Sunday, May 29, 2016

A Secret Insanity

Many, many years ago, at the beginning of my life in Portland, Oregon, my life as an adult in the "real world" (which is what we called it to contrast it with college), when I was living on my own for the first time and I was wrestling in secret with this notion of what being a writer meant, I wrote a strange, waking daydream of a piece. I wrote it on my old Brothers brand electric typewriter, because I had no computer at the time and back then people used typewriters not just because they were retro.

My waking daydream was about the act of creation. It described an ephemeral sprite-like creature wandering with a lit torch through the caverns and echoing hallways of the mind. As it rounded the corners and went up the stairs and followed the twists and turns, the flames of its torch touched on hidden beings and their shadows leapt up across the walls. Some of them came out of hiding and followed the sprite in a sort of parade. The sprite kept wandering until at last it found the right place, the right beings, to illuminate, and then the light changed and grew to elucidate the details and open a larger story.

This short description ended with an imperative of sorts, an invocation and a caution. It went something like this: You cannot tame this beast, but if you catch hold, ride it, ride it for all your worth, ride it until it throws you off again.

At the time, I saw that piece as part of a longer work that cobbled together many short sketches and mental wanderings I had put down on paper, a longer piece that I thought, for lack of a better plan,  was an experimental novel, though I had no idea whatsoever of how to write a novel. I cut and pasted (with actual scissors, and tape) the elements from these many mental wanderings and stored them in a special notebook, crafting them in isolation, never showing them to anyone, because I did not believe in myself as a writer, did not believe I could publicly call myself that. I believed my writing was a secret insanity that both elevated me to some sort of special status and exiled me to the land of fools. I believed that if I exposed my insanity to the world, it would result in humiliation and failure and mockery. I'm not sure why I believed this. God knows I had supportive people in my life. I can only posit it was a reflection of how my sense of self had gotten bogged down at that stage, perhaps an unfortunate side-effect of our oh-so-practical-minded world, or the heightened cynicism, intense self-examination and daily practice of critique that were a part of my undergraduate experience.

It's been about three decades since I wrote that piece and pasted together its subsequent parts. I finally showed someone my secret notebook, and they did not lock me up, laugh in my face or run screaming from the room. I've found narrative homes for many of the disparate sketches and meanderings that I carried in that notebook. Some of them have even turned into published stories. I've embraced the public identity of writer, with all its rejection and heartache and wonderful companionship. And I've read a lot about writing and the creative process. I've learned that my strange waking daydream of the sprite and the cavernous hallways matches with surprising similarities many descriptions of the elusive creative process by folks far more talented or successful than I am.

My older self is often quite critical of my younger, more naive or inexperienced self, that self whose sense of perspective could be wildly out of wack. But in this case, I'd like to go back and congratulate her. I'd like to say, "Yes. This is how it is. This scrap of a daydream is what it's like. You're onto something. Only these words aren't the beginning of some strange experimental novel. They are a map. They are directions. They will help you recognize the journey when you are on it. Your fellow travelers have been there, too. They know the way. Come out of the dark and find them."

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Books That Make You Slow Down and See

There are books that pull you with them on a breathless thrill ride into another world, that rush with excitement and adventure. And then there are books that make you slow down and savor and think, and notice the small, true details of the world. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard is one of those. Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson is another.

Reading such books is a bit like praying. You don't read them for the plot. You read them to have scales lifted. You read them to say "I was blind and now I see." You read them to meditate, to contemplate, to reconnect with your essential soul.

The older I get, the more I come to love and appreciate books like that, books that make me slow down and see. These days, those are the books I buy to own and re-read. I can't help ascribing this to the stage of life. Now that I am fifty, I'm less interested in escaping to another world on a whirlwind ride and more interested in reaching out to touch the greater things, the things of the soul. 


Saturday, January 30, 2016

Is Blogging Writing?

I just read a meme about writing, attributed to Sherman Alexie, that said every word in your blog is a word that is not in your book. It was part of a list of 10 - 10 tips on writing, 10 words of advice for writers - something like that. It seems to be implying that blogging takes away from writing, as if blogging is not actually a form of written expression. I have to take issue with that.

Blogging is a genre, just like tweeting is. They are modern genres that find their roots in the essay (blogs) and the epigram (tweets). You could make the argument that they may not be words in "your" book - a.k.a. your novel - but they are words in the massive book being collectively written and rewritten all the time, throughout the ages, by humanity.

There is an implicit assumption that written expression in long form, such as novels, and in analog printed form is somehow of higher quality and greater value than written expression in shorter forms or in digital format. I would say that the length or form itself is not automatically a measure of the  quality. Writing of poor quality can be found in print and in book-length works as well as in digital format.

At issue may be the fact that the shorter forms and the faster forms lend themselves to a lack of rigor, or a lax vigilance towards quality. Granted, the effort required to bring something out in analog (printed) form by its nature may be more likely to result in rigorous and careful attention to detail and quality. But does that mean I must see it as a trade? That somehow the choice to express my thoughts through the digital genre of blogging will inherently detract from my ability to express myself in a longer format or another genre?

Many writers journal as part of their process. Is every word in your journal a word away from your book? I don't think so. Writers write. We interact with our world through a wide range of written expression. I journal as an introspective tool. I blog as a way of engaging in reflection with the larger world. I write poetry as a different means of exploring language and expressing the ineffable. I blog my poetry as a way of extending that process into the greater human conversation. I write short stories, novels, stage plays, radio plays - I write in the form that fits what I want to say and accomplish through words. To express myself in one form doesn't detract from expression in another form. They feed eachother, build on eachother, influence eachother.

Am I working on my novel while I'm writing this blog post? No. But I'm still writing.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Poet's I, The Poet's Eye

Lately, as I think I've mentioned, I've been playing with poetry. "Playing" is the best word for it. There's something quite freeing about it, as if I'm more fully tapped into that mysterious voice out in the ether that seems to inhabit the writer's brain at the best moments. It feels like a more open, more direct conduit to the universal subconscious well of imagination.

Which brings me to the poet's "I" and the poet's eye. The eye through which I look at my words and my world when I have staked my flag in the territory of the poet is an eye that looks for strange juxtapositions, words and images that don't normally cohabitate, that take your brain in the direction of the other, of a dimension that has no words but finds its way through the sounds and shape and jostle of words. For me, it's not always the eye of personal experience. It's another entity, another brain, one that lives in another dimension and travels between worlds with an unself-conscious ease.

As a result, the poet's "I" is also different. Some poems come forth in the voice of "I." That doesn't mean it is my voice - the voice of my personal experience of emotions. I try to banish the fear of how readers who know me might interpret these poems. I am not the one speaking through the "I" of my poetry. Somebody else is making their feelings and experience known, or reaching out to another "I" that is a reader.

When I write fictional prose in first person, I am very conscious of my choice of point of view. I choose it inentionally, and my reader knows it is fiction. If they choose to confuse the narrative "I" of my protagonist with the "I" of me, the author, that's on them, but at least we all know there is, at minimum, a pretense of division between the two.

Writing poetry, I don't feel as if I can count on that assumed caveat. People see poetry as more personal and immediate. Will they assume the poet's "I" is also the author's eye? That I am speaking directly through my poems? I think I am, as a reader, guilty of that assumption. Yet, as a writer of poetry, I see it is false. Some poems simply speak, and they speak in first person, and yet they speak a story I know I haven't lived, but I still feel completely certain of the words.

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