Wednesday, May 26, 2021

A Moment of the Other Kind

 A month or so ago, I wrote about having a moment. A good kind. 

It occurred to me yesterday that I was having a different kind of moment--the other kind.

The kind of moment when things aren't going quite right.

When you're annoyed by the poor production quality of the book you're reading--inconsistent copy editing, real howlers of misused words, mysterious tense shifts. 

When your down-arrow key sticks. When you have intermittent inconvenient internet issues, when the prepaid postage form doesn't scan, when the postal clerk inquires whether you might mean an address in Alaska instead of the one in Oklahoma where your brother lives, when the people scheduling appointments both respond to emails at different points in the email thread, when it's deceptively cold outdoors regardless of what the thermometer says.  

When you drive the forty-plus minutes to midtown to pick up your groceries and they can't bring them out because the cash register system is down. 

Days like that. 

BUT! I recognized this morning that it's no real hardship to take another hour-and-a-half-plus to drive to town with my husband, chatting and listening to the news, and come home with groceries.

A book with poor editing? Oh well--I can finish it or not, as I feel called to do.

The minor inconveniences will get fixed and/or (internet connection) shift over time. The weather will warm up. I may have to do something about that down-arrow key, though.

Regardless--it's OK. It, too, is a moment. It will pass. And meanwhile, I can write and go outdoors, wearing a spring sweatshirt--this is, after all, the season that required the invention of such a thing.   

And maybe these moments are also good. In their raven-on-the-deck way.
Wednesday, May 19, 2021


Switching gears is, as always, a challenge for me. Once I overcome inertia to start something, I'm happy enough to keep doing it. So stopping is also hard, let alone changing directions.

And yet. We're finally seeing weather typical of mid-May, which means I'll be outdoors more. I finished a presentation, which means I'm looking ahead to the next event, the other project (which one?), the different muscles.

It's the season of "where was I?" (To be fair--for me, that's true of many seasons.) 

Speaking of weather typical of mid-May, here we are today.

And I, too, am a little blurry. Happy to watch drips and reflections. Taking stock of what's happened and what's next.

Hope you can be the same. 

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Forms of CNF

A few years back, Susan Olding (Canadian writer; author of the essay collections Pathologies and the recently released Big Reader) served as my mentor. She helped me understand how to get from where I was (floundering in a manuscript morass) to where I might like to be (with a book on a shelf).

Maybe even a book in the same section as some of these.

Tangles, Sarah Leavitt; Trespasses, Lacy M. Johnson, Voice, Adam Pottle;
Keep Moving, Maggie Smith; The Book of Delights, Ross Gay. 

This Saturday, Susan and I are speaking about mentorship at the Creative Nonfiction Collective's annual conference. Info is at this link; you register once--$100--for everything and get to learn from a bunch of interesting folks. It's held completely online.

As is true in my life in general, I'm increasingly aware of the many (many!) ways in which privilege operates. Specifically, how privilege allowed me to participate in this mentorship. Obviously: money. Obviously: education. Obviously: family support, personal safety in which to undertake anything creative, health. 

It's a long list.

In fact, it's baked in. 

Here's what I mean. 

At the most basic level, I could go to the bookstore and find an example of what I wanted to do. There they were, essay collections. Rows of them. When I chose Susan to approach as a mentor, I had read works by others, but when I picked up Pathologies, I said, "This." 

But what if you want to tell a story that you can't find in a bookstore? What if your story isn't neatly captured by lines of prose on a page? 

Our mentorship included a reading list and discussion, and Susan directed me toward many titles that play with form. I'd already groped my way toward some braided essays, and she introduced me to several others, two of which are below: prose poems and graphic novels. 

The point of showing you any of these forms isn't so you READ what's in the picture--you can tell just by looking that these aren't like a traditional book, with its paragraphs of prose. 

Trespasses, Lacy M. Johnson

Tangles, Sarah Leavitt

Since then, I've noticed books in different shapes (physical shapes, even; this book is tall and slim), like Adam Pottle's interrogation of the many meanings, to a Deaf man, of the term "voice." 

Voice, Adam Pottle

Books like Ross Gay's and Maggie Smith's, that collect brief "essayettes" and intersperse inspirational quotes with longer explanatory essays. 

The Book of Delights, Ross Gay

Keep Moving, Maggie Smith

In my book's essay, "Transitions: A Coding Secret," I collaged snippets of my mother's writing to explore what elements of her personality might remain as her dementia progressed.

from Reverberations: A Daughter's Meditations on Alzheimer's

So yes, CNF comes in many forms--and these are just a few that are printed and available in bookstores. Again, it's a privilege to see them.

But what if my culture relied on stories in a different form? Deaf culture treasures "ABC stories"--a story that grows as the speaker uses handshapes in alphabetical order. They've available now on YouTube and through publishers like DawnSignPress, thanks to technology. 

Other forms of oral storytelling might lend themselves well to podcasts specifically, or radio stories in general. 

Both of those forms of storytelling also have barriers to entry--monetary costs of equipment and access to publication methods, for starters. 

And also: You have to know that those forms are even options. You have to be able to see someone doing the kinds of things you want to do. 

Beyond an individual showing you what's possible, you need a community in which you can share your stories and improve your ability to connect with your audience, within the context of your story. Not to conform to some institutional, established norms of grammar and structure--but in the way your story wants to live. 

I think mentorship is perfectly designed for these kinds of storytelling. Mentorship is flexible, a relationship with varying degrees of formality that can contain elements of teaching, coaching, feedback, and critique--and that can strengthen a culture. The Festival of Literary Diversity and other various arts-granting programs can be resources for mentorships.

And about creative nonfiction forms: Both Nicole Breit and Brenda Miller have many resources specifically around forms of creative nonfiction. 

I feel the need for a summary statement, because that's apparently the form of essayette or blog post or whatever-this-is that I'm writing. So here you go. In closing, two things: consider finding a mentor when you feel stuck; and privilege, like creative nonfiction, can take many forms. 

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

We've Been Here Before

 As I've said already this year, and probably previous years, this stretch of the year between mid-March and mid-May contains a lot of anniversaries.

Monday of this past week was my mother's birthday. I posted these photos on Instagram: 

She's at her office at Oklahoma State University, with a couple of colleagues. I do love to see her laughing (something in the flash of the wristwatch on her arm in the photo is especially poignant), but I also like the photo of her (I cropped out the chair of the Mathematics Department) being her pleasant-and-professional professorial self. 

She had a public persona. She worked and taught and dreamed mathematical dreams, and I am grateful to have seen that, every day, at home. Even though she yelled at me often about the inadequate sharpness of my pencils, I know she did it from love. As mothers do.

The anniversary of her death comes at the transition, this week, from Friday to Saturday--"she died at midnight" is what my father said on the phone, no doubt desperately wishing it weren't true--and then we all (in North America) have Mother's Day on Sunday. Yay for mothers, and those who wish they could have been, and those who have mothered in any form, and those of us who generally recognized it wasn't our calling. Yay to all of us.

In case you missed it, I've also been here recently, talking with great delight about another book well worth your time:

Fuse, by Hollay Ghadery, is a remarkable book. I’ve seen it labeled “memoir,” but I’d describe it as a collection of personal — very personal — essays. Organized around themes, the chapters include poetic fragments and reflections, narratives and insights, considerations and re-considerations. Instead of building to a narrative climax, this rich material forms a mosaic, a representation of a life that’s coherent but still in progress. Ghadery deftly supplements her lived experience with background information to give readers insight into a larger cultural context.

Many thanks to Vicki Ziegler, who hosted this review at her site, which includes more fabulousness about genius ideas such as the Silent Book Club and daily poetry reading and is well worth checking out.

I said last week that I was in a sort of miraculous reading space where I was reading a lot of works I liked, and that's still true. 

I will add (again) that "liking" work isn't necessarily why I read. I've read a lot in the past year I haven't "liked," in the sense of "great beach read" sense. Books that some would label "difficult." I relish those kinds of books, too, especially if the writers are writing from their expertise (lived experience) and push against my preconceptions and comfort level. 

But there's a special sort of joy I feel when reading a book that makes space for a world and welcomes me into it, even when I don't know all the tree names and can't label relationships easily. I so appreciate the generosity of writers who labour to make those worlds and go through the rigours of the publishing industry to make them available to the rest of us. 

And because I feel the need to sum up, I'll just say that times of remembrance, contemplation, and appreciation seem to come in seasons. I'm grateful to be here in this year's spring.