Your job as a writer is making sentences

I am reading a book, long ago recommended to me by teacher/artist/writer friend Jan Donley and recently brought to my attention by daughter/college student/writer Grace Guterman, that focuses on the building block of prose: sentences.

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From Several short sentences about writing, by Verlyn Klinkenborg (Vintage Books, 2012).

Why are we talking about sentences?
Why not talk about the work as a whole, about shape, form, genre, the book, the feature story, the profile, even the paragraph?

The answer is simple.
Your job as a writer is making sentences.
Most of your time will be spent making sentences in
your head.
Did no one ever tell you this?
That is the writer’s life.
Never imagine you’ve left behind the level of the sentence
behind.

Most of the sentences you make will need to be killed.
The rest will need to be fixed.
This will be true for a long time.

I endorse this book. It is mesmerizing and full of wisdom. If you write, and if you struggle with shaping your sentences, it will also validate your labor and thoughtfulness.

Ghost Road

Note: At the beginning of May, I joined a 30-day writing course designed by Megan Devine, founder of Refuge in Grief.  Every day we get a writing prompt, and there is a secret Facebook group to post to and share writing with other members. There are losses of all sorts, mostly deaths, and some losses are recent and some, like mine, more in the past. There is something special about the group — I joined for the writing, and I’ve gotten much more. Find more info about signing up for the next group here: link. My post for Day #19, unedited, is below.

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Image credit: Belmont Public Library

“You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget.”

Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Last night when I got home I asked Grace what she had done with her day. She is newly home from her first year of college. She told me that she and Elena (cousin) had gone to Ghost Road, off of Chickatawbut Road in Milton, to take Winston for a walk around a secret pond.

“I remember the day we later found out that Dad had died, Sally had taken us for a walk earlier that day around that secret pond in Chestnut Hill,” she told me.

“What? What?” I ask, confused. “You went on a walk the day Dad died? Who went?”

“Sally took me, Eli, Lydia, and Sara,” replied Grace. “Then later the police officer came and told us Dad died.”

It was one of those moments when I realized there was something I had forgotten, or never knew, from that confusing, consuming time that Jimmy died. In the days preceding July 25, 2016, when all we knew is that he had run away and no one could find or reach him, we swung between huddling together and trying to solve the mystery — Where is Jimmy? — to carrying on as usual with grocery shopping, dog walking, and (me) working. It was summer school time, and I was teaching a class.

So, I learned or was reminded, on the day we found out, in the afternoon, that Jimmy had been found dead in a hotel room, —

Wow, I had to pause there after I wrote that. I have a life, I had a life, in which the man I was married to, was estranged from, would run away and go to a hotel room and die of an overdose.

I don’t always think of that. The facts of that day. All I can picture is the moment the police detective, Matthew Something, drove up and got out of his car in a Red Sox shirt thrown over his uniform. I can never forget that and I never want to: the vivid Red Sox shirt, all white with the red trim and lettering, over the dark uniform and against the darkness of his car. He walked over to me standing there outside. He had called ahead. After days of searching for Jimmy, I knew what he would say before he said it. Sally was standing outside with me, on the driveway. He walked over. He told us, “Mrs. Kokernak” (no one calls me that), “I am sorry to tell you that your husband’s body has been found.” And then, the details of the finding. The questions about the name of his doctor, and his psychiatrist. They would investigate. There was likely no crime. He could not tell me the cause of death. Then the kids come outside, Eli, Lydia, Grace. One of them ask from the front porch — Sally and I still in the driveway — “Mom?” as if my name and the question mark ask everything.

“Dad has died,” I say. “He is found.” Continue reading

To anyone who has a heart

On profound occasions, a person like me feels the pressure to come up with some profound words to mark the moment. I have none ready-made.

Today was the last meeting with my physical trainer, Kim Gomez, because we are moving. For the last year-and-a-half, with almost no breaks in our schedule, I lifted, stretched, lunged, and hinged two times per week. This has been one of my most important new relationships in the two years since Jimmy died, and we didn’t talk that much. I’m not a small talker, and neither is she. Of course, we talked. More significantly, she believed in me and she pushed me, and as my body got stronger my mind did too. It’s hard to come back after a trauma. If you ever have to do something like that yourself, reader, make your body do something. The mind doesn’t always lead the way. Often, the body does.

We both knew it was the last day, and I wondered how I would mark the occasion, though I didn’t plan it out as I usually plan things out. I actually hurt my back mid-lift, and instead of maxing out on lifts and lunges, Kim led me through stretches and extensions until I was okay again.

I couldn’t look at her in the last few minutes. I looked away, steadying my voice, and said, “It’s hard to put into spoken words what I want to say. I’m going to write it down and leave it for you.” She embraced me. Maybe she said my name – I love when my name is called. I hugged her back, and in the air next to her head I said, “Kim, you have been a great friend to me, in the work you do and the way you do it. I’m strong again. I’ll never forget you.” She responded, “I’m proud of you. Email me anytime if you have questions.” We parted. I stopped to look out a window.

Today is also the two-year anniversary or yahrzeit of Jimmy’s death from suicide. Here is his obituary: link. This event in our lives was truly “unexpected.” And yet, like so many stunning events, it also made sense to us as we reflected on it. The fragments fit together.

Just that something makes sense doesn’t mean that we feel any loving kindness toward this truth, any deep peace. Recently, talking about love, Eli said to me, “Mom, I have a feeling that for the rest of our lives all four of us will be experiencing everything through this layer of trauma.”  I thought this: “… even if that layer thins over time.” Continue reading

Open the door, and let them in

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July 2, 2017 in the neighborhood, for Canada Day

Quickly:

With my daughter Grace, a senior in high school, I’ve been coaching the writing of the college essay. Last night we finished the final proofreading. Grace said we don’t need a title. “Not required,” she said. “Optional?” I wondered.  “Yes,” she admitted. Okay, then, we’re writing one.

Titles are so important: they are the invitation, and the doorway into the book, movie, and college essay.

It was 10 o’clock on a Friday night, and Grace and I were spent.  Remembering a nifty list of exercises for generating title possibilities, I dug it up out of the Google dirt.  Here it is:  link.

We focused on the first three of the four functions of a title. (The fourth one seems more important for publications.)

First, it predicts content.

Second, it catches the reader’s interest.

Third, it reflects the tone or slant of the piece of writing.

Fourth, it contains keywords that will make it easy to access by a computer search.

And then, from the list of title prompts on page two of the guidelines, we used numbers 1, 6, 7, 13, and 14 and generated about 15 good and bad title ideas for Grace’s essay. It took only 10 minutes with two focused people working together.

What we learned: your first idea is NOT your best idea, and bits from your bad title ideas will provide you with a key word or two that together may be the foundation of a good title.

Also, people, tone is really important! If it’s a humorous essay, avoid an academicky, serious title.  If it’s a hopeful essay, give that title a lift (e.g., Grace’s title uses the word “spirit” instead of “motivation.”)

Titles are important! Always use them!  For essays, make them informative and inviting.

Sugar in her tea

IMG_2632-1 (1)I am rusty at non-required writing. Every day I get it done for work but when it comes to the optional kind, I am tentative and wary of beginning again.

That phrase in the title – sugar in her tea – I transcribed it today from interview notes for something I’m writing. A freelance gig at an agricultural nonprofit, it has to do with farmers in the developing world and how their lives improve when their income grows. To have sugar in one’s tea after years of drinking it black? That’s a small sign that farmer livelihood is improving. (There are more significant measures too, like nutritious food and peace of mind.)

It’s just Grace and I here tonight. We are talking a little but we’re quiet. Oh, Winston’s here too. Are we lonely? I’ll ask Grace. We are sitting in her room together.

“I don’t think so,” she says. “I think that maybe if it was like some Saturdays in the past when it’s just been the two of us all weekend, and we only leave the house to do errands, that can be lonely.”

She adds, “Sometimes when I’m lonely it doesn’t have to do with us. It might be because of being upset with a friend.” Knowingly, she looks at me and continues: “It’s not the household dynamic.”

In my own moments of loneliness, I try to tell myself it’s just a feeling and it may have no immediate origin. You just have to abide with it. It may not need to be fixed.

Meanwhile, I’m reading a book, Scary Close by Donald Miller. It’s about intimacy in general – being real and being close to friends, family, a partner. Its subtitle contains the phrase “dropping the act.” This is the kind of thing a person reads when she wonders if she knows anything, after years of adulthood, about what it means to connect, and how to do it well. Though there is something about the writer’s voice that is a little too proud of all the insights, there are some illuminating bits, and I am enjoying them, like this one:

One night they are sitting around a fire in the yard. His future father-in-law, who is reportedly good at relationships, “said if we took the logs from the fire and separated them out in the field, they’d go out within an hour. They’d just lie there cold. He said for some reason the logs needed each other to burn, to stay warm” (203).

I am drawn to that image — poetic and romantic — even though the objective part of my mind is wondering what are the thermodynamics that make this so.

There’s also a long part in the book about having a meaningful life, and Miller summarizes principles from Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. There are three recommendations if you want to have what Frankl claimed humans wanted even more than Freudian pleasure: “a sense of gratitude for the experience they were having, a sense of purpose and mission and belonging” (182):

Have a project to work on, some reason to get out of bed in the morning and preferably something that serves other people.

Have a redemptive perspective on life’s challenges.

Share your life with a person or people who love you unconditionally. (183)

I have a good portion of all of these — project, perspective, people — though the winds have buffeted us and feelings of purpose, resilience, and love are still on the mend. That’s an up arrow, for sure, though sometimes the tender spots ache when we palpate them.

I’ve been thinking about having a project to work on, one that is mine all mine. Not for income. Not for housekeeping. Not for athleticism.

Rising in me again, in part because of my summer freelance writing project, is a belief in writing itself as worthy and desirable. Even though I’m a writing / speaking teacher, most of the writing I do in education is feedback on the work of others. Oh, and emails, but that’s every job. I had lost heart with my own writing in the last year or so, and the activity of writing, in addition to the conversations about writing, has done a lot to boost my writing ego.

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Nature section, Brookline Booksmith

I live near a bookstore now, and they invite patrons to bring their dogs along. Winston and I sometimes stop in to look at a shelf or two on our evening walk. Yesterday a book on mushrooms caught my attention, and then we scanned the Nature shelves. I fantasized about resuscitating my project on Elizabeth White, amateur botanist, and the cultivated blueberry.

A friend of Jimmy’s called me tonight, before sundown. He half jokingly said he was atoning for not having been in touch for a long time. I said I didn’t think that way at all. In fact, people live inside my head, not in a crazy way, but in a populated way. I think of them; they think of me. I know that.

Somehow all the parts of this meandering post fit together, though there is no beginning, no end. Having a good life, a meaningful one. Loneliness. Writing desire. People, near and far.

  No click, no write

Perhaps one can write about absences as much as presences.

This is Winston at 8:59am today, no spring in his step, no appeal to play or go outside. Yesterday he had his distemper shot. Today he lacks inspiration, his usual zest.

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I’m about to put the timer on for 15 minutes, to see what kind of summing-up I can generate. Then I have to get ready for the day. The first item is to meet with a lawyer at 10:30am to sign a trust document, and associated paperwork. This is a thing you do when you are the only parent left. Personal administrative organization is important.

Fifteen minutes, go.

In my capsule bio over there on the side, it claims that I write when I feel a “click.” (You have a muse, I a click.)  Not much click in the past several months that lead to writing, though certainly there have been other sparks or even ah ha! moments.

I have packed and unpacked a lot of boxes, and with the great help of my family and friends we have moved from one address to another. The new one is better. For one thing, more sun streams into the windows. That’s both a metaphor and physically true.

I have taught classes, gone to meetings, ‘graded’ papers (shorthand for commenting on them), shopped for and eaten food, socialized, laughed, slept (but not nearly enough), listened, cried (though less and less), paid, spoken to groups of people whether students or colleagues, sewed buttons back on, gritted my teeth, sighed, touched.

Every minute of every day is filled.

Ugh, I hate that, like a topic sentence that can only announce a litany of Poor Me, I’m So Busy.

And yet it feels like  race sometimes. I eat on the way from thing to thing, like a vehicle constantly refueling while in operation. Do military planes do that, or race cars?

I’m not fast, though. I wish I were. Still methodical, still a uni-tasker or, at most, a bi-tasker.  Not multi.

I daydream about reading, yet feel incapable of sitting down for a long, luxurious amount of time which is what reading needs.

And about writing I long for it yet wonder if I am permanently impaired. Perhaps, you know, I should just have some image stand in for thoughts or even a video.

I just pictured video-ing myself, and the anticipatory stress of getting the hair and background and sweater and facial expressions just right for the medium.

Like a child, I want to call in sick because, you know, sometimes I just don’t feel like it. Then my internal dialog convinces me I should go and I can go and this is how I will do it.

Maybe we have pets, like Winston, to project not just our love onto, but our other animal wishes and desires, like curling up with our nose to our knees — I think I’m still flexible enough for the fetal position — and taking a break from our usual selves. Winston has signaled that today he is not even going to walk though I will prod him to take a bathroom break.

Me though? I’ll walk.

Alarm! Sound: piano riff. Fifteen minutes, done. In a moment I’ll stand.

Everyone wants to be in the lab

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high school chemistry lab in Penang, Malaysia (2009)

The other night at dinner, I had the impulse to tell someone, when we were talking about undergraduate engineering students and my great pleasure in working with them, “My work satisfies the part of me that could have done that — could have majored in one of the STEM fields.”

I didn’t, though, because I hate that: when people in the middle of very good careers (like me) say something like, “If things had been different, I could have been an opera singer, or travel writer, or doctor.” I worked with someone 20 years ago who was the director of major gifts at an Ivy League university — a very good job by any measure — who would often say that if his life had been different he would be first violin in a major orchestra.  Honestly, I doubted it. How could he know?

So, I try to never say, “I could have been X if not for Y.”

Ha! But here I’m going to do something like that.

I have always loved reading and writing, so it’s really a great fit for me that I have become a communication lecturer who reads and writes and teaches writing and speaking and some ways of reading. When I was in high school I liked English, but maybe my favorite classes and teachers were in chemistry, physics, geometry, calculus, and even shop and music.

Jump ahead to college: I registered for biology, chemistry, and calculus. I loved Calc I, didn’t do so great in Calc II, yet I found biology especially to be tedious and chemistry only mildly satisfying.

Why did I love chemistry in high school and not as much in college?

Here’s the “if not for Y” part.

Chemistry in high school, as well as physics and biology, was taught AND practiced in a lab classroom. Everything happened there: the lesson or lecture, the experiment, the teacher’s office hours, the teacher’s grading of exams, the socializing with peers in class. We sat at the bench in groups of four, learned there, and did experiments.  If you remember this experience, too, and want to be reminded of it, see the photographs in the Flickr album, ECHS Has New Chemistry Lab: link.

My memories of the teacher, Mr. Victor Khoury, and classmates and furnishings and bits of experiments (carbon, and the crucible!) are vivid.

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high school chemistry lab in St. Louis, MO (2006)

In college, the lesson happened in a lecture hall, and the lab in the lab. The labs were taught by people different than the actual professor/lecturer, and the professor could be found in his office. The lab instructors we could talk to in lab, and I remember mine in the one college chemistry class I took. I also remember my lab partner and her name and my impression that she would go on to be a star in science, she was so obviously good. Continue reading

First grief, then work

One could also rewrite that with verbs: First grieve, then work.

I woke up at 5:45am, my body still not adjusted after the daylight savings time change. I went to sleep late, only intellectually grasping what was happening in the election. I woke up and, even before consciousness, I could feel my heart broken.

It’s noteworthy, isn’t it?, that the feeling called ‘broken’ is heavy like cement, or like I swallowed six hard-boiled eggs without chewing. A broken heart does not feel like shards of glass. It’s a fullness that jams your esophagus.

Next, crying. I had to do that, and a few texts to my friend Lisa. I called for a Day of Mourning. I was still in bed, and I lay there.

“First grief, then work.” I read that right before I made plans to give up on social media (that betrayer) and the New York Times and the radio. The phrase was tweeted by Ada Límon, a writer I don’t know, yet.

It’s true: I did flirt with the idea of not going to work, or of going to work and refusing to work, or of going to work and telling someone else whose fault it is. Because it’s not mine.

I sat up and wept some more, my back against the pillows I put there to prop myself up. I thought of my children, one at a time.

Then I thought of cleaning out the fridge. Really. And I thought of emailing someone I teach with and promising, “Tonight I will download all those papers and put them in our dropbox.”I imagined the downloading, the renaming of the poorly named files.

The list started to form after that.

Once, at least 25 years ago, when I worked at Harvard University in fund raising where the theme was always leadership — “We are training the future leaders of America, and the world” (I got so tired of that) — I said to my friend Joe that I regretted I was no visionary. He reassured me that there would be no movement without people like us to schedule the troops, order the supplies in advance, and make enough coffee to keep everyone energized. Everyone would also need a tshirt or uniform in a size to fit their width and height. I am good at logistics, and so was he, and there would be no progress without us.

I don’t know why that anecdote popped into my mind. I have no plans today to join a movement. But, you know, logistics. Continue reading

Un-haunting the house

5879240245_362379e396_o-1With Eli, your oldest offspring, you are texting about weekend activities.

Eli sends a photo of a new, craigslisted desk in the bedroom in the apartment in Queens.  Their comment, “definitely using redoing/reorganizing my apt as a coping mechanism now.”

You text back, “I’m cleaning out my closet as coping mechanism.”

A long time ago Eli said this, “Mom, you keep your clothes too long. When they get old and tattered, throw them out.” (And this from the child who introduced you to thrift-store shopping.) You tried to explain your sentimental attachment to things your body has worn, yet over time you realized that Eli speaks the truth. So now you find yourself throwing out these old and tattered clothes easily, or at least deliberately.

Eli, in a later text message, types a phrase, “making the house less haunted.” You don’t need a complete sentence to understand what is meant.

The conversation makes you think about what you, and the kids too, have been doing to un-haunt the house and the lives lived in it. Jimmy Guterman — husband, and father of Eli, Lydia, and Grace — died unexpectedly and traumatically on July 25.

What do you do when this happens? You shatter; you grieve; you proceed.

In the first weeks, surrounded by family, every night before bed you all watch re-runs of The Office, which you’ve seen through once entirely when it was broadcast. Now you watch it again, making friends with the characters. You ask Lydia, “If Michael Scott has so many boundary issues, and can be inappropriate so often, why do we come to like him as a character?”  Lydia replied: “Because he is so earnest.”  Lydia’s insight and that word become favorites for a while, and as you go about the business of grief and getting back to okay, your mind can’t help working on what interests it, and you study that word, “earnest,” and you look for that quality in others.

You forget about eating, until one day you realize it’s 4PM and you’re eating lunch. You decide you have to start eating lunch at lunch time, and the next day you do.

After two weeks you tell the kids, “This is the week we start eating vegetables and fruits again. We will also exercise every day.” Even walking the dog counts as exercise.

You listen when different people — visitors from the Samaritans, your child’s therapist, your wonderful friends, your own doctor — tell you that “you are alive, and you have to live.” It is an encouraging message, not at all one that promotes a grin-and-bear-it approach. You start to recognize this: “I am alive.” This, really, is good. Continue reading

Pillow on the sidewalk

Tonight after work I went looking for the pillow I had seen on the sidewalk during my morning commute.

Earlier in the day at the office, I saw my colleague, Sue Spilecki, and mentioned the misfit pillow to her. When I first saw it on Monday morning, plump and expectant on the sidewalk near Allandale Farm and across from the Exxon station, I immediately thought of Sue and her poetry and imagined the pillow catching her poetic attention. My own thoughts — more scenic than poetic — pictured a person, very tired, walking along and accepting the pillow’s invitation to lie down. I pictured that person, a woman, stretching herself out and giving herself over to sleep with cars and school buses streaming by. This imagined woman was very tired; the journey had been long.

But in my mind it was not a poem; it was a person, a character.

I promised Sue I would go back and get a photo for her. After all, the pillow had been there a few days in the same place – why wouldn’t it remain there? I veered off my running route tonight to track it down. It was gone. There was a sign for an event at Allandale Farm – “Craft” – and I wondered if a caterer or event organizer had tidied up the sidewalk in advance of guests. There is a fancy element to Allandale, even though it is a farm, and in fact the property is owned in trust by a wealthy family though they have deeded it (and therefore protected it from taxes) to some land trust for protected use.

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what i saw after i didn’t see the pillow

I wandered down the dirt road and even breached the No Trespassing sign. I had done this once before and been asked to leave by a woman who drove up to me in a blue Audi. Later, the encounter made me write a short story about it, something to do with wealth hidden behind bucolic agriculture and what rural land may mean to different people (characters) in a community: migrant farm workers, a young mother/photographer, the landowners themselves. At the time I wrote that story, I had not imagined a pillow on the sidewalk or a woman reposing on it.

Another colleague, Tracy, asked me today about my blog and my writing. “I miss it,” I said, even though I also admitted I had set my writing aside last summer in a very deliberate, practical way and only now am I rejuvenating it, feeling both tentative and awkward.

Also today I read a student essay in which the writer used a lot of interesting words that were almost but not quite right. The misfit words could have been misfires in the student’s working vocabulary or they could have been errors created by autocorrect. Only one of the ‘off’ words charmed me: the writer referred to a “collusion” of automobiles, and in the context I believe the writer meant “collision.” How more interesting to imagine two cartoon-like cars, with their noses together, whispering, secretly planning, conspiring. In a dystopic future, imagine all our smart, sensor-filled cars, controlling us and not just doing our bidding, whether driven by us or some network of data.

I do not, though, have a mind for dystopia. I would really have to commit to it and imagine more than two cars, a whole community of them, with leadership and planning and resources and, more than anything, motivation. Why would they want to take us over? I cannot picture what cars would get from us that they would actually want or need.  See, this is not my genre.

Next to me on the couch right now is a plate with cracker crumbs on it. I wet my finger, dab them up, and eat them.

I hear the buzzer from the washer in the basement, the load done. I told Lydia I’d hang up her sweater.

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sidewalk where i expected to see a pillow

Tomorrow, another day at MIT, reading more essays, a summer project for a bunch of us. It’s optional (paid) work. It seems my most cheerful colleagues sign up for it. We get a free lunch (Middle Eastern food), and we sit together and don’t talk about work, kind of like indoor recess. We do talk about our children, our writing, New York vs. Boston/Cambridge, Uber, and – for a moment – a pillow on a sidewalk that no longer exists.

And yet it does: Sue wrote a poem about it.