Back toward the Light

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Toward the end of the film, Fried Green Tomatoes, when the main character, who has been going through a mid-life crisis, suddenly starts to settle into a new, saner rhythm, her husband asks, “What changed?” She answers, “The light?”

While that’s not exactly true, I understand the thinking behind the line. Although in the modern first world we can control the light at any time of night or day, natural light still has a lot of power over us. Winter Solstice, two weeks ago, marked the start of increasing light every day, and on days when rain or snow haven’t messed with natural sundown, I have been feeling more hopeful and creative.

I want to dig into my novel again. It occurred to me that, although traditional conflict means making every possible situation and interaction get worse for your main character, the opposite might be just as stressful for some people. Dealing with a rash of unexpected good luck might lead to decisions that could be just as problematic as decisions stemming from bad luck.

The fact that my life has been in small ways imitating art these days surely has absolutely no possible bearing on this experimental idea.

The Pointlessness of Writing Nonfiction

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“A word is a bud attempting to become a twig. How can one not dream while writing? It is the pen which dreams. The blank page gives the right to dream.”            ― Gaston Bachelard

A week or so ago, I outlined a possibly essay, but I don’t know whether or not I actually need to write it. My usual outlines for nonfiction/personal/narrative essays consist of a list of topics and subtopics. The essay that comes out of an outline like that is exploratory in nature. The topics allow me to “try out” fitting ideas together and see if any of them fit my lived experience. When Michel de Montaigne invented the form we now call “essays” in English, he named it after the French verb “essayer”: to try. At its heart, I think that the personal essay should be a case of trial and error and discovery. If it is not, it is a different beast altogether.

It is, in fact, an expository essay, that bane of high school and college student existence, that thesis statement supported by subclaims and evidence and all that malarkey. I teach this every semester, so I am painfully familiar with the genre. It has great worth, particularly for political and social argumentation. I just find it a little boring to write.

The outline I wrote was of the second kind, more a list of premises and hypotheses: if this leads to this, then that leads to that. But here is the question: If I already know what the essay is probably going to argue, is there any point in writing it? What will I learn from turning sentences into paragraphs? It doesn’t seem to be a particularly publishable set of ideas, so if I won’t learn from it or be able to get a publishing credit for it, it feels like I should probably spend my time doing something else.

 

NaNoWriMo: Nation over Novel

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So yesterday I was struggling to write a blogpost about how we need to vote to avoid turning this country into an English-speaking version of 1930s Italy or Germany, how if we fail our country now, we are both figuratively and literally screwed, all our buried racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia, all our buried shit will come up from where it has been buried for so long and will be turned into public policy.

I am a student of history. I know how that sort of thing turns out.

And I was trying to write this, I found it easier to write about writing, something neutral and safe. But I am a writer and I cannot stay neutral and safe. Yesterday on Facebook, I put out a post saying this:

“Well, even if Wednesday does not begin with a hail of jackboots, we have our work cut out for us trying to unfuck this country from its toxic political discourse and the reality of recharged institutional oppressions. Where do we even begin?”

And while many of my friends focused on my (apparently) original use of the verb “unfuck,” my old friend Jack Reynolds wrote the following:

“Where to begin? Create things of beauty; art, music, poetry, food. Step out of comfort zones with small acts of kindness, not random unplanned ones but something to do everyday. Smile. Tell a joke. Give compliments. Break bread (gluten free if needed) with others and find out what makes them tick. As Dan Berrigan once said “Lets tell the truth to each other and see what happens.” Make community. Don’t search for it, make it or it’ll never happen. Smile. Take quiet time and not take ourselves too serious. Take others seriously. Be grateful for any and all things that are beautiful and unearned and are gifts. I heard a sailor say that you can’t control the wind but you can control the sail.”

He is wise.

So I thought I would write a poem to give us hope, because I seriously believe that this is a huge part of what art is for. So this is my offering to you and to God and whatever other gods might be out there: for sanity and liberty and the hope that this country stands for.

Election Eve, November 7, 2016

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live…” Deuteronomy 30:19-20

 

The moon is half-and-half tonight, like

A mitzpah coin holding out its promise:

That this is not some space-opera dystopia,

Where the creepy demagogue wanna-be

Is going to shoot down the moon, leave

All our tides raging out of control, our seas

Washing their bloody waves, troughing through

Our silent, ravaged, grey cities. No. Never.

 

The moon will remain to govern all our tides,

Those of water, those of blood: like clockwork.

The shining silver half-coin will grow to full,

Showing that we shall be together, not long hence,

With what this country was always meant to be:

The melted alloy of many elements, the gift given,

The promise kept: that we are stronger together,

And together we can heal all the broken pieces.

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Why the Change is Going to Work

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So I woke up this morning realizing why the change to my novel is probably going to work. I had written about one hundred pages in this other point of view, and I like most of it. But then I hit several events that I just didn’t know how to tackle. This morning I realize that that was because they probably need to be written in this other (previously minor) character’s point of view.

This is something I have noticed before, that if you don’t have the right narrator, you can’t really write the scene. People always say that you just write what happens, don’t you? But this goes beyond the Rashomon effect, where how people see the same events makes them interpret (and therefore narrate) them very differently. It’s more like that thing that says the presence of experimenters watching an experiment changes the experiment. As Terry Pratchett would say, It’s quantum.

If I don’t know who is looking at a car crash, I can’t tell you how the car crash happens. It makes no sense, but it’s true. So this might be time to pat myself on the head and find a writer’s mug that says “Damn, I’m good!” or, at the very least, “I’m smarter than I look.”

It must be true. I’ve written 7800 words in three days.

Bat Dance

Some thoughts on experimental poetry.

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Sometimes you want to dress up–top hat,

White tie and tails, a foreign medal, a cape.

The dance would be just as impressive,

A waltz, perhaps, certainly not something

With Cossacks. At least one would think

This would be the dance of formal bats,

Emotive, aristocratic and imperial.

 

One would be wrong. These are bats

Used to hanging upside down, letting blood

Rush to their heads when they are not

Bloodletting right side up. They are wild,

Jazz-inspired, impressionistic, and although

You expected the reverse, they are–in the best

Possible way–way out of your league.

San San, Revisited

Okay, so I am trying the form from yesterday for myself. I think that it is fair to say that I won’t be doing too many of these anytime soon. It’s a lovely little form, but it is hard to say anything much in eight lines with such a strict rhyme scheme and the need to repeat the image three times–I think I only managed two. Still it’s always worth trying new things.

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It is the essence of the candle to provide light:

Gently calling, out of the shadows, structure,

The table you step around, the chair you sit

In. So the candle, even though it is not bright,

Protects you, enables you not to injure

Yourself, bumble around in the darkness,

Walk right into the table or even hit

The chair. This is how humble candles bless.

Cascading Home

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I learned about this form of poetry, the Cascade, from Kat Myrman. With a three-line stanza, and capital letters representing repeated lines, the form is ABC deA fgB hiC. (I have also seen this done where the repeating line is the first line of the following stanzas rather than the last, now that I think of it.) Naturally, I chose a seven-line stanza because I am a bloody showoff. Don’t go there, people, or at least not without stretching out first.

 

Home is the place where you write your name

In the dust and it remains your name,

Your dust, your cat’s pawprints telling the tale

Of small peregrinations, domestic pilgrimages.

All the books are yours. You have read them all.

You make your way from room to room in the dark

And as day recedes, your bed embraces you.

 

In other places, you wander, a stranger

Unremarked and nameless, a cipher

To those you pass by, who do not think

To wonder about your loves and dislikes.

They have their own shopping lists of worries.

Out in the world, you are ever nameless.

Home is the place where you write your name.

 

The geography of naming is such that

Your name points the way back to your birth

Or rebirth. Tell me who you are and I will

Point you toward the river whose water runs

Through your veins, calling itself blood.

Drop your name down a well or toss it

In the dust and it remains your name.

 

The story of your life would require volumes

Or a skilled raconteur with a very long string

Tied end to end and woven into itself,

A cat’s cradle of intention, obstacle, outcome,

And the serendipities that every life engenders.

Come to the window. Trace out your tale in

Your dust, your cat’s pawprints telling the tale,

 

Which would include a heroic company of friends,

Sister travelers, the wise one, the warriors,

A ring to find, a cup to destroy, some evil

To overcome, and now and then a resting place

Like this homely place, a place to pause between

The small battles and the long weariness

Of small peregrinations, domestic pilgrimages.

 

Returning home to your bed, your armchair,

Your cat sleeping on all the notes you took

On your travels, you settle in almost as if

You had never left. But now you see it

Anew: You have chosen every picture that hangs

On the walls. You have sat in every chair.

All the books are yours. You have read them all.

 

All of it is as familiar as your own hands:

Small and compact peasant hands that belie

The spectacles and teeming brain, the sword

Hanging over the fireplace. You can lay your hand

On any book you want at a moment’s notice,

Predict the pattern of new spring leaves in the window.

You make your way from room to room in the dark.

 

At dawn, both sun and cat pat your face,

Clamoring for your attention. As the sun passes

Overhead, the light turns this way and that,

Caressing doors and bookcases, chairs and the cat

Who stretches out in the bright patch of carpet.

In the afternoon, he ambles over to welcome you back.

And as day recedes, your bed embraces you.

 

Art by Laura Wilder.