When it comes to keeping up with must-see television, I am way behind. I haven’t even crossed the starting line. Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Big Little Lies, Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, Sherlock, The Office: I’ve never seen any of these. Someday I’ll catch up. I’d like to experience the golden age of television before I’m in my golden years. [Read more…] about Revise It or Ditch It
This Blog Post has also been featured in Zizzlelit.
Last year, as part of its Tiny Desk Concert series, NPR featured Yo-Yo Ma. The cellist devoted his twelve minutes to discussing J. S. Bach and playing a little of the composer’s music. I loved hearing Yo-Yo Ma perform, but what struck me was something he said. He revealed that Suite No. 1 for Solo Cello, the piece with which he opened, was the first song he’d learned to play. And he learned it when he was four years old.
I marveled at this (four years old!), but he was modest about the accomplishment, explaining that he’d learned the piece “one measure at a time.”
The audience laughed as he demonstrated the inching progress of his practice. One day: one measure. The following day: the next. He emphasized how some practices were easy because a measure—the day’s “homework”—was a repeat of the previous day’s measure. Other times, the measure was different but similar to the one the day before and therefore not too difficult. And then there were harder days with more complicated measures. But still, a measure a day, however challenging, by virtue of its brevity, was doable.
After reflecting on his earliest experiences playing the cello, Yo-Yo Ma confided, “It’s actually not painful to learn something if you do it incrementally.”
These words have stayed with me. They touch on what I’ve learned about myself: that I write best when I write very little.
This isn’t to say that I write for ten minutes, then call it quits. Almost every morning, I sit at my desk for at least three hours. But in these hours, I’ll only strum up four or five hundred words. I usually feel good about them, however. My writing routine—eking out a little over a long spell—doesn’t just keep the pressure manageable, it affords me the luxury of time to tweak, experiment, sit, and think. To add words, cut words, rearrange, and read aloud. To play.
Incidentally, five hundred words is probably the average length of a work of flash fiction. I’ve developed a passion for flashes. The form is aptly named and not just because such stories can be read “in a flash.” So often, the stories, themselves, seem to flash—with an energy that presses against the word-length restraints. With a loosely-tethered power.
A good flash will shimmer.
Though I write flash fiction regularly these days, a decade ago, I didn’t even know the form existed. I regret this. Had I been familiar with flash when I was still teaching high school English, I would have incorporated the reading and writing of it into my instruction.
Flash fiction is ideally suited for class-wide close readings and discussions. A flash is so short that, even in a mere hour, it can be examined thoroughly. In a single class period, students could note a flash’s every intricacy (unusual repetitions, shifts in point of view, juxtapositions of images, metaphors…) and determine such details’ significance. The students could also note what isn’t in the short piece: the missing, the absent. Flashes frequently leave much unsaid and therefore lure readers into filling in the gaps. Students could learn to attend to these silences and draw conclusions.
Crafting flash fiction would also encourage excellent writing habits among students. In order to master the form, a writer must learn to keep prose deliberate, precise, and lean (freed from the weight of unnecessary exposition, modifiers, and backstory).
If only I’d known about flash fiction sooner. With regards to my students’ writing, I used to believe more was better: long critical analyses and plenty of them, draft after draft after draft. A grueling routine for them—and, frankly, for me, too. I was forever grading essays.
Having my kids write flash fiction could have suited my objectives just as well, if not better. It certainly would have been more pleasant for my students. Even fun!
How incredible: to have plenty of time to read great flash after great flash (because, after all, a flash doesn’t take that long to read) and, through immersive reading, get a sense of the form’s potential. To draft something short, then practice whittling it down. To follow the conventions of standard written English—or not. To learn when to break a rule or two. To swap words, tweak a phrase, and choose a better verb. To cultivate a mystery. To play with words—only so many of them—and play with them well. To read a flash-in-progress to a peer. To listen to the peer read his or hers. To share feedback. To tweak some more. To come to see oneself as a writer. An artist. To care about one’s art and love what one is creating.
To accomplish a lot with a little, like music learned slowly and thoroughly. Measure by measure.
Kidnapped, lost, stranded, neglected.
Shipwrecked, orphaned, indentured, and banished.
Sent to boarding school. Left in the woods.
Married off. Doled out.
This is the stuff of storybooks. Dead parents, absent grownups. Sad kids all by their lonesome selves. Or maybe not so sad. And not so lonesome. At least not for long… [Read more…] about After Goodbye
As soon as the sun’s up, I throw on my jacket and head outside. I’ve been doing this everyday lately. There are developments. I’m anxious to learn the latest.
Most recently: crocosmia. Their slender shoots have just poked through the ground. Already up: the weirdly shriveled starts of peonies, red in their infancy, and tulip leaves, sinuous like unspooled ribbon. Also making an appearance: iris spears, poppy mounds, clumps of bleeding hearts, and the ruffled foliage of columbine. [Read more…] about All of a Sudden
A few weeks ago, I met friends for dinner at the Custom House, a restaurant located in a historic building by the Erie Canal. Anna and Adrienne are interesting, smart women, and I’d happily hang out with them anywhere, but on this particular wintry night, I was glad we’d picked this spot. The Custom House, with its wooden floors, brick walls, musty air, and long windows overlooking the canal’s milky gleam of ice, seemed right for our discussion.
We’d gotten on the strange subject of ghost stories.
[Read more…] about Haunted
The 1987 romantic comedy Moonstruck, about a thirty-seven-year-old Italian-American widow (Loretta Castorini) who falls in love with her fiancé’s estranged brother, is a cinematic gem, how it presents family life in all of its marvelous messiness and unwraps love’s loony sweetness. It’s one of my favorite films.
Loretta’s mother is Rose, played by Olympia Dukakis, and this woman has some of the best lines. She tells her husband who’s having an affair, “I just want you to know no matter what you do, you’re gonna die, just like everybody else.” And when Loretta admits she doesn’t love her fiancé, Rose doesn’t even blink, just says flat-out, “Good. When you love them they drive you crazy because they know they can. [Read more…] about On the Eve of Unleaving
Not too long ago, my eight-year-old son paused in the living room to watch me vacuum a crumb-strewn rug, a mess of my own making. I’d accidentally bumped a bowl of Flavor Blaster Goldfish off the coffee table. When I finished cleaning up the snack, Quinn (visibly perturbed) demanded, “What are you doing with Daddy’s vacuum?”
That question says a lot about life under my roof.
The vacuum belongs to my husband. The kids would also consider the kitchen sink, washing machine, and dryer more their dad’s than mine, since Michael handles the laundry and dirty dishes. (I’m not a total slug. The oven and refrigerator mostly belong to me, and fixing meals is a lot of work, you know. Sheesh.) [Read more…] about Leisureland, Derailed
When I was a kid, my family moved a lot. We went from a trailer to a house in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, then onto Jamestown, New York, where we made stops at an apartment, a small house, then a medium house, then a spacious, if ramshackle, house, all in different neighborhoods, the blocks of the city like squares on a checkerboard, leaped without consideration of likely outcomes, our game of pausing, starting over, landing, and picking up haphazardly played. If the game involved strategy, it came down to one principle: bigger was better, even if the bigger house came with a rougher neighborhood. I suppose we got something out of these moves, but I’m not sure what. Pieces—toys, a favorite lilac bush, friends, a stamp collection, schools, a cat’s pawprints memorialized in the concrete of a sidewalk—were lost along the way. [Read more…] about People Are Dying. Babies Are Crying.
Ask me again what I offered as a sacrifice to the rooster crowing his betrayal of morning. Forgiveness, what a sharp blade I press my body hard against.”
—Marci Callabretta Cancio-Bello’s “In the Animal Garden of My Body” from the Poem-a-Day series, Academy of American Poets
I’ve been thinking about these last two lines of Cancio-Bello’s poem, mulling forgiveness and the sacrifice it entails—the relinquishment of pride, anger, righteous suffering—and reflecting on forgiveness and pain, that “sharp blade” that so often is a twofold ache, a recollection of the initial external hurt (whatever action entailed forgiveness in the first place) combined with the agony wrought by bringing oneself to forgive.
Forgiveness is hard. About her own poem, Cancio-Bello said, “I have spent a lifetime studying forgiveness and am constantly humbled by how complicated, impossible, and necessary it is to every memory.” [Read more…] about For Shame
I taught eleventh and twelfth grade English for eleven years. People would often say to me, “Wow, you must really like kids.”
Well, I do like kids. In fact, I have two of my own!
But I didn’t go into teaching because I adored teenagers and wanted to spend hours and hours (AND HOURS) in their company. I did it because, as a student, I loved the classroom, especially the language arts classroom, a world alive with stories and emotions, discussions and investigations. It seemed as close to a utopia as I was likely to get. In that environment, I could exercise my passion for reading and writing, think hard about difficult subjects, dwell on the human condition, and wade into the subtleties of literature. Heaven! [Read more…] about Get Yourself Good and Stressed