Heeeyyy, what’s the big idea?; or, Challenging One’s Limits in Writing

I’ll soon be going to MassMoCA for a writing residency. For a week I wander around the museum, the museum grounds, and the hilly streets of North Adams, not thinking a whole lot, just sponging. I love the Big Ideas behind the crazy installations at the museum. There’s always at least one that blows my mind somehow.

I always hope to bring more Big Ideas to my own work. It falls small sometimes, and I’d like to have a practice that reminds me to be large — both in my concepts, and in my sounds and silences, my reaches and rhythms.

It’s easy to collapse into what’s known, into the grooves of old thought — I first typed “groves,” and that too fits: not seeing the forest for the trees. I can easily lapse into my laps of quotidian thought and response, or even of the Things that Drive Me Crazy, most of which never change, and so by now, any writing I do about them is also likely tired and rutted. Putting myself in the way of others’ Big Ideas can usefully expand my mind and therefore my work.

When I read Marina Abramovic’s autobiography I remember being struck by how her work came out of deep emotion around her country, its people, and how those thoughts/feelings turned strange in her art, turned to something often brutally enacted, uncompromising.

Lonnie Holley’s “In the Grip of Power,” a video playing next to a rickety old voting table, a handgun stuck to it, is simple and devastating in its plain-spoken text about voting rights and how it affectd his own family, playing over the austere visual of Holley, alone in a vast space, setting up the booth. It makes me cry every time. This is the best of the personal being political, the political being personal.

I am tempted sometimes to say that poems of romantic love bore me, because frankly sometimes they do; and poems of first sex or the wonders of masturbation. But of course what is bigger than love? What is bigger than the body, its strange arrangements and electrifying jolts? Saying at least “maybe” to all possibilities is the way to Big Ideas, as is staying with the small moments, the deep breaths, the electricities of body-in-the-world.

Here’s something Simone de Beauvoir wrote: “My life…runs back through time and space to the very beginnings of the world and to its utmost limits. In my being I sum up the earthly inheritance and the state of the world at this moment.”

Now that’s a Big Idea, that the self is the sum in and beyond time.

So bring it, World, the moment, the now, the Big Thing that is me-and-you.


Time Is On My Side; or, Narrative Motion

I am thinking about time, that mover, that crawler, how it shuffles, how it disappears. I began thinking about this as I have been doing an online course on the braided essay, that is, a prose beast that contains two or more throughlines of thought/experience, the weaving of which can create a conversation, as one line questions, highlights, casts shadows on the others, or creates gaps of warp and weft such that new ideas are suggested. I often love these kinds of essays. But the course offered one example in which I  found myself speed-reading in boredom through. And I posited that I was bored because none of the threads of the bread contained a narrative that moved through time. I wondered if I needed that pull of story to carry me forward, that sense of time passing and something unfolding.

I don’t know if that is actually the case, because I can’t be bothered to go back and reread it to test my theory.

But in poetry my preference to read and to write is for the lyric poem, the poem-of-a-moment, of held breath, a blink-and-now-it’s-gone. So why this testiness when it came to prose?

To be fair, maybe it was just that one essay. I’m reading various works by my latest literary crush Robert MacFarlane. (I know I’ve mentioned him in this space before.) His works are not set in moving time, particularly, yet I find them fascinating. The narratives are of short duration — a hike here, a conversation there. Maybe there are just enough of those to keep me turning the page, maybe it’s that not the magic of his lyrical prose.

The movement of time on the page is prestidigitation: one moment you’re in the dining room, the next, five years have past and you’re on a train. The tick tick of life lived is never that gratifyingly flee-full of the ache of passing time: boredom, the dentist’s waiting room, the wait for the other shoe to drop. (Yes, there is the sending the child off to kindergarten one day and college seemingly the next, the panicked knowledge that time has passed that you haven’t noticed. But is that not also ache?)

But maybe it’s not the passage of time that helps pull the reader along, but in fact, some indication of change — whether that be change in the narrator, in the situation, in the unfolding comprehension of what is occurring. Long ago I attended a creative nonfiction writing workshop, and it was suggested that my essay about my decision to quit my job was too blame-y of everyone else. I was taken aback by this perspective, as I didn’t think that that was what I was doing. But I think back now and suspect that what I had not sufficiently done was to express the internal change that had lead me to that point — had not shown the eagerness turned dread, the hope turned to despair.

Time is change, and change occurs in time. So whether the expression in writing is “later that day” or “I had thought once X but finally realized Y,” the readerly imagination is caught and carried. But of course that inner change is the more satisfying thread to follow, the emotional trip always more deeply interesting than the movement of the minute hand or the walk from point A to point B. But it’s the harder story to tell.

Coo coo cachoo; or, The Limited Power of Words

I am a great believer in words: to inspire, to set imagination in motion, to make laugh, cry, delight, wonder. I reminded myself recently, however, that I have never entirely believed that words have the power to persuade.

Do they? Have I ever by words alone shifted from one idea to another? I need to think about this. This is, after all, the season of  endless punditry about political debates. Do they really persuade sufficient numbers of the electorate to make them worthwhile? I am skeptical.

I am drafting a communication to someone I know — I haven’t decided to deliver it by speech or writing — to try to convince them to do something about something important. I have little faith it will work. But I feel I need to try. I believe in words, after all. But I’m just not sure they have enough power in this situation.

Communication, after all, is a two-way radio. Words fall on a prepared mind, or on a closed one. I read a poem recently that I (this is a constant lament of mine) did not understand. Yet the poem had won a prize. Clearly the poem’s words fell against the closed door of my mind. The judge’s mind was open, and the words waltzed right on through.

A friend of mine in law school once asked me to pretend I was a juror. He made what seemed like a sound argument regarding a financial remuneration for a victim. As the jury, I voted to agree. He then gave me the larger context, and I realized that I had been taken in: his well-delivered, dynamic, but one-sided presentation had hoodwinked me. Dang. But, I argue, it was not just his words, but the fact that I was fond of him, and that he spoke so reasonably, and that I had no chance to consider an alternative presentation — I had, after all, agreed to this artificial stage.

Communication is not just a radio — it’s a thing between people, and anything between people…well…can be complicated. If my microwave beeps that something is done, it is reporting on the ending of the time I asked it to keep while warming up a dish. If I ignore, it will beep again, as it’s programmed to do. If my husband deems something is done, he may then ask, But is it warm enough for you on the inside? Or some other thing that makes this a give-and-take. But he might ask me as I’m in the middle of a thought, or reading a complicated sentence, and I might grunt a reply, or fail to respond at all, which will irritate him momentarily. And so it goes.

Words are nothing outside of the context of the human interaction. Can I convince you of this?

Even in the silence of a room and the soft swish of your hand on the page of a book, the words you read are the mind of another, passed through the paws of the publishing world and some printy machine thing, through a book purveyor, and into your hands on a quiet evening. If you are not distracted. If the words conjure enough of an image or idea that your mind clasps it like a coffee cup. If it is written in a language you understand. If you are not too sleepy. The author doesn’t know all this, of course. She writes what she writes and you, reader, are a mere mirage, a hoped-for angel of delivery of her words to your mind. A ghost of eight percent of the retail price you paid in her hand. And if it is a book trying to persuade you to change your life? Well, it’s a gamble, isn’t it?

But I can’t not try to persuade this person to do this thing — because I believe in words, if not, perhaps, in the power of this particular walkie-talkie set-up, this game of telephone between me and him. His handset might be turned off. Or in this game of telephone, when I say “would you please consider…?” he might hear “Woodrow Wilson.” “Woodrow Wilson?” he’ll puzzle. “Why is she talking to me about Woodrow Wilson?”


Down to the Crossroads; or, Confidence and the Editing Process

I’ve gotten a couple of acceptances just recently that I’m very pleased about. And it has also thus far been a year of many rejections. I have certain pieces I’ve really believed in that just keep getting rejected over and over again, and I’m losing my confidence. Do I really know how to assess my own work? Am I just wrong?

My rational self says, “Yes, sometimes you’re wrong. But sometimes,” it assures, “you’re not wrong. It’s just that this is the game — send stuff out, get it rejected, repeat.”

But, I argue, how do I know when I’m right and when I’m wrong?

Rational Self says, “Oh, um…is that the phone? I think I hear the phone. Gotta go…”

I’m in this place of doubt — not necessarily doubt about my work, but doubt about my ability to understand what in the work is working. And what isn’t. I know I’ve been here before. I know the mood has passed. I don’t know if I had discovered some way out of this fog, or whether it’s just time, and distraction. I’ve forgotten. I know I come back to two things: that time is the best editor; and that there is something at gut-level that knows things about my work. But when time and gut still says it likes a work that has been getting rejected for years? I know I’ve written in this very space about honing one’s own editorial sense. But can I really believe myself? I dunno.

Rational Self rolls her eyes.

The editing process takes inner calm, perspective, and confidence. This is especially true when it comes to “knowing” that something is ready to send out. My own process is too often to send stuff out too soon, get it back rejected, and suddenly see a new editing angle. But hey, it’s a process. But there are some times in which I just can’t muster up the guts to do good editing on my own work, or see it with a sufficiently cold eye. (And I do think there are some of my works that I’ll just never get perspective on. I’m just going to love their flawed selves and that’s it. I’ll tuck them into a manuscript somehow or incorporate them into a visual project maybe. But I won’t abandon them to my C-level folder! I won’t!)

A friend of mine who breeds and raises dogs talks about puppy panic periods: something a puppy did without fear a day before suddenly turns it into a whites-around-the-eyes, stiff-legged-no-way-I-ain’t-doin’-that trembling mess, and pretty soon pretty much everything freaks it out. The periods generally only last a few days, although the puppy might have another such period some time later in its development. I think I have puppy panic periods throughout my whole life. Different things set me off at different times (there are some things, of course, that set me off EVERY time). (Spider!) I think I must be in one now.

Time will move me off this, and I’ll regain my self-confidence, and/or regain some perspective on those pieces that have received consistent rejections, and/or continue to believe in them beyond all reason. Right now, though, I’m going to just sit here quietly for a while.

That’s not a spider over there, is it?


Talk Amongst Yourselves; or, Language and Learning, Words and Way

Here is something I read in The Guardian: an article about the work of David Shariatmadari about language. The article said, summarizing some of what Shariatmadari is thinking: Language is “a medium that is formed as it is used…a road that is paved at the same time as we walk it.”

I think of the Antonio Machado quote: “Caminante, no hay camino,/se hace camino al andar” which I’ve seen translated in many wonderful ways, but is roughly, “Walker, there is no way, the way is made by walking.”

I write and in writing, if I’m open enough, I can learn what I’m thinking and why, and then I can write toward writing it. I speak and in speaking stumble over all the ways to miscommunicate, to hurt inadvertently, to confuse, to be thoughtless, or to be thoughtful, to be funny, insightful, or astoundingly dumb, and go on to speak again, ideally having learned something (to hold my tongue, perhaps).

Then I remembered something of a wonderful book by Olivia Laing, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, in which she uses a period of displacedness in NYC to explore artists who have embodied loneliness in their life and work, from Hopper to Warhol. She talks about long periods of silence, being startled then by her own voice in speech with others. She writes, “Language is communal. This is the theory put forward by Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations, a rebuttal of Descartes’s notion of the lonely self, trapped in the prison of the body, uncertain that anyone else exists. Impossible, says Wittgenstein. We cannot think without language, and language is by its nature a public game, both in terms of acquisition and transmission.”

I love language because my mother enjoyed words and read to me aloud. Dr. Seuss, Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows. I was raised in words, even in a family of whispers, and silences. The more I learned words the more words I was eager to learn. Some of what I love about both reading translation and playing with it myself is the word search, the many ways to think about sound and meaning in one language and trying to make it correspond in another. As I’m trying to speak French, I love the feeling of spinning through my internal rolodex of English synonyms for what I’m trying to say, seeking a Romance language cognate that might be the right word in French.

I have a literary crush on Robert MacFarlane. His prose unscrolls and rolls in wonderful rhythms and sound. I am now reading The Old Ways, his book of walking ancient paths. Here he is thinking about the word landscape. “Landscape is still often understood as a noun connoting fixity, scenery, and immobile painterly decorum. I prefer to think of the word as a noun containing a hidden verb: landscape scapes, it is dynamic and commotion causing, it sculpts and shapes us not only over the courses of our lives but also instant by instant, incident by incident.”

It occurs to me that my personal vocabulary is a landscape, shaped by what I’ve done and who I’ve known, where I’ve been, what I’ve read. My lexicon shows my wandering and wondering: slithy tove, schist and gneiss, anomie, SEVIS, parts per million, quasi-public, total quality management, chiasmus, per sterpes, apical meristem, and ways to say hello in ten languages. I love this sense of language as landscape through which I have moved and am moving, little dictographs of the way.

Anyway, I’m rambling here. And I guess I’ve arrived at this point to say: Thanks to all of you who have learned me some words and in advance for all to come as we walk this way, talk this way, thinking all the way.

You’re the Salt in My Stew; or, Viva la difference; or, Diversity

One of the great things about being on a writing retreat is being able to paw through the piles of books the others have brought. In one pile I stumbled on an anthology edited by my old teacher-for-a-week Judith Kitchen of short creative nonfiction (In Short, eds. Judith Kitchen and Mary Paumier Jones) within which I found a piece by my old friend Fred Setterberg who wonderfully counters my daily crabbing about the state of the States with this metaphor for what we do when we’re at our best.

He quotes, in “The Usual Story,” Nora Zeale Hurston as writing: “Everyone is familiar with the Negro’s modification of the whites’ musical instruments, so that his interpretation has been adopted by the white man himself and then reinterpreted.” Then Setterberg notes, from his stance in the crowd at the Preservation Jazz Hall: “The bass player…launched into a flutter of notes that were both too rapid and dissonant for New Orleans vintage jazz…demonstrating how music — culture — argues, blends, dissolves, mutates, advances. The odd bird who hears something different plucks his strings too quickly or queerly or flat out plunks the wrong note, but he does it over and over until it sounds rights. He finds his own groove and fashions new music from the old. And that’s exactly what American music — American culture — has managed to do.”

How can we not value the gumbo of us, the jambalaya we are, chunky and piquant? Our language itself is a mongrel; or no, a palanquin, a vessel, a ship, a hammock. I can barely talk to you without calling down the whole array of immigrants to our shores, plus the people who were here when they got here.

Yes, English is a difficult language to rhyme in, with all its variety of endings, which is why poetry in English has long gone in different directions from the old endy-rhymey road, and American poetry has been perhaps particularly jittery and digressive, if also ahistorical and culture-centric. But also wide-armed and ribald and jazz-bit.

The diverse rabble of us elbow-jab and glare, and sigh together, and laugh, which itself is one language. Maybe laughter and music are the two things that will save this species from itself. I don’t know. But I thank Fred for giving me a little air today, a moment of breathing room. And it smells sweet.

You Can Leave Your Hat On; or, Rethinking Writing and Editing

I like to flounce around thinking I know things.

So it’s good when I stumble upon ideas that wake me up to my profound ignorances. A few things I read recently made me rethink my often cavalier approach to writing and particularly to editing.

First was this from1984: “The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect.” In 1984not only is history rewritten daily but language itself is being narrowed, and as language narrowed, thought itself stultified. Thinking and language is, for us, our wag-tongued species, inextricable. “Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller.”

I have always loved words, even as a little tiny kid would leaf through a book on the family shelf called How to Build a Better Vocabulary. Words were as magic as magic, and as delightful in the mouth as chocolate chip cookies, as cake with candles. And I can almost remember a visceral sense of my mind expanding as I encountered new words that struck me, words that opening up new worlds, new ways of thinking.

I just read Robert MacFarlane’s Landmarks, a wonderful book about books and words, specifically words of regional dialect that describe things specific to regional experiences: how the fog creeps across the moor, the way certain rock formations sparkle, how the regular passage of a small animal through a hedge creates a hole. Worlds and worlds, words and worlds.

I think of Rilke in the 9th Duino Elegy: Maybe we are here to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit, tree, window…. (Well, is the best translation “pitcher”? Or is is it “jug”? “Carafe”? “Box of Wine”?) Looking through my recent drafts I think I’ve gone slack with language. One editing exercise I do in my writing workshops is to ask everyone to examine all the verbs in their draft, and act to wake up those verbs, make them carry more weight, move with more gravitas or fleetness. Editor, edit thyself.

And then I encountered the words of an old friend, whose work never fails to humble me to my own limitations: Doug Glover has a new book of essays on writing coming out. It’s called, characteristic of his humor, The Erotics of Restraint: Essays on Literary Form. Here in an adapted extraction published on TheWalrus.ca, Glover speaks volumes about sentences:

A few key quotations from Douglas Glover, “The Power of a Good Sentence,” on TheWalrus.ca:

– “One day, I happened to read an essay called ‘On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature’ by Robert Louis Stevenson. He was talking about sentences, but instead of repeating platitudes, he showed how to construct sentences on the basis of conflict. Instead of just announcing a single thesis, a sentence begins by setting out two or more contrasting ideas; the sentence develops a conflict, intensifying toward a climax, a ‘knot’ Stevenson calls it, and then, after a moment of suspension, slides easily toward a close.”

– “Suddenly writing a sentence became an exciting prospect, a journey of discovery, a miniature story with a conflict and a plot, the outcome of which I might not know at the outset.”

– “The lesson is to inject conflict, rhythm, plot, and energy into your sentences by deploying relatively simple forms. Never leave a crude sentence snoozing on the page when there is the possibility of dramatic elaboration.”

Oh, dear.

And so I fall back, retreat — retreat!– to the beginning — or, is it really the beginning, or some waypoint on the spiral? — to begin again, to roll/push/shove/muscle/spin/turn/revolve/cycle/trundle my rock of carbuncled words and sentences up the rubbled hillside again.