Love the One You’re With; or On Envy, Fulfillment, and the Writing Life

I had dinner recently with someone from my past. We were pretty much in the same places in our lives for a little while. Then our directions quickly diverged. She stayed a while longer in the job we both had; I quit. She got married; I stayed single for many years. She had kids; I did not. She got a new job I might have liked; I started my own business, which is what she had intended to do. Her salary increased; I spent my savings. She became the head of an organization, responsible to her staff, board, and the people who rely on the services of her organization. I live pretty much my own life in my own way, accountable to almost no one.

I have a great life. But being with her rattled me for a time. Who was I then, and what am I now? Should I have been more ambitious? Should I have tried harder to find purpose in that career I had at the time?

I’m pretty sure I made the right choices for me at the right times and for the right reasons. And I know I would not be happy living her life. But still, something nagged. I was surprised to feel some envy.

I haven’t looked it up but I wonder if envy is from the same root as the French envoyer, to send, as if some imagined and unfulfilled future has sent someone back to say nah nah nanah nah. Or maybe there’s some connection to vie, as if envy is to enter in to some competition, some vying for something. Because of course, it takes two to envy.

Or three, rather, as there is the damnable Other person who triggers the whole thing, and the Self, of course, but then there’s the Shadow Self, that imagined person living the life of the Other, endlessly happy, rich, and trouble free. And that’s the absurdity, of course.

Okay, I looked it up, and envy is from the Latin in + videre, to see. So envy is a seeing in, but a seeing that’s through a glass darkly, it seems. Somehow it came to mean to see with malice. But me, I am seeing amiss. The only thing I’m vying with is my shadow boxer, a funny shaped version of me flinging around on the floor. We bounce and dance around the ring, but our punches miss every time.

As happens so frequently, into my inbox popped the latest post from the incomparable website Brainpickings which contained exactly reflective ideas that further enlarged my thinking on this stuff. Brainpickings mastermind Maria Popova stumbled on a book called A Life of One’s Own by Joanna Field, published in 1934. Joanna Field was a pen name for psychoanalyist Marion Milner. Milner decided to spend seven years studying what makes for fulfillment and happiness by examining her own moments, observing her own brain’s movements through the range of discontents and contents.

It turns out the very act of closely observing, both her thoughts and the world around her, brought a widening of vision that itself was joyous. Here are two observations Popova quotes from the book that I found particularly interesting.

Field/Milner wrote: “…what is really easy, as I found, is to blind one’s eyes to what one really likes, to drift into accepting one’s wants ready-made from other people, and to evade the continual day to day sifting of values.”

And this: “I had been continually exhorted to define my purpose in life, but I was now beginning to doubt whether life might not be too complex a thing to be kept within the bounds of a single formulated purpose, whether it would not burst its way out, or if the purpose were too strong, perhaps grow distorted like an oak whose trunk has been encircled with an iron band. I began to guess that my self’s need was for an equilibrium, for sun, but not too much, for rain, but not always… So I began to have an idea of my life, not as the slow shaping of achievement to fit my preconceived purposes, but as the gradual discovery and growth of a purpose which I did not know.… that my real purpose might be to learn to have no purposes.”

And I think about the kind of observation and reflection required to make art, particularly (but I am biased here) poetry. Isn’t it great that the very process required to make art is what Milner discovered is the process required to feel fulfilled, once we’ve jettisoned the ideas of fulfillment handed to us by parents, others, society, tradition. This is not to say that fulfillment is not found in all kinds of work, but rather that it is found in moments of quiet, sensory-based attention to what is at hand, whatever is at hand — a meeting with a client, the combining of ingredients for a cake, the resolution of a column of figures, or the act of mustering experience, imagination, and language to write a poem.

Milner wrote: “I had felt my life to be of a dull dead-level mediocrity, with the sense of real and vital things going on round the corner, out in the streets, in other people’s lives. For I had taken the surface ripples for all there was, when actually happenings of vital importance to me had been going on, not somewhere away from me, but just underneath the calm surface of my own mind.”

If you don’t subscribe to Brainpickings, I highly recommend you do. Every post is filled with so much fascinating and thought-enlarging stuff. The only problem is that it lengthens beyond reason the list of wonderful sounding books I have to get around to reading.

Read the entry I cited here.


Lingua Franca, Alfie; or What Poetry is All About

“It’s all about language!” Nancy exclaims.

“Yes!” I cry, “That’s it exactly!”

Her undergraduate poetry students, apparently, balk at this. They’re sure it must be all about their experience and their emotion. And, of course, yes, it is, AND ALSO…and yes, it is, BUT THEN…, she tries to explain. Without attention to language, we run the risk of writing prose and sticking random line breaks in and calling it a poem. Possibly with tortured and obvious end rhymes, just to make sure the moniker sticks.

Well, that’s her battle to fight. I have my own: I started thinking surely I could now come to appreciate more of the contemporary poetry I struggle with if I could only remember that it’s all about language.

But actually, often that’s the problem I have. It seems to be all about language…and not much or enough about experience or emotion…much less the other basic building blocks of poetry’s towers, huts, bridges, and many mansions.

A quick tally in my own mind of these blocks include: image, diction and tone, rhythm, silence, placement of words visually on the page. Oh, and intention.

So, language, yes, AND…or I’m left dangling in a language soup. Throw some croutons to this drowning fly. Give me a little logic, some sense of depth of meaning, some boogie woogie; and image, please, give me a flower or a piece of dogshit on the sidewalk or a surgeon’s scalpel under the light, something to grab onto, even if it bloodies me.

I know I’ve lamented this again and again in this blog, and encouraged myself to read more slowly, read with a broader mind and spirit. But I keep forgetting, and getting frustrated all over again when I read the next inscrutable (to me) volume. But I’m ready to dive in again, armed with the battle cry “Language! Language!”

But lest it seem like I only read poetry I don’t get, let me take a moment to mention a few books I’ve read recently or are in the middle of which I am very much enjoying: Lisa Bellamy’s The Northway, Jackie Craven’s Secret Formulas and Techniques of the Masters, and Sarah Giragosian’s Queer Fish. Oh, and rereading Anne Carson’s fascinating Autobiography of Red. Huzzah.

Pass Go; collect $200; or, On Success…or Successishness

I’ve been reading about the origins of life, the mash of elements plus a pinch of lightning and then an “It’s alive” kind of thing.

It was all so unlikeley and random-seeming, life. Cellular matter, a membrane, some cell division, next thing you know, someone’s got a tail, next thing you know, woop, that tail’s gone out of fashion. And here we are. Surprise!

What’s it all about? The tendency of “life” to want to live in the now and onward. The meaning of life? Well, I don’t think there is intrinsic meaning to this random fallout. You want meaning? Make it yourself. We just flail around, a bunch of bacteria and dividing cells, and then it’s over. Well, except for the bacteria.

Which brings a certain amount of perspective on the idea of success, something else about which I’ve been thinking.

I’ve tried a number of pursuits in my life. Had a number of ambitions, both realistic and outlandish. Numerous fancies. Many dreams. One by one, all these things fall away. Pursuit falters; ambition lapses or faces the grim reality of oh-just-forget-it; dreams, well, dreams are forgotten, tossed aside with regret, relief, bitterness, or remain clutched in the hand like a magician’s coin, invisible but caught in the fingers.

I thought I’d be this thing, do that thing, or be that kind of person. With each passing life phase I’ve tried to get clearer who I am, what I’m here for, and how I define success. It’s an ongoing project.

And ongoingly I’ve tried to broaden the definition of who I am. That whole “contain multitudes” thing. The whole “accept the things” and “wisdom to know the diff” thing.

And I’ve tried to broaden my definition of success. The whole “hey, good for you for trying” thing. The etymology of “success” as a noun is pretty much from words meaning “after go.” Which is a pretty low bar to begin with. Everything that comes after my actually doing something is, by etymology, a success.

And I’m finding lately, in moments, that I’m on board with that, that my definition of success is getting narrower and narrower. Between bouts of garment rending over my 15th manuscript rejection or my millionth cry of “This shit got into [insert name of topnotch litmag here] magazine and I can’t get even one poem in crappy [insert absurd name of some rinkydink stapled-together thing that you were sure you could place a poem in…but were wrong, wrong wrong wrong],” lately I’ve been thinking that maybe success is, as the Grinch learned about Christmas, “just a little bit more.”

If I can try to have fun most of the time. That seems to be key. And if I can try to be kind to others and to myself…well…most of the time, or try to remember to be, anyway, well, maybe that’s it. A little kindness, a little fun, as much laughter as I can fit in. Is that all there is?

But what about that pesky kindness stuff…what if I’m a little shaky on that…? Are there gradations of success? Is there such a thing as successful-ish?

Mi, a name I call myself; or, More on Voice

In response to my last post, friend David Graham wrote, “I’ve finally come to believe that ‘voice’ is not something to concern myself with. Others will or will not tag me with such a thing, but it just messes me up to think about it. I simply (ha! it ain’t simple!) try to write as well as I can & in the process figure out what I want to say (which for me always happens in the revision process, not before.)…In a similar way, worrying about originality is for me mostly a dead end. I love something Levertov said: ‘Originality is nothing else but the deepest honesty.'”

I thought about that for a while, and replied, “I wonder if it’s not the author that has a voice but the poems themselves. I know I get annoyed when a poem of mine starts having a kind of woff woff self-aggrandizing tone of some British lord or Oxford don. I have to shove it off its high horse. Then other poems just think they’re so damn funny they start laughing at themselves so hard I can’t understand what they’re saying.”

And soon after that exchange I found this notion by Richard Russo in the eponymous essay of his new book The Destiny Thief: “I’d been told before that writers had to have two identities, their real-life one…as well as another, who they becomewhen they sit down to write. This second identity, I now saw, was fluid, as changeable as the weather, as unfixed as our emotions. As readers, we naturally expect novels to introduce us to a new cast of characters and dramatic events, but could it also be that the writer has to reinvent himselffor the purpose of telling each new story?”

That feels both interesting and true. I don’t think it’s contradictory to think about an author’s voice and the voice of a poem or a story. Both voices exist, creating a mini chorus with every piece.

As I look back on my work, I discern a certain McCabeness about most of it, even as the tone and timbre, rhythm and diction, impulse and objective, snap or murmur, are quite different. (Although I confess, I sort of feel like if I’ve read one Russo book, I’ve read them all….)

How else to explain this than there is a voice in the poem itself that it’s my job to summon in creating it and honing in revision? And yet because of the limitations of my own self (even with all its multitudes) the range of voices summoned in the poems will be limited as well, and will sound like me without my trying, or worrying too much about it. If my poems sound too much like someone else, then, as David indicates, I’m probably not clear on what I’m trying to say and am not working from that “deepest honesty,” and it’s my job in the revision process to sort that out.

So this idea of “finding your voice” may be like so many other classic pieces of advice — overly simplistic, often taken too far, yet containing some useful truth. Like “write what you know” or “never lend money to friends.” Well, yes…but, I have this thing called an imagination. And I could really use $20.

I guess you find your voice by finding your deepest concerns and writing from some authentic core. Or that’s the task, anyway. Easier said than…well…said.


There there; or On Substance and Style and the Writing Process

I’ve been writing a lot of words on the page. Scrawled loopdiloos, but what do they say?  What are they getting at? That’s the problem. I feel like I’m sleepwriting. All this impressionistic stuff is rushing out, but what is it all about? I’m not sure. I’m trying not to disrupt the process with criticism and analysis at this point, but I’m eyeing it all suspiciously.

Okay, well, then in fact, I AM disrupting the process with criticism and analysis. I know that only when I plunge into the editing process will I discover what there is in here. But there’s so MUCH of it. And I fear that’s it’s all fluff and no substance, or that I’m racing around something but not getting any closer.

How do we balance the creative impulse with creative intent? Too much intent can flatten an impulse like my hair when it gets too long. No body. No bounce. Too much impulse with too little intent is all bounce, all Marlo-Thomas’s-That-Girl-flip-curl.

In the history of talking about learning to write, there has been much attention to “voice” — the finding and nurturing of. But really I read so many well-voiced things that in the end say little. And other work I read may have interesting thoughts not well said. So it’s the two: something to say and a compelling voice to say it with.

And I think a writer’s voice can change, should be allowed to change, maybe ought to change to best meet what the author has to say with any given impulse and intent.

But there must be something to be said. And that takes suspending oneself upside-down in the sink of the inner self (to shove the trope onward — I really do need a haircut…) and let the water and suds flow down.

What I’ve done to myself by stopping this process, by doubting it, is to sit up dripping and soapy. But I must not lose courage. I have to keep writing it all out. Then plod through the mess with my clippers and shears. And if I end up with a shaved head, well, it’s a look.

If it’s not too late, make it a cheeeeseburger; or, Presenting the Self

I am rererereading the most excellent book by Vivian Gornick on writing, The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. Although the book is about writing personal essays and memoir, she says so many smart things that are absolutely applicable to writing poetry.

She herself distinguishes personal narrative writing from fiction and poetry this way: “A novel or a poem provides invented characters or speaking voices that act as surrogates for the writer. Into those surrogates will be poured all that the writer cannot address directly–inappropriate longings, defensive embarrassments, anti-social desires [geesh, what kind of poetry has she been reading?!?!]–but must address to achieve felt reality. The persona in a nonfiction narrative…must identify openly with those very same defenses and embarrassments that the novelist or the poet is once removed from.” I would argue, though, that her ultimate point is of deep relevance to the poet, whether that poet has created a narrative persona other than him- or herself or has used the frankly personal “I” or has no apparent persona at all.

(People always think poets are writing about themselves anyway, and that everything in a poem is “true.”)

Gornick writes: “The unsurrogated narrator has the monumental task of transforming…self-interest into the kind of detached empathy required of a piece of writing that is to be of value to the disinterested reader.” She calls this unsurrogated narrator, this narrative persona, the “instrument of illumination.

She says “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” And aren’t the most resonant poems the ones that strike us with that wisdom, that “thing”? Poems that lack it might be interesting; but I guarantee you won’t carry them folded up in your wallet for times of trouble, or quote them at relevant life points, or carry a book of them with you through eleven apartment moves.

She talks about being “engaged at the deepest level” in which “writing does not wander about on the page accumulating description for its own sake, or developing images independent of thought, or musing lyrically. The point of view originates in the nervous system and concentrates itself in the person of a narrator who…is to use the narrating self only to shape those associations that will provide drive and lead on to inner resolution. These writers might not ‘know’ themselves–that is, have no more self-knowledge than the rest of us–but…they know who they are at the moment of writing.” This presence of the narrating self to the situation creates the “story,” or, I argue, the effective poem. I’m not talking just about the confessional poem. I’m talking about any poem in which the poet engages with the world and is spurred to write out of that engagement.

Gornick talks about finding the other in the self and using that self-investigation to provide purpose and tension in an essay or memoir. But isn’t that also the case in poetry — is there not a crucial element of investigation, and aren’t we often asking questions of our selves? And must they not be so intimate that you, the reader, are also engaged in that self-same self-investigation, advertently or inadvertently? As Gornick puts it, “…a mind puzzling its way out of its own shadows…[t]he act of clarifying on the page….”

About this idea of “truth” in a piece: “Truth…is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to makeof what happened.” It seems to me this is as true in poetry as in any kind of literature.

Of course, this is not what all poets are about. Some are functioning on the surface of sound, or the whiteness of page and what can be played out there, or are at some other kind of poetic enterprise. So I admit maybe my thinking here is too narrow. I am writing about the kind of poetry I am trying to write, not the kind of poetry that is widely lauded in the contemporary world (poetry which makes me feel like there is some huge club all of whose members are speaking some secret language I have not been initiated in. I consider this a failing in myself.).

She talks about “looking for the inner context that makes a piece of writing larger than its immediate circumstance…” That’s the kind of poem I’m talking about.


D…do do do..d..da da da da is all I want to say to you; or Why Make Art

If I’m not actually writing, I try to be at least making something — a video poem, a series of drawings, some act of creativity. Recently I made a, as it turns out, rather elaborate and complicated accordion-binding book with a cover made of two small picture frames within which I made collages. (Yeah, I haven’t been doing much writing lately….)

It was quite an undertaking, and I had never made such a thing before, so it has some flaws — I folded some of the pages incorrectly and had to refold, so the old folds are still evident; I pasted some of the sections together on the wrong side so the pasted portion shows instead of being hidden behind the new page; an item has already fallen out of one of the collages. You know how things go. But it was a process, and a product, and therefore, satisfying.

I showed it to a friend, who said, “Oh, what are you going to do with it?”

I became confused. Was I supposed to do something with it? I thought the doing was the doing. I thought the showing-someone was also a sufficient doing. Was there more? Am I supposed to…what?…submit it to an art show…sell it on eBay?

Okay, I write poems, and some of them I send out to try to get published. Some of them I put together with others into a manuscript. Some of them get thrown away. Some sit around in their underwear for a very long time. If I was required to “do” something with everything I made I’m not sure I’d make stuff at all.

Or do I only make stuff because somewhere in the back of my mind there’s a possibility that I’ll do something with them, like get them published, win international acclaim, cash prizes, etcetera?

I don’t know. I’m sort of flummoxed.

I just wanted to make this thing and show it to someone. Now it sits around looking at me like it’s waiting for my next move.

So. Here it is. This is my next move. Ta da. Let the international acclaim and cash prize flow.