Sunday, January 01, 2017

Taking the Reins to Redefine "Finished"

Not long ago, my writing partner and I wrestled with the question "What stops us from finishing?" We followed the thread of this question and it led us to another question - "What does finished mean to us?"

Sadly, at this point in my writing journey, finished, for anything but poetry, too often means homeless, stillborn, rejected and unwanted. I believe that constellation of adjectives is sufficient to stop me from finishing.

What makes poetry different? I post it on my blog, maybe share the link, and consider it done. It is similar to tossing a message in the bottle out to the universe, but a bit more like the digital equivalent of one of those poetry boxes I see sometimes in my neighborhood. If only a handful of people see it besides me, so be it. At least I am not waiting for it to come into being. It has been born. It is public. It exists beyond the realm of a stray dog begging for scraps at the exclusive tables of public consumption on a grand scale. I'm not sure I can bear any longer to subject myself or my words to that other fate, that begging for scraps fate, and the massive infusion of self-doubt, jealousy, petty emotions and misery connected with it. I have been brave and ventured into that world, and, quite frankly, it sucks. I hate it. And it has given me precious little of value in return. Nor, I think, has it brought much to the world, including my words, in the end.

This holiday season, inspired by poet and teacher Claudia F. Savage, I created hand-bound mini-chapbooks of poetry as gifts for three special people in my life. Each book was a poem, or collection of poems, written for the recipients. The process of writing and the process of lovingly creating the binding was so profoundly energizing and meaningful. My words were given homes that mattered. My words were born from a place of love. There was not a single thought of fame or fortune or self-doubt involved. A gift of love, made with love, given with love.

Now I find myself with two collections of poetry that I want to turn into chapbooks, that were born from strong and personal sources, but that are something other than personal gifts meant for one recipient. One is called DEAR ONES: MESSAGES FROM A TEACHER'S HEART, and is inspired by and dedicated to my students, past, present and future. The other, tentatively titled EPIC is a series of poems exploring the height of the AIDS epidemic and how it impacted my life. I have begun to contemplate how to give birth to these two collections.

I can't bear the thought of putting them out there for the wolves to feed upon or turn up their noses, left to shiver in the cold and die of neglect. I realize that money and recognition aren't what I want for these two collections. I want them to exist, to find homes, if only a handful, and speak to some other heart somewhere.

So, a plan is beginning to form in my brain. A plan to hand-bind a small number of each collection and put them out at local, welcoming places - the coffee shop I frequent down the street, and perhaps some of the "free libraries" around my neighborhood. A plan to offer them for free, with a note on the back page that says, if these poems spoke to you, please make a donation to charity, and then includes either a list of charities or a link to a list, with maybe a place to email me a note if the reader is so inclined. I like the way this idea also feels like a small act of resistance in the face of our current political climate.

Perhaps this will be my one and only New Year's Resolution. To give my written work existence, without waiting for scraps from the great tables.

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.

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