Returning from the Ghost Pile


 

Tree of Stars/acrylic on gloss plate-visual erasure.  "The future enters into us, in order to transform itself..."  --Rainer Maria Rilke

Tree of Stars/acrylic on gloss plate-visual erasure.
“The future enters into us, in order to transform itself…” Rainer Maria Rilke

I’ve been away for a long time. What makes that absence kind of strange is that I have a pile of writing, and specifically blog posts–those essaying conversations–never to see the light of day. I wrote them, but didn’t post them, instead creating a kind of ghost file/pile on my desktop.

I can explain, but the narrative of that explanation wouldn’t be particularly interesting. Life and its components—time, energy, and material demands obliging the use of time and energy—can place many seemingly essential pursuits squarely beside the point, negotiable as ballast.  That right there is probably more than enough information about what could take someone who loves their blog like a piece of chocolate cake away from posting for more than a year.

And I do love my blog, cakishly. I love the galleries, the comments, the assortments of photos and art pieces I’ve made for metopen. I appreciated (maybe not enough) how each post would drive me to create something new, both written and visual.

So I’m returning, or rather my blog is returning.  Please consider the missing months more of an interregnum than a lapse, during which time I have come into possession of a new set of experiences and reflections to feed the keys. Metopen is back from the ghost pile just in time for the lovely, long dark of fall.

Posted in blogs, creative process, creative writing, demiurge, erasures, inspiration, process, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

May ’15 Meto-News: New Publication in Timber, Vol. 5


Timber - image

I am happy to share with you the publication of my short story, “Revival”, in Timber, Vol. 5. This piece is yet another of the upcoming—nearly there—Southern story collection I began working on in earnest during the final phase of my MFA in 2013.

I so appreciate finding this story looking pretty on page 1, because its road to publication was sort of remarkable as submission experiences go. And a word of caution before you click through the link above or below (yes, twice, because I know you’re going to read it), “Revival” is the most experimental piece I have ever written, seeming to provoke quite strong reactions, both positive and uncomfortable.

From the beginning, “Revival” muscled its way into a voice I have not used before or elsewhere. As a mytho-memoiric study, the piece was planned. I knew what I was going to write. I knew the imagery I wanted to bend and expand—magical realism felt right for such strong and gothically dark statements. I also wanted to try, at least dryly, subtly, to include the bits I found so funny about this composite of memories and fictions.

That’s generally my process—I like to dream, to think, to know, to outline, to follow my plan. But once in a while a story utterly surprises me. This story was a huge surprise and became more surprising as I wrote it. Not only was it emerging as a piece of magical realism, but as a piece of syntactical experimentation.

After it was done, I had no interest in revising the story’s kinky relationship with syntax and voice. I knew that I needed to find a home for “Revival” where it would be appreciated, where it might be read with an open mind. I figured, lots of places publish highly experimental pieces. Granted, there is a bit of a temporal style signature to what passes as experimental literature, and maybe this story isn’t trendy so much as it is an individual. Still, I figure, editors are writers, too, and someone will read it all the way through and realize it really does work in its crazy multiple persona-ed voice.

But when I sent it out the first couple of times, not only was it rejected, but so spectacularly rejected that it caused the only actual submission uproar I’ve ever experienced. The first journal (to return it) sent it back the very next day with a note: “This story is nothing we could use. You should read our journal before submitting.” What? I know it wasn’t the Southern feel, they had printed other such stories. I know it wasn’t the magical realism, same there—I read journals carefully before submitting. Always. So it was the syntax. Yikes. I’m pretty chill about rejections, but I’d never gotten a personalized kiss off before.

The next place? Worse. First, I again received an almost immediate rejection and it, too, was personalized: “We appreciate the esoteric nature of pronouns, but really think this story’s pronouns are too esoteric for us. We imagine you examining this story again and submitting it elsewhere.” I’m guessing they’d only read the first page and mistakenly figured I didn’t know the pronouns were radically fancy. I decided to wait on submitting this story until I could find the perfect place, somewhere the editors, you know, read stories all the way through.

Then, nearly two months later, I got a separate rejection from the same place. I am not making this up. The second rejection was from a different editor whose note was just as personal, but way better: “The language is eloquent and compelling. The story is complex. I’m sorry we’re deciding against it.” Whoever wrote those words to me—I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Those words renewed my quest to find “Revival” a home. After that, I was like Eldad with a stray puppy.

Researching much, much harder, not only reading back issues of journals, but poring over editors’ interviews and mission statements, I found Timber. Folks, when they say innovative literature, they mean it. I am thrilled with this edition and with my story in its new home. The experience has been lovely and stress free.

Thank you to Loie Merritt and the Timber editors and staff. Welcome home, “Revival”. And you guys? CLICK HERE to read it. Syntax purists, you’ve been warned.

Posted in bad advice, creative process, creative writing, creativity, Encouragement, Experimental Literature, Experimental Prose, fiction, Literary Journals, process, Publications, short story, submitting, Timber Journal, writers, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

April Throwback Thursday: A Storybook


cat didn't care pnt 15

Of all the lame social media/facebook trends out there to which I wish I wouldn’t succumb (“What Avengers Character are you? Let’s Play!”), I admit there is one I actually like and even value.

Throwback Thursdays have given me the opportunity to dig through old photos, reread announcements from family and friends, and I love seeing into the past through everyone else’s eyes.

So I thought I might bring a once-in-a-while TBT right here.

Here’s my throw and how far back it goes: 2000-2001. I was working with young children. We were in the middle of studying about farms when my kids, knowing my soft spots, begged me to write them a story about a farmer who has a family and some pets.

Now, had this happened more recently, I’m positive I would have explained to them that if the farmer has a family, then the farmer’s partner is also a farmer. But, this was a while ago, and I suppose it’s good to see how much my ability to realize these sorts of glaring oversights has improved.

I wrote them their story, drew the pictures, and put it all away. I did send a copy to a beloved niece who was still little at that time. Funny thing is, I found this all recently while looking for pictures of stars (my filing system is weird) and was completely gobsmacked when I saw that I had drawn my own daughter years before she was born. That’s her little, round face and the half undone braid I perpetually tried to re-braid for the first five years of her life. Also, that can only be her middle of the night operatic yoo-hoo. How’d I know? I guess this is a bit like a belated Mothers’ Day blog, in a way, since it is a memory of predicting so much that I’ve actually lived in the last ten years.

And the dog? We wound up with Booger, too. Different color, same silly grin.

So here is my first blogged TBT. Picture heavy and so un-me these days. I was toying with all things cartoon when I drew these and in love with innovations in children’s literature.

Also, clearly I was in need of a paradigm update. But then, that’s the -back part, right? What I love about it is the serendipitous clairvoyance of the imagery. Now, if I can just find myself that farm, though, naturally, I will not leave the cat in the yard. Or the dog, either…makes me wonder what I’m currently guessing correctly (and not so much) about the years to come.

A Mouse Ran Home Through the Forest

mouse  paint 1

bear paint 2 bear river paint 3 bear fish paint 4fish moon paint 5 goose 6 goose mountain paint 7 goose on wolf  paint 8 wolf on hill paint 9 wolf in wind paint 10 wind to valley paint 11 woke the dog paint 12 dog in the yard pnt 13 dog barking  pnt 14 cat didn't care pnt 15 cat scratched pnt 16 hinges pnt 17 woke the child pnt 18 child sat up pnt 19 called pnt 20 mother and father pnt 21 cat in pnt 22 curled up pnt 23 dreamed pnt 24mouse  paint 1

Posted in art, artist, awareness, bears, children's literature, creative process, creativity, family, imagery, memories, motherhood, painting, parenting, stories, storybook, Throwback Thursday, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Goddard Blog: rawboned in the News


“Skinny Little Thing”/collage, acrylic on cardboard

Check out the Goddard Blog, here, for a great overview/interview/write up of our rawboned staff in its current configuration: Ginna Luck, who I think of as our soul-bearer of beauty and the aesthetic ideal. bevin, who is the persona of poetry–a living metonymy for art. Our boss, Trisha Winn, who is strength, vision, talent, and sheer will. Then there is me, who loves words like a smitten fool and who likes to work. Of course, I had to take the forum to wave my art flag high. Here’s an excerpt from my blurb (though you can just click through and read the whole thing):

I have read a lot of opinion pieces lately that suggest there are a glut of writing programs, a glut of writers (implying, therefore, a glut of people who only think they are writers), a glut of small literary journals, a glut of art that isn’t Art, of letters that are not Canon […] There is a glut of violence, a glut of racism, a glut of poverty, a glut of selfishness, a glut of cultural and personal narcissism, a glut of entitlement, a glut of apathy, a glut of nihilism, a glut of viruses and antibiotic resistant bacteria, a glut of cancer, a glut of exclusionary thinking, a glut of positionism in the arts, as in, a glut of individuals who proclaim their position in the arts community entitles them to exclude, to insult, to belittle, to disregard, to disenfranchise.”

I realize now that may have sounded a bit combative.  I’m not combative, but I do feel certain about a few things. Also, my fires have been burning pretty hot lately in defense of the unshown artist, the untenured academic, the unbooked writer. And because fences stink at unifying communities, I think it’s important to go on supporting those very people when they eventually do get shown, tenured, all booked up. Then, the artists who  experience platform success can meaningfully support others, in turn. More art gets made, supported, and seen. That’s a beautiful cycle.

goddard collegeClick through to the article, take a look around the Goddard blog. They’ve posted many articles and resources you’ll love.

And while you’re at it, waste some time on the net today to look for an artist or a writer who isn’t a known deal, but who should be. Know them. See there? You just solved a problem in the arts.

Obscurity and renown are growing more and more obsolete. I wonder what comes next? I’m ready for whatever it is.

"read raw bones"/imaginary art supplies

Posted in art, artist, blogs, creative writing, flash fiction, Goddard, Literary Journals, MFA, nonfiction, online journals, opinions, Publications, rawboned, writers, writing, writing community | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

May ’15 Prompt-a-thon: Quantum Fiction


“Mars”, by Liv/watercolor on paper

Here I go, on a nerd voyage. But there is a literary ending, so all will be well.

Just to preface, if you haven’t been reading along and don’t know it yet, I am a huge lover of all things sky: space, owls, clouds, the nigh vista. Sci-fi and moon missions were my dream parents. So, now, here is a way to share that love with you, once again.

Do you enjoy the various and truly entertaining theories that have threatened to unify sci-fi and physics? If not, you probably still have a good notion what I mean. After all, Neil deGrasse Tyson has become a pop culture icon precisely because of his ability to reconstitute simplified quantum theory and sci-fi fandom into a kind of thinkable vitamin drink.

My favorite theories? I am enamored with ideas about the universe as a hologram or (largely because I’m too physics illiterate to understand in entirety the difference) the crazy theory about the universe being a computer simulation—actually, more accurately, a simulation of a simulation.

“Only Sky”/marker on vellum

I love this stuff, but even if you are not a sci-fi fan (which I am), or a writer of sci-fi (which I’m not, btw, because, wow, are genres ever the unloved child of the literary family), or a physics aficionado, speculative fiction and magical realism are both red hot and calling.  Answer the call with these realism-grounded yet theory-induced prompts.

Prompts:

Read about the hologram and computer simulated universe here, here, and here.

Now, having steeped yourself in the wow, envision a character, or use a character you’re developing in a different story, who is suddenly struck with the insight that, yes, in fact, we are living in a simulation.

  1. Your character learns to hack the universal rules. Why not? It’s all a program. Write up to 500 words.
  2. Your character sends information to the programmers, or believes so. Your story will either depict a person falling into a well of delusion, a person discovering the means by which to alter the course of events in orchestration with their messages (or counter to…), or will ambiguously infer something more nuanced. Write up to 1000 words.
  3. Your character realizes that reality is a sham, a subroutine of a subroutine. This character maybe has a job to hate on, maybe a relationship tugging in all the wrong directions, maybe family doing what families do in stories (going overboard with the drama, the pressure, the ennui). What does this character do with the information that none of this is real? Does your character party like it’s 1999? Or…? Write up to 1200 words.

See, that’s always a great formula: Read up. Get drenched in the weird. Write about it.

“I’d Jump. Would you?”/watercolor on paper

Posted in art, cosmology, creative process, creative writing, fiction, flash fiction, inspiration, physics, quantum physics, sci-fi, short stories, space, stories, writers, writing, Writing prompts | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Meto-friendly news: rawboned live!


April rawboned is live! Congratulations to Trisha Winn, who decided to poke the bear and encourage others to do the same. I like bears, but this one will take its lumps for the sake of excellent reading. So how do you get to this new issue of rawboned, the small and mighty mag? Click right here.  When Trisha opens submissions, I’ll update here. Check back! Or check rawboned. Just check and then submit your flash lit.

Posted in flash fiction, microwriting, nonfiction, online journals, Poetry, Publications, rawboned, submitting, writers, writing, writing community | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Meto-News, April ’15: Moon City Review Arrives!


Cover art,

Cover art, “Angel Song in Shawl”, by Steve Willis

I am happy to present my short piece, “Drafts”, in this spring’s Moon City Review, 2015.

“Drafts” is another from the collection that includes “The Problems of Odessa” (REED/ John Steinbeck Fiction Award, 2014), “House of Broken Dishes” (reDivider/Beacon Street Prize, 2013), “My Grandmother, Lily, Says a Few Words about Brooding” (Clockhouse), and “Peaches for Jesus” (Concho River Review). As the collection comes together and finds first shelter in various lovely places, I’m getting sort of happy with it. I still suffer from what my former-but-forever advisor, Bea Gates, calls the whim whams, so some days I’m all frowning doubt. Overall, though, it’s been a journey of benefits. The final stretch is so close…got to keep my eyes on the words not the feels: Still in progress, trust the flipping process, Shel.

Concerning “Drafts”, I’m super stoked about this particular piece in this particular magazine. First of all, Moon City Review is phenomenal. If you have not ever had the pleasure of picking up a copy, click right here and take care of that oversight right now. And then check out Moon City Press for some fresh and worthy ink.

Also, as a writer collecting writerly experiences with editors at lit mags, I have to send some love to the folks at MCR who made this an easy, cordial experience. The editor, Michael Czyzniejewski, (hey! meet his new book, I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life) proved that you can be professional but still totally personable when putting together good reads. In fact, it was through this experience I had opportunity to interview Julia Strayer for Smokelong Quarterly (another favorite place) about her story, “Let’s Say”, which went on to be included in Queen Ferry Press’ Best Small Fiction Anthology. Go, Julia! I told you at the time it was an amazing story (here, easy links to her story and our interview, on me). So, for the record, Moon City Review treats readers and writers the way we all imagine it should be.

I'm in there. Let me pause and say, that's so cool.

Contributor lists are such the good idea.

Next on the list of good, the issue itself makes me happy. It’s big, bold, and the stories—though I’ve only just started reading—punch the page. A fellow contributor posted to facebook saying he’d taken a shortcut through the issue by reading the first two lines of everything. I might just copy his strategy while I’m parsing story and poem time over the next few days.

The funniest part of this experience? My ten year old offering commentary on the cover art. So far, her mom’s and dad’s writing appearing in print is still largely a matter of cover aesthetics and paper quality. She’s a natural critic, clearly, but she’s only ever read one of my stories (“Brooding”—huge mistake, dead chickens = crying child). Sharing my creative work with my daughter—there’s a future threshold with some interesting geometry, but it’s not here today. Today, I have nothing but woot!

Thank you to Moon City Review and to my friends and blog friends who woot with me.

Look at the postcard goodies they sent!

Look at the postcard goodies they sent!

Posted in creative writing, fiction, flash fiction, Literary Journals, Publications, short stories, stories, writers, writing, writing community | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Erasure Time


Working the words.

Working the words.

I’ve been erasing again.

I am back on the Henry Van Dyke project pretty much every day, working steadily while also shaping the final projects in a short collection that began as my MFA thesis.

On the whole, I have decided the best thing for the erasures in the primary source material I’m working from is to find a different way into the world (fall ’15, I have two erasures coming out in a publication so gorgeous just thinking about it is freaking me happily out, but this is only spring ’15, so I hate to over-hint). Meanwhile, I’m delving into other old books to make something I can share here.

Though I’m open to any source, it happens that Henry Van Dyke was a prolific, wonderfully expressive writer with a love of rich, textural metaphor, which equals lots of raw lexical material. It also happens that his books are tumbling into library and thrift sales along with paisley bedspreads and wall sized gods’ eyes fashioned from acrylic yarn. It seems HVD had a bit of a revival in the 1970s, and as the last of the avocado colored cast iron is cast off, so are the last copies of Henry’s books. I love them all and have acquired a bit of a collection.

 

Henry Van Dyke: My Last Century Crush.

Henry Van Dyke: My Last Century Crush.

The Ruling Passion (1901), is a book of HVD’s stories that would be rather naturalist if not for their moralistic tighty-pants. The syntax and visual vividness is somewhat limited for Henry, but on most pages, he offers just enough for me to work with.

I’m talking about Henry familiarly because I adore him. Actually, the question I am most often asked about erasure work is, simply, why does it take so long to finish a few small poems? Well, other than that I’m a sorry multitasker and very slow in general, there are some inherent reasons to slow down and de-slam this form.

A few slow facts about erasure art:

I make decisions pretty quickly. The problem is that I then make more of them...

I make decisions pretty quickly, but then I make more of them…

Every page of prose has multiple hidden poems. Being a Libra, I struggle with the multiple part.

Every page doesn’t have a good poem on it. There are some pages in almost every major literary work I’ve looked through (and I’ve looked through lots and lots of the greats—imagining what I WOULD do) that seem to be comprised of prepositions, articles, conjunctions, and commas. Sometimes I just settle on spelling things out or, if I can’t put together the words I want most, I might find one or two lovely words and just circle them. There now, not a “poem”, but poetic.

No going back.

No going back.

The books are fragile. I paint. It’s my form. I could buy a trunk load of pretty pencils and crayons and pastels, and I’d enjoy that. But in the end, I find a way to cover everything with paint.

I’m like this with sriracha sauce–it goes on everything I eat. So when I art, I have to paint. I have to get the pages wet. Think about that. The pages have to get wet. This is 100 year old paper. And glue. And thread bindings. Wet. Careful now, easy does it.

The poems an erasure artist writes are real poems–from intricate to minimalist. Only, and here’s the catch, the erasure poet cannot redraft. It’s inked, and then it’s done. I’m not rushing into anything.

Now I can really see what will happen next.

Now I can really see what will happen next.

This work has to strike a certain note with me or it’s not worth the labor. The note is not something I can describe. But it has to ring true.

The work part.

The work part.

The paintings have to be worth looking at. I like the blackout poetry I’ve seen wherein someone circles something like “Live fully” and then spray paints the paper around it. It’s really cool. But that’s not this. I have to want to paint the picture. I have many erasures written that haven’t been painted yet.

Love/wake and/hear if you will/the Moon calls/from a thicket of dead trees.

Love/wake and/hear if you will/the Moon calls/from a thicket of dead trees.

I think this one is rather haiku-like and I imagine many from this particular source book might share this quality. Hey, so that’s something to keep in mind when writing anything in any form: Dimensional resonance is a structure created by the lexicon, not the intentions or even the plot of a piece. Seems obvious, but when do we think of it like that? So how many levels does your language access? Yeah, get all metaphorical and abstract on that and maybe the revision fairies will visit your dreams tonight.

Sweet and inky sleep, all.

Posted in art, artist, creative process, creative writing, creativity, erasures, Henry Van Dyke, inspiration, painting, Poetry, process, writers, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Did I Icon the Week Away?


For the longest time,  a wooden egg I found at a remnants sale has sat on a shelf in my closet.

Surfaces and options...slow decisions.

blank slate

I’ve had a confusing variety of ideas about what should cover the egg—everything from decoupage flowers to simple gradations of overlaid colors to family portraits to black and white tangles of designs (I always think of them as doodles, but the right name would be zentangles) to bird and plant prints.

I finally settled on a favorite subject–iconography–with an emphasis on the icons of motherhood.

Here, now.

Same egg. Decisions made.

9 egg

If results are repetitious, it’s probably a decoding issue…

tree only painted

the motherhood of trees

I believe in the power of mixed metaphor. Mary and attendant archangels (who in truth branch from different mythological trunks) seem to me completely at home among the branches of Gaian trees, all of one source, all of one meaning, well, for me—which could be something about roots or strength or something about pretty colors and shapes. I’m fickle, unable to focus on a dogma, but I love symbols and embrace the idea of feeling by looking, by doing. I look at an icon, I paint an icon, I feel something lovely stir, something like memory, something like reading a mystic message, though less distinct than that implies: like seeing one possible, visualized deciphering of a message sent in a red and gold and blue code.

The technical rub began to, um, rub when I looked at the size my figures would have to be—the central figure is smaller than my thumb, a lot smaller. And other figures are even tinier than the centerpiece Mary because my Madonna is going nowhere without her entourage, swords and all (this is an icon, so no flippant shortcuts).

Here is the work in progress:

 

 

inside of the egg, underpainting

inside of the egg, underpainting

3 egg

The tiny face, little specs of light (not part of actual painting) courtesy of nonspecific wonderfulness

4 egg

Thumb sized? Nope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This brings up a new difficulty: my vision.

What it really means to say I have my father's eyes...

What it really means to have my father’s eyes…

For years, in order to paint close work, I’ve had to wear stronger reading glasses than I normally take. This time, I found I had to stack my glasses up on my nose, one pair on top of another, in order to get anything like control over strokes.

It is what it is.

It is what it is.

Hey, whatever it takes. I spent a couple of hours a day on this for a week and in some ways, therefore, this was a week hung in the wind while work piled up. But at the end of it, after painting a bit everyday, I was freer, less fragmented by stress, and had more energy, despite struggling with eye strain related headaches. I wrote all weekend and finished a drastic rewrite of a long story that had been troubling me for a year and a half. This is  the thing I keep saying—art makes the internal space for more art. I need to make that into some kind of Scout pledge and recite it every single day. Art Scouts, pledge up! “DOING ART MAKES MORE SPACE FOR DOING MORE ART.” Say it with me now…

Scroll on down if you want to see more images of the work in progress.

basic colors applied

basic colors applied

13 egg

14 egg

17 egg19 egg

archangels

 

Posted in art, artist, creative process, icons, imagery, motherhood, painter, painting, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Things I Can Say about Spock, an Ex-Academic, and Power Now that They’ve All Bumped into Each Other in My Head


mr. spock 2Of course it is sad, I am sad, to know that Leonard Nimoy is gone. With unashamed sentiment, I have read some lovely eulogies, tributes that address fully what a fan should say about the man and his body of work.

This weekend, the passing of this beloved public figure intersected as an event with a public outburst of someone known to me and my group of MFA alum. Far flung from anything ever imagined or expected, this meeting of figures was a moment of observational dissonance, of petty, mean, self-serving wittering played like a bad radio behind memories of all the ways reason and reserve first appeared to me as choices for living and creating.

***

I have written elsewhere about the enigma of Helen, who was my mother. Since this rogue whirlwind was our mother, and since our father had his own luggage along for the trip, we, their children, tended to live our thoughts as boldly and out loud as they did, as if walking across the floor required the same audacious certainty as space travel.

In our reality, if someone annoyed you by popping their knuckles or smacking their gum, you hated them and you told them so. You wished their teeth would fall out. You wished their hands would get dog bites and leprosy. If someone spilled their tea, that dimwit got set arrow straight about how many ways they were a waste of food and water. In fact, that spilled drink was the last glass of tea this particular person should ever be allowed to have in a lifetime of thirst and regret, and if she slipped and fell in the puddle she’d made, thereby cracking her brainless skull open, that would the best, most just thing that could ever in a million months of Sundays happen.

I looked like a calm kid.

I looked like a calm kid.

Parents yelled at children and about everything all the time. Children yelled at each other and at the air, our pets, the walls, the kids down the street (who were always appallingly eager to be mean in turn). If a moment, a flicker, a feather’s weight grazed your awareness, you bit it, hard, so that whatever it was wouldn’t try that shit again. As long as you didn’t say any known swear word, especially God or gosh (a “well known substitute for taking God’s name in vain”), you could curse the marrow in somebody’s bones, beg them drown in their own whiny tears, and wish the sun into supernova. We did. Oh, we did.

Anger was a muscle and you flexed it. If not, you heard about it: what’s the matter with you? are you weak? are you stupid?

If you live with anger, you know it has mass, you know it has intentions of its own. And you know it cannot be satisfied while you stand. You also know it never thinks ahead, not even for a second.

***

The winter I was 10, I was forced out of this cycle of reaction. I developed pneumonia and had difficulty recuperating, and talking, sitting upright, caring about much of anything other than the next breath. After a lengthy hospital stay, I was stuck in bed for long weeks at home. Then my ear drums ruptured, and ruptured. And ruptured a third time, a fourth, prolonging convalescence. My parents must have thought I was dying because they took the unprecedented step of renting a television for my bedroom.

The rented TV sat at the foot of my bed blaring on day after day, until I grew so tired of morning cartoons (this was back in the days of Icky Twerp and his Slam Bang Theater—half a day of Looney Tunes and Three Stooges) and the blah-blah-blah talk shows that followed, one day when I was hearing a little too clearly to tolerate another minute of hyuckhyuckyucking, I finally dragged myself out from under the covers, all the way to the foot of the bed (so…they rented the television, but didn’t spring for the remote control…makes perfect My Family sense) and changed the channel. It was by sheer accident that I landed on a show I’d never seen before, unlike anything known to me.

I came upon this new world with high drama in progress. Dynamic dun-dun music played. A softly handsome man in a tight yellow shirt was about to start a war or shoot some sneering, mustachioed guys in metal pantsuits. He was being restrained by these two other guys, both in less tight blue shirts, one who kept saying, “Dammit!” (thrilling) and another who was instantly recognizable as a whole new deal. He was alien—I didn’t need to know anything at all about the show or his character to know that—and he was beautiful.

After a few weeks of watching every episode of the original Star Trek—there were two every weekday and three on Saturday—I became obsessed, developed an urge to reach out in some way, to talk directly to or at or through these characters who were turning my fever baked head around in the most wonderful ways. I had no idea at all that the show had been off the air for years. To me, it was all happening in real time. I asked for, and got, a brand new spiral notebook (more proof the adults in my world were sure I was on my way out). I began writing.

First, I wrote a gushing fan letter. My sister, who shared my room and felt justifiably grudgy about the rented television at the foot of my bed, laughed herself into an asthma attack over the idea that I was such a baby that I thought I could write to a television character. It was the stupidest thing a big girl of 10 had ever done in the history of doing things and only a total numbskull would forget that characters weren’t real.

Then, enlightened and reformed, I tried writing to the real Leonard Nimoy, but I wasn’t sure I knew Leonard Nimoy the way I knew Spock. I couldn’t seem to think of what to say to him. I started having uncomfortable notions about the difference between fiction and the gears and pulleys that form fiction—authors, actors, readers, viewers. Must love reduce to machinery? I would go on for decades trying to answer this question.

Finally, one day, while sitting alone, watching, loving—angst (because Spock and McCoy and Uhura weren’t real) and joy (because I loved them anyway) playing together in close proximity to my heart, I picked up the spiral and starting writing what I was really thinking. Impulse turned into a screen play of twelve long pages, complete with colons after characters’ names and stage direction in parentheses. Yes, Mrs. Cooper, I had been paying attention in Pod 3 Reading Group, when you introduced The Little Beansprout in Two Acts, though I know it looked like I was hiding under my orange poncho (fair enough because I was). I was also listening, storing, and apparently planning.

My script was for Spock, of course, that resolutely solitary soul, the one who thought before he spoke, whose appeal as a role model hid in his elegant reserve. He had such power—he was physically stronger than his human shipmates, even Kirk, intellectually more astute than any character I had ever seen or read or contemplated—in my experience, “smart” was generally an accusation even at school—but here he was, a smart man saving the day by knowing stuff. Still he was gentle in his power. He didn’t hurt anyone or allow others to hurt anyone until he had the whole story, had contemplated right and wrong against criteria larger than the events of a given situation. Spock, Nimoy—himself an intellectual, an artist—as Spock, was mindful of what he said and of how his words, his voice, his aspect shaped the way events around him might unfold.

***

Leaving one experiential venue for another less appealing, this past Saturday, an indie news site out of Seattle, The Stranger, posted a bloggy opine by a former advisor at the school from which I recently graduated. Nothing wrong with that. I like bloggy opines. I write them. I read them. Some are like medicine, like rain, like wellies for standing in rain. Others, meh.

Note: I’m not posting a link because I really have no desire to push traffic in that direction. If you’re heaps of curious, you can Google The Stranger and find the article on that site by its obvious title.

Now, this particular former advisor was not someone I worked with, but I know people who did, some successfully, others spectacularly not so. Everything doesn’t always work out swimmingly. I graduated, continued to feel love and gratitude toward my own former advisors and forgot all about this guy.

Enter the bloggy opine.

Lidia Yuknavitch has said some great and relatively difficult things about the need for writers to get to that point of writing as therapy and then move beyond it, about intellectualism in contemporary literature, and about the personal value of an academic path to writing. Neil Gaiman has been memed seven ways from five about not letting initial failures to achieve what you want with your writing stop you and about learning from finishing what you start, no matter what. The people who hit barriers and thresholds and potholes and grand effing canyons of yuck-that-reads-like-a-soup-can and keep crossing the blank page barrier are the ones who stand the greatest chance of getting their stories on the page the way they intended. Writers who have achieved unarguable success—commercial, critical, cultural—tend to say similar things about what happens when people stop writing and what might happen when people continue to push into writing, deeper, letter by letter.

The bloggy opine said none of that.  It said, summarizing, most people in MFA programs are deluding themselves, teaching them is a rare agony, certain books can be used as a litmus test of who is or is not smart—though looking smart is not necessary (I guess he threw that in because he didn’t want to look too snobby or something); once, a student made him cry with a memoir, but only once, which is significant because that is a clear sign that this student was a “Real Deal”, and finally, student writing has long bored him too much to even be civil about (I’m paraphrasing in that he said student writing bored him and he wasn’t civil about it). Then he made a truly bone headed joke about how he wishes that memoir students writing about abuse, but who have poor grammar skills, should have suffered more, myopia, myopia, ego, myopia.

Okay, that’s more than enough of that.

***

Power makes people act badly, we know that. But writing is so solitary, so fractal. Who has power, and what even constitutes power? The people who have it know exactly who they are and who they are not and what it looks like.

But there isn’t much of it. Between Amazon, the advent of the million dollar, poorly written, self-published book, the zillion and one literary journals and foundations that can afford to reach out with only good intentions, and the rise of published authors working in academia who are also on food stamps, power is a relative word in the literary world.

When there is only a little power and when someone feels that there isn’t enough to go around and that little drop of power that is or might be theirs is going to have to stretch further, last them longer, conventional wisdom suggests the need to insulate.

Snarky, narcissistic definitions of who can and cannot write, of what success means—and of what foolishness are desire, will, and hard work—become the gate keepers of inside versus outside. Reading that article was like a flashback: Talent is born, odds are that isn’t you, it is me, it’s not you, you’re not real, you don’t know enough, you don’t care enough, I am an authority because I’ve done things, seen things, you are fooling yourself. Who do you think you are?

Who do you think you are? I have heard that before. It’s an old, discordantly catchy song usually performed to strains of “I am more significant than other people.”

Sounds like fear. Reads like anger. Hurts people, excludes people, fails to look ahead at the fallout, and then says, “So what? You deserve to suffer. I hope you drown in your own boo hoo.”

***

When I was a kid, stuck in bed, watching Leonard Nimoy shape an icon out of eyebrow arches and pauses, I felt like I’d been let into something.

So I wrote a screenplay. I had my sister, who for once was obliging enough (maybe she, too, thought I was fading fast) and found me an envelope or maybe it was just paper glued together in the shape of an envelope, take the screenplay and mail it. I had no address, no concept of where it should go. I think I wrote “To: Star Trek” on the envelope or glued paper.

I remember my mother coming into the room and seeing it, saying, “That’s so stupid, who do you think you are all of a sudden?” And also, “Why are you getting all upset? You’re so stupid to think this is a real thing. You don’t even have an address. That show isn’t even on anymore. And nobody real wants some dumb thing you wrote. And that’s just the truth, honey. If you cry when you hear the truth then that’s just stupider.”

***

One thing I’ve learned about my mother is that she had very little. She had us to hurt. She had some pretty dresses at one point, but they were lost or she got a little too heavy for them later in life. She had lovely, small, feminine hands—hard as iron, but they looked very petite and precise.

She had looked like a movie star when she was a teenager.

She had once imagined herself the very definition of free—she had a cool job, great clothes, lots of men, a fast car. But then she had a baby. Then she got married. Then, all of us. Then age.

Right up to the last day she had the strength to form words, she did everything in her tiny little sphere of power to keep that power. None of us could ever be successfully young, pretty, free. She made sure we knew that, because if we were, she couldn’t be. It made her feel important and that feeling was all the power she had left.

***

There is no power in the new literary world. Maybe there wasn’t in the old one, either. The new model is cooperative, diffuse, diverse.  Sucky writers who don’t know a thing about the modal tense or how to plug in a comma can self-publish and make a million. Can. Most don’t. But that’s the new model. It’s commerce-based and it isn’t going to visit most of us.  And it doesn’t care about the critics or how cool you are. Mormon girls with weird fantasies can be queens in this new order.

Aside from anecdotal windfalls, success in writing is now defined by the privilege of title, invites to events, solicitations to sit on panels, ease of publishing on known web sites, in the “better” lit mags. Teaching writing, like all academic and intellectual models, as well as other modes of service, has lost all its capital—quite literally.

Now there is no reason to get an MFA. The programs are ridiculous, useless, full of wannabes and whiners.

Who was I sending that scribbled thing I call a screenplay to? How dumb.

Students who don’t perform well deserve ridicule because they are just too boring for real writers to endure.

Why are you crying? What a baby. See? You are an idiot. Who did you think you were? The Real Deal?

***

Some people I know were hurt by the words of this former advisor. Me, no, I’ve heard it before. While power in writing and publishing is so thin, so materially diminished, while it shifts and redistributes, expect more of this kind of thing. Fear is angry, it makes hurt, then it ridicules the injured.

Live long, writers, prosper in ways that scare the shit out of absolutely everyone who would have you give up and then deride you by saying, I never said you should give up, I was just telling the truth.

Here’s a truth: some virtues are reliable. Discretion, acceptance, patience, service, reason, respect, endurance. Look for the people who embody these, but remember that these will probably not be the loudest voices in any crowd. They’ll just be the ones that wake you up, that move you, that sustain you, and that join you as a member of a group rather than as a paragon.

And as for power, when have gates ever held? Ever? When has withholding ever created more of anything?

I hope to live and create in reason. It’s what I’ve always hoped. And I still believe there is plenty of reason and creation to sustain us all.

Posted in Advice, bad advice, creative process, creative writing, Encouragement, family, Helen, MFA, opinions, self-doubt, writers, writing, writing community | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments