“Little Big People”

Here’s an essay, “Little Big People” by Chelsea Cain, from this week’s New York Times book review page. In it, Cain tells us about her two writing groups, either of which I would love to join. I’m going to make my students read it, too.

“Write what you love. Write about dragons. And if you get stuck, roll around on the floor a little. Some 7-year-olds taught me that. I wrote it down, so I’d remember it. “


It’s Wednesday afternoon. I am  still working on the papers I was supposed to return to my students on Monday, and now I have two new sets of papers to grade. I get this choked up, weepy feeling. I want to go to my boss’s corner office and say, “I’m done. I quit.” I can’t remember why I wanted to be an English teacher. I don’t think this is my vocation, a calling. Maybe I should have kept waiting tables. Maybe I should have kept my job as a bank teller. I would like to go home and crawl into bed. I’d like to pull the covers over my head and take a long nap.

Then I remember my students. There’s L, who just dropped by my office to pick up her paper. I want her to turn her brief portrait of her horse into something more, to let him become a character who her readers will fall in love with just as she once did. I can see the longer creative nonfiction paper she might finish the quarter with. It will have sections about equestrian therapy and a section about barrel racing. It will have a character portrait of the kitten she adopted at the stables.

And there’s J, whose paper I just finished rereading. He has written about surfing and a late night encounter in a bar. They’re both interesting stories, but I think he needs one more story that will deepen the whole piece and show us what he learned and what we need to learn. Possibly he hasn’t learned it yet, in which case he will have to learn it in order to finish this story.

In life, we avoid conflict. In stories, we have to embrace it.

A lot of times, when I read my students’ papers or listen to them in my office, I realize that they haven’t yet embraced their conflicts. They’re  just living. They are getting through this thing that happened and onto the next thing. They’re watching TV and texting and playing Angry Birds. But what they have to do now is reread their own stories, to concentrate, and to figure out what it is they need to face. They need to face that.

As an especially good example, there’s my student M, whose brother sent him a letter just before he was killed, a letter that M has not yet opened.

The problem with writing true stories is that our conflict avoidance gets in the way of writing our stories.

There is something that teaching has not yet taught me. Had I learned it, then maybe I’d be done.




Okay, I’m thinking of what it is that my sister’s GPS says to her (in its sexy English accent) when we make a wrong turn (which we do fairly frequently as we when we are together as we are talking too much to pay attention to the GPS). Is it “repositioning”? Re…?

That’s what I’ve been trying to do over the last several days. Going to Boston and the Gell Center was such a gift of time, as well as energy–which seemed to simply flood into me and fueled a full eight days of invention. Then, the trip home, which given the timing of Hurricane Sandy had its own heady quality. Seeing my daughters and husband again–that was good, too. But getting back to the maelstrom of teaching (not my students’ fault, mine in fact for scheduling all of their midterm papers to be turned in the week I returned) and meetings and doctor appointments…that was…taxing. I could get a little time in each morning on the novel, but not very much. Then one day I overslept and missed my morning writing time altogether. Now I’m in Chehalis at Mom’s place.

I’m going to challenge myself to write a series of blogposts about finding time–and energy–for writing. The truth is, I’m not the only writer in the world who has a day job. Most writers have day jobs. Some of us get to teach writing, which can be a drain of creative energy, but any occupation can drain one’s energy . Isn’t being a carpenter creative work? Isn’t a realtor always trying to help imagine a new life for someone or other? A massage therapist? A 7-11 clerk? Is there a job that an imaginative, curious, thoughtful person cannot expend creative energy on?

Maybe one way to reclaim energy, if not time, is to reframe this equation. In what ways do my students nurture and encourage me? In what ways do they infuse me with creative energy?

Writers write because they are writers, not because they have scads of time waiting to be filled.

A wise friend once told me that God is always waiting to create a new path for us home. A little like my sister’s GPS.

(Recalculating! That’s what it says!)

How to Begin

My Creative Nonfiction students are getting ready to turn in their “big, true story” and so, even though they should have done so already, we spent time this week thinking about How to Begin. Among other activities, we watched the first 15 minutes of Wall-E, the 2008 Pixar movie directed by Andrew Stanton. It was fun to talk about how this movie works–without dialogue, without a human character to identify with, without really anything much happening for several minutes–and manages to beautifully engage our attention.

Wall-E begins many years after the last human beings have left earth behind. It begins with the main character, the robot Wall-E, compacting garbage and stacking it into skyscraper like piles. He’s been doing this, we’re given to understand, for 700 years. But there’s a bit more going on–and that’s change. A new character is just about to appear and start the clock ticking on a new thread of interest. Sometimes a story begins when we wake up and become aware of a change. But stories are always about change.

“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead. I say ‘one chooses’ with the inaccurate pride of a professional writer who–when he has been seriously noted at all–has been praised for his technical ability, but do I in fact of my own will choose that black wet January night on the Common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain, or did these images choose me?” -Graham Greene, The End of the Affair (p. 1)

How much time do you need?

A recent wise saying on my day-to-day calendar advised that our lives would be better if we would take the advice we give to others.

Reading Carolynne’s response to my last post made me smile. On Sunday she was telling me why she doesn’t have time to write, and as she talked I thought of how she has all the time there is, the same amount as all the rest of  us. We all get 24 hours per day and not one minute more. On Sunday, I refrained from giving Carolynne any advice; I smiled and nodded and looked so understanding, but I was thinking it.

You have to be present with your life. (What choice does one have?) And arguing with reality is a serious time-waster. Early in his first presidential bid, Barack Obama was advised that a later time would offer a better chance for his election. But Obama knew–the only time is now.

My goal right now is to get this novel finished and into the mail to my agent. I can do that by working a little bit every day. I can do that–work a little every day–while being faithful to my family and my students.

Then we’ll see what happens next.

Meanwhile, Monday’s reading with Washington State Poet Laureate Kathleen Flenniken went swimmingly. Kathleen’s new book, Plume, is about Hanford.  It is also,  as she put it and I am still brooding on, the book she was born to write.

No news on the release date for Sparrow. I’m being very, very polite and not pestering Writers & Books, even though they said  “October.” I’ll let you know as soon as I hear anything.