Category Archives: Writing Life

Life is a rough draft

A few weeks ago, I posted about my surprise at the fact I am now writing a novel. The result of a New Year’s resolution, I wrote and revised 30 pages fairly quickly.  Since then, the focus of the story, and even the main character, has completely changed.

In the time since the last post about the novel, I attended a workshop, perused several books related to novel-writing, read parts of over a dozen books and two dozen articles online for source material.

For the record, I recommend The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the
Story Beneath the Surface, by Donald Maas. I chose this text at a time when I felt bored with what I was writing. I realized that instead of writing the scenes that excited me, I had become caught up in stringing together the scenes, trying to shape the plot. I felt that I was tied up in the surface, and from this location, started to hear the voices that say “What makes you think you can write a novel, anyway?”

I realized that I am not a plotter. While I like knowing, vaguely, where I am going with the story, the excitement I feel for writing a novel is most vibrant when writing the scenes with the most emotion. In my journal I like to write around the character, to gain a deeper understanding, free writing thoughts about her and her relationships, her profound memories.

The story, as it is taking shape, is now focused on a different character than before. The setting is still the same, but now more concise in the amount of time it covers: roughly 1942 to 1954, in Mexico City, D.F. The characters are expatriates from Europe, who escaped the turmoil of the war to land in Mexico (some, by way of NYC). The main character is originally from northern Spain, lived in Paris as part of the surrealist community of artists and writers, and now finds herself as the “glue” holding together the small expatriate group of friends living in tenement-style housing in Mexico City.

The “so what” of the story is her self-realization; not earth-shattering as an idea, but the rich detail of her experiences and of her memories of Spain and Paris,  combined with complicated relationships with the men in her life, will enrich the story.So will the evolution of her friendships with two (artist/expatriate) women, which will slowly uncover her greatest fears and the barriers she has allowed to form that keep her from fulfilment as an artist.

Woven in: interactions with Mexican artists and writers, and the complicated artstic environment at a time when Mexico (at a national level) struggles to create a national identiy, elevating yet inevitably trivializing the “indio”; a schism between mestizo, indio, and euro that subtly influences her relationships with local artists, and her own self identity. Over time, she will distance herself from the old ties to Paris and the surrealists, particularly those who play into the notion of “woman as muse” vs. artist in her own right. She will identify the sources of her own inspiration as an artist.

This is a very long way to say, sometimes when working on a HUGE project, it is necessary to step back, reconsider the focus, reconnect with the source of inspiration.

Ask: “What is most exciting to you in this work?” This matters.

I realized that my first attempt (focusing on a character loosely based on Leonora Carrington) did not have as much potential for inner conflict; the character was somewhat terse, steady, wise. I felt that I was lured into biography (her life is fascinating enough as it is without being fictionalized). The second attempt tried to encompass a triad of main characters/artists, with changing points of view, but I realized that could get confusing, and might short change each character.

This new attempt–well, we’ll have to see. Only a few loose and freely sketched scenes exist at this moment. But just in the past week, I have been able to sit down and write several pages at a time, feeling the enjoyment of writing. I think that is what it is all about, as I learn how to write a novel.

Jorge Luis Borges said that “writing is nothing but a guided dream.” There is joy in dreaming.

Thoughts on the Dynamic Image in Poetry

Thoughts on the Dynamic Image in Poetry

I think it is necessary to learn about poetry in high school. As a developing poet, it is an essential period of safe exploration.
But we must unlearn what we have learned in school, in order to fully participate in the dynamism of living poetry.

It’s true that as members of the human race, we need poems that can be memorized and shared, that connect directly with our own memories and emotions. Canonized poems are the ones we tend to read in school because they are repeated, repeatable; some were subversive at some point but now they are subject to analysis by teachers and students, and thus they become conventional and further from their origins with each reading.

I can think of many “conventional” poems that sing in my heart over many years. Poems I enjoyed for their cleverness, their mastery of form and device. Poems that contain a continuous narrative. Poems that speak to me. Sylvia Plath’s “Black Rook in Rainy Weather”, William Butler Yeats’ “Second Coming”. Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking”. John Donne’s “Daybreak”. These are only a few.

To fully understand the power and purpose of poetry, the poet must evolve over time. The alternative is to stay suspended as if in a clear gel, to relive the same patterns over again. To replay a greatest hits album. To live in a museum of sorts.

I’m no longer infatuated with derangement of the senses—a seemingly dynamic method of poetry–though I love Jack Kerouac, Arthur Rimbaud, my old party friends. Although there is dynamism when tapping into the subconscious, in this method and lifestyle, the experience is too random. If fueled by drugs, is tied up in the ego and is, ultimately, damaging. (Sure love Jack’s “Bowery Blues” . . .).

Some poems have a thesis, a persuasive point they are trying to make. I feel a little sad reading a poem that has the soul of a persuasive essay. I’d much rather read a poetic essay than an essay masquerading as a poem.

Ancient poetry is narrative, formal, memorizable. The most innovative, energetic poetry today is not.

Now, the image is everything. With an image, a poet creates a world. Creates the world.

The dynamic image does not come from a set of stock cultural photos one pulls down from a shelf.

The experience of accessing the image is a channeling—a tunneling—to make room, and then walls slowly peel away from the room leaving only the indifferent universe. And there lives and breathes the Image.

The dynamic image is not recycled or manipulated. The dynamic image is born.

 

 

Future topics: entropy in poetry; insight

 

Why write?

Only 8 years ago, I was a writing teacher. Now I am unsure about the idea of anyone teaching”writing” to anyone.

I remember that by the time I started formally learning how to write, I thought I knew everything. I had a writing “habit” without much structure to it, first fueled by reading poetry, later encouraged by Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and other how-to-be-a-writer books.

Automatic writing worked for me. A love for the Beats and the Surrealists was working for me. . .as did the prompts assigned by inspiring and caring high school English teachers. Until I decided to enroll in the Creative Writing/Poetry program at UCSC.

I remember the first time my professor-to-be reviewed my portfolio. A cinder fell from his cigarette, which burned into one of the pages. He told me that I was going to change my writing, break it apart, turn it inside out, make it something different. Internally I scoffed.

Over a period of two rigorous years, (thanks to ongoing direct feedback from professors and peers) my writing style did evolve. My thesis/chapbook was a lyric work, centered on the natural world, including a serial poem that focused on (abstracted) childhood events. Honors in the major. Done.

But then what? And so what? If I had the drive and maturity at the time, perhaps I would have continued. But. Having a fixed mindset in regards to writing ability (“you either have it or you don’t”; supposedly I “had it”, thus I shouldn’t need to try), I didn’t try. And thus, stopped writing.

Though I loved teaching, I never continued much of my own work to the revision stage. Thus followed a few timid attempts including readings at local coffee shops. And a total lack of understanding of what I really wanted to do with my writing. I collected books on writing; I gathered writing prompts around me like pieces of a nest. A protective nest.

I think when teaching “writing” we teach something else. Perhaps a road map for learning how to find our own voice, how to become a Writer. But it’s one road map of many possible, and the budding writer may take twenty years to figure out that it’s the writing, not the peripheral stuff that is the real work.

Originally I started this post as a way to share some insight about writing, knowing that we all need support or encouragement. I suppose what I can offer now is a reminder I wish I understood earlier in life–to put in the work no matter what is going on in your life, and you can never go wrong.

Beware a sugar-rush dependence on writing prompts, a dependence on teachers, or positive feedback. Do learn from your teachers; they’ve been writing longer than you have.

Remember to be patient with yourself; be kind. You are not supposed to be perfect, whatever that means, and your words do matter in the world.

Try not to spend too long fluffing your nest or feeling accomplished, because the nest and the accomplishments (perceived or real) are probably a distraction from the real reason you are writing.

I write to understand and revel in the world I take in through my senses, to revel in the ideas that I read. I write to connect with the quiet in my life, and for the pure enjoyment of words which I see as ever changing and alive.

Why are you writing?

Poetic Imagination vs. Fantasy

I have been thinking about imagination as compared to fantasy, for several reasons. I am reading the French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard– systematically reading each of his books related to the imagination.

I have also engaged in conversation recently with a friend and colleague who does not consider himself in the least imaginative; he is an Accountant, who believes that artists create from a mysterious source of talent, and that he could never create a work of art. He asked me, “Isn’t writing poetry an escape? Isn’t that why you do it?”

In our conversations, I clarified that I do not see poetry (reading or writing it) as an escape from reality. In my experience, poetry is reality. However, I appreciate the opportunity to think in more depth on this topic; why read and write poetry?

I do not have a tidy answer to this question. As a related digression (slash, smokescreen) consider the following passages as a brief illustration of the difference between imagination and fantasy.

Bachelard’s Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement, is one of his texts that deals with each of the four elements as a phenomenological exploration of the imagination. He shares the following passage from Rilke, which he calls a “very pure document from the point of view of the dynamic imagination . . .”:

Then there was a street. We were going down it together, keeping step, close to each other. Her arm was lying across my shoulders.
The street was wide, with the emptiness of morning, a boulevard slight downhill, sloping just so much as would be needed to take the little bit of weight from a child’s step. She walked as if little wings were on her feet . . .

The sensation, Bachelard points out, is “lightness”, which is an essential characteristic of flight as experienced in dream.

He points out examples, as well, of writers who do not manage to capture the essential sensation of flight. The writer creates a fantastical experience of flying in a dream. This passage from a writer, Jean-Paul:

This flight, in which I am sometimes climbing and sometimes rising straight up with my arms beating like oars, is a real air and ether bath for the brain, voluptuous and restful–if it were not for the fact that the too rapid strokes of my arms in my dream make me feel dizzy and lead me to fear brain congestion. Truly happy, exalted in body and spirit . . . etc.

In this passage, the writer attempts to convey a story about an event, i.e. a rationalized dream of flying. Frankly, this writer is “trying too hard”; he seems to have a thesis or end in mind, rather than re-experiencing a sublime experience.

I see a difference between imagination, and an intentional escape from reality, or an intentional attempt to create a fantastical world, as in Fantasy and Science Fiction.

I love Science Fiction, however I have no illusions about it; I read it to escape. The best Science Fiction makes you think differently about society as a whole, and about our own part in creating the future society. There is often a thesis. I now feel lukewarm about Fantasy, however, as a child, Fantasy stories were food for a hungry imagination. Perhaps reading Fantasy primes the mind in some way? I will make sure not to denigrate Fantasy.

As in Fantasy, a poem exists within a particular context, in which the images relate in their own “system”, if you will.

But Fantasy exists in a world that will never be (Science Fiction exists in a world that could well be, so, look out!).

Poetry doesn’t need a thesis, and the best poetry doesn’t lead you into an imaginary world just to leave you there, stranded. The best poetry is rooted in real experiences, with enough tempting images to lead you deeper into an idiosyncratic understanding of the Real.

Poetry says:

Celebrate and develop your idiosyncratic mind, your unique perceptions of the world around you.

Have the courage to let the reader manage their own journey, but give enough substance to sustain them as they go. Don’t expect them to arrive where you want them to; do point them in the direction of something intriguing that intrigues you.

Where does poetry come from?

This may seem like a silly question: poets write poetry. But there happen to be different philosophical perspectives about the source of poetry. One idea proposed (and embodied) by William Blake is that poetry is “dictation” from an outside source. Later (in the 1950’s and 60’s) poet Jack Spicer elaborated upon this idea in the following excerpt from his Vancouver Letters:

I think that the first kind of hint that one has as a poet, after having written poems for a while and struggled with them, a poem comes through in just about one-eighth the time that the poem usually does and you say “Well, gee, it’s going to be much easier if I can just have this happen very often.” And so then you write 17 or 18 different things which are just what you are thinking about at the particular moment and are lousy. It isn’t simply the matter of getting a fast take. Its something else. But the fast take is a good sign that you’re hooked up to some source of power, some source of energy.[1965]

I gather from Spicer a reverence for an unkown outside source from where he received “energy”, and at energized times the poetry flows unhindered. I think we’re back to the question of inspiration (and, for poets, it behooves us to wonder where inspiration comes from). Inspiration may feel like an outside entity. I feel cautious about placing my hopes on an outisde, objectified entity, because it places me at the mercy or whim of this outside force. Or, if I make a mistake and am not reverent enough . . . what then?

I do believe that as an artist or poet you learn more and more every day about the circumstances, states of mind, and general state of physiological comfort (or discomfort) during which the work flows. And ultimately, it comes down to doing the work. The more time you put in, the more likely you will have work you like, and the more naturally the work flows.

I take a point from Jack Spicer’s reflection on dictation about “hooking up to a source of energy”–I consider this source to be partly the energy that naturally exists in the universe (which is abundant and continually at work on us whether we know it) and partly energy that we free up within ourselves, however we find a way to do it.

For me, sticking to a routine in my daily life is helpful. Yoga in the morning, running in the woods on the weekends. Painting helps the poetry, poetry feeds the painting. Lots and lots of omnivorous reading, listening to Great Lectures series on a variety of topics during my commute. Peace and quiet when not at work (as much as possible). As much as possible to slow down, and become more aware of my surroundings, with a childlike sense of curiosity and wonder. The childlike sense of wonder is essential, and even subversive.

 

depth cues

depth cues

 

half in the sun, half

out, the right leg in halves,

quantifiable

 

implies divisions are tactile,

set in motion by an Ur

gesture, breathing in,

out, to let go,

as the declination

inclines

 

we can agree

the horse stands

at the far side of the blue

fence—we agree

 

but inclined, his nose

on the near side, reaches

for hours—

 

and the eye in residual

motion sees only

a crossing

 

I see motion

only after you move—

thought surfaces

across your face

a second before

 

I feel in my heart

a depth charge

 

I used to think wild

berries grew as the fruit

of dreaming; from within

the green and the dark,

such sweet, and bitter gestures

 

so knowing the circuitous

route of a songbird, the way

the other animals move

without obligation

or codes of reason

 

you can never trick your mind

to undo what’s done; objects

absorb as much as they can,

and reject the rest, which is

where we find ourselves

subject

 

 

What exactly is inspiration??

“A work in progress generates its own energy field. You, the artist . . . are pouring love into the work; you are suffusing it with passion and intention and hope. This is serious juju. The universe responds to this. It has no choice.” -Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

When asked what first inspired me to study and write poetry, I tell a story about eight-year-old me absconding with A Concise Treasury of Great Poems (a tattered paperback printed in 1958). Eight-year-old me read Shelley and Stevens and Thomas out loud in a barn, from atop a hay bale to a casual audience of horses. . .

I talk about a high school teacher who assigned for us to choose a famous poet from a list, read several poems, and then emulate the poet. Without that assignment and that dedicated teacher, would I be writing poetry now? Would I have ever “met” Lorca? gained a solid understanding of Emily Dickinson (even though the appreciation came many years later)?

Inspiration, a power that eludes us, seems to always be outside, and there is a magic formula to find or invite it in.

There is one thing I wish I knew when I was getting my degree in poetry: it’s about putting in the work. It’s not about romanticized memories or over-interpreted superstitions. It is definitely not about the stories other people tell you about yourself, and not that other people (or you) label you as a poet. It is putting. in. the work.

I wish I knew this when I was busy making excuses during a 5 year period when I was in a miserable work situation, or afterward when I told myself I didn’t even keep a journal all those years because “I couldn’t”.

The point is to write and not worry too much about what other people think. Learn what works for you, and try to create those conditions as often as possible.

I do thnk it is a writer’s obligation to read other writers, and generally inform oneself about the genre and craft–not to mention learn about a wide variety of subjects outside of one’s own limited immediate “world”. But collective wisdom says to do it because you need to, not to impress others.

Some sources that have helped me include Natalie Goldberg’s books, The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, and a book called Free Play by Stephen Nachmanovitch.

The epigraph at the beginning of Free Play is: “Paint as you like, and die happy”(Henry Miller)

And, as Steven Pressfield says: “You are the knight. Resistance is the dragon.”