Research: Not Just a Pile of Stuff

Besides being a literary writer, I also teach research writing to undergrads—an exciting topic, in my opinion. Research makes us true literary citizens.

“Imagine that you enter a parlour…” Kenneth Burke writes. He had me at hello. Discovering what others are saying about the things we’re interested in allows us to rethink not just our assumptions, but our opinions, attitudes, and behavior. By reshaping our minds we discover new things → by expressing those new ideas we add to the conversation → others begin to rethink → the conversation expands ever onward. It’s some kind of wonderful.

In my MFA program this semester, we’ve focused quite a bit on using research to improve our literary work, looking at different styles of research writing.

Kristen Iversen, in Full Body Burden, reported government secrets.
Judith Kitchen, in Half in Shadeperhapsed about old photos.
Annie Dillard, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, explored the natural world.
Leila Philip, in A Family Place, used historical archives to narrate her family history.

So imagine my excitement in discovering A City within a City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It’s clear, unbiased*, and well-documented research that opens my eyes to a period of my life that shaped both myself and my children (who are white, black, and mixed). My personal history is deeply affected by the history of the city—and I cannot understand one without knowing the other.

Many of us ignore our history. We need Lauren Weisberger to remind us (preferably through the mouth of Meryl Streep) how much we are influenced by our collective past.

“…This… ’stuff’? I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean. You’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn’t it, who showed cerulean military jackets? …And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.”

I’m a second-generation Dutch Canadian who lived for a decade as a minority in a primarily black neighborhood in Michigan. I’ve got a lot of work to do, figuring out what it all means. And nothing could make me happier.

*I know there is no such thing as unbiased. Still.

Outstanding Creative Project

0410141418“The purpose of this award is to recognize a graduate student for excellence in the creation of knowledge. An intra-university committee of faculty scholars select the winning project on the basis of its originality, significant contribution to knowledge, quality of writing, and potential for dissemination.”

I am humbled to have been selected for this award. One of the luxuries of the Creative Writing program in the English Department is working with such a high caliber of students. I had the privilege of learning from my peers and enjoying their excellent work; and I’m confident other departments were equally talented. I’m honored to be representing them.

I’m also grateful for this recognition of hard work. I took the risk of changing my career later in life and returning to academia after 20 years away. This award is an affirmation of my decision.

The English Department, of course, has not just excellent students, but amazing faculty members as well. I give much credit to Professors Cathy Day, Mark Neely, Sean Lovelace, and especially my thesis advisor Jill Christman. It was in one of Jill’s classes that I came across the idea for my thesis. She had us read various creative nonfiction essays, write a paragraph about the techniques, and then craft our own essay in response. This exercise expanded my vision for CNF in unexpected ways. My work became richer as I experimented with new forms and honed sentences. Invigorated by my growth spurt, I expanded my efforts. I read extensively and carefully critiqued the essays I loved most, putting them under a magnifying glass so I could discover what made them sing, what made them connect with me. I wrote a critical essay about eight great works, and then emulated the techniques I discovered in eight original essays of my own. The result was a pedagogical text showcasing literary samples which came together in a meaningful and cohesive manner.

How to Make Your Prose Poetic

Some of you are asking what MFA students do. Well, here’s a snippet of what I’ve been working on this semester.

Writing Exercise

Convert a section of narrative to poetry. Focus on inserting breaks in such a way that each line ends on a strong word or creates an interesting juxtaposition. Then rewrite the poem back into prose.

Example

Original Prose

When Rachael was two or three, and we spent our summers at the lake, she would make a run for the dock whenever she could. She would jump into the water headlong without ever checking if anyone was running after her. Several times she sank to the bottom of the lake and sat on the sandy floor a few feet from shore as I or her dad or her grandpa or a cousin frantically dove in after her. We would come up sputtering, terrified, angry, and she would smile, completely secure and happy. When my kids were little, I used to have dreams about fire. I would be on one side of the wall of flames and my kids would be on the other, screaming out for me. I would see the fire licking up everything it touched, a hungry beast, but I’d push my way through anyway.

Poem

We’d glimpse her brown little body toasted
by the sun running
toward the beach and jumping
into the lake before
we could stop her.
Run! the cry would ring out
but I’d already be flying,
then slicing my body through the water, as if
through the wall of fire that haunts my dreams,
separating me from her, grasping
in the darkness until
I feel her soft flesh.
A moment only
has passed in this eternal span of time
and we break
the surface of the water
reborn.
“Never—!” I sputter, beginning the refrain
of precaution as she,
laughing, screams,
“Again!”

Revised Prose

When Rachael was a toddler, and we spent summers at the lake, we’d glimpse her brown little bikini-clad body, toasted by the sun, trotting toward the beach and jumping off the dock into the water before we even knew she was up from her nap. “Run!” the cry would ring out but I’d already be flying, then slicing my body through the water, as if through the wall of fire that haunted my dreams separating me from her, grasping in the darkness until I could feel her soft flesh. A moment only would pass in this eternal span of time and we’d break the surface of the water, reborn. “Never—!” I’d sputter, beginning the refrain of precaution as she, laughing, would scream, “Again!”

That Kind of Person

When I was young and thought I could change the world I moved to the inner city with my husband and our two little kids. We did some decent things during our ten years there, I guess. We brought food to the homeless on Saturday mornings. We put up a neighborhood watch sign, and our yard became the hottest place to be if you were between the ages of 3 and 9. We rallied neighbors for weekly walks through the neighborhood, creating a sense of community and peace. We took our kids swimming at Martin Luther King Park and planted flowers and made friends. But none of that felt world-changing.

And then along came Antoine. He was an 8-year-old boy who never stopped smiling. When he needed a place to stay, he took the top bunk in my son’s room. And when he needed a home, he dumped a black garbage bag full of smelly clothes all over the floor. And when the time was right, he adopted our family as his very own. And that, finally, is when the world changed, for both of us.

picforEllenMy little boy is now a young man, and he’s still changing the world. He serves in the USAF. In Iraq, he was voted in as President of the Airman Council—the official morale booster. He hosted holiday meals so the troops could feel like a part of a family even when far from home, weekly gatherings to build community, and competitions to generate positive energy. He found a way for airmen and women to send videos to family members back home, to stay connected on a daily basis. He monitored living conditions and rallied his colleagues to participate in base clean up.

Back on American soil, Antoine organized “A Run to Remember” to honor those who went MIA or who were POW or who gave their lives in service to their country. Participants ran with a paper in hand that named the people they were remembering. Antoine volunteered with Special Olympics as the designated Hugger. His job was to stand at the end of the track and welcome runners as they came in. “It was amazing,” he told me. “They were so happy to see me, and it was like the hug was their reward.” He’s part of a bike club that does charity runs and wounded soldier runs. Recently this “gang” descended on a children’s hospital where cancer patients (“kids so sick it hurt your heart,” he told me) were given teddy bears and words of cheer.

Antoine has made something of his life, and he makes life special for everyone around him. But that doesn’t mean things are easy. His ex-wife moved to Indiana with their little boy (my grandson), while Antoine is stuck far away in Florida where he is stationed. He feels the pressure of bills upon him. He looks out for his birth mom, and his brother is currently in jail. His fianceé recently had a cancer scare. Oh, how I wish I could swoop in and save him from the troubles of this world! Antoine doesn’t need saving, though. He presses on through the obstacles with dignity and courage.

Still, a trip with Ellen to Australia would bolster Antoine’s spirits. When he told me about this contest, he didn’t mention how Ellen makes him laugh (though she does); he commented on how she’s always helping people. Ellen is the kind of person Antoine admires—happy, engaged with life, and ready to lend a hand. What he doesn’t realize is that he is that same kind of person, and the one that everyone around him is admiring.

Two Tied Together Forever

Many thanks to my step-daughter, Lydia Wilson, for contributing this essay. Lydia is a junior at Houghton College, majoring in Art and Creative Writing.

“Sometimes you have no control over what will happen next.” So begins Lynn Joseph’s book The Color of My Words. As an 11-year-old reading those words for the first time, I slid past them with the ease of childhood naivete and continued to the rest of the story, the exciting parts, the action. I followed eagerly the adventures of Ana Rosa, a young girl living in the Dominican Republic. Ana Rosa was 12 years old, only a year older than I. And she loved to write, just as I did. She filled notebook upon notebook with descriptions of the world around her, “words about Mount Isabel de Torres, and about Sosua Beach, which [she] love[d]. [She] wrote about the niños, and about climbing [her] favorite gri gri tree.” I had my own notebooks, decorated with Lisa Frank ponies and Hello Kitty. The insides, with accompanying stickers, were filled with lists of my own—all the pets my family had ever owned, the names of all the neighbor lady’s cats, the names of my stuffed animals; names for my future children; my favorite songs. Everything. Ana Rosa and I were just alike.

But sometimes you have no control over what will happen next, and as Ana Rosa’s story continued, her life became less and less like my own.

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Mouthwatering Recipes of Appetizers and Street Snacks

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Thai snacks are served between meals to ease the pangs of hunger, and they generally come in the form of steamed, grilled, or fried appetizers. Things like hand made spring rolls with dipping sauce, pork balls in a nest, golden cups with tuna filling.

That’s bad news for someone who is often too busy to get even one meal on the table for her exchange from Thailand whose mother’s favorite hobby is cooking. But I’m willing to give it a try at least for today, which is Jittrakarn’s birthday—or Susan, as we prefer to call her. Susan is a 15-, now 16-, year-old high school student who moved from a Buddhist home downtown Bangkok to our farmhouse in Indiana headed up by a Wesleyan pastor. She is her parents’ only child, and we are a family of eight. She has a dog, we have a cat, and she gets the giggles when she sees how much we spoil it. (“In Thailand, cats are not pets,” she tells me.)

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