Category Archives: poetry

People understand the constraints

Solstice musings: poetry, nonfiction & Mom’s Christmas letter.

Winter Patio x

When I read poems and when I (rarely) write them, I’m apt to think This is an essay! When poets gave up rhyme and meter, they exposed the fact that poetry and creative nonfiction can be one in the same, though poets are free to fictionalize. (Long ago I was taught the only definition of poetry is that the poet controls the length of his line.)

The similarity does not mean, of course, that poetry is passé; the relationship merely underscores an interesting harmony between the forms. In much of the best creative nonfiction, every line is polished into poetry. And many contemporary poems could pass as segmented essays.

Poet Emma Bolden addresses this affinity in her blog post “A Certain Slant of Light” :

I’ve written several entries about the difference between poetry and prose, but my latest prose-writing experience has led me to believe that they are, perhaps, not so different after all. Though I do still miss my line breaks, I think that there are great similarities. An essay — or, at least, a lyric essay — seems to depend largely upon what’s left out, and upon what happens in the blanks — the leaps created by white space, the connections and juxtapositions blankness and absence can create.

I wrote the little moment at the end of this post as a poem, but might have developed it as a concise essay. Or more. A glance can produce ten pages, or a book, as we know. This poem is intended to be wistful, not sad—but regarding that: sad poems seem sadder than sad essays. I think that’s because essays usually embody some narrative, and narrative is hopeful: “Obla dee, obla dah, life goes on,” the lads sang.

This slight poem—and formalist to boot, with a modest rhyme scheme that plays off its content and supposed genre—has this background: my wife was trying to get me and the kids to help her write the annual Christmas letter, and we were harassing her with suggested verses disrespectful of the genre, the season, her recipients.

“I want to write a poem in the usual sense,” Kathy complained.
“Too many constraints,” I said.
“People understand the constraints,” said our daughter, switching sides and rallying to her mother.

I thought the idea interesting of an optimistic woman trying to keep normal human difficulty out of her annual missive, a sunny Christmas-letter-poem that edges unwillingly into darker water.

 

A Poem in the Usual Sense

People understand the constraints:
the need for rhythm, vaguely the meter.
They still desire rhyme most of all—
give ’em that and no complaints.

We’re made to feel its wrongness, though,
the Philistine inside, the childish reader.
And I admit the postmodern order is tall:
Tell, with irony and restraint, life’s sorrow.

But Mama, animal despair beneath her,
strives for cheer, writing our Christmas letter,
and scratches her head as poignancy falls
unbidden, a solstice shadow, as it were.

This post originally ran Dec. 16, 2008. For the record, I rejoice at the winter solstice—because we’ve hit rock bottom: each day we get a few minutes more light. A child of summer, my despair comes on June 21 when we have reached our apogee of light and each day shortens even as summer lengthens. Wrong, deeply wrong.

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Filed under creative nonfiction, essay-lyric, humor, MY LIFE, narrative, poetry, structure

Truth and beauty redux

Nonfiction faces challenges in writing from another’s point of view; but do the genre’s constraints limit its claims to art?

A version of the post below first appeared January 20, 2009. I was thinking about it because I re-read Tim O’Brien’s revered short story “The Things They Carried,” and read for the first time Ron Hansen’s immortal short story “Wickedness,” both of them very essayistic. And O’Brien’s, anyway, is often claimed by practitioners of creative nonfiction because it seems autobiographical. It is based on his experience as a soldier in Vietnam, though the central arc about a young officer leading his platoon is surely fictionalized heavily if not completely; Hansen’s story is based on a mythic blizzard that (apparently) hit Nebraska round about 1888.

There is no reason whatsoever—in theory—that nonfiction cannot do the same thing these stories do, with their deeply subjective third-person omniscient points of view. Tracy Kidder has approached it and some others; for Among Schoolchildren he spent a year in a third-grade classroom, watching, and then interviewed the teacher every day about what she’d been thinking when, say, little Johnny acted out just before recess.

But this approach requires such intimate and exhaustive interviewing and cooperation that, in practice, one can see why God created fiction . . . It’s simply too much work and too hard for most writers, and they cannot shape the key characters the same way a fiction writer can to serve her ends.

• • •

I’ve touched often on the issue of truth in nonfiction, but the latest scandal, involving a fictionalized Holocaust memoir, impels me to return. (Oprah keeps falling for these stories that are too good to be true. Truth often is stranger than fiction but it’s seldom as shapely.)

I tell students these are three reasons for honesty:

 Practical: A nonfiction writer will destroy his credibility and career by lying. This is an embarrassing reason, as it’s so utilitarian, but perhaps compelling to sociopaths.

 Moral: You made an implicit promise that details, scenes, characters, and dialogue wouldn’t be invented or embellished. Recreated, yes, and clearly selected and filtered through a particular consciousness, but not conveniently made up.

 Aesthetic: Nonfiction’s art often flows out of the rough places where writers don’t have what they need. They must explore that on the page or conduct more research. Immerse. Writer and writing theorist Robert Root made an interesting point about this in his essay “This is What the Spaces Say”:

The issue of truth, which seldom surfaces in other literary genres, perplexes nonfictionists. We begin in reality, in the hope of achieving some better understanding of the actual through writing. The inventions and manipulations of character and plot that are the hallmark of the novelist’s creativity are the barriers of the nonfictionist’s psychology; the willingness to settle for the fictionist’s ‘higher truth through fabrication’ negates the nonfictionist’s chances of even visiting the vicinity of the kind of earthbound and actual truth that is nonfiction’s special province. The truth is hard to know, and it’s hard, ultimately, to explain, perhaps especially about our own lives, what we experience as participants, what we observe as spectators.

My three rules are simple statements about this slippery issue. Do such rules—any rules—diminish nonfiction’s claim to art?

I know a painter, a man who’s spent his long life blessedly staring at southern Ohio’s hills, who told me he doesn’t invent details. No flowers by the gate if there weren’t. And that picturesque old wooden gate was truly that, not a shiny modern metal one. I should have asked him why, though I thought I knew: a representational painter who invents might insert iris blooming when the rest of the painting says High Summer. Sure, a crafty dauber could add daylilies. But soon there’d be no end to it and he’d lose the essence of what he was trying to capture. Inauthenticity would creep in.

My friend’s aesthetic, based in honoring objective details subjectively seen, gropes toward and honors a larger truth or feeling—something he’s sensed and which he’d violate at some unknown peril to his art. We understand more than we know. His creative acts include choosing the scene and deciding where he stands—the point of view. And the painting itself is literally and metaphorically impressionistic, what he sees.

Nonfiction’s (few) rules similarly do not interfere with artistry—there’s more to art than that; consider the edicts that result in sonnets. Although my visual friend has made himself a strict rule akin to nonfiction’s imperatives, his landscapes are glowing art.

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Filed under fiction, honesty, Persona, Voice, POV, poetry, subjectivity, teaching, education

Review/Q&A: Alethea Black on ‘Lovely,’ faith & fiction, essays & cutting to bone

Clouds over Melbourne Beach, Florida

I can only speak for myself, but there’s something about writing at night that feels . . . sneaky. There’s an outlaw quality to it, combined, oddly enough, with a sense of being safe. It has an anaerobic, subterranean feel; it’s as if I’m working beneath the soil, toiling in secret, trying to cultivate something hidden and occult.—Alethea Black, “Essay to be Read at 3 a.m

 I Knew You’d Be Lovely by Alethea Black. Broadway Books, 238 pp.

I read Alethea Black’s short story collection I Knew You’d Be Lovely last January, at my sister’s beach condo in Florida, and again recently here in Ohio, parceling out a story a day to savor. These are funny, sexy, wise stories; some are sad, yet somehow they’re always hopeful.

Maybe my favorite story, perhaps partly because I read it first, on line at Narrative magazine, and imprinted on its tough beauty, is “The Only Way Out is Through.”  The story is about a man trying to help his angry, disturbed son by taking him on a camping trip. The boy is suicidal, too, it turns out, and their trip is one long crisis. The narrative features an unusual flash-forward, deftly handled, that’s as thrilling as it is surprising.

The story’s title comes from a poem by Robert Frost, “A Servant to Servants,” in North of Boston. The poem is narrated by a weary, depressed rural wife—terrified by the specter of madness in her family—who’s tending to upscale vacationers, lodged in cabins her husband built, and also feeding and cleaning after his coarse four-man road crew who board in their house.

Here’s the passage from Frost’s poem:

By good rights I ought not to have so much

Put on me, but there seems no other way.

Len says one steady pull more ought to do it.

He says the best way out is always through.

And I agree to that, or in so far

As that I can see no way out but through—

Leastways for me and then they’ll be convinced.

A neat feature of I Knew You’d Be Lovely is that Black included Author’s Notes in the back on twelve of the thirteen stories, and says about “The Only Way Out is Through” that she had to put her head down and cry a couple times while writing it.

The story not so illuminated by commentary is “Someday is Today,” and it’s explained by the collection’s dedication, in memory of Black’s brother in law and to her widowed sister and their four daughters. Black might have written the story as an essay (see her essay about being a night-owl on the Narrative site), but her bent seems to turn to fiction, and this lyrical story, unbound by strict allegiance to whatever the literal facts, sustains a remarkable depth of feeling.

In “Someday is Today” an unnamed woman arrives to help in the wake of the death of her unnamed sister’s husband, and she struggles to comfort her sister and to care for the couple’s three young girls. Sorrow, the visiting woman-narrator says, has made the widow “a little girl again,” the girl she knew when they were growing up. But there’s new tension between them, partly because the single woman doesn’t know how to care for children and partly because she can’t share the depth of her sister’s grief. And also because she’s religious and her sister isn’t.

The sister’s overwhelming loss, her husband killed suddenly in his prime by a staph infection, comes during the couple’s massive house deconstruction:

     My sister has found some comfort in the widow boards on the Internet. One of them has a list of Ten Helpful Hints for Getting Through This Most Difficult Time in Your Life. Hint Number 7: Learn to Expect the Unexpected. “Expect to cry at odd times: At the sight of a couple holding hands, at the sound of the doorbell ringing.” The bit about the doorbell got to me. As if, somewhere in your psyche, some part of you thinks he’s come home—and then remembers. My sister doesn’t wait for the doorbell. After the girls are asleep, she walks the stone path to the empty house, lies down on the floor of what used to be her master bedroom, and wails. I hear her. I don’t join her; I don’t know how to join her. When the doctor delivered the final news, I put my hand against her back. “Don’t touch me,” she said quietly.

As the children’s mother keens, their wacky aunt teaches them words far beyond their abilities—orientation and omniscient; she buys them whatever they want at House of Pancakes, bounces with them on a trampoline, and endlessly re-watches with them The Sound of Music. Auntie tells them an age-inappropriate but very funny joke.

Despite her rapport and love for the girls, this sensitive woman balks when asked to agree to take them if her sister dies young like her husband. And though she’s allowed to talk to the children about God, when she reveals that she anointed her dying brother in law with blessed oil and said to him words by Annie Dillard (from Holy the Firm)—“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us . . . There never has been”—her sister is furious.

I realize I’ve picked the collection’s two heaviest stories to highlight. But the scenes here between the well-meaning aunt and her young nieces are tender and funny (which only makes the situation more heartbreaking), and the story is so perfect and suffused with such profound emotion that it is life-affirming and inspiring.

Alethea Black

Alethea Black, hard at work—maybe not: the sun is shining.

I Knew You’d Be Lovely, only nine months old, is already in its fourth edition. Black worked on the collection for many years, having committed only after college to writing, and the stories reflect this time investment in evidence of what Dillard once called the “richness of the years.” Yet they don’t feel overworked—quite the opposite. There are moments and snatches of conversation that are so real and apt that you just know Black pounced on them in real time.

Which isn’t to say they aren’t deeply imagined. Even when the outcome of a story is improbable, as when a beautiful young doctor leaves a party with a man she’s just met, possibly bound for bed, it is believable in part because you want to believe. Another of those stories is “Good in a Crisis,” about a young high school English teacher, who, questioning her calling, tracks down the cool high school teacher she’d had a crush on. “He sometimes had a little BO, she remembered, which Ginny’s adolescent self had found oddly sexy. Mainly, though, he had the peculiar beauty of a person in love with what he does.”

I say improbable, but it’s not that—unlikely?—no, not that either: some events are just unusual, while falling within the range of human possibility. As in the collection’s title story, in which a lovely woman wangles a ménage a trois for her boyfriend, as his birthday present, with herself and the lovely woman he may already be having an emotional affair with.

These stories are all really about love, I guess, and anyone who has been there knows that love is transcendent: earthbound rules don’t fully apply. Many of Black’s characters are young, college-age to about ten years out, and they’re lucky people, the type who were enrolled in gifted and talented classes in grade school, who were slotted into AP classes in high school, and then shuttled off to the Ivy League. Take the top three percent of that group, for wit and overall brilliance, and you have the general demographic.

I don’t mean this as a criticism—quite the opposite. There are so many tales of mere sorrow, ordinary angst, and the seedy underbelly.  I Knew You’d Be Lovely offers wit, humor, and artistry that cast a hopeful morning light on life’s turning points and its tragedies.

Alethea Black answered some questions for Narrative:

I’ve read that you decided you wanted to be a writer two years after you graduated from Harvard College. What was your major? Do you wish you’d majored in something different now that you are a writer?

I was a literature major, but I opted out of writing a thesis in the end, and received my degree in General Studies. I was not at all on my game in college, and spent a lot of time sleeping. I thought the desire to write was completely dormant in those days, but one of my suitemates recently said that I told her I wanted to be a writer, so I guess it was there even then. I don’t wish I’d chosen a different major; I don’t think I could be anything other than a writer.

I Knew You’d Be Lovely took you a decade and a half from start to publication. What was the most important thing you learned about writing during that time?

It’s true, this book was a 15-year pregnancy. I think the most important thing I’ve learned is the power of economy—never say with twenty words what you can say with two. When I look at early drafts of my work, the thing I notice most is how unnecessary some sentences are.

To ask a dumb question: why does writing a book commonly take so long? Or, more precisely, why do some of your stories take so long—what happens in that time, those years, that makes them at last complete?

No such thing as a dumb question! I think writing often takes a long time because you’re learning how to do it as you go. (And of course you’re living your life and working your day job as you go, too.) As to how you know when a story is complete, that’s one of the great unanswerables. When I give readings from LOVELY, I still find words to cut. But I do think it’s fully itself. When the sculptor Alexander Calder was asked, “When do you know a sculpture of yours is finished?” he said, “When it’s time for dinner.”

You’ve published poetry and essays but fiction has been your focus. Do you think the habits of art that fiction cultivates are different than for nonfiction? For instance, your story “Someday is Today,” based on your brother in law’s death, could have been a lovely, resonant essay instead of a lovely, resonant story.

I’ve come to think that fiction and nonfiction are more alike than I ever used to realize. When I wrote “Essay to be read at 3 a.m.” for Narrative magazine, I kept being surprised by how much fun it was. I had no idea that nonfiction could be every bit as inventive and lyrical and mysterious as fiction. You’re bound by facts, but you’re still free; in fact sometimes it’s the limitations that liberate you.

What are you reading these days and how does your reading affect your writing?

I’m a very slow reader and I’m always reading about ten different things at once. I love the New Yorker cartoon where the man is pointing at his bookshelves and saying: “On the left are the ones I haven’t finished, and on the right are the ones I haven’t started.” On my nightstand right now are A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson; The Human Line by Ellen Bass; Corpus Christi by Bret Anthony Johnston; The Stormchasers by Jenna Blum; Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov; and a guidebook called Just Enough Italian. I sometimes give myself a moratorium on buying any new books until I finish the ones I own, but I never stick to it.

You mention your religious faith on your website. Do people react differently to you or to your stories if they know you are religious? Faith in any kind of God isn’t very popular these days.

Faith isn’t fashionable, no. But what a small thing life would be if my goal were to fit in. I don’t know if my religious beliefs (I’m a progressive Catholic) influence the way people respond to my stories, but they do seem interested in that side of things when I give readings. I’m always happy to answer their questions because it’s as strange to me as it is to anyone; if you’d told me fifteen years ago that I’d now be someone who talks openly about Jesus, I would have fallen off my chair laughing. Before my book came out, a friend advised me to take the “God” tab off my website because it would hurt my career. But I have to say, whenever I’m on an airplane in turbulence and I feel like the end is near, I’m always glad I spoke openly about what I believe. Faith has brought me so much joy; it would feel selfish to keep quiet about it.

You’ve said you put your “own MFA” equivalent program together. Could you elaborate on what you did and what you learned?

My home-school MFA? I read a lot of books about writing, such as Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer; Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird; Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write; Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way; and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. I learned so much from Natalie Goldberg that I thank her in my Acknowledgments.

Through many hours of revising, I learned that if there’s a section of your story that depresses you to look at, you should cut it. If there’s a word that feels fancy or a character’s action that feels forced, cut. If there’s a paragraph where you can feel how hard you’re trying, cut. Cut anything that feels writerly or show-offy or self-conscious. Cut anything that doesn’t keep the ball moving. That really great metaphor that does nothing to advance your story? Cut.

If you have doubts about something, more often than not it should go. If it was really meant to be there, it will suggest itself anew when you look at your story with fresh eyes, perhaps after you’ve let it rest for a month. I always assume that my reader is smarter, wittier, and a better dresser than I am, and I don’t want to bore him. My cardinal rule is to keep things interesting or call it a day.

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Filed under Author Interview, Dillard—Saint Annie, fiction, MFA, poetry, religion & spirituality, REVIEW, revision, teaching, education

Memories of me & Harry Crews . . .

Harry Crews: June 7, 1935 – March 28, 2012. Here he’s probably holding forth at the University of Florida, probably in the mid- to late-1970s when I was there.

. . . but mostly of me, 1973–1977.

For Tom.

I was a college freshman in 1973, and drove to school from our Florida beach town in a Triumph convertible with my eight-track blaring “Angie” by the Rolling Stones. I went airborne off the railroad tracks near campus.

Brevard Community College, Melbourne branch, was one gray concrete building, two plywood shacks, and a picnic table under some pines. In my speech class my teacher said I sounded country: “You say ‘fur,’ ‘gist’ and ‘git.’ ” We had to give a speech about a classmate, and a blonde girl with brown eyes interviewed me.

“So what are you going to major in?” she asked.

“Business,” I said.

“Why? You said you’re interested in writing.”

“That’s what my family does now,” I muttered.

I changed my major.

I’d never gotten over my father’s sale of our family’s farm in Georgia, and thought my hurt feelings and sense of exile were unique. A teacher wrote on one of my essays about Georgia, “You are a young, budding Truman Capote.” When I showed Dad, he handed the paper back to me without comment, and I realized he knew Capote only as a talk-show freak.

. . .

Although I was attending classes full time and selling clothes twenty hours a week at Belk-Lindsey, I spent every spare moment at “Andy’s” place, a little farm a few miles from campus. Andy was a pure Sicilian from Mississippi, thirty-eight years old; his day job was teaching school and his part-time work was growing orchids. Ducks and geese and guinea hens milled around his lath houses, and exotic breeds of chickens crowed and flapped and cackled in coops crammed everywhere.

Andy, circa 1974

Andy, circa 1974

The orchids supported Andy’s poultry habit; corsages were still popular, and China was decades away from taking over the potted market. You reached his place down a dirt lane overhung with gnarly oak branches, Spanish moss, and grapevines. Duck Valley, as Andy called it, was doomed to be surrounded by condos, but then it was a lost world. The little tin-roofed farmhouse had been built in the 1920s—ancient for central Florida—and its cypress boards were petrified. A breezeway connected it to a barn with stanchions for six cows. In the palmetto woods nearby was a sunken concrete tank, half full of black water, where the homesteaders had dipped cattle to kill ticks.

One day Andy and I were plucking ducks in the breezeway and listening to “Take Me Home, Country Roads”; I was a closet John Denver fan and had given him the tape. Gopher arrived in his dented blue Chevy pickup, his tawny pit bull, Skipper, in the bed. Gopher supplied Andy with hogs, wild razorbacks with long snouts and sharp white tusks. They overran the cattle ranch where Gopher worked. Skipper would sink his teeth in their tender noses and hold them until Gopher could tie them and throw them in his truck. While Andy was fattening the pigs for slaughter, if a chicken flew in their pen they ate it as soon as it landed.

“That a tape?” Gopher asked. He wore baby-blue jeans, a filthy yellow t-shirt, and a white nylon baseball cap with a Rebel battle flag on the crown.

“Yes,” I said. “You got a tape deck?”

“Yeah, but I don’t like it,” he said. “I can’t stand listening to the same songs over and over.”

You’ve got to own more than one tape, I thought. I might have said it, but wanted Gopher to leave. He was just there to moon over Andy’s game chickens.

One day I drove out to Andy’s at lunchtime. By then I had a key for the gate. Usually I came at the end of the day, just before Andy got there, and did his poultry chores. It was peaceful but spooky alone there in the middle of the day. I walked around and looked at the chickens. Andy’s homing pigeons strutted and cooed atop his farmhouse; wind sighed in the eighty-foot Australian pines in the farmyard.

When I returned in the afternoon to feed and water the chickens, I found the chain on the gate cut. Thirteen pens that had held gamecocks were empty.

“Gopher,” Andy said. “That son-of-a-bitch.”

“A chicken thief,” I said. “If I had to picture one, it would be Gopher. He’s going to fight them and get every one killed.”

“He’s already sold them.”

But all I could think was: What would have happened if I’d surprised him? He’d have put a bullet in my head. No, he would have cut my throat. Less noise. Gopher was stupid, not dumb.

. . .

Before I left for the University of Florida, Dad told me, “I don’t think writers go to college.” I majored in journalism, my compromise—you went out and got stories and couldn’t just bullshit like in English—but I mostly wrote poetry.

One day in my class on Faulkner, Welty, and O’Connor, I wrote a lovesick poem, probably thinking of a girl named Jesse back in Satellite Beach:

Lament

I saw a white dove winging by

She made me think of you

Just a city pigeon, really

So call my memory rue

But it was not a bird I saw

Floating by so fast

Only the figure of a girl

Of love I’d hoped would last

At night I worked on an epic poem, “Clouds Like Blue Pancakes,” about a southern backwoodsman who’s coon-hunting one night and pokes out an eye on a dead branch. He stumbles into an old cow dip, breaks a leg, and drowns. The next day a pregnant girl—whom I stole outright from the character Lena Grove in Faulkner’s Light in August—boards a Greyhound bus. She’s carrying the world’s new Messiah, maybe, and she appears without apparent link  to Silas. But some cosmic equation is being worked out. The poem ends, Big changes coming.

Me at University of Florida, 1976

I labored to write a short story about Andy. Mostly it was about how Andy was a throwback to old southern values, how his farm was a time capsule of old Florida. How the air at Duck Valley smelled heavy with sweet citrus blooms all summer. How sunsets out there were operatic: cloudbanks, bruised blue, floated in the yellow sky above a glowing orange band. How the sandy farmyard glowed like a moon-smoothed river in the night.

Harry Crews was the famous writing teacher at University of Florida. I took a class from one of his graduate students and wrote a short story about a boy fishing with his strangely silent father. I never even thought of trying to take a class from Crews. He looked terrifying, and everyone told stories about how he was terrifying. He scared his own students to death. Or so someone said and we repeated. He looked like a man from a nightmare. Like an axe murderer from lover’s lane. Everyone nattered that the short story he’d just published, the one about a kid who has sex with his sister, was not only true, it was autobiographical. He was a real walking southern gothic, our bogeyman. And unlike us, he had material. Lots of it! Because he’d been lucky enough to have been born dirt-poor, with a violent alcoholic stepfather, among rednecks so ignorant they ate dirt.

I just noticed: Harry Crews was my poem’s Silas Tidewater.

Crews shows his tattoo: “How Do You Like Your Blue-Eyed Boy, Mister Death?”

We didn’t know that the wild man had hedged his own bets by getting a master’s in English education at UF. Or that, in reality, Crews had doggedly made himself into an artist. Now, having at last read and reviewed his great memoir, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place I’d wager that his soul was gentle under all his bluster. Then again, he once expressed contempt for timid student writers, of which I certainly was, despite my bluster. Regardless of that, and of our student tales and the ones he told on himself and the ones he wrote about the world’s broken ones, I wish I’d taken a class from him.

Back then, I didn’t even think of myself as southern. After all, I’d been ripped from Georgia where I belonged and had finished growing up in a soulless Florida beach town. I didn’t notice that I hewed to certain southern stereotypes: I drove like a moonshiner, scorned scotch and drank bourbon—Wild Turkey, 101 proof—hunted and fished, listened to southern rock, read southern writers, and kept a rifle and a loaded shotgun under my bed.

Soon I was unhappy with my major of journalism but felt it was too late to switch to English. “How,” I asked a journalism professor, once a foreign correspondent, “do you get people to feel the way you do?” He stared for a moment at me, shook his head, and looked back down at the papers on his desk. Somewhere across campus, that’s what Harry Crews was teaching.

. . .

I finally turned my short story about Andy into an essay, what we’d call creative nonfiction today. Although it utterly lacked any narrative arc, it placed seventh as a profile in a national contest for student journalists. It did have a perfect first line, maybe the best sentence I’ve ever written, full of backstory and movement and gravid with mystery:

The wind had abated, leaving a stillness so complete we could hear the rasp of pigeons’ feet against the tin roof of the farmhouse.

But I left out Gopher.

Like many a young writer, I couldn’t see the life I’d lived and was living—and I wrongly elevated and feared what I was trying to be. I wish I’d seen myself more clearly. I couldn’t see my own material, let alone own it, or see how imagination might have used, extended, and transformed it. How I might have begun to learn the habits of art. I didn’t know that Harry Crews had written three novels and a roomful of stories before he hit his own subject one lonely night and started getting published.

And I never thought about how I’d been spared, how I’d cheated death that day at Andy’s, escaped a dark fate.

After four and a half years of hectic newspaper work in Georgia and Florida I moved north and married and raised children, lost touch with Andy, forgot Gopher, and quit following Harry Crews. I never wrote about that day at Andy’s farm. I never did.

My senior journalism class, Spring 1977, at The Gainesville Sun. That’s me in the middle, at the typewriter between the two computers. Three of us became reporters for The Orlando Sentinel.

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Filed under essay-narrative, fiction, journalism, memoir, MY LIFE, poetry, teaching, education

Showalter: memoir is a ‘radical act’

My interview with Shirley Hershey Showalter concludes with her discussion of her writing process and of her vision for the potential for memoir, a “radical act,” to build peace in the world.

Q: You prepared for writing a memoir by reading and attending workshops, so I suspect you’re a what fiction writers call a “pantser” instead of a “plunger” for the actual writing. Did you outline what you’re now writing or make a timeline or otherwise make yourself a roadmap?

I guess I’m a “pantser” if I understand the distinction. I wrote a proposal to Herald Press, the publishing arm of Mennonite Church-USA. The proposal required me to outline how I envisioned the project and to send some sample chapters. I did that last summer after having written about six to eight essays of an average length of 3,000 words. I had a beginning, a very fuzzy roadmap, and a willingness to work hard. I knew most of those chapters would not be usable without revision and placement into a larger structure.

By giving myself a deadline (and now by placing a countdown clock on my website!), I was making myself accountable both to my editor and and my readers. But most of all, I am accountable to myself.

I don’t have an MFA in creative nonfiction, so I am trying to create the curriculum that fits my life circumstances (living in an exciting new city and taking care of my grandson 5 hours/day) and my personality. Being a “pantser” keeps me focused. I take in all new influences like a sponge on its way to a canvas where it will leave traces of color on the memoir I am trying to paint with words.

If I had “plunged” without the urgency of a deadline, I would still be a sponge, but a more contemplative one. I might even be able to place color on the memoir canvas more artistically at a later time, but I also take the risk of never getting to the canvas at all. So here I am, with pants in chair, ready to hit Chapter Seven again.

I do have an outline, but only of chapter titles, not chapter content and structure. Right now I am following it primarily to get my subjects lined up and organized into different “buckets.” It could change drastically after the draft is complete.

Q: Now for a dumb question. Why is writing so hard? I smiled when you mentioned on your blog that you are finding it laborious. I remember amazedly thinking the same thing halfway through my own memoir.

I smile too. And I don’t know the answer for anyone else, but let’s try a few Mennonite farm girl responses off the top of my head:

  • Because of sin in the Garden of Eden. For writers it often happens like this—you read a great writer’s prose and all of a sudden the words on your own page, which thrilled you to write, sound tinny in your own inner ear. That’s called covetousness, and it is a sin because it turns joy into sorrow. We aren’t called to be Annie Dillard. There’s only room for one of her. We are called to appreciate and learn from her. And then to sing our own song in our own voice.
  • Because “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” And doing it right is always harder. Just ask H. Richard Hershey, known as Daddy by Rosy Cheeks.
  • Because first drafts are always full of manure, to paraphrase Anne Lamott.
  • Because hard work is good for us! Writing is another form of manual labor, and manual labor requires the building up of muscles. Muscles get sore and tired before they get fit and toned. “You get up early in the morning and you work all day. That’s the only secret.”—Philip Glass
  • Because we forget that even though we are alone in our room, we are never alone. We are always connected to the greatest force in the universe, love. We have to listen, relax, and wait. Love will sing through us if we don’t push too hard.
  • Because we are so easily distracted by lesser things.
  • Because we are afraid we might hurt someone with our truth.
  • Because we are afraid both of looking proud and being self-absorbed.

 Q: You write in your recent post on the concept of ubuntu that “memoir writing is much more than a single writer with a pen in her hand.” You say, “It is a radical act: ‘I want you to be all you can be so that I can be all that I can be. I need you to be you so that I can be me.’ ” Could you say a bit more about importing to America this win-win ethos?

Radical, of course, means “going to the root.” So that’s why I’m so interested in the long and deep view of my own life.

I’m just beginning to think about this Ubuntu idea, so I am far from articulate about it. I spent time with students in Haiti and in the Ivory Coast as part of the Goshen College international service learning program. I traveled with a group of higher education leaders to South Africa. In all these times of cultural immersion, I sensed the spiritual wealth of the people in these countries through their music, their storytelling, their visual art. So when I heard Archbishop Tutu describe Ubuntu, I visualized people dancing and singing, laughing and playing together. I hear the freedom songs, and my spirit soars.

Here’s a group of young singers coming under the spell of freedom by singing the South African freedom song “Singabahambayo.” One of the characteristics of a freedom song is that it doesn’t limit itself to the problems of the day but imagines breaking free in time and space. You can’t sing these songs and sit still. Notice not only the movement of the bodies but the interaction with the audience, the impromptu hugs, the abandon and exuberance.

The invisible web connecting all of us to each other can be made visible in community. Mennonites have their own forms of Ubuntu: we build community with our food, our arts and crafts, our care for the victims of disaster and poverty, the sick and the dying, and our nurture of children. My particular Mennonite faith prepared me to experience a universal principle named Ubuntu.

I get excited when I think about the potential for memoir to build peace in the world.

I get excited when some of the burden for my own book is carried by others who have graciously shared their stories with me via the web. I am motivated to endure the hard work just described in the question above because doing so might help some reader break through to transformation in his or her own life.

One of the greatest poets of all time, Emily Dickinson, expressed an Ubuntu thought in this poem I memorized in eighth grade because I had an old-fashioned teacher who made us recite in class.

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

Ironically, Dickinson was a recluse. But I like to think that she would agree wholeheartedly with the Ubuntu goal of becoming one’s best self by writing to the best self of others, not only easing their pains but also igniting their full flowering.

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Filed under Author Interview, memoir, poetry, religion & spirituality, working method

Review: Annie Dillard’s ‘The Maytrees’

By Olga Khotiashova

The golden rule of software engineering says that perfect code must be simple; it shyly omits though that one must be a professional to understand and appreciate such code. When I, a non-native English speaker, began reading The Maytrees by Annie Dillard, I was struck by a feeling, keen and simple like a death sentence: When will I understand American literature – NEVER. The crash of one more childish illusion. Then what made me keep reading? It was definitely not an urge to master unconventional grammar or sophisticated vocabulary. So what?

Nature. In one of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, Crows, an art student steps into Van Gogh’s painting and wanders there, somewhere between a dream and reality. He even meets the master himself and talks to him. Something similar happens when you read The Maytrees. Cape Cod is one of the protagonists of the novel. It lives and breathes, you can feel its dry sand and smell its salty grass. Its bohemian inhabitants are the part of the landscape. Even their names – Deary Hightoe, Reevadare Weaver – sound like the names of exotic plants. And they are always in love.

Love. For centuries, writers and poets have been coming up with the definitions of love, none of them comprehensive. Annie Dillard explores the subject thoroughly disposing of everything but pure love. She distills it into a dried and odorless substance if there is any substance at all. It is probably more like a vacuum: the beloved are held together like the Magdeburg hemispheres in von Guericke experiment while the air is sucked out from inside of them. The construction is rather fragile, though. As John Banville wrote, “Love, as we call it, has a fickle tendency to transfer itself, by a heartless, sidewise shift, from one bright object to a brighter, in the most inappropriate of circumstances.”

Whatever love may be, Annie Dillard meticulously collects and sorts out its tokens: a twig, a feather, a seashell—and attaches them to the landscape by means of poetry.

Poetry. What else but poetry would you call those gnomic remarks both moving and undecipherable scattered over the novel? They are an inseparable component of the novel which weaves love, one of a few things distinguishing a human being from other creatures, into the Nature. If it were possible to distill pure poetry from the novel it might sound in tune with this Poem by Frank O’Hara:

Light clarity avocado salad in the morning

after all the terrible things I do how amazing it is

to find forgiveness and love, not even forgiveness

since what is done is done and forgiveness isn’t love

and love is love nothing can ever go wrong

though things can get irritating boring and dispensable

(in the imagination) but not really for love

though block away you feel distant the mere presence

changes everything like a chemical dropped on a paper

and all thoughts disappear in a strange quiet excitement

I am sure of nothing but this, intensified by breathing.

A piece of modern art composed of different materials is usually called an installation. In The Maytrees, nature and love connected by means of poetry make up an installation in the realm of which the whole story unfolds. The story itself is simple: 216 pages including prologue, three parts and epilogue. Three events: separation, loss and death, as Annie Dillard puts it in the prologue, happen one in each of the parts. Prologue and epilogue are all about love.

Annie Dillard

We cannot control love, we cannot even define it. It is beyond our power to start the flame of love and there is no harness to hold it. The only thing we can do is to keep the little flame on against all odds and be grateful. That is what I thought when I finished reading The Maytrees. Did I get it right? How much did I miss? I had a reliable tool to figure it out—translation. So I randomly picked a three-page chapter from somewhere in the middle and tried to translate it into my native Russian. The process went on surprisingly smoothly. Even so-called coded messages transformed into something moving if not completely meaningful. And the most reassuring was that the overall impression had not changed, it had become more strong and clear. I have almost learned the piece by heart and still recite it sometimes mixing English and Russian sentences and having unchanging pleasure and excitement.

I deliberately did not include any quotations in this review. It seemed impossible to tear out a piece without damaging the whole installation. The novel is like a book-length—life-length?— poem, it is everything but banal or sentimental, and with each new reading it gets better as real poetry always does.

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Filed under Dillard—Saint Annie, fiction, poetry, REVIEW

Igniting your need for words

From Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing:

It doesn’t bother me that the word ‘stone’ appears more than thirty times in my third book, or that ‘wind’ and ‘gray’ appear over and over in my poems to the disdain of some reviewers. If I didn’t use them that often I’d be lying about my feelings, and I consider that unforgivable. In fact, most poets write the same poem over and over again. Wallace Stevens was honest enough not to try to hide it. Frost’s statement that he tried to make every poem as different as possible from the last one is a way of saying that he knew it couldn’t be.

So you are after those words you can own and ways of putting them in phrases and lines that are yours by right of obsessive musical need. You are trying to find and develop a way of writing that will be yours and will, as Stafford puts it, generate things to say. Your triggering subjects are those that ignite your need for words. When you are honest to your feelings, that triggering town chooses you. Your words used your way will generate your meanings. Your obsessions lead you to your vocabulary. You way of writing locates, even creates, your inner life. The relation of you to your language gains power. The relation of you to the triggering subject weakens.

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Filed under diction or vocabulary, discovery, emotion, NOTED, poetry, working method