Writing: A Hermit’s Journey

If my life in books counted off the page, I could boast quite a social life. My diverse bibliodiet of fiction and fact includes Pulitzers I study, tracing the contours of the words for clues to their savoir-faire. Best thing is when I fall in, pestled upon a page of genius. I feel ridiculous. Don’t try to fool me into thinking it’s doable. High art is not five feet three. Art at its best shows me the by-ways behind the crags, bruises and cuts. In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr shares some questions she asks to “help students diagnose their own blind spots” ~

1. What do people usually like and dislike about you? You should reflect both aspects in your pages.
2. How do you want to be perceived, and in what ways have you ever been false or posed as other than who you are?

[Her answers]
1. My friends usually like me because I’m tenderhearted, blunt, salty, and curious. I’m super loyal, and I laugh loud.
2. People don’t like me because I’m emotionally intense and often cross boundaries….Small talk at parties bores me senseless…I’m a little bit of a misanthrope. I cancel lunch dates because I’m working.

She believes we are to bring to the page the best and worst of ourself, that is, our full and authentic self. Yes, I think you see me in clear color and dimensions, in fact more than the people in my life, at least those outside my family, do. One tempers into social roles and expectations, especially by middle age. These socks have to match. I also feel muted in the rituals we call socializing, not able to talk books or art in the circles that motherhood have circumscribed for me. I’m happier in company with the immortal dead and fellow hermits in the cave of their mind. When the tea party is over, I invite a wordsmith over for some wine – and days I need it, the scotch. Ah, the way good prose jolts, when it’s not a beautiful ache. I want to drive under the influence – and once I’ve stepped out into fresh air, start climbing.

 

Writing 101: Sacred and Simple

The more I write, the more I am taken with it, the magic of the word. Turn the wrist, and hold out a balm. Flick, and you have a blade. To be able to put out one, two, three words for a title and draw people in; convince them to pause in their hurried steps and step inside, there is a power in that. They pull up a seat, and some linger and chat. Some cry a little; other times they walk out still laughing because it was the room of your childhood they had entered and they remembered. The window to your marriage you’d opened and they know. It was your messy soul they inhabited briefly, experienced from the inside out and they blushed a little. It was their one-minute confessional before they drew the door back out to the light.

There is something religious about writing for me. It calls for devotion, affection, discipline, even bloody sacrifice. And it’s redemptive, every word sacred. If you pile on the descriptors, especially those adjectives and adverbs you are so fond of, you reveal a lack of faith in the rest of your words, either in the potency of language or your own ability to cherry-pick its offerings. Your line must not be vivid enough, else why do you need four modifiers in a breath? Could you find one or two that do the job? I am full of faith. Let’s try this together.

The mountains were draped by black curtains of ominous storm clouds, portentous of trouble over marshy waters.

Sorry this is not sexy. But I am so grateful for the mercy of the missing adverb I want to cry.

For starters, we have the imagery of darkness replaying itself in the draped, black, curtains. Then the picture of something brewing duplicated in ominous, storm, portentous, trouble. As if the two ideas weren’t redundant enough, they are so similar as to feed each other (black and storm, for instance, serving both the gloom and imminence).

Let me illustrate how I see the writing process with a metaphor that is a religion all its own for many. In basketball, the three-pointer is one of the most impressive shots of course, made farthest from the basket. The ball, which we can liken to the word, spurns distance, flying with grace, muscle, surety. This is writing, the art of nailing it. The three-pointer holds an interesting success rate of about 35% in the NBA. The best players in America make it only a third of the time.

So an autopsy of our overclouded sentence reveals the problem wasn’t so much a superfluity of adjectives or even of ideas. That was merely the symptom of either an impotence toward a clear purpose or even a deeper mistrust in the authority of the word. I say it was a spiritual death. I usually build from the bone of meaning, combining nouns and verbs that I hope are crisp, on to relatable metaphors, rather than slather on the fat and spice from the start. If I can use a noun that’s picturesque or compelling enough, I hold back the adjective (just redemption, which I’d considered embellishing above). And when I want more, I go with the least possible number of modifiers unless I am inflecting other elements of communication. So in measuring my words like a child in wartime rationing her meal, it isn’t just economy I’m after but also meaning, style, tone, and depth. Conveying all these elements as efficiently as one can is simplicity. I am not saying you can’t describe the morning in three adjectives. Sharon Olds with her many trippy, hypothermic descriptives has had me in knots barely able to get through her pain-saturated poems. But let’s respect this thing we call language. That is the sacred.

Obviously I am talking to people who want to raise the bar on their writing. We have a huge pet aisle here on WordPress and if you mean only to keep up the anecdotes about your dog, you don’t have to hamstring yourself. But if you want to be writing better, cut sharper on the page than you did four years ago, don’t give yourself cheap praise. Question your choices and their motives. Whether you’re writing a travel journal, history, fiction, or poetry, ask yourself if every word is necessary. Is each one doing its thing, contributing something fresh to the picture? Fancy dribbling isn’t what scores your game.

If you have a better way – and the shelves are lined with authors who do – by all means have at it. But first, ask any man. A hint of perfume and he leans in. Assault me with it in the elevator, and uh, excuse me. I think I’ll take the stairs. The sin of gluttony abounds in all the arts. There is such a thing as too much salt in your sauce, too much red on the canvas, too much bling with that outfit. Black clouds sat over the mountain.

Oh, but what’s that? You don’t believe me. You think I’m a blogging Grinch who’s out to steal your Christmas or keep you from your ebook sell-out. You think I didn’t catch that adverb in your clutch. Fine. I’ll leave you to your opinion of fine writing. But if you think me a pious know-it-all, at least close the curtains and on your way out, please remember the shoes you should’ve removed. Yes, thank you. In all fairness, no one made you enter my sacred ground.

[Poetry] is for me Eucharistic. You take somebody else’s suffering, their passion into your body and…you’re transformed by it, you’re made more tender, or more human. You’re more alive to your fellow human beings. I could literally read a poem and lift my head from the page and look out and my heart would just be softer. I think it kept me alive for a long time.

~ Mary Karr, 2011 Writers’ Symposium by the Sea

Poets Are Strange

Poets are strange –
Why can’t they just call the spade
a spade? And what’s a rock but
rock: sandstone, shale from the tiredness
of weather? Coal and limestone, plant
and animal dross

— but nature wastes nothing.

Why do poets look for metaphors under
every rock, the walls that hold the creek, earth
that crumbled, forged resolute, and grew above
my grandmother’s rib, beat hard when she was
widowed with six children on the road

fleeing the Communists
fleeing the Communists
fleeing the Communists

and soldiers who ran out to drag their own
men screaming without their arm
back to the trenches in
too many battles and

and bald children in hospital beds who still
know how to laugh.

Why can’t poets be simple? They see
a crushing burial in heat and time:
marble, quartz, gneiss

— living, burnished beauty.

Poets. They think they can say it
better than
rock.

 

I Enjoy Stripping

cake2I don’t like having more than one of anything. Feels wasteful. I mean, one hairbrush will do. My wedding dress and cake had no decorations, no ribbon or flower. Nothing. In my day-to-day, I map out the most efficient route for errands. Lose time and you’ve lost what’s irretrievable. I like to keep on the spare side of things.

It hit me that the way I relate to money and time is how I write. I try to work each word full tilt. I love having guest writers see they can toss two, three hundred words to find the heart of their story. Of the 42 who have come through these doors, virtually all have sworn they have “cut to the bone” and just can’t reach the word limit I set. I plunge my knife, head straight for the marrow, send them the bloody remains. Yes, laughing like Cruella De Vil. My toughest critic, I stripped a short February post of a dozen words last night – and nodded in approval. Cleaner, tighter. I do my best to preserve the unique voice of every contributor, which is why we have had 42 different voices in the repertoire. No one has to or should sound like me. Goodness, not with the literary greats to emulate. But I believe we can apply principles of efficiency no matter what our style. Because we writers and poets love our words so much, we tend to err on the side of overstating and in our earnestness, try too hard. We all know less is more but my guests still scrounge for the anesthesia when they see the knife. Which reminds me. I need to wipe that blade.

Comments closed.

HW, in cahoots with the Mafia

The Writing Process II, Part 2: Let the Clichés R.I.P.

RIPWriting is treasure mining, isn’t it? The sifting of options among all that language has to offer. In the process, leave the hollow expressions that lie buried from overkill to rest in peace. Settle on what’s attractive and weighty. Don’t clutter your collection with dry, ossified castoffs of nature that add nothing to your art.

If you’re writing about any of the following, you might wish to tread carefully:

Clouds
Uh oh, yup: here come the tears. Or fluffy cotton. Sigh.

Rain
Please don’t pitter patter. Oh, please. If you’ll die unless you do, just patter.

Soft kisses
*sputtttter* Eww. Wipe off.

Caress
Do you know how many caresses happen to be velvet just like yours?

Something “coursing through” veins (usually passion)
Right. *shudder*

“Take flight”
Driver caution: slippery road.

Whispers of love
*Cringe* I’ll refrain.  Bad enough poor thing made my hit list.

Starlight
This one’s forever Madonna’s: “Starlight, Starbright, first star I see tonight.” Doo roo roo, yeah baby.

The Ellipsis…
It sits in the technical toolbox for a reason. So that we can use it. But all too often it becomes an easy substitute for fuzzy thinking or an attempt to sound deep and contemplative. Let your words – the content – provoke thought. Go back and try removing these emotional markers. Go on. You will sound more crisp, better grounded.

The Holistic Wayfarer’s Lexicon of Clichés includes the exclamation point because it’s often overdone! That point under the punctuation is a drop of neon off the brush! I promise no one will miss your fuchsia, whether it’s your lips or the streak on your running shoes! In preparing to paint our first home to move into, my husband and I delighted in the thumb-sized square of peach pink on the color palette. We went on to secure a tub of the shade from the store and left it in the room for the painter. When he called to report the room finished, we hurried over. Opened the door. And screamed, “AAUUGGHH!” Suggesting itself on a swatch was one thing. Exploding on our walls was another. There was just no way. Husband whitewashed the room, then called me in to present a lovely peach pink trimming around the windows. As he was whiting out the eerie gaudiness, he discovered that just a touch of the color worked like a lovely picture frame in this case and brightened up the room.

Clichés are the balloons that had pepped up the party but in the day-old aftermath lie lifeless, asking for the dignity of disposal. They are the makeup as obviously tired as the woman by the time she resigns the bar at four in the morning. I am not saying there is no more room in the literary world for cloud and tears. All right, I’m trying to be polite. But my Bible is right. There is nothing new under the sun. We all grow in the womb, cry at birth to cry in life, fear to love, love to laugh, wonder, hope, do not know, learn, believe, strive, sleep, sweat, dance and trip, birth children and dreams, eat and forget to nourish ourselves, work and work, and expire. But we want to say what is universal in our own way. You don’t need clichés muddied with handprints of the well-meaning masses. Make each your own description.

Young Writers in Their Dreaming

I got to do the fun stuff with my students when I taught the Gifted and Talented in the 90s. The elementary school kids in the program left their classroom and came to me bright-eyed, bushy-taled. Grounded in the basics, they were ready for a session of poetry or creative writing. Here are some activities the second graders got a kick out of one year. They were reading fairy tales in class so we played with a number of enrichment exercises around the subject of gnomes. We brainstormed the things these creatures might eat and need. See what the kids came up with:

Gnome4
Gnome Foods by Anna

1. Chocolate Mushroom cake
2. Chocolate-covered leaf
3. Jellyfish tuna sandwich
4. Buttercup cake
5. Smashed Grass and Fish Salad
6. Nectar shake

Tap the list on the right to zoom. The word that’s hard to read in no. 5 is cockroach.

Ad for Gnome Furniture

for the Gnome News by Jackie

New. Acorn fillings sofa bed with cotton flower pillow. The pedals help you fall asleep and in the morning they help you wake up rested. And in the night you have no bad dreams. Yours, for only 10 pinecones. Pillows free.

Oh, where are those pinecones?

Gnome Illnesses by Julian

1. Nox Shadis Feveris (Nightshade Fever)
Carrot infusion and agave minted green
Drink 1/2 cup every morning.

2. Lox Gnomigus (Lou Gnomig’s Disease)
Black tea with Meridian grapes
Take 1/4 cup a day after lunch.

3. Gnomhizerus (Gnomheizer’s Disease)
Cyprus fruit with citrus.
Take 1/2 cup five times a day.

============================================
Several years later a private student of mine came up with a Narnian menu Mr. Tumnus the Faun presented Lucy in his cave.  Daniel was in third grade.

Tumnus Café

 Dessert

Cookies n Cream Reindeer Pie with boba nose and cinnamon antlers
Rocky Road Unicone with roasted pink marshmallow shreds
Wildberry Cheesecake topped with sliced acorn and nutmeg
McCherry Sundae with toasted TumFlower seeds
Rainberry muffins with vanilla icing
Strawberry Upside-Down Cake (for birthdays. Please call in advance.)

 Iced Beverages

Snowberry lemonade
Rainbow punch with banana-flavored straws
Snowplum smoothie
Morning dew shake topped with moon peach slices

 Hot Drinks

Green apple cider with star sugar
Fire Diamond milk
Dawn Wind mango boba with dessert dream sprinkles
===========================

Hear the poetry in some of these lines? Young writers at work, frolicking in a field of ideas. What a delicious world they created. Where imagination took these children is the runway of the Shel Silversteins, J.K. Rowlings, Alice Walkers. An old friend reminded me yesterday that English was my second language. I wonder where I’d be now if in the formative years I’d been given the permission and direction away from the glory of grades to dream, just dream.

The Writing Process II, Part 4: Why We Read

books-on-a-shelf4With every post here, I turn my nose up at her who’s bold enough to take minutes of your life. I make her answer, “Who cares?”

Your response has not only motivated me to do justice to your time, but made me contemplate the reading process. In all the talk about how to write, I began thinking about why we even try, backtracking to why we read. According to Stephen King, “The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing.” (On Writing) What I want to understand, though, is not the intellectual benefits of reading, but why we take such pleasure in it. We are preoccupied with Self. Like we’re so interested in the preoccupant who yaps without giving us a word edgewise. But we love a good story, romance or gore.

Among the highest compliments you can earn is that your work made me laugh or cry. A physical response. I watch the guys in the octagon at the gym. Their blows land with impact. To think – words can do just that.  Some time back, a post I stumbled on cut open a deep, quiet wound. Good writing. A chemical reaction between me and the words. If we were able to maintain our distance, remind ourselves it’s just a poem or piece of fiction, we wouldn’t respond with our body, sensibilities, memory. King says, “The object of fiction is…to make the reader welcome and then tell a story…to make him forget, whenever possible, that he is reading a story at all.” That your writing drew someone in is high praise. As a teenager, I sought out this transformed reality in the proverbial escape into books away from my unhappiness. We like to lose this world, our very self, in a good book. But reading isn’t just anesthesia or a verbal trip to the theme park. We’re not only running from something, in many cases, but running to.

RECOGNITION
King says, “If you want to be a successful writer, you must be able to describe it, and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition.” Effective writing often taps our autobiography. It sights the strands in the reader’s own story – of love, sacrifice, heartache, mystery – and yes, we feel the tug. I recently finished Notes from the Underwire, former child actress Quinn Cummings’ account of her adventures from the early years into motherland. You’re hard-pressed to flip a page without laughing but in the chapter on the dog I would otherwise care little for, I couldn’t help tearing up. Through the fun description of the mutt she adopted and trained, she took me through the pain of losing him. Cummings made me care, speaking into my experience of the regret of mistakes, of loss, of coming up short. This response from one who will let her son get a tattoo before he does a pet. It was one of the most poignant chapters in the book.

When we’re happily settled in even the cheap paperback fling, it’s not only because we daydream the thrill of courtship but because it answers our inmost longing to be romanced by life. The horror genre? Apart from how interesting he is to read of, the boogeyman is someone we all know. We’ve all been afraid. Whether of a person who haunts you or the voice in the dark that murmurs you’re not good enough. King says he writes so the reader can lift the truth from the web of his fiction. We love suspense for the unpredictability it mirrors of our life, the questions we live daily. Why is the battle between good and evil a classic theme and not a cliché? We don’t tire of it because justice is the assent of the spirit, redemption its cry.

But we want more than the reflection of our own tale, especially when there is so much of the painful in it. Compelling writing also echoes the story under our story. It is the yearning for the distant country C.S. Lewis saw, the hopeful suspicion that the five mortal senses are not the arbiter of reality. And just behind the familiarity, we discover possibility.

POSSIBILITY
Suffering and beauty lift us out of self-absorption to something greater than ourself. Even humor, a touch of beauty for its dip into joy, helps us get over our bad self for the moment. There is lightness. Life isn’t all about shuffling along under a load. We can set it down. Trust that Someone or something’s got our back – God or friend or peace with self. When we hope or even fear as we ought from the lessons of literature and poetry, we realize a fresh reverence. Privy to the vast range of possibilities ancient and modern tales disclose, we learn new ways of responding to challenges and can exchange the load for a dream.

AND SO, THIS THING CALLED WRITING
Why show, not tell? Why go to lengths to paint it in a poem or novel when you can simply say She was beautiful. It was horrific. The universe takes my breath away? Not only do these declarations fall flat, they are inadequate. It is the ironic insufficiency of the human word that has seen writers and sages from the first incarnate Whisper scrambling to describe the fullness of experience so those on the other side of the story can see, hear, feel for themselves. If you take this illustration for egoism, I’ll risk it: I was taken aback yesterday by a comment that my poem — know? was “satisfying.” It resonated with me as a commendation every writer would embrace, while inviting survey. Webster’s top three definitions of satisfy:

1. to fulfill the desires, expectations, needs, or demands of; give full contentment to
2. to put an end to (a desire, want, need, etc.) by sufficient or ample provision
3. to give assurance to; convince: to satisfy oneself by investigation

God knows I never imagined the poem fulfilled anyone’s needs. I considered it decent enough to share when it sufficiently confided my mystified reverence for the Mystery that makes itself plain but remains inscrutable. But my thoughtful reader Monica found the pulse of the human heart. We hope from – even demand of – our reading that it deliver us from the tyranny of the mundane. There is more to life than these four walls. And the soul sings – in reader and writer – to envision something larger behind that corner up ahead. It is the Narnia adults follow kids into.

Writing with you has been magical.