Writerhead Wednesday: Featuring Marcia Aldrich

Welcome to Writerhead Wednesday, a weekly feature in which a brilliant, charming, remarkable author talks about her/his writerhead…a precious opportunity for looky-loos around the world to sneak into the creative noggins of talented writers and (ever so gently) muck about.


Marcia Aldrich, author of the new memoir Companion to an Untold Story, came onto my radar earlier this year via Ned Stuckey-French…and I’m so glad she did. As you’ll see below, this woman can write. She lures you to her world so gently and deliberately, it’s impossible not to follow.

You’ll see what I mean. Let’s go.

1. Describe your state of writerhead (the where, the when, the how, the what, the internal, the external).

When I was in high school as other girls compiled lists of names for the children they dreamed of having, I wrote the titles of the books I hoped to write when I grew up. Most of my girlfriends aspired for a life fulfilled through marriage and children. I dreamed of a life that would begin and end in my solitary bed, with just enough room for myself, a book, and a writing pad. I might go out into the world for romantic adventures, I thought, but I would return to my narrow bed, where I imagined everything inside me would bloom.

In one of my life’s many ironic twists, that’s not how it turned out. I did not arrange my life along the solitary lines I had envisioned at fifteen. Among my friends I was the first to marry and had my first child in graduate school. My husband, also a graduate student, and I shared one desk and one bed and we took turns using the computer between shifts of child care. After teaching my morning classes, I’d take the bus home where Richard would meet me at the bus stop with Clare in his arms. He’d hand her off to me as I descended the steps and he got on to go teach his afternoon classes. It would have been comical if the timing hadn’t been so precarious. At the end of our first year of our first post graduate school jobs, we had our second child. If I was writing something autobiographical about those days, I’d call it Spillage because all our boundaries were overrun.

We tend to think of writers removing themselves from the thoroughfare of living, retreating to rooms of their own and closing the door. That’s how I located writers in my imagination growing up. But in my life there has been no sacred, solitary space except in my head. I have had to compose however and wherever I could, carving out a niche for myself in attics and basements and bathrooms if need be, by flashlight and candlelight and by the flare of a fire. I have not depended upon an ideal location or situation to make my writing possible even if at times I have yearned for a cabin of my own.

Still, within the particular demands of my life, I prefer to write in my bed, a bed I share, in my bedroom, a room I share, where there are no books in the early morning right after I have woken up and before I begin to attend to children or dogs, before the phone begins to ring and the noise of the living intrudes. Why no books, you might ask; wouldn’t they be inspiring? And of course certain books are inspiring and I want to have them near me, but not when I’m trying to write. At those times the voices in those books crowd me. I try to stir as little as possible reaching for my pad and pen on the night table where I keep them. I’ve been communing with the dead, listening to their wise counsel during my night of sleep. If I’m careful and lucky, I manage to keep my ear to the grave for a bit after I’ve opened my eyes.

Once I’m inserted fully into the day, it becomes difficult to keep the brain I woke with alive—what you call writerhead. In those early hours of the milky morning, my mind, body, and heart are on the same calm plane and working rhythmically together.

2. What happens if someone/something interrupts writerhead? (a spouse, a lover, a barking dog, an electrical outage, a baby’s cry, a phone call, a leg cramp, a dried-up pen, a computer crash, etc.)

When I was embarking on my own writing life, the women writers I hungrily read were temperamentally and stylistically varied but shared certain defining biographical features. Emily Bronte, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, Emily Dickinson, and Edith Wharton did not have children. They were all wed to their writing above all else, for better or worse, until death did them part. Each represented a fierce intelligence and commitment to use all their ingenuity to arrange their lives so as to write and write they did. A woman must choose, I thought, unless she wants to be torn asunder by competing demands and desires.

Closer to my own time, Sylvia Plath has been another influential exemplar. She read the same women writers I had and noted the same stark fact: these women did not bear children. She was determined to try to have it all, to be the modern woman writer with marriage, children, and the literary career. We know what happened to her.

I’ve spent my adult life thinking about my forebears, going over their choices, what they gained and what they lost, wondering about my own imperatives and choices. Sometimes when I feel driven like a scourge by the life I’ve put into motion, it seems I haven’t made any choices, and that my life has just happened. Of course, this is false. I chose to have children before my career was launched. Many of my women friends chose otherwise. They chose to devote themselves to establishing their careers first and then to have children. I wasn’t orderly. I tried to do everything simultaneously with certain predictable results. Picture a woman whipping up a soufflé while vacuuming the living room while a baby bounces in the doorway while the phone is ringing and someone is at the door and a notebook is open on the counter with a pen lying quietly in the crease. That would be me. Oh and add a stack of student papers that need to be graded and a stack of books I’m teaching. Oh and a dog and three cats, maybe a few plants capsized on a bookshelf. And my glasses are sliding down my nose. Interruptions to my writing aren’t something that I can calculate a sum for; they have defined my writing life.

It has perhaps been impossible to know what would feed me, what would make my writing rich and so I have followed my instincts even if they seemed counterproductive. My inclinations were to try to have children, a complicated home life, a career and a writing life, rather than not to try. I accepted that I might come to rack and ruin by this method but that an orderly life wasn’t for me. I couldn’t see myself with a writing life but no children or a life with children but no writing. I knew I was rushing headlong into chaos and possible catastrophe and I just kept going.

Now looking back, I can say there were times I went under, that there wasn’t enough of me to go around, that sometimes I didn’t serve anyone as well as I would have liked, least of all myself. For whatever reason I could never give anything up. I couldn’t give up trying to write, I couldn’t give up being a teacher, and I couldn’t give up being a mother or a wife or a friend. I couldn’t give up having dogs and cats and a garden and dinner every night.

And yes there are times when I lose my equilibrium. I know when I have it and when I don’t: I tip like a boat about to capsize. I start careening through the world, slipping in the shower, tripping on the hem of my skirt, mistiming opening and closing doors, tea kettles are forever whistling waiting for me to remove them from the heat, papers scatter from my hands across my students’ desks like fast moving clouds just before a tornado hits.

And then I have to right myself—I have to divest myself from unwanted obligations, attachments, behaviors. I resign from committees and programs I run at work. I let laundry pile up, dirt gather in all the corners, peonies fall because I did not stake them, and emails go unanswered for a day or two. In general I try to stop accepting responsibility for the maintenance and success of the world, well not the world, but my small corner of it. It’s hard to see the dishes pile in the sink corroding and not pick up a sponge, hard to watch the grass die because I didn’t water it. The list goes on. I’ve had to school myself to say no. Friends said you must learn to say no. And I began. No felt funny to shape in my mouth and even funnier when I said it out loud. Saying no seemed the verbal equivalent of setting off a bomb, a kind of personal terrorism to reclaim the tiny principality called myself, my writerhead.

3. Using a simile or metaphor, compare your writerhead to something.

The closest companion to writerhead in my life is swimming. I am open to the lessons swimming teaches me—don’t try to dominate the water. Subdue yourself. Try to swim inside the water.

In other places and situations being a quiet person hurts me. In the water the quietest swimmer is the best swimmer. Working against the water is exhausting. I’ve known instinctually that water is the story—she suffers my presence.

BIO: Marcia Aldrich teaches creative writing at Michigan State University. She is the author of Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton and part of the Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers Series. She has had essays appear in The Best American Essays, The Beacon Book of Essays by Contemporary American Women, and a wide range of literary magazines. She has been the editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. In 2010 she was the recipient of the Distinguished Professor of The Year Award for the state of Michigan. Companion to an Untold Story was selected by Susan Orlean for the 2011 AWP Award in Nonfiction.

CONNECT: To learn more about Marcia and her new memoir, visit her website and her blog. Or simply skip all the in-between steps and buy her book here.

 

38Write: Why, Why, Why?

As you know, registration for the first 38Write writing adventure workshop is open! (If you don’t know, hop on over there and check it out. Sign up. Get your friends to sign up.)

This week, someone asked me, “Why? Why this kind of place/culture-centered workshop? Why do you so love working with place-passionate, culturally curious writers around the world?”

To answer, I sent them to a short piece I wrote a few years ago for the Poets & Writers magazine “Writers Recommend” series. I think this explains the “why” pretty well. Read it here.

 

Introducing…The 38Write Writing Adventure Workshop Series for Place-Passionate Writers

Writers, last week I introduced 38Write, my new global writing initiative. And today…

(drum roll, please…)

…I’m wildly excited to unveil the 38Write writing adventure series for place-passionate, culturally curious writers around the world.

So yes, yes, welcome to 38Write…a series of 38-hour writing adventures, each of which will focus on one particular aspect of craft or the writing life.

The first in the series—38Write | Description—will take place on Saturday, June 2, 2012. You’ll have 38 hours to complete the assignments and send me your strongest piece of writing for feedback. (To sign up and read all the juicy details, visit the CLASSES page of this site.)

38Write is not your run-of-the-mill writing workshop. It’s a writing adventure designed specifically for place-passionate, culturally curious writers that will get you out of your house—no matter where you live—and into your environs.

 

The Unique Aspects of 38Write

  • Each writing adventure is 38 hours long. It’s a manageable amount of time that fits into anyone’s busy schedule. (Good gracious, no, you will not be writing or adventuring for 38 hours straight. I’m ambitious for you, but not crazy. You will need approximately 2-4 hours to work during the 38-hour period…give or take an hour.)
  • Each writing adventure will focus on one particular aspect of craft or the writing life. You will not be writing an entire essay or short story. Some adventures will focus on a skill, like writing kick-butt descriptions; others might get you to look at what inspires you or how you move from idea to writing.
  • During each 38-hour period, you’ll be able to connect with me and 38Write writers around the world via a Twitter hashtag. (How cool is that?!)
  • You will get feedback from me. (For more info about me, click here.)
  • Terrific for folks writing fiction, essays, or memoir.
  • Beginners and experienced writers are welcome.
  • It’s affordable. A single 38Write writing adventure costs only $38 (U.S.).

 

Why Am I Creating 38Write?

While living, writing, and teaching writing in Shanghai, I learned (and/or relearned) a number of things:

    1. Each of us has a heck of a lot to learn from folks in other countries (and not usually the things we think we need to learn).
    2. Story is an international conversation that can help us better understand one another.
    3. By helping writers from all over the world to improve their craft, I can play a wee role in facilitating this global conversation.
    4. Writing is recursive. You must practice. (And if I do say so myself, I’m pretty darn good at getting writers to practice.)

 

Is 38Write For You?

38Write adventures are designed for all place-passionate writers, including expats and repats, globetrotters, armchair travelers, nomads, cultural spelunkers, deeply rooted souls, mapmakers and mapbreakers, wanderers and wayfarers, voyagers, and all writers interested in exploring and writing about their environs.

So, yup, if you’re asking, 38Write is probably for you.

 

To learn more and sign up for 38Write | Description, visit CLASSES.

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Camels: Photokanok / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Beach: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Jodhpur: Image: think4photop / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Mojo Monday: Andre Dubus III & Richard Russo Discuss “Why Write a Memoir?”

It’s Mojo Monday, and as always, I’ve got a little something-something to lift your creative spirits, buoy you up, help you get your mojo on, and nudge (or better yet, catapult) you into writerhead.


Over at The Daily Beast, Townie author Andre Dubus III and Empire Falls author Richard Russo chitchat about how memoir writing differs from fiction writing. Interesting conversation…

 

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Image: David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Writerhead Wednesday: Can You Make Writerhead Happen?

Usually on Wednesdays, this: Welcome to Writerhead Wednesday, a weekly feature in which a brilliant, charming, remarkable author talks about her/his writerhead…a precious opportunity for looky-loos around the world to sneak into the creative noggins of talented writers and (ever so gently) muck about.

But today…


In May, at the Pennwriters Conference in Lancaster, PA, I’m leading my first Writerhead workshop (whoop! whoop!), and one of the questions I know that I’m going to get is, “Can I put myself in writerhead?”

Absolutely, I’ll say.

Doing so is like allowing yourself to float on your back in a lake or the ocean after treading water or swimming freestyle or playing a crazy-arse game of Marco Polo (which you won, by the way). Stretch out long. Still the limbs. Stare up at the blue/gray/cloudy/sunny/stormy sky. Pretend you are a starfish. Pretend you are a star. Allow the water to buoy you up. Breathe.

Ta da.

Writerhead.

 

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Image: thephotoholic / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Writerhead Wednesday: Magnetic North and the Shanghai International Literary Festival

Usually on Wednesdays, this: Welcome to Writerhead Wednesday, a weekly feature in which a brilliant, charming, remarkable author talks about her/his writerhead…a precious opportunity for looky-loos around the world to sneak into the creative noggins of talented writers and (ever so gently) muck about.

Today…


Every year at this time in Shanghai, the world’s best literary festival takes place: The Shanghai International Literary Festival (SILF). Even though I’ve been living back in the United States for over a year now, SILF is my literary magnetic north. Not only do many of my favorite authors flock there (this year, Edward P. Jones!!!), but throughout the glorious three-week festival, you’re pretty much guaranteed at least a handful of compelling conversations about China, India, our world, East/West, etc. (And to top it off…it’s a helluva good party.)

Since I can’t be there this year (watch out, 2013!), I’m going to appease myself by attending as many local author readings as I can (tonight, Margot Livesey), slipping into writerhead as often as possible, and trying like hell to ignore the compass needle that keeps flinging around wildly.

So…where’s your literary magnetic north?

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Image: digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Expat Sat: 4 Questions Expat Writers Need to Ask Themselves

Welcome to Expat Sat, the culturally kooky, map nonspecific, sometimes bewildering, always fascinating intersection of expat life and writerhead. And where every Saturday, I offer tips for writing, publishing, and thriving to expat writers around the globe.


You’re an expat. You’re a writer. You’re ready to start a new project. You’re not quite sure how or where or what to begin. Here are four questions to help you get started.

1.  Am I writing about myself in this place?

2.  Am I writing about this place without “me” in it? (Meaning, you’re an observer, a gatherer of information, not a participant.)

3.  Am I writing fiction or nonfiction?

4.  What is it about this place that inspires me?

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Image: think4photop / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Writerhead Wednesday: Andrea Barrett in Writerhead

Welcome to Writerhead Wednesday, a weekly feature in which a brilliant, charming, remarkable author talks about her/his writerhead…a precious opportunity for looky-loos around the world to sneak into the creative noggins of talented writers and (ever so gently) muck about.


A few months ago while teaching a personal essay writing workshop, I happened upon an essay called “The Sea of Information”* by Andrea Barrett in which she documents her ascent (descent?) into writerhead. She’s looking through a handbook called What You Should Know About TUBERCULOSIS that was passed out to high school students in New York City between 1910 and 1920. The handbook is full of photographs of children deformed by tuberculosis and young people “taking the cure,” a drawing of a Tuberculosis Tree, a map marking the cases of tuberculosis in a particular New York neighborhood, and condescending passages that describe tuberculosis as a “disease of the poor–of those on or below the poverty line.”

The tuberculosis handbook goes on to say: “We must further realize that there are two sorts of poor people–not only those financially handicapped and so unable to control their environment, but those who are mentally and morally poor, and lack intelligence, will power, and self-control….”

After describing the handbook in detail, Andrea Barrett shares the way her experience with this handbook prods her into writerhead. (No, she doesn’t call it writerhead, but that’s what it is.) Listen…

“The sound of that language–the officious, pushy, condescending sound of that–along with the eerie photographs and the remarkable drawing of the Tuberculosis Tree, made me want to write a novel. The feeling was as sudden, as intense, and as irrational as falling in love.”

And there she was. In writerhead. A feeling that was “as sudden, as intense, and as irrational as falling in love.”

Love it.

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* “The Sea of Information” (which I read in The Best American Essays 2005, p. 10) was originally published in The Kenyon Review (Summer 2004).

Image: Sura Nualpradid / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Mojo Monday: The Big Secret in Life (Writing)

It’s Mojo Monday, and as always, I’ve got a little something-something to lift your creative spirits, buoy you up, help you get your mojo on, and nudge (or better yet, catapult) you into writerhead.


Oprah puts it like this: “The big secret in life is that there is no big secret. Whatever your goal, you can get there if you’re willing to work.”

Here’s my take: “The big secret in writing is that there is no big secret. Whatever your goal, you can get there if you work your arse off.”

And it’s true. You can.

Sure, in the “working” period there’s little recognition, few pats on the back, zero minutes of fame, moments of self-doubt, zero minutes in the limelight, etc.

And yes, the working period can (and most likely will) go on for a long time. Weeks, months, years, decades.

And all of that can feel like crap once in a while.

But (and here’s the hard part), too bad.

If you want it (you know, the big IT), you must do the work.

So go…work your arse off this week. Let nothing deter you.

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Image: ntwowe / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

Writerhead Wednesday: Featuring Rachel Bertsche

Welcome to Writerhead Wednesday, a weekly feature in which a brilliant, charming, remarkable author talks about her/his writerhead…a precious opportunity for looky-loos around the world to sneak into the creative noggins of talented writers and (ever so gently) muck about.


This week’s brilliant, charming, remarkable author is Rachel Bertsche who penned MWF Seeking BFF, a hilarious memoir that tells the story of Rachel’s search for a new best friend and shares a good bit of wisdom about friendship. If you’ve visited this blog before, you know I like funny. MWF Seeking BFF is right up my alley. Check out what Rachel has to say about her writerhead.

But remember, sssshhhhh! You do not want Rachel wagging her “hold on a minute” finger at you, do you?

1. Describe your state of writerhead (the where, the when, the how, the what, the internal, the external).

Frustratingly, I often feel writerhead when I’m not computer-accessible. In the shower, in the car, on the treadmill. It’s those times when my mind is free to wander that sentences coming flooding into my brain. So I try to hold onto bits of description, arrangements of words, pieces of dialogue, just long enough to get them down. That happens to various degrees of success.

On days when I can get into writerhead while I’m actually at the computer, it’s usually in the afternoon. When I’ve done EVERYTHING I CAN POSSIBLE THINK OF to procrastinate my work. Usually around 3 pm, when I feel like everything else is out of my brain and there’s nothing I want to do but sit and write. I’m a night person, so I’m perfectly happy to let this last forever, but I feel like I usually hit a wall after 90 minutes and need to at least go for a quick walk around the block or stand up from the computer. But from, say, 3-4:30 the words come pouring out. There is no music playing. I’m at my desk and no one is in the house. I am very easily distracted. But there is always, always, Diet Coke.

2. What happens if someone/something interrupts writerhead? (a spouse, a lover, a barking dog, an electrical outage, a baby’s cry, a phone call, a leg cramp, a dried-up pen, a computer crash, etc.)

I ignore it if at all possible. Emails and phone calls don’t get answered. Husbands (well, just the one) calling from the other room get “Hold ON!” Writerhead is so hard to find and so easy to lose. That’s why if I feel an idea coming on, if I feel that state creeping in, and run for the word document. I’ve been known to stop on the sidewalk, take out my iPhone, and jot down the words of a scene on the “notes” program. If someone interrupts, they often get a “hold on a minute” pointer finger. Which I know is rude. I do. But when you’re in the zone, you gotta do what you can to stay there!

3. Using a simile or metaphor, compare your writerhead to something.

For me, writerhead is like watching a movie. I’m not thinking about what I’m writing, particularly, but instead almost watching it play like a film in my head. I remember working in this state during one scene of MWF Seeking BFF. I had finished a chapter, and in rereading it, I realized I needed to fill out some of the sections. My husband had a friend over, and a memory dawned on me. It hit me that this is exactly what I needed to communicate in the chapter. I stood up from the couch where we were all watching TV and walked away without saying anything. For the next hour (maybe even 45 minutes) I just wrote—sitting in our second bedroom/office, door closed, no music—and I probably put 1000 words on the page, when sometimes it takes me three days to write that much. It came flooding out as I relived this memory and watched the book scene play out in the screening room of my mind. I stopped, only, because I had dinner plans. But I had such a feeling of satisfaction as I headed to dinner that night. I knew I’d gotten what I wanted on the page, and as my “readers” read the chapter, that was the scene each pointed out, because they too could really SEE it.

BIO: Rachel Bertsche is a journalist in Chicago, where she lives with her husband. Her work has appeared in Marie Claire, More, Teen Vogue, Every Day with Rachael Ray, Fitness, Women’s Health, CNN.com, and more. Before leaving New York (and all her friends) for the Midwest, Bertsche was an editor at O: The Oprah Magazine.

If you’d like to know more, scooch on over to Rachel’s web site and blog. Or say hidy-ho on Twitter (@rberch) or Facebook.