Helping Hailie

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This is not easy for me to talk about and my initial instinct was to keep it to myself but in light of recent events prompting open discussions on the topics of depression, mental health and suicide, I’ve chosen to dig deep and summon the courage to share it instead…

My great niece Hailie turned one on 8/8/14. Tragically, her mother committed suicide the day before. This has been a painful shock to our families and especially to my nephew CJ, Hailie’s father. I’m still not sure how to process it but I know in my heart that I need to do something for him and Hailie.

So I’ve created a donation page called Helping Hailie. All donations received will be put into a trust fund for Hailie’s future. While this won’t heal the pain or diminish the loss, it will help Hailie down the road.

Donations of all sizes as well as prayers, love, positive vibes and inspirational thoughts and messages are greatly appreciated. Thank you for your support during this difficult time. xo

https://www.giveforward.com/fundraiser/6hc5/helping-hailie

hailie

 

On Self-Respect

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Joan Didion’s essay On Self-Respect (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 142) is a beautifully-written essay about what self-respect is and what it really means. Didion’s tone is open and honest throughout and she uses it, along with thoughtful language and examples to skillfully establish her attitude, thoughts, feelings and her frustrations on the topic of self-respect.

This essay shined a new light on Didion for me and allowed me to see her and her work in a whole new way. While the topic of self-respect could have so easily lent itself to Didion talking down to her readers, it didn’t have the same pretentious tone I’ve come to expect from her essays. For me, it was a breath of fresh air and it caused me to view Didion in the same positive way I had when I was first introduced to her work. The title itself sounds pretentious and I honestly expected the tone of the essay to match and manifest itself into a lecture. But it didn’t.

Instead, I felt connected to what Didion had to say and, perhaps more importantly, to the way she was saying it. For the first time in what felt like a long time, I could relate to her and to her feelings, ideas and thought processes. To me, the essay shines as a powerful representation of how writing can help make us feel less alone in the world and gives us an opportunity to share the burden of our problems and our struggles with others as well as our hopes and dreams, too. One writer to another, I felt connected to Didion as I read her essay.

I love how Didion made her points through dissecting bits of culture and history and time. The line: “Self-respect is something our grandparents, whether or not they had it, knew all about” stands out as a gem in that it’s something we can all understand and agree upon. We all have (or had) grandparents and, whether or not we have (or had) a personal relationship with our own, we each have a similar perception of what grandparents are like. Even if one has never met his or her own grandparents, we still maintain this ideal and hold them up to this sort of standard.

Similarly, by speaking of Indians, again Didion touches on something we all know or believe to be true based on what we’ve learned and/or been told and taught all along. Didion uses common knowledge, bits of history, relatable memories and information we all already know to make her points, perhaps the most poignant one being: “To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, singular power of self-respect.”

Wow! I think that bears repeating, so here goes: “To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, singular power of self-respect.”

Didion makes broad sweeping points which consistently feel borderline pretentious (or maybe it’s my expectation more so than an actual feeling, though it’s sometimes hard to separate an expectation, once one has been established through repetition and experience, from an actual feeling) at times but then in this particular essay she follows up with examples and illustrations and then turns those examples and illustrations loose on herself to provide another emotional dimension that helps bolster her points and somehow makes her relatable and even likeable.

For example, she states: “That kind of self-respect is a discipline, a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained, coaxed forth.” In that moment, I sighed audibly and probably even rolled my eyes and thought “oh here it comes” since I honestly believed I saw the next part—the pretentious and seemingly self-absorbed part where I feel talked at or spoken down to—coming. But, then she surprised me and followed that line by recounting a particular moment when she herself learned this lesson by breathing into a paper bag as an antidote to crying. Of course, breathing into a paper bag to stop hyperventilation is common knowledge (or at least common practice) but as a reader, I paused at this admission and thought “why was she crying?” She doesn’t go into the details in regards to the why but that doesn’t matter. In essence, the admission itself—the fact that there was a time when she was so distraught that she bordered on panic attack and needed to breathe into a paper bag—is to admit she’s human.

On that note, this essay spoke to me as one human speaking to another about an issue we all care about. We all want to be respected. But Didion is saying, something we all know is true, that first you must respect yourself and others. But what does that even mean?

Well, for one, at least for me as I read this essay, it meant me having a moment of clarity, revelation and self-reflection in which I had to pause and say “Okay, enough already, Val. Open your mind and read the essay without trying to guess where it’s going.”

Even if we dislike a piece of work, or even more so have decided to dislike the writer as a result of something he or she has written, we must choose to respect the act of writing and the writing itself for it’s a part of us, too. Disrespecting the writer is, in turn, disrespecting ourselves.

Once I realized this lesson on self-respect, I knew I needed to respect Didion and her writing style, too, despite any previous experiences, and read her essay with an open mind. I could see that I was being disrespectful—to her and to me—and deep down I knew it all along. If I wanted to learn from her and benefit in some way from her writing and from this experience I needed to set aside my griping and grumbling and pay her and her writing their due respect.

Doing so meant respecting my own writing, too, as well as my time and energy as a reader. But beyond that, it allowed me to set aside judgment and preconceived notions of taste in terms of style or delivery and instead to absorb Didion’s message and the meaning behind her writing. As a fellow writer, as a writing student and most of all as a person, I’m glad I did.

Works Cited:

Didion, Joan. Slouching Towards Bethlehem. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

“The Learning Curve”

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Last week I picked apart Picka Pocketoni. So this week I’d like to pick apart—in a more positive way—another Sedaris essay: The Learning Curve (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 83-96).

This essay hit home for me (and I assume for many of you) in many ways, particularly as a writer, writing student and someone who would someday love to teach writing workshops. But also, I’m currently writing a novel and one of the main themes is how we all find ourselves faking it (or feeling as though we’re faking it) at one point or another. We don’t start out being experienced. It takes time but we all have to start somewhere. That’s simply how life works.

Thematically, this story speaks to anyone who has ever felt like a faker. When Sedaris gets his first teaching gig, he feels like an imposter. And in a way he is one. But I bet anyone who’s ever been in his shoes has felt the same way. Of course, while most of us might not admit it or write a whole essay shouting it to the world, personally, I love how honest he is about it.

Sedaris exposes so many parts of himself to us, including: Sedaris as writer, Sedaris as teacher, Sedaris as the child who just wants to be loved and, perhaps most notably in this essay Sedaris as self-proclaimed, self-deprecating, low self-esteem fraud. All of these elements somehow add up to expose Sedaris as a charming, humorous, honest and relatable human.

“Like branding steers or embalming the dead, teaching was a profession I had never seriously considered.” Ha! Me either! Until recently anyway. Workshops have turned me on to a whole new side of myself. I’ve always loved writing and my initial goal coming into the MFA program here was to get my writing to the next level, where I will hopefully get my novels published. My writing has certainly improved but another side of me, one I didn’t know existed, has been nurtured, too. I love reading my peers’ work and offering my feedback. That critiquing part of workshops that so many of us dislike? Yeah, I love that part. In eight grade I was voted “Most Likely to Become a Teacher” and I’ve always scoffed at the notion but now I’m looking at it and thinking maybe my classmates back in 1989 knew something I wasn’t yet able to see or willing to admit. I flashed back to that moment while reading The Learning Curve and as I read about Sedaris’s experiences, I thought about all of these things I’m learning about myself.

I could picture myself standing before a classroom frantically trying to say and do all the right things, trying to make an impact on these students who expect to learn something. Just like any other experience in life, Sedaris started out self-conscious and self-absorbed and once those things fell away, along with all the butterflies, that’s when everything came together for him.

All of this adds to the tone of the piece. I found the tone of this story as well as Sedaris himself as the story’s main character to be honest and sincere. While he, at times, borders on self-deprecation he does so humorously and that adds to the gritty, realistic feel of the piece. Plus, there’s just something sweet about it, too. While each of his essays affects me in different ways and while I don’t find all of them as relatable as this one, I could follow his tone anywhere.

Structurally speaking, this essay hits all the right notes. He grounds the setting for us in the classroom and allows us to picture everything from his perspective. He starts by showing and telling us about himself physically and even adds insight into his mind through sharing his thoughts and fears as well as comparing himself to his father. Then he introduces the rest of the cast of characters and simultaneously presents the main conflicts which will affect all of them. He lets us see the floor fall from beneath his feet as he stands clueless before this classroom for the very first time. We get to see him squirm and then watch as he tries and fails multiple times, continuously adding tension along the way, giving us the opportunity to root for him and care about what happens to him and his students so we feel satisfied when he figures it all out in the end. The work he does with characterization in general but also in particular with his set up and descriptions, are awesome, too, because if we as the reader cannot relate to him or even find him likeable in some way, then surely we can relate to one of his students instead. That’s brilliant!

There was a point when I felt bad for him and for his students, too. Sedaris somehow became the protagonist and the antagonist and his students played villains and victims. He gives us just the right amount of detail to picture him (right down to his briefcase) and enough detail, physically and emotionally, on each of his students to picture each of them staring back at him. In one way or another, through his characters, this story becomes relatable to just about everyone. Additionally, he pays close attention to his own arc in the story. He starts out a little cocky and then falls from grace. We see all of his insecurities and we can see and judge his mistakes and along the way he himself does the same. Eventually he figures it out and succeeds.

The only thing this was missing for me from his experience in the workshop was the actual critique portion and how that transpired in his classroom. He tells us his thoughts on critiquing (he says whoever designed the workshops “struck the perfect balance between sadism and masochism.”) but he never gets overly detailed about the process. But I can’t help but think that may simply be because Sedaris was more concerned with being critiqued and letting us know how he felt than in critiquing his students and/or in watching them critique each other. In a way, it was like he was saying that he only really knows and can speak honestly about how he feels about the situation and if we want to know how they felt, then we’d have to ask them.

In The Learning Curve, Sedaris invites us into a personal side of himself and he shows and tells us more than what “normal” people would dare show and tell. He sets aside any sort of pretense or shield one might have when discussing our views of ourselves, specifically our skills and abilities, and he puts all of his insecurities out on the table for everyone to see and judge.

I absolutely loved this story. I felt connected to it and to all of its characters, including Sedaris and his students. I felt like I was learning along with them and experiencing their trials and tribulations, as if I was actually one of the characters in the story. I felt invested in what happened. The story kept my attention and kept me laughing from start to finish, too.

Sedaris doesn’t seem to care what others might think or say about him; he just puts it all out there, blurting at times, and then lets the experience speak for itself. He lets us decide what’s weird, embarrassing and/or shameful. The fact that he’s not embarrassed to reveal such things makes him charming, I think, and his point of view personable and it’s what makes me feel connected to him and really love reading his essays. I want to know what else he’ll reveal and even more than the content I want to know how he’ll reveal it. It’s safe to say it’ll always be with some level of humor, but there are varying degrees of emotion and sentimentality there, too.

After reading The Learning Curve, I wonder how many new teachers feel like children playing teacher on that first day of school. Sedaris struck a chord here and it’s one that goes beyond the classroom. In truth, don’t we all feel like we’re faking it at one point or another?

Works Cited:

Sedaris, David. Me Talk Pretty One Day. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001.

Picking Apart Picka Pocketoni

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I thought Picka Pocketoni (Me Talk Pretty One Day, 219-227) was hilarious and, as usual, David Sedaris had me laughing out loud time and time again. I even picked it (no pun intended) because I knew it would be funny. I could tell by the title and more so by the writer. Sedaris, in my limited experience of him, is almost always funny and his POV usually interests me. But while I found this story just as funny and interesting as the rest, I simply didn’t find it believable.

It’s not that I don’t think it could’ve happened. And, in fact, I more than believe something happened that inspired this essay, but the story itself in its entirety, and the way Sedaris tells it, felt exaggerated and in moments even entirely fabricated to me. It’s a great story in that it kept my attention from start to finish but it didn’t feel real to me. It didn’t seem true.

Part of a writer’s mission, whether he or she is writing fiction or nonfiction, is to write in such a way as to suspend disbelief—to make us believe. In other words, even the craziest things should have us believing. Even when reading fantasy, we start to believe, at least for the sake of the story, in things we wouldn’t typically believe in like, say, aliens or zombies or unicorns. In nonfiction, this should be a no brainer—since the things, the writer’s stories and experiences, allegedly really happened. Right? Well, I’m no longer sure that’s the case since, basically, while I enjoyed the story, I don’t believe it happened—or at least I don’t believe it happened like this.

I’m disappointed, too, because I wanted to believe. I rode the subway in NYC for years, through most of my 20s, and have quite a few stories of my own brewing in my brain since some crazy stuff happens on trains but my issue isn’t with the probability of the occurrence itself it’s in the believability of the telling of the story. Sedaris set the story up well. I could picture this train. Hell, I could smell it. The story about the obnoxious Texas college kids was believable but it was also short and not so breathtaking. It was more of an observation than a complete story. I’m wondering if Sedaris decided to make up the second part to fill out the story. Perhaps if the story wasn’t already about those Texan kids, had Sedaris focused specifically on the couple instead, or entirely on either one or the other, it might have been more believable to me. I don’t know.

Have you ever people watched and then made up stories about those people? This felt like that to me. I don’t doubt he spotted an American couple on the train or even that they were rude and obnoxious. Maybe they were even talking about this particular topic of being robbed on a train. But that’s about as far as my faith goes on this particular story. I question the likelihood of Sedaris’s reaction or lack of reaction to being the topic of this couple’s false accusations, fear and anger. The words and actions of the couple, in particular the man, seemed farfetched to me. But Sedaris’s thoughts and reactions, or lack of reaction, is what really had me scratching my head. Based on what Sedaris has shared about himself in this story and in other stories, I think if this had happened he’d have moved to another part of the train, closer to Hugh, perhaps.

The fact that he was previously buying burlap for no apparent reason made me wonder if that was his way of saying he was about to sell us a bag of goods. There’s just something about the burlap. I mean, why burlap? There are many uses for burlap but he doesn’t tell us why “he’d hoped to buy a good deal of burlap.” He could have said it was for painting or to make a sack or mask, for example. But he skips the explanation. And by mentioning it and then never returning to it like this it somehow drew my attention to the burlap. And suddenly I’m obsessing over burlap and I’m not sure why. Was the burlap a distraction, like one a magician might use in a slight of hand trick? It may be a stretch but burlap is also a tough, resilient fabric so maybe Sedaris was making a point about people needing to be tough to deal with other people. Either way, something about the burlap had me wondering if this experience even really happened.

In so many of his stories, Sedaris seems determined to put two elements before everything else: humor and some sort of moral message or lesson. But while his other stories managed to grab and keep my attention, and more importantly suspend my disbelief, while simultaneously making me laugh, think and feel something, this one didn’t. His humor kept my attention but, at times, I found myself laughing at him, as well as at the ridiculousness of certain elements of this story, more often than I was laughing with him. So much felt exaggerated, even fabricated, for the sake of the joke. There was a moment when I actually rolled my eyes and that’s never a good thing. The moment when Sedaris writes: “Now I was a stinkpot and a thief. It occurred to me to say something, but I thought it might be better to wait and see what he came up with next.” I rolled my eyes at this because Sedaris himself says he’s not the type of person who would have said something, or even think quickly enough on his feet to say something in the moment, so the claim that he’d considered doing so plays false to me, but also the line “see what he came up with next” made me stop and wonder what Sedaris would come up with next.

Even the dialogue seems fake to me. It’s more comical than believable. “Golly, Pete?” Really? Did she really say that? Maybe, but this seems more like a caricature he’s painting than a reenactment of an actual memory which makes me wonder if maybe he’s the one doing the discriminating here. This dialogue feels so fabricated, forced and false to me that if it really had happened just like this then I’d probably recommend changing it in the story anyway to make it seem more believable. Just the fact that a story is true isn’t always enough to make it believable.

Sedaris admits “I was now licensed to hate this couple as much as I wanted. This made me happy, as I’d wanted to hate them from the moment I’d entered the subway car and seen them hugging the pole.” It seems to me that it was his reaction to the Texas college kids that upset him. I think he made up the story about the couple because the story about the Texas kids wasn’t enough to fill the essay. Later, after picking the couple apart and mentally mocking them, Sedaris says: “In disliking them, I was forced to recognize my own pretension, and that made me hate them even more.” Immediately after this, as if given a gift from the karma gods Sedaris was given a reason to hate the couple as if he hadn’t already made up his mind to do so. This felt a bit too convenient and for me was the turning point when I lost my faith entirely in the story.

Sedaris gives us several clues that may imply he’s making this story up. Again there was the burlap, which I can’t seem to let go of, and there’s also the memory of his sister shouting: “Good luck beating that rape charge.” Also, the fact that Sedaris seems to have taken all of this as a compliment, like he let it go in his imagination a bit too far to the point he was enjoying the implication that he could have been a sly thief, leads me to think he was too busy daydreaming on that train to have absorbed such a detailed and dialogue filled recap of actual events.

On my first read I was already feeling skeptical of the story and I found myself wondering how much was true versus how much was made up simply for the sake of the “don’t judge a book by its cover” theme. Sedaris seemed hell bent on teaching this lesson. But after reading it again, letting it sit for a bit and looking back, I think the lesson goes a step further. Perhaps Sedaris is also saying: “Don’t believe everything you hear.” Or, in this case, read.

Unit 3’s lecture on Character says: “As you begin to develop in your writing character sketches, remember that you have precious little time to convey a life of a person to a reader, and so finding (and, if need be, altering or creating) these moments can be key; if you can create a strong, visual, memorable image of a person, where a distinct personality is conveyed through a line, an exchange, or an action, you can really do wonders to unlock the power of a story.”

Sedaris took this lesson to heart as he described the characters in his story. He painted vivid pictures of these people, perhaps too vivid and overly detailed. Details are good, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes when a story has too many details, if any one detail starts to seem even slightly off, even just a tad BS-ish, then the rest of the story quickly falls down like dominoes.

My brother is a horrible liar. When he lies, he has a few “tells.” For one, he smirks when he lies, like his body knows he’s a horrible liar and is laughing at his brain for even attempting such a thing. But, in addition to the smirk, he just flat out says too much. When he’s telling the truth, he gets to the point quicker and doesn’t take a bunch of detours. But when he lies, he piles on the details like he’s hoping one of them (or the combination of so many perhaps) will be the one that convinces me he’s telling the truth. Instead, more often than not, the opposite happens. Somewhere in the abundance of details he loses me altogether. And this is what Sedaris did.

A few paragraphs before the American couple acted scared of him Sedaris says: “People are often frightened of Parisians…” It’s like he was setting up his story—or setting up his joke. This could be seen as foreshadowing, I guess, but then there was just something about the way Sedaris continuously changes his reasoning for not speaking up. Every few paragraphs or so, Sedaris offers a new reason why he isn’t reacting. At first, insulted by the couple’s comments, he says he stayed quiet so he could criticize them in his head. Then when they accuse him of stealing, Sedaris still doesn’t say anything because he wants to see what they’ll “come up with next,” then because he doesn’t want to risk receiving an awkward apology that would result in an uncomfortable handshake, then because he’s trying to come up with a witty response or he’s daydreaming about the big scene with the cops. I wonder if he had simply stuck to that first reason, my mind might not have shifted so much and that shifting, I think, in the end caused me to stop focusing on his characters and start looking at him and his thoughts and actions instead.

In Picka Pocketoni, there was a moment when Sedaris saw and took an opportunity to pretend to be someone else and he let his imagination take him to another place. His intention was to take us with him on the journey and while he achieved this to a degree, especially through his humor, his characters and the story he told about his alleged experience on the train in Paris that particular day came across instead as exaggerated, fabricated, preachy and contrived.

Although I laughed a lot along the way, rather than pull me into his world and inspire me to feel connected to him and to his story and experiences, Sedaris lost me on this one.

Works Cited:

Sedaris, David. Me Talk Pretty One Day. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001.

“Untitled”

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I wrote this “poem” a few weeks ago in response to an event that happened with my dad. He’s been going through a lot of changes lately and, as a family, we’ve been struggling trying to seek medical assistance and a diagnosis. Yesterday, he was finally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Dementia.

The following is less a poem and more or less a vomiting of my feelings onto the page. It’s raw and unedited and I plan to leave it that way.

I’m going to see my dad tomorrow. So I’m sharing this with you now as a way of getting it, along with some of the feelings and fears it represents, off of me as I move with my family into the future and try to figure out what this diagnosis means for my dad, for my family and for me.

Untitled by Val Zane
It’s not so hard for me to think of you as crazy considering you’ve always been completely nuts
For as long as I’ve known you. That’s right. Forever. Or for my forever anyway.
“They either love him or hate him,” I always say.
I bet you don’t even know that I say that about you. Well, I do.
But who cares what they think anyway? Or what I think or say for that matter.

Just tell me another joke. I need to laugh.
What happened to the eight again? Or was it the nine?
No wait. Now, I remember. It was the seven who ate nine and ten.
But when you tell it, it always sounds so dirty.
I’ll never be able to tell it like you.

It’s like asking a stranger for directions.
“Excuse me.” Smile, nod. “Make a left at the McDonald’s?” Uh-huh. “Thanks.” Smile again, then wave cordially and drive away, when I’d rather just skip ahead to the part when I call you.
“You shouldn’t talk to strangers,” you’d say with a quip that no one’s stranger than you.
It’s certainly strange how you always know how to find me and guide me home
Even from a payphone in the middle of nowhere. Do you remember payphones?
You were my compass before GPSs were ever invented.
With you I’m never lost.
But without you?

Mom said she spoke to the doctor.
Undiagnosable.
Well, sure, that goes without saying because you’re nothing if not interesting
Isn’t that what you always say?
Maybe you could use your map and point them in the right direction?
Oh I don’t know. It’s probably in the trunk of your car with your wallet and your keys.
They should’ve said: “We don’t know but whatever this is, it sucks.”
When they came and took you away the other day, I wasn’t there. That sucked more.
Maybe it’s your medicine. Or just old age? Dementia? Alzheimer’s? Senility?

It’s funny but I still see you and hear you the way you were. The way you’ll always be to me.
Or maybe that’s not so funny after all. See, you’re not the only one who’s confused.
Remember that time we were talking and walking together hand in hand and you stumbled and tumbled ass-over-teakettle, then stood back up and kept on walking like nothing happened?
That’s the stuff legends are made of!
You’re my hero. And anyone who says that’s cliché is just another asshole.
Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke. Right?

Is that what this is, just another one of your jokes?
It’s like you’re faking it, pulling a prank, playing a game.
Are you testing me, like way back then when you tested me on the state capitals?
Well the joke’s on you because I’ve forgotten most of those too. Have you?
Maybe it’s not me you’re trying to trick. Maybe it’s him. The hooded dude with the grim expression. Do you honestly think if he thinks you’re crazy, then maybe he’ll walk on by?
I’m not sure that’s how it works, but I guess it’s worth a try.

This just doesn’t feel real to me. Why do I refuse to believe what everyone else sees?
Even the butts of your best jokes are laughing at me.
But that’s okay because they don’t know you like I do.
You’re the opposite of… or was it the epitome of charming?
“But looks aren’t everything,” you’d say.
Tell me again about the man from Nantucket who uses his bucket for God knows what
And that thing he used to say… what was it again? Oh, does it even matter what he said?

When, in the scheme of things, I’m trying to recall all the things you’ve said along the way
All the laughs we’ve shared, your words of wisdom and the lessons you’ve taught me.
But I can’t. Oh great. Now I’m crying. And through all those empty threats, this is the first time you’ve actually given me something to cry about.
In a way, it’s like you’re already gone. Or not yet gone but already forgotten?

How is it I can recall all of the pointless, useless information?
Cross on the green, not in between. Or how E equals MC squared. All the things that Rob Base knows about and the ingredients to that cheesecake Mom loves so much. How flared jeans make my butt look small(er) or your secret for making the world’s best pancakes.
I remember it all but I’m forgetting you? Maybe I’m going crazy, too.
The irony is that if you weren’t stuck on a loop right now you’d be mad at me for making this about me. But don’t even try to deny the truth because we both know that’s what we do.

You’re the one who taught me ten and two. Don’t you remember?
And the best advice anyone’s ever given me: “If you feel like you’re going to fall, fall on your ass.”
And you know what? I still do that all the time.
Fall on my ass that is.

You asked me to write your stories down but they’re your stories, not mine.
I’ve given you books, journals, voice recorders.
Damn it, Dad. I don’t want to be mad at you but…
Couldn’t you grab a spare square from the diner or that coffee truck you loved so much?

Remember those road trips when we’d just talk? The turnpike was so beautiful at night.
Or that time we went out of the way to cross the Brooklyn Bridge just because?
Or when we drove straight from Philly to Florida and I read every single sign while Mom slept?
You said it was my responsibility to keep you up. See, you taught me about responsibility.

It’s so easy to remember your stories when I’m in them but I guess those are our stories
But the others? The ones which came before me?
Well, this is precisely why I wanted you to write them down!
Not just for me. For you. For mom. For the princess who calls you “Pah-Pah.”

“But I don’t write,” you said. “That’s what you do.”
And you’re right. You’re always right. And in a way, you’re the reason why I write.
But to write your life story is… well it’s impossible.
“Nothing’s impossible,” you’d say. “If you work hard enough for it.”
Shut up, Dad!

No, wait. I take that back. I’m sorry. Please keep talking. Start from the beginning.
Because I need your help. That’s why.
Because I can’t tell your stories—not like you do. At least not without you.
Oh no, you’re fading again.

So you have the stories and I have the pen. Is that how this works?
Well, then I think you’d better start talking because you’re running out of time

And I’m running out of ink.

Haiku and Haibun Fun

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As I wind down toward the light at the end of the tunnel of this eight week poetry class, which has been a wonderful experience all around, these have been my favorite forms so far!

Haiku was awesomely freeing. I loved writing haiku (even though I sort of hate that the plural form of haiku is haiku; it just seems so pretentious, doesn’t it? Just me? Oh.). Anyway, I feel like I could write haiku all day long. Not just the word “haiku” though that’s fun, too, but haiku themselves. In fact, yesterday when I wrote my haibun/haiku, my husband and I started randomly free styling haiku. The game got old (rather quickly, especially for him) but we both had fun.

Even though I read it’s not necessary to stick to the 5-7-5 format, I somehow found safety and comfort in counting syllables and always felt finished once I liked the poem itself and landed on the correct, so to speak, count.

I also really enjoyed the haibun aspect of this. It was different than my typical prose in that I felt it needed to sound more poetic, if that makes sense, so I worked to include images and descriptions. Still, I wanted to stay true to my style so I kept it as tight and concise as possible and I tried not to go overboard (for me) with the flowery descriptions which aren’t quite me. I went as far into the descriptions as my skin would currently let me. I’m comfortable writing prose though and I’m no stranger to present tense so for me this was natural and fun.

Content and form seemed to play equal roles in haiku/haibun. This week’s class activity was to wrote a haibun containing haiku (see my previous post for the product of said activity). For me, while the haiku portion was easier, for lack of a better word, to write, the haibun grew naturally out of the haiku. While the haiku is a sort of clever and mysterious little poem, the haibun was like the haiku’s helper. It broadened the message, added clarity and together, I found, they told a real story.

I really love where I ended up with this and I want to write more of these. The haiku (man, I really want to write/say “haikus”) just spilled out of my brain! On that note, what a wonderful way to rev the creative engine and get pumped up to write more? I think haiku would also work well to get the creative juices flowing and maybe even serve as a weapon against writer’s block.

Since I’m usually writing longer projects, like novels and screenplays, this was a refreshing break from the norm. While some of the longer poetic forms, like the sestina, frustrated me, there was nothing frustrating about haiku. It was simply nice to write something so small and yet still so meaningful and creatively fulfilling.

Of course, I can’t speak for the quality of my haiku since I’m so new to poetry in general and am learning as I go but I truly enjoyed the process of writing it and I’m happy with my results. I wonder if I could write a haiku a day… I bet I could!

This poetry class has been a great experience for me and this week was the icing on the cake. It’s hard to believe that in just one more week it will be over. These eight weeks truly flew.

Sestina: A Poetic Mountain

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This week I wrote (and posted) my first sestina.

In case you’re as unfamiliar as I was, here’s the definition of a sestina according to Merriam-Webster:

Ses-ti-na (noun): a lyrical fixed form consisting of six 6-line usually unrhymed stanzas in which the end words of the first stanza recur as end words of the following five stanzas in a successively rotating order and as the middle and end words of the three verses of the concluding tercet.

By nature, I tend to be sort of obsessive and competitive (especially with myself) and writing a sestina was extremely challenging for me. So it’s probably needless to say that ever since I learned I needed to write a sestina for class this has been a severe internal (and external) struggle for me.

Start, stop, start, stop. I counted (because I had to) and can you believe I started and stopped 16 different poems before finally writing one all the way through? Yes 16!

I definitely overthought it for weeks. I read all the sestinas in our reading materials, some over and over again, and I studied the process suggestions for writing one both in our course materials and online. I tried (and when I say tried I mean TRIED) the technique of choosing six words and ended up wildly frustrated every single time. Eventually I gave up.

I have to say that this time around, with my final attempt, procrastination played a big role in my process. I’m not typically a big procrastinator. As a former event planner, I thrive on checking things off my mental To Do list so having this sestina teasing and taunting me was no fun. But as this week approached and the deadline for our sestina assignment grew ever closer, I knew I had to eventually stop procrastinating, sit down and try again. So I inhaled, exhaled, cleared my mind and just started writing. The sestina I submitted this week was the product of that. It sort of just came to me.

I think in the end the answer to my sestina issues was simplification. Also, I needed to trust my instincts. My best writing usually comes from “just writing” so that’s what I did. That and once I stopped pressuring myself to write the best sestina ever written (I know I’m a mess), then the words started flowing and about ten minutes later I had my sestina. It’s not even close to what I originally intended to write but I’m okay with that. In a way, when I read it back, the rhythm of my sestina and the sort of circle effect it seems to portray reminds me of how I felt writing it. In some way I can’t quite put my finger on, to me, it feels like a round of “Row Your Boat” or like one of those songs that goes “second verse same as the first” but, again, maybe that’s just me.

It’s hard to say if it was the sestina’s strict rules which hindered me or more so the pressure I put on myself to follow those rules. I actually started to enjoy the nature of the form once I decided it was okay to relax and have fun with it. Midway through my final attempt, it became like a game or a riddle that needed to be figured out more so than this poetic mountain I had to climb.

That said; I’m glad I refused to let this sestina beat me and I learned a lot in the process of writing it. Similar to other challenges in life, I’m especially happy to be able to say I got through it and I’m even happier to say it’s over.

But now I’m compelled to go back and finish the other 16. 🙂