Posted in PostaDay, writing

Wearing a Party-Tail

one of The Writing Personalities at work…

I was rummaging through some old notebooks today, trying to find the lyrics to a song we loved as kids–”If everybody had a tail and chose its shape and size“…  What I found instead was a pair of pages written about a decade ago, reflecting on the different personalities with which I seemed to write in different genres.

I was enrolled at the time as a “Creative Writing poetry” student in a Master’s program, but had just discovered the joys of “Creative Non-Fiction“…  It’s a fitting retrospective for me to come across this week, just as I’ve been contemplating the idea that my “Calling” is probably to writing non-fiction. (And I’ve learned to pay attention whenever God nudges me with a bit of serendipitous synchronicity.)  It’s not what I would write now–especially since The Blogger and The Freelancer hadn’t yet made their appearance (and “Tea-Party” didn’t yet have political connotations), but it’s an interesting way of looking at the writing process.  With that bit of introduction, I’ll hand this post over to Myself of Ten Years Ago–in all her variations…

The Poet.
The Poet has difficulty writing, has to drag herself to it.  She writes with black ballpoint pen on a yellow legal pad, which she discards when it gets too thin and feels less satisfying.  She writes sitting up in bed, or at the kitchen counter, or occasionally at the roll-top oak desk given to her “because she’s a writer”–the place where she’s meant to write but often feels too panicky, afraid she won’t write well.  She has published a double handful of times and appeared once in the city’s newspaper, but she knows poetry doesn’t pay, and she knows she’s small time.  She builds a protection out of that knowledge–she doesn’t plan to make it big, or even make a living, and that frees her (she insists to herself) simply to write.  (Except at the desk.)  And see what happens.

Christian, the baby who called me “Milk.” (photo from not-quite-ten-years-ago)

The Poet writes small snapshots of experience–places, people’s words or gestures, moments of meaning.  The “poetry” file on her hard drive reads like a scrapbook of life-minutes.  Like when she was in the ER miscarrying, and the cupboard under the sink had a label on it saying “nothing stored here,” and how prophetically ironic that felt. Or when her Filipina aunt-in-law took her to her local market, a jumble of unfamiliar vegetables and meat parts and dark people, and men followed her around staring at her pale eyes and pale hands and making crude jokes in Tagalog which the aunt glossed over in her gracious manner, calling her “a novelty.”  The Big Events she doesn’t cover.  There was no wedding poem.  She wrote instead about trying on dresses with her mother.  She wrote about the clerk at the county courthouse insisting that her husband couldn’t write “Filipino” on the marriage license because his “proper race” was Asian.  Though her world trembled when she met her son, there’s no childbirth poem.  She wrote how her infant, with a vocabulary of 45 signed words, refused to sign “Mama,” would only sign “milk.”  Not the Big Moments.  She may be afraid of getting sentimental.  Kiss of death in the ass-kick, that-sucks world of Poetry Workshops.

The Poet already knows, when she begins to write, what she’s writing about.  She knows she will throw away at least a page of writing by the time she hits a line she might keep.  She despises small “useless” words–prepositions, articles, possessives–doesn’t like to waste syllables or space on words that carry so little meaning, but sometimes she has to put them back because no one could understand what she was trying to write.

The Poet sends out her poems regularly, periodically sees one printed in a publication no one ever heard of.  She emails every poem to her mother, who collects them in a notebook and photocopies them to give to people–her law clients, karate classmates, flyfishing pals–and the Poet gets surprise-comments from readers she doesn’t know.  This, though entirely without prestige, is her favorite publishing forum.

On about the fourth draft of a piece, The Poet types it into her word processor to see it take shape as a printed page, but she continues her revisions by hand, on hard copies printed out.  She revises mercilessly on her own, cutting and paring and trimming to the core of the experience, to the most powerful of words, but acts on workshop advice less than half the time.  Poems are intensely hers, and she’d rather have them the way she wants them than have them appeal to anyone else, in cases where those two things are incompatible.

She lights lilac candles and plays soothing music without discernible words.  Drinks coffee with heavy cream.  Meditates.  Trying to write.

The Essayist.
The Essayist is lazy, but not worried.  Essays are not intensely intimidating, though she lacks the discipline to sit down and do it as often as she means to.  She writes (when she writes) at the computer.  She types 100 words per minute when she’s in full swing, and drinks soda or lemonade but never coffee while she’s writing.  A hot drink would get cold before she took her hands off the keyboard.  She writes long emails to family and friends (essays disguised as “updates”) about whatever is surprising or humorous at home.

She’s comfortable at the computer, teaches high school online, researches ideas, plays music, edits digital video, builds websites, plays Freecell while she brainstorms.  For her few writing jobs away from the computer, she chooses from her collection of fountain pens (given to her “because she’s a writer”) which she uses to write letters (essays disguised as mail) and journals (essays disguised as record-keeping).

The Essayist composes in small fragments–a couple dozen disconnected paragraphs, beginnings of ideas–which she will not throw away.  She will try to weave them together by adding connective tissue later.  She often thinks she’s writing one essay and ends up with a different one altogether–sits down to write about beer and turns out four pages about her sister instead–but she doesn’t fight these changes-of-course, enjoys where the process takes her.  Enjoys the humor in her own ability to surprise herself.

The Essayist feels fairly comfortable workshopping beginnings, when she hasn’t managed to pull together a finished sort of piece.  She might wish she had gotten farther on her own, but the workshop is a useful tool that launches her to the next step of revision.  Revision, for the Essayist, usually consists of writing more.  She hasn’t managed to connect her pieces, or she hasn’t treated her subject as thoughtfully, yet, as she should.  Workshop advice usually boils down to the message: you’re still being lazy with this piece.  She knows this already, but it’s how she’s being lazy that her classmates are able to point out, and that she needs to hear.  Workshop advice re-energizes her, and she writes more.

She writes Big-Picture stuff.  Not Big Picture like world politics, but a big picture of her connected experiences.  An essay might touch on half a dozen stories, and the ways they connect.  She can’t hide in an essay; she tells too much.

The Tail-Monster.

Christian (5 years ago) with my Mother–my first & favorite publisher!

I dug up the Poet’s self-assessment of ten years ago–before the appearance of the Essayist–and found the details similar to today’s.  I sit in my blue chair, write on yellow legal pads (not too thin) or on white paper (with colored ink), drink coffee, listen to Enya.  But the whole report seems less fraught with anxiety–more excited about the process and less fearful about the results–than today’s Poet.  The Poet now is not a particularly comfortable person, I realize.  But she still writes poetry that pleases me.  And my mother.  (Who still has an instinct for who else might be pleased, and acts accordingly.)  And the occasional editor.  I wouldn’t wish away The Poet, but I’m glad to have the Essayist Tail in my closet as well.

My mother taught us a song when we were young, about wishing for a tail.  “If everybody had a tail and chose it’s shape and size, would  you prefer a tufted one to swat at passing flies?”  It went on to list a variety of options one might choose, and even suggested one might change one’s tail “for parties or for tea.”  I was so enamored of this last idea that I constructed a wardrobe of different tails for myself, to fasten to the back of my pants.  I was a Tail-Monster, and I could change my identity at will.

Apparently the idea still appeals.  I am not distressed by the schizophrenic discovery of my different writing selves.  I am pleased.  I wonder if there might be more of me.  I wonder which of these personalities might perform functions outside of my writing life—the Poet with her attention to small detail, and the Essayist with her free-form bigger picture…  I imagine that the Poet drives my minivan–cautiously!–when my son is onboard.  The Poet plans travel and vacations, with an eye toward the snapshot-experience.  She probably pays the bills as well.  The Essayist is the reader, enjoying connections between the page and her life, scanning across the big picture.  The Essayist chairs an English department, and argues with her bosses about tax issues, and prepares lesson plans; The Poet grades papers and keeps her schedule detailed on the Palm Pilot.  The Poet has painted the interior of her house in various greens, and sewed curtains.  The Essayist enjoys films, and acts in community-theatre musicals.  It’s the Poet who visits the Bath & Body shop, carefully selecting scents of hand-lotion and bubble bath for private thinking.  It’s the Essayist who laughs, and hosts fondue dinner parties or barbeques that fill the back patio with friends, and wears the tea-party tail.

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Author:

I am... a writer, an explorer, a coffee-drinker, a recovering addict, a barefoot linguist, a book-dragon ("bookworm" doesn't cover it), a raconteur, a sailboat skipper, a research diver, a tattooed scholar, a pirate, a poet, a spiritual adventurer, a photographer, a few kinds-of-crazy, a joyful wife, a mom... a list-maker! :)

44 thoughts on “Wearing a Party-Tail

    1. Very true–I was thinking already that the follow-up to this “archaeological” piece might be an exploration of TODAY’s “tails”… We shall see. ;)

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  1. I think I would enjoy knowing both the poet and the essayist, although the poet might intimidate me a bit…so definite and detailed. Love your writing and everything about you that shows through it.

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    1. Well hell, the poet intimidates ME, and I’ve been living with her for decades! ;) Notice I don’t let her out much these days–she has yet to make a “guest appearance” in THIS space, for example… ;)

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  2. This piece is so wonderful to read. Made me put on my thinking cap. I’m ready to go through my box of scribbling over the years. I wonder what I’ll find. I’ll be particularly looking for my younger self.

    Your writing is so precise and telling. I love following your writing. Thank you.

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  3. Kana, you got me girl. I have no formal training in writing so mine is all a “scrapbook of life moments” at some level. Though I might try to spin it as fiction. Carry on!

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    1. Here’s an interesting thing… The benefits of that “formal” training in writing (connecting with other writers, being exposed to different writing-styles and ideas and forms) are precisely the benefits we all enjoy RIGHT HERE, in our blogging community! If I’d had this resource 10 years ago, an MFA program would have been superfluous and unnecessary. ;) Write on!

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  4. So interesting (and well-written!) I need to think about this as it applies to my writing. Thank you for sharing! On a side note, when my youngest was three, there were several instances when he was passing through the kitchen in which he would stop, look at the floor behind him, and say, “Whoops! I dropped my tail!” Then he’d pick up the imaginary tail, slap himself on the butt and saunter off. I always wondered what that tail looked like. I imagine tiger striped with a zebra tuft. As his kindergarten teacher later put it, “He’s a hoot.” He still is as a 9th grader; no more tails, though.

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    1. Ha, I love it! I suspect that my own “detachable tails” fascination might have been due to a combination that Tails song and my stuffed Eeyore, whose tail (in deference, no doubt, to the Eeyore-loses-a-tail story) was a removable button-on appendage…

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  5. And I thought writing a 100 word drabble was intimidating – at least at first. Went from poet to fiction, to playwright, to song writer to creating a 70,000 word novel. Some short stories, fiction, business articles in between blah, blah. But nothing so personal as what you have so graciously presented us with. Thank you.

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  6. Very well written! thanks for sharing! hahah it’s always fun to read one’s old musings be it in the form of a diary or a blog…
    Oh and thank you for liking my posts ;)

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  7. What I found most interesting is that the juxtoposition of your poet and your essayist was reversed from what people might typically guess. Such an exacting poet and a free-flowing essayist seems contrary to the usual view of airy-fairy poetry, even when it’s not free form, and formalistic essay writing. Always complicating things in interesting ways!

    What an honour for your mom to be your first publisher!

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  8. Oh it makes me think where will I see myself more. Hmmm… The Poet maybe? Kind of keeny on details but I doubt about the elaboration part. My vocabulary is not full enough.

    Such an amazing writer you are Kana! And you have Filipino in-laws as well. :D

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    1. Well, EX-in-laws now… But I still have the half-Filipino kids. ;) I was thinking about that when you commented on an earlier post that my son reminded you of your nephew (though I’m afraid he got more of my “Irish” when it comes to skin-color… His sister is the brown-berry!)

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  9. I LOVE the idea of changing your tail. How clever. I can actually picture it in the literal sense and I am thinking it would be fun to wear a different tail depending on the day.Oh the looks that would come of it. I might have to get the little ones on a craft project. Wonderful post. The way you write is comfortable and inviting. Like a cup of coffee with a friend.
    Peace :-)

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  10. I love your writing! It’s absolutely addictive. You’re my morning stop after my email, and when I’m on my second cup of coffee. When I can spend a comfortable amount of time digesting your words, your thoughts and your message. I love the juxtaposition of the poet and the essayist, but I can’t help but think that I am both! I enjoy, so much, writing both. Thank you, Kana! Yet another awesome post for such a foggy Monday morning read in the ATL!

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  11. I got a kick out of you tossing the legal pad when it gets too thin. I was always the same way; a nice full pad was full of more potential! Interesting how the Essayist was actually a Blogger before her time.

    Nice.

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  12. Hi, Kana,

    This post made me think. I don’t believe I’ve ever considered that I have different personalities depending on what I’m writing. I have a different personality — cranky — when I’m not writing! But I do tend to establish and maintain more distance when I’m writing essays compared with the fiction.

    Thanks for liking my blog! Hope you’ll visit often. Thanks. Cinda

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  13. Being someone who flips between writing poems and essays, I guess I must have two tails, if not two heads. Well, two tails are all the better to swat the flies away from my eyes so I can see the light more clearly. Thanks for the thought-provoking AND amusing post.

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  14. I have a writing desk that was also given to be “because I’m a writer” and I try to keep it neat and clear for that very purpose. However, like yourself, whenever I sit there to write I seem to intimidate myself and I retreat to my green rug which has been dubbed “the lawn”. The only exception being when I use my typewriter which makes me completely forget my daunting, though tiny, desk. I enjoyed your past personas.

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  15. “I am not distressed by the schizophrenic discovery of my different writing selves. I am pleased.” I LOVE it! Schizophrenic…awesome description of those various personalities (and voices) we who write encounter.

    good stuff!

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  16. The “poet” surprised me. So serious into cull and revision and rewrite. And those done with thin legal pads the equivalence of bourbon backwash.

    Fine find you are…. great post.

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    1. Gosh, I wouldn’t know where to find it anymore–even the couple anthologies of “Idaho Women Poets” that included me aren’t at our local Barnes and Noble anymore… Maybe I should let the Poet out for a guest appearance here… ;)

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  17. I always rather thought I would want a squirrel tail. They seem so warm to cuddle up with. And you can flick them to display angst or interest. :)

    Thanks for the referral to my blog! Very much appreciated!

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