Hard Stories

November 17, 2009

At least three of my students this term have exceptionally difficult stories to tell and although my workshops and tutorials at NYU are not meant to be memoir exclusively, these writers are working on memoirs. Because of the urgency they feel, it’s difficult to move them into other forms of nonfiction writing such as reportage. So I let them be and encourage their efforts. Good memoir writing encapsulates all that is best in nonfiction writing today anyway—a strong sense of place, character development, dramatic tension, an open, direct narrative persona, lush description, and more.

When difficult personal stories surface in a workshop or a tutorial—the recent death of a loved one, incest, other traumas—I always ask the author if s/he has support outside the workshop or tutorial setting. Writing may be therapeutic but it is not therapy; student writers often confuse the two. More importantly, unless the writer develops insight, the writing will remain shallow and elliptical. When important information is with-held—either consciously or unconsciously—the reader feels that something is missing. That’s not easy to critique and may even feel manipulative though it isn’t; it’s self-censorship. One student this term admitted she was still protecting a perpetrator, that he was still alive and she was in touch with him. This being the case, how can the writing fly?

A rule I apply in my own memoir writing is this: If I can’t tell all of the story, I put the story away. There are other stories to write now. We can always return to what hurts when he have more skill, more understanding, and more courage.

Walking

November 9, 2009

I went for a very long walk with my husband in the warm sunshine yesterday. We started out near our home on the upper west side, meandered down to the river, and kept going for another three miles or so until we came to the Intrepid which was surrounded by armed soldiers and chock-a-block with tourists. Not exactly a peaceful setting. We walked away from the hullabaloo, the soldiers, the guns, and the memories of two awful shootings this past week. I’m working on a new project with combat veterans, Wednesday is Veteran’s Day, I’m thinking about the vets I know a lot, reading a lot about Iraq and Afghanistan, and I needed a rest. Hard to achieve sometimes but necessary to get the work done without collapsing. This is especially true when the subject of the project is emotionally charged. We have to keep going. We have to be strong. So, long walks are very important, literally and metaphorically. Walking is restorative even when the plantings on the trail dwindle and the scenery becomes industrial. At that point, I let my mind drift onto the Hudson and/or begin another conversation with my walking companion. We pretend to be tourists. Where to eat before hitting the Highline? We found a tucked-away local dive on Ninth Avenue—everything homemade, the Latina owner serving us personally, scrumptious cupcakes for dessert, a Sunday treat.

I always have ideas when I am moving and carry a notebook with me. When I was a runner and didn’t carry a notebook I’d bend down and scoop ash off the track and write on my arms. And when I am swimming, I try to hold the ideas in my head until I’m out of the shower and into the locker room. It doesn’t always work but my mind is so clear after exercise that all the important ideas return, albeit in slightly different form. But sometimes I don’t want to think about what I’m working on; I want to relax—completely. And though I had my notebook with me and at the ready yesterday, I didn’t write anything down except the word “apples” on my shopping list.

There were so many people walking the Highline that we couldn’t stop moving. It’s a transformed railroad track, not exactly a parkland, narrow, with interesting plantings on either side of the pathway. There are very few places to sit or lounge, and more views of the cluttered city skyline than the river. All told, we found it disappointing. But it wasn’t the whole day, it was only a part of the day, so it didn’t matter. We headed home on the subway and got back to our computers.

Bases Loaded, Home Run

November 2, 2009

I am an indigenous New Yorker and have been a Yankee fan and an athlete all my life. I played softball, basketball, volleyball, I swam, skied and ice skated—all in the days when girls sport was separate and unequal—less money and encouragement given to teams in high school and college, pre-Title IX days. I wrote an essay about this for an anthology called “Whatever It Takes; Women on Women’s Sport,” published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1999. We had a reading when the book was launched and it was thrilling to meet other athletes who had become writers from all over the country.

I was probably the only girl in elementary school who snuck a transistor radio and headset into class to listen to the World Series. It was played during the days back then. I was never caught and managed to keep my grades up enough to satisfy my parents. So whenever the World Series comes around and the Yankees are in it, I’m engaged. I’m watching those players and slugging the ball into the outfield in my imagination, running flat out around the bases, stealing bases.

Last night, the fourth game in the series was very exciting. Two men on base 2 x, Johnny Damon stealing two bases, heart stopping. The words, “bases loaded” came to mind as a metaphor for a piece of writing that’s loaded and ready to fly to home plate. This doesn’t happen without a lot of thoughtful revision. Revision is not the play-offs and it’s not the World Series; it’s spring training. The sketch-books are warm-up, keeping the muscles supple. Revision is more grueling.

Indeed, writer and athletes have a lot in common: discipline (practice, meeting deadlines,) a desire to win (get published), team-mates (the workshop), a coach (the writing instructor), sports-wo-man ship (accepting critique, offering critique), and so on.

Game 5 tonight, a chance for the Yankees to wrap it up.


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