Monthly Archives: December 2014

Stand Clear of the Closing Doors-2014 in Review

This year has contained a great many closing doors. It’s funny really that I, who have never been one for goodbyes, have had a year of them. In fact, if I had to give a slogan to 2014, it would be “The Year of Goodbyes.” Goodbye job. Goodbye college. Goodbye friends. Goodbye home. Goodbye. Goodbye? Or see you later?

I like “The Year of See You Later.” I have never been good at goodbyes.

The one I remember most clearly is the one with N, when I moved from Wisconsin to New York. It’s so vivid for two reasons: one, it was one of my last Wisconsin goodbyes. Two, it was completely unexpected.

The plan was to leave at 3am on Sunday morning. But then at five pm on Saturday night, it occurred to the friend going with me that it would be easier to leave right then—and she was right. I started texting N, some conglomeration of “I’m not ready,” and “I changed my mind,” and “I don’t want to go to grad school anymore.” Her response stuck with me: “You are leaving AND beginning. Here is done. You belong in New York.” I sat in the middle of the living room floor, tracing the words on my phone while everyone around me was cracking up at the glory of Sharknado 2. I had finally stopped crying just before that, but the tears came again in earnest. I swiped them away and bit my cheek to bid them goodbye. “I guess,” I texted N back.

As I hit send, the doorbell rang. When I came around the corner, I could see N through the screen door. “What the actual fuck…?” I opened the door and stepped on to my porch.

“We are late, as we need to meet a train, but I thought that you could use this.” And we hugged. A lot.

“I just stopped crying,” I said, biting on my cheek again. “I’m not ready, N. I’m not ready to say goodbye.”

“It’s not goodbye,” she said, stepping down off the porch to where her partner was waiting in the car. “It’s see you later.”

I watched as they drove away and whispered, “See you later,” to the wind.

This really has been a year of “see you later.” In February, I went to Georgia for a convention over my son’s birthday, making it the first year I wouldn’t see his memorial stone on his day. Now I see that as preparation for this year. That same trip was also a test for my PTSD, one that, with the help of a new friend, I passed with flying colors. Another preparation for this year. I followed up this monumental trip by kicking ass at my final semester of college, and graduating with honors. I got into multiple Creative Writing graduate programs, leaving me to pick where in the country I wanted to go. I took a vacation in Hawaii, because I was no longer afraid of traveling after Georgia. I said “see you later” to my friends and moved 1000 miles across the country with just my cat for companionship. I moved to New York, which is huge and filled with people; this is something I’m not sure I could have done a year ago. I can successfully navigate the subway system, and I have never gotten lost. I survived my first semester of graduate school. In fact, I aced it.

A lot of doors closed for me this year. But a lot of others opened right after them.

2014 has been what would call a challenging year. Good, but challenging. I had formed many great relationships that I had to let go in the process of moving to New York. Recently, I received a writing prompt of sorts asking me to evaluate these relationships in the greater scheme of, well, my survival of everything. If I want my thesis to be a more in-depth telling of my story, I need to examine all the sides of it. I realized while working on this prompt that there are many people have been very, very important to me—and just moving away does not make them any less important or change their significance in any way. I have spent my first five months in New York acclimating, but also missing those I left behind. I didn’t fully let the door close. I think that, in the process of that, I’ve missed out on meeting new people because I held everyone up to a standard they could never achieve. The fact that I am in a new physical location doesn’t mean I have to give up the circles of people I have; it simply means I have to enlarge them. Open them up, and open myself up to them. Close some doors to open new ones, making a bigger and better “house” in which everyone and everything is connected.

Many times when I’m on the subway, I see people who are late to the train. They ignore all of the signs, running down the stairs at a breakneck pace, to stick their arm in the closing doors in a desperate attempt to shove themselves into the car. This doesn’t always work. In fact, the doors snap shut so suddenly, it hurts to get a limb stuck in there. More often than not, I see these rushing people waiting on the platform for the next train as those of us who made it on time pull away from the station. They know that they have to be willing to let the door close.

There is a reason why the overhead announcer tells you to “stand clear of the closing doors” every single time the train doors slam shut—they could, literally, take off a limb. There is also a reason why “see you later” cannot always be avoided. When you aren’t open and willing to let a door close and move on to the next, you miss out on what you would have had at that next door. Had I not come to graduate school, had I not said goodbye, had I not said see you later … I don’t know what I would be doing now, but I know that it wouldn’t be this. If I hadn’t let the door close, I would still be standing in the same exact spot. And I don’t know if I would be as happy there.

That’s a lie. I know I wouldn’t be.

Every time I hear the announcements on the train now, I smile. I think of my friends. I think of the year I have had, the year that has been one giant closing door. One huge see you later. And I know that the door closed because another was coming along, open, after it.

I have changed, and that change has been for the better. So I love this year, the year of “See You Later.” And a part of me hopes that next year will have just as many closing doors as this one did.

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Seventh Grade, Continued

Jason was a five foot walking terror with black hair and Gap clothing. Quiet, unassuming, non-brand name clothing wearing, stringy hair me made the perfect victim.

We were in the seventh grade hallway—I had just come from getting my food in the cafeteria and was on my way to lunch in my Language Arts teacher’s classroom; we were reading Hatchet in class that month and I wanted to get ahead. Jason was coming from our math classroom, having been forced to stay after class to pay penance for an inappropriate comment to the teacher.

“Hey, lice-head,” he called as he came towards me.

I had tried to pass off my fourth grade lice incident as an allergic reaction to a new shampoo, but my classmates couldn’t let it go. The nickname followed me out of elementary school and right on up to junior high.

Jason moved so that he was right in front of me. “Why don’t you ever wash your hair?”

I did wash my hair. But it didn’t matter what I said. I clutched my lunch tray closer to my chest. The hallway was completely empty. No one was coming to save me.

“Why don’t you answer me?”

I shook my head. “I wash it every other day.”

“Maybe if you washed it more, you wouldn’t have lice head,” he retorted.

“That was in fourth grade.”

Jason looked me up and down. I had nightmarish visions of him hitting the bottom of my lunch tray and sending my food flying everywhere, a la some TGIF show. I took a step backwards as he fluffed his hair.

“You know how you could have nice hair? Like mine?”

I didn’t answer.

The bottle came out of nowhere—a tiny white Paul Mitchell salon sample bottle. Jason opened the cap and squeezed the shampoo all over my head. I froze as the liquid oozed down my head, onto my shoulders, my backpack, my lunch tray. My lip trembled, but I refused to let him see me cry. Jason dropped the bottle onto my lunch tray and sauntered past me towards the cafeteria. I threw my food away and spent the next ten minutes scrubbing shampoo from my hair and clothes. The shampoo burned my eyes as I tried to shove my head under the short sink. I cried, unsure if it was from the burning or the anger.

When I arrived in the Language Arts classroom, fifteen minutes later to my lunch spot than normal, the teacher asked me why I was soaking wet. I buried my face in my book instead of answering, because an answer would only bring bullying worse than a shampoo bath. Ironically, one of the first lines of Hatchet I read that day was: “He did not know how long it took, but later he looked back on this time of crying in the corner of the dark cave and thought of it as when he learned the most important rule of survival, which was that feeling sorry for yourself didn’t work.”

I smiled, tied my wet hair back with a pencil, and leaned back to finish my book.

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What I Learned My First Semester as a Grad Student (Or, Writing Lessons That Are Also Life Lessons)

I learned a lot my first semester as a creative writing graduate student. I have grown a lot this semester. I have wanted to quit numerous times, but I didn’t. As a result, I’ve learned a lot. And now I want to share it with y’all. The following are some of the writing lessons I’ve learned that are also life lessons. Because writing is life.

  • You can’t write nonfiction without imagination. You have to imagine what it’s like to be in a certain community.
  • Detail is what gives you culpability and tangibility; it forms a bridge between the emotions you are sharing and the reader.
  • Show, don’t tell. Be dramatic as opposed to expository. Don’t just flat out explain.
  • You don’t need to tell everything.
  • Your reader does not know what you know.
  • Be kind to the reader. Don’t too obviously manipulate or confuse them. It isn’t nice to screw with people’s heads.
  • Unless there’s a really good reason to withhold information, don’t do it. Some of you will know it and some of you won’t, but the writer knows it. The writer has a responsibility to share what they know with the reader.
  • You’re going to write something, and people are either going to like it or they’re not. You can’t really control that.
  • Make your writing as visual as possible so that the reader can see what you are trying to say.
  • A writer is nothing more than a person who knows how to express themselves.
  • Get underneath the surface as much as possible.
  • Be one on whom nothing is lost. Create a new world.
  • The voice you construct is both you and not you.
  • If you bring the gun into the room, it should go off by the end of the play. Otherwise, why is it there?
  • The problem with long quotes is that they aren’t your voice; the reader is reading for your voice, not for the quotes.
  • Who cares who told you something? It’s yours now. Own it.
  • If you want to make a portrait, you have to use shadows.
  • Your audience is probably someone like you, who doesn’t necessarily have all the knowledge or experience you do. You write for yourself, but also for strangers.
  • Be honest, critical, and ruthless with your narrator.
  • Start from the edges of the situation and move in.
  • If you’re interested in what they have to say, people like to talk and will open up. You’re gonna write anyway, so people will want their point to be heard.
  • Don’t put it in the piece if you don’t know for sure it’s true.
  • Keep in mind that when you talk to someone, they could be lying.
  • Not everything is known. There’s always more you can find out, and you can’t let people dissuade you.
  • People want a complicated view, but you’re going to piss people off. There’s always someone who will love your work, and always someone who will hate it. You have to love what you’re doing.
  • It’s very hard to get a perspective on your own material.
  • When you find you’re hitting repetition, you know it’s time to stop.
  • Too much material not organized can fall through the cracks.
  • Be open to surprises, and remember it’s your work. You do what you want. You make it happen.
  • You have to earn money, but in some ways you can’t spend forever. Give yourself a deadline and stick to it as much as you can. Try to do something every day. This way you’re always in touch with what you’re doing.
  • Being minimal is okay. Clear and concise. Cut the bullshit. You could also have a lot going on, and that’s okay too.
  • A piece does not necessarily need a resolution. It does, however, need a moment of repose or reflection.
  • It may not make sense for the narrator to become an entirely new self. It depends on the scope of the piece.
  • If you’re straining too much to read something, maybe it’s what you’re reading, not you.
  • Sometimes it’s hard to tell if your experiment is working—so trust yourself.
  • If you’re confused about something, that’s fine. But the piece can’t be confused. It is fine to create the experience of confusion, but it is not fine to confuse the reader.
  • You can’t just talk about your perception of the information, or you’ll lose the reader. Know as much as possible about the subject before you start writing.
  • Own what you are doing; make it your experience. Master it as much as your own experience.
  • When your voice is wobbling, you haven’t assimilated the material enough yet.
  • Nobody is gonna make the time for you. You just have to be pretty ruthless about making it yourself.
  • You’re a writer if you’re writing.
  • Don’t put crap out there; you want to represent yourself well.
  • Remember this mantra: This is the best I can do right now. Your best may change later, but for now, it’s okay.

One semester down! I DID IT! This is the best I can do right now. And someday, I will do even better.

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On Speaking Spanish in a Spanish Land

I don’t speak Spanish.

Never has this fact been more clear to me than when I moved to my current neighborhood. I was buying groceries the other day, and as I loaded my things on the belt, the cashier started speaking to me in Spanish.

“Hola! Como estás?” she asked.

“Um…bien,” I replied hesitantly.

This opened up a can of worms. Or rather, a can of rapid fire Spanish. I froze.

I flashed back to a conversation I had in the hallway of my undergrad university almost two years before. I was taking eight weeks of concentrated Spanish because the university had mandated I review from the four years I had taken the language in high school. I was angry about it at the time; I didn’t feel like I needed the review.

“Tienes un oído para español,” my professor told me after we finished our midterm conversation in her office.

You have an ear for Spanish.

“Graciás. Me gusta aprender.”

Thanks. I like to learn.

“Su alta escuela español ha llegado de nuevo a tú. Qué vas a hacer con tu español? Por qué estás en mi clase?”

Your high school Spanish is coming back to you. What are you going to do with your Spanish? Why are you in my class?

“Necesito dos años para estudios de posgrado.”

I need two years for graduate school.

“Tú podrías ir más lejos en ella si quería.”

You could go further in it if you wanted to.

“Lo haría si tuviera tiempo.”

I would if I had time.

There is never enough time.

I didn’t have to think about the Spanish then. It just came naturally.

I came back to the present and the cashier was staring at me. What had she said? I understood her just fine. She had asked how far I had to walk. Whether I wanted the plastic bags doubled so they’d be easier to get home. There were at least a hundred things I could say floating just on the tip of my tongue, Spanish words just within reach that I couldn’t quite shape. I could communicate. If only I could make myself do it, say the words.

But if I said the wrong thing?

This is not my home, not my environment. Not my comfort zone. I am overthinking; I am taking to much time to reply.

What if I said the wrong thing?

“No hablo español,” I muttered quietly, pulling my debit card from my wallet and swiping it in the machine.

The cashier shrugged and doubled my bags without my asking before handing them to me and thanking me for coming.

I walked out of the store, two bags in each hand. Silent.

I don’t speak Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish, but I could if I could just be unafraid.

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