I love lists, the satisfaction of the little check mark when I’ve finally finished a project or task. I make grocery lists, project lists, to-do lists, books to read lists. A list is finite in an infinite world. Without these little reassurances, I might run screaming into the street and throw myself in front of a truck. No, that’s not true. But I do feel anxious when I don’t know what to do next.
This list-mania comes from all the years I spent as a mental health nurse. Nurses cannot forget things. They multi-task almost constantly and details matter. I used reporters’ notebooks, those long, thin spiral pads that fit into my scrubs pocket. I dated every page and started a new page each shift. I never tore out a page because at times when I wanted to review what I’d done previously. Of course, patient names were abbreviated or coded. And the whole thing went into the shredder when I was finally done with that list of lists.
My tasks and projects as a writer are not life-saving or enhancing. Well, maybe the latter. I like to think that all the little steps in creating and publishing a poem or story add up to entertainment, education or inspiration. Of course, I’ll never know. A reader, unlike a hospital patient, gets no discharge summary, no return appointment, no swelling chart in the records department. I go blind into this work and trust the list-less world to benefit from my efforts. The finite becomes almost infinite and beyond my control. Write it and let it go. Cross it off the list.
Characters live long if they catch the devoted attention of readers. Characters act and react and please and disappoint. “Don’t open that cellar door!” But the character opens the door and out leaps. . . a lost child. Characters take risks, and writers take risks when they breathe truth and texture to a character. When they avoid the cliche, the stereotype.
I will long remember Ivoe Williams, the lead character in Jam on the Vine, a debut novel by LaShonda Katrice Barnett. I’ve written before about my need to understand black lives because I grew up mostly in small towns in Maine where black people were not so much invisible as fictitious. There was a rumor that a black family had once lived on Durgintown Road in Cornish, but I never saw a black face until, oh, I guess when I started nursing school in Providence, RI. I read only about white characters, like Alex in The Black Stallion. That was as black as my early reading got. Then I went to grad school in Georgia. Finally, black faces, but not in my subdivision. Division–oh, the truth in that word.
So here I am, wondering what to do to educate myself, to find and uproot my hidden biases. Ivoe helps. She is a young black woman with who starts her own newspaper and puts herself on the front lines of the race wars in America in the early part of the 20th century. She’s braver than I am. And I care about her because Barnett shows me the close up I need to care about Ivoe, her parents (her mother is Muslim), her siblings, and her lover, a woman named Ona. I’m often scared for Ivoe. There are doors I wish she would not open. But she does. One of those doors is in my head.
Barnett has taught history and literature at prestigious colleges, so her cred is real when she writes about riots, lynchings, arson and other evils that Ivoe confronts. I will read more books like Jam as part of my education in American culture. Confrontation is emotional; education is essential.
READ FOR EQUALITY
When I walk Duncan the Dog, he reads tree bark the way I read books. He’s not interested in the tree itself, only the messages left by his canine tribe. I don’t know what he learns from his sniffing, maybe something like “Oh, that old lab was here today and that little Pomeranian is pregnant. Wow!” His own signature is writ in urine.
Critiquing poetry is much the same, though we write in ink and sweat, not pee. We don’t judge the poet, only the work. We neither defend nor prosecute the “tree.” It’s what’s on the bark that matters.
Today the critique group to which I belong, Gamuts, will share a potluck lunch and review a poetry manuscript. It works this way: the poet du jour has assembled her manuscript to the best of her ability. She has included a title page, a table of contents and the full text of each poem on a separate page. She has numbered the pages. She will have handed out print copies of the manuscript weeks ago. The rest of us will have read the work at least twice and written comments on the pages.
First we talk about the collection as a whole: the themes, style, structure of the book. We pretend the writer is not at the table, sipping her wine and crunching her salad. She’s eating and she’s listening and taking notes. After discussing the larger elements, we work through the poems one at a time, looking for fresh, precise language, rhythm, structure within the poem. What I like someone else mourns. We look for leaners–poems too weak to stand alone outside this manuscript. We name the keepers and the cuts, the pets and the mutts. We remain civil and somewhat objective. Objectivity challenges us because we often know the backstory of a piece and may not be alert to what a stranger needs to get the news.
Most of all we don’t lift a leg to offend the poet because each of us at some point will be the tree.
For the past hour I have committed myself to solitaire instead of posting this blog. Why? Because my dog is sick, because the news of yet more shootings sickens me, because . . . because . . . because. Because the world is too much with me today, not getting and spending as Wordsworth said, but because there is no time out for peace. Life has historically been a violent enterprise. Plagues, war, abuse–a hellish place this world. But it’s the only one we’ve got. We will not colonize a new planet, although we seem bent on destroying this one.
How to shake this ennui, despair, meanness? Yes, I feel mean. I want politics to go jump off a cliff–oh, wait, that’s already happened. I want to regain my usual calm and get on with my day. The weather is mild right now. I have a poetry group on the agenda. The dog is not going to die today. And I am committed to my life as a writer, a truth teller, a scribe. Today the truth is that I’m scared. Scared for our country. The violence, racism and hate have percolated into my cells and I want to play turtle, draw back into mindless digital games until the despair blows over. But here’s the thing: my distress won’t pass unless I face it and commit to doing what I can to be a better citizen. I have to vote. I have to work at equality among the people I know and respect. I have to give the dog his medicine and pay the vet bills. I have to go take a shower and be glad for that simple opportunity. Commitment starts now, again, with gratitude for hot water on demand, for eggs in the frying pan, and for the safety of home.
This summer I spent a week in the company of Marge Piercy and twelve other talented and dedicated poets. At the end of our week Marge asked us to commit openly, in writing, to our writing, to keep it first on our to-do list. My promise to myself has two parts: get back to submitting work regularly and reduce outside commitments. This week I have done a lousy job of keeping that promise. Too many outside events have drawn me away from my desk.
And what have I done? Chastised and berated myself for my slothfulness and wailed like a three year old about what a failure I am as a writer. Well, wake up, child. This past week I’ve attended a day-long poetry festival, taken part in a public reading to celebrate National Translation Month, volunteered as writing coach at our local mental health service, taught two classes on creative writing, attended a talk on cliche at a local library and today I’m off to the first seasonal meeting of CIPA (Colorado Independent Publishers’ Assoc.) Oh, and spent a valuable hour yesterday with one of my writing partners. This, my dear self, is not sloth.
It’s distraction from the individual aspects of writing. So right here in front of everyone, I forgive myself for losing focus, dropping the reins, wallowing in remorse, all those things that would, if I let them, keep me mired in regret. I’ve just put three little stickies on the edge of my monitor to remind me that here, at the desk is my next destination.
Read for Equality
One of my favorite aspects of writing is reading. I have often said that I don’t remember not being able to read. Books are, of course, my ongoing education, my best friends, my toughest critics. I’ve written here about my intention to broaden my scope to include more books written by people of color and that’s still high on my list. But I confess that this week has been a frenzy of reading that marginally touches marginalized writers.
Here’s what I’ve read this week: Daniel Martin, a novel by John Fowles (this a repeat for me and more delicious now than when I first read it years ago), Pushcart XL: Best of the Small Presses (marvelous selections that include writers of all shades and persuasions), Alice Mattison’s The Kite and the String: How to Write with Spontaneity and Control–and Live to Tell the Tale (wise advice writing the long narrative) and George Seferis’s Collected Poems: Revised Edition.
It helped, sort of, that I’ve had a head cold and was not fit company the past few days for other living persons. Even my dog is tired of hearing me blow my nose. But the books don’t care; they don’t judge my wastebasket full of dirty tissues or my meandering appetite that has called repeatedly for chicken soup and non-dairy ice cream. As a writer I’ve uncovered a treasure trove of examples and instructions. As a reader I’ve been entertained, challenged, delighted and at times frustrated that I don’t write like any of these powerful wordsmiths. But I might learn to do just that if I keep reading.
Remember to Read for Equality.
This week I read Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel, Ceremony. The book gives us a deeper understanding of Native American culture and the racism within and around the reservation. The protagonist, a young man of mixed blood (Mexican & Laguna), and his cousin both serve in WWII and are on the Bataan Death March. The cousin, Rocky, dies on the march, but Tayo returns to the U.S. with severe PTSD. His “friends” on the reservation repeatedly draw him into shiftless, violent alcoholism and belittle him for his parentage, although he has been raised in the Native culture.
This is a rich, heroic story, and I regret not having read it years ago. (It was first published in 1977.) But the cover blurbs unbalance me. Those on the back are generous and they endorse her talent. You might just make out N. Scott Momaday’s words: “. . . her talent is real and remarkable.” The Washington Post Book World calls the novel “exceptional.” Consider though the wording on the front: “Without question Leslie Silko is the most accomplished Native American writer of her generation . . .” The New York Times Book Review. Not a bad comment, but I want help understanding the labeling of her talent as that of a Native American. Silko is an outstanding writer no matter what her background. It’s as if she’s been boxed, separated from other successful novelists. I hope the reviewer meant it as a compliment, but the limitation bothers me. Is this a subtle form of racism?