Hope & Serendipity

Last week I wrote about the commercial context in which we hear awful news about Palestine, ebola, and now again about ISIS, the news worse each day. Hope, however, keeps strange company.

On Monday I headed for the local library. Turns out it’s closed on Mondays. Hungry for books, I drove into Brunswick, Maine, to Gulf of Maine Books, where I overheard the owner, Gary Lawless, say that there would be a poetry reading in the store that afternoon. I bought a grand anthology, Poetry Like Bread, edited by Martin Espada, perfect for my interest in poetry of witness and I went back in time for the reading.

The featured poet was Sharif Elmusa, born and raised in Palestine, now a part-year resident of Maine. He read mostly gentle poems about his childhood in a place now ruptured by violence. (His book, Flawed Landscape, sold out and I have to wait until next week to review it.) What an amazing line of causality, bright as neon–closed library, bookstore, Palestinian poet–suggesting order in a world of chaos, hope despite the death and destruction in the Middle East. If I see a movie with a happy ending or read a novel in which the hero survives atrocities and hatred,  or I hear poems like Elmusa’s and hope for peace, kindness, equality, and justice, not revenge. I don’t know what to do because I don’t have an active role in world affairs.

For many years my role was to help people survive the effects of mental illness. Eventually, I took Lao Tzu’s advice: “Do your work; then step back.” I worked hard until fatigue and stress signaled time to step back. Still I fret and dither over my job in a whole word gone mad, a madness born not of neurological defect but of greed and deadly dogma. Maybe my job now is to pour hope into the world, to be generous and open minded, to witness suffering and to speak out. Multiplied by millions such attentive hope might save us.

Context Matters

At home I don’t watch much TV. For now I am a houseguest so the television is on and I see things differently. Admittedly I watch far more HGTV than is healthy, one of my guilty vacation pleasures. But I also watch news, and this week Ebola and Gaza are the big stories. The coverage is extensive and a very fine grind. That’s understandable. What upsets me almost as much as the hair splitting and violence is the context in which the news nestled: the sales pitches that urge me to hurry and buy a fast car before the model-year ends. Or buy a memory foam mattress and new flooring. Would that people in Gaza had a floor to stand on, a bed to sleep in, and a fast car to escape from the war. Would that they had clean water and bandages for the wounded children.

What ever medium delivers the news, the context shades the message. Can we hold onto the horror if our culture belies the truth by distracting  us with inane ads that highlight our mundane and commercial preoccupations? I don’t think so.

If I-Search, I’ll Find Something

As many of you know, I’m about to fly off for a month on the east coast visiting family, friends and former classmates. Traveling, though, does something to my creativity, something unpleasant. I still write, can’t do without that, but I don’t often come up with much worth continuing. So–I heard about I-Search and assigned myself to do one while I’m on a break from creative writing. It will be a lot of “left-brain” work and I think I can maintain that. It might even feel good after a long seclusion in the creative cabinet where I live.

Google I-Search Report and you’ll find a handful of instructions, most from an academic point of view. The basics, however, are to choose a topic that interests you, formulate questions, write down what you already know, research the topic, keeping a search narrative going as you do, and evaluate your findings and your ideas about it. All of this is very first-person, much less formal than what we all learned about research papers.

My topic came to me, as do many of my ideas, serendipitously. I went for my weekly library fix and found a book edited by Carolyn Forché and Duncan Wu, Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English 1500-2001. Reading through it I found that I wanted to know more. So I’ve ordered Czeslaw Milosz’s book, The Witness of Poetry. I set up a notebook to keep all this information in, a small one that will fit easily into my travel bag. And I went to Trident Booksellers in Boulder and bought two books of Milosz’s poetry. I’ll decide after I read his work where to look next. Given the scope of this topic, I plan to concentrate on contemporary poems. The big question for me is the relationship between political poetry and poetry of witness.  Another one is the variety of events that trigger such poems. I’ll let you know around the end of August what I’ve discovered.

Fast Pen, Sweet Story

A blank page and a fast pen, early morning, no goal but to let the ink flow. I think about the nudge I felt last evening when I bit into a piece of dark chocolate, my unique teeth marks clearly sculpted. And that observation connected to my long-standing love of mystery stories. What if I disappeared and left behind this forensic bite mark? Ah, WHAT IF? A writerly question, maybe the only one that matters. What if the police found that piece of half-eaten chocolate?

An APB goes out: Missing, a white woman, blue eyes, medium build, sandy hair, dark chocolate on her lips. Looks like she left in a hurry, didn’t finish her candy. It’s good stuff–Cadbury, an old company, started in Birmingham UK in 1831 on Crooked Lane. Note the dark overtone and the word crooked. Suspicious, no? Call Inspector Clouseau. If you find her in Mesa Verde or on the Dingle Peninsula, tell her that the folks at home miss her. They found more chocolate in the kitchen. It too was good and they thought about her as they bit into it.

Well, that was fun. Now what to do with it? Nothing! I am allowed not to set a goal for every word. That attitude is commercial and I’m not. A visual artist doodles for fun, a writer writes for fun. Go, have some fun.

Water People, Water Writing

Last weekend I wrote about fish hooks. This week I want to write about water. While I was in high school, I lived a short block from a cold, clear lake in Maine. I now live across the street from a small, shallow lake in Colorado. My son and his wife live across the road from the Saco River where it falls over the Bar Mills Damn and crashes onto the rocks below. This watery lullaby makes sleeping at their house peaceful. My sister lives a block from the Sabattus River in Lisbon, Maine.

We are water people. As a writer, I think about metaphor a lot and water in its many forms is a deep well of metaphor. (See that?) It seems to me that the many qualities we ascribe to water might also describe writing: cloudy or clear, fast moving or sluggish, still, salty or sweet, polluted, poisonous, contaminated by fear? Powerful as an ocean wave? Nasty as sewage? At times I want a riverlet of words, just deep enough to dabble my toes in. At other times I want a shower of words–warm and clean and easily controlled. An unstoppable flood of words is called logorrhea, symptomatic of a mental disorder. So I’d better stop. Drink up!

A Kinder Kind of Writing

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Yesterday at Lighthouse Writers’ Workshop I heard a lively debate on the writing technique called the hook, the concept that the story/poem/essay/memoir has to pull the reader into the text by “setting the hook” in the reader’s attention the way a fisherman sets the hook in a nibbling fish, a quick and forceful move. Isn’t this both manipulation and formula? Sounds painful and I wonder if there’s another way to lure the reader into the text. The jab/stab of the fishhook seems to me both unpleasant and emblematic of commercial fiction, like the blare of trumpets announcing the entrance of elephants under the big top. The expected spectacle. Editors and agents look for it. 

Let’s reframe this idea of the routine grab, that formulaic first sentence. How about an invitation for the reader to come in, like opening a door or gate, to step inside a created world, to join the party, walk through the fun house? Be welcomed and enticed, curious about the characters she meets. Willing to taste whatever info is on the table. Could not the aroma of good cooking tease a reader into the writer’s kitchen? Think of Tom Robbins’ wild and wonderful stories as a party. He holds the door open, “Come on in!” Smiles, let the fun begin. No barbed hook, no resistance, no mono-filament binding us to his words. We are happy to join his merry pranks.

The writer’s effort won’t change much. We still need the freshest words and the best tone, the energy of fluid text, but our attitude toward the reader could change. We could be helpful rather than adversarial.

Lists of lists

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Admit it–do you make lists and then ignore them? I do. Almost every morning as I do my morning pages, things pop into my head and I jot them down: travel plans, to-do things for the day/week/month, shopping lists, calls to make. I think there is an area in my cerebral cortex that specializes in listing. Writers live with lists that we don’t call lists, but they are: tables of contents, book outlines, marketing plans (my toughest list to maintain). A calendar is a list of days and events. Listing also means tilting if you’re on board a ship or boat. I tilt often, go right off course despite listing my duties and desires.

Here’s a thought. Use a list to write from. No, not that book outline. I’m referring to that scrap of paper in your pocket that says something like duct tape, eggs, tomatoes. It’s not just a list. It’s a skeleton. Can you write something that fleshes out that list? It might lead to a bit of fiction–a scene for a novel or short story. (I have a scene in which a man is making a grocery list and collapses under the weight of parenthood that keeps him shopping for the needs of his children and ignoring other things in his life that had once been important.) Such a little list could become part of a memoir or a family history. Why did your aunt always take her list to Coolbroth’s Market in Cornish, Maine, and did they carry every item on her list? What if that market ran out of her favorite brand of toothpaste? Would she go without or move on to a different store, maybe feeling a shadow of guilt for not shopping at her usual place?

Lists can nag us into getting things done. They can remind us of our failures when we ignore them. They can telegraph our interests to an observer.  Way back, we had proto-writing such as hieroglyphs, runes, quipu and oracle bones. Such early writing seems to have been lists of food stuffs, taxes, military records. Gradual development led to true writing and our lists could also grow into true writing, even if what we make from the list is grand, outrageous fiction.

Don’t crumple that shopping list or honey-do list. Use it.

Five Sensible Writers

Yesterday was the fifth and final day of my summer writing intensive at Front Range Community College in Westminster CO. I had five students, all grownups, all there because they are writers or plan to write. Four of them were recidivists, having taken other courses with me. This one was bittersweet because FRCC is discontinuing its continuing ed in all but the Fort Collins campus, two hours away. I savored every minute of each class. Each of the days we paid close attention to one of the five senses and talked about how to use this sensory awareness in writing. We read excerpts from fiction, poetry and nonfiction. Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses was a good resource and got plenty of mention. I discovered Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Seuskind, a tour de force for the sense of smell. We talked a bit about how each sense might affect a character in fiction or memoir. And we told stories.

One prompt–your earliest food memory/your worst meal ever–really got us going. We heard about tomato soup prepared by Grandma for a sick kid and another special dish of carrots from another grandmother for another sick kid. I talked a little about my Grammy Boyd’s mixing a raw egg into hot mashed potato for me because she thought I was too thin. (Must have worked; I’m not thin now.) We heard about being part of an ethnically German family and not liking sauerkraut, a drawn out sick reaction to macaroni and cheese (not something I would have thought possible, given how much my family loves mac’n’cheese, but it happened in California where anything’s possible). And there was the child who met her first wonderful plate of spaghetti and meatballs in the presence of the smell of perm solution and could not eat anything for some time, so offensive was that combination. We told each other stories about food in other countries, other cities, other decades. We talked about the soundscapes of our lives and played with the possibilities of sound for plot, scene and character development.

Mostly, we were a group of writers sharing techniques and experiences. I cannot think of a better way to spend my time. I’m sorry to lose the chance to do it again at Front Range, but I’m thinking, thinking, thinking about an independent writers’ workshop, small and comfortable. Probably starting in September, probably south of Boulder and north of Denver, which sort of means south of the moon and north of the equator.

Writer In a Vise

The argument between Amazon and the Big Five book publishers (Hashette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin and Simon&Schuster) is like watching parents fight. I just want to go outside and play and pretend that my world is not in turmoil. For those writers who have been in suspended animation for the past few weeks, you might want to catch up. You could start with Jeremy Greenfield’s article on this book publishing/selling nightmare at theatlantic.com for 5/28. If you are of great stamina, read the comments that follow. Mom and Dad are very angry with each other and the whole house may fall around us.

Amazon is apparently dragging its heels to ship titles from Hashette because Hashette wants a bigger cut of the profit. The other four Bigs are sitting by chewing their nails because their contracts with Capital A will inevitably come up for renewal and they too will have to negotiate with a company that now controls 50% of all US book sales.

Where do the author and the reader fit into this argument? Nowhere comfortable, it seems. Those of us who publish via Amazon’s Create Space do so for a variety of reasons: creative control, better return on our investment, greater visibility, impatience with the traditional publishers who are slow and who seem impossibly isolated from all but the gatekeeper agents and those authors with a guaranteed following. Yet, the word monopoly makes it hard to breathe. I won’t even play the board game.

I, too, want readers other than the ones in my personal address book. But I also want that creative control that independent publishing offers me. Then there’s the fact that I’m old and getting older. Waiting years for a manuscript to wend its way through that primeval forest of agents, editors and publishers seems sacrificial. For an emerging writer, there is little profit at either end of this cudgel.

While I don’t feel ready to choose a side in this battle of the titans, I plan to keep my ears open to a world gone mad over profit and market share. For me, at this moment, independent publishing makes good sense, but while the “adults” stew and storm, I plan to first write a good book and then figure out how best to offer the world access to that book at its completion.

Writing as Gumbo

mask My week in New Orleans was mostly good, even though I walked too much the first day and very little the second. I often ate too much and not from the healthy menu. Of course, in NOLA a fried oyster poor boy and beignets are not only healthy, but also compulsory. I rode the street cars, went to museums and heard live jazz, annoyed as I was that one of the performers asked for requests but knew no lyrics by Irma Thomas. Shameful and chauvinistic. She is the only female musician who has a statue in Music Park. I stayed through three beignets anyway. I saw way too many beggars and homeless people on the streets of the Quarter. I stepped around too many deep potholes in the old sidewalks and passed too many gift shops with the same feathery gewgaws. At times I was hungry for something other than fried and sugary sustenance.

Other than walking too much on the very hard and often hazardous sidewalks of the Big Easy, I spent many hours writing or worrying about not writing. How did my retreat/vacation become a burden? I don’t know. I came home yesterday with good intentions of continuing the work and writing faithfully to the end of the novel in progress. The TO-DO list includes typing up all the handwritten pages I lugged home. But today the fussy child in me says, no, don’t want to. So maybe I’ll take a little stay-cation from that project and finish some of the non-writing things on my list: reading grant applications for the cultural council, submitting poems for publication, sending off a new poem (about NOLA) to my critique group, hearing about the family’s stay at the cabin, reuniting with my dog.

Then again, knowing me, I’ll sneak in a few ideas for the novel as I write my daily journal, and that long, challenging project will haunt me until I sigh, pick up the pen and get back to work. Long fiction offers more problems and puzzles than does poetry or short fiction. Solving these problems draws me in. I can use some of what I saw in NOLA to enrich a story that takes place in Providence, RI. People are people everywhere, and what I saw on those broken sidewalks will stay with me and become, as does so much experience, part of the gumbo that is fiction. And it will be delicious.