Skip to content

Eat Your Okra

January 2, 2012

At most writing programs and conferences, there is this thing called workshop. Today, I am “up.”

Here at Vermont College  at this winter’s novel workshop, fourteen people sit in a bland, overheated room on sagging couches and give feedback on each student’s twenty-page submission. First the writer who is up must sink into silence. Each of eleven students says something positive about the pages. The faculty then provide their likes and appreciations.

Usually at this point there is a moment, a collective turning of the mind toward the critical. Yesterday I noticed in that moment it started to snow. With no particular order or organization, we discuss the things that don’t work. The writer remains silent, receptive, seething, hurting, laughing–it’s impossible to say. Most know how to keep their faces set in neutral. (I’ve only once been in a workshop, not here in Vermont, where the writer simply didn’t show on her day.)

My son goes to a high school that has workshops, spaces with high ceilings and very little heating and large old machines that do cool things like bend metal. In class certain techniques are demonstrated and then each student gets a turn at the machine.  My son likes workshop; he enjoys throwing his full weight onto a pedal or lever to get the machine to start moving. Recently, he came home with a shiny piece of something he’d twisted into a widening spiral and it remained on the kitchen table for days.

I tried to like workshop. I thought there were good workshops and not so good workshops, better writing, worse writing, better teachers, worse teachers. I wanted to be in a good workshop, with good students and good teachers. I wanted the people in my workshop to like my work, and give me feedback that would unlock the tight places, show me a way out. That’s what I hoped for this time around. But at the end of my first workshop day, during dinner, when everyone was asking everyone how they liked their workshops and everyone was smiling and saying yes, good, great, and the noise rose and fought the smell of cafeteria food, I found myself realizing, by saying it out loud, that I did not like workshop. The difference was that I meant it generally. Nothing to do with my particular winter workshop, which is filled with talented, hard working writers and talented, hard working instructors. I just don’t like workshop.

I don’t like getting feedback on the first twenty pages of the novel I’ve been working on for exactly two years now from people I don’t know who have nothing invested in me or my project, and I don’t like giving feedback to other students without knowing what drives them, what they are seeking to create, where their passions and pains lie, what they’ve struggled with. I don’t like giving or getting feedback when where the work is, what part of the process, has not been articulated, the destination unclear.  I don’t feel comfortable getting feedback from people I don’t trust, not because they are untrustworthy but because we have no history or larger context, no sustained connection. My responses cannot do justice to the work of others. It’s almost like I’m writing an anonymous comment on a blog post or noticing fresh graffiti on the house across the street.

Maybe if I could bring my novel pages to a room like one of the rooms in my son’s high school, put on large protective gloves and goggles, fire up a torch that emits sparks, I would like workshop better. I would be excited about it being my turn. I would listen and watch and lean on the lever. I would make something cool and bring it home and put it on the kitchen table. Is that possible?

This summer every Saturday I started going to the farmers market next to the freeway, an uninviting strip of pavement made lovely by stalls piled high with produce. At the time it was tomatoes, peaches, corn, greens, some I recognized, some I didn’t. I was trying to shop and cook more seasonally, so I bought what looked good and figured out meals when I got home. And one Saturday, the okra appeared, pointed corrugated pods of it, appealing in its raw, visual form. I’d eaten it a number of times in Indian restaurants and liked it well enough.

So I filled a bag with okra and when I got home, figured I would build an Indian meal around it. I cooked it two ways, one with onions and cumin, the other, tomato-based. My children, after the obligatory one bite, ate the naan instead of the okra. My husband, who eats and seems to like everything, said he liked the okra, but ate more sparingly than usual, with a lot of chutney on the side. I tried to like it, analyzing and criticizing the way I’d prepared it, the recipes, maybe it just needed more salt? A few weeks later, charmed once again by those dark green cones, I bought okra, tried cooking it southern-style. There was a lot leftover and because I hate to throw food away, I heated it for lunch and forked it into my mouth, choked it down, slimy, chunky, chewy okra.

My name is Karen and I do not like okra. My name is Karen and I do not like workshop.

You can cook it in a number of ways, you can cook it well, you can serve it to me in the friendliest of fashions. I do not like okra. Ditto for any traditional writing workshop I’ve ever participated in.

At residency, we have to attend eight lectures but can pick and choose; we can go to faculty and student readings when we want; informal conversations are optional. Everyone decides for different reasons. I try to balance poetry and fiction, see the lecturers I’ve loved in the past, attend readings when I am not so exhausted that I have to fall into bed. But we must attend every workshop, six in total, spread out over the ten days.

What would I be missing if I didn’t eat okra? Is okra, especially good for me–vitamins I couldn’t get in any other way? Will the okra feel hurt if I don’t eat it? Is it because okra is part of my culture, and that as a member of an okra-eating community, I have to eat it in order to retain my status? I can in fact answer these questions about okra (no, no, no) but I cannot answer them about workshop.

This afternoon, though, as I am walking along the snowy path toward that stuffy room, I imagine this. I am a dinner guest at a friend’s house, a friend who is a good friend, a friend whose invitation to dinner I was happy to accept, a friend who has cooked for years, who cares about food and prepares it well. If, when I am seated at the table and have served myself rice, chicken maybe, a sauce, I am passed another steaming dish, and it is okra, what would I do? Easy. Politely, I would eat the okra.


Long silence

December 22, 2011

It’s December 22, 2011, the day after the shortest day of the year. I lit white candles in clear glass candle holders at dinner last night to celebrate the solstice and both my kids spontaneously said how much they liked them. There’s something about the December darkness, walking in it in the morning, feeling enveloped by it in the late afternoon, lighting it with candles, that stirs me.

Vaclav Havel said that “hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

After a semester off from the MFA program, which I used, mainly in silence, to revise my novel, I am returning to Montpelier for the winter residency. As the day approaches, or rather the night since I’m flying on a red-eye through Newark, I am in the process of preparing myself on the surface and in those deeper places that require searching out and tending.

I’ve done my homework for workshop. I’ve read more novels by faculty. Yesterday, I finished rereading and tugging at my novel-in-progress, getting it into the best shape I currently can. I’ve written out my goals, for the program, for the novel, for the semester, and plan to ink them to the skin on the inside of my arm to glance at when I find myself drifting. I made a toffee-hazelnut-chocolate-candy-thing and packed it in a small tin to feed myself at those times when I am worn thin.

And still… as much as the words articulate, as much sound and meaning as they make, the current of silence continues, the silence of my heart beating when I’m not listening for it but trusting that it’s there, the silence of breath and memory and the way the path makes itself clear only as I walk it.

Find time for silence, I think. During residency, during the days of 2012 as I work on the novel, on poems, on listening to my kids and my husband and the others I love. It’s almost like I can hear it.

I’m not alone

April 19, 2011

As a writer, and as a person, I carry with me, in me, at almost all times a feeling of aloneness. It’s so deep and so much a part of who I am (introvert, child of immigrants, German as my first language, etc) that I forget it’s there, like mild background noise, or certain, tolerable absences–rhubarb when it’s not in season.

But sometimes something happens to awaken me to the feeling, either because I feel more alone (misunderstood, stereotyped) or, and this is the nice one, because I am surprised by like-mindedness about something essential to me.

To warm up for the writing morning, I indulged in my Paris Review interviews obsession and read the interview from 1986 with E.L. Doctorow. I loved what he had to say about his writing process and felt such kinship–someone gets me! I’m not alone!–that I’m sharing the link. I find myself pretty excited about most of the interviews I read there so I think all writers will enjoy this, but especially (perhaps) those who can relate to the “writing a novel is like driving on a country road in the dark” metaphor, and sometimes feel alone…

Ode to spring

April 10, 2011

A wind that cuts through clothes to skin, clouds and sliced blue sky, sweet falling apple and cherry blossoms, pigeons, pigeons, pigeons, and asparagus in the markets. Ambivalence. Spring in San Francisco.

My novel is sore in the joints, my poems are exercises in futility, one line out of fifty a pleasure, so I decided to dedicate last night’s supper (three of us, a family of four, and two friends who’d left their kids at home) to spring. Edible poetry.

On the menu:

Prosecco with blood orange juice and Campari over ice

Garbanzos mashed with garlic, lemon, sea salt, drizzled in olive oil and covered with chopped mint

Hard salami and cucumber slices for the carnivorous



Penne with pancetta, asparagus, snap peas, snow peas, garlic, parsley and basil

Green salad and a super-tangy dressing (mustard, garlic, lemon, blood orange, etc)


Lemon chiffon cake, strawberries, and whipped cream out of the canister (and into the mouth, for some)

After dinner, my twelve-year-old daughter orchestrated a rowdy game of musical chairs. After making it to the final round, I lost to a four-year-old. Sometimes poems come out whole.

Decision-making: MFA, the novel, my life

March 27, 2011

I have been thrown into a bit of a tizzy by my advisor’s latest letter and I wanted to think something through. I’d love to hear from writers, VCFAers, and others faced with these sorts of decisions. (Okay, so who wouldn’t that include?! I need input from all of you!)

Here’s the deal: On Thursday afternoon I got my advisor’s response to the second packet (which consisted of 160 pp of the second part of my novel-in-progress). So far, she’s read all of the first part in a roughly second-draft form, and about ¾ of what I have written for the second part. She’s reading way more pages than she’s supposed to (way way way way way more) but this gives her the ability reply with global and specific feedback.

She raised some very interesting “large” concerns/questions about how the second part is structured and whether a  subplot is useful or not. When I first read her letter, and the day after, I felt extremely bummed out, like she didn’t like the book, or didn’t think I was good enough—all those voices yammering in my head. Yesterday, though, I began to think more practically.

Of course I want to think about her questions and seriously consider them. There are drawbacks to the way I’ve structured the second part, and I’d like to really consider how else I could structure it, or how I could revise it within the current structure to make it work better. But ultimately I need to make this sort of decision on my own.

What that process would look like for me: finishing Part II in the current structure.  Possibly finishing the whole novel. (Not sure about that.) Then taking a bit of a break, putting the manuscript away for a while before I read it with a somewhat distanced perspective. I find that with distance I can react like a reader, emotionally, intellectually, and that gives me a very good idea of what needs to change.

The problem with all this is that I currently see no way to do it within the framework of moving forward next semester with the MFA. When I applied to programs, I had it in my head that I would do a year, take time off, then do another year.  Last semester, that didn’t seem to make sense because I was able to deal with the feedback–which was much less global–, the decisions I needed to make, and continue to progress. At winter residency I was so energized by the lectures, my workshop, the advisor I got, all the interactions with other students, I decided to power through, do the program in two years, get done.

But now I’m changing my mind, and it’s ironically because of the generosity of my current advisor. Maybe I should take the time off? I don’t know what I’d work on next semester if I haven’t sorted out the questions raised this semester. And there is just no way for me to do what I need to do to get those decisions made (even if I added Sunday getting up at five, even if I took the two weeks I wanted for vacation between this semester and next)  and be ready for next semester with a new draft, a new direction or confidence in my old direction, if that’s what I decide is best.

What do I lose? Forward momentum. Connection to my wonderful classmates in my specific “class.” The intense immersion effect of doing two years consecutively. Being pushed by that sense of urgency and pressure. Connection to faculty.  Getting done sooner. And I’m not getting any younger…

What do I gain? Being able to deal with my novel in a way that makes the most sense and has the most integrity for me. Sorting out decisions without being too swayed by other people’s opinions. (One thing I’m convinced of is that I don’t want to write a novel by committee opinion.) Getting a more global perspective on what I’m learning. And honestly, getting a break from the pressure. I would be doing as much work on my novel anyway,  but taking a rest from reading four to six or more books a month plus the critical essays…

It’s not that I haven’t been keeping up, but I admit to breathing a huge sigh of relief when I think of just moving my novel forward, along with teaching, being with my kids, my husband, and all the rest, for a semester or a year.

This is a big turn-around for me, and I’d need to make the decision relatively quickly—we haven’t booked summer flights yet, but we should be doing that in the next few weeks.  I have already missed the school deadline so will be fined. I hate that, but I hate the idea more of moving forward without carefully examining what I have, what I want to have, what my vision is.

Your thoughts? What am I not seeing? What’s unsound in my logic?

I Curse the River of Time

March 10, 2011

Per Petterson, in his novel, I Curse the River of Time, appears to break one of the cardinal rules students of fiction writing learn: the main character must change.  Arvid, the first person narrator of the novel, does not in fact change much if at all over the course of the story he tells, even though we get a chance to encounter him at several periods in his life. Even the readers’ understanding of him and his situation changes little.

Things do happen to Arvid; it is his world that is changing and he attempts, sometimes desperately, to respond to these changes. In being privy to his complicated responses, however, we change our relationship to the narrator as we read, developing deeper feelings and empathy for Arvid, resulting in a kinship that is not commonly felt with fictional characters. I Curse the River of Time is a very interesting novel, in my view, because it remains true to a complex view of human psychological reality (How much do people really change? How much do we understand about what happens to us, to our relationships? How much are we changed by circumstance and bumping up against them?) that may run counter to what readable fiction wants , while being palpably a piece of art—created, compressed, and sculpted—and providing the coherence, distance, and pleasures that art provides.

The most obvious component of artfulness in the novel is the layering of time frames and the choice of controlling narrative voice. There are three time zones in the novel: the present, referred to only very infrequently and in passing, when the narrator is in his fifties; 1989, the year the narrator’s wife asks for a divorce, his mother finds out she has stomach cancer and the Berlin Wall falls; and a time period in the 1970s, when the narrator leaves college in order to work in a factory and first meets the schoolgirl who is to become his wife. We get information about the narrator’s childhood, but only in relation to these other periods. The second two time periods are the ones that take up the bulk of narrative time and provide the story.

The current time, the locus of telling, however, has several subtle but important functions and they are announced with the utmost economy. The sentence which opens the novel, “All this happened quite a few years ago” (3) introduces the retrospective narrator and demonstrates one function: the present as compass point, referent. Later in the first chapter, a new section begins, “I cannot imagine she [the narrator’s mother] craved company in the cafeteria…” (11). Later still, “Nothing in the world was obvious to me back then…, nothing was simple” (110). These lines offer some commentary on, or are interpretative of, events in the past, but not in a lengthy or particularly illuminating way. The third type functions to show doubt in the accuracy of memory. “I don’t know how long I sat in that boat…” (75).  In none of these instances is the storyteller placed in a specific situation that prompts a memory, or even a chair from which to tell the story, but his presence permeates and complicates our reading.

What is Petterson’s reason for choosing the retrospective voice if he uses it only infrequently and briefly? Alice Mattison, in her recent essay in The Writer’s Chronicle, “Uncertainties That Keep a Reader Reading,” which focuses on curiosity as the driving force of any novel, argues that a narrative presence gives authority; it gives the reader the feeling that someone is in control and that everything being told is told for a reason. While reading I Curse the River of Time, the reader is always aware that the story is being told from the present; the narrator is, in a sense, managing the layering of time as he tells the story. This in turn makes palpable the art of the novel, the fact that we are being given filtered, contained reality, not the messy thing we live in our daily lives. I believe that the retrospective voice also functions thematically by adding a third layer of time to complicate our understanding of emotional reality: the fifty-year-old narrator is telling us a story that is not finished. The events happened, as he says, “quite a few years ago,” but still he is pondering them, trying to make sense of them, and the tone of the telling is not one of a man who has now found the answers. The river of time in the title continues and, I imagine, he continues to curse it.

What brings the reader close to the narrator, and builds an emotional connection to him and the story he tells, has much to do with the narrator’s vulnerability—his mistakes and his inability to understand why things are happening to him, particularly in the relationships he has with his wife and his mother. Arvid frequently fails to communicate his intentions in a straightforward or comprehensible fashion, which both he and the reader recognize. He states from the beginning that he was not close to his mother when she finds out that she has cancer and returns to her native country, Denmark. “I did not realize that my mother had left. There was too much going on in my own life. We had not spoken for a month, or even longer, which I guess was not that unusual… but it felt unusual. It felt unusual because it was intentional on my part. I was trying to avoid her, and I did so for I had no wish to hear what she might say about my life” (21).  However, the narrator decides, capriciously, to follow his mother.  One would think he would do this to aid or comfort her. Instead, in their first encounter on the beach, she asks him whether he needs money, and he thinks: “Jesus Christ. I knew she was ill, that she might even die: it was why I was here. It was why I had come after her. I was sure of it, and yet I said: ‘Mother, I’m getting a divorce'” (37).

The narrator often juxtaposes thoughts and actions in this way, without a simplifying explanation or interpretation from the supposed wisdom of years, and I find this to be terribly honest. Many novelists, even while using first person narrative, pry open a space after an action to reflect and interpret, if not from the narrator’s current perspective then from the perspective of years. I’m certain I do this. But there are things in life that we never get right and we might never know why or, if we do, we might not be able to change. This lack of interpretation, because in a way what interpretation does is shut something down, or finish it, draws me close to the narrator. I feel for him and with him. In some respects, I am him. In fact, in the novel we get scene after scene where the narrator seeks his mother’s love as a sort of refuge from reality and she doesn’t give it, at least not the way he wants. But that doesn’t stop the narrator from wanting it. The last line of the novel shows the narrator sitting on the shore, “waiting for [his] mother to stand up and come to [him]” (233). I find this repetition on the part of the narrator recognizable, and the inclusion of it, in fact the building of a whole novel around it, a naked and honest move.  Fortunately, these choices do not bog the novel down or make it boring because there is enough artfulness in its other aspects to keep one wanting to read.

A similar dynamic emerges as the narrator tells the story of his impending divorce. Chapter Three more fully introduces the narrator’s own circumstances in 1989, with two young daughters and on the brink of divorce. He takes his daughters on a day-trip that has no greater purpose than to watch fields and stop for a bite to eat. When they return home, his girls go straight to their bedroom, and he hears his wife’s footsteps before he sees her. He closes his eyes and keeps them closed. His wife says, “For Christ’s sake, Arvid… Please stop that. It’s so childish” (28) but he does not want to open his eyes, even though she’s right. He doesn’t want to see with his eyes what he knows. “It was all so clear to see. She [his wife] did not like [him] any more. She did not want [him]” (28).

The loveliest and saddest part of the novel comes toward the end, when readers are told the story of the beginning of the narrator’s relationship with the teenage girl who is to become his wife. In the final scene of the penultimate chapter, Arvid and his lover take a bus to a children’s camp on a lake where he went as a child. It is winter, and they are the last people on the bus, planning to stay for just one night in a cabin with a wood-fired stove. “…We had to make the most of this day, and then I fell asleep, and we both slept, and we woke up and went to sleep again” (209). What I find wonderful, and different about the inclusion of this scene at this point in the novel is that its purpose is not to finally reveal the experience from the past (in this case the overnight at the camp) that explains the problems of the present (the divorce). Often novelists turn in climax to such a past event to elucidate the main character’s psyche and, by doing so, sew up the novel. Petterson, by contrast, gives us the episode to make us feel more intensely the loss that the divorce entails, and its inexplicability. We see the couple’s young and aimless love on the lake, and we do not, in that, see seeds of their demise.

No, we see them behaving as any young lovers on holiday might: sleeping a lot, making love, smoking, and discussing gender roles: “‘Why don’t you row?’ she said. ‘Oh, sorry. Did you want to?’ I said. ‘It’s fine. I can sit here and watch you toil. You just row.’ She was probably good at rowing. Canoeing was my thing. Red Indian. Rowing boat was cowboy. ‘I’m the man,’ I said and laughed. ‘That’ right,’ she said and looked at me with narrow, almost dreamy eyes” (210). One could, I suppose, argue that the seeds are there: the assumptions, the role-playing, the abbreviated communication. But if that is true, then, again, many of us have been or are there. Relationships rely as much on ellipsis and miscommunication as they do on directness. The final words of that chapter come from the narrator on the brink of divorce, but also, I believe, from the present-day narrator. “The water around the boat fell silent, and silently the cabin was floating up above the rocks and the smoke rose softly from the chimney, and how impossible it was to grasp that in the end something as fine as this could be ground into dust” (213).

Perhaps as I get older, I seek out and appreciate novels that artfully carry complicated views of how humans really are in the world. I am interested in reading and connecting with something I recognize as truth, while still being taken outside my own real life. It’s a tall order, but when it happens, it’s thrilling.



Zadie Smith’s Fail Better

March 1, 2011

After obsessing for days about what makes a reader curious, I came across this 2007 essay by Zadie Smith, “Fail Better.”

It is the perfect counterpoint to the crafty tool-orientated way I’ve been thinking (how to cultivate uncertainty, which information to withhold so that you will want to keep reading my novel) because it is about style, in the largest, deepest sense. Style, in this case, as opposed to craft.

Smith has big opinions. It’s part of her style. She writes, in explaining why craft can only get a writer so far,  “A skilled cabinet-maker will make good cabinets, and a skilled cobbler will mend your shoes, but skilled writers very rarely write good books and almost never write great ones.” There is much to argue with in this statement, if taken literally, but I agree, to some large extent, with the truth behind the comparisons–that writers cannot craft their way to brilliance. The rest of the essay is a kind of unpacking of what, if not craft, accounts for a writer’s style.

Smith begins by explaining on a descriptive level what she means.

“A writer’s personality is his manner of being in the world: his writing style is the unavoidable trace of that manner.”

“Personality is much more than autobiographical detail, it’s our way of processing the world, our way of being, and it cannot be artificially removed from our activities; it is our way of being active…”

A writer’s work is “inflected” with the writer’s character.

Peter Carey, in his Paris Review interview, makes a similar point. When asked whether there is something that ties all his novels together, Carey says, “There was a stage where I might have said, ‘the invention of my country,’ but I think that as time goes on it’s a much looser bundle. Those things are for other people to see, not for me. It’s a little bit like being asked, Why do you walk the way you do? How do you walk? You don’t really know.”

Carey’s notion of gait, how it is particular to each person and unknowable by the person, is, I think, very close in its descriptive meaning to Smith’s use of personality or character. However, Smith’s notion of character takes on an active, choice-focused component, at least that is what it sounds like in her hands. In the last quarter of her essay, Smith introduces the idea of a writer’s duty, and this is where, for me, it really gets interesting, and hard.

Smith posits that “writers fail us when [the writing] is tailored to our needs, when it panders to the generalities of its day, when it offers us a world it knows we will accept having already seen it on television. Bad writing does nothing, changes nothing, educates no emotions, rewires no inner circuitry…” Focusing more narrowly on language, she writes, “with a cliché you have pandered to a shared understanding, you have taken a short-cut, you have re-presented what was pleasing and familiar rather than risked what was true and strange. It is an aesthetic and ethical failure: to put it very simply, you have not told the truth.”

Followed to its logical extreme, Smith would be advocating that all writers be poets all the time because only in a poem can each word, each phrase, be interrogated to the extent that her statement implies. Again, however, if we take the essence of what she’s saying, it’s hard not to respect and want to embrace it. Every word I put on the page should be the word I have chosen. Every story I tell should be the most meaningful. Smith, in fact, goes on to say that “the very reason [she] write[s] is so that [she] might not sleepwalk through [her] entire life.” She moves with agility from the big picture, to the miniature, and back to the big, with its question of purpose.

What Smith advocates, instead of sleep-walking, is that each writer accurately and rigorously convey her particular world view. That the language a writer chooses “is the revelation of a consciousness,” and because each consciousness is different, all writing is different. Smith finds reason to celebrate the fact that every writer is (or should be) different from every other, every voice, every personality leaving its mark on a unique page.

At the same time, Smith acknowledges that for every writer, this truth is unknowable and therefore impossible. “Fact is, to tell the truth of your own conception–given the nature of our mediated world, given the shared and ambivalent nature of language, given the elusive, deceitful, deluded nature of the self–truly takes genius, truly demands of its creator a breed of aesthetic and ethical integrity that makes one’s eyes water just thinking about it.” Thus her title, “Fail Better.” All we can do, writes Smith, is fail better.

Barry Lopez, in his lecture at the recent winter residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts, exhorted his audience to always have ethical relationships–with  themselves, with the reader, and with language.  He went at it a bit more prescriptively, enumerating what a writer needs to do to maintain these ethical relationships (“a bow of respect for the material,” “a beautiful structure”) but I doubt Smith would have disagreed with much, if anything, that Lopez suggested.

These perspectives are so exciting. I feel as though I’ve found a beautiful new sweater; I’ve tried it on and paid for it and rushed home to pull off the tags and put it on. Feeling attractive and excited, I wear it out, but gradually, over the course of the day, I become uncomfortable, something, something about the sweater, isn’t right. It’s subtle. But it’s there. Then I realize: what I thought in the store to be super soft wool has just the tiniest scratch to it. My skin is irritated, in a mild but all-over way. And it makes me feel cranky, not beautiful. There is something in what Smith and Lopez are saying that makes me cranky.

A writer’s psychology, our stance not only toward the world, toward people and our words and material, but toward the very complicated confluence that allows us, or forces us, or invites us to write, to make sense of the world through writing: how much of this is a matter of choice? The layers that make up who I am, who I believe I am, who I act like I am, who I want to be, and how this is imprinted again and again on how and what I write, from the impulse, from the schedule or lack thereof, the opening up of my laptop, from typing the words, from the story I choose to tell, the characters I imagine, the words with which I express what I see, the way I feel about it, whether I give it to others to read, how I respond to what they say.

Yes, I can stop and ask myself whether the metaphor I used is a cliché, whether I intend to respect and trust the reader. But it seems to me that there’s something else going on, and it’s not only about intention or responsiveness, not only about taking on the duty of the writer. I want to do it, but can I? What part of who we are, of who I am, is fixed? What part can I bend, mold, influence, work at so that I can do what I want to do, write what I want to write, walk how I want to walk? I’m left with that question.