Raining Back Up performance at Broadway Books Spring 2011.
A. Molotkov–poet, vocals
John Sibley Williams–poet, vocals
David Cooke–Poet, vocals
Ragon Linde–Music Director
Carrie-Ann Tkaczyk–poet, vocals
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I am certain that everyone has stories. I’m equally convinced that everyone is capable of writing these stories up into novels, short stories, articles, letters, notes, emails, blogs, texts, bumper stickers, billboards, songs, or graffiti. Writing is the legacy of our opposable thumbs and our ridiculously labyrinthed brains.
However, just as not all runners are equal, nor all athletes, all writing is certainly not equal. At some point during my college years I promised myself to never, ever waste my precious time reading junk. Never. Unless it’s a magazine. Then it’s all bets off.
For several years I only read the classics. Only the names bound in those Literary Anthologies you read in college: Hardy, Whitman, Woolf, Shakespeare. Under my definition of “classic”, Steinbeck was a bit of an upstart. Then after living in Nepal, I went through a long bout of only reading Indian writers—preferably ones who used magic realism. Do you know how difficult it was to make a steady diet of this writing? Salmon Rushdie hasn’t written that many things, nor has Gita Meeta, nor Tagore. It was like eating a very limited diet of only orange vegetables. Yummy, but limiting. My creativity, like a body on such a diet, was grinding to a halt.
Then I befriended someone who existed on a diet of everything, with a generous helping of sweet reading candy. Marianne read several books a week, reading them to sleep and waking to them before work. She read whatever was in front of her, whatever she found, whatever, whatever, and loved it. Marianne was a sweet novel addict and, as such, had the enviable ability to talk books with whomever she met. She called me a book snob and I called her a book whore. We were best friends. We parted—listen up Red and Blue voters—by mutually respecting one another’s views.
After meeting Marianne, I expanded my views. Here’s my adjusted creed: If for entertainment purposes only, and if (this is my caveat) the reader is intelligent enough to know the difference, and game enough to throw in superbly written novels, then the average reader may read crap. The aspiring writer, though, is an exception. To become exceptional, a writer must read more like an Olympic athlete in training. A great writer must, like an Olympic athlete, read a well-balanced, varied diet. I know, I know: it works for Billy Bob Thornton to only eat orange food (okay, to set the record strait, he eats only raw food, not necessarily orange. Big difference), but not for the writer. Sorry. Even a straight genre writer should cross train.
With my new creed in mind, I joined a book group. It was kind of like the Nutrisystem for me. A prescribed diet of someone else’s food, just enough to pry me from my old habits, and get me on the road to a healthier diet. I’ll admit that I didn’t like all the books my group chose. I don’t care if he does write a pretty sentence; Jonathan Franzen struck me as a pubescent boy stuck with a nasty god complex. Mostly, though, I read wonderful books I never would have chosen with my own sensitive nose. I was introduced by Mandy to Iris Murdock’s The Sea, The Sea, by Maureen to Peter Carey’s Parrot and Oliver in America, and by Tracy to Jennifer Vanderbe’s Easter Island. The camaraderie of a group to gush over or trash a book is added fun I didn’t take into account when I joined.
Like many people who have kicked an eating disorders, I maintain my Nurtisystem support group, but I also go on my own hunts. These days I’m like a reformed meat-eater who now leads groups on urban mushroom foraging. I will spend my late hours on the Internet searching the Independent Publishing sites such as Dranzen Books, Algonquin Books, Other Press. This search has led down some strange paths, such as The Mullet: Hairstyles of the Gods, or Shitting Pretty. It has also put some gems in my hands. On these excursions, I have found Galore by Michael Crummey and The End of the World by Sushma Joshi.
While most of my college promises to myself (big hair, stonewashed jeans, cheap beer, Nihilism) are better off dead, my promise to stay away from bad writing has solidified like cement beneath the post of my own writing. I have many coaches. Thomas Hardy and Virginia Woolf will always be there, but so, too, will Louise Erdrich, Orhan Pamuk, Gao Xingjian, and Cormac McCarthy. I may not make great art yet, but with the help of these Olympic coaches, I can strive for more. Who knows, with time, practice, and lots of good reading, I could break the record–or put a deep scratch down it so it won’t play on the record player any more.
Recently I wrote a list of books that influenced my writing and I thought it would be interesting to pose a question to this writing group. Tell me about a book or author that inspires your writing. The Guttery responses were (not) surprising.
Bruce Greene‘s writing scratches like fingernails down the vertebrae of class and culture. Listen to the performance, Love Outlives Us, and you’ll appreciate that the writers who influenced Bruce were Kenneth Patchen and John Steinbeck. Bruce claims that he likes them both because they tackle “big ideas and are thought provoking.” Bruce does too. His “Goldfish” piece read in the Moonlit Guttery’s reading of Love Outlives Us uses the metaphor of a harmless goldfish to pry open the box of the Vietnam war. My mother, whose brother’s life was shattered by his three tours in Vietnam, could not sleep after listening to Bruce read his piece. She told me that Bruce’s story gave her a new perspective on her brother’s life and the cultural forces that led to his decision to do three tours. Bruce has published his memoir of his Vista years on the web, Above This Wall. Here is an excerpt from Bruce’s memoir. It is a section of his statement of conscientious objections to his Vietnam Conflict draft board:
To be sure, I have been influenced by the great thinkers of non-violence, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, however, my increased interest in poetry led me to my most profound influence, the American poet Kenneth Patchen. Patchen’s works encompass the totality of my religious beliefs.
There is only one truth in the world:
Until we learn to love our neighbor,
There will be no life for anyone,
Force cannot be overthrown by force,
To hate any man is to despair of every man,
Evil breeds evil—the rest is a lie:
There is only one power that can save the world—
And that is the power of our love for all men everywhere.
When A. Molotkov (Tola) told me that Milan Kundera was his one author, I felt a thrill of recognition. Tola said of Kundera, “I love his capability to be modern and innovative, to play with the narrative and with character development, all the while discovering poignant human truths that are relevant to all.” This, is Tola’s writing. He’s pushed and sifted enough sand to create a world in which all his character and two in particular, Zungvilda and Goombeldt, attempt to stand. From Tola’s work The Melting Hourglass:
Goombeldt walks in
folding his umbrella
why is he carrying an umbrella?
it’s not raining.
As with Kundera’s writing, that’s the point–why do we carry an umbrella when it is not raining? How is it that we stand on such sticky, stilted ground?
Cameron McPhearson Smith writes that his favorite book is Craig Childs and his book The Secret Knowledge of Water. If you haven’t read Childs’ book, it is a fascinating, poetic adventure of man’s inexhaustible pursuit of water sources in the desert. Cam writes that Childe’s book is “inspiring because every word is so carefully picked; the book is a lesson in craftsmanship.” Cameron is an adventurer whose writing includes the reader in Cam’s own sense of wonder and fascination with nature. In this recent excerpt from Cameron’s blog, his prose is as haunting, poetic, and evocative as Childs’:
Funny that when the stars come out, we go in, and sleep, and dream…sometimes of the stars or of impossible distances, or of near-infinite energies, or of other infinitudes. Then, as the stars are winking out, we wake and step outside, the lit sky blocking our view and thoughts of a larger universe.
David Cooke was the last to share his favorite writer: Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakoy’s Master and Margarita. This book was called THE masterpiece of the twentieth century by The Times of London. Having not read it yet,–I ordered it at Powell’s Books online yesterday–I can’t speak to the parallels between Bulgakov’s writing and David’s; however, in reading about this novel I found a similar trait. Allusion. One of the novel’s predominate themes is good versus evil made through heavy allusions to Faust. This reminded me of David and his use of allusion and his love of grand themes. In the first stanza in his prize winning poem Edges, the allusions transcend the experience of one life to an exploration of our lives.
I don’t know where to start. Far before the moon pulled the tide
to your chin. Before your groin became a grotto. Before the brine
washed away the haloes your feet squeeze into the sand. I don’t
believe in the alchemy of eels and their mud.
It’s happened again. Another best selling memoir exposed as a fraud? We don’t know all the details yet, but according to reputable sources like “60 Minutes” and writer John Krakauer, the blockbuster <Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortensen may be full of lies. If not complete falsehoods, then some very questionable facts. Did Mortensen’s chain of events happen as detailed in his two books? Are the schools he claims to have built all up and running? Was he really captured by the Taliban and detained in a cell or are the “captors” he’s pictured with in the book just friends. And then there is the money? 23 million in contributions that include $100,000. from President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize money. Troubling. Very troubling. As Krakauer writes in a recently published essay called “Three Cups of Deceit,”
The first eight chapters of Three Cups of Tea are an intricately wrought work of fiction presented as fact. And by no means was this an isolated act of deceit. It turns out that Mortenson’s books and public statements are permeated with falsehoods. The image of Mortenson that has been created for public consumption is an artifact born of fantasy, audac- ity, and an apparently insatiable hunger for esteem. Morten- son has lied about the noble deeds he has done, the risks he has taken, the people he has met, the number of schools he has built. T hree Cups of T ea has much in common with A Million Little Pieces, the infamous autobiography by James Frey that was exposed as a sham. But Frey, unlike Mortenson, didn’t use his phony memoir to solicit tens of millions of dollars in donations from unsuspecting readers, myself among them. Moreover, Mortenson’s charity, the Central Asia Institute, has issued fraudulent financial statements, and he has misused millions of dollars donated by schoolchildren and other trusting devotees. “Greg,” says a former treasurer of the organization’s board of directors, “regards CAI as his personal ATM.”
Those who know Mortensen well, know that he’s a bit quirky. They know too that when memoir is written, sometimes events are compacted in time. Dialogue is spiced up a bit, and longer, detailed scenes are gutted in favor of action. Action…just the action ma’am. What bothers this writer more than anything about this scandal is the book tour. Allegedly, Mortensen is picking up $30,000. speaking fees, globe trotting on private jets, and avoiding questions of the media about his integrity. Thus far, we can’t pass judgment on all of this until it sorts itself out and a public accounting of the money and facts occurs. But it does beg a few important questions for writers in general and writers of memoir in particular. Are we being asked to forgo accuracy for action? Is our audience so fickle or so dependent on sensationalism that we must knowingly tweak the substance of our personal stories in order to gain favor with a mass audience? In my recently completed memoir, I constantly grappled with these issues. I found myself responding to constructive criticism with ethical replies. My inner memoirist was screaming, but that’s not what happened. But that’s what you want to happen, or If I wanted to say that, I’d have written a novel. It is the job of the memoir writer to find the action and the sensational within the truth. Our stories, as they actually happen, have the power to captivate even the toughest audiences. It’s our job, our ultimate challenge to tell them in ways that do just that. It ain’t easy. But it’s oh so necessary. Otherwise we end up fabrication. We end up prostituting ourselves to a popular culture that often sacrifices the deepest personal or political for the glitter of overt violence. A publication industry that sometimes panders to the quick buck with no regard for ethics or substance. This explains why Snookie of Jersey Shore, in my view the most inane TV offering of the century, gets a book deal. Bleak as all this looks, there is another side. I recently received an email from an old friend. In fact, a very special old friend. After 40 years, I found myself talking to one of the VISTA Volunteers I served with in 1970. He’d heard I’d written a memoir of that year through some of the folks I’d contacted and decided he wanted to read it. His note to me mentioned that he’d been up all night reading it from Preface through all 12 chapters and the Afterword. He’d found it compelling and well written. (Thanks Boo) and mentioned that it brought up all sorts of issues and recollections. GOAL! I realized early on that it would take more time, money, and inclination for me to sell it to a publisher. My goal was for many of my former students to read it, so I put it online. (Readers of this blog will find it connected here) Now I may not be doing too many speaking appearances, or soliciting funds or appear on the most popular top selling lists, but I can say that my memoir is accurate, it occurred…all of it… the beauty and the hatred, the racism and the wonder, the violence, fear, horrible alienation and brutally authentic music of the oppressed..all of it…as it happened.
Last Monday Reading Series
April 25th 7pm
Influence Music Hall
135 SE 3rd Street Hillsboro, Oregon
Often poetry is like Russia. “It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” I believe poets do not do this on purpose. They don’t write poetry as if it is a page out of Where’s Waldo or the hidden pictures of Highlights Magazine. Poetry is a medium especially adept at distilling grand ideas into brief amounts of script. It provides a template for a dizzying array of connections. A way of linking disparate thoughts, experiences, images, emotions. It pushes and pulls the reader ultimately attempting to hold a mirror up to the reader to elicit a response. A response of “I like this” is always welcome but the Holy Grail is “I am like this.”
In pursuit of this penultimate connection the universal and personal need to be simultaneously addressed. The beatific and the scientific, the good and the bad, the whirling colors of experience all need to be put down in black and white. This flattening of reality opens up a world of amazement at work that is able to create complex evocative emotions in the mind of the reader; to elicit multi dimensional thoughts, wavering conclusions, and a choir of points of view. Poetry can be seen in the way that I often described teaching, as non-invasive brain surgery.
The brain filters at least 5 senses, bounces things back and forth between parietal lobes, feels with the amygdala, remembers with the hippocampus. How does one operate on such a moving target much less on the myriad of targets that your audience presents. How does one speak of the ineffable? With ambiguity. Ambiguity is where poetry comes into its own. Where, with all its foibles and shortcomings, it really shines, outshines its literary brethren, and even the visual arts. Readers expect to work out the meanings of poems in ways that fiction and non-fiction do not require. Ambiguity allows poetry to harness the power of language and all it idiosyncrasies, paradoxes, and complexity. Turning Tony Pfannenstiel’s line from God’s Logic “…while I melted down” from a nervous breakdown to a profoundly blasphemous nose thumbing when the next line adds “my gold jewelry to fire up another idol”.
Like an impossible object there are multiple ways of seeing these lines. One can pull the nose thumbing to the front or make it recede like a viewer does with a Necker’s cube. But unlike the visual illusion readers can hold both thoughts at the same time. Viewers of optical illusions switch their assumed viewpoint from above to below, below to above. Readers of poetry can ruminate on the connections between nervous breakdowns and idolatry, of freewill and divine apathy, of submission and defiance. Sliding the conclusions around on a continuum as tangled as a physician’s handwriting.
Just as with the Necker’s cube there is often a default view. With impossible objects it is the view from above. Perhaps linked to our upright viewing physiology. In poetry this default reading is the literal reading. A reading that is linked with the most common of definitions and contexts of words and phrases.
In my work homonyms play a huge role creating a variety of readings. Take the line from Edges “Before your groin became a grotto.” Groin’s default meaning is anatomical referring to one’s crotch. The default meaning for grotto is cave. There is a certain amount of ambiguity in the metaphor. The mind struggles with imagining how a crotch can become a cave. But the context of the earlier lines clearly puts the reader in the ocean so another meaning of groin comes to mind. Groins are structures built out from the coast to protect the shore from erosion. This layers the idea of a protective structure over the genitalia. The secondary meaning of grotto further complicates the image by noting that a grotto is a hollowed out space often used for worship. Reading this one line there is something that is both genitalia and sea bulwark becoming a cave, that is also a place of worship. Yes, it makes my brain hurt. Especially if you start firing the neurons that are close to groin and grotto the thoughts of sex organs, virginity, protection, worship, and drop them into the sea. A sea that later in the poem works both meanings (ocean and pontiff) when stating, “The sea’s words won’t heal you.”
Do I expect everyone to come to a full realization of each of these meanings. Quite deliberately no. I am however not being cryptic. If I could make all the meanings apparent with brevity and vivid imagery I would. Writing this explanation reinforces the conclusion that obviously I can not. I often decide it is better to sound cryptic than verbose and to attempt to create multidimensional lines in the flatland of writing.
In another poem Good for the Perfect I use ambiguity from the start. The title comes from the phrase trading the good for the perfect a twist on throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Clipping this down to good for the perfect it reads like snide sarcasm as when one says good for you. The poem continues to describe non-sexual infidelity using an asexual angelic interloper. To build the otherworldly, sinister feel I used phrases describing symptoms of Marfan’s syndrome like “legs long like contrails” “funnel of its chest” “hummingbird eyes”. The symptoms being tall lanky build, funnel shaped chest cavity, and dislocation of the lenses of the eyes.
This layer of Marfan’s syndrome coupled with a reference to a Confederate inserted a possible reading that included Abraham Lincoln. It was theorized that he suffered from Marfans. This was not my intention and the cohesiveness of a reading that includes Lincoln does not hang together. Yet, if a reader’s brain runs with it and creates a web of logic that holds together for them, I won’t argue. Sometimes the ambiguity is a result of a happy accident.
One such happy accident was the line “I felt embedded in its palm.” Taken out of context it reveals something more about the speaker’s feelings in relation to the interloper. Put back into context with the preceding line of “My finger touched the gravel” the speaker’s feelings take their rightful spot in the background. Using line breaks to separate phrases from their context is also useful in increasing ambiguity without losing clarity.
My primary intention is clarity but the complexity and interrelated subject matter of my poems necessitates a two, three or 16.5 prong attack. Ambiguity marshals the varied meanings and allows me to speak simultaneously. There are times I will steer away from using words or phrases because of the secondary or tertiary meanings, but in the end this is what interests me, what I enjoy. Churchill’s follow up to the earlier quote, “But perhaps there is a key … Russian national interest” works for poets also. Primarily poets want to speak to readers, to be understood. It is not in our interest to be misunderstood. This doesn’t stop it from happening but for the most part poets are thrilled to have readers know what they mean even when the poet doesn’t.
Last Monday Poetry
Influence Music Hall
135 SE Third AV, Hillsboro, OR
Monday March 28, 7:00 pm
With the advent of niche marketing, localvore dining, targeted missile strikes it is nice to see the universal can still find a haven. This haven is a tight spot to maneuver especially within the confines of a poem but the strange breed of writers known as poets relish this confinement. It is also surprising to see a movement that prides itself on striking emotional chords through a strict elimination of specific time, place, brand come out of Portland. Portlanders are a people who treasure the boutique, the weird, the personal, the excessively local. Portland’s allegiance to Stumptown over Starbucks, to food carts over McDonalds, Jumblelaya vintage dresses over Anthropologie, Powell’s over Borders, even Les Schwab over BF Goodrich, or HUB over Bud is rooted in the adage: Think globally act locally. The poetic movement Inflectionism takes up the thinking end of this saying.
Paramount to Inflectionism is the quest for truth. Truth over fact not in an Orwellian sense nor asking it as Pilate to escape responsibility but as a way to discover the essential elements of human experience. Even limiting it to the human experience chaps the hide of diehard Inflectionists like Molotkov or Williams. Their brand of reductionism works like a black hole. They strive to condense their truth to a point of extreme density drawing you in along with bending light and time and possibly popping the reader out into another universe. Needless to say brevity is a key ingredient. Often the poems are nuggets of introspection. Take Williams autobiographical poem…
I still remember the day my father was born.
No that is not the title. That is the whole poem and with its brevity it bends time and opens an alternate universe.
To get to this level of density one has to detonate stars and peel away whole planets. Cutting away specific locales, jettisoning the Sierra Nevada, the Clackamas and Route 66. Blotting out the lights of Paris, the white phosphorous of Fallujah, the Aurora Borealis. Gone is the Douglas Fir, the Lazy Boy, the worn pair of Levi’s. Heaven forbid the inclusion of your childhood sweetheart, Hannah Gladwell, Rupert your abuser, or the Bard. Even Kevin Bacon’s 6 degrees will get you the third degree. Although Mr. Molotkov jokes that New York is acceptable.
Where does that leave one in terms of truth? What of finding the universal in the personal, exploring the macrocosm in the microcosm, mining your own history? Inflectionists leave that to other movements; to the poets of place, to Pastoralism, the Confessionalists. In many ways Inflectionism is like the Symbolist Movement. The same quest for absolute truth accessed indirectly through juxtaposition and paradox but with a renewed aversion for narrative perhaps in reaction to the Confessionalists. There is still plenty of truth left as their growing collection will testify.
All poetry wrestles with the devil in the details and his evil twin cliché. Poets reside in a tough spot between the salt rusted bars of Alcatraz and a hard place. Inflectionists demonstrate their adept skill at navigating these obstacles in their work. Adroitly sifting the truth from the facts, polishing them and setting them on the page. Mercilessly they remove the specific and hone open, evocative, and thought-provoking poems. John Sibley Williams along with other Inflectionists and non-Inflectionists will speak to this process and the crucibles used to fashion truths you’ll call poetry.
Blackbird Wine and Atomic Cheese
4323 NE Fremont Street
Portland, OR 97213.
Wednesday, March 2 · 7:00pm – 10:00pm
Again. Yes again! The Guttery reads at Blackbird Wine Shop again. The sequel that reaffirms the rich, heart wrenching, thought provoking, vivid writing read by the very authors of the very words. Words published, words awarded, words paid for, words you get to hear for free while enjoying some of the world’s finest wines. This is where it all began. Blackbird Wine Shop was the first to host The Guttery writers a little over a year ago. From the packed house at Blackbird various permutations of The Guttery have performed to standing room only at 3 Friends Show and Tell Gallery, for, what was it 4 hours? at Beach Books, Tony’s Tavern, Last Monday in Hilsboro, Third Thursday at the Reed Opera House, and even on the radio as featured by Talking Earth on KBOO . The authors have continued to win prizes for their short stories and poetry and will have pluthera of publications for purchase. The Guttery writers Bruce Greene, A. Molotkov, and David Cooke will be joined by John Milliken who is claiming fame through the Poetry Post movement. Builder of poetry posts and poster of poetry John Milliken joins David Cooke in raising funds and awareness of the poetry posts/poles/boxes popping up in Portland neighborhoods.
Come see The Guttery writers at the reading that started it all. David Cooke, Bruce Greene, John Milliken , and A. Molotkov will read from their work.
WORK Literary Magazine
John Milliken is a local writer of poetry and short stories. He developed an eclectic voice writing about people and sense of place from extensive travel as soldier, student, bicycle tourist and work as a construction manager. John has called Portland home for the past 35 years and lives with his partner, Ellen, in the Irvington neighborhood. Their daughters, Poppy and Robin, though world travellers as well, chose to remain in Portland as PSU graduate and PNCA undergraduate students respectively. John is a member of the group First Friday Writers, a student of local poet John Morrison and a self described groupie / admirer of Billy Collins.
John also designs, builds and installs poetry poles throughout Portland. John’s inspiration is Jim Bodeen’s Poetry Post at the Begonia Press home and office in Wenatchee, Washington. Each pole location is an intimate venue that promotes a sense of community and appreciation for the written word. John’s motto is: “I write because I must.” Begonia Press http://www.bluebegoniapress.com/index.php?page_id=259 . John’s Blog (poetry poles) http://redwind08.blogspot.com/2010/12/contact-email-for-poetry-poles.html
Bruce Greene taught English, history, and psychology in the Bay Area for many years. He now works with beginning teachers at Marylhurst University. In his eclectic writing career, Bruce has been a correspondent for a national thoroughbred horse magazine and published everything from poetry and educational research to creative non-fiction and memoir. Recent credits include winning the memoir competition sponsored by WORK Literary Magazine. He is always looking for another river to fly fish and coffeehouses conducive to writing. A literary agent might be nice too. Read his memoir, Above This Wall: The Life and Times of a VISTA Volunteer 1969-70. ( http://lifeandtimesofvista.blogspot.com/) or check out his blog, Daily Views and Blues.(http://bluesgreene.blogspot.com/)
A. Molotkov is a writer, composer, filmmaker and visual artist. He blends art forms to build a varied body of work in which individual components contribute to a greater whole. Born in Russia, he moved to the US in 1990 and switched to writing in English in 1993. He is the author of several novels, short story and poetry collections and the winner of the 2008 E. M. Koeppel Short Fiction Award. His winning short story “Round Trip” was nominated for a Pushcart. Molotkov’s work has appeared in numerous publications, both in print and online. He frequently reads poetry in Portland, OR. Visit him at www.AMolotkov.com
David Cooke’s debut poem Edges won the Ruth Stone Poetry Prize and was nominated for a 2010 Pushcart Prize. His work appears in Flatmancrooked, Hunger Mountain, A River & Sound Review, Heavy Hands Ink and in performances at the Blackbird Wine Shop, Show and Tell Gallery, Stonehenge Studio, and KBOO’s Talking Earth. He is also known as The Lawn Guy throughout Portland and Lake Oswego for his lawn maintenance business. Much of his current work is included in his forthcoming chapbook, Discretion
I step off the bus and start down the street. It’s dark and the stars stand out. I come around a corner and there is the moon, white and giant. “People walked there,” I think, trying to imagine the distances. It was a very extended SCUBA dive.
Folded in my pocket are Kip’s two poems and Carrie-Ann’s pitch letter: I am walking to Carrie-Ann’s for our weekly meeting. Aside from a 6-month absence, I’ve done this for five years; Wednesday night is writing group.
I linger a bit, outside; I’m looking at the moon, trying to absorb something from its light.
OK, enough; time to go in.
Inside Carrie-Ann’s six people examine Kip’s poems in excruciating detail. “I dunno, this line seems condescending….” We work as a group. Some people have come and gone but the constitution of the group has remained essentially the same. We have poets, realists, memoirists, fiction writers.
“I dunno, I think this is a cliche…” We jab and jibe, we have fun, we talk about how the work influences us, or not, we laugh and people talk over one another sometimes. A lot of what we say says as much about each of us as what we mean to say about Kip’s poems. “This is a fantastic line. Unbelievable.”
We consider every word, punctuation mark and word-structure like surgeons. We might as well be wearing sterile suits. This attention is exactly what I love.
A slice of exotic cheese, some crackers, some comments on the ridiculous rewording of <i>Huckleberry Finn</i>, and down we dive into Carrie-Ann’s book pitch letter. “This might not play too well…” someone says, and this is nicely refuted with logic–actually it should play very well in the hand of an Acquisitions Editor.
I sort of slide away, sometimes, watching Bruce’s animated physical style, and Tracy’s folded position. Tola sits like a professional; Kip sits carefully; Carrie-Ann is in the lotus position with her laptop; David leans back but is exploding with interest; and I wonder what I communicate physically with whatever paperclip-pose I take in my seat, chewing on a pen, and I think on the fragility of groups, and the integrity of ours. Half of this is showing up, I think, the other is being present, really taking time to examine the work. We all do both parts, and that is a wonderful thing to see. For years we’ve been at this, learning each other.
On the way to Carrie’s the moon was so beautiful that I’d thought, “This is the best moment of my life…”
How could that be, walking alone on a dark road with a 7-11 coffee in one hand, and a stale burrito in the other?
To complement my previous post, which delineated some common writing mistakes and how to avoid them, this post focuses on some common writing successes. These are things that work to connect with the reader and keep them reading. Some are of course just the converse of the points laid out in the previous blog, and when they are, I elaborate to clarify. And, again, subtleties can be debated (though I’d argue the principles are ironclad) and, no, I don’t always accomplish these in every work; but I do work at it.
Telling an Old Tale in a New Way: We writers usually tell an old tale; the only reason we didn’t quit at Shakespeare (in the West, anyway) is that the world changes, people change (to a degree), and old messages need new context and new telling. Casting wisdom in a new mold lets you communicate that wisdom with modern people. This isn’t easy to do, but it’s one of the main reasons we keep writing.
Taking the Reader to New Place: Many people do not have the luxury to travel the world, or can’t or won’t travel across town or even down the street. A good writer can take the reader anywhere. It’s not easy, and it requires certain tools and methods, but there are many reasons to do it, one being the same reason to travel; to see things from a different perspective. Breaking a reader out of the bubble of daily time and space–and you can tell you’ve done it when they tell you they felt like they were right there in that new world–is tremendously rewarding for both writer and reader.
Exploration: This is very similar to Taking the Reader to a New Place, but, in some way I haven’t yet sorted out, it’s different. I feel this is more motivational; it doesn’t necessarily have the function of place-setting for an ancient tale, it simply stimulates the reader to see, and maybe even do. This kind of writing is often somewhat breathless. Dozens of examples rise to mind; here’s one from Craig Childs’ superb book, The Way Out, in which he describes his exploration of a flooded cavern in the Grand Canyon: “Our headlamps brushed the ceiling, showing a few passages. We went up. Each of us tried a different route, climbing through dust and pieces of rubble. I ascended a chimney, emerging into a room the size of an aircraft hangar. Perhaps seventy feet tall and over a hundred feet long, its ceiling was a lifted dome, its floor a garden of waterfalls and pools. Darkness ate my beam of light toward the back. A quarter-mile into a desert cliff, beneath two thousand feet of solid rock, inside the belly of the mother, was this: a buried grotto with the broken plumbing of a spring sending water everywhere. As I walked, my light took on altering values, passing through swift water, still water, deep water, sheeting water, plumes of mist, and shiny, wet stones. The river ran the width of a street.. That makes me want to drop everything and explore the caves of the Grand Canyon. That motivates me into action, if ‘only’ charging me for my own projects. This writing, contrary to elemental physics, generates energy from apparent nothing. Exploration can take place in many domains–mine is largely that of the physical universe–but, I think, you get my point.
Revealing the Truth / Exposing Complexity: Presumably readers want clarity, or at least some kind of understanding (at least, the readers I want to communicate with). A writer has the potential to expose truth because reading takes more time and attention than listening to a sound-bite. In John Steinbeck’s daily journal he wrote, about taking time with his writing to expose truths, “The human mind, particularly in the present, is troubled and fogged and bee-stung with a thousand little details from taxes to war worry to the price of meat. All these usually get together and result in a man’s fighting with his wife, because that is the easiest channel of relief for inner unrest. Now–we must think of a book as a wedge driven into a man’s personal life. A short book would be in and out quickly…A long book, on the other hand…instead of cutting and leaving…allows the mind to rearrange itself to fit around the wedge…When the wedge is withdrawn, the tendency of them mind is quickly to heal itself exactly as it was before the attack. With the long book…when the wedge is finally withdrawn and the book is set down, the mind cannot ever be quite what it was before.” While plenty can be said for shorter forms, such as short poetry, I think what he was getting at there is the time it takes, in some forms of writing, to clarify. Again, yes, short works can well wash and make clear, but, again, the point–whatever the form–is clarity and the exposure of complexity.
Reminding the Reader of Dignity: The world, as I feel it, shaped largely by commerce, leaves us little dignity; great power lies in the hands of those who constrain our choices, and unless we’re careful to protect our own dignity, we are defined by our consumption, we are simply consumers (you can see a clip of how I feel here). Writing in a respectful way reminds us of human dignity. If that is too much social commentary for you, you might want to read someone else. I’m leaning a lot on Steinbeck right now, and here I will use him again: “I intended to make [some of his writing]sound guileless and rather sweet, but you will see in it the little blades of social criticism without which no book is worth a fart in hell.” This is very important to me. About it, Antoine de Saint Exupery wrote, “The airplane is a means, not an end. One doesn’t risk his life for a plane any more than a farmer ploughs for the sake of the plough. But the airplane is a means of getting away from towns and their book-keeping and coming to grips with reality.”
The Crystallization of a Worldview: This is entirely for the writer; the writer, presumably wishing to communicate something clearly–even if it’s uncertainty–requires something of a comprehensive worldview; in German, the word weltanschaung, literally translates into world-view, but carries something more organic and expansive that I can’t quite outline; it is more a feeling than a statement, a feeling that suffuses everything a writer writes. This worldview is part of one’s voice as a writer. Writing, putting your words down in some durable form, forces you, at least in the moment, to assemble the building-blocks of a worldview. This view can change as the world and the writer changes, of course, but having these worldviews, and knowing which ones came before, and even how the one-at-present may be changing, is important to clarity and honesty as a good writer.