Revisionings

I’m at this weird moment with my writing.  I am, on one hand, working on very very very (to borrow Anne Lamott’s absolutely perfect term) sh*tty rough drafts.  They’re the kind of drafts that are necessary for the kind of work I’m doing, which is very difficult and very personal and therefore means that I need to write faster than my brain can run, because my brain will just be like, stop stop STOPSTOPSTOP, and nothing will ever get done.  On the other hand, I’m working on almost-to-the-very-end-of-revising-and-beginning-of-submitting revisions.  In other words:

  • I’m cutting large parts of poems out and yelling things like stop trying to make fetch happen at them and then re-writing from the few lines that remain.
  • I’m spending most of a day (well, okay, a week) working on a poem, trying to coax it out of the form I at first forced it into (because it
    Here are some of those notes I was talking about in all of their cryptic glory.

    Here are some of those notes I was talking about in all of their cryptic glory.

    seemed like it wanted to be a pantoum, it really did) and into the form in which (hopefully) it’ll do something close to working.

  • I’m taking three hours to get two lines right.
  • I’m taking out all of the commas and capital letters and then replacing all of the commas and capital letters.
  • I’m changing “the Alabama Shakes’ Boys and Girls” to “that Alabama Shakes album” and realizing that that tiny change revealed exactly what the essay meant all along, and what I needed to do to make it mean that.
  • I’m trying to translate and expand cryptic notes I leave myself on my phone, on my laptop, on my Kindle, on my Post-Its, on the skin beneath my thumb, on a receipt for a McDonald’s smoothie.
  • I’m remembering what I meant by FUNERAL WHAT’S SAID STOPPED WRITING ESP ABOUT BC ALSO THIS ISN’T THE CLIMAX END TO TENSION THAT CHANGES THINGS CATS.
  • I’m taking out all of the commas and capital letters and then replacing all of the commas and capital letters — except for two commas and one capital letter, which finally, finally makes the poem work.

It’s an interesting in-between place.  It’s a good place to be — bringing work into the world, preparing to send work out of the world — but it’s also an uncomfortable place.  And it’s that, that discomfort, exactly, that makes it such a good place.  When the writing gets too comfortable, I start worrying.  I start thinking, this is not good.  Because writing — good writing — requires risk, and that’s far from comfortable.

This has also made me think a lot about my students, who are all in a very similar place.  I’ve often thought that learning how to write is a kind of apprenticeship: you learn the craft from reading and watching someone work, from listening to them talk about how they approach their work, and you learn the art from practicing the craft, from being willing to take risks and sharpen your skills and to work and work and work.  Sometimes, I’ll think of the writing teacher as the leader of the apprenticeship, but more and more, I feel like that isn’t true.  I feel like it can’t be true, because no one can really be a master.  I feel like perhaps the real apprenticeship is to the art itself, to all of its mysteries and wonders, all of its moments of despair and whimsy and confusion.  We’re all in the same boat, in a creative writing classroom, wherever we sit, and I often think that the teacher’s job is to start conversations, to nudge students towards risk, to give them a vocabulary to talk about their work and a way to apply those terms and techniques to their own pieces.  I think it’s also a teacher’s job to learn — both through one’s own work and reading and from one’s teachers.

Every day, I walk to my office with my folder and grade-book and Diet Coke and Altoids and I feel — excited.  Thrilled.  Nervous.  Lucky.  Most of all, lucky.  I’d say that this has been an exceptional semester in which I’ve been lucky enough to teach some exceptional students, but really, there’s nothing exceptional about it.  Instead, it’s been the rule.  I’m continuously grateful to be surrounded by such minds and such energy, such unfailing appetites for learning.  I’m grateful to my students for being willing to talk through the routes they’re taking in this strange landscape language makes for us — and I’m grateful to them for the daily reminder that though we are all making our own way in this landscape, we are, none of us, ever truly alone.

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Crafting for Spinsters (And Their Cats): The Tea Tin Cactus Planter

This is the second installment in a series I like to call Crafting for Spinsters (and Their Cats).  The first installment is here, if you’re interested.  As an addendum to that installment, may I mention that the combination of super glue and sealant hasn’t exploded.  Yet.  You’re welcome.

If you’re anything like me, you spend most of your time mocking Urban Outfitters for being the purveyors of ridiculously priced faux-artisanal goods for poseur way-too-into-mustaches-and-I-can’t-even-tell-if-it’s-ironic-anymore hipsters.  And, if you’re anything like me, you spend the rest of your time giving Urban Outfitters half of your paycheck.  This also means that you are constantly checking your e-mail for announcements about sales on ridiculously priced faux-artisanal goods, because, as the saying goes, it’s totally okay if it’s on sale.  I’m pretty sure Abraham Lincoln said that.  Anyway, if you are this kind of person, you have probably seen this:

Don't be fooled: this isn't a photograph of any of my dorm rooms from the 1990s.  You can tell by the absence of Tori Amos posters and multiple copies of Sylvia Plath's Ariel.

Don’t be fooled: this isn’t a photograph of any of my dorm rooms from the 1990s. You can tell by the absence of Tori Amos posters and multiple copies of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel.

That’s right, y’all: succulents are hot.  Also, fifty-dollar skull candles and Mason jar sippy-cups are apparently important parts of gardening with succulents.  Let’s just keep that as a note right now.

Pretty soon after I obsessively studied this important missive from Urban Outfitters and pretended to be totally annoyed by it, this pin showed up on Pinterest (which I also am obsessively devoted to because you never know when you’re going to need to make it look like a tiny, obnoxious elf destroyed your house):

Oh, that's right.  Links.  This is from this.

Oh, that’s right. Links. This is from this.

 

And I was like, Let’s do this.

Here are the supplies you will need for this craft project.  It is very important to wear knock-off Crocs because they imply that you are very, very serious about getting sh*t DONE, so serious that you are not planning to leave the house until said sh*t is DONE, thus the shoes you can’t leave your house in.  That way, if anyone comes by and is like, Hey, Emma, why haven’t you left the house in the past seven years or whatever?  Then you can be like, Hey, Judgey McJudgerson, I’ve been up in here getting sh*t DONE, and you know how you can tell? I’m wearing getting sh*t DONE shoes.  Peace.

Here are the supplies you will need for this craft project. It is very important to wear knock-off Crocs because they imply that you are very, very serious about getting sh*t DONE, so serious that you are not planning to leave the house until said sh*t is DONE, thus the shoes you can’t leave your house in. That way, if anyone comes by and is like, Hey, Emma, why haven’t you left the house in the past seven years or whatever? Then you can be like, Hey, Judgey McJudgerson, I’ve been up in here getting sh*t DONE, and you know how you can tell? I’m wearing getting sh*t DONE shoes. Peace.

First, take the Jasmine tea tin you luckily haven’t thrown out since your ex-boyfriend brought it over to your apartment years ago because he apparently thought you were that kind of people.  Which was really nice, you know, so you were like, Awww, thank you, even though secretly you were like, What the hell?  All I drink is Diet Coke, Folger’s Simply Smooth, and the occasional wine cooler.  IT’S AS IF YOU DON’T KNOW ME AT ALL.

First, take the Jasmine tea tin you luckily haven’t thrown out since your ex-boyfriend brought it over to your apartment years ago because he apparently thought you were that kind of people. Which was really nice, you know, so you were like, Awww, thank you, even though secretly you were like, What the hell? All I drink is Diet Coke, Folger’s Simply Smooth, and the occasional wine cooler. IT’S AS IF YOU DON’T KNOW ME AT ALL.

If you look at the bottom of the tea tin, you’ll see your distorted self staring hauntingly back at you as if it doesn’t know you at all, which is a really good metaphor for the end of a relationship, when you think about it.  So you should think about it.  But not too long, unless you have an occasional wine cooler on hand.

If you look at the bottom of the tea tin, you’ll see your distorted self staring hauntingly back at you as if it doesn’t know you at all, which is a really good metaphor for the end of a relationship, when you think about it. So you should think about it. But not too long, unless you have an occasional wine cooler on hand.

It’s important that your tea tin provide proper drainage for all of the times that you forget that you watered your cactus, like, two hours ago and water it again, so that your cactus doesn’t rot from the inside and then just sort of sadly collapse, like your dream of being a weather girl.  Take a rusty screw you have lying around and a hammer and use them to poke holes in the bottom of the tea tin.*  You can use the tea tin’s lid as a dish to catch any excess water, and you should feel extremely proud of this moment of efficiency. *Actually you probably shouldn’t do this at all, because this might actually be dangerous.  But, then again, if you’ve had a tetanus shot recently, you don’t want to waste it, right?

It’s important that your tea tin provide proper drainage for all of the times that you forget that you watered your cactus, like, two hours ago and water it again, so that your cactus doesn’t rot from the inside and then just sort of sadly collapse, like your dream of being a weather girl. Take a rusty screw you have lying around and a hammer and use them to poke holes in the bottom of the tea tin.* You can use the tea tin’s lid as a dish to catch any excess water, and you should feel extremely proud of this moment of efficiency.
*Actually you probably shouldn’t do this at all, because this might actually be dangerous. But, then again, if you’ve had a tetanus shot recently, you don’t want to waste it, right?

 

Look at this.  Isn’t it cute?  It’s a cactus with a brighter, trendier cactus grafted on the top (according to Urban Outfitters, neon is, like, so hot right now) (for lame hipsters).  And it turns out that now, cacti come in these little plastic pots with handles on them, like tiny and fashionable safety accessories.  You should probably try to figure that out before you gingerly pick it up from the bottom and everyone at Wal-Mart is like, What is wrong with you? (Not that you bought this cactus at Wal-Mart, because that would be lame.)

Look at this. Isn’t it cute? It’s a cactus with a brighter, trendier cactus grafted on the top (according to Urban Outfitters, neon is, like, so hot right now) (for lame hipsters). And it turns out that now, cacti come in these little plastic pots with handles on them, like tiny and fashionable safety accessories. You should probably try to figure that out before you gingerly pick it up from the bottom and everyone at Wal-Mart is like, What is wrong with you? (Not that you bought this cactus at Wal-Mart, because that would be lame.)

Now it’s time to panic a little that the cactus won’t actually fit inside of the tea tin.  After that, it’s time to think about how you really should have thought of that before.  Then, it’s time to decide that you are going to make the cactus fit into the tea tin, no matter what, which means it’s time to panic a little about how you are going to get the cactus inside of the tea tin without lacerating your hands so badly that you look like one of the illustrations of lepers that seemed to be on every page of your catechism book when you went to Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic School.  So you are going to need gloves, and those gloves need to be cute, which is the most important part of this step.   That may seem deceptively unimportant, but, I can assure you, that is pure deception.  You need to get some cute gardening gloves because there is nothing more important, in any situation, than accessories.  Coco Chanel once said that "It is the unseen, unforgettable, ultimate accessory of fashion that heralds your arrival and prolongs your departure," but I like to think about accessories a little more concretely.  Accessories are absolutely necessary, because, if paired with a chunky bracelet and a fashionable belt, no one will be able to tell that you’re wearing your pajamas.  Coco Chanel said that, too.

Now it’s time to panic a little that the cactus won’t actually fit inside of the tea tin. After that, it’s time to think about how you really should have thought of that before. Then, it’s time to decide that you are going to make the cactus fit into the tea tin, no matter what, which means it’s time to panic a little about how you are going to get the cactus inside of the tea tin without lacerating your hands so badly that you look like one of the illustrations of lepers that seemed to be on every page of your catechism book when you went to Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic School. So you are going to need gloves, and those gloves need to be cute, which is the most important part of this step.
That may seem deceptively unimportant, but, I can assure you, that is pure deception. You need to get some cute gardening gloves because there is nothing more important, in any situation, than accessories. Coco Chanel once said that “It is the unseen, unforgettable, ultimate accessory of fashion that heralds your arrival and prolongs your departure,” but I like to think about accessories a little more concretely. Accessories are absolutely necessary, because, if paired with a chunky bracelet and a fashionable belt, no one will be able to tell that you’re wearing your pajamas. Coco Chanel said that, too.

This last step may be the most important.  Remember, social media was invented so that you can show other people that you’re better than them, or at least that you’re stable enough to do crafts, even if you’ve worn your pajamas with a chunky bracelet and a fashionable belt for three months straight.  Therefore, it is essential to photograph your craft and show it to as many people on the Internet as possible.  Otherwise, what’s the point?  Oh, that’s right.  NONE.  There is NO POINT.  Find the one surface in your house that doesn’t look like it’s part of a still from Grey Gardens and set your craft up there.  You’ll need to arrange a little vignette by placing other objects near the craft.  Make sure that they’re kind of vintage-y and used in witty and unexpected ways, like this milk glass hand-me-down filled with colored pencils, or a Mason jar sippy-cup filled with wine coolers.

This last step may be the most important. Remember, social media was invented so that you can show other people that you’re better than them, or at least that you’re stable enough to do crafts, even if you’ve worn your pajamas with a chunky bracelet and a fashionable belt for three months straight. Therefore, it is essential to photograph your craft and show it to as many people on the Internet as possible. Otherwise, what’s the point? Oh, that’s right. NONE. There is NO POINT. Find the one surface in your house that doesn’t look like it’s part of a still from Grey Gardens and set your craft up there. You’ll need to arrange a little vignette by placing other objects near the craft. Make sure that they’re kind of vintage-y and used in witty and unexpected ways, like this milk glass hand-me-down filled with colored pencils, or a Mason jar sippy-cup filled with wine coolers. Add a moody Instagram filter and a caption that implies that everything is totally fine and organized inside of your house and your mind, hit post, and then refresh every five minutes while watching Bridezillas so you can judge people.

 

 

Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Alice B. Toklas*

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself and my writing, it’s that major breakthroughs and advances — well, they don’t come easy.  Sure, from time to time a breakthrough will come hurdling through the clouds and sky and onto my laptop or notebook page, but I know that I can’t depend upon that.  I also know that these breakthroughs only come hurdling through the clouds and sky and onto my laptop or notebook page if I’m there at my laptop or notebook page.  In other words, I do sometimes have breakthroughs out of the clear blue sky that make everything very much easier,

This is a photograph of the feline Alice B. Toklas, who is the hero of today's story.

This is a photograph of the feline Alice B. Toklas, who is the hero of today’s story.

but said out-of-the-clear-blue-sky everything-easier-making breakthroughs only come from hard work.

And when I say hard work, I mean hard work.  I mean hard, frustrating work.  I mean minutes and hours and days and years of hard, hard, hard frustrating work.  And sometimes it takes a very long time, and always it takes being honest with myself in a way that isn’t exactly comfortable.

It’s a funny thing, being a writer — often, when I finally figure out how to do something and do something well, it’s exactly the point when I know I shouldn’t get comfortable.  If I get comfortable, I do the same thing over and over again, kind of like my treat addict of a cat, Alice B. Toklas — she’s figured out that if she goes in the kitchen and meows and looks up at me in this certain unbelievably pitiful way, she will receive two treats.  But writing isn’t like that, no matter how pitiful the look I give my laptop.  Eventually, the treats stop coming.  Or else the treats do keep coming, but they’re increasingly stale.  Like, moldy stale.  Yes, I’m doing something I figured out how to do, and sometimes even to do well, but I’m not growing.  I’m not moving to the next level.  I’m not taking risks and challenging myself and thinking, really thinking, about what I’m doing.  I’m not engaging with language and the way it’s built.  I’m not doing myself or my work any favors.

And so I keep pushing myself to push myself, even if I don’t get the treats.  And usually, when I’m moving towards a breakthrough, there are no treats anywhere to be found (apparently, I have decided to stay with this metaphor and stretch it beyond its capacity.  Which is, incidentally, one of the things that I do when I’m not pushing myself the way I need to push myself as a writer.  Harumph).  There are just — pardon me, but Anne Lamott’s phrase is too perfect not to borrow — shitty first drafts.  And shitty second and third and fourth drafts.  There are hours of staring at a screen, putting a line in one place and then moving it and then deleting it completely, only to put it exactly where it was the next day.

See?  Frustrating.  Like, beyond.

And that’s the state I was in a while ago, when I realized that I had no idea where Alice B. Toklas was (the feline Alice B. Toklas, of course; it’s pretty clear where the actual Alice B. Toklas is, or was).  This is generally bad news because it could mean that she’s eaten a couch or gotten arrested for spying on my neighbors.  I started walking around the house very slowly and saying Alice very softly, both because I didn’t want to scare her and

This is the ball and the corner in question.  I'm posting a photograph of it mostly to remind myself, in the future, of what kind of ball Alice B. Toklas likes for when Alice B. Toklas eats it or gives it to the cicadas or something and I have to buy more of them.

This is the ball and the corner in question. I’m posting a photograph of it mostly to remind myself, in the future, of what kind of ball Alice B. Toklas likes for when Alice B. Toklas eats it or gives it to the cicadas or something and I have to buy more of them.

because a disappeared cat is a generally terrifying situation.  When I found her, she was in the corner of my bathroom, trying to wedge her let’s-call-it-big-boned-and-just-very-furry body between the toilet and the bathtub.  At first I thought this was just another thing that Alice B. Toklas likes to do, like licking the windows or hiding under things by only putting her head under them and closing her eyes.  Then I started hearing a bell, and I realized that there was a reason for her hiding behind the toilet, besides, you know, hiding behind the toilet: she was trying to get her ball out of the corner, and with the kind of complete and total focus my cats usually only give their food bowls or my feet when they want to bite them.  I decided to help her out and picked up the ball and threw it, expecting her to jump joyfully after it.  Instead, she just looked up at me in great confusion — or, at least, more confusion than usual, which I admit is quite a bit of confusion.  I said what and she just sat there, staring with great confusion until, finally, she walked off in defeat to chew on a sofa or something.

That’s when I realized that it wasn’t the ball itself that Alice B. Toklas wanted; it was the challenge of getting to the ball.  She enjoyed the struggle, the fight.  She loved the work itself — and then the bell went off in my mind.  I realized that’s what I needed to do, too — to let myself relax, to allow myself the shitty first, second, third, fourth, and nth drafts, and to just enjoy playing with language, finding new ways into words.  I may get the ball.  I may not.  In the end, really, I think it’s not about the product but the process — not the solution, but the struggle — and learning to be happy with both.

* That is, the feline Alice B. Toklas, of course.  Everything I learned from the human Alice B. Toklas is only legal in Amsterdam, Washington, and Colorado.

Home, Where My Love Lies Waiting, Silently For Me

I’m about to write something I never thought I would write.

First, some background: I love Lia Purpura. Like, LOVE. Her On Looking is on the list of Most Important Books I’ve Ever Read And I Mean Seriously. It’s the book that led me to write nonfiction. It’s the book that taught me what nonfiction could and should be, that gave me a glimpse at all of its gorgeous, glimmering possibilities. It’s a book that changed my life and the way I look at it, and therefore changed my very world. I won’t say how many times I’ve read it by now because the number is probably not healthy. I will say that I mention her in my classes at least once a week. I will also say that when I found out she had a new book coming out, I put it on my Advanced Creative Nonfiction syllabus immediately, no questions asked, done.

And then I read it.

There’s no question that Rough Likeness is a gorgeous book, full of the kinds of lyric twists and turns that make you know, and deeply, exactly what Dickinson meant when she wrote that good writing makes her “feel physically as if the top of [her] head were taken off.” It’s the type of writing that changes the way you think. I was overjoyed to dwell in Purpura’s world again, to be given the gift of it, to see the world as she sees.

And then I got to the center of the book, to an essay titled “There Are Things Awry Here.” And this is exactly where things, for me, went awry. It’s then that the world Purpura looks at is my world, the world I grew up in, or at least a highway’s short stretch away: Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It’s the world where I ate lasagna and banana pudding on holidays, where I learned to call the adults I loved deeply Miss or Mister and then their first name just so they’d know, every time I saw them, how dearly I loved them. It’s the world where I learned when to wear summer white and winter white, where I had so many aunts and uncles that it was sometimes hard to know who I was actually related to, since family went beyond that. It’s the world of my family, of all the love and struggle that word contains, a world of hills ever-tinted green and mountains sliced open to reveal their ribs of iron ore. It’s the world I’ve seen for all of my nearly thirty-three years, and now, it was the world I was seeing as Purpura saw it, and all I could think was no, oh no, no Lia, not you too.

Here’s how it began:

Here is a farmer entering a black field.  He’s a proper farmer, bowlegged and leathery, with a serviceable rope looped over his arm.  But the farmer comes out of a logo’d truck and the rope links up to a ChemLawn can [….] He pisses I don’t know where during his long day in the sun.  His hat’s a tattered, red, GO BAMA cap.

I won’t go on.

God knows I don’t need to: the image of the Southerner as field-hand is common enough, though I’m not sure why it’s derogatory.  It takes a great deal of education and intelligence to work a field, though that matters little, anyway: why should any person’s life turn into an insult? Why can’t a field-hand be smart and kind and generous enough? And why is any person seen somehow as not enough, based on what they do or where they are from?

I read quickly through the rest of the essay, hoping she would transform it, hoping she would give to my home the same kind of miracle her writing had so often given to me, hoping she wouldn’t instead add insult to a town that has so strongly and gracefully dealt with very literal injury (see: the tornadoes of April 2011, almost exactly two years ago now).

Here is how the essay ends:

I wanted to know what happened here, on land like this.
Now I know.
People learn to fly through it.  And then they go home.

Is it too much to say my heart broke?  And more than a little?

On my first reading, I told myself her work had done its trick. I told myself she had turned this place into a metaphor for all places, for the transformative power that could be found every- and anywhere. But on my second read, I was unsettled. I could no longer shake from the language its implication: that the place I call home has worth only as a way-station, not as an end but as a means to teach visitors what they need to know and how not to be — she mentions again, near the end, the man working with fertilizer, her “farmer (okay, working stiff, bare hands in the poison, then wiping his nose).” And if the worth of the place is as a means to teach outsiders, well, then what about insiders?  What about the people who fly in it, and stay there, as home?

The thing about implications like those are that they, simply stated, hurt. They imply that Southerners are unintelligent, are somehow lesser because of where they were born.

I’m not here to deny that the South has a cruel and terrible and terrifying history, which is often not history, in a way that grieves and hurts me.  I’m not here to say the South isn’t complicated, isn’t often a boiling mix of hate and love of appearances.  I’m also not saying that my own relationship with the South isn’t complicated.  I do write as someone who flew away, but also as someone who flew home.  I write as someone who believed that she wasn’t good enough because of where she came from, and wouldn’t be any good unless she moved away. Even as a little girl, I swore that as soon as I turned eighteen, I’d move away. And I did, to New York, where I went to school and found a lot of people who were very kind, but also a lot of people who were very willing to back up all I’d believed.

Take my roommate, who, on day three of my first week as a freshman, admitted she’d cried for weeks when she found out her roommate was from Alabama.

Take the fellow student in my American Social History class who said I didn’t have the right to talk about ethnic groups because I was from the South and therefore had to be prejudiced against them.  We were discussing Irish and Italian immigrants.  My mother’s maiden name is Lanza.

Take all of the professors who asked how I’d learned to read so well and what my people farmed. And take the fact that this was the school I went to after my disastrous interview at another New England school, which began with the admissions director asking if I had had any contact with people of other races or who were part of other ethnic groups, because New England College X prized diversity and worried about admitting a Southerner, since they worried a Southerner wouldn’t – and couldn’t — value diversity.

You might say I’m being oversensitive. Fine. I’m being oversensitive.

But imagine this: you’re at orientation for your first academic job, back in your home state. You spend all day with people who ask if their students will be able to read, and if so, if any of them can read above a grade-school level. They ask if students chew tobacco in the classrooms. They ask if they know how to speak, really, since most people don’t really speak English down here, do they? They sigh and say that they just have to do what they can, and not expect too much. Sit in a room and have everyone joke about how, in Alabama, you have to set your watch back a century instead of an hour. Then, have to tell them you’re from Alabama. Deal with the questions: how can you do this job? I mean, how did you learn to read?

Or go out for a drink with a group of friends. Get pulled into a corner conversation where someone has gotten wine-weepy. She’s crying, she says, because she has to wait until she moves to have children. She doesn’t want her child to be a Southerner. She wants her child to be educated and tolerant and smart, which — it isn’t even implied, it’s said — can’t happen in the South. She doesn’t want a slack-jawed idiot.

Repeat these situations. A lot. As in, on a weekly basis. Sometimes daily. Exchange the players, the sayers. Add some of the men who have said they’re in love with you. Add your dearest, closest friend. Add the writer who changed your life.

Tell me I am oversensitive.

Tell me it doesn’t hurt.

In the end, I think, perhaps Purpura’s essay did transform me.  Perhaps it did teach an important lesson, showing me something new about looking, how once you’ve lived inside something, it’s never easy to look at in one way.  The story becomes multi-faceted, complicated.  Or, perhaps, the story becomes something larger, becomes something that has so little to do with you.

When I think of Tuscaloosa, I look at parts of my own story, parts which, once looked at, become large.  It’s the place where my grandmother spoke her last words to me, where my mother and father watched her die in one of the country’s best Hospice centers, where we were taught about that terrible and beautiful moment when we all must leave our home, this earth, and where it was calm and peaceful and she was allowed to die with dignity. That’s what this place has taught me, and I will fly to it, again and again, as my home.

 

Radio Free Gertrude

Here's my call-in radio show call-in station.  Please note my fourth cup of coffee.  Please also note that telephone.  Children, that's called a "land line."  It's an ancient artifact from the days in which people didn't need everything to be confusing and realized it was totally gross to have your phone with you in the restroom.

Here’s my call-in radio show call-in station. Please note my fourth cup of coffee. Please also note that telephone. Children, that’s called a “land line.” It’s an ancient artifact from the days in which people didn’t need everything to be so terribly confusing and realized it was totally gross to have your phone with you in the restroom.

So, on Friday, I called in as a guest on Katrina Murphy’s excellent radio show, Questions That Bother Me So.  I must thank Katrina for what was, all in all, a totally awesometacular experience (I’m thinking at some point that the archives will pop up here, so keep an eye out) (keep an eye out — that’s a really, really weird thing to say, isn’t it? I mean, if your eye was out, you wouldn’t really be able to see, would you?) (that’s not a tangent, as it keeps with the theme — I mean, if any questions bothers you so, it should probably be that one).

I have to admit that I love talk radio, especially live talk radio.  There’s something about the cadence of the human voice, the magic of language happening in real-time, that’s absolutely captivating.  That is, it is as a listener — while there is a fascination with how you are the human whose voice is cadencing over the Interwebs and the air, and it’s your language that’s happening in real-time, I have to admit that, as a participant, I was a little terrified.

This could be due to the fact that I prepared for my on-air appearance by drinking five cups of coffee and attempting to lure my overly vocal feline companions into other rooms by plying them with treats.  Or it could be due to the fact that I spent all morning obsessively repeating to myself the following mantra: for God’s sake don’t say um and don’t say like, for God’s sake, please.  Or perhaps I was nervous because I was wearing owl pajamas and Muk-Luks, as I often do, because I am a grown woman, which of course I knew no one could actually see, but perhaps they could just sense it.

This is what I suppose Alice B. Toklas was doing when I was talking, when she wasn't creeping out the neighbors or eating a table or something.

This is what I suppose Alice B. Toklas was doing when I was talking, when she wasn’t creeping out the neighbors or eating a stack of firewood or something.

Thankfully, I was in very good hands, and Katrina calmed my nerves immediately.  Gertrude Stein, who’s part Siamese and really loves to talk about that, did make her way into the living room, but somehow managed not to meow and to only bite me once.  Alice B. Toklas, thankfully, held to her belief that watching whatever the neighbors are doing and chewing on cardboard boxes is way more interesting than anything I’m up to.  And I found myself letting go of my fear and just having a great time talking to someone — which is also, I think, why I love talk radio so much: it’s like eavesdropping, at its best, on a really juicy conversation.

Gertrude Stein decided to help me with the poem I needed to read.

Gertrude Stein decided to help me with the poem I needed to read.

I think that part of my nervousness, too, has to do with the fact that in conversation, I’m not very focused.  That’s because everything is interesting.  Seriously.  I could talk for three hours about the Statesboro formal wear store, Frills and Fancies, on the corner of Main, Main, Main, and Main, and then for six more hours about how, in Statesboro, there’s a corner of Main, Main, Main, and Main.  Every single detail — from the revolving mannequin in a feathered prom dress to the fact that their Hunger Games-themed prom window display seemed to be made Hunger Games-themed only by the edition of an old-fashioned big screen TV — is interesting to me.  That’s largely why, I think, I was drawn to writing in the first place: in writing, every such detail has a place.  It has a weight and a significance and it works with other details to build an entirely new world.  And I think, too, this lack of focus is why I was drawn in particular to poetry: it’s a form that, by its very nature, demands focus.  It’s a way I learned to sift through the details I collect every day and weigh their significance.  It’s how I learned to learn from them, and how I learned to focus enough to find the words to show other people what I’ve learned.

And if I end up with a collection titled Frills and Fancies, well, now you know why.

Gertrude and I.  Sigh.

Gertrude and I. Sigh.