Hi. I'm Jenna McGuiggan.
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Thursday
Jul092015

The Sound Is Its Own Thing

Six summers ago, in the span of a few weeks, I realized three long-standing dreams: 1) I started graduate school; 2) I visited the Pacific Northwest for the first time; and 3) I started writing a book. 

I didn't know I was writing a book at the time. All I knew was that I had to write something to turn in to my advisor in a few weeks. I also knew that I wanted to incorporate more sensory detail and texture into my writing. So since I was sitting in a vacation home on Puget Sound, I wrote about what I saw, smelled, heard, tasted, and felt there. That little nature sketch led me to writing other sketches about seascapes around the world. 

Initially, I thought I'd collect these little prose sketches and self-publish them as a chapbook (similar in style to Lanterns). But when I put the essays together, I realized that something was missing. They were beautiful, but they seemed to lack heart.

Many pages and revisions and conversations with my advisors later, I realized that these essays weren't just about landscapes and oceans. What I was trying to do, without knowing it, was to write about spirituality, the topography of belief, and the longing for belonging in all its many forms. 

Slowly, slowly, a book was being born. 

That book is still taking shape, ever so slowly. (Too slowly if you ask me, but that's a topic for another time.)

What I want to celebrate today is the publication of that very first essay I wrote six years ago on Puget Sound -- and the serendipitous timing of its publication.

Last month, while I was back in the Pacific Northwest, my essay "The Sound Is Its Own Thing" was published in Flycatcher, a literary journal that explores what it means "to be native to this earth and its particular places." It publishes work that "engages the themes of empathy, ecology, and belonging, or that struggles with a lack of the same." Sounds like a good place for my work, no?

Here's an excerpt from the beginning of my essay: 

Floating in one of the southern fingers of Puget Sound, Harstine Island is like no other place I've been. It looks like the woods, but it smells like the sea. I come from the landlocked southwestern corner of Pennsylvania, all rolling hills and woodlands. I spent childhood vacations breathing in the salt air of a New Jersey barrier island. Here on Harstine, it's as though the two landscapes of my youth have been smashed together into one beautiful, interlacing juxtaposition. {keep reading}

This isn't the first time I've had one of my essays published. But this is the first one from the book to be published in full. I love that the first to be published is also the first that I wrote. And I love that I was back in the Pacific Northwest when it happened. 

The essays from my manuscript are some of the nearest and dearest to my heart, both for their subject matter and for the way writing (and rewriting) them have made me a better writer. They are true labors of love. I hope you'll read "The Sound Is Its Own Thing" and check out Flycatcher no. 5, Juneteenth, which is dedicated to the memory of those killed in the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. 

Thank you to Flycatcher's editors, particularly founding edtiro Chris Martin, for their insightful feedback and for giving my work a home. 

Sunday
Jul052015

Half A World Away (fugue, unfinished)

I've been away: Out of town. Out of state. Out of this time zone.

I've been away: Out of words. Out of tears. Out of time. 

Out of time: To have no time left.

Out of time: To be outside of time. 

* * *

Some people believe that God is outside of time, seeing the whole story from start to finish before it plays out for us mortals. This theory allows for predestination, the idea that God not only sees the whole story but also has ordained it, including who receives eternal life and who, well, doesn't. This kind of predestination thinking seeps into the highs and lows of human existences. Horrible things happen and some mortals leach comfort from platitudes: This is all part of God’s plan. Everything happens for a reason.

I believe that everything happens for a reason insofar as I believe in the commonsense law of cause and effect.

Yes, things happen for a reason. One thing causes another. We can reason it out:

My friend got breast cancer.
She had treatment.
The treatment worked.
She got well.

My same friend got another kind of breast cancer. 
She had treatment.
It didn't work.
She died.

* * *

Life is a series of If/Then statements.

The day after my friend died, I flew across the country for a trip I'd had planned for months. The older I get, the more nervous I feel on planes. With each takeoff, landing, and turbulent bump of this trip, I thought to myself: If Christy can die, so can I.

This wasn't a recognition of my own mortality. I've been well-aware of that for years, like a stone in my shoe mostly obscured on a daily basis by the padding of a well-placed callous. Rather, this thought was a comfort, almost a feeling of empowerment: If my friend who loved life so much could die, well, then by golly, so can I!

* * *

The week after I returned home, my mother had a scheduled surgery at a hospital an hour from my house. During her five days in recovery there, I drove to the hospital. I sat. I drove home. Repeat.

None of us knows how much time we have.

I've been away. Like I said. Now I'm back. I'm trying to get back to the rhythm of my life, but I keep looking around confused, checking the date on the calendar, the time on the clock. My mind and heart have become an absentminded professor patting down his dusty tweed blazer looking for his reading glasses, which, of course, are perched atop his frizzled hair. 

I keep wondering where I've been for the past month.

 

It's not just a god who can be unbound by time. A person in a fugue state operates outside of time.

Fugue: a disturbed state of consciousness in which the one affected seems to perform acts in full awareness, but upon recovery cannot recollect the acts performed.

 

I keep wondering where I've been, but really, I can tell you: Washington, Oregon, Chicago, Pennsylvania. In airports. On the beach. In the kitchen. At the store. At the hospital. On the couch. In bed.

I can track my every move. But still I wonder: Where have I been? I'm back now, but I keep asking: When will I return? 

* * *

If life is normally a fat layer cake, I've been living thin in the uppermost layer. The layers labeled with things like writing, work, cleaning, and exercise have collapsed under the weight of that thin upper layer called day-to-day survival.

Or think of it this way: During certain times (around death, illness, travel) life narrows, condenses down into the most basic elements: Find some food. Make your way from Point A to Point B. Seek shelter. Find some clean underwear if you can. Drink some water. Circle the wagons. Hold tight to the people you love. Say a prayer. Amen.

I miss my friend. This is my first intimate experience with grief. I know how lucky that makes me at age 39. 

My mother is home from the hospital now and should make a full recovery. (I know how that lucky that makes my family.) But if she doesn’t? What then?

Some things aren't a matter of if but when

I don't believe in the Christian doctrine of predestination, the idea that God has chosen before time who will be saved for all of time. But we also know that life as we know it has one final, common destination. We don't really know where or what that is, but we know we're all headed there. 

* * *

Out of Time: Title of an R.E.M. album that I listened to on repeat in my Sony Walkman during high school. 

The album includes both "Shiny Happy People" and "Losing My Religion."  I'll let you guess which one I like better. 

This week I've been listening on repeat to another song on that album: "Half A World Away." Michael Stipe sings in his plaintive whine:

This could be the saddest dusk I've ever seen
Turn to a miracle, high alive
My mind is racing, as it always will
My hands tired, my heart aches
I'm half a world away, here....

He's accompanied by jangly guitars chords, oscillating strings, and an organ that sounds like a Baroque harpsichord playing a sea shanty. There's a lot going on in the song. It's not a true fugue, but the polyphony blends the parts into a beautiful whole.  

Fugue: something resembling a fugue, especially in interweaving repetitive elements.

Fugue: a musical composition in which one or two themes are repeated or imitated by successively entering voices and contrapuntally developed in a continuous interweaving of the voice parts.

I admit I had to look up the meaning of the word contrapuntal: of, relating to, or marked by counterpoint.

Counterpoint, I know: the combination of two or more independent melodies into a single harmonic texture in which each retains its linear character; something that is different from something else in usually a pleasing way.

Good friends are counterpoints.

The best friendships are fugues.  

* * *

Christy was a writer. We attended the same MFA program. We shared many of the same writerly hang-ups (procrastination, impatience, doubt). We shared a genre—creative nonfiction—but our writing styles are vastly different.

I'm a prose writer who probably should have been a poet. I write in snippets, slices, splices. I find all the threads and paste them onto the page. She, on the other hand, could weave those threads together into beautiful tapestries.

She knew how to ferry readers along from Point A to Point B.

Me? I'll show you Point A and Point B and let you find your own damn way between them. Christy was more generous than I am, both on and off the page. 

She used to worry that her writing wasn't "lyric" enough. I told her that I wish I could write a narrative with as much fluidity and grace as she could. 

Her writing was a river that flowed with ease through the rapids and the tranquil pools, delivering readers to that far shore of a narrative's conclusion. 

Her writing was a cool drink of water on a hot day.

My writing is water, too. I'm splashing it at you.

* * *

When I travel to the Pacific Northwest from my home in Pennsylvania, as I did last month, I like to say that I'm half a world away, but it's all hyperbole. Being on the other side of North America isn't even close to being halfway around the earth. I'd have to go to Indonesia or Australia for that.

Oh this lonely world is wasted
Pathetic eyes, high alive
Blind to the tide that turns the sea
This storm that came up strong
It shook the trees, and blew away our fear
I couldn't even hear....

 I love a good story. I just don't know how to write one yet.

Monday
May252015

Vintage Kitchen as Writing Prompt

The Air BnB apartment I stayed in over the weekend had a fantastic retro kitchen, including this vintage sink. I posted this photo on Instagram last night, with a note that the sink reminds me of my grandpap, whose house was a 1950s time capsule. And then the first lines of an essay came to mind:

"Earl's wife Elsie died in 1959, when their children were just 9 and 13. After that, nothing was ever the same again, and yet nothing ever changed, either."

I started writing late last night, and as the words and images and memories and questions tumbled out, I realized that I've been incubating a story about this part of my family for years and years. There's so much packed in there that right now I'm just trying to get it all out on paper, without worrying about structure or writing craft or word choice. It's been awhile since I had a story insisting to be born. It feels good. It makes me tingle. It makes me wonder what I'll find.

Thursday
May142015

HippoCamp 2015: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers

Join me at HippoCamp this summer! Spend an August weekend in Lancaster, PA, immersed in all manner of creative nonfiction goodness. This Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers is presented by Hippocampus Magazine.

I'll be teaching a session called "One Moment Memoir: Writing Flash Essays." This workshop is based on my popular teleclass, and I'm thrilled to be leading it in person.
Here's a summary of my workshop: 

In this fast-paced, hands-on session, we’ll explore the art of flash nonfiction and short essays. Through prompts and exercises, participants will create a list of potential essay ideas, identify key details and imagery to help them dig into the heart of those stories, and, if time allows, write the opening for at least one essay.

I'm delighted to be part of a great line-up of speakers. I'm particularly looking forward to hearing from Keynote Speaker Jane Friedman, former publisher of Writers Digest and an expert in digital media strategy. Plus, Lee Gutkind, often called the "Godfather" of Cretive Nonfiction will also be delivering a keynote address and reading. In addition to the two keynotes, there will be more than 20 panels and sessions in three tracks: Share, Create, and Craft. All in all, there will be more than 30 writers, editors, and agents on hand.

There are some pre- and post-conference "add-on" small group workshops that look great, too. [I'm eyeing up one about writing fragmented/collage essays, taught by Sarah Einstein, author of Mot: A Memoir (University of Georgia Press 2015), which was awarded the AWP Series Prize in Creative Nonfiction.]

If you're interested in attending, you can save $30 if you register by tomorrow (Friday, May 15). I'd love to meet there, so please let me know if you're going.

Thursday
May072015

Follow It Down


The weeping cherry tree on the corner of my house hasn't really bloomed for the past two years. I'm sure there's a reason for this, but I don't know what it is. Maybe it's bad soil quality, or the tree's gotten too much or too little water, and I'm pretty sure the poor thing needs some serious pruning. The photo above is from a few years ago when the tree was dripping in pink and white. I want to eat trees when they look like that. But this spring and last, just a few pops of pink showed up and then turned into green leaves. I miss the blooms. Figuring out how to get them back is going to require me to play "homeowner & gardener," which I'm not very good at--or very interested in, truth be told. (I'm the kind of person who wishes I were the kind of person who likes to garden.) But if I want the flowers back next year, I'm going to have to figure it out. The same sad fate has also struck my lilac bush, and it hasn't flowered for at least three years. My laziness and lack of knowledge are robbing me of my favorite spring blossoms. This won't do. I'd better heed Annie Dillard's advice and follow it down. 

I read an interview with poet Charles Simic in The Atlantic today. He says this about following things down and seeing them in their specificity and strangeness so you can write about them: 

"To me, the ideal poem is one a person can read and understand on the first level of meaning after one reading. An accessible quality, I think, is important. Give them something to begin with. Something that seems plain and simple but has something strange—something about it that's not quite ordinary, that will cause them to do repeated readings or to think about it. The ambition is that, each time they read, they will get to another level of the poem."

I like that. Good poetry (and essays and stories and movies and songs) do that, don't they? That's the kind of stuff I like to read, and it's the kind of stuff I try to write. 

Simic's interview ends with this gem: 

"My fantasy goes like this: a reader, in a bookstore, browsing in the poetry section. They pull out a book and read a few poems. Then they put the book back. Two days later they sit up in bed at four o' clock in the morning, thinking—I want to read that poem again! Where's that poem? I've got to get that book."

Isn't that the writer's and the reader's dream? To be so moved by something that you must find it again? 

These days I'm following down a lot of things: essays and stories; gardening tips; piles of laundry; recipes; deep fears and deeper desires; the way my body moves; relationships; dreams; the past and the future; what it means to be a family; how I want to spend my days and how I want to live my life. I'm following pots of tea down to the last drop. I'm following the hours of the days into the wee hours of the night. I'm following my breath in the middle of the night when I can't sleep. I'm following my reflection in the mirror, watching the silver-grey hairs grow in as the rest of my hair grows out. I follow the news or I don't. I try to follow down the thread of heartache that seems to wrap around the world. I follow any hint of joy I find. Follow it down. Where's that poem? I've got to get that book.