Monday, February 09, 2009

Thanks, Studs

When we read a book, we change our lives; we redesign the way we think by assimiliating certain parts of the writing into our own ideas, values, viewpoints. What power words have, and how glad I am that I grew up in a family of readers, writers, and lovers of words. Our home library was accessible to me all of the time (my father made shelves that lined the walls of the living room and guest room), and my mother took us weekly (and more!) to the local library.

Many of my close friends and several of my students know that I read Studs Terkel's "Working" when I was eight or nine years old. I can still imagine the red spine of the book peeking out of the shelves in the living room. It was a well-worked spine, with many wrinkles, and rightfully so. I think it was the heft of the book that appealed to me initially then. I was always wanting to read something that looked like a "big book." I found it to be easier to read that I'd imagined - the short sections of interviews, real people speaking in normal language. I became aware of colloquialisms (even though I didn't know what they were), dialects, and different speech patterns. I learned about all sorts of people and the lives they led, and found them all fascinating. I remember being surprised at the model talking about hauling a heavy wardrobe all over the city, and realizing how unglamorous being a model is.

I think "Working" found me at just the right time in my life. Reading it so early offered me the benefits of referring to its pages (and the memory of its contents when I am away from my copy), in a way that makes it feel like a parent to me. "Forget who you are and what your purpose is? Come here and read me," it whispers.

Studs Terkel understood the value in people sharing their life stories, and in writing them down. He honored that. Reading his book rearranged my pattern of thought, and made me part of who I am as a person and a writer today. "Working" is a book that has informed my values.

Friday, February 06, 2009


I am of those who believe
different things on different days

- Steve Kowit

I've been working with some middle schoolers recently, encouraging them to write what they believe. Cakewalk, right? This isn't an easy task for adults, and 12-14 year olds want to stand out from the crowd and shout out their beliefs about as much as a squirrel wants to wear pants.

This isn't my first stab at this assignment. I've written a few credos of my own, and tried various ways of cheering them on from others over the years. NPR has a great resource in their "This I Believe" segment, which has been a project in the works for over fifty years. Dorianne Laux and Kim Addonizio's book, "A Poet's Companion" has a writing exercise on beliefs that is pretty good as well. I've used and combined things from both of these sources, plus added a few ideas of my own into the mix. Eventually, something gets written, but the most important part of this assignment is that thought happens - long, sustained thought about what it is you really believe, and why. Some of us never really know what it is we believe until we are tested and pushed into thinking about it. In the best of situations, there are some really long, philosophical discussions. The bell rings and no one notices.

I've promised my group that I'll be writing my credo as well, since it is something that can and should be done on a semi-regular basis to see how you've grown and changed. The last one I wrote was about a year ago, and before that it was around 2004 I think. I'm due to check in with myself.

"The Poet's Companion" cites an example from the novel "Crooked Heart" by Robert Boswell. A character named Ask has a list of rules he carries in his wallet. These are a few of his rules:

1. Never make a complicated thing simple, or a simple thing complicated.
2. Wear white at night.
3. Take care of Tom. (Ask's brother.)
4. Eat from the four food groups.
5. Be consistent.
6. Never do anything with the sole intent of hurting someone.

This seems to be the direction I'm heading in with my own credo this time. When I've completed it, I'll post it here.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Statement of Intent

My goal as a writer is to create works that I would enjoy as a reader. I don't want to write anything formulaic, or anything that is so complex and dense that the reader feels like she's trapped in a bramble. I am interested in innovation, but not just for the sake of newness -- innovation that breaks new ground in order to unearth the nut of the writing. Whatever is discovered in that rooting should be written in an honest and genuine in manner, not forced. I want what I write to be true to it's self.