Half Day at the DAM

Without intending to, yesterday I took the day off. Call it a personal day, a mental health day, or an unintended consequence, it doesn’t change the fact that I planned to write this week’s blog entry at the Denver Art Museum. I took my iPad and notebook, sure that some ekphrastic writing would magically appear and you, Dear Reader, would be entertained by my sharing. Didn’t happen. Technology failed me. The guest wifi at the museum was taking the day off too.

That glitch forced me to give up on product and just be there. Be one of the early birds rocking in a long line of huge lounge chairs in the plaza, being one of the visitors waiting for the doors to open, talking to tourists from Kansas and comparing museum notes. Feeling awed by a 30-ft tall stack of blankets in the American Indian section. And lunch at a window table in Palettes, watching people ride bikes, push strollers, stroll along holding hands on a sunny day.

I watched people of all sizes, shapes and skin tones, bulky, skinny, bared arms and legs, long dresses and short hair. We human’s are so beautiful, no matter what our costume. The young man with dreads wearing a Planned Parenthood tee shirt, he was beautiful. So was the woman discreetly breast feeding her infant in the museum. And the dad teaching his two middle-school sons to appreciate fine pottery.

Here’s the takeaway: a day spent looking is as good as a day spent writing. I’m the boss of me and I approve that day off. I’ll do it again.

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.

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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.

Collaborative Writing & Ghosts in the Kitchen

Collaborative writing invites ghosts to my party, but these guests barge into the kitchen while I’m still pulling food from the oven. Who are these people? Oh, there’s the editorial board, the editor in chief, the audience waiting to see if the thing tastes as good as it smells. These unseen ghost guests elbow in and shove the writer aside, too many cooks in the kitchen, “more salt, less garlic! More facts, less fiction.”

The collaboration begins when someone chances on a call for submissions and says, “We could write it together.” Now the egos have take a step back and not snarl like a dog with a fresh soup bone, or a toddler who won’t share her cooky, “Mine!” Our self images as writers are also ghosts to be placated.

Like party planners, the writers (two in my case) put on their grown-up hats and get to work. My approach is intuitive, hers intentional. I free write till my notes bloom like sour dough. She revises our slimy outline. I gobble information; she digests it. We decide on deadlines and working process: shared Dropbox files, Word track changes, conference calls when distance precludes face-to-face work.

We begin putting words on the page, draft the proposal that will go to the editor. Enter again the ghosts: who, exactly, is our audience, other than the board that finally will accept–or not–the article? Who’s sniffing around to see if we’re cooking up something tasty, or at least edible? One of us dictates, the other one types: “Whoa, slow down.” “Fix that sentence, it’s boring.” We slice and dice, stir and knead the language into a first draft.

Time now to let the dough rest and rise. This draft is an important 200 words, a taste of what’s to come. We pledge not to poison anyone, to accept the outcome, and hope everyone else enjoys the party as much as we do.

Odd Topics

 

Although I write mostly poetry and fiction, I read randomly—memoir, science, essays, whatever gets my attention, something strange, a book about a topic I would not have dreamed of. I welcome your suggestions, and here’s my sample reading list of twenty books:

Barnett, Cynthia. Rain: A Natural and Cultural History.

Beavan, Colin. No Impact Man (living with virtually no carbon footprint)

Bilton, Nick. Hatching Twitter.

Birkhead, Tim.  The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg.

Coss, Stephen. The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic that Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics.

Epstein, Randi Hunter, MD. Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth.

Hatch, Steven. Snowball in a Blizzard: A Physician’s Notes on Uncertainty in Medicine.

Hermes, Edward. Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash.

Kean, Sam. The Violinist’s Thumb: Love, War and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses.

Pollack, Eileen. The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club.

Rogers, Heather. Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage.

Stanton, Mike. The Prince of Providence: The Rise and Fall of Buddy Cianci (flamboyant mayor of the city).

Stuver, Bill. Heat: Adventures in the World’s Fiery Places.

Terry, Beth. Plastic Free.

Toler, Pamela D. Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War.

Venturi, Brown and Izenour. Learning from Las Vegas (architecture).

Voigt, Emily. The Dragon Behind the Glass: A True Story of Power, Obsession, and the World’s Most Coveted Fish.

Wilson, Bee. Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat.

Wiseman, Alan. The World Without Us (about the decay of buildings and return of the natural world, sans human beings)

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.

The Distraction Factor

This summer I spent a week in the company of Marge Piercy and twelve other talented and dedicated poets. At the end of our week Marge asked us to commit openly, in writing, to our writing, to keep it first on our to-do list. My promise to myself has two parts: get back to submitting work regularly and reduce outside commitments. This week I have done a lousy job of keeping that promise. Too many outside events have drawn me away from my desk.

And what have I done? Chastised and berated myself for my slothfulness and wailed like a three year old about what a failure I am as a writer. Well, wake up, child. This past week I’ve attended a day-long poetry festival, taken part in a public reading to celebrate National Translation Month, volunteered as  writing coach at our local mental health service, taught two classes on creative writing, attended a talk on cliche at a local library and today I’m off to the first seasonal meeting of CIPA (Colorado Independent Publishers’ Assoc.) Oh, and spent a valuable hour yesterday with one of my writing partners. This, my dear self, is not sloth.

It’s distraction from the individual aspects of writing. So right here in front of everyone, I forgive myself for losing focus, dropping the reins, wallowing in remorse, all those things that would, if I let them, keep me mired in regret. I’ve just put three little stickies on the edge of my monitor to remind me that here, at the desk is my next destination.

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