It’s never really over

i carry

E.E. Cummings canvas over my writing desk                                Photo: Catherine Keefe

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in

my heart)

 

I first met E. E. Cummings’ classic love poem as a student in a high school literature class.

What made a significant impact on me, almost as much as that perfect description of profound love, was that in a class where broken grammar rules could cost me a perfect “A” on a paper, I was introduced to a writer who not only flaunted language rules, but was exalted for it. The difference between mistake and craft, I learned, could be intention.

Why would a writer play with language like that? Literary critic Norman Friedman offers a likely answer in E. E. Cummings: The Growth of a Writer: “Cummings’ innovations are best understood as various ways of stripping the film of familiarity from language in order to strip the film of familiarity from the world. Transform the word, he seems to have felt, and you are on the way to transforming the world.”

A writer transports a reader with language, transforms the small world within the walls of our individual human experience into a kaleidoscope as big as the universe of all the possibilities this life might hold. We construct tiny snow globes, lay them on a giant digital shelf and beg anyone to please engage with us.

You hold more power than you can ever imagine sings Sarah Bareilles in “Brave.” All you have to do is “say what you want to say / and let the words fall out / honestly…”

here is the deepest secret nobody knows

That’s another one of my favorite lines from the E.E. Cummings poem,”i carry your heart with me”.

Here is one of my deepest secrets.

I truly hate the end of each semester. I always think I’m forever saying goodbye to you students who I’ve gotten to know through words, both spoken and written. I hate goodbyes and I hate not knowing for sure that I gave you enough. I always wish I had another hour or two, another week or more, to pass along some tidbit of rhetorical technique we never got around to covering. Would you become more effective writers if we practiced spotting faulty logic? Could I have worked harder to find more diverse voices for you to read from? Should I have forced you to remember everything we talked about by adding quizzes to the syllabus?

The end of the semester for me is a torment of “All The Woulda-Coulda-Shouldas” as Shel Silverstein wrote in Falling Up.

“Layin’ In The Sun,

Talkin’ ‘Bout The Things

They Woulda-Coulda-Shoulda Done…

But All Those Woulda-Coulda-Shouldas

All Ran Away And Hid

From One Little Did.”

Oh, we had more than “One Little Did.” Actually, it was more like 10,000. Yes, we wrote more than 10,000 words. We read. We crafted. We drafted. Composed. Created. We closely observed how writers use language to write about place. We experimented with poetry and prose, with research and structure and voice. We created manifestos about our beliefs about place and our theories of writing this thing called Creative Nonfiction.

i carry your heart with me

I teach because I believe with the conviction of a person who holds a job with one of the lowest-paying ratios of salary compared to level of higher education, that there is absolutely no better way to spend my days than in the company of young minds on the cusp of taking over leadership roles in government, businesses, medical fields, educational and cultural institutions, and families. At the end of my life I want to honestly say I did all I could to pass along knowledge which might empower and uplift humans, that which might lead to justice and dignity for all.

I teach you because you always teach me. Be persistent. Try more than you will master. Succeed humbly. Be funny. Be kind because someone always has more going on behind their smile than you might ever imagine. Be brave and try something new.

You are one of 19.9 million students enrolled in a degree-granting institution, according to a recent report by the National Center for Education Statistics. That number represents the population of the entire state of Florida.

And if you were born in 1994 or later, you’re part of an as-yet unnamed generation. According to a 2008 article in The Boston Globe, writer Joshua Glenn says, ” You’re a member of a generation that’s too young to characterize in any remotely meaningful way.”

You students are as unique as your speaking voice, an utterance so individual that audio voiceprints are as singularly identifiable as fingerprints.

Learning to effectively wield words, using your own unique writing voice, is learning how to construct a reality. Our words transform the world we inhabit.

Consider the possible responses to “What did you see today?”

Nothing.

A bird.

Two Sara Orangetip butterflies leaving a shadow of outstretched wings on the brown dirt of Orange County’s Bell Canyon Trail.

 fluttersWhat I Say Today                                                         Photo: Catherine Keefe

A writer can give you butterfly wings on a path, or a writer can give you nothing.

What will you do with all that power?

 

 

Go deep

Your generation needs your voice, but swimming in the shallows of written expression will get you nothing but a handful of rocks.

Shallows

                       Sugar Pine Point, Lake Tahoe                                                      Photo Credit: Catherine Keefe

According to a recent article posted on Flavorwire, titled “2013’s Worst Writing About Millennials”:

The past 12 months saw more ill-founded, hysterical, condescending, and generally awful writing than ever about what so-called “millennials” are up to and why it’s ruining the country.

Writer Alison Herman collected examples of what she calls “the lowlights of this year’s coverage.” Included in her list are the “Me Me Me Generation” story from Time magazine and a New York Times piece titled “Sex On Campus: She Can Play That Game Too.” One of Herman’s biggest complaints about the articles?  “Reducing an entire generation to a series of lazy stereotypes,” and a “lack of actual statistics.”

Read the entire Flavorwire story here.

Then be inspired to set the record straight with your own truths about your own selves.  Insert your  voice into the unending conversation.  For goodness sake, go beyond stereotypes and include facts, statistics, and primary research in your work this semester.

Maybe next year’s list of “2014’s Best Writing By Millennials” will have your name on it.

This is all true.

“Nomade, 2007” by Jaume Plensa, found in Des Moines Sculpture Garden, Iowa
 Photo Credit: Catherine Keefe

 

Everyone asks why there can be no fiction in Composing Self.

Exactly, I say. I say there’s enough to blow your mind in the world without having to stop and say:

But. Is. This. True?

I say, only those who don’t have to worry about the next meal and the roof overhead have the luxury of stopping to study this thing called “self” and why writers might create one. I say you’d better look around and share your voice with those too weak to speak and you’d better write true or you might be dismissed.

How real is this?

Let’s say:  911,395,855

That’s how many “undernourished people in the world right now” there are. Were. It grows by the second.

1,557,016,576 is the bigger number of the bigger number of “overweight people in the world right now.” Growing too.

Real time statistics fluttering up each second on StoptheHunger.com

Who could make that up?

Do you know how many bodies are – according to the very real “Famine Scale” – a “cause for concern?”

That real scale is made up of steps based on body counts, numbers per thousand, steps reaching toward heaven on piles of corpses creating an overall “Crude Mortality Rate.”  Is there any other kind of mortality rate from a preventable death?

These silent statistic sentinels hold back a monsoon. Behind each digit rounded to the nearest million

is a name,

a name with a real live birth date and a coming-too-soon death date

with mothers human

and fathers too

real

infants.

Meanwhile, we’re over here stuffing ourselves. Really really, I could write a story about that, replies the one who writes novels as if this has never occurred to me.

As if I’ve never read Hamsun or Kafka, García Márquez, or Lispector, or Morrison or Martel.

“But what about testimonial literature?” my friend from Argentina asks, the one who survived barely the unclean war and has lots of fiction to contribute.

“We call it fiction so no one can say, ‘that didn’t really happen.’”

I say, enough of that open door.

“But what about censorship? Your perspective is so Freedom of Speech American,” says my friend who won’t let me use her name or place her birthplace on the map.

Exactly, I say, my freedom means I can limit your “write to censor.”

And then, the intake of breath. And the question, as if I’ve never read Dante.

“Ah, but why allow poetry?”

They all ask this, as if I’ve somehow allowed myself to unwittingly be trapped by the “I.”

“Is poetry true the way nonfiction is true?”  They ask, licking their chops, waiting to pounce upon a debate I may be unprepared for. Yes, I say, and now I can let David Shields and his Reality Hunger Manifesto take over because he got to the page first.

“The poem and the essay are more intimately related than any two genres, because they’re both ways of pursuing problems, or maybe trying to solve problems.”

And I’ll defend further than David, to where my limb droops under the weight of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s line: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

Poems are true the way music is true the way photography without Photo Shop is true, the way flesh and sunrise and dirt and death, birth and hunger and warm hands are true. The poet is the response, the mirror, the lens to reality. Poetic inspiration – quite literally, poetic inspirare from the Latin “to breathe” – is shaped by the willow whistle of crafted composition to give language to the universal human experience.

You can write a poem without a character, a poem about an apple, a pie, a sun.

You cannot write fiction without character.

I can’t keep track of every human right now.

I don’t want to add imaginary numbers to the people to keep track of in my heart.

Everyone asks why there is no fiction in Composing Self.

Exactly, I say.

It is all too true.

____________________________

What you just read, is one example of a manifesto.  Put, most simply, it’s “a public declaration of intentions, opinions or motives,” according to the authors of “Writer’s Community,” a blog dedicated to writer development.

Can you write a manifesto for your final?

Seasons

Summer officially cedes to autumn.

Tans fade. Half squeezed sunscreen bottles coagulate with dried lotion and California sun dips on the horizon just enough to cast long shadows during my early evening hike.

IMG_0036

Yesterday a coyote shadow crossed the trail. Chester growled and I stooped to grab a fist-sized rock. At home this morning, slight breeze rustled the wind chime.

Fall feels simultaneously busy and cozy. In class we’re deep in thought and edit. We face shadows which hide real and imagined self truths. We dance between the comfort of staying on the trail of the first draft, the smooth story, the path that leads us to a destination we imagined when we began.  We’re alternately sleepy and thrilled with new knowledge. We’re more tired here in Week 6 than we were in late August, fresh with our newly set goals, boosted by the adrenaline of a new endeavor.

At this point in the semester we begin to glance off road, to wonder what might happen – to us, to our stories – if we leave the trail of comfort and expectation. What if we bump along in the unknown for a while? We face our past patterns with new eyes. We squint into the light of new knowledge and try to capture some essence of this craft of writing we said we wanted to learn more about.

We face the projects, formed by the syllabus, individually shaped by our very own human natures. Some of us are steady. Some of us are more like a tide.

Some writers insist the only discipline is a daily practice. I cannot doubt the value of this. And then I come across an interview with Terry Tempest Williams in the Progressive that opens my mind to a different possibility.

I live in a very, very quiet place. I have a sequence to my creative life. In spring and fall, I am above ground and commit to community. In the summer, I’m outside. It is a time for family. And in the winter, I am underground. Home. This is when I do my work as a writer–in hibernation. I write with the bears.

This is a mirror to my own practice, this “sequence to my creative life.” It looks different than the writers who insist you must write every day, you must produce, you must train the brain to perform on demand.

I write with the sea. I write with moon and coyotes and silence.  I write with students. I write in all seasons but there are weeks when I don’t write at all. And I don’t worry about this anymore as long as I meet my deadlines. I love deadline work as much as I hate deadline work because it means I can’t live forever wordless.

Dear students, you tell me the same thing.

So, if you’re stuck, live in the desert for a day or two without panic.

I fully trust you’ll continue. I fully believe in your process.

What Happened When the Professor Went On a Field Trip

“Yellow School Bus, Chicago, Illinois, USA” Flickr Creative Commons

I lied all the time as a teenager.

I told tales about where I was going, who I was going with, and what kinds of things I did while I was out of the house.  Somehow I rationalized all the deception by complaining that my parents were excessively strict and I wasn’t doing anything worse than my friends whose parents seemed to be fine with girls going on dates at 16, or driving to Palm Springs from Los Angeles alone at 17, or attending overnight house parties where no parents were home at 18.

After this admission, it would make perfect sense if you never believe anything I ever say, much less that I woke up one morning in my early 20s and vowed to never lie again because decided I was really tired of trying to remember which movies I was supposed to have seen, or where I was supposed to have spent the night.  Honestly, there was a little more to it than that.  My very self seemed at stake.  I wondered who I was if I couldn’t face my own life head on and true. What kind of craziness was it to act one way and pretend to be another?

I’m not proud of my past, and I do still owe my parents a very long apology, but I did vividly recalled that long ago girl recently when, once again, the literary world convulsed about the distinction between truth and art, nonfiction and made-up stuff.  The most current flashpoint ignited when Mike Daisey retracted some of his Apple Factory in China story which aired on This American Life. If you missed that brouhaha, catch up here. Or if you want a brief overview of literary lies on a cheating scale of acceptable to never, check out Slate magazines visual guide.

My personal experience may or may not be the reason I’m intensely passionate about truth as a concept in general.  It could also be that as a writer, teacher, and human being, I’m appalled at what might happen to a society which willingly accepts an eroded truth in exchange for a better story, a better bargain, a smoother ride.  Is it dangerous to allow things which are labeled “nonfiction” to be acceptable even if they didn’t happen quite the way they were written because then it will become easier to dismiss real atrocities presented as truth as possible fiction? This conundrum reminds me of listening to Elie Wiesel respond to a question during his “Memory and Hope” presentation at Chapman in 2010. The soft spoken gentle storyteller was asked:

Is Night a memoir and a novel?

He quickly responded:

There’s nothing fiction in it. It’s literature. It’s a witness. It’s a testimony.

Memoirs are supposed to be true. Witness and testimony, so help me God, are true.  And novels are accepted as fiction, even if, even if they’re born out of real events. Night is not a novel.

Photo,© City of Chicago, from http://www.awpwriter.org

So when I perused the AWP catalog before heading to Chicago for the annual conference, one of the first panels that caught my eye was,”What’s Wrong with the Whole Truth?”  Even better when I discovered that one of the panelists would be Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the first text we read for this class. Here’s the catalog description:

Many writers feel comfortable molding the truth to create a more satisfying story, yet still calling their piece nonfiction as long as the emotional core and basic frame of the work remain true.  Not the writers on this panel. These authors, journalists, and nonfiction professors will explore the philosophy of factual versus emotional honesty and discuss how to achieve both—beautiful and moving nonfiction writing that is 100% true.

You can read a brief roundup of what happened during the entire presentation on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, here if you like.  You’ll find all the panel participants and an extended comments section which keeps the conversation alive.  But what I’d like to tell you doesn’t show up there, in fact this little anecdote doesn’t show up in any of the post-Chicago news I’ve read, yet for me it was one of the most compelling things I heard all weekend.

Rebecca Skloot graciously opened her moment at the microphone with an observation that perhaps we have a linguistic issue at the heart of this discussion of why nonfiction writers seem to be dropping like flies out of the whole truth sky.  Maybe there’s confusion, she says, that “Creative” doesn’t apply to the truth implied in the nonfiction label, rather to the way the truth is presented. She used the opening scene of Chapter 1 of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as an example of the sort of excruciatingly time-consuming work she performed to get every detail of the book correct.

Rebecca begins by reading from the opening paragraphs of Chapter 1, page 13 in my book.

She stops and the end of the page and asks, “Now this happened in the 1950s, I wasn’t there. I wasn’t even born.  So how did I know all that?”  She proceeds to tell us.

She checked the weather bureau which tracks weather back for decades and yes, on that day it was, in fact, raining in Baltimore, Maryland. She asked Day, and others, “what kind of car did Day drive?”  “A Buick” was the consistent answer and then she found an old photo of Day standing by his car and she was able to confirm that yes, Day’s car at that time, was a Buick.

She went to Johns Hopkins which had archival photos of both the inside and the outside of the building.  She found a photo showing a tree by the front door and she showed the photo to a botanist who confirmed, “That’s an oak.”  She found a photo of the front desk and was able to describe it from the photo.

“So how did I get the line, ‘I’ve got a knot on my womb’? I’ve got Henrietta’s medical records but it sure doesn’t say that in there.  So over and over and over I interviewed family and friends who knew Henrietta and I asked them, what did she say? Did she tell you she was sick?  How did she describe her problem?”

“And to a one, the all said, ‘Henrietta said, I’ve got a knot on my womb.”

Rebecca says yes, of course this is an incredible amount of work, but “we don’t want people to lose credibility.”

She says the hardest parts of the book were writing the sections where she appeared. She says she re-interviewed people who were with her. “How do you remember what happened that day?” And they’d say, “Why are you asking me that, you were there.”

“I don’t want to get it wrong.  So much damage can be done by incorrect facts.”

Rebecca Skloot insists there’s no detail too small to nitpick.  She recounts her experience reading from her book in front of audiences and said she frequently reads the section where Henrietta, in the bathtub, discovers her “knot.” She says she knows the house Henrietta lived in at the time and she knew that house had a bathtub and Henrietta had told many people she found the knot on herself in the tub and there’s really only one way to find that lump.  “But I think I overstepped with “slowly spread her legs.”

“How did I know it was slowly?  I know it was a small bathtub, but do I know it was slowly?  That bugged me so much, the second edition I had my editor take out the word slowly so that’s one difference between the first edition and the second edition.”

Slowly.

Check out your own page 15 to see which edition you have.

Rebecca ended with, “Journalism techniques are undercut, underutilized in creative writing.”

Later on, when presentations have given way to Q & A, Rebecca sounded frustrated.

“I can’t believe we’re still having this conversation,” she says.  She recounts a personal story about fallout from the discovery that some key elements of Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea were untrue.  If you’d like to watch the 60 Minutes segment where Steve Kroft questions facts of that book, watch here.

Skloot said there were so many parallels between the two books. They were reported over a long period of time.  Both writers had started a foundation. She was inundated by queries, folks all wondering if she too had made any parts of her incredible story up. Calls. E-mails. Questions.  All assumed there must be some sort of guilt by association.

“I lost my credibility. It took me one entire year to rebuild my credibility the day the Three Cups of Tea story broke.”

A question from the audience: “Where comes this requirement that the essay form be fact?  You already said poetry doesn’t have to be true.  So who decides?  Why do essays have to be true?”

Rebecca answers “actually it’s publishers and bookstores who label it so.”

Philip Gerard, another panelist spoke up to remind that the term “essay” comes from the French essayer, meaning, to try.  “In an essay you deal with the world the way it is to get to the bottom of things.”

In truth.  As best you can discern. Because that’s where the real world is. And the real world is where we live.