Archive for June, 2010

There are any number of ways to teach writing or purport to teach pencilwriting, just as there are many ways to write. And there’s something to be said for perfecting the craft, learning what makes a meaningful narrative arc or what constitutes a gripping opening or a powerful closing.

But there’s also something to be said–perhaps everything–for writing without hesitation, without fear, and without filter. In the doing we can often be better; and in the doing without inhibition, we can always be the most honest.

I had the great privilege this weekend of hearing disparate voices expressed through the written word, unfiltered, thanks to a workshop that is focused on self-expression. This sort of workshop (and my experience is limited to two: this and a well-known alternative in New York with an approach that emphasizes critique and craft and imitation of established writing voices) is all about writing without thinking. It’s like being thrown into the deep end of the pool and instructed to swim, with this important caveat: someone is there to hold you, guide you, encourage you, and, if necessary, pull you over to the side and out onto dry land.

In this workshop, there is no lecturing, only guidelines: no criticism, no personalization (we refer to the work and “the writer”), no self-reference (“what I always do…”), no criticism; no MonhonkWorkshop1suggestions for doing something differently. We learn to listen carefully with an ear to experiencing the writing; and then urged to discuss what stays with us about each other’s work.

Writing in this environment is relatively filter-free. We are given prompts–loose suggestions derived from looking at pictures or answering a simple question or listening to a poem. We have a limited amount of time–five to twenty-five minutes–to write whatever comes to mind. Editing ones’ own thoughts is impossible, which for me turns out to be a godsend. Get it on paper, Nikki: never mind what anyone thinks. The only way to get better at writing, after all, is to write.

Writing within an allotted time frame is at once disciplining and liberating, as is listening and commenting within the established guidelines. I find myself immersed into the participants’ stories; hearing their words as perhaps they intended to have them heard, although, given that they are under the same time constraints, they must be writing without intentions.

Writing without intention or expectation: that’s the truly liberating part.  What occurs to me? What do I want to say? What would happen if I simply tried to say it, if I wrote it down, all jumbled, a mix of inelegant phrasing and unwittingly artful phrases, infused with the colors, the memories, the experiences that shape me, whether I use the first person or the third person, as does Colleen, one of the most fully formed, uniquely realized voices I’ve ever read (think Flannery O’Connor or Eudora Welty or Annie Proulx or Willa Cather or, I don’t know: she’s her own person). I can do that, I think: I can drop the of-the-moment yet safely removed observer of the contemporary contretemps that pass for communication in American society and write about what’s going on.

In one exercise, we pick up photographs; many are of fathers and sons or fathers and daughters and I am depleted by my recent Father’s Day post and pull away. But then, flipping over a photo, I see what is obviously arma piece of another photo on the reverse side which might have been yet another picture of father and daughter but the only thing showing is the arm–a single arm which somehow triggers something in me and I grab my laptop and glance at the clock and I write. And what I come up with is a metaphor for everything I am trying to accomplish as a writer and as a being and everything against which I struggle and yet in the act of writing in the twenty-five allotted minutes, I both come up against and also perhaps surmount the obstacle that stands in the way of the flow and freethe connection and the interaction and the happiness I want in my writing and, damn it, in my life. And in overcoming, although not yet eliminating the obstacle, I experience a pang of pure joy so fierce I wonder if I can withstand it.

pen image: university writing center

arm: www.inmagine.com

starlings in flight: James Potorti (my late husband)

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My father, I could say, was larger than life, but what does that mean? As the youngest (and smallest son) of a well-known judge, he didn’t fully come into his own until his father and one of his brothers passed. The parallels, on a much smaller scale, with the Kennedy clan were hard to miss. Joe Junior and my father had, in fact, been roommates at Harvard, which earned Dad two Thanksgivings and one summer at the Hyannis compound, not to mention endlessly entertaining stories.

Dad, in his prime, fully occupied whatever space or moment in time he was given. A short, broad-chested man, he was nevertheless an enormously imposing presence.  At the restaurant where he lunched in downtown Milwaukee for nearly thirty years, the owners called him “the Don,” though he was clearly not Italian. His voice was loud, his spirit generous, his temper prodigious, his appetite for life endless.

Dad had what used to be called an encyclopedic knowledge of the world (this was before Wikipedia and Google searches put the world at our fingers); and he possessed a near-obsession with sharing what he knew.  His brain held endless amounts of both arcane and relevant pieces of information. If we wanted to find out or verify some trivial piece of information, we could go to Encyclopedia Britannica or the Webster’s, or we could go to Dad. He seemed to know everything about baseball and was featured on a local quiz show back in the fifties. Poetry, the Civil War, mid-twelfth century British history—these were also his specialties, but his interests ranged far and wide. I’d read in a school science text that we humans actively used about 10% of our brain; surely my dad’s percentage was far greater.

My dad loved debate and discussion; really, he loved a good argument. Although somewhat indifferent to religion, he would have made a great Talmudic scholar He wasn’t always in it to win it either: he welcomed and honored a well-planned précis or a carefully constructed case.  A guy’s guy–he loved sports and Scotch and fast cars–he also loved women, especially strong, smart women. While his comfort with and preference for his eldest son over his two daughters may have been a bit obvious in the early years,  he gradually became aware of how different—and, to his way of thinking, special–all three of his children were.

Dad had definite ideas about work and family; he was never going to work so hard that he’d miss dinner with his family…and he never did. In those days, someone with a small practice could make his own hours.  Being an attorney meant working from 9-5, which allowed us to be, if not wealthy, then comfortable and in possession of a full-time dad, one who took us ice-skating and to ball games and on car trips and sat at the head of the table nearly every day during my childhood.

Life with Dad wasn’t a walk in the park, chiefly because of the above-mentioned temper.  Nothing physical, ever, but still, Dad’s temper was a thing unto itself. Like a sudden thunderstorm or a flash flood, his anger could sweep through a space, laying waste to everything in its path. Just as suddenly, the storm would pass, the sun would be out and everything would be fine again. I’m not sure he ever noticed any injuries he may have caused among those who took longer to emotionally recompose. At one time, I resented him for that failure. Later, I realized that Dad never stewed. What you saw was what you got. And my mother certainly made it work. For sixty years they had a partnership filled with travel and art and love and laughter and lots of fighting. Not that his full-frontal personality was something I ever sought in a boyfriend or a mate: I wasn’t one who went looking for my father in my husband.

But as a Dad, a protector, a presence, and a truly inspirational figure, I couldn’t have asked for better. Dad ate and drank and opined nd argued and lived. Watching him fight for fifteen years against the organ failures that would ultimately claim him was at once painful and awe-inspiring. And fight he did, like a dying sun that burns disproportionately bright even as it consumes itself from the inside out. He traveled, he golfed, he drove (until we took away the keys) and he raged, oh yes he did. My father did not “go gently into that good night.” But as he fought death, he still lived life: he sang, recited, remembered and surrendered enough of his formidable ego so that I could talk to him, help him, and tell him I loved him.

Now every Father’s Day, I remember Father, with all his foibles, flaws, great strengths and greater passions. He was the sun in my life, without a doubt, larger certainly than my life. Or maybe not. Now that he’s gone, I’ve begun to discover within myself a tiny sliver of that fierce intellect. Thanks, Dad.

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One of my favorite Saturday Night Live characters was Tommy Flanagan, Pathological Liar. Flanagan, created and played with gusto by Jon Lovitz during SNL’s late-eighties seasons, never Lovitz met a fact he couldn’t embellish, exaggerate and outright twist. He’d start small (“I belong to Pathological Liars anonymous; in fact, I’m the president. Yeah, that’s right.”) and build up steam  by piling on lie after lie, interrupting himself as he came up with new outlandish claims, until he’d topped himself by throwing out the biggest whopper imaginable: he’d come back from the dead to meet his wife Morgan Fairchild and was now on the cover of Newsweek Magazine every day.) Satisfied, he’d rub his hands together and declare, “Yeah, that’s the ticket.”

Of course no one is likely to be quite so obvious but we’ve had some truth issues hit the news lately in spectacular fashion. At four-liars first there was a great deal of denial, from John Edwards denying adultery to Floyd Landis denying drug use. Now it’s commission, not omission; the addition of military service to the resume,  Dick Blumenthal and Mark Kirk being the latest twin online obsessions.

Lying isn’t exactly new to our culture; it’s been the default position of corporations and politicians for some time now. But the liars are being taken to task, thanks to the ubiquitous online “checkers” who thrive on outing them. Knowing how relentless bloggers can be and thus how tough-minded mainstream media is forced to be, why would anyone take a chance on lying? We can all check on each other online. Why pad the resume, fib to the significant other, make false claims to clients, or forge a document? Your chances of getting caught are pretty high even without hiring a private detective.

And yet we all lie: we obscure, omit, embellish, exaggerate, fib, fudge, add, subtract and otherwise modify the outlines of our personal and professional lives in ways large and small. Lies seem to roll so much more easily off the tongue. Storytellers arefingerscrossed aware that what a story might lose in “truthiness” it could gain in entertainment value if just one little fact is obscured or slightly altered. There are the small lies we think will harm no one: “I can’t imagine how that taillight got broken.” “No, I don’t know where that last piece of cake went.” There are the big lies, too, about weapons of mass destruction or having sex with that woman or never, ever cutting corners when it comes to drilling for oil or supporting our troops.

Maybe we just can’t handle the truth. Even as we’ve become superficially more self-righteous about Truth, with many of us insisting on our version as without a doubt the right one; we’ve also become artful, one might say dodgy, in the ways in which we communicate who we are and what we’re doing.

Chronic liars, it seems to me, are oblivious to the possibility of being caught; others are oblivious to the possibility that the lies can do so much damage. Still others may have negotiated forpinnochio themselves a separate moral contract, wherein whatever they’re claiming ought to be theirs to claim. Most of us have probably been caught up in the lies of a close friend or relative. I have, more that once; the mortification I felt–not only because I was unprepared to go along with an altered truth, but also because I was so profoundly embarrassed for the liar–was excruciating.

Setting aside the notion that we are a nation of Tommy Flanagans (I don’t believe we are), the truth is: most of us want to look good or at least not look bad. We want to puff ourselves up, win the admiration of a would-be friend, impress the boss, ease the spouse’s worries, get the job; get the girl. Right now, looking good for politicians seems to be all about identifying with the vets. Maybe Mr. Blumenthal and Mr. Kirk got swept up in the moment; maybe (as one of them claimed) they almost believed they had served.  I don’t know that most vets have asked or expected every supportive politician to have faced combat; what they want is the support and the clout it means in terms of attention and resources focused on their needs. As one vet told me, “If you direct money to us, I don’t care if you’re a pacifist.”

That last line, by the way, is untrue; that is, no vet ever spoke those words to me, although it sounds plausible and makes for an excellent closer to the paragraph. Journalists and citizen reporters alike are constantly tempted to inject a little “I was there” or “I knew him personally” into their reports because it seems to add credibility to their words. And after all, what’s the harm? Without editorial insight, as the retired deputy editor of the Providence Journal pointed out in a letter to the New York Times, any blogger can claim to be a reporter. May he’s recycling another’s reporting and claiming it as his own; maybe she’s adding the personal touch by “remembering” an encounter with the subject that never took place. Either way, it’s false.

That doesn’t mean I believe in so-called brutal honesty.  Nothing ticks me off more than meanness masquerading as truth-telling; it cheapens the very idea of truthfulness. “I’ve just trying to be honest” too often follows an unnecessarily cruel statement: “Look Rose, the truth is; I never loved you;” “Honey, face facts: you’re just not as smart as the other kids;” “You’re likely to be alone for a long time.”

On the other hand, some sort of up front honesty, some admission that you were the one who screwed up the [take your pick: marriage/war/negotiation/test/project/child-rearing/accounting/sentencing/oil spill, some offer to make it right pronounced right up front could save us all a lot of money, heartache, humiliation and time. The only problem is, we might not have the series, “The Good Wife.” Then again, we can alwaysGoodWife make something up; let’s see: a fictitious situation in which a woman whose husband cheated may have told her the truth about some of his escapades but not others and she’s meanwhile lying to herself about her feelings for her boss. Maybe we’ll call it “The Great Wife.” Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Image credits: SNL archives, TPMDC, aupairmom, Disney, Inc, CBS Television

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