Writing as a Loving Thing

Last week, my Memoir II writers offered up some of the many ways other people try to shut down our work:
It’s disrespectful to joke about such a serious subject.
What will your mother think?
Sounds like maybe you’re still too close to the material. Maybe you should wait a few years.
You’re not a real writer if you don’t put words down every day.
Yes, but what about your mother?

What struck me about all this advice is that, while often well-meaning, it does not indicate possible harm, so you can avoid it. It presumes that writing is harm.
Luckily, author Jill Christman, who just published a book of love stories, was in the room, too.
“Having people tell you that you can’t tell your story, even if it intersects with theirs, that’s not a loving thing to do,” Christman said. “It’s not a loving thing for them to do to us.”
Or to ourselves.
In her book If This Were Fiction: A Love Story In Essays, Christman recoils from nothing. She writes about all the terrible things, which I won’t list, only to say that she doesn’t flinch from the ways that life beats you up. But she doesn’t leave it there.
Each essay finds a new answer to the question, when you know how much suffering the world can inflict, how do you love anyway?
An answer: You laugh. You love your people. And you write your stories.
As life philosophies go, we could do worse.
It’s often said, writing is cathartic. The author Brian Doyle said “writing is a time machine, writing resurrects, writing gives death the finger. And so amen.” Novelist Walter Mosley says writing is revelation.
What would happen if we thought of writing as love?
I’m not saying, write with love, or from a place of love. Because I believe it’s more than OK to write with or from fury, humor, sadness, delight, curiosity, spite. Rather, what if we thought of  the practice itself as love, the way, sometimes, making someone a peanut butter sandwich is love, regardless of how you feel about that person, or about peanut butter, in the moment.
Would it make our stories better? Maybe. Maybe not. But it could turn down the volume on the censors who are always nagging at us. It could perhaps quiet the unreasonable expectations we heap on ourselves.
Such a shift in thinking could, I believe, free us, to let our stories take us to the surprising, unexpected places they’ve always wanted to go. Which is why we were moved to write them in the first place.
“Writing automatically, by its practice, feels like a safe place to me no matter where I’m going,” Christman said. “If I’m being honest, writing really is my safe space.”

Kelly Caldwell, Dean of Faculty

Some Doodling

Happy NaNoWriMo everyone! I always think NaNoWriMo month is a good time to talk about what to do when you’ve got a big messy bunch of words and you’re wondering, what’s next?
Here’s an idea: Doodle.
Don’t @ me about your drawing ability! You don’t have to be Amy Sherald or John Singer Sargent to doodle. You just need a pencil.
“Drawing can enrich your writing life, regardless of its visual appeal,” writes Rebecca Fish Ewan in her very fun book Doodling for Writers (Hippocampus Books). “If your drawings help thoughts form and emerge from your mind, they are useful drawings.”
Where to start? Fish Ewan suggests making lists —your chapters, your scenes, or the paragraphs of your short story. Then create a doodle for each one.
When writing her forthcoming book The Truth About Unringing Phones (Unsolicited Press), author Lara Lillibridge first listed all the flash essays she’d written so far, and color-coded them.
Then she created a notecard with a unique doodle for each one. She laid the cards out on her floor, shuffling them until a structure emerged.
“I never write in order. I write what is most pressing emotionally in the moment,” she said. “It is much faster to see the doodle and remember what that segment was about than to read a written description.”
Doodling can help you notice themes or see the outline of a plot. It can also surprise you, because it sometimes leads to what graphic novelist Lynda Barry calls “deep play”— when your doodles talk back.
“There is a reciprocity … that is a lot like a very good conversation,” Barry said. “The relationship between me and my drawing depended on that state of deep play, a certain state of mind that is not planning, not thinking, it’s some other thing.”
Exciting things can happen in that other state. Once, for an essay, I struggled to describe the idiosyncratic layout of my childhood attic bedroom. So I sketched it. But then I kept going, doodling my dolls and the funky built-in drawers in the walls. And I remembered a long-forgotten incident when I discovered my grandfather’s World War I pistol stashed in the closet. That memory helped me move the essay forward.
Getting unstuck is one reason Erin Entrada Kelly doodles while writing, but it’s not the only one.
“I doodle all the time. They ultimately don’t have any value to what I’m working on, but they help me focus and keep me creative,” Erin says. “When we grow up, we sometimes forget to be creative. I seize every opportunity to flex my creative muscles so they don’t atrophy.”
If you’d like to see a recent doodle by Erin, or how Lara Lillibridge used doodles to organize one of her essays, click here. Then close your computer and pick up your drawing pencil, and play. You’ll be surprised at what happens next.

Kelly Caldwell,
Dean of Faculty

Ghost Stories

In a keynote she gave recently (that I wrote about last month) author Carmen Maria Machado talked about what it’s like to be haunted.

“Hauntings aren’t just about ghosts,” she said. “Haunting is about what used to be, what is invoked, the way in which one thing means another.

“Whose ghost are you?”

She got me thinking, how ghost stories are popular, perennial, pervasive. They’ve been around since long before we wrote our stories down, and every culture has at least one ghost: Revenants, Yūrei, Banshees, Pontianaks, Jumbies, Tunche, and on and on.

As many and as varied as they are, ghost stories do share some elements. One, a ghost is the spirit of a person who used to be alive. That might seem obvious, but it’s important to differentiate ghosts from other spirits, like demons and fairies and river monsters, who are supernatural in some way but were never human.

Another defining characteristic is, a ghost needs someone or something to haunt.

In some ghost stories, people see someone eerie, only realizing later that they were a ghost. That’s it. That’s the whole story. Or, (in horror movies mostly) someone dies angry, and then spends the rest of the story terrorizing the living, who may or may not deserve it.

For me, those are the least satisfying of ghost stories. I prefer ones where the ghost asks something of the living. Hamlet’s father, demanding his murder be avenged; Sethe’s daughter Beloved driving all the love and joy out of her home so she can have her guilt-ridden mother to herself.

This Halloween season, treat yourself and write a ghost story, just for the fun of it. As you do, ask yourself a few questions:

  1. What does your ghost ask from the living?
  2. What do the living want from their ghost? This is a way of excavating how and why they are haunted.
  3. What happens to the ghost if they get what they’ve asked? Will they stick around to aid and protect the living? Or once satisfied will they, like Oscar Wilde’s Canterville Ghost, take off to dimensions unknown?
  4. What is your living character holding onto through their haunting? What should they maintain, and what should they let go?

At heart, ghost stories are relationship stories. The best ones know that the haunting goes both ways. 

In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Jacob Marley is enduring a punishing, exhausting afterlife. When he returns to haunt his only friend Ebeneezer Scrooge, he asks Scrooge to listen and to change, that he might be spared the same fate. In so doing, Marley rescues Scrooge from the miserable, lonely life he’d been living. Surely, knowing that made it easier for Marley to drag around his heavy chains.

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty