Krista Christensen

Read Write Teach Love


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Keep or Toss?

Yesterday, a person from my MFA program shared this piece by Megan Mayhew Bergmanin, “Tidy This.” Go ahead and read it, if you haven’t already. I’ll wait.


Clutter Books

It’s good, isn’t it? Humorous, self-deprecating, an excellent commentary on the nature of value, of the worth of things. I really enjoyed it.


At my first MFA residency, my instructor and several of my classmates gasped in appalled horror when they learned that I had recently thrown away (“tossed”) two journals chocked full of early twenties angst, journals written after I moved a thousand miles from home with a boyfriend ten years my senior who promptly dumped me.

 How could I? my writerly colleagues wanted to know. How could I throw them away? That stuff is writing gold! 

Yet when I placed the two journals, one spiral bound and covered in cheesy stickers, the other a cloth-covered perfect-bound, into the garbage can (I didn’t even recycle them) I felt lighter, like I had thrown away the heaviness of those experiences, not the happenings themselves.

Bear in mind that I had heretofore stored them in four separate houses in Portland circa 2003-2009, and another three houses and a storage unit in Alaska the following four years, and more recently, two apartments in Asheville in the years after we moved, before I cracked them open for the first time since abandoning the practice of journaling altogether (yes, I’m a writer who doesn’t journal. Sue me.)

Here’s what happened when I cracked those journals open: I was confronted with a me I didn’t like, a me I had hated being, a me that didn’t like who she was or what she did and thought terrible things. A for instance: I met my husband in the waning days of my journaling, after many, many bad decisions which I documented in desperate, creepy detail, complete with pages full of mulling over my inadequacy and the perceived judgments of others.

After this depressing thumb-through, I decided to poke around the area of the journal where I might discover something positive, might be able to relive the absurd flurry of pseudo-romance that categorized my initial courtship with my future husband. But here, I found something else entirely. I found I had written judgey, suspicious, awful things about him, things that made me recoil, things I hoped he would never read, things I wanted to time-travel and erase, not just from the page, but from my mind. Though I had fallen for my husband almost immediately, had been in love with him during the entire scope of writing in my journal, I didn’t write my love down: I wrote my fears instead, small, mean, un-joyful fears, fears masquerading as anger and bitterness and hopelessness.

In fact, this was logical, healthy even, I would argue. The journal was a safe space, a place to put my fear of abandonment so that I wouldn’t drag that dead animal around a burgeoning relationship. And it worked: I didn’t drag my fear and bitterness into it (not too much, anyway). But nonetheless, in 2014, eleven years after the fact, it was shitty to read. These were not thoughts I wanted back. There was no deep spiritual experience. They were clutter, in the deepest sense of the word: the books themselves, which I had dragged across a continent (twice) as well as the thoughts buried within. They both weighed me down.

So when I read them, I asked myself the same question that the Tidying Expert uses: Do these did bring me joy? The answer was clearly no.

Toss.

I believe in this: a life of curated joy. I select what I surround myself with carefully, and I do not trudge through my life lugging items, snail-like, that do not benefit my existence in a direct and palpable way. I let go of things that don’t bring me joy. I do it constantly, methodically, removing items from my home with frequency, working hard to make a habit of this. I want to do this with my mind as well, removing thoughts unbeneficial and small. I want to make room for the big, important stuff of life. I don’t want my mind, my home, my life, so crammed with old and burdening things that there is no room for new opportunity or growth. I refuse to become pot-bound by an addiction to things that don’t create space for joy.

I, too, would have tossed Wuthering Heights. (But maybe that’s why I never read it in the first place.)

Back to the for instance: if I want to write about the loving romance, and the fear, of meeting my husband, I can do that without my bitter documentation, dragged over 7,000 miles and eleven years. I can write my story because it was my life and I lived it and I trust my memory. The oral tradition tells us that millenia of humanity held many a story in a single mind, and furthermore, that these persevered, so much so that we still have them today. I don’t rely on journals or other paraphernalia to under-gird my writing or my life. My writing needs no validation: not even from my former self.

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Making Nice

Some of you may know this, but after many, many years rejecting the social network, I am now on Facebook. I made this concession because I wanted to network professionally: I still have serious concerns about FB’s privacy policies as well as their legal claims of ownership on all media posted therein. So, I don’t post pictures of my family. I don’t share internet cat videos (although the occasional literary or grammar meme does slip in!). But I’m there, nonetheless, and sometimes, I’m worried about stepping on toes.

In this “digital age” we so often slip into new habits of interaction without really considering their consequences, and of course, as the Buddha says, we become our actions. Now, I do feel silly asking friends who have been on FB for years whether or not it is “okay” to post on someone’s timeline. But aren’t virtual friends still friends, nonetheless? And shouldn’t they, at least in theory, be actual friends, as well as virtual ones? If so, the risk of offending one should be considered carefully, just as I would in “real” life.

Here’s a second tech-iquette issue, and one I deal with much more directly: phones in classrooms. I’ve seen a range of responses to students on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, or, heaven forbid, just simply texting. Outright prohibition works about as well as liquor prohibition in the 20’s. So teachers are left with what they do best: teaching. The problem is, there is no common code of digital etiquette. Evan Selinger’s TEDx talk proposes some, but do others have any ideas?

What does digital-age etiquette look like? What sorts of smartphone/social media faux pas truly anger you? Tell me, because though I am a digital native, I’m struggling to fully understand the etiquette of social networking, and I do find myself facing my phone instead of my children, or dashing off an inappropriate comment. Talking about these issues, I think, will foster that community we so crave.


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A Sacred Space

In my modest town-home, off the master bedroom, is a nook, with a sink and a towel bar. At the opposite end of the nook entrance is a door to the bathroom, which itself is centered between the two upstairs bedrooms; there’s another door to the bathroom at the top of the stairs.

Since moving in, we struggled with a way to use the space effectively: at one point, it was a baby-diapering area, at another, it was a supplemental clothes closet. We have never used the nook as it was intended: who needs a second sink in their bedroom? Maybe people who shave or wear makeup–things Leif and I rarely do.IMG_20150129_103723

Finally, six months ago, I found a purpose for the room. In the sink I placed a Pothos plant. On the counter, a few magazine holders, stuffed with copies of Creative Nonfiction, The Sun, the Southeast Review, River Teeth. In front of that, a jar of pencils, some sticky notes, a candle. I pinned a scarf over the mirror covering the entire wall above the sink, and unscrewed three of the four vanity bulbs above it. I rigged file holders to the towel bar using wire twist-ties from bread bags. I flipped a closet rack upside town and mounted it as a book display shelf using cup hooks I screwed into the wall. I slid our camping cooler beneath the sink. I stuck an over-sized rattan chair in the nook, placed my tea on an overturned plastic file box, and voila! A writing space of my own. Virginia Woolf herself couldn’t have been more proud.

So this is where I sit, right now, writing this post. Ambient music floats up from my Pandora app, and the candle warms lavender oil, sending the calm scent into the air. It’s all very zen, very pleasant, very comfortable. It’s easy to assume that I would do all my writing here.

IMG_20150129_103713But after investing so much time and effort into crafting a creative home for myself, I’ve realized that what surrounds me is far less important that what is within me. I only do about 30% of my writing here, while I do about 90% of my filing and paper-storing here. It’s nice to have just one place for things, to know that all my literary journals are here, to know that all my MFA paperwork is filed right there. It’s also nice to have a retreat from the bustle of children downstairs, now that we are keeping the baby home in an effort to save money.

But I don’t need a special space to be creative. Sometimes I do my best writing in a busy coffee shop. Or a bustling library vestibule. Or a darkened dive bar. In my children’s bedroom as they fall asleep, just because they want me there. It would be a tragedy if, because I created a sacred space, I came to depend on it, to need it, to be unable to create without it. In germinating my sacred space, I’ve learned that I don’t actually need it, the way I don’t actually need lots of things. The way I’ve learned that by holding onto things too tightly, I choke myself in that grip.

I’ve learned that, because I carry the sacred within me, the sacred surrounds me.


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The Malleability of Words

When I teach my developmental English classes, one of my first exercises is on the malleable nature of words. I drag out that old standby, the word that is fabled to be but is not actually the longest word in English, antidisestablismentarianism. Then, methodically, I coach students through recognizing the prefixes and suffixes, one at a time, until we are finally to our root word: establish.

Carefully, we sally forth through each affix until we’ve finally decoded the meaning of the word. As much as possible, we determine the meanings of these roots and affixes as a class, rather than looking them up.

  • Establish. We know that buildings are established, therefore we know this means to make or to build.
  • Establishment. Technically, the suffix -ment refers to a process, so this would mean the process of building or making something. However, we know, too, that an establishment is also a free standing thing, a building, a government, a place of business. (Usually I do not go into the specific establishment that the word references, the Church of England, but if the question is posed, I’m game for the digression).
  • Establishmentarian. Here, we discuss suffixes that shuffle words into different categories; -arian is a suffix that shows support for some idea or concept, sometimes a person like librarian  or disciplinarian, or sometimes  a adjective like egalitarian or humanitarian. It is at this juncture that we can begin to see the cumulative nature of these affixes, and to determine, based not on a dictionary but on our own understanding of language, that establishmentarian means to be in support of the establishment.
  • Disestablishmentarian. This one is often a gimme for students, and a welcome break from the nebulous suffixes of –ment and -arian. Dis-, they know, means separate, or apart from. Now they know that disestablishmentarian means to be separate from those in support of the establishment, or even more simply, a person or belief in destroying the establisment altogether.
  • Antidisestablishmentarian. Another gimme here, and now students begin to feel as though this word is making sense (though many still determine it to be a foolish kind of sense, and at times I’m inclined to agree). Anti– means against, we all know, so now antidisestablishmentarian becomes easy, almost old hat: against those who want to destroy the establishment.
  • Antidisestablishmentarianism. The –ism initially confounds students, but they soon recognize their old friend; the list of –isms they collaboratively build in class is quickly long and varied. Because it simply “belief-ifies” a word, students know now that antidisestablishmentarianism is a belief that people should oppose those who want to break down a particular establishment.

Hardcore grammarians will perhaps tsk-tsk, as the true root here is the word disestablish (disestablishmentarians desired the disestablishment of the Anglican Church as the state church). Still, the sense of the definition that we arrive at communally is, for remedial students, serviceable. What’s important here is not that students understand the nuances of the word, but rather, that they appreciate the malleability of words, and the process by which words are broken into their component parts.

The full effect of this lesson can’t be conveyed in a blog post; there’s too little room for scribbled notes on whiteboards. Still, the purpose of such an exercise is, for developing writers, to demystify words. Too often, people are shuffled through our education system without developing a true depth of understanding in any one concept. But, to understand fully the fluidity of words and their component parts is to understand thinking itself. It’s a worthwhile endeavor for, not just writers, but humans.


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Worth It?

I’m fairly new at this whole professional writing thing. Though I’ve been writing in academia for some time, and writing creatively for much longer, this past year included my first forays into the world of submission and publishing. I’m still under five acceptances, and I just don’t know what to expect from editors and journals. Some journals have friendly acceptance letters, and no editing… my pieces went up as-is. Other journals like to tailor the work to more closely fit with their modus operandi. Some of my MFA professors have cautioned about this, insisting that the work be created for art’s sake first, and then the writer should only allow changes to be made that fit with the writer’s artistic vision for the piece.

Well, in this case, I had submitted a longer series of vignettes to a journal, and they published only the last vignette, as they deemed it “the strongest,” also, the editor claimed this better met their preferred word count (incidentally, the longer piece I submitted as a whole was 2,000 words under the limit listed on their submissions page). I felt conflicted; on the one hand, as a novice writer, every single acceptance is valuable to me, and I’m in no position to turn one down. But also, by publishing only the final vignette, the larger vision for the piece, the context of the valuable incident in the final vignette, was–not lost–but reduced. Yes, that’s the word: publishing just the last vignette was reductive. It did, indeed, do damage to my overall vision.

Before accepting the proposal for publication, I thought hard about whether this reduction was worth it to me, and in the end, I decided it was. I have a long writing career ahead of me, and rights revert to me anyway… I can still work to find a market for the longer piece, after a respectable amount of time. Okay. But here’s where I was naive, I suppose; I assumed that the edits necessary to make the piece more “stand-alone” would come from me. Or, at the very least, that I would participate in the process.

But this editor, she was pushy. And I reacted in the way most people react when they get pushed around–I allowed it. I wimped out. I gave in. It felt foolish, silly even, to argue with her. Yes, I was given an edit of my manuscript to approve or make further changes. And yes, the editor gave me helpful feedback about dialogue tags and other nuances purely editorial. And yes, I was grateful for that feedback. Nonetheless, the embedded assumption in our emails was that I would–was expected to–accept the edits and changes wholesale. In the end, I chose only three small places to take my minor stand, and I lost the battle over the title altogether.

So were all the changes worth it?

In this, I learned to pick my battles. Ultimately, I see every encounter with a journal (or human, for that matter) as a learning experience. And if the value of the experience is in the learning, and not the outcome, then yes, all my concessions were worth it. I probably wouldn’t do it all over again the same way, but I only know that now because I was blessed with a semi-negative experience in the first place. And even so, at the end of the day, my work is strong, and it’s public, and that feels good.

Life is like that. We don’t know anything. We call something bad; we call it good. But really we just don’t know.

– Pema Chodron