2021-07-24T09:18:45-04:00

Start in the Mess – Using Writing to Figure it Out

Start in the Mess – Using Writing to Figure it Out

July 23, 2021

I was once confronted by a colleague who son was in my English class. She came in waving his graded paper in the air, upset that I had not corrected every error. Her son struggled with writing, and she was worried that I was withholding important instruction he needed to improve.

I defended my approach, which on surface level errors focuses on helping the learner to recognize error patterns first, instead of throwing a whole tub of dirty error-water on the person at once (This can shut down even confident writers, something I have done to people too. I can be a tough editor and have to be careful not to blur the lines between the different skills of editing and instruction).

My colleague and I had an interesting discussion in which she insisted that I did not understand what my job was or the purpose of writing itself. This made me curious. Maybe this was where were missing each other?

“What do you think is the purpose of writing?” I asked her.

“Well, to be correct, of course!” she yelled.

Oh! I thought the purpose of writing was to communicate, and I did not make any friends that day when I said so, though we did land on a compromise to move forward with her son.

I don’t share this to throw my colleague under the bus. She was concerned about her child and took a different approach to improving surface level mechanics in writing instruction.

But in the years since, I have seen the way different approaches to writing play out among both young and adult learners. I’ve come to believe that an intense focus on correctness and perfection, is connected to a prioritization of assertion over exploration, and it can be a stubborn block to both creativity and craft.1

Later in my career, I began working with different groups of adult writers—some emerging from early literacy and others at the highest levels of their careers. And if there was one consistency I see it is that everyone, even colleagues with PhDs, can freeze up when it comes to writing.

“I’m not a writer! I can’t do that!” a leader of a large team once said at the suggestion she communicate something that was important to her, in writing. I don’t think my industrious, PhD holding colleague was trying to shirk off her work onto me. She was genuinely anxious that it wouldn’t be good enough. After all, if you’re the PhD in the room, you’re supposed to be the Authority (dum dum dahhh!) in whatever academically related task is placed before you, right? But in writing, everyone is still learning and improving, wading through the sometimes-lovely-sometimes-not messes of life.

You, yes you! If you want to write, get started!

I can’t count how many times people have told me they get stuck at the beginning. They don’t have anything “important” to say. Or, they are so worried about being publicly wrong that even after extensive editing, they just can’t deem something ready. I’m not making fun of this. I get it.

But here is where the art of it comes in, because that more assertive, non-fiction eye on the world, can create problems for fiction too. It is this idea that we are supposed to have it all together before we start blathering about things we don’t know for sure. We are only to assert, and if we can’t do that, we’re not good enough to write anything. Bah! Just, no. I would even say that linguists’ work on language usage and speech patterns and styles, that this idea may be a gendered one.2

This doesn’t mean you have to do all your blathering in public. Or that there aren’t writers who begin with detailed outlines and entire storylines mapped out before writing. But to those just getting started, you can also use writing and language to find what you want to say, to figure something out, or to wrestle with ideas that may never be figured out. And starting with your questions rather than assertions can be a great way into creativity and craft.

Start with questions, not answers.

In this month’s Poets & Writers, fiction writer Katie Kitamura speaks of “disquiet” and not knowing the endings in the context of writing her new book Intimacies. She adds, “I only write about the things that haunt me in some ways.”

Something to try this weekend: forget the neat lines of your life that look good from the outside. Forget the places where you think you have things figured out. What are the things you don’t know, the questions that pull at you? Is there a fictional place you can create for these questions to play out in some way? Where might that energy take you?

And before you even think it, it doesn’t matter if you later decide that whole paragraphs or pages stink. An old boss of mine used to say, pointing to a chunk of writing usually at the beginning, “You clear your throat beautifully. But it’s still just clearing your throat.” (Delete-delete-delete). In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott calls that first shot your “shitty first draft.” I love both concepts as they can break up the anxiety that can block exploration, which I blame on the voice in your head jabbing at a person to “be correct.” To start, tell that voice it can rest for a minute (preferably in another room). Just write. Go into the mess. Take a notebook or computer with you. See what happens when you introduce your questions to your creativity.

—————————————————————————————————————————

  1. Hope it goes without saying that this doesn’t mean technical craft is unimportant!
  2. Tying linguistic patterns to gender alone is tricky work as it doesn’t intersect with the different groups of which we are a part that also affect speech patterns, but this from Deborah Tannen and Jessica Bennett.
2021-07-09T09:37:19-04:00

Rain Puddles and Cannonballs – Moments of Abandon

Rain Puddles and Cannonballs – Moments of Abandon

July 9, 2021

 

I turned on my meditation app last week to the soothing, singsong voice that if I’m honest, I sometimes find annoying (probably because I need more meditation). After a brief instruction on posture, the voice began, “And now, just pause any mental activity that’s occupying your mind.”

HA! The value of that day’s meditation was that it made me laugh. If people knew how to do that on demand, would there be meditation apps?

The rest of that day I spent inside, getting the house ready for visitors and our first pool party since the year before the pandemic. By late afternoon, my daughter was antsy so my husband took her outside to jump in rain puddles with a friend.

Inside, I made dinner while writing something in my head, occasionally typing phrases to remember once back at my desk. I was also thinking about a family member’s health crisis, some friends navigating a tough situation, a New York Times article about resilience, and Creative Pinellas Artist Laureate Helen French’s honest, clear-eyed prose in her recent blog post. Somewhere between my ears was the rest of the party prep to-do list bonking around, and a meme I’d come across the day before about motherhood as a state of worry that never leaves.

I can’t remember what I made for dinner. You get the picture. Distracted.

Later that night, I looked through a series of photos my husband had taken outside of my daughter and her friend, and their gradual steps closer to earth as one by one, various items went absent from the photos over time: umbrella discarded, then boots, then socks, until both girls were barefoot and jumping in full abandon to the raindrops that caught the light around them and sprayed from puddles at their feet.

Outside the frame, in images only available to imagination, two fathers. Huddling under the abandoned mermaid umbrella? Or more likely, getting soaked in their t-shirts having yielded to the rain, witnessing the gleam on little girls’ faces that I’d missed. Ouch, heart twist, tinge of regret for a moment lost to dinner and brain clamor.

The next day, the pool was finally full of children again. I took a break from hosting to join them, interrupted only by my occasional admonitions about pool rules and avoiding emergency rooms on the Fourth of July. Within all this were welcome moments of abandon: cannonballs, deep plunges into a muted underwater summertime world, swimming past little busy legs and floats careening across the pool, emerging to laughter. I had forgotten how much I missed our ridiculous and poorly synchronized big-group jumps into the deep end, the delight of adults acting like children in the best way possible, the broad smiles on faces when we jumped with abandon into the air.

Now that is a meditation. The grounding of the body in a moment. No words to write or think, no connections of ideas forging webs across my brain.

I won’t lie, there were a few chiropractor-inducing moments when I was pulled down by my neck by a clinging child who may have blasted my eardrum with close-range screams. But those are the consequences of pretending I can keep up with my child, who lives in full abandon to the present moment as only children and maladjusted irresponsible adults can. (Just kidding! Mostly.)

Whatever it is you are creating with your life and whatever your biggest challenge is right now, the purpose of this week’s blog is a wish. May you find your moments of abandon to the possibilities for joy that appear around you. If in the midst of a personal winter, may you find your invincible summer. Or, to improve upon Camus, make that a cannonball. May you find your invincible cannonball, and may it make you happy.

2021-06-26T07:33:31-04:00

What does poetry do?

What does poetry do?

Last week on a panel with other Creative Pinellas artist grantees, I appreciated hearing about the different art forms this grant is supporting, and about how local artists have fared at the intersection of the COVID-19 pandemic, social and climate change, and challenges in their changing fields.

Poet Gloria Muñoz, whose book Danzirly was published during the pandemic, at one point speculated on the challenge of how to carry it all, in light of the hardships and pain the pandemic had caused and exacerbated for so many people. Maybe a poem will not change anything, she suggested, but taking the direct action to help someone concretely with her skills (for example, writing a query letter for someone who cannot afford to pay for her services), might.

I hear what she’s saying. Reading a poem won’t put food on the table. But if you read Muñoz’s book, which is break-you-open beautiful in the way only a poet can do, you may agree she’s being modest—especially if you’ve ever felt a poem’s capacity to shift those underground plates of the self, often in deeper ways than can be articulated. That shift is all over a poem’s structure itself, often in those last few lines you feel in your gut after their brief detour through the brain, which is a very tiring place to spend all of one’s time.

There have been times in the last year when I could stand to read only poetry. It seemed only the musicians and poets could make it past the walls of argument and rhetoric found in piles of prose that can be both illuminating and obfuscating. When all other ways of using language seem to fail, poetry is the one still standing, the bridge that pushes beyond language to access what lies beneath it. I know this is unreasonable for a writer of mostly prose to say, but there it is.

Over the years I have heard many people dismiss poetry as something they “just don’t get”. My own exposure to it before adulthood can be summed up as whatever was covered in school, where the approach focused more on “solving” the poem as a puzzle, applying the intellect like a tool rather than also meeting a poem via the body, self, and experience. Maybe this decoding stance is part of the reason many people seem to have a collective inferiority complex about the genre, turning it into a competition for the intellect to tackle successfully rather than an invitation to engage through the body-mind-life in the texture of a well written poem.

Some confess their love for poetry like it’s a secret, while others dismiss the form as inconsequential, too gossamer and above the clouds for the real world. Not so! I once mentioned to a group of mostly analytically minded people, in a work setting in which I was the only one in the room with the “writer” job description, that I enjoyed reading and writing poetry. Though my bland statements about work history went over ok, at this statement I was met with crickets, a silence that skipped along a moment beyond the comfortable until it was another person’s turn to speak. I found this strange. So that was the wrong thing to say at a conference table, even by a writer? Why?

So, what does poetry do? Even as we may congratulate ourselves for asking such an industrious question in a culture in which doing clobbers being in our assessments of value and worth, I’d say poetry can hold its own. Yes to action, yes to doing, yes to direct compassionate response to hardship and struggle and pain. And yes to poetry, which is to shift and change, which is doing and being both. If this sounds right to you, you can find Gloria’s book here. Open it like a present that some kind soul (you) gave to you as a gift. Do not skim! Soak in her words and the spaces around them. See for yourself what a poem can do.

 

2021-06-18T10:22:17-04:00

Balancing Priorities – Motherhood and Writing

Balancing Priorities – Motherhood & Writing

I’ll keep things short and sweet this week as I practice the subtle art of being overwhelmed by life’s competing priorities—uh, I mean, as my family schedule shifts for school summer vacation. Whenever the juggling act feels a little more athletic than desired, it can help to remember helpful words from other writers on the intersection of motherhood and writing/work.

For a few years after my daughter was born, I felt almost unable to generate a coherent spoken or written sentence. To both parent and write simultaneously seemed to require that my brain split in two, like one of those orca whales that can fall asleep with half its brain while keeping watch out for predators with the other. Maybe that is what happened, except it was my writing side that went dormant while the other side, vaguely awake, gave all my creative energy to my daughter.

Zadie Smith writes in her novel Swing Time, that what children want from their mothers is “complete submission. Oh, it’s very nice and rational and respectable to say that a woman has every right to her life, to her ambitions, to her needs, and so on…but as a child…all you want from your mother is that she once and for all admit that she is your mother and only your mother, and that the battle with the rest of her life is over.” Um… yes.

I also think of Lauren Groff’s gentle rebuke when an interviewer once asked how she managed work and family. Groff explained that until she sees a male writer asked the same question, she would decline to answer.

While women may appreciate the “touché” in her response, maybe her point can also be taken as a genuine suggestion. I for one would be interested in hearing the perspectives of fathers on this topic as well—not just because it is so often asked of mothers but because it might be illuminating to see where the answers both overlap and do not. (That is, if we even accept the premise of the question. Because if the ideal of “balance” and deft life “management” has ever occurred in a single modern person, I don’t know that person. So there’s a thought to think, the next time you insist on laying superhuman expectations on yourself!)

I realize my own recommendations skew toward women on this topic, and I am mindful of the complexities that make the brief flash of a blog pretty narrow for something as encompassing as parenthood. Just this week Counterpoint Press released Krys Malcolm Belc’s The Natural Mother of the Child: a Memoir of Nonbinary Parenthood, which in part explores the limits of this language to which we are bound in the ongoing effort to understand and communicate subjective experience. As Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo in 1882, “You say, ‘I don’t understand you.’ Well, I readily believe that, for writing is really a wretched way of explaining things to each other.” Which is not to say stop trying, especially if you can’t paint.

I said this blog would be “short and sweet” then veered into motherhood and work. Ha! Joke’s on me I guess, as I am not that one person who has eradicated the tensions or made peace with the feeling that I am never quite giving enough either to writing or family. If you find yourself in a similar place this summer, you are not alone. So in good faith I will leave you with some wise advice via addled blogging brain on the family/work/life equation. Give half to work, half to family, half to self/spirit. Voila!

I don’t know. Maybe I need to work on my fractions. Add it to the list!

 

2021-06-11T11:25:19-04:00

Thunderstorms and Snowfall – What is your relationship to place?

 

Thunderstorms and Snowfall – What is your relationship to place?

June 11, 2021

Last week, Florida’s dry season gave way to the summer clouds that grow big and gorgeous across the sky, peaking into Joni Mitchell’s ice-cream castles, ominous thunderheads, and shelf clouds that divide the sky in jarring contrasts of dark and light. When the rain comes now, it is not the cool summer rain I grew up with in New England. There, rain breaks the heat like a kindness, wringing it out of the air for a few hours or days.

Not here. For the next six months, goodbye to Florida’s static blue sky that draws snowbirds and spring breakers. Now, the whole sky is change, the only constant a wet heat that will not yield until sometime around Thanksgiving. My father calls it cabin fever season, the reverse of New York winters that turn people into pained-lunged speed walkers racing through bitter cold from one warm space to another. Now Dad’s dash is from one air-conditioned or shaded haven to another.

I have lived in Florida for almost ten years now, but only in the last few have I forged a tentative peace with the heat, stopped whining long enough to appreciate the majesties of a Florida summer.

Backward as it may seem, summertime here (yes, Florida has seasons!) reminds me of a winter I spent in Buffalo, New York, where I drove most mornings to work through blinding pre-dawn snowfalls, passing children standing at bus stops to go to schools that would not be canceled for mere whiteout conditions. You see how they’re the same, right?

On one such morning in Buffalo, on an empty stretch of road, I lost control of my car, spinning 360 a few times before landing in someone’s yard, headlights facing the road. I sat for a minute, feeling how quiet it was, how nobody had noticed my silent, slow-motion (in my head) near brush with death.

I took a deep breath, put my blinker on (yes), pulled back into the road, and continued to work, where my colleagues were not impressed.

“It happens,” they said. Still, when spring approached, even the most hardy of Buffalo souls were counting down the days to spring’s relief.

Same here in Florida, on the flip side in the heat and dangers of hurricanes.

 

Why reflect on sense of place?

Too long to answer in a blog! But what is your answer? To me, the places that become a part of us, the rhythms and change of seasons and skies, can be an opening into writing and living in duality: what we risk and endure, and the beauty that exists within that.

Funny that the day after writing this, I happened to hear from author and teacher Pema Chödrön on the topic of sitting in duality, “There is no cure for hot and cold.”1

By November I will be crying for mercy for the weather to flip back to the other side. The change seems to happen in a single week you can point to, when the heat breaks back into winter’s cool mornings, offering shiny and weightless breaths of air for the taking. Still, I don’t want to live waiting for the heat to pass. And I’ll throw out a fairly educated guess that one-sided, Panglossian living just might lead to crappy writing too, at least for me.

In Buffalo, the lake effect snow came silent and thick, though Buffalo readers will also know the sounds of winter thunderstorms, the loud and sudden cracks of branches breaking under the weight of ice and snow. Just outside your window, they can make you jump awake in bed sure that the roof had just cracked in two (Or is that just me?)

In Florida, the summer sky makes the best kind of noise. The other night the rain fell in sheets across the roof, thunder rolling in just behind it, waking us up like a salutation: the season has begun.

Like characters in a book, both places are alive in me. The sound and silence, the bitter cold and wet heat, the piling drifts and Joni Mitchell’s piling ice-cream castle clouds.

So you agree, yes? They are the same. Best to let them settle, foreboding and beauty both.

 

Writing Exercise

Ok, now you. What is your sense of place? What surrounds you so presently it has become a part of you? How might you put it into words? Try it, from both sides now.

 

_______________________________________________________

  1. Pema Chödrön, The Places that Scare You, citing Tibetan Buddhist meditation master Chögyam Trungpa.
2021-05-28T09:57:15-04:00

Waiting, Pruning, Growing – What are Your Roses and Bonsai Trees?

Waiting, Pruning, Growing – What are Your Roses and Bonsai Trees?

May 28, 2021

After my brother died, my sister found his plans for a garden he was readying for the spring. She offered the idea to plant seeds in remembrance of him, so that those who love him may, in our own places and ways, collectively continue the garden he did not get to grow.

I thought it may be a good time to plant the set of bonsai tree seeds we had bought a while ago. This could go badly, as I don’t have a green thumb and am more likely to kill them before they thrive. Our roses are doing ok, but only because my husband is caring for them, pruning the leaves that die so new buds can grow.

It also may not be a good idea because my daughter is quick to value small things. Recently, we formally buried some bugs she’d adopted and cared for too rigorously. She once loved a painting I made of a heart, in which I’d used color to show it passing from wholeness, through a break, to another kind of wholeness that included the colors of the break. It was just a fun thing we did on a family painting night, so I wasn’t attached to it. But she loved it and wanted to bring it into show and tell at school.

On her way out of the car on show-and-tell day, she stepped on the frame and broke it. She was devastated, too upset to leave the car while the carline piled up behind us. I pulled out of the keep-it-moving-everyone! carline to hear her out, in the end reframing it (ha) as an opportunity to rebuild my freshly stomped-on heart in a way that would make it more interesting (Multimedia! 3 dimensions! Glue!). She felt better, ready to face the day. Come to think of it, we forgot about it later, so my heart is apparently still warped into splinters in a corner somewhere.

So I can take it if our bonsai trees don’t make it. But maybe I won’t pile the expectations on our fledgling plants. Maybe I’ll keep it to myself that we’re planting them in part for my brother. (This is me keeping it to myself.)

But for you of course, it is about something else, your own long-term work, care, and commitments.

What are your roses? Your bonsai trees?

Caring for a bonsai tree is supposed to foster patience. Because despite the close attention it requires, it can still take years before it will grow in the abundant, unruly ways that roses do.

Anyone who has worked on a long-term project knows the near endless pruning and waiting involved in bringing some work in you to light, the patient persistence and care it needs before it will really get growing. According to writer Hugh Howie,1 “The biggest barrier to releasing quality material is probably impatience.” Since most learning ventures and big projects take way longer than we anticipate, cultivating patience without curbing your care can be tough, especially when you’re excited about your idea.

This applies to you, yes? So get your own bonsai tree! Or, if you want to be a little less literal about it, get an editor. Take care with your work. Invest in the long term.

Hope

Our newly planted bonsai seeds sit beside our roses, sharing their patch of sun but each requiring a different light of attention to thrive. The roses, pushing and insistent, require the pruning of what is no longer useful in order to grow new buds. Not yet for the bonsai trees, which will not be hurried into sprout or strength.

The guides say be patient, this will take years.

“Years?” my daughter asks, uncomprehending. It feels like a long time to wait on a small plant.

“But look,” I say, pointing to our row of little pots. Three have not yet made it through the soil. I don’t know if they ever will. But one of them is sprouting. A beginning.

 

—————————————————————————–

  1. As cited in Joanna Penn’s How to Market a Book https://www.thecreativepenn.com/howtomarketabook/
2021-05-21T10:13:57-04:00

Writing, Acting, Dentistry, and Post-it Notes – Creative Passion

Writing, Acting, Dentistry, and Post-it Notes – Creative Passion

May 21, 2021

Like many people, I don’t enjoy going to the dentist. The scraping and scratching are like nails on a chalkboard to me, and I usually meditate myself to somewhere else—a beach in Hawaii, a mountain in Montana, whatever does the trick—until I get my mouth back.

So when I once agreed to write the life story for a dentist, my first thought was not about how fascinating it would be! Though his central story was not about dentistry itself, his driving goal to become a dentist was a big part of his story. But I was the writer, I thought, so it was my job to make it compelling.

Ha! Wrong. I didn’t have to make it interesting at all. I only had to ask, “Why was being a dentist your dream?” And “What do you love about it?”

His answers constituted the most lovely and surprising description of the joys of dentistry I’d ever heard (Ok also the first I’d ever heard. But still). And though he didn’t make the experience of teeth scraping any more pleasant, he made it clear why the field deserved his enthusiasm. His passion wrote the book more than I did.

Similarly, I have little interest in the topic of pressure sensitive adhesives (the sticky back of Post-it Notes). But when I read about Spencer Silver’s death last week1, I hadn’t known that his discovery for Post-its was semi-accidental, or that he had been a polymer chemist who had originally been working on the adhesive for use in planes.

This did ring a bell, because my husband is also a polymer chemist who works in aerospace, and I mentioned Silver to him. He connected immediately with Silver’s work, and his whole face lit up as he described how fascinating the science is behind pressure sensitive adhesives, including the counterintuitive findings in the field that made Silver’s initial goal so challenging.

I do not share the creative passion that ignites this work, though I respect and am often in awe of the accomplishments that come from the intersection of creativity and complex systems of knowledge. And I love witnessing creative passion, seeing the light flick on in someone’s eyes when they are excited about a particular project, whether it overlaps with their paid work or not.

To me it is a tiny hint as to why we’re all here, a little glowing arrow to follow in times we feel stagnant or unmotivated. As poet Octavio Paz wrote, “I do not write to kill time/ nor to revive it/ I write that I may live and be revived.”2

It is also a glimpse at a person’s beauty and a way into who they are. Maybe it’s obvious that keeping eyes wide open to creative passion is important for fiction writers or actors, who have to attune themselves to what drives people to authentically take on the voice and experience of others (people or characters).

But isn’t this practice for everyone? Teachers and others in human services, leaders who want to create work environments in which people can see that their work, ideas, and career goals are valued? Unless you somehow never interact with people, seeing creative passion in others is anything but extraneous. It is vital!

How close are you to this creative dynamic, in others and yourself? How often do you pay attention when you see someone’s creative passion ignited, whether you share it or not? What is going on there? How does it matter in your work and life? Where is it directing you? What happens when it is absent or ignored?

Paz wrote in the same poem as above, “How strange to know yourself as alive!/ To walk among people/ with the open secret of being alive.”3

Where does this intersect with you? Try a few scribbles on the idea if you can this weekend. See where it takes you.

————————————————————————–

  1. My condolences to his family, whose loss I imagine encompasses a much wider scope than his work and inventions.
  2. The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz, 1957 – 1987. “El Mismo Tiempo/ Identical Time”, Ed. Eliot Weinberger. New Directions; New York, NY. 1990, 69 – 79. 
  3. Ibid.
2021-05-14T12:57:19-04:00

Weekend Challenge: Share Your Work

Credit: Pixabay (heinzremyschindler)

 

Weekend Challenge: Share Your Work

May 14, 2021

This week’s blog is for those of you who have been writing or otherwise creating privately, but you have not yet shared your work. Your creation is sitting in a drawer, the ink pressed neatly into the closed pages of a journal, or waiting in a folder on your computer. Safe from critical eyes.

A challenge for your weekend: share it with someone.

If you are thinking something like “Are you crazy? People will trash it!” or “You said this was supposed to be fun! I’m never reading your blog again!”—then I’m talking to you.

Because if we’re creating, aren’t we meant to share it, to get a little bit vulnerable connecting to someone via what we create? If that’s arguable, pick something with the potential to not be “just for you,” something that, if you let it, just might make the leap beyond you.

If you’re new to this and the thought terrifies you, don’t run straight to a critique group. Find someone you trust.

Be a little careful there, as not everyone knows how to respond in helpful ways. I didn’t always know to anticipate this. Years ago, I shared an essay with my boyfriend, hoping to publish it. It was a vulnerable moment for me, but I didn’t mention that.

His response: “It’s nice.”

Ok, anything else?

“I mean, it’s fine. But it’s not really a story.”

That was the extent of his feedback. I was crushed and put it away (Clearly if someone’s reaction was that flat, it couldn’t be any good, right? Wrong.) A few years later, I picked it up again, still liked it, and decided to submit it anyway.1 Newsweek published it. Ha. Stupid boyfriend. Ok in retrospect, it may also have helped if I’d been clear about the feedback I wanted, or if I’d shared that I was feeling vulnerable about it. But regardless, I should have ignored him and trusted myself more.

This doesn’t mean to disregard any feedback you get. Only that it may take time and direction from you to get helpful feedback. You’ll grow your own discernment to know what feedback to use and what to ignore. But to build those skills, you have to take that first scary step of sharing the work with someone.

If you’re further along, if you use constructive feedback regularly and revise until you can barely see the piece anymore, yet you’re still on hold in sending out your work, why not submit somewhere this weekend?

 

“But what if it’s (I’m) not finished?” you may argue. “Worse, what if I make some glaring mistake everyone sees but me because I don’t know enough yet?”

Nobody knows enough yet. And is any creative piece of work ever “finished?” At some point you will look back later on earlier work and see that you were wrong about something or would do it differently now. Because if that never happens, if your work is exactly the same as it was fifteen years ago, have you grown?

I can’t count the number of times I’ve put my work out there only to see errors or glaring omissions later. You get used to it. (Mostly. Ok no you don’t and it’s always annoying. But you learn to live with it.)

So if those are your worries, congratulations, you’re an unfinished human! And unfinished humans are too complex, sublime, and terrible not to each be grossly ignorant about any number of things. Don’t let that stop you.

 

But what if nobody likes it?? What if everybody hates it!?

Ok now that’s just whining. Not to crush your dreams, but most people will be indifferent to your work. Those who have been submitting for even a little while may roll their eyes at this (“Thanks for the reminder mean lady. Meet my pile of rejection letters.”) If it helps, consider that numerically speaking, most people are indifferent to bestsellers too.

So counterintuitive as it sounds, if you’re doing the work to learn and improve, you can’t take others’ indifference personally—even if your art feels intensely personal to you. It’s just part of the deal in a time-crunch culture in which it isn’t easy for anyone to find their particular audience, and even that audience is pretty busy.2

 

Who decides what is “good” anyway?

The conversation about gatekeepers and monetary vs. intrinsic value of creative work is too long for one blog. But I once read an interview with a cynical literary agent who claimed that the size of the advance a book gets is inversely proportional to the quality of the writing; or the more successful/popular something is, the worse the writing is. You may laugh (or cry) if you see a grain of truth in that, but I’ll throw in a grain of salt too. I can easily think of highly successful writers who are experts at craft. And as far as I’m concerned, life’s just too hard to trash others’ creative efforts as lesser, “banal”, “popular”, “sentimental” or whatever the approved critical vernacular may be (funny how cliché the jargon used to decry cliché can be).3

While I tend to gravitate toward more “serious” topics and literature, I have also logged good time on some seriously formulaic cheese and sentimental stories pumping metaphorical sugar into my bloodstream. I am currently watching a series that is so full of plot holes and inconsistencies that it’s probably fair to say it is insulting to intelligence itself. But still, I like it. I appreciate the people who created it, as I suspect I will always appreciate those who make things that lighten the load for others. Sometimes our psyches need to put down the boulder sized tomes we’re carrying around inside them.

So for this exercise (sharing your work), who decides what’s good? You do.

 

Good news

Might there be comfort in the fact that not everyone will like what you create? Some people lean toward plot-driven fiction, some character-driven. Some like writing thick with imagery, others say, “Get to the point!” So it’s not necessarily a bad thing if your work falls flat somewhere. In fact, what a relief it is that someone won’t like your work, as it is testament to the fact that we are not identical cogs creating boring sameness. This is not to dismiss how challenging it can be to publish if that’s what you want. I know it can be a tiring uphill climb.

But there are many venues for different types of work, which is why writers are advised to read the journal before submitting to it. If the writing style is nothing like yours, move along to the next possibility.

So if you’re thinking you have to wait until you can appeal to a wide audience (twisting your work into an inauthentic pretzel while you’re at it), you’re wasting precious time and energy meant to fuel your dreams. Yes, take care with your words. But write/create you, revise, then find out where it fits. I’m not saying it’s easy, but don’t let that stop you. If you have a light and entertaining story, screenplay, or whatever, get to it! If you have something more thinky you’ve been tinkering with, give it one last look this weekend, and share it with a breathing being (who is not your dog or cat). Maybe one person, maybe with a wider audience, whatever pushes you past what’s comfortable.

Cliché as it may be, life is too short to worry about how perfectly your creation must land on its feet. Just let it land.

________________________________________________________________________

  1. This was before the personal essay and internet were ubiquitous, though they did exist, as did email for submissions (And I have apparently reached that point in life where descriptors of my young adulthood need clarity footnotes ala “Back in the time when…”).
  2. On finding your audience, check out Creative Pinellas grantee Tenea Johnson’s blog on discoverability.
  3. This is not to disparage critique. I’m referring here to the broad brush often used to dismiss all work that is popular.
2021-05-07T09:48:09-04:00

This is not a blog about my brother… (On Memory, Story, and Art. For Brendon)

Photo Credit: Unknown (Family Files)

April 30, 2021

This is not a blog about my brother, who died suddenly last month at the age of fifty-one. Grief is still doing that thing it does when it moves in waves underneath language, making little sense while at the same time, crystallizing everything I know into a fine and painful point. Unformed. You can see why this can’t be about my brother.

After Brendon’s death, I went to that what-day-is-it place that seeks out the person who was lost, where I talk out loud to the air and float in questions and senses of the person, then am suddenly jolted back to the “real” world of clocks and dinner, the guess-I-still-have-to-do-stuff world I’d rather delay for a while.

In that period of in-between, my husband and I created a remembrance of photos, video clips, and stories for my brother’s service. With each photo or memory from someone who cared about Brendon, I was filled with gratitude.1

By the way did I say this was not about my brother? Because it is about my brother. But also memory, which is story, which is art, which is memory, which is my brother.

Many of the incoming stories from family and friends echoed my own memories of Brendon, who often helped me with my math homework when we were teenagers, patiently working with me until he found the explanation that would click. I had thought my big brother had only done this for me! But it turns out he was also tutoring his best friend regularly in math. He did the same thing for others in college, where some of his friends said they never would have made it through quantum physics without him, as he may have been the only one who fully understood it.

Even after my decades of work in the field of education, it had never dawned on me that my brother was a teacher. Not his field, maybe, but it was his person. His colleagues reiterated this and more, their memories suggesting it would be understatement to call him an “expert in his field” of electrical engineering. He taught the experts.

Others’ memories jogged or filled in my own. “Oh, right, I forgot about the mattress-down-the-staircase rides he used to do!” Or “Wait, he was the one who directed the Murphy grandkids to make the Super Grandma book, the one where we each designed a page to show her how great she was?”

Then there were memories that, even though I was there, came with no “ding ding” of recognition at all. The time he attached a sled to the back of his car and drove us around a parking lot in the snow? Even when I racked my brain so I could relive that happy memory with my brother, nothing came.

What else did I not remember? And how did the weight I gave my own memories affect my impressions of him? How small one person’s memory can be. And if all we have of a person once they’re gone are our collective memories of them, how much we need other people to fill in what we did not know.

Story vs. Exposition vs. Persuasion

One of my day jobs is to ghostwrite people’s life stories. It is not uncommon for someone to say after a long interview, “Wow, I’ve never told anyone that.” Or, “I think you now know me better than my family does!” It is an honor to be trusted with people’s stories in this way, for them to become vulnerable with this stranger-writer as we shape their lives into narrative form.

As I put their stories to paper, their memories seem to become part of me, almost as if they have expanded my own memory, adding to my own sense of what life is, as experienced by so many different people.

I suspect this is part of why I’ve always been drawn to fiction, memoir, and history.

Because if I can’t even remember events I was there to experience, how can I know the collective histories, the story of us, without others’ stories? And by “us” I mean all the “us-es”, the families and marriages and friendships, the nations and the bigger-than-nations.

Story. We rarely give it the credit it deserves. Subjective? Of course. Inexact, murky, incomplete, subject to humans’ impressive capacity for self delusion? Yes! But the collective arrow formed by all who work memory into something bigger such as art, is at least as valuable as that which we can quantify. That co-created arrow points to the gaps in our collective memory and illustrates how much we need each other to paint a fuller picture.

Where We Meet: Paradox

Brendon and I were always very different people, or at least I thought so. He was left-brained, I was right (whatever that means, because neither of us fit perfectly into either box, and he was one of the first people to show me how creative math could be).

I have always loved poetry and fiction, which I hear critiqued sometimes as not very “useful” pursuits. After all, fiction is made up, not even real! Frivolous diversion! Of course, it is in not being real, that it finds the clearest path to what is real about human experience, often in ways non-fiction can miss.

While I don’t knock expository and persuasive writing (they are a big part of my work), I find they are often stuck with barreling through the front door of the intellect, which locks entry to the self via belief, bias, argument, and identity/self-concept. Tight as the writing may be, time and time again, smack! Then a goose-egg as some very smart and persuasive people rub their heads wondering what went wrong, why nobody let them in.

Fiction and poetry, on the other hand, get to sneak in the side door, where imagination has a key that is often shaped like beauty.2

Unlike me, Brendon gravitated toward math and science, his first passion being quantum physics. (I dropped out of high school physics after the first week, preferring anatomy and biology, where I could more clearly see the interconnectedness in systems). If you asked me what my brother’s career path was, I could only say, “research with lasers” then “something with semi-conductors.”

But do you know what the quantum physicists say about their work? Nobel Prizewinner in Physics Neils Bohr wrote, “Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real. If quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet.”

Hence our places of overlap, like grief, move in the waves underneath language, my brother and I choosing different parameters to attempt the launch beyond them, pursuing the real in the limited disciplines we have.

We did not meet in that place in life, and Brendon and I had many long, circular conversations in which language felt almost useless. For us, words, beliefs, and memories clashed until we could no longer make sense of them together. And maybe because it is tiring for two people to endlessly trek across linguistic minefields to reach each other, eventually our conversations became few and far between. Not unfriendly in his last years of life, but walking only the surface of daily experience when they occurred at all.

If I believe my beautiful brother continues, and I do, it is in that intangible place that is as real as our avoidance of it, as real as the hard world we like to measure and metricize in every which way we can. Where Brendon is now, I imagine paradox is as comfortable as my coffee in the morning and the book I pull from the shelf to read with it.

Here, in the place he has left and where I am left to wonder, there is daily life. Here, where paradox and counterintuition are not comfortable, where I sit in stories that are more real for being made-up, where the light cast on my page is simultaneously particle and wave. Here where we shared our childhood, our goofy humor, and a love for running and play. Here where the blood, veins, and muscles that propelled him forward on his last run through his neighborhood on his last day of life, still propel me forward on my own morning runs, where ZZ Top blasts through my earbuds just so I can feel closer to him. Here where we shared the blood that pulses through our unanswered questions about the brief lives we are here to live.

For Brendon, maybe the minefields have cleared. Maybe my words don’t have to make sense anymore. Maybe he knows me without them.

 

 

1. Thank you to any one of you who shares your loving memory of someone to a person who lost them. Your words are bigger than you know.

2. Beauty in story, here, which is not to say fiction is cosmetic veneer for agenda and argument. On this I think of Eudora Welty’s essay “Must the Artist Crusade?” in her book On Writing, in which she writes that “a plot is a thousand times more unsettling than an argument, which can be answered.” This is also not to say that all artists are driven by the dictum to “Reveal the TRUTH!” in everything they create. 

2021-04-19T12:42:10-04:00

Making Art from Anger

 

I once attended a peace summit in Newark, New Jersey, in which Jody Williams, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for her campaign against land mines, shared a stage with fellow Peace Prize winner, the 14th Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama spoke of how destructive it can be to hold onto anger, how it screws up your face1 and gets into your body, keeping you angry, making you sick, and robbing you of happiness and health. Working for peace, he explained, requires compassion, which in turn requires meditation and working with our anger when it arises.

Williams wasn’t having it. The powerhouse activist defended anger, citing it as a valuable and driving force for her work. Without it, she argued, she would not have accomplished what she had. Plus, there were too many problems to fix. Later she listed everything she thought about while the Dalai Lama was meditating on inner peace.

While he did not agree with her, exactly, to say he disagreed doesn’t sound right either. In fact, nothing about him exuded agreement or disagreement at all. Rather, he seemed to appreciate her, to welcome her energy in a way that was open and compassionate, yet somehow not patronizing, superficial, or dismissive.

I did not get the impression that either of them changed the other’s view on anger. They came at anger and change from different tacks. Her approach to disarmament was literal, outward, action-oriented, and proudly anger-driven. His way of disarmament, it seemed, was in his personhood itself–the idea being, I think, that the outer work is most effective when we first transform anger from the inside.

Art Makes Room for Anger

I won’t presume to moderate the points. If Jody Williams and the Dalai Lama didn’t come to a satisfying conclusion on that one, I’m pretty sure my blog won’t.

But is it too self-important, too pat an answer, to suggest that art makes room for both?

Earlier I wrote about art as relief from stress, anxiety, or pain (art as escape). In this way it is life affirming, even life saving. But art has more for us than relief. Because what does it even mean to “transform” anger into art?

 

Art that Evokes or Expresses Anger

I think of Jimmy Santiago Baca’s performance of “Cry” which begins, “For the longest time, I haven’t been able to cry.”2 In the poem, the tears come as he pushes against the “men aren’t supposed to cry” rule and accounts for all there is to cry about, to feel. I think of Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam,” the piano crescendos escalating with each atrocity she sings. And of Marge Piercy’s “Barbie Doll”, Audre Lorde’s “Sewer Plant Goes in Harlem or I’m a Stranger Here Myself When Does the Next Swan Leave.”

I think of the paintings, novels, and music in which relief and comfort are not the point (though not absent either, for the viewer who shares that anger and feels the relief of being recognized, seen, and understood).

The anger here is present, alive, and vital to the art itself, here where the fire of a talented artist’s anger casts a bright light on a particular truth.

Art After (or on Break From?) Anger

Then there is art in which anger is not always overt in the art itself, but the artist must have felt it at one point, at least, for the art to exist (This is a guess on my part, since I am only an omniscient narrator in my characters’ heads!)

I wrote a short story once that a term paper writer might describe thematically as, “about the effects of relationship abuse.” I wouldn’t blame you if you ran the other way based on that description. Because if I’d actually set out to write a story with such a directive, it would have been crap. I also could not have written it in the moment of feeling anger, though I had to pass through anger to even imagine it. And, I wanted the story to go beyond the immediate trauma of abuse to strength, freedom, and recovery—not for the sake of the reader, but for me.

Also in this category I think of community art projects that provide uplift and sustenance. I think of art that while it may include trauma, does not center or identify itself as it either. I think of literary fiction. Jennine Capó Crucet’s Make Your Home Among Strangers, Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone, Emuna Elon’s House on Endless Waters, the novels of Chris Bohjalian, Alice McDermott

Hold on a minute. Is all sublime literary fiction rooted in anger in some way (or is that true only if I first declare myself the arbiter of what constitutes “sublime” and then make wild assumptions about each writer’s process)?

One of the iterations of art Lewis Hyde describes in Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art, I say ties into anger too: art that tricks us by revealing beauty in something that the culture does not deem beautiful or valuable. Florida photographer Clyde Butcher does not convey anger in his work, but he does hook viewers on his gorgeous photographs of the Florida swampland on which he lives. People go out of their way to visit his gallery, where they are invited to stay in a swamp cabin. If I say “swamp” and you think “hot,” “sticky,” “mosquitoes, snakes, and alligators, oh my,” or just “sounds unpleasant,” his work may be for you! Then once you’re there, you get an education on the ecosystem he wants to preserve. He doesn’t even want to be remembered as a photographer as much as an educator.

Even Van Gogh, whose paintings of farmers also don’t suggest anger, was subversive in going against the grain in an art business that saw no beauty in his rough renderings of farmers working in the fields. He railed against the tendency to paint farmers as clean, perfectly proportioned, and poised as graceful ballerinas while easily plucking their potatoes from the ground.

What About You? Can you start from anger, and end in art?

I have no prescriptive answer, because you’re you and I’m me. But whether you are more closely aligned to Jody Williams’s or the Dalai Lama’s views on anger (if they oppose), what art might you begin that comes from anger? Would anger be present in the work itself, fueling it like a rocket into the world to encounter apathy or stoic detachment? Or would it be a celebration of some beauty as you see it (or are it), sent out to counter despair? Or, is there another “or” it can be?

If you want to, go to the page, the instrument, wherever you create. Invite imagination to join you. And try.

 

  1. I think he’s talking about the biofeedback loop, not perceived attractiveness.
  2. I could not find a video of Baca reading this poem, but he performs it in Bill Moyers’s Language of Life–which was a festival but this particular performance may only be in the audiobook.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Pixabay.com

 

Share this article with your network: