that a steady center is holding
all else. If you listen, that sound
will tell you where it is…
I’m a slow writer.
It’s been three years since I’ve actively written, rewritten or revised a solid piece of writing. It’s been three years since graduating with my MFA and for all kinds of reasons, the writing was put on pause.
That’s the question when you’re in an MFA program. What’s life like afterwards?
For me, it was a hopeful one. I’d continue working full-time and write in the evenings. On the weekends. Be finished with my novel in a year, tops! Wouldn’t I be so much more productive without my night classes at Cal State?
Then life happened. I fell in love. Sold my house. Moved to a new city. Got married. Every now and again, I’d pull up a story, or part of my novel, and see the parts that needed change. I’d reread sections and see where I could make things better. Wrote notes about future characters, and little scenes that seemed full of promise. And then I’d put them away, and tell myself that later – I’ll have time later.
That’s why I’m a slow writer. It’s not that I wait for inspiration, or the muse to appear. It’s more of a feeling, a yearning, for what I’m not sure, but when I feel that sense of longing or nostalgia, I can spend hours, sometimes days, fully committed to the page. The last two years, however, I just wasn’t feeling it.
After getting married, my husband and I were in the early stages of designing our home, which involved tearing down his parents’ garage and in its place constructing a mother-in-law suite of sorts, formally known by the city of Los Angeles as an accessory dwelling unit. This would be our home in his parents’ backyard. Drafting and designing plans with an architect fully took up whatever free time we had. As we hit the spring of 2018, we had been married all of four months, and were excited to break ground in the summer.
A decision had to be made. After moving to LA, would I continue my full-time position and make the two-hour commute each way? And what about the writing?
This seems like a roundabout of a story. But here’s where the writing comes into play. I had been aching to write again, to feel that sense of urgency on the page, and this next chapter in my life seemed to be the perfect moment for me to make a big decision.
People say you don’t need to quit your day job to pursue your passions, and for a while that rang true for me. It did until it didn’t. I wanted the luxury of time, if only for a year, to spend my “full-time” energy on the writing. To just see what I could make of it, and then go back to the grind.
My grind? Teaching. For years, every waking moment was dedicated to my students and how I could be better for them. My writing needed that version of me.
It seemed crazy to just quit, to lose my medical benefits, to live off of savings. But then, along the way, there’s been a sign or two that perhaps it’s not so crazy.
I believe that your writing speaks to you. That even when you’re not working on it, it’s there, in the background, hovering. It goes where you go, your shadow of sorts, helps you see the light differently, hear the conversations of folks you didn’t know you needed to hear, and sometimes it’s silent until it’s ready to remind you of what you really need to do.
I know this to be true.
Three weeks before I was to give my employer notice, I attended a work event in the desert city of La Quinta. It’s only relevant to my narrative because of the last day. I wanted to treat myself to something nice, to have a small moment of luxury before we broke ground on our little mother-in-law abode, and so scheduled a pedicure at the resort salon in which I had been staying.
When I arrived, there were two other women also waiting, and we sat quietly in the lounge. That week, I had been thinking a lot about my future, and if I was really going to go through with quitting my job. As I sat reviewing the pros and cons, the nail technician, a petite woman with dark blonde hair pulled back in a bun, approached me. I’ll never know why or how I was lucky enough to have her work with me, it could have been any other person, but the ether determined that it was meant to be her.
“I’m Isis,” she smiled. We shook hands, and as we did, I just kept thinking about her name. Here is where the writing came through the ether and said hello. The muse coming to life. You see, the main character in my novel-in-progress, her name? It’s also Isis. I couldn’t get over this coincidence. It’s not a name you hear beyond CNN and Fox News.
And yet, I had found Isis, or she had found me. I first met my Isis in 2009. She was my third grade student, all of nine years old, spunky and lively, and the muse behind my novel, the protagonist I had been carrying with me ever since I met her. I never imagined I’d encounter another person with her name.
And yet, here we were. We talked about the origin of her name, why her father chose it, what it meant to her, and how since 9/11 no one likes to say it. How they shorten it to Is or Izzy. When I told her I was writing a novel about a young girl named Isis, her eyes lit up, and she was genuinely moved. “When you finish, you must send it to me. I would be so happy to read it, just to see my name.”
This moment between us was like the stars had aligned in that small desert community. Here I was, on the precipice of leaving my career and tenure, questioning my decisions, and there before me was the namesake of my project. It was like a slap in the face, but in the kindest way, telling me, yes – you need to do this. It was the writing speaking to me, assuring me of what I needed to do.
It’s three months later and I’ve quit my job, moved to LA, and live in my husband’s childhood home with his parents. Days are spent on site of our construction project, and to make extra cash, I work as an education consultant. The writing? It still hasn’t started. I have many excuses, and they’re all valid. But I know I need to push myself harder to make it happen.
I didn’t know it then, but a trip to the airport would be the push that I needed. It happens one early September morning at LAX. I’m leaving for a work trip to Kentucky, tired, and unaware that I’m about to encounter another muse of mine. On my lengthy search for something to eat, I find a small food court not far from my gate, and in that court have a moment of reckoning.
The food is unimportant, a breakfast burrito, but it’s where I sit that matters. I could have walked back to my gate with my suitcase and burrito, I could have sat at a random table across the room, or simply eaten standing. But for whatever reason, I situate myself at an empty countertop in the back corner of the food court. It’s attached to a restaurant not yet open, and I’m not yet aware of what it is, or anything beyond that nice spread of a counter, where for someone at LAX, seems like heaven.
I pick a stool and sit, and then move over a few more. I’m not sure why, there’s no real reason, no one in my way, I just intuitively move. I reach down to pull a water bottle out of my luggage, and that’s when I notice it – my muse, the image of a bird, from La Loteria deck of cards, painted on the wall beneath the countertop bar. I am firmly planted in front of El Pajaro.
La Loteria is a card game of chance that uses images on a deck of cards. Each image has a distinct name, and a number. And in LAX, it’s also the name of a restaurant. Here I am, sitting at the counter of La Loteria, the wall beneath lined in these beautifully iconic images. There’s El Gallo, La Sirena, La Luna, but only one is most important to me.
El Pajaro, the bird.
Years prior, my professor Merrill Feitell gave me the same card (I still have it) and told me to write a story about it. A few months later, that story appeared in The Superstition Review, (you can read it here) and so here we are.
My writing is again speaking to me, reminding me of the work I must complete, regardless of all the hopping around I’ve been doing, from city to city, job to job, from uprooting my life, to starting over – there is one item that needs to be at the forefront. The writing. All of it. Every story, every character, every draft that needs a revision, every note I had written down, those scenes of promise – they demand my attention and I owe them that much to give it. Isis and El Pajaro – they were the necessary reminders I needed to get it together, and finish what I set out to do all those years ago.
Have you ever had your writing come through the ether? Maybe you’re not as slow of a writer as I am, and don’t need that kick in the rear. But I do, I did, and I’m so thankful for it.
This past summer, the Review’s Student Editor-in-Chief Jackie Aguilar interviewed Laura Esther Wolfson, author of For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors, released this past June with University of Iowa Press.
There was no single inspiration for the entire book; each section had its own inspiration. I remember the triggering moments for only a few of them. I wrote the sections sporadically over the course of a decade and half, and one by one, they appeared in magazines. The title essay, written around 2013, was among the last to be written and individually published.
As those years of writing were passing, I did not conceive of the parts as a collection. Only very late, when almost all of them were written, did it occur to me that they belonged together.
It was difficult to write regularly while working full-time, caring for infirm, elderly parents, managing a degenerative illness of my own, and sharing a studio apartment with another person plus two cats, the latter, bellies bulging, stretched out across my keyboard or patting my pen with their chocolate point paws. It was difficult to pursue the essay form (or whatever it is that I write; readers, including reviewers, do not agree), given the ubiquity and primacy of the novel and unceasing reminders from gatekeepers that collections don’t sell. Finally, it was difficult to resist the seductions of social life and the Internet. I failed again and again, at all of these things.
I approach writing as a process, with little thought to outcome. It’s true that each section is about some sort of loss, and that I fashioned each loss into a written creation, so that the writing resulted in certain gains. Writing these pieces did make me into a better writer, and publication of the book did make me into an author, serendipitously providing me with a readymade new identity just as my health worsened to the point where I could no longer continue at my day job.
However—and what follows here is a catalogue of many of the topics the book covers—(the) writing and authorship did not save any marriages, remedy childlessness, restore health, or make up lost income. In fact, writing and publishing the book heightened my awareness of those lacks and losses.
None of this is a disappointment, though; I did not write in order to heal.
An awareness of the world as a large and multifarious place led me to languages, and languages then increased my awareness of the size and diversity of the world. Between my awareness of the world and my interest in literature, history and international affairs there exists a similar circularity.
We translators and interpreters often fret that our work is not ‘substantive,’ i.e., that our language expertise is in service to the thoughts, information and knowledge of others. However, deep and sustained language study and language work (as a translator, interpreter, transcriber or terminologist) lead inevitably to a grasp of whatever topic is taken up in the documents or meetings assigned (for example, international humanitarian law, nuclear physics, renewable energy, etc.), as well as a general familiarity with geography, geopolitics, history, international affairs, foreign cultures, language acquisition and immigrant adaptation, both linguistic and cultural. It is these latter topics especially that find their way into my work.
Knowledge of other languages gives me a varied palette, providing access to more—of everything: more worldviews, literatures, stories, current events, histories, jokes, folktales, proverbs, syntaxes, grammars, etymologies, words, and most of all, more meanings, and more meaning.
As a translator-turned-writer, I am of course obsessed with accuracy and style; le mot juste is crucial. For the translator, this means fidelity to the source document. For the writer, it means fidelity to the thing depicted, whether that is something that exists in the world outside the creator’s mind and soul, or within.
I’m now at work on a long autofiction about love, infidelity and chronic illness, with embedded nuggets of flash literary criticism and flash international affairs punditry. Super-Pricey Royal Blue French Lace Bra is the working title. The voice is recognizably mine, and it partakes of many of the same obsessions present in For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors. However, it is an entirely separate work.
This much is true: I haven’t been writing much lately. At least not creatively. Or with any kind of fervor or grace. I have been writing, though. I’ve been writing copy. Like that scruffy guy in Mad Men. The one who eventually cut off his nipple. Ginsburg. I’ve been writing ads and newsletters and product descriptions and stuff like that. Content for websites. It pays the bills and then some. It affords a life of minor plenty. But it does not inspire. It’s commerce, it’s not art. Though, sometimes, and only sometimes, I like to joke that it’s the other way around, and that it is in fact art, not commerce, as periodically an occasion presents me with the opportunity to splash a bit of that woebegotten grace around the page/screen. You’ve seen the work I did for that luxury hotel? In Chicago? So I’ve been writing but I haven’t been writing. I’ve been losing writing. Displacing water. Something-something.
In lieu of writing, I’ve been thinking of writing. I’ve been reminiscing. Pulling notes of old harmony from the sticky depths of my glial stew. It has given me that subtle kind of joy that’s so often associated with nostalgia for things gone by: years, cardigans, cross country trips with my brother.
To that end, I have been thinking of firsts. Not those kinds of firsts. These kinds of firsts. First story written; first story/essay published; first book (what book?); and so on. You’ve been there right? Not writing like you feel you ought to be. That self-generated guilt. Rafts of the stuff. Right. So here we go.
First Story: I started writing my first story outside of Orland, California. I was living at the Farm Sanctuary. I was living in a communal home and surrounded by hills and the smell of cows and ducks and pigs and the like. There were three donkeys and no horses. There was a herd of skittish sheep that ran through the hills like dirty laundry possessed of a poltergeist.
I was younger, then. Twenty-two, I think. I was a vegan, then. And strong. And kind of angry. But mainly happy. And careless.
There wasn’t much to do out there. The internet connection was spotty.
Out there, you could spend time with the staff who lived in the communal house and those who didn’t. You could walk the hills. You could run them. You could go into the forests if you could catch a ride or to the Black Butte Lake Reservoir on an old mountain bike. You could suck down beers and smoke a single cigarette while watching the sunset with a woman named Anne. Those are things I did.
Too, there was downtime and alone time. So I read and napped with a cat whose fur was a luminescent shade of gray that trended blue when hit with the sun. I read Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. Haruki Murakami. Toni Morrison. Yukio Mishima. Pearl Buck. Borges. Peter Singer. Whatever was leftover from staff that had come to live in the communal house before eventually leaving. I read magazines. Sometimes the cat would pee on my shirts. The staff who’d been there for awhile said it was because it liked me and didn’t want me to leave, though I, too, eventually would.
It was after I closed the back flap of One-Hundred Years of Solitude that it struck me: I should write a story/I will a story/Let’s write a story! And like in fairy tales of and the lore of writers new and old, the story came to me prepackaged and ready to use.
All I had to do was write it.
Which I did.
In between my chores and after dinner in the communal house. While I emptied feed troughs and mucked barns. It was about an old guy who was friends with a ficus tree. As it goes, the story was called: “Ficus Tree.” It was probably clichéd as all get. But I had to write it. Like a new tooth coming in and shoving aside the old. A tendril pressing through the hull of its seed.
There was a scene I remember liking, the man leaning against a pane of frosted glass in winter and the skin of ice evaporating around his profile as he sat and drank.
When I was through, I printed it out and shared it around with my housemates. It was momentous (for me, at least), as it laid bare the roadmap my life was looking for.
That story, though, is long gone. I’d saved it on a hard floppy but who knows where that ended up. Maybe my mom has a copy somewhere. Probably it is full of typos and tense errors and springs too tightly wound. I’d like to see it again, if possible. I’ll ask her if she held on to it. I wouldn’t blame her if she didn’t.
First Published Story: I was spinning my wheels and waiting to get into graduate school when my first story was submitted and accepted for publication.
I was living with my mom and stepdad in Carbondale, Illinois. It was a good time. I hadn’t a job yet had some money. I drank whiskey with my town friends. I ran fast around the lake situated on the campus of the local university.
The story? Well, it was accepted by the Paris Review!! It was such a shock. Like realizing, suddenly, I could levitate at will. I’m kidding. It was accepted by The Thieves Jargon, an online-only publication. You remember it? I feel like people liked appearing in that one. Like getting something accepted and published by elimae. Like elimae, The Thieves Jargon has gone the way of the ghost. Even its archives are extinct. Scraped from the face of the earth. Like river silt washed into and swallowed by the ocean.
The story was heavily (and I mean heavily) influenced by Rick Bass’s “Mississippi.” My story was called “Agnes is Gorgeous.” It was about a guy and a woman named Agnes. I don’t think the guy had a name. I think it was in written in the third person. Or maybe it was the first?
(I’d started working on it New Orleans, on the floor of my friend’s apartment, writing under the swirl of the ceiling fan and caressing the keys of my gigantic Dell Inspiron laptop.)
In the story, the couple were together, though I don’t remember what they did together or what drove the story. My sense memory tells me that they were nice enough to each other, that they were perhaps too dependent on each other, that they had a box fan in the window. Probably they drank iced tea and were familiar with each other more often than not.
Anything else, I don’t know.
What I do know is that when I received the acceptance email from the editors at Thieves, I damn well did levitate up the stairs from my mother’s basement and into the kitchen to tell her and my stepdad that I was to be a published author. It was the most incredible feeling I’d felt in a long while, as I’d already been loved by someone not my parents. It was validation that my work had some merit, however fleeting or thin. While Thieves was still up and running, I’d come to publish another tiny story or two in the magazine. Stories about deli workers wrapping steaks in thick white paper. Laborers. The times I knew when I was between schools and standing on ladders and swinging sledge hammers and breathing in crystalline silica dust and coughing it up at night after hours and hours of drinking.
First Published Essay: The one season of little league I participated in, I tried my best to emulate Will “The Thrill” Clark, first baseman (at least when I was a player) for the San Francisco Giants.
He wore number twenty-two.
His first homerun occurred during his first professional at bat, off of Nolan Ryan.
I admired him because, when in the box, he held his bat like a hobo held a bindle stick, slung carelessly behind the back, its end tipping toward the ground in a careless little wag and dance.
I was living in Wisconsin when The Thrill would come to feature in my first foray into essay.
I was working for the state, at the time.
I was most definitely hating life, at the time, and my own in particular.
I had a cubicle, then, and was checking my Twitter account and in the doing, saw that a literary magazine I followed had a call for writing having to do with baseball. That magazine was Hobart Pulp. I hadn’t any thoughts of sharing pieces of myself through writing or writing of baseball until the moment I saw that tweet. But when I did, I said to myself: Let’s write about little league and Will Clark and being a kid with a younger brother being raised, at that time, primarily by our mom, who was doing her best but who did not, when taking me to the Hibbett Sports Store at the Carbondale mall to buy an aluminum baseball bat and white leather (fresh!) batting gloves, did not buy me a protective cup (I already had a ball glove). And I, being in fifth grade, was too terrified and shy to ask for one, as doing so would implicitly/explicitly imply and foretell that I was growing up, so off I went into the fields and dugouts of the sporting complex with nothing but my reflexes and a polycotton fabric blend to protect me from the potential energy stored within a baseball.
As mentioned, I had a stupid job (it really was) in a stupid department in a stupid state and though I didn’t like to, I did my work and still had plenty plenty of time to sit there in my desk chair, idling with my two screens open, my official work stuff always up, my writing stuff off to the side, always ready, at first, to minimize the page, and always ready, later, to just keep it up.
So when the prompt hovered in front of me in my cubicle area, I pulled up a fresh Word Doc and started typing away about Will Clark and being from a broken home (ha), the only one among my friends with divorced friends.
I wrote about striking out all the time and Will Clark’s beautiful swing, as gorgeous a thing as Ken Griffey Jr’s, and how it was almost more gorgeous than KG’s because Will Clark looked more like a guy who’d just clambered down from a deer stand than an athlete who could loft balls out of the park as easy pressing a glass to the little piece that made ice fall from an automatic ice dispenser.
I wrote it sent it out and it was accepted and published, I think, in 2015, April, the usual month Hobart holds kicks off its baseball theme.
I guess it was a coming of age piece, in a way.
It was so much fun to write while sitting in that drab cubicle, in the sense that it provided a kind of sanctuary from the doldrums I was so often kicking around in those days.
It was a pleasure to think of Will Clark and how I saw his glove and cleats in Cooperstown, a place he’ll probably only ever visit as a guest. In the years since, I’ve had the pleasure of having a poem and short story accepted by Hobart and asides from my own personal sense of accomplishment, they’re just a damn fine journal whose staff work tirelessly to highlight excellent writers across the board.
We’re at the end now. This mosey down memory lane is the most writing I’ve done in awhile. It was fun. It felt good. It said to me, as I was writing, stop taking on so many freelance projects, guy. Your job is enough. Writing is more important than a few extra bucks. And it is. So I should. And maybe I will. If I know what’s good for me.
Spoiler alert: My new story collection Scoundrels Among Us isn’t going to win the National Book Award. It’s not even going to be nominated. It’s not going to take home the Pulitzer Prize or the Pen/Faulkner Award, either. None of those accolades will be mine.
But am I crying? Heck no! I’m not bitter because truthfully, the deck is stacked against me. I never had a shot in the first place. And I’m not alone, either. Thousands of terrific writers aren’t going to win these prizes – not because they’re bad or inferior to those nominees but because of the kind of books they write. Plain and simple, these writers are: Just. Too. Funny.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that what our culture deems Great Art is typically synonymous with Serious Art – subjects containing gravity, tragedy, emotional heft. The story must deal with dramatic circumstances, and with a straight face. War. Divorce. Poverty. Oppression. Think Grapes of Wrath and A Farewell to Arms. Think To the Lighthouse and Beloved. (All amazing books, by the way!)
To make the audience laugh, to spin yarns of absurdity, parody, satire, or – Heaven forbid – slapstick is akin to the artist not wrestling meaningfully with anxiety, trauma, sadness, anger, or pain. This is what our culture implies, anyway, through its judgement. Just look at the track record.
Peruse the winners of the big literary awards – National Book Award, Pulitzer, Pen/Faulkner – and you’ll find a few outliers (Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, John Kennedy Toole), but in general the majority of prize-winners tackle dramatic subjects using dramatic voice and tone. Sure, humorists like Twain and Vonnegut wiggle into the conversation of “serious” literature. But these are the rare exception. Over the past sixty years maybe a dozen comic novels or collections have taken the top prize – in all major awards combined.
The disparity is equally pronounced in film. According to filmsite.org the Best Picture Award has been given to a comedy just 14% of the time (and that’s only tracking data up until 2001; anecdotally, I can’t remember a full-on comedy winning in the past seventeen years). Sure, a few have been nominated, but not many; and the fact that they never win tells us a lot about how our culture ranks their importance.
(Let’s not even mention humorous songs. These get banished to the novelty graveyard faster than you can say, “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow.”)
So it’s apparent that our cultural critics poo-poo the value – the seriousness – of a good laugh. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising. Even philosophers have historically beaten up on comedy like a bunch of drunken footballers.
However, there might be hope. The tide may be turning. New research has discovered all sorts of evidence that comedy is no joke.
For starters, people who dig comedy are smarter. Plain and simple. Psychologists now say that understanding jokes is directly related to intelligence and social IQ.
Then there are the numerous health benefits of laughing: stress reduction, lowered blood pressure, improving your immune system, and even “stimulating your organs” (woah!).
And a couple of years ago, Writer’s Digest came out with a cool list of the storytelling benefits of comedy.
By the way, I’m not arguing that comic fiction is better or more valuable than dramatic. I’m saying down with these sorts of stratifications! There’s room in our lives for all kinds of art.
The truth is that humor is a powerful way of coping with, raising questions about, and addressing the grave, troubling, frightening issues. After all, “Suffering is the destiny of all of God’s creatures; but to laugh in the face of suffering . .. that is distinctly human.” Someone famous said that, didn’t they? Wait, I said it. It sounds kind of right to me, though. Anyone can suffer, but to bring joy out of suffering? To raise questions about inequality, war, life, pain, and death while also making us laugh? That’s special. But it’s not simply a matter of giggling at agony; it’s that laughter brings us together. It binds us.
There’s a feeling of connection in sharing a joke. Humor welcomes us into its world. Humor takes us by the hand and says, “You’re going to like it here.” Humor lets our guard down: not only the guard of the reader, but of the writer. Humor embraces cognitive dissonance and critical thinking, and perhaps most importantly, humor is democratic.
It’s the voice of the people. In a day and age where diversity is crucial; when more than ever we strive to become a multicultural society and finally live up to the promises of our American Dream, in which all people are created equal – in this day and age, embracing the concept of comedy as serious literature might be the key. Laughter is the song of humanity, the salve for our burns, the spigot for our grief that floods the parched soil of tragedy with life-giving water. (Exaggeration is another nice form of comedy.)
But don’t just take it from me. Take it from those philosophers, who eventually came to value the democratic power of laughter: “In comedy there are more characters and more kinds of characters, women are more prominent, and many protagonists come from lower classes. Everybody counts for one.”
My love for poetry began when I was eleven. A neighbor, an artist, gave me a book of poems. She must have seen my hunger and fed me. The book was archy and mehitabel by Don Marquis. Archy is a cockroach and Mehitabel is a cat in her ninth life. These two live in a journalist’s house, and when the journalist goes to work, Archy hops up on the typewriter and writes poetry. In a previous life, Archy was a free verse poet. He records his thoughts, feelings, and experiences, and Mehitabel offers him many stories from her treasure trove of nine incarnations. Mehitabel has an exuberance for living, (toujours gai), and so does Archy in his grouchy way, but he has a darker, more philosophical vision. He has to throw himself headfirst onto each key to operate the typewriter, and he can’t make capital letters because he doesn’t weigh enough to hold down the shift key. I was inspired. I read and re-read this book. It was surprising, funny, and took on every subject from the mundane to the celestial. The language was ordinary but also possessed its own original elegance. I loved the flow and construction of the lines down the page and was amazed at the lack of punctuation, how it wasn’t always necessary as I had been taught in school. Poetry was liberty. It was wild. I learned from Archy what I would learn again later from Leonard Cohen who wrote: Poetry comes from a place that no one commands and no one conquers.
I immediately wanted to write it. I remember the day I wrote my first poem, sitting in the living room listening to my parents and their friends talk. It was one of those social occasions where the kid sits there all dressed up and remains quiet. It was raining outside.
Bored, I went over to my mother and asked if I could get a pencil and a piece of paper. I came back into the living room and sat in my chair by the window. The poem I wrote was about the rain. I titled it, “The Rain.” It was fascinating to me, to take what was inside, feelings and thoughts, and connect them with the outside—the rain on the inside and the rain on the outside. I wrote the poem in quatrains—without knowing what a quatrain was—and at the end of every other stanza I repeated: “What’s a poor child to do?”
What can a child do in a world of adults that often seems false, trapped in convention? This was the 1960’s. I didn’t know how to articulate my growing concern about the world that was so troubling. I loved my parents, they loved me, but something was wrong. Many things were not being said, and I felt them. I wanted to be able to name how I was feeling and what I was witnessing, and to do it in an interesting way. I wanted a rhythm to it and some rhymes; I wanted to make pictures in words, with a connection from the inner to the outer landscape. I wouldn’t read Emily Dickinson’s poems until I was in college, but I had the desperate desire to tell my truth and tell it slant. This process would become my way of being in the world.
For years I wrote poetry without any instruction. My father told me he used to find little scraps of paper with writing on them on the floor of my bedroom. When I published my first book, he said he wished he had saved those scraps. That was a sweet idea, Dad, but I don’t think it would have made our fortune. Poetry is a continuous experiment beyond the realm of the marketplace. Alive and ever-changing, shape-shifting. Poetry is beyond anyone’s grasp or control. As a young woman, I adored that about it. So much of life looked like a trap for a woman. Poetry was a place where I couldn’t be hunted down. I wouldn’t let what was wild in me be domesticated out of existence, and every poem I wrote, from a scrap on the floor to a poem published in a literary journal, was an escape hatch.
And yet, poems show us to ourselves; they tell all the truths, the secrets we can barely tell ourselves, so poems are also the opposite of escape.
At first, poetry had nothing to do with schools or teachers, but then I spent many years studying it. One of my greatest experiences in a poetry workshop was a three day seminar led by Jack Gilbert. I filled two notebooks, writing down what he said. Here are a few lines:
Poetry is a living object.
Get stark, primal energy into the poem.
Good poetry is truly caused by something.
Real surrealism has to have truth in it.
Get away from writing cleverly and write from a deeper place.
One of the functions of poetry is to teach people feeling, to reawaken feeling.
I can never get to the end of learning my craft. It’s infinity on fire. And as a fellow poet said to me recently after I complained about my frustrations with my work and about the art in general, “Susan, it’s just a poem.”
What? I spent hours, days, weeks, months trying to get this poem to fly, and it’s just a poem? I thought he’d lost his mind.
But he’s right. And I could relax and start again, ever the novitiate.
When I write, I don’t throw myself headfirst onto my keypad like Archy. But I admire him for it, finding his own writing process and doing what he has to do:
are always interested in technical
details when the main question is
whether the stuff is
literature or not
expression is the need of my soul
i was once a vers libre bard
but i died and my soul went into the body of a cockroach
it has given me a new outlook upon life
i see things from the under side now
Poetry is the beauty and the burning. It’s silence to sound and seed to sunlight. A way of being intimate with all things, of praising them, a way to think and feel far into things. Poetry pinches us awake, sings to us in strange and familiar melodies. It belongs to everyone.
When I lived in Iowa, my boyfriend Wes and I would visit The Cheese Shop in Des Moines for our (well, really, my) cheese fix. The cheesemonger would give us menus, but we ignored them and scanned the blackboard above the cheese counter. Scrawled lists of charcuterie and pate covered the blackboard, but I looked for only one thing: the cheese board.
“I need something soft, something funky,” Wes said during one of our visits, scooping up the last piece of Bloomsdale, a soft goat cheese from Missouri, from the wooden board. He cut into the rind, pine ash turned navy blue and fuzzed white, aromatic as dirty socks. With a grin, he chewed the rind and walked to the cheesemonger sorting cheeses in the glass display case.
After bringing me thin slices of camembert and washed rind cheeses from Ireland that tested my patience for funkiness, he handed me a soft, pale orange square, “She said this cheese was even funkier than the last.”
“Really?” I asked, the thin slice of cheese warming on my open palm.
“She said it was some French cheese, episee—”
“Époisses,” the cheesemonger said from behind the case, accenting the last beat of the word as if puffing a dandelion from her mouth: ay-pwhass.
I nodded; I knew Époisses, looked for it in the local groceries in Ames. I never saw this quintessential French cheese in small town stores. I was embarrassed I hadn’t tried it before now, after years of professing my love of cheese to everyone I knew. In Cheese: A Connoisseur’s Guide to the World’s Best, Époisses is the so-called “King of Cheeses” and “pungent” is a “gross understatement of the aroma of a ripe Époisses.” I smelled what the author meant—waves of spoiled milk wafted up from the delicate, innocent-looking cheese.
Wes plucked the cheese in his mouth, and grimaced.
Curious, I placed the thin slice of cheese on my tongue.
“Pungent” definitely was an understatement. A humid funk suffused my mouth, erupted up my nose. Instead of swallowing the cheese quickly and chugging beer to cover the stink, I let it rest, blend. Époisses softened my tongue, like velvet against skin. I tasted straw, old hay, butter. I smelled manure on the barnyard after a steady rain, cows pissing on wet concrete.
And holding that moment, the harsh silk of cheese in my mouth, the uncomfortable, strange encounter coalesced in my mind. Years later, I still remember when something as small as a paper-thin piece of cheese connected me to the world and language.
Because it is not the moments of ease, the moments of familiarity, that we remember and feel the urge to grab our pens and write. It is in the uncomfortable moments, the strange encounters, when an unexpected object or animal or person disrupts the haze of our days, that we write into and out of.
Right now, you may think, “Well, duh. Every good story has conflict.” But who wants every moment of their day as a series of jagged peaks to climb? Who wants to live in the frantic mess of conflict every waking moment, even those who relish it?
But who also wants the monotone drag of every day as the same pattern, driving the same roads, seeing the same people, sitting in the dark after work to watch the same TV shows you watched the night before?
Lately, my life is more routine, the same schedule of teaching and tutoring, which I know many writers who also teach or work multiple jobs feel the same sense of redundancy and financial anxiety (not an uncomfortable situation I want to promote here). Which is why I thought back to that moment in the tiny cheese shop in Des Moines, remember forcing myself to explore strangeness. Between the uncomfortable and comfortable, a balance formed, like curds bouncing and melding in a pot of golden whey. Or like straight lines of verse and the frenetic energy of vowels and consonants fizzling along the lines.
So, this is a reminder, for those who need it: be uncomfortable. Find an uncomfortable moment each day, and linger. The moment can be small, like sticking a piece of stinky cheese in your mouth. The moment also needs physicality: dogs barking, baby poop, sore feet after a hike on an ice-covered trail you were ridiculously underprepared for and resulted in a teary and snotty tantrum in front of strangers and your boyfriend…but that’s not an uncomfortable moment I’ll dive into just yet.
Most importantly, the moment needs a record, a written reminder to return to. Even years later, they’ll spring into lines, dialogue, character, story.
Of course, practice this without endangering your life too much. A twinge of embarrassment in front of strangers, however, is expected.