Monday, January 16, 2017

The Literary Citizen

I just got home from my third residency in the Stonecoast creative writing program where I learned writing and bonded with friends (over writing) every moment, from waking until slumber, and I realize now I must respond to texts from a week ago. Halfway through today I will cease being productive and slow my brain. In that calm, I hope my synapses strengthen their hold on the lessons I learned. Here are some of those lessons (in my own words) which you can use in your writing and in your life. These are courtesy of two Stonecoast faculty members, Justin Tussing and Suzanne Strempek Shea, who don’t just mentor me, but really teach me.

Me and my Stonecoast friends in our creative nonfiction workshop. Photo by Suzanne Strempek Shea.

Justin says:

  • Character is fate. Who we are is who we become.
  • There is value in looking at poor writing with contempt, knowing you can do better.
  • The ending of a story must be both surprising and inevitable.
  • You’re often exchanging one thing for something else. That something else must have equal or more value.
  • If a character gets close to a fear, don’t turn from that fear. Investigate it.
  • The worst thing we can do as writers is to have an idea. Like, I want to write about loneliness. Instead, follow the character. Put him in a room, get him stuck, and watch him squirm.
  • You must love your characters, and not just in a “he’s charming” kind of way. You must love their faults.
  • One reason we accelerate scenes in our writing is because we don’t trust the reader will care enough to read on. They will.

Suzanne says:

  • Your firsts—like your first day at a job, or your first day in a new place—are huge. Stay in those scenes.
  • There’s always two things the reader wants to know: the story, and what is happening inside the characters’ minds and hearts.
  • You’re always writing for people who aren’t sighted—explore the other senses.
  • Always return back to why you are writing this story.

Lastly, Suzanne asks us to be good literary citizens. I think she means it is our responsibility as writers to share our passion for the art, support fellow writers, and benefit the world with our craft. I love this idea of giving out that passion without requesting anything in return. So if you see random sticky notes with short bursts of writing or a quip then I was there. Unless it’s dull, in which case Rosie O'Donell wrote it.

See other writing lessons from my second residency.

Appearances
I’ll be the keynote speaker at the University of Wisconsin’s 2017 Living With Sarcoma conference on April 1 at the Milwaukee County Zoo. If you’re interested in attending then here’s information on last year’s event.

Leia Mais…

Monday, January 2, 2017

In a Word

My first published piece of creative nonfiction literature also happens to be quasi poetry. Here is me, in a word.

As published in apt

Favorite drug: OxyContin. Second favorite drug: Cinnabon. Most painful drug: chemotherapy. Second most painful drug: Cinnabon. Drug I consumed most: Benadryl. Person who has consumed most Benadryl in world history: me. Number of uses of Benadryl: infinite.

Favorite food: pizza. Favorite topping: pepperoni. Practice never followed: kosher. Feeling experienced during bar mitzvah: nervousness. Substance wished knew about during bar mitzvah: whiskey.

High school sport: tennis. Sport too short to succeed at: all. Sport too tall to succeed at: none. One and only thing short people are better at than tall people: lifespans. Percentage chance fabricated the last sentence: fifty. Favorite teenage activity: driving. Favorite musical artist when driving: N’Sync. Sentence you should keep to yourself: previous. Keep reading In a Word

Leia Mais…

Sunday, January 1, 2017

My Curated 2016 Review

There’s too much content: you post too many tweets that don’t offer value to anyone whom you don’t call “Mom,” and you post too many photos of your baby sitting on a carpet. I’d like to create a movement for 2017. In this movement all adopters will be thoughtful in what they share with the world. We will share less, though what we share will have more impact on others.

Be prepared, though, to become less popular, because social media rewards those who post the most. You will not gain as many followers as you did in 2016. People may forget you exist (until you post that killer photo of your baby sitting on the carpet with his smile just right), but don’t worry because two minutes after anyone not named Justin Bieber posts anything we forget they exist.

If you adopt this movement then you will see two benefits. (1) You’ll gain headspace from no longer having to constantly think, At what angle should I capture my baby sitting on the carpet? (2) You’ll improve the lives of others by giving them a tad of inspiration, joy or amusement.

Let’s call this movement curated and I’ll start now: here are my single bests of 2016.

Best Photo
Dec. 30 was my birthday and I spent the day with two of my favorite people, whom I call Mom and Dad. We went out for my favorite food (pizza) and saw my second favorite movie of the year (Passengers). It was a good day. It was a great day. Mom captured my seven-month beard. I do not know how much longer I can keep this beard and it needs to become part of historical record (meaning in your mind for two minutes).

Benjamin Rubenstein celebrating his birthday and Hanukkah with his family and epic beard

Best New App
In the spring I began meditating with Headspace for 20 minutes a day. I’m a serial committer so I’ll now meditate daily, forever. Headspace has taught me focus and flow: meaning, when it takes me hours to respond to your email or text it’s because I’m trying to remain undistracted so I can complete my work, and not because I do not like you.

Best Book I Read
I realized I love literary fiction after reading The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing. In the book nothing blows up, nobody gets murdered, and yet l became consumed by those characters. And that’s just it: life isn’t about what you do but rather about how deeply you connect with others. (I mean, it’s a little about blowing up your gingerbread house with firecrackers, but that’s a small part.)

Best Movie I Watched
The characters in Hell or High Water grow on us slowly, like an unattractive first date. The film shows us who they are instead of telling us. We see their positive attributes as well as their faults, and realize everyone has both. Plus, g-damn the ending is awesome.

Best New Friend
No answer because I don’t want to get cut by people I don't name. So I’ll offer this photo instead. I adore my creative writing program at the University of Southern Maine, and this photo taken at my first residency in January represents the skills, memories and friends I’ve gained there.
Residency with fellow "firsties" at Stonecoast MFA program at University of Southern Maine

Best Accomplishment
My favorite part of my job is interviewing people who work for my organization and writing about their lives. One such employee told me about escaping Cuba as a little girl to come live in America. The trauma of the experience blocked her ability to remember much of it. A while back—she thinks maybe eight to 12 years ago—she asked her mom to tell stories of the family’s departure from Cuba and to record them on cassette tapes. The employee’s mom agreed and doesn’t know that after all these years her daughter still hasn’t listened to any of them. The tapes remain in a container in a drawer in the employee’s bedroom. She has asked her mother, now 77, to record even more tapes and her mother again agreed, but she first needs her daughter to tell her where she left off in telling the story. The mother can’t remember. It’s been so long. The employee hasn’t listened because she’s afraid. “I know listening is going to make me really sad so I have to be in a place where I can listen to those tapes,” she told me.

She later told me that our interview and the story I then wrote about her may have given her encouragement to be brave enough to listen. Instilling that courage was my best accomplishment.

Best Quote
“What’s on the other side of fear? Nothing.” — Jamie Foxx on The Tim Ferriss Show podcast. I’m getting this quote tattooed on my penis to stave off the evolutionarily-ingrained fear of rejection.

Best Goal of 2017
Ask the kind of questions to understand the depth of others so I can appreciate them more; so I can empathize with them.

Most Valuable Thing I Can Offer You for 2017
Consume content like books and movies and photos of your friends’ babies sitting on the carpet not just for amusement, but to learn from them. How did it inspire you? What have you learned to do or not do from that experience?

Then, record what you learned. Why? Because just as you forget the tweet from two minutes ago, you forget lessons you’ve learned. After recording them you’ll always be able to refer to them and re-learn those lessons.

*I use Google Docs, which is web-based and not susceptible to your hard drive being blown up. I label the file “Journal [Year],” and each entry includes a date and a hashtag with a label (such as “dream,” “inspiration"). The hashtags categorize your content and will help you differentiate theme-based journal entries from other entries that just happen to have the word “dream.”

Best Piece of Writing
I want to name a shitty short story I wrote in my writing program, because I need to fully embrace that it is OK to write shitty first drafts. But instead I’ll say the story that is supposed to publish tomorrow, so come back.

Happy curating and happy New Year!

Leia Mais…

Saturday, December 17, 2016

I Like Literary Fiction and I Cannot Lie

This semester I read literary fiction for the first time in my life. In August the following idea entered my mind, in September I acknowledged it, and in October I asked others about this idea to see if I was being absurd or dramatic; to see if I was crazy:

Is it possible to learn more about life by reading literary fiction than through actual experiences?

Let me explain before you go looking to buy me a straight jacket for Hanukkah. We move through life with just one point of view—our own. We can try putting ourselves in others' shoes and seeing the world from their perspective, but that's nothing more than an exercise in building the capacity to empathize. Besides you, only Russian hackers can actually see the world from your perspective, and even that's only if your mobile phone is on your person. (Of course it is.)

More than any other activity besides hacking, reading may bring us closest to seeing the world from another's point of view. As Elizabeth Strout writes in her latest novel My Name Is Lucy Barton, fiction "reports on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do."

My question tore at me. If the answer is "yes" then what have I missed out on by not reading literary fiction most of my life? And if the answer is "no" then why have I spent my life in such un-fulfillment that I would even ask that question?

My writing mentor this semester, GrilledCheese, guided me. GrilledCheese said that reading and writing are actual life experiences, so not only do they teach us about life but they also don't compete with life. The two are complements.

So my question, Is it possible to learn more about life by reading literary fiction than through actual experiences? should be re-framed as, How do I use literary fiction to enhance my life experiences?


I saw the same ear, nose and throat doctor from before I had a memory through my teens. Typically my parents took me to see him every three months, though more frequently around the five ear operations he performed on me as a boy. And nothing or nobody caused me more pain than this man. He shot alcohol into my holey eardrums when they got infected; he cauterized and stuck needles through their membranes. Sometimes I imagined the bacterial infections, or the things he shoved into my head to treat them, going all the way to my brain.

Dr. Wadley was not abusive. His methods were just the standards of the time, and whatever he did saved me from deafness. Even as a boy I understood that he hurt me because he cared. I could see that he cared.

After my second operation he wrapped a bandage around my stuffed animal's head identical to the one around mine. Eight years later he attended my bar mitzvah, and three years after that he sent me frequent "get well" cards during my year in treatment for my first cancer.

When Dr. Wadley retired I began seeing his partner, who I still see—now about every four months, not three. The two doctors kept in touch and I asked about Dr. Wadley every time I saw Dr. PoorBrownsFan. Dr. Wadley had moved to southern Virginia, got very involved with his church, and was loving retirement, according to Dr. PoorBrownsFan. I liked the idea of my old ear doctor, who had looked like an aged Cal Ripken Jr., riding a lawnmower to cut the grass around his large property and no longer having to shoot fire into little boys' ears.

As years passed I inquired about Dr. Wadley less. That's what happens as we age. The recency effect takes hold and old memories of old friends get buried by new ones.

After finishing My Name Is Lucy Barton tonight, I thought of Dr. Wadley. That's what reading literary fiction can do to you. One minute you can be sitting on the sofa with a Kindle in your hand and the next you can be searching the internet to see if a man who had cared for you for half your life has passed away.

Dr. Wadley died in May of this year at 82 years old. I am sure I would have learned of his passing at some point. Maybe Dr. PoorBrownsFan would have informed me the next time I see him, even. But for whatever reason, my reading a great piece of literary fiction triggered in me the thought of Dr. Wadley; it connected me with actual life experiences.

If there is an afterlife then I'm sure Dr. Wadley is hanging out with his former Army buddies. Maybe imitating Cal Ripken Jr. in a heaven talent show. Definitely painting on giant murals because he deserves a large canvas after decades of making masterpieces on tiny membranes.

Leia Mais…