A Room of Your Own

I was very moved by Maria Cotera’s interview on Writer To Writer.  I was disappointed to have to miss the event in person, but am so glad I got to listen to the podcast.

There were many part’s of Maria’s story that I really learned from and enjoyed.  I loved the way she addressed the changing modes of writing, and that in response we must change the way we think about writing.  The hottest writing is happening online through modes like twitter and blogging.  It was helpful to hear how much she loved blogging, since we’ve been doing so much blogging recently.  She explained that it forces you to write for a large audience and to write often.  In addition, she emphasized the fact that in blogging, you’re not writing for an audience of specialists.  So, you can accept that you’re in a transitional process and let your fear of the public reading your writing fade.  This was important for me to hear.

My favorite part was Maria’s story of the first time she witnessed writing.  The image of a Chicana feminist woman taking her children to McDonalds to play on the play space while she wrote books by hand stuck with me long after listening to the podcast.  I found it remarkable that her mother wrote without gaining any fame or remuneration.  She was self published and created her own knowledge, believing in the importance of her voice and cause even without reassurance from anyone else.  Upon hearing her tell this story, I realized that I had never really thought about the first time I witnessed writing.  I wondered why this isn’t something we talk about more.  Surely, for all of us who love to write, that first exposure to writing left a mark on us and, perhaps without our knowledge, planted a seed that eventually grew into a passion for stringing together words into a piece of art.

For me, my first exposure to writing was through my dad.  As a little girl, I had a lot of trouble falling asleep after the September 11 terrorist attacks.  I think I realized for the first time that we aren’t indestructible.  I became afraid of what could happen to me and the ones I loved, and couldn’t sleep most nights.  So, my dad began telling me stories about a little boy named Friedrich, a painter who saw and painted the best in people…sometimes things even they couldn’t see in themselves.  I was mesmerized by his stories, by the way his words created characters and thrilling suspense and endings that made your heart swell with hope and joy.  As his captive and insomniatic audience, I watched his process of writing and felt its power.  Perhaps that’s what gave me such a love for words and writing.

Maria used a quote of Virginia Woolf’s that I loved: “A woman must have a room of her own if she wishes to write.”  Maria talked about how that room is not only literal, but also metaphorical.  How do we find time and space in our lives to write?  How, in a time of endless demands and pressures, do we find room to write for our own joy?

Again, I thought of my dad.  His literal room was a bit unconventional.  I remember sitting on our front porch, looking out over the outline of the Blue Ridge mountains fading into the smoky dusk’s light.  He would smoke a pipe and write notes in a leather notebook.  He has the perfect literal room to write.  Yet, he doesn’t have the metaphorical room.  Yet, he talks now of how he always wanted to be a writer but never had the time to truly do it.  With working enough to send a kid to a $56,000 a year university and another to a state university, it’s not hard for me to understand why he doesn’t have time to write.  But, my hope for him, reignited by Maria’s story about her mother, is that he can find a metaphorical room as spacious and peace-filled as his literal room.  After hearing Maria’s words, I hope we can all find that rom.

 

What An Uncoordinated Writer Can Learn From Musical Theatre and Tennis

Spring break seems to come at just the right time every year, just when we have hit our limit of late nights, early classes, too many fast-approaching deadlines and time with the the same people every day in and out.  This year, in particular, I was ready for break.  Partially, it could be due to the fact that this lovely winter has been the snowiest in the history of Ann Arbor.  How lucky we are that we got to be here for that!  The other big reason I wanted a break was to let myself live without evaluation.  I know this may sound strange, but in my major (Musical Theatre), I’m judged every single second.  Faculty are constantly critiquing not only our coursework (like scenes presented in class, journal entries, songs, dance combinations, etc), but every part of how we present ourselves from what we wear to how we say our names to how much makeup we wear.  Even my writing assignments, whether in the Minor Class or in classes like Theatre History, are being evaluated and judged…in most cases with a letter grade assigning a judgement of value.  So when March 1st rolled around, I was looking forward to a break from having my work judged.  Little did I know that I would be spending part of my break studying just that.

My acting teacher assigned a book called The Inner Game of Tennis , by W. Timothy Gallwey, over break.  At first, I was a little bitter that I had an entire book to read over break.  Being as uncoordinated as I am, I was also not convinced that I was going to gain a whole lot from a book about tennis.  But, it turned out that it opened my eyes up to detrimental attitude habits, formed from the performance pressure of being judged, that are getting the way of my schoolwork, performing, relationships and drumroll please….my writing!  Gallwey uses the game of tennis as a way to explain the way our judgmental attitudes get in the way of our performance, whether on the tennis court, stage, boardroom or classroom.  He introduces the concept of Self One, which tells us what to do, and Self Two, which does the actual doing.  When the Self One controls the Self Two through phrases like “Why can’t you get this?”, “You’re worthless” or “This is so easy and you’re having so much trouble!” and creates feelings of self-doubt, guilt and anxiety and interferes with concentration.  He explores these concepts in many ways and brings up brilliant ideas.  Yet, my favorite was the idea of  looking at our work and progress in an observational way without judging it as good or bad.  This shift in attitude has been huge in my performance work and personal life.  I think it can be equally as powerful in our writing.

The Inner Game of Tennis, the book I was assigned to read.  Image from: blog.loyola.edu
The Inner Game of Tennis, the book I was assigned to read. Image from: blog.loyola.edu

How often do we, as writers, judge our work as poor and start to beat ourselves up?  We get frustrated when we can’t get the words to come like we want them to and we may begin to doubt ourselves as writers.  Sometimes we throw a piece out or quit trying because we begin to think we aren’t capable of making it work.  We judge what we wrote as “bad” instead of looking at it in an observational light and simply noting what works and what doesn’t, accepting that we are gifted writers and that the piece of writing is what it is.  There is nothing inherently wrong with our writing.  It’s in a process and we must see it for what it is, nothing more or less, and go from there to make changes.  Isn’t this the point of shitty first drafts and rounds and rounds of revising?  To give ourselves the allowance to be who we are, imperfect and learning beings?  For me, this is reassuring as a person and as a writer, that we all struggle to quiet our perfectionist Self One so that our Self Two can revel in freedom from pressure and judgement and find its voice.  For I think that it’s when we listen to our Self Two that we truly can write as we were made to.

A Work in Progress…The Melding of An Obituary and a Cause

I knew I was taking on quite a challenge when I decided to repurpose my paper from my Politics of Education course.  I was extremely proud of my paper and feel like I have very solid ground to work from.  I was passionate about my subject and feel that there is a lot left to be said.  I thought it was the perfect choice of a work to repurpose and spend another few months exploring.  I still think that.  I just also realize that this is going to be a lot more challenging than I originally thought.

My new paper will serve as a feature story for my newspaper about my friend A.J. Marion, a big-hearted, charming and well-mannered football superstar: in essence a golden boy.  After losing all of his college offers after a football injury, he drifted around our hometown until he was shot and killed in a police chase following what they said was an attempted robbery.  A.J. had plans to still go to college and was scheduled to meet with a college counselor to enroll in classes the day after he died.

I knew that this story was heavy and that it was one I wanted to do justice to, just as I said in my last blog post.  But since then, I’ve been struggling with the best way to do this piece.  I’m struggling with two issues.  First, a lot of media coverage has been done of A.J. A lot has been said about his athletic ability, high school career and the circumstances surrounding his death.  How do I say something that hasn’t already been said?  Second of all, as a classmate said, I want to be cautious of coming across the wrong way, of using a tragic death as a springboard for a cause.  My worst fear is that it will come across as preachy or opportunistic.  We discussed both of these possible issues in class and I found everyone’s comments very helpful.

However, I want to share what I’ve found most helpful in tackling these two issues.  It’s an obituary/memorial type piece that Shelley recommended to me, one for the great Philip Seymour Hoffman written by Aaron Sorkin.  It talks about Hoffman’s legacy, obviously highly publicized in a different light.  Sorkin shared personal stories and the chilling quote from Hoffman, ““If one of us dies of an overdose, probably 10 people who were about to won’t.”   Sorkin beautifully weaved together a testament of Hoffman’s life as his friend and a larger issue and cause without seeming preachy or contrived.  This, I’ve decided, is what I want to do on a larger scale.

I decided to go back and read A.J.’s obituary and was heartbroken by how incomplete it was.  There was little about who he was, the impact he had had on others and the legacy he left behind.  How did he touch the lives of others?  How is he changing our community?  To answer these questions, I’ve decided on an open letter to A.J., telling him what I remember about him, how our community has been affected by him and how he’s made me rethink things: life, education, inequality, joy…the list goes on and on.  This is not an easy task, but reading Sorkin’s work and seeing how he beautifully documented the death of Hoffman gives me confidence and inspiration that it can, and should, be done.

To read the memorial piece inspiring my project, click here: Aaron Sorkin: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Drug Addiction | TIME.com http://entertainment.time.com/2014/02/05/aaron-sorkin-philip-seymour-hoffmans-death-saved-10-lives/#ixzz2uHxuTP4y 

My Thoughts On Re-purposing

In choosing my piece to repurpose, I considered an academic essay I wrote last semester about education and black children or a paper I wrote last year about aging and how distorted our society’s view of the elderly is.  For me, there was no question which paper I wanted to repurpose and when I talked to my peers and Shelley about it, they all agreed.  My education paper was largely telling the story of my friend’s life, from his sports success as a football star to his troubles when he lost all college offers when he got permanently injured his senior year.  He was recently shot and killed in a robbery, an event that rocked my community.  Because of my personal connection to his story and my conviction that there is more of the story to tell, everyone agreed I should repurpose that essay.

People had very helpful ideas of how to repurpose it for another audience.  My first idea was to write it as a speech for a school board meeting, but I wasn’t crazy about that idea and felt that it would still have too much of a similar formal and academic tone.  Shelley suggested doing an in-depth article focusing more on the idea of student-athletes and the fact that we view them as athletes, not students, which was a piece of my argument I certainly talked a lot about in my essay but didn’t focus solely on.  It was a great idea.  Someone in my group snow balled off of this and suggested interviewing University of Michigan athletes and then writing an article for the Michigan Daily.  Although I loved these ideas, my heart wasn’t in the idea.  I really wanted to focus on the story of A.J. because I thought that that was the unique strength of my paper and one that needs more work and investigation.  Someone seemed to pick up on this and suggested doing an in-depth profile of A.J.’s life and story for a newspaper.  I could focus on personal interviews, even interviewing the family if possible.  For me, this was the perfect fit.

A.J. Marion, one of the kindest people and greatest athletes I've ever met.   Photo from: www.legacy.com
A.J. Marion, one of the kindest people and greatest athletes I’ve ever met.
Photo from: www.legacy.com

I originally wrote Education and the Underdog for my Politics of Education course at University of Michigan.  It served as an academic, though personal, essay for the audience of my professor.  I used a relatively formal tone since it was an academic essay and I incorporated several books and articles we read in our course.  However, I also used personal pronouns and stories to make it a bit more of a narrative argument.  My purpose was to show how black students in America grow so complacent about schools even though their abstract belief in education is even stronger that white children’s.  I argued that schools must start to teach black students to believe in themselves, not only as athletes but as students, and that schools, and the communities they exist in, are responsible for making every child feel that they are valuable and that they can benefit from education.  A large portion of my essay focused on the story of my friend from high school, A.J. Marion.

I want my revamped piece to be a column for my hometown newspaper about how young black people, like A.J., fall victim to circumstances rather than excelling in school.  Schools see black children as athletes, not as students, and this puts them at a disadvantage.  I will use less academic articles and more personal interviews to really paint the picture of A.J.’s life.  I want to incorporate many personal interviews to make this piece a more in-depth feature piece on A.J.’s life.  I want to interview our high school’s principal, football coach and students who knew A.J. well.  I also think it would be a neat idea to interview another white student athlete who excelled in track, but also went on to study at Vanderbilt University, and be a star student.  Why were their lives so different when, in so many ways, they were so alike?  My purpose is to tell A.J.’s story thoroughly and compellingly and to do justice to his life story.  My argument is that the school and community’s view of A.J. as an athlete only was detrimental for him.  My audience will be people of all ages who read the Asheville Citizen-Times, my city’s newspaper.  This will require a less formal and academic tone and more of a casual, narrative tone.

I’m a little daunted by taking on the task of telling A.J.’s life story because it’s a story I will want to do justice to in every way because he deserves that.  Yet, I’m also excited about this task and know that my passion for it will not run out as I work on it all semester.

Reading and Writing: Mutually Exclusive?

Upon first reading Deborah Brandt’s chapter entitled “The Status of Writing”, I was skeptical of the way she separated the processes of reading in writing.  She referred to writing as being a commercial economy and reading as being a moral economy.  This comment immediately ruffled my feathers as I have always thought reading and writing as interwoven and of writing as having great moral economy.  I think of documents like the Declaration of Independence, which, although commercial in some ways, certainly served as a moral contract, spelling out the desires, ambitions and values of a new nation.  I thought of some of my own writing, whether a reflective narrative on what I learned by working with the homeless of my hometown or my high school graduation speech, and I like to think of each as part of a great moral economy, shining as a beacon of values.  Along those lines, I was also troubled by Brandt’s claim that writing is becoming a basic craft, one that employers look for in everyone they hire.  I certainly agree with the fact that an employee should be able to write proficiently, but it was Brandt’s idea of everyone becoming a “writer” that bothered me.  If everyone becomes a brilliant and eloquent writer, who will be left to read the work of those, including myself and many of us in this Writing Minor course, who consider writing to be one of our unique talents and skills?  Doesn’t our world need equally skilled readers, if only to serve as the captive audience for our earth-shattering and Nobel prize-winning writing?   

A copy of The Declaration of Independence.   Image from: www.archives.gov
A copy of The Declaration of Independence.
Image from: www.archives.gov

 

Yet, upon reflecting on my own writing and reading experiences, I realized how separate much of my reading and writing training has been.  Sure, in elementary school, reading was of the utmost importance as we competed in reading clubs and got prizes for reading a certain number of books.  I even remember loving reading comprehension questions in class so much that I begged my parents to buy me a reading comprehension workbook so I could practice.  (It’s a wonder I ever made any friends as a kid.)  Yet, once a level of proficiency was reached, we moved on to writing.  This was pretty much a permanent move.  From that moment on, everything was about topic sentences, cursive script, the use of commas and colons and body paragraphs.  We became writers.

 

However, when I think of the moments when I’ve grown most as a writer and as a student, I realize it was in the moments when I was challenged to be both a reader and writer simultaneously.  In my AP World History class, my writing skills blossomed immensely.  I think this was because my teacher required us to read other people’s work and analyze it with a critical eye and ear.  It was then that I came to realize that it is in reading and deciding how we feel about other people’s work, whether that of professional writers or our peers, that we find our own voice to put onto paper.  As far as Brandt, I do think she nailed this on the head when she said that “Reading as a process or product has little value until it is transacted – most often, in the form of writing.”  I disagree with Brandt that it is most important to train ourselves as writers, but I do agree that reading has little value if we merely let words go in one ear and out the other.  Just as writing has little value if we merely regurgitate the words we read.  Transcribing what someone else already thought of and wrote is not writing.  It is in critical, actively engaged, reading, where we question the writer and ourselves, that we discover the inextricable link between reading and writing.

 

This idea was championed in “Reading and Writing Without Authority”, by Ann M. Penrose and Cheryl Geisler.  They claimed that schools should begin to employ learning activities in schools that require students to read critically and to find their own writing voice by deciding their opinion on the readings.  I loved Penrose and Geisler’s vision of “students [who]see themselves as authors, reading and writing alongside other authors in the development of community knowledge and norms.”  To me, this is what our schools should strive for.  When I have felt a part of a community of knowledge, like during that AP World History course, I have felt like a had a right to an opinion, whether or not I had the authority of a college professor or even P.H.D. student.  We all have a voice and I believe now, more than ever, that it is through the simultaneous processes of reading and writing that we believe we have the right and duty to use that voice.  After all, the Declaration of Independence would be nothing if it had not been written down.  Yet it also would have meant nothing if people had not read its words, pondered their meaning and built a nation on them.  Its enduring legacy is in the fact that, to this day, it is reread, rethought and quoted, living on as a piece of writing that continues to be read an analyzed.

A group of students read The Declaration of Independence at the Smithsonian.   Image from: thetimes-tribune.com
A group of students read The Declaration of Independence at the Smithsonian.
Image from: thetimes-tribune.com

 

On Following Strangers and Shimmering Pictures

Upon reading Didion, Orwell and Sullivan’s explanations of why and how they each write, I was especially moved by Joan Didion’s “Why I Write.”

At first, I wasn’t sure how much I was going to have in common with Didion’s viewpoint.  I was a bit put off by Didion’s claim that writing is an “aggressive, even hostile, act.”  I have trouble qualifying writing in general as aggressive or hostile.  Yet when Didion explained that writers often attempt to subdue the hostile act with frequent use of qualifiers or evasions, I thought of my own work.   How often have I rearranged sentences, tried out a dozen different words or deleted a particularly brazen statement to tone down a piece of writing I think may seem too abrasive or harsh for a particular medium?  As Didion explained, writing is an intrusion into a reader’s world.  By putting our disagreement with a popular opinion or a memory we found particularly moving into black and white print, we’re asserting that our ideas and words are worth recording and reading.  To thrust those ideas into the world of complete strangers, whether through a blog or newspaper, certainly takes gumption and a big of aggression, even if not always hostility.

As I continued to read Didion’s thoughts, I was particularly touched by one idea.  In fact, this concept has been engrained in my mind since reading her essay.

As Didion explains, her stories are inspired by shimmering pictures that infiltrate her mind, flourishing in her imagination and growing into characters and plot lines.  Each picture carries a unique story and potential and the job of a writer is to be a steward of those pictures.  According to Didion, “The picture dictates the arrangement.  It tells you.  You don’t tell it.”  So although writing requires a level of confidence and aggression, it also requires a level of humility.  The writer must not get in the way of the stories these shimmering pictures have to tell.

Didion’s method made me think of stories inspired by actual paintings, like Girl With a Pearl Earring, a novel by Tracy Chevalier based on the painting by Johannes Vermeer. Something about that painting shimmered for Chevalier and brought an entire novel to life.  As Didion explained, sometimes the images can be something the writer witnesses, something I recently discovered for myself.

Johannes Vermeer’s painting, Girl With a Pearl Earring, the inspiration behind Chevalier’s book.   The painting is now on display in New York’s Frick Collection.   Image from: npr.org
Johannes Vermeer’s painting, Girl With a Pearl Earring, the inspiration behind Chevalier’s book.
The painting is now on display in New York’s Frick Collection. Image from: npr.org

In an acting class I’m in this semester, we were recently given an unconventional assignment that I soon realized was, as Didion would say, finding shimmering images and thinking about them for a while.  Our professor asked each of us to follow a stranger whom we found interesting.  We were to observe every detail about this person, from where he held tension in his body as he walked to where his eye focus was.  Then, we had to create the details his life from his occupation to where he was headed.

When I began searching for my subject, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, I found myself drawn to an African American man of about 58 years who walked with an unhurried pace, quiet swagger and tired kindness.  As I followed him from a discreet distance, observing the way he warmly waved at several people, kept his right hand in his pocket and let his left arm swing easily while looking side to side, I let his image shimmer and began to imagine who he might be.  I imagined that he had one daughter who lived far away in Boston with two children, his greatest source of joy.  I decided the quiet sadness etched into his face was from the death of his wife a few years ago and the fact that he couldn’t bring himself to move out of their home, even though it had more space than he needed.  I pictured him reading the newspaper and drinking decaf coffee and decided he had been teaching for 23 years at University of Michigan.  Yet, I couldn’t decide what subject he taught.  Nothing from Economics to Philosophy seemed quite right.  It wasn’t until I continued to write about him and flesh out the details of his character that I could finally decide he taught Psychology.  As Didion so astutely says, sometimes we write because we need to discover answers to our questions.

Putting this on paper, I find myself eating my words.  After all, what is more aggressive and, yes, hostile than following a complete stranger, inventing his life and putting it on paper?  Not a whole lot.  Yet, that’s exciting.  As Didion says, “You can’t think too much about these pictures that shimmer.”  After all, these pictures are what breathe life and inspiration into honest and brave writing.  That’s the kind of writing I want to create.  Thanks to Didion, I have a sudden yearning to seek out and treasure these shimmering images and follow them with words wherever they may go.