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Reflections On Essaying

April 21, 2019

The clock is ticking in a more audible and persistent manner this week. We’ve nearly reached the end of essay class—and my college career—and we’re at that moment when I must reflect on the value of both. Exploring writing quite late in life, I’ve struggled to identify the genre through which I’m most successful in expressing myself. What I’ve discovered is that creative nonfiction—in this case, the essay—offers a different type of freedom than poetry or fiction writing. Though the central idea is not fictional, it can be conveyed through creative language and devices and is enhanced by pulling in science and ideas from other essayists. This has been liberating, rewarding, and challenging.

The critical analysis of literary work is not my forte—in fact, I find it arduous and at times, I’m not certain I even understand the information I seek to discern. It’s distracting to stop and analyze while I’m attempting to appreciate the language. Still, it’s in the attempt that the education takes place. That’s what this course has provided—the opportunity. I’ve been challenged with reading a range of essays and dissecting the structure and devices employed by their various writers. It’s easy to say I enjoy one piece over another, but why? Therein lies the challenge. What is the author doing that gives me chills, brings tears to my eyes, or makes me feel like an impostor for attempting to think of myself as a writer? Writing technique is often simpler to identify in poetry; the author is using parallelism or metaphor or repetition or alliteration. I find it infinitely more challenging with the essay. The idea being conveyed is sometimes hidden within the essay, and often has high stakes or is emotionally charged while it remains elusive and I must read it a second time to discover its intention. At times, I would become too distracted or affected by the message and had to dig deep to speak in any meaningful way about what the writer was doing. It was frustrating, but it remains a valuable exercise. For it’s through understanding the form, structure, idea, and presence in other writer’s essays that I know will improve my own.

“972 Days” ~ “Root Systems” ~ “Of Water”

A Three-Part Series On Home: Reflections of a delayed uprooting and replanting in the family home.

April 14, 2019

When asked to craft three essays that connected in some way, at first, I drew a blank. Seriously, blank. Nada. Zip. What three ideas did I have that could function in a group? What theme could thread itself through them without becoming tedious?

As is often the case with my writing, I had to start typing to locate the theme. Upon reflection, I realized that home and family remain ever-present in my consciousness. As a parent, thoughts of my sons occupy a copious number of drawers in my file cabinets. As a daughter, the voice of the parent whose absence I feel so keenly remains a frequent visitor.

Leftover Catholic instruction continues to inform my sense of self and as a creature of bad habits, I possess a good deal of guilt about what the fallout from those habits means for my children. It’s shameful and painful and if I could set the clock to reverse, I choose to believe that I would eschew the bad habits before they’d had a chance to take up residence in my psyche. And yet, likely the most painful of my guilty deeds is in having become a mother—for I know that one day I will break my children’s hearts by leaving this life.

Though it’s a fact that I needed to experience living somewhere other than my childhood home, I suspect in part, my move to California—made possible by the generous support from my family and friends—was also a practice run. An opportunity for my sons to live day-to-day without my physical presence. A chance for them to experience the life they will one day lead in my absence.

So the essays became about my childhood home, my family, and friends who are also my family. It became about life stages. It became about the things of nature that make life worth living and those that we rely on to live. They chronicle my journey from roots planted in New England, past a brief but long-awaited adventure in the land of the sun, to finally, recognizing that Dorothy had it right all along; there’s no place like home.

Reflections on “Shimmer”

March 3, 2019

Anyone who’s ever heard of or read Joan Didion’s work knows that to write about her writing is daunting. She doesn’t fit into a tidy category and though she does not consider herself a scholar or an intellectual, she’s savvy, well-read, well-traveled, and well experienced in living and writing about the things she observes about herself and others.  Her style is pragmatic, reflective, and unapologetic—a quality I admire.

Though I did not set out to intentionally write a segmented essay, the piece revealed itself later as one, something I can only attribute to having written one two years prior and apparently internalizing the structure. I think the reason I didn’t notice was that the essay was about reading many of Didion’s essays and the way to talk about them was to write about each separately. Particularly because I’d culled them from several different sources.

I remember struggling with the word count for quite awhile until I’d read “In Bed,” the essay about her chronic migraines. I was immediately reminded of my own chronic pain and the frustration of knowing people didn’t understand. The looks that said, “what’s that about?” or “why can’t she just suck it up?” Once I visited this place in my memory I began writing furiously and soon I’d exceeded the word count. There was much I would cut out later, but I noticed that discovering a connection between my own life and what I was reading provided me with much more to say about Didion and her writing.

Upon revisiting the essay for evaluation purposes, I was surprised I hadn’t noticed that I’d begun the piece by talking about my assignment rather than my subject. Once this was pointed out, it seemed so obvious and I was happy to change the introduction. After all, the essay wasn’t about being assigned to write an essay, it was about Joan Didion’s writing.

Though I still lack a significant vocabulary for dissecting and discussing the form and structure of essays, I do feel that I’m making some progress with each assignment. It remains frustrating to know that I love a sentence or paragraph and yet be unable to articulate the reasons it captivates me. Often, it’s about some feeling the piece awakens in me. Some authors writing literally takes my breath away. I could point to who wrote it or what the piece was about, but I’m still not able to break down the parts into specific pieces I can pull out and say, it’s this thing, right here.

I feel fortunate to be in this class and hope that by the end of the semester I will have enlarged my critical analysis vocabulary to a point that makes me feel a little more competent in discussing other writer’s essays. This essay has certainly challenged me in that way, and I hope it has also helped to improve my own writing.

Reflections on “Fraud by Hindsight”

February 19, 2019

Like the essay, hindsight appears to have multiple definitions or at least multiple perspectives about its validity and usefulness. I thought it was interesting that from the professional realms of psychology and the legal system, hindsight can function like misremembering, leading people to false assumptions. In our personal lives, it seems that we have a memory of something we’ve done or said and hindsight functions more as an epiphany which we then berate ourselves for taking so long to arrive at. Is it a useful perspective for attempting to change our behavior and make better choices or is it a barrier to understanding the reason we made those choices that appear wrong on hindsight? I had been thinking about hindsight for a couple of years, but it wasn’t until writing this essay that I really broke it down and analyzed its usefulness in my life. My personal experiences are varied in determining its value as in some cases, it feels as though I’ve learned something and in others, it’s simply an exercise in self-punishment.

After I researched various definitions of hindsight, I paused and pondered awhile. I then visited one of my greatest regrets as a parent and discovered that for hindsight to make me feel better about my poor choices, I needed to uncover the reasons for those choices. Were they justified in the moment? Sure. Whether the kids cared or not, their clothes needed to be clean. Could I have made some adjustments and found a way to accomplish the tasks while still taking the time for my boys? I suspect so with some adjustments to my expectations. This is the value in hindsight. Are my sons severely damaged by my decisions? No. Could their lives have been more interesting and exciting if I’d done things differently? Yes. Would we have more shared memories of fun together as a family? Hell, yes! This is where hindsight becomes regret and we can either let go or let it grind us into the ground. Writing about it is a way of letting it go. I’ve said it now for anyone to see; it’s time to move on.

When I pivoted to the story of my father’s death, I arrived in a place for which hindsight can only be described as a jailer bent on tormenting me. I didn’t go there to make anyone else feel badly for me, I put it out there in the hope that it might resonate with someone who still has time to make better decisions—to ask the unaskable questions before the opportunity is lost. I hope everyone has the foresight to avoid this type of lost opportunity.

To recognize through hindsight what I should have done or said when my father was dying appears to be of no value now. But is it? As I write this I suddenly realize there is some value. When the next person I love is close to death, I will focus on the things we’ve left unsaid or say again the things that bear repeating.

Reflections on “What Would Fred Say?”

Feb. 3, 2019

Initially, I had few thoughts on what or how I wanted to write this essay. When the idea of focusing on words as the theme bubbled to the surface, I began to first remember and then review the impact that various words have had in my own life. This led me to also consider the impact of the words spoken to us when we are most impressionable.

The first assignment I was tasked with in writing internship was to write a feature story about my visit to a class of very differently abled young adults and I’d left that day forgetting to ask my mentor about the deadline. The story is half finished and because it’s incomplete, part of my brain was still working on it as I attempted to complete this essay. Rather than a hindrance, however, this proved to be advantageous—as the need to use the correct terminology is critical in the setting that I’m writing about. The stakes are high for both the best and the worst word choices.

To avoid being another cog in the wheel of negativity that appears to be our current reality, I also wanted to highlight the words that have a positive impact on our lives. In thinking about this, Fred Rogers immediately came to mind. I’d recently seen the documentary about his life and fell in love with him all over again. Fred Rogers was a soft-spoken, generous, and empathic man who worked to empower children to love and believe in themselves. He presented a show that brought education—not only the ABC’s but how to treat one another with kindness—and fun to children all around the country through the Public Broadcasting System. The way he spoke to his listeners, the words he used, were likely for many children, words that were lacking elsewhere in their lives. He created something he called an “expression of care” for his young watchers. His words conveyed the message that they are loved for their individuality. Fred Rogers ended every one of his 895 episodes spanning some 31 years with those words. A remarkably kind human, he left the world better than he found it by instilling this idea of self-love in each child whose life he touched and his words are as necessary today as they were all those years ago.

One of the most important values that adults can instill in their children is the knowledge that their individuality is a gift to others that should be celebrated—not destroyed to be rebuilt into someone else’s image. Something we desperately need to be reminded of today.

I did not set out to make my essay about a television show or the man who created it, but I did most deliberately want to end with the thoughts and words that Fred Rogers used. The words we say to our children will foster joyous exploration or self-loathing and we need only listen to or read the news to see the impact of the latter. The course of each human life can be altered through words and I like to think about Fred Roger’s message as one that his watchers will pass on to their own children and grandchildren.