Breaking Down Walls, 5 Minutes at a Time

Back in March (doesn’t that feel like so long ago?), I was set to begin a class offered through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. When everything shut down, my class switched from in-person to virtual. 

At the same time, we were figuring out how to best help our son with distance-learning because Los Angeles Unified schools had shut down as well. So I dropped my writing course before it began. 

Since March, I have been writing. Sometimes more than others. 

And since March, I’ve been published. Again, sometimes more than others. (You can check my Published Work page for a complete listing.)

But lately I have felt like something was missing. 

And I realized what it was – being around other writers.

Most writing classes begin with a general introduction of who you are and why you’re there, what your goal is, what you hope to accomplish by being in that particular class. My introduction doesn’t vary a whole lot. I have a pretty consistent writing practice and know how to meet deadlines. (In case you didn’t know, I’m a regular contributor at MomsLA.com.) 

I enroll in writing classes for the people. The energy that comes from surrounding yourself with other writers. Writers who are readers. Writers who read my work, and offer honest feedback, who push me with questions to go deeper and explore further. They let me know what works and what doesn’t work. 

Often, there’s a mix of workshopping and writing in class; short exercises that sometimes develop into longer pieces.

In-person classes aren’t an option right now. And while virtual classes are being offered through UCLA Extension, I haven’t enrolled in any.

But I continue to write.

As an added stimulus, I have begun re-reading Kicking in the Wall: A Year of Writing Exercises, Prompts, and Quotes to Help You Break Through Your Blocks and Reach Your Writing Goals written by Barbara Abercrombie (my favorite instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program).

If you’re a writer (and as Barbara says, “Writing is a verb. A writer is one who writes”), I recommend this book. It’s gotten me writing – not an assignment for MomsLA or to answer a submissions call I learned about on duotrope.com, but writing not knowing exactly what it may lead to.

May it help you kick in your own wall.

 

Writing As My Way of Teaching

I didn’t start writing as a way to “heal.” 

In fact, my earliest memory of myself as a writer goes back to second grade. I had written a story and showed it to my teacher, Mrs. Jones. In all fairness, in my memory, my story wasn’t entirely my own, but was “borrowed” from something I had seen on Sesame Street. 

In any event, Mrs. Jones made me a “book” with yellow construction paper for the front and back covers and the “good paper” inside – the white paper with blue lines that was always reserved for our final drafts. She told me to write my stories down in my book. 

I don’t know what happened to that book, but I do know that I’ve been writing ever since.

I got lucky. My very first publication was in the Los Angeles Times. 

After that, most of my published personal essays were inspired by my teaching career and my interactions with my students. (You can check out a list of my published work here.)

But that was before 2010. For the past ten years, I have written more and more about my life with an autoimmune disease. In fact, I am working on a memoir-in-essays as a mother, wife, and former teacher living with this invisible disability.

And that’s why I recently read Louise DeSalvo’s Writing as a Way of Healing – How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives.

While I don’t know if writing is “transforming” my life, I do believe writing provides me with a different opportunity to teach.

This week, I’d like to share a few of the passages that I marked with my pinkish/purplish highlighter.

“… writing that springs from intensely personal motives can be useful to others. For loss is a universal human experience, something we all must learn to deal with.”

“Through reading, our imaginative faculties are nourished, enriched, expanded. This is why, for writers and would-be writers, reading is not a luxury but a necessity.”

“One reason, then, to write as we face these critical junctures in our lives is that illness and disability necessitate that we think differently about ourselves, about everything. We can write a new story for ourselves, to discover who we are now – what we’re feeling and thinking and what we desire. We can learn, too, what our bodies are like now, and we can imagine what will become of us.”

“Writing gives us back the voices we seem to lose when our bodies become ill or disabled. We want to speak for ourselves and our particular experience of illness and disability rather than have someone else speak for us. Writing helps us assert our individuality, our authority, our own particular style. All are seriously compromised by medical treatment and hospitalizations …”

“For illness often confers a wisdom about how to make ordinary life deeply and transcendentally meaningful.” 

 

A Promise To Myself

Today is generally the day when many people state their new year’s resolutions. Grand plans for dreams, goals, and aspirations.

I’m not going to do that.

Instead, I’m going to state my intention to continue working on my memoir. I’m going to promise myself that I will not give up on sharing my story. 

For my fellow writers out there, I highly recommend Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art From Trauma by Melanie Brooks. This collection is such an inspiration, providing insight into how different writers took something hard/terrible/horrific and used it to create something beautiful/meaningful/relevant.

Here are a few passages I’d like to share with you:

“The reason I write memoir is to be able to see the experience itself in a new way. I hardly know what I think until I write. The therapy is one way of sort of processing things. But it’s only in writing about some of these things that we discover and understand the metaphors of our experience that give our life meaning. Writing is a way to organize your life, give it a frame, give it a structure, so that you can really see what it was that happened.” – Sue William Silverman

“I was a writer, and then this big thing happened in my family. And the way that I tend to try to understand things is through stories – both things that I write and things that I read. That’s the deepest way I know of expressing something inexpressible.” – Joan Wickersham

“You take what you’ve been through, and if you are a writer, you have to write about it.” – Suszanne Strempek Shea

“It really becomes memoir, though, when you open up space for others to enter – when it becomes about more than you, or your family, or your own personal feelings.” – Edwidge Danticat

“Don’t forget, it’s scarier not to do it than to do it.” – Abigail Thomas

 

My Job

As I tell my son, one day my name will be on the spine of a book. For now, my name is inside -these anthologies each include a personal essay I have written.

My now-eleven-year-old son gave me the biggest boost the other day, and he doesn’t even realize it.

Ryan told me that during lunch the other day, kids were talking about their parents’ jobs and some of his friends asked what my job was.  It’s a fair question.  After all, I take my son to school each morning, and I’m there each afternoon to pick him up.  I’ve accompanied his class on a field trip to The Getty Center, and I attend all his class performances.  

“I told them you’re a writer,” Ryan told me.

And I smiled.  A writer is, by definition, one who writes.  And I do.  Nearly every day.  My writing time is divided between assigned posts for MomsLA.com and personal essays for my memoir-in-progress and those I submit for publication. (Update –  I have received word that two of my essays have been accepted and will be publishing sometime in the future.  I’ll keep you posted).

“I told them you’re writing a book,” he continued.

Ryan knows that I have a collection of “stories” (his word for my personal essays) that I am working on compiling into a book.  

“And one of my friends said she’ll buy your book when it comes out,” he said.

I smiled.  

“So, what’s your book going to be about again?”

I told Ryan, “It’s about living with an invisible illness.  What it’s like to do all the things I do but having an illness people can’t see.”

He was satisfied with that answer, but I was curious about something else.

“Ryan, did you tell them I used to be a teacher?”

“No.  Because that was before.  And now you write.”

“Do you even remember when I was a teacher?” I asked him.

“No,” he said.  (I left teaching in March 2013.  Ryan was almost 5 at the time.) 

It’s important to remind myself that if I hadn’t left my teaching career, there’s no way I would be writing as much as I am now.  And I certainly wouldn’t have published as much as I have. 

And my son wouldn’t be telling his friends his mom is a writer.

 

Just Keep Writing

For my birthday, a good friend gave me a book from my wish list – Jennie Nash’s The Writer’s Guide to Agony and Defeat – The 43 Worst Moments in the Writing Life and How to Get Over Them.

Having just turned 43, I thought it would be a good time to read this book.  And,  having an increased blog readership and a growing collection of essays I hope to publish as a memoir, I thought it would be a good time to read this book.

While I didn’t agree with everything Ms. Nash wrote (and felt some of her jokes weren’t that funny), there were a number of takeaways I’d love to share with you.  I think you’ll find they’re insightful and valuable even if you aren’t a writer.

Talent is helpful in writing, but guts are absolutely essential.”  – Jessamyn Wes

This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package.  Don’t consider it rejected.  Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘to the editor who can appreciate my work’ and it has simply come back stamped ‘not at this address.’  Just keep looking for the right address.  – Barbara Kingsolver

What we do might be done in solitude and with great desperation, but it tends to produce exactly the opposite.  It tends to produce community and in many people hope and joy.” – Junot Díaz

Ones best success comes after their greatest disappointments.” – Harriet Ward Beecher