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.

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

Writers Awake

Bad enough that the national news this week startled us and that people are taking to the streets in protest. That we have had another presidential election that thwarts the popular vote, the direct voice of the people. That my dear dog is fading slowly into infinity. That my daughter is dealing with her father’s serious illness. That my marketing of the new novel has been upended by someone else’s faulty scheduling. It’s been a tough week. My phone died, had to be shocked back to life by a new battery. Leonard Cohen died.

 So pour another cuppa joe and settle in. We need to talk.This week I heard Richard Russo (one of my favorite writers) comment on NPR that good writing is increasingly important in troubling times. I had had the same thought. More than ever we desperately need honest, accurate, thoughtful journalism, fiction, poetry, and essays. I am not interested in celebrity opinions or sensationalism, never have been. I want clear reporting and reflection about the people, their actions, and their plans that affect our local, state and national governments, our collective life. I want people to pay attention, not homage. We need good writing more now than we did even a week ago, whether it’s 140-characters on social media or an in-depth editorial in a balanced print source. We must read from Left to Right, and not rely on a single source.

I want, need, a diet of more than verbal popcorn. I want the hearty protein of research, investigation, and clarity, not a fast-food reading list, but an organic garden plot that I tend daily, weeding, harvesting, feeding my need for facts and careful reportage. I plan to be thoughtful and thorough. I’ll be skeptical but not cynical. I’ll be a good citizen, alert to false accusations and political shenanigans. Please join me, no matter what you write or what you habitually read. Or how you voted. You did vote, didn’t you? Please write from your heart, read with your head. Stay awake.

AND READ FOR EQUALITY

LaRose, a novel by Native American writer Louise Erdrich.

My Check-list Life

I love lists, the satisfaction of the little check mark when I’ve finally finished a project or task. I make grocery lists, project lists, to-do lists, books to read lists. A list is finite in an infinite world. Without these little reassurances, I might run screaming into the street and throw myself in front of a truck. No, that’s not true. But I do feel anxious when I don’t know what to do next.

This list-mania comes from all the years I spent as a mental health nurse. Nurses cannot forget things. They multi-task almost constantly and details matter. I used reporters’ notebooks, those long, thin spiral pads that fit into my scrubs pocket. I dated every page and started a new page each shift. I never tore out a page because at times when I wanted to review what I’d done previously. Of course, patient names were abbreviated or coded. And the whole thing went into the shredder when I was finally done with that list of lists.

My tasks and projects as a writer are not life-saving or enhancing. Well, maybe the latter. I like to think that all the little steps in creating and publishing a poem or story add up to entertainment, education or inspiration. Of course, I’ll never know. A reader, unlike a hospital patient, gets no discharge summary, no return appointment, no swelling chart in the records department. I go blind into this work and trust the list-less world to benefit from my efforts. The finite becomes almost infinite and beyond my control. Write it and let it go. Cross it off the list.

Writing Violence: Yes/No?

How is it that Nevada Barr could invent the violence that drives her novel Winter Study? Barr has put her main character, Anna Pigeon, through horrific misadventures over the long course of her park ranger mysteries. In this one Anna nearly freezes to death, very nearly drowns and witnesses scenes that ravage her mind and her memory. How can a writer do that to someone she has created as surely as if born of her body? I have written violent scenes, and can only say that the story demanded it and I delivered. I suspect that is what drives Barr. The story is often larger than the lead character. But real violence has become an international pass time. As a writer, I struggle with where to put it in my heart and in my work.

Recently I heard a writer whom I admire say that he felt the need to write more violence into his work, because another writer had said that any American (read U. S.) writer not writing about violence is not being truthful to our culture of killing. I won’t do it. This is a limited and limiting world view. During this wretched stretch of news, for solace I turned to Barbara Kingsolver’s essays, Small Miracle. She wrote the title essay in response to 9-11, but what she had to say is fresh again. And in one of the essays she says that she reads the news, listens to the news but rarely watches the news. I’m with her in this. Life has more to offer than live-stream murder, and as visual creatures, human beings imprint on the gore. How do young minds distinguish real death from fiction?

I’m not naive. I spent almost two decades as a nurse, and as horrific as some of the work was, violence was not and is not the only truth. Conflict between people or fictional characters is more nuanced than a gut-shot cadaver. The emotional response to grief and rage is a coat of many colors and textures. If violence erupts in my writing, I hope the scene rises from within the circumstances rather than painted on like graffiti in a toilet stall, all shock and no awe.

The Wrong Story

Where do stories come from? Anywhere people congregate and I can watch them. Here’s one:

ASSUMPTION

            A thin old man comes into my local coffee shop. He is bald, has a prominent bandage over his right eyebrow, thick glasses, a walker, a brace on his right leg. He wears a plaid shirt and dress pants, black tie shoes and a zipper hoodie. A pregnant woman gives up her easy chair for him, and the barista brings his coffee. His walker has a black bag attached, so he must rely on it. I wonder how he got here. Driving with that brace would be a problem. Maybe he has adaptive hand controls, or someone dropped him off, and will come back for him. Or not?

At some point he becomes angry, then anxious that his niece has not returned. Long after the appointed hour he admits his predicament and asks the barista to make a call for him, but she cannot complete the call. She suggests he get a cab. He has no cash, having just spent his last five dollars for coffee. At closing time he’s still there, weeping. Cops come. “What happened to your ride?” He refuses to leave the chair, prefers to believe that Pauline will come. She has to come for him. He tells the cop, “Please, call her again.”

            “Sir, I’ve called this number. It’s out of service.”

            He hesitates but at last allows the cops to drive him home. The house is dark and locked. He has no key. His medicine is in that house and he’s in pain. They drive him to the ED.

            He’s now homeless, hurting and broke. His next check will slide into the mail slot at that dark house in a couple of weeks, unless someone can perform a miracle with Social Security and have the check rerouted. Pauline has access to his account. It’s been cleaned out. He’s outlived his wife, his sister, and his friends. Not a churchgoer, he is without resources. Maybe Senior Services will sic the law on Pauline, although she was nice enough when she dropped him at the coffee shop, and that bureaucratic ploy might take weeks.

This is the wrong story. The old man finishes his coffee and goes outside to a roomy old Buick, struggles to put the walker into the back seat and prepares to drive himself home. Now there are two old men, the one who just drove away and the one I have left stranded when his greedy niece deserted him at the local coffee shop. Both of them will live in my head and now in yours for a while, until we forget them. Maybe someone else will read this vignette and enlarge it. What will you do?

Ready to Rewrite

Most people call this season spring; for me it’s critique season. The beta readers for Providence (sequel to Accidental Child) are hard at work and I’m working hard at being patient. I know I’ll have plenty to do on the rewrite, but my generous readers will guide me. Obviously, the final decisions are mine and the book will live or die on my watch.

Given nine readers, I had to devise a way to collate their observations and advice. I’m not interested in shuffling paper or computer files repeatedly and maybe losing some important remark in the process. So I’ve adapted a story board idea to handle this input.

I have a large piece of foam board, hanging on the closet door in my office by a string and a wreath hanger. Across the top horizontal edge I’ve put sticky labels with the names of the major characters. I’m a character-driven writer for fiction, so this is my approach. Another writer might prefer categories like setting, action, point of view or dialog–whatever seems most useful.

Down the left hand vertically, I’ll list the chapters. As I come across suggestions from my readers, I’ll post a sticky note at the intersection of the character and the chapter in question. Stickies can be stacked, so I think I’ll have enough room, but I might need a second board to accommodate all thirty-four chapters. I’ll decide that when I’ve gone through the comments and see just where I need to concentrate my rewriting energy.

Not only does this plan help me stay on track, but also it’s a visual reminder that I have this work to do, daily if I’m any good. Originally, I had imagined a spring release for this novel, but reality suggests fall. I do have a busy life outside of Providence, and it’s best to take the time I need to write a good book. I’ve spoken briefly to an editor and once I’ve done the rewrite, I’ll ask her to look at it. Then on to the book design and publication. It’s a huge project to write and self-publish a novel, and there’s no point in doing a sloppy job. So, I’m ready to rewrite. Wish me luck–nah! Luck has less to do with writing than determination. And I am determined.