Book Review: How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon

How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in AmericaHow to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m five years too late in reading this book, but better late than never. Kiese Laymon is not afraid to spit fire, to point fingers, to get to the heart of the truth. This book is worth reading just for the essay “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America.” Like this line: “I’m not the smartest boy in the world by a long shot, but even in my funk I know that easy remedies like eating your way out of sad, or fucking your way out of sad, or lying your way out of sad, or slanging your way out of sad, or robbing your way out of sad, or gambling your way out of sad, or shooting your way out of sad, are just slower, more acceptable ways for desperate folks, and especially paroled black boys in our country, to kill ourselves and others close to us in America” (45). Damn. I didn’t realize that Laymon was such a devotee of hip hop–a few of his essays dive into this passion of his, some of which went over my head. But his language flows as if it is supposed to be read aloud. So good. I wanted to read this book of essays before diving into his memoir. Glad I did.

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Writing Class

When I first started writing again this year, I asked a couple of writer friends if they knew of any writing groups in Jackson. One suggested that I sign up for the creative non-fiction “community enrichment class” taught at Millsaps, Jackson’s local liberal arts college. I immediately went to the website and registered for the spring session of “Creative Non-Fiction: To Tell the Truth.”

The class meets for 6 sessions, Mondays from 6:30 to 8:00pm. The teacher of the class is a local writer. I Googled her name and read some of her essays that were published in the New York Times, Atlantic, and other major news outlets. She’s also done quite a bit of writing work in Mississippi, including producing a documentary about an influential Mississippi journalist. “She’s quirky as hell, which is what makes her so incredible,” my writer friend had said about this teacher. I was excited to meet her. Continue reading “Writing Class”

Writing the Ordinary

As I deepen my journey of becoming a writer, I’ve looked to words of encouragement and insights into the process from other professional and experienced writers, gravitating towards other female writers. I discovered the podcast “Ann Kroeker: Writing Coach,” and began devouring her short 10 minutes or less episodes. Recently, she used the analogy of throwing clay pots, to illustrate the concept of quantity over quality. “Throw as many clay pots as you can,” she says, even if they’re junky looking. And by clay pots, she means to write as much as possible, even if the paragraphs come out lumpy, or the ideas inelegant and wobbly. I’ve been trying to follow her advice, to abandon perfectionism in pursuit of getting a damn idea onto the page. But, as a student, I’ve also looked to more traditional sources for writing inspiration and guidance: books.

Two such books that I’ve enjoyed the most this year are Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings. I read them somewhat simultaneously, which brought my brain great joy. Like Ann Kroeker, Natalie Goldberg also espouses this theory of quantity over quality. She is the writer cheerleader and guru saying “write, write, write–it is the most important thing.” She fills a notebook a month with her words, preferring “a cheap spiral notebook [which] lets you feel that you can fill it quickly and afford another.”  She later combs back through her notebooks to find ideas that she can translate into shareable or publishable work.

I, too, have found the act of journaling to be a cathartic and helpful practice for translating my thoughts onto the page. And her cheap notebook “life hack” works like a charm.  I used to seek out the respectable, intelligent-looking leather-bound Moleskine journals with the bookmark and the pocket, but this year I tried something new. I already had three thin little notebooks from Target that came together in a package–a forgotten gift that was taking up space on my bookshelf. The notebooks are about the same size as a nice journal, but with flimsy paper covers and an eighth the amount of pages. In January, I decided to use one of them as a journal. I also made the decision to not write on the backs of pages, which helped me fly through that little notebook in a month. In a month, I had filled the notebook. Yes, it was a teeny tiny notebook, and I hadn’t even written on the backs of pages, but I had a lovely feeling of accomplishment. I wanted to keep journaling to get that reward of completion. In February, I started in on a new version of this little notebook, and I decided I would write on the backs of pages as well, because why not. My husband took the third notebook from the little three pack and has been writing in it when he feels stressed or frustrated at work. He also writes video game cheat codes in the back cover. I only have a few pages left to fill in this second little notebook, so I went to Target and found another three pack that was on sale. Just looking at those fresh, easily fillable notebooks sitting on my desk makes me want to write more.

That’s another thing about Natalie Goldberg that I love: she begins her book by writing about the most basic of basics: the instruments of writing. She talks about getting a good pen, about writing by hand or writing on a typewriter. “This is your equipment, like hammer and nails to a carpenter.” Writing Down the Bones was written before everyone had a computer, and the thought of only having to choose among different types of pens and paper and typewriters is charming. I wonder what she would say about all the different kind of writing programs and mediums you can choose from now– Google Docs, Microsoft Word, Scrivener, Daily Journal, Evernote, Scrivener. Actually, I think I know what she would say: Don’t think too much about it. Just sit down, set a timer if you need to, and start writing. Ann Kroeker says a similar thing: the best system for you is the one you already use.

Writing is not a high minded thing, really. “Learn to write about the ordinary,” says Goldberg. “Give homage to old coffee cups, sparrows, city buses, thin ham sandwiches. Make a list of everything ordinary you can think of […] before you leave the earth, […] mention everything on your list at least once in a poem, short story, newspaper article.” Can I write about my most ordinary experience of ordering toilet paper in bulk from Amazon.com? How when I switched to ordering toilet paper without the cardboard tubes inside, it made all the difference? Yes, Natalie might say, turn it into a haiku.

Of course, ordering toilet paper by the hundreds of rolls off the Internet and having it arrive two days later on your doorstep would seem rather extraordinary to Eudora Welty, who was born in 1909 and published One Writer’s Beginnings in 1983. But there was never a detail too small or mundane for her writing, and I mean this in the best way. She could imbue meaning and lightness into the littlest of details. Like in this childhood memory of her mother:

“This same lady was one of Mother’s callers on the telephone who always talked a long time. I knew who it was when my mother would only reply, now and then, “Well, I declare,” or “You don’t say so,” or “Surely not.” She’d be standing at the wall telephone, listening against her will, and I’d sit on the stairs close by her. Our telephone had a little bar set into the handle which had to be pressed and held down to keep the connection open, and when her friend had said goodbye, my mother needed me to prize her fingers loose from the little bar; her grip had become paralyzed. ‘What did she say?’ I asked.

‘She wasn’t saying a thing in this world, sighed my mother. ‘She was just ready to talk, that’s all.'”

To Eudora Welty, every ordinary conversation held a kernel of a story. And in Mississippi, where talking is an art, she didn’t have to look far for inspiration. Just yesterday, I had to visit my insurance agent to ask him a few questions. He’s impossible to reach by phone. His office is in an old house in the Fondren neighborhood, just a few miles from where Welty lived and wrote for most of her life. When I went inside, the administrative assistant greeted me and let me know that Marco, my hard-to-reach insurance agent was out on spring break. “But I can try to help you!” she said. She was an older African American lady, dressed professionally, with red acrylic nails that looked like they had been dipped in rhinestones. I explained to her my frustrations with our home insurance policy, and how confusing it all was, and she leaned toward me conspiratorially: “The insurance industry is just horrible. They’re always raising rates for no reason.” At intervals throughout our conversation about dwelling value, deductibles, and un-filed claims, her cellphone would burst out ringing a computer-y sounding Mariah Carey song. Each time she became exasperated, “He must think I don’t work!” She never put the phone on silent though. We ended up talking for a few minutes longer about how much we hate insurance companies. “I’ll tell Marco that you stopped in,” she called out as I left. I got into my truck feeling somewhat reassured, even though none of my questions had been answered.

“Long before I wrote stories,” says Eudora, “I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them.” Pay attention, is what both Eudora and Natalie say. Look at the white blossoms on the Bradford pear tree, how they fade to brown as the green leaves begin to unfurl. Look at the brown speckled finch snatching up stale croissant crumbs on the patio outside the bakery.  Look at the long, lacquered nails of the administrative assistant. Write.

Or, rather, write and then see. Because when you write about the finch eating dried croissant crumbs, you may uncover some deeper meaning–about your life or the world. “Writing a story or a novel is one way of discovering sequence in experience, of stumbling upon cause and effect in the happenings of a writer’s own life,” Eudora Welty explains. In writing about her parents in One Writer’s Beginnings Eudora began to “see continuities in their lives that weren’t visible to me when they were living.” I think it’s true that writing and crafting a story allows us to see the connectedness of events in our own lives, and in others’. The conversation with my insurance agent’s assistant becomes a part of my story, as does the toilet paper I ordered on Amazon, and the ham and cheese croissant I just finished eating at my favorite bakery. Writing gives us an awareness of the otherwise meaningless moments in our lives. Even through the random, chance encounters of daily existence, writers can still “find in the thick of the tangle what clear line persists.”

In my own limited experience of writing about my memories, writing has acted as a sort of meditation, a pulling of weeds to uncover the overgrown path. Writing out a memory, as if it were a story, helps me to uncover latent details: how my step mother ate Red Vines and drank freshly brewed coffee while watching cooking shows on tv, how the band room at my old high school smelled like lemon cleaning solution and sour trombone spit valves. Writing helps me distill an emotionally charged jumble of memory into a carefully unfurled story, existing as part of me, yet apart from me.

As I continue to write, to push forward, or backward into the places within me that are soft and vulnerable, I feel these women writers with me. Natalie Goldberg (who still teaches writing workshops and lives in New Mexico) scribbles furiously in her journal, her body relaxed, the poetry and prose pouring onto the page. Eudora Welty, who died in 2001 at age 92, sits at her desk in the upstairs window of her Belhaven tudor-style house, carefully typing sentence after sentence of story, curtains fluttering behind her in the humid breeze (she never did install air conditioning).

These women writers encourage me in the mornings, when I have a bit of time before work, to sit at the desk in my “office” and write. The windows of this room face east, and sunlight filtering the pine trees in the front yard warms the peach colored walls. I feel inspired and writerly. In the evening, the light is gone, and the inspiration isn’t as quick within me, but I hear Ann Kroeker’s advice to “write one paragraph a day” and I try to eke out an idea.

I’m not writing anything revolutionary, no universal truths, nothing of staggering beauty. I write to find my voice. I write to express my opinions in a clear, compelling way. I write to share pain and joy and beauty. I write to keep a record of my life. I write for others to hear what I have to say. “Writing has tremendous energy,” says Natalie Goldberg. “If you find a reason for it, any reason, it seems that rather than negate the act of writing, it makes you burn deeper and glow clearer on the page.” So, I continue to put words on the page, to throw misshapen pots, each one a tad less lumpy, a smidgen more beautiful than the one before.