Like a Knight from some Old Fashioned Book; or, On Writing Outside of Lived Experience

I am trying to write a narrative poem, which is unusual for me. “Narrative” meaning there’s a story in it.

And the poem is a story that is not my story. It’s not even the person’s who told the story — I’m a bystander three times away from the action.

And the emotion of the central character, desperation that spurs an action that risks everything, is not one I know — desperation, I know; action for action’s sake, I know; but risking everything? I’m far too cautious, canny, and grasping for that.

So can I write this poem?

I have a couple of unsuccessful drafts. They are missing the punch. My advice to myself is good: stick with the visceral image, keep close to the body. And I know that, James Wright-like, I can ask the title to do some work. But I’m not finding my way in, not finding my way out.

Should I not be writing a story that is not my own, however fictionalized? Is the situation I’m trying to write about too foreign from my own experiences? Is it possible for my imagination to fall short?

The purpose of my telling this story is to make a point about a price one person pays but that reflects a price we all humanity pay. Am I reaching too far? Am I bringing to much conscious intention therefore damning the effort from the start? The road to a crappy poem is paved with good intentions. (Yes, I’ve written about this before: The road to hell.) (Oh, and here’s some good self-advice here too: I Gotta Be Me.) (Why don’t I ever listen to myself?)

The drafts I have are dry with backstory, with narrative; the images are too distantly visual, the character too theoretical. It’s a story I’ve been thinking about for two years. But that doesn’t necessarily make it mine to tell.

Am I appropriating? Or insufficiently imagining? Is there such a thing as a story that is not someone else’s to tell? Aren’t we all in this together, so in theory isn’t this story mine too? I don’t know. It’s an interesting challenge, anyway.



More on Quiet Ways

To my last entry, which was about on being with someone in his or her suffering, a friend replied that listening and prayer are sometimes all we can offer. And I noted that to listen and to pray are actually etymological opposites. This got me thinking about the notion of prayer, which may have transformed over time. To pray is etymologically from “he asks,” that is, an entreaty to some powerful figure, real or imagined.

But I suspect my friend understands prayer in the same way Simone Weil talked about it. Weil wrote, “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.” This has strayed from the original meaning of the word, and I wonder about that. Has it long been understood this way, or is this a more modern, widened idea of what it is to pray?

The word “listen” is from a history of words meaning to pay attention. Attention, to attend, is etymologically linked to, interestingly, “to stretch.” So to attend to someone is to stretch yourself toward them, perhaps? And Weil might suggest the implication is also a stretching toward God (a word itself that links back to nothing but itself, got, in the Old High German, but wends its way eventually to old roots meaning that which is called or invoked — which should feel rather disturbingly tautological to the believer, I would think…).

To be “present” means to be before someone (pre + to be). And all this sitting with and leaning in is by way of giving comfort, a word from the notion “to strengthen greatly” — which surprised me, as I think of being comforted as feeling assisted, perhaps protected or freed from worry, which seems different from being strengthened. But it does seem true that the ultimate effect of being comforted is to give one strength to move back again into the fray, to move back into the way of suffering, itself a word meaning “to bear.”

So it seems the most basic notion of this thing we can offer to the sufferer is to be with and stretch toward. And some people understand this “God” notion as being not a sky-based dude but something within each other, the best within us perhaps. So to be with a sufferer is to try to offer the best in ourselves to call out to the best in the bearer so they may carry on.

What does this have to do with writing? Well, I think our goal should be to conjure our art out of that same place, that same inner place of the-best-of-ourselves. I’m not saying all art needs to be light-filled and divine — out of the best of ourselves we can also conjure great darkness; nor does it need to have as its goal to comfort. Often necessary art necessarily dis-comforts. But those notions of paying attention and being present and being with and stretching toward are all useful to keep in mind in the creative process. You feel me?


Quiet Ways: or How to Speak Without Words

I was talking with a friend, herself emerging from chemo treatment and who had been checking in with other friends in worse situations than she was, about how to be with someone in their suffering. How to be present enough with someone else, even as we each go down our paths alone. We are creatures of words and yet words are so inadequate sometimes. The ritual of prayers seems to help some people but I think that on oft-repeated prayer becomes less the words in it than the sonority and familiar rhythm of it. And if repeated with others becomes a communal song of drone, rhythm, percussion and sibilance — “as we forgive those who trespass against us” (if that’s the way that prayer is said nowadays, “trespass” probably replaced by something more modern, but I like that sense of forgiving someone who crossed some boundary line unauthorized). Being present is what my friend Pierre tries to do with the dying. But what do you do in the threshold? How tiresome it must be to a dying person when someone bustles in and says a usual opener like “how are you today?” How does Pierre manage passing under the lintel between being in the world and being in the world of the dying? What is the password to presence? On the phone with my friend, who admitted to her own suffering, I am not sure I was able to convey presence enough, nodding into the phone. Silence at a distance is ambiguous — can you hear me? Did my murmurs of assent say strongly enough “I hear you, friend”? I think often of a sketch an artist friend made, a pencil drawing of a rolling landscape stretched over a long sheet of paper, two tiny figures making their way down the road, one bent from age or pain, the other bowed in aid. The long white page, the fine line dividing them, joining them. Mmhm, I say. Mmhm.

Stop While You’re a Head: On Emotion in Writing

I keep trying to write ABOUT things — Man’s Inhumanity to Man, the Passing of Time, the Folly of Democracy. All kinds of capital-lettered concepts. And it’s all crap.

As long as I’m trying to write ABOUT something, it’s effortful, awkward, and bad. The only hope is to get out of my head, and to write out of instinct and felt things, not thought things. The only hope is to try to write moments not of intellectual insight but impossible-to-describe emotions.

The other morning I was washing dishes. The sink window looks out over my hated neighbor’s side yard where the hated barking dogs hang out and bark. One of the dogs was out there. One of the hated neighbors was out there too.

I know these beings intimately, in the way neighbors know each other. Reluctantly, inadvertently. So I knew in an instant — from the unusualness of the moment, the postures, the timing, the shaved patch on the dog’s side — that the dog was dying, and the woman had just realized it in earnest. The dog could not get up. The woman could not get the dog up.

I put down my sponge, went out in my bare feet into the alley that separates us. For a second we looked at each other, this triptych: dog glancing at me, then back to its owner, the woman at me, then back to the dog, me at the dog, then her, then back to the dog. There was nothing we could do for each other.

I asked if I could help. She said she didn’t know what to do. I said I didn’t either. She said, “I need to get her inside.” I wanted to suggest we just make her comfortable where she was, but thought that might too frankly address the reality of the situation, so suggested we call her vet, or that I help carry her in. The woman, Katherine, said, “I have one more idea,” and went back up the stairs into her house.

I stayed and talked to the dog, Daisy. She began slowly getting herself up, slowly moving toward the stairs. Katherine came back out. I called, “I’ll come around to help you if she needs help getting up the stairs,” but as I watched, dog and woman slowly climbed the stairs, entered the house. At the door, Katherine turned, waved, “Thank you,” she said. The vet came later that day to put Daisy down.

The next morning the remaining dog began the usual barking in the quiet morning, and I went back to hating them all. Such is my fickle heart. Write about THAT.


Human Letters: On Reading and Empathy, or How I Love My Fellow Human Beings in Theory

A editorial in my local newspaper the other day talked about the importance of reading in teaching children empathy. I was thinking about this myself recently, remembering my childhood, and the importance of books in teaching me about being a caring human being.

Raised by a hard working single mom, I learned from her the basics of being polite, being quiet, staying out of trouble, and trying not to piss anyone off. But the larger issues of good and evil, of compassion, empathy, and acting humanely were not discussed over our TV dinners in front of Jeopardy. Those issues I encountered in books, and particularly the books of Madeleine L’Engle.

I credit A wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, The Arm of the Starfish, and The Young Unicorns with teaching me about what I’ll call “humanism,” that is, being an aware and caring human being in the world, taking action on behalf of moral beliefs and in support of kindness, goodness, and for the benefit of my fellow man. I was aware that her work was steeped in her own Christian beliefs. Raised outside of any church, I had read parts of the Bible, and was already, before I knew the word, an agnostic. But I felt she wielded her Christianity in a way that I could accept, could perceive the human concern at its core.

Her work made me a better person, or made me hope to be a better person. Is that not the highest praise one can give to literature?

I just saw some wonderful meditations from  Kenyon Review in 2010 by Dan Beachy-Quick about reading, and need to spend some more time with them. You may want to too:


Writing and Empathy

A poem by Dante Di Stefano, “A Drone Pilot Discusses the Story of Abraham and Isaac” ( compares Abraham’s faith on that day he offered up his son to the kind of everyday faith with which we live our mundane lives, faith that, for example, if we wait in line at a store, we will be served, if we offer up our credit card, the purchase will be successful. “You don’t question the altar or the knife,” he writes. “You don’t ever doubt that the Walmart/will carry the Tide marker you need…” This is kind of stunning, this deep empathy with Abraham’s point of view, speculative though it may be, ironic, rueful. I thought of this poem when I heard a lecture by Alain de Botton about our culturally-based ideas of success and failure ( He claims our contemporary understanding of them can lead us to discount the role luck plays in success and in failure. Our tendency is to think success was earned, and failure too. He suggests that the classic literary form of tragedy used to allow us to view failure with a more nuanced understanding of character and circumstance. He cites, e.g., Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In the play we are allowed insight into the troubled character and the events of his life such that we cannot entirely judge him but rather connect to his complex humanity. What strikes me is that we’re talking here about fierce empathy. Fierce empathy is something I should aspire to in my writing, and in my life.