How It Felt To Me

Tell me what you can see here.
What you can see here?

In her essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” Joan Didion writes:

“…perhaps it never did snow that August in Vermont…maybe no one else felt the ground hardening and summer already dead even as we pretended to bask in it, but that was how it felt to me, and it might as well have snowed, could have snowed, did snow.”

I’m writing a piece in which I wanted so badly to use these words, but I used another part of Didion’s essay, had to let go of this treasure for the sake of the whole fabric I’m making…but I love this passage. I love its cadence, I love the self-doubt and rumination. This progression from Fact toward How It Felt To Me is an important and rich one, and we dismiss it at our humanity’s peril. This has been on my mind a lot, sparked anew last night when I read David Ulin’s piece about redefining creative nonfiction, in which Ulin writes, “all art is a kind of hybrid, reality reconstructed, redefined.”


We get up each morning. Unless we are nudists, we put on layers, veils, makeup, clothing to disguise or hide or redefine something about ourselves. “Reality” is manufactured somewhere inside each human brain. (I am not a brain scientist; I don’t remember which part, but I have read about this, and I think this is true.) Things happen, there are facts, and facts are arguably “real” or “true”, but it seems to me the realm of literature, or art, is built upon everything else. The murk. How It Felt To Me. Even when I’m writing fiction, How It Felt To Me matters much in the making. Even if I am creating a world and pretending it doesn’t actually exist, even if I am telling Lies, How It Felt To Me can’t help but steer the making. (I could lie to myself now and say it doesn’t, but lying takes too much breath, breath I could instead be using to write, breath I could be using to stay alive.)

The fun is grappling around in the mess of these parts.

The fun is shaping stuff from the parts.

A thing that won’t happen again (two essays published in two weeks!)

Blue heron on Ellis Pond

All I can conjure to write is the cliche about raining and pouring, but I’ll spare you that. Another essay I wrote went live today on the Jaded Ibis Productions blog, Bleed. (You can read the essay here. And the essay at the Manifest-Station is here.) I’m so grateful to be able to share these fragilities with others. Sending my personal essays into the world is wholly new for me, and my baby legs are tottery. I’ve been inspired by the brave writing of people around me, including Rachel McKibbens, Taylor Mali, and Tara Hardy, the awesome poets I wrote about in the essay. Witnessing their courage, I awaken my own. My hope is that if I act brave, others will, too. And the world will become more whole.

Although many things distract me from knowing that it’s really this simple, lately I keep circling back to the core: For me, the whole point of doing this work (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, anything) is to connect with our shared humanity. That’s it. There are tools for this work (the craft) and plenty of folderol but really, it’s about finding and seeing the spark that lives in each of us.

(On Saturday night, I was with a group of others at Ellis Pond in Yellow Springs.  A blue heron stood on spindle legs in the water, undisturbed by our gathering. Calmly teaching us about how to live.)

Oh, you beautiful mess

IMG_0256To have written, to have made order from chaos: to have written about messy life stuff that defaced three pages of legal pad, scratched, abbreviated, rounding corners, lines written above below obscuring other lines, arrows pointing everywhere but straight forward. To have made some sense of that snarl, of that juice. To have expressed my self.

To say: today I am a writer.

Into her drawers and shadows (Joan Didion’s Blue Nights)

Haunted Didion

As I read Blue Nights, Joan Didion’s repetition of images and phrases hypnotized me, as did her peeled and still-peeling layers of story.  As with The Year of Magical Thinking, here I felt Didion recounting memories in the way we actually experience them.  As if she set out to articulate against the linear necessity of language: one letter, one word, one thought at a time, arranged tidy in a row, which is one way we make sense.  The intentional fragmentation of narrative was accessible and didn’t fall off the page (or render me lost in the land of “what the fuck?”) because of Didion’s clarity.  Because of her sentences.  And perhaps because of the fact of what she was doing: the narrative act of slowing down, examining, opening drawers and closets brimming with iconic possessions.  As Didion names these ghosts on p. 45: “The objects for which there is no satisfactory resolution.”  The detritus of the lives of the people she loves best, and lost.  As she opens each drawer and tells the stories of what she finds, she assumes the role of docent in the Joan Didion Museum of Loss.

(In the essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Didion writes: “Someone works out the numerology of my name and the name of the photographer I’m with.  The photographer’s is all white and the sea (‘If I were to make you some beads, see, I’d do it mainly in white,’ he is told), but mine has a double death symbol.”  I read that passage again after I’d read The Year of Magical Thinking, and could not avoid thinking of her life story’s foreshadowing in that moment, the double death that awaited her.)

In addition to the quandary about what to do with all that stuff (and my own eventual stuff, should I live long enough, outlive someone I love) I felt the writer’s grief and discomfort at the ache of questions she turns over and over, things upon which she shines a light, unable to avoid the vast shadows of murk.

Shadows which, despite the fact that some people, including me, happen to believe Didion walks on water, do not flatter her.

There’s something about that peeling, that sad onion, those haunts, her willingness to shine light despite what might crawl out, which makes me feel more human.

Joan Didion and her bits

Joan Didion and Quintana Roo

“Only the very young and the very old may recount their dreams at breakfast, dwell upon self, interrupt with memories of beach picnics and favorite Liberty lawn dresses and the rainbow trout in a creek near Colorado Springs.  The rest of us are expected, rightly, to affect absorption in other people’s favorite dresses, other people’s trout.  And so we do.  But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I.’  We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful pensees; we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.”

–Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook,” Slouching Towards Bethlehem, p. 136.

I just began reading Blue Nights.  The passage above from Didion’s much older essay has been with me as I approach a still-too-tender writing project.  It’s stuff I will write about some day, though more time must first elapse.  I need perspective, and this is too messy and raw.  Meanwhile I put bits into a jar (or notebook) to save, to turn over, to approach for the quilt when it’s time.

Meanwhile, merely typing Didion’s words (and reading her new memoir) is a comfort and a privilege.

Finding rabbits

Two Steiff woolen rabbits with photo of John Ott

As you five swell followers might know, I’ve been writing an essay about my childhood home that was burned down in a planned fire exercise when I was sixteen.  A rabbit figures in the story.  Here are a couple of excerpts.

After their pyrotechnic work was done, house gone, I returned to the remnants, stood on the ashes.  Near where the shed had been, I found one of my small wool Steiff rabbits, intact, unscathed.  A tiny symbol of the phantom limb of home–does keeping hold of stuff I had before the house disappeared stand in for a home?  When I hold that rabbit in my hand, I feel something stable and secure, but that’s too simple.

Then later in the essay:

Now I hold the Steiff rabbit that didn’t burn.  I imagine again walking across the charred land, finding the thing, the size of a cotton ball, where our garage had been.  How hadn’t I packed it?  How hadn’t it been torched?  I want to touch, smell, hear, see, consume the moment of finding that rabbit.

So telling truth, I pin that rabbit to a velvet board, and into a new ghost story I shove the cute animal, twist rabbits against type, make them sinister, keep writing.  Everything must be lit, and burn, then melt, transmogrify: everything must milk and then feed that famished ghost, memory.

At a fabulous Yellow Springs yard sale this morning, I found two Steiff rabbits, and bought the pair for a mere $7.  It was like my recurring dreams of finding pieces of my childhood Steiff collection at antique stores and having to buy them back, but in reverse: this morning they were not my rabbits, and I was awake.  Now they are on (the one clean corner of) my desk.

Just more evidence that things keep turning and turning, but won’t let us forget: carbon replaces itself, surprises us, and continues to haunt…

Bygone eras…

Hoffman, Bernstein, Woodward, and Redford

…in American cinema, journalism, politics…

I just watched “All The President’s Men.” Chilling.  And inspiring, to see Redford and Hoffman before they were bloated with (possibly still righteous) self importance.  And they sure don’t make movies like they did in the 1970s.  I think that was the best era of American film.  Ben Bradlee says it best (from the film):

“You know the results of the latest Gallup Poll? Half the country never even heard of the word Watergate. Nobody gives a shit. You guys are probably pretty tired, right? Well, you should be. Go on home, get a nice hot bath. Rest up… 15 minutes. Then get your asses back in gear. We’re under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing’s riding on this except the, uh, first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys fuck up again, I’m going to get mad. Goodnight.”

You Are My Sunshine (Who is my sunshine?)

“Sing the deer dear song,” my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter said, early this morning.

She has a cold, and wanted me to sing, “You Are My Sunshine” but with the phrase “dear deer” standing in for “Sunshine.”  (More on our familiar variant, “dear deer,” in a moment.)  No doubt she was seeking comfort in the song I used to sing to her when she was smaller.

The writing of the song “You are my sunshine” is (questionably?) attributed to Oliver Hood.  But according to family legend, my grandmother’s uncle (does that make him my great-great uncle?) Herman C. Becker actually wrote the song.

Great-great uncle Herman was a composer, creating, allegedly, the words and music for “You Are My Sunshine.”  My great-aunt Evelyn recalled making fun of him as he played the song on the piano, because it was so silly.  Herman sent the manuscript  to a music publisher in Chicago (or possibly New York) and never heard anything back.

Until, hearing the song on the radio, my ancestors learned of the supposed rip-off.

Decades later, I sing the song to my child as she’s going to sleep.  My daughter substitutes beloved friends’ names in place of “Sunshine,” or, created in a sillier moment of wordplay, one which Herman C. Becker might have appreciated, referring to the dead deer carcass on the hiking trail across the street (last autumn’s flattening lump of roadkill that we referred to as “deer body” in a first attempt to explain death to the child) she begs me to sing our private lyrics:

“You are my deer dear, my only deer dear, you make me happy, when skies are grey, you’ll never know deer dear, how much I love you, please don’t take my deer dear away.”

I don’t know if she would spell it “deer dear,” reverse it to “dear deer,” or, in simple repetition, choose “deer deer.”

How many generations have been lulled by this song?  And wooed?  To whom does belong?  Is there a point after which the notion of ownership fades?

No one can deny it’s our song.

Antioch Writers Workshop July 2010

Embroiled fully in this year’s Antioch Writers Workshop.  I love being around writers, talking about writing, writing with writers, the world cracking open before me.

Before the keynote on Saturday, I was driving to campus and feeling guilty, semi-taking a week off from child, home, life, to do the workshop, because sometimes it seems like choosing to be a writer is a silly luxury (but is it even a choice? I ask myself).


Then I realized (it’s so easy to REALIZE things while driving, isn’t it?) that all writing is really about life.  Whether fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose, a person (who is alive) puts something on paper (or screen, or sand) and it means something to at least one person.  What else is life, if not that?

The three layers

I am new to writing nonfiction. In working on my birth essay, I have really struggled about what should stay in, and what should not. As I mentioned here, it’s one of the hardest things I have ever written, maybe the hardest. I think I understand part of the reason why.

There seem to be at least three layers to the story:

1) The first layer is what happened. The truth. Or maybe The Truth. The Facts. The situation. The lived-experience.
2) The second layer is “Our story.” Like the details about the interpersonal relationships that were created and sustained on that day, during that prolonged moment.
3) The third, final, and possibly publishable layer: What I choose to construct so that it fits in the (hopeful) market and will be interesting to readers.

Readers might not care about the little inside jokes between my husband, my doula and me. They don’t necessarily care what the sky looked like as we drove to the hospital, and so many other textures and details that just don’t fit in the 2500 word limit.

It’s disorienting and difficult to construct something tidy from the messy, complicated, ineffable nine months, and then 36 bolded hours of my life.