Archive for the Writing Category

Lit as Protest

Posted in Teaching, Writing on September 6, 2015 by Vince.Puzick

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The Memoirist at the High School Reunion: Part 1

Posted in People, Writing on August 23, 2015 by Vince.Puzick

Mining for gold.  Drinking from a firehose.  Kid in a candy shop.

Whatever idiom used, when you fancy yourself to be a memoirist, going to a high school reunion is not just a trip down memory lane.  It’s not mere reminiscing, this conversation over finger foods;  it’s priming the pump.  It’s kindling for the fire.  It’s prewriting.

I spent about eight hours with folks from my high school’s graduating class, the class of 1975 from William J. Palmer High School, this past weekend.  From teammates on the baseball team, to the academically motivated kids I passed in the hallways but didn’t really share many classes, to the band kids, smoker kids, kids who climbed on rocks — the 100+ or so who made it to the 40th reunion mingled and shared stories of the past and current stories of their present.

In more than a couple of conversations, I started questions with “Do you remember …” which must be some sort of memoirist mantra.  The memoirist is cursed;  remembering isn’t just about the memory filtered by time and distance and shaped by other experiences.  The memory isn’t just about recalling the facts — or something resembling the facts.  As Mary Karr said in her Paris Review interview “More important than remembering the facts, I have to poke at my own innards.” It’s about finding some meaning in the remembered experience, some emotional truth in the facts.

I’d ask “do you remember …” in part to confirm that the experience did, indeed, happen but also to see and hear the emotion behind their recollection.  Did they cringe or grin?  Grimace in disbelief at the “man, we’re lucky to be alive” memory?  I didn’t look at their response to be a mirror of my own recollection (it couldn’t be!) but as a way to access my own response, my own emotion to that memory.

Members of Palmer High's 1975 baseball team. Missing some key guys, though!

Members of Palmer High’s 1975 baseball team. Missing some key guys, though!

So the memoirist at the high school reunion gets to hear different perspectives around shared experiences — which are not shared memories.  A bunch of boys were sitting in the booth in the back of the Bon Pharmacy enjoying cherry cokes (when they actually had to mix the cherry syrup with the Coca-Cola at the fountain) when Dave P (maybe 13 or 14 at the time) snagged that housefly right out of the air and then, for twenty-five cents, swallowed it down.  Taken separately, that event is just evidence of the strangeness of teen boys;  in the bigger context of my life around Bonny Park, it speaks of a time and of relationships that were impactful. Similarly, we were all at Gerry Berry Stadium when Tony S, paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident several months before graduation, received his diploma, pushed across the stage in a wheelchair.  Yes, the scene was emotional.  But it is an event in a larger memory landscape that has meaning, that shapes me, that is part of the arc from the booth at the pharmacy to graduating from high school.

Mary Karr says “With memoir, you have the events and manufacture or hopefully deduce the concept.”  I have the events — and a headful of notes about more.

So if memoirs are beyond the “what” of remembering;  it is the “why” of remembering.  What is worth writing about?  And why is it worthy of that time, energy, and emotion?

I’ll need to get back to you.

A reflective moment on the memoir

Posted in Observations, People, Writing on December 30, 2011 by Vince.Puzick

A friend of mine asked me what I had learned over the course of the year in which I wrote nearly every day for a minimum of 15 minutes and which resulted in the first draft of a memoir.  He said “I mean, learn as a writer or learn about yourself or learn about your family.”

So, what did I learn (as I begin year two with deep revision)?

I learned that with 15 minutes a day one can produce a lot of text — some not so good, some pretty cool, some rough-pine needing to be planed and sanded.  The 15 minutes of writing time were often built on flickering insights or on  glimmers of images and hazy scenes that would get shaped the next day.  Somedays, 15 minutes turned into 30.  On a few occasions, 15 minutes turned into four hours.  Somedays had a seamless movement back into the writing.  Somedays .. not so much.

As a writer, I rush too much.  I rush during the writing and I rush through scenes that need a patient hand to shape.  I want a finished product without the blood and sweat of multiple revisions.  Not gonna happen.  So the writing is uneven, like a wedge of clay not centered correctly on the pottery wheel — it wobbles unsteadily and has weird bulges.  So  I need to craft each part of the text which still seems unwieldy at almost 300 pages.  I should have stuck with fly fishing haiku.

I learned that entry points matter.  The story could have a dozen different “ways in” — and each choice, of course, shapes what comes next.  The essence of my revision right now is due to a move I made with an event that showed up 45 pages deep in the first draft and is now the opening 11 pages .  It was the right move that has resulted in ripple effects through the remainder of the book.

I learned that my family is comprised of incredible individuals — and has been for a long time.  But my immediate family — maybe not so great as a collective “family.”  We experienced — as a family — a lot of devastating events in our history and those events took their toll.  In going through boxes of pictures, old journals from my Aunt Mary, newspapers, receipts — I discovered the twists and turns that shape a heritage, that shape a family history.  I discovered that you can break links in the chain, shape new patterns.  As a friend of mine said when I visited in San Antonio:  the richness is in our inheritance whatever that may be.

I learned that people love “story.”  In the course of the last year, I contacted a man with whom I had lost contact for over 30 years.  Jimmie was instrumental in my life.  A steady and unlikely  influence when I lacked direction,  Jimmie said “get the education” when I was simply so lost I didn’t even know I was lost. When I talked with him in the spring of 2011 (33 years since I last talked with him), he recalled stories and details of our friendship that I thought were just bits and pieces of my own memory.  So I had to ponder a little bit — I know what I got out of my friendship with Jimmie…what did he get out of our 12 month co-worker/friend experience?

Finally, I learned how deeply friendships and family events course through my veins.  If nothing else ever comes of this piece of writing, it brought me not just clarity but an understanding of my family that I never would have otherwise experienced.  Writing shifts thinking.

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defining moment

Posted in Observations, People, Writing on December 28, 2011 by Vince.Puzick

I suppose all families experience a defining event in the life of the family.  Perhaps that defining moment happened years prior in the family’s history and is virtually unknown to present-day family members. For my family, the defining moment was right there in the newspaper, right there in the faces of word-less family friends, right up the street at Mary’s house, and around the corner at Dorothy’s, and in the log-house at 3250 North Cascade.

Some could probably argue that the close physical proximity of the affected families was a blessing, family members so close to each other to help each other work through the pain.  Another argument could be made that the closeness was not a good thing; the four households within two blocks of each other could not console one another because they all suffered a loss that day.  How could one turn to another for a shoulder to cry on when that person was in need of a shoulder herself?

County Road 149

Posted in Writing on November 27, 2011 by Vince.Puzick

 

Janie heard Uncle Steve’s car pull up in the driveway before her mom did and called out to her, “they’re here!”  Janie ran to the door just off of the kitchen, her mom a few steps behind.  The November morning had been cold, but it was warming up now and might reach the 50 degrees the newspaper promised.  Later in the afternoon, though, when Janie would be heading back, it could be chilly again.

Mother and daughter cut across the hard-packed dirt backyard toward Uncle Steve’s 1949 Studebaker.  He waved at his sister-in-law, Betty, and smiled at his niece. In the front seat with Uncle Steve were his nephew, Babe, and his daughter, Cynthia.  Betty went to the passenger side window to give Cynthia, who had just turned three, a big hug.  Steve’s hands flickered in the air.  Babe looked at Betty and said “He says we’ll be back around 3:30.”  Betty smiled at Steve and nodded “ok.”

Uncle Steve met his wife, Dorothy, at theColoradoSchoolfor the Deaf and Blind.  When Steve was three, he had contracted meningitis when the family lived outside of Walsenburg. The illness left him deaf and blind in his right eye.  Before long, his folks moved Steve, Eli, and the two girls, Millie and Mary, toColorado Springs.  When he was a teenager at the D & B, Steve got a crush on a pretty, deaf girl from the country.  Then they fell in love and got married.  Dorothy had to work at the Meadow Gold Dairy store on this particular Saturday, though, or she would have made the trip with her husband to get the girls.

When Uncle Steve was at the D&B, all his siblings learned the sign language alphabet along with him.  When Betty married Eli, she tried to learn it, too, but if Steve or Dorothy signed too fast, she had to ask for help in understanding or for them to repeat what they said.

Janie got in the front seat of Uncle Steve’s car and Cynthia climbed in her lap.  Babe was scrunched in the middle between his Uncle and the two girls.  Betty waved as Uncle Steve pulled his car around and headed back out the drive way toCascade Avenue.

Uncle Steve’s two older daughters were out at their grandparent’s house on this Saturday afternoon.  They had gone out late on Thursday afternoon, Thanksgiving Day, to spend a couple of days with them.  Marilyn and Suzanne were the cutest little girls – blonde curls falling over their shoulders, blue eyes, perpetual bright smiles.  Marilyn was in first grade at Lincoln Elementary, where Janie was in fifth grade.  Suzanne was four years old.

Janie loved playing with them, and she would love the ride back from Matheson with the two older girls with them.  She was glad that Babe wanted to come along, too, because the 50 mile drive seemed like an eternity for a girl just three weeks away from her 11th birthday.  And since Uncle Steve was deaf there would have only been conversation with Cynthia. Even though Janie loved playing with the younger girls, 50 miles with a three-year old could get old pretty quick.

It was just a little after 12:00 when Uncle Steve had the car headed east on Highway 24 to Matheson, a small town in the middle of  the eastern plains of Colorado.  Babe  flipped through the Highlights for Children magazine that he had brought along.  He liked the Word Search games and his third grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary always let him do those when he finished his lessons.  He and Janie would race to see who could find each word first.  He held the magazine in his lap and Cynthia and Janie were pointing at pictures, the younger one pretending to read the words.

—–

Betty checked the kitchen clock and then slid the birthday cake in the oven. Her daughter Deb turned two today, and they would have cake later when Janie got back.

—–

It always seems that the wind is blowing out here, Uncle Steve thought to himself, his eyes sweeping over the brown prairie at the grasses waving in the wind.  He was so busy surveying the prairie that he almost missed the turn off to the dirt road that led to his father-in-law’s farm.

“Whoa,” Janie and Babe squealed as the car slowed suddenly and made the turn north, past the Post Office, on the county road.  They laughed as they tumbled into each other, the Highlights magazine sliding off of Babe’s lap and onto the floorboard.  Janie squeezed Cynthia to keep her from tumbling off the seat, too.

They giggled again as the car bumped over the railroad tracks that paralleled Highway 24.  They watched the prairie, excited that they were only about five minutes from getting the girls.

Marilyn, the oldest of the three girls, saw the dust cloud behind their father’s car first, even before she saw his black car emerge from the little dip in the dirt road, as he speeded up the road to her Grandpa’s house.  She called out to her grandparents and her other sister, Suzanne, that their dad was almost there.  Their grandmother grabbed the little suitcase with their clothes and their dolls and set it on the front porch.

—–

Betty checked the clock and saw that it was almost 1:30.  They’d just be getting there, she thought, and then calculated in her head that Steve would stay to talk for a few minutes and then get back on the road. She figured they would pull in to her driveway around 3:30.  Maybe a little before.  As she was taking the cake out of the oven, her oldest son, Steve, came into the kitchen.

“I thought you were staying downtown to see the movie.”

“Ahh Jimmy never showed up.  I stood outside of the theatre all the way through the first movie.  He never showed.”  Steve’s two youngest siblings, Phil and Deb, were playing at the kitchen table.  “Can I drive the car in the driveway?”

“I guess so,” his mom said.  “But when Janie gets back, we’ll have dinner and then birthday cake.”

—–

Grandpa Lamm called the five kids over to the car as his wife hugged their son-in-law at the driver side door.  The children all scrambled to get in the car.  Marilyn and Cynthia climbed into the front seat. Cynthia sat between her dad and her older sister, who had her arm around her while they played with the hand-made rag dolls their grandma had given them during the visit.  Cynthia was too tiny to even see over the dashboard, and Marilyn was just barely tall enough to see out of the passenger side window.  Marilyn was sure her baby sister – tucked under left arm and snuggling against her — would be asleep not long after they got on the highway into town.

Janie jumped into the back and slid over behind Uncle Steve.  Babe boosted Suzanne into the car. Janie tugged her over close as Babe climbed in and shut the rear door.  They all waved to Grandma and Grandpa Lamm as Steve backed up, swung the Studebaker around, and headed back to County Road 149.

Uncle Steve checked his watch, 1:45, and knew he’d make it back toColorado Springsaround 3:15. He accelerated south down the straight county road toward Matheson.

In the back seat, Babe flipped through the Highlights magazine.  Janie and Suzanne were laughing and giggling as they pulled at the golden yarn pony-tails of the handmade doll in the calico dress.  Little farm-girl rag dolls.

Babe looked out of his passenger side window when he heard the train’s warning horn blow. A flicker of sunlight flashed off the silver and maroon front of the east-bound Rock IslandRocket.  He looked over at his Uncle whose eyes were fixed straight ahead of him down the dirt road.  Babe glanced back at the speeding train which was just passing the grain elevator.

“Train!” Babe yelled as he lunged to tap his Uncle’s shoulder.  The four girls looked up at the sound of their cousin’s voice. Janie shot a glance at Babe across the back seat and saw only the flash of silver light.

—–

A little after 3:15, Betty had finished frosting the cake.

Her son, Steve, was still outside driving his parents’ 1951 Buick.  At 13, he was just a few years from getting his license and his parents let him practice driving the car up and down the driveway, maybe pulling out onCascade Avenueto turn around before heading back down the gravel driveway.

Betty checked the clock again.  They should be pulling into the driveway any time now.

Steve reached the end of the driveway just as a different black car was trying to pull in.  Steve put the car in reverse, stretched his right arm out on the back of the front seat, and began creeping down the driveway in reverse.  He’d glance at the car following him, making sure they were noticing how well he was driving, and then direct his eyes back to the rear-view mirror or check over his right shoulder.

When he got to the side of the house, he put the car in park and rolled down his window, his expression was between a cocky smirk and a confident smile.  He hoped the people in the car were as impressed with his driving skills as he was.  He didn’t know who was in the car, probably some friends of his parents, and they didn’t look happy at all.

An older woman in the back seat rolled down her window.

“Steve, Janie is dead.”

Steve staggered out of the car stuck somewhere between disorientation and disbelief.  “What?”

“Where is your mother?  Janie was killed.”

Steve headed into the kitchen where Betty was finishing up with the cake.  His sister, Deb, and his younger brother, Phil, were playing around at the kitchen table.

“Mom, some lady’s outside.  She said Janie’s dead.”

Betty spun from the kitchen sink.  “Oh no, not my Janie!”  Deb and Phil recoiled at the shrill sound of their mother’s voice.  Eli, who had been watching TV in the living room, ran to the kitchen at the sound of his wife’s scream.  She stood trembling, crying, and stared in shock and disbelief at Steve who delivered the news that shaped the course of my family.

.  Four days later, on a grey and overcast Wednesday morning, six coffins were arranged in a row at theEvergreenCemeteryjust south of downtownColorado Springs.  Five of the coffins were of the size that signaled something terrible happened – five coffins, each small enough to only hold a child, lined up for interment.

Family members sat with friends behind them on cold, hard metal folding chairs as the Lutheran minister laid the children to rest with words that would never soothe the hearts of the mothers or the minds of the fathers who had lost their children.

 

 

The Cat and the Hat and I are the same age

Posted in Observations, Teaching, Writing on April 10, 2011 by Vince.Puzick

One recent morning, in honor of Dr. Seuss’s birthday earlier in the month, I was privileged to read to students at Carver Elementary School in Colorado Springs. I could have chosen any appropriate book, really, to read to the students, but I wasn’t sure which grades would be my audience. As I looked at the choices in the media center, my eyes were drawn to an old favorite: The Cat in the Hat. Even though before I chose the book I was told that I would be reading to a 2nd grade class, then a 4th grade class and I would wrap up with a class of kindergarteners, I stayed with my gut decision. How could the good Dr. let me down with The Cat?

I was proven right. The experience was different for each class, and it was a valuable experience for us all. I was remind — and reminded the 2nd and 4th graders — that you cannot get tired of a book you love. We had all had experiences with the book…but we are older and different now, I told them. I love to re-read a favorite book. They all things to share, too about the book: new insights and favorite memories.

The kindergarteners were wide-eyed and a bit in awe of a 6’4″ man whom they had never met before read them an unfamiliar book. But they loved it..this mischievous cat, a talking fish, two kids flying kites in the house, and waiting for mother to get home.

The book has withstood the test of time, of course, and reminds us the power of language, the appeal of rhyme and of illustrations, and, as evidenced by the engaged look of the 4th graders and the thoughtful comments they had about a well-known story, being read to never grows old.

Here’s to another 54 years, Cat.

Writing Shifts Thinking

Posted in Writing on April 10, 2011 by Vince.Puzick
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