To become a writer is again to pick up the pen, open the laptop, open the mind. That’s the difference between writing and propaganda. Daily choices are the molecules of a calling, a career, a self.
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.
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.
Read and reread, that’s what I did in school when I studied. My anatomy book was dog-eared by the end of the course. It felt like punishment, but rereading got me through all the sciences that I needed to learn as a nurse. Now I read mostly for pleasure, with a good dose of research mixed into my book buying and borrowing. And I reread for the joy of it. The discovery of something I missed in a previous meeting of the minds. For example, I’ve read The Magus by John Fowles at least eight times. It’s a pivotal book for me both as a reader and as a writer. I wrote a thesis based on it and his other mammoth novel, Daniel Martin. Every encounter shows me something I have not seen before. Of course, these are big books, so there’s plenty to see.
I often hear poets apologize at an open mic for having read a particular piece before. Well, shoot, we listen again and again to music that we love. Why would we not take the same delight in hearing again a good poem? It might be fallout from our commercial, consumerist lives where we want a new phone, new car, new spouse. Used is a pejorative that ought not apply in the arts. I’ve heard Orff’s Carmina Burana lots of times and just paid dearly for a ticket to hear it again. It’s in no way “used music.”
Then there’s the discovery I mentioned. I’ve probably read Theodore Roethke’s poem “My Papa’s Waltz” at least a dozen times and found fresh nuances that delight. First, I read it for its irony, a boy delighted to dance with his drunken father, and then for its structure, which is a tidy set of four quatrains, again noticing its unobtrusive rhyme scheme, its compression–a whole family dynamic in sixteen short lines. And finally like a little flame in my dark skull: Oh, it’s about a waltz and it’s in three-four time, three accented beats in each of four lines per stanza! Well, that was fun.
TS Eliot says at the end of “Little Gidding” that “We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” Exactly.
One of the many writing groups I attend is a bunch of free-writing fools, as we often call ourselves, though I don’t know that we have ever formally accepted that label. A lot of what we do is happy or not-so happy foolishness, freedom to let the words splatter onto the page and know that the others in the room will accept them unconditionally. Play therapy? Maybe, but once in a while a tiny miracle occurs and we accept that too unconditionally. We meet in Kit Hedman’s art studio a couple of times a month, sometimes we are four, sometimes we are eight in number, although those figures might also refer to our mental ages.
At a session about a month ago, we used some of Kit’s art work as a prompt. He has a framed series of ink blots that lend themselves to interpretation. Whether or not he had intended that, he accepts the urge of writers to recognize the definable out of the ethereal. One in particular impressed me and became in eight minutes the prose poem posted below. Kit asked for a copy and specified that I not revise, but leave it as it emerged full-bodied on the page. So, a little gift. Happy Saturday.
The giant walks and walks. His feet and legs are muddy and with each step he flings his arms and clots of dirt fly and those clots become planets and he admires them, so he walks faster and laughs to see the worlds that fling themselves through space. The giant wishes he could tell someone about this creation but he’s the only one in sight and tears mix in with the young planets that fly off his fingertips. He’s crying and laughing and walking across fields of white space, making his mark. When the planets and moons scatter, he stands still, watching them spread and sees it all and feels that these things need names, so he makes sounds that become language and he tells himself that some day soon he will find another being to talk to, but for now his galaxy will have to do.
“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?
The world would split open.”
This quote from Muriel Rukeyser is fitting for Woman’s History Month, and some of us take it as permission to tell the truth about our own lives. Recently I joined a memoir group with the sole intention of gaining insight about who I am. What I write in this group will likely remain unpublished, an exercise that I’m eager to try all the same. Any writing can be good writing, whether useful to others or not. I want to understand my life in the context of the immigrants who spawned me. This family history has led me into the second growth of genealogy and into ramblings on paper about my lack of deep roots. I have little sense of belonging to a place, although New England comes close. So, my working title for the memoir is Woman on the Move. Writers I admire often have a deep sense of place. Mine is superficial.
It should not have surprised anyone that I married into the military with its assumptions about moving where and when the orders told us to go. But my own restlessness extended beyond that marriage. Colorado is a state of many migrants, immigrants, and transplants. I am an invasive weed that takes shallow root where it lands. I’ve mostly seen my restlessness as a deficit. I lack loyalty and stability. Maybe I can, through the memoir process, begin to see my travels and uprootings as positive.
Every week I shop the new-book shelf at the library, almost always finding half a dozen books that interest me. Occasionally, I make myself branch out from my preferred mystery-as-escape selections. I start at the biography section and I check to see if there is new poetry. This week I found a biography of Sylvia Plath, American Isis, which a friend had recommended, so that went into the bag, along with a memoir by Jacob Tomsky, Heads in Beds, his insider account of the luxury hotel business. Add a memoir by a Kenyan writer, a book about water shortage and misuse, a Sidney Sheldon novel that proved to be too gory for my taste, and a delicious history of cooking utensils by Bee Wilson, Consider the Fork. Just for to avoid an ugly withdrawal, a mystery, Marjorie Eccles’ After Clare.
My random selections most often run about 60/40 worth reading to DNF (did not finish). I like the surprise of discovering a new read. But, ah–you knew there was a but, eh–after reading about Plath’s very purposeful reading habits, I feet a little guilty. Sure, she went to Smith and I didn’t. She did her graduate work at Cambridge and I didn’t. (Of course, she also committed suicide and I . . . well, obviously.) I have known about the books mentioned in that bio, and I now regret my promiscuous reading habits. Then I skimmed materials I’m gathering for teaching a fall semester course on the techniques of contemporary poetry. There, like a jury of my peers, I faced the accusation of having been dissolute in my reading. It’s a long list of poets to master. If I start at the beginning with Caedmon (c. 1000) and read through the English language poets I’ll be brain dead before I finish. Then there are those to read in translation, Akhmatova to Tsvetaeva. Too much, too much, I have to go lie down. With a good book. Or ten.