Saturday, September 28, 2013

Extremely interesting (to me) take on truth, fiction, nonfiction, fact, accuracy, art, lies that speak truely, truth that lies, etc.

Week 6, autobiographical 'slice' & imagination

I'm struggling (and expect you to struggle) with the difference between memoir and autobiography. Google may help, but this is what I think: memoir deals with memories, which can be fallible, can be twisted, can be confabulated, can be wrong. But how you remember it is how you remember it, period. I was there, this is what I remember seeing and hearing--my memoir. You can't have a memoir describing your birth--you don't remember it. But maybe your mother told you some stories, which would lead to...autobiography.

Autobiography is supposed to be more historical, more factual. I was born on this date, my parents were so and so, I lived here, I went to school there, etc. There are records, certificates, report cards, photos, licenses, people to interview, newspaper clippings, letters, diaries, old bills, tax returns, souvenirs, blogs, audio and video. Pull them together and we have the story of a life based on documentary sources, as well as memory. Sure, your mother may have herself a faulty memory about your birth, but at least you're hunting for facts in that interview with her. You're not stuck in your own head.

What I have in mind for this week is autobiography, but not the whole story. I'm calling this week an "autobiographical slice."

Just a piece of your life, a slice of the pie, not everything. You're going to focus on one aspect.

It could be your health, your education, your career, your family, your hobby, your house, your god, your military service, your finances, whatever. And you take just that one slice of you to write about.

I don't think the documentary sources are necessarily important either, though this is certainly the week to pull them in if you so desire.

What is important is that the material deal with your life both factually and speculatively.

Speculatively? Remember this week is about 'imagination' as well as facts. How can you combine two things that seem so opposite? Imagination does not mean fantasy or fiction or even recreating things the way you did in the memoir. It means looking at the material from a fresh point of view, trying to see things you haven't seen before.

At this point I have to write my sample for you because the sample, I hope, will demonstrate what I think the week is about.

I plan to write about my allergies. They are a part of my life, have always been a part of my life, and I have the facts--and I have some ideas beyond the facts too.

Check it out.

Week 6, autobiographical slice: "Poopy Diapers"

My allergic reactions to pollen used to start in April and end in October and then would move indoors for the winter and become allergies to animal dander, woodsmoke, dust, mold, and the horsehair plaster all through my house. I would spend the better part of the year with continuous and convulsive sneezing, itching eyes, wheezing, and coughing.

God bless the drug company chemists who developed Azmacort and Vancenase and the health plan that allows me to afford them.

Now it's only in August that the ragweed overcomes the chemists. A single ragweed plant is capable of producing a billion grains of pollen in a season, and most of those billion grains are going to find their way right into my nose and trigger hayfever and asthma, drugs or not. So today, August 21, marks about three weeks that I've suffered the usual symptoms.

Though I have those symptoms, everything is a lot better than it used to be. Even so, last week, when my wife made one of her many funny jokes, I began coughing uncontrollably, fighting for oxygen, still laughing as the dogs danced around the kitchen barking at my unusual behavior. Doubled-over at my cutting board, the thought came that what nearly killed me when I was a baby might well take me away as an old man.

Why are some people cursed with allergies, others not? One likely culprit is breast-feeding. Babies who have been exclusively breastfed for even a month have a much lower incidence of allergies later in life.

My son was born in 1974. My mother visited when he was a few days old to help out. Almost immediately, her wail came from the bathroom. "Oh my god, he has it too. Just like John."

"What?" My wife hauled her weary self out of her chair and came into the bathroom. "Has what?"

My mother pointed to the loose, yellow shit in the diaper. "He's allergic to breast milk, just like John was. You'll have to switch to formula."

My wife was a new mother, but she had spent time with friends and their babies and had a degree of confidence. "No, that's what breastfed babies' poop is supposed to look like. It's fine. Completely normal."

"No, he's not getting any nourishment. That's exactly what John had."

My wife and my mother locked gazes, not for the first or last time, and each thought dark thoughts about the other....

I was born in 1945. The war was just over, my father just out of the service. My mother had married at age 18 in 1940 but had waited until Hitler was beaten before starting a family. I was born 9 months after the fall of Berlin, when she was 23. My father insisted on hiring a nurse for a few weeks to help my mother with her newborn.

As nurses often tend to be, this one was bossy, fussy, and quite prepared to slap down any rebellious notions among her patients or clients. Breastfeeding was not something that nice middle-class ladies did, in her opinion. That was for slum mothers who knew no better. Nor did nice middle-class babies make such messes in their diapers.

"Your baby is allergic to your..., to the...milk. He's not getting any nourishment." My mother says she protested, but the nurse, my father, and Dr Bennett all told her that she was being selfish, that the baby was failing to thrive, that something had to be done.

The first thing they tried was an evaporated milk formula requiring mixing of exact quantities of evaporated milk, water, and sugar. Bottles and rubber nipples were carefully sterilized. But the baby did even worse, and the diapers were even messier. They tried commercial formula, and there was no improvement. Baby puked, baby's diapers were streaked with liquid, baby lost weight and cried incessantly.

Finally, Dr Bennett found a goats-milk-and-banana diet for baby, and that's what he ate the first year of his life.

A few paragraphs back, I said that allergies nearly killed me in 1945. Strictly speaking, a fear of allergies, a bossy nurse, a novice mother, and an ignorant doctor combined to nearly kill me. It wasn't until a few years later that the real bill for the allergies came due.

Sometime after midnight in August of 1952, my father took me in his arms, carried me out of the summer house we were renting in Marblehead, Massachusetts, and drove to a doctor whose name my parents had found in the phone book and who had agreed to see me at his residence at 2 am. Our rented house had feather pillows, cat dander, horsehair-stuffed sofa, cigarette smoke hanging in the still rooms, and dust clouds visibly rising whenever someone sat too hard on the cushions. My lips were blue and my hands cold. I was wheezing, coughing convulsively, gasping for air.

The doctor gave me an adrenaline shot, and in a few seconds I could breathe again.

I had asthma more or less severely throughout my childhood, on into my early twenties, and then it seemed to largely disappear. I could exercise, I could be around horses and dogs, I could live in dusty old houses, and I still had hay fever but not asthma.

Then, just a few years ago--it might have been set off by one of my wife's jokes again--the old but never-forgotten symptoms returned. Now in August when I struggle to breathe, when my lungs burn and cough and feel 'black,' I wonder if a few poopy diapers back in 1945 are to blame. I wonder if I will be spared cancer, Alzheimers, strokes, heart attacks, and, instead, whether I will be one of the fifteen people who daily die of asthma in the United States.

Week 6, autobiographical slice, denyse:

I have a touch of agoraphobia. It’s a seasonal malady. In the beginning of summer when, finally, we’re not required to get out of the house at 8:30 in the morning, we lounge like sea lions on the couches in our pajamas until noon every day.

Easily, I could do it the whole summer, tipping off my rock only to feed and maybe take a lazy lap or two while I’m up. But I have baby sea lions, and they need to get out more.

And so sometime in late June, we start to venture out. After breakfast, I apply sunscreen, pack lunches and beach bags, towels, toys, bike, scooters, snacks, and books on tape for the car. I gas up, supervise and oversee, reapply sunscreen, pick up, pack up, get home and start dinner. Repeat. And repeat until fall.

Sometimes we go with other moms and kids and sometimes we go by ourselves: one mom, a brother and a sister. Where’s dad? Dad’s at work.

I want to stay home. The red couch in our living room calls to me. Come sit! Hang out, dear! Look! Magazines! And don’t you have some writing to do?

Yes, yes. Don’t tease.

I could turn on the TV or boot up video games on the laptop, and my children would be happy and quiet for hours. I could sit all day and night then. But no. I’m home with kids in the summer to enjoy them, to give them their mom and all she has to offer.

Ha! The couch is mocking me. The couch has seen what I have to offer between the hours of six and eight in the morning and the state of mom in general here in late summer.

See kids get up too early. See kids fight over mom’s lap. See them banished harshly to lonely ends of the couch. See kids kick mom, and when she struggles to her feet with a snarl and limps away to the kitchen, kick each other. Hear them bark, clash and make a racket, take tusks and clubs to each other. The smaller one takes a beating, and big mama appears in the doorway with a jar of peanut butter and murder in her eye. Threats. Time-outs. And thus begins a day. Not with gentle swaying peace, but with assault, violence and spilt blood, regrettable words, bad blood.

I’m no martyr. I always pack a bag for myself too -- books, paints, Bananagrams, and impractical bulky things too (--don’t laugh!--like a loom) that I won’t get a chance to use, but that I hoist along anyway just in case.

There must have been a time when I set up my things on some shaded knoll, and I sat in a beach chair or kneeled in front of my loom and plucked and strummed while my children played peacefully in the valley below.

I go to the beach with a faint memory of such moments, a subtle pining…

But that’s just not the way it goes – not when you’re the mom. Moms set things up so the children can do the plucking. We teach them to swim and watch their underwater tricks, we hand them their water bottles and say drink.

Preservation of self, and the flourishing of my offspring. These two strongest forces in nature clash in me. Discussing the pros and cons with friends once of waiting until one’s thirties or forties to have our children as we all did, a friend posited this: Wouldn’t everyone be better off if we had our kids young and did things like steal from their piggybanks to go party. It’s a good question.

I don’t think I sank into motherhood as gracefully, as without a fight as my friends and acquaintances seemed to do. Those moms on the sidelines who stand there empty-handed. They just stand there and simply watch their children play soccer and go down the slide-- no bag of knitting or novel or banged up notebook for themselves.

I marvel at that. I assume it reflects peace and deep contentment and joy of the mommy role, and I wonder if maybe I should try harder to cultivate some of that. But when those moms aren’t tying junior’s shoe, they talk to each other.

I don’t want to talk. Not about kids, teachers, and Disneyland. Not about anything. If there’s a spare moment that I’m not tying junior’s shoe, I want to do my own thing. Funnily, my own thing, more often than not, is to observe my children.

Right now I’m trying to get a sketch of Franny who is bent over her own drawing of a bouquet. She has one leg folded under, the other out straight in a private and exquisite stretch. She’s talking softly to herself about buttercups and lily of the valley, names of flowers that sound beautiful to her ear.

“I’m going to do a lady’s slipper because there is a flower called a lady slipper,” she says to no one in particular, and I get that down on paper.

There’s a note around here somewhere that has written on it the talk Franny and I had a few nights ago – when I asked her to finish her beans, and she said she couldn’t because they taste like guts. I did get that one down one day too.

However, I miss most of what I want to write down for lack of pen or energy to fetch one, or, increasingly, the motivation to write another messy note that’s going to end up as nothing but more domestic litter.

I try to be inconspicuous, and I’ve been writing about my kids ever since they were born, but they’re on to me now.

“What are you writing, Mummy? What are you writing? I think she’s writing about me.” And they mug for the camera.

But quickly now, illegibly, I jot down the last four things my boy says about artillery and anti-tank guns.

And quickly, before heads roll, I pick up, urge final bites of breakfast on ditherers, finish packing the car and get out the door.

Now, if I don’t even try to have my own time things go better. What works really well is when I prepare everything the night before -- pack the cooler, have hung out the bathing suits and towels the day before, have clothes and breakfast laid out. Have, in short, my act together. But days are long in summer, kids don’t go to bed until after nine. You’re going to take away my morning and my night too?

Hard-done-by mom, is not pleasant to spend the day with. A mom with a mean look on her face, a mom walking around with low-grade depression. Who reaches for brownies as solace and that only makes matters worse.

I really fell off the wagon this summer. When I couldn’t get away for time to myself, when I was exhausted and angry at two in the afternoon, I made coffee and ate brownies. And I packed on the pounds. Like I was going away for a journey, I packed on the pounds.

Not funny. Kind of funny, but not really at all.

So, but I try to get out of the house by eleven at the latest. Sometimes there’s bickering in the car too, or demands and tattletales. After a long day at the lake where they played and ate nice foods, where mom read chapter books, and was generally available, and a child asks in a whiny voice if we’re going to do anything special tonight? It’s enough to drive you into the ditch!

More often though, the car ride can be pleasant enough. Franny takes a little while to settle in, can be chatterbox and annoying, but brother is more tolerant in the car than he is on land.

“Once I had a dream that was just two knock-knock jokes.”

Is that so?

We hear out the jokes and then one of her long dream sequences. Most of her dreams feature exciting adventures with her dad and brother with guest appearances from cousins and grandparents. Me, I die a thousand deaths in her dreams -- falling into holes or run over by daddy’s truck or smashed by rogue rocks, water or planets. Either that or I’m conspicuously, altogether, absent from her dreams.

She explains the deal on that: You’re not in my dreams because you’re not around me very much, because you go on a lot of walks.

When the sun is on its way down, and in a gold summer glow, I see my beautiful children digging tunnels and building dams. Satiated and sleepy, they come when I call, and we head for home. Very carefully, slowly so they don’t notice, I angle the rearview mirror so I can see my two kids. Gazing out windows, quiet, a thumb sucked contemplatively. I angle my mirror back.

They’ll be back in school soon. I already miss them, and of course I regret not savoring our summer enough. My girl is missing her two front teeth, and my boy’s hands are so small when I hold them, so small, really for all I expect of him.

We ride along in silence and then from Franny’s side, a sweet song, slow and wistful, sung in her fancy voice:

A brown thing

That comes out

The back of yooouuuu.

A yellow thing

That comes out

The front of yoooouuuuuu.

She pauses in her sweet melody and revises:

A yellow thing

That comes out

The middle of youuuuu.

At home, I take wet bathing suits from the car, I start dinner, and eventually, gradually, at a sea lion’s pace, I sit in the living room and write it all down.

A new autobiographical slice

She was two or three at the time. She watched as her parents looked at the piano in her grandparents living room that would soon be in her house. It was over now, but it still was on her mind and the band-aid on her leg was a constant reminder of what had happened less than an hour ago. Until then, she had been innocent of the dark side of nature. Sure, darkish things had happened to her, but up until then, she had not known the real dark side of nature. She and her mother had been picking flowers for her grandparents when it had happened. Out of the blue, something stabbed into her leg with an excruciating sting. It was the most horrifying thing that had happened in her life and it was not until her mid teens that she tread in that corner of her yard with out terror...


This was my introduction to bees and their “pin” and was not close to my last encounter. They were to haunt my childhood, always coming up out of nowhere, catching me off guard with the sudden pain and horror of their sting, driving me near a paranoia of them and not even allowing me to forget about them in my adulthood..


She climbed up the steps. She was finally going to go down the really high slide. Her mother had not allowed her to go down it before, but this time her father was there to stand at the bottom of the slide so she was allowed to go. The five-year-old stood at the top of the slide at the peak of high spirits; she had not the ghost of an idea of the fate awaiting her at the bottom. Perhaps other parents were hesitant about letting their kids go down the slide too, or perhaps it had been unused just long enough to give the bees the illusion of its underside being a secluded home. However it was, when her feet touched the ground, a bee flew out and struck her with her second ever Sting From The Blue. She shrieked in pain and terror. Then they were running for the car. Her mother was getting cream out of her purse. She could not stop bawling. It would not stop hurting. The slide stood tall and ominous in the distance.


She was running across the front yard. In her hand, she clutched a sprig of pine she had picked up while walking down the "woods path" with her mother and brother. Something pricked the back of her leg. She twisted around in confusion. Had the pine sprig pricked her? She saw something yellow and black sticking out of the bend of her left knee. Not comprehending what it was, she just pulled it out, threw it on the ground and continued across the yard. Then her mother shouted to her that it was bees. She ran inside as fast as she could, screaming all the way.


The unsuspecting ten-year-old was standing under the elm tree when when the sting came. She ran inside, thinking she was getting away from it but could not: the bee was in her shoe. Her mother was in the kitchen when she came in. "Get your shoe off!" she said. The girl kicked her shoe off and shrank up against the wall as an angry bee flew out of it. It looked like one of those nasty wasps called yellow jackets, but with a black body and yellow stripes. A black jacket? The ten-year-old wounded bee phobic made a dash for the other room and left her mother to slay the ferocious bee.


That last sting was the worst I had ever experienced. My foot swelled up so much I could not walk. I spent two days in bed had could only get places via crawling. As if that were not enough, I got stung again later that summer and then again next year and yet again the year after that, this time on my own door step...


She did not approve of the pants she was wearing. All her life, her pants had been more or less tight to her ankles. Now the only kind they sold had ankles that were wider than the knees. She did not like that. It did not seem proper, but being twelve, she was growing fast and her parents did not have time to find enough "proper" pants that fit her. Those pants were to be her bane that day. Her father had knocked a honey bee nest off the house, and had not bothered to move it from where it had landed right next to the door. She and her family had managed to get by fast enough when just one of them went by, but now her whole family had just come back from somewhere and were all trying to go in at the same time. The large slow moving group had really upset the bees and given them plenty of time to gather. One of the swarming bees got caught in her improper pant leg and she felt that all too well known prick...


Her epigenome had been so altered she had pretty much lost that the extreme intolerance of pain that had characterized her when she was younger. Sometimes she wondered if a bee sting quite as painful and frightening as it had been before. She did not really want to find out, but at age sixteen she did. It had happened when she hopped off the side of the deck on the way to the chicken coop, like she did so often. She had hardly started down the path when a yellow jacket from an unknown nest under the steps flew out and stung her. She knew a bee had stung her, though it was not quite as painful as she remembered. She shrieked and ran to the coop. No other bees had followed her, but the first bee was still had its stinger in her leg and she was too scared to knock it off. Fortunately, her father had heard her and hurried out to knock it off for her. When she was younger, a bee sting normally pushed all else to the back burner, but this time she just put cream on it and went back out to feed the chickens.


She was picking blueberries from the bush in her yard. A back jacket kept flying around her and the blueberries. By the time she was leaving though, it appeared to have left. She started to hasten off and felt something prick her. It felt sort of like a bee, but it was too fast and nothing was there now. Was there a bee's nest in the bush next to her? She felt panic and uncertainty creep over her. “Just keep running,” she told herself and ran inside. Once inside she started examining her leg, trying to find a sting. She could not find anything then, though a little later it swelled up like a bee sting and then went right back down. Apparently, her leg had just bumped into the bee and startled it enough to sting her, but since it did not have a nest to protect it did just flew off after the initial contact. That incident had been just a few months before her eighteenth birthday, and as if to let her know bee stings were not just an ancient unpleasant remnant of her childhood, on her eighteenth birthday a little wild bee got in her boot and stung her.


A while back, I found something on line about that said bees were attracted to people born in July. Having been born in July myself, I laughed and laughed at this funny coincidence, but did not really believe it. After all, my slightly younger brother was born in July too and despite having been right there or nearby on several of the occasions I was stung, he has only been stung on two incidents.
C opyright (c) 2011 by Felicia Graham

Friday, September 20, 2013

Week 5: Audience & Adult Memoir

Week 5 asks you to think about engaging your audience. As I tried coming up with a sample essay, I imagined different ways of engaging you.

First thought: I would write about sex, drugs, rock and roll. In other words, about high profile, edgy, risky topics. I could dish dirt and have my students saying, "Jeezum, that old guy did this shit???"

But, truth is, I never have done anything very sexy or druggy or roll 'n' rolly.

So, I gave up on s, d, & r 'n' r.

Instead, a lot of my day yesterday was spent writing in my mind big chunks of an adult memoir about how Waterville Maine was when I came there age 17 in the Fall of 1963. Before urban renewal, before the malls, before all the mills closed, before all the people who'd grown up speaking French died, before anyone had ever heard of Vietnam--and just three years after the turnpike had arrived, when Maine was still isolated, an afterthought, a backwater, out of the loop, a punchline.

I'd write about the bars like Onie's and the Bob-In where a 17 year old could drink beer without question. Park's Diner with the marble counters and grill cook Rainey (Rene) who would repeat the order for a hot dog as 'Un chien hot!' Seven stool hamburger joints where customers on the last three stools had to lean forward to avoid bumping the pinball machine taking up most of the floor. The Majestic Lebanese Restaurant presided over by the fearsome Ma Jestic and my girlfriend's famous fight with her over a ten cent check for coffee. The old-fashioned grocery story where clerks waited on customers, the three movie theaters, the ethnic neighborhoods, the slums, the rents, the Two-Penny Bridge with its toll house and live-in toll-taker, the old men with accordion and fiddle and snare drum playing for old French couples in the Exchange Hotel, just down the road from the Silver Dollar where Waterville's imported black guitarist was laying down R & B, just down the road from the Chez Paree where Waterville's imported strippers were doing their thing.

I'd write about the huge elms of Elm City. The Syrian dagwoods and kibbee and Italians and stuffed grape leaves and Sittoo George's pita bread. The trailer truck idling behind the post office--full of pigeon holes and sorting clerks waiting to start their nightly Boston run. The two Catholic Churches side by side, one French, one Irish. The old cars everywhere and not pimped out for some car show, dusty, battered.... The Elmwood Hotel anchoring the upper end of Main St, all wood and wraparound porches, towers, bay windows and wicker rockers.

The shifts changing at Hathaway Shirt, two streams of women moving in opposite directions. The workmen with their lunchpails shuffling over the Two Penny Bridge to Scott Paper in Winslow. The printers at the Waterville Morning Sentinel putting the paper to bed and hitting the bars on Silver St just before last call. The Carpenters' Union Hall, second floor above Waterville Hardware, with its amazing inlaid woodworking, walls, floor, ceiling. The guys who worked all year in machine shops in Connecticut, saving for their two week vacation run to the motorcycle races in Laconia, digging their ancient Harleys out of their dad's barns in Oakland and Unity.

All of this and more flooded my mind, felt so self-indulgent. I liked the topic and I could probably jazz it up so you, the audience, could sift out a little connection with the material, a little interest. But it would be uphill work for you and for me. It's not an obvious topic a reader would fall in love with, and there was no obvious way to style it.

So I decided to go with a piece I thought everyone could relate to some way or another, even if only with dread and loathing. You might not fall in love with it, but you probably could not ignore it either.

The other reason I went with it is because it's an oddball style. I originally wrote it for ENG 162, the week where we did linked vignettes. It does a lot to 'alienate' readers: it offers no background, leaves it to the audience to figure out who these people are and what their relationship is, explains almost nothing, jumps from moment to moment without neat transitions, and ends on a peculiar note....

But sometimes being a bit mysterious, not answering questions, not dotting every i can be effective. Contrast this to 'Blizzard.' There, I held the reader's hand every step of the way. I explained the who, why, where, when, what, and how.

In 'Surgery' I let go of your hand, demand more of you, let you get a bit frustrated, ask irritable questions to yourself--I try holding my audience that way.

Week 5 asks you to think about what you can do in either topic or writing style to engage your audience--not necessarily to please it, to offer it candy, to suck up to it. But to hold onto it and not let go.

I'd bet you find yourself doing less confabulating, reconstructing, guessing, necessary-fictionalizing in week 5, adult memoir, than in week 4, childhood memoir, because the memories are fresher. See if I'm right.

"Surgery"--Week 5. Adult memoir.

In the parking lot after our workout at Champions. I open my car door. Instead of coming over to say goodby, she goes to her car, speaks over the roof of my car and over the roof of her car. She seems a long way off. "I went to the doctor yesterday. I have to go in today for more tests."
We're alone in the hot tub. She lets her legs slide over my mine. The bubble maker bounces her up and down, up and down.

In the sauna. She leans over, exposing most of her breasts over the bikini top. "Take a good look, buddy boy," she says. "Last chance."
In the hospital lobby. She sits down next to me, shakes her head. Gets out of her seat and climbs onto my lap. "Security," I say.

"Fuck 'em." she says, and she turns her face into my shoulder.

The hospital social worker asks about her family and as she names them, she begins crying.
The patients go into a changing room. The fifteen or twenty friends and relatives wait. A few of us try to read newspapers. We are called out after a few minutes and there are the patients now in hospital johnnies. Each patient has a nurse escort him or her to a cot. Friends and relatives tag along behind. There are no windows here. 40 beds, perhaps, each holding someone who'll be operated on in the next few hours.

A doctor with a Russian accent appears and picks up her paperwork. She says, "I thought you'd never come."

The doctor raises his eyebrows. She says, "We have to stop meeting like this."

He gets it. "Ah, I will send the nurse away now! Just you and me, together at last."

She is laughing and then, without any transition, is crying.
I'm on Huntington Avenue, walking away from the hospitals. I look toward the Richardson House where I was born. I have never in my life been so glad to be outside, in the open air, and walking. At about the time her surgery is scheduled, I am three miles away in Jake Wirth's ordering sauerbraten and beer. Another never: never has anything tasted so good. I am so glad to be alive. So ashamed. So glad.

Another adult memoir:

I've started a diet.

We had to go to a service last night for Allen Dickey, who was Anh's very first friend. She named her bike 'Thunder' and Allen got playing cards and clothespinned them to her Thunder's wheels. He was friends with her the whole first summer she was here from Vietnam and desperate for someone she could play with without words--Marco Polo in the silo, kittens in the haymow, bringing in the cows--

Dead at 42 of a heart attack--leaving a wife and three teenaged sons. The minister said today that we should be glad, positively grateful and happy, that Allen has passed over because now he is in heaven and in heaven he gets whatever he wants from the loving hands of Jesus. Then he read some hip modern version of Psalm 23. "The lord is a shepherd, watching out for me and making sure that I have everything I need; If I need to lie down, wherever I lie is smooth green grass and he and I walk together near a very quiet lake..."

But putting on a dress shirt, pants, a necktie--an exercise in
self-humiliation. It was only a few years ago I bought the black
trousers for a second cousin's wedding. Now, no hope. My sexy navy-blue
shirt with the French cuffs I've worn for thirty years...I had to leave
a button unbuttoned over my belly and hide that under a sweater. Not so
sexy. I felt tight, pinched, rubbed, gappy, gutty, as far from naked as
it is possible to feel.

The tie was tight because the collar was tight--and, apart from the
funeral director, I was the only man there wearing a tie anyway. I could
see that Allen's sister, a sophisticated lady from the real world, had
told her husband and two little boys to remove their ties so they would
not embarrass all the men in jeans, sweats, tees, hoodies, flannels, etc.

His sister spoke about Allen. "It's been a long time since anyone thought of my brother as little,"--the audience rustled and smiled--"but to Jan and me he will always be our little brother...."

I sat in a pew and laid out my strategy: keep walking. Go on that
six-mile snowshoe with Jean Saturday, even if it means talking to people
or, as bad, avoiding talking to them. No change in breakfast (toast,
coffee.) Skip lunch completely. Eat what I want for supper. No more
whoopie pies or wagon wheel size co-op cookies.

Allen is dead. I plan to lose some weight.

So, here's the problem. Is this a memoir? Allen actually died Feb 7, 2011. I wrote this Feb. 11. It's no distant memory, recalled from a shadowy past. It's more current events. Does it qualify?

To be honest, I didn't think about my audience at all in the first draft. Later I added a few explanations ('Vietnam', for example, as unobtrusively as possible) and I bracketed my diet thoughts with the minister's and sister's remarks, more interesting to an audience, I thought, than my morbid and self-involved concerns. I also worked and worked to make the last two sentences sit side by side but unconnected in any logical or grammatical way, trying for a disconcerting and chilling effect. I'm always willing to make myself look bad and even toss myself to the wolves....if it helps the writing.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Week 4: voice; childhood memoir

Lecturette #1

Last week tone, this week voice--what the heck is the difference?

Trust me (and you should because I just did this) if you google 'voice vs tone,' you will not emerge from your research any happier. But there is a difference, a big difference.

Tone is the mood you convey, what 'affect' the reader feels. Voice...voice is all those little things that make a piece inimitably you, your quirks, your way of dealing with words.

The best example I can give you is me. My tone tends to be light and humorous, if I can manage it. So far this piece exemplifies that. When I write 'what the heck,' that's typical of me, that kind of casual everyday talk in what in fact is a lecture. Same with 'trust me.'

Same with 'you will not emerge from your research any happier' which is kind of a wise ass way of saying more formally: 'Your research will yield no usable results' or 'Any material you find will contradict other material also available.' I could write that way, and if I habitually did write that way, I'd have a different voice, stiffer, more serious-sounding (true seriousness always requires an admixture of humor IMO because 'it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing' [and parentheses like this also are a characteristic part of my voice]).

But, okay, you're still confused about the difference between tone and voice. My goal in Lecturette #1 is to convey good information, enough to get you started, to do my best to create a calm, easy, light tone, and at the end to force you to reread my words.

Now let's try a different tone but still in my regular voice!

My plan now is to sound like John A (Don't ask!) Goldfine but to offer my readers a different emotion while discussing the exact same material. I'm going to try to terrorize you (tone) in my usual voice! Here goes:

Lecturette #2
I hate to confuse you like this by putting tone and voice in back to back weeks, but that's the way it seems to have happened and no doubt after a bit of a squirm, you will handle it. And if you can't, that's what rewrites (infinite rewrites!) are all about!

Don't even bother trying to google this. Waste of time! Here it is in a nutshell: You recognize your sweetie's voice. That voice sounds like your sweetie whether your sweetie is calling you a loser a-hole or whether your sweetie is whispering sexy invitations into your ear.

The voice is the same, the tone is going to vary depending on how mad or how amorous your sweetie happens to feel. Simple as that. Don't sweat it. Handle it! You've got a week (and then a dozen more weeks to revise to find that voice of yours before the end of the semester.) Have fun!

Now lecture version # 2 still sounds like me, I hope, but that slightly sadistic tone, that indifference to your reaction to what I'm saying, that vague menace while I talk about rewrites, that's much different than the positive supportive tone in Lecture #1. Do you feel that new tone?

With luck you'll never hear it again from me, okay? It was just put in for illustrative purposes only, and we will now return you to your regularly scheduled tone.

Week 4: childhood memoir issues

'Mem-WAH,' emphasis on the second syllable, is how you pronounce this puppy. No 'mem-o-ir.'

(My wife disagrees, not for the first time ever in our 565 years of marriage. She says it should be MEM-wah, emphasis on the first syllable. Hmppph! Just be thankful it's an online course and you're not going to have to say it aloud in class and pick between my wife and me.) (The Merriam-Webster Pronouncing Dictionary agrees with...well, you can listen for yourself:

Now a definition I just lifted from wikipedia: ""Gore Vidal, in his own memoir Palimpsest, gave a personal definition: "a memoir is how one remembers one's own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked." It is more about what can be gleaned from a section of one's life than about the outcome of the life as a whole.""

So, it's about memories and if you've taken ENG 162, you already know that there are no polygraphs at EMCC, that sometimes the truth can best be found in a fib, and that good nonfiction can be improved with fictional techniques.

Memory is notoriously unreliable but it's all we've got to go with, so--

I've been thinking about what to write for a sample childhood memoir.

There seems to be a class of memories that aren't really direct memories but are stories I remember being told. I certainly don't remember running out into the snowstorm with only a shirt on and being brought back by a motorist outraged by my mother's irresponsibility to her toddler. I certainly don't remember telling the motorist that I was running away to the "little o'phans' home." What I remember is my mother telling this story--often.

Personally I'd rather stick with something that's not second-hand, as first-hand has a likelier probability of being fresh and juicy.

Then there are thematic memories but ones that don't amount to a particular specific story. Can I do a memoir about how the blueberries and corn I'm eating now in August (8/14/10) remind me of my mother's attitudes toward fresh food, toward farmer's markets, toward the ethnicity of the farmers in the region where I grew up? I could; I certainly have considered that. But there's no single story, so it would be a series of (former ENG 162 students panic-time!) vignettes.

Finally there are complete stories I actually directly remember. For some reason I'm convinced that's the gold standard for memoirists, but I could easily be wrong. In my case, I have very few of these available before I was ten or eleven. I keep coming back to--not a single story exactly, but more than a series of thematic memories--I keep coming back to beating up my brother on our weekly walks home from the Saturday movie matinees. That idea has legs, because it ties in with stuff about my cousin, who was a wonderful big brother to me, and about bullying, which I know about as both victim and in my brother's case, perpertrator.

Eventually, I will have a sample childhood memoir for you, based on memory and in my own voice. I think I'm going to write about an evil teacher I had....

"Blizzard"--Week 4

The other day my brother Seth sent me a Boston Globe clipping of Mr. Licht's obituary. I can't say I was sorry he was dead, even though a half-century has passed since I last saw him.

Mr. Licht was my shop teacher and coach in sixth and seventh grade. He had served in the South Pacific in World War II, a very tough school, and he tried to teach us what he had learned there, which was to hate the enemy and to lay down as much fire as possible.

He would call us 'girls' if we measured the wood wrong. He would call us 'fags' if we didn't jump right up after a hard tackle. He'd tell us we were scum if we didn't yell at each other in practice. When one of the kids on the team, Chris, went home one night and hung himself with his school necktie, next morning Mr. Licht told us that Chris was weak and soft and wouldn't have been worth anything if he had lived.

I hated that man and all his mean ways and everything he touched. I never played a team sport again. I never made a thing out of wood. Even now, I'd rather be his idea of a fag than his idea of a man.

But I probably would pretty much have forgotten him, if there had not been a winter day in 1957 when he could have killed my brother and me.

Part of Mr. Licht's job was to pick us up in the morning and deliver us home after school, along with 10 other boys, in a big green 1956 Ford wagon, the Country Squire model with an extra factory benchseat in the cargo area. This was the era before seat belts. If the wagon was built to seat nine but could squeeze in twelve little boys plus a grown-up driver, no one gave that any thought. Safety was something we were taught in school: look both ways before you cross the street. It was not something to unduly trouble adults.

It's not quite true that this was the era before seatbelts. Ford offered seatbelts as an option on these wagons starting in 1955, but I doubt I, or anyone other than fussbudgets, ever used a seatbelt until the late 60s, and that '56 Country Squire certainly didn't have them. In 1957, there were no SUVs, no Jeeps or 4WD vehicles on the road, no front-wheel drive cars. Cars were long, low, powered from the rear. When there was snow, the plows came out late, did not have sand or salt, and any driver who expected to get anywhere, even in the suburbs of Boston, had to have chains, but, even so, sometimes snow would be over a car's axles and drag on that stylish lowslung bodywork and fill wheelwells, and then the car would have to be abandoned.

Seth and I heard the muffled sound of chains in deep snow on our unplowed road, only a few miles from the golden dome of the State House. Even with headlights on, the Ford was just a blur in the driving snow. When we got in the car, we were alone with Mr Licht, not a situation I was ever happy with.

On ordinary days Seth and I sat all the way in back. But today Mr Licht told us that we might as well sit more forward, as none of the other kids would be going in to school. He indicated I should ride shotgun in the front seat where usually the oldest boy was privileged to sit. Seth sat behind Mr. Licht.

There were no other cars around, no plows, nothing but snow and wind. After a while, Mr Licht started explaining to me. I was flattered that he would talk to someone like me but worried too...that he would talk to someone like me: a girl, a fag, scum. "We're going to go up Lee St to Route 9 and double back to school. The other roads are impossible."

I could picture the route. But I didn't understand why Mr Licht was telling me this, as if he needed to explain his actions. And I didn't understand how we wound up at Cleveland Circle. Thinking about it today, I'm guessing that Mr Licht had decided to beat it home to Waltham before the storm stalled the car, and that Cleveland Circle was on his way, though not on the way to school.

There were still no cars out, and the snow was as heavy as ever. He pulled into a little roundabout where the buses from Cleveland Circle picked up passengers for West Roxbury. He handed me a quarter (fares would have been a nickel for Seth, a dime for me), pointed toward the bus shelter, and said, "There'll be a bus along pretty soon. It will drop you at the end of your road."

Ordinarily, this would all have been true. The bus would have come, I would ask for the Allandale stop, Seth and I had often walked the three-quarters of a mile down Allandale to our house. Now we opened the station wagon doors, stepped out into thigh-deep snow, and watched the green Country Squire disappear. We sat on the bench in the little shelter. The snow came down everywhere. I was just twelve, Seth almost four years younger.

After a while, he said, "I'm cold."

I said, "Shut up."

We waited. It would have been very nice if a warm bus had pulled up and opened its doors. The driver would have said, "You kids must be freezing. Go over by the blower." He would have slipped Mr Licht's quarter into the change maker on his belt, given us two dimes and a nickel, and we would have put the money into the pedestal-mounted fare counter. There would have been two dings as the coins dropped. Seth and I would have sat by the blower, and I probably would have hit him on the arm three or four times before we reached our stop. Then we would walk home and have lunch, tuna sandwiches being my favorite.

Seth said, "What if the bus doesn't come?"

I said, "Shut up."

I didn't need Seth's two cents' worth to make me doubt that the buses were running. I kept my eye on the rise in the road where I knew the bus would appear if it appeared. First its yellow brow, then the black sign with 'West Roxbury' in white letters, then the split windshield, like two eyes, wipers humming, and finally the dirty orange bulk of an MTA bus. I wanted to be sure that, if the driver couldn't turn into the roundabout because of the drifts, we could dart out of the shelter in time for him to see us and stop.

But the orange bus did not appear.

Seth may have sniffled; he may have complained again about the cold. I certainly was cold (this was the era of very bulky, not very warm winter clothing) but, surely at age 12, I was too old to sniffle.

Eventually, some things became clear: the bus was not coming; it was very cold; home, perhaps a two hour walk on a pleasant spring day, was not within our reach. I had a dime and could find a payphone at Cleveland Circle to call my mother, but how could that help? She was no more likely to be able to drive than Mr Licht or the bus.

I pulled Seth to his feet. "We're not going to wait. We're going to Aunt Blanche's."

"How will we get there?"

"We're going to walk. It isn't far."

"Do you know where it is?"

My mother did not visit her sister Blanche very often--Christmas and Thanksgiving. But I thought I did. I said, "Yes. Let's go."

On that pleasant spring day, Aunt Blanche's was probably a ten-minute walk from the bus shelter. On this day, it took us half an hour. There were drifts, there were sniffles, there were heavy galoshes (another feature of winter clothing in those days), there were cold wrists and wet wool mittens and snow melting on our faces and on our necks. There was my uncertainty about directions and my realization that the houses in Aunt Blanche's neighborhood had all been built at about the same time, and all of them seemed to have red brick fronts, white trim, and heavy black front doors. The snow made them all look the same anyway.

Eventually we arrived at what I hoped was the right door. I rang the bell. Distant chimes. I didn't want to be rude, but I rang it again. I heard someone on the other side, and the door opened.

My Uncle Ricky stood there, staring, certainly not expecting to see two nephews appear out of the blizzard that had locked Boston down tight and certainly not recognizing Seth or me with our snow-covered clothes or faces.

I said, "It's John and Seth, Uncle Ricky."

Uncle Ricky had come from Germany thirty years before, and he had an accent I loved to hear. His accent seemed to coat every word with chocolate. Even just my name now dripped with it. "John?"

Then he turned and shouted over his shoulder: "Blanche, come here, come quick."

Then he turned to us. "Boys, what are you doing here? What happened? Come in, come inside. Blanche, they want some hot cocoa. Now tell me what happened."

I still don't really know what happened. Why school wasn't called off earlier. Why we were picked up. What led us to Cleveland Circle. Why Mr Licht imagined a bus when there was no bus. What would have happened if I hadn't remembered Aunt Blanche and known the way to her house. Whether children could really die in a blizzard just up the street from Cleveland Circle.

I do know that we spent the night with Aunt Blanche and Uncle Ricky because there was no question of driving. That we were made much of and praised for our pluck. That Uncle Ricky kept saying, "What was he thinking, what was he thinking?"

Even those words, words of anger and dismay and puzzlement, were wonderfully sweet in his mouth.

Writing "Blizzard"

I wrote most of "Blizzard" today, August 16, 2010. I thought it might be helpful or interesting if I explained some of what went into it, some of what I was thinking, some of my writing problems and solutions.


The first thing to know is that the story is true and real, but perhaps not quite in a straightforward way. I'll get to that in a moment.

The next thing is that I didn't compose it all today. I made a few changes for "Blizzard" but Paragraphs 2, 3, and 4 were written many years ago as part of a five-graf example essay I wrote for my ENG 101 classes. (If anyone is interested in the complete example essay, let me know and I will post it.)

Graf 1 in a slightly different form came from my school blog. When I write "The other day...," that was true enough when I wrote it, but that other day was actually several years ago.

Why don't I tell the reader that? Why fib? Sometimes it's good to slow a reader down and drop a few questions in his mind as he reads so he can't quite get comfortable (ENG 162 veterans: alienation watch!) But if I'd written "Several years ago..." or "In 2007..." I thought it would leave the reader asking why I was writing about it now or whether the precision of the year was important, and, especially at the beginning, those weren't the sorts of doubts and questions I wanted to introduce. So, I intentionally started bland.

Graf 5 I wrote yesterday. It was a bridge between the little sketch of Mr Licht and the story I wanted to tell. As soon as I wrote it, I relaxed. It was simple and I knew it worked, but it was very hard to get the tone right, because I was trying to hook two old pieces of writing into something new that didn't exist yet. I sensed that if I could get graf 5 right, the tone would be good for the rest of the piece.


When I was satisfied with graf 5, I stopped. I knew my material but I knew I had to sleep on it, even though I'd been sleeping on it already--since 1957.

I had to sleep on it to build some confidence.

All I really had to say was this: "One winter day in a bad blizzard, Mr Licht dropped my brother and me at a bus stop and told us to wait for a bus. Eventually we got cold and went to my aunt's nearby."

That bald, two-sentence, factual account was not really mining my memory. What I needed confidence in was my ability to do more than that.

When I sat down this morning, I could see that the Ford wagon was part of the story. I described that and even checked out a few pictures and facts on google. I realized that the safety material, the lack of seatbelts, the overcrowding all were also worth mentioning since they tied in with the general casualness about safety that led to Mr Licht's dropping us off.

I included descriptions of driving in the 50's for the same reason. It tied in. In fact, this whole piece belongs to a different era, and I did what I could to point that out. I hadn't known the night before that this sort of material was going to come my way, but there it was!

At a certain point, I had to push the material beyond strict fact or even strict memory. I needed confidence for that too. I give conversations as if I had had a tape recorder, but of course I am only guessing and imagining what was said, based on my memory (very fallible) and my knowledge of the people involved.

Sometimes it's hard to know what is actually remembered and what is 'confabulated.' 'Confabulation' means convincing yourself that something probably not true actually is true memory.

For example, I know we sat on that shelter bench, and I think I remember watching for the bus, getting ready to run out if the driver didn't turn in, but--I'm not sure. Given who I was, it makes sense. A good educated guess, not a confabulation.

On the other hand, my writer's soul told me that I did not say, "Shut up" to Seth so relentlessly, that for once in my life I was kind to him and tried bucking him up. I wish very much that it was true that I had said, "Don't worry, Seth, it will be okay. I'm going to take care of you, and you don't have to worry."

I'm nearly convinced today that I really did say that then! I want very much to have said it. But, you know, that quotation doesn't fit the John Goldfine profile. It feels almost as right to me as watching for the bus, but I'm skeptical, so you will not find that brotherly remark in 'Blizzard.' I made a judgment call, denied myself the thrill of being a good guy, and did my best to keep my memoir as close to likelihood as I could. Throughout, I tried to draw a clear line between what probably happened and what only possibly might have happened. The only-possible stuff never found its way onto the page.


So, sorting out memories, figuring out what definitely happened, what probably happened, and what only possibly happened but probably didn't is the burden on all memoirists, on all witnesses, on all testifiers.

Memory is not history. History is fact, history is "Mr Licht dropped us off in the blizzard.' Memory and memoir are more demanding, complicated.


Voice is the theme of this week's work, and I think my voice comes through loudest in the last sentence of graf 4; in the graf where I imagine the nice warm bus; in the graf where I describe the walk to Aunt Blanche's; and in the last sentence of the whole piece.

"Even now, I'd rather be his idea of a fag than his idea of a man." I've read that sentence aloud to my classes many times. Sometimes people gasp a little at the idea and at the anger I allow my voice. I have no trouble reading it. It sounds like me, it is me.

Reread those sections, try to hear a person. See what you think.


Maybe adult memoir next week will be easier because the memories are fresher. Or maybe the depth of memories will make difficulties with dealing with an audience.

Check out this boyhood memoir!

Goes beyond memories into much bigger areas, certainly a direction you can take. I admire this piece a lot for it precision, its ease, its detail, and for those added dimensions.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Week 3: tone; travel essay

Tone is the overall impression the reader is left with. If I decide to describe the 45 minute bus ride from Iceland's Keflavik airport to the capital city of Reykjavik, I could try for laughs because it has to be the ugliest landscape in the world outside of North Jersey. The first time traveller to Iceland cannot help but think, "OMG, this was a BIG mistake!"

I could go for quiet and somber to describe a vista of gray lava that in historic times rained redhot out of nearby volcanoes and destroyed lives, animals, farms, and livings.

I could avoid both humor and the dark stuff and pique the reader's curiosity by describing the little details of the trip that seem very alien to an American's eyes: the wrecked car monument: the horse tracks along the four lane highway; the toy pedestrian and bike bridges over the traffic; the obvious lack of need for the massive foundations our winter frost necessitates.

I could shoot for outrage and anger. The US Naval Air Station in Keflavik is closed now, but the town somehow manages to combine the worst and ugliest features of both the USA and Iceland. It's embarrassing, painful, shameful.

In each case, it's the same bus ride over the same blasted landscape, but the writer dictates where the piece goes and how it affects the reader. That 'affect' is the tone.

By the way, tones can be mixed. Here's what Edmund Gosse has to say as he introduces his book about his relationship with his father: "There was an extraordinary mixture of comedy and tragedy in the situation which is here described, and those who are affected by the pathos of it will not need to have it explained to them that the comedy was superficial and the tragedy essential."

As far as what 'travel' means, I leave that to you. It could be your daily commute. It could be a visit to grandma's. It could be a shopping expedition. It could be around the world in 80 days. I wrote my piece for 262 about my summer trip to Iceland.

Week 3, tone. Travel essay: "Ice Cream Man"

Lysuholl is much too small and insignificant to be called a town or a village. Even styling it a hamlet gives it too much credit. The very narrow road to Lysuholl loops back to the minor road from which it starts. It goes nowhere else.

Lysuholl is a cluster of a few buildings on the Snaefellsness peninsula on the west coast of Iceland. Because hot springs come to the surface there, a community swimming pool and attached to it a school and a community center have been built. Three or four scattered farmhouses and outbuildings complete Lysuholl.

Lysuholl is tucked under an intimidating 1500 foot mountain ridge, sharp peaks, steep cliffs, gray lava scree slowly giving way to moss then grass, then pasture, then fields. The fields lie on a dead flat coastal plain sweeping off a few miles to the cold North Atlantic, and they support a few horses, sheep, and cows.

At the end of the peninsula Snaefellsjokull is an extinct volcanic crater topped with a glacier and on a clear day can be seen from hundreds of kilometers away. When Jules Verne wanted to send his fictional characters on a journey to the center of the earth, he had them start by descending into the Snaefellsjokull volcano. But the Snaefellsness peninsula feels more like the end of the earth than the beginning of anything. It has a few tiny fishing villages with a few dozen people in each, most of them retirement age. It has those inevitable sheep, horses, cows. It has the mountain ridge that car roads do not attempt. To go from the south side of the peninsula to the north side, one drives west and then east. It's hard to get there from here.

Lysuholl, even with its buildings, does little to reassure the visitor.

When my plans to visit Lysuholl were set last winter, a notion I knew was false nevertheless persisted in forcing itself into my mind. I imagined a rich and eccentric Icelander, a bit of a hermit, a bit of a joker, a bit of a dreamer. And his particular dream was to buy an ice cream truck. The kind that comes into town playing 'Pop Goes the Weasel' or 'Turkey in the Straw.' The kind with a big softserve dispenser, where chocolate and vanilla make a double swirl sticking up eight inches above the top of the cone. And then the ice cream man dips it in liquid chocolate without even asking.

And every day he would trundle around Snaefellsness in his truck stopping at the fishing villages, turning down the dead end to Lysuholl and the other places like it, even stopping at single farmhouses.

Most of rural Iceland's population is either very old or is abandoning fishing and farming to move to Reykjavik. But in my imaginings little kids would come pouring out of the farmhouses--think Pied Piper of Hamelin quantities of children--and would each get their giant swirly cone sheathed in chocolate for five kroner. (A thousand kroner is worth about $8 dollars, so you can do the math.)

But in the event, no such ice cream truck appeared at Lysuholl. Instead I found myself unhooking a barbed wire gate, walking across a dry stream bed (a hundred yards wide; a torrent in the spring melt) under a powerline, and climbing up through a very scrappy horse pasture of moss and lichen, to the end of the plants and the start of the lava scree.

But between the moss and the lava, there was a tiny threshold zone. In the zone were lowbush blueberries, exactly what you would see in Maine in thin soil over granite ledge on Mt Waldo. Even though it was ten pm, there was still plenty of light because this far north in July, sunset was at least an hour away and I could see for miles.

I sat down on a rock and picked a few blueberries, watched the horses below, looked at the sea, thought about my highbush blueberries back home in Swanville, if a vagrant image of a blueberry bush can be called thinking. My mind was deeply disengaged. I was physically and emotionally exhausted. So, I sat in the twilight on that rock beside a dry gully, not far from the entrance to the center of the world.

A motorcycle turned off the coastal road a mile away, and as it approached I could eventually tell from its profile that it was a BMW motorcycle with horizontally opposed cylinders, like mine.

It stopped in front of the community center. The rider put the kickstand down and dismounted. On back he had a luggage box, sort of an oversized milk crate. And immediately I wondered: is that box a freezer, is there ice cream in there, has the eccentric dreamer, joker, hermit arrived at Lysuholl at last with, if not double chocolate-covered swirlies, at least a few ice cream bars?

I'm writing this on August 13, 2010, and I've been back from Lysuholl for a few weeks. I don't want to write it! It's an assignment! I have to write it for ENG 262, so I sit myself down and write.

And I think that reluctance to write shows itself in the tone, at least in the beginning. I would call the tone in the first part of this piece flat and distant. I'm presenting you in a competent enough way with information, facts, observations, description, and all that stuff is necessary to get to the end of the piece, but my heart is only really in one part of the writing: the ice cream truck and the hermit.

At that point, the tone changes, lightens, engages more with the reader, offers the reader a bit of fantasy, and if that fantasy strikes a chord with the reader, the reader may too drift off into a bit of a dreamny state.

The tone shifts from flat and distant to dreamy and even a bit silly. If the reader reacts to the first part by feeling put off and to the last part by feeling amused or drawn in or even shakes his head at the last bit of nonsense, then the essay has rung a few tonal changes.

(It's hard for the writer sometimes to know what he has and has not accomplished. But the writing is the thing--once down it can be modified indefinitely and infinitely. The first version of this piece was, in fact, called 'I Love Iceland, I Hate Iceland,' but in the end, every single word of that has disappeared into cyberspace. I found the tone impossible to control when I was essentially offering the reader alternating likes and dislikes.)

Friday, September 6, 2013

Week 2: coherence; action/observation descriptive essay

This week you will be doing a different kind of description. Nature pretty much (we hope) stays still. You look at and say what you see. That was week 1.

But what happens to the writing when you describe a series of actions or observed events. How do you order the material, how do you connect the bits and pieces, how do you keep it fresh, how do you avoid writing "...and then this happened and then that happened so what I did next was blah blah but suddenly such and so popped up which forced me to go with my backup plan. First, I did blah, and then I tried blah blah...."

See? It's just one damn thing after another. It makes sense in its own terms but only the time sequence is holding it together and making it coherent, and time sequencing is a default way of creating coherence but it's not a very deep way.

There are other, better ways that use chronological order, certainly, but whose larger coherence is in ideas, a point, playfulness, rhetorical snap, etc.

Week 2: observation and field work

One thing you might want to consider for week 2 is some field work, going out and collecting observations for your essay. Here's a pigeon's eye view from former student Elissa (the assignment was to be a fly-on-the-wall but she went for pigeons):

Airports are inarguably the busiest buildings in the world, around the globe. Thousands of people from every imaginable destination arrive and depart from them daily. A short time ago I made a trip to Buffalo with Bill and his entire family. We spent a good chunk of time sitting in airports. I love them. If you're a religious eavesdropper like myself, you know that a layover means something interesting to gawk at every 30 seconds for an undetermined amount of time. Some people grab a book, others crossword puzzles, everyone brings a walk-man. Some people are so exhausted they actually manage to find a way to take a nap in those cruel metal and plastic chairs. Aren't they cute, all lined up in rows like movie theater seats? I recently found out that some airlines offer cots on their international flights. Why can't they put some in the airports? What harm would that do? God forbid someone who's been flying for 13 hours wants to get a little rest during a four hour delay. Who's gonna miss their flight? We all have cell phones now, we're walking alarm clocks. Anyway, I'm off the subject.

I've been stalking flies around the house with a swatter for days so I have a particularly powerful aversion to them currently. I'd much rather be one of those little birds who gets into the airport and just hangs out getting pointed at by little kids who think "wow, even airports have pets."

The institution grey carpets absorb the echoes of intercom voices. There's the perpetual hum of jet engines that goes unnoticed after the first hour.From the rafters I spy a woman with two young children, "Yes I see the plane now let's go."
"Mommy, can I get a doughnut?"
"Yeah! I'm starving, please?"
"We are LATE, we are going to miss that plane. I have granola bars we'll eat those after we take off now come ON."
"Are we going to go on the escalator again?"

I spy two sharply dressed men sprinting through the crowd carrying laptops and briefcases and giggle at the sight of pressed business suits in a dead run.

I want to cry when I spot a young woman disgustedly throwing out her stale cinnamon roll, "I paid 6 bucks for that?"

I find a perch on top of one of the 24 clocks lined up above the flight schedule, "Honey, my plane is an hour delayed but I promise you I will be home in time to celebrate our anniversary.... whatever you want.... that sounds nice let's do that.... so how did Melany do on her Physics test? Yeah? That's great, she was worried about it.... what's that.... he did what.........I swear that kid just doesn't get it... I'll talk to him tomorrow... yep..... listen honey my calling card is about to run out of minutes....yeah..... uh huh...... listen honey I'll see you when I get home.... yes I will.... ah...yup... uh huh..... honey, I love y.... damn."

In a nearby gift shop I observe an elderly couple pawing through trinkets on a revolving rack, "Oh this is cute. Darla would love that. Oh my goodness Harold look at the price it's highway robbery."
"I'm sure we can find the kids something when we get to Chicago."
"Oh but look Harold... look at this one it's adorable."
*sigh* "Yep, that's cute too. Ooh, not cheap though, let's just pick out some books to read on the plane. We'll be back through here on our way home."
"Oh, I saw a Dunkin Donuts somewhere around here let's get some coffee."
"I don't want coffee it makes me piss too much."
"Well get decaff, decaff doesn't make you go."
"Of course it does it's a liquid."
"Yes but it's the caffeine that makes you go honey."
"What's the goddamn point to decaffeinated coffee? I need the caffeine to keep up with you, woman...."

In the distance I see an attractive couple find each other in the crowd. Judging by their make-out session I'd say haven't seen each other in a while.
"....missed you so much. Oh I have so much to show you!"
"Please include your bedroom in the tour."
She wraps her arms around him with cheerleader enthusiasm, "Oh you're awful! Are you hungry? I want to take you to my favorite restaurant. They have the best babyback ribs."
"I am pretty hungry. I want to see your place first though, kick my feet up for a few minutes.... "

I head for the food court to see if I can't score a french fry off of the floor. The ceiling is raised so high in this area my presence goes virtually unnoticed as I flit from one perch to another among the rafters.

Far below me a family of 5 gorges itself on Burger King value meals, "Space mountain is the coolest ride ever!"
"NO I liked the haunted house."
"That was cool, but I liked Sea World better."
"Marcus, be nice to your sister. Okay guys are we finished eating yet? I'D like to get home."

In a nearby Chinese buffet line a pair of new friends flirt timidly, "That was the funnest 6 hour flight I have ever been on."
"So uh, could I... maybe... get your number?"
"Well... you see... I kinda... *exhale* have a boyfriend. But you can still call me... as a friend.... if you want..."
"Uh, yeah.... sure......."

I decide it's time to tuck myself behind a beam and sleep off my french fry. On the way I spot a fly on the wall and snatch him up for dessert. Belly full, I let the voices and rolling luggage lull me to sleep.

Notice the rich detail, the intense quality of the observation, the humor, the clever premise, the strong lead-in, the inevitable suspicion that she is enhancing her material somewhat, the series of mini-tales, the dialogue. All fine stuff.

Week 2. Here's a piece from my blog, describing some events

Working on isearch topics today, always stressful for students and teacher, but also exciting for me to deal in very rapid-fire fashion with many ideas. Students look in various areas for possible topics: work, health, leisure, relationships, big purchases, family, jobs, religion, career, travel, and so on. I try to steer them away from mere curiosity, which leads to those unserious high-school style information-search papers, and toward questions about topics that matter and connect to their lives and lead to papers with answers as opposed to random info.

Yesterday a student said that Topic X was the Most Important Thing in his life.

I remembered that today while walking the dogs. When we passed the construction site over on Swan Lake, Timmie found a half-bagel (slightly burned, cream cheese) someone must have tossed at lunch. Timmie carried that damned bagel for a half-hour, running in front of the pack, crouching down, dropping the bagel in front of him, and then looking around, saying, "Wow, look at this! A whole half-bagel and ALL MINE, suckers! Want to try taking it away from me?"

And as soon as anyone showed any interest, he'd snap it up and dance off. He was not interested in eating it. Food is not the most important thing in his life. The Most Important Thing to Timmie is Fun. Boys just wanna have fun, and nothing in the world is more fun than having some goodie no one else has and keeping it away from them.

After a while, Scoot began getting annoyed. Not that he wanted a bagel. This lad is all skin and bones; food is merely fuel (unless we're talking deer liver, which he is awful partial to.) But the idea of Timmie dancing off, going nyah-nyah started to get to him--because the Most Important Thing to Scoot is Keeping an Eye on Things, which includes hundreds of alert hours in the dooryard as well as monitoring punks and providing discipline where needed, which it clearly was in this case.

So, the next time Timmie dropped the bagel, Scoot was all over him, Scoot growling and snapping, Timmie yipping and apologizing for being such a jerk.

While all that was going on Chloe darted in, snatched the bagel, and moved off a foot or two. Chloe is the great survivor. She watches out for Chloe and would not, for example, dream of going outside in the rain to relieve herself. Why get wet tootsies when the bath mat makes an excellent pee receptacle? If two dogs are fighting, she waits til one is down and then goes in and bites the underdog! Safety first!

But safety and comfort are not the most important thing. The Most Important Thing to Chloe is Being Serious. Chloe is serious about her own safety and comfort, she is a tireless worker in tricks and training, because she is always dead-serious about earning her treats. Life is real and life is earnest, and she has no interest in jokes or frivolous levity.

And here she was seriously scarfing down that bagel. Timmie had carried it for a mile; she'd carried it two feet and no nonsense about pretending to let someone grab at it. She ate it, growling nearly nonstop, lest anyone think she was Not Serious.

Meanwhile, Maddie stood around looking vague. The Most Important Thing to Maddie is Looking for Love in all the wrong places, and this situation did not touch her inmost dog.

Wrong places? A wrong place to find love would be from me when I'm bent over trying to tie my shoes and she sees a licking opportunity, or when I'm praising Chloe and she squeezes between us, or when the UPS man arrives and she decides she really would love to go home with a man dressed in a brown uniform and who is that guy with the white beard anyway?

Maddie, next class we're going to sit you down and get a good isearch topic for you.

You'll notice that although a bagel is the star of this piece and travels quite a distance over the course of it and although there are four dogs also having featured roles, the essay in the end is not about dogs, isearches, teaching.

What its theme actually is I will leave to teachers of literature to discuss.

Here's what you must think about: the writing starts in a classroom and leads to that single-sentence second graf. The rest of the piece offers Most Important Thing examples and also describes the interaction of the four dogs.

There's your week 2! Actions observed and described.

The writer was not afraid to be discursive. He thought the image of Chloe pissing on a bathmat might amuse or horrify you, even though it had nothing directly to do with the events described. You get to picture Maddie offering her soul to the UPS man, again not directly relevant.

The writer did not fall into the trap of thinking that the events and actions were the point of the essay. Those actions must be described, but that is only the beginning of the writer's obligation. Those actions were described to make the dogs come alive, and he made the dogs come alive so he could loop back to his point about Important Things.

And finally notice that this short essay is like a nesting doll: the biggest doll is all about isearches, and within that is the doll about important things, and within that are the four little dog-dolls and descriptions of their character. And character led to the action, the innermost doll of all. Maybe that's a helpful way to think about the structure.

Now you may be panicked at this point. You may be asking yourself how you are supposed to figure all that stuff in and squeeze it into 667 words (I added an unnecessary word as I wrote so I could avoid the satanic 666!)?

Truth is I didn't think about anything at all as I sat down to write except the dog story I wanted to tell and how my dogs, just like people, have Important Things. All the rest of my commentary here is stuff I never thought about until today when I sat down to write this lecturette.

The goal for this week is to shoot for coherence: to not get lost, to keep to the track, but to find a track with a few twists in it too (but don't get lost!)