Narratives for Survival #1

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So I found this meme on Facebook the other day, not long after Umberto Eco’s death, and I thought that it might just kick my writer’s block in the pants. “To survive, you must tell stories.” I tend to look at this blog as a “platform” for my books of poetry that I am going to be publishing in the next few years, a way to “build an audience,” and I imagine that many of my readers who are also bloggers feel a similar way.

But I often get dragged off course, usually by popular culture narratives with kickass women characters who lead, make choices and decisions, fight, kill, deal with the trauma, and work to balance the things and people they love with the things and people they have to deal with in often less than loving ways. These are the narratives I am magnetically drawn to.

Clearly, they are not the only important narratives. I have a shelf of books on World War II and the Holocaust because memory and testimony are crucial types of narratives for survival. I don’t write about these much because I don’t have firsthand knowledge, but I am going to be giving my writing students a speech by Elie Wiesel to read because they might take his thoughts on “The Perils of Indifference” better than they would take such thoughts from me.

There are also meta-stories: stories about how stories affected you, as we often hear when we start talking about representation in popular culture narratives. So Whoopi Goldberg has often talked about the galvanizing affect seeing Nichelle Nichols playing Lt. Uhura on Star Trek had on her when she was a little girl, suddenly realizing that a black woman could be a leader rather than just a servant. So clearly it is just as important to consider how we tell the stories we tell.

But there are other narratives too, the stories we tell ourselves when we are too tired to do the laundry or too hopeless to fall asleep at three in the morning, or too optimistic to consider consequences or too busy to separate the recycling. Sometimes they serve us well, reminding us to save our energy for the big things or to hold on to the small things until we have the resources to work for the bigger things. And sometimes they just get in the way. So maybe it is not only about what stories we tell and how we tell them, but also how we use them and how they serve us and others or do not.

Maybe I Need an Art Buddy. Maybe I Just Need Backup.

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Well, here I am back in the Writer’s Block, which kind of sounds like something you would find in a Communist prison. Yes, they really used to confiscate writers’ typewriters in the USSR and Poland. It was cost-effective. You don’t need to feed typewriters and they don’t bleed when you beat them up.

Here in the more or less democratic US of A, where we have Freedom of Font and also a whole lot more options for putting our ideas down and spreading them around, the problem tends not to be so much Tyranny that is rearing its ugly head as it is Woeful Lack of Imagination.

Part of this, I suspect, is because a blog is not exactly a Project in the same sense that a novel or, for want of a better example, a few hundred pages of poetry about a 1990s TV show are. There isn’t the compulsive pull of a few well-chosen characters whose voices need to be explored. There isn’t the narrative tension of a plot to resolve or of subplots to weave in artfully. On the flipside, there are more opportunities to use pictures of cats to make my points.

Sometimes, when procrastination takes the form of Radically Empty Brain Syndrome (REBS), I stare at the wall, vainly hoping for something to show up. But remember that “radical” comes from the Latin, radix, meaning “root.” If there is nothing at the root of the brain, there won’t be much to grow out of it. So maybe the solution is to find another brain to work with.

If I were an Igor in a Terry Pratchett Discworld novel, I suppose I would mean that literally: find a brain, go up to the top of a tall MIT building and wait for lightning to strike. Then do an evil maniacal laugh, etc. Problem solved.

Tempting…

Failing that, I suppose I need to find another brain the less old-fashioned way, by actually finding a writing buddy, a collaborator, or possibly some badass with a big gun or maybe a Frisbee. Some writing buddies each write their own work separately and then read each other’s work. This is different from collaborators who work on the same project. Personally, I was thinking more along the lines of someone to come to my rescue with a whole lotta firepower, or possibly an Iron Frisbee of Doom.

Then maybe I’ll get writing again.

Constructive Procrastination

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Recently one of my Gentle Readers commented on my post about writer’s block. She says, “When I procrastinate I don’t write. … When I am unsure what to write, I might troll the Internet (procrastinate), which always puts me onto tangents and then an hour or more will go by and BOOM! I haven’t written a thing. So for me procrastination causes a block.”

I would argue that procrastination doesn’t cause the block any more than a stuffy nose causes a cold. We procrastinate because we need something and the style of procrastination can tell you something about what it is you need to get in a more effective way so that you stop procrastinating and start writing. I would also argue that Procrastination Isn’t Bad any more than water is bad, even though water—hot, cold or in between—can kill you. And yes, you can quote me.

The Internet is an interesting place, full of information, pictures and people. When we look for information on the internet because we don’t know what to write, it is possible that we haven’t narrowed down the “what” yet. I should have asked our friend what kind of writing she does, but I know for myself the rabbit’s hole of story leading to story ad infinitum the Internet can be. This is one case where a kitchen timer is your friend. Actually, when it comes to procrastinating constructively, a kitchen timer is almost always your friend. Do the procrastination behavior for a predetermined amount of time, say twenty minutes (as Francesco Cirillo, the developer of the Pomodoro Technique* would say). Then do some writing, also for a predetermined amount of time. Alternate back and forth between writing and one or more other activities. Over the course of an afternoon, you can get a lot done.

The Internets pictures (and videos) and people also are temptations for writers in particular. If I am bored with my writing topic, watching a cat video or reading a web comic might wake my brain back up. Facebook in particular is helpful for writers because, let’s face it, writing is lonely. So give yourself the opportunity to “socialize” in the virtual environment of your choice for, you guessed it, a predetermined amount of time. Then get back to work.

Our friend also says, “It’s like walking the dog or playing with the cats (‘for their sake,’ but I’m really procrastinating), and again nothing gets done, except some exercise for me and the pets.” Hey, don’t knock the exercise for you and them. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, oxygenated blood flow, which has got to improve the thinking. And socializing with your animal companions also helps allay the lonelies.

“With a real writer’s block, not caused by procrastinating—“

But again, I would argue that procrastinating is a self-defensive technique that we use in an attempt to fulfill needs that the writing can’t fulfill…

“—if a deadline looms or just blocked, I put my but in a chair and push through because it (deadline) must get done. When there is no deadline looming and I’m blocked, I do the time-tested technique of just writing for five minutes without lifting the pen (yes, on paper) and no censoring my thoughts. Sometimes it will show me what the problem is; other times it gives me ideas. Once in a while, I get both, which is wonderful, but rare.”

Free-writing! Woohoo! I have only met one person in twenty years of teaching who could not write for several minutes (I usually go for ten or twenty), and he was seriously ADHD. Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones (a book that I imagine has saved lives) relies heavily on timed free-writing to get stuff Out of Head and Onto Paper (or, for those of you young whippersnappers, on your screen). Don’t judge; just write. Eventually your brain gives up and gives you what you are asking it for. And the more you do it, generally, the easier/quicker the process goes.

Lastly, our friend says, “Sometimes I think my problem is thinking too much.”

Heaven forbid, girlfriend! Thinking? Too Much? How is that even a thing? We’re WRITERS fer cryin’ out loud. Thinking is what we DO. Day and night. Personally, I think about writing 24/7. Yes, my dreams are very strange.

Grr. Arrgh. More Writer’s Block

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, when the wizard Saruman, wears robes “woven of all colors” because he has fallen from the path of the wise, Gandalf (the Grey) says, “I liked white better.” This is Saruman’s reply:

“White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”

Now here’s the thing for me a writer. Saruman is clearly evil here, because he is saying the white page can be overwritten like it’s a bad thing.

For me as a writer, constantly trying to produce, this is definitely not a bad thing. So this past week struggling to come up with blog posts, I have tried a variety of things, but today I actually just broke down and turned to Google Images to find pictures to express how I feel: tired, afraid, studious, interrupted. Clearly Person of Interest (and a little bit of Angel) are helping me out here.

 

Then I went and found pictures about how I want to feel: badass.

 

Well, it must have worked, because what we have here, children, is a blog post.

Yelling “Theater!” in a Crowded Fire

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Writer’s block is a thing like when you sit down on the train and realize that you have just stepped (in your brand new shoes) into the sticky residue of someone’s spilled soda. And you think, well, heat melts sugar, right? So if only the curtains of my imagination were on fire, I could pull myself out of this urban transit tarpit and actually create something.

Closet Shopping for the Blocked Writer

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It is easy to get into a rut, whether it comes to writing, cooking, or even wearing clothes. I do this all the time. Since I teach writing, I tend to say the same things over and over again, every semester. Since I functionally live alone, I eat the same things over and over, especially if they are easy, like baked chicken or spaghetti. And, in part because I went to Catholic school for eleven years, where I wore a uniform every day, I tend to fall into patterns of clothing.

Lately it was pointed out to me that, although nobody really cares what I say about writing or what I eat, what I wear will change people’s opinions of me, so I need to be much more intentional about it. One of the ways I have tried this is throwing out worn-out clothing even if it does have a few more months wear left in it and another way is what a friend calls “closet shopping”: digging around in the deep, dark recesses of my closet for things I haven’t worn in years. I’ve also dug around in my jewelry drawer so that I am not simply wearing the same necklace and earrings every single day.

I will say I feel better by doing this. And it made me wonder how it might work to help the rut I am in with my writing. Are there themes I used to write about more that I can revisit? Should I dig out one of my books of Hiroshige or Hokusai woodblock prints and find a new one to poetize about? Should I pick six words off my refrigerator and whack out a sestina?

And since I can’t figure out how to end this post, I will do what songs in the 1980s always did, when they kept repeating the refrain but turning the sound further and further down… I was going to do this by making the font progressively smaller, but wordpress won’t let me. Sigh.

Guy Fawkes Day

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Okay, yeah, yeah. I have Been Remiss Of Late in writing this blog, and although I can point out that sewing SHIELD patches on my sleeves for my Halloween costume and grading papers did keep me busy, the fact is I also simply had no ideas for what to write.

And thanks to Paddington Bear, I know about Guy Fawkes Day, which was yesterday, so:

Remember, remember!
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
Guy Fawkes and his companions
Did the scheme contrive,
To blow the King and Parliament
All up alive.
Threescore barrels, laid below,
To prove old England’s overthrow.
But, by God’s providence, him they catch,
With a dark lantern, lighting a match!

The Weirdness of Precipitation. Also Umbrellas.

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So a friend has pointed out that I have been veering from the straight path of poetry and investigating all kinds of apparently nonpoetic things, and she is not wrong. At first I thought this was simply a result of my writer’s block, again, and to some extent it is. Then I thought about how I started this blog in part to figure out my poetics, that is, what the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics defines as “a systematic theory or doctrine of poetry” (Preminger 636). What do I think counts as poetry and where do we draw the line? Is it enough to “not be prose,” i.e., to have lots of short lines, some of which may happen to rhyme? Is it likely to have more elegant language and imagery than non-literary prose generally uses? Must it be beautiful? And what do we mean by beauty?

And then I realized that some of what I have been unconsciously doing is figuring out my aesthetics, which oddly enough, Preminger does not define, although he does include aesthetic distance and aestheticism, this last of which he seems to define as art for art’s sake, although he takes several pages to do it. I think for me defining one’s aesthetics is about defining what one as an individual, artist and nonartist, find beautiful and not. What draws you, as the bagpipes drew me before my mind had realized that my legs were moving? What repels me, as the sonorous, groaning organ does, even though it has great symmetry and harmony and All The Things, and can move other folks to tears for Very Different Reasons?

And I have been fascinated by our recent popular culture projects, because they have been drawing me in a similar fashion. Some of what I like is the smart juxtaposition between apparent opposites that we often get, the mixing of deadly serious and light wit, or dark, almost Gothic environments mixed with warm companionship. Or just high school students reading 500-year-old texts in an actual library to learn about the demons they are about to face. These tinctures in the story-telling of our time fascinate me, and I hope are teaching me about how to tell a more beautiful story, whether I do it in poetry or prose or some other way.

But for those who came for the poetry, here is a poem from last Monday when I got soaking wet about three different times.

.

Suddenly the air

is awash front to back

with water, which once,

before today, used

to be ocean or cloud.

.

And walksign people

scurry and slosh across

sidewalks become rivers

for a moment or two

too long for dry shoes.

.

Only the dry ones, those

who planned ahead,

stay anywhere near dry

carrying their nylon roof

on a stick.

.

Preminger, Alex, ed. Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1974.

When Even Page 51 Doesn’t Work

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So there I was on Wednesday morning, at work at MIT. I had no clients (because, duh, beginning of semester), no access to the Internet because of the new computer not being finished “setting up,” and two blessed hours when I could, theoretically, work my blog. Because Writing Is Easy, a thing you can do without a whole heck of a lot of technology, if only you have ideas.

Which I did not, in fact, have.

So I thought, no problem, there is the old Page 51 trick. I will look at a book or four on my shelf and see what the first sentence on page 51 is, and then I will have something to write about!

Living with Honor: “It better accepts another character of that taproot: the power of fertility.”

Bossy Pants: “When we got home I was sent to play outside so my father could shampoo the rug.”

Poetry and the Visual Arts: Page 51 is completely blank. It doesn’t even say 51.

Modernism and the Architecture of Private Life: “Like Wilde, Dorian has a home that is a product of his creative vision, filled with things that are both decorative objects and works of art.”

All of which is kind of depressing, because not only have I not found anything interesting to write about, I have also realized what a weird bookshelf I have. Sigh.

The Block of the Writer, Redux

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So there I am, sitting with my Brilliant Colleague, Rebecca, complaining about how I don’t have ideas for either of my blogs, this one or the one that my cat, Musashi writes, primarily for my parents and my other Brilliant Colleague, Pamela. And Rebecca told me to write about that blog for this blog. So brilliant.

It is an odd thing, writing for such a small audience from the point of view of someone I love very much and will never really know. He’s a cat. He probably doesn’t do a lot of linear thinking, and the idea that he would spend his summer writing (with a purple crayon) a novel about pirates does seem a little silly, especially because, as a tuxedo cat, if he were to enter the Great Philosophical Argument: Pirates vs. Ninjas, he would most likely come down on the side of the ninjas.

And yet, and yet…

It also helps the storytelling process that Musashi, as a writer, has a Somewhat Less Than Puritanical attitude toward spelling. For example, he is still not convinced about silent h’s, such as those in words like “might,” and so he does without. He is okay on the g because of it having a tail, but the h, not so much.

And then it is simply a matter of retraining my point of view downward by about four and a half feet or so, and adding fur and irony.