The Courage of Writers

This week I sat in a local diner with other writers who impressed me by their willingness to approach tough stuff. One had the courage to describe his mother in more or less balanced terms without the sentimentality or vitriol that inherently sneaks into this mother of all topics. Another wrote about her insecurity and hesitancy to publish what she believes is the real value of her independently owned business, and a third dared to say that she’s out to change the world. Then there was the story of a childhood hurt that reduced the writer to tears. Such courage!

Truth abounding. And Truth is not beauty, no matter what Keats claimed. It’s temperamental and often ugly. It was ugly in Paris last week. It will be so again and again. But the writers I know and admire, either through their published work or their work in progress, wrestle with this harridan and sometimes they pin her to the mat. They force her to hold still long enough for us to see her complexity. This struggle is not, unfortunately, a given in the world of books. Many authors write to publish and ignore the struggle. They rely on formulas that fatten their wallets but do not nourish us or help heal our wounds.

So here I was this morning, in my green pajamas, noodling in my journal, remembering a time when even with personal writing I drew an innocuous picture of who I was, imagining a ghostly reader who would otherwise point out my flaws and ridicule my aspirations if I wrote the truth, even in my journal. No more of that.  Truth is no easy ally, not willing to bend or change her stance to suit my tender ego. But, Truth, you are my best teacher. I’m glad we’ve finally met. I’ll try to be faithful.

Poetry & Public Courtesy

As you may recall I cohost a monthly open-mic poetry reading and here are a few tips to make yourself welcome if you attend such an event; some of this advice applies to both readers and audience, most have to do with respect for the entire concatenation.

  1. Arrive a little ahead of the start time and sign in to read if that’s an option. If it’s a feature-only reading, don’t even try to read your work. If you can afford to buy the book, do so. Poets count on readings for a good part of their sales.
  2. Select your material ahead of time. Usually the host will say how much time each reader is allowed. Be ready to adjust accordingly. Long poems are harder to follow without a text. Be mindful of this when you choose. It annoys others when someone flips through a notebook in search of her/his material. Use a book mark or sticky note to mark the pages you will read. If there are children in the audience, please be respectful regarding the language. Parents may not care, but then again, they may storm out in the middle of your time.
  3. If you are reading someone else’s work, please mention that as you begin. Otherwise, the audience may assume it’s your work. Confusing, misleading, risky. Read whatever you like, but be open about whose work it is.
  4. If there is a sound system, use it. Get on the mic, or ask to have it adjusted before you start if it’s not at the right height or angle. If you are not used to a mic, be aware that hiss and pop are not a rock group, but a set of annoying sounds that may be magnified by the mic.
  5. Even if you are not entranced by another reader, pretend to pay attention. I take brief notes on a small pad I open before the reading starts and some of those jottings are not related to what I hear, but no one else knows this.
  6. Hearing people read straight from their journal/notebook/bar napkin annoys me, leaves me thinking that they don’t care enough about their poetry to craft it and give it at least a spit shine before taking it out in public.

Poetry readings are common as field mice. Colleges, libraries and coffee shops are common venues. Good ole Google will help you find one in your area if you don’t already know one. I think it’s a good idea to attend once and just listen to see if it’s a fit for you. Even if you hate it, no one ever died from listening to poetry. Well, maybe, but the worst poet on the continent can do no more damage than to put you to sleep. Just don’t snore, okay?

Concentrated Looking

Here’s an exercise I came up with and it worked well in a writing group this week. The purpose is to sharpen your descriptions. Use it as a journal exercise or to deepen the meaning of a significant object in a poem or piece of prose.

Concentrated Looking

Select an object to enrich your setting and explore it in the following ways:

  • Was it found or sought out?
  • Did it grow or was it made?
  • What is it called and who named it?
  • Describe its shape, size, color(s) and use.
  • How much does it weigh?
  • What is its surface texture?
  • What does it contain? What contains it?
  • Who owns/uses it?
  • How do you feel about it?
  • How old is it? How long will it last?

The more mundane the object, the more it will challenge you. Your description may range from minimalist to opulent. For examples of these two concepts, read William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,” and Francis Ponge’s prose poem on soap. Both are readily available on line. Have fun with it. Come back to it often.

Break Time, Brake Time

By the time you read this I will have driven five hours north to visit friends in South Dakota. We’ve been waiting for all the omens to bode well and finally they do: nothing on the schedule for the next three days, good weather forecast, and the price of gas is down. All of which says, go. I like to drive and have just rehabilitated my ten-year old Toyota, so I’m looking forward to this trip. It’ll be three days of good music and good conversation with people I know well.

And, gulp, I think I’ll take the whole weekend off, no writing. I can’t quite believe I’m saying this, addicted as I am to the pen, but I’m brave. I’ll try. Yes, yes, I admit that there will be a small notebook in my old blue paisley duffel bag, and the voice recorder on the phone will serve for those moments when I cannot write without breaking the law or my bones. Writing and steering are, or should be, incompatible, mutually exclusive, verboten. Worse than texting. So the drive just might cleanse my brain enough to avoid any dangerous withdrawal. I’ll let you know when I get back. Have a safe Halloween, set the clocks back if you’re in the US and write on. Carry the flag for me, huh?

7 Degrees of Connection

86404 English novelist E.M. Forster said, “Only, connect.” Writers need other writers, not just their books, essays, and poems, but flesh and blood people. Well, the less blood spilled, the better. So here’s your assignment if you don’t already belong to a vibrant, extensive writing community.

  • Scan bulletin boards at church, a coffee shop, your local community college;
  • Go to a reading at a bookstore or cafe, listen to the guest reader and strike up a conversation with a person sitting near to you. After you talk a bit about the guest reader, it’s okay to ask, “Do you write?”
  • Scope out the Meet Ups in your area; i bet you’ll find a writing group or two or twelve;
  • Post a request on your social media pages, but arrange to meet at a public venue before you ask strangers to sit at your kitchen table;
  • Check the classified listings in writers’ magazines to see if there is an existing group you can get to;
  • Take a writing class, either as part of your curriculum or as an audit;
  • Build your own group by taking stock of the people you already know; chances are good that you already know other writers and they know other writers who know other writers, etc.

None of this is about spending a ton of money or about selling your book if you already have one. It’s about shop talk, mutual support, getting off your duff and meeting people who share your fascination with words lined up like good soldiers. If you live in a watchtower on top of an inaccessible mountain, you might resort to online connections, but then too there is the possibility of writing letters back and forth to a distant writer whom you know. (Remember letters, those folded sheets of paper tucked into an envelope, stamped and handed to the USPS for delivery?) “Only connect.”

Doggone It!

I’ve gone to the dogs. By which I mean, dogs keep wriggling their way into the my fiction. If you’ve read Accidental Child, you know that a beagle named Otis figures significantly in the opening scene when he lunges to chase ducks and pulls his owner off balance. She falls and wakes up in another time and place. We go on from there with her grieving over the loss of her child, her lover and her dog.

There are dogs running around in the sequel. First, there was Alice, a rescued cattle dog meant to teach a young child the meaning of adoption. Alice was smart and devoted, just what the kid needed. Now along comes Tillie! She is a Belgian Malinois. More than a replacement for Alice, who has gone “over the rainbow,” Tillie is a highly trained personal guard dog, about whom the girl argues with her parents. She doesn’t need guarding and for what they paid for Tillie and her extensive training, they could have rescued half a dozen dogs. But of course, Tillie wins her over and, while they don’t live happily ever after, they do survive. And there’s Angus, a lab-like mutt who steals hearts and sandwiches and there’s Little Smudge, of no particular denomination, needing a home, like so many outliers, and our girl has to help him find safety, warmth and a bowl of good kibble.

Duncan in plaid w/glow-in-the-dark eyes.

I confess, we have three dogs in our house, a Corgi (queen of the world who must have heard that her kind belongs at Buckingham Palace), a corgle (half Corgi, half beagle, half manic–yeah, she’s a dog and a half) and a Cairn (my famous constant companion and house alarm, Duncan). For years I was a horse person, even wrote a book about my beloved gelding, but it seems I’ve caught canine fever. Is there a cure? If so, don’t tell me, please. I’d have to edit out this pack of dogs and I don’t think they would leave without a fight.