seeing

The cusp, or, I am not a tree

I’ve had the word “cusp” — “a point of transition between two different states,” according to my handy-dandy New Oxford American — floating around my brain for weeks now. I say it under my breath, savoring its punch, its shift from hard to hissing to plush. This is partly to blame on my morning habit of writing about what’s outside my office window. In the past few weeks, all I could see was a world on the cusp as bare branches grew knobby with buds, as early bloomers (a term I never understood until I moved here) poked their heads out of the earth, shivering in the still-cold dawns. This short, taut moment between winter and spring is one of my favorite things about the South. As I watch those ripening buds, the hints of yellow-green shoots and blooms, I swear I can almost hear a thrum in the air as dormant life stirs, ready to awaken.

The cusp also is a state in which I find myself living these days. Long story short, I recently accepted a new creative-writing teaching position at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and so TW and I will be moving to Charlotte this summer. We are selling our sweet little house and leaving our little town, our friends and colleagues from the past six years, my teaching position at the University of Montevallo. This offer and decision has been full of stunning loveliness and gratitude and humility and excitement and tender sadness all at once.

Oh, and don’t forget the anxiousness and fear.

Now that I think about it, perhaps “cusp” isn’t the right word for my state. Maybe I’m just after “uncertain” or “upheaval” or “night terrors.” I’m stressed in small, practical ways and large, existential ways, which means that I’m eating my way through carbohydrates like bleach through cotton. (Oh, and I’m turning 44 in a couple of weeks. Something about being divisible by 11 is freaking me out.)

Ultimately I am not a tree (as far as I know), and here’s thing about trees: they are not terrified about their transition (as far as I know! Maybe they’re like, holy shit, the buds again!). By the end of the change, they’re still trees. As for me, by the end of it all, I will still be human (sadly not a tree), and so I have a few teeny, tiny, cusp-y human questions: What kind of human? Who will I be there? The same as I am here, or was before? And who the heck am I, anyway, here at 44, divisible by 11? How did we all get here? What does it all mean?

Perhaps the word I want is “midlife.”

Okay, okay. Then I remember to breathe for a minute. Oxygen, carbon dioxide. Tree-like but in reverse. I get out the notebook, write it down. I scratch off a few tasks on the to-do list.

What I need to learn to do is trust the cusp. In writing, this is essential: learning to wait, learning to see and listen to what the story wants to be, not what I want it to be. The tree will be a tree.

I look out my window at a natural world no longer in transition. It’s fully spring now out there now, fully awake, bursting with bright, brassy newness. Soon I will have to say goodbye to this view that I have grown to love, that has become part of who I am in ways that I don’t even understand yet. But I know, I know, I know that soon, I’ll find a new view. A new season. And who knows what I’ll see.

The good of your writing

“The world did not say to her as it said to them, Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?” – Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

We writers sure like quotes, eh? Tacked up on our bulletin boards, scrawled and underlined in our notebooks, lodged up there in the old noodle like a stray bullet. I’ve got that well-known Woolf passage on an index card among all of the other desk detritus: brown-edge postcards, Jane Austen action figure (with writing quill!), a beer stein stuffed with old nickels. Don’t you love the intricacy of that question: What’s the good of your writing? It’s one I ask myself every day in one way or another. I ask it on a micro level as I work on a story — What’s good in here? What’s working? What can go? — and on a larger level during contemplative long walks, during weepy moments alone in the shower (or, hell, at the grocery store, usually in the cereal aisle), in the deep dark moments of uncertainty: What’s good? What’s at all good about this?

The answer matters. Because writing matters — to you, if to no one else. Understanding that is crucial in pursuing this writing life, because let’s be clear: in most cases, no one is asking you for a g-d thing. No one’s waiting on tiptoes for that lovely little story you’re penning in the wee hours, in snatches at work, in long hours at the desk. Bret Lott’s personal essay, “Why Write, Anyway?,” touches on this idea. About one of his novels in progress, he writes, “Who cares, I had to ask, about an RC Cola salesman whose wife had just left him and how he would then live? … And the answer that came to me, while writing a book no one had asked me to write … was that I cared.” So care. After the people in your life, care about this the most. Breathe it into your serpentine clumps of cells, feel the thrum of it in your veins.

More good news about the good: the process itself. The world’s guffaw that Woolf mentions is real, and it takes on different tinges and tones for all of us, no matter our genders (although, her point remains valid and can be expanded to include the intersections of race, class, and sexuality). Perhaps it is the scoff of your father, a worried frown from a partner. Maybe it’s bafflement or apathy from co-workers. Or maybe it’s sharp, pin-dropping silence from everyone. Maybe it begins externally but creeps inward, becoming the astringent voice of your Inner Critic. But: the very act of writing can be a response, a defiance, to the skepticism in the question. The good? I’ll show you good.

But don’t forget: the process is joyous, too. Think of it: on those best days, hours pass, CDs loop, housework goes undone, plants photosynthesize, the sun slides right off the edge of the sky, and there you are, lost in the bright fire of your imagination, with what Elizabeth Bishop called a “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.” Finally blinking up at the clock or at the dark window is the most stunning kind of joy, isn’t it? Plus, every time you write, you’ll discover something new, whether it’s about technical craft or about a character or about what you don’t know. Every single time.

In Fires, Raymond Carver says, “If the writing can’t be made as good as it is within us to make, then why do it? In the end, the satisfaction of having done your best, and the proof of that labor, is the one thing we can take into the grave.” That satisfaction: you can’t get it off the shelf, in the bottom of the bottle, from the bank. Trying to get a story right, trying to make it good: there’s nothing like it. Tell yourself, as I tell my students, C’mon, break my heart. Meaning: Keep working. Don’t hold back. Make it count. Not for publication credits, not for accolades or money or fame; you want to — must — get it right, for reasons that come only from your own internal pulse.

We can’t know the good of our writing out there in the wide, wide world, only of our hopes for it. Audience is inherent in storytelling, even if the creative impulse is purely personal. Though it’s first important that our stories matter to us, we also want them to matter to others. Something else Woolf mentions in A Room of One’s Own:

“All these infinitely obscure lives remain to be recorded … whether from the women at the street corners with their arms akimbo, and the rings embedded in their fat swollen fingers, talking with a gesticulation like the swing of Shakespeare’s words; or from the violet-sellers and match-sellers and old crones stationed under doorways; or from drifting girls whose faces, like waves in sun and cloud, signal the coming of men and women and the flickering lights of shop windows.”

Finding those stories is part of the good. Look in those corners and alleyways, the real ones and the shadowy ones in your mind. Look beyond the obvious. Look and then look again. No, look. Find, as Thomas Hardy suggests, “the sorriness underlying the grandest things, and the grandeur underlying the sorriest things.” Be that kind of writer. Be good. Do your best. Find some aspect of the fragile, shining human condition, and then give it to the world with the faith that someone, somewhere, will find it to be true.

Letter to a Young Self

Dear Little Brynnie,

Oh, dear.

Oh, dear.

It’s been a letter-y semester in my classes this fall as students try forms as a means of storytelling and essay-writing. I thought I’d give it a shot, too, because the truth is, I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately. Mom just turned seventy a couple of weeks ago, which meant I was sorting and compiling – pardon my French, honey, and the slang – a crap-ton of old photos. Suddenly there were scanned images of our family all over the screen: Dear God, the haircuts! The polyester! The collars! And there you were, that tiny past version of me: mop-topped, squirrel-cheeked, round-tummied, gazing solemnly, squinting, grinning. I’m sorry to be the one to break this to you, but we are old now, a lifetime removed from the story that inspired that “little” nickname, our family inside joke. I have known these pictures our whole life, but for some reason these days, I can’t stop staring.

I find myself wanting to tell you everything about what’s coming — as if I could prepare you, which of course I can’t. Our life has happened. There’s this trite saying, which you don’t know yet: You can’t change the past. More and more, Little Brynnie, I’m not sure. I’m starting to think we change it every time we see it again, every time we take the time to reconsider – to remember, to imagine, to re-see – what once was there. It can’t help but change, thanks to our infallible memories and our persistent desire to wonder.  And so here I am.

In the interest of time and keeping your attention — we’re both going to need a nap soon — I won’t go into all of the gory details. To sum up: You are going to be an odd kid. An odd teenager. Introverted, smart, melancholy, dreamy, too empathic, worrisome. All those emotions ride right out there on your skin. This will coalesce into a niggling sense that you don’t fit in. That you are on the outside, even with your friends and family. Don’t worry, honey (although I know you will). It’s not all bad. The fact is, you will navigate that tumultuous stream of childhood and adolescence mostly intact, with much love and humor and sunshine in the mix. Some dark things lurk and will snare you, and I’m sorry for this. I cannot stop it.

The good news: you make it. The mixed news: You have transformed into… an odd adult. Well, let’s call it “quirky.” It’s hard for you to be “out there,” as a good friend put it once. Introversion creeps into reclusiveness. Though it may seem that childhood and adolescence are the hardest parts, it’s these later years when the real complications set in. We forge ourselves in this fire. This is where we become who we are.

The really bad news— well, I’ll just rip it off like a Band-Aid: We lose our father, when we are 24. Though we will lose other dear family, friends, and co-workers, and we will tumble through a kaleidoscope of romantic heartbreaks, this will be the thing that upends us, leaves us untethered. It is as though someone has replaced the crystalline lenses of our eyes. Everything is filtered through his absence: the world no longer contains him, but his presence persists at the corners of our vision. That contradiction will not cease.

I am leaving so much out, all of the extraordinary fine-grained details, which is ironic because that is how we have come to try to see the world. It’s one of the perks of being on the outside: you learn to see differently. You watch and listen and peer and squint, and you see nuances and strangeness that others miss. The good news: Some people in adult life actually encourage this. The great news: we are married to the loveliest of human beings who also sees this way, who understands and embraces our quirks, partly because he is an artist and writer, too.

I guess I didn’t mention: We are a writer. A teacher, yes, as I did note, which as a job in this country is more quantifiable, easier to explain. Sometimes I forget to mention the writer part. Sometimes I forget this part of us, because adulthood? It’s a busy, busy place, full of pressing obligations and mundane demands. Writing takes a lot of time. Believe it or not, just this rambling little letter has taken hours! We don’t always have that time, or the space in our minds for thinking up stories. At your age, you think of writers, if you think of them at all, as the people who make those wondrous books that Mom and Dad have read to you since infancy, the ones that you start reading yourself at age 3 or 4. Oh, how we loved reading stories. Making those stories – and trying to get them into a book form for other people to read – is another thing altogether. While it can be inspiring and joyous, it often makes us feel desperate, and alone, and no good.

Which brings me (I think) to why I’m writing to you in the first place. It’s about this writer part of us. Sometimes— well, often; well, all of the time— I wonder about the path that brought us here. All of the twisting ins and outs, the moments we could have decided to take a different route.

What I want to tell you, Little Brynnie — adorable child; overwrought, melancholy teen; sad, messed-up, harrowed young adult; fretful, frizzy-haired middle-age woman— is this path that we chose? Remember first that you chose it. Lately you have been trudging along, your eyes on your feet. Look up, honey. Look around. Remember why you chose it. Remember? It’s because you were once, and have always been, the odd little girl who dreamed in stories, who couldn’t stop going into her imagination. She couldn’t stop puzzling and wondering about the inner lives of her family and friends and neighbors and strangers. She couldn’t stop seeing the beauty and awfulness of the world and asking, what? why? how? She couldn’t stop trying to figure it out. She couldn’t stop. She just couldn’t.

Love to us both,

Me

To-Do List, Item #15: “You know the escape”

1. Write a 7-day to-do list, like you do every week.

2. Fill the list with myriad job-related tasks. Grade, prep, read, meeting, read, submit, upload, email, grade, grade, grade, meeting, meeting. Watch your pen fill the page, bleed off the page, make your fingers bleed.

3. Every week, write this at the bottom of the page: WRITE.

4. Scratch off each task with heavy, black strokes of the pen to feel as if you’re getting somewhere, to quell the tremor of your stressed nerves. (Don’t think about next week’s to-do list, lurking as soon as this one’s scratched to hell.)

5. Notice, every week, before you crumple up the page, the one item at the bottom of the page that never gets scratched off.

6. Ask yourself: Why isn’t it at the top of the page?

7. Beat yourself up for awhile. That old record. Wallow in self-pity, really get in there and snuffle around in the muck of your self-absorption. Don’t think about the starving children, though! Don’t think about Syria or Libya, don’t think about grandparents losing their minds and bodies, about the jobless, don’t think about all  the things much bigger and more important than you! Nothing stops a good pity party like a reality check!

8. Stare out the window for awhile. Think about the hurricane about to lash the east coast. Wish for safety. Notice the leaves finally turning here in the South, yellow and red and orange, parachuting from branch to driveway. Fall, again. The noun and the verb. Too much symbolism out there in your yard.

9. It’s late October. Think of your father, 17 years gone now. It’s that time of year. It snuck up on you this time. You’d forgotten, in the way that’s not really forgetting, just tucked down in the corners of yourself, because you don’t have time to grieve right now.

10.  Think about how dark this list is. There you go again, depressing everyone! Make a joke, hurry!

11. Why don’t cannibals eat clowns? (Because they taste funny.)

12. Drink more coffee.

13. Here’s the thing about old records: You know what comes next.

14. Turn to the page (the blog, the whatever). Take pen to paper, fingers to keys. Write it out. Get it down, get it out.

15. Think of Mamet’s Redbelt: “You know the escape.”

16. Remember Anne Lamott’s advice: Lighten up, Francis.

17. Lighten up, Francis.

18. Look out the window again. Look outward. Notice something, just one thing, just one good thing. Here’s one: That mutable ashy sky, those lovely trees in transition. They don’t need you to describe them. They’ll get along just fine without you.

19. Hear your husband shuffling in socks on the wood floor of your home, happiest of sounds. Listen to it, feel the hum in your limbs.

20. Listen closer.

21. Listen better.

Scratching at blackbirds

Today I am teaching a wonderful essay by Andre Acimen, “My Monet Moment,” in which he travels to Bordighera on a kind of quest to see what Monet painted there. I am enchanted by what he writes at the moment of his arrival:

“I’ve come to Bordighera for Monet, not Bordighera—the way some go to Nice to see what Matisse saw, or to Arles and St-Rémy to see the world through the eyes of Van Gogh. I’ve come for something I know doesn’t exist. For artists seldom teach us to see better. They teach us to see other than what’s there to be seen. I want to see Bordighera with Monet’s eyes. I want to see both what lies before me and what else he saw that wasn’t quite there, and which hovers over his paintings like the ghost of an unremembered landscape.”

Yes: seeing both what is there and what isn’t “quite there,” the literal aspect before us and the shadow, the glimpse of something else that hovers or lurks — the thing we learn to see after seeing. I find myself scratching at images in my mind, as if with a penny on a kid’s crayon layers, trying to find the other colors beneath until they merge into a whole new picture. In “seeing” as a writer, at least for me, the work is first in the looking at and then in the translation to image on page, when we try like hell to convey both what is and what isn’t there.

One of my teachers and favorite writers, Pam Houston, had us do a warm-up exercise in which we wrote down the three most interesting things we had seen that week, a quick-n-dirty reminder to keep our observation skills sharp. It has turned into one of my own favorite assignments, both for my classes and for me. So I’m popping in to make notes about this week’s images here, the ones I have been scratching at.

3 things

1. A flock of red-wing blackbirds in the yard during two days of rain. I was staring out the front blinds, watching them peck at the grass, thinking that they were grackles or starlings, when they suddenly took flight and revealed themselves: those brilliant red epaulettes, their hidden jewels, all rising at once. They took refuge in the tops of the  winter oaks, the shorn branches bending with their weight.

2. A young man in a suit, his Adam’s apple prominent over the tight collar, his wingtips old and heavy but shined to a polish.

3. Frost killed the ferns along the back fence. (Whoops.)