At a lecture by the poet, Jack Gilbert, years ago, he said that an editor had once advised him that perhaps his poems had big endings too often. I’m intrigued by that criticism. “The Great Fires” is a masterful book of poetry. I carried it in my backpack for years, and read some of those poems thousands of times. They fold back on themselves, the endings transfiguring everything that has come before. The narratives are mundane, philosophical, informed with the marvel of dailiness. They are meditations on grief, and meditations on love, and strangely, those two experiences are interwoven so that you cannot see the difference between them, which has always felt right to me.
I enjoy the anti-climax. Patrick O’Brian, I think, did this better than anyone. The big naval battle took place some 100 pages before the end of the book. The story of the men, the struggle to command, the terror and bliss that is seafaring, these were the stories of his books, and the wild fights and adventure happened along the way. He wrote in the anti-climax: all the life that is built around the pivotal orgasm—the necessary reveal—the climax.
Are these two things connected? The big ending, and the anti-climax? Gilbert layers his poems, so that you feel like you are climbing upward as you read them—scrambling a scaffold. Gilbert and O’Brian both narrate in the anti-climax, the human struggle to build and thrive. It’s a scale, is all. Heroism, yes, myth and allegory. The epic rages around us as we carry on with the business of living.
More than a decade ago, my grandfather told me that no one was going to pay me to sit around and write poetry, and he hoped that I had a contingency plan. I didn’t actually believe him. Why couldn’t I make a living writing poetry? Why couldn’t I cross the country, eating diner apple pie, discussing the Black Mountain poets, exploring the revolution of imagist language?
I still dream about living in a cabin in Maine, spending my days gathering firewood, and lyrics. Taking hikes through some forgotten forest—without fences, or “No Trespassers” signs. These days I’m more practical. Now I write fiction.
Here’s a poem from grad school. Last night, I woke myself laughing, and this poem was at the forefront of my mind:
Your head is a pitcher tipped and tumbling.
A jeweler’s scale, garnet-heavy,
spill-slanted. A teeter totter
on its unsteady descent. Hovered above your face
like a prop plane, she’s drowning
tissues, the woven blue
of your sweater, her sleeves. At the ceiling
the fan shudders. Shatter, you think,
she’ll shatter. Her staccato breathing. The brown
of your hair confused in her fingers. Your jawline
inventoried–this silver-hooped earlobe, that bike wreck
scar above your eyebrow. She wants to keep
this: hold you together. She is all palm, draped
over you, a collapsing tent in a sand storm.
Without hinge or pivot, her nipple so near
nursing, she’s a cradle. A determined rocking
horse. Her stance strict as a construction crane,
she’s a joist: her wound is yours.
If you had to define your childhood by three things, what would they be? On my hike this morning with the dogs, I thought one would have to be my haircut. It has always informed my world in specific, and powerful ways. But, I just can’t play through on that one.
My red dirt bike, my black dog, and the woods.
The first two are, no doubt, self evident, but the third is the one with sweep. I think of childhood as tree forts, and hikes to the creek and the orange clay pools. I remember searching for turtles and frogs, dodging rattlesnakes, watching an owl pull a mouse apart. I remember the wildness of our adventures, a stone’s throw from the cul-de-sac of Gridley Loop. The trail that roped into the cottonwoods, the fishing holes, the echoes of our voices at the canyon.
I remember the exhilaration of experience. The iron taste of blood in my lungs when we’d sprint through the leaves. Skinned knees as we scrambled up the rocks. The light somehow hallowed.
For me, voice comes first. I see an incident—a girl dangling from an airplane, laughing—and I wonder, what’s that about? What’s going on there? I have to know more about that. For this second novel, I opened the door to a woman covered in blood, and I heard the question: “What have you done?” And that’s how it is. A voice, and the story comes from the voice. The voice tells the story. I have to figure out what the story is as I go along.
Plenty of writers don’t work like this. They plot, they draft, they outline. Me, I have a notion about the anti-climax, and I have a voice. Tone comes late in the process. My characters get funnier in second and third drafts. The humor initially is stark and incidental.
I’ve been stalling about the re-write. Not because it’s difficult, exactly, but because I have to do something cruel to someone I love. I have to clarify my intentions toward my characters and their stories. Intentionality, like tone, comes late to the work for me. It’s there in my head, and one of the last things I make clear to the reader. I write in concise visuals. I don’t spend much time explicating anything.
It makes sense, of course, that tone and intentionality, when they come, often come together. Attitude and intention inform one another in my process.
So I’m going back through brightening scenes, because nothing breaks your heart like love.
My application packet is assembled and ready for delivery. I just had to say I was paralyzed with fear for the fear to vanish. I am free. Practically.
I was watching the Matrix Reloaded (the second one) yesterday when I was supposed to be writing my cover letter, and I felt very zen witnessing the sci-fi kung fu cgi mayhem. It’s a pleasure not to be virtual.
Where does passion live? It’s an endorphin, isn’t it? A rush to the brain, a blast of euphoria. Dustin Hoffman pounding on the sanctuary window. Juliet clutching a dagger. Mr. Darcy writing a letter.
I’ve been thinking about Anne Elliot urging the reading of prose to regulate the temperament. But I like the idea of living too much poetry. Getting lyrical. Oded.
I am freaking myself out. When I was in elementary school, I decided to be a teacher—to teach History. That was the plan all the way into college, when I discovered that English Literature was significantly more compelling. My junior year I took this fiction/poetry team-teaching class. We had a fiction writer for the first half—a rugged guy who loved Hemingway, and for the poetry half—an earnest guy who wrote long, lush narratives. Literature stood on its head. I remember that. I remember sitting in class thinking: I can do more than analyze; I can create. And everything else fell away.
I’d written stories and poems and articles from the time I was a child, but something about that class legitimized what I’d been doing. Made it feel less a hobby, and more a profession. I still finished with a B.A. in English, but I took more writing courses, and decided to get an M.F.A.
The goal, naturally, was still to teach, but now I’d teach English and Creative Writing courses. My first year of graduate school, I taught English to advanced-placement seniors at North Central High School, and Composition to inmates at Airway Heights Correctional Facility. It was amazing. I had a buzz from it. The thrill of interacting with students, of being on the other side of language, of getting to be excited about the possibilities of diction and images and vehicle and syntax with groups of people who were suspicious of words and hated writing.
But I realized something else too. I’d never have a life if I taught. I’d be consumed with the passion of it. I’d pour everything into it, and be empty myself. I knew I’d never write if I taught.
When I graduated, I took a job as a technical writer. Later, I worked in an independent bookstore—closer to the life of an artist—impoverished and meaningful. By this time, I had a child and a book, and understood that passion requires balance, and that balance can be learned. I didn’t have to burn out like a flare. And this desire to teach climbed through me again.
I’m supposed to be working on my Curriculum Vitae for a teaching position at one of the local colleges, but I can’t make myself do it. I have the requisite documentation and my resume, and my desire, but I cannot get my confidence to cooperate. Why is this? Because I want it so badly, and the wanting has been sustaining me? Maybe. I don’t think there’s one clear answer here. But I do think that I’m pregnant with possibility, and there is power in pregnancy. Labor is inevitable, but can be forestalled, for a time.Read More
The thing about art is that it has to be manic. The crest and trough heaving is necessary to be able to experience and capture and elucidate the joy and folly of living. When you find yourself surrounded by nurturing, intelligent women with educated opinions and firebrand ideals, you start to think you’ve only ever half-lived. And you’re right.
So, P-Town was fantastic. Two readings, four signings, a wine & cheese mingle, a panel, and an improvised speech about how “The Price of Salt” — which I haven’t yet read — deserved to be voted the number one lesbian book of the previous century. I came in third to “Oranges Aren’t the Only Fruit” and the winner, “Curious Wine.” More importantly, we had a fucking blast, and an opportunity to discuss the struggle to publish worthwhile books in this country, and why it’s more important than ever to pursue meaning, particularly as meaning is frequently in direct opposition to commerce.
The thing that got me, possibly more than anything else, was the writer Ruth Perkinson, and her efforts to make contacts with writers from other presses (in addition to bringing reinforcements to my second reading since I would be reading alone, and she wanted to insure I felt encouraged). Writers are solitary creatures for the most part, introverted and reluctant. When one of them draws us together, I find that wildly moving.
I’m to have my rewrite of my manuscript in to my editor by November 15th. I’m reinvigorated, and blissful. I’m on the crest, a wave that unfurls in a roaring rush, and promises never to break.
In graduate school, a woman I was in love with gave me a copy of Jeanette Winterson’s “The Passion” and promised it would change me. And it did. It was an uncomfortable read. Mad and operatic. Typical of Winterson in its tone and mode, as I would learn afterward, but startling in that first read. I remember having to remind myself to breathe. And the scene where the web-footed woman takes her gondola to the house of her married lover in order for her poor insane friend to steal back her still-beating heart is, even now, the way I conceptualize breakups. Messy, furtive, dreamy, improbable.
Winterson made it clear to me that modern literary fiction can play against all expectation by using myth and allegory as they were used when we were children. By scaring us. By telling stories about unsympathetic people doing unsympathetic things. By leaping through time and consciousness in a single paragraph. By changing stories midway through a book and just expecting the reader to catch up. To trust you.
Winterson made me feel more alive in the world.
And for ages—in some ways, even now—she was my only exposure to the classics of the lesbian canon. I’m still self conscious about missing Lesbian 101 where I should have read books like “The Price of Salt” or “Curious Wine” or “Beyond the Pale” or “Sea of Light.” Until this trip to PTown, I’d never even heard of three of these titles.
By the time I came out with the requisite bravery, I was reading Sarah Waters and Ali Smith and Val McDermid and wondering why all these fantastic books were from U.K. writers, and what that meant.
Sometimes I still feel like a tourist. Trying to orientate my map, enjoying the local dialect, the scenery and shopping, the variety of companionship in this place where I live.
Editors. I love a good editor. They see story and character, structure and theme like pieces on a chess board. Yeah, the knight is stuck behind the castle, and you need to move him over here to support the queen. And just like that, something clarifies in your mind. Some niggling doubt, always there, has been given voice by an objective, seasoned vocalist, and you get it. You’re just nodding, of course, of course, and you can see the three moves around it—knight to queen, rook takes rook, queen takes knight, and the game is transformed.
Mostly you write in isolation. Wandering around with these voices in your head, trying to get them out in as complete a way as possible. With some authenticity. Some uniqueness. Partly it’s an effort to be free of them, and partly it’s an effort to set them free of you. Characters are not an extension of the writer, but another thing altogether. A complete world, explored and independent.
But when you have gone through your isolationism, when you have set them off with the best of your skills, you need that perspective, that objectivity, that insight from someone who understands the picture and can see the spots that need a bit more color, another brush stroke, a darkening.
And if they ply you with liquor, and chat about the narrative, a piece shifted here, an attack opened there, then so much the better. New eyes. Your brain alight. A marshalling of all your forces.
First person is a tricky thing sometimes. It makes the story more immediate and direct, more story-like. But, depending on the character, the reader may begin to see the narrator and the writer as the same creature. Confessional poetry lends itself to this blur. Sylvia Plath is the classic confessional writer. Her own experience, her own voice, herself as protagonist. But it’s really not that clear, is it? Or, at least, it’s not that clear indefinitely. But experimentation with this method is fascinating. How vulnerable is the I, of first person? How much harder to read an intimate revelation that is not hearsay, not distilled into the distance of she?
Or, for another vantage, what about Joan Didion: her essays, and her beautiful memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking.” She is the dispassionate, logical observer. The journalist of her own life. And what is most troubling about “The Year of Magical Thinking” is her acknowledgment of her own coldness, while she struggles with her personal, specific, crushing grief. The I as foil.
Consider Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” Tim O’Brien is the name of the book’s protagonist, and the character shares some of the writer, Tim O’Brien’s experiences, but they are not interchangeable. The writer and the subject have a veil between them. The factual incidents, and the fictional incidents are not synonymous.
Some part of me is never the I, even as some part of me always is.
And this question of identity is bound with another question: how much of this story is true?
Well, how much do you believe? And, isn’t truth more than what happened? To represent the experience, we need the flexibility of first person—the evolving representation of storyteller. The mask of I.Read More