Wednesday, February 1, 2017

If We Knew Then

“Given: A myriad of such delicate chimes,/unlikely rhymes and synchronies/To prove: How I am/the world is/Q.E.D. (not alone)”
––From the poem “On Distance (Quondam/Quantum Overdue Notice)"
by Liz Waldner



For a time, I lived on a tree-lined street in Brooklyn during an in between moment of renewal and neglect. Years earlier, a once elegant if not exactly wealthy neighborhood of brownstones had fallen into disrepair. These were then offered to working class black and immigrant families by absentee owners, who subdivided the once grand homes into tinier and tinier apartments in order to collect multiple rents.

That a young white women, such as a myself, had moved in was one signal that change was once again in the air. Married couples had begun buying the brownstones, restoring entire floors of old buildings to their original elegance, taking up residence, and renting out what remained of the small apartments to semi-bohemian people like me. Gentrifier and gentrified thus greeted each on the street with wary smiles. Our roles marked out by differences in our ethnicity.

In late spring the sidewalks were shady, and I liked to leave the apartment to run down Dean Street toward the Gowanus Canal, sometimes crossing the Brooklyn Bridge all the way into Manhattan. It gave me a feeling of immense freedom, as if at any moment I could run to wherever I wanted to be. I ran before work in the mornings, taking quick showers before taking the train to mid-town to a two-person office where I helped produce AIDS prevention videos.

Dean was residential, but a few clever drivers hoped to cut their commutes by skipping Atlantic Avenue and intersecting Flatbush at the far end of our quiet street. In those early morning hours, school children stood on the corner waiting for the crossing guard’s signal, while people with jobs more demanding than mine rushed past on their way to the station on Atlantic.

The drivers tended toward impatience. If a child or office worker impeded their journey in anyway, they wasted no time tapping their horns. My run took me in the opposite direction, so I would often know more about the cause of a delay than cars further back in a line––a child had dropped a book bag a half-block further up the street, say, or a pedestrian had tripped and stumbled from the curb.

My run, I know, was important to me. But I had distance from the commuters because my journey to work wouldn’t begin for another hour or so. My quarry, at the moment, was my own pleasure, not rent money, health insurance, or any of the daily contracts we make in order to survive.

Sometimes, the honking grew so loud it suddenly exposed the anger behind it. Each person in each car was the inviolate leader of his or her own kingdom and anyone or anything in the way could be shunted aside for the right to claim Flatbush a few moments sooner.

That sound, the impatient honking, sometimes became the soundtrack of my morning runs, and it annoyed me. Why could the world not support the ritual that made the rest of my own stressful day bearable?

One morning, running down Dean, I heard the horns and saw for the first time the reason for a particularly long delay. A block or so ahead of me, in front of one pre-gentrification brownstone, a small yellow school bus blocked traffic.  From some distance, I watched as a man in a laborer’s clothes struggled to carry a disabled teenaged girl, a girl I assumed was his daughter, down the brownstone’s stairs.

I recognized this type of bus from my own childhood, and a wave of associations washed over me. I had, perhaps, hoped to escape just this kind of bus in leaving my family behind in California and moving across country to New York City.  

Back in California, my sister Sally rode a bus just like the one before me. My sister went to a school for severely handicapped children just outside of town, and the bus took her back and forth each day. Childhood surgeries to remove the cancerous tumor in Sally’s brain had damaged it too, and she couldn’t walk or speak easily or do most of the things she had mastered as a five-year old before her operation.

As a teenager it was sometimes my responsibility to put Sally on the bus, but our street was suburban wide and no one ever honked as I went about this difficult task.

Sally, however, wasn’t the bus passenger in the worst shape. On it were children who had been born without arms and legs, and some had heads that seemed swollen to twice the size of their torsos. Others had twisted spines, and their bodies spasmed involuntarily, so their heads and waists were anchored to wheelchairs with padded belts, so they wouldn’t hurt themselves.

Some children’s gazes seemed completely beyond their control. Their eyes wandered from me to my sister to the elm tree beyond the door without rhythm or sense. I often thought I heard moans, though I was in such a rush to remove myself from this mind-blowing world, I never took the time to figure out from whom such moans arose.

Some children couldn’t close their lips, so it could have been that I only imagined moaning to account for the gaping mouths. Drool might leak onto a tiny exposed palm, which I gently pushed aside to make room for my sister, who was assigned an aisle seat. By the time I’d locked her belt into place, she looked as frail and as lost as anyone else on the bus, which was almost more than I could bear.

Sally had a pale partially bald head and large glittering brown eyes that held me in her sights as I stepped away. Everyone in our family loved her fiercely, but once Sally was on the bus with the others, it was easy to imagine how outsiders might miss everything about her that was precious, like I surely did with her classmates. A stranger might only see her ghost-like appearance, mistaking her muteness for absence when really she was alive and loving––more than anyone I know really.

Therefore, as I ran down Brooklyn’s Dean Street, I thought it likely I knew more about what might be inside that yellow bus than many of the drivers lined-up impatiently behind it. Dean was only one lane with vehicles parked along either side. This meant it wasn’t possible for the bus to pull closer to the curb and let commuters slide by no matter how big their hurry.

Some found the delay infuriating and their honks could be heard blocks in either direction. This was the sound punctuating the journey of the father, an older man with neatly combed hair, who was a cluster of slow and careful movement carrying his daughter down the stairs.

As he neared the bus, his daughter’s body listed uncomfortably to one side and her glossy black tresses hid one side of her face. As I came closer, however, it was the tenderness between them of which I was most aware.

Where even a few years ago she might have been a little girl and easy to lift, she was now practically a woman. Her body seemed too large and ungainly for such an old man to carry, but he did, and cautiously so as not to drop her or fall as he negotiated the bus’ entrance.

I saw the father remerge from it and hurry back up the stairs for the wheelchair she’d be needing at school. Angry car horns followed him through every stage. It didn’t occur to me then that I could have helped––that it could have been me retrieving the chair and bringing it down to the bus while he locked his daughter in place. Instead, I ran further down the block my own anger mounting at the drivers who honked and honked. How could they be so cruel? Did they not understand what it took for that father to put his daughter on that bus each day?

Years later I realized, the drivers might not have even known the cause of their delay––their vision likely blocked by cars ahead of them. In fact, it was true! The further one got from the father-and-daughter scene the louder the cacophony of horns became. People honked because they were delayed without any idea why. Nevertheless, they were confident an injustice was being perpetrated. Some stupid someone had underestimated the importance of their morning’s journey, and that stupid someone would be made to pay by the blaring of the horns.

I have been impatient in exactly the same way––angry that my movement (economic, emotional, physical, psychological) faced some obstacle I labeled unfair. I complained and loudly too.

I wish I had understood then that the world is made up of incredible things and somewhere a father is carrying a daughter on his back, trying to keep her safe from famine, from war, or merely the angry blare of New York’s commuters. None of these people exist in a world outside my own. It only seemed so. I needn’t become angry. Instead I offer help.

Likewise, I wish as a teenager, I could have entered my sister’s school bus with a fearless and open heart. Yes, the children I saw on the bus terrified me. If such thing could happen to a body on Earth than anything could. I ran because I couldn’t make a place for that inside my own psyche. I chose then to focus my energies on things I thought were more important––my own ambition, relocating to a major city, meeting new friends, building a career––the makings of a normal life, of which I now hardly believe there is such thing.

I hope the next time my impatience coalesces into a desire to bang my horn, I instead take pause. One breath on its own may help form connection to something outside the tiny bubble I perceive from, the bubble I label reality, just as the drivers named their own bubble reality too. But reality is bigger than any one of these individual perspectives; it includes each one equally––not one person meant for dismissal or exclusion.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Part Two Revision Strategies: Writing without Readers

Part Two Revision Strategies: Writing without Readers

“And what is the main thing, we speak of beauty and good itself, and so in the case of all the things that we then set down as many, we turn about and set down in accord with a single form of each, believing that there is but one, and we call it ‘the being’ of each./That’s true./And we say that the many beautiful things and the rest are visible but not intelligible, while the forms are intelligible but not visible …. Then let’s not be surprised if the carpenter’s bed, too, turns out to be a somewhat dark affair in comparison to the true one.”
––Plato Republic

For many writers enrolled in beginning composition courses, texts are only a site for right and wrong. In their minds, “naturally” talented authors write in perfect drafts. Plus, there is seemingly no such thing as a reader separate from the writer, a reader who has her own needs and desires that might be in opposition to the writer’s expressive strategies.

For example, my students sometimes experience their texts as being made of concrete. Revision, if it exists at all is meant only for removing errors. Everything else about the text is immutable and fixed as a prison wall.

I need them (and myself) to experience our drafts as being made of clay, ready to be wetted, reworked, and shaped into new and infinite forms. Texts can become sites for discovery, experimentation, and play. Something that can only happen if we learn to smash, manipulate, expand, and refine them with curiosity and joy.

For years, I thought and spoke about revision as being made up of four possible actions and two possible entry points. This helped me rework my own writing and made the revision process real for my students, something I covered in an earlier post (“Infinite Revision”).

In setting forth the four actions (adding, subtracting, moving, or replacing) I hoped to create simple ways of entering an abstract endeavor. Through revision as play, I hoped we could offer our readers freshness, surprise, and a less rigid more authentic voice that arose from delight not rigidity.

Until recently, the goal of revision for me was the reader’s on-going interest, but as I explored in last week’s post perhaps the reader’s presence dims rather than illuminates the writer’s ultimate purpose.

It wasn’t until I heard the celebrated author Ottessa Moshfegh name another possibility for revision, one that ignored readers and focused only on uncovering stories in their most illusive and ideal form that I realized my own approach to revision might benefit from further refinement.

Sometime after Moshfegh’s visit to my class, I was awarded a fellowship to the CatamaranLiterary Conference in Pebble Beach. There I worked with Scott Hutchins author of the novel A Working Theory of Love. It was like being taught by Buddha. In his presence, the most anxiety provoking writing tasks––the beginning or ending of a piece, its revision or its goal––became achievable and charged with hope.

Like Moshfegh, when approaching revision discussions, Hutchins never explicitly spoke about readers’ needs. Thus my anxiety about a text’s ultimate purpose may have been eased. He did guide us, however, to closely explore the work of other writers in order to identify how and why we found them affecting.

Everything about Hutchins’ approach to writing and writers was gentle and encouraging. He offered frameworks that made revision seem like a fundamental, even enjoyable task. What he shared was immensely helpful, and in that spirit, I share it with you.

Hutchins draws from Stephen Koch’s excellent book the Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction. In it, Koch proposes that there are roughly three primary phases to the writing process.

Phase one is the initial draft, where a writer gathers clay and begins to sense the particular elements in what is being created. Phase two, by far the longest, is where a writer expands, improves, and builds on what the phase one brought forth. Phase three is a time of intense polishing. The writer “cleans” up and ideally reduces the text by about ten percent.

Hutchins also shared what he named as the key ideas he’s taken from Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style. Those ideas are: state things positively; avoid modifiers; use strong nouns and verbs; and pay attention to periodic structure, placing the most important words of each sentence just before its final punctuation.

In his workshop, we therefore spent time scanning our own texts and reworking them with these guidelines in mind. For example, “Don’t revise only thinking of your laziest reader” might become “Find entry points to revision other than reader reaction.”

Likewise, getting rid of modifiers means your sentences will become lively and direct, not “so,” “very,” or “too” lively and direct.

In general, the strongest nouns and verbs are those that are the most specific and sensory. So, whenever possible, use proper names and the most active form of any verb.

Finally, think about the impact and placement of each word in a sentence. Consider placing strong words at the end of your sentences where they will have the most impact. I wasn’t at all sorry to experience how such focused actions, generated such dynamic texts. Or as I should say, I gained confidence witnessing dynamic texts emerge from focused action.

Since then, what I’ve learned about revision is that like everything else about writing, one will never grow bored considering what it can do and how one might approach it. Revision is writing and to write is to revise; it is best to enter all of it with respect for its magnificent possibilities and compassion for the writer engaging in it.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Revision Strategies Part One: Writing without Readers

“Fuck the reader!”
––Ottessa Moshfegh

As a journalist working at small East Coast papers, I churned out three or four stories a day––a brutal tapping of the keyboard as I met one deadline after another. In the limited time I had to report stories, I rarely gained sufficient knowledge to achieve the punchy expert’s tone that newspaper writing demands. Nevertheless, I did what was expected of me. I disguised areas of impossible complexity behind a nonchalant rhetoric that pretended anything can be reduced to a headline, lead, and nut-graph, the nut-graph being the nugget we gave readers early on in a story in case they wanted to skip all the paragraphs that followed.

While writing, I imagined my readers sitting at home reviewing the day’s stories at the kitchen table or sitting on the porch with the family dog. “Town plans to fertilize farmers’ fields with treated sewage” might read a headline accompanying a story I’d reported only a few hours earlier. The water district manager assured me the practice was safe. Being an accurate reporter, I wrote what he’d said. But was it? Safe, I mean, to dump partially treated human waste on farmers’ fields, waste that had been treated with all kinds of toxins before being dumped?

In the short period of time I had for reporting and writing, it wasn’t possible for me to convey both what I’d been told and the air of doubt surrounding questions, that me, a non-expert, hadn’t even known to pose.

Instead I focused on writing a story that could be easily apprehended by my imagined reader, someone who I came to think of as stupid, lazy, and easily bored. Such a conception meant I wrote articles that were brief, to the point, and colorful only to the extent “color” made the story more interesting, not more complex. These, I thought, were the traits of a good writer.

In leaving journalism and coming to fiction, my imagined reader continued to loom over my pages. Only now, she was more open to complexity and nuance. She enjoyed the lyrical sentence, wanted to move past archetypes, and infer for herself any meaning stories might hold. I wrote and often harshly judged my own sentences with her in mind, finding courage to excise whole paragraphs. Her criticisms guided the action. Yes, she was tough, sometimes silencing the more playful, crude, less sophisticated writer that lived inside me, but who would I be without her?

If, during revision, I didn’t focus on her needs, my stories might collapse further into chaos, senselessness, and self-absorption. My imaginary reader demanded it. As a writer, I thought it best to serve only her needs.

Yes, during the initial writing stages––that opening period when I’m desperate just to get ideas on paper––I silenced her ranting; she was no good to me then. But later, when I tried to shape and solidify, it’s her I conjured. This imaginary creature was both bully and champion, and most of my writing life had been devoted to serving her. 

How exciting, then, to learn Ottessa Moshfegh, author of the highly praised novel Eileen and someone whose writing I much admire, writes and revises without regarding the reader at all.

A few years ago, Moshfegh visited a creative writing class I taught at Gavilan College (a rural community college at the southern end of the Silicon Valley). For weeks I’d been telling students that their workshop groups offered the important opportunity to hear from their readers. Then came Mosfegh who said she does her best to think of the reader not at all.

At first, I found it shocking that a writer as accomplished as she would dare revise in such a state of total self-possession. Though Moshfegh the person is warm, generous, and personable, something well demonstrated by her travelling far out of her way to work with a group of young and untested artists, Moshfegh the writer cares not at all about pleasing the reader or anyone else.

She explained she sets aside her ideas about readers’ needs in order to better serve the story itself, focusing all creative energies on apprehending it in its ideal form, revising only toward that illusive goal.

The term “ideal form” stood out to me in that particular moment. That same semester I’d been reading the Republic with a composition class. In it Plato poses his belief that everything we make––from spheres, to poems, to beds––is successful only to the extent that it matches that item in its most perfect incarnation, an incarnation we may never experience first-hand but one we can nevertheless sense exists.

Like Plato, Moshfegh seems to express that nothing should get in the way of the good, the good being whatever serves beauty and truth––not even imaginary readers.

I found the concept liberating, but a liberation that demanded great courage from writers. It takes courage to sense beyond the self into a more expansive place, a place where stories already exist without us, a place where the quality of our listening (not our will) determines how effectively our writing emerges.

As I now understand it, revision from this stance requires less anxious action from the writer. The goal is not to do but rather not to do too much. With a shift in focus from trying to please someone, who in the end, is impossible to know (after all the imaginary reader is a figment of imagination). One would instead maintain only what is precise and clear in a text, leaving everything else behind.

It requires one to write and rewrite in a state of trust, trust in a writer’s ability to intuit a story’s ideal state. This is akin to the old cliché about the sculptor who exposes the form as it already exists in the marble rather than creating it from a void. Or perhaps a better comparison is a doctor whose primary principle is “do no harm.”

I am grateful beyond all measure that Moshfegh articulated this radical stance, and someday I hope to experience writing from this graced and liberating position.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Truth Exposed! Writing Behind Bars: Introducing the Women of San Benito County Jail

“Read this book! The strongest, bravest, and most brutally honest thoughts, feelings, and emotions ever put into writing by some of the most powerful, beautiful, and intelligent women locked behind walls.”
––From the cover of Ecstasy of the Streets: Agony of these Walls

An incarcerated person is someone whose shame has already been partially revealed. The public can look upon the inmate and draw all sorts of conclusions without knowing very much beyond the surface story of arrest.

The writers in Ecstasy of the Streets: Agony of these Walls have done their best to write their way through to a deeper understanding for themselves and their readers too. It isn’t always easy to say what one means, and the work in this semester’s collection walks the line between revelation and concealment as well as any I know.

The writer’s dilemma is that on some level we understand a reader wants authenticity (or at least its very good facsimile). We like to think we can recognize a piece of writing that represents a writer at her most authentic. It’s in the fresh way she uses language, the super specificity of her nouns, the way she exposes thoughts usually hidden from our curious and gleeful gaze. Whereas, the words a writer uses when masked, sound just like everything that’s already been written, and there’s no real risk to the writer in restating them once again.

Writers who are also incarcerated know their incarceration means they are among the most fetishized writers working. Who isn’t curious, at least a little, about women and men behind bars? Does one write toward these fetishistic conceptions or away from them? Does one try to appear authentic? Or does one simply try and tell the truth, a largely impossible challenge given how complicated truth can be and how vital hiding can seem to survival? This is the dilemma of any writer, somehow doubly amplified in jail. 

Rarely has one felt so vulnerable or had so many reasons to hide than as when one is in the state’s legal custody, though in any given lifetime only some of us end up experiencing the state's undeniable weight. Mostly you have to be poor.

Working with the writers in Hollister’s jail––located in one of the most impoverished counties in California––reveals a truth about the United States. Here addiction or mental illness combined with poverty leads to incarceration, and at the seed off all three there is often trauma.

Indeed, Center’s for DiseaseControl studies prove it. Childhood experiences of neglect, abuse, and violence often lead to adulthoods filled with poor health, addiction, and incarceration. In one sense then, we jail people for being traumatized as children.

By apparent, and tragic, and comic coincidence, what readers are most willing to engage in is a piece of writing infused with conflict, conflict promising to resolve its own tensions before the reader’s eyes with a balancing of surprise, truth, and inevitability. When writing from actual events the writer needs to appear unmasked and vulnerable. For this reason, and if the writer is willing, trauma can become a creative asset, for what is trauma if not conflict?

There is an implicit promise in the act of writing––what we bring to the page at last stands outside us. It may bring about connection with others, and holds the possibility of uplifting losses and pain. It’s as if what we put it on the page, may also put be put to rest.

On the other hand, it can also seem that shining light on our conflicts might destroy something essential in us, as if secrets were strengths, a feeling often underlined by fear that, anyway, our talents won’t match our truths.

Perhaps that is why there is so much tenderness in the jail classroom. The kindness students express toward each other sometimes leaves me in awe. They usually greet even the most marginalized among us with warmth and understanding.

By contrast, I often feel overwhelmed and frightened by people who lack resources necessary for survival or otherwise seem out of control in someway––the homeless, the addicted, the mentally ill.

The women of San Benito County Jail, however, make compassion look easy, and not only easy but also necessary. The well of tenderness they draw from seems somehow fundamental to survival itself––all of it––yours and mine included.


The work in Ecstasy of the Streets, Agony of these Walls contains their wise and caring words. Some of them returned to workshop, week after week. Others passed through before being released or sent to other facilities for longer stays, so the writing included in this book represents the work of people in transition in nearly every way. I hope within it, you find something to soothe whatever conflicts life has presented you.

To read the book, click here: Ecstasy of the Streets, Agony of these Walls (Writing from the Women of E & F Pod  Spring 2016)