ghosts do not wear chains
the whole point about ghosting:
you are free at last
My high school art teacher, Mr. Imus, was an irascible sort who never sugar-coated his praise or his criticism. He didn’t like me. This was unusual because all my teachers had always liked me. I was a straight-A student and always turned my homework in on time. This was not because I was a brown nose. It was because I found homework – all schoolwork – very easy.
Art was easy for me too. I had a good sense of color and design, I could capture likenesses – I just didn’t understand why Mr. Imus didn’t like me. With the other students, he would laugh and joke around, or he would discuss art with them and treat their opinions with respect. With me, he said little and what he said seemed to be encased in ice. My projects always came back graded “B” with no comments.
At the beginning of the year, he gave us a year-long assignment. We were to create something – anything – a painting, sculpture, drawing, or whatever we wanted, using any kind of media we chose. This something was to express what was unique and original about us. “Why were you born?” said Mr. Imus. “Your project should answer that question.”
I don’t think Mr. Imus truly expected a bunch of sixteen-year-olds to produce works of great originality or beauty, or come remotely close to answering his grandiose question. But that was no reason not to ask it.
Because I was a quick study and easily mastered school subjects, I had developed a bad habit: procrastination. So I didn’t start work on the year-long project until just a couple of weeks before it was due. I didn’t even think about it. How hard could it be?
When I did begin the project, I still wasn’t thinking about it much. One day when I was doing algebra homework at a friend’s house, gossiping and giggling as we “worked”, I kept us both further amused by doodling along the sides of my paper. My doodles were quick sketches of my friend’s new kitten. The kitten was a striped creature full of mischief and grace, and my doodles must have caught some of her goofy spirit, for it leaped off the page. The kitten gamboled, she sneered, she preened, she looked wise, and most of all she looked very funny. My friend went into transports of delight over the doodles, and I was proud of (and secretly surprised by), how good they were. Good enough for even Mr. Imus to be impressed by them.
I decided that my kitten doodles would be my year’s project. But since I couldn’t submit them on the margins of an algebra paper, I had to come up with another media. The obvious choice was pen-and-ink drawing, but I felt that wasn’t original enough. Recently I had become interested in the art of tapestry, although so far all I’d done was look and admire – I’d never tried any kind of needlework. But how hard could it be?
I got my mother to take me to the fabric store to buy yarn and needlepoint canvas. I didn’t pay any attention to the different kinds of canvas; I just bought what I thought looked right. I paid the same lack of attention to the different kinds of yarn and needles available; I got the yarn in colors that “called” to me, and a needle was a needle, right? I didn’t buy a frame to hold the canvas, or any instructions on how to block it. I didn’t see why that should be necessary.
When I got my tools home I cut the canvas up into six different squares, for my six different kitten poses. The edges of the canvas were a little rough and uneven and starting to fray already, but I’d fix that later, I thought. I transferred my sketches to the nubbly canvas – it was harder than I expected, but the kitten still looked goofy and mysteriously graceful. Then I started to stitch. I didn’t read anything about different kinds of needlepoint stitches, I just began pushing my needle in one hole and out another. I mean, how hard could it be?
Hard. Really hard. I must have stitched those six kittens at least twenty times each, trying to turn that intractable yarn into sneers and whiskers, grace and mischief. Every spare minute I had I spent working on those kittens, as the due date came closer and closer.
Well, I learned tapestry making the hard way, but I did learn. When they were done, the night before they were due, the needlepoint kittens were even better than the original doodles, and I knew I had created something truly magical. The only problem was that I had no time left to “fix” the frayed and ragged edges, and since the canvas had not been stretched at the beginning, some of my kittens had begun to droop in the middle. And the only way to fix that would be to start all over.
They’d have to do as they were, but I was not that worried – I knew how good those kittens were. I knew because my artist’s eye told me so.
When it was my turn in class to display my project, I tacked the kitten canvases up on the wall with thumbtacks. I could hear some of the students saying complimentary things (“those are so cool!”). Mr. Imus, however, said nothing. He just looked at the kittens for a long time.
Finally, he turned to me to deliver his verdict. “You fulfilled this assignment perfectly,” he began. “Your piece does express what is unique about you. And it makes me furious.”
“These could have been the best art I’ve seen from a high-school student,” he continued. “Those kittens are original and beautiful and make us want to laugh with joy. They make us want to keep looking at them – until we see the sloppy technique and lazy presentation that you have chosen for them. Here’s what I see now when I look at them – I see an artist who does not respect her art or her talent. I see someone who does not have the courage to live up to her gifts. I no longer want to laugh at your kittens; now I want to cry.”
And with that, he walked out of the room, slamming the door behind him, leaving us all – especially me – stunned.
This memory from a long time ago still makes me cringe when it pops up, as it still does sometimes, whenever I have an attack of the lazies. Maybe Mr. Imus was too harsh with me; after all, I was only sixteen. But I don’t think so. By dismantling my arrogance and forcing me to face the truth, Mr. Imus nipped tendencies in the bud that could have crippled me all my life. I am eternally grateful that he didn’t like me. He respected my art even when I didn’t, and that was enough.
One of the hardest things to do, in writing as in life, is to not judge. In writing, every time you express your opinion or judgment, you are robbing your reader of theirs. Think about it. If you are describing climbing Mount Everest, you could accurately describe it as difficult, or challenging, or painful, or exciting. But these are all your judgments. If you want your reader to understand how it is to climb Mount Everest, he or she must have an experience, so they can form their own opinion that it is difficult, challenging, painful, or exciting.
Here’s a simple exercise that practices getting rid of judgment words and replacing them with original detail. Describe the room you are sitting in right now. Describe everything and anything in it – without using any adjectives or adverbs that imply opinion (such as pretty, or dirty, or jarring, or too anything). Use only words that cannot be disputed. This does not mean your writing will be bland. For instance, here’s a room: The sofa arms have been used as the cat’s scratching post. The once-white ceiling drops crumbly bits on the floor. A starling makes a blawk blawk sound from her nest in the eaves just outside the window. There is a smell of leftovers in the air. Do I really have to say that the person describing this room thinks the room is unkempt and lonely?
Here’s another one of those writing exercises in which I wrote fast – not even stopping to scratch my head or pausing to think – for 10 minutes, and started nearly every sentence with the same phrase, in this case “I don’t have.” These exercises nearly always introduce me to a facet of myself I didn’t know was there. Try it yourself and see. Caution: this is totally unedited!
I don’t have enough time to live the life I want yet I seem to have time to live just the way I am. I don’t have anxiety-free thoughts. I don’t have enough ideas. I don’t have enough experience. I don’t have proof. I don’t have authority. I don’t have freedom from this wrenching fear of not enough, not enough. I don’t have much beauty anymore, and I don’t have men falling at my feet. I don’t have the way to go, I don’t have a map of my life. I don’t have oh my goodness so many things but it makes me sad to focus on them. I don’t have a house in Baltimore. I don’t have daisies in a chain around my throat. I don’t have green fingernails. I don’t have cancer or diabetes or a life-threatening disease, and my mirror doesn’t show the eyes of death looking back at me. I don’t have 17 cats like the crazy cat-woman on the next block. I don’t have chickens in my yard scratching up corn and whistling down bugs. I don’t have bats in the dark hidden eaves of my house, thank goodness. I don’t have a t-shirted maid to sweep my floors and make my counters sparkle. I don’t have black skin or green eyes. I don’t have a 20-year old’s perky breasts which stand at attention in the cold. Mine are droopy but I love them anyway, they are warmth and comfort and mother nourishment, they say I am a woman and glad to be one. I don’t have a house on a lake, although I can see a triangled slice of Lake Sammamish when I stand on my porch in the depth of winter when the leaves are turning to mulch. I don’t have a billion dollars, or a million, or even an expired lottery ticket. I don’t have rings on my toes to make the tigers laugh. I don’t have a convent in my neighborhood, so I don’t have to listen to the refined snorts of nuns.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face – you must do the thing which you think you cannot do.” This is, of course, excellent advice for living. It is also excellent advice for writing. If you want your writing to have juice and flavor, one of the best ways is to write about what scares you. Be honest and raw and courageous – look your fear in the face and then describe that face of fear in words – every wrinkle, every pimple, every discoloration. Yes, you could write about your fear of spiders, but maybe writing about your fear of being alone would be a braver exercise. Or write about the time when you were the most frightened. Let us be there with you – how did you show how scared you were? What were the sounds and smells of this experience? What did it teach you?
Fear is the most powerful emotion we have after love. If you can write about it with honesty and courage, your writing too will have power. Go ahead, be brave today.
Let me tell you a story, which was once a dream:
Once long ago, or maybe only yesterday, a woman was walking in a pine forest in winter. She was surrounded by huge pine trees, hundreds of feet tall. Suddenly she saw a stag coming through the trees straight toward her. He was a magnificent stag, with a huge rack of antlers, and powerful haunches. Stopping before her and looking sternly down, he told her, “I am your father.” She was surprised at first, since the last time she checked her father was a human, but looking closer into his eyes she recognized him. He was indeed her father, inside.
“I am here to take you to your grandmother’s house,” he said. “Get on my back so I can carry you.”
The woman mounted the stag’s back, and holding onto his neck they rode away further into the forest. They weaved through the trees, back and forth, back and forth, as if the tree trunks formed a giant loom. Then they turned around and went back the same way. She became aware that the stag’s hair, and her hair, were intermingled and streaming behind them, and they were indeed using the hairs as threads to weave a cloth. When the cloth was long and thick, they stopped and the stag removed the cloth off the tree trunk loom, and handed it to the woman. It was now a very soft blanket. She carried it on her lap as they continued again deeper into the forest.
They came at last to a clearing. Although she hadn’t seen it since she was a child and her grandmother was still alive, the woman recognized the house immediately as her grandmother’s.
She got down from the Stag and went into the house, carrying her blanket. In the house was her grandmother, looking like she always had, with her frumpy shoes and her hair in a bun, and her face a combination of wisdom and goodness. Putting her arms around the woman, Grandmother said “Oh, I’m so glad to see you!” The woman gave her the blanket she and the stag had made.
“Oh yes,” said Grandmother. “The three of us are woven together with unbreakable bonds, stronger even than the hair of this blanket. They will endure forever, through all our lifetimes, past and yet to come. I will sleep soundly and dream of us under this blanket.”
Then she took the pins out of her hair, and her hair fell down in a gray-brown curtain that reached to her feet. She reached up and took her hair right off her head. “I don’t need this anymore. I would like you to have it,” she said.
The woman thanked her grandmother, taking the hair. “What should I do with this, Grandmother?” she asked. “Perhaps you would like a blanket of your own?” asked Grandmother with a smile.
“Why yes, of course,” said the woman. She left the house, where the Stag waited for her outside. She jumped upon his back again, and away they went through the tree trunks, weaving a blanket out of his mother’s hair.
I wrote a whole book about my dog (www.dogparkdiary.net). It’s about my current dog, a beagle named Goody. But I’ve had many dogs, and don’t they deserve a book too? Maybe, but I just haven’t had time to write them all yet. So instead I’ll write about one of them – my first dog – here in my blog.
My first dog was a dachshund named Zipper. My parents gave him to me the Christmas I was 5. Zipper was the inspiration for my first published work – a poem I wrote at 6, published in Jack and Jill Magazine. (My mother sent it in – I wasn’t into fame back then.) The poem went like this:
Zipper and I had many adventures together during the eight years he was alive. I was a loner kid, always looking for hiding places where I could be alone to dream. But I wasn’t really alone, because Zipper came along. One of our favorite places was inside the thick wild blackberry patch that grew across the street from our house. We made a trail through the thicket, underneath the canes, and hollowed out a circular space where we could curl up together. Protected by the tangle of overhead thorns, with the light filtering through the briar, I would tell Zipper thrilling stories. What a fine listener he was!
He died when I was 13, killed on the road one dark rainy night. Even today it hurts my heart to remember the grief of that night. Some day I will write about it. But not today.