Day 26: There’s Nothing Like a Good Butt (“Tuesdays with Nari”)

“I like guys’ butts. I look at a lot of the other stuff first, but there’s just nothing like a good butt.”

Only partially judge this book by its cover.

I composed those sentences as a college sophomore. My plan all along had been to study writing, but despite professors’ noblest efforts during my first four quarters, I wasn’t writing well. By “well” I mean authentically, with a voice that wasn’t pompous and stiff. I could put together grammatically correct sentences, but they didn’t pop with verve and personality. They resembled a perfectly coiffed hairdo set with ten too-many puffs of hairspray. They lacked movement. They hadn’t been lived in.

Then in winter quarter of my second year, I took a contemporary literature course. One of our assigned texts was Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, and our prof told us to pick any five of the book’s vignettes and write imitations of them. Unpracticed at true imitation, I retyped the first sentences from five different vignettes and used them as springboards into imagination. One such sentence, from a chapter called “Born Bad,” was “Most likely I will go to hell and most likely I deserve to be there.” In my “Born Bad” edition, I made a salacious confession: I had a thing for the male butt. For the first time ever, I wrote with glee. I had fun. I found freedom in writing about something that felt improper. Suddenly, I was voicing what I meant and sounding like I meant it. After reading my “imitations,” my prof said, “Whatever happened, keep it up.”

Now I’ve got a graduate degree in creative writing. I teach college composition to new faces every quarter, and several times during each course I tell my students, “If you accomplish anything in this class, I want it to be a paper with authenticity. Be yourself. Sound like yourself. Try to shake off that formal, five-paragraph-essay writer that high school made you become. Relax your verbal muscles. Speak onto the page.” Of course I want to be that inspirational coach or army general who in movies always says the right thing at precisely the right time, eliciting fist pumps and “Hell yeahs.” I want my students to magically write their own versions of “Born Bad.” Usually it doesn’t happen. Occasionally it does.

And while I’ve learned a lot about how to write since my own “Born Bad,” I still see that early vignette as a kind of holy grail, a standard that even now I try, and often fail, to reach. My current writing projects include essays about reverence and womanhood, and they’re worthy topics to explore, but as I revise drafts about such serious stuff, I can feel my writerly muscles tense, the old, formal, impersonal voice seep in. I don’t mean to say that somber topics can’t be written about with comedy or ease, but by nature of being weighty, they’re the most susceptible to that high-school writer who resides in most of us with annoying longevity. So during this Writer’s March, I’m trying to maintain momentum but also stay in hot pursuit of what keeps my words mine.

This is a guy's butt. I've seen better.

I’ve seen better.

Very soon, I plan to revisit “Born Bad.” That’s right: I’m a grown, lettered woman who teaches college students and folds clothes, and I plan to write a full-out essay about my love for the male butt. The life and playfulness should stay the same, but I’ll develop it, include some whimsical research, update it, mention how I’m lucky enough to have married the guy with the nicest ass I’ve ever had the pleasure of ogling. Maybe someday you’ll read the finished draft in the magazine that’s crazy enough to publish it, and maybe you’ll blush. I hope so.

But writing about lascivious topics, or anything else that loosens your writing voice, isn’t just about making your audience blush or about penning an extended “dear diary” entry. It’s not just a confession that wallows in self-indulgence. If it’s to become art, it will have to do more. Through revision, it must come to mean something to someone other than yourself. The bothersome quandary is, the craftier a writer gets about infusing her work with meaning, the more contrived–and therefore less meaningful–it becomes. Put authenticity first, and once you’ve written a draft about which you can honestly say, “This sounds like me,” you’ll have a potent clump of clay to form into what you and your readers need.

In the meantime, though, try writing about something naughty, something that you haven’t dared put to paper. Start with the same sentence I started with years ago, “Most likely I will go to hell and most likely I deserve to be there,” and write what comes next. Or in prose or verse, write about what body part you find sexiest. Write about what turns you on. Write about the weirdest, sincerest crush you ever had. But whatever your topic, enjoy the slightly wicked feeling it brings and write your way toward a natural, real voice. And once you’ve found it, hold onto it as firmly as I would to a damn fine ass.

Day 19: Slasher Revision (“Tuesdays with Nari”)

Scream 2

Revision Inspiration

When I was thirteen, I spent Christmas with my aunt and uncle in SoCal. My uncle had devoted a large hall closet exclusively to movies–the kind that consisted of black plastic and tape (after all, we’re talking the nineties). I’d never seen so many movies anywhere but the video rental store. The closet was filled with hundreds, many of them with their Costco stickers still attached, ranging from Disney classics to suspense. Because my parents didn’t let me have many movies, all I wanted to do during my visit was work through those VHS stacks. I shared a guest room with Rebekah, the twelve-year-old daughter of my aunt and uncle’s friends, also there for the holiday, and since our room had a TV and VCR, we watched multiple movies every day. She liked horror, so one night she picked Scream 2. We watched it well past dark, and, since this was my first slasher flick, I was terrified well past those two hours. Although fifteen years have elapsed, I remember the character Phil getting stabbed in the face through the bathroom stall’s wall and later his wife Maureen crawling in front of a projector screen, a knife protruding from her back. A complete slasher film lightweight, I’ve never watched another. And Rebekah didn’t have much of a chance to suggest any more because the next day her dad walked in on us cuing I Know What You Did Last Summer, which was rated R, and he said she couldn’t watch movies for the rest of their visit.

Despite my dislike for slasher flicks, I recently took to slashing my drafts. A few weeks ago I was revising an unwieldy, twenty-something-page essay (I’ve written about it before here and here); its many sections hadn’t found the right order yet, and after scrolling through them over and over on my computer, I couldn’t see them clearly–they’d blurred together into a confusing, unattractive lump. So I decided to make “cut and paste” literal. I took scissors, tape, clean paper, and a printed copy of my draft to a local coffee shop. With a cup of hot spiced chai as fuel, I sliced my essay into pieces and started moving them around as if solving a puzzle, which in reality I was. Once a sequence was right, I taped its parts together. On the plain paper, I handwrote new material–transition sentences, paragraphs that suddenly felt necessary. Mostly, though, I just worked with what I had. For more than two hours, I unscrambled my puzzle, and by the time I called it quits, the draft, while still imperfect, sang with fresh clarity. Other coffee shop patrons probably wondered why a grown woman was happily waving scissors about and stirring scraps of paper on a table. And if they had asked, I’d have replied, “Re-imagining.”

That’s really what I was doing: Most of the blocks were in front of me, and all I had to do was assemble them into a structure that held strong and pleased the senses. I had to re-envision what I had, like a dream that features real-life characters and locales but an element of the fantastic so that when you wake up, you see these people and places a little differently than you did before.

Usually I write fifteen-to-thirty page essays and stories. Somewhere between drafts three and seven, my subject and most of its development have been found, but they haven’t evolved into the right form yet. Until my “cut and paste” fest at the coffee shop, I’d muddled through that stage on my computer, but even my decent-sized monitor couldn’t truly show the scope of a draft; the most I could see at once was two pixelated pages. As a self-righteous proponent of printed, three-dimensional books over Kindles and their ilk, I hadn’t even bothered to consider that I could re-form my prose with the weight of actual paper and toner in my hands. But now that I’ve tried it, I’ll keep at it. Sometimes seeing your words isn’t enough to believe in them–you have to feel them too.


Whether you’re working with stubborn poetry or prose, print out your draft and cut it into sensible units. Then play with them. Start with a different line or paragraph. Swap a couple images or sections around. Let the old stuff surprise you. A hot beverage doesn’t hurt either. But a slasher film might.

Day 9: Obsession Is Not A Problem, It’s A Cure

A Guest post by Randi Beck Ocena

Somewhere in my head, there is a filing cabinet full of things I want to find, learn, peruse or pursue.  These projects vary from the ephemeral to the interminable and when I do chance to swim through them, I often find myself lost in a vast sea of library stacks research, internet archives, paper trails, and hazardous materials, or caught up in some precarious experiment requiring a double boiler, gum mastic, and power tools.

(In the end, this will have something to do with writing. I promise.)

Among the more recent interests: testing various sizes of spade drill bits, mapping with astrocartography, tracing my family lineage, investigating a string of local missing persons, and memorizing the Tsalagi syllabary by heart.

Sometimes there are more spontaneous projects.  For example, I once carved the likeness of Boris Karloff into half of a honeydew melon.  It took over an hour.

I have collectively filed these projects under Distractions, Creative. But when I really get interested in something, It becomes nearly impossible for me to leave it alone. I go to bed and wake up thinking about it. I’m easily consumed by my interests and my wife can testify to my single-mindedness.

Recent conversation:

Sam: “What do you want for dinner?”

Me (squinting at digitized family tree): “…hm?”

Sam: “Dinner? What do you want for dinner?”

Me: “Hey I think my great great great Uncle Ephraim might be related to Elvis”

(20 minutes later)

Sam: “Did you switch the laundry?”

Me: “Soup is fine, thanks.”

As a graduate student and someone with major guilt issues, not to mention serious problems with time management in general, I sometimes worry about “wasting” my time (egad, there’s a whole other post in that), particularly when the time I spend actually writing seems brief by comparison. Most writers/artists I know have a similarly vast and eclectic array of interests.  But what good are these odds and ends? Why does one need to find their missing relatives? Or know the difference between the smells of cut cedar, birch, and oak? Or the name of every native wildflower in English and Latin? Sure these things can liven up your writing. But I’m talking about weeks, months, even years of study, not just an hour rummaging Google or the public library. And more specifically, study that has nothing at all to do with your career or financial gain or any benefit beyond your personal interest and investment in it. For our purposes, we’ll call these positive obsessions.

Madness and the Creative Mind

There’s a lot of research out there on the relationship between creativity and madness and I don’t dare venture into all of it right now.  But when I looked into the notion of “obsession” in particular, here is a tiny bit of what I found, drastically oversimplified:

According to most modern psychologists, there are both “positive” and “negative” forms of obsession.  The line distinguishing them may be hazy, but basically, if it makes you want to work constantly at something you love or can’t stop thinking about, you can call it a positive obsession. If it makes you want to cut off your ear, that might be toeing the line. And if it makes you want to cut off someone else’s ear, then you’ll probably want to talk to someone about that.

Here are a few inspiring examples I found of positive creative obsession:


#1: James Cameron: For his latest movie, Avatar, he employed a university linguistics professor to create an actual functioning language for the tribe of blue aliens on Pandora. And one can’t help but be reminded of JRR Tolkien, who spent decades developing Quenya, one of the Elvish languages spoken by the characters in his books, complete with regional dialects, grammatical rules, complex syntactical structuring, and a lovely writing system. As far as I know, Mr. Tolkien didn’t receive any additional monetary gain by inventing an entire language. That was just part of his project, and he was dedicated to it.

#2: Another written testament to obsessive creativity. Here’s a neat book by Lisa Congdon:


“A Collection a Day catalogs all 365 of Congdon’s quirky, obsessive, endlessly curious collections of tchotchkes — erasers, pencils, vintage stamps, mushrooms, receipts, medals, maps, sea urchins, and just about everything in between — in a beautiful volume that’s somehow calming and centering in its neatness, a rare oasis of order amidst the chaos of the everyday stuff that surrounds us.”

#3: A Water and Stick Sculpture by Land Artist, Andy Goldsworthy:

ImageHis philosophy: “My approach to photograph is kept simple, almost routine. All work, good and bad, is documented. I use standard film, a standard lens and no filters. Each work grows, strays, decays—integral parts of a cycle which the photograph shows at its height, marking the moment when the work is most alive. There is an intensity about a work at its peak that I hope is expresses in the image. Process and decay are implicit.”

The Good News About Obsession:

In an article on positive obsession, natural psychologist and creativity coach, Dr. Eric Maisel says:

“When you obsess, you learn how to extinguish distractions so that you can concentrate. You accept the hard existential fact that if you intend to matter you must act as if you matter. You retrain your brain, asking it to halt its pursuit of fluff and worry, to instead embrace its own potential. In addition, you announce that you prefer grand pursuits to ordinary ones; you stand in solidarity with other members of your species who have opted for big thinking and big doing. And you turn yourself over—even to the point of threat and exhaustion—to your own loves and interests.”

Make Obsession Work For You:

“Embark on a month of productive obsessing, then another, and, ultimately, a lifetime. If you end up with a ballet like Swan Lake, a business like Apple, or a new theory of relativity, congratulations. But congratulate yourself just as much if what you end up with is a stream of brainstorms in the service of a fulfilling life.”

Last Word: 

For the next month, perhaps we should all adopt this attitude toward our own obsessions, whether fleeting or long-standing, but especially toward writing.  Instead of trying to conquer distractions, make it your goal to turn writing into a distraction in itself. Write about something that makes you want to sneak away at work or go to bed late. It is a gift, I think, just to feel passionate about something, anything, really. The fact that you’re reading this right now means you must have the gift too, and that makes me happy.

After this month of March writing madness, whatever it is that causes your heart to race or makes your ears perk up–building a ship in a bottle, learning a dying language, sharpening all your pencils by hand, making found art out of office supplies—whatever it is, go ahead and do it. Let it feed your writing where it will. And feel free to obsess a little. It’s good for you.