12/12/2016 § 37 Comments
[This will be my last post at cleetressel.com. UPDATED: The domain will expire at the end of 2016 but the content will live on at cleetressel.wordpress.com. ]
When I started this blog five years ago, I decided to write about sports. Sports was the thing I knew best, the thing I grew up on, the thing I thought was special about me. Not only that, but sports culture gave me endless things to ponder, and it helped me talk to boys. More than anything, I thought sports was the topic that would make me into a Writer.
I was writing about sports at the time–a YA novel about a high school basketball star who quits her team and has to find out who she is without the game. I should have known then: It wasn’t sports that I wanted to explore; it was life after.
Just a few months into blogging about sports, the big changes started. A break-up, a move, a career change. A new/old relationship, a fast engagement and marriage, another out-of-state move. I began writing about the new life I was making as a wife, mother, and resident of small-town Indiana, and though sports was still woven into my posts, it was only a thread.
It’s fair to say I sucked at blogging. Though I was working in marketing and knew what I should be doing with the blog, I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to write essays, not content. I was trying on voices, not building a brand. All the newness I was experiencing–I needed time to process before I shared it. I had nothing to offer you, Dear Reader, except some stories. No service to monetize.
On this platform I struggled with perfection and self-consciousness, what to keep for myself and what to share. I’ve always had a complicated relationship with privacy and attention. I continue to debate with myself about what place social media should occupy in my life.
I wrote only seventy posts in five years, though I was never at a loss for topics. I chickened out on some. I procrastinated on others. Always I was long ideas and short on execution.
But this blog was a good thing, in so many ways. I got such pleasure from hearing from long lost friends and acquaintances who’d read a post and felt moved to connect with me again. I loved seeing comments from names I hadn’t heard for a while. I deeply appreciated the feedback from regular readers–you know exactly who you are. Even though many of you would praise and encourage me even if every post were terrible, I am thankful to have your unconditional love. I would never turn it away.
Besides inspiring old friends to reach out, the blog occasionally inspired new connections. “My Dillon” became a WordPress “Freshly Picked” selection, which gave it a much broader audience and made me feel like I had reached someone (i.e. an editor) beyond my warm, wonderful inner circle. But more important than being noticed in the writing world, “My Dillon” found its way to inbox of our local high school head football coach, who shared an excerpt from the post at the team’s end-of-season banquet. For months afterwards, parents and coaches–people I was just starting to meet as the new girl in town–told me how much they’d loved my reflection on the team’s significance to the community. And when I finally met the coach who’d found the post, he made a big deal about what it meant to him. That was a big deal to me.
I loved how my stories prompted people–some strangers, some acquaintances–to tell me their stories. I received pages and pages of replies to “The Daughter Of,” “The Losing Season,” and “Elegy for Bud,” all of which were very personal, complicated topics. These were the posts that taught me about vulnerability and reminded me, as one reader put it, “to keep writing from the heart.”
Besides their content, the dates on these posts are markers for so many small and big moments from the last five years. How could I have known that when I stopped at a Panera in Ft. Wayne to write a post about basketball my boyfriend was impatiently waiting for me to arrive at his house so he could ask me to marry him? How could I have known when I was ruminating on whether pro athletes should be role models that three years later to the day I would give birth to a gorgeous baby boy?
When I started this blog, I chose to write under the name C Lee Tressel. I felt I needed a persona to write from, a layer of semi-privacy and protection between the faceless Audience and the real Me. I also had a thing about using a pen name that was gender-ambiguous. I feel differently about all this now. It will be interesting to see if naming continues to be an important element in my writing life. For now, just call me Carlee.
Much of my writing journey so far has been about becoming at home in myself and then setting out from that place for points beyond. How appropriate, then, that we are moving into a new (literal) home this week. The Bachelor Farmer (TBF) and I designed it with two hugely talented architects from our tiny town, and we are overjoyed by the way the house has turned out.
It was sad to leave our old house, the one TBF bought when he moved home from New York, the one where he proposed to me, the place we brought our Little Apple (now almost 2 years old) home from the hospital.
Before we had to be out of the house at the end of November, I wanted to go on one last bike ride along my usual route in Jasper and Newton counties. If you are a regular reader of this blog you know that, thanks to my klutziness, my bike rides were often a source of entertainment, as well as a source of enlightenment on writing and life.
Despite the hundreds of small things I had to do for the move, I did take my bike ride. It just happened to be on the day after the last nice day of fall. As I pedaled south into 20 mph winds, I wondered if maybe nostalgia had gotten the best of me this time. Was one last ride really worth getting blown sideways into a cornfield? I turned west and was met with more wind. When a grain truck blew past me on SR 16, I really almost did land in a ditch. Finally, I turned north onto Iroquois River Road and was rewarded with absolute windless silence. The cattle watched me from their pastures, just as surprised as I was that I’d made it this far. I pedaled easily along the road, finally free of the chilly wall of resistance. SLOW WINDING ROAD, the yellow sign reminded me. But I wasn’t about to go slow. I flew along, admiring briefly the old farmhouse on my left and the river passing under the bridge on my right. It wasn’t long before the metaphor caught up to me. I eased up and sat back on the saddle. It’s all just a winding road; so often, I am the one going too fast.
And so, soon enough we will be settled into our new house and another five years will have flown by. I hope I will look back and be just as surprised by what I have written and even more so by the life lived in the meantime.
Thank you for listening, friend. Talk to you soon.
05/10/2015 § 12 Comments
This story begins with a woman in labor.
I am that woman, and I am bringing my child – my son – into the world.
TBF and I are driving a swift, quiet ribbon of interstate under a clear late-winter sky. The contractions roll through my body, the contractions subside.
The lights atop the windmills pulse a steady red. I lean into the music, the music I’d carefully chosen for this very drive. I’m calm, I think. I’m ready.
As Amos Lee sings about working on the night train, I do not yet know there’s no such thing as ready. Not anymore. There is only surrendering to what happens. There is only showing up.
In the final weeks of my pregnancy, a friend spelled it out for me.
The truths of motherhood are always a mixed bag, she wrote.
I didn’t want to believe her. I wanted to believe that if I could do motherhood well, I could be free from feelings of inadequacy, disorientation, aloneness, despair – all those things I’d been working my whole life to avoid.
I studied hard for the baby’s arrival. I read posts on mommy blogs and marked chapters in parenting books. During childbirth class, I took pages of notes. I did all this as if having the Knowledge and collecting some Answers would spare me from the fear that comes with not knowing exactly what to do.
One of the refrains from childbirth class was “the baby will come when the baby wants to come, how the baby wants to come.”
I secretly thought this was bullshit.
I believed that if I prepared enough, if I kept up my long walks and yoga sessions, if I did everything the acclaimed midwife Ina May Gaskin suggested in her book and kept my mind right, I could have the natural birth experience I was hoping for.
Never mind what the baby wanted. Never mind that in reality, I had so little control.
In the fourth hour of being one centimeter away from full dilation, I found myself on a new plane of consciousness. I pedaled my feet against the wrenching waves of pain. I chanted nonsense. I stared at the Franciscan cross nailed to the wall.
I was in my body completely and somehow not in it at all.
Maybe pushing will help, my labor nurse said. Maybe pushing will get things going again.
Maybe. But it didn’t. The delivery I was hoping for wasn’t meant to be.
For what felt like the first time ever in my adult life, I let go of what I thought should happen and accepted what is.
The operating room was lit bright white and teeming with angels – or were they women? – going about their work with sure hands. The only man in the room was TBF, who sat at my left temple, chatting and joking to keep us both calm.
When it was time, they told TBF to stand up and look over the blue curtain. A moment later, I heard my baby cry.
Of everything I’d read to prepare for labor, there was really only one piece that proved to be essential, and it was hardly about childbirth at all.
Long before I was pregnant, I’d been reading Kevin Moore’s Reembody blog because he thought and wrote about fitness in a way I’d never heard before. I loved what he had to say and how he said it.
I read his post “The Great Things About You – And Everybody Else” when I was about six months pregnant. The third section of the piece titled, “You Can Do This,” broke through all the other shoulds and shouldn’ts I’d been reading. Especially this part:
Mothers, would-be mothers, long-awaited mothers, unwilling mothers, thrilled mothers, natural mothers, modern mothers, frightened mothers, mothers who don’t yet know they are mothers:
You can do this.
… I know that you are strong because strength is not the hammer; it’s the forge.
“You’re as big as a house!” you’ll hear. Bullshit: you’re a mountain and the wind blowing hard through the timberline booms with a voice that says, in no uncertain terms, do not fuck with me.
These paragraphs were my very own “Eye of the Tiger” as I trained for the title fight. They were my prayer for the journey and my private rallying cry.
So when the contractions hammered away at my sense of what I thought I could endure, I hung onto the belief that I was the forge.
Go ahead and try me, I thought. I am the g.d. FORGE.
But when the real work of motherhood started, I was not the forge.
When it was two-, three-, or four-something in the morning and the baby was twisting in my lap, struggling to latch and crying from hunger, when I swore I could feel my incision coming apart and couldn’t tell whether the wetness on my face was tears or sweat, I was not the forge.
I was The Worst Mother in the World and stupid for thinking I could handle being a mom.
While my child screamed, I was convinced I was setting records for incompetence. To confuse me further, what worked to help the baby eat/sleep/stop crying one day wouldn’t work the next.
But what was a “day” anyway? The light came and went at regular intervals, but it didn’t matter. There was only feeding and changing and holding and bouncing and walking and the occasional moment when I’d close my eyes for an hour or two, but there was no end to one day and beginning of another. There was no closing things up for the night and starting fresh in the morning.
During those late-night feedings, I feared everything that hadn’t happened yet.
What if the baby wouldn’t latch or wouldn’t get enough milk or wouldn’t go back to sleep and so I’d be up walking the house like a rocking, shushing ghost until the sun came up? Or worse: What if I fell asleep and dropped the baby or fell asleep and didn’t hear the baby cry out for me or heard the baby cry but felt so completely spent that I didn’t care?
What if I started resenting the baby and his constant needs so fiercely that I completely shut down, handed him to TBF, and walked out for good?
When in those wee hours after tears were shed (some his, mostly mine) and the baby eventually did latch, I would pick up Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year and read an entry or two.
She is so honest and so funny and so scary in those pages that there wasn’t room for my own fear-gripped “what if?” voices.
I started dog-earing passages that felt particularly breathtakingly true not so I could mine them for parenting advice but so I could return to them in my lowest moments and know that I wasn’t alone. I could be reminded there was at least one other person in this wide world who’d felt completely undone by motherhood and wasn’t ashamed to admit it.
Here’s where she nails it:
When Sam’s having a hard time and being a total baby about the whole thing, I feel so much frustration and rage and self-doubt and worry that it’s like a mini-breakdown. I feel like my mind becomes a lake full of ugly fish and big clumps of algae and coral, of feelings and unhappy memories and rehearsals for future difficulties and failures. I paddle around in it like some crazy old dog, and then I remember that there’s a float in the middle of the lake and I can swim out to it and lie down in the sun. That float is about being loved, by my friends and by God, and even sort of by me. And so I lie there and get warm and dry off, and I guess I get bored and or else it is human nature because after a while I jump back into the lake, into all that crap. I guess the solution is just to keep trying to get back to the float. (216-217)
Many things are described as “a marathon, not a sprint.” Having run both, I can tell you: Motherhood is neither a sprint nor a marathon.
Firstly, it is not possible to train for motherhood. Secondly, in a marathon, once you’ve run your 26.2 miles, you can stop. You can even take off work the next day and get a massage. Motherhood, I’ve learned quickly, is a feat with no endpoint, no final buzzer, no victory lap.
About a month into the not-marathon of motherhood, I was telling a friend how the baby and I were starting to get out more. It was becoming easier to take him places and handle feeding, changing, and everything else outside the familiar confines of our home. With a sigh I said, “We’re getting there.”
I paused, hearing my own words.
“Except there is no ‘there,’ huh?” I observed.
My friend, a mother herself, smiled. “Yep. There’s only ‘getting.’”
In that moment I noticed one of my fingers still clinging to the idea that parenthood could be approached like any other challenging thing I’d faced in my life; that is, if I could be prepared enough, smart enough, and bust my ass enough, I could stay on top of things.
Or, instead, I could let go.
I could let go of the idea that motherhood is a project. It’s not a race or a series of boxes to check or hell’s idea of a to-do list. It isn’t a thing to figure out or master or even attempt to stay on top of.
Maybe, like everything else, motherhood is just a whole new set of nows to live into and let be what they are.
On this, my first Mother’s Day, I’m laying out some hopes:
I hope I can do the work of mothering mostly with my heart and my gut and turn down the volume in my head.
I hope I can embrace the wildness inherent in raising a human and trust myself enough to let go.
It will help to remember what Kevin Moore’s post told me long before my drive down the interstate on that clear winter night, before the hospital and the labor and the nurse holding up my son:
You’ll change—oh yes, you’ll change—and what you’ll be when you’re done is two people and if that doesn’t blow your mind it’s because you haven’t really thought about it yet.
You are not diminished; you are enhanced. Whatever you thought you were before, you’re better. Whatever scares you now, you’ll conquer. Whoever you were is exactly who you are still going to be, only with more love and less fear.
You are a lightning bolt, and you can do this.
My gut tells me he might be right.
03/04/2015 § 4 Comments
There’s an old story about a fellow who went to a small town in Indiana with the thought of possibly moving his family there. “What kind of people live around here?” he asked the attendant at the local filling station.
“Well,” the attendant replied as he checked the oil, “what kind of people live back where you’re from?”
The visitor took a swallow of his cherry soda and replied. “They’re ornery, mean, and dishonest!”
The attendant looked up and answered, “Mister, you’ll find them about like that around here, too.”
A few weeks later, another gentleman stopped by the gas station on a muggy July afternoon with the same question. “Excuse me,” he said as he mopped off his brow. “I’m thinking of moving to your town with my family. What kind of people live around these parts?”
Again the attendant asked, “Well, what kind of people live back where you’re from?”
The stranger thought for a moment and replied, “I find them to be kind, decent, and honest folks.”
The gas station attendant looked up and said, “Mister, you’ll find them about like that around here, too.”
It’s so true. You often find what you’re looking for.
– from Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court by Coach John Wooden with Steve Jamison
In November 2013, I wrote about my new hometown. I was just starting to become familiar with it then, just starting to recognize the ways in which it felt like a place I could consider my home for the next big chapter of my life.
I mentioned the storefronts on Washington Street, the coffee shop I spent too much time in, and our high school football team that had put together a heckuva season. I noted how the community support behind the team reminded me of Dillon, Texas, the fictional setting of the Friday Night Lights TV series.
I’m not surprised that football helped me toward a sense of belonging those first few months in a new place. After all, football is like (or maybe just is) family to me—as foundational and comforting, complicated and vexing as family can be. (Fear not: a book on this subject is forthcoming… just gimme another decade or so to process things.)
But so much has happened since I wrote about “My Dillon,” all of which has further settled me into my [not-so-new-anymore] life and strengthened my attachment to this place—a place I’d now like to call by its name: Rensselaer, Indiana.
After our latest round of winter weather (ice pellets, for Pete’s sake!), summer feels like it happened about a hundred years ago. But I remember how I spent those days. I explored the wide open landscape on my bike—you know, the one I kept falling off—sometimes by myself and sometimes with a few other riders who were training for RAGBRAI.
I felt proud to explain clipless pedals to my fellow riders, who hadn’t yet adopted the technology. I was proud, that is, until I struggled to get going out of a full stop and took an ungraceful spill on my right side. (Pride comes before a fall, etc. etc.)
Spills or no spills, I loved being on my bike. I loved riding the five miles into town to run a few errands. I loved breezing into the next county and discovering curvy roads that diverged from the rural grid, crossing and recrossing the winding Iroquois River.
I composed essays while I rode. The ideas for two pieces published by Belt Magazine—this one about how I ended up in Rensselaer with The Bachelor Farmer (TBF) and another about learning the language of farming—came about during long rides.
Harvest was far less mysterious this time. I had the great thrill of riding in the combine with TBF the Elder as he picked the final six rows of corn. After that, we paused in the middle of the field and talked about the farm and the future and what it feels like to finish another growing season.
Fall also brought football of course, and the Rensselaer Bombers picked up where they left off. In their first game of the season, the Bombers unveiled the new offensive scheme they’d been discreetly practicing all summer and hung 60 on neighboring Kankakee Valley (KV).
Whether the rest of the Indiana high school football world knew it or not, that KV game was the beginning of something huge. Rensselaer would go on to win the rest of their games in 2014—including the Class 2A state championship. It was a heckuva game and a heckuva day. We—can I say “we”?—brought the biggest crowd of the championship weekend: 6,000 people. For those of you scoring at home, that’s just about the total population of Rensselaer.
In the midst of the storybook season was a subplot that mattered more. Lifelong Rensselaer resident, business owner, and football program supporter, Steve Roberts, was living with pancreatic cancer. It was understood that he didn’t have much time, but he was holding on to witness some magic. Some said it was the football team’s success that kept him going while others knew that it was Mr. Roberts’s strength of will that inspired the team to keep going.
I never met Mr. Roberts and don’t know his family yet. Still, when he appeared on the jumbotron at Lucas Oil Stadium during the championship game and our crowd went wild just to see the face of a man who was alive and present for a dream come true, I felt like I knew him. I knew him in the way we all know each other when we recognize we’re finite and fragile beings, here one day and gone when our time’s up. I cried for happiness and grief anticipated and the gravity of sweet completion. To feel all these feelings just seconds after yelling my head off for the defense and clapping my hands raw for kids crashing into each other at full-tilt, it made my breath catch. Life and football. Football and life.
Mr. Roberts died on the last day of 2014. He deserves many more words than I have the ability to craft here. This story and this column by Jim Peters might serve as an introduction, but the most meaningful stories of the man are the ones the people he knew and loved have told about him—and will keep telling— as long as they live.
Death came for another long-time Rensselaer resident who I did have the chance to meet and begin to know. I can imagine Bob Lewis was surprised to find a total stranger sitting in the office of the Prairie Arts Council when he arrived one quiet Thursday afternoon. This stranger was a volunteer at the Lillian Fendig Art Gallery, and she was hopped up on coffee and raring to talk to whomever walked through the door.
The stranger, of course, was yours truly—brand new to the community and committed to maxing out her extrovert muscles to start meeting some people. Bob had every right to be annoyed with me that day. He’d come into the office to meet with an art collector about one of Mrs. Fendig’s oil paintings, and suddenly I was asking him to share everything he ever knew about Rensselaer.
Bob wasn’t annoyed, though. He sat with me for more than an hour that day, telling stories and filling me in on what Rensselaer was like when he was growing up here and why he chose to return when he retired from a successful career with AT&T in New York City. I was somewhat starstruck to learn that he knew the Fendig family well and that his favorite of Mrs. Fendig’s paintings is a landscape of some farmland on the banks of Curtis Creek, not half a mile from my house.
I would never have another afternoon like that with Bob, though we would see each other at the coffee shop and at arts events, never passing up the chance to exchange wry banter. I was shocked when Bob died in November. I’d hardly known that he’d been seriously ill. As always seems to be the case with the behind-the-scenes do-ers in a community, I wouldn’t learn the breadth and depth of Bob’s efforts until after he was gone.
I’m beginning to suspect that Rensselaer is full of Steve Robertses and Bob Lewises. This isn’t to say that Bob and Mr. Roberts weren’t extraordinary individuals; rather, it’s that this town is full of people going about their lives doing the small things that add up to big things.
Further evidence to back my suspicion has appeared in the form #SpiritofRensselaer, a public art project dreamed up and delivered by local artist/photographer Brienne Hooker of Ardent Papers Photography. I openly admit that Brienne has become a dear friend, but this is no shameless plug. This is the recognition of a brilliant idea.
The project involves a series of portraits of Rensselaer residents that will appear as posters throughout the city. A brief written profile will accompany each portrait in a post on the Ardent Papers blog. The first post about the project extends the reader/viewer a gentle but provocative invitation:
Consider this your invitation to explore the beautiful humans who make up our small but unique community. Consider this a challenge to open your eyes to the undercurrents of hope, love, passion, and strong will that make Rensselaer a surviving city. Consider this an opportunity to reach outside your current circle of friends to see someone else (and maybe yourself) for the first time.
I’m so thrilled with this project already. One glance at the first #SpiritofRensselaer subject—my cycling and coffeeshop buddy, Ote Wood—and how could I not be excited?
What made fictional Dillon, Texas, so familiar and memorable was not the landscape or architecture or geography of the place. It was the characters—the people—who inhabited it. That’s what I’m finding here in Rensselaer: the people are making this place feel like home.
I’m a sucker for nostalgic little fables like the one at the beginning of this post. I like the filling station and the cherry soda and the use of the term “ornery.” I also like the moral of the fable, as stated by Martinsville, Indiana, native John Wooden: It’s so true. You often find what you’re looking for.
I suppose when I came here I was looking for home. Much to my delight, I’ve found them.
08/08/2014 § 7 Comments
It has been two years since I left Minnesota. Two very fast, fantastically disorienting years.
Sometimes I wonder if I ever properly mourned what I lost when I left. At the time, there were the logistical matters of moving my physical body and possessions to Ohio. There was also the pull of what I was moving toward: a home near beloved family and a new sense of professional purpose. These forces distracted me such that I didn’t have time to dwell on the devastating reality that I was departing the Cities and a deeply meaningful part of my personal history for good.
To borrow the title of a magical album by Explosions in the Sky, all of a sudden I miss everyone.
I miss my friends at a level I can hardly talk about. I miss the people I taught with and the students who gave me a run for my adjunct money with their flimsy excuses and genuine needs and sparks of critical brilliance.
But most of all, today I miss my community of writers.
I hope you know, dear writing colleagues, I haven’t forgotten you. I’ve been lovingly creeping on you behind the scenes. I’ve been reading the stuff you post and asking our mutual acquaintances what you’re up to and rooting for you to keep doing the good work you do.
I hate that we won’t run into each other at Cahoots or catch up at a Water~Stone friendly in the basement of Frost, but I know my writing community still exists, even if across a great distance.
Which is exactly why I loved reading the posts in the #MyWritingProcess blog hop.
In terms of my writing life, it was refreshing to learn from others’ creative processes. It was almost like being in class with these writers again—minus the cheese fries and Grain Belt Premos at O’Gara’s afterward.
Inside references aside, I hope you, dear blog reader, are inspired by how these writers get their work done. Below are some excerpts that spoke to me, but I hope you will click on each name and read the writer’s full blog entry.
If you’ve been struggling with your own process or simply need to be reminded that there are other writers out there “beat[ing] on, boats against the current,” welcome. This is your community, too.
– I really don’t have a formula except that I write all the time. On receipts, sticky notes, the back of my hand, used envelopes.
– We’re all busy and everyone’s time is precious; I’ve found that I have to make writing a priority, but when I can’t, I can still make it the spackling that fills the cracks of my day: five minutes here, ten minutes there. Sure, it’s better when I can sink into it and fully devote my time and energy and brainpower; but just getting the scaffolding down, writing the gist of what I want to say, or that phrase I’ve been turning over is better than waiting for a solid six-hour stretch in which to write.
– I always start loose, with pencil and paper.
– Even once I got writing, though, I stayed by-hand for the first full draft in order to stay loose creatively and keep myself from getting worried about and continually re-editing what came before (because there’s good no reason to change the start, anyway, until you know the end).
– …trying to better myself, to challenge myself, is one of the reasons I write. I find writing to be the kind of labor, like learning something complicated or going on a really exhausting bike ride, that can be the sort of challenge that turns easy, making time melt away as consciousness sinks into something deeper.
– I go through several distinct phases when I’m developing a story. The initial inspiration is something I can’t account for at all. It seems to materialize from the nether regions.
– After I get that flash of the story and begin writing through the first draft, I always seek inspiration by walking in my characters’ shoes. I talk to people that seem like them. I visit places they have lived or seen. … No matter what project I’m working on, I intentionally expose myself to a wide variety of information, because I don’t want the story to be too heavily influenced by any one thing. At some point, though, when the characters and themes have fully developed in my head, I have to turn away from the outside world and concentrate on the one I’m creating. That’s when the writing becomes a very isolating activity, and necessarily so.
– There are, of course, always allies in the mental rugby scrum that is writing. Garner’s Modern American Usage (Third Edition), the Oxford American Dictionary, and Strunk and White’s Elements of Style are always six inches to my right, ready to lend some valuable trinket or bauble from their inexhaustible treasure trove. Notice, however, that there is no thesaurus. I’ve always felt that the use of a thesaurus, especially a reliance on one, is like steroids to an athlete. If I can’t conjure a word from the recesses of my head, then it shouldn’t be put on the page, as it isn’t a word I own. Shit keeps me sharp, man.
– But just know that the act of physically putting the word on the page and sacrificing energy to the cause, no matter how much it either resembles lead or gold, is the truest, and most difficult, part of the writing process.
– I never multitask while writing because it almost always goes badly for the other tasks. Especially cooking. Never cooking. I still have a lack of feeling in my right ring finger since when I last tried that… But when I can, I always walk when writing the first stage of my first draft. Maybe the simple mental exertion of putting one foot after the other is enough to stifle over thinking every sentence (over thinking being the greatest killer of everyone’s first drafts).
– I write every day, even if I can just afford to do just do a snippet, because every day I don’t write it sets me back two, as I need to re-immerse myself into the story before continuing it.
– For short stories, I keep a running log of jokes or things that make me laugh and when I get enough jokes I’ll sit down for a weekend and write a draft of a story using as many of those as possible.
– What I try to do is create a schedule with weekly deadlines that I have to meet. I don’t get down to how much time I’ll work each day, but I make sure I meet my goals and reward myself when I hit big ones.
– I’m always searching for a cool idea that I can play with over the course of an entire novel, something that speaks to me and I think I can take and run with. Getting that idea can be hard sometimes and sometimes not so hard. … Once I have an idea that seems to have legs, I begin writing immediately and start roughing out a plot outline. The outline is vague at first but hopefully by halfway through the first draft I have it detailed down to one sentence describing each chapters and I’ve envisioned the novel’s ending.
– For me the rough draft of a novel is always a delicate balance between leaving yourself room for the story to veer unexpectedly while holding a rough map in your mind of where you want it headed. Much like a good cross country road trip, I suppose.
– It’s such a head game. No one tells you this until you’re already in the club. So much work happens just thinking, reasoning, telling yourself to sit down, to care enough about your subject that it will become something that others care about too. It’s so easy to procrastinate. It’s so easy to not write. Until you feel like shit, twisted and sad and grumpy and lost and you start thinking “jeezus, what’s happening to me?!” then you realize what’s missing. You need to create something well-wrought, full of heart and music, and clever enough to remind you who YOU are… even if it’s only one sweet line. So the first part is mostly talking to myself. My neighbors must think I’m on the phone a lot.
– I jot notes in my notebooks constantly. Lines, phrases, sometimes paragraphs of text. Sometimes there are character descriptions. Or motivations. Sometimes there are moods or feelings. I’ll also write down titles–of books, movies, songs, albums. Authors/ Musicians/ Artists. Sometimes this has to do with the pieces I’m creating, sometimes it’s just stuff that I see that I don’t want to forget. Everything is an influence.
– … I’m a huge fan of the idea of “zero drafts” (a term that I got from Neil Gaiman), which I’ve interpreted to mean a handwritten draft that is freely written without the editorial mind.
I tend to fuss. I think a lot. I listen to music. I watch movies, poetic ones like Lost in Translation and Jurassic Park. I read books. I read poems. I write a few stanzas. I cry about it. I step away from the page. I go to work. I teach undergraduates to think about poetry. I get irrationally angry at the absolute fact that superheros do not exist. I watch the last episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and cry. I eat good food. Really good food. I drink wine. I dance. I listen to Jenny Lewis while working out. I go back to the page and write. I send drafts to Kate. I send drafts to the recycle bin. I revise. I go to readings and read. I try to remember the way the words felt in my mouth, in my ear. I let my field turn fallow. I wake up and I write.
06/25/2014 § 2 Comments
The Bachelor Farmer (TBF, for short) first appeared on this blog when I wrote an elegy for my grandfather in October 2012. At that point, TBF was an old love I was beginning to see again. Since that post, TBF has become a permanent fixture on this blog and, more importantly, in my life.
Last September I mentioned that TBF and I got married and started a life together on his family’s farm. “Mentioned” is the right word. It makes me chuckle to notice how I stated that a few things had changed for me but barely acknowledged the gravity of those changes.
My reticence makes sense to me, though. I needed to live and process and live some more before I could attempt to make heads or tails of things.
Almost two months ago, I started working on a longer piece for an online magazine I admire. The piece was supposed to explore some aspect of my experience living and making a living in a rural pocket of the Rust Belt.
(While there are many and nuanced definitions of the term “Rust Belt,” I tend to think of it as a region in the U.S. that was once known for its industrial manufacturing centers and is now in the midst of forging new economic identities.)
I am proud to have grown up in a suburb outside of Youngstown, Ohio, which is often considered a Rust Belt city. For what it’s worth, I believe I do have a Rust Belt sensibility, and so I was (and am) excited to write about my new hometown and how my experiences are informed by my Rust Belt roots.
The essay turned out somewhat differently than I expected, which is exactly why I write. I write to surprise myself and learn something I didn’t know–about myself, about other people, about being human.
In its final form for the magazine, the essay ended up telling the story of TBF and me, including how we got (back) together and how we got to where we are right now. I hope you read the story and other pieces in Belt Magazine, like this thoughtful essay about LeBron James by Carl Finer.
My essay, “The Farmer and I: In the Middle of It All,” begins like this:
The farmer and I, we married quickly. From our first date to our wedding day, barely four seasons came and went.
The romantic spin on our fast work is expressed well by Billy Crystal’s clincher in When Harry Met Sally: “… when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”
We were a lot more like Harry and Sally than I care to admit, which is to say we had known each other a long time and had made a few false starts before we ended up together.
05/11/2014 § 1 Comment
A fact about me: I have no children, no people I’m raising and caring for every day.
TBF and I don’t even have a pet, unless you count Trip, the cat who wandered onto the farm a few years ago and never left. You really can’t count her because she doesn’t depend on us. Except for some food from TBF the Elder, Trip takes care of herself, hunting small things and snatching birds from the air. (Not kidding. TBF saw it happen once.)
Lately, ESPN’s got me thinking about mothers. Here’s another fact about my life: There is a direct correlation between how much laundry needs doing and how much Sportscenter I consume. I used to watch the show for college football highlights and punchy ad lib. Now it’s just an old habit and good background noise while I fold clothes.
Early in the week, I undertook washing large amounts of bedding, including some linens my mom gave me on my last trip to Ohio. I broke out the bleach and hung the freshened stuff on the backyard clothesline. I marveled at the simple utility of clothespins and how quickly things dry in direct sunlight.
While I smoothed pillowcases, I watched managers get tossed out of baseball games and listened to the latest on whose NFL draft stock was rising and who was rapidly falling out of the first round.
Tucked in the thick of the repetitive analysis and commentary was a brief Spike Lee-directed piece about NFL quarterback prospect Teddy Bridgewater. Except it wasn’t so much about him. It was about his relationship with his mom, Rose.
This piece by Andrea Adelman tells the first part of the Teddy and Rose story. To pick up where Adelman’s story leaves off and thus spoil the Spike Lee piece for you, Teddy makes good on his promise to Rose.
Of course it wasn’t the big pink Escalade that moved me to tears. It was a son’s innocent expression of love for his mother and the unabashed mutual devotion between two people who have been through a lot together.
Shortly after I recovered from that story, ESPN replayed excerpts from Kevin Durant’s NBA MVP acceptance speech.
KD offered words of appreciation to each of his teammates, members of the Oklahoma City Thunder organization, his family, and everyone who supported his rise to the top of his profession.
“I had a lot of help,” he said simply.
I cried so hard into the heap of dust ruffle on my lap that I needed to hang it outside again.
Had I known what KD was going to say to his mother, I would not have let my emotions crescendo so early. I can’t do the moment justice, so I encourage you to watch the speech here (KD’s tribute to his mom starts at 23:29) then read Steve Pierce’s essay for The Classical on why Durant’s expression of emotion is a good thing for the way we think about sports and manliness.
As I did my laundry and watched these very accomplished, very muscular children praise their mothers, I started thinking about my friends who are—or are about to become—mothers. It still feels like new territory for me, seeing women my own age have children and transform into these beings of astounding ability and tenderness.
To you, my friends who are mothers: I imagine your little ones growing up and becoming individuals with rich and realized lives, thanks to your encouragement and support. Maybe someday down the road your kids will give you a Pepto pink Escalade. Maybe your child’s entire professional athletic team will give you a standing ovation during a nationally-televised press conference.
But even if such grand gestures don’t happen, may your children have a moment—many moments, I hope—when they know deeply what a gift their mother is. May their love for you be plain and open, like a cleansing rush of tears or a light cotton sheet flapping gently on the line.
That, I imagine, feels like plenty.
04/07/2014 § 2 Comments
For every post that actually appears on this blog, there are four others that don’t make it past the idea stage. Ideas are fun. They don’t demand a commitment. They’re about wondering and scribbling and messing around on the page.
I get excited about ideas for this blog. I get excited and talk about them way too early. The longer it has been since my last post, the more delicious all the ideas become and the more I want to tell someone about a story that may or may not be in the works.
Very often the someone I tell is my mother-in-law, “Milly.” She has brought many a reader to this blog (hi, everyone! thanks for reading!), and she’s always eager for the next post. Milly seems to get a kick out of my stuff, most especially the stories about adjusting to life on this (her) prairie.
In mid-March, we (Milly, TBF, TBF the Elder, and I) took a road trip to a nice restaurant a couple of hours downstate. As we drove, Milly asked me if I had a “March Madness” post planned. Seeing as the NCAA tournaments were just around the corner and this blog used to be focused on sports and I had spent all of February working on a novel about a basketball player, it was a fair question.
“Of course I have a March Madness post in the works!” I said. “I have a whole SERIES in mind! It’s a tournament-style review of my favorite works of literature for children and young adults. Just you wait—it’s going to be awesome!”
What it was going to be was a ton of work—all of which I had thought up and decided to start much too late. Thanks to a ton of other writing work and Steinbeck’s East of Eden (I can’t believe I haven’t read it til now), I opted to shelve the groundbreaking series until summer, which is, realistically, when I would need to start the series to have it ready by next March. This is what I’m learning over and over: Things take time.
As Milly pointed out recently, we’ve had our fair share of madness—even without in-depth analyses of obvious one-seeds Maniac Magee, A Wrinkle in Time, Superfudge, and Bridge to Terebithia. For a while there, the relentless winter was driving us bonkers, but we managed.
Short road trips and visits to friends certainly helped. Whimsy is a close cousin to madness but a much happier companion. It’s an easy thing to miss when you’re on the interstate going eighty from Point A to B, but when you take the longer, slower way, whimsy’s waiting at the next blinking yellow light.
Whimsy found us after our dinner downstate. We passed through Oxford, IN, and made an unplanned stop at the birthplace of legendary harness pacer Dan Patch. If you’re thinking, “Who the heck is Dan Patch?” here’s a quick taste: He held a world record for decades and in his lifetime never lost a single race. (btw, he’s a horse.)
This is all to say I’m enjoying the beginning of spring and the whimsy and madness it promises: planting and traveling, cleaning up and making a mess of things, catching ideas and letting them go.