Art of the Song

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Art of the Song

Life As Writing Material

By Eileen Kalinowski | Posted June 1, 2007 | Updated November 13, 2019

As a writer of songs, stories, essays, and someday, maybe, a novel, I want to share a bit of wisdom with you that took my breath away.

The context was a class on using fiction techniques in memoir at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. The teacher was Fritz McDonald. A bunch of us were having lunch in the student union, asking pointed questions like, "Should I limit the piece to a segment of time, or try to say it all in a larger work?" questions that no teacher in his right mind would try to answer.

Fritz did me a huge favor that day. He said, "You're the writer. You can do whatever you want with your material. It's yours to play with, to fictionalize, to cut up into pieces; the sky's the limit."

My life is my material. I get to keep it all in a treasure chest of memory and pick and choose what might be useful in a given project. All the sensory details I've stored up, grandma's sauerkraut and pork chops simmering on the stove; husking two dozen ears of corn picked that afternoon with kernels still shiny, they were that fresh; Mom grinding ham and sweet gherkin pickles together with a device we clamped to the kitchen table solely for that purpose, and later adding mayo to the mixture for a ham salad sandwich. Now that's material.

I've never used any of those food bits or bytes in a song yet, but they're mine, all three of them, and they're what make my writing different from yours. They're what make my stories come alive or not, depending on how generous I am with you.

I used to be ashamed of those details, because they revealed my ethnicity, which was, in my twenties, a carefully guarded secret, something I hid from everyone, even myself. I thought I should lop off the owski at the end of my name — too Polish, too hard to pronounce, too difficult. My name also tied me to the challenges of growing up in that mill town in Northwestern Connecticut, notions of a woman's place and what it took for one to be secure and safe, notions I disavowed when I moved to the city and braved the unknown.

How glad I am that I never lopped off the ending of my name; that I have come to appreciate my life as material for my creative work. The more me I can let you see, the more I feel I belong to this world, and this time, and this place.

Today, I feel, not shame at the 7th grade education of my grandmother, but respect for how generously she taught me everything that was of value to her: how to play pinochle, how to make potholders from worn towels and mattress pads, and how to stay faithful to one channel of soap operas, through thick and thin.

All of those moments are my material, too.

And if you stay in my circle long enough, the moments we share will be, too.

©2007 Eileen Kalinowski. All rights reserved.

Next: Writing: Dipping into the Darkness

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Eileen KalinowskiEileen Kalinowski sings, produces music, freelance writes, and is a member of the Taos Coalition to End Homelessness. ...