Free Writing


How often over the years did I instruct students during writing times to just write whatever came into their heads, rather than telling me that they don’t know what to write about. It’s amazing that in my more than three and a half years of blogging, I’ve almost never had to resort to that strategy myself. Somehow, each time I sat down at the computer an idea emerged to center my writing. But here I am, late in the week, directionless. So, I’m just going to start writing and see whether anything worth sharing with you begins to take shape.

It’s more than four weeks now since I fell down those New Hampshire stairs. Most of the physical damage has faded. The gash in my head is now just part of my landscape; my body will never go unidentified (too many crime shows?). The bruised ankle still hurts when I first put weight on it, but it doesn’t impede my walking, so why even bother to mention it? The most persistent damage was to my coccyx which made sitting and bending, especially in my garden, less than fun; It’s now a shadow of its original self and I can feel only a whisper of pain sitting here on my computer chair.

The more enduring pain is psychological. It’s there whenever I encounter a staircase to traverse. Or even when I’m sitting quietly, as I am now and am suddenly hit with a replay, often with embellishments that include a darker end than the one that I lived through. I think I can begin to understand the way trauma victims are never free of the profoundly disturbing experiences they’ve been subjected to. They’re always hiding behind the drapes or under the dining room table, ready to reach out and draw you back in. My trauma was so mild compared to the ones that, for example make you question your own worth or threaten your basic existence. It’s a miracle that I’ve lived so many years and encountered so few traumas that continue to haunt me.

At this point, I was weary of looking at my own words, which weren’t exactly taking wing, and escaped to one of the two rooms in our apartment that had an air conditioner and immersed myself in a book that had been beckoning to me for weeks now. Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These is a slim volume, more a novella or long short story than a full-scale novel. I knew I could finish it in one sitting, in contrast to the novel I’ve been slogging through for weeks without making much of a dent.

I recently read Colm Toibin’s Norah Webster, a masterpiece of storytelling and character development and was ready for more of what the Irish are so expert at crafting. Keegan didn’t disappoint me. The small things of the title refer to the expertly chosen small details that her characters encounter in shop windows, in their kitchens, in the religious settings that take on a sinister quality. But they also refer to the babies and their young mothers who are imprisoned in the Laundry Houses maintained by the church who reside in the heart of this story.

I’m not going to say more about the plot. I just wanted you to get a whiff of the lyricism in Keegan’s writing as she addresses the not-so-small question of what is the point of a man’s life if it is not to help others who are struggling? I was wishing I could import an ounce of that beauty into my own writing and elevate it to carry a message as weighty as hers, communicated in such a small number of pages. But we all have to go with the strengths that we have. Mourning the absence of those we don’t possess is paralyzing and unproductive.

Just for a minute, let me indulge in a small Claire Keegan-inspired exploration. Several days ago, we were driving back from a lovely overnight visit to a former student, now the mother of two totally endearing children who, with her husband, is building a rewarding professional and personal life. The drive home to Chicago on US 57 is, for the most part, uninflected and uninteresting, consisting of vast fields of corn and soybeans broken by an occasional tall grain elevator. We were grateful to have a Rachel Maddow podcast to help us endure the time.

Around Kankakee, Rosellen signaled the inevitable need for a bathroom stop. McDonald’s provided the safest, most predictable choice. When we had completed our primary mission, we decided to check the menu board for drink options. Rosellen does not suffer bad coffee lightly and was bemoaning the absence of espresso. Standing next to us at the counter were two local policewomen, contemplating their own ordering decisions; one was Latina, one white. Both were cheerful and friendly, despite being loaded down with all the required gear, including the holstered gun all cops are expected to carry.

The Latina cop, overhearing Rosellen’s comments said, “Oh, but they do have espresso.” She turned to the woman behind the counter, also Latina, for corroboration – in Spanish, of course — who informed her that the espresso machine wasn’t working, information that the cop relayed to us in English. Rosellen decided to order the regular coffee anyway.

While we were waiting for the coffee to be delivered, the cops made their order, with the Latina woman taking the lead. Watching these two women, both fluent in English, bantering in Spanish, reviewing the menu options, exchanging jokes and smiles that my English was not likely to elicit, was beautiful to witness. I was filled with envy for all the people who had two languages at their fingertips, who were insiders in two cultures, which, paradoxically made them outsiders in both. Small though the moment was, it contained a wealth of personal and cultural information. I can’t milk the moment the way Keegan might, but I can recognize it in ways that inspire me to look out for more. I encourage you to do the same.

I’m going to hit pause again on my postings for a week or two because next week we’ll be heading to Alaska for a cruise with a company promisingly called “The Uncruise.” That name should tell you a lot. You can expect that I’ll have a lot more to say about it when we return.

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Marv Hoffman

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