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Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

#84 Stories and Stars by Guest Blogger Beth Richards

#84 Stories and Stars by Guest Blogger Beth Richards




 "Stories and Stars" depicts how Beth Richards' late night meditation on the stars leads to her discovery about the importance in writing of "the give and take of associating and shaping."


"Neither action is more important than the other" Beth says.  "Both are essential for writing the accurate, but most especially for writing the true."





I am standing in the brisk night air on the western flank of Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland. Most days I begrudge the shift from daylight to darkness but this day, at nearly 11 pm, I am willing a persistent patch of twilight blue to be gone. It is a rare clear night on the island, and I am waiting for the stars to come out. At 10:30 pm I can see the moon and a few faint points of the Dipper. At nearly 11:30 I mutter, "Oh, I give up" to the still-light sky and go inside.


When I step back outside, around 3 am, I look up and reflexively duck. The stars seem so close I'm afraid I'll bump my head on them. The blue twilight is gone and the velvety night is a tapestry of planets and constellations. The Milky Way is slathered across the dome of the sky. The resident cuckoo, who has migrated from Africa under these same stars, plucks her two notes. She and I seem to be the only ones up.


I think that I expected to stand under the stars and commune with the Celtic druids and the Christian anchorites who for centuries inhabited the nearby stone huts. We share the wonder of this brilliant sky, after all. But what I think about, as my eyes dart back and forth trying to capture the twinkling of uncountable stars, is driving home drunk.


Not recently, thank you. I was about 19. My cousin and I had been hanging out in a local South Florida bar, and we were headed back to her house because we'd spent all our money drinking Chivas on the rocks. I disliked Scotch then (still do) but the words "Chivas on the rocks" were such a pleasure to roll off the tongue, and the smoky-sweet liquid helped me forget myself for a while.


That night, as we slowly turned down a side street, two starry blazes of light crossed our path. They belonged not to the sky but to a leopard. Full grown, at least six feet from nose to switching tip of tail, it stalked at the end of its leash, which was held by its owner, a wealthy socialite who amused herself by keeping exotic animals. She walked the leopard between 2 and 3 am. I'm guessing she figured that if someone like me said, "I saw a lady walking a leopard," people would say, "Sure…and how much Chivas did you drink?"


That night, I ducked when I saw the big cat's eyes. Why? Perhaps the same reason I ducked when I saw the stars above Inis Mór: A recognition of the immensity of everything surrounding me. An acknowledgment of my small place in the cosmos. My lot is less likely predator and more likely prey.


Ah, the places our minds lead us and the speed with which we travel through time and space. When my students tell me that they are "free associating," they mean that they're writing down a bunch of things that don't make sense, ideas that don't have an obvious narrative thread or purpose.


"Not yet," I tell them. But I encourage them to trust that part of their brain, those neurons always knitting a web of meaning between two seemingly disparate memories or events. Let your brain and your heart and your memory do their work, I tell them. Then use your craft. First you'll make sense for yourself—although you may never uncover all the mysteries. And then you'll use your tools so that the associations make sense for others, as well.


I'm sure I've told my students any number of useless things, but I do know that I've never told them this process is easy. I've been writing a while now, and I still don't completely understand how this happens—how I move from that flash of deep emotion or recognition to slowly build and shape the sinews that will connect what and how and why I feel. I've also never told my students that this process is certain. I'm not yet sure where my craft will lead me as I try to connect my instinctive, primeval response to two such different events, more than 40 years apart. I know that my first inclination is to make a list of similarities. Certainly many sparkling things—close by and far away—have drawn my attention over the years. But that would be obvious, and too easy. So I will try to move beyond the path of least resistance to something more, leading myself into memory and the webs of time, and into the emotions always lying underneath. Ultimately, the stars I saw may slide under a bank of clouds. That leopard may disappear into the bougainvillea. But what will make the writing—whatever that writing becomes—come together is the practice of craft: shaping a narrative, asking probing questions, challenging assumptions, always asking not just "how?" but "why?"


An island man I walked with said that all stories are true; some are perhaps a bit more accurate than others. I join that ancient storytelling dance, the give and take of associating and shaping, which lives through this ancient island, and in all of us. Neither action is more important than the other. Both are essential for writing the accurate, but most especially, for writing the true.



Beth Richards is a north Florida native who lives and works in Connecticut. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Solstice Literary Magazine: A Magazine of Diverse Voices, the Crooked Letter anthology, Coming Out in the South, and the Talking Writing anthology Into Sanity. She is a graduate of the Solstice MFA in Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College and teaches at the University of Hartford.

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