Last week I started teaching a capstone course in Creative Nonfiction at Lasell College. This one-on-one class meets once a week; my student will discuss readings and work on craft during our sessions, and by the end of semester she will produce a creative project. The course is a chance for me to both teach and learn, and I’m grateful for that opportunity (although, as fellow Solstice MFA alum Emily Van Dyne writes in an open letter on her blog, teaching college as an adjunct can be a struggle, especially financially – thank you, Melissa Varnavas, for pointing out Emily’s piece).
Our first assignment in the capstone course was to read “Silent Dancing,” a short personal essay by Judith Ortiz Cofer, and “Finding the Inner Story in Memoirs and Personal Essays,” a craft piece by Michael Steinberg. I’ve read these works before, but each time I read them I discover something new. The longer I both read and write creative nonfiction, the more capable I feel of understanding other writers’ work. Like writing, both informed reading and close reading take practice. This time when I read “Silent Dancing,” I picked up on a number of things I didn’t notice before. And although I’ve ready Mike Steinberg’s piece a number of times, its message hits home more forcefully and clearly each time I read it – basically, “dig deeper,” because the story behind the situation you’re writing about might not be what you think.
If you’ve been following my blog, you know that the past few months have been difficult because my father is very ill. Somehow, as the weeks have gone on, I’ve managed to pick up the pieces of daily life and keep moving forward, even as this sad and difficult situation is a constant presence in the background. I’ve taken a part-time office job in the mornings to supplement, financially, the adjunct teaching. I’ve worked with my publisher to finish the final edits on my first book, Message from a Blue Jay, which is marching more rapidly now toward its May 14 publication date. I’m also editing a PhD dissertation on the side.
I’ve also started physical therapy for a foot injury that has plagued me for several years. I have to make a decision about surgery soon if I want to be able to run again. Physical therapy is the last step I can take to try to heal the injury without going under the knife. I’ve gone under that knife too often in my life, so I’ve made the tough decision to avoid all forms of exercise that involve impact on my foot for the next couple of months as I work on this last ditch effort to get past the pain. If you know me, you know that walking, hiking, and exercise in general are a big part of my life. I need this foot, so I guess I have to pay attention to what it’s telling me.
So that’s the situation of my life – the book, the office job, the teaching and intimidating amounts of grading, the physical therapy, the foot pain, the incredible day-to-day juggling act that will go on daily for the next three and a half months during the college’s spring semester. All while in the background, my 84-year-old father attempts to regain as much of his health as might be possible while he slowly slips away from the life he had, and from us.
But what, really, is my story? What is behind or beneath all of that? I find, when I try to write lately, that the personal walls I have put up around myself translate into a certain distance from my story on paper. I want to present a certain image of my life to the world, just as, since adolescence, I’ve tried to present and live up to a certain image of myself. This reminds me of the way life tends to be presented on Facebook – it’s filled with friends, travel, fun, a joke or two, and perhaps a bit of political commentary and a few satisfying accomplishments.
But just as the “I” in a personal essay is a crafted persona rather than a true or complete reflection of the narrator’s real self, the way many of us present ourselves to the world every day — at work, at a party, in the classroom — is a persona. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that for a variety of reasons we need these personas to function in society. But I tend to use personas as a shield against the world, because the world can be a scary, painful place if you let it in.
Trying to get beneath all of that to what is really going on and what is really important, is difficult for me when I sit down at my desk. A keen eye for observation only goes so far without the ability to risk a very personal subjectivity. I have to take risks, to “go for the jugular,” to scrub the makeup off my face and let my readers see that sometimes there are red blotches beneath it, left behind by tears. This is very hard for me to do, but if I don’t do it, my writing falls flat.
I often think about a song called “Fuel,” which was written by Ani DiFranco (I know she has been the subject of a controversy lately that questions her sensitivity to the very issues she writes about in this song, but she wrote these lyrics some time ago and I’ve always found them moving). The song is about a slave cemetery buried beneath a building in Manhattan. Below are some of the lyrics:
Am I headed for the same brick wall
Is there anything I can do about
Anything at all?
Except go back to that corner in Manhattan
And dig deeper, dig deeper this time
Down beneath the impossible pain of our history
Beneath unknown bones
Beneath the bedrock of the mystery
Beneath the sewage systems and the PATH train
Beneath the cobblestones and the water mains
Beneath the traffic of friendships and street deals
Beneath the screeching of kamikaze cab wheels
Beneath everything I can think of to think about
Beneath it all, beneath all get out
Beneath the good and the kind and the stupid and the cruel
There’s a fire just waiting for fuel
There’s a fire just waiting for fuel
I think that’s what I have to do now as I skirt over the surface of my life day to day just trying to survive. In the early morning hours when I sit down at my writing desk, I have to “dig deeper, dig deeper this time.” Because I know there’s a fire burning there. It’s just waiting for fuel.