Sound Advice?

Most of my writing workshop instructors etched write what you know on their foreheads. I believed them. Stephen King didn’t. Nor did the authors of Harry Potter, Cold Mountain, The Lord of the Flies and The Hobbit. So, unsure of the general applicability of the advice, I hesitated to share it with my students. Then Nathan Englander, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for literature, addressed my incomplete understanding of the concept, resolved my conflict and informed my teaching:

“Write what you know isn’t about events. It’s about emotions. Have you known love? jealousy? longing? loss? Did you want that Atari 2600 so bad you might have killed for it? If so, it doesn’t matter whether your story takes place in Long Island or on Mars – if you’re writing what you know, readers will feel it.”

Often, young writers in my classroom clutched their pencils and wore pained expressions as they struggled with an assignment; so I’d help them discover any knowledge, experience or emotional involvement they had with the topic. I used a technique I first tried with 4th graders who had to write about farm animals during a practice for district-wide testing. Some of my students lived on a farm. Many did not.

I wrote the topic on the board and added key words for my connections to it: “When I think about the assignment, farm animals, I remember visiting my uncle. His dark, smelly coop full of squawking chickens scared me. I picture horses running in a field and think of how I wanted one when I was your age. I also remember a talking cow on a TV commercial that made me laugh.

I told them I now had three ideas I knew I could write about and added, “I think I’ll write about cows. They still make me laugh. Can you tell me some funny things about cows I could use in my writing?” I heard about mooing cows, stubborn cows, drooling cows, cow patties, bucking cows and flies on cows. When Dix bellowed, “Yeah, and teats on cows,” I decided to move the lesson along: “Thanks for helping me. I have lots of ideas about cows for my writing.”

Next, I asked them to tell me about other farm animals and how they felt about them. I accepted and probed their responses before giving them time to write. They created vivid and lively stories, so we assembled them in a class book, which they read and reread all year. On occasion, I thumbed through it as well and always read my cow story.

As I continued to use the association technique, I noticed age and environment impacted the connections students made. When rural elementary children in Utah brainstormed ideas on the topic of light, they quickly offered sun, moon, stars, sunset, birthday candles, and Christmas tree lights. The first connections made by junior high students in Carson City, Nevada, included traffic lights, head lights, casino lights, and lighting a cigarette.

But, always, the best writing resulted when I asked my young writers how they felt about the associations they offered and why.

Soon, I, too, had write what you know etched on my forehead.

IMG_0341

Seventh-grader Dean allowed me to use his connections to the topic January in teacher workshops. His resulting piece was rated advanced on the district assessment. Can you guess what he wrote about?

Of Resolutions and Poetry

 Mark Twain

Mark Twain

 

“New Year’s Day: Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.”            Mark Twain

 

Two months have passed since 2016 began, and most of us have paved hell: We still bite our fingernails and neglect vegetables. We look through dirty windows we vowed to wash every month and wear bedraggled bathrobes we swore to replace. Our cupboards and garages are not organized; the dog is not trained; and our bathroom scales continue to lie.

I win few victories when I make resolutions disguised as a rule: I’ll write 500 words every day. But when I dream about possibilities, my success rate improves: I’d like to write a book.

Shortly after I first contemplated the possibility of a book, I read an anonymous poem that captured my apprehension about trying to create one.

Before I share the verse, I’d like you to identify a consuming interest or passion you have: sketching, skiing, genealogy, calligraphy, hot air balloons, playing the trombone. Next, think about a personally-fulfilling accomplishment you’d like to pursue with that interest: making a cherry wood table, entering a photography contest, completing a half-marathon, starting a book club, crocheting an afghan for every grandchild.

Then substitute that ahievement for the poem’s title.

Writing a Book
It’s
impossible,”
said Pride. “It’s
risky,” said Experience. “It’s
pointless,” said Reason. “Give it
a try,” whispered the
Heart.”

As the unknown author knew, pursuing our dreams brings risk. We suffer from self-doubt, setbacks, and the skepticism of others. I feared I would not live up to my expectations or those of my friends and family. I cringed at my vulnerability when strangers critiqued the work I had poured my heart into. Sometimes, not attempting a book seemed easier to live with than trying to write one and faiIing to do so.

Another poem rescued me: “Berryman” by W.S. Merwin, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1997 and 2009. As a self-doubting college student, Merwin asked John Berryman, an established and important American poet, how writers know if what they write has any value. Later, Merwin recounted the advice he received in the following verse of his poem Berryman.

I asked how you can ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write.
W.S. Merwin

I’d like to recommend a resolution to you for the rest of this year and for all the years to come: Follow your dream wherever it leads you; follow it because it will fulfill you, not because it will be perfect.

The Creative Process  

Rhett once told me he wrote better with his cat nearby.

Rhett claimed he wrote better with his cat nearby.

Sitting shoulder to shoulder with Rhett, a freshman teetering on the edge of both manhood and writing excellence, we examined his response to the latest writing assignment: a one-paragraph description of a vivid moment experienced in the past month. He’d chosen to write about the final seconds before he pushed off for his first run on a black-diamond ski trail. As I read his words, I wished he’d written more —an unusual experience for an English teacher correcting papers.

As we finished talking about his piece, Rhett said, “Mrs. Bohart, how important is the stuff you teach us about how to get an idea to write about and develop it? I don’t do any of those things. I just decide what to write about and then write and rewrite until I think it’s good.”

Well, that was an eye-opener.

Rhett’s words motivated me to read about the processes involved in creating — whether it’s planning a vegetable garden, tatting a lace edging, making music, taking photographs, designing buildings, drawing cartoons, or decorating a home.

As I read, I learned the creative process is unique and individual: like bikinis, one size doesn’t fit all. While it helps to learn and practice the basics of any hobby or passion, when we apply everything we’ve learned to create a product, we gradually develop a process that works for us.

I enjoy reading about the practices and techniques of other writers. But knowing an author I admire writes 1000 words a day in the nude while soaking his feet and chewing licorice root doesn’t mean I should do the same.

For example, I never create a detailed plan before writing. I can’t take time to make an outline or jot notes when my head is buzzing with an idea. I’m on fire to write, so I do. Sometimes my fire runs out of fuel by the third paragraph, but usually it blazes along quite nicely.

I also refuse to set a daily goal in order to force myself to write a set amount of time or a specified number of words every day. Sometimes, when I’ve fussed too long over a piece, a paragraph, or a sentence, I walk away from it. Other times, I prefer to continue banging my head against a wall. Either way, I’m not worried about making a quota.

Like Rhett, I’ve individualized my writing process; and I’m glad that, many years ago, I had the wisdom to tell my talented student to take the advice of others only when it made sense and worked for him.

Then, to my dismay, he did just that. He totally ignored my oft-repeated advice to pursue a career in writing so he could dedicate a book to me and choose instead to graduate from college with a degree in business management.

Why Have Hobbies?

In a recent Peanuts cartoon, when Lucy told Charlie Brown she was thinking of starting some new hobbies, Charlie said, “That’s a good idea, Lucy. The people who get most out of life are those who really try to accomplish something.”

Looking appalled, Lucy replied: “ACCOMPLISH something? I thought we were just supposed to keep busy.”

In the past, I thought like Lucy. Viewing hobbies as busy work to fill my idle moments, I pursued decoupage, macramé, origami, tatting, and yodeling. Each endeavor enjoyed the same success as my wish to be 5’6”.Wreath

My search for a busy-work hobby peaked when I scoured fields and ponds for nuts, pinecones, grasses, and twigs, which I used to make Christmas wreaths. I gave these creations to loved ones, who exclaimed happily and hung them in their snug homes.

I had used liberal amounts of a smelly liquid adhesive to attach my found treasures to the wreath frames. Too liberal. Over time, as the adhesive heated in warm homes, my carefully collected bits of the outdoors drooped from the wreaths and dangled like so many hapless bungee jumpers.

Looking back, I realize I also shared Charlie Brown’s notion of hobbies; my attempts to keep busy should accomplish something: impeccable cream puffs, granny-square afghans for all, a homemade wardrobe with nary a puckered sleeve or uneven hem, artistic greeting cards often made at get-togethers where participants share ideas and cut perfectly square corners.

I  thought an accomplishment was a learned skill that yielded an impressive product rather than an activity pursued for the pleasure of doing it. Though I backpacked in the Sierras every chance I had, I didn’t consider it a hobby. It was too much fun. I liked it when my legs stretched strong and my breath slid deep; I relished standing in the smell of pines to watch ridgelines march into the distance and a river tumble below. But the joyful experience yielded nothing I could enter in the country fair.

I learned that process is as rewarding as product from my mother, when she shared with me her passion for rescuing abused pieces of wooden furniture hidden under layers of paint. Working with her in the sunshine of my Nevada home, I scraped, sanded, stained, and oiled. Doing so, I realized that the smells, movements, and tactile experiences of the process pleased me as much as having a new, lovely piece of furniture.wooden chair

To this day, when I walk by something one of us refinished, I’m compelled to reach out and run my hand over it, an involuntary act of connection.

The synonyms for hobby — pastime, diversion, leisure pursuit — trivialize it. Hobbies satisfy my soul. When I’m immersed in one, I’m both Charlie Brown and Lucy: staying busy and accomplishing something — but with the added benefit of fulfillment. And I feel at one with potters, cooks, gardeners, skiers, kayakers, and photographers: all those who find completion in a process.

 

My Poetry

stressing out above computer

In a moment of irrational optimism, I endangered my sanity by registering for Writing 201: Poetry, a Blogging U class on WordPress.

Every day for two weeks, I will try to write and post a poem I’ve written to given prompts, forms, and devices.

Oh my.

If you’re in need of amusement or befuddlement, please drop by. Comments expressing sympathy would be nice as well.

Monday Feb. 16:
prompt word: water
form: haiku
device: simile

damp eyes and wet chins
in rest homes sodden and sour
junkyards for the old

Is It A Hobby or a Passion?

A young woman with impeccable posture rat-tatted decisively on stiletto heels toward the waiting area where I sat. Pushing her sunglasses to the top of her head, she sat, checked her watch, sighed, and turned to me.

Weary, travel-stained, not wanting to talk, gulping a salad I had purchased as I galloped toward my connecting flight, I avoided eye contact.

“Have they offered an explanation for the late departure?” she asked.

“No.”

“I have an important meeting I simply can’t miss. I hate this airport. Why are flights out of Denver always late?” foul weather

Resisting the urge to point to the windows and the raging spring blizzard obscuring the runways, I shrugged my shoulders and returned to my salad. Undeterred, she said, “I’ll bet you’re going to Reno to gamble.”

Wondering if her assessment had been influenced by a stray bit of spinach caught in my teeth, I replied, “I’m doing a book reading in Carson City tomorrow.”

“Oh, you write? Good for you! How nice it must be at your age to find something to keep you busy. I always thought writing might be a fun little hobby; maybe I’ll tinker with it some day.”

Well, thank you very much: in addition to being as irritating as the United States Congress, Miss Hoity Toity, you just helped clarify my thinking about hobbies and passions: two concepts I’m prone to ramble on about as though they were identical twins.

I think I might have been looking for a hobby — an enjoyable activity — when I enrolled in a memoir-writing class after I retired. But the joy I found in writing quickly caused it to become a passion — an object of intense emotions and enthusiasm.

Writing engrosses me, challenges me, rewards me. At times, I also feel disappointed, frustrated, or discouraged. But, invariably, I wake up the next day eager to tackle the problems that defeated me the day before.woman using laptop on the bed

Deep in these thoughts, I munched my salad, ignored my self-important neighbor as she bossed people around on her cell phone, and wondered what separates one person’s hobby from another person’s passion.

To me writing is a passion and knitting is a hobby. I’m compelled to write or revise nearly every day, even if it’s only for fifteen minutes; but I can go long periods of time without feeling the need to knit one and purl two.

It could be the other way around. I could be immersed in patterns and yarn and learning new stitches every day, feeling engrossed, challenged, and rewarded, telling others that knitting is my passion.

So the difference between a passion and a hobby seems to be an individual choice based on the level of commitment, fascination, and reward that any activity from chess to fly-fishing to dancing offers its adherents.

Thanks to Miss Highfalutin and the chain of thought she motivated, I now understand that though I have many hobbies, I have only one passion. As Gloria Steinem said, “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”

Attempting Poetics

In past posts I described my failed attempts to be an accomplished pianist and an admired artist: one led to a keyboard fiasco in church and the other to my inability to produce art as riveting as my father’s skinny chicken.

imagesMore recently, I decided to become a poet. Aglow with visions of quill pens and reading to enraptured audiences, I enrolled in a class for would-be poets and nearly quit when I had trouble completing the first assignment.

As I drove home from class, a stingy snow began to fall and didn’t stop, eventually coating yards and trees with insistence, rather than abundance.

Around 5:30, after an afternoon filled with busy work, instead of starting dinner, I turned up the heat and reread my assignment, a simple, twenty-minute exercise designed for beginners: concentrate on a scene in nature, describe what you see in complete sentences, pull phrases and words you like from those sentences, then arrange the selected fragments according to your idea of poetic format.

images-8I wanted to write poems. I wanted the ability to poetically describe the world I inhabited, to use few words to make the scene outside my window come alive for others, to depict swirls of snow on glistening asphalt and a diminished sky filled with persistent, sparse flakes.

I stood at the window, as frozen as the wind-whipped flakes I watched, and tried to find even one satisfactory sentence for my assignment. Twenty minutes later, I gave up: the assignment unfinished, dinner uncooked, and the poet depressed in a nagging, puny way, not the grand depressive state I imagined a real poet would feel.

I decided to start the spaghetti.

No matter how motivated, I find it hard to develop a new skill: work is required, failure is frequent, and — once past elementary school — praise is mostly absent. Too often, I react to my lack of skill and fear of failure by procrastinating or quitting. If I hadn’t had loving cheerleaders standing by offering encouragement, appreciation, and outstretched arms when I first tried to walk, I’d probably hold Ripley’s record as the world’s oldest living crawler.

Now, five years after my first poetry class, I continue to distract myself when I need to have something ready for my poetry group. Prose flows from me; poetry doesn’t. So I resist the effort involved.

Recently, I wrote an apology to the group to explain why, once again, I arrived without anything to share, and did my best to make it look like a poem:

I Hope You Understand

I apologize. I’m not prepared.

I had things to do—
finish a disappointing novel
water anything that drooped
call people
drink coffee and stare
stalk Facebook friends
breathe.

So I haven’t written a poem.

Yet, during the afternoon
I reserved for writing a
poem about crows
strutting like Sumo wrestlers
along my sidewalk,
I alphabetized the spice cabinet
ate rhubarb pie with ice cream
and napped.

After all, one has priorities.