Clarity, Doubt and Insanity: The Edit

Alexa Mazzarello

So, as you may know, I’m in revision mode on a memoir.

Last month, I decided to dedicate some space on this blog to document my journey to finish this project.

You can read about that here. I wrote that I wanted to make a record. To reveal moments of clarity, doubt and insanity; the process. That even as a writing coach, I, too, need a schedule and some witnesses to keep me accountable and encouraged.

To that end, here are some selected scenes from January for what I’m calling my periodic blogumentary.

Tuesday, January 2

I respond to every e-message and Facebook post as they arrive; run up and down the stairs  to stay on top of multiple loads of laundry; take my car in for a wash and balance my checkbook.

Thursday, January 4

First writing day of 2018. I dig back into a scene from the early nineteen-seventies where my mother checks in on my brother who, at 10, was quite shy. After I write this scene, my brother, now 55, calls to tell me about how he has taken a tough stance with the bank and car dealership so that we will not under any circumstances be going underwater with our mother’s car. 

Friday, January 5

I return to another scene from the early seventies, revisiting the moment my mother first sees me, post-auto accident. I remember her expression when she sets eyes on my mouth  – where my main physical injury occurred – and I am reminded of how she refused to look at her own reflection in the mirror when she was sick for so many months prior to her death last year.

Thursday, January 18

A coffee conversation with a friend who writes young adult fiction gives me the confidence to let go of sentences which didn’t read as authentically twelve for the section in my book written from a young girl’s perspective. She reminds me that what comes after trauma doesn’t come all at once, but in small bits, slowly. Later, I notice that I have more emotional distance from a pivotal scene with my father, which allows me to soften it and let the storyline create the scene’s poignancy.

 Monday, January 22

I take a treadmill break and am flooded with surety about adding a new “character.” She’s been in, then out, and in-and-out again. But with my heart rate up and sweat dripping down my brow, I suddenly recognize the mark she made on me as it relates to the narrative and when I get back to my laptop, my fingers can barely keep pace with the flow of my thoughts.

Tuesday, January 23

I write 3,500 words and take a long lunch break and watch “The Chew.” When I get back to my office to reread what I wrote, most of it is windup, but there are 250 really good words that are worth keeping.

Friday, January 25

I spend most of the day reading the entire manuscript – start to finish – making little tweaks here and there, and when I’m done, I think, this feels close to whole as I can get it today. I set it aside for a much-needed break.

Monday, January 29

I rise early and read certain sections of the manuscript again, the parts more recently written. I find typos, as well as phrases that need tightening or clarifying. A writer can endlessly edit. But I let out a long exhale, craft an email to my trusted editor, attach the document and press send. Several hours later, two ideas for new complete sections come to me. I sigh, grab my iPhone, and jot them down. A writer writes even when she isn’t writing.

Sunday, February 10

My editor tells me she’ll have notes for me in a few weeks. While I wait for feedback –  which we writers desperately need but desperately fret over, too – I am noticing more psychic space, more room for random thoughts even though many still have to do with the book. But I am also noticing an unhinged feeling, some rootlessness. A worrisome thought comes: Once this work is completed, who I will be?

Photo from Unsplash by Alexa Mazzarello.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More Light. Less Speed.

I am in the final month of the final section of the final chapter of the first full draft of a memoir. By August, I will have been working on the book for a year, longer really, as I’ve been writing pieces and parts and thinking about it since the late 1990s.

The process has felt at times like floodgate-opening relief and, at others, like trying to turn on a faucet hose that has been rusted solid. There have been glorious days where I could have been outside on a walk or at the garden or out with friends but instead I was inside on my behind on my office couch with my MacBook Pro in my lap wondering, especially on less productive days, why I was devoting myself to a project with no definitive paycheck or deadline that frequently brings pain, tears and the conjuring of difficult memories.

Yet, what finally got me to write, and keeps me writing, were the many more good reasons to do it, the ones outweighing the equally strong desire not to bother.

Among these were:

To make the story stop stalking me. To address it head on, to understand what happened. To listen to myself, in my own words. To heal.

To hone my craft. To capture a story, as beautifully and truthfully as I could, creating a long-form work that grabs and holds a reader’s attention, and hopefully, heart.

To witness myself writing it. To connect more deeply with my students and writer-colleagues who are writing memoir. So that I understand the process and can teach it better.

But as I am nearing the end of this first draft, facing a second and possibly third, I have been surprised to recognize more overarching reasons beyond little-old me.

I knew it was there, but now I have felt it and am certain of the energy-moving potency in identifying pieces of a life. Especially the broken ones. What it feels like to put them back together to reconfigure, shape them into art and make meaning from it. How it reveals new things about one’s life and one’s self.

Perhaps even more importantly, by addressing this personal business through art by reframing, understanding or making peace with it, we get the feeling of having turned something good from something not-so-good. Maybe it’s just that we made something out of what feels like nothing (but we all know it’s not nothing). We get to feel good, even just briefly, for having picked up our broken pieces and rearranged them. Like clearing out and organizing a drawer or closet so that it can be used more artfully, we can move a little more to the right or the left because there’s more room. Room and space to fill, repair, create or contribute something else. Which can bring us a sense of renewed or confirmed purpose and maybe even the chance to do some healing in the world.

The writing has, until recently, been going well. But lately I’ve had more not-so-good writing days, made all of the more poignant because I can see the end. It’s so close! Just a few days ago, for example, I realized that part of my ending would do a better job of inviting a reader into my story as the Prologue which then sent me into a long, arduous spell of rewriting. I really understand why some of my writing students stop, or take yearlong breaks, so far in. I see the temptation. The work can be hard and unrelenting.

But just as married people renew their vows, and businesses revisit their mission statement, I think we need to reaffirm our whys. To remember what we are doing it for. Maybe even to say it differently to match where we are now or possibly discover something new about why we are doing – or should continue to do – what we do.

In June, I gave myself a birthday present. A photography class. It’s so joyful to learn something new and so restorative for me to be away from words! I’ve learned that to highlight the subject you want and blur out the background – like the photograph above – you need to let in more light by way of a bigger aperture (the F stops), but the speed of the shutter needs to slow down (1/60 is the magic setting for no hand shaking). A good shot comes from a combination of how wide our eyes are open and the pace of a blink.

More light. And slowing down.

Reminders of what we need to focus on the things we want and let the rest fade away.

Photograph by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2017.

 

 

 

A Two-City Girl

We know the places we know sensorially. We know what they feel-like, smell-like, sound-like, look-like and taste-like, as if they weren’t separate from our own body. We have a rich and raw relationship with these places. They have imprinted on us; perhaps we have imprinted on them as well. But either way, these places have been a part of making us, us.

I am Chicago born, but spent the bulk of my childhood in Philadelphia. I returned to this city of my birth for college where I have lived for the past four decades. I’ve spent a lifetime back and forthing between the east coast and the Midwest.

Last month I was in Philadelphia for the first time in years. Somehow five years had flown by – the longest time I’ve ever been between soft pretzels and a Philly cheese steak.

 

As I drove around the city and then into the suburbs visiting family and friends, the skin of my hometown city reached out and touched me again: the narrow wind of the roads, the extreme tilt of the terrain, the density of the tree line.

It felt sweet to be back on Philly’s twisty streets, rolling hills and dells, especially in early spring. There was such beauty in the variance of its landscape. But a thought crossed my mind: You can only see what’s right in front of you at the time.

Compared to the long view in Chicago, where from the window of an airplane you see an actual grid of the city just like a paper map. Where you can stand by a window in any skyscraper and see for miles to Indiana, even Wisconsin. Where you can bike for miles on long stretches of smooth level planes without breaking a sweat with uninterrupted thoughts.

I took note of this because I am writing a memoir in which the central action takes place in these two very different cities. It’s got me thinking about how place stimulates us. How place is a character in our lives, pushing us in one direction or another.

And I began to wonder about place’s impact on me as a writer.

According to the oldest record I have – a coverless, ringed notebook with wide lined pages scribbled with misspelled words in pen and pencil – I began my writing career on March 24, 1967 at the age of 8 with a poem titled “Happieness.”

 

Happieness makes the whole world gleem,

It makes the moom happy

Yes I have seen

Happieness is good and nice

It’s better than falling on the ice!

 

 

 

I was clearly a deep devotee of Dr. Seuss.

The ditties that followed, each signed “By Miss Ellen Blum,” featured imaginary kittens, birds and bunnies, friends who look like hens, toys, a car, my school, a pencil, an unidentified pet, my bed, a bay, a clock, the month of March, and then, my mother, my father, my grandparents, the sky and the outside world.

Most of these were written at my grandparent’s house in Oak Lane, just north of Philadelphia, where I spent so many sleepovers. I remember because I recall how it felt to finish one and immediately show it to my grandmother who would encourage me to write another. (I think she was trying keep me occupied so she could get on with her game of Solitaire.)

Writing wise, I didn’t get much farther than that ringed notebook. There were school assignments of course, and a handful of songs written on piano and guitar.

But writing didn’t take hold of me until I moved away.

So Philadelphia was the place where I started to write. About the things that were right in front of me.

But Chicago is the place where I became a writer. The kind of writer who dives into things that are hidden below the surface.

Could the wide-open spaces of the Midwest have beckoned, urging me to expose hidden ones I grew up around? Was there more room to think in Chicago? Was the beautiful rolling landscape of the east coast more like a writing obstruction rather than a writing prompt? Were there too many hidden spaces in Philadelphia? Did it not feel safe? If I hadn’t spent so many years in the City of Brotherly Love before returning to the Windy City, would I have been inclined to write at all? Was there something about the tension between these two places that set something in motion?

I just know that there’s a connection between place and who we are.

I just wonder how deep it goes, the impact of place to make us, us.

Photograph by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2017.

My Inhale Year: How It Went

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Now that we are nearing the end of the year, the one in which I took an enormous inhale —  twelve months without writing  — I wanted to let you know how the experiment went.

Back in March, I wrote that I was taking a year off from writing anything other than social media and blog posts for three reasons that I was aware of at the time:

  1. a much-needed break
  2. to concentrate on the writing students in my life
  3. to work on publishing and business aspects related to Thread.

Halfway through the year, in May, I posted an update reporting more available time, but that some essential part of me was missing. A few months later, in August, I noted I was reading more. Earlier this month, I indicated that my adventure in not writing had revealed some very surprising, writerly, results.

That should catch you up.

But in the spring, there was a strange and surprising turn of events.

A longtime writing project that I had released the year before, thinking that it was completed, done, fini, drifted over and hung overhead. It moved deftly, left, right, up and down, like a handful of colored balloons in a light wind. They hovered and I swatted at them, hoping to push them away, feeling as if I had carried and nurtured them long enough.  I didn’t want them in my life.

Ah, but they weren’t going anywhere. I felt their presence for many weeks and sometime in late spring, as if they were tired of keeping themselves airborne, they popped, their skins falling right into my lap, into what appeared to be an actual shape.

It knocked me over, this wild and weird gift from above.

In moments, a structure appeared. And then, a title introduced itself. I took dictation, figuring I should at least scribble some notes. But it was more than mere scribbles. The balloon skins moved from flimsy to solidified, and in very short order I had an outline of a book-length memoir containing most of the elements of personal narrative that I teach my students: detail-scene-language-pacing-structure-storyline-voice-theme.

I’m calling the book,  Seven Springs, and – you can’t make this stuff up – I am halfway through a first draft. The process has been extraordinary, like no other I have known, as if the words that hid themselves from me for decades are now available for the plucking.

So I’m feeling a bit sheepish. I went into this thinking I knew myself. I was taking the year off from writing and I now have enough material to get a book proposal into the works. That wasn’t supposed to happen. A memoir was the farthest thing from my mind.

I think giving myself permission not to write made space for my own thoughts and the words of other writers. I tip-toed out on a limb, far from my comfort zone, on my own. My chest expanded and I breathed it all in. My inhale.

Instead of feeling like the wind or the sea that moves my projects  – my life – along, I see this year as the one in which I allowed myself to become a vessel – a receiver – and was gifted with gold.

Which is, of course, currency designed to share.

Stay close for more.

Photo by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Few Minutes and a Well-Lit Screen

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Those who secured an egg salad sandwich or a small plate of veggies and hummus, a chair or section of couch and a spot to see the writers of Thread read their work, know it’s so: Thread: A Literary Publication enjoyed a magnificent launch last Wednesday evening at the cozy Curt’s Cafe.

But you who came out, parked and then couldn’t find a place to put yourself, who knew? I offer you free admission to the next reading!

For you who couldn’t be there, let me set the scene: An overflow crowd of people sat quietly as nine writers read their essays on a variety of subjects from Lee Reilly’s caregiving curiosity about the life of her charge in “Finding Nancy H.,” to the raging hormones of Anne Heaton’s mid-pregnancy in “Crazy Bird” to what it feels like to want to light up a joint in Timothy Parfitt’s “Smoke Screen,” remember something good about one’s not-so-terribly good father in “The Bath,” or be Tom Wolferman in a job, outgrown, in “A Paper Trail.” It was a night of stories reflecting human experiences across the lifespan. A celebration not only of writers and the premiere issue of Thread but an evening devoted to the truth and beauty of the personal essay. My favorite of all the written forms!

Here’s what the cafe looked like before it was filled with story lovers:

 

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And here’s what it looked like after:

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And if you wanted to get some air in between readings, this is what it looked like from the street:

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Thread will be hosting three readings a year – the next one in April – to coincide with the release of each new issue. I’m already looking for a larger venue, so stay tuned about that! But for those of you who can’t make it for the readings on a Wednesday night, you’ll just have to find a few minutes and a place where you can read from a well-lit screen to soak up these artful word journeys.

What I love about personal essays is that they are indeed personal – sometimes painfully so – and yet the best ones touch on something in the reader, something universally human, and it has the potency to not only move us but even, possibly, to change us just a little bit.  Take Robert Grubb’s “Imprint.” A connection is made from a grown son to his mother when a memory is evoked by a new puppy who is trying his patience.

Here’s what all of the writers – and I –  looked like after the reading:

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I’ll be looking for submissions for future issues beginning in mid-January 2015.  Go to the Submissions Guidelines page of the Thread site for more about that. And so that you don’t miss reading dates and publication releases and posts about writing and creative process, take a minute to subscribe to this blog and to Thread.

Photographs by Jill Howe