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.

Read for Equality

Hunting Hidden Treasure

Jonathan Waldman has written a prize-winning book called Rust: The Longest War. Waldman is a journalist and true to his profession he did plenty of first hand research about the problems of corrosion. Odd, you say, who cares, you say? We all should care. Waldman found that we almost lost the Statue of Liberty to corrosion. He went to “can school” in Boulder to learn about the joys and sorrows of canned products. He went to Alaska to hang out with the workers who inspect and maintain the oil pipeline. And when he spoke to writers at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, Waldman dissed our beloved Friday 500 acronym BICHOK–“butt in chair, hands on keyboard.”

His advice was to get off your duff and go look, really look, at the world beyond your desk. It’s a version of the mythic hero’s journey: the hero leaves home alone, risks his or her own safety, and brings back treasure for the community. I think Waldman’s right, but so is BICHOK. As a writer, I need to do both, balance the investigation of the world with the time spent making marks on screen or paper.

So, today I’ll spend hours and hours in the company of other poets, digging with my pen for treasures to bring back to fellow writers. And I’ll try hard to keep a wide focus. Who are these people I’ll be with? What are their quirks and talents? What space will we occupy? What might I witness en route? We don’t have to go to can school or to Alaska or to NYC to find treasure. It’s everywhere if we take the time to look. So, BICHOK later, treasure hunt now.

Off to the Races

Recently I wrote about my top shelf favorite books. This week I reread Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. The first time I read that book, I was angry, awakened and stunned by turns. For the first time I understood my history as daughter and mother in a new/old way and the gender inequality that, after three decades, still exists and has spread beyond the male/female heterosexual world to emerge as LGBTQ issues. Even our current political rhetoric mirrors these issues: the woman card, the bully in the schoolyard–which we call the presidential race.

And, as I often do, I had another book going, Because You Asked, edited by Katrina Roberts. These essays on writing include one by Elizabeth Bradfield, in which I noted this: “Write into a world that is strange and particular with your own experiences and associations. Don’t leave anything out” (180). My strange, particular experience involves harness racing. For several years I was first a barn rat and then a race judge and finally a horse owner. Track lingo is my secret second language.

Words spilled onto my journal page and clicked like magnets to the issues of gender: hobbles and women in high heels and pencil skirts, blinders and limited views, off stride, scratched, qualifying races, win-place-show. There are more correspondences between the breeding, selection and training of a young racehorse and the roles of women in society. I’ll let your imagination take the reins at this point. But before I close, let me encourage you to read  widely in many genres in order to open your mind and let creative thinking make connections that sizzle and snap. That’s what real writers do.