By Marley Stuart
I used to get nervous when a writing marathon was approaching. What would I write about? What if nothing came? What if all my friends began scribbling away, and I was left staring at the blank page?
Kim Stafford writes in The Muses Among Us about the writer as listener—to the voices outside and the voices inside. On a New Orleans Writing Marathon this may take the form of overhearing a conversation in Croissant D’Or, or observing some interesting character on the ferry to Algiers Point. You could (and should) write down everything you see and hear. You might also turn your observations into a fiction piece. There is no shortage to external stimuli in the French Quarter. I have found, though, that my best writing often comes from within, some memory sparked by what I’ve seen or heard.
A good example of the “voices inside” speaking up in response to the world around me occurred on Dr. Louth’s marathon held during this year’s Tennessee Williams Festival. I was at Royal Blend Coffee and Tea House on Royal Street, a favorite writing spot now sadly closed, selecting loose tea from the glass mason jars lined along a makeshift wooden shelf. The name “Gunpowder Green” immediately caught my eye. As I began to write, an old memory showed itself, and I chased it down.
Drinking Gunpowder Green Tea at Royal Blend, 3/22/14
Gunpowder Green doesn’t look like gunpowder. It looks like rabbit pellets—either what you feed rabbits or what comes out of them, after. Little, forest-green . . . pellets, which remind me of a 3rd grade activity: dissecting owl pellets.
Each member of the class received a packet of aluminum foil on a paper plate and a Xeroxed sheet of instructions. Maybe some tools, too: plastic fork, chopstick. I don’t believe we had any gloves. Inside the foil was what looked like a dried up dog turd. It was black, the size and shape of a pill bottle, and seemed to be composed entirely of hair.
We learned that owls do not defecate like normal animals, but instead vomit up these compact packets of bones and hair. Some forest ranger found them at the base of a pine tree and mailed them to our class. We were told to pick them apart very carefully and see what we could find inside. On the instruction sheet were images and descriptions of the types of bones that might be found. A Typical Owl’s Diet. This is what a shrew’s pelvis looks like. Here is a mouse spine.
I took my plastic fork in hand. This was serious business. I was eight years old and enjoyed burning black lines in the porch with a magnifying glass, climbing anything climbable, and taking apart busted VCRs.
Yes—the taking apart, that’s it.
Every few weeks Dad and I would go to the dump and, after dropping off our bottles and trash, we’d peruse the piles. Dad walked with his hands in his pockets and his head jutted out, a peaceful smile on his face. This was akin to meditation, the slow walk and view of so much junk. We had just cleaned out, dropped off unnecessaries. He could take home something without any guilt. I watched the way he walked and copied him, put my hands in my pockets and trained my eyes on the ground.
When a glittering object in the pile caught my attention, I dug it out for inspection. I would look up, kneeling in the dirt, to see if he approved. Dad would shake his head and say, “Nah, leave that,” or reach down and say, “Let me see.” if it had any value. And this is my eight-year-old sense of value; all was surely worthless. We were at the dump for heaven’s sake. But, to me, to us, treasures lay waiting, and no one could stop us from taking something home.
Busted television, 3-way speaker, CD player. I was after electronics, because I knew a whole world of pieces and parts waited inside: Christmas-tree-green circuit boards, yellow capacitors, lengths and lengths of multicolored wire. Even the wire could be further dissected, stripped down to shiny copper. And, even then, it could be unwound—usually the wire was braided or twisted, and I would unravel a thousand silk-thin lengths of copper wire on the basement floor. They were sharp, and if you handled them wrong they would poke your fingertips, draw blood. But this was another factor to consider—the element of danger. Things had to be done a certain way.
I approached this owl pellet with the same reverence. Shredding away the hair with the plastic fork, I uncovered pale toothpick bones. I held each one up, then taped it to a sheet of loose leaf, referenced my sheet of instructions, and jotted down some notes. Shrew pelvis. Rat skull. Gopher vertebrae. Unidentified. Owls sure do eat a lot.
At the end, we turned in our findings and threw away the scraps. I was reluctant to tip my paper plate toward the black can and see all that hair slide into the bag. What if I missed something? What if there was more to uncover?
But, my fascination didn’t last. At eight years old, this moment of thought was just that—a moment. The bell rang and we ran into the halls, screaming. Notebooks and stray sheets of paper danced over our heads, impossible to settle. We threw open the purple doors of the school and fled, a tendril of mad life that split and uncoiled as we jumped on bikes and sped down Bozeman’s shady streets. I had already forgotten the owl pellet. I was already on to the next thing.
And then I set down my pen. A whole world opened up, a world that existed within me but that hadn’t spoken in so long. An owl pellet from tea leaves may not have been a logical jump, but I was surprised by the discovered connection between dissecting the pellet and dismantling electronics. I feel there is something there about my childhood, and maybe childhood in general, worth expanding upon. I’m even sensing, now, a connection between this piece of writing and those two childhood activities—digging, collecting. And what about the dump? Here is a world ripe for exploration. Even as I was worried that I would not write enough, I uncovered a wealth of material. Many memories to chase down.
So, my advice to any writer nervous that he or she will not have enough material to draw from: stay open to the world around you with an ear tuned to the world within, for you are already full.
Marley Stuart holds a B.A. in Creative Writing from Southeastern Louisiana University, where he is now pursuing a Masters degree and working as editorial assistant for Louisiana Literature. He has been accepted to the Bennington Writing Seminars MFA program and will begin studying there in January.