Sunday, June 27, 2010

Writing assignment #3 - creative nonfiction

Here’s the thing. They aren’t showing up. I would expect them to appreciate their role in this enterprise, to understand that without them, the job just can’t be done. Ironic, really, that I’m in a position of authority over them, yet I’m powerless to make them show up and work. They’re a rogue bunch; I’ve known that for a long time. But I thought after so many years together we had an understanding.

How dare I presume.

Anyone who writes knows this fragile relationship. The words decide the art. For some writers, the images are there, but the words to form them refuse to present themselves. For others the pesky little devils choose to clomp about and pout like surly children who won’t behave until you give them money to chase down the ice cream truck.

And what must I sacrifice to coax them onto the page? Really, I have nothing they want. They run the show, they know it, and that’s that.

It’s small comfort to know other writers—great writers—have struggled like I do. Borges laments, “What a writer wants to do is not what he does.” Faulkner nods his wise head in agreement, adding, “The work never matches the dream of perfection the artist has to start with.” And, like a tight game of poker, Flaubert raises with “I am irritated by my own writing. I am like a violinist whose ear is true, but whose fingers refuse to reproduce precisely the sounds he hears within.” With the masters showing such hands, I find myself wanting to meekly fold and crawl under the table to sit at their feet.

Some call this battle of wills writer’s block. I think this a tragic misnomer. It’s much truer to call it word’s block; after all, it’s the words refusing the writer, not the other way around. They get together, decide on an embargo, and the writer is left with a notebook she cannot fill, or entire passages that serve little more purpose than a great pair of red heels on a jungle expedition. Why keep trying? Why struggle every day in hopes the words will give me even a nutshell of hope, a thimble of gold? Well, because, as the cliché goes, I don’t know any other way.

The poet Marie Ponsot, who at 89 years old recently suffered a stroke, finds herself searching for language—the words to poems she wrote, poems she loved, words that have disappeared inside her broken mind. She says it was, for her, an experience of “explosive astonishment—realizing that language is everything in the egg (tapping her head)…You take it for granted.”*

So words are not separate from me. They are me. Without words I cannot form my place in the universe with any real assurance. Perhaps the struggle isn’t that words won’t work with us, but that we fear the power they posses. We fear the heights they can take us, fear suffering a fate like Icarus,’ our own vanity sending us plunging into the depths of the sea. But words were made to fly close to the sun, so we best gather our courage and fly with them. If we refuse, they will simply go on without us.

*quoted from “After Stroke, a Poet Hunts for the Language Lost” by Jim Dwyer, printed in the New York Times June 25, 2010.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Writing assignment #2 - flash fiction

Becoming the Sea

I hear Momma crying before I reach her door. I find the nurse trying to comfort her, but Momma is inconsolable. “Hey, Momma,” I say. “What’s wrong?”

She turns her puffy face to me. “Cindy,” she whispers. Her nose is running. I reach into my coat pocket for a tissue. “Cindy, they’re being mean to me!”

“It’s okay, I’m here now.” Cindy is my aunt, Momma’s older sister. While wiping Momma’s face I smile at the nurse, who is new and perceptibly uncomfortable at the accusation. It’s okay I mouth, nodding my head. I think, You think your job is tough? Try no longer existing in your own mother’s mind. The nurse returns my smile and leaves us alone.

I rub Momma’s back, gently, feeling each vertebrae of her spine through the light gown. Too much pressure is painful and I must be careful not to rub the same area too consistently. Some time passes this way until her tears finally slow and the hiccups stop. Then it’s time for indignation. Momma has always been a stickler for routine.

“Cindy, these people are crazy!”

“Are they?”

“Yes! I heard two of them talking in the hall just this morning.” Momma turns her thin body toward me, motioning me closer. I lean into her. In a low voice she tells me, “They’re going to turn my bones into buttons!”

Her hair hasn’t yet been combed, so I pat her flushed cheek and go find her hairbrush. There’s no need to remind her that she’s quoting Gregory Corso. Momma lives in some other time, a time parallel to the one we are sitting in right now, but her time doesn’t include the past of her I know. In her past there is no daughter, no grandson, no students watching her grow animated as she discusses her beloved Beat poets. Yet, it all still exists somewhere inside of her, and from time to time it comes out, confused but beautiful.

“Look,” I tell her, “I brought you something.” I go to my bag and pull out two bottles of soda. The bottles are glass, identical to ones I remember from my childhood. That morning I had found them in the grocery store in a display meant to provoke a nostalgia purchase. Momma’s face erupts into a smile as I hold the bottles up for her to see.

Growing up, there were two things I could always count on to be in the refrigerator any time I pulled open the heavy metal door—a gallon of whole milk, and bottles of soda. A soda addict for the better part of her life, the height of it was, perhaps, when we lived in the little house on Sycamore street. It’s a green house with brown trim now, but in my childhood it was a brown house with matching brown trim. Shaped like the boxes Dunkin’ Donuts put Munchkins in, it sits across the street from the First Baptist Church at the end of a long driveway held down by giant cottonwood trees.

Those trees are gone now, and the church has grown eastward into a mega complex complete with a contemporary sanctuary sporting giant video screens displaying the words to the hymns for the convenience of the congregation. The old chapel, however, is still used; it’s where my mother’s funeral will take place sooner than I am ready. Her casket will set just feet in front of the baptismal where I was baptized at fourteen and just yards from the front door of the little house.

The retro soda bottles present me with a minor problem—how to get the metal caps off. They can’t be twisted off like today’s plastic lids, and I don’t have a bottle opener. In the house on Sycamore there was a metal opener attached to one of the cabinets in the kitchen. I would bang into the kitchen, pull our sodas from the refrigerator, put the lips of the metal caps into the mouth of the opener, and shwock, pop the tops. Momma and I would go into the back yard and lounge in the shade of the willow tree, listening to the noise of the highway and watching Trixie stalk beetles, peering at us from the edges of his emerald eyes to see if we were sufficiently impressed by his, as Momma called it, phenomenal feliness.

A nurse’s aide opens our bottles for us. I take that first big swallow—the one that burns so good that it makes my eyes water and expands to fill my stomach. We don’t rush —there’s nothing else competing with our time, no urgent activities or errands wait. Even the cancer taking Momma away from me is on hold. For a short while, just for a moment, I beg, let all our pasts and presents align into one bright curve, let me be allowed to bend time to my will. The universe is kind enough to say yes.

I turn my empty bottle sideways and peer into it as I would if looking for a ship in a bottle. But instead of seeing a clipper with sails fully rigged questing into adventures unknown, I recognize a little brown house on Sycamore street, its front door open. I see Momma, tranquil now, standing in the open door and smiling at me, holding her soda bottle in her beautiful, slender hands.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Writing assignment- meet Dilly

Dilly James saw her first ghost when she was six years old. She tells me this in our third meeting, a startlingly confession from a child who refuses to make eye contact with me.

I'm not sure how to react. We've only known each other for three hours-- technically, two hours and fifteen minutes, as our third session has only just begun-- with long two-week breaks between. Those first two hours were marked by long silences as Dilly scanned my office, her green eyes resting the longest on a jade funerary mask I brought back from Singapore. It sets on the bookcase behind me, peering down on the ten year-old girl. As she watched the mask, Dilly had willingly answered any questions I put to her, but her answers remained short, unadorned.

Today I notice she has a habit of pushing her ginger-colored hair behind her ears and then brushing her index finger over the bridge of her nose, as if trying to wipe away the constellation of freckles there. I am suddenly struck by how much Dilly looks like Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap. I can only hope she has a brighter future in store. But then again, that is what we are suppose to be working on in these sessions.

"Tell me about this ghost," I prompt. She shrugs her shoulders, which are peeling from an early-summer sunburn. "Was it in your house?"

She shakes her head. "No. She was crossing the street."



"Was it late?"

"July, I think.Maybe August. It was hot."

"Oh! I meant, what time was it?"

"Before lunch. I was riding my bike."

"Really? How interesting! Most people see ghosts at night." She shrugs again, pushing hair behind her ear, swiping at her nose. I wait.

"I was riding my bike, and this woman was walking on the sidewalk in front of my house. She was really old, and she was wearing this long black dress, really long sleeves, and one of those things on her head-- it covered her face--"

"A veil?"

"Yeah, but like--like a Spanish one--" Dilly's hands become animated, illustrating her words by wiggling her long fingers in front of her face. I notice she bites her nails.

"A mantilla?"

"You know, lacy. Black."

"I think so. She must have been really hot, wearing so much black in the middle of the day in the summer."

"She was a ghost. I don't think she noticed."

I smile. "So tell me how you knew she was a ghost."

Dilly pauses for so long that I think she isn't going to answer. Then she takes a deep breath and pulls her feet up into her chair. She has slipped off her sandals. She wraps thin arms around her legs and rests her chin upon her knees. There are small bruises running down the ridge of her shins.

"Cause she went across the street, to the house across from my house. It was falling down and no one had lived in it for a really long time. And then she walked through the front door without opening it."

Dilly keeps her chin on her knees as she tells me this, and I realize she has locked her green eyes on mine.

This is going to be interesting, I think to myself.