Please welcome Bethany Reid as our guest today. Bethany earned an MFA and a PhD from the University of Washington. Her poetry, essays, and book reviews have appeared in regional and national journals, including Blackbird, Santa Clara Review, Prairie Schooner, Pontoon, Calyx, Studies in the Novel, The New England Quarterly, and Twins. Her chapbook, The Coyotes and My Mom, was published in a limited edition in 1990 by Bellowing Ark Press, and Sparrow won the 2012 Gell Poetry Prize, selected by Dorianne Laux, and was published by Big Pencil Press. Bethany lives in Edmonds, Washington, with her husband and three daughters.
For most of my teaching career, I taught community college students—all ages and many backgrounds, including women returning to the workforce after rearing children, formerly homeless youth, and military veterans. My students often felt as though other people could write, but not them. But you don’t have to have scads of time, special equipment, not even a room of your own in order to write. You have a story, and you get to tell it.
Writing as a Small Sturdy Boat
What does writing feel like to you?
This was one of the first questions I asked my freshman composition students, back when I was teaching two or three sections of English 101 each academic quarter. I didn’t just ask, they had to write a response in-class. I didn’t allow abstractions, no words like “frustrated” or “happy.” I wanted a picture. If they wished, they could actually draw a picture instead of writing a description. To clarify further, I didn’t want to see anyone sitting at a desk in front of a notebook or keyboard. Not propped in bed. Not at Starbucks. I wanted an image, a metaphor that represented the feeling that writing gave them.
The negative images my student writers produced astounded me.
- Like that dream where I’m giving a speech and I don’t have any pants on.
- Like a pothole.
- Like a cow tangled in a barbed wire fence.
- Like being devoured by fire ants.
One student wrote, memorably, “Writing is like digging out my eye with a rusty spoon.”
After they wrote, we sat in a circle and shared our images aloud. This was useful in and of itself. The students felt listened to, and they realized that they weren’t alone. With luck, they heard at least a few more positive possibilities for how writing might make them feel. Toward the end of our discussion, I liked to share Alice Walker’s metaphor, writing as “a very sturdy ladder out of the pit.” I might read a poem, maybe Richard Wilbur’s “The Writer,” and we would talk about heavy chains and iridescent, flying creatures.
I also shared my own metaphor for writing—a small boat.
I first came across my small boat in a book by Thich Naht Hahn, who advises that in a crisis a person can concentrate on keeping her own small boat from capsizing. (A little scary, to think how much of my life in those days felt like crisis.) I had three young daughters, a husband, a house, the usual burdens and blessings, plus the lucky, tenure-track, full-time teaching job. I dreamed of being a writer, a real writer, whatever that was. In the meantime, I got up early each morning and wrote in my journal before leaving the house to go to work. My daughters got older and more independent. I kept writing. I wrote in my minivan during their soccer practices and swim lessons. I wrote on my lunch break and between advising appointments. I eked out poems and a few essays and short stories, even several drafts of a novel. Writing was my small boat, but like Walker’s ladder, it was sturdy.
I confess to having felt overwhelmed and beleaguered in those years (nicely nautical terms, overwhelmed, beleaguered). My boat and I were out in a storm, it was dark, I didn’t have any oars, and there was no land in sight. I clung to the gunwales and salt waves chapped my hands. That was okay. All I had to do was stay calm and keep my small boat from going under. All I had to do was keep writing.
Then, two years ago, my boat and I retired from full-time teaching, a little ahead of schedule, as my mother was ill and my youngest daughter had reached that age where she needed more attention. (A lot more attention.)
So for two years I have helped with my mother’s care, and I have kept tabs on my teenager and her friends. I have done a lot of driving, and I still write in my car. I have continued to eke out a few pages here and there. My writing process feels, even now, like a small boat. It may be sturdy, but it’s adrift.
This is enormously frustrating, so frustrating that I think I finally understand the potholes and tangled barbed wire that my students used to serve up. For so many years I thought, If only I weren’t teaching, then I could write. After two years, shouldn’t I have finished—definitively—that draft of a novel? Shouldn’t my short stories be published? Shouldn’t I be reworking my stories and sending them out, at the very least? Shouldn’t I be churning out a memoir about my mother’s illness?
Writing in my journal one morning recently, as I unraveled a lucid dream—one of those dreams in which I had the uncanny experience of questioning what happened in the dream, while dreaming—I remembered working with my students’ images. Look closely. Ask questions, I used to tell them. I thought again of my student gouging out her eye with a rusty spoon.
- Why a spoon?
- What does a spoon symbolize?
- What else might one do with a spoon, besides digging out one’s eye?
- What if this image could be converted into one of nourishment?
- What if you put a can of beans beside the spoon? Or a bowl of ice cream?
Scribbling all of this down in my journal, I returned to my own image for writing—that small boat. Yes, the boat had stayed afloat. It was a good boat and it worked for me, had worked for decades. I’m grateful. But, now, when I really do have more time on my hands, is it really all that much better than the worst of my students’ constricting, limiting images?
- Why a small boat?
- Why not oars?
- Isn’t my pen kind of like an oar? Aren’t I moving somewhere, intentionally, when I put my pen to the paper?
- Why not imagine a break in the clouds, or the pink of dawn on the horizon?
- Why not see some land in the distance?
- Why not row in that direction?
I still like my small, sturdy boat, and I confess that I’m not ready to overturn it and splash anywhere, boatless. But my point in sharing this story is that, no matter how you imagine your writing life, it is yours. You dreamed up this image, just as much as a novelist dreams up a character. You get to interpret it. If you dare, you get to make more of it.
And on closer examination, my small boat turns out to not be the usual sort of boat at all. It’s a bit like Dr. Who’s Tardis, that funny and so English blue police box—bigger on the inside than on the outside, capable of traveling not merely through space, but through time.
What does writing feel like to you?