Connection via Language

My trip home from residency usually takes anywhere from 5 to 8 hours, depending on connection times. Over the years, I’ve come to look forward to my plane rides as important transition time, allowing me several hours of limbo to catch up on email, get reacquainted with my calendar, read, write, or just space out, letting all the events and exchanges of the previous ten days drift through my mind, settling into their resting places in my memory.

This time, on my way home, I spent much of my flight from Omaha to Chicago writing in my journal. I started writing as the plane was still boarding, and only looked up for a polite moment when a woman sat down beside me. We rode together in silence for the first half of the flight; she read a magazine, I wrote, each in our own carefully-observed space. Until I hit a lull in my sentence-making and lifted my head.

“Are you a journaler or a writer?” she asked.

“Both,” I replied. And her face lit up. She went on to tell me about a book she’d started writing years earlier about her adopted daughter, but hadn’t yet been able to finish. I told her about our MFA program, and she glowed still brighter. The very idea that people took time out of their lives to pursue this particular passion—even that someone would use a plane ride to write—was inspiring news for her.

If you’ve been prioritizing writing in your life for a long time, her reaction might seem overblown. It felt that way to me at first. I was just blathering on in my journal, after all, writing nothing of consequence. But I realized later that her reaction was a demonstration of how vital the act of writing can be. Very few people get the time to prioritize it, to make it part of their daily working lives. Those of us who do are lucky.

Once again, doing the writing reminded me of why I do it. The sheer act of translating experience into words, in public, shattered a wall of politeness and built a bridge instead. We learned each other’s names (hers was Shelli). I gave her my card, and we promised to keep in touch. Connection via language. Isn’t this what writing is?

_____

Amy Hassinger

Hey, It Could Happen

This is how I’m imagining it: last night on Air Force One, after the President of the United States tired of listening to his aides discuss this and that for far longer than a lame duck president should have to listen, the POTUS stood up and stretched his tall, lanky body toward the ceiling of the jet’s briefing room. He’s tall enough to touch the ceiling and there are faint marks there of his handprints. The cleaning staff can’t bear to wash them away and the people in charge of “important” stuff don’t look up at the actual ceiling often, what with their focus on the horizon, so the marks stay, a secret the workers share amongst themselves.

Just as the POTUS turns toward his sleeping quarters, yawning as he goes, another aide comes in with the gift the Governor of Nebraska had handed him earlier in the day – a book, now processed according to protocol of the Federal Protocol Gift Unit policies, a book, now listed in the Daily Journal of the United States Government, a book written by an obscure author from Nebraska. The Governor didn’t have to read the book before he gave it, as many people who read many books had vetted it. He had received his copy just that morning when he signed the proclamation declaring said book the 2016 One Book One Nebraska selection. (I’m still working on the part of this fantasy where the book actually changed hands.)

Anyway, the POTUS takes the book and glances at the cover. It’s a nice cover, the photograph of storm clouds on the horizon compelling, as is the title, The Meaning of Names. He’s tired though so he doesn’t think he’ll read tonight. Still, it’s such a nice looking book, maybe just a sentence or two. “When Gerda was five, her older sister came home to die. No, not to die, to give birth, but dying is what she did.”

The POTUS has a soft spot in his heart for women and their stories, as many men raised by and married to strong women often do, and so he decides to read a couple of more sentences just to see what’s up.

At 2:06 a.m. President Obama shuts off his bedside lamp. Michelle will like this book, he thinks, as he dozes off. It’s not just about Nebraska, he will tell her, it’s about the grit and integrity of the American people, about the dangers of “othering” people from different backgrounds, about facing dangers and the importance of families and communities. Just read it, he will tell her. You’ll love it. I know I did.

A girl can dream, can’t she?

Parts of this fantasy are true. On January 13, 2016, Governor Pete Ricketts did sign a proclamation declaring my novel The Meaning of Names the One Book One Nebraska for 2016; At the Proclamation ceremony (a three to five minute event in a line of several proclamation signings) I did have the chutzpah to not only give the governor a signed copy of the novel, but also to offer another copy for him to give to President Obama when he greeted him in Omaha later in the day. I didn’t plan it. I just did it.

My inscriptions in both books were scribbled quickly and I can only hope they were coherent, or illegible if they weren’t. It was a rash decision that may yield nothing more than a whole lot of fun among my writing community. A journalist friend has already published a column about the experience, summarizing my Facebook posts wherein I bemoan being stood up by the governor who ditched me for the POTUS, only to be surprised that he didn’t ditch me and instead gave me a grand opportunity put a copy of my book into Obama’s hands. I told her I hadn’t stopped laughing and smiling all day after I handed the governor the books.

How can I not smile about this? Think about it, the president, a Democrat, and the Nebraska governor, a Republican, may, just may, have a copy of the same book on their bedside table. At the UNO MFAW residencies I’ve given more lectures on the importance of working together than I’ve given on any other topic. Sure, I give the lectures different titles, but basically I keep hammering that same theme. We rise or fall together, I say. The purpose of art is to push back the darkness, I say again and again.

The books I handed the governor yesterday weren’t just my books, they were gifts of peace, of connection. I hope those small sheaves of paper and ink are up to the true and mighty task I dream for them.

—–

Karen Shoemaker

A Personal Example of the ‘Always Say Yes’ Rule

When recently participating in an alumni panel on ‘Life After the MFA’ at the summer residency, Sarah McKinstry-Brown (author of the award winning Cradling Monsoons) gave some advice that happened to strike a personal chord. In telling people how to get involved in a professional writing life after graduation, she advised that they should “always say yes.” The context behind this was that we never know when a writing-related opportunity that doesn’t sound like what we want can often end up leading to the very ones for which we’ve specifically been searching.

The reason that this struck me was it reminded me of a situation I encountered only a few months prior. A blog editor of [Pank] (as well as author of Women Who Pawn Their Jewelry and A Woman Traces the Shoreline), Sheila Squillante, shared a submission call on Facebook for a Two of Cups Press bourbon poetry anthology: Small Batch.

My first reaction was to dismiss the idea because I don’t really write poetry. However, though I don’t drink anymore, bourbon is something to which I’ve been quite close. I have a reverence for bourbon that made me want to get involved (even though I don’t really write poetry). Unable to help myself, I wrote what I believed to be a witty comment on Sheila’s post to the effect: “I thought bourbon was already a poem.” I felt very self-satisfied and thought that was it until a saw a follow up comment: “Looks like someone has a submission.”

At that moment, I sat back from the computer. Did I have a submission? Since I actually responded to the prompt, however flippantly, should I actually try to sit down and write a poem?

Well, I did. I didn’t just stick with that line, instead making an actual effort at turning it into a real (though short) poem. I kept it simple, trying to recreate what I felt from when I saw the post to when I gave what (I felt) was my koan-like response. Then I submitted and decided that the experience itself was something I needed even if it didn’t go anywhere further.

However, I then got a reply to my submission. They loved “A Bourbon Poetry Submission.” They wanted to include it in the anthology. More surprisingly, they wanted to use my poem in the forward to the book. I was surprised. I was flattered. Heck, I was ecstatic.

This all came back to me when I heard Sarah’s words at the panel. I need to take her of advice more, but this popped into my head as proof of what can happen when you do what she said. Say yes to opportunities that you hadn’t really considered, because you just never know what is going to happen.

*****

David S. Atkinson is the author of Bones Buried in the Dirt and the forthcoming The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes (EAB Publishing, expected spring 2014). His writing appears in Bartleby Snopes, Grey Sparrow Journal, Interrobang?! Magazine, Atticus Review, and others. His writing website is http://davidsatkinsonwriting.com/ and he spends his non-literary time working as a patent attorney in Denver.