Monday, October 27, 2014

leaving sisters

requisite Charlie's Angels pose, taken weeks before I moved to LA

When we were young, my sisters and I all slept in the same bedroom. Eventually, Lori left for college, which meant that I moved from the mattress on the floor to the big full-sized bed with Andi. Two years later, she left, too. I had the bed to myself. I set my own picture frames on the dresser we used to share and spread my clothes out in the closet.

During those years when we all lived together with my parents, that one bedroom was our shared private space, we laughed and fought and co-existed. Lori lost it when Andi and I teased her about liking a boy named Carl Long, whose name we found on the covers of her text books or in notes we found of hers. Andi begged Lori to wear some of her clothes, which always escalated to screaming fights in the early morning before they walked to the bus stop - Lori insisting that she didn't want people to see them wear the same thing, and Andi being stubborn and manipulative (as we all were at times). When the screaming started between them, I hid in my parents' room and willed them to like each other again. For me, Sunday afternoons were some of the best times to pick fights, because I had my church shoes on. The hard, pointy tips could bruise shins with one strong kick.

Our story is the same as many others. When Lori left for college, she somehow morphed from distant older sister to insightful mentor. I still have a note she wrote to me at the beginning of my sophomore year with advice about guys. Andi chose the same school as Lori, where their friendship grew, and where I visited on Friday nights and met their friends, slept in their dorm rooms and ate with them in their food court. By the time I was in college, we all made efforts to visit each other, to email and call. We talked about God, about our parents, about boys. Andi started dating the man who is her husband now. Lori moved to Virginia, then back. We became adults, and friends.

I loved being close to my sisters. For a few years during and after college, I lived in the same town as Lori, and then even went to the same church and shared friends. Then, I decided to move to Los Angeles for two years, a decision I assumed would be reversible at the end of that time if I didn't like it. I didn't know then that two years and a move across the country are things you can never reverse.

And here I am, ten years later and still living three thousand miles away from them. They've moved, too, which means that I see them once a year, twice if I'm lucky. The last time the three of us were all together was nearly two years ago now.

Tonight Andi texted me about the new Taylor Swift album. I told her I'd burn it and send it to her if she wanted. "Yes please!" She texted back. And just the thought of showing her my love by sending a CD felt so precious and at the same time not nearly enough. I don't know if she knows, if Lori knows, that I would do anything I could for them. I love them more than anyone else I know, to be honest. And so texts like that one make living this far seem ridiculous. I don't want to burn her a cd, I want to sit down on the couch with her while the cd is playing, or make dinner to it, or drive to it, or dance with her kids to it. For the thousandth time this month, as every month, I asked myself, "Why am I living here? Why don't I move closer?"

And that same verse that I've heard and read and recited these ten years came to mind, unsummoned but stuck in my heart: Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold in this time...

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

last fall

Pain is a fickle phantom. Our minds are (thankfully) able to forget the feeling itself, and yet traumatic experiences often stay imprinted on us. That's how last fall is for me. I remember each stage of grief I moved through in my clumsy, clomping way. It was the kind of season that, looking back now, I wonder why it had to be that way. Knowing what I know now, being who I am now, I know that it didn't have to hurt that much. It all seems a little silly to me. But what I remember is that tears could start flowing with just a simple question (of a certain subject). I knew a deep well was being tapped in me that I couldn't damn however hard I tried. This might be gross, but it's true: it was like an infection, and the only way to heal it was to let it drain and hope for the best.

But what I really wanted to write about was this: One weekend in what I know now to be toward the end of that painful season, I traveled home to see family. It was the time of year when darkness slowly creeps into our days, staying longer in the early mornings and returning to swallow the day before we were ready for it. The sun tries, but it gets weak. Leaves turn and fall.

My last evening of that visit I had plans to visit a college friend who lives about an hour drive from my sister's house. The journey took me out of the small city where my sister lives and surrounding suburbia, and then onto a single lane road that twisted and rose and fell among trees and alongside old homes with long driveways. The sky was impossibly blue, the leaves bright golds and crimsons. Every minute moving forward there was something new to take my breath away. It was old and familiar to me and yet I hadn't seen that kind of color, been in that kind of woods for the ten years I've lived in Southern California. (I've never visited during that time in the fall.) My deep sadness was still there with me, and yet I knew that it wasn't all there is. Things die and change and the world keeps going.

Monday, October 13, 2014

like breathing into bones: writing for non-writers

Several of my friends who aren’t writers by vocation want to write something. I wholly approve, because I believe they have something to say. (Doesn’t everybody?) They already have strong voices and compelling stories and ideas. But when we talk about starting, they wonder how to actually go about writing. Understandably, they feel a little overwhelmed or unsure. Is there a book I should read? they’ve asked.

A few of my favorite books on writing usually pop into my head, but I resist recommending them. This is because I know that my friends aren’t necessarily interested in the nitty gritty of the craft of writing, and I don’t know if reading a whole book is really worth their time. Because I know from experience how reading can become a form of procrastination, I tell them to get to the writing. Also, selfishly, I want to read the stories they have pulsing inside them.

So from those conversations came the idea for this little list of tips on writing for non-writers. These are some of the most basic and important things I’ve learned (and re-learned, and learned again) about writing. Mostly, I’ve learned that writing is like breathing into bones: messy, futile, and then, miraculously, alive.

To start, write like your door is closed. One friend admitted that since she tends to be such a perfectionist, she expects that what she writes will come out perfect. In other words, she’ll obsess about how it comes out instead of allowing herself and others to go back and edit. My advice to her was something I read in Stephen King’s memoir On Writing that has helped me tremendously. He shares that he writes his first draft as if behind a closed door. No one can see him do it, no one is able to peer over his shoulder and spy and snicker. Just let it come out, in whatever order or shape it comes out, and then you will have something to shape.

Allow yourself to cut. In the process of just letting the stories and ideas come out, some ideas or stories will pour out that don’t actually belong in what you’re writing. This is often the case with the first few paragraphs you write – in so many of my writing classes, and in my own writing, too, the first two or three paragraphs will sometimes be the warm-up. And though in our minds it tells some sort of background that seems needful, it often isn’t. Know that writing those paragraphs is what it took for you to get to the real meat (this will help you to not regard the writing as a waste), and let them go. If you really need to, copy and past them into another word document and save them for some other essay or story.

Ask your writer/editor friends to help you. These friends will geek out over structure and grammar and images. And I promise they won’t judge your writing, because they themselves are always sharing their own writing and learning how to take critical feedback. Their gentle feedback will strengthen your writing.

Let pen marks be like kind advice from a friend. Feedback can be scary, especially when the marks or comments make it look like your whole manuscript was a mess. What’s really happening when (if) your friend writes all over your copy is they are thinking out loud and offering suggestions and questions that will help you think more dynamically about your story and the way you’re telling it. And just as with advice, you are not bound to take any of their feedback. Ultimately, this is your story to tell.

If it sounds like writing, re-write it.* This is probably my most important piece of writerly advice for non-writers, and it sounds a lot easier than it is. Big words, extra words, making verbs into nouns – all of these things make us think we’re writing formally, but that’s not always a good thing. Make your writing simple, your verbs active, your ideas to the point.

Ok, so maybe writing has whetted your appetite, or maybe this short post isn’t quite enough. In that case, here are a few books that would be worth your time.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. This would be for the geeks out there.

On Writing Well by William Zissner. I’d recommend earlier editions just because the later ones have sections that are probably not that important to you. This is one where you could pick and choose chapters depending on what you’re interested in, or struggling with.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lammott. I think most people would enjoy reading this one, even if you’re not particularly interested in learning about writing. Some sections speak more specifically to writers of fiction, but her style and voice are entertaining enough to make you want to keep going with her.

Any book you like and might want to emulate. Take note of what you like, what tricks you think you could steal, what’s helpful about the structure or voice. Discuss this with your writer friends and you will impress and please them immensely.

*I think someone famous said this, but I’m not sure who.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

portraits from Kenya, part 1

I have been wanting to share these portraits I took in Kenya. I took them on our second day in rural Maasailand. We had driven a few miles from Endonyolasho to a homestead, one of the many that suddenly appeared as a collection of sticks and mud our of the flat dusty horizon. People from the homestead came to where we parked the van under the tree and brought their children for vaccinations. One of the girls saw that I was taking photos of the children to distract them from the needle aimed at their arms. In her quiet accented English, she asked me to take photos of her and her friends. I was happy to oblige. 

The shadow from the acacia tree covers parts of their faces. At first I was disappointed by this, but now realize that the shadows belong there. I think they symbolize a kind of hiddeness of this isolated tribe of people. There are parts of them we will never be able to see fully, and perhaps that's how it should be.