Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Snow Day

Today, with the first snow of the season, I got lucky. I don't have classes on Wednesday, but most of the time I have work that brings me to campus. Today, though, I did not have any need to leave my home, and so, as I write this, I am still in my pajamas, waiting for my daily shower. With a steady quiet outside, I spent many moments staring out my kitchen window into the backyard, watching the light flakes fall and the heavy piles droop the huge tree limbs (Nan and I did relieve them). Today, I had time.

And with that time,

  • I had a cooking marathon. Homemade vegetable broth, roasted gold nugget squash, baked eggplant and tofu (to mix into tonight's Soba noodle stir fry), roasted beets. Roasting hard winter squashes takes time--time to cut the squash without cutting myself (OK, small nick), to scoop the seeds, to wait for the cooking, to cool, to scoop the bright golden orange, to clean up. 
  • I caught up on grading.
  • I read and prepped for tomorrow's class.
  • I crossed items off of my to-do list that had found themselves on several previous versions of the to-do list.
  • I chatted with a missed friend.
  • I got to hug Nan throughout the day since she too took a snow day.
  • I reflected on my work. This, I don't give myself time to do very often. Another blog to come on contract grading and student reflection.
  • I listened to podcasts.
  • I returned to my blog.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Kicking Off

It is the eve of the semester, although classes don’t start for another week. Tomorrow begins what has been newly named Kickoff Week, a change from Work Week, which became politically incorrect since the name suggested that nobody has been working all summer. The perception by staff is that faculty have been lounging all summer (yeah right), and Work Week doesn't acknowledge that every week is a work week for staff. And so, on this eve of kicking off, I have nary a thought about my intentions for the upcoming teaching semester, and what I'm kicking off to, but rather I have a greater sense of what I'm kicking off from.

 This summer looked completely different from last summer, appropriately titled Camp Amy. Last summer, status updates reflected the nature of camp, announcing my leisure for the day. Playing golf, then meeting a friend for lunch, then probably a nap. Camp was fully in session, and many days I awoke with a complete day of unplanned leisure before me.

Camp Amy only surfaced several times this summer. And while I lament a bit about a lack of constant carefree months, this summer proved productive. While I usually shirk any notion of celebrating productivity, a summer of writing is worthy of a few shout outs. 

Summer got a late start. The first five weeks were spent traveling and working in Ireland and Kentucky. Mid June officially kicked it off, with 12-15 hours a week devoted to revising/writing/editing da textbook with Liz. With our editor feeding us lots of bits to work on, we had consistent work. Often moaning after having to use my brain to dig deep, I regularly felt challenged, reminded that this is the most important piece of professional development I have ever undertaken. Finally, I am able to start seeing the finish, a destination that has often felt so distant that the landscape proved a blur.

Another 12-15 hours a week I devoted to working with da coach on my personal essay writing. When I began this path, I had particular goals, but wasn't entirely certain what really mattered to me on this journey. While I could not initially articulate how I might assess whether I had achieved many of my goals, such as building confidence, understanding the writerly me, and developing a practice as a writer;  today, I know much more about what these goals truly mean.

Building confidence in my sense of myself as a writer is not entirely achievable, mostly because I don't need to necessarily build confidence. Deep within I know that I am a good writer, and measuring my success as a writer doesn't rest in some external recognition (and that does not mean I don't desire that external recognition). And while I know that, it is really the doubt that I need to learn to accept, since that is an absolute. Some days I push through the doubt triumphantly, while other days I fall into it, and fall away a bit from my writing. But what is different, just several months into this writing journey, is that I know that the fall will not be forever, despite my loud shouts of doubt. Just last week, after getting back some feedback that said you've gone deep and now must go even deeper (really, must I), I doubted whether I could withstand a Sisyphus struggle, whether I had the drive to keep pushing. Yet, tonight, with some space and time, I wanted to sit down and write.

I have been practicing as a writer, and that is not something new. Over the years, I always write. Sometimes, though, my awareness of the writerly me is not present. Whether it's ideas generated in the creative writing classes I teach or irregular blog bursts, I do practice as a writer. What I actually wanted was to see myself as a writer. And that comes and go with the same rhythm as doubt.

My most important goal, I believed, was to "finish pieces so they are ready for publication." While I'd be one big ass fibber to say I don't care about this, it's not the ultimate in this moment. Some days, I'm more successful with patience and willingness to work hard and trust my process, staying present with the writing rather than thinking about some future that is not here. Other days, I want to stamp my feet and whine.

What has risen to the top is embracing revision, even if it's a lukewarm embrace at times. Rather than run from the difficulties with particular pieces, I stick with them, puzzling through the various layers. Now don't get me wrong, I positively detest this at times, screaming at the page. Then, something breaks, and I re-see the possibilities.

And on this eve of Kickoff Week, my writing is where I land.

Listening to David Bowie's Best of Bowie and Moby's Destroyed

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Bullock Harbour

I watched a seal in Bullock Harbour barely lift his nose to sniff out whether the children had ceased clapping. And in the moments when he could only hear the wind, he would lift his head as if to check for clearance. I stayed back a bit, in the wind, lifting my head slightly, to catch a glimpse of the gulls keeping watch, careful to be sure the children had ceased clapping.

"Don't you want a picture on the bench with the harbour behind you," asks the father, holding the little boy's hand.

"No." He would rather clap a picture with the seal.

After they move past, the seal again lifts his nose for me, silent on the bench, listening for me in the wind.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Four days solo

I am going to attempt to at least blog out a bit of the thoughts that have roamed my mind these last several days. My Ireland trip has become a type of tryptich, with the final frame still to come. There were supposed to be two acts: the first venturing with Nan and Peggy (Nan's eldest sis) and the second with Paul and 15 students for a study abroad trip.


A phone call Wednesday evening from Paul added a third act to the trip. The first leg of their flight was canceled due to weather in Chicago (not the Iceland ash cloud which I had been following), and due to the number in the group, they could not be rebooked until Sunday (for arrival Monday).

So I found myself faced with four days solo. For the first day I was in a bit of a state, exhausted by the previous day's news, and overwhelmed by the vast options. After I made the choice to simply stay on where I was (Dun Laoghaire), away from the crowds and tourists of Dublin, I could breathe a bit. I did not want to travel far afield due to cost and fear of being marooned by the travel gods and not being here when the students arrived. I also wanted a bit of what I did not get with the first act (unscheduled days and opportunities for a bit of Camp Amy).

Day one was spent in a bit of a stupor since I had slept little due to the news and Nan's early departure. I had a nice breakfast out, finding a whole new part of the town, got a new room at the hotel with a beautiful view of the harbor and a tub, and wandered town a bit more. Found a restaurant a bit away from town with a lovely waiter who poured a perfect Guinness and called me sweetie every time he came by my table.

Day two I found my rhythm. Rather than research the heck out of my possibilities, I simply set out in the morning, after a light breakfast, to walk south. My mantra became with the sea to my left, and I let that be my guide. I did not have a map, nor a plan, except to walk. When I hit a town, I thought why not continue, and did that for four hours. Along the way I successfully gave people directions, timed a stop for a bite with a need to pee, and found myself eventually in Bray. Walking along the promenade, a gentleman pointed out a trail leading up Bray Head. When I told him I had walked from Dun Laoghaire, he said "go softly." Too exhausted, I walked to the end of the promenade and slowly made my way to the DART station for a train back.

Day three I decided that walking suited my solo mood and set off to wanderHowth cliff walk. For miles my only companions were the chatter of birds, some of the most spectacular windswept coast (makes me want to reread Banville's The Sea), and a sense that I did not need maps, plans, or company with the sea to my left. After three hours, I again felt a serene exhaustion.

As for day four, undetermined.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Writing Coach--First Meeting

So I've gone and done it. I've finally committed and hired me a writing coach. Just the concept, initially, made me bristle a bit, wondering what the heck I was doing. I'm not the kind of person who has a cheerleader, a personal life coach, anyone to give me direction. I stand a model of anti self-help.

Growing up, my mother held to a steady diet of self-help books as guidance. I'm OK, You're OK" glared at me from the bookshelf, daring me to misbehave, threatening a punishment of a self-help book geared toward figuring out my particular behavior. While she would leaf through Games People Play, I chose Siddhartha as my guide.

And while I still swear myself opposed to the vast genre of self-help, I am cautiously optimistic about what the coaching will bring my writing. I did my usual writing jitters in anticipation of meeting with The Coach. After signing a contract, my first assignment was to put together a list of goals and submit it a day prior to our meeting. At first I could not figure out the assignment, something I find typical in my responses to being assigned anything. While taking the writing workshop this past winter, I immediately repelled any of the weekly assignments, thinking how the hell am I supposed to write about that. However, after I sat with the idea for several days (or sometimes even several hours), something always emerged; I always found myself energized and pounding words.

The same thing happened with my goals. Initially I couldn't think of any that had any resonance. After quizzing Nan about my goals and discussing them with Liz, I finally felt able to sit down and write something out. Once I surrendered to the fact that I could not come up with a neat list of a, b, c, d, I created a narrative, articulating my goals. Usually procrastinator me instead got jazzed by the idea and began to attempt to figure out how to articulate goals since it's not something I usually do, at least consciously. Some that made the list:
  • Build confidence in my sense of myself as a writer
  • Understand who I am as a writer
  • Understand craft more from a writer's perspective
  • Develop a practice as a writer
  • Move many ideas into finished essays
  • Learn to embrace revision
  • Finish pieces so they are ready for publication
Beneath each goal, I had at least a paragraph of written narrative, getting more to the heart of what I meant by the statement. Finished five days early and sent it off, calling it done.

Feeling slightly nervous just prior to my meeting this morning with The Coach, I realized once I sat down and started talking about things I wanted to accomplish and why, that this is exactly what I need to help move my newfound energy in writing into a deeper practice, one that I won't ignore.

And so, not dreading my assignments, I am more than cautiously optimistic; I am completely energized.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Cinema Verite

Hey there--I'll take a bit of reality with less meta reality, please.

I grew up watching "An American Family." Each week I would tune into Channel 13, the local affiliate PBS station, wondering what outrageous thing Lance Loud might do next. Watching his freedom, glamorized the world of rock and roll/punk for a fourteen year old who constantly proclaimed "the suburbs are the bane of my existence." Punking out with Lance in the edginess of the Chelsea Hotel gave me some relief, realizing that there were other people out in the world that could escape the cult of ordinariness, a place in New York City where there wasn't any judgment. Even though I couldn't name the attractions I felt for other women, seeing Lance out and proud once he found his world in New York City gave me a vicarious sense of relief, even though I didn't know that my sexuality's hiding darkened my world.

When I heard that HBO had finished a docudrama based on the series, I awaited a chance to revisit the real reality tv that marked many weeks of my teens. Watching the original show, nothing felt scripted, nothing felt manipulated--it read real, at least to a fourteen year old needing to get out.

Unfortunately, "Cinema Verite," proves a far removed truth from the sentiment and originality of the series it seeks to understand. Even though stars fill the roles (Diane Lane and Tim Robbins), the script falls flat, feeling like the characters force feed themselves into their roles. I expected more cuts into the reality of the original series, entwining the former series with this interpretation of the original series' intentions. Instead, most of the 90 minutes ends up feeling like a scripted meta fest about the process of breaking ground for the world of reality television. It attempts to be a commentary on a cultural phenomenon, but falls flat into the world of artifice, losing the art that grew out of raw footage of a family.

Monday, April 18, 2011

End of the Semester Mixtape

"Cry me a River"--Julie London

Sometimes, I just got to "Cry me a River," Julie London style. It's the moment that the pile of the end of the semester hits me, usually about 3-4 weeks out. It's not like I'm not used to it. It's not like it's some great surprise that my piles will grow to the point where I can no longer imagine a view beyond their tower. It is at this moment, when I can only imagine the piles, that I try for a sultry whine, something not too obnoxious, but definitely worth a bit of heartbreak.

"Chain Gang"--Sam Cooke
After I finish my dramatic stage of whine, I immediately find myself singing "My, my, my, my, I work so hard." When I set my alarm for 6:00am and find myself sitting at the kitchen counter, groggy on a cup of coffee grading at 6:45am, or when I look at the clock on a Saturday night and realize that at 9:00pm when the hipsters are putting finishing touches to their outfits, I am still grading, plodding along with a steady chain gang strut.

"Helter Skelter"--The Beatles

I begin to lose track of the piles, to forget what needs to be done when, making lists daily in a desperate attempt to assign some order to the chaos. But every time "I get to the bottom, I go back to the top" of the piles of grading, wondering if I will ever find my way to the freedom that I know lurks just a couple of weeks away.

"Living on a Prayer"--Bon Jovi

And for one moment I breathe, feeling like I might make it, that there might just be an edge of the end in view. I remind myself that "we're half way there," the midpoint between the now and summer, when memories of grading, prepping assignments, and performing give way to a constant lull of spontaneous indecision, days spent in space and sun.

"Private Idaho"--B52s

Boom. In one second the chaos returns. It's like an attack from all sides, moving rapidly only to find that the piles are everywhere and need to be returned everywhere. Randomly choosing bits from each pile only adds to the disorder, since nothing ever gets fully finished, crossed off the list, until the very end.

"I Will Rise Up"--Lyle Lovett

Yet, I persist. No matter how big the pile knocks, I push past, knowing that indeed there is an end. "I will rise up and rise up," never giving up, "And I will stand tall and I will stand tall," determined to finish with an end that smiles at the success of not only learning me something through teaching them something, but also at knowing that I can say job well done.

"Celebration"--Kool & The Gang

"Yahoo. Yahoo."

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Bucket List

“Do you have a bucket list,” Theresa asks, as a big semi whizzes by us as we head on I-10 to the Tucson airport.

“Not really.”

 “Driving a truck is one of mine,” she proclaims, “but they scare me.”

I immediately consider my own truck phobia, convinced that if I am to die on the highway, it will be at the hands of a semi whizzing into my lane without seeing my car.  Maybe I should have a bucket list.

“I want the challenge of mastering all those truck gears, learning to operate such a gigantic vehicle.” While that’s a reasonable concept, and at times I’ve glorified the idea of being a truck driver in my head, shooting the shit in a macho world, I remember how much difficulty I have figuring out where the right side of my Subaru is, let alone, how to maneuver a big rig.

“I guess I sort of have a bucket list,” I confess, “but the only thing on it is driving a huge tractor.”

“Yeah, I’d like to drive one of those too,” says Theresa.

“I don’t know why I want to drive one, but it always sounds amusing to me to be sitting way up high, rolling down a big field in the middle of Kansas or somewhere.”

Theresa doesn’t know me. She’s my parents’ cleaning lady and has graciously accepted to take me to the airport. I carefully watch my words, not wanting to insult her, figuring my usual snarky self extolling the virtues of  a city girl driving a tractor might land me in a seat of silence for the remainder of the drive. But I am curious about bucket lists.

“What else is on your bucket list,” I ask her, figuring that people’s bucket lists are like a personal ad into their personality.

“I want to go to Ireland.” In our ten minutes in the car, Theresa had already learned that my summer’s highlight would be a trip to Ireland with a group of students, wandering for a bit through the north and south.

Unlike me, Theresa wants to head there for two months to volunteer for Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall camp, helping children suffering from health issues, not wander into random pubs to have a pint of Guinness and hear songs accompanied by penny whistles.

“You should have a bucket list,” she tells me as we get closer to the airport.

I wonder why I don’t. If I survived uterine cancer, triumphed over a spouse that deserted me in the middle of a cancer battle, or proclaimed at least ten times in the space of a half hour that I am thankful to be alive, perhaps I would have a bucket list.

Once at the airport, I can’t let go of the concept of the bucket list, still perplexed about why I don’t have one. It’s certainly not because there aren’t things I care to do in my life, and it’s certainly not because I don’t think I might die before I end up doing those certain things.

With a gin and tonic in hand, I begin to ponder, wondering what is it about bucket lists that don’t make it into my personality lens. Is my lack of a bucket list simply related to my reluctance to articulate long-term goals? Is it part of my personality disorder that makes me fickle, unable to commit to ideas, thinking that either everything sounds like a grand possibility or everything sounds like a ticket into utter boredom and disappointment? Or is it simply that despite my cerebral acceptance of death, death has stayed a distant acquaintance, not penetrating the essence of my being?

Fortunately, I don’t have to linger on self-examination for long, because out of the corner of an eye I catch six paramedics wheeling an elderly woman dressed in a bright red sweatshirt on a stretcher, asking her if it hurts. All I can make out is something about “my heart.” I recall that this woman had set off the alarm when going through security, speculating if the stress of that led to whatever gave her a ride on a stretcher. I also wonder if she has a bucket list and how many things she’s crossed off.

I post an update on Facebook asking “Do you have a bucket list? If so, what’s on it?” I am hoping someone can give me a lens into what makes people create such a list. It’s been five minutes and nobody has answered. Perhaps the circle I travel in does not have a bucket list. I also wonder if when the bartender asked me if I wanted a double and I said no, just a single, that she did indeed make me a double. I refresh the screen on Facebook and still no answer.

Apparently this is something I need to figure out for myself, something that I need to explore rather than rely on the kindness of strangers.

Once on board the airplane to Denver, I gravitate toward an open window seat next to a couple I imagine are reading matching James Patterson novels (thinking I could refer to them as the Patterson twins); certainly they must have a bucket list.  I first start with some minor chit chat about where they’re heading, gauging whether they might chat it up and help me understand my quest. When they reply with a simple “San Diego,” I try once more to test their willingness to converse.

“Ah, so you are headed east to then go west and north?”

“Yup,” they answer. Clearly, I should not disturb them, since apparently I am unwilling to disturb my own consciousness and dig into my lack of a bucket list.

35,000 feet high in the air I play a little game in my head called If I had a bucket list, it would contain...” And then the game ends almost immediately after I’ve started it, finding myself distracted by the clouds, thinking that if I believed in destiny and fate, I would see the sign of the earlier conversation with Theresa about the bucket list as a reminder to me of the frailty of life--a woman passes me in a stretcher in the airport and the plane is currently bouncing around a bit more than my gin & tonic stomach desires. Perhaps this is a universal message about the need to prioritize my wishes, being conscious about having them, rather than looking at life as something that seems to happen whether I direct its course or not.

Rather than reflect for too long, I decide to occupy the plane ride with listening to podcasts, reading random essays that have nothing to do with bucket lists and life decisions, and playing games on my iPad. However, by the end of the plane ride, the idea of the bucket list continues to nag at me, and unfortunately, I am now even more befuddled about the concept, hoping that before the evening ends, I might be a bit closer to understanding my aversion to the bucket list.

Fortunately, my Facebook friends ultimately triumph for me, showing me that people I consider of my ilk (NPR geeks, avid readers, educators) have some direction to offer. One points me in the proper direction when she posts “I have never thought of my stuff to do as bucket lists, just desires that I hope to fulfill (cooking class in Oaxaca, as well as about seven other places; exploring all over South America…). When I give it this new lens, one of stuff to do, the frame fits.

I start composing my list of things I want to do: wandering the streets of Istanbul, dining at a tiny bistro and sipping a glass of chateauneuf de pape off in a bucolic French town, seeing the Northern lights, riding a century, publishing my writing, volunteering as a cook at a local organization that makes meals for people with AIDS, standing in the cemetery of Wolochisk picturing my grandfather’s stories of his youth. But are these a bucket list?

Not exactly, because if you asked me to compose a list of things I wanted to do before I died, I probably wouldn’t put any of the above on such a list (OK, except I confess, publishing my writing). Making a list that screams there is a final line when it comes to time is just not my thing. Tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, or the day after the day after tomorrow, what matters to me, what bubbles to the top, will most certainly change, depending on my interests, my mood, my lens of how I am currently viewing the world.

But what will remain constant on the list are the values, the meaning behind my desires. I will always want to travel to another time zone, have a fine meal, be mesmerized by a phenomenon I don’t understand, and discover something related to my family or my cultural attachments. So, even though I won’t call it my bucket list, my current scroll of things I want to do and experience are that personal ad into my personality.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Modern Day Packing

I'm away in Tucson, land of the sun, a quiet retreat from the hectic path of the semester, determined to detach a bit from the reality of my life. But, I confess, I am a tech junkie, addicted to my wired life. With a bit of quiet time (after a walk of course), I decided now might be a good time to start digging into finishing my part of our latest Sourceplay chapter, realizing it might suit my break better to work for a couple of hours here and there, rather than a marathon session all day Wednesday prior to Liz and my deadline for the current chapter revision.

So, as I pull out my computer, I realize that I have packed an inordinate amount of cords, along with glasses for this quiet trip to Tucson.

Since my eyes have begun aging, whenever I go to a sunny climate, I find myself needing to pack multiple pairs of glasses. If a computer is in hand, another pair goes in the mix. So in the picture, from left to right, are my computer glasses (1.00), sunglass/reading glasses (1.50), reading glasses (2.0), and regular sunglasses (ah no numbers needed for that).

As for the technology and the needed cords, I have my phone charger (phone missing since I used that to take the picture), camera and its charger, computer and its charger, and iPad and its connection to the computer to be used for charging. Since I had my computer and could use that for music, I thought carefully about whether I truly needed to take the iPad. After careful consideration, I determined that yes indeed that would be necessary since after all, it meant I didn't have to pack books (have several downloaded on it) and most importantly, I could use my vacation time to finish up my quest to triumph over those Angry Birds.

And so, with the Angry Birds defeated, and a bit of prewriting procrastination in the form of this blog and picture, I can now make use of my technological power.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Belly Happy: A Taste of Luxury

As we approach the Palace Arms in the Brown Palace, I have that uh-oh thought, that somehow they will find out I don't belong in such a high brow establishment. While my tastes run to the elite, it is not a world that readily feels like home.

Immediately, we are greeted with a warm welcome and shown to a lovely booth off to the side of the dining room. The waitperson neatly opens the napkin, folds it into a triangle, and places it on our laps. I am starting to get used to this, thinking perhaps I could summon my eternal queen for a nightly dinner service. I notice a bell-like thing on the table and whisper to Nan, "do we use that to ring for help." She laughs at me, telling me it is covering the butter, which is a perfect room temperature delight topped with Hawaiian black sea salt. Bread is an assortment of four choices: a melba toast, wheat roll, brioche (our choice), and another choice that has slipped my mind. Our drink orders are procured, and I settle back to a balanced gin & tonic, not skimpy on the gin but not soaked in a gin bath.

Since it is restaurant week (the only way we could afford to enter into such a palace), the menu had few selections, but each course proved fucking delicious. Nan and I both ordered the tableside caesar salad, perfectly executed, not too garlicky, not too thick, a hint of lemon mixing with the mustard, lightly coating the romaine. For our entrees, Nan opted for the Beef Rossini, placed atop a perfect swiss chard and brioche combination, topped with a truffle/foie gras sauce (obscenely rich and delectable);  I chose the white fish, served with pearl onions, olives, crab, cauliflower (that was cooked/shaped like a fluffy gnochi), in a pine nut/blood orange sauce. At this point, I decided that this could become home.

Dessert kept pace with the rest of the meal, proving itself a worthy finisher: brioche bread pudding with vanilla bean ice cream. And if this wasn't enough (could not even finish due a very happy belly), a couple of macaroons and chocolates.

I am so in food heaven.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The influence of my writing workshop

Farewell Artful Dodger

Whenever I teach a creative writing class, I have great anxiety waiting for the moment that students ask me to share my writing. After all, throughout the semester I am telling them that to be a writer simply means they are practicing writing. What if my secret leaks out that I am not practicing writing and therefore, not a writer?

As a result, I have developed the artful dodge. I tell them that yes, of course, I’ll share something when the right moment arises, hoping that they forget and never ask again. I tell them to ask me privately and I’d be happy to share, hoping that they forget and we don’t end up in a private conversation. I tell them that I don’t like to share during the semester because I don’t want to privilege my style, wanting them to develop their own voices, trying to diminish the power that I hold as their teacher. Simply put, it is all bullshit. The truth is, I don’t want them to know that they have more courage than I have, that they are practicing and I am dormant.

Yet now that I am writing again, participating in a writing workshop, I don’t worry about feeling like a sham, a writing imposter, since I am putting words to the page. Even before students ask, I share pieces of my writing, illustrating my struggles, my lack of clarity, my resistance against assignments that don’t immediately energize or inspire. The day before I’m going to workshop a piece of my writing, I discuss my fears of how it might be received, of how my ego is on the line, of how I create a reward system for myself if I survive the experience. When we meet again after my piece is workshopped, I tell them about how sometimes the voices of feedback end up like a Charlie Brown episode, the adults mimicking the cacophony of a subway, me only hearing bits and pieces because it’s too difficult to digest all the sounds at once. I share with them my confusion about reading over the variety of comments, unable to figure out how to sort through the opposing readings.

I soften a bit in the class workshop, forgetting about being a teacher, allowing them to ask more questions that help them get at their meaning, knowing that I too want to ask questions and receive answers when my meaning is not immediately sensed; I realize that I don’t always have to invoke total silence about letting the page speak without the writer. When a student brings in a prose poem rather than a series of flowing couplets, I challenge myself, and the other students, to see the poem rather than see its failure to meet the assignment.

Together we journey. Together we write. Vulnerability gives way to a reminder that my best teaching happens when I am a writer responding to student writing, rather than a teacher responding to student writing.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Writing Torture

Once again, I find myself in the same place as my students must find themselves, staring at an assignment, wondering how the hell I'm ever going to complete something that doesn't seem to be bubbling with any juice. Each week, my Lighthouse Writers' essay class has a short 500 word assignment we need to complete and bring to class. Each week, this is usually not a big problem, since something seems to immediately inspire. These assignments are usually modeled after an essay we are assigned to read, such as this week's essay by Phyllis Rose, "Tools of Torture: An Essay on Beauty and Pain."

To help myself generate ideas for the assignment (weave two seemingly unrelated topics together), I do what I tell my students to do: brainstorm, ponder, generate lists of opposites, ponder, and explore some ideas with brief freewrites. Nothing, a state I'm certain many of my students face when I give them what I think is a less than problematic assignment.

Today, though, after awakening with the assignment on my mind, I came up with the following. Perhaps it's not quite the assignment, but the assignment inspired this.

Dear Teacher,

This assignment is making me mental. For the past five days I have cogitated, brooded, meditated, and finally surrendered. When I first considered the assignment, I figured what could be so difficult about weaving two dissimilar subjects together into an essay; after all, my life is a study of contrasts, so doing battle on the page and finding the DMZ shouldn’t push me into a writerly fit of discarding every idea. I keep channeling Walt Whitman’s “Noiseless Patient Spider,” imagining casting my own filament into a world of topics, yearning for a connection.

On the page I begin to make lots of noise, hoping to discover a lengthy list of sound possibilities to discover.

Idea 1: Pair up a visit to the dentist with an exploration of spiritual angst, highlighting the notions of helplessness and surrendering faith to another being. Discarded because I already feel helpless.

Idea 2: Detail a description of a wasp sting and weave that together with the horrendous things people have said to me about being queer and Jewish. It seems an ideal match, at first, much like my ideas of vacuums and diets, cars and online dating, and laundered integrity.
Discarded because my clichéd ideas sting, and I can only recall a handful of horrendous things people have said.

Idea 3: Since clichés are occupying the seat usually held for inspiration, I ponder returning to idea one, but this time pairing a former propensity to cancel dentist appointments with the art of revision, since I easily avoid returning to my words.
Discarded because I might simply cancel the appointment with the essay.

Idea 4: After discarding idea two, I immediately become encouraged by the cliche. I think I might effortlessly entwine the concept of an extended metaphor essay poorly rendered on a mound of clichés with bad food/wine pairings. I could mix together a bit of bubbly and sickeningly sweet cake with all the rotten ideas that torture my page.
Discarded because I have nothing original to say about bad food/wine pairings.

Idea 5: Since food has intruded upon my creative process, I consider eating as fodder for inspiration; the perfect place of disjuncture looms a block away. Off to the Breakfast Palace I wander, musing about the potential of mixing grease with royalty. Searching the menu, I try to tease out clues, word prompts that might just ignite an idea that cannot be ignored.
Discarded because I want to simply eat and dismiss obsessing about essay ideas for at least one hour.

Idea 6: Cheap and easy appear to be my mantra, so I decide to follow that thread, finally settling on the ultimate combination for the essay--fast food and romantic comedies. Both are predictable, cause me stomach pain, and basically leave me feeling like I’ve wasted precious moments of my life.
Discarded because that’s all I really have to say about the topic.

Idea 7: Surrender and create a list of all my failed attempts.

Faithfully conflicted,
Your student

Friday, February 4, 2011

Before I Can Write

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about my writing process, much more conscious of all the machinations, neuroticisms, and unexpected delights that seem to be emerging.

And so tonight, I actually turned off a movie (gasp) to go write because an idea had grabbed me. Normally, I try to stop what I'm doing if I'm grabbed by an inspiration and simply write a bunch of notes and return to my previous activity. And tonight that happened, sort of. While heating up my leftover spicy Indian food, I finally came upon a subject for my next essay to workshop in class. I stopped my thought of eating right away, sat at my computer, and hammered out 500 words fairly quickly. Figuring I would return to the essay tomorrow, I sat down with my dinner and Idiocracy, which I was loving, except for the fact that I realized I had taped it off of Comedy Central and the fucking curses were blipped out, along with commercials.

So, with an easy excuse, I turned off the movie, but really it was because the ideas for the essay kept intruding over my movie thoughts, and I wanted to follow the urge, thankful to have writing calling me rather than me calling writing.

And I've been sitting at my computer for about 20 minutes now, and have yet to start on the essay, because I got distracted and then started to think about all the things I had to do before I can write.
  • Decide on writing music for tonight. For the start, Abigail Washburn's latest City of Refuge.
  • Check my email at work (yup, terrible addiction)
  • Check my email at gmail (combination of school and personal)
  • Check my email comcast (personal)
  • Look up the Wii part I needed to replace because tonight I discovered that the sensor bar wire had been chewed through (thanks to Dowan), and I could not use the Wii (and I probably would have been watching a different movie tonight had the Wii worked, since my plan was to find something on Netflix). And if I had found a different movie without commercial and censored distraction, the story might end here.
  • Go to Amazon to see how much the Wii part cost. Since it only cost $4+, I needed to then surf for books so that I could spend $25 and get free shipping. Each book I found made me think that I should simply get that book out of the library.
  • So then I had to go to the DPL site, see if they had the book, but before I could check it out online, I had to use the new login system for the first time since their recent upgrade, inputting a password, and then placing a hold.
  • And then it occurred to me that I didn't need to order the Wii part through Amazon and spend more money just to get free shipping. Nope, I could go to Gamestop and pick it up there. So I went to the Gamestop website and searched for Wii Sensor Bars and found an even better solution: a wireless sensor bar, coming in at $19+. Not only was I saving money, but without the wires, it meant that Dowan could not chew through this one.
  • I still, though, wasn't finished with my wandering since I had not checked Facebook recently. I scrolled through a bunch of updates, fortunately starting to feel compelled to write, since I didn't even bother to go play a Scrabble hand in one of the five games I currently have going. While lingering in Facebook, I started to think about how many different things I seem to need to do online before I can write
  • Such as my final thing, which is writing a blog about the necessary preparation before I can actually settle down and write.
And I am now ready to return to my original writing urge, the essay for class, as long as I haven't used up all my energy here.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Stepping Back and Breathing

Tonight my essay was up for workshopping. Yes, not only did I manage to finish a personal essay, but I actually put it out there for others to see, for the purpose of having feedback. So, a bit nervous, off I went to class at the Lighthouse Writers, waiting for my turn. Feeling my knees shaking (I can seriously be so ridiculous), I volunteered to go first; I was that student who wants to get it over with.

And so I read a passage, breathing my way through it, and waited. I breathed through the pauses when people didn't seem as though they were going to find anything positive to say. As people spoke, I focused my eyes on the pages of my essay, taking notes so I could simply listen and not look, afraid of seeing too much silence. And like my students, once the critique was finished, what immediately came to mind were all the places that demanded my attention, the disconnects, the uncertain messages, the undeveloped; the places that worked, the praise, had receded layers beneath the criticism. Somehow, I had forgotten my advice to students: "A workshop is a place to understand how readers see your piece, a place to take pieces that need readers." Secretly, I fantasized that tonight everyone would stand up and applaud the essay, tell me it's perfect and ready for publication.

It took several hours to get over myself, reading and re-reading the comments. Eventually, I could distance a bit and realize that most of what had been pointed out I had thought at one point or another about my essay, just perhaps not as clearly as others could articulate. And after that, I got back to writing again, jotting down some notes for my next essay.

I have already succeeded in the class, since my goals are fairly quite simple. I have completed a piece of writing, shared a piece of writing, and intimately realized exactly what my students must experience each time their work is up for workshopping.

Friday, January 21, 2011


The black Ferrari just zooms around and around a desert track, coming in and out of view of the screen, setting the rhythmic lens of Sofia Coppola's latest flick, Somewhere. Johnny Marco, the Hollywood star, a screen legend in Italy, is the driver, repeating a numbing lap that sometimes is loud and other times is a distant whisper. The opening mesmerizes in its measured repetition, setting up what is a film filled with a slow deliberate beauty in the way Coppola frames the shots. They are simply gorgeous.

It is the visual that carries the film, and when I sit back and try to recall the film, the shots come to mind, not the dialogue or sound. For much of the film carries a silence, such as shots with Johnny passed out in bed, the stark white comforter and sheets holding almost a virginal purity counterpart to his ailing Hollywood star boozing, gulping pills, and smoking cigarettes. When the camera pans back from Johnny and his daughter Cleo (played brilliantly by Elle Fanning) sunbathing, both donning the same Rayban like hipster sunglasses, you move with the camera, having them fade, much like Johnny's star quality might do at some point.

The film chronicles Johnny Marco's shallow star life, from his toppling down the stairs drunk, breaking his arm, to his painkiller high inertia in bed while Barbi and her pole twirling dressup friend can do little to awaken him from his numbed slumber. When Johnny is awake, his eyes drift to many big breasted vapid women, opportunities for sex as a numbing agent.

And what rescues him is Cleo, who ends up having to stay with him for a period of time since her mother has decided to take an extended vacation from parenting. At times, it is Cleo doing the parenting, carefully making stovetop macaroni and cheese, complete with grating her own cheese; at times he is the parent, playing guitar hero, rocking out, father showing daughter how to be cool. Through his journey with her, the life that once defined him no longer fits. It is time for the Ferrari to be abandoned.