Guest Post, Brad Modlin: Writing with Lettuce between Your Teeth

Brad ModlinWhen I say Mrs. Dalloway is unforgettable, I don’t mean that I didn’t accidentally leave my copy by my bedside table on a day I was supposed to teach with it. Two days, in fact. It’s the beginning of the semester, and my students keep calling me “Doctor” like we’re suddenly in a hospital. I have a last name, but maybe they’ve forgotten it and are embarrassed about asking. For my part, I was afraid to ask them for page numbers and look like an idiot professor who forgets his book (twice); therefore I kept beginning my questions with, “Just off the top of your head…”

I think I covered fairly well, thanks to the memorable antics of Sally Seton—you know her—Mrs. Dalloway’s youth-hood friend who, to my students’ delight, once forgot her bath sponge and ran naked through the crowded house to fetch it. “I like Sally because she doesn’t care what people think,” a shy student said from the third row. Me, I like Sally because she doesn’t let embarrassment get in the way, and this may be why she’s reached literature stardom even though she shines for only a dozen or so pages of the twentieth century.

Sally knows something that we writers sometimes forget.

You’re at your writing desk, and you have a maybe-great idea, but it’s actually a horrible idea. Because mixing metaphors is always a horrible idea. Wrong, wrong, wrong—do you want people to think you’ve never read a good book or attended a workshop in your whole life? A horrible idea—except maybe this one risky time it could work? Hamlet, after all, does say, without apology, “…to take arms against a sea of troubles.”

In my daydream, Ezra Pound sits at his desk chewing his lips and thinking, “Will anyone take a two-line poem about a metro station seriously?”

Other wrong ideas include putting on a jumpsuit and pretending to be a dancing cat. (You’ve seen this?) Maybe in the production days of this video, those members of Ballet Zoom didn’t admit to their families exactly what they were up to. Maybe when their spouses or children asked, “How was work today?” they changed the subject. Or maybe their cheerful leaps weren’t just performance, but a sincere, artistic moment. Either way, look at the joy they’ve given many of us viewers now.

We often hide from potential embarrassment, but everything new is embarrassing. Every poem, essay, or story draft is gangly before it outgrows adolescence. And taking a risk gives others permission to do the same. From time to time, let’s all dare to eat a peach, even if we might end up with food between our teeth.

So yes, I forgot the book like an idiot, and both days turned out fine. Sally Seton forgot her soap, which led my shy student to speak up in class. And in offices, and kitchens, and empty corners, many of us heard that 1970s beat, and—even if we won’t admit it—tossed up our hands as if they were feline paws and bounced them a bit, laughing like (to mix a metaphor) happy hyenas at a birthday party.

Guest Post, Brad Modlin: Giving Writerly Thanks on Friendsgiving

My favorite part of Thanksgiving is when we go around the table and say for what we’re thankful for.

For an electronic Friendsgiving dinner, I’ve asked some folks what they are thankful for when it comes to writing, reading, and teaching.

 

Angela S. Gentry:

“I’m thankful writing is the kind of friend you can always cycle back to, even if you haven’t talked in a long time.”

Becca J.R. Lachman:

“That the eclectic, wobbly pile of books on my bedside table never runs dry thanks to so many writer friends and mentors!”

Eric LeMay:

“I’m thankful for books that wait patiently on the bookshelf, sometimes for years, sometimes decades, until I have the good sense to take them down and read them.”

Wendy McVicker:

“Thankful..to be part of a community (across time and space) of noticers..and noters, expanding my world with myriad perspectives.”

RM:

“Truth: reading aloud a book of fiction in turns sparked more joy in me and fellow inpatients than any prescribed therapy.  We rebuilt our lives with books, journals, lists, doodles: hope.”

Dinty W. Moore:

“I am thankful for those writing friends who tell me when I am spewing total B.S. I am thankful for Billy Pilgrim. I am thankful that Microsoft Word has cut and paste.”

Jennifer Pullen:

“My students give me hope for the world because they can argue over who was the better captain (Picard or Kirk) and how we can best begin to live in a sustainable way…all in the same conversation.”

Wesley Roj:

“Prompts- Sometimes this seems like the minority opinion, but for poetry and shorter prose a thoughtful (read: original) prompt can be so invigorating as a teacher or a student. It seems to give you and your students more freedom by convincing you that you have less. In other words, it represents a foundation to build on, and frequently unearths buried treasure.”

Woody Skinner:

“Electronic submissions.”

Karl Stevens:

“I’m thankful that my daughter is forming her understanding of the world by reading good stories.”

Kelly Sundberg:

“I’m thankful for headphones, Pandora, and ambient music, so I can block out the sound of the cartoons my son watches on Saturday morning and write.”

Anne Valente:

“I’m thankful for the generosity and kindness of so many people in the literary community. I was just talking about publishing and writing with a student this morning (another moment of gratitude, for engaged students who are curious!), who asked what was easier than I might have anticipated about writing. Truly, the generosity of writers and an engaged literary community makes writing all that much easier: having great people to share work with, to imagine possibilities, and to champion each other’s work. I was happy to share this with a student, and happy to have the chance to reflect on how true and vital this is, and how grateful I am for it.”

Bess Winter:

“The community of friends who can talk with each other as writers.”

 

Me, I’m thankful that my students and writer friends are willing to play games. I’m thankful that when writing, you don’t feel pressured to multi-task. Instead, you get the chance to daydream. At the same time, I’m thankful for this mindfulness bell that helps me concentrate: http://www.fungie.info/bell/#

Thanks everyone for your answers. SR blog readers, you’re invited to add your thankful-for’s to the list by leaving a comment below. And please pass the sweet potatoes. –Brad Modlin

Guest Post, Brad Modlin: When Not Singing Into My Spatula Microphone, I Play Metaphor Games

Here´s a game I play in the kitchen: I rip out pictures from magazines and tape them to my cabinets. 

Selected at random, their only similarity is that they’re interesting enough to look at for a while. (No ads for Xerox machines or anything like that.) The game is that you find what these pictures can have in common.

pushing daisiesOnce I ended up with a saxophone player, a train track, and an ad for the TV show, Pushing Daisies.

For weeks, while I was stirring soup or waiting for my pasta pot to boil, I looked up at these pictures and built bridges. Maybe the Daisies couple had pressed their ears to the ground to hear the music of the approaching train. Or, a different bridge—the bell of the saxophone was circular like the wheel of the train and the center of the daisy. Also, the saxophonist’s hair was grass-like. Or maybe he was a hobo who hopped trains searching for the brunette he once loved in the grass. Each picture contained death: the TV show about the girl who died, the abandoned train track, and the jazz of a New Orleans funeral.

saxophoneIt was a simple—and surprisingly fun—way to build my metaphor muscles. And the longer those same pictures were on the cabinets, the more challenging it became to find new connections. 

Plus, as several other writers have reported on this blog, we can all go through spells when we’re not exactly writing. In those times, this picture game can be a way to trick yourself into staying in shape.

When I tape other magazine cutouts to the chalkboard and share the game with my students, they really get into it and always create similarities I hadn’t anticipated. Poetry classes often find sensory connections: the noisy motorboat probably screams like the pregnant woman will do when she goes into labor. Or they easily do what teachers frequently hope they will—explain an abstract concept via a concrete image. The Egyptian queen from the museum photo, they say, is proud and stubborn and as unflinching as the blue mountain from the magazine cover. 15257638-railroad-tracks-surrounded-by-green-grass

The fiction students find narratives. They link five pictures together into one story, and then I add a sixth picture, and they come up with a complete different plot or character. Maybe the desert that was the setting becomes the loneliness that motivates the main character. 

If you want to give it a try yourself, here are some pictures:

staircase

tattoo

cancer cowboys

kittynew

Maybe the fight with cancer is like the dragon tattoo versus the Godzilla toy. Maybe that’s The Grim Reaper on the staircase. Maybe smoking makes you cough like a cat with a hairball.

Or, maybe the cat is waiting for someone to feed her, the ghostly staircase figure is floating to the dining room, the little boy wants someone to fix him an afternoon snack, and the cowboys are on their way to campfire soup. Maybe everyone is hungry and wishing the cook would pay more attention to the pot on the stove, and less attention to the pictures taped to the cabinets.

Guest Blog Post, Brad Modlin: Before I Tell You about the Puppet Parade

Before I tell you about the puppet parade, let me tell you about my past two weeks.

I was stressed, and as I told a friend, “feeling under.” I alternated between 1) accidentally waking an hour before my alarm and then—afraid to waste time—reaching for a stack of papers to grade and 2) sleeping until 8:30 and feeling guilty for it. Each day I needed to accomplish three tasks, but then one of them ate up all my hours until suddenly it was bedtime. I struggled for days to get to the grocery and in the meantime had cereal for dinner. When I finally bought a carton of eggs, I dropped them in the driveway and five cracked.

I know that a month from now, I won’t even remember the frazzle of these two weeks, and I know that other—truly sad—stories have taken place or been written down in the past 14 days.

But yesterday I was concerned with my story. I vented (whined?) to an artist friend over coffee. She, too, had been feeling under. One of the projects that had kept her busy was to paint a puppet. Apparently, while I had been rushing around, a group of artists had recruited dozens of townspeople and together they were recycling old materials into twenty enormous puppets. The next night they’d march them in their own parade.

I was too curious to grade papers, so I left the coffee shop and went to the artists’ studio space. So far they had constructed: a fluorescent orange owl in a dress; a giant red vulture head wearing flowing strips of garbage bags; several six-foot tall “talking” skulls with Christmas ornament eyes and mirror teeth; a gauzy whale; and imaginary animals with VHS tape clothing.

I spoke with one of the leaders as he measured some scraps of wood. He said about 70% of their supplies were leftovers, things other people had trashed. Of course, I thought about writing. A lucky trick writers have is that we can take a crummy, or disappointing, or even heartbreaking real-life experience (or pair of weeks) and use it to make something new. We can—at least in part—redeem it, give it purpose as material for creating. And then some good has come from it.

The project leader went on to say they dumpster-dove for many of their supplies. I asked, “So how do you know what material is valuable when you see it—what’s worth harvesting?”

He said, “Everything is.”

This answer was enough to get me signed up as a volunteer puppeteer for the parade. And so this evening I led a line of fanciful creatures down the main street of our town. I wore a huge praying mantis whose arms and legs moved with mine. Cloth people with balloon hair hopped behind me, the birds flew on poles, the whale swam circles around us, and the metallic lion heads bopped in time with the snare drum.

As we processed through downtown, kids climbed onto their parents’ shoulders to see and college students cheered from their apartment balconies. When people noticed us through coffee shop windows, I waved a mantis hand to them.

I picked up my insect legs, which were made from bamboo shoots and tied to my ankles with old bike inner tubes. In the heavy green body—made from styrofoam swimming pool noodles, PVC pipe, wire tomato cages, and packing cardboard—I shuffled lightly. And my shuffling grew into even sort of a samba step by the time we paraded back to the studio entrance, where the snare drummer played softer and softer as if not wanting to end it, and we all danced in place on the sidewalk, each of us trying to stall before we had to take off our puppet costumes.