Black Friday Random

I get away to do some work, hoping a bit of lesson planning will make things easier when I go back to school after the break.  This is always a lie and the friend who tells you this is not your friend.  My good intentions are short lived.  I have five short stories hoping to finish and the need – wrong word, crazed obsession to finish them weighs on my mind. There is a deadline only I don’t know what it is nor do I know who has set it.  Then I remember about this blog I have not touched in a while.  Here we are.      

My daughter finished a whole series of books a while ago and I’ve asked her to write the author a letter, explaining how much she enjoyed the books.  I say, “Sister, there are no great writers, only great rewriters.”  She gets it.  I write her an outline to preempt, “How do I start?”  This isn’t my first rodeo.

“Why do I have to write this?”

“Sister, writers like to know that others have liked their writing,” I say, as if having authority.

“How do you know?” she asks, destroying my authority.

I smile, not hurt.

“Just a hunch,” I say.

And I fully intend on writing without interruption only I have erred tremendously by believing I can accomplish much work at the local coffee shop.  Technically this is writing but not the “I-have-to-finish-this-story” writing.  Then I remember, or keep remembering like an interrupted, morse code on a loop, that today is Black Friday.  And if I forget, the people here won’t let me.     

The only person I connect (defined as holding my attention temporarily) with in the coffee shop is a tall white man in jeans and a blue flannel with a shaved head I gather is more a necessity than choice.  He’s got a book, I love books.  

“My brother!”

I see only the words “fallen brother” on the book cover.  So I do what anyone does these days to learn about another person without being social, I use the Internet.  I google fallen brother, analyze my choices, analyze the book cover now shoved into his armpit, clamped snug to pay for his Caffe Americano.  Actually, I don’t know what he ordered.  A find a match on Amazon.

The book is Fallen Brother in Blue: The Tragic Death of Police Officer Mark Stall.  I know nothing about the book other than what the brief summary gives me.  The man is now at a table, engaged in an act I rarely find myself in, sitting with a friend at a table and talking.  My friends are pens , notebooks and time.  I didn’t know coffee was this important, a necessary pitstop from Black Friday shopping.  But it’s not that, I know.  Coffee is a quiet mediator, forgotten and doomed to lukewarmness between folks as they talk about deals, as they talk about yesterday, as they talk about books left to lie on a table.  A woman walks by and her shirt is a depiction of Santa’s suit.  A man walks by and I swear he is one of my old drill instructors but I say nothing.  A guy walks in looking like Conor McGregor as if he’s just raided Wyatt Earp’s wardrobe.  Three teachers sit next to me at a long table.  They open up their planners and right away I gather they are more organized than I am, the first of many negative assumptions.  One is African-American.  I remember what a friend told me once, “I’m tired of hyphens.  Just call me American.”  I have the irrational desire of whipping out my planner from my bag just to let them know that I’m a teacher too and that I’m good and that and that and that rather than the guy at the end of the table with the beenie on, shaking his head in disbelief at overpriced coffee mugs.

I see bags of coffee labeled with loaded words like

Ethiopia

Kenya

Guatemala

Sumatra

Rwanda

Columbia,

failing to lure buyers, failing to tap into their “Let’s-make-the-world-better-by-buying coffee-instinct”; failing to lure buyers away from the Black Friday alerts on their phones. For a split second, I see the faces of my students but then I remember lyrics from a System of a Down song I haven’t heard in years:

“Advertising causes need

therapy, therapy

Advertising’s got you on the run

Every minute, every second,

buy, buy, buy, buy, buy.” 

I should have worked at home, amidst the chaos of my lovely family and a hot cup of cowboy coffee in my hand.  Next time.

 

 

 

 

 

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Writing Well – Meaning, Sense and Clarity

In MentorTom Grimes writes about the genesis and history of his friendship with Frank Conroy, author of the memoir Stop-Time, novel Body and Soul and former director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.  Although some have not seen Grimes’s book in a favorable light, I found the book very valuable.  But that’s probably because I’m a know-nothing aspiring writer.

Nevertheless, if one is to write well, the writing must have meaning, make sense and be clear.  Simple wisdom enough for a writer but not always easy.  I’m speaking for myself.  Early on in Mentor, Grimes takes us into one of the workshops at Iowa, room 457 where Conroy is about to begin class.  Grimes writes

Frank didn’t take attendance.  Instead, he went directly to the blackboard and picked up a piece of chalk.  He wrote: meaning, sense, clarity (Grimes 24).

Conroy then tell the class, “If you don’t have these, you don’t have a reader” (24).  Next, Grimes writes, Conroy

Moved sideways and drew an arc.  At its bases, he wrote: writer, reader.  At the top of the arc he wrote: zone (24).

Conroy's Arc
The arc described by Frank Conroy in Mentor by Tom Grimes.

Grimes writes how Conroy breaks it down

The writer cocreates the text with the reader.  If a writer gives the reader too much information, the reader feels forced to accept whatever the writer says and eventually stops reading (24).

Grimes continues citing Conroy

If a writer gives the reader too little information, the reader feels compelled to search for whatever the writer says and eventually stops reading.  So, you want to meet the reader halfway (24).

Conroy's Arc-1
Reasons why a reader may disengage.

Conroy then, according to Grimes, circled the word zone and said to the students, “That’s where you want to be” (24).

Opinions will vary obviously on the best ways to arrive at meaning, sense and clarity in a piece of writing.  To talk about how to perfect each of these in a writing seems an endless and monumental task considering how many resources and opinions are available.  For now, I just want to look at meaning.

First of all, meaning may differ depending on genre. How is infusing fiction with meaning different from the meaning required in nonfiction whether it’s a memoir or essay?  For example, one meaning in a short story may be directly related to a character’s fulfillment of some particular need.  Secondly, what is the meaning behind what a character says or does?  What is the meaning in the events that happen?  Is the meaning, a life lesson?  For example, in my short story “Blank“, there is meaning in the ending.  It’s not just about a guy who gets hit in the head with a baseball and loses his memory.  No.  It’s really about appreciating people in your life before it’s too late, before they’re gone.

Meaning, in nonfiction, may be related to a particular question or problem the writer attempts to solve.  For example, author Eula Biss, responding to the question, “How do you define creative nonfiction?” says, “I guess I could say that I pursue questions that interest me in ways that interest me on the page, but that’s awfully vague.  Phillip Lopate once wrote that part of the pleasure of reading a personal essay is the pleasure of watching a well-stocked mind grapple with whatever questions or problem it encounters.”

When asked if she returns “to a similar set of questions with each project” Biss says, “I think there is a preoccupation, in all three of my books, with what it means to lead a good life.  ‘Good’ in the sense of rewarding or fulfilling, but also in the moral sense…the question of what constitutes a good life is there in all of them.”

 

Trying to answer a question or deal with a problem can certainly give your writing meaning.  It’s a good reminder.  For example, if one is writing a memoir, should that memoir try to answer a question or problem about one’s life?  If not, what guides the writing?  Or is a memoir merely a series of random life vignette’s?  If we tell them, why?  Are they connected in any meaningful way?

In later posts, I hope to touch on sense and clarity along with trying to answer what a writer must do to get and keep a reader in the zone.

 

 

Transformation

A writer can do so much with one word.  They can have so many ideas for a word, they know not which idea to use to write and so they may end up paralyzed; they may have a head full of ideas but they also have a blank page.  Yes, that happens to me all the time.  I find myself wanting to do too much with the one from the Daily Prompt.  I’m sure I’m the only one with this problem.  Do you take the word of the day and write a poem, some flash fiction or a nonfiction piece?  Take today’s word for example:  Transformation.  Am I to write about a person’s transformation?  And if so, whose?  Mine?  A character?  Someone I know?  A student?  A teacher?  Or is the transformation of a place, a neighborhood, city, state, home, etc.  Or maybe it’s the transformation of ideas, beliefs, institutions?  Ay caramba!

When I wrote “Brick” and “Blank,” I felt a lot of pressure, assigned by myself of course, to create something good, unique and under the one day deadline.  Whether the works were good and unique I’ll let another decide.  Because I’ve been writing a short story collection, flash fiction seemed right because I was already in the habit of writing fiction.  Flash fiction is more like one scene.  I could use those scenes later in another work.  It’s practice at least.  To me, one word is not enough for one day because the poem, the story or the nonfiction narrative can always be improved upon and that could take forever, like drinking an ocean with a straw.

I don’t need to transform my expectations of what or how I write so much as I need to be reminded that what I write will either stand finished as I complete it, like it or not, or, what I write will serve a much greater purpose down the road.  Like an ace up my sleeve.

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About Memoir

“It’s not a chronological pronouncement of the facts of your life: born in Hoboken, New Jersey; schooled at Elm Creek Elementary; moved to Big Flat, New York, where you attended Holy Mother High School.  Memoir gives you the ability to plop down like the puddle that forms and spreads from the shattering of a glass of milk on the kitchen floor.  You watch how the broken glass gleams from the electric light overhead.  The form of memoir has leisure enough to examine all this.”          

– Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away, xix.

Writing chronologically has its place.  Structurally, it helps in a lot of different ways.  When I worked with at-risk students in Stockton, reminding them to use transitional words, first, second, and then, finally fenced in their writing, allowing it to grow longer and longer like tough, pesky vines growing up a tree.  The words are like training wheels, reminding them, “Oh yeah, I remember how to do this.”

For my EL students who come from all over the world, process essays, loaded with transitional words, help them get in the saddle in terms of writing the perpetual linear essay.  We do these a lot.  Many reps, many sets.  

But when it comes to writing memoir, it’s really hard to get out of the chronological tendency.  Where is it written that a project has to start with a writer talking about where they were born, and where they went to school, and then middle school, and then high school, and then college, and then marriage, and then kids, and then, and then.  With memoir, we need starts and reversals; we need more teenager learning to drive stick, we need to be like ground bloom flower fire works, we need to be all over the place.  Our minds are lured and taken by the chronological trap.  It takes some effort to undo like learning to write righty when you’re a lefty.

A shattering glass of milk on the kitchen floor will not form itself into a tidy, white streak on the floor; that is, writing chronological.  Life explodes, a little grenade of glass spreading where it may with the little force it has.  It’s a mess, someone can get cut.  That’s writing.  Clean nothing, leave the mess.  Assume the detective role, analyzing the scene for those imperceptible memories you know are there if only you’d look long enough, a writer’s kind of rorschach test.

Recently I have stopped working on a memoir project because I needed to get away from it to see what else I could see in the milk puddle.  But I couldn’t see much.  I poked at some of the books on my shelf, to see what I could glean.  Then I found the quote above.  I’m inclined to see everything now as mess rather than chronology when it comes to memoir.  If anything, I’m more aware of telling it messy.  Milky shards and all.