Monthly Archives: July 2014

Lessons from Girlchild

Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman

Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman

I’ve recommended Tupelo Hassman’s Girlchild to three different people for three completely different reasons. One was a classmate interested in exploring mother-daughter dynamics in her fiction; another wanted proof that poetry could function as prose. The other friend just wanted a great read, which — despite its mixed reviews on Goodreads (“It never allowed Rory to have a voice” is my most aggravating favorite) — Girlchild is definitely a good read, and doubly so if you’re studying craft.

In Girlchild, Hassman takes a handful of devastatingly big themes — alcoholism, abuse, socioeconomic struggles — and fractures them into a series of smaller parts. I wouldn’t even wholly call them chapters; some sections feel like prose poems, and others feel like mixed media selections that build and move toward their devastating conclusion. I’ve read it twice now — once for pleasure, and once to focus on the methods through which Hassman achieves her goals. One of the biggest things I’ve pulled from the story is actually one of the things people seem to complain about most frequently online — it’s a nonlinear story, and the glimpses we are given pay very little service to the reader. No, this isn’t a bad thing.

Hassman’s style toes the line between stark beauty and youthful fragility, and she does it while vividly building the Calle, a town located just outside of Reno, NV. We follow the titular girlchild, Rory Dawn, in different moments of her life. The larger story follows her turbulent childhood, but subplots detail her burgeoning friendship with a real Girl Scout, the history of her mother’s struggles, and the rugged rules of life in the Calle. The best way to describe the way these plots are presented is some combination of the words scattered, brief, and gut-kicking. And yes, sometimes it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why we need to read a chapter of notes from the social worker studying Rory’s home life, or why we need to read snippets of the letters Rory’s grandma sends to her — but I think this is one of the beauties of the book.

This story cares about Rory, and the portions of her life that matter to her. Information is withheld and misplaced and misrepresented because it is filtered through Rory’s character and the way she moves through the world in different portions of her life — and that commitment is powerful. Hassman intentionally does not hold the reader’s hand (nobody holds Rory’s hand, either). This isn’t the reader’s story — it’s Rory’s.

One chapter is almost entirely blacked out, like a page full of redacted information noted only by its title, “flicker,” and singular lines that cue the reader into the horror of what lies behind the page’s blackness. One page in this chapter is almost entirely black, save for a single line toward the bottom: “opening my fist is telling,” and the line’s lost presence on the bottom of the page packs as much punch as any bit of blackout poetry because, at that point in the story, we know the character saying that line and we know the difficulties she is going through. It’s rough. And it’s huge.

Early in the book — regarding the way Rory’s grandmother marks up her letters — our narrator says, “Mother. That’s what all Grandma’s underlines and exclamation points are for, to try to make me believe a thing I know she lost faith in a long time ago, as if extra ink can make up for using the wrong words in the first place, can turn a lie into the truth or blot out all the mistakes a Hendrix ever made in caring for her children and letting them go.” And suddenly, any correspondence we read from Rory’s grandmother changes; now, it’s almost as if her writings are an act of penance, apologizing for her faults and the faults of Rory’s mother, hidden behind upbeat ramblings and many punctuation marks. This changes things, and it brings greater emotion to the letters we’ve read and continue to read in the book — a change that comes directly from what Rory is willing to share with the reader. The letters suddenly feel even more important to her because she is aware the purpose they’re trying to serve — and suddenly, they carry more depth.

I feel like one of the concerns that pops up in a lot of writerly minds is this: “Will anyone understand what I’m saying?” It’s a legitimate concern, and it’s tied into the vulnerability of putting everything you know and feel for a character and his or her world out in the open. It’s also partially tied to the idea of marketability, and whether you need to write for the reader, or write with the reader in mind. While I do believe that writers need to at least consider who their ideal audience might be, a novel like Girlchild showcases the power of ignoring that concern. All of the book’s 289 pages revolve around Rory, because she is the person who matters in the story; this is her life, not the reader’s, and the methods Hassman uses to reveal snippets of her life serve, in my mind, to take Rory’s life to greater depths.

Goodreads reviews be damned. Read Girlchild. It’s worth your time.

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The agony of taking one step toward writing/literally anything potentially icky

"Bewitched Park" by Leonid Afremov

“Bewitched Park” by Leonid Afremov

My gig for the summer is working as a reading instructor for kids and adults. I’m teaching students how to tackle textbooks, how to improve their reading speeds, how to care about a book that seems totally outside their life experiences, and how to talk about great fiction. This job is exhausting. I never realized how draining teaching could be. Most nights, I immediately collapse on my bed in whatever I wore to work for the day, smelling like Expo markers and book glue.

Despite the general exhaustion, here’s one thing that I’ve pulled from this experience that has benefitted me entirely: the idea of taking one step forward.

In the classroom, it looks like this: If I know a student is struggling, or if I know I should speak to that student directly, or if I need to step in and talk about a behavioral issue or something else potentially icky, there are two paths I can take. One, I can avoid the situation and hope it resolves itself. Or, the better of the two, I can take one step toward the situation. I trust myself to know how to handle most classroom situations, and at bare minimum I can flub my way toward a compromise, but taking that first step is the hardest part, because it’s the first step in committing myself to trying to figure out a problem. It’s opening up the potential for failure, too, and the longer I delay that step, the longer I can delay potentially failing in my duty as a teacher.

But if I take that first step, I’m pushing myself out of my comfort zone and into the situation at hand. Usually, I realize something like this: Oh. I didn’t need to hesitate. I do, in fact, know how to work through this situation.

This is important.

This is the part where I bring the point of my introduction into the topic of writing.

I’m experiencing a lot of false starts in my writing. I currently have three windows open to three different projects I want to work on, but they’ve been largely untouched because every time I sit down with the intent of continuing their stories, I end up freezing up in some way. I’ll write endless To Do lists, spend time “researching” (read: Facebook/Twitter/Reddit), or just write an outline of ideas instead of actually bumping up the page count of whichever story’s first draft.

But today, I took one step forward. And it has made all the difference.

It’s so easy to perpetually exist in a state of I’ll-get-this-done-eventually. And a lot of the time, once I actually, seriously, actively focus on writing, I can get work done. The difficult part, of course, is taking that first step and committing myself to a project that I’m afraid of seeing fail — or something I’m afraid won’t matter to anybody but me.

(Those are bad thoughts. They’re normal thoughts, but they’re also toxic. I have to remind myself that, when I’m writing a first draft, I’m writing it for me, not an audience.)

I have to sit down and take a step toward my goal — writing 1,000 words per day, finishing a scene, adding four more paragraphs — because, however small or large my goal may be, taking one step is just part of finishing that first draft, and getting closer to understanding what my story might be. That’s what I did today — I told myself I’d write one page in one hour, and I sat down during a free block of time and took one step toward continuing where I’d left off. I wrote a sentence. And then repeated. And repeated.

And I reached two goddamn pages. #murica

It’s a rough scene and it doesn’t totally establish what I want it to establish just yet — but it’s moving my story along, and helping me realize its larger purpose. And that’s a success.

The potential for failure is terrifying, and it’s so tempting to listen to that voice in the back of my mind telling me that I should have been literally anything but a Creative Writing major. But then I remind myself: I have a story to tell, and the only way it is going to be told is if I take one step forward.

And then I step.

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