Everything has an expiration date. No matter what we do to preserve our planet’s diverse species, clean our water, find renewable sources of power, and end reality television… in 4.5 billion years our star will run out of hydrogen. At that moment she will balloon towards the planet, dry our oceans, blow off our magnetic field, shred our atmosphere, and in a last violent expenditure of energy. carry us back into the embrace of her collapse. And even if we were to find a way to renew her fuel source, the entire Milky Way galaxy is on a collision course with Andromeda. So no matter what we do, this fragile planet that so graciously carries us around the sun once every 365 days will simply not exist someday. And I can’t quite take this in—that all the love, all the longing, the stormy gray-green oceans, the ancient mountain ranges thrust skyward as continents crashed, won’t exist forever—These are facts I recognize intellectually—like I recognize my children will most likely live their lives on other continents, that my aging dog must one day die–but these are facts I can’t make sense of emotionally—and that’s why I write.
Not because I think writing will preserve anything, but because synthesizing what we know with our minds but can’t understand with our hearts, is one of the by- products of self- expression. Writers are explorers –observers; always trying to make sense of the incomprehensible. You should be careful around us. We’re always taking notes.
And I teach because it is a way to turn a passion into a profession that is not dependent on the whims of an overworked acquisitions editor who is maybe having a bad day. And teaching is a proud tradition—artists have always had apprentices— those they nurture, guide and encourage. Service is a privilege and my students amaze me again and again with their talent, their alacrity, their responsiveness. They make me want to be a better writer, a better teacher and often, a better human being.
I wrote my book, The Story Within, to reach out to the people I will never meet—writers are always hoping we’re not speaking in an empty room. And to be honest, I’ve published stories and essays for years, but I wanted to put my own work on a shelf, in a bookstore, between two covers, while the opportunity still exists. The world of publishing is changing at an alarming rate. I don’t know how long bookstores are even going to be around.
So I have to confess: I go visit my book at Barnes and Noble from time to time —I take its picture like it is one of my children—as if it too has left home and gone out to makes its fortune, to live its own life in the world.
I hope it outlives me, I hope it inspires some good stories to be written—maybe yours. Your stories are the gravity that hold everything with mass together. Your stories are what connects us.
And maybe, in my heart of hearts, I do think writing them down and sharing them will preserve something of this world.
Join me Saturday April 26th at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD for “Subject and Voice, New Tips”
Or call 301-654-8664 to register
When my son Andrew was 15 he began to slip away from us, to spiral down. I didn’t know how to stop the progression from the boy to whom I read bedtime stories to the distant, illusive adolescent I could not read at all.
So I got him a dog.
She was a 7-week old, affable, yellow lab pup my sister had bought from a neighbor of hers. I thought Andrew could love the dog in a less complicated way perhaps, or he could be loved by the dog in a manner more simplistically faithful than the distracted imperfection of my mother-love. Or maybe, I wanted a way to say the words, “come,” and “stay” in a house where everyone seemed to be leaving or gone
Not long after my son’s 17th birthday, he decided to strike out on his own, with our permission, to reinvent himself in New Zealand—or perhaps it was really to find himself there. Across a continent, across a sea, across an international dateline—he moved so far away that his today was my tomorrow, his spring was my fall.
“Oh no!” his grandmother said when she heard we’d let him go. “He’ll fall in love with some New Zealand girl and never come back!”
And he did. He fell in love with a girl from the South Island, a girl of Scottish descent who is part Maori as well—for all I know her ancestors stretch back across the millennia to the mystical Moriori tribes of the Chatham Islands—the tattooed people whose horses raced along the shore at dusk but left no hoof prints in the sand.
The dog I bought my son for his 17th birthday is 14 years old now and cheerfully hanging on.
And after 14 years gone, after the birth of his own infant son, my son is talking about moving back to the States for a time.
And he’s going to marry the Scottish Maori girl next month and I won’t be there on the south island of a- two-island nation, 14,000 miles away, to witness this.
If, when he was born, a seer had predicted: This boy, this only son, will marry without you present,” I would have mourned my early and untimely death—because I would have assumed my demise is all that could have kept me from standing by his side at that moment.
But when do we really marry? It’s not at the ceremony though we say it is. It is sometime long before, or in some cases, long after. We marry in some unacknowledged moment when our love lets us know we are safe, or mirrors or demands a better version of who we are, or the light illuminates the green in his blue eyes, the impossible gold in her ash brown hair. It’s in the moment of unexpected confession or laughter that brings us to our knees; or the demonstration of compassion extended to someone else, that makes us pause and think,
“I could grow with you forever.”
And we say, Come.
Write about someone at a distance, real or emotional. What happened that caused them to leave? Who let go? What has happened that might be bringing them home? What is at risk? How is this person’s return both a blessing and jeopardy? What invisible tension will they carry as they walk in the door? What do you or your character stand to lose as a dream comes true? Something. Because without conflict and risk, you have no story.
My friend Lynn recently went to a workshop on soul collage—this is where you rip up magazines into small, jagged pieces of paper, cut out words, and use colored markers to create a mosaic of “whatever comes up for you.” The idea is that you will express spontaneously in your art, a hidden desire or a repressed secret that will change your life. The hope is that you will surprise your Honda-driving, gym avoiding, pinot noir-indulging self with what your inner psyche is up to. The hope is that there will be a revelation, a spiritual prescription of some kind when you finish all that cutting and pasting.
I do this kind of thing as well. I go to the occasional medium, psychic or get an energy reading. Every decade or so, I get my horoscope cast. I’m hoping that I’m going to learn something new about myself, that I possess, or am about to receive, some incredible gift. I want to hear that I’m an old soul, exceptionally wise and kind.
I want to hear someone with ties to an existence beyond this one say, “you are married to the love of your life” because don’t you always sort of wonder? Don’t you want that fact validated by some authority? I mean there are 7 billion souls on this planet. What are the chances you actually picked the right one? Seriously. Think about it: 7 billion.
What do I want? Who do I love? What hidden talents do I possess? Advertising genius David Olgilvy once wrote that the one promotion he could guarantee everyone would read is the one featuring the headline: “All About You.”
Every time you write a story, or invent a character, your real subtitle is “all about you.” That’s what your reader is looking for; “entertain me, but also show me something that illuminates a perhaps hidden piece of myself in this tale. Maybe I’m an unreliable narrator of my own life and it’s actually so very much better than the story I’ve been telling. Show me on the page, what I long for, the reason I can ‘t have it and… please, please, please… a way that I can.”
The collateral reward for you as the writer? Anything you want, begins with imagining it is so.
Is 186,000 miles a second really the cosmic speed limit? Or are imagination and memory faster than the speed of light? At the beginning of this tender year-to-be we need to consider two things: the expansion of the universe and your writing.
While it makes intuitive sense that the universe has been expanding ever since the Big Bang, why are we gathering speed? Billions of years from now, light from all those galaxies and stars you see faceting the night sky will be unable to reach us. Even the whisper of the Big Bang, that static-y hiss you hear between radio stations, will have dissipated to nothing in the utter emptiness.
Earth astronomers will hear only silence, see only the Milky Way, and will have no reason to even suspect there was ever anything else. What a strange miracle this window of time is. We have evolved enough to wonder where we came from, we know enough to predict how it will all end, and the fleeting evidence of those mysteries has not yet disappeared.
What do you know that will be lost forever if you don’t write it down? What evidence of your story will vanish with you? What experience or memory is flying away at the speed of light? This is your year to stop the wild momentum, to capture and collapse time.
Write your story and watch the universe fall together again.
This is a story about memory. New evidence indicates that it’s not what you think it is and even photographs don’t tell the whole story.
In the earliest snapshot of a childhood Christmas, I’m nine months old and my parents have placed me in an open gift box under the tree. My two older sisters kneel next to me on the braided rug as if I’m a present they’ve just opened. Sharon, the oldest, dutifully holds the wrapped lid of the box with gentle good will. My sister Andrea looks stunned with disbelief and disappointment, so I’ll say it again. I’m sorry I wasn’t a pony.
In a later photo I’m a diaper-clad toddler packing a six-shooter in a holster My western ensemble includes a red neckerchief, a cowgirl hat, and an emergency-room bandage taped to my forehead. I’d “fallen” down an entire flight of wooden stairs, hit the landing with unstoppable momentum and tumbled headfirst down the remaining steps where I’d cracked my head open on the coffee table. I say “fallen” because as I write this it occurs to me that some remorseful, pony-less cowgirl may have dressed me up in her Annie Oakley outfit to compensate for having witnessed but not stopped my unsteady approach to the top of the stairs.
I don’t remember the fall but I do remember being on an exam table where a kindly male doctor pinched the profusely- bleeding wound closed with butterfly clamps instead of stitches to avoid leaving me with the large scar I now have. I remember being asked how many people were in my family and knowing the answer, five, although of course that is a trick of memory and not possible. But in my mind at least, I counted us out on my fingers by name if not number, and the doctor gave me a grape lollipop for each member of my original posse.
And then there’s the photo of my sisters and me in angelic white choir robes with red bows at our necks, gathered around the upright piano. I’m almost three now. Sharon is poised with her hands above the keys playing carols and we all are singing. At least our mouths are open and we’re holding sheet music, but in my memory we’ve been instructed: “Just act like you’re singing and stop hitting each other.” On the back of that photo my mother has written, “The girls love to make music together!” Did we? Could Sharon play? I don’t know.
That’s the thing about memory. Neuroscientists have recently discovered that every time you remember an event from the past you change it. So the more you recall an experience or relationship, the more you distort it. They did a test with 9-11 survivors. Each time they told their stories the details changed until just one year out from the event their accounts of that morning were significantly altered. Imagine what a lifetime of remembering does to experience. And what is true? The event or the memory you make of it?
I remember my sisters slipping our presents to each other under the tree while the others hid their eyes. I remember the ringing of a strand of red, green and silver bells, passed one to the other, to signal that it was time for everyone to gasp at the magical transformation. With each ringing of the bells the little heap of presents grew. I remember a midnight church service where a flame was passed candle to candle to the accompaniment of “Silent Night” until the countenance of an entire congregation was bathed in light. And I remember three jostling sisters crammed together at the top of the stairs on Christmas morning while my sleepy parents lit a fire in the fireplace, turned the tree lights on, and got their coffee before we thundered down the steps.
The December dawn cast its soft rose light over snowy swans in the icy cove as we opened gifts, but were they there? I don’t know.
If memory can’t be trusted, what of our Christmas recollections is true? Maybe this: the unbearable excitement of believing in the unseen, in miracles; in thinking that just for one night, the impossible might be possible. Reindeer might fly and there might be enough love for the entire world. Happy Holidays.
Write a story about a holiday tradition–one you or a character have experienced, one you longed for, one you have created, one you avoid! What role does memory play–how do you suspect your memory is inaccurate? Differentiate between the facts and what you have made of them over the years. Who or what has faded in significance? What facts can you no longer claim are true? What will you carry with you for all time?
Here is what I know by heart: 35 stanzas of “John Brown’s Body,” the multiplication tables and how to count to ten in French, which for some reason we all learned to demonstrate on speed dial.
I used to know my wedding vows but we wrote them ourselves and last February, to my dismay, I realized I know longer remember exactly what I promised.
I know the planets in the solar system, all the months you are allowed to harvest oysters on the Chesapeake (months with “r” in them.) My friend Margaret knew The Gettysburg address and could list the Presidents of the United States in order. That’s the difference between Holton Arms and public school.
There are tricks to learning things by heart. I know the notes on the musical staff because the space notes spell “F-A-C-E.” I know Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 because it rhymes, and that “the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog,” contains every letter of the alphabet.
I also know the difference between a fox and a dog in the first place: 3 beers.
What do you know by heart and why? Anything unexpected? A recipe? All 206 bones in the human body? The security code to your sister’s place ? A poem? All the lyrics to the Righteous Brothers “Unchained Melody?” And since you use your brain to memorize, why do you suppose we say, I know this “by heart?”
Write a scene where you or a character discover you have lost something you had memorized—The way back to your childhood home? Your first recital piece? The face of your mother when she was young? The voice of someone you loved or the uncomplicated sweetness of your children when they were small?
What do you remember in the body that is gone from the brain? Like when your fingers find the right strings without sheet music, though you haven’t picked up an instrument in years.
Put it on the page. What….who… does your body remember?
There are certain words and phrases to which I have an aversion: lube, fistula– ligature—which seems like it wants to be “signature” only it’s sneaking around with a rope.
I don’t like ladies, and even worse, gals—as in, “are you gals ready to order?” I’m fascinated by the utterly bizarre phrase, “want to come with?” I can’t stop waiting for the question to be properly finished, as in “want to come with us, or me? Same goes for the equally bizarre, “I graduated college,” as if I graduated “from college” is just too much effort.
Another term that creeps me out is “rising” as in, “he’s a rising junior.” Kind of inflated, don’t you think? It’s not that big of an achievement to go from one grade to another. I mean, it’s kind of expected. Whatever happened to “I’m going into 12th grade?”
One of the most difficult things a writer has to do is to learn to write dialogue that is unique to each character. Even seasoned writers may have many of their characters sounding much the same—as versions of themselves.
Try this: make a list of words you don’t like, phrases that annoy you, things that sound cheap, or snooty, or insincere and once you have a nice foundation, let them start coming from a character’s mouth. Who is this person? What does he want and what will he do to get it?