writing


“A friend of mine once said that you can never trust a person who doesn’t talk much, because how else do you know what they’re thinking? Just by the act of being willing to talk about oneself, the person is revealing something about who they are.”

– Chuck Klosterman, Eating the Dinosaur

Almost everyone I knew in high school observed two main modes of speaking from me: Snide comments and occasional insights. This did not count raising my hand if I had the correct answers to teachers’ questions. I made friends slowly at that time, and those patient enough to stick around discovered that I was also capable of thinking deeply, even though I didn’t often verbalize my thoughts.

How did I process reality back then, that version of life trapped inside a high school bubble? I listened. I observed. This is how I found out about THE shocking moment of the Crying Game during trigonometry. One of my classmates saw the movie at the theater, and she could not wait to talk about it at school the next day.

Observing is also how I found out that band members M (girl, drum major) and T (boy, trumpet player, OF COURSE) may have had a thing for each other. M was a senior and T was a junior. I was a sophomore. After school one day, the band waited for our band director to return from somewhere and start rehearsal. I was practicing my part in one of the instrument rooms. Minding my own business. Then M and T ran in, oblivious to everything. T closed the door and had M pressed against it with his body. Then they started making out.

I watched for a few seconds, and I wondered if I should keep playing my clarinet. I decided that was better than watching. When I played the first few notes, T and M stopped what they were doing. I tried not to look at them but to keep playing. After a few seconds, one of them opened the door and they both left the room.

Beyond high school and into college and the real world, I continued the habits of listening and observing. I liked talking about myself, but I would only do it when people asked me questions. But I also loved asking other people questions and getting to know them better.

This was fun to do in college and especially New York City. I found myself in several settings with complete strangers. After a few questions, some laughs, and some observations about how we ended up in New York, we discovered valuable commonalities that became the foundation for friendship.

I never liked small talk, and because of this, friendshipping in the big wide world pushed me out of my comfort zone. While I always did better if people were willing to jump into deeper subjects more quickly, I also observed that small talk was some people’s starting point for meatier conversation. In some cases, if I couldn’t stick around past small talk, bonds would only form at that level.

Not everyone was like me; not everyone would work the same way my high school friends and I did to maintain our relationship. I would have to manipulate a paradox and give interpersonal space at the same time as internalizing the world around me, bringing different perspectives within my grasp.

Over time, I practiced and became good at small talk. Because I had worked on my observation skills for so long, I could read a person, initiate a conversation and make subtle adjustments to keep the discussion going. It felt great.

More time passed and maybe I fell out of practice or took it for granted, because suddenly it seems now that I suck at talking to people. Wires crossed somewhere and created a short and my conversation skills are no longer where they used to be. Although I can still listen and observe, it’s harder for me sustain my side of the conversation with actual spoken words. I’ll occasionally interject a question or a snide remark, but while I listen I also close up. Or go back to the safe space of small talk. Which I hate. But it’s safe. Defense mechanism, definitely. But why? and how can I get past it?

Part of it is that I can sym-/empathize, but sometimes I don’t know how to express that. Or I don’t know what’s appropriate. Or that if I try to relate, I’d be saying and revealing too much about myself when the conversation isn’t about me. I think that goes beyond introverted tendencies.

Obviously, I have no trouble writing about myself.

In general, people have been so willing to let me know more about them. I need to reciprocate. I have been selfish for so long, and I have to be better.

So, how about this weather?

About a month ago, I finished Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. I’ve never seen the movie; the only McCarthy movie adaptation I’ve seen is No Country for Old Men, which I thought did a terrific job. I do know that Pretty Horses stars Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz, and I wonder if I could let myself believe that Damon’s character is 16/17 years old. I’d probably be okay with it, only because I adore Matt Damon. But I don’t know if I could accept Billy Bob Thornton making a movie from a Cormac McCarthy novel, only because I just don’t know about that guy. He creeps me out.

The movie also stars Henry Thomas, who takes me back to E.T. and especially Cloak & Dagger. I guess I can understand casting men in their late 20s (or so) in a movie meant to portray young men in their late teens aged and roughed up by the Wild West. But since I didn’t see All the Pretty Horses, instead of imagining Matt Damon and Henry Thomas, I actually used my imagination.

Of course, McCarthy’s language gets to me every single time. His integration of Spanish in this novel feels perfectly natural, and the lexicon referring to ranching in Mexico helped keep me engaged.  On my Kindle, I can put my finger on a word, and its definition pops up. That tool is pretty nifty. With some of the words in this novel, however, a few of them made it into the English dictionary, but most of them did not. I was okay with that.

One of my favorite excerpts:

The world’s pain and its beauty moved in a relationship of diverging equity and that in this headlong deficit the blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower.

Right? How about that contrast and almost palpable effect? Here’s another:

They stood and watched him pass and watched him vanish upon that landscape solely because he was passing. Solely because he would vanish.

For me, this captures the entire tone of the novel. Vanishing points provide lengthen a field, deepen perspective, and create a little pocket of time-space to help us grasp the present before it becomes the past.

And, finally:

Sweeter for the larceny of time and flesh, sweeter for the betrayal.

When I first came across this phrase (which comes earlier than the previous excerpts), I looked around on the train and wondered if any of the other passengers felt the sheer power of the combination of these words. Larceny of time! Larceny of flesh! Could a word be so perfect, just so utterly perfect?

What should I read next?

Have you read any Flannery O’Connor? You need to. She writes some seriously fantastic stuff. Reilly and I went to her childhood home in Savannah, Georgia.

Does she know where you live?

Touring the author’s home was the last thing we did in Savannah, and I have to say it might have been better than touring Hemingway’s home in Key West. Some reasons are more substantial than others.

The tour was small. The touring hours neared an end when we decided to take the tour. An older couple were the only ones there with the docent. They seemed nice enough, but neither of them had ever read any Flannery O’Connor, but the woman said that a friend of theirs likes O’Connor’s writing, so I guess that piqued some curiosity. As the docent told us various stories in different rooms of the house, the woman in particular made comments about how creative O’Connor was. She commented constantly. Like, constantly. And the broadness of her comments confirmed that she hadn’t read any of the author’s work. She also showed that she wasn’t listening by asking questions about topics the docent already covered. It was annoying, but I also felt bad for being snobbish, because we and the docent discussed how O’Connor’s childhood stories had affected her writing that the other couple had read zero of. I guess I’m glad they were there so they could learn how cool this author was. Except that when we described Flannery O’Connor’s writing to them, the woman expressed that that type of writing didn’t interest her. So maybe I felt that the tour was an overall waste for her. And that makes me a little sad. This sadness is different than the sadness I felt learning that many of Hemingway’s relatives suffered from depression and committed suicide. In Savannah, the proximity of dumb tourists gave me quite a thrill, albeit a sad one.

"Not a very good book."

“Not a very good book.”

The docent was very knowledgeable. Reilly and I stayed after the other couple left and after tour hours ended to talk some more with the docent, Toby. He answered questions about the estate, about where O’Connors moved after leaving Savannah; we discussed Flannery’s personality and how her parents managed such a precocious child. We even talked about Toby’s own writing goals and his writing process. This tour felt very personal. The conversation was very stimulating and much needed after eating ourselves into a complete stupor at Paula Deen’s restaurant.

It wasn’t as hot. The entire time we spent in the South the weather was rather pleasant. In Key West the year before, Hemingway’s house was shaded, but the doors were kept open. It felt more humid and much warmer even though Savannah is right on the coast. Also, it seemed a legion of polydactyl cats roamed the property. Because Savannah seems so magical and haunted, the town protected and preserved Flannery O’Connor’s house. I felt more comfortable there.

The power went out. With Grimm’s Fairy Tales on the toilet, of course. It was only a short power outage, but it was a cool effect that added to the creepiness of Flannery’s stories.

Bathroom reading, obviously.

Jerry Bruckheimer. Flannery O’Connor’s estate does not permit any film or theater adaptations of her work, but Jerry Bruckheimer’s name has quite a presence in this house. He happens to like Flannery’s writing, and he made major contributions to have the house restored and turned into a museum. Which is pretty cool. I just get a little scared when I think of what kind of movie Bruckheimer would make if the estate decided to expand Flannery’s work to other media. The work by itself powerfully engages the imagination and provides wonderful dialogue. Explosions or other ridiculous effects and bad acting would definitely detract from that. The estate has acted wisely, but maybe a play would work well sometime in the future.

He's so cute!

I really enjoy touring authors’ homes with someone who loves to read. We have fun discussions, and we make each other smarter. It doesn’t seem possible, I know. Just take my word for it.

A young man referred to this song during his talk today in church. It’s one of my favorite old gospel tunes.

The young man’s talk was about gratitude, and throughout his remarks he expressed sincere thanks and appreciation for many blessings in his life. He demonstrated a positive attitude, and he inspired me to be more grateful more often.

The Eva Cassidy recording of this song is one of my favorites because she brings out a lot of the inherent emotion in the song. Like she truly can’t help singing about the Lord in her life. That’s an admirable condition to have, involuntary proclamations of gratitude.

Thankfulness seems such a conscious state of mind or being, but I imagine many of us develop an awareness of behaviors that become second nature. Can someone be grateful and not know it?

I haven’t blogged in a month. It’s time to catch up on a few things.

  • Vacation
  • Hikes
  • Hanging out with friends
  • Paula Deen
  • DOMA, possibly
  • Games
  • Weather
  • Art of conversation
  • Movie/Song/Book reviews

This week I have to prepare a Relief Society lesson to give next Sunday. Just thinking about it gives me butterflies. I have been thinking about the lesson the whole month, so it’s a matter of organizing my thoughts and hopefully teaching a few things my fellow sisters need to hear.

My penultimate semester at BYU I took a poetry class as a complete novice. Along with the curriculum and the professor, a couple of classmates awakened me to the vast and diverse world of poetry. It blew me away, intimidated me. Our class would have weekly workshops and while they did have nice things to say about my poetry, classmates were often brutally honest and mercilessly constructive. It was hard not to feel discouraged.

I read a poem every day. Occasionally I’ll write down a tentative idea for a poem. I’ve fallen out of practice; it’s easier to read than write. It hasn’t always been that way. But it’s always been easy to write crappy poetry. Here, let me whip up a gross haiku for you right now:

vulnerable brain
months of oxidizing then
flaking rust matter

See? That took less than a minute. And not something I’d be proud to show even Stephenie Meyer.

There’s so much to love about poetry: taking it apart, slathering the language all over me, listening to it, reading poets’ advice. I support people who are good at it, who devote their lives to capturing beauty, tragedy in such a specialized way.

From my experience in the class, it seems some of the best poets also make the best academics. They think about issues from multiple and often-rare angles. With intense focus, they express themselves with clarity and power. I covet them so, so much.

But I also want to brag about my poet friends and acquaintances, because they’re brilliant.

My poetry professor, Susan Elizabeth Howe:

Imagination, as I have experienced it, can be part of and lead to spiritual growth, and imagination is the natural province of the poet.

Someone I knew as a computer person before he became a poet, Neil Aitken:

Neil Aitken is a poet of consummate grace and skill. His poems are acutely observed, unerring musically, sensual and lyrical. Filled with longing and subtle epiphanies, his poetry plumbs the depths of the human heart, and hints towards the heights of the human spirit. His writing accomplishes what Wallace Stevens suggested—that, in the best poems, “description is revelation,” for each of Aitken’s poems reveals the world anew for the reader.  — Maurya Simon

A friend I worked with at church in New York City, Javen Tanner:

. . . he thus takes up his poetic cross and wills us to follow as he forges a path through variations on these ambiguous realities to the end of preparing us for more lasting psychological and spiritual connections and consolations.

Former classmate and also a BYU soccer player, Conner Bassett:

When reading poetry out loud, you see the poem for what it is; half of the poem is the words, but the other half is the sound of it,” Bassett said. “Reading and hearing it out loud is a completely different experience.”

Another classmate, Kylan Rice. He seems to have a relatively new tumblr:

…Stop looking so
shocked at the grammy fat. Are we not
all a tapestry of garbled hearts?

I have a few other poet friends, but I’m having trouble finding stuff about them on the internet. Which usually doesn’t happen. You’ll just have to believe they’re also talented and incredible and very awesome.

Look these people up. During any time of crisis, these are some of the people you can listen to.

I cannot believe this year. So much has happened, and I have only 56 entries to show for it. At least there are fewer blog posts to choose from for the annual countdown.

10. May: No one told me I’d eventually get to play against the BYU quarterback. I joined an intramural kickball team, and tonight was our first game.

9. July: Smartphone apps have a tiny dear place in my heart.  I looked around to see that I wasn’t the only one crying. I loved it.

8. July: This is the year I really got into hiking. And most of it during the season of a broken camera. Thank the Lord for making geology pretty.

7. August: Reilly’s birthday, and first time in New York City. We wondered about Glenn Close.

6. January: Careful to put ego-puffing somewhere in the middle. Being published in an academic, peer-reviewed journal would be a nice touch to my last semester.

5. September: The Oklahoma visit went along with going to NYC. Dad still finds happiness in little things. In simple things.

4. November: What an election year. I’m sorry to the friends I may have pissed off. But,  I spent maybe at least 5 minutes voting/playing with the fancy machine.

3. October: Recap of April’s commencement ceremony. I only slept because my friends who sat by me made me so very comfortable.

2.5. April: Full of transitions and excitement and bending rules for lists of 10.  The past four days have knocked me squarely on my rear. Three flights, up and down, up and down. My things, my books. His things, his books.

2. December: Can we distinguish the source of our tears in December? We talk about future names, but what is the name of our future?

1. June: Well, duh. Mindblowing. Incredible. Fantastic. Amazing. This.

This list doesn’t even include events like Christmas and wedding showers and getting jobs. It’s true that I am often vague in my blog posts, but know that these top 10 entries include the top people in my life. You’re always in my thoughts and prayers. You’ve done so much for my happiness and helped me to become a decent person. Thank you for your support. Thank you especially for your friendship and kindness and generosity, which I know will carry over into the new year and our upcoming and continued lives together.

I wish you all the blessings and happiness you deserve. Nothing less.

Earlier this week I finished Anne Lamott’s book on writing, Bird by Bird. The author offers useful advice about the writing process, and I especially like what she has to say about paying attention and workshopping. The book has brought me to ask myself not only how I should write, but what I should be writing.

Lamott says that “there is ecstasy in paying attention…. Anyone who wants to can be surprised by the beauty of pain of the natural world, of the human mind and heart, and can try to capture just that – the details, the nuance, what is.” Annie Dillard’s writing demonstrates this kind of surprise and delight. I have been reading and rereading Dillard’s nonfiction since I was 16, and if someone decided to destroy all the poems in the world, I would still find solace and joy in Annie Dillard. I appreciate the intuition that goes beyond reason, all meanings manifest in a single word. What Hopkins did with inscape in his poetry, Dillard does in her prose. I don’t know if I could ever write like Dillard, but she always reminds me how much I like writing, because I really like paying attention.

Lamott also describes the value of getting people to read your stuff and providing honest, constructive feedback. I always get nervous whenever I have asked friends and reliable readers to critique my writing, but it’s ultimately beneficial to get another perspective. (I’m actually waiting on some feedback right now.) And people’s comments often emphasize that being a good writer also means being a good reader, and I need to revise my work with that in mind.

I’ve had the opportunity to give feedback on several projects friends have been working on. I can’t help feeling that these readings are little nudges to get back on the horse. A friend asked me to look over her blog post, six solid and enjoyable pages of funny anecdotes and observations of a roadtrip. For the past three years, I’ve been looking over a friend’s phases of a book he’s working on, at least 80,000 words. And I recently read the 30-page outline for another friend’s really fun-sounding book. I can’t get over how brilliant these friends are. They do so many incredible things with words, and I always feel self-conscious in my comments on their work. I always feel humbled that they would ask me to read their writing.

Whenever Reilly and I walk by the YA section of a bookstore, Reilly tells me that we could easily write a book better than most of those on the shelves. So what about my own writing? Writers use SO MANY different sources. Do I write about my limited, but really cool travels? Do I try to fictionalize intense personal experiences? Do I draw from mythology or a specific point in a culture’s history? Do I try to show up 98% of the YA writers in the world? I haven’t been participating in NaNoWriMo, but should I do it at least once? The short and not very definitive answer to these questions is: Yes. At least it has been affirmed that:

I have a pretty good sense of how to arrange words into sentences sometimes
I can write a blog/online journal post
I can write an outline for a novel/memoir

It’s time to saddle up.

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