Sunday, September 29, 2013

In Memory of Timothy Scott McClellan, 8/2/59 - 9/13/13

I first met Timothy fifteen years ago in a 12 step fellowship, but got to know him better more recently when he began taking my Creative Nonfiction classes at the Black Swan Bookstore. More often than not Timothy didn’t follow my prompts but chose to forge ahead on his own path of truly creative writing instead. Early on he wrote a thrilling noir about following someone into Jackson Ward only to reveal that he was in fact the one being followed. We were all on the edge of our seats. “When did this happen, Timothy?” I asked trying to get a sense of the time frame he’d just captured.  “Oh, I just made it all up,” he answered with a big laugh. It became clear to me then I was working with a different kind of animal altogether.

“Timothy’s writing was outrageous but exciting to listen to,” said Hope, another writer in our class. “I remember him writing about getting back in the dating scene and "accidentally" having a tryst with a senior citizen.  He wrote like an artist in big broad strokes which felt abstract but at the end was real or concrete.” 

Said Sara, “I recall him reading with a booming voice and lots of intonation for his characters. Before reading each piece he would seem skeptical at first, then dive into the world he spat out for the last ten minutes and end with a triumphant, "Fuck... what did i just write?!

 “I was struck by the self-conscious narration,” said David. “He knew he had an audience who was eating it up... but it didn't stop him from writing some really vulnerable stuff. I have a pretty good recollection of the tone and the enjoyment we all felt when his writing was cooking and there were no taboos and inhibitions. My guess is that he raised the bar for all of us. I know that I wrote better than usual in those classes. If just for that, I'm grateful to have known him.”   

Of his writing about his own life, Timothy said, and I quote:

“This work is my personal narrative. It is not about discovering the truth or accurately chronicling the events of my life. This is not about getting it right. This is my story about how I have experienced the world tethered to a rather crazy and self-absorbed group of people. They will have opinions and deep disagreements about what these pages contain and how they are portrayed. That's fine. They can write their own fucking book.”

In life, as in my writing class, Timothy constructed his own rules and his own framework for living. He was the sensitive tough guy who could pull off more silver hoop earrings than a whole VW bus full of hippie girls. He was the Zen Buddhist who could turn the word fuck into a prayer, wedding the unholy with the divine in a string of curses that would make a sailor blush. He was the devil-may-care drunk who’d been sober 29 years but still knew how to live wild, to live hard, to love big, to occupy every bit of space in a room. Timothy was a storyteller who could captivate a room one night and throw down his notebook mid-sentence the next. He was the lone wolf who secretly loved to be surrounded by his pack.

Timothy loved to make fun of the way I parked my VW bug, with just the right mixture of disdain and endearment. Forever more when I park badly I’ll think of him. He reminded me of buffaloes and bulls, big burly beasts with soft fur and tender skin. He gave good hugs and big smiles. He had a beard big enough to speak for itself and a motorcycle jacket wider than the road he lived to ride. Timothy had big hands but only part of one thumb. He was accident prone and blundering in some ways, gentle and careful in others. He shared war stories and epic tales of pain and survival like badges, like memories, like jokes, like prayers.  

Timothy was an example of a man who by no means should have been useful or helpful in civilized society that somehow managed to become both useful and helpful in civilized society. He used his rebellious, antiestablishmentarianism- nature for the good—through his art, his writing, his job and his service in 12 step recovery rooms all over the city. He was living proof that you don’t have to become a saint or sacrifice yourself to the life of the glum lot to conquer your additions, to trudge the road of happy destiny. He walked on the wild side, sober. He gave back, sober. He showed up, stood tall, carried a big stick, and forged his own path through a knotted wood, sober, helping others along the way. He’d made peace with much of his path and his dear ex-wife Helen whom he considered a good friend. Timothy loved Boo, his dogs, a good story, a good turn of phrase, a good friend, a good linguica sausage and a good motorcycle. And he loved his beautiful girlfriend Ruth Ann who brought him worlds of happiness and joy in the last year of his life. And I feel sure that he loves that we’re all here together now in his name celebrating his big, glorious fucking life. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Why We Write: A Compilation from Creative Nonfiction Classes, Past and Present

(This post is dedicated to Timothy Scott McClellan, a fine and outrageous writer. Write on, Timothy. We miss you. )

I write because my mouth can't keep up with my brain. Thoughts fill my mind like gusts of strong wind, carrying the songbirds of E.E. Cummings' verse. 

I write because I've been telling stories since back when they were called lies.

I write for revenge. To get the bastards back. You may think you had the last word but just wait until you see your name in print.

I write because my head is a balloon floating atop my shoulders, the pen and paper act as the ribbon tying me to the front stoop. The only indication of the birthday party going on inside.

I write because I love the smell of new books and I wonder what mine will smell like one day.

I write because when the time comes, I have nothing to say. Those moments where seconds turn into lifetimes and all the words you should be saying run right underneath your skin, slithering like electric eels.  The treacherous ever-expanding landfills filled to the brim with I love you's and Don't hurt me's rotting like hot wet garbage in the sun.

I write to leave a map of where I've been. Words as breadcrumbs, gradually revealing where I've wandered.  Where I'm going. How soon I'll arrive.

Sarah Merryman

I write to be known – by myself and, even more, by others.

I’m from a “good girl” family and I fit right in.  You know, “the pretty is as pretty does” environment - always polite, considerate, respectful, smiling.

Never mind that I felt like shit inside – that I wished my father dead because he loved bourbon more than me.  Never mind my agony when just the next year he was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer.  Smiling, polite, “good girl” ratcheted up a notch.  Only my pillow knew my rage, my terror, my sadness.

Now more than 50 years later, all that good girl façade has made me sick – digestive
track is a mess:  throat burns, voice weakened – acid reflux; colin “irritable” with protruding, inflamed pouches known as grief.

I want to write because I’m still mad about my mother’s oft-used reply, “Oh, don’t be silly!” when I asked the big questions like, “Why would God make heathens?” Why was that a silly question or, worse yet, why did that make me silly?  I wanted to know why my church sent people to the Philippines to save those naked people’s souls.


I write because I am impatient, because I need an explanation and sometimes the only way to get one is to write it myself.

I write because I have a cat, and my cat likes to lay on me and while my cat is laying on me, I’m forced to stay still, but not so still that I can’t pick up a pen and write.

I write because I am always late – either 6 minutes or six years behind where I should be. That may not make sense to you, but trust me, it’s a factor.

I write because, if I don’t write, I go a little crazier than usual, and that’s not good for anyone.

I want to write about huge, beautiful, introspective, deep, meaningful things – grand discoveries put into words never before used. But grand is not what is up my sleeve. No mysteries, no fantasies, no great twists at the end. I write about what I am trying to figure out, what concerns me and confuses me. To get into those places that I’m desperate to get out of.

I write about real life. About marriage and how ridiculous it seems, and though I find myself very happy in my marriage, it’s hard-fought happiness, and, being a marathon, there’s still plenty of time for one or both of us to screw it up. And I write about motherhood, and how I took to it like a buffalo driving a car.

That’s also my reality to write, although it’s harder and sometimes makes me cry. And then there’s my mother, and that always makes me cry.

But that’s what’s real and I always come back to that, even when I try to get all clever and creative—like once I took the Magical Realism class – and all I had in me was Real, with not a hint of Magical. No vampires, no talking teapots – just sisters, ex-husbands, crazy mothers and the occasional cat.

Sema Wray

Many people have asked me, “Guy, why do you write?”  Usually I leave the room immediately, go out on the porch, stare at Mr. and Mrs. Cardinal taking turns at the bird feeder (they are never more than a few feet apart), and ask them, “Mr. and Mrs. Cardinal, why do you fly?”  He peeps and postures, gently tilting his head as if to say “say again, please, why do I what?”

They usually immediately leave the bird feeder, go out on their back porch (which is a small screened in section at the top of the neighboring elm tree), kick back and smoke a banana.  Mrs. Cardinal then usually saunters in her Van Gogh-like pastel shawl into her kitchen, and prepares a culinary dish to explain why she flies.  She returns to the porch at which point her husband in his regal sunburst orange red smoking jacket, looks up and softly murmurs, “why, don’t you look soft in that feather down pastel comforter!” 

They really are such the couple, aren’t they?  Just after dinner he looks at her, and they gently begin to stroke each other’s head plumes, and he whispers ever so quietly, “I fly because I love you.” 

Later that evening, someone asks me, “Guy, why do you write?”  And I nuzzling the top of her head coo, ‘“Because I love you.” 

Guy Ellard Frank

I write because I have stories to tell, words to put on paper describing my past, my thoughts, how I get to/got to where I am. I think my history is part of history, not just the events but what happened to me and to my friends. I write because I have something to say about being alive, about being young, about becoming old and in pain, about the lessons of that physical pain, and, of course, the emotional pain, about love, and loving, and not being loved enough, and not loving.

I write because I love words, love finding or remembering a word that has a precise meaning or connotation, finding the exact way to convey an action or feeling.

I write because I like having people react to what I have written, to have others tell me their own stories, to understand what I am saying, to tell me they like my writing, to compliment my writing.

I write because I want to make a connection, to not be alone, to tell someone else they are not alone. I write because I want to honor the past, to remember the simple, ordinary stories. I write because the experience itself is fascinating, how I can begin in one small room and end up in another time and world.

Cate Fitt

I write because it's pretty.  I write because I have washed away all other possible outcomes for me and my potential.  Because I can't play basketball.  Because I have felt how it feels to really read, when it lifts you up and before you know it, you look down and your toes are dangling above the roof.  I write because I like the way it sounds, words in general and yes, the phrase, "I am a writer."  I write because I don't know anything.  I don't know what it's like to be in love the right way, I don't know what my dog is thinking when he looks so sad in the middle of a bright day, I don't know what it would be like to live in a world where you can take someone else's red and black grief and thrust it into your own chest.  I don't know whether, at a traumatic moment, your soul splits in two and you are left halved until you are quartered until you are sixteenthed until you are too missing to mention.  I write because I cannot just live on the surface, blissful and ignorant like I imagine some people are, the lucky fools.  I write because my ex-boyfriend wants me to, and for some reason I still want to do anything he wants me to.  I write because I was told once that I did it well, and at some other point I was told that again, and now I am stuck faking at something I want so badly to make real, before they can figure me out.  I write because I miss my siblings, because I can still see each one's scared face from behind their beds and can remember how it felt to be unable to save them.  I write because my nightmares worry me, because my dreams frighten me, because my monsters are never who I expect them to be.  I write because it is punishment.

Mary-Peyton Crook

I write because it was one of my first private territories. I may have felt alone a lot as a child, in hospitals, in a family with many children … but those isolations were not private. I found a facility there, in the solitude of writing. I felt praise the first timeI was asked to write something original. I was a child and it was a prayer. I don’t have that little bit of self history anymore, and I have no idea what I wrote. But I’ve always suspected some vague inheritance of ceremony in the kind of inside place I go to write. It feels sacred, I suppose. The stripping away of most everything on me.

As I kept writing and as I left childhood, I needed a stripping away; there was so much I don’t think I could have handled, carried, without a place to unpack it alleveryday, many times a day. I feel madness sometimes on that line between writing and not writing;. I resist writing because it points to miles of past madness; I give in to writing because nothing else unties the knots in the same damn way.

I also have not, since I was a child, exactly found joy in writing. I have found relief. I leave the page less unsettled, less itchy, less bad … less some or any double negative. Writing for me is the voice that breaks silence, the beat after a pause, the inhale aftera long held breath. It’s the bridge from the stories of sad things to the jubilance of sun on my hands and face. It’s a rope’s pull from the dream where my voice doesn’t work to the singing of wind through grass. No straight errand run, but a passage between frames, from experience to sense.

So from that, what about the art, or the craft? I resent the effort (by me only) to place this chemical reaction under a glass, or on a pedestal. I resent discipline. I can only honor practice, at least so far. For that I may never find myself between two covers of my own on a shelf. But the priorities are what they are. I don’t live to write better. I write to live better.

Anne Carle Carson

I pulled out my journal and wrote longhand from my mother’s bedside, mostly to keep myself from running out of the room. Four weeks after her death, the journal is still sitting in my bag.  It’s my prettiest writing place, a gift, I think, the cover decorated with a Van Gogh and meant to make me feel artistic.  I sort of miss having it out on my desk. But I don’t dare open it or read the many entries that start with “Right now I am sitting at my mother’s bed.”  I have to let those entries cool for a good while, let them lose their heat, let the lava become harmless rock.

Maybe it was a macabre thing to sit alongside the dying and take notes. Maybe it was nothing more than spying on despair.  But I couldn’t stop myself from writing. Nerves drove me to catalog the weird minutia of active death. I wrote about giving her morphine with a dropper and changing her bloody diaper as CNN en Español blared on. I wrote about my aunt watching wide-eyed from her bed across the room. I wrote about my mother as she finally turned into a crushed little bird, pale blue in all her extremities, her breaths rattling into the night.

Who in their right mind wants to remember that?  Only a writer, I suppose, someone who resists what time will do to shape more acceptable snapshots of memory. I write because I believe in story -- its beautiful parts and its ugly ones. I write because I believe in the often-frightening face of love.

Meg Medina

I write about my dad and his life.  I write about him so he doesn’t feel so removed from my life. I write about him as if I were a detective searching for what made his soul tick. I write about him so that he’s more than a pile of dust sitting in a jar inconspicuously next to the telephone in the kitchen.  I write to find out more about myself – the self that people, his friends, keep telling me he would be proud of. 
I write so my kids will be able to find my soul if they ever need to go searching for it.  I write so they will have a record some day far in the future that they may prefer to read about rather than ask about.

I write because that’s the only way I can figure anything out. The only way I can see myself through a problem or a situation is to put the words into sentences and the sentences into paragraphs.

I write about things and people that are so real to me. But sometimes the only way to do it…the only way to make it painless for those around me is to call it fiction instead of real life. It’s easy to write about someone who sits in a jar on your counter.  The jar doesn’t critique.

But what I know each time I write is that what is inside that jar or maybe what’s floating up in the stars is the soul of a man who gave me more than either one of us realized. He gave me the desire and the drive to write.  He gave me his passions and some of his emotions.  It’s just a shame that even though he can’t critique me that he can’t enjoy me either.

I write for him.

Julie Farley

I write because it’s cathartic to stop the swirling in my mind and dump it, clearing it briefly before it fills again with bits of conversation and lots of worry and schemes and wonderings and hand-wringing questions about the meaning of life.  My life.  I write to bear witness to the little beautiful things in life others might miss, I might miss if I wasn’t looking for little beautiful things to write, and I write to bear witness to the injustices I see.  I write out my anger and my heartbreak and my neuroses and my empathy and my pettiness because something other comes out on the page, something I didn’t mean to write, some realization that my mind’s churning alone cannot produce, and I am eager to find out what it is, I am eager to know it and the only way to know it is to write it.  Sometimes I write to honor, to eulogize, or to hold up some bit of experience I’ve loved or suffered for others to see, though it makes me vulnerable, I hold it up and sometimes I’m rewarded in someone else reflecting their own experiences back at me.  I write because I am less awkward on paper than in person.  I write because I can’t not or because I am not whole or cared for when I don’t.  I write because not a moment spent writing feels wasted.  I write because it is my purest form of what I want to be.  I write because stories are in my blood, as they were in my father’s, and maybe because he can’t tell his stories any more, maybe because the slow, painstaking words he speaks now are often nonsensical, at least to me, and I wonder if his stories are maybe still trapped in there, in him, and how torturous that would be.  Maybe that’s why I spill them out now, empty myself while I can.  

Emily Gambone


I write because I want to see what my thinking does to my emotions. I want to see my thoughts, concrete, on the page. Sometimes I don’t write, because I don’t want to see these things, as well… Today, “why I write” is because I have some stuff going on. (My cat is sitting here on the desk. Probably not giving a shit why I am writing, as long as I have my presence near her.)

I write because I just celebrated with family and friends in NJ, the fact that I am glad that my mother (who I had so many mixed emotions about for so many years – that I feel are resolved, today) has turned 91 and looked better than she has in a long time. The fact that we are no longer “threatened by each other’s presence is why I write… Sometimes I have
to see myself write that, so I actually confirm that that is a reality, not just fantasy in my head. I have put a lot of erroneous fantasies in my head for years, using my family as the blame for my warped thinking and drinking, too.

I write because I want to make sure I am being honest with myself, and others. I have not always told the truth or even acknowledged the truth. Now I feel good about the fact that I can handle it, without defensive maneuvering and posturing stances, without fighting it.

I write because I have lots of stories to share that I have still not put down on paper, about my life, about people in my life, about events past, present, and dreams for the future. I write because I sometimes need to vent. Writing out of anger – which I do not feel at this moment – is so much more productive than taking anger out on people, places and things… I let it go and move on, if I write about how my anger feels and affects me.

I write because I am a writer, a poet, a creative human being, who likes to express myself through words. I need to give myself more time to actually do this…I write because I want to stop censoring myself and my feelings and thoughts. I want to know myself like I want to know a new friend.

I want to stop wondering “WHY” I write, so I will just DO IT…I write… I write… I write…

Margaret Lerke Woody

Why do I write?  I write because of the empowerment reading has given me.  I’m nurtured by the written word.  I have found myself in haiku, poems, novels, and essays.  In return, I share my own written words in hope they will give nourishment to someone else with further hopes they will write and nourish someone else.

When I write, I am never alone.

My Poem

Nurture me, my words, my spirit
Nurture me and I will nurture you.
Cultivate my imagination
with Angelou, Neruda, Merwin.
Give my words seed
and they will take root and bloom.
Golden like a wheat field,
boundless as the sea,
and we will reap the harvest.

This is my second act,
my second  chance.
Death came for me like
thunder and twice I
told it not today.
The universe has more
growing for me
with my talent, with my soul.
What is divine? What is holy?
A newborn's first breath,
that the sun rises then rises again,
the promise of a rainbow,
that wildflowers blossom in untilled soil?

Nurture me, my words, my spirit.
Nurture me and I will nurture you.
When I write, I am whole.
When I am whole, I give the universe
my seeds, my words.
In return, my words are perennials of love.

Hope Whitby


I write to remember. It's so easy to forget. There are sticky notes in every room of my house, pens with inks in interesting colors are there, too, because sometimes the words just get away. Sticky notes trap words in the middle of the night.

I used to write to hide myself. Now I write to find what's in there. It can be surprising, sometimes.

I write to connect to people, to string a line between me and someone else. It's hard to hold someone at arm's length when your hand is so close to the page.

I write to keep the memory of a blue sky in September. The taste of tomatoes in August. To remember how that river sounded going underneath that bridge. Or how things change from the time I open my eyes in the morning until I close them again at night.

I write to let things out so they'll leave me alone. I write to let other things in so they'll stay.

I write to leave a trace of me.

I write because I miss it when I don't.

Mary Jo McLaughlin

Why I write... It might be to compile a chronological list of cars that I've owned or a way to record midnight confessions for posterity. The journal remembers, and that's helpful considering I can barely recall, well, anything from that webinar on health care coverage I sat in on just two hours ago. I write because of what someone said (sang) once... "someday, everything's going to be different, when I paint my masterpiece." 

David Sharrar

I write because one of me isn’t enough to hold it all. Over the years, I’ve tried to write through my addictions: drugs, alcohol, food, nicotine, caffeine, donuts, men. The high, the high, the high, the low, the low, the low. Beginning on the top floor of the penthouse suite, ending up on my knees in the gravel, shards of broken glass cutting up my knees. Words cushion the blow. I write because I can’t have all the things I want but I have way more than I need. Writing is a way to get and to give. To squirrel away a million tiny scraps and then purge, piece by piece, word by word, entire oceans. I write not because I’m a good girl or a bad girl. I’m neither and both in the neutered-nympho world of the writer. I write because it’s the hardest possible work with the least possible action, because it’s cheaper than a plane ticket or therapy. I write because it’s the adult version of passing notes, because it’s gossip and myth and music. A hand, a pen, no mouth, no breasts, no hard muscles in the chest, bloody ink smeared on the page, a suicide note and a birth announcement, a thank you card, a gratitude list and a dear John letter. I write because I feel too full and half empty. I need to rinse, reuse, recycle, pack it in and hack it off, because I’m ravenous, starving, greedy for more. I write because writing is my brain’s math, my brain’s explanation and excuse. I write because secretly I believe you have no inner life if you don’t and I desperately want an inner life. I write because when a person wears clean clothes and goes to the PTA and shows up places on time and takes a multi-vitamin and pays their bills and keep their vows and washes their dishes, they need something else. They need this. I write because a woman at my kid’s bus stop told me she caught a rat and shot it 30 times but it still didn’t die, it just screamed on, like a baby.

Valley Haggard