Pickled Poem

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The first poem I remember writing was an ugly little thing, sort of like the bird house a kid makes at day camp, or the drawing a three year old slaps under a magnet on the refrigerator, hoping for greater things to come. The message of that poem was how impossible it would be to resurrect a specimen long stored in a jar of formaldehyde. Well, we all start somewhere, and at least no one was hurt in my experiment.

I remember standing in the kitchen of our house in East Sebago–a small town with no movie theater, no shopping center, no center at all, so what was a girl to do but mess around with words? My mother was at the sink, getting ready to boil the dirty dishes. She had a big aluminum dishpan that she filled with soapy water and left it full of dishes to heat on the wood stove. I suppose that was either a domestic shortcut, a hygiene tactic or disguised procrastination. I never questioned her dishwashing for fear of getting trapped into washing them myself. But I do remember reading her that short, ugly poem. If she paid attention at all her response was as tepid as that dishwater.

Maybe I shocked her, worried her: Oh, shit, this girl’s literary but has no talent. Either she’ll starve or I’ll be feeding her forever. But if she thought that, she didn’t say it out loud. Nor did she rave and display that embarrassing bit of dreck on the refrigerator. Her neutral response was a harbinger of what I still get often: Thanks for sending this. Good luck publishing it elsewhere. And, writing friends, that’s what we get, elsewhere, right? No false praise, no advice to find paid employment. So why, why, why, do we keep scribbling? I can’t answer for you, but I can’t stop. As my friend Cyndeth says, writing is like chocolate; in moderation it soothes, energizes and satisfies. At least writing makes as much sense as boiling the dinner dishes.

Not Exactly the Indy 500, but . . .

Everyone who reads this blog knows that I believe in writers’ groups. We learn from and lean on each other for encouragement, tips, commiseration. I learned something simple and wonderful at Lighthouse Writers Workshop last Friday during a live interview with freelance writer Scott Carney (http://www.scottcarney.com/). Here’s how I’m using his advice:

  • Write a minimum of 500 words Monday–Friday.
  • Let my fingers fly on the keyboard without fussing about format. (I know, no longhand!)
  • Insert red-letter prompts at the end of each day’s work to get me going the next day.
  • Print copies when a natural break occurs. (I use gray paper so there’s no doubt it’s a draft.)

This process has improved my work on the sequel to Accidental Child. I don’t need to wait for the impossible six-month stay at Yaddo to get a first draft. At 500 wds/day, I’ll have at least 300 pages done with fewer false starts and way more fun. The regularity of it keeps me plugged into the story. Come time to shift scenes or POV, I skim through my scene cards to reset the story. (Thank you Ann Lamott for believing in index cards and “shitty first drafts.”)

When I worked as a psyche nurse, the idea of chunking a task or problem into small action steps often kept patients–and me–from feeling overwhelmed by life. Just so with writing. Or laundry, or raising puppies. Remember, 500 words/day will yield about two pages double spaced in 12pt font w/regular margins. It takes, I’m told, 21 days to establish a new habit. I’m a third of the way there. Thank you, Lighthouse and Steve Carney. Life is good.

I Believe

Recently I finished participating in a memoir group. For each of five weeks we wrote on an assigned topic such as family, work, etc. The final assignment was to write about values, spirituality, or religion. I won’t bore you with my internal meanderings on this topic, but–you knew this was coming–that assignment led me to think about my beliefs as a writer. So, here’s what I think. Feel free to disagree.

I believe in morning pages 365 days a year as finger exercises, messy first drafts and free writing. I believe in the benefits of a dedicated process that encourages regular writing and in fresh, energetic language, honest sentences and sensory images. I believe in reading, although I don’t believe everything I read. I believe in ink on paper and in the wonder of my Mac Mini, in conversation among writers, face to face, in revision and honest, gentle critique, in ebooks and printed pages and independent publishing.

I believe that poets are writers, no matter what the title of that famous magazine says. I believe that writing makes me happy, neatness counts, gratitude should show, praying might work when I’m stuck but that persistence works better. I believe that I’m sensitive to criticism, that writers need a sense of humor and that my poems often need more energy. I believe I’ve said enough on this subject–for now. Oh, one more, I believe in sobriety. Your turn.

David Foster Wallace–Hero

Some time ago I took a little online test to see which other writer’s style mine might resemble. Wallace’s. At the moment I had no idea who he was, so that tiny item got pushed to the back of my mind. Now I wish I had paid attention. I’ve just finished reading most of his biography, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D. T. Max. I confess to reader fatigue about 80% through, but what I read impressed me. One, Max writes well and seems to be thoroughly familiar with Wallace’s meteoric rise to literary fame and his interior life. Two, Wallace wrote despite a long and painful history of depression and addiction. Writing kept him alive, though not long enough. He committed suicide in 2008 at the age of 46. Now I have on order his mammoth novel Infinite Jest and have just checked out his final fiction, unfinished, The Pale King. And unfinished it tops out at over 500 pages. I’ll not be indulging in cosy mysteries for some time while I wade, glide, fall through these massive tomes.

Wallace’s life has given me not just a new supply of fiction and many of his non-fiction pieces yet to read. He has given me courage, not from the bottle where he often sought solace, but by example. I don’t suffer from either of his illnesses, so why the hell am I ignoring the opportunity to write? January is a time for resolve and I resolve to behave more like a writer and less like a dithering old lady. 

I’ve refreshed my desk and gotten better about not frittering hours at meaningless entertainment. And guess what? It feels good. I’m hugging tight to things that I had been pushing away as hard or challenging. I’ve often asked myself in the past if I want to be remembered as an avid computer solitaire player and of course I don’t. I wouldn’t mind being remembered as a skilled and devoted writer who often tried to say something worth hearing. So, almost half way into January, I have my resolution: Grow up. Work hard and love what I do.