What I SHOULD be doing

I should be working on my dissertation, also known as my memoir.  I’ve made some progress over the past week:

I printed out all 200 pages. This was the easy part. (except for the part where the Lobo Lab on campus was closed, so I had to go to the Library, and use the slowest printer ever, and it only printed on one side! arrgh.)

I read through all 200 pages. THIS was the hard part (except for the part where I was doing said reading in the lovely Willard Reading Room in the library.)  Some of the text I wrote back in 2005, and as I look at it now I see how much is missing:  setting and reflection, for example. Oh and context.  The good news is that I’ve learned a lot in this MFA program.

I marked places in the text where more amplification is needed, and created a To Do list, that is at once comforting and overwhelming.  Some entries on my list are simple like, “Edit, edit, edit!” something I can do with one hand tied behind my back. Other notes are “Add more reflection,” which means I must do just that–  reflect.  And then of course, write about it.

It is in the reflection I get lost, I wander off.  For example, in one section I want to write about military culture, about what it means to me to have grown up as a military brat, so off I go in search of the book that Uncle Bill gave me many years ago.  I can’ t seem to find it, so I wander over to Google and search “military brats,” and end up on Wikipedia…  and then my mind wanders, this time I think about the workshop I took on Sunday with the talented writer/teacher Michelle Otero and Lisa Gill of the Local Poets Guild, “Writing to Heal.”

In the first exercise Michelle had us visualize our life as a river.  She quoted Toni Morrison:

“The act of imagination is bound up with memory. You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. “Floods” is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that: remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place. It is an emotional memory—what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared. And a rush of imagination is our ‘flooding.'”

You can never go wrong when you quote Toni Morrison.

I imagined my life like a river back east, lush with trees and green practically dripping from the banks into the water, and curving so that you could not see what was ahead. It’s strange that this is the kind of river I imagine when I’ve spent more of my life near the Colorado River or the Rio Grande River, or any other river in the southwest that is not shrouded in green shrubbery.

Then Michelle asked us to DRAW this river.  I know some folks were resistant, but I find it very helpful to try to express myself in a medium other than writing–  what Sharon Warner calls “getting it off the page” so I was excited. There is something liberating in drawing, where I don’t have any pre-conceived notions that I am going to do a good job.

As I imagined this river, and thought about my mother’s death, I draw that time in my life as a curve in the river shrouded in foliage so dark I could not see around the bend…  On the side before the river’s bend I drew a lighter brighter area, with the trees well-defined to represent that life was good, it was sweet–  but the subtext would be, is anything ever this perfect? pretty pink and purple and yellow flowers, the sun always shining?

When I stepped back and looked at this river drawing I realized how easily I had slipped back into an old pattern of looking at everything as a problem.  And let me tell you I went to town drawing that bend in the river, scrawling the darkest greens and blacks and blues.  It was a dark time, but as I looked at my drawing,  it dawned on me that I don’t think of everything as dark, or dreary (at least not ALL the time).  Fortunately (or subconsciously?) I had left empty a small area in the upper right corner of the paper (you can’t see it very well in the above photo), so I drew in some perfect flowers, and a nice tree, and even a little sunshine.  My way of saying, Hey. I don’t know what’s around that bend, but I know it will be okay. I will be okay.  And if history is any indication, I know that is true.  I may not know where I will land, but I do know I will land on my feet.

2 thoughts on “What I SHOULD be doing

  1. Jenn, I have returned to this river exercise again and again since first discovering it in the book “One to One” in 2004. When I started, the dark times were the first points I’d draw along the river. I’m glad you kept a space for beauty and perfection in the corner, and I know it will grow as you write your way through your memoir.


  2. “…I don’t know what’s around that bend, but I know it will be okay. I will be okay. And if history is any indication, I know that is true. I may not know where I will land, but I do know I will land on my feet….”

    You sum up my take, arrived at over the decades, which proves that we are right, right? Right.;-)



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