Thursday, May 11, 2017

Until You've Written About it, You Haven't Read it.

This is one of those academic facts that still does not make sense to me. While I am reading, I seem to be making sense of grammatical units, an argument or a story seems to be forming in my mind. After I have read, I can tell you what the thing was about. It's not like I'm illiterate or trying to read in a language that has yet to be deciphered.

But none of that is really reading--it's just mechanics. It's better mechanics than when a child sounds out a sentence and looks up brightly because he accurately pronounced all of the letters, but just as a teacher might wait for the child to put the sounds together coherently, to make sense of what he's read, we must force ourselves to put together what we have read. I have in mind a very material image of a new jar of play-doh; when we read mechanically, the content is like the fresh, unshaped dough. In its pristine form, it may be tantalizing, but one could not put it on a shelf and admire it and call that "play."

To play with play-doh, one must mash it. This is the essential first step: to feel its cool materiality squish between one's fingers as if these human hands were webbed like ducks. The second step is to roll a snake/log, but the second step is not the focus of this particular blog post; I am talking about the smashing.

How does one metaphorically smash Shakespeare or Joyce? How does one move beyond admiration with the former or even achieve that much with the latter? If I had not already given you the answer in the title, you might be alarmed at the question. Move beyond admiration for Shakespeare! you might be thinking. Is she mad?

Think of it then like love. You admire someone from a distance; proximity stirs deeper feelings. One must be closer to Shakespeare than a mere admirer, and to bring him close as you might pull a lover to you by his collar, you must write.

Writing does not mean taking notes or copying down favorite lines. This is merely a clever way to avoid writing, a trick we all play upon ourselves. When you really write about a piece of fiction or literature or art, it will be much more difficult than merely copying. You will either love the thing about which you are writing and thereby have too many topics, all too broad, to ever begin, or you will be apathetic toward the thing and thereby believe you have nothing to say about it.

Start by copying it. If it's art, draw it. If it's a piece of writing, sometimes rewriting it is useful. You will find much more pattern and meter in The Waste Land that way than any other method I have tried. But a more direct approach is to simply describe the thing.

When you try to squeeze a work of art into other words, it will resist you like a child being squeezed into a car seat with a winter coat. To describe something, you have to generalize in places, and as you do, you begin to notice the corners of a story and the shadows of a poem that you overlooked in your hasty first reading or your lackadaisical 33rd reading.

If you are like me, you will be tempted to "write" about a thing in your head. This is not writing; it is either thinking done in preparation for writing or it is procrastination; either way it is like serving diced onions for dinner instead of using the preparation stage to prepare, that is, cook the whole meal.

When you move all the way from the recipe to chopping the onions to sauteing them and mixing them with other things like chicken and spices, you have made a meal. Likewise, when you move through the entire act of reading, from reading a book to underlining, thinking, and ultimately describing and then making an argument about it, only then have you read the book.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Writing the Same Story

Do you ever get the feeling that you're writing the same story, over and over again, like some kind of dystopian version of a Greek tragedy? You begin to wonder why you do it, whether other people notice. The self-awareness then becomes paralyzing for a while, and at last you try to write something new. Eventually you reach the point of some level of self-satisfaction for this new narrative and begin to imagine again that you might write many stories instead of the one.

Then you look back, and the story that seemed new while you were writing it is the same old story you've always written. What's strange about this moment in which you'd thought you'd escaped is coming back to the story again, as if for the first time. You begin to realize that each version of it is a revision of the one before, even if the characters or genre have changed.

Eventually you realize that the final perfect version might be a myth. You realize that no one really has more than one story to tell, and so you wear the knowledge of your single tale like you wear your human nature, with the humility of the finitely-dimensioned.

Eventually you find the story you've been trying to tell; you found it in the margins, in the revisions, the spaces where you worked but forgot to read.

Monday, February 6, 2017

On Cliche

Last month I was thinking about writing dialogue and cliches. I was astonished to realize that the few lines of direct conversation from my life that came to mind first were cliches, so I made a list. I can tell you the gist of a thousand conversations I've had, but DIRECT QUOTES were hard. I came up with nine, but that's only because I allowed myself to include things from last week.

Before you read on, try it. What lines stand out in your life? For me, it was almost all times that someone was angry, although there were a couple of single lines of encouragement like, "Just breathe."

What I realized is that all of these (with two exceptions) were cliches. We speak, I was astounded to realize, in cliche. I don't know what percentage of our daily communication rests on these overused phrases, but it's most if not all. We exchange dialogue like we exchange Hallmark greeting cards--sincerely perhaps, but these words are not our own.

When I reached to try to find words I could remember or use that were NOT cliche, the first things that came to mind were things my kids have said. Most recently: "If you get sick, I will take care of you. I will bring you water and give you kisses." Most memorably: after a big hug, my little boy stood back from me wide-eyed and exclaimed: "You hugged me so tight, you touched JESUS in my heart!"

How does a writer handle the fact that people speak in cliche but good writers don't use tired phrases? We are supposed to look at life and write what we see, but what do we do when what we see is cliche?

I don't have an answer for writing, but for life--I want to learn to speak more like a child, full of sincerity and wonder, using exactly the words I mean to say, even when the linguistics don't work: "I didn't get an INCH of sleep last night!" And "I love you" because sometimes the cliche still holds lots of meaning. Sometimes it gains meaning with tone or delivery. Sometimes we get a glimpse of the strangeness and wonder even in a cliche.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Chain Stitching

There’s the drip like a waterfall
And the sigh of her breathing
And the light of my screen 
And this loss.

The loss I can’t name,
But it’s something like dawn when I try,
Like flowing honey and morning and sky.

The loss is like sunlight,
Its rays the embrace of a friend,
Like the chain of an afghan
On a cool summer night:
Breeze metered by yarn, metered by breeze.

And it creeps through my heart by degrees,
Like ivy is climbing and spreading, and 
Soon it’s all you can see.

One night I was violently ill.
She brought me clean sheets,
Laid cold wash cloths on my feverish face;
It’s all I can think of here in this place.

I’m sitting awake, 
Waiting her needs,
But she’s sleeping softly,
Retreating from me.

I retrace the steps of my childhood
Among the dripping and—
I don’t hear her breathing—
There it is, so soft, and a snore.

I retrace the steps of my childhood,
Trying to find 
A place or a time when she was not there,
But her presence cannot be extracted.

Like the ivy that encasing the walls, 
Becomes the thing holding them up,
She’s there,
Metering my memories with naps peaking glimpses of daytime tv,
Chocolate chip cookies and overnight stays;

Now I meter hers by holding her hand,
Watching the drip and the lights,
Reminding her 

Of her name and the day.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Art of the End

She’s teaching me to be old:
With every Thank you uttered
To every nurse who draws her blood;
With every reassurance
That everything is good;
With every stifled groan
She can’t remember to repress;
With every single visitor
Who comes with old regrets.

She’s teaching me how the body
Swallows up itself:
How the mind can lose the past
But not civility;
How the shriveled skin
Can still hold tight;
How the smallness of a frame
Can recede and shrink and fade.

She’s teaching me the art of the end,
Of slipping away,
A lesson I’ll only remember
As long as there’s no need.
But I’m studying hard,
Trying to learn the softness of the language,
So maybe something here will help me there someday
When my own body begins to turn away,
When she is gone and someone uninitiated
Tries to set me right—

And I’m retelling stories of this night,
And they know it might have happened,
The way I know she might have loved
Playing basketball when she was twenty-three
(At five foot nothing)—
The only thing she can recall from the eighty years she’s known.

We must not get to pick our memories,
So I know this useful one will go,
And I’ll likely only know the day I sledded in the snow,
Forgetting who was there and where I was but not that I was thirty-three
Or the wind-chapped sting of glee
As gravity pulled me

So hard away from home.

Sunday, December 4, 2016


I can see change
But not time.
I can hear melody
And imagine time like that—
More fanciful than the ticking, chiming of a clock.
I can touch the empty cradle, the fallen leaf,
But time’s texture is a mystery.
Wherever, whatever
Time is,
I see the lightning bolts of white
Working their way
Like magic
From my temple to my skull,
And whatever Time is,

It has touched me.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

What You Have to Do

The night we brought him home
From where he’d stayed throughout the move,
The turtle died. How Landon knew, I was never clear
Because I was more focused on the Injustice of Death,
How the Kids Would Take It,
And then, forgetting, when I found it awaiting burial
(Formal rites of interment must be delayed until the family can be gathered)
In the bathroom in the middle of the night,
Bumped it,
Looked to see what I’d bumped (a bucket with a dead turtle sitting listlessly
Inside like a giant rock one of the kids had found and left
Somewhere strange),
And saw—of course I screamed. There are women who can kill rattlesnakes, set
Mouse traps, clean up the remains
Of whatever the cat brings in. I’ve known them. But they are never
The face that greets me in the mirror. I would not burn down the house over such a thing,
I’d just drive out of state.

The ceremonies progressed, Landon playing pall bearer, minister, and grave-digger
(With the borrowed shovel the handyman was strangely glad to loan).
We said a prayer (St. Francis preached to birds):
Please grant peace to
Thank you for the joy of
All creatures are Your handiwork.

And then the call. From his place of suit and tie, he’d searched a little longer,
Wondered what had given rise to sudden death and found
That reptiles (even turtles) hibernate.
He might not be dead. He said he’d never ask me to dig up a dead turtle
Like some kind of twisted horror flick…
Of course, the only thing I could imagine worse than digging up a dead turtle
Was a live turtle dying slowly in my back yard.
I did what any mother would do:
  • ·       Locked the kids in the basement.
  • ·       Poured a glass of whiskey.
  • ·       Found a broken beach shovel (because by now the handyman was gone).
  • ·       Sat down by the turtle’s fresh-turned grave.
  • ·       Began speaking to myself/my long-dead father about Mark Twain and Faulkner and the funny way the dead come back to haunt us.

The thing about unburying dead turtles is this: you have to touch them. Live turtles
Are potentially hazardous
If they are snapping turtles or
If you lick them. But the hazard is only potential, and otherwise they’re funny creatures
That run away like dogs when you put them in the lawn
And run in circles like bugs if you trap them
And scowl like my great-grandmother when my brother was being bad. Dead turtles
Are a different story. Their potential for hazard has been fully met: they are the epitome of dead.
And here I was touching one.
Not just touching, either. I was digging him up, collecting him in a box,
To take back to my kitchen to nurse him back to life:
After Failed Experiment with Monsters, Dr. Frankenstein Moves to Zombie Turtles.

When resurrecting turtles, you have to:
  • ·       Wrap them in towels.
  • ·       Drop water on them from syringes, three drops at a time (like a witch’s potion).
  • ·       Put a heat lamp above them (because heat + a dead body = LIFE).

You have to be patient. Let the turtle warming in the kitchen gestate
While you try to think of other things (not the times you threatened to make him into soup).
You have to check him periodically (if you’re not staying with him throughout the procedure),
To look for signs of life.

Signs of death are clearer, though. Once putrefaction sets in, the situation ceases to be
I still don’t know exactly how.
I screamed something like “Mouse in the kitchen!”
Loaded the kids in the van
And waited at McDonald’s for Landon to come home

And re-bury the dead turtle.