“I know the perfect place for you,” she tells me, phoning from the bath at her mother’s apartment in the city. I am at the long, red-honey wooden bar at the only diner on the island, treating myself to fish and chips and a beer, […]
Bubbles rise like weightless worlds, each one a shimmering rainbow. It’s February in Northern California and my mom’s backyard is full of quiet drifters: papery seed pods, cherry blossoms, dandelion fluff. In the slow exhale of a barely-there breeze they hang suspended, and for a […]
The holidays are here and daily routines are affected. Cooler weather has prompted sweaters and boots. Lights and decorations pop up everywhere, and lines are longer. Whether you rejoice or not, you can’t help but feel that the air is different this time of year. What does this mean for writers? Any time we are diverted from our regular routines, we’re experiencing something new: a moment.
Moments occur all around us, whether we are directly involved, or simply observing others.
You pay for your coffee at a coffee shop, something people do all the time and don’t think twice. The barista sets your cup on the counter, smiles, and says thank you. You say thank you back, which is his queue to turn immediately to the next customer in line. The exchange is over and he’s done with you, just like that. It’s not rude. It’s routine. Baristas hear thank you and you’re welcome all day long. For them to move on to the next order is merely habit and no one questions it. We all want our coffee right? But, what happens when that routine is broken?
Personal essays can be shaped around a moment.
Gary Shteyngart, author of Little Failure, a memoir, writes about a drunken event he calls, “the lowest moment of my life” in his humorous personal essay, “From the Diaries of Pussy-Cake (The night it all went wrong)” (The New Yorker, June 10, 2013). In this scene, he shows up at his non-girlfriend’s house when he knows her not-yet-ex-boyfriend is there, and pounds on the door. He’s let in and screaming ensues, but not in the way you’d imagine. One would expect the girl to scream at Gary, angry at him for intruding on her Kevin-weekend. Or maybe Gary would throw punches at Kevin out of jealousy, fighting for his girl. Except that would be a moment that we’re familiar with. That scenario has been written hundreds of times already. Shteyngart doesn’t get published in The New Yorker for writing about typical moments. “But what’s truly amazing about this scene,” the author writes, “is that Pamela and I are essentially putting on a performance for Kevin. The two outsiders, one drunk out of his mind, the other depressed and eternally abandoned, are dancing and singing and weeping for Kevin, our God.” This moment, the lowest in his life, is portrayed best by writing it as the climax of the essay. And as if he’s writing backwards, everything else—his relationship with Pamela, where he lived, the job he worked, the impact she had on his friendships—all lead to this one scene.
Moments can be bigger than the characters in them.
The first line in Darin Strauss’s memoir, Half a Life, is this: Half my life ago, I killed a girl. One moment he’s a high school senior on his way to play miniature golf. The next, he’s a killer. His entire book, including the impacts that this accident had on his life, those of the families involved, and his classmates, refers back to this single, life-changing moment. Darin’s moment is huge, and it drives the entire book.
A moment from the past can be portrayed in multiple ways.
In The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, James McBride recollects a moment when he was a child. After his white Jewish mother found out the milk he’d purchased was sour, she tries to return it to the store.
After a while, it was clear the man was not going to return her money, so she grabbed my hand and was heading toward the door, when he made another remark, something that I missed, something he murmured beneath his breath so softly that I couldn’t hear, but it made the crowd murmur “Oooohhhh.” Ma stiffened. Still holding the milk in her right hand, she turned around and flung it at him like a football. He ducked and the milk missed him, smashing into the cigarette cabinet behind him and sending milk and cigarettes splattering everywhere.
McBride follows this moment with his childlike interpretation of what happened. “I could not understand such anger,” he says. He goes on to mention that he used to wish his mother were black. Then he switches to his adult point of view: “Now, as a grown man, I feel privileged to have come from two worlds.” The narrator’s interpretations of the moment mean everything in writing nonfiction. After McBride portrays both of his views separately, he then pulls them together with this little tidbit: “My view of the world is not merely that of a black man but that of a black man with something of a Jewish soul.”
One moment can change the way we look at life.
When the movie Parenthood came out in 1989, I had only been married a year and didn’t yet have any children. It was the cast that pulled me in: Steve Martin, Mary Steenburgen, Dianne Wiest, Rick Moranis, Jason Robards, Martha Plimpton, and Keanu Reeves. I watched it when it aired later on HBO. I noticed how this movie represented several stages of parenthood, from pregnancy to adulthood. Equally represented are the situations: a single mom and her kids dealing with an absent father, a child behaving outside the norm, disagreements in parenting styles.
This might be a guide for me, I thought, so I recorded the next showing, labeled my VHS tape Parenthood, slid it into the VHS tape sleeve, and placed it on the shelf under the TV. I watched it when my son was born; four years later when my daughter was born; when he entered Kindergarten; and when she started riding her bicycle to school by herself. Each time, as my kids hit different stages in their lives, I was able to relate to something new in that same old movie.
Brilliant is the scene when Gil Buckman, played by Steve Martin, attends his daughter’s play. He’d just been told before leaving the house that his wife, Karen, played by Mary Steenburgen, is pregnant with child number four, and he didn’t take it very well. They argued and Grandma told him that life is a roller coaster. Now he sits in the school auditorium, watching his daughter’s play, when his toddler son runs onto the stage and starts beating on another kid to protect his sister. The play is disrupted and the boy won’t listen. You can see the anger in Gil’s face and you hear the sound of a roller coaster slowly climbing the rail. He looks around the audience and parents are laughing. On stage, the kids and props and setting have turned to chaos. Then the roller coaster goes over the first hill and descends into its twists and jerks at full speed. Gil looks like he’s about to explode and I find that I’m holding my breath. Finally, he looks over at his wife and she’s laughing. She’s living, not for order, but for the chaos that parenthood brings. I see the way he looks at her, and I feel that he’s seeing her as more beautiful than ever. He smiles at her, and then he laughs, and then he rides. The scene has several moments—one loaded with tension, and another when Gil joins his wife in laughing. Moments of acceptance are powerful.
So as you breeze through these holidays, make sure to take your own moments to relax. Listen and observe the interactions of the people around you. Strangers, friends, family. Nod to those moments that are routine, and recognize those that aren’t. What makes them different? Two kids straggling behind their mom fighting while walking through the mall is routine. Mom yelling for them to stop is routine. But if little Mary drops her coat on the floor and little Joey picks it up and tenderly drapes it back over his sister’s shoulders—that is not routine. Did you smile? Did you elbow your friend to look and share in the moment? It is these peculiar exchanges between humans that make you think, or smile, or better yet, make you hold your breath. These are the moments that your writing deserves.
Three One G/Pioneers Press, 2016 ISBN: 978-1-939899-24-8 Paperback, 53 pp., $13.99 Review by Andrew T. Powers Adam Gnade calls his new book, Locust House, a novella, and it falls within the page range of that designation, but I think of it as more of a […]
Microcosm Publishing, 2016 ISBN: 978-1-62106-009-3 Paperback, 222 pp., $14.95 Review by Andrew T. Powers I was excited when I first heard that Joe Biel had written a memoir. He’s a minor literary figure I’ve been curious about since I first began paying attention to zines […]
Jon and I drove from Sarajevo to Oraŝje to cross into Croatia, and we were going to pass through Republika Srpska. I had a book listing 3,000 slain Croatian civilians by Serbian forces in Croatia. I thought if the Serbian police searched us, they might not appreciate such a book, and I tossed it into the bushes. I didn’t know that there was no checkpoint. Republika Srpska was quiet; several orthodox churches were being built. An old man walked two pigs on the side of the road, grazing in grassy ditches.
I feel sorry for the pigs, I said. Probably some holiday is coming up and he’s gonna bake them.
In Oraŝje, we waited for a ferry to cross the river Sava, through diesel clouds of tractor trailers. Jon said, The beauty is that diesel is not harmful.
I don’t believe that. I am getting a headache.
That’s just withdrawal. By the way, Jon said. I am done with wine. It was good while it lasted, and I would drink more of that fine young red wine, but anyhow, I am done.
I am done too, I said. The hell with drinking.
On the highway of Brotherhood and Unity in Croatia, I drove a steady 130 km/hour, passing a column of trucks, which went about 80. It was already night-time, the sky starry and indigo. A car behind me flashed at me to move over, but I wasn’t going to move over and then brake in a small space between two trucks, so I kept going, accelerating to 140. That was not good enough for the BMW, which tailgated and flashed.
That’s really uncomfortable, Jon said. He’s maybe only a meter behind us.
I pulled to the right lane when I passed the trucks, and slowed down to 130. The BMW slowed to 130 and drove in parallel. I slowed down to 100, and so did the driver. I looked over and saw a gun, probably an Uzi, pointing at me. The driver was leaning his arm on the chest of a reclining blonde woman. I accelerated, and so did he. I was back at 140, so was he. There was no traffic on the road anymore in either direction. Jon said, What the fuck? We are both in the line—he could kill us just like that?
Yeah, who would know? After we are shot he could drive away at 200 km an hour, and nobody would know who dissed us.
Driving can’t be that serious, Jon said.
I looked over again and couldn’t make out the features of the man, other than the whites of the eyes. But the gun pipe and its black hole were all too clearly visible. There were lamp-posts on the side of the road shedding some light, every 100 meters or so.
He is enjoying this, Jon said. I am not! You think he’ll shoot?
I have no idea. The world is full of idiots. This is Texas-style road rage.
And we drove like that for a while, accelerating and decelerating, and then he suddenly accelerated to probably more than 220 km an hour and pretty soon was gone.
God, this nearly gave me a heart attack, Jon said. I hope the fucker crashes in the next curve.
I stayed calm through the whole thing because it was all too absurd, and I was not in control. But now I was a bit jittery, and I drove at 110 km an hour the rest of the way.
We came to my mother’s place in Daruvar late at night. The bell didn’t work, so I threw little stones and my mother opened the window and let us in.
After the usual hugs, she offered us walnut strudels and tea.
Jon asked me to translate to her. Can you ask her whether she has any wine? I am still shaking from our being targeted.
You have any wine, Old Woman?
Yes, local Daruvarski Riesling. But you know, you shouldn’t be drinking.
Will white wine do? I asked Jon.
I had a glass, and Jon had the rest of the bottle. It was quite refreshing, pretty dry, yet fruity, with a bit of apple and persimmon aroma. Jon gulped and then smiled so that his eyes vanished for a while in the folds of his cheeks, and his moustache spread like the wings of a bird over Texas.
SUNY Press, 2016 ISBN: 978-1-438460-83-3 Hardcover, 234 pp., $19.95 Review by Andrew T. Powers As a young girl, self-proclaimed church geek Jo Page often fantasized about living the religious life, romanticizing herself into the role of Sister Luke (played by Audrey Hepburn) in The Nun’s […]
Creeping Lotus Press, 2015 ISBN: 978-1-312-76920-5 Perfect bound, 62 pp., $12 Review by CL Bledsoe A nonfiction chapbook is a rare bird. One would think, with the proliferation of nonfiction writing, they would be more common. So, I was excited to discover playwright and poet […]
“What no wife of a writer understands is that a writer is working when he’s staring out the window.”
– Burton Roscoe
Before I took my writing life seriously, I lived in the banking world. Productivity and quality were the lifelines to how much cash we took home in a year. Every day/hour/minute in a call center revolved around whether you were logged in. How many calls per hour did you average last week? Your supervisor tracked your handling time. Someone always knew if you were screwing around on company time—especially you. This type of work left you with a constant awareness of how productive you were, or were not.
How does that translate for a writer? Our fingers need to be moving. We need to see the results on the screen. How many pages do we have to fill, in a single session at the keyboard, to consider ourselves productive?
For a long time, I believed that productivity in writing meant that x number of pages had to be drafted. It didn’t matter that my story was predictable, or that my characters were lifeless meanderers, because I was writing. Unfortunately, my writing was shit. All that clicking of the keys felt productive, but you can’t submit shit. Well, you can, but I wouldn’t advise it. Revision might save some of the crappier pieces, but you might find that you’re not really revising at all, but instead rewriting (because it was shit). You spent all that time on the first draft, and now you’re doing it over? How is this productive? In the corporate world, we called this rework. Evil time-sucking rework had to be eliminated. It’s a mindset that’s difficult to change. In the world of art and writing, I had to learn that rework, or rewriting, is just part of the process of creating. It’s okay to pull up that piece you wrote three months ago, read it again, revise passages. It’s acceptable to start over. No one is going to glare at me from over a cubicle wall if I’m rewriting, because rewriting is writing. Let it be so.
And what happens if no pages get written? Some might wonder—did you write, or did you only dream about writing? A productivity rut can happen (call it writer’s block if you want) if you get down on the quality of your writing. To a point, many writers are perfectionists, and their writing will never be finished unless they have a reader that can pound it into their heads that the piece is good, fine, submit it already! For the sake of this article, we’re not talking about perfectionists.
You may find that you’ve created a few shit pieces in a row, or that the feedback you’ve received from readers and workshops on a piece is too overwhelming to bother with. Suddenly, you’re not in the mood to write.
For whatever reason you find yourself not in the mood to write (with the exception of major events in your life), you have to fight it, or you could find yourself in a motivational rut. I used to wait until I was in a creative mood before I’d bother to sit down at all. I figured I’d be more productive and write less shit if I was in the right mood. I tried watching Men in Black to get into a science fiction writing mood. I watched Cedar Cove to get into a love story writing mood. I should have been overwrought with ideas and character quirks, my creative nerves twitching to write something passionate. But instead, after watching TV, I was hungry. I created a tuna sandwich. And I didn’t show up for work.
In David James Poissant’s essay, “How to Balance Writing, Family, Work, and Life: An Unhelpful Guide for the Perplexed,” he gives wonderful advice: throw away your television. Of course my husband wouldn’t be too happy if I tossed the TV, but you get the idea. Or as Poissant would say, “No, seriously, step away from the remote.”
The fact is, we can’t wait to be in the mood because it may never happen. You really do have to sit down at the desk and start typing. If you find yourself writing shit, then switch tasks for a while. Find a writing prompt or write in a journal instead. Journals are private, so you can write as shitty as you want to. No expectations there. The point is that your butt is in the chair, and you’re writing. Also, there’s a chance that your shitty writing might spark something—a voice, an attitude, an answer to a problem in your piece. The reality for people like me, who have to shed the old business idea of productivity, is that if you keep your butt in the chair for a designated amount of time, then you showed up, and you can be proud of your effort, even if it feels like you’re writing shit. It truly wasn’t for nothing.
So let’s say that your butt is in the chair, and you find that you’re rewriting more than you’re writing? In the corporate and manufacturing worlds, there’s a ridiculous and sometimes unattainable balance between quality and productivity. If you want better quality, then the productivity falls. If you want more production, then the quality begins to suck.
So what does this look like in the writing world? With your butt in the chair, you stay and write for the allotted time. For this example, let’s say it’s a 3-hour keyboard session, and you type type type, without editing as you go, and you come out of the session with five double-spaced pages. In my opinion, that’s a good session. Five raw pages is productive. But what is the quality of that writing? In a different example, say you edit as you go along, you might get only 2-3 pages written in the same 3-hour session, but the writing will be better quality. Hence, the productivity and quality balance exists in our world too. Damn. How do we tip productivity in our favor without giving up quality?
To reduce the time you spend rewriting and editing, you have to draft better quality writing in the beginning. How? The more obvious answer is practice, but more specifically, it’s about habit.
Robert Olen Butler touches on this in his book, From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction. In his lecture, “The Zone,” Butler explains not only that it’s important to write every day, but also how to utilize functional fixedness; which is to find a specific place and use specific objects to associate with the one task of writing. Based on his lecture, I keep a reed diffuser on my desk (Sage & Citrus). The scent is relaxing. I sniff it often. I play soft piano and guitar music, no lyrics (Pandora has a station called “Piano/Guitar”). I change the page color in Word to a light green. This takes away that blaring blank white page and sets a mood for my space. Lastly, I almost always have a cup of coffee or hot tea sitting on a cup warmer within reach. If you write in the morning, I’ve found it helpful to spend a minute preparing the writing space for work (booting up the computer, turning on the music, refilling the reed diffuser with oil, setting the blinds/lighting, and removing anything not related to writing from the desktop). This way, when I return after breakfast, or with a cup of coffee, the space is inviting and conducive only to writing.
Identify the process that works for your space and practice it. If you discover that each time you sit down, it’s easier to get typing, then you’ll know you’ve found functional fixedness. There you will find the zone, and it gets easier the more you do it. In his lecture, Butler also suggests ways to practice getting into this zone so that it’s habitual. And we all want our writing to be habitual, right? Habits make us more productive.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if we got paid to dream? We already dream about romantic writer studios surrounded by singsong gardens, or log cabin mountain retreats. I know I do. But that kind of dreaming won’t pay for a tin of coffee. But who (besides Burton Roscoe’s wife) says you can’t dream as part of your work as a writer? In From Where You Dream, Butler also supports the idea of working within a dream state. Imagine how excited I was to find out that I was allowed to sit there at my desk, close my eyes, dream up moments of story, and write absolutely nothing down (except some notes on paper.) And this is considered working! It was like a huge anxious weight was lifted. I must clarify here that Butler’s book is about writing fiction, but nonfiction writers can and should be open, at all times, to stealing techniques from the fiction processes. If they can sit back, close their eyes, and dream about made-up scenarios, then we can sit back, close our eyes, and remember scenes from our past, or dream up possibilities to expand our research.
If you find that the words aren’t there, or you don’t feel productive, don’t beat yourself up just yet. Do something else within the tasks of the writing world. Finish some overdue research. Offer to read a fellow student’s work. Pick up the latest issue of Creative Nonfiction, put your feet up, and read. Because if you made your way to the desk/coffee shop/library, and you actually sat in the chair, booted up your processor, and put some shit on the page, then you showed up for work. Give yourself a break. Eventually you’ll find something sparkly on that page, and you won’t even notice that you haven’t drafted shit for weeks—because you’re writing. You’ll be in the zone.