Category Archives: Essay

On Writing and Writing Classes

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Today’s guest  is Noel Robinson, a recent addition to Autobiographical Writing in the Napa Valley. Noel’s essay presents  the cunundrum of incorporating craft into your authentic writer’s voice and the challenges of writing for yourself versus writing for an audience.  Is writing worth it?  Find out Noel’s conclusion. . . .

 

Writing

 

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by Noel Robinson

I want to write, however I am always struggling with deadlines, arcs, and two pages, double-spaced limits.  I can’t always stop myself from self-editing as I write.  Too many adverbs, that’s a weak verb – use an active verb that describes fully the moment, change it up – your audience needs variety.

I accept the challenge of writing.  It makes me feel alive.  I am doing something important.  I am having my voice documented if not heard.  I hear it.

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But! The problems with writing—when is a piece ready to be examined?  Does there have to be an arc every time?   Can I quit stressing and feeling pressured by getting my story out?

I want to express myself.  I love being creative.  Maybe I am in an advanced level class and need to wait, start simpler, and enter the writing world of critique when I have a backlog of pieces.  I started writing in a journal seven months ago without any thought to taking a writing class.   A book inspired me to explore the topic – this would be fun to do in retirement.  I do not have a plethora of essays to draw on for revision.  Everything is “square-one” fresh with me.

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I love the class—the instructor is an editor that is devoted to her writers. This is gold.  The writers are supportive of each other.  This is a precious meld of people, strangers really, which comes together to support me and each other (can’t use that word again – I just used it in the previous sentence.  Oh no, don’t use the word “just” it’s an empty word.  I am sure I used the word “waste” in a previous paragraph…no – I don’t see that I did.)

I need gestalt applied; I use the rules and guidance, however it’s never enough for me. I need to know why I am using that rule and where that guidance is coming from.  I have to process and walk around the entire project to know where I am.

008_036_arc_building_2-128I struggle with the “arc.”  I know what it is (yet I feel there are many ways to approach it.) I have two weeks to write my piece that needs to be two pages, double-spaced.  I feel the pressure to get it right, to nail the feelings and insights; to dig deep and express the nectar of truth. Yes, I am a perfectionist.  I have been placed in a situation where I want to show I learned the craft and respond to all critique on my next piece.  This is a stress to me and in the future may quell my appetite to write.  I may go back to journaling and keep to myself.images-18

I have experienced the journals, memoirs, and autobiographies of others and been deeply touched—responded to their voices with emotion, understanding, and growth.  Writing is powerful.  I am empowered by the writing of other authors, and I am in awe of the things I produce.  I have things to say that surprise me.  I have a plethora of ideas, thoughts, new truths (screw the repeated word.)  Words have given me insights into my own life.

I am interested in continuing this venture.

images-13I can tell a story.  So what? Is that enough?  I respond in the negative; everything has to have a purpose, a reason to exist—really? If I gain pleasure out of writing, that is good.  If I never share it with others—that is good, too. However it feels selfish to deny others the things I enjoyed. (Catholic guilt!)  I can tell the story out loud to friends, family, and acquaintances.  I can write my thoughts in my journal. Reading my written words to others for the purpose of gaining skills in the craft of writing is terrifying.  This is what I signed up for—I wrestle with why I did this to myself.

I am joyous when I write something that tells my story and acknowledges my experience. Why?  I don’t have an answer. . . .

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I change a piece of my writing, remove dialog and see how this changes the story. Oh, it helps to rein it in at two pages. Is this the only way to learn about the craft of writing: to do the assignment and worry about figuring out the arc or meaning later?

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I need to stop arcing!  Just write the story and let the reader find his or her own arc.  That is valid, however I don’t get anything out of it.  I want to be prompted to surprises, new insights; to me this is the joy and importance of writing.  I guess I just answered my previous question.

Do I write a story, make it interesting? Leave out the feelings, emotions, relationships, analyzing…?  Do I write like a scientist: present the facts in such a way that the reader can’t help but draw conclusions?

Is writing for the audience?  Can it be for me?  Why do I pressure myself by participating in a writing group?  When I tell a story verbally, it is just the facts.  The listener knows by my non-verbal cues, expressions, and tone of voice what the story means to me.  They enjoy the stories I tell out loud. They “get” the nuances, absurdities, and comedy.

I take my writing a step further on purpose.  I tell the reader how I feel, how I was changed, why this experience was important to me.  Am I just drilling in a point that is obvious?

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I have come close to quitting this class on a weekly basis.  This is too challenging, my writing isn’t at the level of the class, and it is too hard.  Then I read something or hear someone else’s story I think, Oh my, this is huge.  Stories need to be shared with others no matter how hard or challenging or scary.  I read a few sentences in a memoir recently and was crying—sobbing—at one point, at the description of the Father’s interactions with his daughter.  I have had a different experience than this daughter and I notice the contrast.  I feel the deprivation of being raised by my Father instead of by hers.  It is important to me to recognize this difference. It is my experience and it was different from the writer.  I needed to hear that there are differences in order to make connections to my own life story.

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Re-inventing Aging

Re-inventing Aging: A Jane-lite Third Act

Remember when you were in your twenties? Who could forget those old geezers who groaned every time they rose from a chair? Observing them through the illusion of eternal youth, those oldsters seemed like a different species. I’ll bet you never thought you’d be one.

Neither did I.

But these days, creaking bones and aching muscles have become a routine part of my morning. I begin each day by tentatively evaluating my discomfort, and often it’s a matter of degree. Perchance my low back is tweaked, but at least my knee feels okay. My right pinky toe hurts, but my hips and ankles are holding. Now and then I still spring out of bed, pain free, but these days are becoming rare. Ten years ago, I may have been tight from working out, or a little sore from overdoing it, but ricketiness had not become a chronic condition. Recalling the passage of time, I go to a dark place — if this is what sixty feels like, what will seventy or God-willing, eighty bring?

I turned to Jane Fonda, who may have coined the expression Third Act in her 2011 book, Prime Time, an instruction manual of sorts for the over-sixty demographic. In a nutshell, Act One (age 0–29), “a time for gathering” includes the formative experiences of childhood, adolescence, self-image and gender identity. Act Two (age 30–59), “a time of building and in-between-ness” is characterized work and family relationships as they shift and evolve over time. Although Fonda explores the first two acts, The Third Act (age 60 and beyond) is the heart of her book.

Prime Time opens with Jane’s personal reflection at a turning point in her life. On the cusp of her sixtieth birthday, she begins to grapple with “the issue of time — the inexorability of it — pressing in on me.” I identify with Jane’s inertia, her sense of foreboding, and I am struck by her humility and courage.

She begins a soul-searching life review, examining family memorabilia, taking a humble look at the little girl or teenager smiling (or not) in family photos. Her process continues as she pieces together pivotal experiences, poring over her fifty-nine years. As if traveling back in time, she relives the joys and heartbreaks that have shaped her. Letting go and “becoming whole,” she is free to move forward into her Third Act.

Emerging from her life review, Jane hits the ground running. With her trademark vivacity, she steps up as spokesperson and champion for the chronologically challenged. Urging boomers to get off our lazy backsides, she crushes late-life stereotypes, coaching us to live “full tilt to the end.” The exposition is well-researched and prescriptive, providing concrete directives, a recipe for success if you will, with “eleven ingredients for successful aging.”

Here are Jane’s big eleven: Don’t abuse alcohol, don’t smoke, get enough sleep, be physically active, eat healthfully, keep learning, be positive, review and reflect, love and stay connected, give of yourself, care about the bigger picture. These sensible suggestions resonate with me. I cannot disagree with logic. Still, Jane’s recipe leaves me vaguely disquieted, as if I’m failing.

Those if us in our third act (60 or better) have learned a few things. For instance, when we thumb through magazines, ogling glossy airbrushed photos of flawless folks, we no longer compare ourselves to these images. We know better. We understand this kind of perfection is both simulated and humanly unattainable.

Jane’s “full tilt” life is like an airbrushed pic. Compared to her, I will always come up short. My inner cynic quips, who wouldn’t look fantastic with a team of surgeons, trainers and nutritionists? I remind myself of her celebrity status, wealth and entitlement and it’s easy to dismiss her, writing her off as another self-appointed “expert” wielding her fame. Alas, I am not superhuman. I will never be Jane. Who cares? Who needs soul-crushing perfectionism? Pass the pizza.

Yet, as I close Jane’s book and reach for a cheesy slice, I’m hit with an unexpected twinge of guilt, or perhaps shame. Maybe it’s all the wasted hours I’ve spent binge-watching re-runs on Hulu, that third glass of wine. Could it be the dark chocolate that keeps mysteriously disappearing from my cupboard? I glance down at the book jacket, Jane’s all-knowing eyes looking back at me. At that moment, I contemplate her legacy. Whether you love or despise her, Jane is a force. She’s inspired many, including me, as she continues to evolve and reinvent herself. An accomplished actor, controversial political activist and legendary guru of fitness for more than six decades, at 79, her vitality is undiminished. These days, Jane is busy lighting up the screen with Lily Tomlin, eviscerating so-called older women’s traditional roles, in the groundbreaking, irreverent, smart and wickedly funny hit show Grace and Frankie. Unlike the endless parade of vapid, pretty people in the media mainstream, I cannot dismiss her.

I pick up the book, studying her face. What do you want from me, Jane? Must I eat more kale? Must I lift weights? Learn Italian? Perhaps I am losing my grip on reality, because I hear Jane’s response. She reminds me that my choices are my own, but whatever I choose, to live with intention.

I exhale noisily. I admit it — Jane is right.

Very well, Jane. You win.

Did she just wink at me?

The Reckoning

Taking an honest inventory of my life, I recognize room for improvement. Disclosure: I’m afraid to start something I cannot finish. I don’t want to fail. Sorry, Jane. I’m not quite ready to revisit my past unflinchingly. I’ll save the life review for later. So, how do I begin my Third Act, intentionally and with clarity?

I’ve never been good at diets. The moment a food is deemed off-limits or “forbidden,” it’s literally all I think about. Going cold turkey on vices such as wine, chocolate or overconsumption of the Internet, I am destined to fail. Adding a positive goal, not subtracting, has always been more successful for me.

As fall approaches, I’m reminded of new beginnings. With that mind, I embark on a more conscious Third Act, taking baby steps toward meaningful change. The first thing that comes to mind is diet. I’m a decent cook, but night after night, it often feels like drudgery, so most of the time, I rely on prepacked salad greens to fulfill the vegie requirement. I love vegetables and I know they’re good for my body, but don’t eat enough of them. I tell myself it’s too time-consuming and I’m just too damn busy for all that shopping and cooking. Hell, I’m not Jane Fonda. I have no personal chef, tempting me daily with an abundant variety of luscious, exotically prepared vegies.

This is the point where I smugly justify my laziness. But not this time, because the veil has been lifted. I can choose to make this manageable, yet significant change. There may be only one Jane, but the rest of us can strive for Jane-lite.

JC’s August-September Baby-Steps Challenge

I task myself, and anyone who’d like to join me, to consume a greater variety and quantity of vegetables. Your ideas and suggestions are very welcome.

Baby steps, people.

Stay tuned for updates!

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Not Quite Jane, but Jane-lite

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