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 3: A Writing Prompt Generator: Generating Play

Here, on day three, what better way to give you endless things to write about then a link to a Writing Prompt Generator.  Here are three prompts it has generated for me thus far:

“She seemed like such a sweet old lady. Who would ever believe that she was really…”

“Yesterday at school, you discovered a giant hole in the middle of the playground. Write a story about what happened next.”

“If you planned a field trip for your class where would you go, why, and what would you do?”

Okay, so the prompts are from Jefferson County Schools’ Web site in Tennessee (hey, I googled “writing prompt” and that’s what I got!).  As you probably noticed, they are geared towards gradeschoolers and many of us are writing “LITERATURE,” oh that loftier thing…  But remember when “Writing” was still just “writing,” and you actually enjoyed it?

In another TED Talk (which I won’t post here because I’m posting another one tomorrow and then I’ll quit for awhile, I swear), Sir Ken Robinson talks about the way we are taught out of being creative.  Our artistic pursuits are shut down or medicated out of us in favor of what we perceive as more important societal goals.  It’s pretty moving stuff, and perhaps the most convincing argument in favor of keeping the arts in schools that I’ve ever heard or seen.

Anyway, the point I am trying to make is perhaps encapsulated by something Picasso once said (as quoted by Sir Ken Robinson):

All children are born artists.  The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up.

With that in mind, perhaps today’s message is to not take ourselves so seriously.  Be child-like.  Stop resisting things.  Take one of these grade school prompts and just let yourself have fun with it.  And with that in mind, here are three more:

“Would you eat a bowl of live crickets for $40,000?  Explain why or why not?”

“A noise outside awakens you one night. You look out the window and see a spaceship. Write what happens next.”

“You’re invited to a friend’s house for an important holiday dinner.  You find a roach in your food.  What do you say?”

A Writing Prompt for Day 2

This afternoon prompt comes from my good friend (and fellow challenger), Maria.  (who also happens to be the very first writing friend I’d ever had.  We met when we were both waitlisted for a class with Maxine Hong Kingston)  Once, we even attempted to co-coordinate a DE-CAL class called “Attempts at Novel Writing.”  It seems that about ten years later, we’re both still working on those attempts.  If I’m right, Maria’s still chipping at the same novel.

Maria’s Revision Exercise:

Write down five quick sketches of scenes that have already happened or will happen between your characters on index cards, maybe with a little drawing or a list of details as they occur to you. You can take these cards around with you and add things when you have spare moment or two. You don’t even have to use them in your final work, but they will still inform your writing!

Got an exercise to share?

If you haven't already, JOIN THE MARCH!