Why I Write: All It Took Was a Game of Tennis

Jane Hegstrom is working on a number of memoir pieces about her midwestern childhood in the 1950s. She is a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins University Masters of Writing Program and has a PhD in sociology with a specialization in social psychology and gender. Her academic writing has appeared in Sex Roles, Discourse Analysis, and Women’s Studies. She has also published in Bookends Review.

Jane’s nonfiction, “Mary and Carol Ann,” appeared in LPR’s Winter Issue 2019 (available for purchase through this link). She read excerpts from this piece at our issue launch in January (video below). In this guest post, which is part of our regular “Why I Write” series, she shares how she began writing.

My path to a writing life started, oddly enough, with an evening game of tennis. I was fifty-nine at the time and had played tennis for thirty-five of those years. I have a love affair with tennis, a sport that mentally transports me to a place where troubles and petty annoyances are lost in the sheer joy and focus of the game—what I imagine Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was talking about when he described the concept of flow.

My doubles partner that evening was a new player to the group. She was probably in her early thirties, the same age as my daughter. We won the racquet spin and chose to serve. I took my place at the net and when my partner served her first serve, our receiving opponent ripped a forehand return right at me. The moment I blocked the ball, an electrical malfunction caused the lights to go out in the tennis facility. We all moved slowly through the dark to the net to wait for the lights to come back on. Then my partner, in front of seven other players (the other court had joined us), asked me in a concerned voice, “Are you all right? I was worried that you’d get hurt by the ball hit right at you—you know, what with your age.”

No one said a word, and I was grateful it was dark because I’m infuriatingly prone to blushing. I forced a laugh and said something like, “We’re all used to having balls hit at us, not to worry.”

My partner’s remark left me feeling disoriented, as though I had walked into a room filled with strangers, a room I had never been in before. Her remark was a one-two punch. First, there was the shock that I was perceived to be old. Second, my confidence as a tennis player had been undermined. I thought, Maybe I’m not as strong, not as fast, and my reactions are slower. A younger player’s remark threatened a treasured aspect of my identity, and at that moment I assumed an altered identity: I was now old.

On my way home that evening, I thought of the French feminist writer and intellectual Simone de Beauvoir who, at fifty-two years of age, was shocked when she overheard a student say to one of his friends, “So Simone de Beauvoir is an old woman, then?” De Beauvoir’s conclusion was, “Old age is more apparent to others than to the subject himself.”

I began to wonder if other people were as stunned as I was when they discovered for the first time that others thought they were old. I made notes of my feelings and decided that at some point I would write about this particular event. I’m a sociologist whose areas of specialization are social psychology and gender, why not add the area of aging to my repertoire? I dreamily imagined my writing to be a hybrid of Malcolm Gladwell and Nora Ephron.

When I retired from teaching, I hadn’t forgotten about my startled reaction to the first time someone perceived me to be old. I immersed myself in the literature on aging and gathered anecdotal stories from acquaintances. One such acquaintance had a large number of Facebook friends and posted the following question on her Facebook page: Please describe the first time that you felt others perceived you to be old. It could have been a comment, an event, or even a feeling.

After a couple of months of collecting anecdotal data and organizing my thoughts, I was ready to launch my writing career. Except I couldn’t write! My years as a sociologist had produced a voice geared for peer reviewed academic journals and there was certainly no developed literary tone to my writing.

Enter Johns Hopkins University Masters of Writing Program. As a nonfiction student in the Hopkins Writing Program, I continued to draw upon my sociological background for essays on aging, but now I was learning to deliberate about structure, contemplate the importance of beginnings and endings, swap out weak verbs for stronger ones, add simile and metaphor, and remind myself every day not to over-explain—a lingering practice of my academic writing.

Then a memoir and personal essay workshop at Hopkins pushed me in another writing direction—my childhood. The result has been a collection of memoir pieces about my Midwestern childhood in the mid 1950s. And I’m grateful and proud that Little Patuxent Review published the first of my memoir pieces, Mary and Carol Ann.

Concerning Craft: Four Ways to Find Inspiration in Writer’s Block

Adam Gianforcaro is the author of the poetry collection Morning Time in the Household, Looking Out and children’s picture book Uma the Umbrella. His poems can be found in Poet Lore, the Minnesota Review, Maudlin House, Literary Orphans, and others.

Adam’s poem, “I Want to Hold My Boyfriend’s Hand,” appeared in LPR’s Winter Issue 2019 (available for purchase through this link). He read this poem and two others at our issue launch in January (video below). In this guest post, which is part of our regular “Concerning Craft” series, he focuses on strategies for overcoming writer’s block.

Writer’s block is one of the most thwarting traditions of the creative mind, but one we all experience. Some try to find ways over this block with a change of environment or a third pot of coffee, but after a short break, writers often come back to their laptops still feeling frustrated and uninspired. Instead of seeing writer’s block as a barrier to a current project, it may help to imagine it as a detour sign, a cue to change directions and take in new scenery before coming back to the road where you had originally stopped.

There are plenty of ways to get out of your head and back to the project at hand, but when writer’s block shakes the foundations of creativity and rises from the ground with wrath and fury, why not fight this creative suppressant by creating art of another form?

  • Get inspired: Many people find reading one of the best remedies for overcoming writer’s block. Not only is it a good way to get out of your own head, but it’s also a great way to find inspiration. One way to do this is by viewing the work you are reading in its micro form, sentence by sentence. For example, while reading If Beale Street Could Talk, I came across a sentence that stopped me in my tracks: “The mind is like an object that picks up dust.” Lines like these, even when taken out of context, sing with beauty and symbolism and versatility. With this, writers can find inspiration not in grand ideas and plot direction, but by viewing books and other art works that once seemed familiar in a new and up-close way.
  • Repurpose an old work: Giving an old piece of writing a new identity may also help you break from your barricaded funk. Take inspiration from the previous Beale Street prompt by scouring some of your writings and searching for one or two of your sharpest sentences. Then, use these as inspiration for a poem. Or, if you have an old poem, use a line or two from that as your muse for a short story or creative nonfiction piece. There are many ways to repurpose old writings—even those that may be unsuccessful in their current format—and make them shine like new.
  • Design a broadside: For poets and flash-fiction writers, broadsides are an underrepresented and underutilized way to breathe new life into your work. Experimenting with two-dimensional design and adding visual enhancements to a short work (new or old) can turn your literary feat into a piece of visual art. And don’t worry if you don’t think you can draw well. Simplistic line drawings and abstract color blocking can take your work from a great piece of writing to an awe-inspiring broadside.
  • Make something and destroy it: Writer’s block can be frustrating, and many times, we may not want to dive into another project or experiment with different forms of art to help alleviate the obstruction at hand. Writer’s block can make you want to throw your laptop out the window, burn your notebooks, and scream bloody murder. We have all been there. So embrace that feeling, but in a safe and constructive way. For example, you can build a tiny fortress with toy building blocks, only to tear it down with an aggressive swoop of the hand. Of course, yoga or aerobics could also act as positive, physical ways to alleviate the frustrations of writer’s block, but you may find it symbolically pleasing to build your own walls with colorful pieces of plastic and use your hand as a wrecking ball. The only downside of this is the clean-up afterwards.

So whether you decide to take a break from your current writing project to create something new or use your time to figuratively destroy the physical manifestation of writer’s block, using these tips can help you gain a new sense of accomplishment and greater control for getting around the wall that was once obstructing your writing. And with this clearer vision, you will see that the wall wasn’t all that big in the first place, and all you had to do was take a step back and walk around.

Meet Our Contributors: Q&A with Grace Kiyonaga

Grace on the trip that inspired “June in California” (click to enlarge).

Grace Kiyonaga is a poet living in Washington, D.C. Originally from Maryland, she made her way back to the D.C. area after living in New York City and exploring Chile. Grace discovered her voice while minoring in creative writing at NYU. She finds solace in how poetry captures her passion for and constant observation of life and her adventures, big and small.

Grace’s poem, “June in California,” appeared in LPR’s Winter Issue 2019 (available for purchase through this link). She read this poem at our issue launch in January (video below). We’re very grateful she’s willing to answer a few questions for us.

Q: Congratulations on your first published work! Really though, we at LPR are the lucky ones to have published you. Is it different seeing this poem in print from when you first finished it?

Thank you! Receiving my Little Patuxent Review acceptance email was such a rush of joy and excitement. About a year ago I decided I was going to buckle down and start writing more and submitting my work to journals. It’s been an amazing feeling to be a part of this journal and to see my poem printed alongside so many talented writers. It still feels surreal and makes me smile every time I think about it. Seeing the poem in print has allowed me to have more appreciation for what might make it stand out to a reader. I hadn’t really imagined what my first published work would look or feel like because it felt so far-fetched. The experience of being accepted by LPR, reading at the Winter 2019 Launch, and flipping through the journal and seeing my poem is far more special than I could have ever imagined.

Q: I notice that in your bio, you describe “solace” in how poetry captures your passion for life. The last line of “June in California” refers to “the thrill of making everything a story.” What’s the relationship, in your words, between this solace and this thrill?

Writing and reading poetry take me to a place I would describe as calm, alive, observant, loving, and full of possibility. I think the connection is that for me, poetry can take even the most ordinary aspects of life and the simplest interactions with people, objects, ideas, and emotions, and make them beautiful. I often find that poems can vibrate into the reader and cause them to feel like there is someone out there who has taken what they also observe as worthy of celebrating and put it into an awe-inspiring combination of words that tell a story.

Q: How did minoring in creative writing help you to discover your voice?

I had a great time minoring in creative writing and being part of a creative writing club while in I was in undergrad. I say these experiences helped me to discover my voice because they introduced me to a form of expression that hadn’t seemed approachable to me before. I look back now and I cannot help feeling like I took it for granted! The chance to read numerous collections of poetry and workshop weekly with my peers was defining for me. The practice helped me take the images and emotions I wanted to express and put them onto paper.

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Beyond Resistance: Transcending the Boundaries in Poetry

Photo Credit: Amelia Golden

This guest post comes from Brionne Janae. Her poem, “Alternative Facts,” appeared in LPR‘s Summer Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link).

Janae is a poet living in Brooklyn, New York. She is a Hedgebrook and Vermont Studio Center alumni and proud Cave Canem Fellow. Her poetry and prose have been published in the American Poetry Review, Bitch magazine, Sixth Finch, Plume, the Nashville Review, and Waxwing, among others. She is the author of After Jubilee, published by Boaat Press. Visit her website: www.brionnejanae.com.

The world is an ugly place. I have spent the majority of my adulthood learning and unlearning this lesson as I, like many of us, have struggled against the urge to succumb to the bitterness that daily threatens to pull us under, like quicksand thickening at the ankles. During one of my most memorable lessons I was teaching several community poetry workshops in Boston. It was the day after the 2016 election, and I entered my evening workshop to find that my students were as hurt and heartbroken as I was. Where the results of the election, and that 53%, had rendered me wordless, they in turn were ready to write poems that grieved, poems that screamed and set fire, poems that would curse the then-president-elect into the ground, where he belongs.

There is a long illustrious lineage of this poetry which works to document what is ugly in our world. Poems that rage against and weep for the individual and systemic violences and erasures endemic to the lives of people who exist at the margins. The cannon of resistance or protest poetry is as long and varied as it is gorgeous and important. And in times like our current political moment, when the world is not more hideous, but simply more visibly, unavoidably awful it can appear as if every poem and poet worth reading is writing as an act of resistance.

Of course this issue of what is visibly awful must be addressed. For Black people who have continuously been shot dead in our homes, churches, and streets, by agents of the state and homegrown terrorists alike, for Black and Brown people who have been locked up like animals, for Brown people who have been harassed and harangued and thrown into cages for breathing on the wrong side of some white man’s border, for indigenous people who are still fighting to protect the sanctity of their sacred spaces, the visibility of all that is ugly in the world has never been anything worth questioning, and it is only whiteness in all its innocence that is just being made aware of the nightmare.

That the world has been obviously horrid for some and only newly horrid for others is reflected in our art. White poets have had the privilege to write about nature, about joy, love, lust, and transcendence while others of us have been subsumed by the literature of struggle, violation, and overcoming. And while I do believe the move to invite the poetry of resistance into our cannon is monumentally important, as it marks an important shift away from the racist gate-keeping of those who would wish to keep the cannon old, pale, male, and pasty, I worry at times that it is presented as marginalized writers’ only option for poetry, that the only way for Black or Brown or queer writers to be read and read widely is for them to centralize and elevate their pain over all else in their writing.

I’ve heard poets say they feel pressure to write poems about police brutality or lynchings because that’s what’s expected from them. I too, have felt at times this nagging sense of guilt for not writing poems to elegize the latest victims of white supremacy though I have read their stories, marched in the streets in protest, and grieved for them as if they were my own blood and bone. I know this feeling of guilt is not unique to me, and I refuse to let it shape the way I art. If I spend all of my time reacting to the white supremacist patriarchy when do I get the chance to write the poems I want to write? That I am called to write? And to be clear, I don’t think anyone is called to write protest or resistance poetry. Not because it is, in any way, a lesser art form, but because I simply don’t believe anyone is called to oppression. Oppression is not a calling it is a situation, and while for many of us it is not temporary it is not the only thing that makes up our lives, and so, should no be the only thing that makes up our art. Continue reading

Staff Pick: Meg Files’s “Green River”

Raima Larter is a fiction reader for the Little Patuxent Review. In this post, she shares one of her “Staff Picks” from the Winter Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link). Meg Files’s “Green River” is available for reading at this link.

Whenever I hear breaking news about yet another mass shooting, I find myself wondering about the parents of the shooter. What must it be like for them? It’s hard to imagine the pain that parents must feel when their children become victims of a shooting. It’s even harder to imagine what the parent of the shooter might feel.

Meg Files has written a story that explores something similar—not a mass shooting, but an equally horrific event. From the first sentence of the story, it is clear the protagonist, Elizabeth, is trying to escape something horrifying: “She decided to go out into the world so as to leave the world behind.”

We don’t know, and won’t know, for many paragraphs, exactly what she’s trying to escape. Hints are deftly dropped into the story as it slowly unfolds. Elizabeth is driving west from somewhere in the Midwest. When she reaches Kansas, she decides to trade in her car. She wants to ask the man at the car dealer, “Would you like to be my son?” She trades her car for a cheaper model and continues driving, reaching Denver. “Denver was a big place. A body could get lost there,” she writes. Elizabeth continues acting strangely, buying a large empty book, “Grandma’s Brag Book,” and filling it with photos cut from another book.

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Concerning Craft: To the Writer Who Is Not Writing

This guest post comes from Alicia Mountain. Her poem, “Without Drawing the Blinds,” appeared in LPR‘s Summer Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link).

Mountain is the author of the collection High Ground Coward (University of Iowa Press), which won the Iowa Poetry Prize, and the chapbook Thin Fire (BOAAT Press). She is a lesbian poet, critic, and educator based in Denver and New York. Keep up with her at aliciamountain.com and @HiGroundCoward.

Hello, Writer.

I know that doesn’t sound like your name right now. It did for a while. When people would ask what you do or what you’re studying you’d say, “well, I write! I’m a writer.” But now that the words aren’t coming, you might feel like you aren’t entitled to your name, like you aren’t earning it. I’m writing to tell you that’s not the case.

So you haven’t written much of anything at all lately. Sometimes a little scrap of an image or a phrase comes along. Sometimes you press it into the pages of your notebook like a foreign leaf. Most days you’re stuck, or busy with the logistics and practicalities of living. Guilt tugs at your sleeve and it’s hard to shake.

Of course, this isn’t the first time you’ve hit a dry spell, but it hasn’t gone on this long before. You’re wondering when the rain will come, if it ever will.

I’m writing to tell you that this is the rain.

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Considering Craft: Adapting From a Whirlwind to a Calm Breeze

This guest post comes from Carrie Conners. Her poem, “Unchained,” appeared in LPR‘s Winter Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link).

Conners, originally from West Virginia, lives in Queens, New York, and teaches creative writing, literature, and composition at LaGuardia CC-CUNY. Her poetry has appeared in Cider Press Review, Steel Toe Review, Aji Magazine, Right Hand Pointing, Rhino Poetry, and the Monarch Review, among other publications. She is also a poetry reader for Epiphany magazine.

The last eight years have been a whirlwind. Well, to be precise, seven of the last eight years have been a whirlwind. I defended my dissertation at the University of Wisconsin in June 2010, moved from Madison to New York City in August of that year, and started as an Assistant Professor of English at LaGuardia CC-CUNY in September. Since then I’ve enjoyed developing my teaching of literature, creative writing, and composition with students and colleagues at LaGuardia while exploring the city and learning to negotiate the subway. (Confession: I still consult a subway app on my phone and would still be lost in the Village if it weren’t for Google Maps.) Working toward tenure is a bit like juggling on a tightrope. Negotiating teaching responsibilities with college, union, and committee service while trying to carve out time to write and publish is no easy feat, especially when working to produce both scholarly and creative writing and, you know, attempting to have a life and maintain relationships. So, after I was granted tenure and approved for a year-long sabbatical fellowship leave to complete a research project, I was presented with a new challenge: how to adjust to having time, how to adapt from a whirlwind to a calm breeze.

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