I’m glad you are here to celebrate!
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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!
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I'm off to work at the bookstore, will return to read Eula's essay. I'm glad to hear that you're feeling good about your writing again. The only story I remember now about number two pencils is that one year students began competing to see who could use their “no. 2” pencil the longest. Some figured out that the pencil sharpener used up too much of the pencil, so began hand sharpening with Xacto knives. At the end, I gave a prize, a “huge” pencil, of course. Thanks, Ruth, and happy writing!
I just Googled lyric essay and oh my! So exciting. This link alone http://www.portyonderpress.com/the-lyric-essay.html offered so much food for thought. As to the number 2 pencil quest, I do have a lot of thoughts (are they stories?), wonderings, and frustrations around number 2 pencils. Perhaps there is an essay (of some kind) lurking there. I will work on it and pass it on. As always, thank you for sharing your writing journey.
So much to take in here, Ruth. Your writing journey is, in some ways, mirroring my own at the moment. You have given me new summer reading to look forward to … and summer writing.
When I was younger one of my favorite things to do at my grandparents home was to sharpen my pencils. I felt like my grandpa had the best sharpener in the whole world. When he died that was what I wanted and it sits on my desk today. Nothing is better than a sharpened pencil.
I am anxious to do some research on lyrical essay. I have been in such a writing slump…Looking forward to this week! Maybe it will be the spark I need to get going again.
It helps a lot to hear that a writer as accomplished as you gets stuck. And I am excited to investigate Eula Bliss. Mentors and encouragement make a huge difference.
I shared my thoughts on twitter. They are snippets and incomplete, but I'm honored you asked and can't wait to see what this turns into…lyrical essay?!?! I can't wait to read more. Thank you!
I love Tom Hanks line from You've Got Mail, “I would send you a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils…” My daughter painted a jar and gave me my own bouquet of newly sharpened pencils when I returned to teaching middle school the year she headed off to college.
Ruth, I'm hoping to coming back to explore the lyric essay and Eula Biss sometime soon. I've loved reading the pencil stories on Twitter.
A favorite quote that I posted on my blog last year –
“I always thought being brave was for grown-up heroes doing big, daring deeds. But mama says that sometimes courage is just an ordinary boy like me doing a small thing, as small as picking up a pencil.” – Deborah Hopkinson, Steamboat School
Ruth, I am finally here to celebrate the love of a newborn's soft skin and calm spirit. Your thoughts on writing and the number 2 pencil has sharpened my thoughts on how to unravel my swirling thoughts.
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