Jeannine Ouellette on The Saving Grace of Looking Outward
Read "The Luminous Particular," Jeannine's new essay on how using close attention allowed her to truly see and then write about the world and, by doing so, save her own life.
I was lucky enough to interview Jeannine back in May. If you enjoy this essay, which I think you will, I encourage you to check out the interview. Jeannine says so many insightful things about life and writing. I’ve lifted the paywall for the week because I want everyone to enjoy the benefit of her wisdom.
Jeannine publishes the much cherishedhere on Substack—full of beautifully detailed writing lessons and inspiring prompts. If you’re feeling stuck with your writing, Jeannine can help! Her essays and fiction have appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, Dorothy Parker's Ashes, Narrative, Masters Review, North American Review, Calyx, and more.
For Beyond, Jeannine graciously wrote about looking closely at the outside world as a way to protect herself from a tumultuous and traumatic childhood. It is, of course, beautiful.
The Luminous Particular: How Superballs, Harriet the Spy, and Looking Outward Saved My Life
When I was ten years old, just after we moved into a new house near downtown Casper, and my stepfather, a very bad man, drove away for good in his cherry red pick-up—and just before my mother’s first extended mental breakdown—I built, starting with a shoebox, an elaborate house for my small collection of super balls, a cardboard house where they could live happily together as a super ball family.
I used cereal boxes to build the interior walls, creating something of a ranch-style floor plan: living room, dining room, kitchen, two beds and a bath, all conveniently situated on one easy level. For furniture, I cobbled the needed items from wooden thread spools, old popsicle sticks, toothpicks, and tiny scraps of cardboard. And I finished the edges of fabric scraps by hand with needle and thread to make tiny rugs, bedspreads, and a tablecloth.
I also invented elaborate storylines around the ball family: the father worked as a dentist who was kind to his patients and handed out balloons to all the children whose teeth he cleaned and drilled. And his drill made a nice sound instead of a high-pitched shriek. He even had a special painkiller that didn’t leave your mouth thick and stupid like Novocain. The mother was a homemaker like most of my friends’ mothers were then, in the 1970s. She loved to bake exotic pastries with filling, things like eclairs and cream puffs.
The two children—a boy and a girl—were less developed in my storyline. I was mainly interested in the parents because, by this time, I was largely raising myself. At night, I tucked all four super balls into their little beds, pausing to cradle them in my palms and smell their rubbery little heads.
I loved those super balls. They were real to me in every way, and so was the house I built for them.
Here are some other things I did that year as my mother—angry, wild, and reeling from the crisis of her recent divorce—grew simultaneously more violent and more absent: I taught myself how to melt Colby cheese in a metal measuring cup over the gas flame of the stove as an afterschool snack. I ate dry dog kibble on a dare. I studied violin in my public school until my sister stepped on my school-rented instrument and that was the end of that. I laundered and ironed shirts for my mother’s boyfriend, Spider, who paid me a quarter apiece. I cleaned Spider’s awful trailer every Saturday for a few dollars. I stuffed bits of toilet paper over my braces to keep them from cutting up the inside of my cheeks, because I frequently forgot to go to take myself to my orthodontist appointments, and therefore always ran out of that wax stuff (perhaps this is why my super ball dad was a friendly dentist). I played Yahtzee with my little sister, Rachael, who was six years younger, and I walked her to and from her daycare house. I ate boxed cereal with milk and many spoonfuls of sugar and, afterward, shoved the bowls under my bed, where the milk petrified around the spoons into a shiny, impenetrable glue. And I read Harriet the Spy, and started roaming the alley behind our house, pretending I was Harriet, notebook in hand, gazing into the windows of my neighbors as they came ablaze against the dusk.
Harriet—oh, the lure of Harriet and her spy route, the way she looked at the world, saw everything, and wrote it down. All through the autumn of fifth grade, I sought to become like Harriet, an aspiring writer. I spent many of the long, lonely latchkey hours and chilly evenings—while my mom attended night classes and went out with Spider—wandering that narrow alley, hoping to see something interesting enough to record, which, admittedly, proved more difficult for me than it had for Harriet. But I was not inclined to give up. Perhaps I’d be there still had a friend’s mother not warned that I could soon be arrested as a peeping tom.
My friend’s mother’s words terrified me enough to end my alley prowling, but my writing efforts continued. I turned my attention to writing an original script, Jess and the Genie, for my fifth-grade play, which my classmates and I performed that spring in the school auditorium for the entire student body of Park Elementary. I cast myself as the genie, of course, and hand-sewed my own costume from a sack of my Nana’s gauzy head scarves. My friend, Norah, helped write and direct the play, which was a smashing success—and when that project was over, we spent a week in Norah’s driveway building a poetry machine out of an old appliance box. The machine spit poems out of a slot for five, ten, or twenty-five cents depending on length—and I was the poet inside. The Casper Star ran an article about our poem machine on the front page:
The heart of the machine is not a large, integrated circuit, but Miss Ouellette, who hides inside the box. She can compose a poem in less than a minute on any subject.
In basketball, all the balls bounce,
Whether they weigh a pound or an ounce.
They go through the hoop and land on your head,
Then you get an ice pack and go straight to bed.
The girls got the idea from an article about a Univac computer that can answer questions, Miss Ouellette said. Because she “writes poems all the time,” they decided to construct the Poem Box.
I can’t imagine that time of my life, or my life in general, without those early writing projects. I have long known, and openly acknowledged, that writing saved my life. I am very lucky for that. I am also lucky that my writing has evolved in the 45 years since the poem box and the overall calamity of my mother’s second divorce that precipitated it, along with my alley prowling, my super ball family, and my debut as a playwright. What I understand now, after decades of writing and teaching writing, is that I was saved by more than writing itself. Writing brought me toward and into the light of the world, rather than deeper into the shadows within. What really saved me, I know now, was the way in which writing drew my attention outside of myself instead of further into the terror and confusion inside, which sought to swallow me whole.
Mary Oliver, who wisely warned us against looking without noticing, escaped the brutality of her own childhood by wandering for hours in the woods near her home. As a ten-year-old, I had no woods to roam, though—even the open fields of sagebrush behind our old house, where I’d once tromped about for hours, were now too far away to reach by foot. I had only city blocks and alleyways. Nonetheless, somehow I knew intuitively (perhaps inspired by Harriet) that nature or no, I needed to look as hard and closely as I could at the outside world around me in all its strange and broken beauty—super balls, lit windows, genies imagined with so much specificity they became real—in order to protect a small space inside of myself for future safety and light.
Perhaps it is for this reason—the way writing drew my attention deliberately outward, toward the external world beyond my own thoughts and feelings—that I have become so passionate about encouraging this kind of close attention to the world when I teach writing. Passion is required, because close attention is not easy to practice or to teach. As a longtime student said to me after a recent workshop, “I think I struggle with staying ‘close’ in my writing (and in my life), but that’s why I come to your classes ... to be challenged out of my comfort zones, which is the only way I will grow.”
That yearning for growth—which is so much more than mere survival—explains why the longer I write and teach, the closer I want to get to the particulars of the world, and the closer I want to stay to them. I gravitate to writing that shows me the world and how do as Mary Oliver says, and notice it better. Recently, Jane Kenyon’s poetry has been my guide in this endeavor. While I, a prose writer of essay, memoir, and fiction, don’t really write poetry anymore (whether out of an appliance box or otherwise), I do learn more from poetry than any other genre, if you count the parts where I learn how to live and keep on living, and to make, as Mary Oliver said, something “particular and real” of my life, and not “end up simply having visited this world.”
About Jane Kenyon, John Timmerman wrote the following in “In Search of the Great Goodness: The Poetry of Jane Kenyon”:
From her earliest lines, Kenyon devoted herself to the lyric poem, searching for what she called “the luminous particular.” The aim of the lyric poem is to take an event or experience of particularly impressive quality upon the poet, but to craft it with such telling detail, crisp language, and physicality of imagery that the reader feels this is his or her poem. The reader enters and owns it, rather than the poet simply declaring. The poem thus requires absolute honesty and exacting care by the poet.
Jane Kenyon’s poetry makes clear that she gave exacting attention to the world. She also lent this attention to the work of other poets. She once said, speaking of the poets she admired—John Keats, Elizabeth Bishop, and Anna Akhmatova—“I’ve taken those poems apart the way you take a watch apart—to see how they work and how they go back together again.” In other words, Kenyon was teaching herself to write by close reading the poets she revered. She was teaching herself to notice the world and illuminate it with language, to find and articulate the “luminous particular” in a way so pure and precise that it became, as her husband, the poet Donald Hall once said, “a 100-proof glass of water.”
The luminous particular, I have come to recognize, is exactly what I have always wanted most in my writing, too—and what I also want most in my teaching and my life. Fields of sagebrush, super balls with little rubbery heads, amber windows in twilit alleyways—I have always been and still am learning to look, learning to see, and learning to say what I saw, and this is what saved me from the terrors of childhood while teaching me, slowly and surely, how to someday illuminate those, too.
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What has brought you into the light of the world? What got you through childhood? What most moved you about Jeannine’s essay?
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