Word Greed

Admit it, if you are like me, you collect words you’ll never need. I go further in this vice: I collect quotes, whole sentences, even paragraphs. These snippets are not necessarily related to what I’m working on; in fact, I may never use them. Like a crow with shiny objects, I carry them in my beak from a library book to my nest which is a journal and hide them from jealous eyes. It’s not just the words that shine so much as it is how they cling together, like the roots of a tree, hidden but intricate, nourishing resources.

Language is more than a list of words, isn’t it? It’s a harvest of phrases and sentences, images and sounds, some of them heard silently in my brain as I read. It’s a gathering, which like any other healthy community, welcomes immigrants. In fact, it needs strangers in its midst or it stiffens like rheumatic knees. A vast array of word groups from many sources brings news of other villages and cultures, news we need to grow on.

David George Haskell, in his wonderful book Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors, repeatedly demonstrates the interconnectedness of life over time and place, whether in the canopy of the rain forest in Ecuador or the balsam firs of the frozen north. He listens and brings back what he hears. We who write must do the same or risk ignorance, a false understanding of the web of life which is so much bigger than we can imagine. But we might just grasp it through a web of words.

A Week of Weakness

My recent illness was not exotic, just an annoying head cold that required me to stay close to the tissue box and the herbal tea, and prevented me from leaving home in order not to offend or contaminate others. One of the several annoyances this week was the distraction of sneezing, coughing and dripping. My hands were busy with other things than the pen and notebook. Inactivity left large muscles sore and grumpy. Writing may begin in the brain but it is released into the world by the body, and my body was not cooperating.

While I was achy, frustrated, whiny, I read part of Helen Keller’s autobiography. Blind, deaf, and mute, Keller first learned finger spelling and finally speech. Her senses put her in touch with the world and the world in touch with her. Despite her long journey into literacy, her prose is clear, fresh, deliciously detailed, a lesson on the futility of self-pity and a beautiful reminder of the mind-body connection.

I remember a student who came often to the Writing Lab at LSU-S when I taught there. This woman had a spinal injury that left her immobilized with barely enough dexterity to manage the lever on her power wheelchair. But she wrote! She used a mouth stick to depress the keys on the computer keyboard. Given new voice-activated options, she is, I suspect, even more productive now than when I knew her. I’ve worried at times what I’d do if my right hand failed me and I could not write. I’d remember Kathy and find another way because I need the body to deliver what the mind invents.

Writing in a Stockpot or a Skillet

There are at least two ways to cook up a new story or poem: #One is the stockpot process. You take out the stockpot with the intent to make chicken soup. You go to the refrigerator, get the chicken and carrots and an onion, find in the pantry the rice, reach down the sage, salt, pepper and bay leaf. You know in advance the ingredients and the process. You boil the chicken till the meat is tender and falling off the bone, remove the chicken, strain the broth and shred the meat. Chop and add the veggies, measure in the rice and seasonings and there you have it, just what you intended.

If you’re writing a sonnet, a short story or a novel, you know the size of the pot you’ll put you ingredients into and you may know the ingredients ahead of time–characters, plot, theme, etc.

But another time you look around the kitchen and find one potato, a couple of eggs and two slices of bacon. What to make of this? Quiche? Or a traditional breakfast? You get out the skillet, cook the bacon, use the bacon grease to fry the potato and the egg. This time you began with no preconceived idea but the inspiration of ingredients.

I often do this when I see an image that triggers my imagination. The shadow of low-flying Canada geese, a phrase that seems loaded with mystery, or an interaction between strangers. The new novel that is coming to life started this way: I made a silly pun in my journal, “Dear Paige,” the way writers used to say Dear Diary. Well, turns out Paige is a fully rounded character and she gets into trouble without too much help from me. I go to work every morning not knowing what she’ll do next. So far it’s working. Spicy!

Please read for equality, see the list below:

The Bestselling Black Books, The Top 25 Black-Owned Websites, and More


https://aalbc.com/

Word for the Day Is Wall

The Great Wall of China, built with slave power about the third century BC was ineffective against invaders. Now it’s a tourist site. The Biblical Old Testament tells us about the Battle of Jericho: “And it came to pass, when the people heard the sound of the horn, that the people shouted with a great shout, and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city.” Hadrian’s Wall was built in 122 BC to protect the northern boundary of Roman Britain. It did not keep out the enemy. In 1961 East Germany built a wall of wire and concrete. It came down in 1989. My dictionary defines a wall as “a rampart built for defensive purposes,” meant to enclose, to divide, to confine, to block off.

Robert Frost in his poem “Mending Wall” begins, “Something there is that doesn’t like a wall …” I’m with him. But of course, I live within walls, feel safe and sheltered by the sturdy walls of my home. But these walls are pierced with doors and windows that can provide access, welcome, or escape, as needed. Defensive walls, historically, have not guaranteed safety from intruders. They are costly failures. They are not permeable and can imprison those on the inside. Like Frost, something in me doesn’t like such a wall.

Endings and Bananas

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.

Why I Own Books

I’ve moved dozens of times and in those moves I tried to free myself of the weight of books. It has yet to work. The books sneak back into my home like stray cats. And this week I had a lesson in the joy of owning them–the books, not the cats.

Reading a library book, I saw what looked like an unintelligible couple of lines quoted from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. These poems are dense and ask a lot of a reader, and despite having read them numerous times, I didn’t quite trust myself to say, oh, yes, typos in an expensive tome of criticism. Didn’t dare say “Gotcha” to an editor from Harper Collins. Hurried two or three steps to the Es in my collection of poetry, and felt momentary panic–where was Eliot? Aha, the coy, slender volume was hiding between Stephen Dunn and Sharif Elmusa.

But my memory was right, two words were missing initial letters in the quoted passage. My copy of the poems saved me from booting up the Mac Mini and waiting for the wifi to open, and then the bother of typing in the search box, and watching the screen light its way into the labyrinth of Eliot’s work to find those wounded words snapped off like glass twigs.

Best of all, I had that little book in my hands, the feel of its sleek cover, the little head shot of T.S.E, a facsimile of his signature, the praise from John Crowe Ransom on the back cover, and inside the familiar dots of red ink I often use to mark memorable lines, my very own Four Quartets. And I read it again straight through, brushed my teeth, and went to bed happy and vindicated.

Music, Magic and the Muse

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)