Benjamin Inks is a Seattle native who graduated magna cum laude from the Ohio State University. He’s a purple-hearted veteran who writes whenever he can, aspiring to one day turn his passion into a career. He resides in Northern Virginia.
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.
Linda Joy Burke is a performance poet, writer, picture taker, workshop facilitator, and interactive music maker. She’s also a contributing editor for Little Patuxent Review. We’re grateful to her for this blog post.
I bought a T-shirt from a poet colleague at a local literary festival, a couple of decades ago, which had a picture of a quill pen and ink, and the phrase “practicing poet” on it. I was delighted with my find, until the passing stranger at another literary festival read my shirt and asked me, “do you have it right yet?” I immediately felt a little insulted. Not thinking that practice was about right and wrong. He just didn’t get it, I thought–his view of practice was limited.
Back when fountain pens and penmanship was still a thing, and moleskin journals were cool, I strove to write every day. These days I don’t try to fill up pages for the sake of writing everyday anymore. Instead I fill up pages when I am following a thread, an idea, the snippet of a story I may have observed or overheard that demands more attention.
Looking back on some of those journals from my early years is both boring and enlightening. (Mental note to self: I should probably bury those books before I take my last breath.) Thankfully the content did improve as I aged, and life’s vast experiences became the spice that guided my words.
I generally try to write something for consumption in the public domain every day, through a social media channel where I am counting characters. This everyday writing model is so different than the free flow words of my younger days, since in this medium we write for vaster audiences of folks who are largely unknown. In this age of 24-7 spin and intense political and social turmoil, honing craft in this domain adds a level of responsibility which at this point in my life I welcome.
I lean on immersion in nature, making and listening to music, reading, deep listening and long periods of silence so I can troll my inner life for inspiration. I am prone to just let words come and then walk away from them–sometimes for years or more as part of my practice. When I’m ready, I go back through books and books of script, and Word work-in-progress files, to find what’s worth saving and re-working. This essay is an example of that mining for material.