Here's a recent Facebook post in which Dianna Genteman says she would like to read an example of something I consider good writing and something bad. I thought I'd throw in something ugly, just for good measure and because I think I have something that fills the bill.
The Good: This little piece was written in 2002 as part of an application for a residency at Norcroft, a Writer's Retreat on the north shore of Lake Superior, near Grand Marais. I like it because it feels so true. It may not be of great general interest, but it worked, I was granted a two-week residency at a time in my life when it was desparately needed. I reread the piece today as I contemplate applying for a residency at Hedgebrook, also a retreat for women writers, I see that little has changed, little has been accomplished and I still write beneath the portraits of my female ancestors in a sunny south-facing room.
I write for illumination. I come closer to seeing what I know and what life has taught me when I try to express it. I write to be clever. I write to record something I know that someone else might want to know sometime in the future. I write to repay the written gifts of my predecessors. And most often, I don't know why I write, I just do; it's part of my biology. I've always done it.
I've collected two bookshelves of my journals. These take the form of written and photographic essays, diaries or travelogs, depending on the year and my mood. They are bound, loose-leaf, or on scraps of paper in manila envelopes. In the past five years, I've felt compelled to bring some of this material together in a way others would want to read. Struggling to determine what would make my life seem interesting to others, I investigated other interesting lives. Hundreds of wonderful women writers including Patricia Hampl, Barbara Kingsolver, Amy tan, Anne Lamott, and Sylvia Plath inspire me. Motivated by great teachers like Lisa Schlesinger at the University of Iowa Summer Workshop and Margo Perin at the University of California at Santa Cruz, I am combining pieces of my life with pieces of my great-grandmother's life.
But, because of the exigencies of daily life, it is difficult to focus and go into the deep places I must visit. As a 63-year-old single woman raising her orphaned grandsons, my writing time is perforated by the demands of the boys. Meals, chauffeuring, errands, refereeing, and time to love them lend a staccato rhythm to my writing time. I crave largo and pianissimo. My physical energy is exhausted while my mind races.
Time at Norcroft will allow me to focus my energy on my work. I can review the material I have written, make some determinations about what is worth incorporating, and decide where I need to go deeper. I will have the solitude necessary to get at those deeper places. Much of what I have written resembles a prose outline I must flesh out.
I will continue working on my project whether or not I go to Norcroft. I will write for at least a small part of each day in my sunny south-facing room while the portraits of my female ancestors supervise from their posts on the wall. I will shut the French doors and pray that my need for solitude will be honored. My writing may not reach the depth I aim for, and it may take a lot longer to complete. Because of my age, I fear that competing demands for my time and energy will jeopardize completing my work. I worry that I won't finish it vbefore I die. But, I will write, because there is more to tell.
The Bad: Just silly and pointlesss.
Flying - Don’t Tell Mom
I learned to fly at around six, I can’t remember exactly when, but I know my top front teeth
had already fallen out and the news ones had just come in. It started kind of gradual, on the stairs in front of the house, the ones made out of railroad ties that ran alongside the steep driveway and led up the hill to our curvy street.
I started learning to fly by skipping the bottom step every time I came down the stairs. It
didn’t quite seem like I was jumping, because I landed real gentle in the leaves from the oak
trees that covered the hillside. It was more like floating. I found I could skip two steps, then
three and then four. Five got a little tricky. By trial and error, I learned that a little scissors kick
in the middle of my flight got me safely to the landing, and by reaching out and catching myself
on the tree at the bottom, I could keep my balance. Soon, I discovered that with three kicks, I
cleared the whole flight of fourteen steps, without touching down even once. Still, I didn’t yet
think I was flying. I just thought it was a little trick I could do, something that would probably
come in handy, but something I had better not tell Mom about. There were some things she just
didn’t seem to want to know. Like about the man who parked his car on the street a few houses
away every afternoon and drank beer. She didn’t want me to talk about him.
When I learned to fly back up the stairs, I knew I had a special secret. Because the street was
uphill from our house, I would go up there and practice safely out of sight of Mom. I discovered
I could fly higher by flapping my arms and faster by kicking my feet. It was a lot of work, but as
it turned out it probably saved my life more than once.
One time when I was just about to practice, the man drinking beer got out of his car and
started to chase me. The way he looked at me nearly scared me to death. I started to fly away, but
I couldn’t get high enough. He caught the heel of my black patent leather shoe with his hand, and
he was looking up my dress. I knew it was wrong and that Mom wouldn’t like it. But I kicked
my shoe off anyway and flew up just a little higher. Mom made me go to my room for coming
home without my shoe.
Another time it was real scary when there was a big fire at an empty barn near our house. I
don’t think I started it, but it burned in a circle all around me and I had to fly over the flames to
get away from it. Mom was real mad when I came home with the edges of my dress burned. She
made me promise not to tell anyone what had happened.
One evening, it was getting dark and I heard Mom call me. I didn’t think she could see me as
she stood on the front porch calling, so as I ran down the steep driveway, I decided to fly just a
little. I put my arms out and reached for the sky. As I ran faster and faster and jumped a little, I
could feel the wind sweeping my hair back. I tried swinging one arm around in circles. I pulled
my sweater up behind my shoulders like a Batman cape. And then I fell and broke my new front
teeth. I never flew again.
The Ugly: This doesn't need explanation, it's just ugly.
Living in an Old Woman’s Body
Some parts don’t work;
Some have retired.
The womb is still,
No blood flows,
A blessing for sure.
But few believe it.
Dried up old woman
Tits to the navel.
Wrinkles and creams,
Mirror as enemy,
Reflects my mother, not I,
Turkey as kin,
Botox is my friend.