Saturday, April 23, 2016

reminder to self: these things count as writing

Last weekend, I sat in circle of students' desks in a college classroom. The other desks were filled with fellow writing conference attendees with whom I share at least one commonality: our paying work is not our writing. We met twice, once over dinner and then two days later over lunch. Our time was limited but we didn't waste any of it because the challenges are obvious. We had a lot to talk about.

In my head, I list off the hardships of this kind of life - often - where they end up cluttering my emotions as excuses or whines or justifications. (so little time, so little energy, writing at night is hard, offices don't cultivate creativity, I need a social life, just one more episode of Gilmore Girls...)

So! Instead of challenges and whining, I present for you a list of all of the many things that feed writing. For me, words on paper are most satisfying, but they are not always the point. The point, I'm beginning to realize (I can be slow, I know) is to build a writing life.

zoning out
reading old journals
making a spreadsheet of publications to submit to
catching up with friends at writing group
listening to podcast interviews with authors and other artists
writing for my friend's nonprofit
asking questions
going to readings
hanging out at bookstores
listening to music
making plans for writing
transcribing passages I like
movies (sometimes)


(photo: book stack from sometime last year)

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

give this book the attention it deserves

Sometimes, it's hard for me to separate my experience of a book from the circumstances of my life while reading it. If you've read any of my read2016 posts this year, you might have gathered that much already.

So here's the thing with Tinkers: I was prepared to really like it, but I got distracted. I read it when I was tired, I read it on the train, I read it at a coffee shop when I got interrupted by a good looking stranger who asked if he could sit with me and talk (and I said yes), I read it on a Sunday afternoon when I was determined to finish it so I could start another book before travel a few days later. The conditions were not ideal, especially considering the kind of book Tinkers is -- not much plot, sprawling poetic sentences attempting to describe ineffable feelings, strange switches in point of view and time and generation that can disorient the reader if she's not paying enough attention.

Still, I liked it. I dog-eared pages that I am now transcribing into a document of bright passages from books I read. Even as I do this, I find myself drawn in again by the beautiful language -- poetic, and also terribly precise and physical and surprising. I keep reading past the sentence I meant to transcribe, forgetting what's happening in that part of the story but just wanting to follow his trail of words.

One of my favorite passages comes early on:
There was also the ring in Howard Crosby’s ears, a ring that began at a distance and came closer, until it sat in his ears, then burrowed into them. His head thrummed as if it were a clapper in a bell. Cold hopped onto the tips of his toes and rode in the ripples of the ringing throughout his body until his teeth clattered and his knees faltered and he had to hug himself to keep from unraveling. This was his aura, a cold halo of chemical electricity that encircled him immediately before he was struck by a full seizure. Howard had epilepsy. 
The sign of a good book (and perhaps the nerdiness of the person reading it) is that she will bring it up in a conversation with friends over drinks, which is what I did with this passage, with a doctor friend, because it was the most wonderful and felt description of disease in fiction that I think I've ever read. No technical jargon until the very end, when Harding names it: epilepsy. But before he gets there, he wants the reader to feel it as the character does.

I was tempted to make this post a long list of the passages I love, but I leave you with that one, and with the recommendation that if you read this book, give it the attention it deserves. Drink some coffee, take your time, and resist good looking strangers (but only for this book).

you can just feel God shining through

I think poetry is the mind of God. All the great poems that I love seem to me to all have that little ingredient. You feel like you’re in the presence of the mind of God... Take Rilke, I mean, you can’t just live and come to the conclusions he came to. I think his mission was to learn to get out of the way so that something bigger could speak through him. Emily Dickinson, my God, she’s full of the mind of God. You can just feel God shining through those poems, darkly. So it was her, but it wasn’t. ... There’s something unaccountable that happened to her. And it’s that unaccountable thing that I love.

-poet Li-Young Lee via here.

(more of my own words, soon...)

Sunday, April 3, 2016

after reading ongoingness

What interested me was the kind of love to which the person dedicates herself for so long, she no longer remembers quite how it began.

          -Sarah Manguso, Ongoingness


(photo: selfie with niece)

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

the art of memoir

Here’s the thing: like a lot of people, I feel pretty ambivalent about memoirs, mostly because I’ve read some really mediocre ones. At their worst, it feels like the author is forcing me to sit through a therapy session with them, or as if I’m sitting across from an extroverted stranger with poor emotional boundaries at a coffee shop. He is just talking at me with no pause to insert myself into the conversation. Bordering on painful.

I’ve read a few good ones. I was surprised by Stephen King’s On Writing, which was fun and insightful and which I still remember parts of (telling, for me). More recently, Edwidge Danticant’s Oh Brother, I’m Dying placed her own current life as a writer and soon to be mother alongside the lives of her parents and uncle, who raised her in Haiti and then in America, giving readers a sense of what’s kept and passed along through blood and across oceans.

Let me get to it: I read The Art of Memoir (mostly on a friend’s recommendation) and really enjoyed it. Part critique (of memoirs the author has taught to aspiring writers for many years), part instruction, and part memoir (of course), the book felt like taking a master class with a good friend. I underlined a lot, but my biggest takeaway is this sense that writing about one’s own life is shaped by one's particular passions and way of moving through the world.

Here is a passage that brought it together for me:
… there begins to burble up onto the page what’s exclusively yours both as a writer and as a human being. If you trust the truth enough to keep unveiling yourself on the page – no matter how shameful those revelations may at first seem – the book will naturally structure itself to maximize what you’re best at. You’re best at it because it sits at the core of your passions.

Throughout the book, the author calls this "what's exclusively yours" talent, which is kind of her because implied is that we all have it. It just needs to be uncovered and refined – through hours spent writing, interrogating, remembering, revising. (I would add a few spiritual disciplines to this list, too, but that may be another post for another day.) 

Also implied is that, requiring a process that involves reexamining and “correcting the easy interpretation” in order to reach a version of truth worth sharing, writing may actually heal us. Which, in my opinion, makes the hard work of writing a good memoir a worthwhile pursuit.


(photo: magnetic poetry memoir with by my niece)

Sunday, March 27, 2016

asking my father

Growing up, Saturday nights were for going out to dinner. When I heard my father’s footsteps come down the stairs, his boots tapping against the old worn wood, and when I heard the jingle of the keys as he picked them off the dining room table, I knew it was time to go. My sisters and I rushed to put our shoes on and zip up our coats. The three of us scooted into the back seat of the car, digging for seatbelts. I might have brought a book along to read, or I might have my walkman along to listen to music as I stared out the window, guessing by the roads my father took where we might be going.

There was no discussion, and I never asked, even though every time I had an idea in my mind, a place I’d wish we’d end up. I think I understand now why my father might have kept the decision to himself – it was easier that way, and better to not have to face the shame of not being able to meet the unpredictable desires of a hungry family. I looked forward to those Saturday night dinners, but secretly resented feeling like I had no say. And I, afraid of my hunger, came home from those dinners having eaten more than my fill.

I love my father, but sometimes he felt so unapproachable to me.

*        *       *

Now, I am learning to ask.

Last week, I left my friend’s house near Malibu and headed through the canyon to the beach. The road cut through the mountains flowered with yellow wild things. Close to my destination, I needed a bathroom and wanted coffee, and told Him so. Just then, a sign for Starbucks. Once I parked, I walked along the sidewalk and instead of Starbucks, found an independent coffee shop attached to a small bookstore. How well He knows me, I thought. How kind. The rest of the drive took me toward an overlook, where I parked and found a path that led down to a beach dotted with people and water calmly lapping up against the sand. A whale showed its back to us just a short distance from land. The sun was warm. I sat, read, prayed. I thanked Him (my Father) for listening to me in the car, and heard Him say that He is always listening.

The afternoon trip was more than I’d asked for.

*        *        *

…which one of you, if his daughter asks him for bread, will give her a stone? Or if she asks for a fish, will give her a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

Friday, March 18, 2016

already with you

Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks
     by Jane Kenyon

I am the blossom pressed in a book,
found again after two hundred years...

I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper...

When the young girl who starves
sits down to a table
she will sit beside me...

I am food on a prisoner's plate...

I am water rushing to the wellhead,
filling the pitcher until it spills...

I am the patient gardener
of the dry and weedy garden...

I am the stone step,
the latch, and the working hinge...

I am the heart contracted by joy...
the longest hair, white
before the rest...

I am there in the basket of fruit
presented to the widow...

I am the musk rose opening
unattended, the fern on the boggy summit...

I am the one whose love
overcomes you, already with you
when you think to call my name...


(a favorite, always...)