Typically, my poet focus here is on poets I have known, face to face. Well, what was it Emerson said about consistency? “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds …” Who wants that? Not me. But today I’m thinking about W. S. Merwin. I’ve leaned on and learned from him the only way I could, by reading with great admiration his poems and essays. So, I took him along to a poetry open mic on Friday via a compilation of his work, Migration: New & Selected Poems. I read the last poem in the book, “To Impatience” and his “most famous poem,” (according to Dan Chiasson in The New Yorker, September 18, 2017), “For the Anniversary of My Death.”
Poets and poetry lovers meet in Longmont, Colorado, the last Friday of each month. This month, despite the promise of snow, two friends and I headed ten miles north to join the party. For one thing, the Longmont poets are a delight and the venue is gorgeous. The city of Longmont turned its abandoned firehouse into an arts center. Each month the displays change and the main room turns into a venue for poetry.
And thus the community of poets grows. As I read, those who knew Merwin’s work nodded and smiled. Those who didn’t know, scribbled his name on whatever was handy. So the work of the poet, the work of Copper Canyon Press, the Lannan Literary Fund, about twenty or so living, breathing human beings were united. No one paid us, no one charged us, there was no news flash about argument or deception. The evening was balm to a hurting world. I’d say a world less beautiful after Merwin’s departure, but he joins the vast, energizing cloud of those who keep me sane.
How little resistance I have for books. I walked into the library, slid two novels by Donna Leon into the return slot, a machine that reads the barcodes into another machine that tells the library that I’ve returned these two Guido Brunetti mysteries. What the digital system cannot do is record that I actually read the books. Nor if I liked reading them or not. For all the library knows, I might have used them as paperweights on my desk. Dear Reader, I read them and longed for more.
But I came to the library intending not to carry any books home this weekend. Because if I do, I’ll read them. And I already have poems to critique for Monday morning, a poetry reading to prepare for this coming week, and a hefty assignment for the workshop looming on Monday evening. Like any other addict, my intention means nothing.
Sitting in a quiet corner of the library, I have three books on the table beside my easy chair: James Wood’s How Fiction Works, Mary Robinson’s Climate Justice, and Elaine Pagels’ Why Religion? Gluttony is one of the seven cardinal sins, so I’m a sinner. Mea culpa; wanna make something of it? I also have a hold at another library for Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, recommended in Adrienne Rich’s Essential Essays: Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry, which is, partly read, on my coffee table. Despite the assignments for Monday, I’m going to start with Wood’s book. It’s the smallest one on the stack and if I don’t dawdle, I might finish it before lunch.
As I write this, I’m sitting in a quiet space with nine other writers in the meeting room of a large grocery store. We have a three-hour writing session once a month and each time we meet we share our immediate intentions and a short description of whatever project we are working on. This morning we are a diverse group ranging from fiction to fact, from memoir to a letter to a local editor about a national issue. The variety of projects and backgrounds shifts from month to month, but the most important thing here is that we all dare to call ourselves writers. Claiming the title has little if anything to do with publication, money, or publicity. I’m looking across the table at a man with his eyes on the ceiling and his hands over his mouth, classic signs of inspiration. Good for him.
Our newest writer left early. She had announced that she finally stopped cleaning her house and came to a place where her only goal and responsibility was to put words on paper. Good for her. She has taken the all-important step to declare publicly that she’s writing. I may have reported this before, but my greatest inspiration in taking that step was to have met and spent a day with Harlan Ellison, whose business card bore his name, phone number, and the words “I write.” A simple declaration, no frills, just the brazen truth. Claiming the right to write can be hard. The consumerist society demands that we sell what we write, and it measures our success by earnings, sales, fame. Truth is, few writers meet these criteria.
Being a writer means diving in without promise of worldly success. It means staring at the ceiling and leaving domestic distractions behind for a few hours. Messing with early drafts and focusing on punctuation and paragraphs, clever lies and startling images. It means that you love/hate the results, but just can’t stop the trickle or the deluge of language from head to fingertips.
How do I manage to waste so much of my time? I make lists of things to do, writing things, but seldom complete the checking off, often moving a task to the next list. Aargh! I was efficient in my professional paid work for over four decades. Now I fritter away an hour or more with crossword puzzles or tidying the clothes closet. Meanwhile the characters in my novel-in-progress grumble among themselves: “She’s ignoring us again. Maybe we should rebel, take over the plot, or escape with the next writer she meets in the coffee shop.” Sitting here with the blog before me, I know I should start the day working on the scenes I’ve scribbled all week and now must decide where to insert them in the storyline. You see, don’t you, that I know what to do, but I’m not doing it, am I?
The deep reason is fear. It’s all good to scribble on scrap paper and congratulate myself on another 800 words, but committing those words to print, ah, I lack courage. Who do I think I am writing poems and novels? So those lost moments contribute to my excuse of research.
Sometimes I go to the Union Station in Denver and watch people for hours, sketch their appearance on the scrap paper I keep in my work bag. Yesterday I went to the library and spent an hour or so studying a travel atlas for routes that my protagonist might drive, small towns that would suit the plot. And darn it, I thought I was doing something worthwhile, but those details are window dressing, not substance.
Maybe I was ignoring my left brain boss who says, Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard. Giving full control to my “big-picture” right brain where observation is approved. Then again, both brain hemispheres earn their keep. Slowly, slowly, the narrative takes shape. And then I worry all over again that the reader will toss the book aside and do crossword puzzles to pass the time.
As someone who takes on too much, I can go from zero to excess in a day. And some days this catches up with me and I freeze. What am I supposed to do next? I keep lists and index cards, journal entries about what I want to do, but sometimes (maybe once a week?) I just have to pick one thing and go for it. Like revisions on the first draft of my fourth novel.
In order to focus, I packed my work bag with just that draft, no other word work to use as an escape. I did not take my iPad, and my phone is too small for writing. I took a stack of messy pages, some blank scribble paper and sat down with four other writers who were intent on their own work. Group pressure, however subtle, helped. If they were working, I would work.
I got out my red pen and went for it, adding detail–what I call plugging the holes–correcting sloppy syntax, questioning the factual bits and making a list of what needed fact checking, like what route the character is traveling. It wouldn’t do to have her on I95, which runs from Maine to Florida, when she’s driving from Montana to Louisiana. And circling typos, which apparently slip in like cockroaches while I sleep.
By the end of the writing session I had thought of a visual tool that has already proven to be useful. The first draft I had printed out on blue paper. (Yes, I work best on paper.) This second draft I’ve started to print on yellow paper. It’s a vivid measure of how much I’ve progressed. Quirky, but we writers all have our quirks, thank goodness.
Writing workshops are useful. I like being in a room full of scribblers, hearing about the variety of projects underway, discussing questions that come up and inform us all how we might structure a piece of writing. But…the approach to writing is, at times, like a cookbook: add more detail to spice it up, tenderize the love scene, chop the plot to a fine mince.
Makes me want to run out of the room, go sit under a tree and write like a chattering squirrel. Of course, February in Colorado is not conducive to writing en plein air.
Recently, I heard that in long narrative we should aim for 25% telling and 75% showing. Ouch! I would not know how to determine those percentages. Once I’ve written a scene, I want to know if it holds my attention, doesn’t bore the reader, reveals some truth–big or small–about the characters, moves the plot along. I’m driven by characters and they just don’t behave according to prescription. That’s the joy of fiction and memoir. Surprise!
I’m sure that the recommendation about these percentages comes from a sincere attempt to help a writer who’s lost in the word forest. But I also wonder if this advice originates with a publisher who has parsed the genres and most often accepts the expected. They can tell the bookstore or the library exactly where to shelve the book in question, because it’s very much like other books in its genre.
If I ruled the publishing world, (not likely) I’d tell writers to write their story as best they can, let their imaginations run loose, and then have honest beta readers comment on the effect of the manuscript. No mathematics allowed.
I just posted a review on Goodreads: Stefan Mancuso’s The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior. Weighty title, but an argument for good book design and for a wonderful library that fronts new books. The cover literally drew me to this book, which is, as I said in the review, a lovely item with heavy, glossy paper, full cover photos, and a daring black cover with three bits of vegetation to draw the eye.
One of the things I do occasionally is help other writers, most often poets, to create their own books for self-publishing. The design of the book matters, although a fine cover cannot excuse a boring book, clumsy writing, or poor editing. But eye candy helps, especially if it reveals its connection to the content. Recently, I read a novel that claimed on its cover that the book was “hilariously funny.” It wasn’t. In fact it was serious and poignant. I was angry with the author for misleading me, until I thought about it. Likely, she had no control over the cover design. Someone in publicity slapped that misleading phrase on the cover.
Good, honest design can assure the reader that someone cares, be it a commercial publisher or an author determined to avoid the delays and complications of traditional book production and distribution. Gone are the days, I hope, of vanity publishers who provide no editing, slipshod design and extortionary expense to the author.
We are, thanks to the internet, able to make choices about offering our creative work to readers. I’m not partial to either option, selfpublishing or traditional. But I am in favor or a sell designed book that delivers what its cover promises.