Reader’s Guilt

More than ever now that I am staying home, reading is my refuge, but I admit to not finishing every book I start. I feel guilty about that. Maybe it’s superstition–if I quit a book before the end, somehow the author will know and be angry or disheartened. Or, I might miss an extremely powerful passage lurking in the last few pages, a bit of wisdom that could change my life.

This guilt is leftover from grad school where professors beat into me the need to read every word or lose my good grade; a flighty, lazy,  overwhelmed candidate I would fail the course. To graduate I was to hike to the top of a mountain of words in order to see the whole landscape. Then I was determined to comply, so much so that I read Moby Dick twice, once for a Survey of the American Novel and again for a Survey of American Lit.

Now I am my own wacky professor assigning books. In the past two weeks I have read all or some of Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale, Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born, and The Laurel Edition of Longfellow. This last made the list because of a Dana Gioia essay in Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture. Wait, there’s more, Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns:The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. Like a goat, I nibble whatever tastes good at the moment.

I gorge on the work of great writers. But what would happen if all these authors could crowd into my living room? I see myself like Martha in the Bible scurrying to get them snacks and drinks, and dodging the ugly truth that I did not finish every book. Imagine those brilliant people with wounded egos. Just as well that some of them are dead and not likely to knock on my door. As it is I have just enough room for the books, let alone the authors and the guilt which takes up far too much space in my head.

Getting or Giving

My graduating class from an MFA program was advised to apply for major grants until we got one. It’s a fact that academic success and public acclaim are thought to be the marks of a successful writer. I have, for years, looked longingly at well-known publications and wanted to see my work there. And it has happened. I’ve published poetry, fiction, and essays. I keep a list of potential submissions. But I’m not sure that publication as I’ve defined it matters.

An influential book in my reading history is The Gift by Lewis Hyde. And it has occurred to me that  my efforts to publish defy The Gift‘s ideal. I’ve had it backwards. The product of a consumerist economy, I too often measure success by prestige and sales. Money motivates. More interesting to me now is the need to scatter good words like grass seed.

Competing to publish in big venues satisfies my ego, but where else might a poem, story, novel, or essay distract, instruct, or comfort a reader in a difficult world? (And has it ever not been difficult?) I’m rethinking the issue of publication vs sharing. Who is best served if I parcel out poems to a select few? And what does it mean that I’ve taken so long to examine that advice I heard years ago? Would I turn down publication in a venue with thousands of readers? No, but I will try harder to make my work available to whoever wants or needs it. Fame be damned.

 

Synchronicity Reigns

I often make notes and mark passages in books, mostly little erasable dots, as I read. Then I flip through the book and decide if the dotted bits deserve to move onto my prompt list or into my journal for further attention. Just now I am close to finishing Bill Nye’s Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation (2015). Nye, of course, makes science palatable, convincing, entertaining. And this week, he’s served me a big gulp of awe.

Because I own this book, instead of erasable dots, I’ve written  marginal notes, most of which function as an index: “Oh, yeah, here’s that quote about the Cambrian Explosion.” And on page 290 I marked the date April 17, 2020 : “Viruses seem to have come into existence [as] self-replicating, stasis-maintaining organisms. …Viruses are a significant part of our world.” Indeed. Eerie to come across this now, in April 2020, what poet T. S. Eliot had years ago named “the cruelest month.” This year more cruel than usual.

Not that Eliot knew about Covid-19 or the evolution of viruses, but this is National Poetry Month and the overlaps between my random reading, my mental file of poetry, and the danger of viral infection strike me as marvelous–as in I marvel at the connections. Scary, but marvelous all the same. Now excuse me, I have eleven pages left in Undeniable. Stay home, stay safe, wear a mask, please.

Random Thoughts While Waiting

What I’m reading while I’m staying home:

The Moth, art and literature, Issue 40, Spring 2020

The Science of Storytelling, Will Storr

Let Your Crazy Child Write, Clive Matson–not about homeschooling, subtitle is “Finding and Freeing Your Creative Voice.”

Zoom Manual for Participants.pdf

Contributions by writing friends in what Wikipedia describes as “Exquisite corpse, also known as exquisite cadaver (from the original French term cadavre exquis), is a method by which a collection of words or images is collectively assembled.”

Cover to cover of the latest New Yorker.

By the end of the day, when my eyes are tired, I watch several episodes of a British documentary series, Time Team, all about archeology. By now the cast feels like family, and since I cannot visit with my family other than those with whom I live, it’s a good thing to see familiar faces. (Familiar deriving from family.)

However long our sequestering lasts, I’m sure I have enough to entertain and distract me. But right now, the sun is shining, I live in suburbia, so we have wide sidewalks, and spring temps, so for a while I will put away words and see what the birds and the neighbors are up to.

Oh, yes, I’m writing.

Book Returns

Despite the title here, this post has nothing to do with a library. My good friend Anita Halvorssen is moving after many years in her house. Over quite a few of those years, she and I have shared our writing adventures and tips on how to get it done. We meet for coffee most Friday mornings, and recently she arrived with a book I had lent her who-knows how long ago, How to Write; Advice and Reflections by Richard Rhodes.

I’m impressed that she could single it out, but there are my initials on the small-title page. I had forgotten it, yet there are my familiar under linings. Of course, I started browsing to see what I had marked years ago, and now  I am once again a Rhodes scholar. This book still matters. So do my notes. I’m on page 155, headed to completion, again. Understand, this book was published in 1995, so it’s a little dated. The  writing-tools section is, but the deeper aspects still resonate. The art and act of writing remains.

It’s likely that Dante and Ovid and others from the past had challenges not unlike our own. I hope they had good friends who return borrowed books, and writing advice that never feels stale. Like these from Rhodes: “Imagination is compassionate” (p.4). Or, “…time and chance happen to us all” (p. 69). And this, “Words are the model, words are the tools, words are the boards, words are the nails (p. 166).

Being part of a writing community helps–whether it’s two or twenty or two hundred, whether it’s shared books, shared tips, shared smiles and tears. Thanks, Anita. Thanks Richard Rhodes.

#Accidental Child #Providence #Invisible Juan

In Praise of Index Cards

By now you know that I read a lot. But you probably don’t know how I struggle to retain some sense of what I’ve read. Sometimes I comment in my daily journal, sometimes add pages to a notebook dedicated to writing advice, sometimes I make a quasi library card and add it to my index file by topic. None of these are perfect.

A few weeks ago I started a reader’s diary, full of good intention and common questions: Did I finish it? Would I read another book by the same author? Would I recommend it to someone? Well, you know the cliche about hell and good intentions. Definitely not a path I recommend.

The first graduate course I had, decades ago, was library research, and I should have invested in an office supply store, I used so many index cards. Now I’ve reverted to 3×5 cards, but with a twist. Not only do I cite the author, title, year of publication, but now I add a comment about the plot line, the characters, the style or the pacing, whatever seems useful to have handy in the future.

As I gleaned from the failed diary, a few of the books noted there were damned with DNF–Did Not Finish. That’s good information for me to keep. And now I can briefly say what makes me slam the book shut, stuff it into the library return bag early or return it to Libby (a free digital library app accessed through my library card).

Index cards are cheap, non-threatening, and easily sorted. Those who are addicted to electronic screens can create the same sort of catalogue, but I take comfort in the physical presence of paper. I need not sweat a power outage or a cranky hard drive.

This record keeping will not change my life, but I like to know that if I want to recall a particular book, all I need is a card from the box. Sometimes simplicity is best. I recall seeing a photo of a successful novelist’s office with a dozen or more boxes filled with index cards. Beautiful, a thing to aspire to. And when I die, easy for my family to dump into the recycle bin.

Lost in Bookland

It’s been a long time since I spent time here. So where have I been? Oh, mostly in my chair, chocolate nearby, and a book in my hands. Just what I need with the onset of winter–technically a ways off, but last week we had a doozy on the Front Range of Colorado–cold, snowy, good reading weather. Here’s what I have to confess:

Joy Harjo’s How We Became Human, and her Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, both poetry. Ms. Harjo is our current Poet Laureate of the United States, and our first Native American appointee. If you have one of those magical speakers, try telling it to play Joy Hargo. I did and got two hours of her poetry and music. She’s an accomplished musician, plays the saxophone.

The Western Woman’s Reader, edited by Lillian Schlissel and Catherine Lavender. This one I stumbled on at a thrift store and it’s a valuable find. The blurb: “Explore 300 years of the American West with the women who have shaped its history.”

Richard Blanco’s poems, City of a Hundred Fires. Even if you don’t lean toward poetry (although you should), these will convert you. Who knew a civil engineer could write poetry? Well, this one can.

Paul Theroux’s On the Plain of Snakes, a tour guide to Mexico that makes me squirm, given our fraught relationship with our neighbors. This book is on my tablet, thanks to an app called Libby, which allows me to borrow digital/audio books with my library card. A marvelous thing while I was traveling and great for snow days when I’m snuggled in at home.

Now, excuse me, but I’ve just started Cynthia Ozick’s Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, & Other Literary Essays, and I really must get back to it.

#EcoInfo

Creative Reading

I’m deep into Azar Nafisi’s The Republic of Imagination, in which she mentions “Creative Reading.” Google explains: “CREATIVE READING IS DEFINED AS READING FOR IMPLIED AND INFERRED MEANINGS, APPRECIATIVE REACTIONS, AND CRITICAL EVALUATION. THE ACT OF CRITICAL READING GOES BEYOND LITERAL COMPREHENSION TO DEMAND THAT THE READER PRODUCE FRESH, ORIGINAL IDEAS NOT EXPLICITLY STATED IN THE READING MATERIAL.” https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED020090

The concept challenges me to forego my habit of reading like a writer–attending to craft, structure, bits and bobs of language. If I shift my focus, squint a little, I think I could start by admitting that I have expectations when I open a book: I’ll be entertained, I’ll learn something, I’ll be awed by the writing, I’ll be distracted from the ugly national/international/climate news.

And I have different expectations that spring from the general category of the material. For instance, opening poet Ada Limon’s The Carrying, I looked forward to insights into another woman’s private world that I could not access otherwise. Limon does not disappoint. No lack of “appreciative reactions” there.

Reading Nafisi, though, I am deluged with ideas. Not unusual in reading nonfiction. Of course, I’ve yet to “produce fresh, original ideas not explicitly stated in the reading material.” There’s already so much in Nafisi’s prose that I haven’t yet found space for my own ideas. But what she gives me is valuable, and I am challenged to go beyond “literal comprehension.”

Nafisi has dared me to set aside my familiar ways of reading and to widen my view. I’ve been reading since I was four years old. About time for a new approach, eh?

#CreativeReading #AdaLimon #AzarNafisi

Talk, Talk, Talk

Lately, it seems I talk a lot. Possibly, more than is helpful. On Sunday I talked to a group of people about poetry. They were all adults (Kids and poetry startle me, like giving them too much sugar, so they get squirrely). We talked about the essential concerns I see in writing poems. Like getting caught up in technique and missing the creativity. Thinking that there is one kind of poetry, a basket word if I ever heard one. Generic, like music or food or weather. Better to speak of specifics. Poetry might mean sonnets or it might mean rap, slam, language poetry, prose poems or haiku.  It includes the many years old Gilgamesh, Illiad, Odyssey, as well as the latest thing on Instagram.

This coming weekend, I’m engaged to talk to poets about self-publishing. I’ve got my list of salient points and a tote bag full of books, from my first independently published chapbooks to the latest volumes I’ve created for friends. I’ve got my list of does and don’ts. And several handouts from online outfits that will do the work for you, for a price.

In the meantime, I’m reading Robert Darnton’s Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature. And so far, I’m gobsmacked to realize that I live in a time and place that allows me to publish my own books and to help others do the same. The book police won’t  throw me into the Bastille. (Yes, that happened in France in the eighteenth century.) Self publishing is not a lucrative endeavor, although it seems to have been in Paris where illegal books slipped past the censors and the tax men. Darnton knows a lot about clandestine printing, selling, and suffering for books.

Yes, I too suffer for books, but in my own private way–what to put in, what to leave out, how to say something that might last the night.

#SelfPublishing #Censorship

Read As If Your Life Depended On It

In 1996 Carl Sagan in The Demon-Haunted World listed climate issues as one of the concerns facing the world. Two-plus decades later we have begun see in the news a heightened awareness of the danger of ignoring this most vital issue. Despite the deniers, more and more often, clear evidence rattles me and I must pay attention to the damage we have caused through ignorance, greed, despair. I started producing poetry and fiction to highlight climate change and degradation. I hoped–still do–that people who don’t read science might read creative approaches to our looming, gloomy future.

In the commercial publishing world where my books compete to entertain and inform, I often despair, but keep pushing ahead. Give myself a dope slap and try again to write something that matters. I’ve published on this blog reading lists related to climate, and now I’m making another attempt to spread the word. I’ve just revised the pricing on two Kindle offerings. Both Accidental Child and Providence are now 99 cents. The first narrative takes place in a future nearly devoid of potable water; the second is one in which sea level rise threatens one of our earliest cities, the one where I was born and later educated.

Read climate fiction, also eco-fiction and suggest that others do the same. It’s an important step toward understanding our future. And thanks.

#CarlSagan #ClimateCultures.net #Eco-fiction #ClimateFiction