Multiple Burners

Winter break: Back to upstate New York at last, at least for an hour, to write about two sisters and a small rusty town in the Appalachia. Strange that it all started on a plane ride to Chicago in September.

Plane rides do wondrous things for my writing. The spaciousness of my bird’s eye view cracks my imagination wide open and the adrenaline surge (and fear) I experience while the plane lifts us fuels my writing further. For this particular story, I’d had an idea while waiting in the line to embark (ugly word) onto the plane. Have you ever noticed the atmosphere ripple when you write in public? I always seems to receive kindly smiles, benevolence, and maybe some cynicism.

A woman, writing her thoughts, does invoke condescension. Once, I was writing part of a story on a cold bench out on a pier that juts into Lake Michigan. I had been biking around the pier, gotten the idea, and hopped off quickly and grabbed my notebook and pen and wrote for a while. A mother and her children slowly biked past me and the mother remarked to her children: “She’s writing in her diary, kids.” My hand stopped moving. The bubble had been popped. I tried to regather it and finish the thought, but I was a bit too furious. I slapped the notebook closed and rode away.

I embarked (ugh!) onto the plane to Chicago and wrote for hours by hand. The narrative tore out of me too quickly and I couldn’t write fast enough, the same way my fingers have to scuttle to keep up with a loquacious interviewee.

The thoughts drifted away and I stared out of the window for a while until the landscape changed to prairie and farmland; these were easy lines to map out, but they electrified my imagination once more. We descended, debarked (ugh!), I climbed into a cab, pulled the notebook back out, and sighed for my cramped hand. While we drove along, I wrote the story and then I was captivated by the scenery itself and had to jump into list-making.

I worked on the story a bit while I was traveling through the Midwest, then posted an excerpt of it here in October. Then, November happened, and I put the story away to write about Southern Illinois until the term ended. Now, in the second week of December, I can finally work on the upstate New York story again.

My creative writing projects usually rotate burners: a novel, two short stories, and the things people will be more likely to read (Portland State’s school newspaper and the PDXX Collective). This is kind of a lot of ambition for two hands. I like to think of this multiple-burner system of writing as ambitious and creative, anyway, rather than some form of attention-deficit.

Luckily, creative writing can be both the pursuit of understanding and pure enjoyment. When I started writing for the school newspaper this fall, a guest speaker from the Willamette Week advised us cub reporters to place the importance on truth. “You’re just trying to find the truth,” the speaker said.

And for that, no one can blame you, he later added.

In between the straight lines of journalism and property lines viewed from an airplane, I found my writing groove this fall.

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