Guest Post, Faye Rapoport DesPres: The Lost Words

I haven’t written a “creative” word in a month. That might be an odd way to start a blog post about writing, but it’s the truth—and wherever there is truth, there is a puzzle for a writer to examine.

I can point to several reasons why I haven’t been writing, of course. Aren’t there always reasons? First, I just returned from a two-week trip to Alaska, so I was away for two weeks of the month in question. Second, every moment of the two weeks before the trip felt busy with preparations and tinged with anxiety—after all, my husband and I would be traveling on four flights, a train, a bus, two small boats, and a medium-sized cruise ship.

A third reason goes like this: feeling relieved at the opportunity to disconnect from the Internet, I left behind my laptop, which would have been difficult to tote on and off planes and from one place to another on the ground or at sea. I did pack a small, handmade notebook from a Tanzanian craft shop that employs people who live with physical challenges. I thought the notebook’s history would motivate me to write, but its pages remained blank throughout the trip.

All of these reasons sound good when I write them down, but the truth is I can’t explain the lack of writing. I have never before traveled to such an inspiring place without writing a single word while I was there. Each day I thought about writing (and I did dictate journal entries into my iPhone), but day after day I avoided that little notebook and wondered, in the back of my mind, why I was doing it.

Seal on Rock

Photo: Faye Rapoport DesPres

What I was doing was taking photographs. My camera, I’d always known, was coming with me to Alaska regardless of how awkward it would be to carry it. From the moment our plane landed in an Anchorage flooded with daylight at 11 o’clock at night, I snapped photo after photo after photo. I captured images of snow-covered mountains, of rivers carrying glacial silt through scenic valleys, of seagulls chasing the spouts of humpback whales, and of seals resting on ice caps recently calved from retreating glaciers. I took photos of a wolf tailing a grizzly bear across a mountainside, of a herd of caribou on a hilltop, of 20,310-foot-tall Denali on a rare sunny day. And the bald eagles! I had only seen four in the wild before this trip, but in Alaska, the sky and the trees and even the rooftops seemed filled with them, and I couldn’t stop clicking at their magnificence.

A number of writers I admire also take photographs. As I captured image after image in Alaska, I wondered about this impulse. Why was I obsessed with my camera, while the little notebook languished, unopened, in my suitcase?

Eagle with Wings Open

Photo: Faye Rapoport DesPres

Somewhere between Anchorage and Denali and Seward and Skagway and Hoonah and Ketchikan, it occurred to me that my goal with a camera is pretty much the same as my goal with a pen. I’m trying to capture the world around me in all its beauty, its glory, its sadness, and its grit so that I can save and relive the moments, and then share them with others. Like any writer or photographer or artist in any media, I can’t recreate the world as it actually exists. I can only interpret it through the filter that is—for better or worse—me. A bald eagle exists in all its magnificence in and of itself. All I can do is try to capture its essence and the wonder I feel when I see it. Then I can show it to others with an unspoken question: “Do you see what I see?” I want someone else to see it, too, so I can share the experience—and also so I’m not alone in that wonder.

With creative writing (whether it’s fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, or dramatic writing) the process, I think, is much the same. The writer observes something or feels something or experiences an event, and then captures, frames, interprets, recreates, or re-imagines it based on a personal understanding and sensibility. Through this process, the story is infused with the meaning the writer attaches to it. Finding the right sharpness or clarity or beauty in the delivery is what requires click after click after click of the pen or keyboard.

Of course, there is one central difference between photography and writing. Photographs are visual images made up of (or at least based on) shapes and colors and light that exist outside the photographer, out there in the world at the moment when the shutter is snapped. How the photographer perceives those images and frames and interprets them with a camera is, of course, the art. Written texts, on the other hand, are born of observations of the outside world that become stories when they merge with the ideas, memories, and imagination in the mind of the writer. The texts won’t exist unless the writer makes use of that complicated, beautiful, difficult, and (for me) often dreaded tool: words.

Words. There are so many words! And writers have to choose just the right ones every time! And the choice of which words to use makes all the difference.

South Sawyer Glacier

Photo: Faye Rapoport DesPres

Sometimes, for me, the words just don’t come. While I was in the great, vast, wild state of Alaska, they eluded me completely. The wilderness was so stunning that words failed me. One definition of the word “stunning,” by the way, is to be “able or likely to make a person senseless or confused.” That is what Alaska did to me. It stunned me. It left me senseless and confused…wordless. But, I have to say, happily, ecstatically so.

Now I am home. Now, as a writer, my job is to make sense of what struck me senseless. The weeks, months, and maybe even years of translation and interpretation through the imperfect filter that is me must begin.

But why? Why not leave Alaska to be remembered through the hundreds of photographs I came home with, the eagles and the glaciers, the mountains and the waterfalls, the seals and the wolf and the whales? I certainly love the photos, and if I were a better photographer, photos would rightfully be enough.

But for better or worse, I’m a writer. And ever since I was a little girl, all I wanted was to find the right words.

Guest Post, Cynthia Clem: Yoga, Self-Publishing, and the Importance of Ignoring Your Thoughts

Your New Self

Part 1

The story begins with me moving from mountain to cat, passing through cat tuck. Leading with the back of my neck, I pull forward, bringing my knees to ground and curling my spine outward, tucking my chin, chest, and stomach in, in, in, then flattening it all to natural alignment starting at the tailbone and moving up the spine to my head.

I kneel in cat, wrists under shoulders, head forward, back straight. The teacher approaches and reaches down to touch the vertebrae between my shoulder blades. “Can you straighten here?” she asks. I let my spine sink between my shoulder blades. “You don’t want to make a valley,” she says. I lift my spine back up a little. She presses down. “Now what about this vertebra?”  I feel her finger on the bone, and I know how she wants me to move, but I can’t imagine how to move there. “It’s as if you’re beginning cobra,” she says, and so I pull my shoulders down my back, lift up through my chest. “Where are you feeling that? What are you tightening to make that happen?” she asks.

“My arms,” I say, and my armpits are quivering with effort but it’s not quite my arms—this position is creating a curious feeling in my stomach and chest, an opening that feels close to a breaking. It doesn’t hurt, but it’s difficult—and new. It’s also triggering insight: this is my problem, this is the weak link. “That’s what you want,” she says. “Every time. Every time.”

Oh the ecstasy of self-improvement fantasies. I walked home marveling at the new lift in my chest and ribs, the catch of my breath as if the top of my lungs weren’t used to such space and struggled to fill it. I envisioned a new me, one who, empowered by strength in the small connective muscles of my back, could throw farther, lift more, sing louder, swing a bat faster, and impress my father-in-law with my steady grip on the pistol we shoot once a year or so at the hunting camp.

Poor unimproved former self, I thought. That unenlightened she found it easier to breathe when slightly slumped, could push herself harder and farther if she went sloppily, bullying past her field of energy instead of staying in it. But this NEW self leads with her heart. She moves deliberately, discerning what is needed from what is not. She knows how to be where she is and how to fill that space. She will never slump again.

 

Part 2

Cat/Dog & Other Binaries. That’s my new book, my first book. It looks real, right? It is real.

Can I tell you it is self-published? Can I say that without it feeling like a confession? It’s a book of poems, and it didn’t win any contests. No one important wrote a blurb. The back cover is blank but for my bio and a barcode. I paid for the rights to use the cover art, and I looked at other poetry books to figure out how to format the front and back matter. I chose the font type and size and spacing. I set the price. I wrote the description for amazon.com. I did it by myself on createspace.com, a division of Amazon.

My motivation to self-publish was 80% closure (i.e., get these 10-year old poems out of my head so I can move on) and 20% hope (i.e., maybe someone will like them). The first draft of my book bio: “She is happy to put this book (her first) into the world so she can forget about it and move on to other things.” I thought it was amusingly self-deprecating at the time, but on one of my final proofs it suddenly sounded sad and a little F-you if you’re dumb enough to buy this book.  Shame runs deep. I haven’t worked hard enough, I haven’t tried hard enough to win a first book contest, I don’t participate enough in the literary community. Someone important will see this and shake their head: There’s a lot of crap out there.

I changed the bio. Cutting out that sentence made it bland, but it dissipated the darkness that hung around the whole process. It inspired some much-needed revisions of a couple of poems I’d been pretending were okay. It made me excited, finally. I wrote a book! I can give it to people! Some people might even buy it!

And then the ensuing upward spiral…I will give this book of poems to people, I fantasized, and their enjoyment will grow to a fervor. They’ll tell their friends, who will tell their friends, some of whom will work at libraries and bookstores, and I’ll be invited to read, to autograph, to write the screenplay. Someone famous will nominate my book for a famous prize. More importantly, I will not be someone who has regrets on her deathbed. I will instead have a pile of my own books around me, testament to my warm embrace of the person I was meant to be.

 

Part 3

I’m a sucker for self-improvement. Caught in my visions of perfection, I never dream that I could backslide to that former dud of a self. But every time, I do. Even now, as I write this, I’m slumping in my seat and worrying that I might never finish a book again.

I could take comfort in the Buddhist teaching that I’m already whole, that I can stop striving and just be where and who I am. But if I give up on a new self, then what becomes of these moments of experience that feel so true and inspirational? Do they matter?

Not really. What matters is that I took a single moment in yoga class and my excitement about my book and turned them into thoughts: thoughts of perfection and self-worth, thoughts of the future, thoughts of the past. All of these thoughts are illusion, and any indulgence in illusion comes with a crash. When I fail to live up to my vision, I’m left with guilt and shame.

What matters is that I did something brave with my poems. I finished something, released it to the world as a thing, an artifact, and by doing so removed it from the possibility of change. If it can’t change, I can stop thinking about it.  (If only I could publish myself, right? Then I could stop thinking about her…)

What matters is the moment of connection with my yoga teacher. I went to yoga that night grudgingly, resenting how long it would take and how crowded it would be. Instead, I was given a gift, perhaps for that night only, that made me happy I went.

April is National Poetry Month

official National Poetry Month poster from poets.org

The art of poetry has been around pretty much as long as there have been words. Finally in 1996, Poetry was given its own month. That’s right, April is National Poetry Month, a month to celebrate poetry and poets and their impact on American culture. National Poetry Month was established by the Academy of American Poets, an organization that supports American poets and fosters the appreciation of contemporary poetry, in 1996. During this month the Academy of American Poets wants to especially increase the visibility and availability of poetry in popular culture and highlight the legacy and ongoing achievement of American poets. One of the top goals is to introduce more Americans to the pleasures of reading poetry. My questions for our readers:

What pleasures do you gain from reading poetry?

Do you do anything specific to celebrate National Poetry Month? If so, what?

What role do you think poets play in American culture?

The Academy of American Poets lists 30 ways to celebrate National Poetry Month. You can find them all listed here.

One of my favorite options is “poem in your pocket day.”  The idea is to carry one of your favorite poems with you all day. I think this is a great concept to do in general. Glancing at a poem throughout the day can give you the strength, inspiration and motivation to get through the day or to even write a poem yourself. For National Poetry Month I aim to carry a poem in my pocket at least twice a week.

Anyone else have any National Poetry Month goals?