Writing by Recipe?

Writing workshops are useful. I like being in a room full of scribblers, hearing about the variety of projects underway, discussing questions that come up and inform us all how we might structure a piece of writing. But…the approach to writing is, at times, like a cookbook: add more detail to spice it up, tenderize the love scene, chop the plot to a fine mince.

Makes me want to run out of the room, go sit under a tree and write like a chattering squirrel. Of course, February in Colorado is not conducive to writing en plein air.

Recently, I heard that in long narrative we should aim for 25% telling and 75% showing. Ouch! I would not know how to determine those percentages. Once I’ve written a scene, I want to know if it holds my attention, doesn’t bore the reader, reveals some truth–big or small–about the characters, moves the plot along. I’m driven by characters and they just don’t behave according to prescription. That’s the joy of fiction and memoir. Surprise!

I’m sure that the recommendation about these percentages comes from a sincere attempt to help a writer who’s lost in the word forest. But I also wonder if this advice originates with a publisher who has parsed the genres and most often accepts the expected. They can tell the bookstore or the library exactly where to shelve the book in question, because it’s very much like other books in its genre.

If I ruled the publishing world, (not likely) I’d tell writers to write their story as best they can, let their imaginations run loose, and then have honest beta readers comment on the effect of the manuscript. No mathematics allowed.

The Wisdom of Donna Leon

Friday morning, sitting in a coffee shop, I’m back at work. My work is writing, although I spent yesterday, a snow day, reading crime novels, Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series set in Venice. Leon is prolific having written over 24 books in this series and several more in other categories. My intent was to binge read and let my own fiction, poetry, non-fiction rest and ripen. I know that if I take an occasional break, I go back to work with renewed energy. But Leon’s fiction is not escapist. Sure, it’s set in Venice, a place I’d love to visit, this Armchair travel, an excuse to read, drink tea and not worry about production or driving on snowy roads in Colorado.

Here’s the thing, though. In every “crime novel” that I’ve read in Leon’s oeuvre there is a large issue that affects the plot line and the reactions of her characters. The plot of the first book in the series, Death at La Fenice, develops around issues of homophobia and sexual child abuse. In Blood from a Stone the issues are immigration and racial inequality. Yes, in the lovely tourist-filled city, issues rise that challenge us all. Plot lines etched on the page are set like rough jewels in the middle of a nuclear family with reliable parents, believable offspring, domestic issues of homework and grocery shopping, a solid, sexy, loving marriage. And any of the characters, whatever their involvement in bringing the villains to justice, might reveal a concern I share, like polluted air: “What Redeemer could come and save the city from the pall of greenish smoke that was slowly turning marble to meringue?” (Death at La Fenice, 148)

The real message today is this: categories for literature are not absolute, can be unreliable restrictions. If I want to read more of Donna Leon’s work, I have to go to “Mystery” or “Crime Novels” in the library or bookstore. She obviously exceeds these labeled categories and reassures me that whatever we write might be just what the reader needs. Fiction, poetry, memoir—any genre can inform and inspire us. And as writers we have the privilege and responsibility of deepening our understanding of reality even as we “make it up.” If one reader is enlightened, reassured, challenged, or distracted from grief, a writer has done the world a favor.

Blind Date with a Murder Mystery

A couple of weeks ago I plucked a novel by Sara Paretsky off a library shelf. I was vaguely familiar with her name, in part because she has written nineteen novels, but it was sort of a blind date and we just didn’t hit it off. I read a bit and set it aside. Then I heard an interview with Lee Childs on BBC World Book Club. Childs praised Paretsky. He is quoted on the front cover of her book: “Sara Paretsky is a genius.” I like his novels, so I decided to give her another chance. Right decision!

Back to the library, this time I checked out a V. I. Warshawski mystery, Fallout. My first clue that I was in for a good read was the acknowledgements at the front of the book, what I imagine might be like a speed dating intro. The book is set in Kansas; I’m working on a novel set in Kansas; a county sheriff figures prominently in the action; I have a county sheriff as an important character; racial tensions play an important part in Fallout; I have biracial characters; cars are important in Paretsky’s book; my fictional car is a Porsche, a very important Porsche. Oh, yes, and one of her characters is connected to the US Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. As a military wife, I spent several months there while my spouse was enrolled.

Then again, there’s the coincidence of my surname, Douglass, and Paretsky’s setting in the Kansas county of Douglas. Yikes! I’m happy to report that I’m already halfway through the initial draft of my novel, so I don’t fear her influence, and I welcome her company. I have only the final conflict to read in Fallout. I had to stop. I’d missed my usual bedtime by two hours last night, but I will resume reading today. I am so glad I took Childs’ advice and remet Sara Paretsky. I think we will have a long and fruitful relationship.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

The old year, 2018, was productive and safe, despite the grief of the daily news. I’ve had poems published, made a good start on a new novel, one in a genre I’ve not written before, pared away some distractions from my creative work, and still maintained friendships.

Looking into the deep well of 2019, I intend to keep writing (as if I could stop!), remain healthy and read any book that catches my attention, reserving the right to put it back into the library bag unfinished if I’m not captivated. Life is short, boredom a burden I choose not to bear.

I’d like to write more reviews, be more faithful to this blog, walk more, watch birds more, spend a few days sequestered with my journal and manuscript. I’ll help publish a couple of books of poetry, and I may seek a literary agent for the novel. That has not worked for me in the past–time consuming and generally frustrating–but I’ll consider it.

Here’s to all who visit this site, Happy New Year. Stay awake, don’t hurt anyone, write like it’s a debt you must pay to the universe.

Persistence & Politics

Regular readers here will recall that from time to time I urge them to READ FOR EQUALITY. In our fractured, limping-along democracy this continues to be a responsibility, although some days I wonder why I bother.

Then I read something like Tracy K. Smith’s new book, Wade in the Water, and I’m reawakened to the power of creative writing. Smith uses as some of her poems verbattem letters written by black soldiers in the War Between the States. (It was anything but civil.) That we have a black female Poet Laureate of the US matters too.

Now I’m reading Zora Neale Hurston’s  Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,”  written in 1927 about Cudjo, an African who entered the US as a slave in 1859. The book was just published in 2018. Why it took so long to have this on my library shelves, I cannot fathom, but thanks to an astute librarian and Alice Walker, it’s finally available.

I remind myself, too, of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin written by “the little woman who started this big war” in President Lincoln’s words, more or less.

And there’s Nellie Bly, who, in Ten Days in A Mad-House, wrote about the  rotten mental health care in this land of the free and helped bring about reforms in that milieu.  And lest we forget, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle brought about change in the meat-packing industry and led to our Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. Both of these two matter to us all, an issue of equality between the haves and have-nots, the powerful and the powerless.

When you think that what we do as writers doesn’t matter, read these books and others like them and again give your gifts to a sore and tired world. Even if you provide respite from worry, it’s important. Just do it, persist–please.

All About Poets #3

Diane Wakoski has long been one of my favorite poets. Initially, her book titles drew me in: The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems, Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch, Waiting for the King of Spain, Emerald City of Las Vegas. Who could resist? Certainly not a woman trying to find her own assertive voice in life as in poetry. Her only title that ever disappointed was Diamond Dog, and that one is not on the Wikipedia list. It was, however, on the availability list of the buyer for a local poetry book club, and I had suggested we read something by Wakoski. That book did not go over well, too difficult, too esoteric, too everything that the group rebelled against. Well, so much for their poetic taste. Then again, one book is not sufficient in appreciating a huge oeuvre like hers.

If only the buyer had selected Wakoski’s compilation volume, The Butcher’s Apron: New and Selected Poems [Black Sparrow Press, 2000]. My copy is nicely worn and better yet, signed. One primo reason that I attended the AWP Convention in Denver (2010) was to hear Wakoski read. And I did. What’s more, I had a brief conversation with her on the convention floor, where she signed the book and asked for a signed copy of one of my books. That year The Great Hunger was on display at the convention and I snagged one for her. We emailed a few times after that meeting and when I issued a second edition of Red Goddess Poems, Diane graciously wrote a blurb for the back cover.

In her prose, Towards a New Poetry [University of Michigan, 1980], Wakoski writes that she wanted to be a poet, not a teacher or editor, a poet. When I get snagged by the foolish idea that I should do something besides play with words, I think about her dedication to this art and go back to what I too love for no practical reason. From her first book in 1962, Coins and Coffins, Wakoski has been a star in my poetic firmament. Long may she shine.

All About Poets #1

After many years as part of a tangible community of writers, looking back I know how fortunate I’ve been to meet many fine poets (and a few not so fine). This is the first of a series of remembrances of poets I’ve known.

Robert Creeley has a prominent place in my pantheon of poets. Is his soul aramble? There’s probably a reason why he has risen first to the top of the list. If you’re there, you are welcome, Bob.

I knew of him when I enrolled in a poetry class at St. Mary’s College near Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. When the class first met the instructor, an anonymous man whom I remember not at all, except for his question: “Is this a poem?” And he read Creeley’s “I Know a Man.”  (You can see the poem here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/search?query=I+Know+a+Man.)And I replied with ignorant certainty, “Sure.” But then I had to defend my belief.

To this moment it’s hard to break it down, but it looks like a poem and acts like a poem, so it’s not a duck. It’s full of ironic speech–calling the man John, who is not John, the suggestion that a car might help them live through the coming dark, and the revelation that the speaker is at that moment driving, but not well.

I can read it as metaphor–the speaker knows and wants to escape the dark, which confuses him, makes him unaware of where he is and what he’s doing. But, aha, more delightful, it puts me right into the experience of The Driver and Not John. Takes me out of my floral easy chair and into the back seat of that careening car.

Bob was a good one. In Maine we claimed his as one of our own. The Preface to his Selected Poems (University of California Press, 1991) is signed “Robert Creeley, Waldoboro, Maine, August 14, 1989.” Three times I heard him read locally, once in a hollow room where he seemed far away, though I was in the front row. That time he read poems about his family. (He claims in that preface that Robert Graves considered him a “domestic poet.”) Maybe he read “I Love You.” It’s about his Aunt Beatrice. Or “Four Years Later,” about his mother’s death. I can’t say for sure. And there was a reading at the State Theater on the corner of High and Congress Streets in Portland. I was there with Patrick Murphy, the “napkin poet” of Portland and a friend of Bob’s. Creeley looked up to  our back row seats and said, “Pat, can you hear me up there?” I was proud to be at least in the penumbra of Bob’s vision.

Another time he read at an art gallery on Munjoy Hill, poems about Helsinki and his then current wife. It was a crowded venue with wine after. Bob and I sat under a table and talked about a line of his, which I was, he said, misinterpreting. He smiled as he said that. I remember the smile, though not the line. 

My Creeley connection had actually started in the fall of 1984 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. My friend and co-author Beverly Rainbolt and I went to a poetry conference at the university, star struck. We breathed the same air as Creeley, Denise Levertov, Gerald Stern, Louis Simpson and Charles Bernstein. Our real goal, in addition to breathing along with the talent, was to put a copy of our joint chapbook, Visible Progress, into Creeley’s hands. We tracked our prey to the sidewalk between readings and scored a direct hit. He was polite and accepted the “gift” that we forced on him. And after that conference Beverly and I went back to our weird work at the arts center we had created in an old warehouse in Shreveport.

Within a couple of weeks came a brief letter from Creeley praising our work, and signing off with his customary “Onward!” I have that letter and the envelope framed and hanging on my wall. Some time afterward I left Shreveport to return to Maine and Beverly moved to New Orleans, and that was that.

(See you soon with a piece about Lucille Clifton.)