Tag-Archive for » writing «

Tuesday, August 25th, 2015 | Author:

I don’t see very many writers who even try to write about the hard things, so the fact that I do it at all seems to set me apart somewhat. The writers that do, do it incredibly, and I learn from them regularly.

But that’s something I often hear as feedback: You write so raw, your words are vulnerable. Some people ask, even, “How do you write so candidly?”

The answer is that I stopped writing for you.

I put the words out there for you, but I write them for myself to read. There are whole folders of word documents and journals (literally, journals – plural and full) that will never reach your eyes. They don’t need to. I was the only one who needed to read them.

Almost exactly three years ago now, I was out of college and had been for a year. School was starting up again as we made our way into fall, and I was nostalgic for that “I’m about to learn new things” time right at the beginning when classes are fresh and assignments are only on syllabi not in your calendar yet.

I bought a book of memoir writing prompts called “Old Friend From Far Away,” and I resolved to work my way diligently through the book to keep me writing — a year out of college had gotten me out of practice.

I bought a new journal and pen, and started in on the book’s prompts, working for the suggested “write on _____ for 10 minutes,” and good stuff was starting to come forth on the first couple prompts.

Then, about two weeks later I was at the eleventh prompt, and some of the prompts, like that one, have a chapter that goes with it to help you learn and become a better writer as well.

The prompt was to write about what you don’t remember. I read the chapter and knew that I had many dark parts of life that I’d rather not remember, so I wrote about all of them except the big one, the darkest one, the secret one that I thought I’d carry to my grave.

I wrote things like “I don’t remember Julie before she was tired and angry. I don’t remember the smell of the hospital or the way the doctor looked… I don’t remember the day after the day after the worst day… I don’t remember what —— looked like the last day I saw her. It was the day of high school graduation and she had a black eye from her dad, and her mom wanted her to move in with her boyfriend…”

I was just grasping for straws that sounded true and vulnerable while I danced around the real thing I didn’t want to remember.

I swallowed my own B.S. for one day and went on to the next prompt and wrote about it. But when I went back the day after that, I couldn’t swallow it anymore. The chapter on “I don’t remember” said this:

“Worry later about your fears — what your mother, brother, partner, co-workers, father, priest, even your angel will think. For now get it out on the page. Discover what you are so fiercely hiding and not remembering or blanking out on…

If what you write is frightening to you, tear it up, burn it, after you are done.

Then write it again. Destroy it.

Then write it again. And chew it up and swallow.

Build a tolerance for what you cannot bear.

This is the beginning: to let out what you have held hidden. Otherwise you will always be writing around your secrets, like the elephant no one notices in the living room. Get it out and down on the page. If you don’t, you’ll keep tripping over it.”

Those words haunted me and I knew they were right. One day of pretending they weren’t was too much. But I also felt like the risk was too great. I couldn’t write it even if I burned it. And if I didn’t write it, I’d keep tripping over it.

So that was the day I stopped writing.

It was four months later that my secret was exposed. In the midst of the shock and trauma, in a quiet moment, the thought came to me like a fatal silver lining — “Well, I guess I can write again, because now I can write about it.

I didn’t write about it publicly for a year. Even then it was in very vague terms so that people who knew would know what I was talking about, and people who didn’t know my story could just know that I’d gone through severe life altering events and knew the struggle of starting over.

It was over two years when I started to tell that story for real this spring. But in the meantime, I’ve been writing about it for myself with the candor that my previous life never afforded me. And as I’ve practiced being honest with myself, I find myself sometimes reading a piece I’ve written and thinking, this might have value to share with the world. They can have this one.

That’s how I write so candidly about the ugly, hard stuff of life. I’m not writing for you. I’m practicing being honest with myself, and sometimes I let the world peak in.

There’s a Hemingway quote I found last year that I hold close to my chest and my desk: “Write hard and clear about what hurts.”

If it hurts, I write hard and clear. Sometimes I still have to burn it. Then I write it again. I’m practicing putting my pain on the page. For me, and sometimes for you, too.

If you’d like to support the Story Project (to cover travel expenses, costs of Stories for those who can’t afford it, etc.) you can do so below or contact me at storyofjoblog@gmail.com if you’d like to send a check. Thank you for your support! 

 To Donate to Stories By Jo: The Story Project click below


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon        storyofjoblog@gmail.com

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015 | Author:

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We sat in a small, barren classroom with approximately twelve standard table desks, in three rows of four. A green chalk board spans the length of the front wall, and a small wooden podium sits off to the side at the front of the room — it holds handouts and chalk, but it won’t be used as a presentation platform this hour.

There are two dark blue plastic chairs to each table. Students dot the room with their informal, after-lunch presence.

Two girls in the back wear bikinis under their tank tops, either preparing to head to the waves right after class for a surf session, or having just returned from the water.

The table tops hold notebooks, pens, coffee cups and water bottles, snacks and parts of lunches stolen from the caf  — what Point Loma Nazarene University (PLNU) students and faculty call the cafeteria (always “the caf,” never “the cafeteria”).

The class room is seated on PLNU’s picturesque campus by the sea in San Diego, though the room itself is unimpressive, sitting in the shade by the parking lot, the caf and the music building it’s only view.

This is where Intro to Journalism is held Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, from 1:30-2:20pm in the Fall semester of 2007. The class is led by Dr. Dean Nelson, head of the journalism program at the university, author, journalist with bylines in places such as the New York Times and the San Diego Union Tribune. His students know him by his first name.

Dean would get up, most often wearing khaki slacks, a generic button down t-shirt, and either Vans or Converse shoes, and he would joke with us in brash ways as everyone filtered in. “Alright,” he’d begin, and either launch into a current events quiz (Mondays), an Associated Press Stylebook quiz (Fridays), or just straight into the lesson, either about ways to write an article, ways to get sources, or case studies that teach important journalistic lessons such as ethics, libel, or handling a tough story assignment.

My whole life I’d had this inclination toward English literature and English classes. But I am a painfully slow reader, so I knew I would drown quickly in the workload of a literature student, so I entered college majoring in broadcast journalism. I had experience anchoring, script-writing, videoing, editing, and producing news broadcasts for my middle school, and for our church’s hurricane relief efforts in Louisiana when I was in high school after Hurricane Katrina, so I thought maybe that would be a good fit. That’s how I landed in Dean’s Intro to Journalism class my first semester.

It only took that single class to make me decide to ditch the “broadcast” portion of my major, and to sweep me off my feet into the world of nonfiction writing. I’d been in love with stories told in any medium since as long as I could remember, but aside from the Little House on the Prairie books we read aloud in my young childhood, I didn’t have much experience reading non-fiction. Dean’s class changed all of that. Our assignments were sometimes to read non-storied non-fiction about the techniques of writing, but even those resources were often written with stories entwined. In a swift unveiling, I saw a world of true stories, written as captivatingly as fiction, and I knew I wanted to write like that.

One of the lessons Dean honed in on several times, however, is a writer’s temptation to make a story better than it is by embellishing, creating bias, under-emphasizing, and other tactics that would make the story more compelling or interesting.

I wouldn’t say I’ve struggle with this a lot, but I know that before this class, sometimes as I would tell stories, I might leave out the measuring details, to make something sound more grand. Or I may embellish my already poor skills of estimation. But the more Dean honed in on this lesson, the deeper it embedded its conviction in me.

Dean put it this way, and I’ve always remembered these words: “The truth is interesting enough.”

It is one of my mantras to this day. I’m not always perfect at this. But when I falter, I try to come back (often right away) and correct myself. It’s a matter of integrity as much as it is a matter of accuracy.

It’s the foundation of my assurance in the idea that everyone has a story, and that every story matter.

Because in the midst of photoshopped models, movied plot-lines, and social media platforms that allow us to edit our lives, I want to be someone who continually believes and lives out with conviction the idea that the truth is interesting enough. And if I want my life to be more interesting, it’s up to my living, not my writing, to make it so.

This is real life. We all live it, with its few glamorous and many monotonous moments. And it’s freeing to accept the truth for yourself that the true reality of your life is interesting enough.

 

If you’d like to support the Story Project (to cover travel expenses, costs of Stories for those who can’t afford it, etc.) you can do so below or contact me at storyofjoblog@gmail.com if you’d like to send a check. Thank you for your support! 


 To Donate to Stories By Jo: The Story Project click below


Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: @jrolicious         twitter: @jrohanlon

storyofjoblog@gmail.com
Tuesday, February 25th, 2014 | Author:

I had this thought the other day: This is the renaissance of my life.

I am learning about music that I like, music that is out there, music that I want to sing along to. Music I want to dance to and music that dances with me. Music that makes me cry, and some that makes me smile involuntarily.

I am making art. All kinds of art. My finger nails have charcoal dust under them that will not come out with one or two washings.  Charcoal similarly cakes itself into the cracks of my hands that are drying out from how often I’m washing them. My leggings have varnish on them from the bench I stained. My shoes have sawdust in them from sawing the wood for that bench. My table has sticky sections of it from glue that ran away and off the page. My walls are lined with blank canvases and empty picture frames leaning up against them, waiting to be filled with what I create.

I am writing. Sometimes even poetry. My blog and my journal give testament to the words that come from my pen, from my keys, from my pain and my hope.

I am reading again. Everything from Chelsea Handler, to biographies of Napoleon, to Calvin & Hobbes, to Dan Brown mysteries, to Hemingway and Austen.

I am learning again. Not just about art and technique, but languages — I’m learning Italian and I’m loving it. I’m eager for the knowledge and the application.

And I’m curious (as I have always been, but still) about history. I want to know more.
I’ve asked myself, “why?” Why am I doing these things? Why am I making these changes?  Am I just now really discovering who I am? The typical 20s self-discovery thing?

When I’m honest, the answer is “no.”  I’ve known who I am for many years now.  I am not just now figuring out what I like and who I am. The fact is that what I like and who I am is changing.

I had a hunch, and in doing some brief research, I found that I was right…

The Renaissance of the 14-16th centuries started right after the black plague hit the European continent.

The “Rebirth” came out of death. Out of loss. Out of panic. Out of the forceful need to move on from “old normal”.

I am being re-born. That’s what renaissance means: rebirth. But why? Why now? Why change?

Because I lost everything. The town, the church, the friends, the family, the job, the daily activities, the passion.

Because it was time for new. There was no choice in it.

Because I am coming out of my own years of black plague. Of death. Of loss. I have emerged from my dark ages, and I, while the same person, am discovering new things, am developing new interests.

And what started out as writing to just get my thoughts on page, turned into the desire to tell a story, to relate to the common human things that we all experience. A story-teller re-born, with more freedom to tell the stories that ring true.

What started as writing poems because I needed some short form to get my words out turned into becoming a private poet. Writing poems down on napkins and in “notes” in my phone — when I’m at a stoplight, when I’m running and pause for breath, when I’m trying to sleep, when I am just so sad or so happy and I have to let it out of me, there comes words in verse, lines in waves — a poem is breathed. A poet is birthed.

To be embarrassingly honest, I started making art recently as a way to avoid something I needed to write that I knew would be emotionally exhausting and difficult. Every time I had time to write it, I’d create a charcoal artwork instead. Beauty from ashes before my eyes. I knew it would die down once the need for avoiding responsibilities was gone — but I was wrong. The desire to create is even stronger now. An artist has been born in me.

And what started as listening to music while I journaled grew into a hunger for music. I want to hear more. I even want to make music again. I don’t know how or if that will happen, but there is still plenty of time to change and discover.

I am being reborn. I am coming alive again.  And I don’t know what my new passion will be. Where my new path will take me.  But maybe it will take me many places: Jane of all trades, master of none. I have peace about not knowing, and joy at the thought of the journey to find out.

Maybe I am meant to be a renaissance woman, after all.

Jo coming alive in Israel

Joanna O’Hanlon is an adventurer and story-teller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.

Other places are

instagram: jrolicious         twitter: jrohanlon

storyofjoblog@gmail.com