The clouds hung low in the sky yesterday as I drove toward a little coffee shop to meet my friends from school with the intention of communal writing. I couldn’t help thinking, “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens…” I had been teaching Poe and started drawing parallels. Except yesterday—the clouds weren’t oppressive, and the day wasn’t dull, dark, or soundless. Traffic hummed, and the sky beyond said clouds was clear, bright, and blue.
“…I had been passing alone…” this was true… “on horseback…” and by horseback, I mean in my Mazda CX-5… “through a singularly dreary tract of country…” if you consider downtown Houston the country or deary. Perhaps, it was opposite day… “and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on…” I mean, I found myself as the morning sun shone brighter… “within view of the melancholy House of Usher…” at my destination, anyway, a packed parking lot at 1111 E. 11th street, hardly melancholy.
Just inside the front door, A 2nd Cup teemed with the aroma of good coffee, the sound of Indie music, a vibe of creative energy, and three of my friends. I wondered if Poe had friends. I bet not. His House of Usher was melancholy from the first sentence. Mine included coffee, friends, and writing…a purpose. Is it all a matter of perspective? If you dwell on the melancholy is your house destined to fall?
*This post was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and brought to you by A 2nd Cup, a non-profit coffee shop and café that raises awareness of human trafficking issues in Houston and develops resources that help create a second chance for survivors.
The sun rose east of downtown Houston, the horizon glowed orange, and skyscrapers shone in reflection. A pale, full moon hung in the west. I joined teacher friends on the school rooftop—for the happening, camaraderie, and breakfast tacos. This was the first Thursday of autumn, the end of the first five weeks of the semester. I counted my blessings.
The teacher in me is always functioning in one of two ways: first, survival, then, reflecting to teach better. This year, the first year of my brand-new job after a two-year break, I’m teaching some lessons that have worked well in the past and some that are brand new to me.
A few years ago, I tried out this idea, students would read Pablo Neruda’s poem, “Puedo Escribir los Versos Más Tristes Esta Noche” (1924). First, in Spanish. The Chilean poet’s collection Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair) won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971. This is Poem 20 in his collection.
I have enough Spanish speakers in my classes to pull off the reading as intended. Multiple volunteers raise their hands to read aloud, and the rest of us listen to the beauty of the language. This lesson is more about poetry appreciation than analysis. (Click here to listen in Spanish.)
Puedo Escribir los Versos Más Tristes Esta Noche
Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche.
Escribir, por ejemplo: 'La noche está estrellada,
y tiritan, azules, los astros, a lo lejos.'
El viento de la noche gira en el cielo y canta.
Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche.
Yo la quise, y a veces ella también me quiso.
En las noches como ésta la tuve entre mis brazos.
La besé tantas veces bajo el cielo infinito.
Ella me quiso, a veces yo también la quería.
Cómo no haber amado sus grandes ojos fijos.
Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche.
Pensar que no la tengo. Sentir que la he perdido.
Oir la noche inmensa, más inmensa sin ella.
Y el verso cae al alma como al pasto el rocío.
Qué importa que mi amor no pudiera guadarla.
La noche está estrellada y ella no está conmigo.
Eso es todo. A lo lejos alguien canta. A lo lejos.
Mi alma no se contenta con haberla perdido.
Como para acercarla mi mirada la busca.
Mi corazón la busca, y ella no está conmigo.
La misma noche que hace blanquear los mismos árboles.
Nosotros, los de entonces, ya no somos los mismos.
Ya no la quiero, es cierto, pero cuánto la quise.
Mi voz buscaba el viento para tocar su oído.
De otro. Será de otro. Como antes de mis besos.
Su voz, su cuerpo claro. Sus ojos infinitos.
Ya no la quiero, es cierto, pero tal vez la quiero.
Es tan corto el amor, y es tan largo el olvido.
Porque en noches como ésta la tuve entre mis brazos,
mi alma no se contenta con haberla perdido.
Aunque éste sea el último dolor que ella me causa,
y éstos sean los últimos versos que yo le escribo.
Then, we read and listen to the audio version in English, “Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines.” (Click here.)
Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines
Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
Write, for example, 'The night is shattered, and the blue stars shiver in the distance.'
The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.
Tonight I can write the saddest lines. I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.
Through nights like this one I held her in my arms. I kissed her again and again under the endless sky.
She loved me sometimes, and I loved her too. How could one not have loved her great still eyes.
Tonight I can write the saddest lines. To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her.
To hear the immense night, still more immense without her. And the verse falls to the soul like dew to the pasture.
What does it matter that my love could not keep her. The night is shattered and she is not with me.
This is all. In the distance someone is singing. In the distance. My soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.
My sight searches for her as though to go to her. My heart looks for her, and she is not with me.
The same night whitening the same trees. We, of that time, are no longer the same.
I no longer love her, that's certain, but how I loved her. My voice tried to find the wind to touch her hearing.
Another's. She will be another's. Like my kisses before. Her voice. Her bright body. Her infinite eyes.
I no longer love her, that's certain, but maybe I love her. Love is so short, forgetting is so long.
Because through nights like this one I held her in my arms my soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.
Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer and these the last verses that I write for her.
I ask the students who understand both versions which one they like more. “It’s so much better in Spanish,” they say. “So much more passionate, more romantic. I mean, Spanish is a Romance language.”
I ask what makes this poem poetic, and they zero in on the purposeful repetition, the images, and the speaker’s internal conflict. “Her infinite eyes. Now that’s a line,” they say. The students gush a bit. They like Neruda, and this is the point.
For homework, I ask them to write lines of their own. Theirs do not have to be their saddest. They can choose whatever they want—their happiest, their angriest, their most musical or most artistic. This year I’m teaching at a high school for the performing and visual arts. I’m throwing out ideas right and left.
They could borrow some of Neruda’s language, like “Tonight I can write ______” and stick to his format, mostly two-line stanzas, or not.
They could write poetry or prose. Either way students would include purposeful repetition (I teach them a word—anaphora), imagery, and an internal conflict.
They could write in a language other than English. This was another spur of the moment decision. Why not? During these first weeks of school, I try hard to know my students by name and need.
And when the students returned to class a week later with completed assignments, I asked for volunteers to share. For the first time in over twenty years of teaching, students spoke in Japanese and Russian in our classroom. Other students shared in French and Spanish, Danish and English. And overall, students surprised themselves with a newfound confidence in their self-expression.
Sometimes we make school needlessly hard. I get it. We’re preparing students for college. But many of my students have been learning online for the past year and a half. I want them to leave with some good memories, a newfound love of language, maybe even a respect for humanity.
I’m having a problem, and this is it. Typing one word and then the next. Forming coherent thoughts. Creating meaning out of nothing. Otherwise known as writing.
So, I’ve turned to other writerly activities. Reading books. Revising earlier works. Looking for publication opportunities.
In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been spending time on Poets & Writers, the nation’s largest nonprofit organization serving creative writers. I’ve only scratched the surface. They have an alphabetized database of over twelve hundred literary magazines and journals. I’m up to the letter C. Christian Science Monitor. However, it’s good necessary to actually read the journals and follow submission guidelines, check submission dates and reading fees. And that takes time. Lucky for me, I have some time, and today I read Christian Science Monitor. They’ve published Sylvia Plath. I’m probably a long shot.
Why publish elsewhere?
Well, I’m building my bio. For now, this is it.
Crystal Byers is an emerging writer and veteran high school English teacher living in Houston, Texas. She has a memoir-in-progress and an MFA in Creative Writing from Houston Baptist University. Her essays appear at The Porch Magazine, The Houston Flood Museum, and soon with Brevity. Visit her at crystalbyers.com.
And if you are visiting today, thank you! May your words flow, your thoughts be coherent, and your meaning worthy of contemplation.
This past week I had a long phone conversation with one of my childhood friends. We caught each other up about our kids and our lives. The details were a little messy. She told me about a concept called purge emotional writing and later sent me a link to an article with more information. My first thought was, “I write about my emotions all of the time.” Then yesterday morning, I read the article.
Normally, I type my words. Yesterday, I tried something new. I wrote on paper, as directed for twelve minutes, fast and furious. And I realized—I was furious. That’s probably why I was so open to this exercise. Next, I burned the page and watched a small fire consume it. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. And then I swept it all from the concrete pavement into the grass. The exercise says to do this for the next five days.
Cue Sunday. PEW Day 2. The sun arose, and so did I. I walked the neighborhood and listened to Black Pumas and Michael Kiwanuka through my earphones. Along the way, I thought about what I might write in twelve minutes. Already, I could feel the difference one day had made. Some of that comes down to circumstances. Some is perspective.
Back at home, I made coffee and grabbed my spiral. I checked the time and started writing. Twelve minutes. Today there were no f-bombs. Today there was more pity than anger. There was some acceptance of things I cannot change. There was some courage to change what I can. I’m still seeking wisdom to know the difference. Part of me wanted to keep today’s words. I walked the page through my front door and burned it anyway. I watched it char black, then to gray ash.
I’m interested to see what happens over the course of the next three days. Already, I’m thinking —
This morning, I sat on the couch with my laptop, and I drank my coffee. These words jumped off my screen. They resonated.
The words were only part of a sentence, part of a bigger thought from the goop article I was reading, an excerpt from Habib Sadeghi’s book The Clarity Cleanse. Dr. Sadeghi believes in the transformative power of writing to heal from the inside out. He says, “Words have tremendous power, and whether their effects are positive or negative depends on how we choose to use them. I can’t express how powerful a tool free-form writing is to expel negative energy from our minds and hearts. I used it daily during my recovery from cancer. I also return to it whenever I’m feeling emotionally oversaturated.”
I was feeling emotionally oversaturated, and so I read on. Dr. Sadeghi suggests an exercise called PEW 12 (Purge Emotional Writing), writing on paper for twelve minutes about whatever is disturbing my peace. At the end of twelve minutes, he says to take the page(s) to a secure, non-flammable area and burn it. “Fire is transformative and healing,” I read. “Your goal is to neutralize the negative energy, and the fire does that by transforming the chemical composition from paper to ash.”
The doctor warns that re-reading my page would only re-infect me with negative energy. He says never to direct the negatively charged words toward myself. I know these things intuitively. Sometimes I need reminders.
And so I found a spiral and noted the time and wrote for twelve minutes. I dropped F-bombs along the way. Then I ripped out the page and found a lighter and walked through my front door. I lit the page, watched it burn, dropped it on the concrete driveway, and stomped on it. I swept the ashes into the grass.
Dr. Sadeghi suggests doing this every day for five days before moving on to the next step. Except I don’t know what the next step is. His book is on my to-read list. I suppose I have four more days to find a copy.
In a lovely little chapel on the campus of Houston Baptist, I received kind words, a pen, and a pin. This was the last Friday night in May. I had taken the classes, put in the work, and completed requirements for my MFA.
Now, I hear Frank McCourt in my head, and he says, “Stock your mind. It is your house of treasure and no one in the world can interfere with it.” I notice his two polysyllabic words and the strength of his monosyllables. Now, I will work with my tools, read books, study language, and hone my craft. I will put my bloody manuscript in a drawer and let it rest. Same for me, sans drawer, just rest. I’ve learned that good art takes time.
Even though my angel mother grew up in the Baptist church, the “B” in HBU filled me with trepidation. I leaped with faith anyway. God played a role in my story, and I wanted to do Him justice. Still, I never imagined I would find my tribe of like minds at HBU. Now, I see God’s plan. I’ll be forever grateful for these people—my cohort and professors. They became my friends and family, encouraging and inspiring me with their ideas and insight, persistence and growth, love and prayers. All of this without judgement. Even their criticism was kind.
At HBU, I’ve learned to make time and space for my writing and for me. And I’ve realized we all feel like imposters sometimes. I’ve learned to be scared and do it anyway. And I’ve realized the power of continued progress. Anything is possible with belief and persistence. I’m still learning trust and patience in God. At the same time, I believe He is using my story in a way I never could’ve imagined.
Funny how we absorb — the good, the bad, emotions, behaviors — such is life. Things subconsciously stick. Bad things happen, I get it. But we can make choices in handling those experiences that are beyond our control. We can surround ourselves with whatever we want to absorb.
You want to be a better writer? Surround yourself with words.
Read above your usual level and absorb the techniques of the experts. Absorb their words, sentences, paragraphs, style, and structure — details of time and place, character, dialogue and gesture — inspiration and imagination, understanding of the human condition and more. Name it and notice it.
This April I’ve been devouring memoirs. Maybe you’re looking for something to read next.
This Is My Body: A Memoir of Religious and Romantic Obsession is the debut of Cameron Dezen Hammon. On page one, Hammon takes the stage at a suburban megachurch to sing at a funeral for a teenaged girl. Her cell phone buzzes in the pocket of her dress. It’s the man she might love, not her husband and father of her daughter. And from the opening scene, Hammon’s honesty and bravery hooked me. She grapples with misogyny in religion, infidelity in marriage, and doubt in faith. I couldn’t stop turning pages, and I can’t stop thinking about this book.
Educated by Tara Westover had been on my to-read list for a couple of years. I listened to it on Audible, but I wish I had a copy. Born to Mormon survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, Westover was 17 the first time she stepped into a classroom on the campus of BYU. The following passage strikes at the heart of this book and the ideology of Westover’s childhood. This conversation is the steppingstone she needs to further education—at Cambridge, then Harvard.
“By the end of the semester the world felt big, and it was hard to imagine returning to the mountain, to a kitchen, or even to a piano in a room next to the kitchen. This caused a kind of crisis in me. My love of music and my desire to study it had been compatible with my idea of what a woman is. My love of history and politics and world affairs was not, and yet they called to me. A few days before finals, I sat for an hour with my friend Josh in an empty classroom. He was reviewing his applications for law school. I was choosing my courses for the next semester. ‘If you were a woman,’ I asked, ‘would you still study law?’
Josh didn’t look up. ‘If I were a woman,’ he said, ‘I wouldn’t want to study it.’
‘But you’ve talked about nothing but law school for as long as I’ve known you,’ I said. ‘It’s your dream. Isn’t it?’
‘It is,’ he admitted, ‘but it wouldn’t be if I were a woman. Women are made differently. They don’t have this ambition. Their ambition is for children.’ He smiled at me as if I knew what he were talking about, and I did. I smiled, and for a few seconds, we were in agreement.
Then, ‘But what if you were a woman and somehow you felt exactly as you do now?’
Josh’s eyes fixed on the wall for a moment. He was really thinking about it. Then he said, ‘I’d know something was wrong with me.’
Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club was a trudge for me. There are funny and heartbreaking parts. I enjoyed Karr’s vocabulary and sentences and images, but for whatever reason, I didn’t feel compelled to turn pages. In connection with the other two memoirs, all three authors goes through tough injustices. Hammon and Westover both triumph and learn something about themselves. As for Karr, I prefer her book The Art of Memoir, especially if you’re interested in writing one.
On Observing A Blossom On The First Of February 1796
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Sweet flower! that peeping from thy russet stem
Unfoldest timidly, (for in strange sort
This dark, frieze-coated, hoarse, teeth-chattering month
Hath borrow'd Zephyr's voice, and gazed upon thee
With blue voluptuous eye) alas, poor Flower!
These are but flatteries of the faithless year.
Perchance, escaped its unknown polar cave,
Even now the keen North-East is on its way...
The Golden Book Of Coleridge
London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd.
New York: E. P. Dutton & Co.
Even the sweetest of flowers weather storms.
Observe your own thoughts.
A wise woman once told me (click the link to see)—If you are angry, most likely your mind is stuck on something in the past. If you are anxious, you are probably worrying about the future.
Stop and smell the roses.
It’s not about roses, you know. It’s about staying present. Seek beauty and goodness, and you will find more of the same. And so I send you good vibes today. May the rest of April bring you joy, fulfillment, perspective, and hope.
One year ago, and for the first time ever, I blogged A-Z during the month of April as part of a challenge. I committed at the very last minute, wrote my first post A is for Apple on April 1st and posted it on the 2nd. I chose a theme of gratitude, which seemed important at the beginning of a pandemic and in keeping with the nature of my blog:
Faith + Gratitude = Peace + Hope.
Other than that, I didn’t have a big plan. I chose an attitude of gratitude for twenty-six days according to each letter of the alphabet and posted on the fly. It was all part of keeping my own sanity.
I missed this year’s big theme reveal day on March 8, and I read that technically I don’t have to stick to a theme. That’s what I love about blogging—freedom of voice. Whew!
This semester my MFA program comes to an end, and the deadline of my thesis looms on the horizon—April 26. Revisions continue on my memoir, a quest for help for my son who has a severe brain illness and a coming-of-age story of a middle-aged woman who realizes the only person she can truly help is herself. I see my work as a playbook of sorts for someone in my position and hope it’s relatable despite a person’s circumstances.
During the spring semester of 2021, I’ve submitted the first two-thirds for feedback from my professor, and the next third is due at the end of March.
Parts I-III: 20,650 Words and 74 Pages
Parts IV-V: 23, 271 Words and 87 Pages
Parts VI-VII: 23,882 Words and 84 pages
Grand Total Today: 67,803 Words and 245 pages
Then, two more rounds of MAJOR revisions on my part, and after that three more professionals will read for extra opinions. So I might be mad to even consider a challenge. Then again, if I go for it, I might be building my audience of potential readers when the time comes to publish Help in the Time of Schizophrenia.