Fighting not just inaction, but disregard

Today is Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, mostly known as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. At a time when the #BLM movement has made great progress in raising awareness about systemic racism in our country, I wonder if MLK Day is more than a “day off from work” for a lot of people who could help break down some of the systems that have kept racism in place. I didn’t have the day off, and if I’m honest, I only began pondering this question after friend, Whitney Raver, posted these thoughts:

FB post from Whitney Raver’s profile.

As I wrote to her in my response, I’m not 100% white, but I can recognize that I fall into a category of moderate Americans who have for so long been quiet on the sidelines as people like MLK and today’s freedom fighters work for justice for people of color. I can recognize that in my work as a teacher I think of my contribution as making a difference for the future. But is it really enough?

As a Latina who understands what it’s like to grow up in a sea of white faces in a white place, it’s easy for me to be an ally to those who are discriminated against because of the color of their skin. I’ve experienced it myself. Yet am I part of a problem noted by Dr. King? It’s a problem he addresses in “Letter from Birmingham Jail“:

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action…

Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham jail, April 16, 1963

Am I part of the moderate crowd that isn’t doing enough? Sometimes the answer is yes. I know that one of the tenets of Critical Race Theory is that people in power use their experiences to talk about other people’s; I’m guilty of that here. And I’m not a march in the streets kind of a person. I don’t yet know how to talk with former classmates and community members about their racism. I don’t know how to get them to see that saying, “but I have a black cousin” doesn’t mean they are devoid of racial bias.

But what I do know is that I want to help raise awareness about social injustice, and it starts with work that I do know how to do: Asking questions. Listening. Teaching. Writing.

That teaching component is so very, very important today. I mean today in general and today specifically, as #NotMyPresident Trump released his “1776 report,” a document that basically excuses slavery and says the nation’s schools need a whole new curriculum to teach them about how great our country is and how condemning slavery and other unjust practices have a “devastating effect on our civic unity and social fabric.”

Living next to South Dakota, where the troll of a governor Kristi Noem has started her own re-education campaign, I am transported to Cambodia of the mid-to-late 70s and the Khmer Rouge’s re-education efforts under Pol Pot as I read about this new course of history these people want to create.

I believe education is such an important part of moving through social injustice and racism, and it is truly frightening that people in power (people who are definitely not moderates) are trying to erase entire histories. This is not just inaction, it is a disregarding of reality, a disregarding of thousands of people’s experiences and the foundation of racial problems we’re experiencing today.

I urge you to read about Trump’s delusional report, but also to read the 1619 Project cultivated by the New York Times. Knowledge is power, and sharing it is my form of activism.

The reinvigorating cliché

Tonight I sat down to write, but all I could think about was my crap day. Not wanting to write about that, I jammed on the idea “when it rains, it pours.” I know, I know, clichés are about as fun to read as a blogger’s sob story, but I may just have some new ideas for you here.

  • At their best, clichés do impart quick meaning and association. They connect those who know them. When you read, “when it rains, it pours,” you probably imagined exactly what kind of day I had. So there’s that.
  • As a stand in for a writing prompt, a freewriting tool or a research session, clichés can have some value: they give a writer a place to start. I tell my students to use them if they must, and then figure out how to replace the language that came easily with something more beautiful and unique.
  • A cliché can delight. Even though the phrases are old hat (haha!),fun placement can still pack some zing.

To illustrate a few of the ways I’ve played in the puddles of my mind tonight, here are a few of my findings based on a web search of “when it rains it pours.”

Rain poems
I didn’t want to run with this most common phrase, “when it rains it pours,” but I needed something to sop up my emotions this evening, and I knew poetry could help. So I Googled “poetry magazine rain.” Despite its problems in 2020 with Michael Dickman’s poem, the Poetry Foundation’s Poetry Magazine is my go-to for poetic inspiration online.

First up, “Rain,” by Kazim Alli and this image: I am a dark bowl, waiting to be filled. / If I open my mouth now, I could drown in the rain. How perfectly this line captures the essence of being consumed by something. Could it be love? Hate? Sorrow? Joy? All of those emotions? Sure. When it rains, it pours.

Next up, “To The Rain,” by Ursula K. Le Guin. I love Le Guin’s fiction and non-fiction, but I’ve not read much of her poetry. This poem did not fully provide what I needed as I read it, but I did come away from it with an appreciation for the beauty and promise of rain.

Finally, “The Beggers,” a poem by Ranier Maria Rilke. I’m no expert on Rilke’s works, but I love the lyricism of his writing and the impassioned power of his words. It’s not lost on me that I’m always reading someone ELSE’S words because his poems as I read them have been translated in English. Here, however, I am giving credit to Rilke. It’s not unlike Alli’s poem in that readers peer into the darkness of a mouth and explore what it means to be consumed by something, but the line that stood out most to me was the phrase They sell the hollow / of their hands.

New perspectives
After reading the rain poems (and skipping over others) I Googled just the word “rain.” There were several news stories, my forecast (45 degrees and rainy), videos of Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande singing something that had to do with rain, and, which bills itself as “the internet’s most popular rain experience.” I scoffed as I read this line– by what metrics? Are there other less popular rain experiences online? What makes them less popular?– but an hour later, the page is still open in the background, my “rain experience” still spattering away. Normally, rain does not calm me. I see it as a barrier to time outdoors and an inconvenience. But there is something nice about letting rain spill down on me aurally and knowing it won’t ruin my day.

Fun facts
My final foray into finding new ways to express the idea of what it is to experience a deluge led me to a page on the US Geological Survey’s website: a chicken-or-egg bit of trivia that asks visitors to select where they think our planet’s water cycle begins. I said “atmosphere” and did a mental face palm when I read what scored higher. Play along and you’ll see why!

So there you have it. A dreary day and a familiar phrase gave me something to write about in a new way.

No one wants their writing to be littered with tired phrases, but if you can pick up that trash and use it, as a writer, you should. Happy hunting for your own ways to use the cliché!

Word by word

If you’ve been following along for the past few days (OK, like, all my adult life) you know I really want to “make it” as a writer.

At times, I feel like I have. I’ve worked in communications, I work as a freelance writer and I’ve got some literary publications to my name. But I’ve got this book, you see, and I really want to get it off my mind and focus on new things. Until I do this, I feel like I won’t have really met my goals as a writer.

Sometimes I get down for not having worked harder on this book years ago, or not having working exclusively on it during grad school. I get bummed out that I’m still hemming and hawing over it and I don’t even know it it’ll get picked up by a publisher. Most of all though, having this thing hanging over my head reminds me of how hard it is to accomplish a goal and make time to write on things that don’t have deadlines or paychecks attached to them. And that makes me want to pull all-nighters and go nuts on it.


Writing isn’t about banging out a book in a day, and it shouldn’t be all about a paycheck, either. When I was younger, it wasn’t. But now, with a family to support and a “real job” to attend to, I don’t make the time I need for my creative work because it takes time and because the literary stuff barely pays for new erasers. And who uses erasers these days?

Lately, however, I’ve been trying to get that time. One of the things I’ve been doing is forcing myself to post to the blog. Another is reading. And today I read something really encouraging in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Rebecca Shuman, author of the column “Are You Working?” offers blunt wisdom and practical advice to academics and writers who think they need to do it all right now. Instead of sprinting across the page and fizzling out when faced with other real world requirements, here she encourages her readers to slow down and figure out what might really work for them.

The advice that stood out to me the most was her suggestion to break down writing and research work into two-hour chunks twice a week. Rather than thinking we have to make up for all the words we didn’t write last year (or the years before, in my case), Shuman says just “divide work into single coherent tasks.”

I like this because it works well for my fractured way of thinking, and because it seems manageable with a toddler. I can find two hours a day a couple of times a week. Now, sitting my butt in a chair and writing…making myself do that will be another story (post?) entirely.

If you’re an artist with a “real job,” what advice for creative time has helped you accomplish your goals?

Feasting on the burned bits at the bottom

This afternoon while the toddler napped and my mother texted me about family in Colombia, I read Lynn Johnston‘s essay about burned rice, which appeared in The New York Times.

You might not know about crispy burned rice, the beautifully golden-brown color it takes on after just the right amount of time, the way it crunches in the teeth, the way it brings back one’s childhood. If you haven’t had that childhood, or positive experience with this foodstuff, then yeah, you don’t know about it in the way others do. I’m sorry.

Growing up with a Colombian mother meant that burned rice at the bottom of a pan is as much a staple and talisman in my life as is anything. And Johnston, a literary agent based in NY, is not Colombian, but as she shared her own experience eating crispy rice as a child in Saigon I felt all the same things about city and place and familiarity and comfort as she described in her essay.

I cried, people. I cried. I so wanted to be in Colombia multiple times in the last year, but especially over the holidays. Reading how Johnston has weathered the pandemic with rice, how she has connected (or not) with her mom over rice during this time, and how she has bonded with her own child(ren) through rice made me so nostalgic for my family, my origin story and my people on this first day of the new year. If a bit of burned food can do that for me, what can this metaphor do for the rest of the world?

Could the metaphor of burned rice allow us all (those reading, at the very least) to see how much we have, and how we’re all capable of “getting through” the fires that engulf us?

I had rice with the in-laws this evening, and as I watched my sister-in-law fret over the perfection of the rice, I marveled at the stress with which one might view this part of a meal. Yes, rice as a staple in so many peoples’ diets is worth perfecting, but what of the experience that comes with the hard bits at the bottom?

What if we could all appreciate the darkened bits as they coat the surfaces of our lives?

There’s no way of knowing what 2021 has in store, but I ask you to be on the lookout for the crunch and crackle of things and see them as new experiences, as new flavors that add to the dish that is your daily life.

After 2020, everyone could use writing to heal

A few days ago I wrote a post to commemorate the 16th anniversary of my stroke. One of the articles I linked to in that post, a piece in The Atlantic titled, “The Year We Lost,” explores the many things we didn’t get to do in 2020. It also takes something away from those who managed the year through writing.

It was “a year without parties,” a year that “paused many people’s progress on long-plotted family and career goals,” writes Joe author Pinsker. When I originally read the piece, it nicely summed up what I was getting at in that part of my post, which was the idea that at a time when so many people have lost so much, thinking about what I almost lost but didn’t felt shallow. In the days since I linked to this piece, I’ve kept thinking about this one line in Pinsker’s article:

The year 2020 has given more to the authors of history textbooks than it has to the writers of diaries.

It’s the first line, so it has to be catchy and hooky and give people something to think about. I’m a writer. I get it. But as someone who has studied the value of therapeutic writing or writing about trauma (that stroke, man, it keeps popping up), I think this line doesn’t quite give “writers of diaries” or the diaries themselves a place of value. I get this, too. The belief that the arts have healing power isn’t as widespread as this artist would like. However, if there is any way I see myself making a difference in the world, it is spreading the word that writing is a coping mechanism anyone can use — to great effect.

We may not have done all the things we wanted, or any of the things we wanted in 2020, but those who turned to diaries to track their despair and how they felt about it may have found a way to get through the letdown of a year with a better sense of well-being. People who journal may have had fewer “fun” things to write about this year, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have anything to write about.

Over the past forty years, research has found that writing about traumatic events and how one feels about them helps lower blood pressure. It helps boost the immune system. Expressive writing can help people sleep better and even perhaps “get over” the trauma and even physically heal sooner.

That’s right. Writing can help people heal.

If you’ve click into any of the links I’ve shared in the paragraph above, you’ll see that the fount of this wisdom and research comes from psychology professor James Pennebaker. In the mid-eighties he found that students who spent 20 minutes a day for four days writing about a significant trauma were healthier after this practice than their peers who did not write about their significant traumas. Pennebaker has worked with hundreds, if not thousands of students since then; other researchers have taken the idea and explored various intricacies of it in different studies. The research keeps stacking up: If people are able to write honestly about bad things they’ve experienced, and if these same people reflect on how they felt about the experience or how they feel about it now, they process the event and work through it in ways others don’t.

In his 1990 book, Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, Pennebaker spends time unpacking his inspiration, the studies he’s conducted and what he’s learned up to that point in his career. The information is compelling, his writing is engaging and he covers a lot of psychological, physical and mental health topics. I first learned about Pennebaker’s work in 2005, when my mom, a therapist, gave me a journal detailing his process of writing to heal. I’d always believed there was cathartic value in writing, but learning there was science behind it was validating. I didn’t need that science to nudge me into writing, or to benefit from my writing, but being able to tell others that it was proven to make a difference was amazing.

Years later, when I entered grad school, one of the biggest projects I spent time on (outside of my thesis) was immersing myself in Pennebaker’s work and getting caught up on what had taken place in the field of expressive writing between the 80s and the mid-2000s. I can’t say I’m an expert on his work–that would require working with him, I think– but I spend a lot of time talking him up to my students who seem like they could benefit from his work, either personally or because of their desired professions. And I’m excited to be presenting on it at virtual conference at the end of January. I’ll introduce people to his work, the theories behind it and what has been discovered about expressive writing. Then I’ll lead people through a little exercise of their own, hopefully equipping them with some strategies and tools to harness the power of writing. As a a writing instructor, I believe part of my job goes beyond just teaching people what they are in class to learn. If I see a chance to share something like this with them, I go for it. Doesn’t mean I’m an expert, but I do think I can be a resource and example for those wanting to know more about writing to heal.

If you’d like to check out Pennebaker’s book mentioned above, here’s a sample chapter from the third edition, published (and posted online) by Guilford Press.

Sixteen years later, still on the road to recovery

On this day 16 years ago, I woke up from a drug-induced coma after surviving a massive stroke and having brain surgery to stop the bleed. I was lucky–the type of arterovenusmalformation (AVM) that almost killed me often kills or leaves its victims seriously disabled. After a month in the hospital, I walked away with some vision changes, a spotty short-term memory, and some serious identity issues. I was only 22 at the time, and I’d just completed my BA in journalism. Adulthood and what I imagined as total independence were just around the corner, and then poof–I almost died.

Those early years of recovery were rough, and I’d be lying if I said every day is a day further from that event and my thoughts of it. Time has given me distance from it, and writing has given me more distance, but sometimes my deficits whack me on the head and I’m back in “why me” mode. Most of the time this happens with my vision. My depth perception tricks me, or I can’t figure out spatially what’s going on with something like assembling a toy or a piece of furniture. Not life-ending things, but if I allow myself to think about why I can’t see well enough to figure out what needs figuring, I can send myself into a real funk.

In 2020, a year of so many losses, medical challenges and personal pain, it feels tone-deaf and downright mean to write something about how things get better. Even if things do get better after traumatic events, I don’t think there’s a prescriptive path or pithy saying that holds true for everyone at every moment. Like anything, the good and bad comes and goes as the days do.

I don’t really celebrate anniversaries of this event anymore, but every milestone day brings up memories of that time. That’s been especially true in the last year, as I’ve worked to complete my memoir about the experience. Every milestone feels big as I’m immersed in visceral memories of waking in the hospital, completing therapies, returning to my parents’ home to recover and then striking out on my own again. I’m hoping soon I can start celebrating other milestones related to this: signing with an agent, getting a book deal, reading a galley copy or an ARC and then seeing the book in stores.

But for now, I’m celebrating in small ways: reflecting on the beauty of light dappling leaves on a quiet road, wincing at the pain in my hip and then reveling in the ability to walk, smiling as my fingers move across the keyboard and the cursor dances across this page. Today, I walked on the beach in Northern California with my son and husband, I drove us home from a family dinner in the dark, navigating portions of Highway 101 and the California Expressway system. They were small portions, but for someone who hates driving at night in unfamiliar places (because of my vision), traversing the slopes and loops was an accomplishment.

Recovery from a life-changing event comes with its own dips and drops and curves, and as much as I want to see this book out there to be done with it and move on, I want to see it out there to give others going through a medical trauma the sense that things can work out OK, even if it takes years or a decade to navigate what that OK looks like–and even then sometimes the vista gets fuzzy.

Viva la revolución

Evaluation. It’s a process I encourage my students to undertake every time they engage with a text in our class. What is it saying, I ask them. How does it make you feel? Do the ideas have merit? Why or why not?

This process is one I hope they will use when they’re out in the real world too, and of course I know they come to my class already knowing how to evaluate things in daily life. They can decide whether or not to get the enchiladas or the burrito, the pitcher of beer special or the twofer special. They know how to make decisions and value various things using various metrics. But sometimes I’m reminded in a big way that evaluation and perception must work in tandem, and if someone’s perception of things is filtered in such a way that their metrics aren’t right for the job at hand, then their assessments may have holes in them. And it’s not because the student didn’t take the time to think, but because they didn’t quite have the right tools for evaluation, or the full view of things being evaluated. Case in point is commentary from a mid-term evaluation I received this term.

This class has felt unnecessarily politically charged. The class is supposed to teach the students to write and analyze literature effectively (That is my understanding of it anyway), and I feel that can be done without some of the one-sided left-wing propaganda. Most of it comes in the form of implicit assertions hidden in other statements, but some of it seems rather blatant. For example: Promoting Marxism as 1 of 6 primary methods of criticizing literature seemed rather ridiculous to me. I have not mentioned this in class, as I didn’t want to be accused of disrupting the class and then be on a professors bad side, but I figured I’d leave my comment here.

Yeah. I teach a course about the literature of revolution and it was too political. Dang.

Seeing this comment was both hilarious and upsetting. I wasn’t upset because I felt attacked or anything; no, I was happy to see an articulate comment. From the clarity of the writing, it’s easy to see that the student did put some thought and effort into expressing their ideas. They maintained what I think of as a pretty neutral tone, even as they expressed displeasure. And they demonstrated engagement with the ideas presented, or else how would they have remembered the ideas themselves? All of this was good. All of this allowed me to see that the student did have solid evaluation capabilities and techniques. But what bit so hard was seeing all these good things AND the big black hole that said something like, “your work getting this student to understand that everything is political and thus has potential to be revolutionary has failed.”

I posted the comment to social media, and many friends and colleagues shared a laugh and a face palm with me. I KNOW that teaching the literature I’m teaching must by its very existence be linked to politics. I just thought I was doing a better job of showing students why it is so important to read literature and see how it helps us understand the political — and how understanding politics can help enrich what we read.

So that’s how I get to where I am now, mulling over the idea that someone can be a solid evaluator of things, ideas, people, etc., but they can still miss out on seeing the big picture. I know I risk sounding like I think the student’s critique was wrong, or improper. I don’t. But I do wonder what I could have done differently to give my student the tools needed to have a full scale by which they could assess the value of our theme.

Punch up, not down

Ahh, the semester is wrapping up and I’m reclaiming minutes of the day for myself. Instead of just doomscrolling, which is such a nice way to procrastinate, I’ve been using these minutes to squeeze in some writing and reading. Having minutes of time to myself doesn’t often feel like enough to get into a new piece of writing or engage in a substantial way with a book, but right now, I’m so elated to have these snippets of time I feel supercharged by them. And in just about two weeks, I’ll be off for Christmas break and basking in the glow of hours for myself. HOURS! I may just reach my goal of getting my memoir ready to send out to editors and agents by the end of the year.

To warm up for a few weeks of reading and writing (and revision) time, I recently participated in a writing workshop with Faith Adiele. (I found out about her workshop while doomscrolling, so I guess that act isn’t all bad.) We explored memoir and various strategies for writing it, and as an incredibly humorous person, Faith wove laughter and mirth and levity into everything we worked with, including our writing prompts. For one, she asked us to write an anti-hero piece about breaking New Year’s resolutions and not feeling bad about it. I don’t often like writing prompts, but in a workshop they are part of what one does. THERE, I can appreciate them. So for this particular exercise, I took Faith’s prompt and tweaked it. Channeling Colin Nissan’s, “It’s Decorative Gourd Season, Motherfuckers,”I wrote an anti-hero piece about this break I’ll soon be enjoying:

2021 is going to be the best year yet. I’m going to kick it off in California, saltwater splashing in my face on a crab boat while my husband barfs over the edges. I’m not going to feel sorry for him either—fuck that asshole and his smug, always-better-than-anyone-at-everything demeanor.  I’ll let him be better than me at barfing, just this once. I’m going to drop crab pots while he languishes, wet and miserable, in a corner of the boat. I would rather be in Colombia for the new year, somewhere tropical and warm, not the wet-curtain wrapped around me always that is northern California. So I’ll be miserable too, probably, surrounded by his family for three weeks, but in my resolution to have fun on that crab boat if it kills me, I will not think about Colombia, at least not much. I won’t think about how warm I could be, how dry and sunbaked and sleepy. Instead, I’ll get the most crabs in my crab  baskets, the big fat meaty ones everyone wants, and I’ll shuck those bastards faster than his sisters can say “screaming match.”  I’ll eat until I’m the one ready to barf over the edge of the table, into my brother-in-law’s thousand dollar boots, and I’m going to enjoy that feeling of excess and oblivion.  I might be crabby and out of sorts for the  first week of the new year, the last week we’ll be in California, but I’m going to feel real emotions, man, none of the fluffed up hallmark Christmas shit that I’ll have been watching for three weeks while stewing in the sog of silent treatment.

Faith broke us into small groups to discuss our short writings, and my group mates got a good chuckle out the anti-hero piece. It was fun to write, and as is all good writing, hinged on small truths. I laughed about it as I read it, but I also knew there was too much snark in it, that the hits were a little to hard to come off as humor and not hatred. So I asked Faith for advice on writing humor, and she said, “Always punch up, not down.”

Don’t pick on people lesser than you, don’t throw down on someone who can’t dish it back, is the way I understood her advice. I liked this advice, and although I don’t write much humor, it seemed like good advice to use at any time when writing about difficult events in memoir. It also seemed like good advice for staying sane while finishing the semester and making time for myself.

I may not have a lot of time to write or read right now, put punching at myself while I’m bogged down isn’t going to accomplish anything. Punch up, indeed.

Contesting the norm

It’s one of my favorite times of the year: The submission period for the Southern New Hampshire Fall Fiction Contest has closed and I get to read several of the outstanding semi-final entries.

This year we had 560 submissions. The forty that I’ve read this week are among the best I’ve read in my three years of judging, and I just finished reading a story about a clever high schooler who comes up with a unique way to ask out a girl he likes. This may sound like an age-old story, and of course, it is. But the boy’s tactic, the girl’s motivations for being the way she is and catching his attention: all crisp and unique.

Another writer submitted a piece of metafiction in which the narrator/protagonist is vying for an appointment to speak with the omniscient narrator. Fun idea, and the setting was so sharp that I felt like a fly on the wall in the waiting room.

There have been other good submissions–anthropomorphism cast in a new and fun way, coming-of-age pieces that speak to what today’s youth are experiencing, and a few explorations of addiction, depression and despair. And wow, perhaps the best part is that there have been a BUNCH of stories featuring LGBTQ+ characters, as well as more POC–that’s Protagonist of Color in this context–than I’ve read in the past three years.

I don’t know how many of my submissions come from students and how many come from the general public, but seeing these demographics represented in a noticeable and strong way is amazing. I don’t know if literature as a whole is changing (this is just one small drop in the pond, right?), but this is exciting.

What’s also been totally delightful and yet downright harrowing is the way Covid and politics have shown up across these texts. I know many people are writing about these things right now, and I see many calls for submission on both topics. They are important, but I have not been all that interested in writing about them–or reading about them.

When I read fiction for pleasure, I want to forget about what I’m living, not see how well it’s mirrored or torn down in a story. But I know that writing about what we experience is part of processing it, and through the stories I’ve read this week, I get a sense of joy in seeing how students are tackling these topics, all of them. I love seeing the black character who’s going to Harvard or the queer character whose gender we never learn because it doesn’t matter. I love the trans character whose grandma stands up for her. These characters and plots and conclusions give me a sense of hope about the future. They help me see how these writers are taking what we’re dealing with it and processing it from their own perspectives.

They are crafting more than just a fictionalized future for our country in a post-Covid and post-Trump world, but a literary future that breaks genres and tropes while exploring what it means to be part of something. No matter what it’s about, who writes it and who is featured in it, that’s what the best fiction does.

What new writers are you finding? How are they helping you through these times?

Death and creation

“Why do we tell stories?”

It’s a question I ask in every course I teach, and it always has a different answer. This is something I expect, as all students come to the idea of story with different experiences and perceptions. But the answers differ based on the class in which I ask the question.

Take my lit class, for example. After students offer their suggestions (suggestions such as “to entertain,” “to share ideas,” “to express emotion,” etc.), I tell them we tell stories simply to convey something that happened. Their answers aren’t wrong, but that’s the “why” I’m looking for in that class, at least at the outset of the class, when I first ask this question.

In a creative writing class, because my students are there to be writers, not just readers of others’ stories, their answers are a little more personal and nuanced.

“I tell stories because I would die if I didn’t,” someone says. “Because I have all these worlds and characters in my head and I have to do something with them,” is another answer. For them, storytelling is an emotional, personal, life-giving event. These students are like Joan Didion, who wrote in 1979 that we “tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Sometimes even my Composition students see the writing they are doing (basic academic structure writing) as a chance to find meaning in something they already know about. A student once wrote an essay about why America should allow the consumption of horse meat, and although he went into that topic knowing something about it and having opinions about it, in an end-of-semester reflection piece, he wrote that he had learned something new about himself as he researched his topic. He said he’d never be able to eat a dog, although some people do, and as he pondered this line of thought, he was able to see why most people couldn’t get behind eating horse meat. He got there, of course, by including a personal anecdote, a story.

The art and craft of storytelling is on my mind at least in some way every day. Lately, it’s been on my mind because in September two stray cats showed up at our farm, and last week they died. Well, what I know for sure is that last week one of them died, because I found him in the midst of dying, after both cats had been missing for a few days. I haven’t seen the other one in a week, and given what happened, I’m sure she’s dead too. These cats bring story to mind because of how they worked themselves into my farm life existence, because of how they gave me something to talk about with others and because of they way they brought up memories of the cats of my childhood. I told them stories when I talked to them, and my son told me stories about them. Pumpkin patch visitors told us how much they enjoyed seeing the kitties, and petting the calico, the friendly one. And when I took the poor gray striped kitty to the vet, the one I found on his last day, I told her his story, of how he’d come to my farm, how he’d been so skittish and had just finally started letting me pick him up. It was a short story; he’d only been around for a month and a half, but it was his story, or what I knew of it. As she euthanized him and he fell asleep one last time, snuggled in my arms, I sobbed and sobbed, remembering that farm life is so hard on cats. In the days since, I’ve sniffled and sobbed a few more times, thinking about how hard farm life is on me, too. Those dang kitties had become my friends, other living beings to interact with in a time of isolation and loneliness.

When I sat down to write about this, I thought I’d write more about the kitties, tell more of their story here and let them live on in the pixels and electricity of the screen. But storytelling is a funny thing. On the one hand, writers who do this work for a living know they can’t wait for inspiration to write; they can’t wait for that shadow of a cat that is story to come forward from the bushes and rub briefly on a leg before darting away again. They must write, doing what they can to bring forward the slightest wisp of a story. On the other hand, some stories need time to grow and be known. If we tell stories to live, we must do some living in order to understand how events shape us and others. With that living comes the passing of time, the sorting of feelings and the ability to know something new and different.

I can’t write about these kitties yet, although I want to. I don’t know what to say about them, or if there’s anything there that really matters. But what I have learned through having and then losing them is just how lonely life out here really is. And through that realization, I’ve remembered that in loneliness, and in the craft of story, we can still find ways to live.