N.Y.E. (new year’s essay)

Like any year, I suppose, 2019 was hard and awful in some ways and completely uplifting in others. Maybe any year in which I fall in love is a good year? Maybe any year I lose a job and question my path is a bad year?

It’s tempting to throw a whole year out in the trash and move on to a shiny new one. And I don’t intend to judge anyone who needs that hard reset. I’ve been there in the past, too. There are some stretches of time where it feels like everything went wrong every way it could. Like we keep taking 1 step up and 2 steps back. Like our self-care isn’t enough in the face of a climate crisis, our Constitution being manhandled by a sadistic narcissist, our economic dreams receding in the distance.

We are adept at chunking our lives into discrete portions of sorrow and striving. In order to make narratives our of lives, we have to do this temporal sashimi slicing. We hear people talk about their 20s or 30s as a uniform mode — a sonata in the key of A major E minor. Millenials, I posit, are particularly adept at naming and defining these eras, perhaps because we are still writing our coming-of-age stories. We are the most cognizant of change, and we’re grown-ups now, not living in the Gen Z haze of eternal youth.

We’re able to pinpoint the span of months when we were happy and everything was rosy — maybe it was the spring we studied abroad in Italy or the duration of a healthy relationship, or our junior year of high school. And then everything falls apart, or we move away from our friends, or we get depressed, or fall into a slump, and we try to measure that, too, certain that we can mark the first of the month as a day we’re suddenly okay again.

So if 2019 was kind of bad for you, too, I get it. It is exhilirating to scream, ‘Thank you, Next” at the receding decade and stay up till dawn just to see if it’s more pink, like we hoped it would be.

But I think sometimes we make those divisions too sharp. We write the key signature in permanent marker and use accidentals to show deviation so we don’t have to call it a modulation. I think time is a little more mixolydian than we want it to be. There are notes that don’t sound right, and major stirred up with minor. I think dismissing 2019 as a wash would be a disservice to what I’ve learned this year.

  • I learned that being employed by a school is not what defines me as an educator.
  • I learned about how our schools are failing as workplaces, and how teachers aren’t given their due as professionals. I resolved that I’m not willing to put myself in a bad workplace, and I have an inkling that this problem is going to be central to what I eventually challenge and change about the profession.
  • I learned that I can be a published writer. This was my first year getting published! I learned about deadlines and editing and believing in myself.
  • I learned about my loneliness and how it has changed me. Loneliness has become the subject of my novel. Fighting it is a centerpiece of my mental health practices. If I could cure anyone of loneliness in this world it would be an honor.
  • I learned about love by falling into it with the most wonderful person. I am learning about how to be an “us” and not just me on my own. I’m still learning to love deeper and longer.

Among all these lessons, and all the joyful times I had with friends and in community this year, the thing that really sustained me was writing. I think the time I took for writing this year and the attention I showed to myself as a writer allowed me to take some big steps forward. Writing fills my soul with strength.

Here are some goals I have for my writing practice in 2020. I tried not to make any of these dependent on external forces, because as we know it’s an unpredictable landscape out there.

1.  Write every day for a month (do this 6x)

2. Have a chapbook ready to submit or possibly self-publish.

3. Read at an open mic.

4. Send out 150 submissions of poetry.

5. Finish my novel

6. Read more poetry, especially in journals.

7. Take a class, go to a conference, or join a group — find community.

 

I don’t know what 2020 will hold for me, what the particular medley of joys and sorrows will be. I look forward to writing it.

Aspiring Author September Blog Post: Breaking the Rules

I’m reposting some of my original writing from  The Aspiring Author Blog, which is going out of commission in 2020. 

My favorite thing about poetry is that it’s always there when you need it. In times of trouble, when your emotions need relief or outlet or empowerment, poetry is there. You can always go back to your favorite Mary Oliver poem; you can always go back to read Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones” when you’re worried about our country or Idra Novey’s “Still Life with Invisible Canoe” when you miss your childhood or your children. You can always depend on poetry.

My second favorite thing about poetry is that it encourages us to break rules. We don’t have to write in sentences or in order. Grammar is more flexible. Metaphors can run wild.

When I teach poetry, this is something my students struggle with. Much as we think of teenagers as rebellious, they are actually pretty settled into the limitations that have been drawn for them. Think about yourself. Isn’t it comforting to know what the rules and procedures are? Even as you scoff at English teachers and “grammar Nazis” (that loathsome term), don’t you find yourself with those voices in the back of your head?

But I can’t start a sentence with a conjunction!

One should never use first person in one’s writing; it makes one sound silly.

Or maybe the idea of writing as a collection of rules is so embedded in your consciousness that it paralyzes you, keeps you from writing at all?

In that case, my friend, poetry can help you practice being unafraid to break rules.

Not that there are no rules at all in poetry, but they’re looser. You can bend what you know about writing into the shape of what you actually want to write. Interesting things often happen not way across the line but right at the edges, at the corners. You’re likely to enjoy playing in the street more than on the sidewalk, even if you never go too far from home.

This also means that I need to practice breaking my own rules: the patterns I tend to fall into when writing poetry. I experience the most excitement about my poetry when I push myself to try new things or switch up my usual forms. Of course, this means that I have to look critically at my own poetry to identify my usual ways of doing things, and then experiment.

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My Rule: Always write a poem that fits within the confines of a notebook page.

How I broke it: Try writing poetic forms that dictate length in different ways. Haiku and tanka are great motivators for brevity. Another fun one is the 59-word poem, inspired by Jeffrey McDaniel’s poem “The Quiet World.” It’s also important to try different line lengths. Write sideways on the page. Decide to take up two pages. Let lines flow together and break up lines later. Remember that humans don’t speak or think in the shape of a page.

~~~

My Rule: Don’t be repetitive.

How I broke it: Repetition is an essential tool for poetry. Using repetition in interesting ways can add emphasis, show a shift in meaning, or demonstrate a speaker’s thought process.

Here’s part of a recent poem draft of mine:

You invite me to your nephew’s birthday party
even though I am not a balloon.
your mother says I am prettier than I am
in my pictures; in the pictures you
take of me to show her.

That’s a doubly repetitive passage (“I am” and “in pictures”) and I find it interesting because I think maybe it sounds like someone actually talking. When we talk to our friends and lovers, don’t we often stop ourselves to clarify? We repeat ourselves when we’re thinking through something or making a decision. I’m leaving in this repetition for now, even if I end up changing it up in the final draft.

~~~

My Rule: Use punctuation to make it clear how the reader should be reading.

How I broke it: This one’s easy. Write poems with no punctuation. I practice making my meaning known with just my words, phrasing, and line breaks. Then I also have to be brave enough to notice where this fails, where there is ambiguity in the poem. Maybe that uncertainty is good and I should keep bouncing the beach ball in the air. Or maybe that’s the one place where my poem really does need punctuation. Some of my favorite recent poems have been completely punctuation-free.

Do any of these “rules” ring a bell for your own poetry? If not, identify your own boring patterns and find a way to break them up. For extra credit, tweet your rule-breaking at me! @MsPaceWrites

Good luck writing, see you next month!

Looking out the kitchen window

Have you been forgetting to look at the leaves changing? I have. We’re supposed to eagerly await the shift, to watch it happen, but I feel like I never do. Instead, I look up and see flashes of red, orange, and gold. I am taken aback. 

I think I’d rather not berate myself for being too preoccupied with life. I think I’ll let myself live. Anyway, if autumn isn’t a surprise at every turn, doesn’t it become just another item on the checklist? 

Poetry surprises me pretty often. Even my own. Words just tend to connect in strange ways when we practice association. I love gasping out loud when I’m reading poems. Like a color is waiting for me around the corner. 

I currently teach adult students in an ABE (Adult Basic Education) English class. Many of my students are English language learners and immigrants. We’re working on building their vocabulary, putting clear sentences together, learning grammatical distinctions between singular and plural, present and past, commas and dashes and parentheses. They are not experienced or confident writers, but they are eager to write. Each class when I set them up with a writing prompt, they grow progressively more intent on writing something they will be happy sharing. There is an interesting difference from my high school students, who are in the habit of writing almost every day, but have trouble thinking big, independent thoughts. My adult students have such a wealth of experience, such a diversity of age and background and beliefs, but they are not accustomed to putting their thoughts into writing.

Which is why it is so remarkable and exciting when they do find exactly the right words to capture their thinking. Their last assignment was to write about a special place, a place they knew well, and to try to describe it so it came alive. My student Ann, from Hong Kong, wrote about her kitchen window, looking out at the sunlight. I complimented her on the lightness and delicacy of her prose. It sounded gentle to me. She surprised me by saying it wasn’t a real place. She said, said: “I am writing my dream environment. And then — I hope — I can match it in life.” 

I want her to be a poet, and to find writing as a blessing throughout her life. I consider myself lucky to have writing as my companion, as a space where I can meet myself as I am in this moment, flawed, limited, with fears and doubts. 

But I love the idea of manifesting the world we want in our writing. Make the words and images on the page beautiful, and maybe life will be beautiful, too. At least for a minute, for the time you’re reading what you wrote. We can write ourselves better, too — set intentions, write out goals, put our dreams on paper and fold it into origami cranes to keep it safe and mostly hidden. 

The poet Maggie Smith’s book comes out soon, and on Twitter she said the title was from a note she wrote herself: “Keep Moving.” 

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She started in this small way, and now offers almost daily messages on Twitter that inspire hope and perseverance. I know, I know, Twitter is a time suck, an empty hole of call-out culture and snarky subtweets and constant self-promotion. But the poets I follow offer little snippets of golden light on dreary days. They encourage me to believe in myself and be confident: in my body image, in my efforts to better my mental health, in my relationships. 

I am not optimistic enough to believe that the universe will manifest whatever we intend and attract. I’m a little skeptical of affirmations and positive psychology, because I think you can be the best person in the world and horrible trouble can still fall upon you. It is too much to ask, in the face of injustice and depression and trauma, to just “cheer up.”  

But in the things I do have some control over — my approach to problems, my energy, the way I talk to myself — I could be so sweet, hopeful, and kind. I could use my words as a dream. 

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org 

You can pre-order Maggie Smith’s book on Indiebound

Aspiring Author June Blog Post: A Bowl of Peanuts: What to Write About

I’m reposting some of my original writing from  The Aspiring Author Blog, where I’m a regular contributor. My fellow bloggers post about writing in their respective genres. If you’re looking for fun writing advice, check it out!

 

My dad just told me a story in which he, returned from a late-night gig, wanted to wind down with a snack before bed. He took a bowl of peanuts and a glass of wine to the recliner and started to watch TV, only to wake four hours later, the bowl of peanuts on his chest, the TV blaring.

I laugh at this, because my dad loves portraying himself as a silly old coot and telling me the goofy things he forgets. My favorite was the story about thinking a guy forgot his bag on the bus and readying himself to leap off the bus and heroically restore it to its rightful owner, only to see it claimed by… a totally different guy.

When my dad tells my these stories, I can see him playing out the action in my mind. I can summon a vision of him in his fluffy maroon bathrobe, an updated version of the original “Big Red” I was comforted by as a kid. His slippered feet are kicked up in the recliner, and a dumb old cowboy movie is playing on the TV. I can see him drifting to sleep while the bowl of peanuts is perched precariously in that little divet between his chest and belly, which he jokingly calls a built-in cupholder. I can craft the time passing in my head, shape it into a story where something changes when he wakes up, drawing a picture of his character as he realizes his folly and immediately begins to laugh at himself.

I used to think that to write creative nonfiction or memoir, I had to tell my whole story each time. Or that I would have to deliver pieces of my childhood trauma or the problems of my family. I do write about those things, but usually for myself, not to be shared. Often, the things I write bear some truth of my life or reveal something about who I am. But no one thing I write is going to perfectly represent my entire identity. Throwing out that pressure has been helpful- it has freed me from the unfair expectation that everything I write must be significant in a grave way.

But I still need things to write about. Especially if I am writing every day (which I actually live up to for about a month at a time). I draw from memory, things I notice about people, things I see on walks through my neighborhood. Things happen – ordinary things – and if I can draw a conclusion or make a connection to something else, this might be fruit for writing.

One of the people who encouraged me to do this was Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, which remains one of my favorite books about writing. She emphasizes that in order to be a writer, you have to write. What should you write about? Anything you can write about. One of the exercises she suggests is: tell me everything you know about school lunches. So I’ll try that now, in my notebook, and share whatever comes out as (Lamott’s term) a “shitty first draft.”

I never bought school lunch in elementary school. Our school didn’t have it except one Friday a month when there was HOT LUNCH, which was to delineate freshly prepared food rather than bags that had been sitting in lockers all day, but which to me always seemed literally piping HOT! LUNCH!

Usually it was pizzaSo we were all brown bag kids on all the other days, but when your parents forgot to pay for HOT! LUNCH! you were especially noticeable on that day. That was me. I was also especially noticeable for the amount of mustard I put on things. The Catholics were suspicious of mustard; it had too much flavor to be virgin-Mary approved. I was dark German (baked potatoes and brown mustard among my favorite foods) and they were almost all Irish with a few Italians thrown in for excitement. I don’t know why this was so significant but at some point it dawned on me that this might be the reason I was so very different from all of them.

You were also especially noticeable if your Dad made your lunch instead of your Mom. I thought at the time I was the only one in this situation, but now I think I should have looked for the signs. It was immediately detectable from the handwriting on the brown bag, which also told if you were an only child (no name written). Most kids with siblings had full names written out in Mom handwriting. I had my first initial in black sharpie. And if I’d had a particularly bad day with the Catholics the day before, a funky angular heart went with it. ❤ Moms also write cute little notes on napkins. Dads did not. No Dad would cut crust off of bread, but Moms did it all the time.

But I never would have stopped dumping three or four packets of deli mustard on my ham and cheese when HOT! LUNCH! was sandwiches. And I never asked my dad to write out my full name or put a note on my napkin. I liked that he knew what kind of sandwich I wanted and wrote N to show me my lunch was distinguishable from my sisters. I loved that he absorbed the habit of initials in black sharpie and signed everything from then on: <3, D.

See? You can write about anything. I know, I know. Now it seems I’ve taken this problem and whipped it around to the opposite side. If I don’t have to write about everything that’s ever happened to me, but I also can write about anything at all that ever happens, what the heck do I write about?

I face this problem every time I write, it seems, which right now (thankfully) is every day. What’s interesting to me varies, so I might write about how there is so much pollen around Providence right now, which would probably lead me to compare it to the pollen in Williamsburg, Virginia, home of the most aggressive Spring ever. Sometimes I write about a topic just long enough to know I don’t want to write about it. This just happened for me with an essay about yoga and learning. I might write about my houseplants, or a little kid’s funny comment on the street, or about ice cream shops or block parties.

If you’ve read this whole post, you probably think I need to write about my Dad. Maybe. I certainly want him to know how important he is to me (if you’re reading this, Dad, ahoy!). But right now I’m more interested in investigating news stories about how trees around the White House are dying (I know of at least two). The thing is, once you open your eyes and start noticing, like writers do, there is no end to the things you can write about.

 

Your assignments this week are all inspired by Anne Lamott. (You really should read her book).

1. Write about your school lunches.

2. Choose a topic to examine through a 1-inch picture frame. How can you describe that moment, that memory, that sight?

3. Practice remembering. Choose a holiday or birthday party from when you were a kid and write everything you can see, smell, and hear.

 

A final word of advice: sometimes (maybe most of the time!) the value is in doing the writing, not in what comes out. Translating my memories and the view from my little frame of reference into words gives me hope that I’ll keep finding things to write about for the rest of my life.

 

Thanks for reading! My next post on The Aspiring Author Blog will be on October 24th. 

As a child, I was overly astute.

I think of how, in the doctor’s office getting a check-up, I followed directions too well.

The doctor told me to bend down and touch my toes while keeping my legs straight. He must have told me to stand back up. And then he said to walk to the door. I did so, keeping my legs as straight as I could.

I didn’t find this odd or difficult, because my sisters and I had been playing a game called Robots where one girl was the robot and the others gave commands. The robot had to turn left or right, stop, go, and back up on a dime while emulating a robot’s stiff-limbed walk. The game was funny because if the robot ran into something (like a parking meter) she had to keep trying to walk in that direction while saying SYSTEM BLOCKAGE repeatedly in a tinny, nasally voice. The other players had to suppress giggles while grabbing her by both shoulders and resetting her path.

So anyway, there I am, participating in some twisted version of Simon Says in which my doctor has not said to not keep my legs straight, and the doctor turns to my mom, very concerned, and says, “does she always walk like that?”

My mom laughs and says, “you can bend your legs again, sweetie.”

I walk normally again, reassuring my doctor that I don’t have a horrible disease of the spine.

I am embarrassed enough to think about this story for years, but I am also curious enough about communication and language to think this is an interesting breakdown. Now I wonder what vested authority allows a doctor’s command to outlast time? Do we grant the words of some people undue authority, so that they never expire? How was I to know that the new command, the new task, was to supercede the previous instructions? Furthermore, how did a pediatrician not understand what was happening to me?

I’m glad that my mom understood the rules of Simon Says and knew enough about my tiny brain to see what ws happening and think it was funny. I’m just so glad she was there.

 

Nora Pace writes poetry, essays, and fiction. Her flash fiction and poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Juniper, Kansas City Voices, Barren Magazine, borrowed solace, and Riggwelter Press. She recently attended the Kettle Pond Writers’ Conference. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island, where she teaches adult education classes.