This entry is part of Getaway Reads, a weekly e-mail series curated by Stephanie Cawley that features the writing of the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway faculty.
Writing with Carly
by Mimi Schwartz
This poem is on my refrigerator door:
I love you, to the moon and stars and all the
Way up to the planet mars.
So one day if I fly up there
You’ll know I love you anywhere.
It has a smiley face above it and “I love you!” in a heart below it—and was written by my granddaughter Carly in the days when she felt like a writer. The feeling began at age four when she read at a family gathering, “On Chanukah you wear a yarmulke!” Everyone clapped, laughed, and hugged her. You’re a poet, we said—and I remembered how, as a child, I read my poems for family gatherings, beaming as Carly beamed.
I bought her a writing journal and she filled it with stories and poems, most often composed while looking out her bedroom window at falling leaves, snowflakes, and spring blossoms. The spelling was her own, but no matter. She’d happily read us her stories about strawberry dreams and rainbows and a daisy trying to grow in a field of daffodils (my favorite).
By second grade, the spelling was correct, thanks to nightly drills requiring original sentences for all thirty words of the week. In third grade, after a poetry unit in school, she told me her poem on my fridge was not good. The first line was “way too long” and “mars” needed a capital. “But I love it!” I said, especially the last two lines that made love fly everywhere. She shrugged. What did I know about rhyme and rhythm!
Fourth grade included a researched report on Northern New Jersey, complete with hand-made maps and photos based on a fieldtrip, plus a “book” of stories based on paintings of Picasso, Renoir, Monet, and Van Gogh. Good assignments from a conscientious, enthusiastic teacher. But they took up free time and involved deadlines and grades. “Writing is hard!” Carly started to say.
I told her how my new book took twelve years to finish, and somehow, soon after she saw it, she asked, “Can we write something together?” I was thrilled—and told her how a friend and her daughter chose a topic to write about each month. She liked the idea and I pictured us filling pages of back and forth exchanges about our inside and outside lives.
Our plan was for me to think up three topics and Carly would choose the one we’d write on. The first month was “Purple” and I wrote six versions of a poem, worrying. I had taught writing for thirty years and knew how to encourage my students to find their words, but this was my granddaughter and I hadn’t a clue. Should I write as I usually did? For honesty—and to see what comes out? Or should I write for a nine-year old: something simple, suitable, and inspirational? I tried for both: to encourage her muse and be true to myself. Who should send first?” I asked in an email around week three. “You” she answered, and so I sent this (purposely making my first line “way too long”):
Purple is the Best
Pink was not for me, a girl who loved horses more than dolls.
Yellow was too weak, like a pale sun.
White, too much responsibility,
Red and Orange, way too showy.
I wanted Blue of a bold sky,
Rust to match my freckles,
And often go-everywhere Beige.
But lately, it’s Purple I love best,
the color of promise in sunsets
And what you find staring
Into burning logs
A day later she sent this:
Purple is a juicy grape
waiting on a vine,
Purple is the sky
before the sun begins to shine.
Purple is the bottom
of exquisite rainbows.
Purple is a color
that always seems to glow.
I loved this! We’d just had a conversation in purple, and I imagined great things. I’d invite all my writer friends who are grandparents to follow our plan and we’d soon have an anthology to inspire inter-generational writing and sharing. Here’s a new kind of writing movement, I would write in a proposal to publishers: no grades, no rules, just one voice encouraging another to speak.
I love your poem…and it’s great that we both see the glow in purple. I’m putting yours on the refrigerator door.
I wanted to praise, but not over-praise, always remembering the guy in a writing class I once joined. He came with the first three pages of a promising story and everyone said, “Keep going! It’s great!” (And this from a group not generous with praise.) The same thing happened for three more weeks—he’d bring a beginning, we’d love it—and then he disappeared. His own writing promise scared him and our enthusiasm made it worse. I can identify with that, the feeling after I write something I like, that it was dumb luck and won’t happen again.
Carly and I discussed next month’s topic—and she suggested an animal. If I named four of them, she’d pick one. I emailed: “Turtle, Oyster, Lion, or Hummingbird”—and got back “HUMMINGBIRD!” We were off again, and I started a story about a girl who loves leprechauns and sees one flying… Three weeks later, I had a draft of something. It wasn’t finished, which was good, because I wanted her to feel “I could do that too!” I even had some possible scenes we might fill in together. I waited, wanting her to go first but near the end of the month I finally asked “Who should go first this time?”
“You!” she said again, and the next day when I visited her at home, she said, “I love the story–except the girl’s name, Sylvie, is too old-fashioned!”
“What should it be?”
“Hannah,” she said.
“That sounds old-fashioned to me,” I said.
And then she said “Becka,” which we both liked. Our first feedback session had gone very well! I thought.
But her poem or story didn’t come and two days into the new month, my daughter called. Carly was embarrassed to tell me but she was too busy to write something. Too much schoolwork. “Maybe during the summer,” I emailed her. “Okay,” she answered.
Did I intimidate her with a four-page story? But she has shown me longer stories than that. Was it really her schoolwork and her busy schedule? She did have school, tennis, ballet, choir, and play dates—all filling up the quiet time needed to sit and look out her bedroom window and imagine.
I thought of myself at ten, how I stopped writing after winning a school prize for a suspense story about a girl in a thunderstorm. My teacher put it the school “newspaper” (mimeographed in those days!) and I was proud. But I didn’t write another story until I took a creative writing class in high school. And after that, I stopped again until ten years after grad school.
What happened? Book reports, term papers, and analytic essays “happened” with their expository rules for conveying information, analyzing it, and comparing and contrasting. I remember no mean teacher writing, “Too creative!” in the margins, handing me a C+. That is what many students tell me happened to them in middle school and high school. I only remember that the strong emphasis on writing with control, the opposite of writing to discover, so needed for creativity.
Plus there was the scared factor. The more I studied great writers, the more I thought “I could never do that!” And the more my work was graded (no matter what the grade), the louder I heard the Criticizer in my head, saying, “This is dumb! This is no good! What others do is better.” It stopped me from taking chances, risking what I didn’t know, listening for what I couldn’t hear. The schoolhouse voice had crowded the lyric voices out.
In high school, those who wanted to be “The Poets” warded off insecurities in Beatnik black with long earrings and the occasional beret. My neck was too short—and I felt too dumb and dumpy for that role. So I joined the high school newspaper as sports writer and ad writer, gained confidence in academic writing, and that’s what I did until I was thirty-one. Then, on a sabbatical in a foreign country, I found myself with four hours of free time a day. The kids were in school, I didn’t know anyone, I barely spoke the language—and I began writing about being “An American Abroad.” When the local paper published it as a three-part series and people responded, I remembered the writer I used to want to be. My muse came back and stayed. Or maybe it was there all along and I had just looked through it.
In the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, the first room contains Picasso’s work when he was eight or nine, before he formally entered art school. His sketches were full of whimsy—mythic kings, bullfights, and dogs—that filled his world before he absorbed the great medieval, classical and renaissance art. But many rooms later—after his Blue Period, Rose Period, Cubism and all the other movements he took in and made into his own—the paintings in the last room seemed to return to the themes and spirit of his boyhood, deepened but still there.
Too many of us don’t risk the artistic journey Picasso took. We lose the natural confidence and freshness that we have as children and label ourselves uncreative for good. True, the most committed find their way despite the Criticizer, the Academy, the Term Paper, and The Poet’s uniform. But others get lost in silence or in false personas that lack that early authenticity. As a teacher of creative nonfiction, I’ve wanted everyone to overcome both these obstacles and have found that this genre offers the best chance. For we all have life stories to tell and, if told well, others will listen.
To make my case I often read students, early on, from the diary from Opal, a six-year-old orphan in a mining camp at the turn-of-the-century (found in Gabrielle Rico’s Writing the Natural Way). Opal had learned to read and write from her parents before they died and somehow was able to write:
Today the grandpa dug potatoes in the field
I followed along after.
I picked them up and piled them in piles.
Some of them were very plump.
And all the time I was picking up potatoes
I did have conversations with them.
To some potatoes I did tell about
My hospital in the near woods
And all the little folk in it
And how much prayers and sons
And mentholatum helps them to have well feels.
To other potatoes I did talk about my friends—
How the crow, Lars Porsena,
Does have a fondness for collecting things,
How Aphrodite, the mother pig, has a fondness
For chocolate creams.
How my dear pig, Peter Paul Rubens, wears a
Little bell coming to my cathedral service.
Potatoes are very interesting folks.
I think they must see a lot
Of what is going on in the earth.
There have so many eyes.
Too, I did have thinks
Of all their growing days
There in the ground,
And all the things they did hear.
And after, I did count the eyes
Their every potato did have,
And their numbers were in blessings.
I have thinks these potatoes growing here
Did have knowings of star songs.
I have kept watch in the field at night
And I have seen the stars
Look kindness down upon them.
And I have walked between the rows of potatoes
And I have watched
The star gleams on their leaves.
My students get it: how the grammar is bad, the rules flaunted, and yet with a voice so natural, fresh, and true, Opal makes us see the potato her way forever. Whatever the age and talent, they begin to think: “If she can do it, so can I!” And, mostly, good things happen.
I hope that Carly will hold onto her natural bent. And teachers will help with great creative writing assignments, whatever the curriculum level. And in the summer she and I will pick up our writing exchanges again. All that she needs is to keep finding what I lost for many years: the quiet space and daring to listen to herself think, wonder, and imagine new dreams of strawberries and rainbows, maybe in purple, maybe hummingbirds.
© Mimi Schwartz. Originally published in New Plains Review, and forthcoming in Mimi’s new memoir When History Gets Personal.
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Mimi Schwartz is the author of two memoirs: Good Neighbors, Bad Times—Echoes of My Father’s German Village and Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed. She is co-author of Writing True, the Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction, which is used in over 250 undergraduate and MFA programs nationwide (written with Sondra Perl). She is Professor Emerita in Writing at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, where she taught nonfiction for 22 years. Her short work has appeared in The Missouri Review, Agni, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Calyx, The New York Times,Tikkun, The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, Florida Review, Brevity, The Writer’s Chronicle, The Writer, among others. Seven of her essays have been Notables in Best American Essays, and she’s been a MacDowell Fellow and a Geraldine R. Dodge Fellow. To read some of her work visit www.mimischwartz.net.
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Want to study with Mimi Schwartz? At the 2013 Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway, Mimi will be leading the memoir portion of the Creative Writing Sampler. Click here to find out more.
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