Writing takes ego

So…what do you do when you’ve been introduced at a party by your cool popular friend?

If you’re like me, you duck your head, stare at the ground, and smile nervously: “Um, hi, everyone.” That’s me today. I’m so grateful to Shauna for urging me to start a blog, and chances are, if you’re reading this now, you’re here because of Shauna. (Or you’re one of my Facebook friends. Oh, and hi, Mom.) Welcome, each and every one.

But it does leave a certain amount of expectation: your friend’s cool, so you must be cool, too. Oh, the pressure.

I’ll be trying on different genres here (food writing’s up soon!), and I’ve got a number of blog assignments lined up. But for now the most comfortable genre, the one which gets me typing the fastest, is this one: the reflective, the notes-towards-my-memoir-project, the musings about this new writing life.

I’ve decided to write through the fear, and not apologize for this experimental space. I toyed with writing a separate entry about the first assignment. As in: “OK, yeah, I don’t think it worked, and here’s how, and I’m sorry that what you came for isn’t here, and ….”. This apology, of trying to speak for the work, is a no-no in writing workshops. I can see why.

Sounds like I’m back to some of my old writing neuroses, if not some of my old personality neuroses. This doesn’t mean that I won’t revisit that first assignment, and perhaps even post draft #6 of the poem, but as I retrain myself to think as a writer, I have wondered about my fear of writing. In my case I don’t think that fear is about writer’s block, or the inability to say something.

See, I used to apologize for myself ALL the time. You can ask my high school friends, my husband who I’ve known for more than half my life. I was Insanely Insecure Girl (IIG), the one who needed lots of ego uplift.
“Do these pants look terrible on me? I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry I keep order albuterol inhaler non prescription asking, but will I EVER find someone to love?”
If you met me about twenty years ago, I might not have met your eyes for longer than a second. Maybe two.

I didn’t realize how hard this trait was on my friends until I made friends with another IIG later on. Having to talk her up all the time was exhausting, to tell you the truth.
“No, those pants look really great on you.”
“Yes, you’ll find someone to love.”
And of course I did support her, and I did so sincerely. But I recognized some of myself in her, and tried to stop some of that insanity in myself, the incessant self-questioning and the hypercritical apology.

Happily, I’ve got both good pants AND the most wonderful person to love now. Not to equate the two. You know what I mean.

So this insecurity might have something to do with my latest theory: that writing, creative or argumentative —indeed, creating art at all—takes ego. By “ego,” I mean the belief I am Someone with Something Important to Say that Someone Else Would Want to Hear. And twenty years ago, ten years ago, perhaps even five years ago, it was hard for me to find that sense of ego.

[insert pause for soothing of a toddler nightmare. OK. Back to it]

Don’t believe me? Here’s a test: see all of those parenthetical phrases in my posts? They’re a stylistic tic. My dissertation reading group convinced me that I need to use parentheses less. (Doh! I’m still working on it, guys.) I adore parenthetical phrases, probably because of my first reading of this novel. And while I adore parenthetical phrases and their possibilities for multiple layered voices, sometimes the parentheticals represent me, trying to duck under my own words.

Now you see why I used that party analogy at the beginning of the post. I’ve been that girl.

Now I know I needed that kind of belief in myself in order to develop fully as a scholar, as a teacher, as a writer. And (gulp) now it’s here.

Assignment 1

Tell a story by using lists.

Reading lists, to-do lists, listening lists, grocery lists (etc.) are fair game.

(I made up this prompt.)

I thought I’d post mine tonight, but it’s taking longer than I thought. I’ll post the results in the next day or two.

Anne Lamott on parenting and writing

More later–with my first assignment!–but here’s my inspiration for the day.

It’s from the wonderful, hilariously comforting Anne Lamott, writing about her “Letter to a pregnant friend”:

“I couldn’t actually think of anything specific to share with her on pregnancy and parenting that didn’t also apply to writing — after all, both are elective courses in Earth School, and not things ventolin no prescription buy that everyone needs to do in order to feel fulfilled. But if you insist on doing either, you start where you are, and you let yourself do it poorly, you study the work of people you admire, and after some time, you’ll get better, and be insane for shorter periods of time.”

Do I dare?

When I teach American literature, I always try to teach T.S. Eliot’s famous dramatic monologue, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” As a form of self-introduction on Prufrock Day, I ask my students to quote a set of lines that best describes them. Some of the greatest hits as we go around the room:

“I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”

“I grow old…I grow old…/I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”

“I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.” (usually a favorite in the Pacific Northwest, many of the sleep-deprived heads nodding in agreement)

“Prufrock” is one of those quintessential English-major poems, one that my college friends and I used to quote to each other endlessly. As an undergraduate at Berkeley, I studied Modernist Poetry with the now-deceased British poet Thom Gunn. Ah, Thom Gunn. He delivered eloquent, beautiful lectures from behind the lab counter in 1 LeConte Hall. Once in a while, he would step away from the counter and slouch genially against the blackboard, usually wearing faded black jeans and a worn black leather jacket.

(I still remember my one shining moment of in-class participation, perhaps in all my 4.5 years at Berkeley: “Do you mean ‘wanting’ as in desiring, and ‘wanting’ as in lacking?” “Exactly,” he nodded. “I couldn’t have put it better myself.” My friend M and I practically squealed. Maybe we high-fived under our desks. We thought he was beyond cool.)

Anyway, in Modernist Poetry, Thom Gunn read Eliot’s poem out loud. And we swooned, all hundred thirty-something of us, in that lecture hall. We adored  Prufrock’s melancholy,  his world-weary angst, even (perhaps especially) his stunningly adolescent self-absorption and insecurities. We could relate to his passionate love affair—not with the “you” of the first line, but with indecision itself. We didn’t know what we were going to do with our lives, much less our majors in English! order ventolin inhaler online Prufrock captivated us—no, Prufrock got us. Prufrock was us.

But on our Prufrock Day, Thom Gunn’s fierce gaze pierced the room’s collective marshmallow adoration: “If you don’t think that this poem is funny,” he declared, “you don’t get this poem.”

I’ll always remember that moment, because I have used it over and over to teach the poem. It makes for great conversation: many of my students protest. Understandably, they feel sorry for Prufrock, even when I point out that only Prufrock, lovable Prufrock, could write a “love song” that begins as a pastoral ballad: “Let us go then, you and I” and just after, invite the object of his love to an evening “like a patient etherized upon a table.” (Really? What kind of evening is that? What kind of woman responds to this as a pickup line?) But remembering my own college marshmallow love, vaster than empires, we work through the poem together.

I am thinking about Prufrock today because I have been thinking about my last post. “In a minute there is time,” Prufrock says, “[for] decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.” What would I say to this creative writing teacher now? Why didn’t I become a professional writer?

I could answer with a number of reasons, including the undervaluing of creativity in American society, especially creativity as a form of intellectual activity; our lack of support and infrastructure for artists; the tunnel vision of graduate programs which insist that the tenure-track job at a research university is the only prize worth having.

To be clear, I don’t regret getting my doctorate, and I am still proud that I’m the first PhD in my Japanese American/Filipina American family.

But looking at my path in a certain Prufrockian light, I return to these lines:
“I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.”

On haunting and marginalia: why the private MFA?

It’s hard to think about ways to follow up on that first post, and I am tempted, already, to go back and make changes. Maybe I will, eventually. But first: onward, forward, upward, which is the way to travel if I want to commit to this blog seriously.

I have a PhD in English, rather than an MFA. I have thought about pursuing an MFA for a long time, or at least pursuing creative writing more seriously. There are a number of reasons that I won’t be able to do so, at least for now. I have looked at a few non-residential MFA programs, even one relatively close to where I live. These programs typically ask their students to commit to 10 days of residence at the beginning of each year (for about 2 years), and much of the remaining work is completed through correspondence, at home or off-campus. But I am not sure I can spend 10 days away from my family and my two adorable little girls, much less afford the tuition.

But, just for the sake of argument: If I did pursue an MFA, I would have had to choose a genre, I think. Poetry or creative nonfiction? I’ve got memories and attachments to each.

I remember writing one of my first poems about the color yellow, perhaps in second grade, with Mr. Daley. (I dated his grandson in high school!)
Mustard fields blossoming slowly
Flashing lightning

After watching the pine tree in the front of our house, I remember writing my first haiku in third or fourth grade, which my dad loved:
As the pine tree sways
Gently in the cool, swift breeze
I think it whispers

I wrote a lot of poetry through high school and college. In high school I kept a quote journal of quotations, bits, sayings from writings and writers that I loved. I wrote down spiral notebooks full of song lyrics, as many of us did. I’ve wondered if I wrote those down because I was too afraid to write my own poetry.

I began to write creative nonfiction, essays, at the end of college. Just after I graduated from college, I worked in campus administration. I had finished mid-year, and was applying to graduate schools. I was lucky enough to land a job in the same campus office where I’d worked as a student for two years.

During one lunch break I went to hear a former professor, Robert Hass, read from his work. At work I was steeped in the discourses of underground storage tanks and hazardous waste, and I fell promptly back in love (had I ever fallen out of it?) with poetry, with literary words. The next day I wrote an essay on my lunch break and submitted it to a contest; it won first place.

I wrote journals, diaries well into graduate school. I began to write and experiment ventolin 100 mcg online with artwork and color, joyfully, on September 10, 2001. I couldn’t journal or even open that book after that.

I also wrote a poem for my beloved graduate school advisor, about the memories we shared with each other about our fathers’ deathbeds. It’s called “Eating Grapes,” and I’ll have to find it someday. (I’m a hoarder; I suspect a great many writers are. )

Last year, on the spot, I wrote a poem for a colleague’s poetry blog.

These are some of the important moments of my intermittent writing life, at least to date. But when I think about becoming a writer, about writing this blog, the written word that’s haunting me today is a marginal comment from another college professor. When I was a sophomore, I took “Introduction to Poetry Writing” from the African American author Ishmael Reed. I didn’t really know who he was at the time, nor did I know that I would end up writing one of my dissertation chapters about him later on. I’ll have to find this poem and this piece of paper somewhere, too.

Here’s what he wrote:

“I think you could succeed as a writer. You have the talent, the skills, and the imagination.”

Best marginal comment, ever.

I am not writing these moments down to sound arrogant; they are more like the small squares of comfort I gather around myself as I think about stitching a new quilt of my writing life.

Now that I have had some years of teaching experience, I wonder what led him to write that comment. What does it take for a creative writing professor to write this on your student’s paper? Now I wonder what Professor Reed saw:
–if he knew the young girl who loved L.M.Montgomery’s Emily books, even more than the Anne books;
–if he knew that when I was thirteen I subscribed to an industry magazine, Writer’s Digest, “just to keep up”;
–if he could see those stacks of quote journals, the piles of partly-filled and empty journals, and the sheafs of poems, spilling out of my closets and desk drawers;
–if he knew just how desperately I wanted to be a writer.

I also wonder what he would say if he knew what I “grew up” to be. I wonder if I can unlearn, or need to unlearn, what I learned as an academic writer, as a critic, as a PhD.

And I don’t know if I will ever try to earn an MFA. But in the meantime, I’ll give myself assignments. Maybe I’ll ask from assignments from you reading out there, and I’ll work towards a larger project. Thanks in part to a new and dear friend, I pitched and got my first freelance writing assignment today!–which made me very happy. In the meantime, this is my own practice, my own private MFA.


About Tamiko: The Professional Version

Tamiko Nimura is a Sansei/Pinay writer and editor, originally from Northern California and now living in the Pacific Northwest. As a professor in English and African American Studies, she taught classes in writing, humanities, and multicultural American literature for the last seven years. Her writing has appeared or will appear in The San Francisco Chronicle, Kartika Review, the Rafu Shimpo, and Crosscurrents Literary Journal. Last summer, her book proposal reached finalist status in the SheWrites.com “Passion Project” nonfiction contest. She received degrees in English from UC Berkeley (BA) and from the University of Washington (MA, PhD). She has received awards from the Ford Foundation, the University of Iowa, the Asia Pacific Fund, the University of Washington, and the National Japanese American Citizens League (JACL).

She now works on memoir, personal essay, and food writing here.

About Kikugirl: The Backstory

My parents swear that I learned to read when I was 18 months old. That’s about 6 months younger than my youngest daughter, and I can barely picture it. (“I have a tape!” my mom insisted, a couple of years ago.)

Nevertheless, whenever I began to read, however I began to read, I haven’t stopped. The written word is, for me, like breathing, like water, like sunlight: elemental, essential, lifegiving, lifesaving. Even during my busiest and worst moments and years, I have always carved out a few minutes for a few pages of pleasure reading, every day. (I am sad that not many people do this, but that’s for another time.)

Given this love of reading, and my relatively early start, it may have been inevitable that I was my dad’s dinner party trick.

Early one Saturday morning in the 1970s, we were playing with that white magnetic letter board, with the red plastic frame and those kid-party-balloon colored letters. We spelled other words, I’m sure: cat, and maybe paper, and maybe house. But the word he asked me to memorize (how old was I, anyway?!) was a long word. I have no idea if my dad meant to pick a word this long, just for the sheer silly challenge of it all.

(Does this help us to figure out his reasoning?–later, when we traveled to visit family friends, he’d trot out a college textbook, and ask me to read a paragraph out loud, even if I had no idea buy albuterol usa what it meant. I’m sure there’s a poem in there somewhere.)

And yes, this was the word: chrysanthemum.

I learned to say it-spell it quickly, as if it were its own poem: c-h-r-y-s-a-n-t-h-e-m-u-m. Except that with the dashes in between, it actually looks even longer, and I always said it out loud very, very quickly: “ceeaitcharaiessayen [breath] teeaitcheeemyoumum.” Amazed laughter, a sonic memory that my cousins still use to tease me.

The chrysanthemum was one of my dad’s favorite flowers. I’ve always known it as a thing of beauty, for the green glass vase at the center of the dinner table. I’ve also known it as an edible flower, since we used the greens in making sukiyaki.

My dad died when I was ten. I don’t know how anyone processes the death of a parent at a young age. And I have come to realize that there are many worse ways to lose a parent–through abuse, for example, or prolonged neglect–but losing my dad is one of the losses that has defined my life. So there will certainly be more about him here. The chrysanthemum has been the flower that I associate most with my dad, and if I ever visit his grave, it is the flower that I will bring to honor his memory.

The Japanese word for chrysanthemum is kiku. When I chose my very first e-mail name, a hotmail account way-back-when (so 90’s!), I chose kikugirl.

I’ll use this blog as I ask my students to use the writing process itself: I’ll be writing to discover, rather than simply writing to record. I’ll be writing about what brings light and color to my life, including my family, the written word, food, friends, and those who work for social justice. I am about to re-enter the writing life. If you asked me what I was going to be when I was little, then a teenager, then even a college student, I would have said “writer.” I haven’t written creatively, even creatively nonfictively, in some years. And sometime this year I am going to re-open the manila envelope with my dad’s book manuscript, which I haven’t read since I was in fifth grade, some twenty-odd years ago. I know that this will be an amazing and difficult year of change and transformation for me.

Thank you for being here.