Seasonal Sadness

Whether we call it seasonal affective disorder or the winter blahs, we know that this dark time of the year can suggest never again being warm and free of gloom. So for millennia we have created festivals of light–candles, holiday decorations, elves in bright red suits, and a reindeer whose nose is a beacon in the fog. These lights help, but when they don’t do enough good, there’s writing.

But when our culture encourages us to shop, wrap, celebrate, over eat, drink too much–when the hell do we find time to write? To which I say, we never find time to write; we make time. And if we suffer the blahs, writing helps. The Jan-Feb 2017 Poets & Writers includes an essay by Frank Bures, “Writing the Self: Some Thoughts on Words and Woe.” It’s worth your time and dollars to find it and absorb his words. Basically, he cites studies that demonstrate the benefits of writing about our own sadness, frustration, disappointment.

These findings should not be news, but we live in a consumerist world that values book sales, best-seller lists, and honorifics that lead back to sales. We are urged to write for other reasons than to lift ourselves out of a murky turn of mind. Writing, though, can be the candle in the window, a path through deep snow. Each of us, the Scribbler Tribe, wander in an  imagined wilderness made from words, a world of beauty as well as beasts. When sharp criticism or lack of ambient light wound us, we can slap on bandaids, build splints made of language, and drag ourselves to the light that is our freedom to write what we need to say, to see two lines elongate into story, poem, essay, history. It’s black magic or white every time. It’s blood letting and vomitus and feces. It’s also a long exhalation and muscle stretch. It means we still live, active animals who write. Do it, daily. Happy Holidays.

 

My City Follows Me Around

thumbnailYesterday I read Benjamin Percy’s essay “Move Mountains: Activate Setting” (AWP Chronicle, Vol 49, No 3, Dec 2016, 98-105). He makes a convincing case for orienting the reader to place and giving place agency in the story. Things must happen that could not happen just anywhere. Although not exactly news to me, Percy makes a good argument to writers who might be less than clear about where in the world our characters live and love and die, or not. I’m there.

Regular readers here know that there in my most recent fiction is, obviously, Providence RI. In fact, the book is dedicated to the city, partly because of my connections to it: I was born there and educated, in part, there. It’s a historic and lovely city, founded as a refuge for religious minorities in 1636 by Roger Williams when he got booted from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Last fall I went back and walked the sidewalks on College Hill. Providence is home to Brown University, Providence College, Rhode Island School of Design, Johnson & Wales, and Rhode Island College. I drove around the city, admired the restored homes on Benefit Street and got reacquainted up close. Like other old friends, we had both changed, but deep down we were what we had been, connected.

Lately, our connection has an other-worldly aspect. Within two weeks of launching the novel here in Colorado, I’m meeting people from Providence: two of the baristas in one of my regular coffee shops, a couple I met decorating our church for a benefit auction, and a poet who came to speak to our book club in Boulder. Last week I plucked, at random, a novel off the new-books shelf at my favorite library, and there, it was set in Providence. So first I went to the city and now the city has come to me. Ahh, that’s a fine twist.

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)

When Writing Isn’t Key

Usually, I post a blog on Saturday morning, but yesterday the world intruded and I chose to commit to the living instead of the virtual. It’s a choice writers rarely talk about. More often we brag about or bemoan the need to be at our desks, a diagonal way of saying how dedicated we are to this art form.

But Stephen King (a fellow Mainer)  in On Writing, says to put the writing desk in the corner of the room, put life out front. So when my dog, who has two major illnesses going on in the same 21 LB body, had a GI problem first thing in the morning, all thoughts of writing vanished. No blog, no critique group. We headed for the vet clinic and I waited till 1:00 pm to hear the welcome words that this was not the day I’m dreading when we decide there’s nothing more we can do for the dog. This kind of day not only puts the desk in the corner but puts all thoughts of writing almost out of sight. Yes, I sat with my journal, scribbling while I waited, but the words were all about the angst of making decisions about treatment, expenses and eventually the need to let him go.

Duncan the Dog

Duncan the Dog

He’s home, he’s eating and napping and cheerfully taking his two additional meds. His belly looks bloated and he licks it like he’s soothing it, but otherwise, we are having our usual morning. I’m still a writer, but I’m also a person with a strong attachment to other living 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.

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.

Faith, Hope, Clarity and Sweetgrass

SweetgrassSome books earn my respect, even affection. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer is one. The subtitle tells a lot: “Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.” I am not a gardener nor a farmer, so anything that explains plant life feels fresh to me. Kimmerer is “a mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation . . .” so I was persuaded to trust her knowledge. What I was not prepared for was the stunning prose that kept me reading. Somewhere I’ve heard that writing well requires “faith, hope, and clarity.” She gives us all three in abundance.

In addition to her style and content, Kimmerer is a story teller. She takes on the role in a personal and personable way. Her first-person accounts of her work as mother and scientist, indigenous person and skilled teacher wooed me. I felt that I was standing in the rain with her, noticing the various sizes of rain drops as they fell from the leaves and mosses. I was with her and her daughters as they went out in the dark to escort salamanders across blacktop to keep them from becoming roadkill. I listened like a child to native stories of Skywoman and Windigo. Her voice is clear and sweet as maple sap, but never syrupy, never wheedling. Rather she shows the ways that natural science and writing and daily life are braided together like the wild sweetgrass she uses for ceremonies of thanksgiving.

Here, then, is a lesson on writing about the potentially esoteric skills and knowledge of a scientist and the emotional life of a single mother and the history of people dismissed and under appreciated despite their centuries old knowledge of the world. Read it and learn.

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.

Top Twenty Shelf

Recently, I had a discussion with four other women writers in which we talked about Virginia Woolf’s classic A Room of Ones Own. My copy is marked with the little dots I put at key points, a few underlines, and some modest wear on the dust jacket. But to me it’s a valuable book. And that made me think of other books that I keep because reading them was a memorable experience. A few are signed, more than a few are from years ago. But I’m about to move them to a place of honor, my mentors, teachers, exemplars. Slight apology to men, but these are my select twenty women writers. I’ve made some tough decisions, because many of them have multiple titles that I treasure, but I’m making myself evaluate what matters most. Here they are:

Addonizio, Kim. Bukowski in a Sundress: Confessions of a Writing Life

Allende, Isabelle. Paula

Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale

Chodron, Pema. The Pema Chodron Collection

Cisneros, Sandra. My Wicked Wicked Ways

Conway, Jill Kerr. The Road from Coorain

Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Forche, Carolyn. Against Forgetting

Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones

Greer, Germaine. Female Eunuch

Kingsolver, Barbara. Small Wonder

Levertov, Denise. The Complete Poems

Piercy, Marge. Woman on the Edge of Time

Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born

Steinem, Gloria. Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions

Tan, Amy. The Opposite of Fate

Wakoski, Diane. The Butcher’s Apron

Williams, Terry Tempest. When Women Were Birds

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of Ones Own

If you have such a list, I’d like to see it. Let me hear from you.

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.