Crack open time Poetry sifts the moment The lyric of dreams aborted hope hearth of pain Poetry is the space between the noise outside and my voice Poetry reasons is intention question assurance a luscious joy Jealous for beauty Poetry, watercolor memory surfaces to clear lines, light Poetry is breath
The Process is as rich as there are writers.
I now see that in my earliest years of writing I was mixing and matching, trying on words for size, putting out what I thought sounded good. Of course sounds are what give birth to words, and it is the thrilling privilege of writers to show communication is not only functional but beautiful. But now I am ruthless with Self: tightening, trimming, questioning, challenging, making her say more with less. I still experiment, and sound out my work for the music of language. But I no longer sacrifice style for truth.
In her prolific journaling and letter-writing to those back home a hundred years ago, Irish missionary to India Amy Carmichael asked herself: “Is this true?” Twenty years after I glossed over these three words in her biography they have resurfaced these past few months. In the writing, I ask myself if it’s true. My purpose in the process isn’t to incite a response or rouse an audience. If a word doesn’t quite sit well with me, is not true to myself, I rework it until it imparts intention. I wasn’t looking to be funny or hyperbolic in the posts that earned laughs. They told what I simply felt or saw. I am not out to impress as I am to express. And in the expressing, I am also not the girl emptying angry questions out of an abraded heart anymore. Not because my life is perfect. But because, as many will disagree, if I write primarily for the therapy that it wonderfully can be, it will feel like emotional emesis and not true art. I don’t want to take up your time with personal rehab.
There are sites devoted to the loving memory of a dear one or blogs defined by a persisting pain. Writing is healing, which is in part why I have journaled so extensively over the years. With loving hopes for the people behind such blog, I have connected with them. I didn’t write bereft to broadcast one of the most impossible sorrows I have known. I in fact did not want to be explicit. The journaling already had helped me process the grief. But as I freed the poem to the life it took on, it rehearsed how the world had looked at the time from inside my pain. I had to keep it real. As for creative writing or fiction, I asked myself through every line in Rain Story, “Is this what I see in my head with my spirit?” And so I realize it’s a finer line between journalism and creative writing than appears. I feel very much like a journalist reporting live from what’s inside.
The nascent writer churned out her share of cryptic poetry. Now, I wouldn’t waste anyone’s time purposely being unclear when you’ve come to see what I have to say. I employ metaphors for the 1000 words they save me with their pictures. I’m no longer the high schooler with words welling over in the dark. The journey may start out as an exploration. But at some point before I share it with another sojourner I’ve figured out where North is and have walked the line – without needless acrobatics.
It begins in the laid-back land of Southern California where entire cities don’t push to cut their way through throngs of cars on impatient legs, daring drivers to run over them. Pedestrians actually keep to the crosswalk and – to the stupefaction of visiting New Yorkers – can be ticketed for jaywalking. Most parts of the west coast, in fact, don’t see people milling in masses – simply because they don’t walk. In the state formed out of freeways, your wheels are your feet. California streets also aren’t so talkative as crowded eastern cities are, with their slew of parking signs that dictate when and where vehicles may stop.
In love with the girl who had disavowed the fast pace of New York for the peace of the Pacific, California Boy flies out for her old stomping grounds to ask her father for her hand in marriage. She jump-starts her reunion with her parents and the love birds plan to meet in the City the morning he arrives.
It is Peter’s first taste of the Big Apple.
The first thing to overwhelm him at Grand Central is the moving multitude. Never has he seen so many…people. In such a hurry. Everywhere. Struggling with the luggage he realizes he doesn’t have the hands for in a place where most go on foot, Peter somehow drag-pushes it all out of the station to the sidewalk, hopeful for a taxi – when he notices the No Standing sign above his head.
I’m not supposed to stand here?
How…do I flag a cab, then?
But it says no standing. Anytime.
Oh, what if I get a ticket?
He looks to the left, looks to the right.
California Boy shuffles the mountain of bags a few yards this way. Looks around. Some minutes later, a few yards that way. His heart quickens. He keeps up the goofy dance until he makes the connection between the light atop the cabs and the vacant backseat. That’s how you grab a taxi. Relief.
He hails a car and slumps in the backseat.
* * * *
My friends and family were rolling, doubled over, when Peter shared his first nervous moments in the urban East. He’d had no idea the No Standing was a prohibition against vehicles looking to park there. If pedestrians were ticketed in New York, the city would transfigure into a ghost town. I’ve never given thought to the sign until this writing. Having grown up with it, it never occurred to me that someone could think it applied to anyone other than drivers. Do you have these signs where you live?
While we’re at it, here’s a glimpse of a fun memory from the trip. We had a blast swing dancing in the city, a night out on the town. You see, it was at a ballroom in California where we had met.
In extension of The Writing Process: Sensory Details, Part 4, I share a handful of poems a few private students produced years back. The wording fell into place once the ideas came to life in the brainstorm of senses (explained in Part 4). Tip of the day: quotes wake up poems with the element of reality they provide. I quieted the protest of the artist in me and convinced her to allow the first two works in excerpt. Yes, a poem should be read in its entirety. But I’d like to keep to my objective efficiently – to provide samples of sensory descriptions at work:
Red is spicy.
Red is ketchup: “Oops! My favorite shirt!”
In a sunset, red pulls the moon.
Red gives us energy.
Red means it.
By Joseph, 1st grade homeschooler
The shades that wrap a rain forest,
The feeling you have after a good night’s rest.
Outstretch of a palm tree,
Grudge of envy.
The life that awakens from a long winter snow,
Green is the fourth color of the promise rainbow.
By Kelsey, 4th grade
Leaves sticky patch on little faces
By the merry-go-round
“Mommy, Mommy, Can I please…?”
Little girls and boys wave their
cotton candy stick triumphantly
Melts to their tongue
More fluffy bites
Leave sandy sweetness in their trail
By Kristen Chang, days before turning 13. Now all grown:
Kristin and I were studying imagery – literary and poetic jargon for mental picture.
I was about 23, teaching 5th grade in a diverse Philadelphia public school. Hailstones and Halibut Bones, the beautiful book of color poetry that inspires kids out of mediocre writing, sparked lovely poems in my own students. (It is the most recent edition that offers vibrant pictures). The contagious delight the kids took playing with words that detailed everyday sensory experiences prompted a color poem out of their teacher too. It was a special experience for us to write together.
Once the brainstorm page filled up, the poems wrote themselves. We divided a sheet of paper into six rows, each representing a physical sense with the addition of one for emotions (Sight, Hearing, Touch, Taste, Smell, Feeling). Then simply named observations and experiences in their category. White: cotton candy for taste, blank coloring page for touch, chocolate for taste. Writers young and old will hear “show, not tell” or “paint a picture,” but may not quite know how to go about it. Sensory details paint clear verbal pictures, not unlike a 3-D presentation that appears to move toward the reader. They serve as a powerful writing tool for the grade school student as well as the blogger and the author on his fourth novel.
Here is the poem I wrote alongside my students that I’d completely forgotten about. I tried to keep it on the simple side so it’d be relatable for them. Feeling sheepish. I’d love to revise but share it to offer a glimpse of something born in happy league with little writers. Note the progression of a lifetime within the poem:
from the “Candy!” shouter,
eager page of a coloring book,
a glob of frosting some finger took,
little league socks,
the vanilla taste,
background of polka dots,
a special chocolate to crave,
ivory pearls that swim cream waves,
a careful prom dress,
marble sheet on a winter lake,
the bride in grace,
a queenly wedding cake.
A piano key, white
plays a note of simplicity.
White is romance heaven-blessed.
It is the color of promise
A dependable soul,
behind every color hides
a white shadow.
White hair is
humanity’s confession –
in age less the color of a question –
“Strength is gossamer,
time but a loan,”
white is the color
I awoke today to over 200 subscribers on my Stats report. Still doing Cyberland on foot without the airlift of tweets or Facebook (somebody, get me a GPS for FB).
I thank my faithful readers for entering the story. Sharing the journey has been more enriching than I knew to expect as a new kid (or Mom) on the block. I’ve interfaced with lives on the common ground of writing, faith, motherhood, hardship. I feel honored for the follow of writers and the feedback they have been interested to hear from me on their work. People have engaged me in their worldview, have allowed me to offer another perspective. I came close to dropping the Holistic Journey in the early days to conserve time and energy for the other blog I was eager to build – only to write helplessly on. Not familiar with the world of blogging, I had no inkling I would meet such talented, creative, open-hearted people as I have. And no idea I’d end up wishing for the pleasure of talking further in person with some.
My purpose here crystallized with time. The reason I wasn’t choosing to focus on the homeschool activities was A Holistic Journey is a writer’s blog. Of course all bloggers write something, and I’m only the millionth to recheck her work before clicking publish. But every post is more than just that to me. Not because I’m taking myself so seriously (which I learn to do less well every year) but because each post is a patchwork of the hands that run over and over the words in love.
I’m not very forgiving of sloppy writing. If you give me your time, I should give you even more of mine to make it worth your while. I’ve asked the best of myself in every offering of thought. Not only for my readers, but for the delight and reward of conceiving something that breathes.
A fellow bookaholic I follow nominated me just now for the Shine On Award. I accept with appreciation.
I’m not asking Hamlet’s existential question. To be or not to be? To live or kill myself? It’s literal grammar.
To eat –> She eats.
To dance –> She dances.
To be –> She
be. She is.
The verb TO BE conjugates, or breaks down, into the form is when referring to a singular third party he, she, or it.
She be sweet. She is sweet. TO BE morphs into are in the plural. They be sweet. They are sweet.
In all its conjugations, the verb TO BE serves as a referential foundation in the English language. TO BE enables us to assign description and value to people, things, ideas.
The trees are lovely in the wind.
Trees = Lovely
TO BE would be impossible not to use in speech and writing.
But artful writing shouldn’t depend on this verb. You want to minimize its appearance. As a verbal equal sign, TO BE makes assertions that fall flat. Good writing carries momentum. Because verbs are action words, they propel the message and description forward.
Rather than take up a whole sentence just to say the trees are lovely (apart from poetic circumstances that ask for this declaration), you could say
The lovely trees sway and bow in the wind.
Now the verbs sway and bow paint a picture the are doesn’t.
Here’s a clip from the post The Invisible Woman:
So-nyo, an elderly mother of four grown children, vanishes in the Seoul subways.
I could have written
So-nyo is an elderly mother of four grown children who vanishes in the Seoul subways.
The line I settled on runs on only one verb vanishes. I didn’t want to waste time and words stating what So-nyo is when I could show it while saying something more interesting or informative. My point is that she disappeared, not that she was an elderly mom of four.
I dug up two written samples from my high school days just now. *Wrinkle nose*
The mathematical straight line whose end arrows stretch on to eternity is the prime example. The line will always be at least a billionth of a millimeter off…
Twenty-five years later, I would say
The…line…serves as the prime example. It will remain at least….
Serves, stands, remains, runs are picturesque alternatives to is.
James’ simple act of giving milk for the sick children is profound and laudable in its contrast to the headmaster’s pretentious and futile plans for the village.
James’ simple, profound act of providing milk for the sick stands in glaring contrast to the….
The whole first sentence rests on the verb is. If you blip it, you are forced to retrieve a more interesting verb which in turn carries the writing forward rather than keep it static.
Circling back to our starting question, then:
when writing, it is better not to be.