Writing in the Margins

By most definitions, I’m not part of any marginalized community. My great-grandparents, who came to the United States from Southern Italy over a hundred years ago, were economic refugees arriving here at the height of anti-Catholic, anti-Italian (anti-anything-ethnic) nativism. Their experience on the margin of American life and systems is something I try to imagine but do not (and cannot) directly experience.

I have student loan debt, and I know what it’s like to struggle through bad economies and upside-down housing markets. But at the end of the day, I’m a white American man with two advanced degrees, a job, and some time left over to pursue other things.

I have worked closely with many people from all kinds of backgrounds experiencing chronic homelessness and food insecurity. I have tried to use my relative privilege to make a difference. Sometimes, the small parts I’ve played have aligned with the hard work of others and people have been lifted out of destructive cycles they didn’t choose. Sometimes, people just need a break. Sometimes, they come out of the homeless camps and stay housed.

Other times, funding is cut and lifelines are lost. Misguided fiscal conservativism, in the guise of common sense, creates more (and more expensive) problems than it solves. I’ve seen people put out in the street when assistance is cut by as little as $150 a month, and I know from years of experience that the actual dollars-and-sense cost of homelessness is far, far greater.

I don’t live in these kinds of margins, but I’m closely tied to them.


I have never been a big fan of John Lennon. I’m just not. Even at the height of my mandatory teenage Beatles obsession (for me, the late 90s, the Anthology, Abbey Road, MMT, the red and blue alums, etc), I was more a George person. For all of his commitments to peace in some general sense, he seemed to me like so many other people of his era, either unwilling or unable to come to terms with his own brokenness. I get that he tried, which is more than many folks do, and I don’t mean to discount that. Let’s just say he had a hard time not bullying everyone close to him, except maybe for Yoko (who knows). Of course, that brokenness comes from somewhere. From specific places, and from that collective nightmare we might just call Modern Life. (Now that we’re two decades into the 21st century, using “the 20th century” as shorthand for near-apocalypse doesn’t seem honest).

Most readers and writers are fundamentally interested in these kinds of margins, in the business of what Lennon said happens when we’re busy making other plans. I still haven’t decided if he was being precious or prescient or cruel in that assessment. What plans are we making? Why are we making them? Lennon’s terrible job being a father to Julian fuels my suspicion.

At the same time, there’s something to this idea of life as something that happens in the margins. Or parts of life, anyway. To help people on actual margins, and to keep myself from being on the economic margins that drove my ancestors from the dirt farms of Campania, I have often only found time for writing in the margins of other activities. I write, literally, in the margins of books, but blog posts like this one are another example. I’m between other things at the moment, this precise moment, between work and other commitments, between reading any number of things, between doses of medication, you name it.

I’m not writing from the margins the way many folks are. But I’m writing from my own kinds of margins, from my slice of collective student-loan debt, from my experience in fields that don’t pay much, that require many sources of funding, some of those sources inexplicably, obscenely political. I’m certainly writing in the margins. Of books, of this CMS, of my other commitments. Life isn’t really what happens when you’re busy making other plans. Life is the plans and the busy. The print and the margin. The book.

100 Words at a Time

I have always loved to write.  I first started writing creatively as an adult sometime during Divinity School, in my early 20s.  I wrote stories and poems in high school of course, but most of what I wrote in college was more academic. 

Between finishing my Master of Divinity and starting my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, I wrote many small pieces of fiction and prose poems.  I grew fond of writing things that were exactly 100 words.  It was a good practice in rhythm, word choice, and brevity.

This piece, which I rewrote yesterday from an older draft that didn’t go where I had hoped, is 98 words:

There’s nothing to say now to Eugene Victor Debs or William Jennings Bryan.  No spring under iron wheels and no thaw in the concrete borders of compassion.  No dispersing from the lock-step forms of ill-formed fear, fear of self, of other, fear of washing rain, revealing living oneness, fear of drowning in it.  There’s no green in our window-boxes, no stray cats in alleys and nothing left to feed them. Only fat birds always eating and the statues of our past, the ideal likeness of forgotten shapes and forms, fat birds always eating, bleaching white our skin-toned stories.

I have also found that I inevitably tend to write paragraphs of about 100 words in my fiction, especially why I’m attempting a birds-eye view seeking to balance external and internal settings, or when I’m doing an extremely close third-person read. 

After quite of bit of struggle with one story yesterday, I read and took a break.  Later, I revised the poem above.  Then I went about the other things I had to do. Later still, I wrote a post about DH Lawrence, Sherwood Anderson (both very good at the external/internal balance and the shift from mundane to sublime) and Ernest Hemingway (ever a muse for brevity).  Then I returned to another story, one I had been avoiding for personal reasons, and wrote this, which is, not surprisingly, about a hundred words:

On his ten-speed, the new present from his father, Riley arced and waved, his course unfettered and unhinged, free from the attraction of large bodies, the fundamental laws of physics. The nurses crossed the Fairgrounds. Birds roosted in the trees. The Sisters of St. Catherine were called to daily office, everywhere the brides of Christ were moving to the music of the set-in-motion world. In the Market lot, where the families sold their wares, where the men had trained to serve in war, where the Milltown Fair lit August sky with fireworks and neon, on that swath of pavement bordered by the hospital and graveyard, a boy, still small, still boyish, rode his brand-new bike.

I’m sure I’ll revise and refine that, but for now I rather like it.  In the context of the story, it’s a sort of capstone.

For whatever reason, I tend to write more or less 100 words at a time.  There are days when these bursts add up, 1000 or 2000 words.  There are days like yesterday, where I revised 98 and wrote 120 more.

Dialogue is like the 12-point Courier New of daily word goals.  Even in the piece I struggled with yesterday, I managed 300 words of decent dialogue in service of the story. 

Some days net a ton of words you cut down later.  Some days net a ton of words you keep.  Some days are more about the planting, some days about the harvest.

If you’re writing and/or reading today (and I hope you are), happy sewing, watering, reaping.