Perfectly Imperfect Poetry

This will be quick today because I’m about to leave for Loveland CO where poet Marj Hahne will lead a workshop on Poetry of Place. So it’s a poetry kind of day for me.

I’ve been reading a little book, not yet available, by Brian Lerner, The Hatred of Poetry. The main points are that too few people get poetry (and whose fault is that? ) and that the poems we write will never live up to the poems we dream of writing.

Lerner’s second point seems not far off from other idealisms we carry–marriage, careers, children, vacations, our living quarters. But we don’t stop living in imperfect houses, raising our snarky kids, standing by our sometimes maddening spouses. The same rules apply with writing poems: go into it knowing you’ll fall short of perfection and do it anyway. It’s better to write poems than rob banks or eat unidentifiable expensive gourmet food. It’s better to write poems than to write ransom notes or political rants. You could, some day, come close to saying what you believe, what might entertain or enlighten a reader or two or even two hundred. Beyond that, you’re clearing your throat in the hope of singing one pure note in a vast repertoire of sound. Happy Saturday, I’m off.

Beethoven, Yo Yo Ma & Me

PW bookYears ago I first encountered Proprioceptive Writing, a process with a daunting label that attracted me because it seems to have originated in Maine and I lived there, still visit often and was curious to know what other writers in my then-home state were up to. For reasons that I have forgotten, I tried it and set it aside.

About a week ago, it rose to mind and I decided to visit it again. As some of you know, I’m a strong advocate of daily journaling. I do Morning Pages, a la Julia Cameron, and I keep a notebook with me at all times, a la Natalie Goldberg. Now I’ve added half an hour each morning for PW. My first attempts were frustrating. I felt fenced in. The process calls for Baroque Music, a lighted candle, no interruptions, not even to sip coffee, and a deep listening to the thoughts that fly through my head at the speed of sparrows before the cat catches them.

Thanks to Apple Music, I found exactly the recommended Beethoven cello concerti by Yo Yo Ma. I bought a candle that will last a long time if I dedicate its flame to that half hour. I found a stash of unlined white paper and a folder, a little stapler. Okay, no problem with the tools. But the process? I resisted and persisted. And this morning, on my fourth Write, I broke through that resistance. I think I’m hooked. Traditional mediation has not worked for me, although I am drawn to whatever reveals the inner workings of my mind and personality.

If you are curious, I suggest you get the book (see above) and jump in. I started the process as soon as I understood the Three Rules and Four Questions and that seems to be a good plan. I’m aware of the values that Linda Metcalf and Tobin Simon espouse as I go along. My copy of the book is underlined, marked and close by. It’s my instructor and my solace when I’m stymied by writing not meant to be shared. The relief I now feel with this process may well be a reaction to having just formatted the ms of a novel about to go out to beta readers, to be critiqued, chewed up, spit out, panned and praised. The PW Writes are all mine and will remain so.


How Do You Say . . .

The English language has a vast vocabulary, more than anyone–well, me–can fully comprehend. Do we need a dozen words to describe shoes? Yes, if we have a dozen pairs–heels, loafers, sneakers, stilettos, slippers, boots, etc. This variety lets us be specific. I know that I have to wear shoes today to visit the museum, but I won’t wear slippers, boots, or stilettos. (The last because I don’t own any.) The weather is not right for sandals, flip-flops, or ski boots. I’ll wear my tie shoes that are not quite sneakers, not exactly anything but comfortable. I don’t need at the moment to be more precise.

As a writer, though, I value precision. And then there’s the matter of how a character speaks. Word choice defines his/her attitude, ethnicity, economic class, age, gender, all revealed by diction.

Play this game with one of your characters, a fictional person or a family figure in your memoir: the scene is a restaurant (diner, pizza parlor, white linen?) and the character is female. She excuses herself to use the ladies’ room, powder room, toilet, bathroom, restroom, or potty. Maybe she goes to the little girls’ room or the loo. And there’s a range of less polite names for this interruption in her dinner/supper/lunch/luncheon/bite to eat.

If good writing is about the exact word in exactly the right place, we have to pay attention to these choices. You’ll occasionally use that big red book of synonyms. And your character will remain in character, unless she’s trying to impress a date with her gritty language or her delicate sensibilities.

Music to Write By

Last week I mentioned that because of my tinnitus I keep instrumental music playing while I do my morning pages and often while I’m working on a writing project. I formed this habit partly as a defense against noise and partly because I had experimented with a technique called Proprioceptive Writing, a method meant to deepen the act of personal writing using music, candles, and an exploration of what was not said. I liked it, but as with so many things I like, I let it go in favor of an individualized method. Yet the music plays on.

This week I have turned away from the classical radio station I loved for a long time because we just weren’t happy together. They wanted more money and I wanted less talking. So I now depend on two sources of music: my iPhone and a short stack of CDs and a used CD player. The phone is easy, always there and, thanks to Apple Music, offers a huge selection of free music. The CDs are slowly becoming less useful, but I do pull them out when I crave some of my old favorites.

Here’s a partial list of writing music that works for me: Gregorian chant (especially Hildegard Von Bingen’s music), The Best of Yo Yo Ma, Sphere Ensemble’s Divergence, Kitaro, The Sounds of Acadia (music and nature sounds from Acadia National Park where I used to ride my horse), Keith Jarrett (classical), Kalin Yong, Brother Hawk.

Music is miraculous to me. I cannot carry a tune or play an instrument and had I lived in a time or place where the music was what you could make, I’d have been lonely.

Fowler Is in the House

If you don’t know Fowler, let me introduce you: Henry Watson Fowler published Dictionary of Modern English Usage in 1926, a reference book that I was advised to purchase in grad school. In one of my purge-and-move adventures, I lost my copy and recently decided it was long overdue to return to my personal library. The third edition has been revised by R. W. Burchfield, billed on the cover as “The acknowledged authority on English usage.” Well, shoot, what makes him so special? Eight hundred and sixty four alphabetized pages of advice on how to spell, use, and appreciate a tasty chunk of our English lexicon. Oops, wrong word there; a lexicon is “a unidirectional bilingual dictionary of an ancient language.” See how helpful Fowler is? Don’t you like sounding smart? I do.

I plan to keep Fowler’s, as it’s fans call it, on my desk so that I won’t embarrass myself and confuse my readers. Fowler’s is not, though, the only reference book in my office. I also keep copies of the following:

  • The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition
  • The Synonym Finder by J. I. Rodale
  • Bill Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors
  • The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language
  • The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know
  • Oh, yes, and William Harmon & C. Hugh Holman’s A Handbook to Literature

Warning, warning, danger, danger–these tomes are not suitable for reading in bed. If you dose off and drop any one of them on your face, you’ll regret it. But let’s agree that none of us knows half enough about our blessed English, the largest language in the world and the most used, having over 350 million native speakers. Before you invest in these books, explore them in your library to decide which ones you want, as new copies are expensive. If, like me, you operate on a slim budget, shop the used books in thrift stores, order used copies from Amazon, ABE or Powell’s. You’ll rejoice when the power goes out and you cannot Google the word you want. I love books.

The Writing Body Eclectic

Henry James dictated. Hemingway wrote standing up. Tom Wolfe writes his prodigious novels longhand on yellow legal pads. Bodies in motion, eclectic because various. Let’s think about the need to respect the needs of the body that writes. We think, our minds make up stories, poems, ideas worth sharing, but unless we have the physical means to get the words out of our heads onto the page, they are mostly lost. I write in spiral notebooks on my lap, using what Natalie Goldberg calls a fast pen, one that flows smoothly and is easy to grip. At the computer I use a kneeler chair that keeps me upright and my arms bent at that nice 90 degree angle.

Recently though, my writing–which feeds on reading–gave me a pain in the neck. I was spending too much time looking down. So my fine doctor prescribed more frequent breaks that involve getting up and moving around, wall push ups, and gentle neck stretches. I added good posture, even when I’m sitting in my favorite chair or in the car. I’ve adjusted the rearview mirror so that I have to sit up straight to use it effectively. My neck is 90% better, and my trapezius muscles no longer feel like wood. Wood is good but not in my neck and shoulders.

If you have access to ergonomic advice, take it. Also consider what you carry. I use notebooks that fit in the outside pocket of my purse, so I don’t need my heavy attache case every time I leave the house. I can write anywhere without carrying cords and chargers. My eclectic body has tinnitus, so while I write I often listen to instrumental music to mask the buzz. My son-in-law–thank you, Scott–has included me in his Apple Music plan, so my smart phone and earbuds make music wherever I go.

My prescription for a healthy writing body? Ergonomics, easy portability, freedom of movement, good hydration, comfortable clothes and shoes. We can write only if our bones, eyes and muscles go along with the plan. Stand up straight, move often, be smart about your writing body.

How Do I Revise?

I’m not sure anymore what revise means, but what I am doing with the novel ms is rewriting. Yes, I am retyping every chapter, sentence by sentence, sometimes word by word. In this time of cut/copy/paste, people often look at me as if I were hopelessly stupid. But this is actually my third pass at  the ms. My first drafts are handwritten, then typed and printed, then retyped and printed. Close attention at every stage lets me see changes that make for a better book. Typing a sentence gives me a chance to be sure I’ve not left those cursed dangling/misplaced modifiers, used exactly the right word to convey the image that brings the story to life, and gives readers the clues they need to stay inside the story. A novel is a world in which a reader resides, if the writer quiets the outer world of distractions, gives no excuse to leave the scene of the crime or the next big thing that develops character and storyline. Once we are buckled into the rollercoaster and the ride starts, no one gets off if I’ve done my work well.

As I write this, I’m about 15% done with the rewrite. Chapters are not yet numbered because I’m holding my options open as to what follows what. (Each tentative chapter has a slug line/title that cues me as to its content.) I have three main characters and I want the reader engaged with each one for a significant amount of time. If the POV changes too quickly, it’s like a series of little climbs and drops on that rollercoaster. I prefer a pretty long ascent before we drop and start to climb again. As I see it, when I rework the ms for the fourth time, I’ll decide on the structure and then send it off to those sainted beta readers before it ever gets to the professional editor. I want to present the best ms I can so that any advice I get is meaningful. It’s work, yes, but it’s satisfying work. My process does not work for everyone, but after years of writing and teaching, I can say it’s a viable way to approach creative writing.