The fun is yet to be! Come with me, in spirit, to the Write-by-the-Lake Writer’s Workshop & Retreat at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I’m getting ready to attend this retreat next week. And oh, what fun it is to prepare.
I want to remind you, as I’ve done before, that your words will pass away when you do, UNLESS, you’ve written them down, the most important reason for you to write some of your life story. Imagine how your grandchildren and all your descendants would love to read your words. What was it like to live during the early 2000s? Did we have toilets yet? Did we have TVs? Did we have smart phones?
If I could have a chat with my grandparents, three of whom died before I was born 75 years ago, I would ask related questions. What was life like when you were growing up? Tell me about how you met…your first date…your wedding…giving birth…your first telephone…your first bathroom in the house…your first car and more. What are your thoughts about cemeteries, gardening, politicians, wringer washing machines, child-rearing, fruit cellars? I would love knowing those snippets of their lives. In a keen sense, those details would give me a firm grounding of my background.
So, I return to yet another writing conference to learn more about documenting snippets of my life. I’ve not been to this conference before—my favorite for the last 17 years has been the Iowa Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, but I’m due for a change. Besides, at my age, I’m not sure how much longer I’ll have the vim and vigor to travel six to seven hours to a conference and then fully participate in a week-long intensive workshop. I’m being practical.
To excite you about what I’m reading to prepare for this workshop with Amy Lou Jenkins, I’ll give you some excerpts from one assignment: Phillip Lopate’s Writing Personal Essays: On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character. Lopate describes this process as being much like the notion of character development when writing fiction. And I paraphrase and ad lib:
First, think of your quirks. No one wants to read boring stuff, so look for those things that make you unique. None of us is the same, so capitalize on it. When folks tell me they could never be a nurse because of the awful bodily things we have to do, I laugh and say, “I understand. Not all people can be excited about bowel movements.” I’m serious. When a patient had been constipated from days on narcotics, I felt as good as the patient when the stool softeners, or the enema I’d given, finally worked. And, for the record, this topic is on my mind, just having had my five-year colonoscopy yesterday. That would make a quirky story, but I’ll spare you.
Second, look for conflict in your lives. That shouldn’t take long. Some of us have gargantuan conflicts, some of us have little ones like having to decide whether to go the health club before or after lunch. Readers don’t want to read about absolutely hum drum lives. And no one has them anyway. But, even if you think your life is boring, stop a minute and think of what you’ve done the last five minutes. You’ve stopped your routine to read this short essay and you’re wondering why you’re wasting the time. But then you realize there may be some truth to what I’m saying, and you are moved to grab a pencil and write about how you nearly boxed your boss or your husband or your kids yesterday, and oh, wouldn’t that feel good to get that out of your system? And that’s another reason to write: it’s cathartic.
Third, a hot one: what’s your ethnicity, gender, religion, politics? Where do you live? Are you upper class? Are you in the top one percent? Don’t you feel an essay blooming inside of you? Wouldn’t you like to expound on facts that you are a woman, for Pete’s (or Patricia’s) sake, and you are composed of four ethnicities and don’t dare call you a mutt, and you’ve recently taken up with religion or you’ve recently given up on religion, given the nature of what’s happening around you, and, for that matter, you’d be happy if the breaking news of politics’ reporting would just break? And break for good.
Don’t you feel better already? Lopate says, “(B)e not afraid to meditate on our membership in this or that community, and the degree to which it has or has not formed us.” Yeah, go for it.
Third, find your humor. If you have none, your reader will get depressed. Just because you are feeling sad about the whole wide world and you’re telling your story in the truest manner possible, no one wants to be dragged along in your muck. So, no matter how sad your story is, find that smidgen of humor in it, if only to make a little fun about how you’re coping. Humor alone is a fine coping strategy.
I could give you lots of humor about the life-threatening, aroma-filled prep day for my colonoscopy, but I’ve already promised you I wouldn’t subject you to the account. But, I have also been able to find humor in writing about my sister Esther’s death. Such a loss. Painful, but I’m reminded of her smile, chuckle, and pragmatic words to me, and I find happiness to write about.
Fourth, dig deep (or maybe they are on the surface ready to erupt) for your opinions and prejudices. Readers may disagree with you, but you’ll give them something to think about. And they will see another perspective other than their own. As a nurse, I hate seeing folks not able to get health care. How does that inform my life, my attitudes, my politics, my everything? Our opinions are the lens through which we experience life. Own them, explore them, invite others to do the same.
Lastly, to develop your own self as a character, do something. Actions can speak louder than words. So, if I were to tell you my colonoscopy story, I could describe my trip to Walgreen’s in detail, trying to find the Dulcolax, the Miralax, the non-red or non-purple Jello, Gatorade, and popsicles to enjoy on the Clear Liquid day of prep. I could tell you about my phone call, two days before, to cancel my colonoscopy when my sister died, when the instructions clearly said to call five days ahead. I could tell you about how I had to find where my precious Walgreen’s purchases had vanished prior to the prep day of the reschedule weeks later. I could tell you…I could tell you…and I could tell you all the details of my actions until you felt you were going through the prep yourself. And I could add about how I almost passed out, making it to the bed just in time with just my top on and shouting feebly to my husband, “HONEY, come. I need help,” and how he rushed from the study to my bedside and had to undo and remove my top undergarments and slip a nightgown over my head. I could tell you about the tone of his voice as he asked, “What in the world are you doing?”
But I’m not going to tell you. But I do invite you to grab a pen, or your keyboard, and write. Lopate says we must “recognize the charm of the ordinary.” He says, “daily life has nourished some of the most enduring essays.”