This is the 2nd installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
Just show up to class.
After many years of being a student in university settings, workshops, various training courses, etc., I really do think that getting your butt in the seat, week after week, is a fail-safe way to successfully get through any kind of schooling. Strive for straight A’s if you like; aim high and still just get B’s; do the bare minimum and land C’s, even D’s — it’s all the same in the end, at least in terms of passing the course. Just remember: “If you come to class, you will pass.” (I’m pretty sure I just made that up.)
Can you get F’s on all your papers and tests and still pass if you show up to class? Maybe. But the added benefit of attending every single class session is that you’ll probably learn enough to not get F’s in the first place.
I think the good attendance of a student is critical for teachers for a few reasons. Keep in mind that I have done my fair share of teaching, but I’ve been a student way, way more, so my thoughts here are speculative.
For one thing, coming to class is a show of respect. A student enrolls in a class. The student takes up a seat in that class, which means someone else cannot have that seat. And the underlying assumption is that the student will attend the class, sit in the seat, listen to the instructor, and participate, whatever that might look like for that particular course.
When a student blows off class (for a reason other than being sick or having an emergency) it sends a message that you, the teacher, aren’t that important, and that the class isn’t worth going to. This isn’t explicit, it’s implied. If it happens a fair amount, the teacher understandably has less patience with the absentee student when she is struggling with a lesson or asks for an extension on a paper, for example.
The other reason being absent from class is the fastest way to lose favor with your teacher is a purely practical one, from your teacher’s standpoint: When you’re gone, she has to work more.
She has to answer an email from you going over what you missed. She has to reply to your email back to her with a question about what you missed — and of course lots of people had questions about the same thing, but she went over it … in class. You might ask for more time to finish a take-home test, say, which means she has to grade all the tests for the people who were in class and then, a week later, she has to return to the task she thought she could be done with (grading the take-home tests) but there you are, handing over your peanut-butter smeared take-home test — come on, you know it’s got peanut butter on it — and now she has to find the answer key and lord knows where that thing went.
If you want to make your teachers happy, go to class. You can come to class in your pajamas. Don’t you dare be on your phone — I can’t deal with people who do that in an educational setting — but texting with your sister in class is better than texting with your sister not in class. And, though I know this sounds crazy, you can even come to class without your homework. You just have to show up.
I’d be utterly miserable if I were in the circus. I’d mope, I’d whine, I’d rail against the injustice of it all — because there are few circuses I would join willingly — and I’d end up taking it out on the other surely miserable creatures in my strange new circus family. This wouldn’t be helpful for me or fair to them, so then I’d feel guilty and feel more miserable but at that point, with all of us having to perform four shows a day, it might not matter.
Nevertheless, everyone would hear about it. That includes the new-in-town, understandably wary poodle trainer; the entire clown corps; the husband and wife acrobat team who works overtime every week knowing full well they absolutely should not do that given their line of work; the bendy girl; the other bendy girl who you pay extra to see (after dark, adults only); and Hugo, the old, old, old, old, old man who does all the costumes, including the tiny hats for the monkeys and my previously worn petticoat and velvet vest.
I’d fling myself into the shabby trailer Hugo uses for his workshop. “Hugo!” I’d cry. “It’s happening!”
Hugo has those wire spectacles with the thick, convex magnifying lenses that make his eyes so big he looks like a cartoon. He doesn’t look up from his sequins because it takes him a long time to move any part of his body. Besides, he’s heard this before.
“What’s the trouble, dear?”
I lie down on the floor for maximum effect. “Hugo, I’m not meant for this life. This classic vaudevillian, 1930s, Follies Bergère-style traveling circus life, I’m just not meant for it.”
“Sounds like you need a biscuit,” Hugo says.
I perk up but don’t show it and then moan again. “No, even a biscuit won’t help … I’m dying.”
“All right,” Hugo says, pulling out a spool of pink thread from a drawer. “I don’t think I have any left, anyway.”
Wait, what?! Hugo’s refreshments are legendary. No one knows where he gets the shiny blue tins of shortbread cookies, but he always seems to have them on hand when you really need one. And the tea he gives you on bad days is made with the same rationed teabags and powdered milk we all get from the circus commissary, but Hugo makes it taste creamier and gets his water hotter, somehow. No one can figure it out.
“Well, maybe it would help to have a bite of a biscuit. If you still have some.” I cough a couple times. “And … I think the sawdust is sticking in my throat. Do you have any, um, tea or anything?
Hugo smiles and gets up. He makes his creaky way over to the hot plate to boil water in a kettle as old as he is. “Yes, you ought to have tea right away. We can’t have you suffocating on sawdust; you go on at 6:30. And I think I do have a few biscuits left somewhere.”
I try to peek at which shelf he reaches into for the cookies but he looks back at me faster than I thought he was physically able to, so I squeeze my eyes shut and roll around like I’ve got a stomach ache even though I don’t. I hear the tin open and the rustle of crinkled cookie papers.
Hugo is bent over pretty far already so it’s easy for him to hand me a biscuit. “Sit up, darling. You don’t want to choke.”
“This circus is going to kill me,” I say, half the cookie in my mouth already. “Maybe today’s the day.”
The tea kettle boils and I get my mug of tea. It’s hot and creamy and tastes like my former life. Hugo, who dresses like Geppetto and smokes exactly two cigarillos every day, sits in his chair and I sit cross-legged on the trailer floor. I’ll have to have the Bearded Lady beat the dust from my skirts before my act. By the way, I’m with the lions on Thursdays and Fridays; Sunday through Tuesday I sell candy and peanuts and tell jokes, and on Wednesdays — my favorite day — I get to ride Trinket. (Trinket is our elephant.)
“Have you ever seen a performance of Cirque du Soliel?” Hugo asks me.
I shake my head. “No, actually. Are they any good?”
“No,” Hugo says. “They’re not real circus people, anyway. Oh, they’ll do some tricks. A few of them are double-jointed like Ricky. But their hearts just aren’t in it. There’s too much money in the thing, no doubt about it. You get too much money in a touring group like that, people don’t need each other. They go off after work and spend their money doing all kinds of who knows what. Here, it’s different. We don’t have much, but we get by. We help each other. And we have a good show.”
Puffs of smoke curl up into the costumes Hugo stores on hangers above his head. My vest and skirts came from that old stock. The cigarillo smell will never come out. I look over at Hugo, who has always been so kind to me. I hear Trinket bellow from across the grounds; it’s bath time.
This isn’t that bad, I think to myself. If I were in the circus, I guess I’d want it to be like this.
Oh, the things I can’t do.
I can’t be naturally blonde. I can’t change another person. I can go backwards on skates, but I can’t really skate backwards. I cannot meditate. I can’t change the past. I can’t build a balsa wood airplane (or a balsa wood anything) and I can’t keep honey from dripping down the side of the jar. I’ve never been able to wait.
There’s this one thing I do really well, though, and that’s content.
All my life, if there’s a project that requires words, themes, angles, description, rhyme, structure, information, or rhetoric at all, really, I immediately produce a surplus of ideas. Need content developed, designed, or otherwise structured, I will assess what type of content is needed and take pleasure as “it” instantly takes shape. Every time, I snap my fingers and go, “Ooh! I got it!” and I often do. Yes, when other kids in 8th grade English class were lamenting to the teacher that they didn’t know what to write about, my pencil was already halfway down the page.
Does it sound like I’m bragging? I sure am! We live in a brutal world. There are horrible balsa wood airplanes you might be asked to put together and you might love a person who you can’t change, and you might actually want to have your tea in the morning without getting honey on your knuckles, but if you can’t do any of those things, you’ve got to accentuate the positive, latch onto the affirmative, and in my case, that means make content and make it good.
Imagine my agony when I finally felt ready to pick up the ol’ PG some months ago and found something wrong with my fingers. I had just cracked the laptop and was about to begin writing when I realized they were just sort of … hovering over the keyboard. But they couldn’t do anything else without a strong signal from mission control and I’m mission control and I didn’t know what to write.
No, no, I thought to myself; I’m just out of practice. Hang on. I sat back. I cocked my head to the side. I chewed my lip. I bit too hard at one point but all this was normal. A few thoughts did alight on the bean, but nothing got my fingers to work for more than a few listless minutes here and there. The great filing cabinet in my mind remained firmly locked. Denying that this was happening, I’d close my laptop or — far worse — keep it open and watch something outrageous on YouTube.
But it kept happening and I spent several weeks low-key panicking. The mind was willing, but the flesh was weak and it was an uncomfortable and foreign experience. Then one day, I remembered what English teachers use when their students find their usually active, imaginative brains drawing blanks:
Writing prompts. And they work.
My eyebrows raised up into my bangs. I got the prickly heat. I started to breathe through my nostrils. Oh no you don’t, I thought, backing away from the computer, I do not need writing prompts. Writing prompts are for students. They’re for break-out sessions at corporate team-building retreats. Prompts are for people with “writer’s block” but “writer’s block” doesn’t actually exist if you’re … if you’re writing all the time.
And there it was. I’m out of practice with you, darling, because I haven’t been writing you for a good year, now. Maybe it’s just a Tin Man situation and I just need a little oil to get myself moving again.
Well, Dorothy has arrived with her oil can, and Dorothy is something called “Journal Buddies”.
Journal Buddies is a website with thousands of writing prompts for kids. It came up when I was googling around and though there are endless websites with endless writing prompts, for some reason I just liked Journal Buddies. The site was created and is currently maintained by a person named Jill Schoenberg. I liked the list of “51 Exciting Things To Write About In A Journal” on its own, but then I read Jill’s bio page and I have decided she’s better than Dorothy with an oil can. She’s an educator and a publisher and the vibes are good. This was meant to be.
And so, as I cut myself a generous slice of humble pie with a scoop of rum raisin ice cream, topped perhaps with some pecans or something crumbly, it is my sincere pleasure to announce this PaperGirl is present and accounted for. Present and accountable, you might say: I’m doing this list. I won’t commit to taking them in order, but I’m going to write a post for every one of these prompts until I’ve done them all. After that, if I’m not back in the swing of the ol’ PG, we’ve got bigger problems. I’d rather not think about it.
Thank you, Jill Schoenberg, for being my journal buddy. Thanks all of you for being so patient and beautiful. God, I love a list.
Journal Buddies 51 List
“Glamour cannot exist without personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion.” — John Berger, 1972
I have nothing to wear.
Last winter, when my life fell into a blast furnace, there were eight items of clothing I could put on my body from day to day that didn’t make me want to crawl out of my skin. Those items were:
L.L. Bean wool sweater (red)
L.L. Bean wool sweater (black w/pattern)
Brown leather hiking boots with red laces
Nike Cortez tennis shoes
Double-breasted wool topcoat (camel)
Wool scarf (gray)
Knit cap (navy)
Anything else, and I was wearing a costume. This was a dissociative experience, and I was grappling with enough of those, thank you very much. Why couldn’t I wear any of my other sweaters? Or my white Oxford shirts? An Oxford shirt is about as neutral as an item of clothing can get, but when I put one on and buttoned it up, I felt like an idiot.
Strangest of all was that I couldn’t wear what has been my winter uniform for years: black pants and a black turtleneck. You’d think when a woman is experiencing major depression, black is the only thing that will do. Jeez, aren’t the depressed issued a black turtleneck and black pants at the door? But to me, black clothing does not communicate sorrow or a lack of vitality. To me, black clothes, aside from being chic (and slimming!) communicate a person in command of herself, someone who wants to be taken seriously.
What was happening to me was serious but I felt in command of nothing, and chic? Chic was a planet other people lived on. Whose clothes are these, I wondered, as I moved hangers back and forth in my closet. At some point I stopped opening my closet at all, ceased to wonder or worry about it and I simply put on the same thing day after day. I laundered my clothes often because I wore them daily. Processing laundry took great effort but it was a simple enough task and the smell of Woolite never lost its charm. I’m still grateful for that.
How I dreaded the coming warm weather. I’d be screwed. Dressing for spring and summer is awful for me every year, regardless of mental state; precious few of us on Team Black Turtleneck cross the line over to Team Tank Top, even if the Tank Toppers seem more comfortable than we are come Memorial Day. This year, I feared would be way worse.
The season changed. And by the time my hiking boots were inappropriate — early May, I think — my disposition had improved considerably. But I had not been wrong to worry about the clothes and in fact the situation was worse than I had anticipated. Not only had I not caught a ride on a rocket ship back to Planet Chic, I did not want to go. It was time to bring out my low-heeled suede pumps and my Marni blouse and my side-zip, slim-fit black Vince trousers, but when I went to get dressed in all that, you would’ve thought there was a tin of rotting tuna fish in my closet. I’d wince and shut the door and then just stand there with my head on the closet door, trying to envision any assemblage of apparel that would not make me feel like I was wearing a dead woman’s clothes. It was that bad.
Not everyone cares as much about clothes as I do, and there are those who care far more. My reasons for caring about what I wear (if you’ll allow me to psychoanalyze myself for a moment) are not hard to figure out. I want to control the narrative. Well-designed things make life easier and less ugly. Beautiful clothes make me feel beautiful. And I think it’s important to evolve as a person. Clothes, because there are so many directions one can take with them, are tools we can use to reflect — even spur or solidify — who we are right now.
And that, my peeps, is the heart of the matter: I don’t know what to wear because my current evolution is still in progress. It’s the same reason I can’t whip out a PaperGirl post like I used to: That person moved out, and it appears the other problem with losing your voice is losing your shoes. On a purely material level, it’s a drag to lose all those shoes — I have really great shoes — but on a psychic level, it super sucks. I can’t walk around barefoot. I can’t wear hiking boots every day. Crocs are never an option. But I’d pick any of those options before I’d wear the shoes of the woman who left all her stuff in my closet before she died. That’s creepy.
What’s my new look? As my friend Irena would say, “What’s the mood?”
Ten months later, and I still don’t know. It’s doubtful the mood will ever be what it was before. Perhaps that’s a start; that’s useful data. As the weather cools, I am eyeing my boots and my red sweater, but this may not be the solution. The new fear is that I’ll put those clothes on and they’ll feel dead, too.
But I’m alive. And I will live to shop another day.
If you’re reading this, I’ll bet there are some books in your house. It doesn’t matter what kind, but I’ll bet there’s more than 20. I don’t have hard data on this, but I was at an event in Indiana a few weeks ago and met a number of PaperGirl readers who were clearly book-owning people. It was a vibe.
If you’re like me, the books you’ve kept for years in your living room or den or office you’ve kept for an obvious reason: They matter. I think the books we keep are meaningful because they reflect to us and everyone else who we are — and/or maybe who we’d like to be. Our bookshelves speak volumes (I know, I know!) because they’re essentially an exhibit we’ve curated. The books on a person’s shelf say, “I’m a hopeless romantic”, or “My political views are central to who I am”, or “I’m a Christian”, or “I’m an atheist”, or “I’m an actor” or “Science fiction helps me deal with reality.” What do your books say about you? Maybe there are so many books on your bookshelves, they’re groaning under the weight of all that paper. In that case, what your books say is: “I can’t throw books out.” That’s your answer: You’re a person who can’t bear to let go of books.
The books on my shelves cover a lot of ground. I’ve got anthologies of humor writing wedged in next to a pristine set of Quiltfolk magazines, the ones I refuse to mark up, make notes in, or review incessantly so that the next issue will be better than the last. On the other shelf, I’ve got everything Camille Paglia has ever published. Next to all that is (for example) a collection of Saul Bellow letters and two or three Nabokov novels … which butt up against a tiny portion of my quilt history library. (The rest is in my basement storage unit at the moment.) To an outside observer, this quilt history/cultural fireband/chuckle fest/Lolita mix is super weird, but to anyone who knows me, the books on my shelves makes perfect sense: My library, myself. And it’s the same with you.
However mishmashed the subcategories may be, there is one prevailing genre within my shelves: Nearly everything fits into the genre of personal narrative. Personal narrative is nonfiction that comprises memoir, autobiography, diary, personal essay, and certain longform journalism. As a writer and reader, this stuff is my jam. It’s been this way since I was in high school. I don’t check novels out from the library, I don’t buy them, and I don’t read the few I still have in my possession. Why?
The way I figure, it’s unfettered reality I want — the “straight tea”, as the kids say. I’m curious about people’s direct experience being a human and if a person writes about that experience as honestly and thoughtfully as they can, I want to read that. In fact, I’m desperate to read it. Everyone has way, way more to learn than they think they do, and I know I’ll learn from people if I can access their respective alternate realities. Of course I realize that novels offer alternate realities, too, and that novels can weave reality in a lovely, different way, but I don’t want a surrogate. I don’t want a (however well-wrought) fabrication standing in between me and the story. I’m too impatient, as usual, but I’m also unapologetic about this: I want my reality uncut. Mainline me.
There are giants of the personal narrative genre. These people are my heroes. Those giants include James Baldwin, Virginia Woolf, Susan Sontag, Michel de Montaigne, Zadie Smith, Christopher Hitchens, David Foster Wallace … and Vivian Gornick.
It’s that last name we’re going to spend the rest of our time with, because Vivian Gornick wrote a book I have kept on my shelf for many years and I shall always keep it on my shelf. It’s like an old, worn, freshly washed bathrobe. The other day, needing one of those, I pulled that book down and leafed through, for old times’ sake. The content I found did two things: 1) it caused me to think about the books we keep on our shelves and 2) it broke open why I can’t get a grip on this blinkin’ blog.
First things first: Vivian Gornick is a genius at writing. Her writing is efficient and elegant — think Einstein’s theory of relativity. Her sentences have zero fat. There is no ego, no flourish. She doesn’t stand for that crap. She observes everything and then she writes down the truth of it, however mundane. She writes books and essays and critical reviews and they will inspire you and also depress you if you’re a writer, because guess what? There’s only one Gornick, baby. If you want a place to start, read her memoir about her relationship with her mother, Fierce Attachments.
Okay, okay, so Gornick wrote a book a few years ago called The Situation and The Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. When I was teaching writing at the University of Chicago, I used this book a lot, especially in the blogging class and the storytelling class. The book is one big revelation, but perhaps the biggest, baddest one is essentially this: to write about your life, you have to craft a persona, because a persona will give you the voice you need to write the story of your life. Here’s an excerpt from the book, and I know I’m just diving in here, but I looked hard for the right passage so I hope you’ll track with me on this:
“The writing we call personal narrative is written by people who, in essence, are imagining only themselves in relation to the subject in hand. … Out of the raw material of a writer’s own undisguised being a narrator is fashioned whose existence on the page is integral to the tale being told. This narrator becomes a persona. Its tone of voice, its angle of vision, the rhythm of its sentences, what it selects to observe and what to ignore are chosen to serve the subject; yet at the same time the way the narrator — or the persona — sees things is, to the largest degree, the thing being seen.
To fashion a persona out of one’s own undisguised self is no easy thing … Yet the creation of such a persona is vital in an essay or a memoir. It is the instrument of illumination. Without it there is neither subject or story. To achieve it, the writer of memoir or essay undergoes an apprenticeship as soul-searching as any undergone by a novelist or poet: the twin struggle to know not only why one is speaking, but who is speaking.”
This blog has existed since 2005. For more than a decade, save for a few periods when I’ve gone dark — as I’ve been lately — I’ve shared my life here and I have told you the truth. I am vulnerable here. I don’t bullshit you. I respect you, I respect myself, and I tell the truth and because of that respect, I cannot write things that are fake. The times when the blog has evaporated for a spell, it’s evaporated precisely because I refuse to be inauthentic, and sometimes it’s impossible to be authentic without turfing out. Put another way: If what’s going on with me is deeply private, if it is not for public consumption, yet, if it would compromise other people, if it simply makes no discernible sense yet, or if I’m just plain too scared to tell you, I don’t know how to write PaperGirl.
PaperGirl is fun. Yes, she’s vulnerable and open. We know that. I talk about sad stuff and bad stuff and gross stuff. But she bounces back. She’s a total dork, a complete spaz. She has perspective and she knows who she is. I love PaperGirl. She’s definitely real. She’s me. She’s a part of me, anyway, which means PaperGirl is … a persona. Absolutely authentic, no fake-out, no bullshit. But a specific voice from me who can take “the raw material of [her] own undisguised being” and tell you about it using a specific “tone of voice”, “angle of vision”, and with a certain rhythm to her sentences. I don’t want to get too writer-rabbit-hole-y on you — too late — but believe me: For years and years, when it was time to sit down and write PaperGirl, I mentally and involuntarily slipped on my PaperGirl shoes, cracked my knuckles, and voila: I could write about my life.
I’m afraid that persona has left the building.
Wait, wait! I don’t mean that in some dour, gloomy way. It’s weird and yes, it is sort of sad: I liked her. I liked that goofy, chummy, weird, sensitive, earnest PaperGirl. I hung out with her a long time, and so did you, and I love you very much, and she loved you very much. But after everything that happened this past winter and everything that has happened since, I can’t get those shoes on my feets. They do not fit. I observe things constantly that I want to tell you about, every single day, but I can’t get it on the page/screen. For awhile, every time I saw something I would normally zip out to you, I’d think, “Yes. That’s it. Tonight I can blog. Yes, I have to write about that, I have to share that. I love that and they’ll love that.” But that night, I’d try to put the shoes on and … I couldn’t write in that PaperGirl voice anymore and that was hard, but even harder was that I didn’t know what voice would take its place. Or if one would. That is a very scary thing for a writer and for a person.
The good news is simply that I’ve figured all this out, and I send my regards to Vivian Gornick. And because I’ve figured it out — that it’s impossible for me to blog like I used to because I’ve outgrown the PaperGirl persona/narrator — this means I can let myself off the hook. I’m not a bad blogger, I’ve just got a concussion. I’ll always write about my life; I just have to figure out who’s doing the writing.
In conclusion: If I let myself off the hook for not being “PaperGirl”, I think I can blog. I think so. There’s an opening. Thank you for all the emails and the comments and everything. You people are amazing. I’m doing pretty good and oh man do I have so much to tell you, big things and little things. I’m bursting to tell you, but I just don’t know what the PaperGirl 2.0 voice is, yet. I’ll get her. I’ll catch her. I get back on my feet. I’ll practice.
This is me, practicing.