Only Myself to Blame

It’s been a good week: five poems accepted for publication and acknowledged, a time-consuming project cancelled and a new poem written. Of course, I did my daily morning pages and insisted on a focus. I updated my submissions list and noted the next round of subs. But I did not tackle the long projects on my to-do list. It’s not that I don’t want to write the family history that’s outlined and started. And I would happily write a long essay about the need for writers to be vigilant in following the news, no matter how unsavory it is. I should sort and revise the short-fiction manuscript lurking in a fat notebook. But big projects don’t reach the finish line quickly. And that’s where I give up, curl up with the cat and a jigsaw puzzle, defeated by my own expectations: that I need to finish everything efficiently, right now.

Writing doesn’t work that way. It needs to incubate, grow in the dark, gestate. Pick a metaphor. I forget this regularly because our consumerist society demands efficiency and products with a price tag. What I need is to turn off all the media, stack up a dozen good books and withdraw from society for a while. And I don’t mean one afternoon. I mean a deep retreat from the angst and pace of public life. An article in the new Poets & Writers advocates a writing retreat.

Ah, yes, a writing retreat shimmers on the calendar, so bright that I squint at May 23rd, when I will fly back east for three weeks. I’ll house/dog/cat sit and stuff the TV remote under a couch cushion, post my absence from social media, and stop the clocks. I’ll write whatever comes, play with the dogs, and sit by the ocean. From here that feels right and easy. The catch, of course, is I’ll still have my own attitudes to deal with, my need to reassure myself that I am, in fact, a writer, no matter what shows up on the page.

 READ FOR EQUALITY

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Esoteric Joy

Full disclosure: I am a detail junky, a fact addict. I keep a fat black notebook full of potentially useless information. Like if you plant an orange seed you may grow a lemon tree. That the okapi–a mammal that looks like a cross between a giraffe and a horse–is a six million year old species. That the last passenger pigeon died in 1914. That the USS Maine sank in Havana Harbor, Cuba, on February 15, 1898. I graze like a goat in the flower beds and pick up all sorts of weird information, some of which I cannot possibly digest. Like knowing that a thing called CRISPR-Cas 9 is a sort of “molecular scissors” that can help modify genes.

Of what use can I make of these facts? Writers need a diet that includes tiny bits of information, like the body needs to ingest minute amounts of some minerals. You never can tell when a datum will go from frivolous to rich fodder. When I was writing Providence, I read a lot about water, tides, surge lines and such. I learned more than I needed to build a plausible story, but I learned what I needed. Marge Piercy, in writing her bestselling novel Gone to Soldiers, had her local library borrow on interlibrary loan “well over a thousand books.” She had to rely on technology to keep track of all that data. Now, while technology annoys and distracts me (Yeah, I look at cute cats on FB.) it also serves up a vast menu of data and prevents my local library staff from dying from exhaustion.

What we know and what we need to know is not always obvious. Far better, in my view, to store up extra knowledge. And then engage in what might be called “alien phenomenology.” This is an “[attempt] to understand the experience and interiority of objects, no matter how incomprehensible or speculative an act this may be” (M. R. O’Connor, Resurrection Science, 225). Hmm, and all along I thought that was called creative writing. See, you never know what’s out there to nibble on.

Read for Equality, Please

Regular readers here will have seen my postings of READ FOR EQUALITY, a habit that has grown out of my concern for the racial inequity in publishing. In honor of these concerns I am happy to turn over the blog today to Linda Thornton, who shares her unique history. Linda tells her story clearly and succinctly. I welcome your response. KD

Secret Seeds

I grew up close to the border and my last name was Villa.  Even though my skin is fair and burns in 10 minutes, it was pretty easy to guess that I am Latina.  But now with my married name sounding white and my living in Colorado, well, I’m a bit more of a chameleon. Most people have no idea until I tell them.

And then I adopted a black boy.  He was this baby in a bowtie who was happily banging the courtroom table while the judge was asking me legal questions about forever and family.  I could barely hear the judge over the joyful squeals in my ear but I already knew all the answers.  “I do.”  “I will.”

The year was 2015 and I had no idea that I had just been drafted into a race relations war in the US.  This was before I had heard of the Black Lives Matter movement, before Trump, before the year everything came to a head.  Sure, I knew some people were racist in this country but I thought we could easily maneuver around them.  After all, hadn’t I easily maneuvered around racists as a Latina?

Yes, I had.

But what did I leave behind in my wake?  Who did not get their chance?  Will that person be my son because I didn’t face racism head on when I saw it?  To turn around in its face and firmly say, “No.”

We have a duty now.  No matter our color or gender or the number in our bank account.  No one is exempt from the calling this time.  It needs all of us.  And that doesn’t mean just not being a racist yourself but you being a warrior for justice.  Silence is compliance and my son is watching your silence.

Will you march? Will you call? Will you write? Will you say something if you see something?  I call these people the front line.  And I’ve discovered that not every person is built for it.

But there are other lines to stand on.  Will you read? Reading is active because it can change your hard wiring.  Read fiction about growing up in the South.  Read non-fiction regarding the statistics of mass incarceration.  Read a children’s book where the main character is black and it doesn’t even come up as a plot point. And read it to children.

Then take those books and pass them on.  Donate them to a library, donate them to a school, leave it on a park bench with a note that says “free.”

Even though minorities make up 37% of the U.S. population they are represented in children’s books at 10%.  So send an email and coffee money to a minority writer.  Write a poem from the perspective of a different race than your own.   Talk to your librarian about having a display with books that showcase diversity.

The front liners are on the news and in our feed and in our ears.  But you can be our second wave.  You can be the secret seed planters.  Even if you are not here to see the harvest, know that my son will be.

READ FOR EQUALITY

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.

Time’s UP!

There’s a song from the 1950s, “Little Things Mean a Lot.” I agree. Little words mean a lot. Comedian George Carlin (may he rest in peace) once said that rather than get on the plane, he would prefer to get in the plane. Think about it.  So the little word for today is up. Campaigning recently, President Obama told a rowdy crowd, “Hold up! Hold up! Listen Up!” Like a barnacle this little preposition gloms onto other words and slides into writing and conversation almost invisibly. Almost ubiquitously. Consider this list: wake up, get up, rise up, screw up, f*** up, the acronym SNAFU, throw up, put up or shut up, what’s up? Rain lets up, protestors speak up, cowards give up. Business picks up at this holiday time of year. Some of us put up the Christmas tree. We light up that tree. We stand up for our beliefs. Or we throw up our hands. Police order “hands up.” They’re up to something, but I’m not up for it.

 It’s not as if we don’t have other choices to relay these ideas and images. We can stand, speak, make mistakes, vomit, contribute, be silent. So why do we put up with up? Why tolerate its intrusions? These word combos are conversational. They keep us from sounding pretentious, stuck up. My intent then is not to banish up, discard all of these little suckers that keep appearing, popping up, in my writing or conversation. I want, instead, to be aware, to awake to the usage rather than giving in to automatic phrasing. I want to clean up my verbal mess.

 READ FOR EQUALITY

Colon Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

Black Books Galore! AALBC.com’s November 2016 eNewsletter

My City Follows Me Around

thumbnailYesterday I read Benjamin Percy’s essay “Move Mountains: Activate Setting” (AWP Chronicle, Vol 49, No 3, Dec 2016, 98-105). He makes a convincing case for orienting the reader to place and giving place agency in the story. Things must happen that could not happen just anywhere. Although not exactly news to me, Percy makes a good argument to writers who might be less than clear about where in the world our characters live and love and die, or not. I’m there.

Regular readers here know that there in my most recent fiction is, obviously, Providence RI. In fact, the book is dedicated to the city, partly because of my connections to it: I was born there and educated, in part, there. It’s a historic and lovely city, founded as a refuge for religious minorities in 1636 by Roger Williams when he got booted from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Last fall I went back and walked the sidewalks on College Hill. Providence is home to Brown University, Providence College, Rhode Island School of Design, Johnson & Wales, and Rhode Island College. I drove around the city, admired the restored homes on Benefit Street and got reacquainted up close. Like other old friends, we had both changed, but deep down we were what we had been, connected.

Lately, our connection has an other-worldly aspect. Within two weeks of launching the novel here in Colorado, I’m meeting people from Providence: two of the baristas in one of my regular coffee shops, a couple I met decorating our church for a benefit auction, and a poet who came to speak to our book club in Boulder. Last week I plucked, at random, a novel off the new-books shelf at my favorite library, and there, it was set in Providence. So first I went to the city and now the city has come to me. Ahh, that’s a fine twist.

Cowardly Reader

I admit it, I sometimes start books but set them aside before I finish. Right now LaRose, by Louise Erdrich, has been on my coffee table far too many days. Erdrich is a talented novelist and her work is important, illuminating as she does the lives of Native Americans when they fray from contact with the white establishment. I feel guilty letting this book go stale. I preach “Read for Equality,” yet I have not finished this important novel by a Native American writer of great talent. On the other hand, I listened compulsively to an audio version of Louise Penny’s newest Inspector Gamache mystery, A Great Reckoning. Penny too is talented and I took in every word.

My different responses to these books lies in my attachment to the characters. I become immersed in their lives. I care about them. And when their lives get too hard to bear, I back off. In LaRose awful things happen to the characters and I feel their suffering, abhor the cruelty and injustice, fear for their survival. My filter fails.

Both writers are capable of murder. Murder is, of course, Penny’s stock in trade, but she writes a series, and main characters in series survive to appear in the next book.  They may be wounded, troubled, or abused, but they live on in my imagination, and I know that as I open the next book. I mean, Ann Cleeves would no more kill off detectives Jimmy Perez and Vera Stanhope than she would poison a neighbor’s barking dog. I doubt that Penny will off Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. The reader is safe if the character is safe.

Erdrich has no such obligation to her characters. Her obligation is to truth. She does not write gratuitous gore, but given that truth some scenes are powerfully graphic, and I know that not all of these people will survive. I close the book, slip it back into the library bag, make a silent apology,, and slink off like a frightened child.