Just a Day in greenwich Village

What do you do if you have one measly day in one of the world’s most fantastic cities?

You go to a coffee shop and write.

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At least, that’s what I did two weeks ago when I was in the city and found myself wondering what life would be like if I lived here. So I decided to do whenever and wherever I am: I find the nearest spot where I can order a hot drink and park myself for a few hours among some strangers.

The place I stumbled upon, Stumptown Coffee, had an odd name but a huge line, so I guessed their cappuccinos were most likely up to the standards of the many literary voices and writers who’ve passed through its doors.

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As I looked around at the NYU students eagerly catching up on their assignments, the writers lost in thought, their faces lit up by their computer screens, the foreign visitors pouring over their travel guides written in Mandarin, I decided I’d park it for a while here, catch up on my people-watching (it’s kind of a weird hobby of mine—thanks, mom), and pop open my laptop and—Gasp!—write something.

I should clarify that: I mean write something that is not my dissertation.

I put on my headphones, found a playlist of happy indie music, and got to work. I pretended I was a real New York writer, with a dedicated agent, a fancy publisher, a big book deal and plans to traverse the nation talking about my amazing new memoir. I should mention that I don’t often daydream about these things, partly because I’m always so insecure and busy that I hardly ever give myself the time to daydream, to imagine other possibilities, to let my mind drift to places I’d forgotten existed.

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I felt like I was twenty again, stepping into my first creative writing classes, getting my first passport photo taken, wondering what in the world was in store for my young life. Then, I used to daydream. When we grow up, we all too often push those thoughts aside, make ourselves get back to the business of being smart professionals with illustrious careers (or at least serviceable ones). But we don’t often let ourselves imagine what we could do if we just had the time, just had the money, just had the freedom, just had the (INSERT NOUN HOLDING YOU BACK HERE). Now, ten years later, I found myself sitting at this perfect little coffee shop full of intelligent, creative people, and I was daydreaming again.

Of course, I should mention that being twenty wasn’t all glory and glitter, and that in-between feeling very out-of-place and weird most of the time, I had absolutely no clue whatsoever what I was going to do with my life. The only thing I was convinced of at the time was that I knew I wanted it to be something special.

I still don’t really know what the purpose of life is, but I still know that I want it to be something special. Maybe I don’t need a swanky book deal with a big New York publisher. Maybe it’s something else, instead. I don’t know—but at least I should keep myself open to the possibilities. Maybe that’s what adulthood should teach us: to be more open to the possibilities.

I went to the beautiful Big Apple for an interview, but though I didn’t leave with an employment contract, I left having reconnected with a “me” that I’d long buried underneath grading piles of students papers, writing freelance articles, and just plain getting through the hectic daily grind. I’d thought the job I was applying for would give me that–would free me from the monotony of writing a dissertation and being a poor graduate students–but perhaps all I needed was a day there. Maybe, at least for now, I don’t belong in New York. And that, I’m learning, is OK.

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The morale of all this? I’ve decided that more of us should park it in busy coffee shops in Greenwich Village from time to time.

Yours in travel,

Kristin

#WITS15 Reflections: An Invitation to Re-vise

The room was freezing, and then it was boiling. First, we bundled into our scarves and coats, brought with us inside from the cold Boston morning air, and then, we peeled off all the layers again. In a room of glaring fluorescent lighting, silver water pitchers atop white tableclothed tables, and notoriously bad hotel carpeting, no one seemed to be able to decide how many clothes they wanted to wear.

The malfunctioning of the air conditioner, though it might be the first thing I remember when I think about this week’s Women in Travel Summit, is certainly not the most important detail of my four days in Boston, although it does have meaning for me. The cold and heat of the room, that wave of heat passing over us from above, encouraging us to shed our coats, scarves, and mittens, marked a metaphorical shedding for me, too.

This is because I was the one standing in the front of the room, my computer propped up on the podium, a microphone angled toward my face. At the moment the heat clicked on and the stale warm air started drifting down onto our shoulders, I started my presentation, asking the 35 women before me to let their guards down and to be open to the possibility of revision. I talked about Adrienne Rich’s lovely and powerful essay, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” the very first essay I was ever introduced to in graduate school and the first essay I ever taught to students, and I talked about the importance of honoring our work, rather than just typing it out and hitting the publish button. To all 35 sets of eyes, many with incredibly diverse and worldly experiences, I talked about integrity and how and why, as women, our stories matter.

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It’s not the first time I’ve said this: I tell my students at the University of Arizona this every semester: that revision, the art of seeing something with fresh eyes, of seeking to revisit and old tale, an unsavory sentence, a tired image, is an incredibly powerful tool. Revision (or as we like to write it, re-vision) wields power; and having power allows our writing to flourish, and to matter to someone other than ourselves. Our audiences require at least this from us.

But don’t let that fool you: I was so, so very nervous, not because I haven’t gotten up a million times in front of my students every semester to help walk them through their own writing projects, but because this was the first time that I was bringing my teaching self into my travel writing world. The two have been disconnected for so long–as if one morning I’m a nice, put-together writing instructor in a pencil skirt and black pumps and the next evening I’m in jeans and a backpack, jetsetting to some faraway destination with business cards that say nothing about my being a teacher anywhere on them. When I proposed the workshop to the planning committee of WITS, I wondered if maybe I didn’t have enough experience, if maybe I didn’t have a big enough following (if maybe my shuddering at the word “following” was indicative enough that I wasn’t qualified to talk about creating better stories that would attract more pageviews and more shares on Facebook….), if maybe people would look at me and see a creative writer who has a degree but who’s only published travel writing, journalism, and a couple of photographs here and there. I wondered if maybe I was still too young to have anything decent to say about writing craft. But I hit the “send” button anyway, my application drifting off into cyberspace, and I put the whole business out of my mind for a couple of months until I received an email from Beth Santos, the CEO and founder of WITS, that I’d been invited to Boston.

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It’s a complicated space to be, to say the least, between responsible teacher and wanderlusting writer. However, there is power now, I realize, in merging these identities. By the end of our hour together, I was literally floored by what happened between the women and me. The women hadn’t gone the direction I’d originally thought, revising an existing blog post, maybe rewriting a tired scene or rethinking another way to write a “list post;” instead, they were in the process of daring themselves to start telling stories they’d always wanted to write about but never had the courage or the safe space to do.

Stories of the nervousness of admitting to her parents that she sold her eggs to travel, of healing from being attacked from behind by an assaulter on a quiet street, not far from home, of learning from the Eritreans what being the n-word meant in other context, of working with Ugandan mothers and feeling torn between photographing them and creating poverty porn….

This was not exactly what I had expected, and I nearly teared up at the end of the presentation when a few women came up to me and asked me if I could take a look at their work and let them know what I thought. One said I should start a business coaching aspiring bloggers on the art of storytelling, and another told me lots of women in the room had been tweeting lessons they were learning.

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My heart leapt. Me, the little girl who’d been scribbling in her little pink journal when she was five years old, now a woman, sharing a kind of expertise in a field she’s loved since that first step she took off the airplane in Madrid ten years ago as a college student. Ever since that moment, and the outpouring of writing that came from that experience, I’ve wanted this. And here I was.

The rest of the weekend, too, kept my heart full and hopeful that travel writing can be ethical, feminist, and worthy—all the adverbs I always pair with a genre of writing and blogging that is not always valued or considered important.

As I fly back to Tucson, where I will jump back into my pencil skirt and heels for tomorrow’s technical writing class, I come back with a renewed sense of who I am, who I wish to be, and how I hope to live my life. As a call-to-action, I encourage all of us to look deeply, passionately, and lovingly at what we do and how we do it, and re-vise, re-vise, re-vise.

And maybe eat a Mike’s Pastry cannoli in-between.

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Yours in travel,

Kristin

PS. Sadly, my smartphone doesn’t perform all that well in low light, so take these Instagram pics I’m including here with a grain of salt. 🙂

PPS. If you’d like a copy of my presentation script and accompanying worksheet, you can get them on Scribd.com for free!
 
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From the Archives: 61 Writing Tips from my MFA

Today is part of my annual “fall cleaning,” which has nothing to do with actually cleaning my house. As a writer, this is the time when I go through my digital files and try to organize all of my writing and research into folders (that I will inevitably change the following year when I think I’ve come up with the next brilliant organization method). This year, I came across something that I couldn’t resist sharing–a compilation of 61 writing tips I put together from my workshop notes after I graduated from my MFA.

Flickr @DeniseKrebs

I had completely forgotten about this list, but after finding it and reading it this morning, I’m unabashedly unashamed to share it with the rest of the world. I hope you can find a gem in here, too! (And in response to #2, yes, I am still weird.)

Also, curiosity getting the best of me here, what would you add?

–Kristin

  1. Count how many times you use “I” in one paragraph.  Have you overused yourself?  Please find other ways to talk about yourself than using “I.”  Try description. Try something. ANYthing.
  2. Find the “oddness” in your own identity—there’s an interest in every truth, detail, and experience. And yes, you are weird.
  3. Lyric essay vs. personal essay vs. memoir:
    1. Lyric essay:  poetic elements, figurative language, metaphor, condensation, tightness, attention to language, juxtaposition, making statements by placement, refrains, repetition, music, cadence, tone, associative thinking, not linear, intuitive connections in white space, “objective correlative” (T.S. Eliot) objects, sensations in relation to emotion!
    2. Personal essay:  topical/political, present tense, meditation, reflection, argument, narrative, scene, summary, characters, “to try” to discover, analyze, inquire, voice, “I” or no “I,” tone/attitude/bias must be present, exploratory, self as the “lens” through which we see a way of life!
    3. Memoir:  shifts in time, memory, “I,” identity, complexity, experience and how we make meaning of it, human conditions, epiphany, “me,” How do I know…?,” “How does it work?” asking questions, time and place ruptured, moments in history
  4. Don’t “wrap everything up” too nicely—let us make our own conclusions, please. Caveat: don’t leave us hanging when it comes to romance, please. Romance + ambiguity = one frustrated reader.
  5. Zoom in on physical description and historical summary of place.
  6. Don’t use too many names/characters—even if they all seem important!—or the reader will get lost. We don’t want to know every person you’ve ever met. Zoom in on the key peeps.
  7. “Found material” in essays can be good for credibility but not good for doing the work for you:  words from brochures, research, letters, quotes, etc. can add context but don’t rely on them.
  8. ****Must be self-effacing before making judgments about other people/cultures!!!
  9. Incorporate research as part of the scene!  Make sure voice is consistent.
  10. Personal essay:  narrator must change in some way, have realization, change in attitude, acceptance, movement (not necessarily epiphany)
  11. Acknowledge your audience!  What do they know/not know about your subject?
  12. Use dialogue to reveal character’s personalities and motivations!
  13. Make a dull subject exciting through quirky people, interaction with the subject as part of your personal experience
  14. Humility goes a long way and people relate well to it
  15. Interrogation leads to self-perception
  16. Using metaphors/similes to explain unfamiliar concepts can go a long way:  ej. “I traveled around her as a binary star” must mean binary stars make rotations!
  17. Endings shouldn’t be so expository—let us dwell in scene!
  18. Use white space (page breaks/section breaks) as a place to let the scene resonate.
  19. Don’t always try to use clever transitions to make us aware of connections
  20. Purpose shouldn’t be withheld until the end—nonfiction is about the “journey,” not the element of surprise!
  21. If the essay isn’t chronological (fragmented/collaged) there needs to be some framework for the audience to keep up.
  22. Forecasts must be subtle! Never say, “in the following memoir, I will…” Bleg.
  23. Don’t overstate facts that should only be mentioned once or twice!
  24. Trust analogies to work without explaining them immediately afterwards.
  25. Silence can work as wonderful connective tissue! (Does this mean use white space? Not sure…check on this).
  26. Clean and crisp:  shorter sentences are a must!  Knock out excessive subordinate clauses.
  27. Semi-colons:  outdated?
  28. American perspectives need their own critique—must acknowledge own perception as own, not as norm!
  29. If you haven’t lived it, don’t make a claim about it!
  30. How to decide which form is best for the material?  Think about it like a poet!  Content shapes form!
  31. Try new ways of shaping material by changing the form.
  32. Find the thread in the tapestry of your life and follow it to the end:  where are those patterns?
  33. People must be able to identify with you all the time, even if this seems like an impossible task in real life.
  34. If we can’t find the resolution (even if the resolution is that there isn’t any resolution), make one!
  35. Don’t make the language so complicated that the point gets lost.
  36. Philosophical views—which sometimes very effective—inevitably distance the reader.
  37. Reconstruct emotion but please, dear God, don’t “cry” more than once in an essay!
  38. Dependent clauses shouldn’t override an essay.  Too much “cataloguing” does not push narrative forward!  Especially don’t do this at the beginning of a paragraph.
  39. Increase tension/urgency by using present tense.
  40. Don’t let an interesting technique “dilute” a story—just write it!
  41. Don’t write about man; write about “a man.”
  42. Write to a less-informed audience than you expect, but don’t patronize them.
  43. Outside to inside, general to specific:  works well as grounding technique
  44. Compound words like “olive-sized” work better spelled out:  “size of an olive”
  45. A voice that’s too colloquial can work against credibility
  46. Orient your readers so they don’t feel like monkeys hanging from a branch!
  47. Technical writing must be done carefully and meticulously—don’t lose your reader in too many terms they won’t understand (farm equipment)
  48. If you weren’t there, you can’t pretend!  Use the Nabokov technique:  “I can imagine her standing there at the train…”  “I didn’t see…but I can guarantee…” This gives you freedom to say what you thought might have went on!
  49. Show, don’t summarize!
  50. Too many modifiers actually weaken what you’re trying to say!
  51. Which anecdotes tell the story BEST?  Toss out the ones that don’t contribute to the overall purpose.  Save them for another essay.
  52. Context is vital—bring us along with you.  Use your senses, knowledge, comprehension!
  53. Understanding the real truth is impossible, especially if you’re considering more than one perspective.  “One of the best stories is….grandpa says…but now dad, dad says…”  “But I think….”  Shows complexity of situation.
  54. In description, always be more specific.  What game were you playing?  What perfume was she wearing?  What day was it?
  55. Techniques to help us get to know the narrator better:
    1. stronger chronology
    2. more narrative sequence
    3. visual imagery
    4. internal thoughts
    5. center the essay in your life
    6. use more events than summary
    7. know more about implications of the past
  56. Chop out extraneous information—we don’t need it!
  57. Active storytelling:  real time versus narrative time
    1. Real time: dates the essay:  “now, last week, this morning”
    2. Narrative time:  imperfect tense immortalizes essay:  “often, generally, as a child, that morning”
  58. Don’t overuse adverbs:  “obsessively, incessantly, constantly, seldomly”. We seldomly need your incessantly overwritten passages.
  59. Make sure vignettes don’t become balloons without strings!
  60. Lenses are important:  Finkel’s book, for ex.  Is it examining the firing through the lens of the murders?  Or the murders through the lens of the firing?
  61.  “The worst thing you can try and imitate in nonfiction is chaos or confusion.”

Writing Lesson: Is This Tucson…? Or Is This…?

This week’s post is the first in a series of reflections on writing lessons. Based in part on my experience working with writing students as well as my own experience as a traveler and writer, I hope these pieces inspire you to take a journal or laptop outside and write your heart out! – Kristin

Whenever I talk with my students about writing about place, two questions inevitably come up. The first is this: How am I supposed to write about a place I grew up in my whole life? The answer to this question, I think, is easier than the second, as I usually tell them they need to ask themselves the questions travelers ask: What does Tucson smell like, for instance? Taste like? Sound like? What does the heat really feel like (none of this cliche “it’s a dry heat” cop-out)? What is the place’s history, and how do the people living there now connect to or escape from that history? Where do people gather? Eat? Drink? Play? What are the stereotypes about Tucson? Are they real? Exaggerated? Based on false pretenses? Completely off-the-wall? You can write about your own backyard as if you’ve never been there before, provided you step outside of your daily routine and embrace the weirdness and contradictions that every place inevitably has.

The second question I’m often asked is this: How can I write about a place that’s so schizoid? Yes, schizoid. If you’re not privy to the lingo of 18-year-olds, this means, quite frankly, that they believe this city to be schizophrenic. As in, one street looks like it’s come out of a magazine advertising the swanky and pristine desert lifestyle of the rich and famous–full of three-story adobe mansions landscaped with the most gorgeous succulents and Mexican tile on the market–and the next street is full of dilapidated street signs, houses with paint literally peeling off of them, trash in the gutters, as if the world forgot about it a long time ago. That’s the strange thing about Tucson–we don’t bulldoze old things here. We let them rot, fall to pieces, become part of the past without regard to how they look to the present. I haven’t seen many places like this in the United States, a country that seems to fear the past and anything that has even the slightest trace of rust, dirt, age, or peeling.

(By the way, if you’re not convinced, next time you’re in Tucson, let me know, and I’ll give you directions to the airplane grave yard, which is, I confess, actually a tourist attraction here).

Anyway, here’s an example I used with my students last week about why writing about place is a complicated process. I would like to preface this by saying that I love both of these photos for different reasons.

Photo #1. Tucson: The Southwest for Real. This photograph, taken by the Arizona Board of Tourism, presents an image of Tucson that is iconic, steeped in legend and Hollywood myth, and downright colonial. For one, in the five years I have lived here, I have never, ever seen a cowboy in a wide-brimmed hat romping around on his steed in the middle of the desert. The only place I’ve seen horses and cowboys is in the official annual rodeo, an event that, yes, is a state-wide holiday and that, yes, has the public schools closing for two days every year so that everyone can attend. Even still, though, I have never put Tucson and cowboy together in my mind as something contemporary or even remotely realistic.

And yet, when I see this photo, what do I immediately think of? Well, that’s easy: Tucson. But not a Tucson I know–a Tucson imagined.

From Uniglobe’s Travel Times – Photographer Arizona Office of Tourism

Photo #2: Flickr photo from a Flickr member who does not describe herself as a professional photographer.
What I love most about this photo is its apparent lack of concern for composition, and yet, it actually tells a really interesting story. For one, this photo reminds me of the Tucson I first saw when I flew in for the first time with only two suitcases in hand, when I immediately realized that this place was a lot more complicated than the images I’d seen on the internet. Secondly, this photo is steeped in unusual contradictions–the motel sign falling apart, the trailers, the truck wash sign, the lack of any kind of mountain range or nature landscape, the multiple “for sale” signs peppering the perimeters in different ways, the fact that this picture is taken from a zooming car going, I imagine, 75 miles per hour down the highway. This photo is so full of fodder for looking, for thinking about “ruins” and what gets left behind, for considering what happens with development and highway culture, for considering what doesn’t happen. This is also the Wild West–this is also the same city as the one above. But there’s no cowboy traipsing through this one…only cars.

From Flickr – Photographer DanaEMc

Are both of these places Tucson? Can they both be Tucson? If you’re a writer, how can you ever sift through the massive amounts of information a place affords you? Can you write about a trailer park and a rusting sign amidst no sign of nature at all (except for a scrub or two in the back behind the crooked power lines) and a magnificent horse galloping through the dusty mountain range with a cowboy on his back? If you write about one but leave out the other, what does that omitting say?

Talking with an editor of a travel magazine after submitting some photographs from a place I have recently visited, I realized how visually constructed our contemporary notion of place is. The first image up there? That’s Tucson–for real, apparently. The second? That’s Tucson too.

What I’ve taken from thinking about and giving this lesson to students is that as writers of travel we must be considerate of places, of their grooves, their nuances, their histories, and their people. We must remember that place is often as complex, really, as the people who live there–or who are just passing through.