26 July 2011

Animals I Have Known: My Friend the Burro

In the two weeks since I last posted, this blog has gotten as many hits as it had previously gotten over the course of its entire eight-year existence. Normally, I get maybe 250 views of each entry. “How to be a Writer” has had 100 times that. I’m gratified and overwhelmed by the response, and eventually I think I’ll have more to say about the subject -- both the strangeness of viralocity, and some thoughts about why this post in particular has been so popular.

For now though, I’m going to go ahead with the post I’d originally planned to run next. I told this story to my friend Claire recently, and she told me that I should write mini-stories about the (many, many) animals in my life. Seeing as how she’s a fancy professional blogger for WBEZ, I figure I should probably follow her advice. Plus, it gives me an excuse to post pictures of adorable animals. Everyone wins!

Animals I Have Known: My Friend the Burro

I was lonely in high school. I suspect most of us were, though of course at the time I assumed everyone else was hanging out with friends and having meaningful, amazing adventures while I was sitting alone in my bedroom listening to Sarah McLachlan and drawing on my Converse All-Stars. I spent a lot of time driving around in my car (an awesome Renault Alliance), smoking cigarettes and listening to music. For the most part, I stuck to the country roads, which rose and curved and branched in beautiful and surprising ways. I constantly sought new routes – a back way to my boyfriend’s house, a “secret” way to get home that went past an abandoned farmhouse and under an interesting viaduct. I liked the roads that took me farthest from town, where the moon glowed white on autumn cornstalks and the sky was thick with stars.

One day during my junior year, as I was meandering through the countryside, delaying for a few more miles the moment when I’d finally have to give in and go home to my parents, I saw him. It was dusk, and the sun was setting over the fields, leaving everything golden in its wake.

He stood in a little field on a corner lot, stretching his neck to reach the tall grass on the other side of the barbed wire fence. His coat was russet brown in the light.

I loved him instantly.

A few days later, I drove the same road and saw him again. He was standing in his little field, enjoying the sunshine. This time, I pulled my car over to the side of the road and walked up to his fence (a treacherous endeavor, as there was quite a deep ditch between the road and the fence). “Hi donkey,” I said. “Hi little burro.”

My grandparents lived in southern New Mexico when I was very small, and according to my grandfather, they’d actually owned miniature burros while there. (This may not actually be true. In fact, I’m guessing that it’s probably not. My family’s stories often veer into fictional territory, such as the time my father told me that my great-grandmother was part Native American. I was really excited to investigate my newfound Native Heritage until I asked my mother. “Your great-grandmother had an INDIAN PONY,” she said. “But she was NOT AN INDIAN.”)

In any case, even though they’d moved back to the Midwest shortly after I was born, my grandparents loved New Mexico and kept souvenirs around the house, including a large stuffed burro who slept on top of the quilt in the very center of their bed.

Which is to say that I was predisposed to love this burro – my own burro in Wisconsin – even before I learned to tempt him toward the fence with offerings of the long grass that grew just beyond his reach. In the afternoon light, his fur was a warm gray with a long black stripe running down his back. His ears were long and tipped with black. Though he was quite dusty, his fur was soft, particularly on his cheeks and just behind his ears. “If you were mine, I’d brush you every day,” I told him.

He nosed my hands, searching for more treats.

“I’ll call you Esperanzo,” I said, attempting to roll the R in my best Wisconsin-high-school-Spanish accent.

I visited him as often as I could, usually on afternoons when school had been particularly difficult. He came to know my car, and would trot over to the fence as soon as he saw me pulling over to the side of the road. I would scratch his neck, stroke his long soft ears, and kiss his cheeks. He would lay his head over my shoulder and allow me to hug him around the neck. Sometimes I would bring him carrots or apples, but he’d lay his head across my shoulder even on the days when I didn’t bring him anything at all.

Esperanzo was my sanctuary that year, my secret. Some days I’d drive past his field and he wouldn’t be there. He had a little shed in the far corner of his lot, in a grove of trees a ways from the road. Sometimes I would stop anyway, make the treacherous hike to his fence, and attempt to call him out of his shed and down to the fence to visit. Occasionally it worked, but more often I’d be left hanging, standing by the fence and feeling foolish. A few times, I tried petting the horse who lived on the farm down the road as a substitute, but he wouldn’t hug me like Esperanzo would, and his ears flicked too nervously for me to pet them.

I saw him less over the winter, but once the weather warmed he was back, grazing on the first shoots of grass. He remembered me, and came to the fence to lay his head across my shoulder and let me hug him around his neck. “Esperanzo,” I whispered in his long soft ears, attempting to roll my R.

One afternoon in May, Esperanzo was eating baby carrots out of my hand when a man appeared in his field. Esperanzo’s owner, I assumed, though I’d been thinking of him as my burro for so long that it was strange to be reminded that he wasn’t actually mine. “Hi,” I said awkwardly.

“Hey there,” the man said.

I wondered if I should confess my love for his burro, whether I should tell him that I’d named him Esperanzo and trained him to come to the fence to greet me. Should I suggest he maybe brush Esperanzo more often, maybe give him a bath once in a while? Should I tell him that Esperanzo preferred apples to carrots, but carrots were still better than grass? Should I tell him that my frequent visits with Esperanzo had helped me get through my junior year?

“I like your burro,” I finally said.

The man looked up, seeming surprised. “Oh, Jake?”


You have the gentlest, sweetest burro in the whole world, and you named him JAKE? Jake is a fat yellow lab. Jake is a mean boy in eighth grade study hall. Jake is a snake!

“Yeah,” the man continued, oblivious to my internal crisis. “Ol’ Jake. He’s a good little ass.”

12 July 2011

How to Be a Writer

A few weeks ago, a woman asked me for advice about her teenage daughter. “She wants to be a writer,” the mother said. “What should we be doing?”

To be honest, I was kind of stumped. (In part, I think it was the way she asked it – “What should WE be doing?” I didn’t really know what to do with that “we.”) (Also, it was quite early in the day, and I hadn’t yet had sufficient coffee to be giving anyone advice.) I suggested a few upcoming creative writing classes, but the mother wasn’t satisfied. There must be more – what else could they do?

“Well,” I said, “you know. Writers read a lot… and write a lot.”

She looked at me blankly.

“You really do have to write a lot,” I said. “I mean, that’s mostly it. You write a lot.”

The mother shook her head. “What else? Are there books she can read? Events she can attend? Writing camps?”

“Um,” I said. “Sometimes writers have writing buddies… they meet at coffee houses and write together?”

The mother liked this suggestion. “You could do that!” she told her daughter. The girl blushed.

I offered some titles of books to read. Writing Down the Bones, Wild Mind, Bird by Bird. If You Want to Be a Writer. Letters to a Young Poet. The Metamorphoses. (I know Ovid doesn’t have a lot of advice for writers; I just like to push the Metamorphoses on people. It’s a soap opera in verse!)

The mother scribbled them down. I had a feeling she’d buy them all for her daughter, perhaps before the day was over, but she still seemed to be waiting for something. I felt like I wasn’t giving her what she wanted, and though she was being really polite about it, I actually felt bad that I couldn’t come up with an answer that would satisfy her.

The feeling stuck with me all day – I chewed over her question and wondered if there was something I’d forgotten, some crucial piece of advice I could have given to placate her. But the more I thought about it, the more confused I became about why my initial answer wasn’t enough. Fact: writers write. Fact: In order to be a writer you have to write a lot. A LOT. Fact: there’s no shortcut.

(I do want to say that I think it's really great that this mother -- or any mother -- is looking for ways to actively support her kid's writing. I also imagine it might be challenging to have a kid who wants to be a writer -- it's not like you can just go out and join the Band Boosters and support your child's passion by raising money to buy new trumpets or whatever. There's no 'Poet Boosters' for parents.)

So now it’s a few weeks later and I’m still thinking about it, and I’m still a little perplexed by the question. But I’ve had some coffee, and I’m ready to take another crack at it.

What should you do to help your child pursue her dreams of becoming a writer?

First of all, let her be bored. Let her have long afternoons with absolutely nothing to do. Limit her TV-watching time and her internet-playing time and take away her cell phone. Give her a whole summer of lazy mornings and dreamy afternoons. Make sure she has a library card and a comfy corner where she can curl up with a book. Give her a notebook and five bucks so she can pick out a great pen. Insist she spend time with the family. It’s even better if this time is spent in another state, a cabin in the woods, a cottage on the lake, far from her friends and people her own age. Give her some tedious chores to do. Make her mow the lawn, do the dishes by hand, paint the garage. Make her go on long walks with you and tell her you just want to listen to the sounds of the neighborhood.

Let her be lonely. Let her believe that no one in the world truly understands her. Give her the freedom to fall in love with the wrong person, to lose her heart, to have it smashed and abused and broken. Occasionally be too busy to listen, be distracted by other things, have your nose in a great book, be gone with your own friends.

Let her have secrets. Let her have her own folder on the family computer. Avoid the temptation to read through her notebooks. Writing should be her safe haven, her place to experiment, her place to work through her confusion and feelings and thoughts. If she does share her writing with you, be supportive of her hard work and the journey she’s on. Ask her questions about her craft and her process. Ask her what was hardest about this piece and what she’s most proud of. Don’t mention publication unless she mentions it first. Remember that writing itself is the reward.

Let her get a job. Let her work long hours for crappy pay with a mean employer and rude customers. If she wants to be a writer, she’ll have to be comfortable with hard work and low pay. Let her spend her own money on books and lattes – they’ll be even sweeter when she’s worked hard for them.

Let her fail. Let her write pages and pages of painful poetry and terrible prose. Let her write dreadful fan fiction. Don’t freak out when she shows you stories about Bella Swan making out with Draco Malfoy. Never take her writing personally or assume it has anything to do with you, even if she only writes stories about dead mothers and orphans.

Let her go without writing if she wants to. Never nag her about writing, even if she’s cheerful when writing and completely unbearable when she’s not. Let her quit writing altogether if she wants to.

Let her make mistakes.

Let her stay after school to work on the newspaper, but only if she wants to. Let her publish embarrassingly personal stories in the school literary magazine. Let her spill the family’s secrets. Let her tell the truth, even if you’d rather not hear it.

Let her sit outside at night under the stars. Give her a flashlight to write by.

Let her find her own voice, even if she has to try on the voices of a hundred others first to do so. Let her find her own truth, even if she has to spin outrageous lies in search of it. Remember that her truth isn’t the same as anyone else’s truth, and that even if you were there with her when it happened, your memories of a moment will likely be vastly different from hers. Let her write thinly-veiled memoirs disguised as fiction. It’s okay if she massages past events to make a better story, or leaves entire years of her life on the cutting room floor. It’s okay if she writes about characters who have nothing to do with her life, her experience, or her world. That’s what fiction is.

Let her write poetry on her jeans and her shoes and her backpack, even if you just bought them brand new.

Keep her safe but not too safe, comfortable but not too comfortable, happy but not too happy.

Above all else, love and support her. Love her and believe in her. Love her, and let her go. In the end, your love is all that matters, and it will be enough. The rest will come from her.


Edit: In the time since I started writing this, I had dinner with a good friend from high school. We were talking about the old days, and I dragged out a journal from junior year to prove a point. “How many of those do you have now?” he asked.

Journals, 1995-2011

“Forty-two,” I said. “I have a whole bookshelf of them.”

“You should show them to people. A visual aid, to help them see how much writing practice you did.”

I thought about another friend of mine from the old days, a talented artist who used to get mad when people told him he was a talented artist. “I just draw every day,” he’d always say. “I’ve drawn every day since I was a little kid. If you drew every day for fifteen years, you would be good at it too. Anyone would.”

Mick Jagger is reported as saying, “You have to sing every day so you can build up to being, you know, Amazingly Brilliant.”

I don’t write every day. I never have. But I do write most days, and I’ve filled thousands of pages of notebook paper with writing. I swear there’s no magic trick, no simple solution, no get-writerly-quick scheme. You have to write a lot of words. You have to write your heart out. And in the end, you discover that the writing’s what matters. Writing is its own reward. I promise.