In March I departed for the Pacific Northwest and the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat; three days spent in the Cascade Mountains, devouring local grub and IPAs, communing with fellow writers and learning from some pretty impressive memoirists. (side note: there is talk of repeating the retreat next year, so aspiring memoir writers take note). Organizer and instructor, Theo Pauline Nestor, led my favorite session: “It’s Not JUST About You”. She introduced me to the concept of writers using memoir to tell a bigger story about the world we live in. I had an inkling of that, but when she explained it in detail, using memoirs by Cheryl Strayed and Joan Didion (writers I admire) to illustrate her point, the proverbial light bulb dinged above my head. This was what I needed — a way to connect my writing to the bigger picture, the shared humanity we all face.
I remember the first time I encountered Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken”. I was in 6th grade and Miss Clark had given us the poem to memorize. When I shared this news with my dad, he instantly perked up (let’s face it, elementary school homework doesn’t often elicit parental joy). But this time? Here was his favorite poem — something he could share with his daughter in the form of homework disguised as life lesson. He sat with me as I attempted to commit each line to memory, reciting the verses ad nauseam.
” I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
“…jealousy is destructive. It won’t make you a better writer. It won’t make you a better person.”
Sitting 30,000ft in the air, hovering somewhere over the state of Ohio I’m struck by these words, uttered by Cheryl Strayed, in the latest issue of Creative Nonfiction. A timely piece of advice to me, as a not-yet published writer I find it difficult to tamper down the flicker of jealousy that pops up at the most inopportune times.
You know the feeling: you discover a new writer, you devour their work and wonder how can it be that in all your reading you’ve never come across them before. You fight the urge to feel gypped and take comfort in the fact that you’ve seen the light and found a kindred spirit. You finish the book, favorite quotes/passages underlined, and add the book to a shelf of “can’t live without” books.
A few years back when my grandpa passed away I not only lost my last grandparent, but the world lost one cool cat; a man who not only played trombone in the Sooner band, but married his college sweetheart who was, in his words, “the prettiest girl in Norman,” and he had a penchant for saying, “Dear Gussie!” in his measured Midwestern lilt whenever you impressed or shocked him, which delighted me to no end. He was known as a man who had a way with words and he could spin a tale that kept the rapt attention of all his grandkids, especially me.
When the extended Graves family got together to say good-bye to Daniel Maloy Graves II we each took turns sharing a favorite memory. My dad shared several memories, but one in particular made a lasting impression, “He had the best vocabulary and a system to improve it. When he would come across a word he didn’t know, he’d look it up and write down the definition. He would then make a point of using that word in conversation at least three times the next day to commit it to memory. I always admired that.”
Waking up to the dulcet tones of Soterios Johnson, my morning routine is always the same: listen to the news of the day and wait until he tells me the current temperature in Central Park, for only then will I get out of bed. From there I pad down the hall to the kitchen to make coffee before settling down in my office to write.
February 1, 2013. A day that centers around two New York historical figures — legendary mayor Ed Koch who died today and Grand Central Terminal celebrates its centennial.
Grand Central with all its opulence and grandeur. The turquoise fresco that draws your eyes up to the heavens where celestial bodies watch over passengers as they bustle through corridors to train platforms or out onto 42nd Street. When I lived in New York I was fortunate to work on 42nd Street and thanks to the 4/5/6 train, I could enter/exit Grand Central Terminal on a daily basis if I wanted but usually avoided due to the crush of people (opting instead of a small exit down on 42nd and 3rd). Just standing in the main concourse of Grand Central you can feel the electricity in your bones, the spirit of how train travel used to be (one could say the same of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station and part of Washington DC’s Union Station).
Dare I say, painful?
It physically hurts. And it’s lasted for more than a week.
I’m starting to get concerned.
Writer’s block that I can’t seem to overcome. I even attempted the trick where I start out writing about my writer’s block, which I’ve read can help. People seemingly stuck in their tracks find a way to write through the block, prose bursts forth and they’re writing a masterpiece. Ok, probably not a masterpiece but at least the start of a rough, really rough, 1st draft. But me? I keep asking questions: why is this happening? Why can’t I seem to break through? What type of writer am I? The questions are endless and with each new question the words seem farther away.
Yesterday I was at my wit’s end, and turned to writing in my journal. I figured if I couldn’t write a story at least I could write about how I felt about not being able to write. With each sentence my anxiety grew until I couldn’t stop writing—in capital letters. I was essentially yelling at myself in my journal. Who does this? With each swipe of the pen on paper, my frustration mounted until I just started scribbling on the page, essentially ripping it from the binding and then promptly burst into tears. Until there was nothing left.
But then? One breath, followed by another. I sat with my mangled Moleskine. I attempted to compose myself and gather my thoughts. I walked away from yesterday’s writing session with silence and a bit of clarity. I suppose sometimes you have to break down everything (barriers, preconceived notions, your mental state) in order to start from scratch and rebuild.