Tag Archives: Short Stories

Boomer Learning From Millennials: Lessons From a Fiction Writing Class

Head Library - flat concept vector illustration

do know who Beyoncé is; I want to state that from the outset. I may not be familiar with all of her songs or videos – but yes, I know what she looks like and that she is a famous singer/songwriter.

What I did not know was that a recent politically themed skit I saw on TV ( a funny, IMO, take on Mr. Tangerine Man) on “Saturday Night Live” was meant to be a parody of her Lemonade video.

Missing out on current cultural references? Yup, it happens often as we get older. But so – thankfully – does an appreciation for the different perspectives that come from being able to study with people of different ages.

There are eleven students in the “Techniques of Writing Fiction” class I am taking this fall at JHU. Perhaps half are under the age 35. The very nice young man who sits to my left in class listened to me patiently the other night as I fumbled to describe the SNL skit. He turned to me and said, “Oh, you mean the skit that was the parody of the Lemonade video?”

I laughed, pretending that I had known all along about Beyoncé and the video reference. I’d like the younger students in my class to think I am culturally au courant but I’m sure they recognize that I am not.

But I do enjoy being around the 20 and 30-somethings because of the perspectives they have. Not only their outlooks on life, but how through the lens of their experiences and age (or lack thereof?), they offer up unexpected interpretations of the stories we read for our class homework.

Last week one of the assigned readings was the classic “But the One on the Right” by Dorothy Parker, a short story published in The New Yorker in 1929 (and no, I was not alive in 1929.)

It’s an interior monologue of a woman of a certain age who is purposefully seated by her hostess at a formal dinner party with the intent to entertain the known-to-be boring man to her left.  “We can stick him next to Mrs. Parker – she talks enough for two.”

The dull dinner companion likes to discuss each course of food as it is served. Yes, they both like soup. The fish course is fine too. He and Mrs. Parker disagree on the potatoes, but return again to a shared admiration of cucumbers. All the while Mrs. Parker is gulping down wine and wondering how more enjoyable the evening might be if she only she could talk instead with the seemingly more attractive man seated on her other side, who ignores her throughout the multi-course meal.

I won’t ruin the end of the story for you; it is well-worth reading.

I laughed aloud at the Dorothy Parker story, enchanted by her writing. The droll inner thoughts of a sophisticated older woman who implies she’d rather be happily cleaning her bureau drawers at home than be forced to be out in polite but terribly dull company. It rang true to me, having been at many parties stuck with an uninspiring conversational companion. Or two.

One of my younger classmates did not find the story the least bit humorous. To my surprise, she saw the narrator as a lonely and sad older woman.

Another homework assignment was to read a more contemporary, prize-winning writer, an Egyptian-born, Sudanese author named Leila Aboulela, who writes about identity, migration and Islamic spirituality. In her story titled “The Museum,” a young Muslim woman from a well-born but now struggling family in Khartoum comes to very cold Northern Scotland to study statistics in an unexpectedly rigorous graduate school program. Anxious about doing well in her studies, she falls under the unwilling spell of a smart but unpolished Scottish fellow grad student who is attracted by her exotic background.

Again, I won’t ruin the story for you; it also is beautifully written.

I was captivated by Ms. Aboulela’s main character, Shadia. Her straddling of two cultures reminded me of my own days in a small, 100 person graduate student program, half of us, like me, from the U.S. and half of us from other countries. I probably was not as culturally sensitive as I might have been to my own foreign student classmates back in the 1970’s.  Maybe filtered through those memories is why I found Shadia such a sympathetic character.

A younger student in our class totally disagreed with me. She thought Shadia came across as arrogant and selfish.

Is it odd that I find these classroom discussions so exhilarating?

We read the same words, the same stories, the same fiction, yet each of us interprets meaning so differently. In my suburban home-town book club, we also read and share thoughts about what we read, but we are a group of similar-aged women of similar backgrounds. Our discussions are, dare I say it, not quite as exhilarating.

Kudos really to the younger students in my fiction grad school class who are opening my eyes to what I am reading, who force me to pay attention, to acknowledge that what I perhaps think is the correct understanding of a story may not be the only way of understanding it. Diversity, differences, making me think about what I am reading – and what I am hearing from others. A good lesson to apply to the rest of life. Perspectives should always enlarge, not narrow, as we get older. I may even get to like Beyoncé yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Aging, Baby Boomers, Book Club, Books, Communications, Education, Reading, Women, Writing

Make New Friends, But Keep The Old: Silver and Gold

Silver and Gold

 

“Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver, the other is gold.”

That bit of childhood wisdom has stuck with me. I’m such a literalist that I spent years wondering – which was which? are the new friends the “silver” and the old ones the “gold?” or is it vice-versa?  Who knows? The older I get, the more I value both kinds of friends.

Let’s call new friends the “silver” ones –  like my writer’s group.

I met these five women in 2014 at a class we took together. Different ages, varying backgrounds, but connective tissue among us in our similar approaches to life. Laugh at the funny parts, laugh harder at the tragic parts. Growing older with our imperfect husbands and trying to stay connected to our teen and adult children who make us wonder or worry, sometimes simultaneously.

Through the essays and stories we’ve written and shared with each other every month when we get together, we’ve learned about each others’ pasts – to a point. These women, wonderful as they are, didn’t know me when I was an uncoordinated eight year old with a fondness for meteorology and the nickname of  “nimbus” (SEE: clouds). Nor had they met me as a young married women going through rocky times when my mom died, or as a working mom who once forgot to pick up a child after a late day school activity.  As I did not know them through their passages of life.

Friendships are different when you bond together as fully grown adults.

I recently shared with my writer friends a short story I wrote about an episode in my working mom/lawyer life of which I am not particularly proud. I called it “fiction” but it was – pretty obviously –  based on a personal experience. It was painful to write – and even more painful to hear their responses.

One of them said: “I admire your story because it shows you have layers to your personality that I didn’t know you had.”

She didn’t know that? Do I come across as a superficial person? That was my first thought.  Sure I tell jokes and laugh a lot and try not to take myself seriously. That’s the glossy part you see on top when you first meet me. I’m not like that all the way through. Underneath is the part this new “silver” friend doesn’t know (yet?) about me. That I have inner layers. Layers that get peeled off in years of friendship that we haven’t yet had.

Yesterday I had lunch with a friend in the “gold” category.

Caroline is a person I met in a birth education class while pregnant with our first children, born three days apart. Turned out we had graduated from the same all-women’s college, then gone to the same international relations graduate school, where we had met our respective husbands – who also bonded during our shared birth education class by paying as little attention as possible to the instructor’s exhortations to have us take cleansing breaths in unison.

Caroline knows my “layers” and I know hers. Not all of them. But enough so that she understands why I had such a hard time yesterday at lunch talking about getting our house ready to put up for sale. How unsettling it is. How I don’t do transitions well. Living in one house for 33 years is a pretty good indicator of being someone who does not handle change well.

With “gold” friends, you don’t need to explain yourself. They know all your foibles, all your less than desirable attributes and they’ve decided they can deal with them. Maybe not admire your flaws, but accept them.

With my newer “silver” friends, we are still getting to know each other. It’s more challenging when we are in our 50’s and ’60’s to open ourselves up to someone new. What if they don’t like what they see, as we peel the layers back on our personalities? We don’t have a shared history of friendship to fall back on. They could decide I’m not as fun as I seemed to be when they first met me – that I have quirks they can’t accept. What then?

It’s worth the risk. Treasuring the “gold” ones while hoping that my “silver” friends become “gold”.

 

 

 

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Filed under Aging, Female Friends, friendship, Midlife, Moms, Women, Working Moms, Writing

Finding Your Own Lane in “Semi-Retirement”

stratton mtn

On a family trip one summer to Vermont we stopped at a familiar ski area to ride its’ alpine slide.

For the uninitiated, an alpine slide starts at the top of a non-snow-covered mountain where you sit on a sled, with a control stick between your knees, and guide your own ride along the twists and turns of a trail down the hill to the bottom.

The best part about this summer slide at Bromley Mountain is that it’s a triple track – described as “North America’s first triple-tracked” alpine slide, 2/3 of a mile long.

Triple Track means (duh) that each rider has three tracks to chose from. As I remember they were labeled – Fast, Medium and Slow – or maybe the three tracks had more clever names like #1 -“Speed For Teens”, #2 – “Active Dads” and #3 – “Moms Who Are Very Cautious.”

Whatever their designations were, I chose – no surprise here  – the latter, the slowest but steady track, kind of my life mantra, expressed on the side of a mountain. My husband and teenage son picked the faster paths, then whizzed down the mountain on their own sleds.

They were waiting for me when I arrived, five minutes later, having applied my own s-l-o-w sled’s brake multiple times as I approached every sharp turn and fast straightaway.

That triple alpine track was made for me – I like to be in charge of my own ride. I love the opportunity to choose my lane. If only life was like that alpine track.

Lately I have been veering from lane to lane.

One day I am happily zooming around with multiple plans and projects, volunteering, lunching with friends, going to meetings. The next I am contentedly at home by myself – along with our trusty terrier at my side – thinking that nothing is better than being able to sit alone in a comfortable chair (I know, don’t sit too long! bad for your health. I get it) – and write.

I did not choose to retire from my law firm at age 60 – that was an unexpected decision made for me by the cardiac authorities.  All of the articles on what to do to plan for retirement were suddenly irrelevant. I was plopped into it whether I liked it or not.

Three years have passed since then and I am still finding my way in what I call “semi-retirement.” Every day I either do too much – or I do too little.  Finding the right balance, the right lane has been tricky.

I would love nothing more than to sit at a desk all day and write. I’ve written a few short stories featuring (what else) witty and worried women in law firm settings.  Do I turn one of my favorite of these short stories into the first chapter of a novel? Or do I keep writing stories until I come up with a collection of them? Haven’t I set aside my childhood dream of becoming a published author for too long?

How ambitious those plans sound. And how self-indulgent. I now have the choice to spend hours doing what I love – while my husband is very much not-retired – (he likes his job, but loving it? you’d have to ask him.)

I  feel responsible to be productive. So some of what I write is non-fiction and earns a (tiny) fee, and I talk and write about young adult mental health and get paid for that too – and next fall, if it happens and I hope it will, I may get to teach a class about the state of mental health on college campuses.

Do these small paying “gigs” add up to giving me the right to stay in the slow lane with my writing projects?

Will the guilt I feel when I sit down to write ever subside?

I think about this as I veer from “semi-retirement” lane to lane and then back again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Baby Boomers, Books, Communications, Empty Nest, Husbands, Law firm life, Lawyers, Marriage, Men vs Women, Moms, Reading, Retirement, Second Careers, Semi-Retired, Women, Women in the Workplace, Women's Health, Working Moms, Working Women, Writing, Young Adult Mental Health