The Koreans, Terminal 3 Farewell & In the Eel Grass

The Koreans

In the downpour
a pair of cobras slithers

into the resort
and the restaurant empties

of foreigners.
The boy sets his tray of drinks

on a table and runs for the itak
he isn’t supposed to keep

in his locker, but does.  Not
precisely for this,

but he knew one day it would come in handy.
When he returns

the foreigners’ faces press
against the windows. The cobras rear

and flare and face the boy down.
One swing

and he slices their heads off.
An older waiter stands on the severed heads

until the jaws stop contracting.
Housekeeping wipes up the blood

with bath towels.
The boy resumes passing out

drinks like nothing
has happened, but he’ll never

forget this night.
Even the Koreans tip.

 

Terminal 3 Farewell

From behind a row of empty carts,

she watches her daughter inch up the long line.
At her side, her grandson taps at the apps

on an android screen.  Her glasses are fogged—

she daubs at her eyes with the hem of her
pink housedress.  What kind of a world is this,

she wonders, that separates mothers

from daughters, that turns parents into strangers
to their own children?

This world.

Her grandson taps at the apps on his android.

 

In the Eel Grass

Slack tide,
++++++no current for twenty minutes.
The eel grass stiff as soldiers at attention.

At the tip of one stalk, a star anemone, cellophane clear,
an ornament in the currentless shallows—
++++++nothing to reach for, nothing
​​​​+++++++++++++++++++++++++++to grasp.

Where do I fit in this stillness?
​​​​++++++++++++++++++++++​​​​Gray cloud on a green bottom…

Before you bear witness, Charles Wright says,
make sure you have something worth witnessing.

I used to witness hammerheads nosing
++++++around this bed.
​​​​+++++++++++++++++I’d hug the bottom, claw into it
as once, twice, three times the cool clouds of the hammers
++++++passed over.

Today in this stillness I watch a shovel shrimp push debris
++++++from its tiny nest
​​++++++again and again
​​​​++++++++++++like a meditation.

It’s low voltage, no thrill—just work.
++++++I don’t stop watching until I’m damn near out of air.

Tim TomlinsonTim Tomlinson is co-founder of New York Writers Workshop and co-author of its popular text, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing.  His chapbook, Yolanda:  An Oral History in Verse (Finishing Line Press) appears in October 2015.  His full-length collection, Requiem for the Tree Fort I Set on Fire (Winter Goose), will appear in 2016. He teaches in NYU’s Global Liberal Studies program.

Avoiding Fedoras: A Guide to Authentic Living

The trope of the writer in a dusty room with his fingers teetering over the keys of a typewriter is well worn. A cigarette dangles from his lips. A pot of coffee smolders in the corner. Magazines and sheaves of paper scatter the floor. Perhaps a cat lounges on the sofa, or watches pigeons on the ledge outside a grimy window. The writer might walk to the bodega on the corner to purchase a carton of eggs, a pint of orange juice, and a pack of cigarettes, before returning to the vaunted seat before his desk. His sanctuary. The image is romantic in an almost pathetic way, in the way of sacrificing sanity for art. A writer who foregoes the higher tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in favor of his craft. He is Zen. He is a Buddhist, chanting literary incantations into the blank page.

When I began writing, the pull of this old man—the Vonnegut, the Faulkner—drew me in. I eschewed social interaction. I boasted proudly to no one in particular that I was a writer, damnit, and I didn’t need any beauty beyond what might come tumbling out of my mind and into my fingers. Tap-a tap-a tap-a. I developed a routine. I would come home, put on my headphones, lock my door, and ignore the knocking from my roommates who would ask me to come out and play. Alex can’t come out and play; he’s busy, writing masterpieces.

*   *   *

A few years ago, I had a friend who’d become deeply involved with the Pick Up Artist (PUA) scene. It seemed as if every couple of weekends he’d jet off to sit in a packed convention hall with hundreds of other men looking for ways to be better at, well, picking up women. He bought a book about it; he kept it on his bedside table.

My friend was a prime target for whomever put on these conventions. He was pulled in by the promise of women knocking at his door, at the potential to be desired. It’s not that he was a player, he explained, it’s just that it’s hard to find a partner when he isn’t meeting anyone. “I’m not looking to bang bitches,” he said, “I want to find love. I just don’t know how to talk to women.”

He learned the techniques. Canned pickup lines. Underhanded compliments. Negging. Animated men in button-downs, sleeves rolled up to the elbow, walked around a stage and spoke into headset-microphones about how much success they’d had. How many numbers they could pull in a night. How many women they had stored in their cellphones. How, if you follow these simple steps, you too could be swimming in pussy.

At the bar with my friend, we nursed our drinks and eyed potential partners. He explained to me how you needed to make an observation about her appearance without being too complimentary. “Let her know you’re paying attention,” he said, “but don’t give her the validation she seeks.” These words made me cringe. He is a kind man, I thought. We’ve embraced. We’ve shared vulnerable moments. We’ve smoked cigars late into the night and shared our hopes. These are not his words. These are not his ideas. Where has he gone? Where did that fedora come from?

We stopped talking for a while; I was not interested in hearing about his latest theory on “what women want” and I avoided social gatherings with him, especially ones that might include the targets of his new hobby. Our circles drifted apart for a time.

A few months later, I saw my friend at a house party. We stood in the kitchen, talking about things that friends might talk about. Jokes. Sports. Green cards—we are both Canadian. Then I asked him, with a not-quite-playful smirk, “How’s that PUA thing going for you?”

He grimaced. “I’ve stopped doing that,” he said. “I went to this one talk where the guy basically told us to stop trying to pick up girls. He told us to just be interesting, to be passionate about something. So that’s what I’m doing now. Can you help me pick out a motorcycle?”

*   *   *

Photo credit: Alex Simand

Photo credit: Alex Simand

Where does the balance lie between the writer, sequestered in his room with a brain full of ideas, and the man experiencing life with open eyes and a willing heart? Is the old man writer trope just as fraught as the fedora-clad “player” reciting lines as if from a screenplay? Where does the authentic human live behind the mask of the depressive writer?

I’ve read some of the work I produced while holed up alone in my room, and, well, it’s not good. It’s awful, actually. It is self-obsessed, mildly-to-moderately insensitive, and, frankly, cliché. Like my friend and his canned pick up lines, I was trying to impress readers with practiced technique. This sleight of hand doesn’t work, though. It turns out it’s impossible to create compelling human characters when the only human you are interacting with lives in the dusty mirror. It turns out that story lines that ring true require the writer to live, to experience affection, annoyance, thirst, anxiety, and warmth. Being a writer is more about noticing the world than creating a new one from scratch, about catching the oddity of life at a certain angle of refraction. In my need for affirmation as a writer, I avoided the joy of writing just as my friend had ignored the joy of deep human connection.

Now I make space for experience. I carve out time for friends, for nature, for taking neighborhood walks. For having long, protracted conversations with the Palestinian man on the corner about the Middle Eastern peace process. For swinging lazily in the hammock. For gathering figs from the fig tree. For watching the world speed by from a moving train. For engaging with the literary community. This last one, above all, has changed the very nature of how I write. Since starting my MFA, I’ve come to realize that writing is a long conversation, an artistic dialogue we have with history and, more importantly, with other writers.

Like my friend who was once fixated on picking up chicks, I’ve learned that what makes a great writer—or a great partner—is the same thing that makes a great person: curiosity, compassion, empathy, experience. I realized that the goal—for him, romance, and for me, creation—should remain in the periphery, a byproduct of a life well lived. Of course, many of the most interesting of humans will die without ever having told their stories; writing is still a task. It is still a concerted effort, and nothing will change that. But, for me, holding a balance is paramount to creating meaningful work and a happy existence.

Neither my friend nor I were driven by insidious intention when we erred from the path of authenticity. He truly needed affection. I truly wanted to capture the beauty of the world and, dare I say, publish a book. We looked for shortcuts. We learned technique. We applied ourselves to our studies. But eventually we learned that this was not enough, that life is its own adventure, that it bears its own exploration.

Some writers will point at themselves, poke outstretched fingers at their sternums, and proclaim, I am writer. This is who I am, not what I do. It is the very essence of what they are. I fear this does not tell the whole story. We are social creatures. We are naturally engaged in the world around us. We are not just writers: we are mothers, sons, aunts, and uncles. We are watchers of movies, smellers of dahlias, eaters of bacon. We are simple. We are complex. We are not tropes.

Maybe I’m not a writer.

I’m okay with this.

Late Love Letter

When I need a book, I call my mother first. She volunteers at a library bookstore and sometimes you can get what you need there for fifty cents. My creative nonfiction mentor wanted me to read Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, so over a salad lunch together I asked my mom if she’d seen any copies. She said she hadn’t. Then she said, “You know where that comes from, right?”

“What?”

Slouching Towards Bethlehem? Yeats.”

I said no. I didn’t know. So, with a mouth full of lettuce, she said,

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold
…”

My own blank face gleamed at me in her sunglasses. She chewed her salad more and fluttered her free hand, a motion that said what a lark it all was. A motion that swatted any heavy meaning from the air around us. She intoned the rhythms as playfully as one would chant a child’s rhyme.

“Blah, blah…” she said, stabbing at her salad,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?

I had suspected for quite some time (34 years) that I was laboring in my mother’s intellectual shadow, because sometimes she did this. And sometimes over breakfast she would mutter a riff into a big bite of pastry, and I’d be like, what? And she’d say something like,

Come live with me, and be my love,
And we will some new pleasures prove
… you know, Mary. John Donne”.  

IMG_20150501_194612

My mother jumping rope.

Of course, I didn’t know. I rarely do. She’s always in on some irony and I’m always slow to catch up, overwhelmed by the feeling that I will always be chasing her, unmetered, staggering clumsy. Toward Yeats. Toward somewhere else. To a realm of knowing where one walks sure-footed and free. I sense that I chased her into this MFA program, though this is a place she’s never been, because I thought I’d find out how to be. 

In general, I feel suspended just above the world, waiting to alight, unsure of the safe spot. Part of the reason I applied to writing programs was so I could come down for a while. I alit in Law School once, thinking that was a sensible landing. It was not. It was all liquid underfoot and I couldn’t swim. I struggled, taking on water for a year and a half before I was rescued by a surprise pregnancy. I’ll resist extending this metaphor further by mentioning sharks in the water. Or, apparently I will not resist.

Occasionally, listening to a lecture in the MFA program, writing an essay, reading the work of my peers, I feel like I’m in the right place. My feet are planted, heavy. But not all the time. Some days what I think about is people who should be here, who aren’t. How, unlike me, they would know what to write. Like my mother, who quotes John Donne through a cheese danish, trying to illustrate a point about the plod of meter.

*     *     *

“Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.”
+++++++++++++–Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook” from
Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

When I was five, I received a diary. It had a tiny metal lock, the key to which I promptly lost. (I broke into my own journal from then on.) The first entry was a poem that began,

An ocean wave at night
is such a lovely sight…

I’ll spare you the subsequent bits where I trip ungainly from the image of the wave to its sound, nor will I dwell on the “complicated” rhyme scheme that unfolds. I was five. You have to start somewhere. On good days I think I have improved.

The point is, I had a mother who I never saw writing, but who I knew to be a writer. In childhood I absorbed her unspoken obsession. I wanted to be facile with language, the way she always was. When someone gave me a little pink journal, I attempted a poem. Maybe a paean. (As everything would turn out to be.) I interpret Didion’s words to suggest writing as a loss-abatement. How cruel it is that when we love people we compulsively imagine their absence. It’s clear to me now that putting pen to paper was always, will always be, my preemptive strike against losing my mother.

*     *     *

For a while my mom worked as a server for a fancy catering company. One summer, cash-poor, in my twenties, I decided to try a couple gigs with her. Early on, the supervisors called an all-hands meeting to go over policy and personal presentation. The serving uniform was a fairly ornate derivation of a tux. My mom and I arrived at the meeting to find a line of employees waiting outside. They were being admitted, single file, after the owner inspected them. Ahead of us, one of the owners was berating a server, at a high volume, for the slack tuck of his shirt. A following employee was harangued about an unacceptably smudgy cummerbund. And on, and on. (“Those socks are navy blue, not black, and why can I even see them?”) My mother and I slouched toward the entrance and I became increasingly alarmed. I wasn’t worried about how I looked. (This particular era in my aesthetic self-history is illustrated by how I cut my own hair: blind, upside down, over a trash can.) But any criticism of my mother would have been too much to bear, considering that to me, she was in most ways perfect. I raged, Don’t you know who she is? 

As it happened, we were admitted without comment. We were advised to respect ourselves more (be smudgeless) so that the clients would know we respected them. We were to be helpful, not obsequious. We’d be elegant, pleasant vessels for cheese and endive and all things bacon-wrapped. I was, at this point in my life (and lots of other points including this very moment), trying to figure out who I was and what kind of mark I could possibly make. The catering job tasked people with cleverly disappearing. People including my mother, who I felt was a poet and above reproach. 

In the car on the way home I said, “Mom, how can you stand working for these assholes?”

She seemed surprised by my question. Then she laughed, which was irritating because I was feeling so surly about it all. Maybe she laughed because she’s worked so many restaurant jobs in her life that having your cuff-crease scrutinized is not a foreign ordeal. It could be that she laughed because I was being a righteous twenty-something with weird hair and a perpetual bone to pick. But probably she laughed because they had no idea who she was. No one has any idea who she is. Except her.

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Photo credit: Mary Birnbaum

We catered fancy weddings all summer and when the parties ended my mom never let anyone throw out the leftover cake. After all those hours on a dessert table, the tiers started to lean like the party guest who never got asked to dance, my mom would dump the uneaten cake into ziplock bags and take it home. (She can’t let a beautiful thing slip by.) I ate the butter cream at home with a spoon, right out of a baggie. They were all sugar-slick berries and sweet sponge.

*     *     *

If things were different, my mother would be doing what I think she ought to. She would give us a very good book. I probably wouldn’t understand all of it. Far more than she is, I am acutely aware of a widening gyre. (The gyre here not Europe’s postwar demise, but a more idiosyncratic dread.) Can I stave off the presentiment of loss by trying to write? I don’t know.  It’s true that less these days I have the feeling I might float off. There is, after all, no real way to circumvent all the sad stuff, no way to truly dam up the inevitable losing. But one could take a page out of their mother’s unwritten book and make time to notice beautiful things.  

I think it’s possible that you can be a writer without ever putting pen to paper. But for me, writing keeps dread at bay. Being in an MFA program helps, for lots of reasons. The people here are kind. There are a lot of literary tattoos among them (both physical and metaphysical, I imagine) and many of the writers at Antioch believe in justice and art and sometimes there are snacks. I had several cannoli at the residency. And the book recommendations are excellent. Like, sometimes you’re reading something your mentor suggests and answers to all your life questions come peeling off the pages.

This is an uncharted psychic place, where everything around me becomes possible narrative. Now that I’m here, a central battle is figuring out what exactly to type. Currently, I’ve got half-baked essays about sharks, Disneyland, door-to-door religion peddling, Sigourney Weaver, aliens (unrelated to Sigourney Weaver), a childhood ferry boat ride, ghosts, parrots and karaoke. A lot of the time my hands hover over my laptop, wary of commitment and bad word choices, of being superfluous or unfit. Worrying, Is it as good as she would have made it?

Perhaps in uncertain times, a pause is in order. Stop what you’re doing. Write a love letter.

This Is How I Say Goodbye

I haven’t been to the place where my father isn’t buried, only ashes and the idea of him. I haven’t said my goodbyes over the patch of grass where his body doesn’t lay, stretched out as I imagine him in his dark bed the last moments of his life. Instead, my goodbyes scatter throughout the decade of his illness; through all the things it took from him and from me, through all the voids it left behind.

My father and I were always reflections of each other, both people of few spoken words. We were able to sit in silence, each aware the presence of the other was enough to fill the space between our two quiet bodies. Often times the only sound was the clink of a spoon on a bowl full of cereal from a bag I had to open once his fingers no longer could. By then we’d said goodbye to our Sunday breakfast in restaurants. By then he needed two hands to feed himself.

In his final years his body became thin, and his pajamas fluttered around the angles of his bones like a flag staked in the ground, always a whispered reminder: I’m still here. But I had already mourned the father in suits who taught me to always do my best. Have respect for even the simplest things you do and do them well, he would tell me when I was still small and sitting under his desk. I played with his staple remover while he talked; I liked to pretend the metal prongs were a monster’s jaws. But now I’m thirty-one, my advice-giver is gone, and the monster is no longer something I can hold in my hands.

Sometimes I imagine scattering his ashes and other times I think I’ll just sit at his gravestone with nothing to say. I’ve spent entire evenings re-imagining our last phone call, and I constantly ask myself what it is I’d really want to tell him if I could. But the answer is still nothing. What I want more than anything can’t be done or said. It’s simply his presence. One more time, I want to sit next to him in stillness without having to speak; no hello or goodbye or even I love you—I don’t need to say what he already knew.

The tangle of long-term, terminal illness is that death is both always and never quite real, so when the end finally comes there is no abrupt and dramatic departure. It passes more like phases of a cold moon, eventually leaving nothing but darkness behind. When he died, I felt as though I’d been waving to him from a great distance for many years. I grieved each layer of the man he once was as it peeled back to reveal someone new, and I became lost when the last piece was finally torn away. I struggled with letting go until I realized that the only goodbye I truly need to say is to this part of my life. I have to step over the line, into the world that now exists without him, to gather everything he left behind—all of the words and memories, left just for me.

In the silence of my grief I’ve found an empty space to put my father back together. In my mind and my heart I can return to him what his many years of suffering took away. I can reconstruct him in all of his forms until he is whole again, free from his illness, where he can rest quietly beside me, saying absolutely nothing at all.

Heather MingusHeather Mingus holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Jaded Ibis Press’ Lit Blog Bleed, Brevity Poetry Review, Eunoia Review, as well as numerous discontinued magazines and websites. She lives and writes in Chicago.

Slowing Down #2 – Being Quiet

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Photo credit: Stacie Chaiken.

A few nights ago, I was on my way from Denver to Creede, Colorado. I arranged to sleep in a little red Coleman tent on the grounds of a farm just outside Salida, about midway between. I found it on Airbnb. It cost thirty-four dollars.

The rain graciously waited to start until I zipped up and tucked in. The sky on my walk from the bathroom in the house had been huge and clear and dotted with stars, with no trace of the clouds that unleashed the sudden downpour that continued intermittently throughout the night.

I didn’t sleep at all, for listening. There was the soft drumming of the rain, and then there was the quiet.

I heard a whoosh as some small critter scurried by my side of the tent, inches from my pillow.

There were crickets. More rain. More quiet.

*     *     *

Last month, I wrote about slowing down, taking the bus, letting go of control. This month, I’m interested in quiet and the space it opens for creation.

In On Writing, Stephen King talks about the writer’s relationship with her muse. He imagines his muse as a burly man for whom he has built a basement apartment. His muse hangs out there underground, smoking cigars and polishing his bowling trophies.

The writer’s job, King says, is to keep regular working hours in a prescribed place. That way, in the rare event the stubborn muse has any inclination to ascend, he-she-it-they-ze knows where to find you.

So I was lying there in that tent. I was supposed to be sleeping, but I couldn’t sleep. I made a conscious decision not to listen to music, not to read my novel, not to fill the emptiness. I lay still, listening to the rain and the critters, trying to figure out if that thing tickling my nose was a strand of hair. Or was it a spider?

Hey, muse, I thought, whoever you are. I’m here in this little red tent. Come get me.

At the center of King’s good book—along with a call to diligence and dependability—is an invitation to mysticism and magic. It’s not exactly what I expected from a guy who churns out novels like he does.

Quiet. Silence. Stillness that leaves room for the muse to enter.

*     *     *

Creede is a silver mining town in the southern part of the state. The closest you can get to Creede by plane, train, or bus is Alamosa, a couple of hours away. You can’t rent a car in Alamosa, so I came in through Denver, which is five hours away, including the down, up, and around you have to do to get between rocks spewed by ancient volcanoes. There is no getting to Creede as the crow flies, unless you’re a crow. Or you have steel wings of your own, which a handful of summer Creedites do.

Photo credit: Stacie Chaiken.

Photo credit: Stacie Chaiken.

The mines closed for not-so-good in 1986, leaving the place barren and deeply poor, except for the Creede Repertory Theatre. The theatre and the folks it drew to Creede pretty much saved the town.

My director Pam Berlin worked at the theatre in the seventies. She wound up buying a summer house about ten miles out of town. I was on my way to Creede to work with Pam on the final draft of a solo play I was commissioned to write in Israel. It took me a long time to figure out what I had to say about the time I spent there during the Second Intifada.

Pam is based back in New York; I’m in LA. Creede is a good middle ground. It’s also big-sky fierce and full of ear-splitting quiet.

*     *     *

At the beginning of every new year, at the opening of every new project period, I make a vow to give myself regular writing hours, but something always comes up. I get the work done. I meet my deadlines. I fulfill my obligations.

But I find myself longing for the kind of structure King prescribes, designed to open the possibility of bringing forth work that is more than the sum of narrative and presumed meanings.

Inviting the muse. Alchemy.

*     *     *

The first morning in Creede, Pam and I took a six and a half-mile walk with friends and dogs up a hill in the direction of an abandoned saw mill. We were at about ten thousand feet. Unaccustomed to the altitude, I struggled to breathe as we hiked through vast fields, intricate with miniature wildflowers.

As we approached the mill, I fell behind as Pam and the others forged onward. Without their company and conversation, I became aware of the soundscape of breathing and the bees and the wind. Quiet. I saw Pam about a hundred feet ahead, waving her arms, clearly shouting to me. She has a good strong voice, trained to travel. I couldn’t hear her. The thin, clean air, the hollow of the valley surrounded by peaks swallowed her voice completely.

Alone, but not alone. Hey, muse, here I am. Come get me.

Photo credit: Stacie Chaiken.

Photo credit: Stacie Chaiken.

The strong sun. The dense flora at my feet. At that height—with that heat, that aridity—all that survive are fine grasses, those delicate flowering things. One reddish grass was nearly invisible when seen from above, but the many of those insubstantial wisps miraculously caught the light when seen en masse, transforming the field into a shimmering ocean of pink and green.

Disparate strands coming together, gorgeous and unexpected.

*     *     *

Looking back: Lori, the Airbnb host who rented me the red tent in Salida,  sent a text saying she would not be around when I got there the other day. Don’t worry, she said, her son Kenny promised he’d be there at four to show me around.

When I arrived at the farm, I followed the road to the house, a big do-it-yourself log affair. I banged on the door, peered through the windows. No one was there.

I cruised around, finally found that red tent from the photo online. As I approached, a black horse sauntered over, offered me her nose through the wire fence. There was a llama on the ground behind the horse who could not be bothered to even look up when I said hello.

I shouted for Kenny, the son who was supposed to be there to greet me. Goddammit. I had to pee. Where was the fucking bathroom?

It was crazy. Here was a tent, a horse, a llama, a blue cloud-smeared sky. There was no one around. I could have peed behind a tree, or out in the open. How sweet would that have been?

But I flew to irritation, aggravation, rage against injustice. The promised Kenny was not there. I was being ripped off. Thirty-four dollars. Noise.

Heche en Nu Yorica. That’s how I’m wired.

Defaults aside, it takes intentionality and practice to carve out time and space within which we pay a different kind of attention, apply an uncharacteristic sort of patience, exercise a different kind of doing.

Time and space to be quiet, like that silent, apparently oblivious, low-lying llama.

I wonder, might he be my muse?

A Handy Guide to Losing Your Imagination

“All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

-Pablo Picasso

On the first day of a weeklong creative writing camp, Joshua, Dylan, and Darcy settled into their seats on the couches. Through introductions I learned that, while Joshua was nine like everyone else, he had skipped to the seventh grade. Last year he learned about outer space and knew the exact number of days it takes to get from Earth to anywhere else in our solar system. He said, irritated, that all he ever writes are essays in class and (no offense, Miss Lyndsay) he does not want to be here. I assured him this wasn’t that kind of class.

I explained the warm-up game: each person will develop a character, and I will interview him or her as that character. I’ll ask questions like: what are your hobbies? Do you have any defining physical traits? If a friend were to describe you, what would he or she say about your personality?

Joshua volunteered to go first. He created a young girl, Lilly, who fit every Hollywood stereotype for misunderstood nerd—straight-A student, shy, duct tape over the bridge of her glasses—but had, for one reason or another, superpowers.

Dylan went last. She hadn’t spoken aside from her introduction, when she couldn’t think of a favorite book or genre she preferred.

“My character is a talking one-year-old baby,” she said, staring at her kneecaps and fidgeting fingers. Before Dylan could say the baby’s name, Joshua interrupted.

“One-year-olds can’t talk, that’s impossible.”

Since taking this job last September, I’ve learned that this moment, when one child polices another child’s imagination, is precisely why Creative Writing Instructor is a necessary job. I am employed to ensure a child’s imagination stays intact, to undo the stigma surrounding wrongness. The rule repeated during every quarterly teaching meeting: No censorship.

“In Dylan’s story, this one-year-old can talk,” I said. “Dylan, tell me about your character’s personality.”

*   *   *

I’m six when I write my first song. It’s called Baby, and it’s not about anyone in particular; I simply believe all the best songs are love songs. I spend the afternoon writing on Dad’s typewriter, one song and then another, until dinnertime.

*   *   *

In 2006, Sir Ken Robinson delivered what’s recognized today as the most watched TED presentation, Do Schools Kill Imagination? Around the three-minute mark, Robinson makes this bold statement: “All kids have tremendous talents. And we squander them, pretty ruthlessly… My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.”

He shares an anecdote about a six-year-old girl in art class, who told her teacher that she was drawing God. Her teacher said no one knows what God looks like, to which the girl responded, “They will in a minute.”

Children as young as this girl haven’t yet gained an understanding of right versus wrong in terms of art, and not having that frankly debilitating distinction allows room for creativity.

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original,” Robinson says. “By the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened to be wrong. And we run our companies that way—we stigmatize mistakes. And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst things one can make.”

 *   *   *

I’m eleven, and Dad’s prepared pancakes for the family. My mom and sister haven’t woken up yet, so I’m allowed to stack as many on my plate as I want. It’s nice being Dad’s favorite daughter, I think—okay, fine, maybe he’s never admitted that, but he hasn’t denied it, either.

“Dad, what’s it like being a musician?” I ask. Last night I’d overheard him on the phone saying the recording studio at Dave’s house was ready. I want to be like him when I grow up. As it is, I spend every afternoon locked in my room, serenading the invisible audience sitting on my bed with songs I’ve scribbled in spiral notebooks. I have almost enough material for a demo tape. I hope to use Dad’s recording equipment.

“You know, kid, I’m not like those celebrities you listen to.” Dad bites into his pancakes. Sure, I know he isn’t a fulltime musician; he cleans swimming pools fulltime, wears a daily uniform of basketball shorts and t-shirts, stained and riddled with holes from chlorine splatter. He plays a gig or two a month, usually at the marina just south of our home or at holiday parties. But he’s good. Dad’s really good. “Tell me something. What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“A singer-songwriter. You know that.”

Next to Dad are invoices for his customers, a stack of envelopes, and a roll of stamps. “That’s unrealistic, sweetheart. You aren’t that good.”

“But I’m practicing,” I argue, and softer, soft enough that maybe he doesn’t hear: “I’ll get better.”

“I want you to study hard, go to college, get a good, stable job. I know you like singing and writing, but just don’t bet on that. Okay, kiddo?”

He moves his empty plate aside and starts folding invoices and stuffing them into envelopes. I don’t want him to know I feel disappointed, and slightly embarrassed for believing one day I’d follow in his footsteps, log a few hours in his recording studio. I think of the Grammy acceptance speech I’d rehearsed, memorized. Why keep the songs now? There will never be a demo. When Dad asks me to please wet a paper towel for him, I abide.

 *   *   *

Writopia Lab, a nonprofit devoted to teaching creative writing to children and teens, and the company that generously employs me, opened its doors in 2007 in New York City. Founder Rebecca Wallace-Segall delivered a TEDxYouth talk about why writing creatively—as opposed to writing academically—is important for children, even though it cannot be graded or judged by scholastic standards.

She talked about a student of hers, Theo, who was angry about creative writing assignments in school. Theo recognized that he should be satisfied with a platform that allowed him to be who he really was and do what he loved, but he wasn’t. What Theo meant is this: there is a difference between the writing we create for ourselves and to inspire others, and the writing we do to meet expectations.

In early June I met with the regional manager of Writopia Lab Los Angeles, Jan Edwards. That week I struggled with teaching six high school students. One student refused to write dialogue because it was just too hard. Another spent all of class making plot diagrams, but writing nothing. I was most alarmed when I asked the students to develop characters and three named preexisting ones. When I asked them to create a plot line for these characters, one said, “I mean, you’ve watched The Simpsons, haven’t you? That’s the plot line.”

In every group I teach, there is a wealth of creativity, even if it takes some nudging and encouragement on my part. But I’ve noticed that, starting as early as third grade, students want permission for this creativity. A kid will raise his or her hand: “Miss Lyndsay, can my character be a mouse?”

When I mentioned this to Jan, she said, “Kids stop being encouraged to be imaginative around the same time they start being asked to write essays in school. It results in kids feeling ashamed, even of things they one-hundred percent know the answer to.”

She mentions that this shift happens when kids start telling other kids how one must act, look, and dress. Physical identity, and also imagination, is placed in boxes.

Rebecca’s TEDxYouth talk ends with this: “We learn to write because it feels so good to be understood. We learn to write because it’s so exciting to have a storyline in your mind and to execute it in your vision. We learn to write because it’s cathartic to turn pain into power. We learn to write because we need to.”

*   *   *

I pack up my laptop after my first day teaching creative writing to a group of fourteen year olds. I’m twenty-five and in awe of my students’ creativity: on the spot, each one developed a fleshed out character and storyline, something I’ve never done successfully in a classroom. I call my mom—a woman who made copies of the song lyrics littering my bedroom floor and saved them for my older self—and ask why no one bothered to enroll me in classes like these.

“Your dad didn’t see the use,” she says. “You know, he was very talented, and no one supported his dreams when he was younger, either.”

*   *   *

Joshua, Darcy, and Dylan sat around a wooden table drawing book covers for their stories. Joshua wanted to get Lilly’s dress just right, but in his last three attempts, the character’s torso came out either too long or too short. Darcy’s character, a witch, looked like Snow White. Darcy told us she’s beautiful. Isn’t she beautiful?

The Wall Street Journal reported on the importance of imagination in a child’s cognitive development. “Imagination is necessary for learning about people and events we don’t directly experience, such as history or events on the other side of the world. For young kids, it allows them to ponder the future, such as what they want to do when they grow up.”

When Joshua grows up, he said he wanted to be a chemist. He’s good at science. Darcy had a list of no less than eight possible career options, including mermaid. I asked Dylan what she wanted to be.

“An inventor,” she said. “I want to make a time travel machine. The problem is, I don’t know how to do that.”

“You know the best part of being an inventor, Dylan?” I said. “You get to spend your whole career figuring that out.”

Dylan smiled and returned to coloring her book cover. I didn’t tell her maybe that’s unrealistic, maybe study the sciences but in a different field. No. Instead, Dylan got to remain a kid for at least one more day.

The author with her student after a Barnes & Noble reading. Photo by student's father.

The author with her student after a Barnes & Noble reading. Photo by student’s father.

Seasonal, Lunchtime in Atlantic City, & Postscript

SEASONAL

Hindu Santa stashes
boxes of Just for Men
under the bathroom

sink, bare scalp painted
black with faded tooth
brush bristles. Barbasol

thick on a fluff tip, aloe
slathered smooth on salty
cinnamon scruff, snow

scraped with disposable
Gillette green, tapped clean
in the cracked pink sink:

glean under the warm
jet of a speckled faucet.
Hands soapy from a dollar

bar of Yardley, hardly
saw the Barbie bubble bath
in the back cabinet corner.

 

LUNCHTIME IN ATLANTIC CITY

Lined up outside
the cafeteria,
fingers to lips,
clutched lunch tickets:
white paper money

with typewritten names
perforated edges
and hole-punched corners.
School lunch menu
taped to the fridge,

highlighted Fridays
for Ellio’s and Domino’s:
Ma finally filled out
free lunch forms. Quit
work after Dada

said I’d toss bits
of her half-eaten
food in the trash bin
after I waved to Tony
the tattooed custodian.

But I can eat cool
school lunch now:
tried a hot dog for
the first time,
ate beef by mistake,

confessed and cried to Ma.
I worried I’d die.
Don’t do it again,
Mamoni! Shards of her
Bengali bangles

ricocheted off
my forehead. Today
I’ll eat chicken nugget
lunch with my best friends:
we wrote Spice Girl names

on the backs of our tickets,
wore matching white
shirts and navy
skorts, rolled down
our scalloped socks.

Girl Power peace signs
paired with white
pantyhose and Payless
flats as we chant
boys go to Jupiter

to get more stupider!
Girls go to college
to get more knowledge!
We laugh, lock arms,
walk in, let go—

hungry hands grab
shrink-wrapped plastic
utensils, cardboard
chocolate milk cartons
and aluminum-lipped

juice boxes, shoved in
Styrofoam lunch tray
quadrants beside jello
blocks, tater tots
and packets of sauce.

I hand my torn-
cornered ticket
to the kind-eyed
cashier, look back
at the long line

of school-uniformed
lunch-ticketed
Latino, Black
and Asian kids
disappearing

behind the nurse’s
office: we will
never look like
the Spice Girls.
Cramped between

white benches
bolted into black
linoleum, mixing
condiments on
corners of trays:

mayonnaise
with mustard,
barbecue, ketchup:
colored away
in grade school days.

 

POSTSCRIPT

Memory would reveal
the soft fibers
of the white crochet blanket
on top of the green couch
in your basement, where we’d drink
Layer Cake red wine
out of cracked, clear plastic cups.
I’d wear your sweater
that we picked out at Goodwill
with green and brown squares
all over it; you’d pull my bracelets
up my wrists to see the tan lines
beneath them, and trace
the outline of my lips
as they parted ever so slightly;
and when we’d sit crossed-legged
on the beige carpet,
our noses and foreheads
pressed against each other—
I could feel you laugh.

Anuradha BhowmikAnuradha Bhowmik is a Bangladeshi-American poet from South Jersey. She is an MFA candidate in poetry at Virginia Tech, and she graduated with a B.A. in Women’s & Gender Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2015. Anuradha has been awarded a Grin City Collective Emerging Artist Residency, as well as scholarships to the New York State Summer Writers Institute and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Susquehanna Review, The Boiler, and elsewhere.