was pretty cool and decided it was another 21st century gadget that I needed to acquire. After research and discussion (“What GPS do you have, and would you recommend it?” posts on Facebook) I went with a Garmin.

I thought I was happy.

We chose the female voice (although I thought I could get one with an Australian accent, but I haven’t yet figured out how to do that) and named her Sookie. (I tell people it’s after Lorelai’s friend, the cook Sookie on Gilmore Girls, and not the part-fairy, lover-of-vampires Sookie on True Blood, but it could be either one, I just liked the name.)

I don’t have much call to use Sookie around here where I live, mostly because I know how to get anywhere I need in town, but I like to have it up there on the window, inches above the dashboard, because I like to watch the map. I don’t know why. I’m strange.

But coming back from a trip half-way-across-country just recently a few odd things happened and I’m not so sure Sookie (the GPS) likes me.

First: last year, she sent us on 404S after going over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge onto Staten Island, which was confusing but fine and I hooked up with the Pennsylvania Turnpike where I usually do, right there in Carlisle. But this year, I opted to turn Sookie on after getting onto the bridge (last year when I got onto the BQE she kept trying to get me over the Williamsburg Bridge and through Manhattan–not a good idea) and I thought I’d be smart and wait till we were past any turns towards Manhattan prior to powering up the GPS. That had to work, right?

Wrong.

She took me past the exit for 404S (why?) and sent me to I-95 after getting off Staten Island, which at that point is the New Jersey Turnpike. Which cost me over $7. Which took me South and not West, which was where I wanted to go.

Did I get to the Pennsylvania Turnpike from the New Jersey Turnpike? Yes–finally. The “extension” of the NJT into Pennsylvania turned into a bumper-to-bumper mess that moved in fits and starts for about 10 miles, without a bathroom in sight.

And I learned, too, that getting on the Pennsylvania Turnpike right at the very start like that would cost me not $11 and change, but $26 and change. Yes. Sookie cost me time in that bumper nightmare and then $37 (and that doesn’t count the $13 cost to go across that damned bridge).

I guess I could be dismissive of that; after all, it’s six of one, half dozen of the other to get to Staunton Pennsylvania, which is where I-70 leaves the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Sookie has no concept of money, and she probably just read the setting, “fastest,” and did what she was programmed to do.

So I forgave her (for the most part–she still owes me $37).

Until St. Louis.

I expected traffic to bog down outside of St. Louis, on I-55 West that crosses over the Mississippi River close to the Arch. It always does. And when there is heavy traffic ahead, Sookie turns on her Yellow icon that shows how many minutes delay I can anticipate. When it’s severe traffic ( and how can she tell?) she turns on her Red icon and talks to me.

“Severe traffic ahead. Recalculating.”

That word, “recalculating” always worries me. Where in the name of all that is holy is this GPS going to take me?

Sometimes, I don’t follow her advice, choosing to inch along a route I know as opposed to getting off and following a smooth-talking, cooking fairy voice. But for some reason, this time, I did.

Sookie took me through East Saint Louis.

Anyone who has read Kozol’s writing about East Saint Louis will know, without me saying anything else, what’s the what about that city. It’s not even in Missouri–it’s in Illinois (which has nothing to do with anything, but I wanted to point that out).

I realized immediately where I was and kept following that smooth-talker down one street and another until she wanted me to go right into a street that had been closed. And it was then I knew I was in trouble.

Obviously, I escaped East Saint Louis and made it back onto I-55 and slowly inched over the Mississippi River onto solid ground in Missouri, seeing the sign that told me Tulsa was some 300-plus miles away. Missouri is relatively boring to drive through, but at least I know where I’m going — which is easy, following I-44 straight through the Ozarks, heading Southwest and downward towards Oklahoma.

So: more cost, more time, more terror. You tell me–does Sookie hate me?

And what can I do to get her to change her mind?

 

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