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In February 2016 I was a mess as a writer. I was struggling with my most recent book and my editor from Stenhouse, Bill, said, “Keep going.”
“It’s kind of hard to keep going when I don’t know what I’m making.” The words may have been spoken in a tone more whiney than I care to admit. It wasn’t the first time I defined the problem for him. I wasn’t sure what I was creating. Was it memoir? Narrative? Informative? Professional and practical?
“I can’t really find a mentor,” I said, “And I need one.”
There was silence on the other end of the phone and I wondered if maybe this were the end of the line. Maybe this was the point when Bill realized I wasn’t going to cut it as a writer. Maybe this was when we just gave up on the book and on me.
“I think you’re writing lyrical essay,” he said.
Having no idea what a lyrical essay is, I googled it.
Bill said, “It’s not exactly what you’re doing, but I think it’s close enough to help you have something similar to look at.”
I kept scanning the Google results. and he said, “Have you ever read anything by Eula Biss?”
“No,” I said scribbling her name on a sticky note.
“I’ve been reading her essays and her writing reminds me a little of the way you write. Not exactly, but there are lines that are reminiscent of the way you write.”
Before we hung up, I’d found an essay online by Eula Biss. “Time and Distance Overcome
” changed me as a person and as a writer. I bought her book, Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays
, a collection exploring race in America and her response. Often I read snippets of Eula’s writing before diving into my own work on the book.
This week I was at a Choice Literacy writing retreat. The theme was Ourselves in Our Writing and the anchor was Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal. It was a perfect place to live my decision to embrace a playful spirit. It occurred to me that perhaps Amy was writing lyrical essay also. She is definitely more playful than Eula, but both weave facts and poetry and story together to leave the reader deeply moved.
Decidedly uninhibited, I stopped thinking and jumped into the essayist pool.
I decided to begin with No. 2 pencils. Brenda (my Choice Literacy editor) thought it would be a good idea for me to jump. She even had a story to share with me about No. 2 pencils.
The next morning, she laughed when I told her at breakfast how hard the writing was. “I bet,” she said. “You’re going to have to write a lot of the wrong things in order to find just the right things for your essay.”
I brought a meager 339 words to response group and explained that I was trying to learn how to craft a lyrical essay. I knew they would be kind with their encouragement, but I didn’t’ expect it to be so energetic. Maybe I wasn’t going to drown in the essayist pool. Perhaps I have a little more than a doggie paddle to keep me afloat.
They didn’t have any No. 2 pencil stories, but they did have glue stories. The idea of school supply nostalgia grew out of our discussion. Earlier, Brenda mentioned she hadn’t thought of the No. 2 pencil story for years. It only came to mind because of my topic. I began wondering what other school supply stories are buried.
Why not throw it out to the universe and see what people have to say? It’s the kind of thing a person with an uninhibited playful spirit would do. Do you have anything to share with me about No. 2 pencils? It can be a joke, quote, passage, poem or story obviously or thinly connected to a pencil. Will you help me spread the word? Please use #SchoolSupplyStories so I can find them in social media.
Cheers to playing as writers!