One Year to a Writing Life – March – Opinion Piece and Travel Essay

Well, April is turning out to be quite the busy month for me, so I thought I’d better hurry and get this post up so I don’t forget.

The third chapter in One Year to a Writing Life, which I worked through during March, featured opinion pieces and travel essays. There were 4 exercises. Simply put they consisted of drafting and revising first an opinion piece and then a travel essay.

Opinion pieces have never been something I’ve been very fond of writing. Partially I just don’t find it to be as much fun as writing fiction, and partially I just tend to end up making myself upset when I try to write about something I’m passionate about, in terms of politics and the like. For this reason, I decided to pick an unpolitical, more mundane topic but write it in the style of an opinion piece. Here is the first draft:

A few weeks ago, at the tender age of 26, I cleared the pipe in my bathroom sink by myself for the first time. It wasn’t very hard. Actually, it was quite easy. I’d never done it before because just pouring drain cleaner down the sink seemed easier whereas clearing the pipe seemed hard, and because if it got really bad I could always call dad and ask him to do it (which, to my credit, I had only done once in the past).

Now, I happen to think that a certain amount of hesitation vis-a-vis disassembling (and, more importantly, reassembling) a piece of plumbing is fairly natural, especially if you’ve never done it before. But there are many other things that, even more than pipes, need to be handled in our everyday lives that many young people just seem clueless as to how to do. I’ve known a 29-year old whose younger sister came over weekly to do his laundry, a 19-year old with a one bedroom flat who hired a maid and a 30-something middle manager who ate takeaway for breakfast, lunch and dinner every single day. Maybe they did it out of laziness, or just because they preferred it that way, I don’t know. But I do know that that feeling of doing something on your own, without having to ask for help, at the end of the day is a pretty nice feeling.

So why am I telling you this? I’m telling you this, to frame this piece of advice: teach your children how to do the things they will need to know how to do. Teach them to cook, to clean, to pay bills, to apply for work, to mend things, to clear pipes, to do all those little things that most of us do as part of our everyday lives. Maybe they’ll never need to do them. Maybe they’ll have enough money to hire someone to do it for them, or maybe they’ll have a partner who will do it. But if they don’t have those things, I guarantee they will appreciate having the option of doing them on their own and only asking for help if they want to.

 

And here is the second version:

Teach your children (how to clear pipes)

“You’ll never guess what I did today!” I told my dad, triumphantly, one evening when I was visiting my parents for dinner. After several wrong guesses I tell him that earlier that afternoon I, at the tender age of 26, cleared the pipe in my bathroom sink by myself for the first time. It wasn’t even that hard to do. Actually, it was quite easy. I’d never done it before because just pouring drain cleaner down the sink seemed easier, and because if it got really bad I could always call dad and ask him to do it (which, to my credit, I had only done once in the past).

Now, I happen to think that a certain amount of hesitation vis-a-vis disassembling (and, more importantly, reassembling) a piece of plumbing is fairly natural, especially if you’ve never done it before. But there are many other things that, to an even greater extent than pipes, need to be handled in our everyday lives that many young people seem clueless as to how to do. I’ve known a 29-year old whose younger sister came over weekly to do his laundry, a 19-year old with a one bedroom flat who hired a maid and a 30-something middle manager who ate takeaway for breakfast, lunch and dinner every single day. Maybe they did it out of laziness, or just because they preferred it that way, I don’t know. But maybe they did it because doing it themselves seemed like something just out of their reach, not exactly hard but just… distant. What I do know is that that feeling of doing something on your own, without having to ask for help, at the end of the day is a pretty nice feeling.

So why am I telling you this? I’m telling you this, to frame this piece of advice: teach your children how to do the things they will need to know how to do. Teach them to cook, to clean, to pay bills, to apply for work, to mend things, to clear pipes, to do all those little things that most of us do as part of our everyday lives. Maybe they’ll never need to do them. Maybe they’ll have enough money to hire someone to do it for them, or maybe they’ll have a partner who will do it. However, if they don’t have those things, I guarantee they will appreciate having the option of doing them on their own and only asking for help if they want to. And maybe, like with me and my pipes, they’ll feel pretty dang proud of themselves.

While I’ll be the first to admit it’s not terribly interesting a topic, I’m still fairly satisfied with how it turned out.

Travel essays, unlike opinion pieces, are probably the form of creative non-fiction that I find the most appealing. I always take a lot of notes when I travel, and imagine I’ll “do something with them” though I rarely get around to it. For this exercise, I wanted to write about the trip to Jordan I took in the fall. I decided to focus on this small clothing shop I stumbled into. Here is the draft:

The street is crowded and the temperature is in the high 20s although it is already November. I don’t know where I am anymore, but it doesn’t matter because there are shops everywhere and the point of this excursion is to start looking for souvenirs to bring back home. I pass by store after store full of knick-knacks, the same flashy jewelry and badly carved wooden camels, the same bottles of coloured sand and face masks professing to be from Dead Sea mud. I am lured into a doorway by some trinket and discover a miniature mall, rows of tiny stores nestled next to each other inside the same doorway. At the end of the hallway I find a place that sells clothing in the traditional style, black fabrics with patters embroidered onto them with cross-stitch in bright colors. The merchant smiles at me when I step inside and before I know it I am sitting on a stool as he dashes around showing me this garment and then that one. The pieces are gorgeous, one prettier than the other and I wish I could take one of each cut home with me. “Do you like coffee or tea?” He asks me and, confused, I say that I like tea. It’s only once he reaches for his phone and asks a colleague to bring a cup of mint tea that I realize he was offering me a cup. Sipping the tea, which shortly arrives on a tray and is much to sweet for my tastes, I finally settle on a traditional cut, a sort of tunic with long, flowing sleeves. “This is good size. It is the traditional style, it should be like this. Not tight.” He tells me, and when he finds out I don’t have cash he packs me a bag anyway and walks me to the nearest ATM where I pay him. If he is upset that I bought only one garment after getting quite the royal treatment, he doesn’t show it. I walk on through the streets, bag in hand, peering into shops for something to bring back home.

 

And the revised version:

The street is crowded and the temperature is in the high 20s although it is already the beginning of November. I don’t know where I am anymore, but it doesn’t matter because there are shops everywhere and the point of this excursion is to start looking for souvenirs to bring back home. I pass by store after store full of knick-knacks, the same flashy jewelry and badly carved wooden camels available in most of them, the same bottles of coloured sand and face masks professing to be from Dead Sea mud. I am lured into a doorway by some trinket or other and discover a miniature mall, rows of tiny stores nestled next to each other inside the same doorway. All the way to the back I find a small shop that sells clothing in the traditional style, black fabrics with patters embroidered onto them with cross-stitch in bright colors. The merchant smiles at me when I step inside and before I know it I am sitting on a stool as he dashes around showing me this garment and then that one. The pieces are gorgeous, one prettier than the other and I wish I could take one of each cut home with me. “Do you like coffee or tea?” He asks me at one point, standing on a step-stool to hang an item back in it’s place, and I, confused by the question, say that I like tea. It’s only once he reaches for his phone and asks a colleague to bring a cup of mint tea that I realize he was offering me a cup and not just making small-talk. Sipping the tea, which shortly arrives on a tray and is much to sweet for my tastes, I finally settle on a traditional cut, a sort of tunic with long, flowing sleeves. “This is good size. It is the traditional style, it should be like this. Not tight.” He tells me, and then shows me probably every item of that model and size as I struggle to pick a colour. Finally I settle for the most classic look, a red pattern, and pick out a set of embroidered coasters for my grandmother. I feel a bit guilty, after all the attention, the tea and the patience, that I can only afford to buy one piece of clothing but if he is annoyed by this, he doesn’t show it in the slightest. When I find out they only take cash and I don’t have enough he packs my things into a bag and walks me to the nearest ATM. I pay him, he wishes me a good day and I walk on through the streets, bag in hand, peering into shops for something to bring back home.

I’m not happy with how this turned out. It’s a shame, because it was such an odd experience. I felt a little like a character out of some Disney film, with a sidecharacter flitting around me trying to find me the right clothing. I don’t feel like this piece did the moment justice, and some day I’d like to give it another go which I unfortunately don’t have time for right now.

I found this month’s exercises to be quite challenging both in terms of style and genre and in terms of picking topics and execution. Chapter for is about Short Stories and the Short-short. I have to admit, even though the exercises I’ve done so far have been fun and rewarding I’m sort of happy to finally find a chapter where I can write fiction. As I’ve said, April is a very busy month for me but since the A to Z blogging challenge has Sunday as a no-blog day, I’ve decided I will be doing the exercises on Sundays. That means that I’ll, hopefully, do the first one this evening!

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