Writing can be lonely work. I’ve often wished to be part of an ongoing writers’ community that could offer support, critique, the occasional kick in the pants. I’ve tried a few times to get a group going, but haven’t succeeded in making one stick long term. (Recently, I’ve begun exchanging critique with a new group of writerly women, so that may change.) Rae Theodore is a writer I’ve gotten to know online through her blog, The Flannel Files, on which she discusses butchness, writing, cats, teenagers, spirit animals and more. She’s mentioned her writing group several times as being a major impetus behind her memoir, Leaving Normal: Adventures in Gender, which was published last year by Weasel Press. So I decided to pick her brain a little bit about her writing group and how it’s impacted her work. Continue reading Freewriting, Honesty and Respect: a chat with blogger/memoirist middleagebutch
Till You’re Done Growing Up: An Open Letter to My Theater Students
The All City ensembles are part of a free Chicago Public School program which provides opportunities for collaborative arts making to CPS students. This spring, I directed the All City Theater Ensemble with fellow teaching artist Ashley Winston. Our 8th through 12th grade students created an original performance called “Listen,” which explored the theme of voice and which they performed at the Harris Theater in downtown Chicago. This is an open letter to my students.
Dear All City Ensemble,
I want to share some thoughts that have been percolating since our show last month at the Harris Theater.
This spring, Saturday afternoons were my favorite part of the week, and that’s because of you. It was inspiring to see you dive in wholeheartedly to the process of creating an original performance that was fun and full of meaning for you and for your audience. It was a joy for me to talk, read, write and bring about a show about ideas that matter with some cool and interesting people. (That’s you.) I felt proud and moved by the energy and commitment you brought to rehearsal—reading Langston Hughes, Casandra Lopez and Afzal Ahmed Syed; discussing race and music and community; writing poems, rants and new definitions; blocking and choreographing and memorizing.
Sometimes, when you’re a teacher, you’re not sure if your students get it—that is, whatever you’re wanting them to get—you’re not sure what they take away. I hope you learned something about trying new things and messing up and trying them again. I hope you discovered something about taking risks and setting boundaries. I hope we created a space where you felt safe and respected. I hope you gained a sense of how to make something from scratch, from just an idea, of how to collaborate with a group, of how to say yes, and. I hope you learned some things about theater and writing—about rhythm and repetition and imagery, about physicality and blocking and specificity. I hope you walked away feeling heard. I hope you continued to develop a sense of your unique voice and some thoughts on how you might like to express that in the world.
I found a tribe and a home in theater when I was your age. (At which time I was obsessed with Prince the way some of you are obsessed with Drake and One Direction.) I loved how theater brought worlds into being. I loved telling stories. I loved living in stories. I loved the way the kids in a show fell in love with each other, the friendships and flirtations that came about from hanging out and getting to know one other. I loved the challenge of theater—all the skills it called into play, the ways it made me stretch. I loved the energy that sparked between performers, crew and audience.
I think you felt that energy that comes from working on a show with an ensemble you’ve come to know during the weeks of rehearsal. I hope you’ll continue to learn from one another. I hope you made some memories and some friends that will stick around a while. I know a lot of you had hurdles to overcome to be part of All City—you shuffled schedules, battled illness, juggled school and other extracurricular activities, memorized lines and blocking. I want you to remember the feeling of accomplishment you had that Sunday afternoon at the Harris. Take out that feeling whenever you need it.
I couldn’t find the right song for the end of our piece. I wanted something that related to our theme of finding your voice and asking to be heard. I wanted it to be uplifting, a little anthemic, but not too hokey, not too on the nose. I fell in love with the refrain in Chance the Rapper’s cover of the Arthur theme song “Wonderful Everyday.”
I’m gonna get by when the going get rough I’m gonna love life ’til I’m done growing up And when I go down I’mma go down swinging My eyes still smiling And my heart still singing
Here’s the secret no one tells you about growing up—it never really feels like you do. I think that’s a good thing. Approach with caution those who think they’re done growing up. There’s always something to learn, something to love about life. We can always ask the questions I heard you ask in our discussions, the questions you ask in your performance: Who am I in the world? How do people see me? Who do I want to be? I hope for you what I hope for myself: that you can love life till you’re done growing up and that you’ll keep growing (learning, listening, dreaming, evolving) till your life is done—a long, long time from now.
Have a beautiful summer, young artists.
Six Impossible Things before Breakfast
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said. “One can’t believe impossible things.”
“I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
Things are happening, friends. I can’t say just what yet; the chickens aren’t hatched—but they are pecking mightily. There have been some heady phone calls and emails and talk of big things to come. It’s been gratifying and exhilarating—and nerve-racking.
On that front, I’ve had two good bits of advice. I called my sister in a slight tizzy over the uncertainty of it all—the possibly big-exciting-it’s-about-time things still up in the air. Her counsel was to soak it in, enjoy the anticipation of the moment before. This particular moment before may not come again, she said, so take pleasure in it now. Continue reading Six Impossible Things before Breakfast
Searching for What I’m Saying: On Revision
Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying.
— John Updike
I’m up to my eyes in query letters. I’ve had a few requests for the manuscript, so it’s out there with some peepers on it as well. It’s very exciting when I get those requests, and every time it happens I spend 24 mostly happily frenzied hours combing through the manuscript and making tweaks. The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures, which weighed in at 84,000 words when I sent it to my first round of readers back in October, is just 78,000 now. Fighting weight I hope. Scrappy and trim.
This means some agents have seen earlier versions of the work. I worry sometimes, whether I should have revised and revised for another six months or a year before sending it out at all, but even back in October every essay in the collection had been through an average nine or ten revisions. It took almost four years to write the book. It felt like high time to send it into the world. Continue reading Searching for What I’m Saying: On Revision
Have patience with all things, But, first of all with yourself. —Saint Francis de Sales
I’ve often felt like a late bloomer. Not as a kid—I learned to read at age three, and that saw me through for a while, impressing grownups and whatnot. But now I’m grown up myself, I sometimes feel like it’s taking an impossibly long time to get there. I’m not 100% certain I know what there even is. Not fame and fortune. Weeell, maybe a teensy bit of fortune. Maybe a laurel or two. At a minimum, I really, really hope I can quit waiting tables before I’m half a century old. I don’t know if it’s because academic achievement came so easily when I was young or if it’s because our culture is infatuated with youth and early success, but for some time now I’ve had to ignore this refrain that ticks through my head like a very nasty white rabbit: too late, too late, too late. I’m much happier when I forget about time altogether and just settle in to the work at hand.
I subscribe to a “weekly interestingness digest” from a really cool site called brain pickings. This weekend it included a letter from Charles Bukowski to the editor of Black Sparrow Press who offered him $100 a month to quit his post office job and write full time. Bukowski was 49. Seventeen years later, he wrote a thank you: Continue reading Late Bloomers
Some Advice on Writing and Life
So right about now, this book I’m writing is feeling a little bit like that mean kid who holds something like your notebook or your hat just out of reach while you jump at it over and over, thinking this time you’re going to grab hold and not let go. I’m feeling kind of blue about the fact that I’m not done. (Side note: If you are feeling kind of blue, listening to Kind of Blue may actually help, especially “Blue in Green.”) My self-imposed deadline of the end of March has come and gone, but I’m still not done. Every essay I plan to include has at least been started, but I’m still not done. Since beginning this journey, I’ve written fifty posts for this blog, I’ve published excerpts from my manuscript in Creative Nonfiction and The Chattahoochee Review and have one forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, I’ve read selections from it at several story nights in Chicago and I have one more slightly thrilling book-related announcement I’m not at liberty to make yet. I’ve learned a lot, I’m a better writer than I was when I started—
But. I’m. Still. Not. Done.
A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a writing conference in Poets and Writers that sounded kind of dreamy. It takes place at the Algonquin Hotel (among other spots) in Manhattan, surrounded by the ghosts of writers past; they only accept a handful of writers—and they hook you up with literary agents cherry picked to be a good fit for your particular manuscript. And though it costs beaucoup dollars, which I don’t currently have on hand, I applied anyway in case they had financial aid or scholarships or something like that. Continue reading Some Advice on Writing and Life