writing

Writing Fiction Instead

FreeImages.com/John Hughes

FreeImages.com/John Hughes

I haven’t written a blog post in the past couple of weeks, breaking my summer promise to myself to blog every week. There have absolutely been holidays that reordered my work week and project phone calls to plan and distractions entailing crossed fingers (whether the World Cup or otherwise).  But also, I spent some of that time, previously devoted to blogging, trying to write fiction instead.

Nothing big, or complicated, or even really good, probably.  But I had an idea that I thought would be great for a short story, and so I sat down to try to write it.  I wrote as hard as a could on real paper and in pen for the 30 minutes or so that I had at my disposal.  A few days later, I felt like typing, so I opened a new Word document, typed the sentence I had left off with, and continued on writing that way instead.  The story isn’t fully drafted yet, and I’m not sure where to go with it, but it matters to me that I had the idea.  A few days later, I had another idea for a story.  I haven’t started it yet, but the idea has stayed with me.

For me, losing the ability to have those ideas had become the most frustrating part of post-graduate school life. When I finished my dissertation, I felt empty of ideas.  No matter how much I read or what workshops I went to, I couldn’t find an idea I felt like I could pursue further. Any idea I did have disappeared from my memory quickly, which became especially frustrating because I had always been the person other people counted on to remember facts and scholars’ names and details of arguments.

I’m sure some people would argue that my idea loss has been symptomatic of something more serious than just blahs – whether that’s grief, a post-academic symptom that Lisa Munro has explained so clearly, or something else.  Maybe it was, but it also kept me from starting anything even as pieces of those workshops or readings made sense to me.  As Elizabeth Gilbert wrote in Big Magic:

“ideas spend eternity swirling around us… Mostly, you will not notice. This is likely because you’re so consumed by your own dramas, anxieties, distractions, insecurities, and duties that you aren’t receptive to inspiration… The idea will try to wave you down… but when it finally realizes that you’re oblivious to its message, it will move on to someone else” (35-36). 

I think of that passage often. When I first read it, a few years ago, it gave me comfort because I knew exactly what she meant.

But now, this one idea that I made contact with has persisted to the tune of over 1000 words and counting. I have dipped in and out of this idea, writing more, or doing the labor of typing up the handwritten words and editing as I go. The period I’m in now feels like the familiar point of academic writing that came after I had read articles and books and pieced together what other people felt about a painting or a theory and everything has been poured into my brain to mingle and interact and finally (finally!) produce an argument of my own.

So when I have time, I write. I have much more to write for this space about my trip earlier this summer., but I also have a couple more ideas for fiction writing that seem like they might push through to the page. I’m not sure how my story will end, but it feels like such a monumental leap forward to have these ideas stick around and to work with them as I am able.

The 2017 Cleveland Inkubator + Writing Habits

I'm the ginger in the row under the purple banner.

I'm the ginger in the row under the purple banner.

Yesterday, I went to the 3rd annual Cleveland Inkubator, a free, day-long writing conference put on by a local nonprofit Literary Cleveland. This organization began about two years ago, and in a sense, I’ve been there from the start—though I’ve only taken one of Lit Cleveland’s paid workshops, I’ve attended all three Inkubators and participated in workshops on fiction and non-fiction with a number of local writers whose work I enjoy.   My face is even front and center on their marketing materials (see above).   Yet sometimes I still ask myself: am I truly a writer? Or is that just what my business card says? If I’m feeling particularly flat on any given day, I follow that up with: and why did I list “writer” on my business card in the first place?

This year at the Inkubator, there were a number of suitable workshops for “agnostic” writers; that's how I like to refer to people who can’t decide if they’re writers. Another workshop could stoke my interest in the paranormal and occult. I started the day with a workshop on “Facing the Blank Page” a.k.a. the true story of my every effort to write fiction. I followed that up with “The First Page of Your Novel”—this workshop focused on how good the first pages of famous novels are and how to make your first page good enough to convince a publisher to keep reading. The last workshop I did—“Tarot for Writers”—suggested using tarot cards as a tool when you’re stuck. Not as a crutch, but as a way of brainstorming from one choice about a character to the next. All of the instructors gave practical exercises that could be applied in any situation, and they also gave advice for continuing along a writing path.


Around the time that I was in middle school, a local independent bookstore near my town sponsored a yearly short story contest. My middle school English teacher had us write short stories for the contest every year—she would choose the best two or three stories from the class and then submit them to the store’s contest. I’ve written before on this blog about how, as a small child, I wrote stories all the time, but this contest was different. We came to expect it. We let ideas marinate over time knowing when the contest would again become the subject of our lessons. The most beautiful part? We were allowed to write about whatever we wanted, and this teacher, like many other writers I’ve met since, encouraged us to write what we knew.

What I knew as a fifth-grader was that I really loved my cat, Mayflower, and I wanted him (yes… him) to be some kind of superhero. So I wrote a ghastly short story about an alien cat with superpowers, to which my heroic teacher responded with unmerited grace and kindness. It did not make the final cut for the store’s contest.

What I knew as a sixth-grader was my then very active passion for medieval history, the remnants of which now mostly serve to inform my consumption of Game of Thrones. This knowledge, combined with an especial interest in the Black Death, meant that my protagonist was a young girl, about my age at the time, who began the story by walking the streets of her village as a cart rolled by with a man yelling, “Bring out your dead!” This, too, did not make the cut, but was more successful as a story.

And what did I know as a seventh-grader? My tremendous interest in grisly moments in history remained, and this time I wrote my story about the Salem Witch Trials. Again, my protagonist was a girl, around my age, forced into nearly impossible circumstances. And this time, my teacher chose my story to move on to the store’s contest.

The bookstore has since closed, and I am not aware of any similar opportunity for kids that age in the area. But while it lasted, it meant that there was at least one time a year when a routine could be followed, a story cranked out and put up for review. It meant that, when my high school English teacher made a similar demand for a short story, it was a matter of flexing a muscle that’s already in shape. When she asked specifically for historical fiction, I wrote a story about a little boy who accidentally becomes embroiled in the Black Sox scandal—in that case, baseball was what I knew.


My point here is this: writing is a habit, and one that you need to practice and hone. Anyone will tell you that, but it’s one thing that I knew for certain when I was writing my dissertation. I didn’t always fool around with daily word goals, at least not until finishing was almost at hand. I did, however, make sure that for as many days as possible I was in the library trying to write between 3pm and 8pm—these were the hours I did best at writing. The words usually flowed the best when I had been reading all morning and could actively rework the thoughts and concepts I had just read.

Today, in my morning workshop, I had a long-needed moment of epiphany—a moment so clear that I can’t even remember what triggered it now. But I understood that I do, truly, know all the habits and techniques that it takes to write, whether that’s a novel or a non-fiction book.  Or blogging on a regular basis.  Or finally admitting that maybe it's time for me to go back to that dissertation, which I loved.  I just need to get that muscle back in shape.

Sadako and Hopsie

One of the exercises career coaches suggest for figuring out what kind of employment to pursue is to list things that you liked doing when you were younger.  The fact that I played clarinet pretty intensely, or that I spent about twelve hours (or more) per week at the dance studio, don’t seem particularly helpful in this sort of endeavor.  However, two events recently reminded me of something I had sort of forgotten that I loved to do: tell stories.

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I’ve been spending a lot of time on Etsy lately, hoping to find some clever feminist swag made by creative female artisans.  I came across the shop Dead Feminists, which sells letterpress prints of images inspired by quotes from feminist icons.  Among them, I saw a print with Japanese iconography and clicked through – it was a picture inspired by a quote from Sadako Sasaki: “I will write peace on your wings and you will fly all over the world."

PEACE UNFOLDS oversized postcard from  Dead Feminists on Etsy.

PEACE UNFOLDS oversized postcard from Dead Feminists on Etsy.

When I was in first grade, I had an extraordinary teacher.  I was quiet and awkward, and I didn’t like being around kids my age.  I wanted to spend my time with adults and books.  I think this teacher understood that clearly.  In her classroom, which was plastered floor to ceiling with all of our artwork and colorful bulletin boards, there was a corner in the back dedicated to story time. Almost every day, she would adjourn us to the carpeted floors of the story corner, and she would read us chapters of books—including Eleanor Coerr’s Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes.  By the time she chose Sadako, I had already read it a number of times, and it had become a favorite.  I was so excited that I would get to spend part of school time listening to something that I already loved; it was a comfort among all the other trials of the first grade classroom. 

But then my teacher became sick—so sick that she couldn’t talk.  So sick that now, as an adult, I admire her more for toughing that day out, for holding on to the idea that she owed us her presence, perhaps to finish that last bit of the story.  Yet because she couldn’t talk, she couldn’t finish reading Sadako to us. Then, she asked me if I would be willing to read that day’s portion to the class.  I did.  Making sure that the other kids knew the rest of the story was more important to me than any anxiety I might have had about speaking in front of a room full of people that already made me uneasy.

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Lately, my mom has been sorting out old papers.  This is no easy task.  Both of us keep too many things that we shouldn’t.  The last time I was home to visit, she pointed to some papers that she had left out on the table and said, “So uhh, do you want me to keep your novel?”  (Never underestimate my mother’s gift for sarcasm.)

It was hardly a novel, but was actually four or five large sheets of white paper stapled together as a book.  On the cover it said Hopsie’s Friend above an illustration of an eyeless bunny, drawn in orange crayon.  As I flipped through, I discovered that Hopsie, the rabbit, is unsure if she has any real friends or who might be available to become her friend.  As the end, the big reveal is that I am Hopsie’s real friend.  It is accompanied by a self-portrait that falls just short of Picasso-level abstraction. 

At five or six years old, I used to write these little books all the time.  All the time, truly.  I felt like I was a never-ending river of stories, that I could write forever and never run out of ideas to share.  I’m sure they were all relatively silly stories about bunnies and similar Disney-fied things, but I’m also sure that I was deadly serious about my craft.  And that teacher, who I adored, would let me read them out loud to the class during story time as if they were professional finished products.  That was how she knew reading Sadako out loud would be a breeze for me, and perhaps she thought that helping me share my work would make me more confident about producing it.

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I don’t think I’ve written any fiction since another teacher in middle school forced everyone to write a short story as an assignment.  Most of the time, I don’t feel that fiction is something I want to write.  Academic (art) history was my way of being able to write and to include literary flourishes without the success of the prose depending on them.  Sometimes, I sit down and try to write, fiction or nonfiction, even silly listicles (MY top 10 Buffy episodes, etc.), and usually fail.  Maybe returning to the melancholy bunny is the answer.

Bringing out historical thinking

Tutoring often has the benefit of putting me in the way of assignments designed by teachers devoted to helping their students think creatively.  These assignments interest me especially when they do two things: 1) ask students to apply skills and knowledge across disciplines and 2) allow for choice and ingenuity in application.  Because students and educators alike resist memorizing dates and events as ways of learning history, these types of assignments mobilize historical thinking skills that allow students to develop sophisticated understandings of historical information.

I recently encountered two of these smart assignments that I will summarize briefly here.

The first came as a question on a forum, with a student asking for advice on a question her teacher had posed.  She asked: “Is it possible to apply Newton’s Laws of Physics to interpreting history?”  I thought about this for awhile—though I certainly understood these scientific laws at some point during school, I was never the most intuitive of science students.  It seemed to me that the question must be metaphorical, asking something more like: how can we use the relationships that Newton posed between forces, actions, reactions, and so on to understand the forces that guide how historical events come into being?  In that sense, for example, the Third Law, in which “every action has an equal and opposite reaction,” suggests a particular way of looking at cause-and-effect relationships to determine how events beget other events and multiply outward into historical memory. 

The second came during an in-person tutoring session, where I was asked to help a student write a paper that required him to choose a historical object.  The student was then asked to use this object to stand in for an entire historical era.  By discussing the characteristics of the object, its uses, and how it came into being, a well-chosen object could therefore explain the most important trends in thought during its era and present an argument about how that era’s historical events transpired.  The example provided by the teacher used signs from nuclear fallout shelters in the 1950s to illuminate the events of the Cold War—by describing the circumstances in which it became necessary to build fallout shelters and label them with those signs, a student could make an argument about how the threat of communism actively influenced daily life for Americans during that era.  This assignment was, in fact, a research paper for an English class—but one grounded in the object-based inquiry that characterizes Museum Studies or Art History courses and which students usually don’t encounter until much later in their educations.

With assignments like these and careful guidance, students naturalize so many useful thought processes.  They begin to understand not only the nuts-and-bolts elements of history (the people, places, things, and dates), but also how events reach across time and bleed into each other and create influence.  They learn how arguments can be crafted through evidence and logic.  Consequently, they (hopefully) come to understand which sources are better than others, how to extract information from them, and also how to vet this evidence to make sure it is reliable.  These are skills that cross far beyond disciplinary boundaries, and when arguments are made about the importance of the humanities in any society, these broadly applicable skills bolster those arguments.  By moving between specific details and broad issues, by learning to make decisions and interpret information, these are the kinds of assignments that assert the necessity of historical thinking for all students.