Internships are a great way to get involved in the world of literature, but it can be hard to know where to start and it can take a lot of research. That’s why we did the research instead! Here are the top ten literary internships for aspiring writers and editors:
Plus, here are a few tips for conducting your own internship research:
1. Everything varies widely, from compensation to time commitment.
Many internships are designed for college students: they operate on a semester schedule, require 15-20 hours of work per week, and offer college credit in lieu of money. But most lit mags and presses don’t require you to be a student, and there are many (including 6 of the 10 on this list!) that offer hourly pay or a stipend.
2. Many literary organizations are located in New York City, San Francisco or Washington, D.C.
If you don’t already live in one of those cities and you’re not interested or unable to move for a three-month internship, be sure to check out your local literary scene. Most cities and universities have presses and lit mags, and it never hurts to ask if they have a position open!
In addition to internships, many lit mags offer volunteers the opportunity to review submissions; while not as involved or structured as an internship, working as a reader can be a good way to get experience in the field before applying to positions with more responsibility.
3. Research the actual responsibilities of the job.
All of my top 10 internships offer hands-on editorial experience, but there are also literary internships that focus on marketing, design or events. While those can still be useful experiences, it’s important to consider what you want to get out of the internship and what work you’re actually interested in doing.
Last year, I had the extraordinary privilege of teaching an undergraduate class on music and poetry. I was thrilled to witness the camaraderie that developed between the musicians, poets, and fiction writers who enrolled as they built our classroom community through workshop and discussion. I watched them collaborate, and watched many genuine friendships form. During the last week, I put together my last planned lesson of the course, a sampling of “how-tos” for the professional writing world – how to publish in undergraduate literary journals, how to write a cover letter, how to find resources and enroll in online poetry classes, etc. Thirty seconds into my presentation, one of my students – let’s call her Viola – said, “but Miss Cole, how do you know whenyou’re a poet? When do you count?”
This question both deeply resonated with me and also broke my heart. I abandoned my previous lesson plan, reentered the circle of students, and told them that when I was in my second-ever poetry class, I capped off my portfolio with a poem called “When I am a Poet.” The poem itself has been lost, but the general gist was “when I’m a real poet, my work is going to be so much better, I’m going to be so much smarter, and I’ll be taken so much more seriously.”
To be an artist of any kind is to live with the constant, nagging doubt that your art is not legitimate. We believe, instead, that our legitimacy as artists comes from the world around us – from poems and books we have published, to accolades we have won, to degrees we have earned. We believe that these things are concrete and tangible proof that we “count” as artists in our chosen fields.
And it’s not to say that those things don’t matter. They can be helpful to a poet’s career, especially if one wishes to enter academia, where right amount of acclaim and professional connections can sometimes translate into a teaching job. Publication increases our work’s visibility. Awards and grants provide us funding to continue our work. Books allow a poet to showcase a range of work that readers can keep on their bookshelves or bedsides.
But none of these trappings, however useful to someone’s poetry career, make us poets.
Fewer than ten of Emily Dickinson’s poems were ever published during her lifetime, all of them anonymously, possibly without her knowledge, and she is one of the greatest American poets of all time. But even her greatness, her innovation and brilliance is not what made her a poet. Her poetry made her a poet. And that lesson is less about poetry itself, and more about the system that young American poets are brought up in, a system that teaches them to value their work based on publication credits, awards, Facebook likes, and, ultimately, money.
As poets, and all too often as people, we define ourselves by our external accomplishments because the “marketplace” of poetry – of capitalism, of America – teaches us that the value of our artistic work is directly correlated with how many people see that work and thus how much money it makes and/or how famous we become because of it.
Until Viola asked her vulnerable and important question, I was doing all my students a disservice by focusing their attention on publication, rather than teaching them the far more important lesson that their work has intrinsic value all on its own.
So I invoked another metric. “Class,” I asked, “How many of you think that Viola is a poet?”
The class responded with a chorus of affirmation that, yes, Viola was not only a poet, but a talented poet, one with a gift for strange, defamiliarizing syntax and potent, memorable metaphor. “But you’re my friends!” Viola cried.
“Precisely.” I said. “Now, is there anyone else who feels that they aren’t a poet?”
Every hand went up. Including mine.
When they stared at me—but you’re the teacher—I told them that the “marketplace” of poetry would have them believe that they are not a real poet until they’ve collected a certain, often arbitrary, number of accomplishments. I told them that even with dozens of publications in nationally-recognized journals, with a CV full of accolades, a chapbook publication, an MFA, there are days, weeks, whole months, that I don’t feel like a real poet. I told them about poet-friends I know, friends who have books and NEA grants and lists of accomplishments pages long, who still consider themselves to be “emerging” poets, because the poetry marketplace has told that they don’t count as “real poets” yet.
Viola isn’t alone. Every poet I know wonders, at one time or another, at what point they “count.” At what point they will count as “real.” But that’s just the marketplace talking. It’s an easy thing to forget, in the midst of all the other noise, but it’s the poetry that makes the poet. Not the money. Not the brand. Not the number of fans, or of followers on Twitter or Instagram.
Before class ended that day, I asked my students to do one more thing. They looked to their left and their right, and told each other the one truth that I hope they’ve taken away from class, the truth more important than any advice about publication than I could ever give them: You are already a poet, they said to one another. You already count.
It’s National Poetry Month and I’m focusing on ekphrasis. When I mention this to people, even fellow poets and writers, I usually am met with “ek-what?” Ekphrasis is a term used to denote poetry written from or inspired by visual artistic mediums and traces its lineage back to the Greeks and Romans, including the works of Homer’s The Iliad and Horace’s “Ars Poetica.” The word ekphrasis, in fact, comes from two Greek words, ek, meaning out, and phrasis meaning speak. Ekphrastic poetry, then, functions as a “calling to” or “speaking to” (or about) art.
Historically, conventional forms of art, as seen in Robert Hayden’s “Monet’s Water Lilies,” and “Archaic Torso of Apollo” by Rilke, are central to traditional ekphrastic poetry. However, in the last few decades, many reservations have been raised about the use of ekphrasis in poetry; mainly, that it limits the poet’s ability to seebeyond the work itself.
Oh, I disagree. Ekphrastic poetry is not just a celebration of art—in all of its forms—but is limitless, in fact, in its scope. The poet may choose a photograph and discuss the subject, yes, but more than that, may choose to write about the photographer one can’t see in the image, or capture something partially exhibited in the background, or simply use it as a source of intellectual and artistic inspiration.
The problem with this argument, and those like it, however, is that when discussing ekphrasis, critics often conjure images of someone entering a gallery exhibit and then rushing home to write a poem about it. This argument, sadly, sells the practice of ekphrasis short. True, there are numerous poems in the vein of I just saw the Van Gogh exhibit and now I have to write a Starry Night poem, but the beauty of ekphrastic poetry is the dialog it creates between artists: poet and image, poet and painter, graffiti artist, jazz musician.
Notable collections such as Natasha Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia, Kevin Young’s Jelly Roll andTo Repel Ghosts, Sharon Dolin’s Serious Pink, and Joseph Campana’s The Book of Faces are ekphrastics that speak to an entirely new generation of readers and poets. These poets and their works are helping to bring the ekphrastic out of the museum and gallery and into a new century where the image is dynamic, where the concept and definition of art is limitless.
As the Greeks and Romans utilized the ekphrastic as a means to understand their fellow human and their place in the universe, so do contemporary poets such as John Ashbery, Sharon Dolin, Kevin Young, and Natasha Trethewey. In a modern era, ekphrasis is not limited by tangibility, but by the possibility of what the artistic media can encourage. Many successful modern ekphrastic poems bring the tradition into the new millennia by opting to utilize contemporary media as a means to reflect a modern, often skewed and distorted culture and thought.
In Kevin Young’s collections, To Repel Ghosts and Jelly Roll, Young’s poems are inspired by the blues and the experimental African American artwork of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Similarly, Jeannine Hall Gailey’s poems in Becoming the Villainessare concerned with the modern image of the objectified woman, using the artifice of female comic book superheroes and pop artist Roy Lichetenstein’s women to explore the role of female characters in a culture so visually consumed.
Today’s ekphrastic is not an expected recreation of Rembrandts and Van Goghs, but function as a call- and-response to the media and images of a dynamic, contemporary culture. Music, film, comic books, and pop art are all integral to the way we think about the world around us, our interior and exterior landscapes.
Art exists to hold the viewer and the subject of the work in place, in a moment in time. In this, both the viewer and the object are always present. Beyond the description of a painting, a blues song, or a film, ekphrasis is a work of detail and experience, with the poet’s implement of perspective bridging the gap between the real world and the imagined.
There’s this mansion recurrent in my nightmares. To my knowledge, if knowledge is a word I can apply here, every room of feigned Victorian elegance has been entered, the verdant and monstrous grounds walked a bit, but not completely for the pixilation that becomes their periphery. Some rooms in a stubbed wing of this construction are safe; others terrify me to wake screaming or wide-eyed in a cognizant paralysis of knowing that I should move toward a light switch but cannot. Night terrors borne since childhood: chill-tremor ghosts haunt these high-contrast framed nightmares. The attic is a place of violence and carnage that I’m unable to believe my mind has conjured. My uncertainty with the details of these dreams is mirrored with the uncertainty I have of my adolescence and young adulthood memories. The myriad blank moments a result of trauma and abuse—most mornings I doubt the details and “truth” of my waking existence.
Some summers ago after a stint teaching creative writing in Singapore and while traveling through South East Asia a second time, I taught an online World Literature course of The Early Modern period, 11th to around the 17th century, in which we read some selections of, and learned a bit about, Michel de Montaigne, considered to be The Fountainhead of the essay, the original man of colloquial introspection (to paraphrase Erich Auerbach), whose meandering language structures reflected his doubt regarding his own memory, especially as he grew older and after his post-dome-damage from falling off of a horse. His is, and how I’ve come to think of nonfiction, a process of wandering and discovering, resurrecting one’s memory. My students seemed fascinated with de Montaigne’s ideas, though it was perhaps due in part to their self-important age demographic and/or the course being online. They need only examine texts and look at themselves superficially in a “foreign” place and boom, realization and epiphany of one’s own cultural mores transposed over another’s. I need only realize the realization of myself and assess their essays and reading responses. There was no mirror only the idea of an idea of one.
The writing of reflective and personal essays is a distorted and dirty manner, akin to the early practitioners of black metal, I like to think, the precepts or criteria of which lie in the bleak coldness of black metal’s instrumentation and recording quality. In the beginning, the dirtier more distant and more analog-tape sounding the music, the better. Though as black metal has expanded this aspect has been put on the wayside for more produced, operatic qualities. The musicianship, the dexterity of the players, however, is a lasting and necessary criterion. You have to have stamina, no doubt, much as one needs stamina for any kind of writing and self-reflection. It’s one’s specific type of distortion that may begin to matter.
Memory is distorted. The crunch, fuzz, or compression of that distortion relies upon the writer the creator the distorter. Same as in any black metal, or any other genre, metal band. How unique is your cut? What about your sound and tone differentiates you from the hundreds of other bands? Mark Doty, in his essay “Return to Sender: Memory, Betrayal, and Memoir,” writes of his Memphis childhood experience as being, at best, a distortion. He returns to that city after some twenty years, if memory serves me correctly, with his partner en route to some other obligation and seeks to locate his childhood street and home. To his recollection the street name is Ramses Street, a distortion of his childhood resulted from his interest in Ancient Egypt and columns he remembers of his house, though the actual street name was McIlhenny Street. He eventually finds the location of where his house should be through a type of physical, visceral recollection, though it’s been torn down for a large apartment complex. He had stood before his elementary school and his body recalled its way home. Though, maybe his body had nothing to do with it and I’m projecting or imagining that. The point is that the “true” notes of his memory composition are distorted; however in line they are in regards to position and scale, the memory is blurred in regards to tone and register. He has created, or encountered, his own distortion.
Sometimes I think this way: poetry is akin to the making of a watch in all its components; fiction, countries and its constituents, characters who buy and trade, steal, discover, and yearn for those watches and their makers; nonfiction, why the watch is the watch that it thinks it is or wants to be based on its watchness. Afaa Michael Weaver is a factory worker turned poet who writes the personal, the political, and the spiritual. Since I’ve undertaken the necessary, for me, task of writing nonfiction I’ve been reading and returning to Weaver’s Plum Flower Trilogy, which is made up of the collections The Plum Flower Dance, The Government of Nature, and City of Eternal Spring. The trilogy is a poetic study of the self, race relations, and spiritual decay and growth. Weaver’s poems bring light to his experience with abuse and incest, racism, his fifteen years as a factory worker, the death of a son, madness, survival and recovery, the poet becoming the Poet. A significant and recurring image is that of the house: as place, safety, and understanding, perhaps. The poem, “Improbable Mecca,” is set in Weaver’s childhood house, a house that has the ability to record, see, and respond with laughter to the speaker’s recollections. The poem’s final line is one that resounds from the shadows of memory, one that stays with me:
This house stands before me
and in my memory, a monument
perfectly aligned to the stars,
luminescent and sentient,
a life in and of itself and ourselves,
as patient and kind and suffering
as anyone could ever hope a house
to be when chattering children
kick in its lap, men lie in it,
trying to accommodate their future,
when women paint it with song
from the old world of patriarchal law,
when death comes lusting after it
with sledgehammers and stillness—
I come to the front steps
and sit as I did when I was a child
and hope that I can hold to this
through life’s celebrations and calamities,
until I go shooting back
into the darkness of my origin
in some invisible speck
in an indeterminable brick
of this house, this remembering.
I first began to write, as many of us certainly have, in order find solace, some answers to the depression, anger, substance abuse, and disquiet I have lived and live with. I began writing shitty poems in high school, which continued into college and expanded into my pursuit of writing fiction, of which I’d eventually get an MFA. To be honest, I don’t completely understand my process of deciding which genre to pursue when writing. I might sum it up to intuition or whim, although every piece of nonfiction I’ve published has been solicited (lucky asshole). So, I’ve had to pull it all out of my ass with no real understanding of how and why. Reading a lot of nonfiction has certainly helped, has given me a blueprint for entering the house of my nightmares. Fiction and poetry haven’t really worked for me in regards to writing about trauma and memory. This is entirely untrue, though. It’s best if you believe it, too.
I’m continually in the process of thinking about this process. I wanted to write about empathy, boarding schools, Slayer and Sepultura (speed/thrash metal bands), and the affect that sexual and physical abuse has on an entire family when the abusers are extended family that were supposed to be trusted caretakers. And so far my only real entrance into those topics is Weaver’s poem “Against Forgiveness” from The Government of Nature:
In the moonlight the leaves telegraph
the night’s song, the way they brush against
us as we go under the wooden bridge
across from the Jesuit seminary, stepping
in streams, the horses tunnels of living flesh
that we trust. My faith in him is absolute.
We go into the woods where mad things
can turn the horses into monsters that maim
and crush, but he holds life up with hands
named by what nature tells the living.
I know it from the shadows of whispers
in my mind, from the earliest games in a space
a big brother should have had but was taken by him,
my uncle like a chocolate bear in the dark,
bear that I keep close to me, carving
a dark father from questions I do not know,
questions I have not the courage to ask
as one asks a question to step from shadow
and become the light that leads, shines
on the words carved in stone by water.
This process of shining light into the shadows is often dangerous for me. Many a therapist has told me that I’m only re-traumatizing myself and exacerbating bad behaviors. But, as is seen in Weaver’s collection, I’ll live with this trauma, these distorted memories, forever. So, you know, fuck it, I’ll continue to find sense, understanding, and “truth,” however aberrant / distorted the journey.
Today, we are pleased to feature Ana Brotas as our Authors Talk series contributor. She takes this opportunity to discuss her experience with photography and reveal her creative process. She describes her long journey with photography and how she has used the “process of drawing with light” as a form of expression.
Ana reflects on her early relationship with photography, noting that “there was an amazement embedded in this process.” However, as her time working with the artistic medium went on and became digitized she felt that it lost much of its meaning and no longer felt like the same “conscious decision to capture a moment.” This changed when she went through the many photos she had taken over the years and discovered things she had forgot, saying that it was as if she was “browsing through someone else’s memory” to go through her old photos. So, she found new inspiration in the “nostalgia transformed into an archive” which speaks honestly to the unexpected and complex creative process which can take shape in so many different ways.
One of the recurring jokes in Don Delillo’s White Noise involves Babette’s devout conviction in paying attention to posture, diet, and other quotidian mundanities as a way to diminish her anxiety. As Jack Gladney, Delillo’s bemused “Hitler Studies” professor and protagonist describes:
“Two nights a week Babette goes to the Congregational Church at the other end of town
and lectures to adults in the basement on correct posture. Basically she is teaching them
how to stand, sit, and walk. Most of her students are old. It isn’t clear to me why they
want to improve their posture. We seem to believe it’s possible to ward off death by
following the rules of good grooming.”
Babette’s sublime regard for the ordinary is complemented by Jack’s colleague Murray Siskind, a seemingly Baudrillardian avatar of postmodernism, constantly interrupting with gnomic declamations such “You have to learn how to look,” “People have to learn to look and listen like children,” “We want to be artless again.” The question of whether Murray is indeed an avatar of gleeful PM nihilism or in fact a follower of Zen, praising presence, mindfulness, and attentiveness, has raged for decades and isn’t the point of this post—although you can probably tell already Murray is my hero, and I think Babette’s “jokes,” including additional classes on “Eating & Drinking,” are practical teachings worth more than a thousand MFAs.
The point of this blog is to propose what non-judgmental mindfulness and good writing posture can do for us as practicing writers. In the summer of 2014 I was awarded a scholarship to attend the Vermont College of Fine Arts Post-Graduate Writing Conference. While there I studied under Steve Almond, who is incredibly awesome and intense and if my writing is ever any good he deserves the credit. Anyway, one of the other teachers that weekend was Anthony Swofford, who had just published Jarhead at the time. My dormmates and I (Hey Bonnie! Hey Jason!) had been pounding jugs of bourbon all day before Swofford’s reading, and thus all I can recall at this time is Swofford waving a copy of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, explaining he re-read it every time he began a new writing project.
I immediately bought/found/stole a copy of the book and started to workshop a story with Steve called “Nobody’s Children,” which was published in Superstition Review a few years ago, and is in fact the occasion for this post. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind is structured as a series of brief explanations of the Zen perspective on such sexy topics as “Posture” (“try to always keep the right posture, not only when you practice zazen, but in all of your activities”), “Breathing,” “Nothing Special,” and “Right Effort” (“if you try not to be disturbed, your effort is not right effort”). The central conceit of “Nobody’s Children” was stolen directly from the book, with its evocative statement, “When we become truly ourselves, we just become a swinging door.”
“Beginner’s Mind” teaches us to create things like children, in a state of flow and not expectation. As we age, we invert what should be the correct conception of art: a thing we create added to the world’s plenitude and diversity, which is a good thing, and a fun thing. As adults, however, if you’re like me, we think of art as: something that fails to become what it is or “should be.” We love without hope. We see the cracks, fissures, pimples, noxious smells emitting from our creation and this doesn’t measure up to what’s in our heads. And thus we think it’s a failure—but how can it be a failure in comparison to something that never existed? Any piece of art is ipso facto perfect in its own right, it is itself and nothing else. I believe this is similar to Leibniz’s argument for a greater plenitude.
There’s a Japanese word “Kintsugi” (made famous perhaps by the Death Cab for Cutie album) denoting the practice of “repairing” broken pottery, ceramics, or jewels by leaving the wounds and imperfections visible. Expanded to relate to not just reparation but creation, we can see how this concept connects to or merges with the “Beginner’s Mind” mentality: play like a child, and the heavens will sing. This insight, gleaned four years ago in under the influence in Montpelier, VT, taught me to have the right attitude towards my fragile little stories, this lost island of misfits I visit with love, and hope, looking around me, awakened again with a profound sense of wonder. As Bob Dylan once wrote: “I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.”
I asked a seven-year-old girl once what the word “imagination” meant, and she said it meant “going further than you can think.” I have been pondering her answer for thirty years. What is it to go “further than you can think?” Is there a thinking beyond thinking, beyond words and that nonstop flow we call “consciousness?” Well of course there is. And I feel it every time I sit down to write or draw. There is something about blank paper that makes me feel like a small blue rowboat about to push off into a wide, bottomless lake, to break the water with my wooden nose.
When I was a kid, I used to draw incessantly. My older brother was off playing. My parents were off doing whatever grownups did, which I always pictured as occurring up in the sky for some reason. If my dad were at work, I’d see him at his desk in a building way up in the clouds. Even if I had actually visited his office, I’d picture it up in the sky. I want to say that I knew his office was on land, but, truth is, what I knew was that his office was somewhere in the sky. There is no explaining this sort of thing. It isn’t about facts. It’s about knowing. Or, perhaps, going “further than you can think.”
Anyway, I drew constantly at the big, low wooden table in my upstairs bedroom with the window looking out on the yard. I always drew with my back to the window. Apparently, I didn’t need the “outside world” for inspiration; blank paper was enough, plus a box of Crayola crayons, the jumbo box. To this day, I can remember the thrill of drawing a battleship. I wasn’t a big fan of war, but I loved drawing battleships. My brother, who was a year older and a foot taller, was off with the big kids – the BIG KIDS. And I imagined the “BIG KIDS” as a country where mythical, semi-gods jousted and had swordfights. So, it was easy for me to see why my brother wouldn’t want me tagging along. At eight years old, I, of course, knew that “BIG KIDS” wasn’t a country and that they didn’t actually joust there. But that was a mere understanding, a puny sort of knowing, compared to the deeper, finer knowing that came from the place in me that knew that the big kids did joust or could joust or jousted when no one was watching.
It was the same place from which I drew battleships that lunged and plowed through the salty waves and weren’t afraid of anything. Or intergalactic space vehicles that could land anywhere and send messages back in code, a language that I, alone, could understand. Or ancient fire-breathing, mind-reading, baseball-playing tyrannosaurus rexes. Or dolphin acrobats that could sing songs inside out. The place from which I drew was beyond logic, reason, words, worry, self-pity, self-criticism, or any need to “succeed.” It was a vast, secret place of freedom and confidence, mystery and surprise, joy and anticipation lodged in a tiny ball of infinity that I carried with me wherever I went. It is the same place from which I now write. If I am lucky. If my need to do well and look good doesn’t get in the way. But, at eight, with a crayon in my hand, I was God: creator of worlds and worlds within worlds. Not a lonely, runty kid.
Everything I ever learned about writing I probably learned from drawing, from drawing at the big, wide upstairs table when I was a kid, when I was God, and knew it. Knew it quietly. The same way your tongue knows the back of your teeth. Of course, I learned the rules of writing in school, which is where I learned to hate writing. I “learned” to write for the teacher, for the grade, for the grammar police. Speaking of which, I am a big fan of the grammar police. Just at the end of the process, not while I am trying to be some place beneath or beyond my “thinking.”
Spewing out gorillas and battleships and dinosaurs and space vehicles and flying buffalo, I wasn’t following anyone’s rules or trying to get anything “right.” I lost myself in that most sacred of all things – PLAY. Naturally, drawing has rules. Writing has rules. Brushing your teeth has rules. So, learn the rules. But don’t let them keep you from dropping down your own, personal rabbit hole.
I started to write seriously when I was nearly fifty. By accident. I was slamming my van door when the phrase “He lived in Edward G. Robinson’s head,” popped to mind. I had no idea my mind was thinking about Edward G. Robinson, the nineteen thirties’ movie gangster. I was just slamming my van door. Next day, I got a pen and paper and, beginning with the sentence, “He lived in Edward G. Robinson’s head,” I started writing and writing and writing. I wrote about a guy working in an amusement park on Gangster Lane in a giant stucco replica of Edward G. Robinson. I wrote the guy’s observations about life, death, bugs, mice, sex amongst houseflies, border control, malaria, King Arthur and his famous (make-believe) dog, junkyards. I just wrote. And every time I “hit a wall,” I said to myself: “It doesn’t have to make sense,” and I burst free. “It doesn’t have to make sense”became my mantra, my stick of dynamite, to blast through barriers. I wrote and wrote: eight hundred and fifty pages by hand. I called it “In the Nostrils of an Icon.” Took about a year.
I was working as an educational consultant at the time, and everything I did in the schools had to be “objectives driven.” You had to know what you were going to say, say it, and then check that people got what you said. Which, turns out, was the opposite of my own creative process. I’d come home from work and mess around in the “backyard” of my mind. I’d let my imagination go nuts. My ability to go “crazy” kept me from going crazy. And I realized the biggest creative secret of all (for me) — MY MIND HAS A MIND OF ITS OWN. It was something I knew as a kid with a crayon in my hand, but learned, later, to forget or not trust. My mind, actually, has a LIFE of its own. It’s a kid who wants to go to the park and swing on the swings and go ape. If I let him, all is well. If I don’t and don’t regularly spend time creating, all isn’t well.
I wrote a second book, “Memoirs of a Gorilla,” all about the difference between the freedom of time and the freedom of space. School seems to make a grand distinction between the intellect and the imagination. But there IS no intellect without imagination. Again, I just trusted the kid in me. And then I started writing short stories: about three hundred of them. I went to a local coffee shop and wrote. Writing at home was too solitary for me, but writing in public (at a table near a window away from people) was heaven. I’d wake up, gobble down breakfast, and hurry to the café. I couldn’t get there fast enough. The place in me “beyond thinking” was already brewing up a story. The houses and streets and billboards along the way were all in Technicolor. By the time I got to the café, my eyesight had practically tripled. I’d pour my own coffee, and the “little kid” in me would be so damn happy, I could explode. The gorillas and dinosaurs were all flying around in my head. I didn’t think I was a “Writer,” not a writer with a capital “W.” I just wanted to write.
I’d sit at the table near the window, wave at the sky above the building across the street. My mom had passed away eight years earlier, and I’d wave to her in the sky. “Hi, Mom.” I’d say, “I’m doing it.” Which meant I was writing. My mother was a brilliant writer, but because she didn’t feel she was a writer with a capital “W,” she never let the little creative kid in her play. Now, of course, I found my own ways of not trusting the “kid” in me, the ball of genius that wants to break the rules and fly off the edge, to go beyond “reality” to unknown truths. So, for hours a day, I just took the old blue rowboat out onto the lake. I felt giddy and indispensable. After four hours of writing I would walk around the block and involuntarily start skipping.
See, that was the part I didn’t learn about in school. That writing wasn’t a competition. And it wasn’t serious because it was important. It was serious because it was fun. The sort of fun where, afterward, I felt more myself because I was being exactly myself. Of course, it’s not always fun. Often nothing comes. Nothing at all. But I know I am in the right place, at least, the place where something can come. I always start with the first thing that pops into my head, usually something odd and specific. Like how I used to draw. Like this recent beginning of a story that I wrote in a white heat because I was pissed at something:
I live in the lavender gut of a horse, a beating heart just beyond the wall. And beyond the centuries-old loftiness that is horse, two old ladies sip tea on a white porch in the crabapple South, hoping for something that might squirrel up out of the ground, the age-old ground, the southern ground, the ground at the top of a hill: a thin line of angels listening all boneless and hospitable from above, managing nothing with their tiny, modest, angel hands, hands that might just as well be days of the week. The long-gone Civil War is wearing a small red and gold cap once worn by an organ grinder’s monkey.
Where did it come from? What does it mean? Where is it going? Well, to me, it comes from the place of “flying buffalo” and “mind-reading dinosaurs,” the place from which I used to draw as a kid and still do – a place beneath words that goes further than I can think.And, hopefully, I can wrestle and shape the story into something made of flights of imagination and depths of emotion.
Yes, I learned to write by learning to draw, by learning to observe and imagine. The world is always brand new. Just observe and imagine. A number two Ticonderoga pencil becomes extraordinary if you stare at it long enough. And language doesn’t have to merely describe and explain. It can re-wire everything. Because we don’t just live in a world where “dogs bark.” We live in a world where “bogs dark.” In the end, I write from the place where children live– the senses, imagination, and emotions. I write from that place we all know from long ago, the place the seven-year-old girl called “going further than you can think.”
“We are hungry for the secret news about life.” – Stanley Kunitz
As writers, as readers of poetry and prose and drama, we are, more or less, hungry for mystery and surprise, hungry for understanding that is not washed in the dust of everyday living. We are hungry for the secret news about life.
Like the mythmakers before us, who were trying to ground a belief system and initiate people into society through the use of story and poem and play, we too are hungry to explore who we are, why we are here, the purposes of living and dying, our places in the worlds of space and of time, what love is. Unlike the mythmakers before us, though, as we deal with these existential realities, we know that we don’t have the answers; we know that we don’t know any secrets besides our own; and we know that most of those are still secret from us even after we have spent our lives searching for them.
Because of this, because the human mind cannot be easily explained, the creation of art, as well as art itself, is unpredictable. Sure, we can break down the processes of the brain to synapses firing and axons stimulating and all that electrochemical junk (scientific terminology there), but the mysteries of the mind, of its processes of creation, of why we have certain thoughts and why certain people can produce new cuisines, or a starry night on canvas, or a little night music, or a midsummer night’s dream is beyond us. In fact, that it is beyond us is the very thing that gives art in any form its power; that they had not thought of it in quite that way themselves but they make the connection the artist created nonetheless is what makes an audience say, “Yes.”
Where scientists create narratives of the brain – big bangs and quantum mechanics, electron transfers, and quarks – explainable, empirical, and, they hope, synchronic – we writers are doing something equally important, creating verities of the mind – a man who turns into a domed beetle, a woman weighted down by her waterlogged dress and sinking below the surface of a clear stream growing murky, a catalog of unabashed gratitude – each one a little mysterious yet still familiar, each one individual yet understandable.
Writing (like any art) in its own peculiar way holds up mystery in order to be confirmed; it holds up proof in order to show the question mark. Art is natural science, history, philosophy, psychology, theology, experience and enigma pressed into a superball, but one with a big chunk missing from it. And that superball is bounced in a child’s room, with unheard of abandon, and with all of the crazy spin that missing chunk causes and that child can muster. Where it ends up – under the bed, crashing into the lampshade, hidden among the toys, lodged between the wall and the dresser, simply gone until it strangely, magically reappears months later in a shoe that had already been checked – is anyone’s guess.
Art is all of this. Writing is all of this. And here is the most wonderful thing about it: it always fails to satisfy our hunger completely.
And this, for me, is where the joyful pain (the painful joy) of writing lies.
Whenever I sit down at my desk, I’m hungry for words; I’m hungry for understanding – even though I know that they’re not completely available to me, that they are in a sense beyond. I believe in the pursuit of words, in asking questions, in exploring the ambiguity and complexity of being human. I feed my insatiable hunger for language as I write: for sound and sense, for rhyme and reason, for glee. I write, and I know that I’m writing from and within my own ignorance and toward my own failures, my inability to know it and to say it exactly the way I want to say it, whatever it is.
Wordsworth said, famously, that the process of writing poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in tranquility.” For me, though, it is the spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in anxiety and uncertainty, in pain-behind-the-eye head-thumping mistake-riddled frustration, and finally (every once in a while) in satisfaction and thus something that resembles tranquility (until I of course work on the next poem, or until a month or two or a year down the road I of course see something in my finished poem I don’t like.)
Feeling comfortable in this unsure process, having the techniques learned, then letting both go, letting the unanticipated, the newness take over, in a sense, feeling lost, that is what gets me moving toward something. As I write, it is right for me to feel lost. Because that spurs discovery. The great guitarist from the band King Crimson Robert Fripp once said, “The key characteristic of mastery is the assumption of innocence within the context of experience….If you walk out on stage not knowing what you are going to do, you might just do it, but not as a novice, where you really don’t know what you are doing. The master has integrated all of the skill set of a professional and then throws it away. Or assumes the innocence.”
Planning, practice, patience, passion, concentration, discarding, perseverance, worry, wonder, confusion, ignorance combine to move something forward toward artistry and someone forward toward mastery. I know I must approach my work with arrogance and humility. We know this. When we create art, we want our god hand to shine like yellow fondant-drape sunlight on the steeple, on the whole cathedral of our creation; we think that we can satisfy that hunger for knowing and saying, but the closer we get to art, the more we appreciate what we cannot do and what we must push ourselves to become.
And for me, more and more, what I cannot do yet (and may never be able to do) and what I must push myself to become (yet may never become) are the true gifts, the ones that keep my hunger gnawing.
A few years ago I had a shoulder injury and I smoked a lot weed to dull the pain: it didn’t get me high or provide any relief, but it woke my senses and made me want to paint. My mother had been a painter, I loved watching her paint scenes from her Louisiana childhood. Unlike Mom’s work, my new watercolors have few landscape or people in them,. They are not “representational” — but you see a go-for-broke sunset once and it’s an occurrence; you see it through the years and it ends up haunting you. Recognizable shapes now appear in my work. The vacant lot behind our house interrupted by a neighbor’s dog traipsing through it; the live oak blown down in last September’s storm suddenly commands my view.
The colors in my watercolors have changed, too. I am partial to blue. In Vermont, I translated the blue-green of hemlocks and spruce, the midnight-blue of a mountain stream into washes of watercolor crosshatched by swatches of sonic blue. But blue isn’t dominant in Georgia. Think sedgy greens, hibiscus reds, burnt oranges with mucky browns smudged in. How to get to the soul of these colors, to make more of them than a mosaic of offhand impressions? My senses awake to new colors —and they recoil from them too. I’m a sucker for anything that activates “my blue” — a mouthful of turbid down-home south Georgia churchy blue. How to transcend well-worn cliches of the Deep South and its gothic trappings? I’ve read too much O’Connor and Faulkner, have seen too many “charming” local color paintings of coastal Georgia to get through to the hurt, bruised blue of the horizon.
I once thought all forms of landscape were biographical, and it’s still nice to think that’s true. There’s a soundtrack to my paintings, arpeggios of turbid waterfall blue saturating my paper or canvass. I used to put on music when I worked, but now the music backbeats inside my head. The live oaks down by the marsh behind my house show scars from a hurricane that blew through here a century ago; a rope swing hanging from one of those oaks tragically reminds me of a lynching that happened not long after that historic storm. Words can’t do these images of justice — photographs, and landscape painting won’t do it either.
A few blocks away from my house come the voices of the reborn, the saved. They sing about how they’ve survived through storms, lynchings and Jim Crow in tin roof shacks down on Cathead Creek, but if I painted folks living here, I wouldn’t do them justice, couldn’t bring their stories onto canvas or paper.
I pass the church and head down River Street toward the graveyard to do some watercolors. Through the canopy, I see Cathead Creek. Bees and dragonflies hum. Buzzards soar. A realist might depict the scene in muddy russets, gravestones fallen into knee-high grass haunted by regret and neglect. A realist would sketch in a tumbledown shack downhill overgrown with Confederate jasmine. But I am not a realist. I try to pry loose from this landscape a story, and all I come up with is a hacked- together tale of myself. Figurative painting does much the same thing — transferring an image from nature onto paper or canvas, leaving the essence, its original story, its ur-story, untold.
Monet spent his life painting the same scenes at different times of the day. The Rouen Cathedral in luminous early light or in a September rain. In his late career, he painted water lilies floating in a blue-green evanescence. Blindness contrived to make him a great abstract painter, made him look beyond refractions of light into shifting permutations of blue. “One instant, one aspect of nature contains it all,” Monet said. “I’m no good for anything but painting and gardening.”
In 1899, Monet completed the scene of his pond at Giverny. Across it, he built a quaint Japanese-style bridge. He was apparently quite pleased with how it turned out, as he painted the structure 17 times that very year, with each painting reflecting changes in lighting and weather conditions.
Fifty years later New York’s Museum of Modern Art displayed a permanent exhibition of Monet’s water lilies — one painting occupies an entire wall — intriguing painters of the New York School who considered them an early iteration of abstract expressionism. The paintings are not so much about plant life, garden life, as they are an extended meditation on Blue shifting out of darkness into silvery aquatic light. Monet spent years painting his beloved water-garden, moving closer and closer to its watery essence. The edges of his pond moved to the limits of the frame until he had erased the horizon altogether. From there, his work becomes a study of water and how it reflects light and the world above it. That is, he moved closer and closer to abstraction.
Today the light’s diffused through clusters of ocean cloud, shadowing the tombstones darkening Cathead Creek a quarter mile away. But I’m not a real painter, I have given up trying to imitate what I see in either prose or in watercolors. I look across River Street to Cathead Creek. whose story includes an ancient shrimp boat scuttled in tidal muck. A snow-white egret hunched shank-deep in the outgoing tide.
The rest is stillness, silence.
I joined AA thirty years ago, and the stories I heard from other recovering drunks changed how I saw the world. I realized that the pain and suffering these folks caused in others are part of my story; that they’re collective property. Listening to other drunks has triggered stories in me. How to use what I’ve learned in “the rooms” of AA to see beyond what pains me to the barely discernible landscape of sobriety?
All landscape has a subtext. Proust wrote a book’s-worth of pages about the garden outside his childhood house, but his word-paintings were attached to a narrative of childhood loneliness. These were stand-alone descriptions — Colombe on an exceedingly lovely summer evening, Proust drifting in and out of childhood dreams. Like Proust, like Monet, ex-drunks tell the same story till they get it right. At some point they tumble into dark self-realization and see the world differently, and are changed.
Walking down River Street from the cemetery, I pass a rusted-out trailer, a growling junkyard dog chained to its front porch fiercely alive in his aloneness. A Chevy pickup with flat tires squats in the front yard, its truck bed brimmed over with empty beer cans.
Down River Street are other shacks and trailers; none aspire to be stand-alone beautiful, but an abstract truth links them together. No matter how poor their occupants, each has a potted plant or two, a winterberry tree to welcome the stranger. The truth lurks in a latticework of stories those on River Street tell one-another. If I were up to it, I’d paint their arrival, following emancipation, from Sapelo Island, settling in to grow turnip greens, and raise hogs and chickens.
Paint the past a translucent isinglass blue. And me, a white guy hovering into spectacular invisibility: as in much of my life, I’m incognito, a drunk although I don’t drink anymore, and farther down the street, I’m neither here nor there.
Recently a friend showed me the pleasure that can be had in not knowing something. Something a younger and far less patient version of myself would have been very insistent about “knowing.”
My friend’s name is Dean, and we were standing in his kitchen sharing a meal of barbecue and potato salad when the subject of our parents came up. “God bless America,” he said (what Dean means when he says “God bless America” is “by the grace of God”). Then he added, “my mother saved me. I love her. She’s gone now but I carry her with me all the time.” In that hour at the dinner table we spoke about our mothers. We shared their strengths and resilience and the blessings they’d brought into our lives — how they might have been aloof or maybe drank a lot or beaten us or shamed us, but were still our mothers and therefore part of us.
Later, when Dean said good night, I saw an old man of French and Cherokee descent who’d led a tough and volatile life, but also a deeply fulfilling one. And he ended our conversation with a word or phrase in an unfamiliar tongue that sounded beautiful to me. “Oh-shee-tay, my friend,” he said as he shook my hand. “And you will never find out what that means, because my father made me swear never to tell anybody, just like his father before him, and his father before that.”
This of course greatly roused my indignation. And my imagination. And because I’m a writer, and it’s my nature to get swept up by language and its myriad hidden treasures, I went to find out what “Oh-shee-tay” meant. I’m now ashamed to admit that I tried to look it up online, and when that yielded nothing, I guilted and begged Dean a little, and when he still wouldn’t tell me, I resorted to eliminating possible meanings by carefully noting down the context every time he said it. I didn’t get far. The most I was able to gather was that it did not mean “f*ck you” or “go to hell.”
Mystified, I found myself driven progressively deeper into a place of search and puzzlement — which, looking back, I now suspect was the kernel of a lesson I think Dean was trying, consciously or not, to impart to me. And the lesson I found in that deep dark forest of not-knowing was that language at its richest, contrary to the uses civilization would have for it, wants one thing more than anything: to be relational more than rational.
I bring this up because we live in a time of distancing, due in no small part to how we use or abuse language, and the stories we tell ourselves. Most of us are acquainted through essays like Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” with the corrosive effects of language on public opinion and social freedom when we don’t pay enough attention. Yet I’d go even further than Orwell to suggest that by naming or needing to name everything that exists in our world, we abstract ourselves from it and thereby impoverish our sense of its possibility. Rather than a genocide in Rwanda because one group dehumanizes another, it’s now about our states of mind. Steeped as we are in a hyper-Cartesian outlook on science and culture, it doesn’t matter whether what we seek is the name of a secret admirer or the suspect responsible for the latest bombing or shooting; our insistence on clarity and certainty has colonized us. Patience, deliberation, and awe and wonder and mystery have all been replaced by a growing feeling of alienation, loneliness, and above all, fear — that we will flunk the exam, not land the plum job, fail in our witch hunt; be on the losing side of a game or an election or a war.
To explain what relational language sounds like, a friend once described to me two possible ways one might give somebody directions to a place. How do you get to Grandpa’s new house? One version of the answer, he said, has us taking a left onto Latona Avenue from 50th Street in Seattle, going three blocks and then looking for the yellow house with the big red door. The relational version would sound something more like, that place where you got your first tattoo? His house is two blocks from there, kitty corner across from the burrito truck where we had breakfast last Saturday. Look for the watering can you gave him, it’ll be just outside the fence.
Why is it useful to think in this way? Because it’s inherently creative and intimate instead of distancing and static. The one approach favors efficiency and saves us time, but lost in that is our inborn capacity to envision the world as a place of possibility, alive with not one but many stories.
Perhaps this is why I so love the petroglyphs of my southwest desert home, with their wordless multitudes of possible meanings; why my appreciation continues to grow for those who chafe at binary and nondualistic views regarding gender and politics and who choose an infinitely circular way of thinking instead of the tyranny of the linear or the square. One of my favorite short stories by Ursula K. LeGuin, “She Unnames Them,” suggests what can happen when we take the things we love out of their limiting conceptual boxes. How would the world change, LeGuin seems to ask, if we came to understand a dolphin or whale not by the letters that make up its name but by its clicks or songs over the vast distances of an infinite ocean?
William Stafford, in his poem “Cutting Loose”:
Arbitrary, sound comes, a reminder
that a steady center is holding
all else. If you listen, that sound
will tell you where it is…
And could this be what Dean was trying to tell me, in his own way, when he said, “Oh-shee-tay?”