Collaborative Writing & Ghosts in the Kitchen

Collaborative writing invites ghosts to my party, but these guests barge into the kitchen while I’m still pulling food from the oven. Who are these people? Oh, there’s the editorial board, the editor in chief, the audience waiting to see if the thing tastes as good as it smells. These unseen ghost guests elbow in and shove the writer aside, too many cooks in the kitchen, “more salt, less garlic! More facts, less fiction.”

The collaboration begins when someone chances on a call for submissions and says, “We could write it together.” Now the egos have take a step back and not snarl like a dog with a fresh soup bone, or a toddler who won’t share her cooky, “Mine!” Our self images as writers are also ghosts to be placated.

Like party planners, the writers (two in my case) put on their grown-up hats and get to work. My approach is intuitive, hers intentional. I free write till my notes bloom like sour dough. She revises our slimy outline. I gobble information; she digests it. We decide on deadlines and working process: shared Dropbox files, Word track changes, conference calls when distance precludes face-to-face work.

We begin putting words on the page, draft the proposal that will go to the editor. Enter again the ghosts: who, exactly, is our audience, other than the board that finally will accept–or not–the article? Who’s sniffing around to see if we’re cooking up something tasty, or at least edible? One of us dictates, the other one types: “Whoa, slow down.” “Fix that sentence, it’s boring.” We slice and dice, stir and knead the language into a first draft.

Time now to let the dough rest and rise. This draft is an important 200 words, a taste of what’s to come. We pledge not to poison anyone, to accept the outcome, and hope everyone else enjoys the party as much as we do.

DC: Wetlands or Landfill?

Washington DC is not a swamp. A swamp is a vital wetland, home to biodiversity. No, DC is a landfill of braggadocio, selfishness, lies and greed. An executive gag order has silenced the EPA, built a wall between citizens and information about the ground we walk on, the air we cannot help but breathe and the water we must drink or die. I am outraged.

My solace comes, when it comes at all, from the stories, poems and memoirs of writers who practice the literature of witness, whose work grows out of their experience. It may be poetry, fiction, or memoir, and while it may not be fact, it is not fake. Not propaganda or alternative truth.

I am thankful for the Rolodex of writers that flips through my brain at 3:00 am when I’m wide-eyed in the gloom and the faint glow of the digital clock: Nujood Ali, Brian Turner, Kurt Vonnegut, Sojourner Truth, Richard Wright and Paul Theroux, Sherman Alexie, Elie Wiesel, Anna Akhmatova, Anne Frank, Carolyn Forche, Marge Piercy, Terry Tempest Williams, Louise Erdritch, Vandana Shiva, Tim Hall, Ernesto Cardenal and Robinson Jeffers. These are only some of the brave, outspoken “unacknowledged legislators” of my world.

If I am what I read, then I am a citizen of a truer world than that of the solid sewage rolling down Capitol Hill. This witness work is, as Ezra Pound requested, “news that stays new,” heartening me when I want to hide under the bed with the cat for the next four years. But here I am, doing what writers do, speaking my truth as well as I can, declaring myself a member of the scribbler tribe and their cousins, sisters, brothers and forbears.

Citizen Writer

Given all the static this past weekend, public and personal, I chose not to post on Saturday as I usually do. But that doesn’t mean my brain hasn’t been churning. It has, and here’s the big idea, not new, but worth repeating: writers have a unique opportunity to engage in the public debate. We can apply the same four words that I preach to other writers: commit, discover, create, connect.

How to be heard in the uproar, to add our voices to the millions? The four words can clarify our beliefs and our ability to contribute to the health of our communities. We begin when we COMMIT ourselves to the causes that raise our hackles and our blood pressure. We DISCOVER our strengths and talents to change or to preserve what matters most. We CREATE a clear statement of our own beliefs, and we CONNECT through our writing with friends, colleagues, and the opposition. We listen, and we “keep calm and carry on.” This worked for England during the horrors of war; it will work for us.

Now that the marchers are safely home–and I thank all of them–we have an even greater responsibility to use our gifts wisely. We are better than name calling and outshouting the haters. We are better than ridicule and unfounded accusations. We are better than ignorance and mindless complicity. We are even better than pink hats. We are not lightning strikes. We pull the plow the whole length of the garden plot. We are parents who know that the job of raising a democracy is a life’s work. This I believe.

Writers Unite

Tomorrow, January 15, 2017, an important event happens at Lighthouse Writers, 1515 Race Street in Denver: Writers Resist: Words of the West. The headline on the flyer reads “On Martin Luther King Jr’s Birthday, Writers Across the World Will Gather to Speak, Read, and Re-Claim our Democratic Ideals.” The Lighthouse gathering is free and open to the public, 5:00 – 6:30 PM.

It’s a time and place to remind each other, readers and writers, about civic-minded literature, poetry of witness, eco-fiction, cli-fi (climate fiction), the power of letters, phone calls, tweets, blogs, and posts that “speak truth to power.”

It’s also time to say what we value, not to be cruel or defensive. Be clear, articulate, accurate and awake. Too much of our public discourse is loud and garbled. We need more listening, less lightning. We need citizen sages to add reason to unreasonable times.

and please, Read for Equality

Rowan Ricardo Phillips’ Heaven

Sherman Alexie’s First Indian On the Moon

Shane McCrae’s The Animal Too Big to Kill

Louise Erdrich’s Original Fire: Selected and New Poems

Beginners/Middlers/Enders

This week, emptying the box in which I had stashed a year’s worth of journals,  I found that all too many had blank pages at the back because I rushed to start a new one before I finished the old. I love a new journal, a new pen, a new car. (Though in truth I have kept a few cars for a decade, but that’s finance riding herd on my impulses.)

My writing plans sprout like radishes. I start stories, poems, essays, reading lists, but too soon, I fade. I’m a sprinter, not a marathoner. My tendency to quit before I’m done might have started in childhood. (Always fair game, eh?) From the age of six months I was moved from state to state, house to house, a chess pawn in adult hands, not much staying put. Then as a military wife, I fell under the spell of the DOD. As a nurse I was so employable that I changed jobs easily, never got the gold pin for longevity.

As a writer, this impulse to move on like Alice at the Mad Hatter’s tea party means that I draft a story, maybe revise it a time or two while it’s new and full of exciting potential, but then I’m apt to stuff it into a file and not finish it. I wrote my novel Providence in scenes, small chunks that I then had to wrestle into a more or less logical structure. That challenged me.

Poetry comes more easily, the bright-light beginnings seduce me and, given the brevity of my poems, I usually finish them. If one can ever call a poem finished. I admit that my revisions folder gets cobwebby and the resident house spider is no help. As I type, I realize that I’m in the middle of this little essay and I can’t see the exit sign. But you get the idea. Identify your patterns and adjust to taste.

What’s the Use of Poetry?

In W. H. Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” we find the line “For poetry makes nothing happen …” but we also find this: “Let the healing fountain start,/ In the prison of his days/ Teach the free man how to praise.” Assuming that the free man might be man or woman, we need right now a healing fountain. Today poetry will make this much happen: nine people will drive to Longmont, CO, from Denver, Broomfield, Erie, Lafayette, Louisville and Arvada in pursuit of healing; if not healing, at least thought about the uses of poetry. Like a flight of wine, we will taste a variety of what some call political poems, others label poems of witness or protest.

I doubt we will reach consensus over the value of these poems, but we will listen to the considered opinions of others. Over lunch at The Motherlode Cafe, we will talk about poems that react to war, violence, bigotry, and abuse of power. In these strange, divisive times we thirst for language to express our angst, our shared fears and hopes. Here are the poems we will wrestle with: “The Last Election” by John Haines; an excerpt from the prelude to Whitman’s Leaves of Grass; “The Colonel” by Carolyn Forche; “Some Advice to Those Who Will Serve Time in Prison” by Nazim Hikmet; “On the Steps of the Jefferson Memorial” by Linda Pasten; “The Second Coming” by W. B. Yeats; “Listening to Distant Guns” by Denise Levertov; “Why I Don’t Mention Flowers When Conversations with My Brother Reach Uncomfortable Silences” by Natalie Diaz; and “Explanations” by Stephen Dunn.

These poems are meant to disturb complacency, to cause reaction in troubling times, and there’s always trouble, so I see no end to the need for poems and poets who struggle to wake us up.


			

Seasonal Sadness

Whether we call it seasonal affective disorder or the winter blahs, we know that this dark time of the year can suggest never again being warm and free of gloom. So for millennia we have created festivals of light–candles, holiday decorations, elves in bright red suits, and a reindeer whose nose is a beacon in the fog. These lights help, but when they don’t do enough good, there’s writing.

But when our culture encourages us to shop, wrap, celebrate, over eat, drink too much–when the hell do we find time to write? To which I say, we never find time to write; we make time. And if we suffer the blahs, writing helps. The Jan-Feb 2017 Poets & Writers includes an essay by Frank Bures, “Writing the Self: Some Thoughts on Words and Woe.” It’s worth your time and dollars to find it and absorb his words. Basically, he cites studies that demonstrate the benefits of writing about our own sadness, frustration, disappointment.

These findings should not be news, but we live in a consumerist world that values book sales, best-seller lists, and honorifics that lead back to sales. We are urged to write for other reasons than to lift ourselves out of a murky turn of mind. Writing, though, can be the candle in the window, a path through deep snow. Each of us, the Scribbler Tribe, wander in an  imagined wilderness made from words, a world of beauty as well as beasts. When sharp criticism or lack of ambient light wound us, we can slap on bandaids, build splints made of language, and drag ourselves to the light that is our freedom to write what we need to say, to see two lines elongate into story, poem, essay, history. It’s black magic or white every time. It’s blood letting and vomitus and feces. It’s also a long exhalation and muscle stretch. It means we still live, active animals who write. Do it, daily. Happy Holidays.