Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Handwriting on the Wall

Dana Gioia in his collection of essays, Disappearing Ink, makes a point of valuing the handwritten manuscript, pointing out the high prices such paperwork demands from collectors and literary scholars. He also points out that most contemporary writers discard those messy drafts, if they exist at all. Most of us use a computer to ease the revision and to store our work. That last idea can be a myth if your laptop DIES and you cannot start it. Even BACKING UP your work does not guarantee that you will retrieve every poems or short story. At least we need to keep hard copy, and although retyping a novel is hard duty, at least the creative work is not lost and in the retyping one might notice flaws that looked like flourishes in the earlier version. Yes, I know all of this from personal experience. Now, if I can find the original file for my business cards, I'll be happy.

However, I wonder what the writing process was like for those who had no word processor, who relied solely on pen and ink. Were those writers less inclined to fix the flaws? Was it sometimes too much effort to rewrite the whole piece? Did that intimate relationship between the thought and the hand make a difference in what landed on the page? I write early drafts in longhand, then proceed to print somewhere in the middle of the piece. Line breaks are infinitely easier on the screen, and seeing the white space as it will look on the page helps to shape the poem. But the work takes on a certain anonymity. Anyone might have used the keyboard to produce these words, unlike my handwriting, which no one would willingly duplicate. My process rides the cusp between generations of pen wielders and generations of keyboarders. A teacher once told me that my poems exist is a middle ground between heaven and hell; my process fits that place. 

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Sympathy Card

Our neighborhood is shocked over the death of a young girl, and I cannot help but imagine what her family feels. Thinking about my casual family dinner last evening, there's this:

Call It a Day

Bassoon's cucumber sound,
spoonful of low notes
to fatten a day brisk with laundry,
robust soup in a new pot--
dice, chop, boil, simmer and serve
a promise of clean sheets.
Murmuring over a salad of
fourth-grade spelling bee,
office politics, what the dog
dragged in, chewed, spit out.

Castled against yellow crime tape,
remains in a nearby ditch--
female with boots--call it
Friday Supper. Oh, call it
refuge at the table.
Offer carrot cake if you can,
cold milk, and a good night.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Unplugged and Unblocked

Quite a few blogs ago I reported on my discovery that I work best in quiet. Now I have to recognize another need: a clear calendar. Once I break the spell, I'm done for the day. Because I have the luxury of scheduling my own time, rather than reporting for duty every day, I should be cheering. Long stretches of time are mine for the taking. But along with that luxury comes our old friend guilt. There is so much to be done in this world, so many other creatures deserving of attention and care that I have to remind myself that my work is my work. Writing poems--so far--is not illegal or immoral, at least mine are not, I think. So why not stay at the desk for hours  and hours? Why put the computer to sleep and close the notebook?

The dog. He wants out, he wants in, he wants to play, he wants to sleep where my feet should be. He barks at pedestrians passing our front door, seriously interrupting the solitude. He's a small dog with a big voice. Right now he's trying to yak up some bit of string or lint that he got tearing apart his toys. At least if he yaks it up I won't have to rush off to the pet hospital with him. He's a darling distraction. But my writus interruptus is not all his fault. Like everyone I know, I need food and clean clothes. Today I need to go buy fish-oil capsules, milk, and baby aspirin. And I want to be responsible about the volunteer jobs I do: teaching, serving on a community council, shoveling horse manure at the rescue league. Sometimes, I just fall short, ditch the jobs and write. Sometimes I ditch the writing and do the jobs. Truth, I can't write all the time. I don't quite believe in writer's block, but I recognize the ebb and flow of energy and imagination. So I balance the guilt of leaving anything undone against the impossibility of perfection. Most of the time it works.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Reading Out Loud

Last evening was the monthly poetry reading at our local coffee shop, as usual a good time and lots of interesting work. In a slight departure from our schedule, we heard sisters aged 6 and 10 do a recitation that had us entranced. What a wonderful thing to have kids listening and performing. I hope they come back with a new routine. And speaking of kids, how about taking poems for kids more seriously? We welcomed the publication of a book titled, I swear it, Codfish with Cherries n' Graham Cracker Crust by Lefty Farkleberry. It's full of silliness and rhymes, great cartoon figures, and it rollicks. As opposed to rocks, as kids would say. Because there is a difference. These poems don't cater to the commercial world at all. They speak to and from the mind of their author, as do more solemn, adult, poems. I was much more intrigued by Lefty's poems than by a long, occasional poem written by Robert Frost for the Kennedy inauguration. Timely, but tedious. Not Frost at his best. Seems, however, he never read it because the glare from the snow made reading impossible, so he recited a shorter, much better poem. Maybe the kids in the audience listened in a way they never would have to the longer piece. Saved by snowglare!

How we introduce poetry to kids matters. If left to old fashioned teaching methods that make poetry esoteric and tedious, the up and coming poets among us would rather skateboard. I don't blame them. I remember my rather dignified grandmother, though, reciting something called "O'Grady's Goat." I can still see her standing in the middle of her immaculate kitchen, going on, accent and all, about a goat who ate the shirts off the clothesline. Maybe that recitation was my introduction to poetry, along with an innovative, overworked English teacher from high school, who, desperate to teach me about the great poems, but also having to teach the other kids about writing a full sentence, sat me down by myself in the library with recordings of Chaucer and let me take from it what I could. Then there's my other grandmother who sang to me. We sat in a much painted old rocker on the porch, watched barn swallows feed at sunset, and she sang popular ballads for what seemed like hours. I heard language as pleasure and freedom from childhood. I still do.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sunday Fun

Two days ago I spent a couple of hours in a local coffee shop with a group of folks who showed up just to write. How amazing! Instead of staying home noodling around in my sweats or relaxing in my big easy chair, I had to get dressed, go out in the cold, sit on a hard chair, and stop and go at someone else's request. No one expected us to produce anything to share, though we could if we chose to do so. The wind howled and the coffee machines buzzed and rumbled, but nothing distracted from our purpose, to keep the pen moving in response to the prompts given by our leader. This was about journaling as memory and foresight or insight--all good. The goal was to reflect on the year past and the year just begun.

Writing is usually a solitary occupation. Some days I don't want to see anyone or leave the house because I'm in the middle of work that commands my attention. And once I interrupt that process, break the spell, I have trouble getting back into the work until the next day when my routine kicks in again. Writing in company is affirming. I don't have to explain to anyone why I'm intent on the page in front of me, or why I'm not talking to anyone. They understand because they are sitting like I am, as if in meditation. Journaling is a form of meditation, one that like more traditional sitting, can be done individually or with a group. The group, though, keeps me honest. I won't jump up and pretend that I have to do the dishes or let the dog out. I keep writing because we are all engaged in writing. We are immersed in the process and free for the moment of concerns about product. That freedom is a nice change, one I hope to remind myself of more often. Even journaling, I am often on the look out for the key phrase or image that will lead to a story or poem. Sometimes, though, writing should be just fun.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Art & the Unconscious

Unconscious, "that part of the mind that is inaccessible to the conscious mind but that affects behavior, emotions, etc." We know about it, but can we ever know it, really? Many thinkers say that we cannot know it directly, only by oblique routes--therapy, dreams, and I would add, art. I heard myself say just that in conversation with a friend recently, and the statement keeps echoing in my head. This theory, that art is the revelation of the unconscious, would explain why I cannot stop making poems or stories. If I write enough of them, and as Allen Ginsberg would have it, "notice what I notice," I might see into that dark room in the cellar. An interesting thought.

Working for a time with my friend Jan, reading each other's fiction, I realized that I had lots of stories about alienated children. Well, that was a lightbulb moment. My family was fractured in all sorts of ways, and while I was never abused or neglected, I was shuffled around to live with various relatives as a way of managing my mother's need to work and her rather unorthodox way of job jumping. Often she planned to come see me or retrieve me from my temporary housing, but things often got in the way--no gas for the car, the car broken, another illness. And there I was, waiting for something to happen. I still find myself waiting for things to happen, until I remember that I can take an initiative as an adult. I don't have to wait for things/people to come to me. This waiting sensation and a tendency to let my characters disappear or run away surely come from that childhood vault of feelings that I have recognized only by seeing what comes out in the writing. Someone help me here, who said, "How do I know what I think till I see what I write?" How do I know what I feel, and what I fear, till I see what's on the page?

Friday, January 2, 2009


We all know there is a hot new movie out with that title, Doubt. I hear it's worth seeing. Doubt, though, is needling me this morning. I felt doubt as I wrote in my journal: doubt that what I do is not work and if it's not work, then what right do I have sitting around playing? Philosophically, I think this is rubbish, but when my devilish critical self gets on a roll, I get defensive. I argue back that, hey, I've done good work in other fields in my life. It's time to play. And besides, where do I turn for solace and distraction, wisdom and wonder? To books, stories, poems, that's where. If I can write something that offers others a moment's peace or insight, then it's all good, right? Right? I mean, all those movies that prop up the whole celebrity industry started with a writer. This is honorable work. Even if it feels like play. But there's that shadow behind me who sneers when I say this. Yeah, sure, it's honorable. Like sucking your thumb or watching dumb TV. I do watch TV when my brain is tired, but I never, ever, sucked my thumb.

I just finished Running With Scissors, by Augusten Burroughs. Now here's a good example of why we should go ahead and write. If he is honest, and I think he is, this man grew up crazy, never knowing who he was, trying to be things he was simply not cut out to be, a cosmetics tycoon, a doctor. He denied his talent as a writer, but couldn't stop writing. I get that. Boy, do I. It took, I suspect, a great deal of courage to finally say to himself and to the world, "I am a writer." Like Harlan Ellison's business card which said, "I write." Every time Ellison hands out a card, or Burroughs lays out another slice-of-life memoir, they attest to their belief in themselves and in the power of writing to change lives. If we play at it, it works. If we worry about it, it doesn't. But it is serious stuff, and those of us lucky enough to do it, should be faithful and honest. Joseph Campbell described the hero's journey as a venture into the dark, alone, taking risks, and returning with treasure for the tribe. That sure describes what we do.