From time to time, I like to give my students (and, well, myself) exercises in which they re-tell their family stories. These always familiar (sometimes to the point of overly familiar) stories are good ones for a writer to retell, as they allow us a window not only into how stories are told but also why stories are told. I’ve noticed that a lot of students tell stories in which their parents describe what they were like as children, and many argued that families tell such stories to show us what our tendencies are — especially our tendencies towards bad behavior (and especially bad behavior in public places) — and how to combat and/or correct them.
This argument is certainly supported by my own experience. The story my parents most often tell about my childhood involves a nasty incident at a putt-putt course in Panama City, Florida, during which I displayed A Very Bad Attitude towards miniature golf (a side note: somehow, I even managed to find a postcard on the Internet featuring this particular putt-putt course’s most famous feature: a giant and terrifying Tyrannosaurus Rex, who still haunts me in my dreams). A second side note, this one non-parenthetical and necessary for understanding the following story: Emma does not do miniature golf. Emma does not do miniature golf for a reason. And that reason is a very important reason: because she is inherently awful at anything that a.) is even vaguely athletic or b.) involves hand-eye co-ordination. Putt-putt, of course, involves both, and I am, in a word, terrible at it. Shamefully, shamefully terrible.
Nonetheless, during a vacation to Panama City when I was five or six, I found myself on a Putt-Putt course with my parents. Needless to say, things did not go well. Though the details of the story and of my memory are hazy, based on subsequent putt-putt experiences, I assume that it took at least fifteen tries to get the ball through the grinning clown’s mouth, and twenty to even get near the windmill. It might, in fact, have been the windmill that pushed me over the edge and ignited my five-year-old rage. Regardless of what hole it was, I realized that things were not going well, and my Very Bad Attitude emerged in full force. I threw the ball. I threw down my club. I threw a fit, and refused to play even one more half-second of putt-putt.
But then I looked up from where I was — which was (again, shamefully) probably throwing a fit on the Astroturf in front of the windmill — and I saw my father’s face. My father, who is rarely moved to anger, was far, far from pleased. He would not have me be a bad sport, and he would not have me be a sore loser. And so he made me pick up the ball, and the club, and walk the seemingly eternal distance to the next hole, where I would try and try and try again to get the ball past the crouching gorilla and up the hill.
And I’m very glad that he did.
I’m telling you this story because I think it’s key to what it takes to be a writer: not giving into the desire to scream, throw down your pen and paper or even your laptop, and give up. One of the most important — if not the most important — things for me, as a writer, has been persistence, finding a way to play through when it seems like I’m losing every hole, when the rejection slips pile up in the mailbox and the poems themselves just aren’t behaving.
Some time ago, I began to feel very frustrated with my misbehaving poems. I realized that I needed to push myself, to learn — and to practice. I began writing a Something a day — a poem, a paragraph, a piece of flash fiction, a beginning, an ending. It has now been nearly two years since I started my Something a day project. The process hasn’t been without its frustrations, its humiliations, its moments where I wanted to throw everything I’ve written away and walk away from the game. But, thanks to my stubborn nature, my fantastic writerly friends, and my always-inspiring students, I’m still playing the game, no matter how under or over par I might feel. I’ve learned a great deal. Perhaps more than anything, I learned a lot about my habits — for instance, that, as a friend of mine once told me after a poetry reading, I sure do like lists. I learned that it’s sometimes essential to avoid giving in to this habit, and sometimes essential that I do give in. I learned that I do have the tendency to write the same poem over and over, but that I often need to do so, if only to get a subject out of my bloodstream.
And, perhaps most importantly, I learned how important community is in this often-solitary endeavor, and what a blessing it is to not work entirely in isolation — because sometimes, you just need a little push when you’re facing that grinning Tyrannosaurus.