Something to Say

You’d rather write about the charming side of your town, and for the most part you do.  But this week your town has shown its not-so-charming side.  Two brothers aged eighteen and twenty were arrested for sexual assault.  A number of other young people are afraid that they might be next because they were at the party where the alleged assault took place—with cameras in hand.  A young person was victimized; his life altered.  And so you want to write about your town and what it’s going through because people are shaken up about it.  But where do you start?   Your children are the same age as these children.  They’ve known some of them since preschool.

You want to write about the mother you spoke to today whose fourteen-year-old daughter was groped at her first high school dance, a place you’d expect her to be safe.  You want to write about how strange it is, adolescence.  How that window of time between trading Pokemon cards and being hormonally charged is so small, so small that you barely have time to catch your breath.  You want to talk about this terrible thing that happened in your town like it’s an isolated incident but this is nothing new and your town is not unique.  You write about your town and you write about every town and a culture that has allowed it to go on and on and on.  You write about how it was going on when you were in middle school and the boys chased you at recess and knocked you onto the grass and stuck their hands up your shirt and you write about it now because back then you didn’t tell anyone because you had it in your mind that it was just playful playground fun—even though it didn’t feel like fun to you.

You want to write about all of this and more, but putting it in words is difficult.  The thoughts are coming from so many different places and what you need to do is set the thoughts aside for a while and write from that place in your gut that’s holding it all in.  You want to write and you don’t want to write because it’s going to take you places you’ve been avoiding.  It’s going to take you places that you’ve held in secret for about thirty years and it’s going to make you feel vulnerable because somehow you still have it in your head that it was your fault, that you put yourself in a bad situation and so ultimately you are responsible.  You hate feeling vulnerable.

You’re going to say things about boys that have most likely grown in to decent human beings, stellar community members, charitable donors to their local nonprofits.  But you decide to write it now because it’s the only way you can express what’s going on inside of you when you hear about these two young men who have been arrested for sexual assault.

You knew boys like those boys in your school days.  They were the kids the teachers liked.   They were the kids you liked.  They played basketball and football.  They were witty and popular and you wanted their attention so badly.  And so when they gave it to you it felt like a privilege.  You with the crooked teeth, that lived on the wrong side of town, that had a step-father who wouldn’t talk to you and a father who never called wanted the attention of those boys and when they gave it you certainly didn’t want to tell them no.  And so they asked you to hang out with them after school one day and you said yes and it never occurred to you that you’d be the only girl.  And you went with them anyhow because you didn’t know not to trust them.  You went to one of the boys’ houses a few blocks from school.  His dad was home and so you went instead into their camp trailer that was parked in their front yard.  You don’t remember much about the camp trailer, just being shoved down on a little folding bed, and someone undoing your pants and another someone pulling them off your legs and there was laughing and you didn’t know you were crying until you felt the tears running down the side of your face and one of them put his head to your privates and said things and did things that in your naivety you never knew were things to do and the humiliation was more than you could bear and so when it was over you laughed along with them and pretended it was no big deal and then you walked home, alone and ashamed.  At home you ate dinner and watched Three’s Company with your mom and your little sister and your silent step-dad.  You talked on the phone with your friend for a while and you never said a word about what happened because you thought somehow you should have seen it coming.  You should have known not to go with them.  You should have been smarter.  You should have been prettier because the boys probably didn’t do that to the prettiest girls.  You should have, you should have, you should have and it never even occurred to you until several years later that the should-haves weren’t yours to own.

And so you want to write about your town and what it’s going through, because what your town is going through is a terrible thing.  But it’s been going on for ages.  The humiliating, the bullying, the assaulting, the tricking, the teasing, the hurting.  All of is has been going on in varying degrees in every town.  Your town is not unique.  The actions the two boys in your town have been accused of are not so uncommon.  What’s uncommon is their being called on it.  Victims blame themselves.  They try to protect their dignity and even their assailants with silence because the assailants are the good guys; they’re popular, the teachers like them, they make your town look good on the playing field.  But silence is more terrible than truth.   It perpetuates the belief that it’s okay.  It’s okay to rape a girl if she’s wearing a short skirt.  It’s okay to mess with the drunk kid.  It’s okay to tease the kid with a learning disability.  It’s okay to shame a girl for having sex.  It’s okay to shame a boy for not having sex.  It’s okay to beat up the gay kid.  It’s okay to pull the pants off the girl who was stupid enough to follow you into the camp trailer.

It has to end somewhere.  At some point you have to say enough.  It’s not okay.  And sure, what your town is going through is a difficult thing, but it’s necessary. It’s breaking the pattern of silence.

You write about it now, not because you want attention or sympathy.  You write about it now because there is this hope that by not brushing a society’s dark secrets aside, by saying something, by doing something, you’ll make a difference. You write about it now because when you were thirteen you couldn’t articulate the truth of the matter:  it’s not okay to hurt someone, grope someone, touch someone without consent even if they’re passed out drunk, even if they’ve flirted with you, even if they’ve wandered off with you.  You write because you hope for a future where open communication reigns and where victims don’t feel responsible for the actions perpetrated against them.  You write because there should be no excuses and no free passes when it comes to harming another human being.  You write, not because you have any answers, but because you have something to say.  You believe that when it comes to teaching respect and dignity we all have something to say.

A Gathering of Writers

The Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference happened this past weekend and I’m taking the day to recover and reflect.  This year I didn’t just attend the conference; I really did the conference.  I didn’t skip any sessions.  I went to the evening readings.  I even socialized after hours instead of rushing home to the solitude of my home.  I wish I had it in me to write up something cohesive to describe the weekend, but since I’m still feeling whooped and I need to save my writing energy for some revising that needs to be done over the next couple of days, I’ll stick to bullet points.

Here are few things that are sticking with me from the 2012 Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference:

  • Barry Lopez started things off with an incredible keynote address.  He asked the question, “What is the purpose of a writer in a pluralistic society?”  Then he wound around to the answer he’s come up with for himself which is that the writer’s job is to help.  So that leaves me asking, am I helping anyone or anything in any way?  Am I telling stories that need telling?
  • Ann Pancake discussed the tricky territory of writing fiction that delves into political issues.   It’s difficult, she said, but when it’s done the right way it has the potential to dispel psychic numbing.  I think of The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck, a book that I just finished reading for the first time this week.  It was relavent when it was written and its relavent today.  It’s a book that has helped.
  • Valerie Miner, one of University of Alaska Anchorage’s MFA faculty members, suggests that we are all literary citizens.  She offered ideas of how to keep the literary conversation going, one of which was simply to take one another’s writing more seriously.  And that’s one of the beautiful things about this conference; writing is shared, discussed, taught and discovered in a supportive, friendly, noncompetitive environment.  Warm fuzzies pretty much all around.
  •  Peggy Shumaker.  Alaska is beyond fortunate to have Peggy as the State Writer Laureate.  Her generosity, professionalism and kindness are a blessing.  In her closing address she admonished us to look out for one another—and nobody looks out for writers the way Peggy looks out for writers.
  • Back to Barry Lopez.  He says to know exactly why you’re writing.  It’s necessary to have a solid understanding of your purpose as a base for the rejection you will face.  Yikes, but true.  This leads me back to the forever question of why do I do this?  My answer is forming and changing all the time.  He also says that writing is not about intelligence.  It’s about telling a memorable story.  And for some reason I find that statement incredibly comforting.

Then there are the other, non-classroomy things:  I got to hear longtime acquaintances from the library read their work at the open mic and in hearing them discovered a side to them I would likely never have known had I not been there.  I ran into an old friend—one I hadn’t seen in nearly a decade—and we had the chance to get caught up with each other’s lives.   And of course I got to see lots of my MFA cronies.

The last thing I’ll mention is the bonfire.  It was just what I needed after three days of sitting.  The wind died down, the rain held off and the bay was calm.  Children of attendees ran around, drinks were shared, stories were swapped and music was played.  Amy brought her ukulele, Ed brought a guitar, TJ brought his banjo and I brought my fiddle.  Since the three of them are infinitely more musically versatile than I am we were able to play tunes into the night.  It was a great convergence of a few things that I love.

The 2012 Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference was a great gathering and next year will be too.  I mean, Naomi Shihab Nye will be the keynote speaker.  Can it get any better than that?  Hopefully I’ll see you there.

Kachemak Bay Bonfire

Montana, music and the New Year

It’s the beginning of a new year—one that will be different for sure in our family.  Dillon will be heading up to UAA in a couple of weeks and in the fall Adella will be going to high school in Montana for her junior year.  The house will be emptying out a little sooner than I had expected, at least temporarily, and anticipating that change gives me a different perspective on the present.  Suddenly spending quality time with my family feels kind of urgent, and yet I’m finding that teenagers don’t necessarily feel the same way.  I’m trying to guard against being too sentimental.

It was challenging to stay caught up with my writing in December, so one of my biggest goals for the new year is to start acting like a serious graduate student again.  I’m not so far behind that I can’t get caught up, but I have to find the time to write and then use that time wisely.  I’m not sorry that I took a break though.  I had a great visit with my mom and two older sisters earlier in the month when they came to see Homer’s version of The Nutcracker and the holidays, with everyone at home, have been great.

A little break from writing has been nice, but I’m ready to face the new year now.  I find that I’m a bit of a New Year’s geek, always getting introspective and thinking about what I want to change about my life with the change of the calendar.   I can’t decide if it’s optimism that makes me this way or if it’s chronic dissatisfaction with the status quo.  Either way, I always seem to want to try harder, tweak a few of my habits and generally work on self-improvement.

Last year was great in many regards.  I started an MFA program that I’m excited about.  I cut my sugar consumption way down.  Things are good with my family.  But I can see that I unintentionally cut back on a couple of things that bring me a lot of joy.

I went a whole summer without going camping or stepping foot in our skiff—and  summers in Alaska are way too short to not get out and enjoy the nature that’s all around.  I live in a beautiful place, with a stunning view of the mountains and the bay, but sometimes I need to leave my five acres and get out there.  That has to be a priority this year.

The other thing that I didn’t make enough time for in 2011 was music.  For the past decade I’ve made playing music a huge part of my life, and it’s one of the things that fills me up.  It gives me what I need to go about my less than exciting life of driving around, going to work, doing dishes, cooking dinner.  And as much as I love writing, it doesn’t do the same thing for me.  Music takes me out of my head.  When I get together with friends to play tunes I lighten up.  I drink a little.  I crack jokes.  When I’m alone and I work on learning new tunes it’s a lot like meditation.  My mind is clear for a while of all my responsibilities.

I love writing, and it gives me fulfillment in a different way, but it’s heady stuff.  When I’m concentrating on writing I tend to take myself a little too seriously.  I need to find a better balance.

So my hope for 2012 is to make time for music.  With it being an election year, I’m also hoping to spend less time reading the Huffington Post.  To me it seems like my time will be better-spent reading poetry, playing music and having fun with my family.  Of course I want to stay informed, but I don’t want to get worked up this time around.

I’m also anticipating a trip or two (who knows, maybe more?) to Missoula when Adella is down there.  I have nothing but fond memories of my time in Montana when I attended the U of M and although I’ll miss her terribly, I’m happy to have a reason to go back.  The mixed feelings I have about her going are eased by knowing I’ll get to visit, and by trusting that she’ll be in good hands while she’s there.

Best Wishes for the New Year to you all, and in keeping with my New Year’s wish for more music, here’s a clip of our afternoon old-time session from yesterday.  I’m playing one of the two fiddles.  (I’m the one trying to keep up.)

Thoughtful reading

One of the things I love most about the MFA program that I’m in is that it requires of me a tremendous amount of reading.  Every month I have to read and write a response to three books.  This requirement forces me to focus closely on how a book is written, how its essence impacts its readers and how I might learn to do the same sort of thing in my own writing.

When I applied to UAA’s low-residency MFA program I had to choose between fiction, non-fiction and poetry.  I ended up choosing fiction; for me personally it is the most challenging.  But I want to study all three.  So in order to appease myself I have not excluded poetry or non-fiction from my reading lists.

Right now I’m working on writing a story that is about a place as much as it is about the people in it and I’ve tried to choose books to read that will aid me in this process.  This month I was lucky to have stumbled upon a new book written by an Alaskan author who does this so eloquently that I feel I could read it over and over again and each time glean a new angle in my approach to writing about the way a place can influence and shape the people who reside there.

I was initially drawn to the memoir, Faith of Cranes:  Finding Hope and Family in Alaska by Hank Lentfer, because of its title.  Sandhill cranes return to my neighborhood outside of Homer every summer and I’ve always felt honored to share space with them.  Their return every spring is one of the most hopeful things I know of.  My own teenaged children, who don’t always seem terribly observant of the natural world, take notice of the cranes and are always thrilled when they first see them flying overhead at the end of every long winter.  When the cranes leave each September, almost always on the 16th day of the month, it’s with mixed emotions; we’re in awe of the magic of migration and already nostalgic for the summer days that went by so quickly.

I was also drawn to the book because of the author’s name.  It turns out that the author’s parents live here in Homer and are huge supporters and users of the library where I work.  The nosey side of me that is always trying to make connections was eager to read the writing of Jack and Mary Lentfer’s son.

Hank Lentfer’s story is a story of coming of age, a story of finding himself trying to make sense of a world that doesn’t make sense but most importantly it’s a story of love.  Hank heartbreakingly loves the place where he lives and the wild places where he hunts deer and picks berries and harvests salmon.  His story is of coming to terms with his fear of losing the land where he finds spiritual and physical sustenance.  It’s also a story of love for the people who share in his connection to a place and the realization that the loss that ultimately goes hand in hand with love is beautiful and hopeful in its own right.

So many of the books that I read, even some of the great ones, are enjoyable and thought provoking in the moment of the reading.  But not all of them stay with me.  Faith of Cranes stands out because since I’ve read it I find myself mulling it over, considering the choices I’ve made, thinking about the ways I’d like for my own life to be more thoughtful and more closely tied to nature.  And it leaves me asking important questions, a few of which are below:

  • How different would the world be if all parents, before conception, considered the responsibility, the joy, the loss and the beauty of bringing a child into existence?  The chapter in Lentfer’s book entitled, “Letter to an Unborn Child” was striking in its honesty and its raw expression of his fears about becoming a father in a world that is filled with war, environmental degradation and disconnection.
  • How much living are we, as a culture, missing out on by buying into a consumer-driven mentality?  By choosing to slow down and live with less we would be giving ourselves more opportunities to develop friendships, deepen the bonds we share with our families and have more time for self-reliance and art.  We know this, and yet it is difficult to extricate our lives from the cycle of filling our days with jobs and tasks we don’t find meaningful.  Why is it so hard?
  • As a person who is concerned about things like climate change, wilderness preservation, clean air, clean water and the protection of habitat how do I not lose hope when the news is overwhelmingly bad on all those fronts?  And along those same lines how can creativity, love and hopefulness make a difference?

If you are interested in an intimate portrayal of a life in coastal Alaska, if you love a place on this earth, if you feel a connection to cranes or any other kind of wildlife, if you appreciate a well-crafted story or if you simply would like to escape for a while into a sensual, thoughtful world, I highly recommend Faith of Cranes.  And if you end up reading it, I’d love to know the questions it summoned for you.  I’d also love to know what books you’ve read recently that have stuck with you, caused you to consider changes you’d maybe like to make in your own life.  

A Simple Notion

Back in July I was sitting in a room full of fellow MFA students I’d just barely met when Richard Rodriguez was introduced to us.  He walked slowly to the front of the room to deliver his keynote address.   His appearance alone commanded my attention.  He’s a small man, with dark skin and Native American looking features.  He wore a perfectly ironed, white shirt—something already out of the ordinary in Alaska, and black trousers.   His brown skin against the white was striking.

Before the residency we were required to read Rodriguez’s book, Brown, and discuss it online.  I have to admit, much of his book was lost on me.  I had to look up lots of his references in Wikipedia.  Sometimes I found his prose hard to follow.  Because of my experience with his book I wasn’t sure what to expect from him as a keynote speaker.  When he opened his mouth though, and started talking to us, any preconceived notion I’d had about the man was gone.  In a matter of minutes I was fighting the tears and by the end of his talk I’d long since given up on trying to hold them back.  I was a little embarrassed that I’d lost it that way, in front of these people I’d just met, but when I looked around the room I found I wasn’t alone.   Any devices we’d summoned in order to protect our egos before the residency, any doubts about the validity of our decision to pursue writing, any worries about entering into a career path that comes with absolutely no guarantees—they all were gone, at least for a while.  Richard Rodriguez had gotten to the heart of why we were all there.  He reminded us that “there is only one thing that should interest you as a writer:  What it means to be alive.”

Why did that simple notion cause me to have such a strong emotional reaction?  Well part of it was in his delivery.  He’s an amazing public speaker.  But part of it was how he made the average life out to be a thing of beauty.  So much writing is filled with ostentatious jargon, or it’s sarcastic or it’s shallow.  Richard Rodriguez challenged us as students to write about what is real.  It’s harder than you might imagine.

So then, what does it mean to be alive?

Obviously it means different things to different people.  All I can speak with authority on though, is what it means for me to be alive.  What do I spend my time doing and thinking about?  What consumes me?  What inspires me?  What makes me want to carry on?

There is no doubt that sometimes life is hard.  For example, right now we are going on three weeks without running water.  The inconvenience of not having water is one thing, but the stress of how we’re going to pay for the repair of our well is something altogether different and more daunting.  There’s more.  Sometimes in my family there are hurt feelings and disagreements.  People don’t always behave the way I think they ought to.  The house is never clean enough.  Time is constantly scarce.  There are always chores that nobody else will do.   Recently a close friend was diagnosed with cancer. Sometimes my kids are hurting.  Sometimes I’m hurting.  And the news, it’s full of terrible, hopeless stories of people going through things a thousand times worse than anything in my life.

Is this what it means to be alive?

The answer is yes, and yet there is always another side.  Right now, as Thanksgiving approaches, I’m trying to think about that other side.  I’m reminding myself of the unconditional love I get from my friends and family.  I’m thinking about my husband’s job and how it allows my son and I to get an affordable education.  I’m thinking about my house—it’s modest and it doesn’t insulate very well, but when the woodstove is thumping and it’s cold outside, there’s no place cozier.  I’m thinking about the freedom I feel to express myself.  I know that some of the things I write are hard for my family to read, but the fact that they love me in spite of our religious and political differences gives me courage.  I’m thinking of the view out my window—the very existence of the mountains and glaciers helps put my problems in perspective and the bay reminds me that life is a changing thing.  Mostly though, I’m thinking about how lucky I am just to be here at all.  I get to watch my children grow.  I get to live with the man that I love.  I get to laugh at the funny things and cry a cleansing cry now and again.  It’s worth a lot just to be able to think and breathe and feel.

 

Something out of nothing

It’s October 1st and sometime in the next few days I’m supposed to turn in my second packet of writing for my MFA program which includes a short story and three reader’s response papers.   I’ve written most of this month’s short story and I’ve done all the reading that I agreed to do, but the hard work still lies ahead of me.

Finishing short stories is always the hardest part because I never really know what’s going to happen with my characters.  I start a story with an idea, an image or an event and I create from there.  It’s truly making something out of nothing and it’s always scary.  There is always the fear that for some reason it won’t work this time around.  It can also be incredibly emotionally draining, which is why I procrastinate like crazy at this stage of the process.

I’ll get it done, I always do, but all week I’ve been finding other things to occupy my time.   Last weekend I started a new knitting project.  I’ve begun reading two books that are unrelated to my MFA.  I squandered my one day off during the week to hang out with friends and play around on my new computer.  I’ve taken lots of photos. (see below)  I’ve written two articles.  I’ve done the dishes several times when I could easily have opted out with the ‘I need to work on my school’ excuse.  I changed the format of my blog.  I learned two new fiddle tunes!  Last night I even did two foreign language lessons (French and Spanish) on Mango, a new, free online offering through the library website.   And here I am now, writing for my blog when I should be writing fiction.

Kachemak Bay and beyond

Overall I’ve been very productive in my procrastination.  But the deadline is looming and I need to focus.  I need to sit my butt down in the chair, turn off the internet and find out what is going to happen with Larry, the simple, yet complicated guy that I made up.  I need to make him believable and interesting.  I need to find that thing about him that we can all relate to, something heartbreaking and funny and beautiful.   I need to bring him to life in a world that’s as real as yours and mine.   None of it’s going to happen though if I don’t stop putting it off.  I’ll get right on it after I take the dog for a walk and clean the house.  Really, I will.

Reveling in the mess

view from home
Moon above the pushki meadow by Dean Sundmark

I rolled into town last night after attending a twelve day creative writing residency. Today I’m wandering around my home taking note of what has changed and what has stayed the same while I’ve been away.

My nemesis plant, locally known as cow parsnip or pushki, the one that left me with burns all over my arms a few days before I left, has grown nearly three feet taller in my absence and is now in its full flowering stage. Looking out my window and seeing how it’s taken over the paths that lead to the chicken coop, the yurt and the garden, overwhelms me. I wish I could take a machete and start hacking away at it, make everything orderly again, but since I have such a strong reaction to the plant’s juices it’s best if I just leave it alone, surrender to its tenacity, maybe even find a way to admire its steadfast ability to reclaim more of the yard each year.

Trying to process all of the conversations, classes, insights and emotions from the residency has me feeling a bit overwhelmed as well. So much happened in such a short amount of time that making sense of it all isn’t an option. Yet I find myself wanting to write something that sums it all up, lines it all out and puts it in tidy, manageable rows.

When I look back on my experience of the residency and the notes that I took over the course of the twelve days, I can see that I was all over the place. I had moments of feeling confident in my writing, followed by languishing self-doubt. The sense of community that comes from being surrounded by like-minded people was palpable at times; so was the stabbing loneliness that I felt at night in my dorm room. At times I was moved to tears. On one occasion I struggled to contain my anger and ultimately ended up leaving part way through a reading.

I’ve always been of the mind that writing is a means for making order out of chaos and I still believe that to be true. But now I’m questioning that tendency within myself to always be looking for a straight way out of a jumbled up world. As a writer I might need to spend more time reveling in the mess. I might need to write all over the place, let the words and ideas take me places that feel overgrown and too big to manage.

It takes courage to dig into questions for which there may be no answers. I might emerge with nothing more than a bunch of burns and bruises. But I feel like being a part of this MFA program is giving me the freedom to go there for a little while. I might not have anything marketable at the end of my three years, but along the way I’ll learn to push myself further than I thought possible.

Creativity seems impossible without a certain amount of surrender. I’m wanting to use these few years to let my writing grow into something bigger than I’ve allowed it to be thus far. I’m wanting to resist the urge to hack it down into tidy little cubes. I’m wanting to get lost in the dishevel. Hopefully in my digging I’ll find what needs to be found. Hopefully it will be good.