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Honoring the Craft

Amy PaturelYou might have heard the platitude “those who can’t do, teach.” Obviously, I don’t agree with that theory. I’m a teacher. Plus, I have several friends and acquaintances who defy that logic. And yet, I also recognize that teaching makes doing a lot more challenging.

A former student, who is also a writer and professor, likens teaching to a “joyful bloodletting” whereby you insert an IV into your vein and suck all of the creativity out of your bloodstream.

While it isn’t quite that intense for me, I’m also not teaching full time (though it feels like full time!). What I have noticed since the coronavirus pandemic began, and I started feeling pulled to reach more students, is that I have to be more intentional about my craft. I have to make it a priority not only to read my students’ work, but also to tackle my own. What that requires, of course, is discipline — something I’ve been sorely lacking!

Here’s the thing: For weeks, I had been writing an essay my mind, and occasionally in my journal. A piece that required me to only sit in front of a computer and think thoughtfully for a chunk of time. The problem was, with three kids, a husband, four jobs, and two ongoing workshops, well, I didn’t have a chunk of time!

So, I decided to approach my essay writing like any other assignment (to a degree). The key prop: A timer! But I’m jumping ahead. Allow me to back up and walk you through my process step by step.

  1. Be spontaneous. Don’t wait for the right time, or the best time, or the time when you have uninterrupted time. Just sit down with a pad of paper, or pull up a blank document, and go for it. You’ll hear people tell you to block out time in your calendar or make an appointment with yourself. If that works for you, GO FOR IT! If not, be spontaneous about it. Me? I wrote at the picnic table while my kids rode their bikes around me. I recorded notes on my phone will driving to the grocery store. I worked within the confines of my reality.
  2. Use a timer. If I could offer only one suggestion to alleviate writer’s block, it would be: Get yourself a timer. Theo Pauline Nestor addresses this in her book, Writing is My Drink (highly recommend, by the way). I’ve heard the same advice delivered on several writer’s podcasts (The Beautiful Writer’s Podcast frequently addresses this idea, but I can’t recall the specific episodes). The Cliff’s Notes: Set a timer for 15 minutes, or even 5, and put pen to paper. If you really want to get into the weeds on this, read “Working it Out.”
  3. Make a plan. I don’t mean plot out how you’re going to find the time, energy, enthusiasm, fill-in-the-blank, to write the essay, but make a plan to get the thing done. And come up with a really cool reward when you knock it out of the park.
  4. Build in accountability. Sometimes just telling someone you plan to write a story about X, Y, Z builds in a certain level of accountability. It could be a friend, a partner, a fellow writer. It doesn’t matter who it is, but it helps if the person will say, “hey, how’s that story coming along?”
  5. Be prepared to go off course. Starting an essay comes with its own set of risks. If you’re anything like me, once you really dig in, you can’t let go. I become like a dog with a meaty bone. I sink my teeth in, and I can’t release. So, yes, I started that essay, but then I became obsessed. I thought about it day and night, trying to figure out the crux of the story, word smithing paragraphs while I was half asleep, and jotting down notes at every opportunity. Despite a full workload, two contract positions with daily deliverables, and several students who want and deserve timely feedback, all I really wanted to do was write the damn story — and make it sing. Turns out, I’m well on my way.

This blog was originally published on July 7, 2020, at amypaturel.com


ABOUT AMY: Amy Paturel has been crafting essays for more than two decades and teaching personal essay writing for more than 15 years. Her personal and reported essays frequently appear in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Discover, Good Housekeeping, Parents, and more. Two of her pieces were featured in Newsweek’s “My Turn” column, and she garnered two “honorable mention” awards in ASJA’s personal essay category (2009 and 2011).


CRAFT A BETTER ESSAY WITH AMY: Join Amy for a Charlotte Lit month long Studio Writing the Personal Essay beginning October 24th, online. This personal essay writing intensive will guide you through generating interesting essay ideas to a salable piece. More information here.

Rooftop Inspiration

Charles Israel, Jr.

Charles Israel, Jr.

Wherever our work as writers comes from, I’m just happy that it comes. And I wanted to share my inspiration for my flash fiction, “Ask a Crow.” It started as a poem, based on two things I saw on a rooftop, a crow and a coffee cup. The crow I understood, but a coffee cup? Which lead to a better question, what else doesn’t belong on a roof? From somewhere in my imagination, the bow from a double bass showed up. The bow changed the piece from a poem to a story. Because that bow had to be tossed by someone and tossed no doubt in either joy or anger. Here follows a love story.

 

Ask a Crow

It used to be her favorite cologne, so I splash some on. I look out the bathroom window, across Division Street. The building across the street has a huge, flat rooftop that takes up too much of my vista. On the rooftop, a wooden water tank. And there, under it, lies the bow for an upright bass. Also, there’s a coffee cup turned cistern, from which a crow bobs and drinks.

The cologne’s extracted from a small, alpine flower—speick. A smell that penetrates. As a punishment during the dark ages, they’d lock people in barns where they were hanging speick flowers to dry. After release, the person could be still be identified as guilty, for weeks—by the smell. Chief crimes for the speick barn were the theft of cattle or sheep, and also adultery.

From the only other room in our apartment, the big room with its one big window, I hear her: Are you going to leave me like this? Are you going to leave me like this? Like the chorus of some old soul tune, one with the verses understood. She’s standing on the window sill, a hand and a foot in each corner.

She turns her head. Her face has folded in on itself, like origami. I grab her by the waist. With my face pressed into her back, I hear her breathing, hard. Wait a minute, she says, Is that my bow?

She jumps down to check the bass case for her bow. I’d felt bad the second I released it. But then, as it sailed over the street, turning end over end, I heard its music. Like the first time I heard her play music: there, at her spring orchestra rehearsal, me the only one in the audience. She sounded so beautiful: I fell in love. Thief and adulterer, she says, all rolled into one.

I jump onto the window sill and go spread-eagled. Like a paratrooper at the jump-door, I turn my hands inside out, my fingers pointing toward Division. I’m set, ready to fly over. Ready to ask the crow: What do I do now? What have I done? How do I get her back? Can I get her back?  But he unfolds his wings and flies off, the bow in his beak.


MASTER PERSONAL ESSAYS WITH CHARLES: Be guided—step by step—through the process of writing personal essays. Write a complete essay using prompts, freewriting exercises, feedback, and revision. In this class, you can share your work with others. You may also elect to receive written feedback from the instructor.  (New this spring, you’ll have the option to add a detailed critique of your writing for an additional fee. Details will be sent after you register.) This class meets on three Tuesdays, May 11, 18 & 25, 6-7:30 p.m. More info

ABOUT CHARLES: Charles Israel, Jr., teaches creative writing at Queens University of Charlotte. His poetry chapbook, Stacking Weather, was published by Amsterdam PressHe’s also had poems and stories in Crazyhorse, Field, The Cortland Review, The Adirondack Review, Nimrod International Journal, Pembroke Magazine, Zone 3, Journal of the American Medical Association, and North Carolina Literary Review. He likes to read ancient epic poetry and contemporary creative nonfiction about voyages and journeys, sports and war. He lives in Charlotte with his wife, Leslie.

Book Club Recommendations: An Eclectic Mix

When I can’t decide what I want to eat, one of my favorite meals is what, in my family, is called a “Continental Plate.” The reason for this designation is lost to me, but it conjures up a degree of sophistication and worldliness. In reality, it’s just a fancy term for bit of this and that in the face of indecision. A smattering of spiced nuts, a bit of good cheese, some grapes. Or another day, hummus and carrots along with salty sesame crackers. A effortless, varied assemblage that is nevertheless satisfying.

Lately, I’ve been craving the same in my reading queue. While I’m still sucker for a page-turning novel or a stellar collection of poetry, among that mix there are also oddball, hard to classify works that have made their way to the stack on my bedside table. They might be listed as micro-memoir, essay, flash fiction, or maybe they defy classification. Either way, I’ve appreciated their creativity and variety.  Here are a few of my recent favorites:

Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis Can't and Won't

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk 

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

Heating and Cooling by Beth Ann Fennelly

Image result for heating and cooling book cover

Late Migrations by Margaret Renkl

Sing to It by Amy Hempel

Sing to It

Check out Charlotte Lit’s recommendations for Building a Better Book Club.

Tips for a Better Book Club