Today is the twenty-one-year anniversary of my brother’s suicide. Twenty-one years. On his twenty-first birthday, I planned to take him skydiving. I was researching drop zones, having already made ten jumps myself. I couldn’t wait to give him the thumbs up as he scooted to the open doorway and prepared to leave a perfectly good airplane for the first time. To free fall and experience the vast silence of the sky.
On his twenty-first birthday, I stood with family members around the patch of tender new grass marking his grave plot and sang happy birthday to the wind, hoping he would stop freefalling long enough to relieve the silent wringing of my heart. We placed a cake made of flowers by his plaque (his gravestone was still on order) and released balloons that floated skyward—to the air I wanted us to touch together.
During the hardest times, before and after my parents’ divorce, my twin brothers and I were inseparable. That life was short, was a certitude we never forgot. Deep in our marrow, we knew at least one of us wouldn’t survive to adulthood, that this short childhood was our only gift. We made each day an adventure—the good ones epic victories, the bad ones battles to surmount. We didn’t always behave wisely (there were way too many fires) or do the right thing, but we captured what we could, even during the darkest of times.
I’d forgotten that lesson just before Joe’s death. Busy adulting and trying to get ahead, I worked sixty-hour weeks and let important events slide. During the January before he died, Joe and I chatted on AOL during the nascent days of the public internet. We almost always said I love you at the end of our sessions.
I say almost because the last time we were kicked off early and never reconnected. Had I known this was the last time, I would’ve tried harder. I would’ve made sure he knew how I felt. I would’ve stayed up all night trying to get online or braved a long-distance call I couldn’t afford.
Rarely do we know it’s the last time.
Most days we expect to wake up along with the rest of the world. Our time feels endless. Since Joe’s death, I’ve operated as if any day could be my last, paying attention, sucking the good out of life and seeing the challenges as cinematic battles I’ll one day conquer. I say I love you, even if it means no one else will.
Courses in grief are a human requirement we can neither drop nor escape. A year doesn’t go by when I don’t cry at least a couple of minutes on this anniversary or his birthday. Nor does a year go by when I don’t hear his cackle in my laugh or see the outline of his face in mine and light up with joy.
After Joe’s death, I made three more jumps out of perfectly good airplanes. Each time, I carried the heaviness of his ghost in my jumpsuit and said, “This one’s for us.” I imagined us sharing the harness, him probably complaining that the straps were ball crushers, but also hitching his breath as he experienced an unencumbered view of the earth from sky—reveling in how at sunset mist rises to the sky, how heights are relative above 1,000 feet, and how we’re all just specks from up high.
For everyone who reads this, may your courses in grief teach you about abundance and love. I love you for all that you are and all that you will be. May you find comfort in knowing your sorrows are equivalent to your love. Each wave of grief is an opportunity to experience the preciousness of life and to love again. And may you enjoy this song. Listen to it, sing it, and pass it on. Namaste.
A version of this post was published in the January 5th edition of the WriterHouse newsletter.
On New Year’s Day, 1985, I wrote down a list of goals for the new year and promised to do this until the year I die. Thirty-two years have passed. Every year, I faithfully sit on my bed and read past resolutions before creating new ones. I keep them in a pink fiberboard jewelry box my great-grandmother gave me. The earliest resolutions were oragamied into squares teens of a certain decade will recognize.
Over the years, resolutions have included travel plans, getting a boyfriend, skydiving from 10,000 feet, and being kinder to others. Some were completely unrealistic, like be 100% happy all the time, while others were easily achieved. Goals I met received stars or checks. Unmet goals were left for another year. From an early age, being a published writer made the list. For a very long time, it remained unchecked.
As I completed this year’s ritual, I realized many of my early goals were beyond my control (like the whole boyfriend thing). Much of our writing lives—like whether our submissions are read, accepted, or liked—are also out of our control. In many ways, writing down published writer was like getting a boyfriend. I could write it down, but I couldn’t make it happen.
So, what is in my control?
The work and only the work.
I can commit to writing or revising a certain number of pages, learning new skills, or making a certain number of submissions. I can register for classes and conferences and make new writing friends. Some people I know are also making rejection goals, which we all know is much easier than publication ones. (By the way, mine is 29.)
But more important than setting goals is creating a plan for accomplishing them. Over the years, I’ve discovered my plans always include the following elements:
A breakdown of mini-tasks required to meet my big goal
A schedule for completing these tasks
A support team who will help me stay accountable. Often this includes classmates and members of writing groups.
One big reward and a series of small ones to celebrate the milestones along the way
A self-care plan
A letter of intention that addresses how I want to feel, think, or believe once I’ve completed this goal. I write this in the present tense as if the goal has already been achieved.
A mantra, or positive phrase I can say to myself when things get tough
A list of encouraging phrases and quotes from authors I can use as inspiration
A gratitude jar for all the gifts along the way.
At the end of my yearly ritual, I create my plan and carefully refold the yellowing pages written decades ago. Then I say thank you for all of them, even the ones I never accomplished.
What goals have you set for yourself?
What do you need to make them a reality?
How can I help?
On October 1st, I started the fourth draft of my memoir by channeling George Saunders. I’d recently watched his interview on Late Night with Seth Myers. During that interview, Saunders explained how his editorial process shows respect for his readers and love for his characters. He sees each revision as an act of love.
I need to cut 25,000 words from my fourth draft. That’s a lot of love.
Over the past few months, I’ve read The Story Cure by Dinty Moore, attended Hippocamp, and read a number of blog posts on making good writing great. Here are some of the strategies I’ve learned.
Examine your character arc: Good memoirs are about transformation. Many writers outline the narrative arc for their books and have a good sense of how the plot moves forward. But it’s also important to outline the character arc, or how the character changes over time. Outlining the character arc will help you refine your plot and delete tangential scenes.
Drop the backstory: As a teenager, I loved Stephen King’s novels. But there was one problem. Every book contained between 50 – 200 pages of backstory on his main characters. Talk about skim city. Modern readers are impatient. And let’s face it, few of us are Mr. King. In the Writer’s Digest article “How to Weave Backstory into Your Novel Seamlessly,” Folio agent Jeff Kleinman says, “In almost all cases if it’s backstory, it needs to be cut.” My new rule of thumb: if it doesn’t affect a character’s decisions or reappear in the story, it goes.
Examine the weight of each scene: All scenes are not equal. Some contain vital moments that hold the essence of your work. Others just move the plot forward. Consider the work each scene is doing. Compress essential but undramatic scenes so you can make room for the ones that really count.
Replace adjectives and adverbs with active, strong verbs.
Nix Useless Words: Diane Urban has a blog post that contains 43 words to remove from your work. While you can make a case for keeping some of these words, each one you keep should earn its place in your manuscript.
Read your work out loud. Pour yourself a cup of tea and get to work. There’s no substitute for doing this, no matter the length of your work.
Find a second pair of eyes: We all become blind to our manuscripts’ flaws. Talented beta readers and editors can help you kill your darlings so your stars can shine.
George Saunders is right. Since October 1st, I’ve cut over 7,000 words from the first two sections of my book. I already feel more loving toward my characters and the scenes I’ve decided to keep. With some persistence and a lot of tea, I’ll scrap the next 18,000 with ease. Imagine the love I’ll feel for my work. Imagine the love you’ll feel for yours.
This post was originally published in the November 2, 2017 edition of the WriterHouse newsletter.
There are the stories we tell about our lives and the stories we discover if we’re brave enough to ask questions. “Re-Examining the Stories We Tell About Our Lives — A Conversation with Memoirist Sharon Harrigan” is an interview with Sharon Harrigan, author of Playing with Dynamite that was published in Huffington Post.
–Originally Published in the August 18, 2017 Newsletter for WriterHouse
“Don’t be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen.” ― George Saunders, The Braindead Megaphone
At noon on Saturday, August 12th, I sat in a meditation session with twenty-five other people. Cloistered in a yoga studio, we silently practiced loving kindness meditation while sirens blared and helicopters flew overhead. By the time the event ended, chaos had enveloped our downtown. Roving bands of angry men carrying shields and batons walked the city streets. Heather Heyer was dead.
The scene and the sounds were shocking. I couldn’t believe what was happening to my beloved city. By the time I made it home and turned on the news, the gravity of the situation began to sink in. The events were so terrible, I walked around in fugue state for days afterward. It was difficult to concentrate, let alone write. Eventually, I realized my heart had temporarily closed.
Maybe you felt that way too. Or, maybe you were courageous enough to pick up your pen, ready to channel the difficult feelings tragedies evoke.
As I’ve mediated about how to live up to George Saunders quote, I’ve reviewed all the practices I’ve learned and taught over the years. As a way to move forward, I thought I would share a few with you.
Write your stormy first draft: Write without censorship. Let the child have its way so you can feel what you feel. Snot bubble cry if you need to. Remember, this draft is only for you.
Find a way to get some distance from your work: Put that draft in a drawer. Burn a copy so the ashes can float freely on the wind. Make lists of what it’s all about. Distance will help you make meaning from your work, which is essential.
Write about the heroes as well as the heartache: While it may be true that if it bleeds it leads, resilience is based in hope. Saturday’s events may have brought out the worst in some people, but for others, it brought out the best.
Get spiritual: This doesn’t necessarily mean religious. Spirituality is simply the way we make meaning and find hope. Dial in to community and all that is good and just in the world. If you do nothing else, allow your mind a few minutes to be still. If you’d like some resources regarding self-compassion, check out Kristen Neff’s website.
Take time outs: While it’s great to process these events and work toward justice, it’s also important to take breaks. Write about difficult feelings for no more than twenty-minutes at a time. Walk in nature. Find activities that sustain you. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. Treat it like one so you can, to quote Reverend Alvin Edwards (a speaker at Heather Heyer’s memorial), wear out rather than rust out. In other words, don’t let the writing life become so intense you bow out.
Be well, my writing friends. Find hope. Build unity. Keep showing up. Your beautiful words have tremendous value.
Last spring, I bought a new house with a landscaped front yard. By the end of summer, fifty percent of the boxwoods had died. Last weekend, we finally replaced those dead bushes with some blue hydrangea and daisy gardenias. (Yeah, I’m that neighbor.) The gardenia bushes were already flowering when we bought them even though it’s only mid-spring and they’re typically summer bloomers. On the way home from the nursery, the flowers’ perfume enveloped my car, bringing up images of my grandmother.
I could practically hear her stories about the good old days in the Bronx of her youth, her Os twisting into that tight “oi” sound as she set the stage for life in 1935. Gardenias were her favorite flowers. She wore them to high school dances, the blooms so sweet she didn’t need any eau’ de toilet. By the time I was born, my grandmother no longer left the house. This nostalgia was the only travel she allowed herself.
When I was invited to my first dance, I asked for a gardenia corsage. My nervous date had chosen a wrist arrangement, either fearing he’d stab me in the boob or touch one, probably a bit of both. Throughout the night, I smelled that flower and thought of debutants swinging to big band music in spring-colored taffeta. Afterward, I gave it to my grandmother so she could relive her debutant days. She showed me how to preserve it.
I’m a big fan of cathectic objects, or as T.S. Elliot calls them objective correlatives. An objective correlative is an object, place, or character that objectifies an emotion. Think Boo Radley in To Kill a Mocking Bird, or money in Junot Diaz’s essay of the same name. I also like to think of William Carlos William’s “Red Wheelbarrow”—when done well, so much depends on that object’s presence.
My favorite example of the objective correlative comes from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a collection of linked short stories about an American platoon during the Vietnam War. Throughout the book, the objects soldiers carry reflect the weight of war and soldier’s hopes and fears. In the title story, First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carries letters from Martha, a girl from New Jersey. Each night he reads them, imagining a life beyond the jungle. The meaning of the letters shifts over the course of the letters from a source of hope to one of betrayal even though the content of the letters remains untouched.
All effective objective correlatives evolve over the course of a story, though their meaning doesn’t need to be so dreary.
In Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s backpack, Monster, feels like an homage to O’Brien. The pack is filled with both physical and emotional weight. As her hike progresses and the pack lightens, so does Monster’s meaning.
So, how do you create an objective correlative in your work?
• Read as much as you can and notice which objects stand out to you. Ask yourself what the object means and it functions in the story.
• Write as much as you can, organically and without purpose. If you start with the goal of creating a great objective correlative, it will feel forced. Instead, mine your work for diamonds sitting just below the surface. Trust that your subconscious mind is wise and will place the right objects for you.
• Once you’ve finished a piece, circle all the objects in it.
• Notice which ones repeat. Objects that repeat typically have some emotional meaning, even if that meaning is unconscious.
• Make a list of potential meanings and emotions associated with repeated objects.
• Once you’ve established your cathectic object, use precise details to convey that meaning or emotional resonance. For example, consider the associations one might make with a threadbare canvas wallet held together with duct tape versus a patent leather one.
• Examine your story’s narrative arc and how the narrator is transformed. Consider whether the details around that object change too. If they don’t, think about whether they should.
• Be careful not to overdo it. Readers don’t like to be hit over the head with symbolism. A good objective correlative works in the background. Its meaning is subtle.
Like all craft techniques, this one takes practice. If you’re unsure where to start, go to a local florist or garden center and ask to smell the gardenias, or any flower that elicits a bit of nostalgia. If the clerks look at you funny, just tell them you’re a writer. It won’t change the look on their faces, but it might make you feel more official.
Some physicians feel that real illness is sanctioned by ribbons, colors, and celebrity spokespersons. Read about the challenges of life with an unsanctioned illness in The Ribbon Test published by Streetlight.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” — Martin Luther King Jr.
As a kid, I used to watch the black and white movie about Martin Luther King’s life that played on PBS. My brothers and I leaned in to the thirteen-inch screen and winced with each crack of the baton or spray of a fire hose. We were mesmerized by the courage shown by the civil rights activists in the face of hatred and oppression.
Every year I asked myself the same question: Could I be that brave?
We live in dark times. Hate spills out of the airwaves and into living rooms. Oppressions I will never fully understand happen every day. Rights may be taken away while corruption spreads its wings.
If I focus on what’s happening out there, all I have is despair.
Every year on MLK Jr Day I still ask myself the same question: Could I be that brave? I still don’t know the answer. But I try my best to be the light in dark times.
On Sunday, I made chili for fifty people at our local day shelter for the homeless during my regular rotation. A few weeks ago I split my end of year charity donations three ways–social justice, wellness, and basic needs–and sent the money to agencies in the greatest need. I talk to my neighbors, write to congress, sign petitions, and try my best to understand the hearts of others. More than anything, I put one foot in front of the other and remind myself of King’s directive: Be the light in dark times.
May we all be brave enough to be the light King hoped for.
In my high school biology class we sliced off transparent films of onion skin with our fingernails then slipped them under wet-mount slides in order study plant cells. My onion was red. I dyed it with a single drop of methylene blue so the nuclei would be visible. As kids around me chomped gum and slipped notes to each other, I pressed my forehead to the eyepiece, certain I was about to witness a miracle. With a few adjustments to the focus, the plant’s cells appeared. Rows of nuclei stared back at me. It was like looking into the onion’s soul.
Sometime editing feels like working under a microscope. We lean into the page, hoping our intense study will reveal the story’s genetic code. Strings of words are analyzed, sentences built then tossed out. It’s easy to believe that composing beautiful sentences is the pinnacle of editorial work, but the very first thing you need to do is determine what your story is about.
Staring at the page won’t help you figure that out.
Over the years I’ve heard lots of advice regarding how to develop psychic distance, the perspective needed to make good writing great. Put your manuscript in a drawer. Print out the pages and spread them on the floor. Cut up your paragraphs and rearrange them like puzzle pieces. Find a reader. Hire an editor. I have used all of these techniques to improve my own work.
At the 2016 creative writing conference, Kristin Kovacic, co-editor of the anthology Birth: A Literary Companion, offered three questions writers can use to develop distance from their work. Here is her incredibly helpful list.
1. How many things is this piece about? At this stage you want to think about multiplicity. If you’re writing a piece about a young woman who owns a dog in a small town, your piece may be about dogs, women, and small town life. If you expand from character and place to feelings you may find that the piece is about security, shame, or vulnerability. Maybe it’s about innocence. If you drill into the category dog, you may find that it’s about mutts, or fleas, or purebreds. It could be about a fur. Think broadly and cast a wide net.
2. Are there connections between things on your list? Look for points of intersection. Perhaps you notice that the dog helps the young woman hide her vulnerability. Maybe the dog represents the love she’s always wanted. Maybe the dog is a mutt in a neighborhood full of purebreds Like the family, he never feels accepted. See how many connections you can create. Make it a game. Novel connections boost your creativity.
3. Who does the narrator represent? We all have identities we represent in some way—woman, journalist, mother, etc. Make these lists all the time. See which group needs to be represented by this piece of writing.
Once you’ve answered these questions, see which connections seem most relevant. Figure out who the narrator represents and build your structure based on the realizations you’ve established. Examine what you’ve introduced in the beginning of the piece and see if you’ve wrapped it up in the end. As Kristin said during the conference, “a good piece resolves its central tension. It doesn’t simply end.”
Once you know what your piece is about, you figure out what structure best serves it. Then you can begin the microscopic work of line editing and fact checking. Stare at the page as often as you like. You will have seen the story’s soul.