Friday, October 22, 2010

Best First Sentence Ever!

In January I will resume teaching on a limited basis, dealing first with a short course on sense of place. So, I went to my local library--love my library--and checked out a book I had stumbled across online: Michael Perry's Population, 485. Of course, I was drawn to it because it is written by a nurse who became an EMT in his tiny home town in Wisconsin. Okay, I thought, this is the sort of thing I might want to read and recommend to my students. Within the hour, settled into a comfy chair in my neighborhood coffee shop, mango tea and lemon cake at the ready, I cracked the book and fell in love! And that was before I looked at the author's picture on the back flap. Perry looks like a wool-shirt hunk, just the guy to change a tire or save a life at the flip of a siren switch. But I'm not that much of a sucker for a hunk without brains. He had to prove himself. And he did, whew!

We hear often that the opening sentence of a book is the most important. Someone famous has said that it's not the most important sentence; it's the only one. I could imagine some junior editor at Harper Collins jumping out of her chair and racing to a senior editor: "You have got to read this!" I am now imitating that discovery phrase, because anyone who can sink the verbal hook the way Perry does earns my admiration, affection, and a good bit of running around to tell people about his book. Because he wrote this first sentence: "Summer here comes on like a zaftig hippie chick, jazzed on chlorophyll and flinging fistfuls of butterflies to the sun." Just look at it--descriptive writing that tears around like a loose puppy, yipping and all forward motion.The diction tells me instantly who he is and the energy as we move from one word to the next just lights up the reader's mind. I think we should create a Michael Perry Award for the most wonderful opening line ever. Anyone got one better? And leave Ishmael out of it.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Ticket to Ride

I am just off a two-day, Boston to Denver, train ride. It was good. It was awful. Good means that I saw the country from a different perspective, neither highway nor sky high. The opportunities for people watching stretched across the continent. Not so good were wearing the same clothes for two days and sleeping--sort of--in a recliner that reclined about three inches and featured a foot rest too short for even me. And the coach the first night was chilly. (Note to all train travelers: take a blanket.) The bathrooms are tiny. I am not tiny. It's hard to read when the rails are rough and the page bounces around.

After a layover in Chicago, I boarded the California Zephyr. It didn't feel the least bit breezy, but at least the seating gods blew some luck my way. One of the two seats in my row was defective, so I got the remaining one and was able to use the broken one for my stuff. I needed stuff--snacks, a magazine, pens, a notebook, and a system that involved sheets of yellow lined paper, folded in thirds like a letter, but with the writing perpendicular to the lines. These narrow columns gave me a better grip when the coach rocked. It rocked a lot. Somehow, though, I made notes, a lot of notes. And it felt good. Now I must decide what to do with them. If nothing comes, at least I practiced noticing, and that's an important skill to nurture. Ginsberg said, "Notice what you notice." I noticed myself noticing.

Friday, October 1, 2010


Maybe I've said this before, but traveling destroys my writing. I have rarely produced anything but drek away from home. I try to replicate my schedule, up early, quiet cup of tea--now that I've given up coffee--and my journal, three pages minimum. Nada, yuk, spewed words about as exciting as mush without milk and sugar. This morning I forced an attempt at a new poem, but I don't trust it. Always in the back of my mind, or maybe it's the side (what shape is a mind anyway?) I think I will be interrupted, distracted, judged for sitting there scribbling. Where does this come from? My family knows I write. I publish, read in public, have a business card that says "Writer." So why this urge to hide while I create?

Maybe the muse, whoever he/she is, is jealous of other people who might want my attention. Or this unease comes from all those years when I did not claim my own creativity, hid my writing for fear of rejection or criticism, wrote after the family was sound asleep, so as not to feel that I was cheating my children of my attention. I wrote because I had to, still do, but I didn't believe that I had the right to do something that had no effect on the well being of those I loved and for whom I felt responsible. Writing has earned me very little money over the years, and in a world where value mostly means financial success, I have had to defend to myself the business of poetry and prose. Silly, I know. Because I know the excitement, insight, and pleasure that writing, mine and others', gives me. But I still don't see myself producing work that matters when I feel that someone might be watching the messy, lusterless process.