In the Sept/Oct 1917 issue of Poets & Writers, Joyce Maynard, in her essay “Patience and Memoir,” writes that for years she wrote a syndicated newspaper column, Domestic Affairs, in which she always felt the need to find “some kind of conclusion” even if there was none. I see that as one of my issues, the desire to tidy up the mess, leave the reader satisfied, provide dessert after a nourishing meal.
Endings challenge me. Right now, as I type this blog, I am avoiding a needed revision for a novel that ends, as mine often do, abruptly. Why truncate a story after laboring to deliver it fully formed? For one thing, I fear boring the reader, not taking up more of their precious time. Well, that’s not a healthy attitude. And better folk than I have said in various ways to “Stay in the room,” (Judy Reeves, A Writer’s Book of Days); BICHOK–butt in chair, hands on keyboard (Dan Manzanares, Lighthouse Writers Workshop); “Write beyond the last line” (Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, poet). My own four-word mantra begins with Commit (and includes Discover, Create, Connect). So I’ve committed to a fuller ending for that novel, despite my insecurities.
Writing is like marriage or parenthood. Some days you need to buy bananas but you long to drive past the supermarket, just keep going till the gas gauge hits E. But you don’t. You stop for coffee or a walk in the park. You clean up the mess on the page and bandage your aching ego. And by you, I mean me too.
It’s no news to anyone who follows me that I am a fan of Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, especially the Friday 500 program. We never know till close to the event what our guide Dan Manzanares has planned. Yesterday he served up magic. What else can I call the mix of award-winning author Claudia Rankine’s work, the a capella group In Harmony’s Way–live, in the room with us–and a gaggle of writers?
Here’s the process: Dan read selections from Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, and immediately after each reading the singers responded with spontaneous harmonies and rhythms. Two of the singers had studied with Bobby McFerrin, so that gives you a sense of what we heard. The music sounded to me a blend of scat and gospel. Amazing sounds made of pure air, percussion of stomping and clapping. Being in the same space with live music is itself magic: an inspiration of air, and then the risk of expiration shaped and shared.
While the singers worked their magic, writers took notes (though not like the notes on a music score) and then had 20 minutes to create something out of the experience. So we had an absent author, live music, and spontaneous writing, all in the same hour. Harmony in an age of disharmony! Here’s what I made:
ATLANTIC SONG: Sea waves stretch to touch the tideline, swish in, buzz, retreat. Crest, break, withdraw, low vowels and keen of gulls, syllables sway and skip a capella to the shore.
Remember to read for equality
Jericho Brown, The New Testament (poems)
Lighthouse Writers’ Workshop has scored again. They have created a project called Write Denver. (Details at Write Denver.) Yesterday at Friday 500 Dan Manzanares and Yanara Friedland rolled out the concept for us, including the process: walk to connect, set your own pace, pay attention to departure and arrival, include memory/reflection, attend to details. We walked on Race Street and wrote in a spattering of rain for just ten minutes, returned to the house and read, without preamble or commentary, what we had written, what Yanara calls the collective story. I loved it.
Walking while writing includes concepts like place making (if we write it we help create it), awareness of movement through space and across boundaries. Place-based writing works well with some constraints: attending to departure and arrival, reflection/memory, and capturing detail. To witness and record our place in the world, to let rain fall on the page, the earth receive our footsteps.
This idea matters in the grand scheme of poetry making. Memorable poems do not exist in a geography of the mind but of the world, specific places like McDuffy’s farm in Minnesota (James Wright), foggy old London (T.S. Eliot), museums and forests, bedrooms and hospital rooms. And isn’t that our assignment as writers? To bear witness to truth as it appears before us, wherever we are. I live life in motion, place to place. I write to fine tune my internal GPS. I think universal, I write local. The world is not my oyster. I am the oyster and the world I build is my shell. Tough old oysters enlarge their shells. May it be so.
Here’s my poem Crossings. It was originally published in The Cafe Review:
Again this year and this year and this,
small birds scatter up
from northern fields and cross
the equator. If I follow them
I will not stop myself
from making one slow wing beat
to mark there from here, a new sphere
entered, the world’s waist unbelted.
No, I’ll stay put and mind the wind
that grinds the corners of the house,
and try not to be afraid when
I can’t see the lines I cross, but know
that each degree of latitude has
its danger. Time the pilgrims
make their visit south. And now
all flight is in two places, the body
always slipping whole over the line
as the flock wheels with one mind,
one creature with a thousand heads
who knows without knowing where
to go and need no mention of its passing.