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, Bill Gaythwaite: Any Particular Day

swimmerIt occurred to me recently, not for the first time, that my swimming reminds me of my writing process. I’m a lap swimmer in a community pool.  I swim very long distances. My pool is not part of a fancy gym. The locker room is way too small. Sometimes it’s as crowded in there as a subway at rush hour.  There’s a grungy gang shower too, with cracks in the tile and some broken fixtures.  Hot water is more a hope than a reality.  You have to bring your own towel to this place and last week someone pried open my combination lock and stole the money from my wallet while I was doing my laps. I was grateful they left the wallet though, and figured maybe they needed the $22 more than I did. Actually, I love this gym and I love the pool, which, unlike the locker room, is clean and well-maintained. The lifeguards are friendly. Now, writing has its challenges too.  Sometimes the water isn’t hot and the fixtures are broken. And the most obvious comparison between the two is that lap swimming is this solitary effort, where you literally throw yourself into the deep end and just take off. Most writers understand that part. Personally, I’m not the flashiest swimmer or the fastest. My technique isn’t the prettiest either, but I do keep at it. That’s like my writing. And like writing, the benefits of swimming work best when you stick to a regular schedule or routine. You increase your stamina over time. Writing a short story is like a long swim for me. It’s tough to get started sometimes. You can struggle at first. You flail away. And then you eventually find a rhythm and you pace yourself. You don’t stop. You try not to lose steam before the finish. (If writing a short story is like a long swim for me, then working on my unpublished novel was more like running a marathon at a high altitude – but that’s another topic entirely.) I don’t think of lap swimming as only a metaphor. It has become part of my writing process too. Sometimes a swim will clear my head and get me back into a space where I can work. But I’ve also tackled plot problems, created back stories for characters and tried out dialogue as I thrash around in the pool, sometimes losing count of my laps as a result. I’m grateful for my time in the water and for my time at the computer too, when things come together and I have enough momentum to carry me through. I think my writing and lap swimming have become somewhat linked in my mind, the endurance part anyway, the personal challenge, the dogged persistence. As with anything, it comes down to commitment — that happy dedication to something that will eventually become part of who you really are, at any moment, on any particular day.

Guest Blog Post, Elane Johnson: So You Want to Be a Writer…

Elane JohnsonI was destined to write. My grandmother always told me I’d be a writer, and she had an uncanny ability to see the future. She said, “If you clown around in those roller skates and fall down on that rough pavement and scrape your knees, you’re getting no sympathy from me.” And it happened exactly the way she predicted. (I’d just like to know where she was with her front-porch-rocking-chair advice when I really needed it? Like, “If you marry that idiot you’ve only known two months, it will turn out bad.” Stuff like that, I could’ve used.)

After years and years of Mama’s reverberating prognostication, I tiptoed gingerly to the edge of the cliff of artists’ angst and submitted my first piece for publication. Of course, she proved to be an accurate soothsayer yet again when I was the first nine-year-old to have a poem published in The Daily Sun. Unfortunately, at forty-three, I’d yet to have my second piece accepted for print. So I decided to sail head-first and backwards off that damned cliff and get an MFA in Creative Writing. Since then, I’ve started my own irreverent blog, Blu-hoo, and I’ve had a few pieces published. Mostly for free.

Look. I’m the last one to burst your bubble, but let me tell you: Get a day job. Unless you’re independently wealthy, you’ll have to have another source of income because writing doesn’t pay all that well. Yes, the enormous success of some first-time writers is enticing. But for every J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer or E L James, there’re thousands of writers toiling to get noticed. One thing I’ve discovered is that dreaming about writing doesn’t make it happen. It’s hard work unless you are a celebrity or a statesman. However, there are things you can do to improve your chances for success.

Write. A lot. While it may seem impossible to squeeze one more second out of your compacted day, sleep is really overrated. Write instead.

Bone up on your grammatical skills. As Stephen King posited in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, the most brilliant guide to the art of writing ever, “Grammar is not just a pain in the ass; it’s the pole you grab to get your thoughts up on their feet and walking” (114). No one wants to read error-filled drivel. And for heaven’s sake, capitalize the personal pronoun I, or somebody’s going to get hurt.

Read. For example, since I write primarily creative non-fiction, I’ve read a slew of memoirs to determine things that work and things that don’t. I love Haven Kimmel’s memoir, A Girl Named Zippy, so much that if the state of Indiana allowed matrimony between people and inanimate objects, I’d marry it. (Since the state currently doesn’t recognize unions between people with identical 23rd chromosome pairs, I don’t hold out much hope.) Reading Haven is like listening to her talk. She creates metaphors so stunning you want to poke your eyes out with a hot fireplace tool, but her cadence is easy like an hour on a front-porch swing. Augusten Burroughs, master memoirist, also employs a believable conversational tone that makes you feel like you’re sitting right next to him—comparing hardships—in some wino-breath-scented dive while your own vomit chunks flake off your shirt. When you read exceptional writing, you learn to emulate your role-models.

Get followed. Unless you have a substantial Twitter/FaceBook/Tumblr/Pinterest following, it’s hard to pique a publisher’s interest anymore. If you already have a fan-base, you’ve got an advantage. But. You still have to be able to write. And write well. Be fresh. Exciting. Create magic.

It’s also helpful if you’re able to divine “the next big thing,” so that your writing will ride the wave of whatever is popular. Fortunately, topics tend to be cyclical, so by my calculations, it’ll be 63 billion years before vampires are hot again.

If all else fails, become a celebrity. Shoot. If Honey Boo Boo can do it, so can you.

Honey Boo Boo

Reference

King, S. (2000). On writing: A memoir of the craft. New York: Pocket Books.

 

You can read Elane Johnson’s word essay in issue 6 of SR.

Guest Blog Post, Joy Lanzendorfer: Stuck

joy lanzendorferLately, I’ve been getting stuck while writing short stories. I’ll be working on a promising idea with a good set-up and characters, and suddenly I’ll hit a wall. I simply won’t know how to make the story work. What do I do with this thing? I’ll think. What happens next?

This is a lonely feeling. After all, if I, the writer, don’t know what happens next in the story, who does?

The Internet is not helpful. Do a search on this topic, and you’ll get advice like, “Try a prompt. Where does your character like to go on vacation?” But this problem I’m having is more than just plotting. It’s about figuring out meaning.

I write first drafts quickly and then take forever editing them. The first draft is a movie in my head, the interplay between the conscious and unconscious mind, and the joy of rampant imagination and wordplay. These drafts, as you might expect, are messy. They may or may not have an ending. They may have gaps with brackets that say [fill in details]. They may start one way, shift point-of-view or tense, and then go in the opposite direction. Editing is a process of finding meaning through untangling the first draft—who are these characters, what are they doing, why did I write that, and what is the point of this story, anyway?

Meaning is tricky. You’ve got to be careful with it. You don’t want to choke the life out of your story by imposing what you think you’re trying to say onto it. That’s a shifting landscape anyway, what you are trying to say. You may not know what you think or what you believe until the fiction shows you. Every time I have tried to write a story about a preconceived moral or the Truth About Life, the story hasn’t cooperated.

George Saunders recently told The New Yorker:

Early on, a story’s meaning and rationale seem pretty obvious, but then, as I write it, I realize that I know the meaning/rationale too well, which means that the reader will also know it—and so things have to be ramped up. Einstein said (or, at least, I am always quoting him as having said), “No worthy problem is ever solved within the plane of its original conception.” … These sorts of thematic challenges are, for me, anyway, only answerable via the line-by-line progress through the story. Trying to figure out what happens next, and in what language.

This seems to be the answer to my problem: not prompts, not tricks, not the addition of new characters, but “line-by-line progress through the story.” Some writers love the careful examination that comes with the editing process. For me, editing takes patience and time, and I’m usually short on patience and time. It also faith. You have to hope that something shadowy and mysterious—that part of your brain that knows why you wrote what you wrote—will come to the rescue and redeem this gobbledygook in the form of a worthwhile story.

And of course, sometimes it doesn’t. Stories fail. There’s always risk with writing.

In a recent interview with The Paris Review, EL Doctorow said that writing is “like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” This is true, but man, isn’t that kind of a terrifying drive? No wonder writers get so anxious and despairing. But I, for one, am becoming more comfortable with this particular brand of discomfort. You can get used to almost anything in life, I guess. You just have to put your butt in the driver’s seat and hope that the headlights won’t burn out and that the road will continue to emerge. In fact, don’t think about all the things that can go wrong. Even though you know that sometimes you will drive into a cow pasture and have to turn around and go back to the beginning, and sometimes you will have to turn around multiple times before you’re through, you just have to keep going until you reach the end of your journey and pull into a full, satisfying parking job.

And then, of course, you start down a new road altogether.

Guest Post, Cynthia Hogue: Some Notes on Sound in Poetry

Follow the music into sense.

Norman Dubie

 I have been thinking about the ways in which musical and verbal intelligences merge in a poem as compositional strategy, because I have wanted to understand how a poet “thinks” through the music of the poem, as distinct from stating a thought directly as an abstraction or translating it visually into imagery. What interests me is the way a poet puts sonorous “truths” in play. These “truths” are not always articulated thematically in the poem, but the poem’s music gives rise to them, in the musical supplement to signification that Northrup Frye called the “babble” of poetry.[1] The choric aspect of poetry supplements and complements poetic signification, in meaningful (if indeterminate) ways, with what I’ll call sound-thinking.

Music functions as an intellectual, even visionary element of poetry, putting into play something akin to a counter-intuitive logic.[2] A poet sees through words and thinks in song.  To give a brief example, consider Tess Gallagher’s elegiac poem, “Comeback,” in which we find resonant moments of words chosen for the aural effect, with semantic intonations rippling afterward like the wake of a boat.[3] What the reader is told is that—as the speaker remembers how her father “loved first light,” and would sit, exactly as the speaker of the poem is sitting in early morning with her cup of coffee looking out over the “Strait”— the speaker may be dying, like her father and her husband, of cancer. But any “certainty” in the poem comes not from direct statements, but in the music of the metaphor: “Light is sifting in/ like a gloam of certainty/ over the water” (emphasis added). Claims to knowing have no explanation, so of what can readers be certain, reading this poem?

I glom onto the word that draws our attention because of its antique music: “Gloam” goes etymologically back to OE, meaning twilight, not dawn, and darkness coming on, not the sun’s light growing brighter as it rises. The use of “gloam” at that moment in the poem is paradoxical. We are not aware of the paradox consciously, but our access to its insight is through the poem’s music. We register that insight subliminally, through the sound of the word, which is a vowel shift away from “Gloom” and “Glum” (as well as to the idiomatic “glom”). The word “gloam” suggests the other words, which are darker, moodier, and would spell out morosely the sense of feeling attached to life and contemplating losing it. The mournful music of long o’s punctuates the poem, where the poem also locates the speaker’s intuitive knOwing, withheld semantically but articulated musically.

I doubt that Gallagher thought of this as she wrote the first draft, or even paused to look up “gloam” in the OED, at least at first. Nevertheless, given the poet’s precision, I trust that “gloam” was retained deliberately during the process of revision. I speculate that while writing the first draft, Gallagher followed initially the aural insight residing in language itself, allowing associative connections to arise, trusting the inner ear to choose the right word for the poetic moment. She must have looked up “gloam” later when revising the poem, and at that time, was reminded that it denotes the exact opposite of how she uses it (dusk not dawn). Perhaps she then articulated to herself the kind of paradoxical logic the moment holds, the spell of sound tugging against the march of meaning. Perhaps she kept “gloam” because its presence is a door into the most profound level of meaning in the poem.

A poem is able not only to make something visible through language, to see through words, but also to make something audible cognitively, sound-thinking, as I’ve been calling it. The point I’m making inverts the notion that content determines form (pace Robert Creeley), and that is that content follows sound.


[1] See J.H. de Roder’s useful overview of Fryean “babble” and “doodle” in “Poetry: the Missing Link?”: “Northrop Frye in his monumental Anatomy of Criticism simply states that the basic constituents of poetry are BABBLE and DOODLE, going back to CHARM and RIDDLE. In Frye’s view, poems babble, they foreground prosodic features of language – such as sound and rhythm – and by doing so produce charm” (Frye 1957: 275-287; qtd. in de Roder;  http://webh01.ua.ac.be/apil/apil101/deroder.pdf).

[2] On the associated notion of “thinking/ singing,” see Hank Lazer, Lyric & Spirit (Richmond, CA Omnidawn, 2008), 185-204. As Lazer observes, there is a cognitive element which song both activates and enacts, and which we as readers only access by attending to the way music signifies in the poem.

[3] Tess Gallagher, “Comeback.” Dear Ghosts: Poem (Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 2006), 136.

 

Guest Blog Post, Laurie Blauner: What Kind of a Beast Is This?

I’m much more comfortable in my imagination or immersed in metaphor compared to real life. So this, my first blog, is a different creature for me. According to Wikipedia there are over 134 million blogs as of October 2012. My ideal Blog Beast is some kind of huge scampering bird with developing wings, orange feathers, a protruding beak, an insect’s multi-dimensional eyes, too many ears, an alligator’s digestive system, a cat’s vomiting mechanism, with sharp teeth that can gnaw through anything.  Avesanellus blog socialis (see picture at side). It mates and reproduces at an extraordinary rate.

My Blog Beast listens attentively to my every opinion and thought and responds with deep, insightful utterances when prompted. My Beast comprehends everything and, although it sticks by my side, it can be everywhere all at once.

I affectionately call it a Beast because not only does it require care and feeding, but it takes away time from other things I could be doing. So many other people have their own Blog Beasts these days and who can stop to pet or appreciate them all? And each one is different. Does my Beast have anything new or important to say? Will it communicate with others of its kind? Will it migrate? Lay eggs? Is it wild or domesticated? I will have to devise a way to test its intelligence and its agility. I’m told I need my Blog Beast to sell my forthcoming (and past) fiction and poetry books—but how can it do this with only its tiny webbed feet and strange strangled noises? Does my Blog Beast have ideas of its own? Should it be leashed or unleashed?

Guest Post, Patricia Caspers: Writing Sugarless

Sweet Pea

Before I talk about my struggle with rejection letters, it’s important that you know how much I want you to love me. By “you” I don’t mean a general second-person all-encompassing kind of you; I mean you: the person reading these words awash in the light of a computer screen. And by “me” I don’t mean the don’t-assume-the-author-is-the-narrator kind of “me.” I really mean me, here, tapping at the keys in the dark, dog snoring softly at my feet.

My only hope of winning your love is to woo you with my words, to be smart and funny, and whip up a mean metaphor or simile now and again, so that’s what I’ll do if I can. Sometimes I can’t, and if I can’t win your love I will console my sorrow with an ice cream sundae or maybe a chocolate-covered cream puff.

Well, that’s how I would have consoled myself four months ago, before I gave up processed sugar in all of its devilish incarnations.

I gave up sugar because I wanted to know what drove me to eat it, in any form, in the car, and on the beach, in front of the computer or behind a book, after every meal, and just before I brushed my teeth. I thought if I sat quiet and still in that place of craving, the answer would rise to the surface of the abyss, returning like a bottle I tossed into the sea as a young girl. When I had the answer it would be over; no more cravings.

Of course I had the answer all along. I never tossed that bottle into the sea. I swallowed it whole, washed it down with a Coke sipped through a Red Vine, and it’s been sitting in my belly ever since: Sugar = Love.

Except that it doesn’t.

Now I’m working on the part where I love myself so completely that I don’t need your love, or anyone’s. I’m so not there yet. I’m reminded that I’m not there every time I open a rejection letter, and the urge to drive myself to the ice cream stand is so strong I very nearly have to chain myself to the porch rail and sing myself lullabies— because besides eating sugary products, writing is the one thing that I have, at times, done well. It is the basket in which all of my eggs lay. Or is it “lie”? Well, Sometimes those eggs do lie. They say, “This poem is your best yet. It is sure to be scooped up by the editor of [insert name of fabulous journal here] because you and the editor are both fans of skydiving clowns and blue-eyed mares named Maggie.”

Four months later I open the rejection, and it’s not even personalized. Sometimes it’s such a clever form letter that I can’t tell whether or not it’s personalized, and I have to go look it up on Rejection Wiki, which is incredibly humiliating, or would have been if I had ever dared to admit it to anyone before now.

There are very few places where people are rejected outright — romantic relationships, employment, college admissions, immigration, and the submission or audition process— where someone says bluntly, “No, not you; You’re not good enough,” and of those, the latter two are the only rejections that are likely to happen on a daily basis for the rest of our lives, although my rejection letters seem to gang up on the same day, like unwashed teenage boys loafing outside the corner liquor store, emitting a gauntlet of testosterone and cigarette smoke through which I was required to pass for my daily dose of Blow Pop.

If you’ve ever received a rejection letter, you’ve felt the misery, however brief, so I don’t have to tell you. My trouble is that I’m eternally optimistic, so when those poetry eggs whisper their sweet nothings, I believe them every time, no matter how often they’ve been proven wrong.

The rejection letter is the price I have to pay for that optimism, and indulging in a little snort of post-rejection sugary goodness was like paying that price with credit. Sure, the sting was still out there, but “I’ll get to it later,” I’d say. “Pass the cookies.” Now my credit’s run out, and it’s all cash on delivery, Baby. So what do I do instead of sucking whipped cream straight from the can? I write about it, and then I write some more, and the cycle repeats.

Do you love me yet?