A Writer and Her Tools Are Not Soon Upgraded


Having been born in the twentieth century, I will admit that I only ever used a pen-and-ink-on-parchment recreationally (and no, I did not inhale; as a rule, it is better not to). As a writer I have been fond of Zebra pens and colored felt tip Bic markers, although as I age, or rather, as my hands have been aging, I am being dragged kicking and screaming into the century of the fruitbat and am increasingly doing my first drafts on my iMac. Having said that, I will admit that my iMac is 7 1/2 years old, just six months younger than my cat, who has not yet started slowing down, freezing or losing files, although from time to time, he will knock them off my desk to test if gravity is still working.

Note: it is. Phew. Thanks, Musashi!

My computer, alas, is not so spry. Last night I dreamed that a friend reminded me that this weekend would be Massachusetts Tax-free Weekend, which means no tax on purchases of $2500 or less: perfect timing for Back To School folks to buy computers and still be able to afford, for example, Apple Care Protection. (And for those of you who have ever read comics.com while drinking your breakfast coffee, you know how useful that can be. Keyboards are less expensive than they used to be, but still.)

So yes, I am breaking down and getting a new computer before I am in the middle of finals and lose everything. Did that before. Don’t recommend it.

And then there are people even more clueless than me.

The Hokey-Pokey of Writing


So back in May I talked about the bit in a piece of writing, usually a long piece of nonfiction, which you always end up cutting. It served you as a writer to get from idea A to idea M, but it no longer serves your readers, so it must go. The problem is that it’s not always obvious which bit or how much of it is the bit you need to cut and which bits you need to keep. Sometimes you cut a section, then put it back in, then take it out again, or possibly take another bit out and then put it back in again. After a while you throw your hands up in despair and run away weeping, which is actually a really good idea.

But let’s face it folks, that really is what it’s all about. And if you don’t believe me, check out this video of bagpipers proving it:


Often what you need after finishing a draft, particularly a frustrating draft, is distance. Walk away. Do something else. Eat something. Do your laundry. Read a book. Play with the cat. While you are gone, with luck, the writing will set like Jello, and your choices will be clearer.

Teaching Writing


So tomorrow I have to go to MIT and teach about clear writing. We are using a piece by Samuel Delaney about the difference between good writing, which can be learned by anybody, and talented writing, which is much harder to achieve. We also have a piece on writing for business and it talks about topic sentences and coherent paragraphs and all the thing one hopes they learned in fifth and six grades, but these days, who knows.

This is not the way I normally teach about writing as it feels very mechanical and I tend to feel more organically about writing. I also believe that most good writing happens during the second and third drafts of anything. People who get hung up about these sentence-level infelicities often have problems with their writing process, and trust me when I tell you that perfectionism is already a huge problem for MIT students. That’s how they got in. I spend an awful lot of my time explaining that they’ll never get out if they don’t give up that bad habit as soon as possible.

One of my mottoes is “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly the first time.” It’s true about cooking. It’s true about sex. It’s true about writing. Make a mess. Write crap sentences. Doodle in the margins when you don’t know what to write. Scribble notes to self like “brilliant transition goes here.” Take a break and make a sandwich. Get peanut butter on your hard copy of the draft. Lick it off. Read your work out loud, even if it makes you wince. Then go back in and fix the problems, over and over and over.

How We Do What We Do


So I had a physical recently and while we were going over the results of my bloodwork, my doctor mentioned how different he found handwriting and typing for production, on the one hand, and writing for publication versus speaking in front of an audience on the other. I agreed on both points. Being over 40, I still do a lot of handwriting, especially prose, until the arthritis in my hand kicks in and I have to stop. It is like my brain is wired to my moving right hand or something. It is a little different with poetry, in part because the amount of output is shorter and also if I suddenly decide to change line lengths or stanza breaks, it is simply easier on a computer to make those little changes without actually having to rewrite the text.

He also asked if I teach my students to read their work out loud. YES. I don’t know why it is but I find I hear problems that I can’t simply see reading quietly, especially clunkers and those small infelicities that get in the way of the brilliance that I frequently feel I could manage more if I could just get the 100% correct word in all the right places.

Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys: Or, Choosing the Problem to Address


Life imitates art at least as much as art imitates life. This morning I walked into my office to find on my desk a Xeroxed meme of a little juggling monkey, with the words “Not my circus, not my monkeys –Polish proverb.” This is one of two meme phrases we use among ourselves a lot at the MIT Writing Center. (The other is “I am a tiny potato and I believe in you. You can do the thing,” which comes in handy a LOT during Thesis Pain Season, i.e., spring.) In life, choosing which battles to fight, and whose, is a constant struggle. The ability to create boundaries for ourselves is a crucial skill, and one that our socialization seems to make a bit harder for women than for men.

But I think this principle is also important for writing (because if you hand me a principle or concept of ANY kind, the odds are ridiculously good that I can figure out a way to make it be about writing: The arc of Susan is long, but it rolls towards writing.) Increasingly, I have been thinking about the process of writing, and that of writing poetry in particular, as being about problem solving. With a poem, I have not only a story to tell in a particular voice or voices, both of which I am managing with word choice and line length and spaces between lines (stanza control, as I think of it, even with free verse); but I am also singing this to my readers and I want them to hear the music, the rhythm and pitch, the emotions that those convey, and I have to choose each word so very carefully, so that you can pick up the poem and turn it in the light and you will see the facets of a gemstone rather than the patches of a soccer ball (unless of course you are a soccer fanatic, in which case I would rather have you see my poem as your beloved ball). And each word that I choose limits my choices for the following words.

I know that all writing has some of these difficulties. These are the things inherent in a piece of writing that make writing hard. The other, more environmental things are not at play here for me, since this is a personal, free form, deadlineless project. And I think, because of that, when I say that a poem is a series of problems that have been solved I think of it as mathematicians think about problems as opportunities for beauty to happen (no, seriously, they think that way; they are just as crazy as the soccer fans, which is also kind of beautiful).

And sometimes in writing the most important choice is to know when to stop hammering away at the thing and get up and go make dinner or play with the cat or grade papers. The words will be there, waiting for you, when you get back. Trust me on this.

Let Me Sing You the Song of My People


One of the downsides of having a very productive month is that Normal People do not understand how amazing this is and ignore you and Writer People, who do understand, yes, my pretty, they understand All Too Well, resent you. Some of this divergence comes out of a misunderstanding about the creative process. I believe that Sustained Creative Productivity (SCP) requires a shitload of work and self-discipline, for a given value/definition of self-discipline. The word disciple simply means learner. So the kind of self-discipline I am talking about is really learning about yourself and your rhythms, motivations, inspiration. It can be scary, when you identify as a Writer People, to fall into a period of writers block or creative constipation. Like real constipation, it is painful. What is worse, it also threatens your identity. Like a bad knock-knock joke, you ask yourself, How can I Be a Writer if I am not writing? And the only answer you have is either, “Oooh, ooh, I know this one! The sound of one hand clapping!” or “I guess I am not.”

It feels a bit like that moment in Superman II when Clark Kent, who has thrown off his superpowers to be with Lois Lane, suddenly realizes that without his power, he is nothing. It is a crap feeling. (And can I just point out here something I have learned from a friend: if somebody ever tells you that the only way you can have love is to give up your super power, that person is singing the song of Patriarchal Oppression. Invite them out of your life. Then carry on loving and using your super power. Thank you, Jenna Tucker.)

I have often found that I get to the end of the academic year and I am so burnt out from teaching all year that I have nothing to work with. It is so frustrating because I have generally great weather and lots of time and nothing to show for it. And given that I did not always get a lot done during the two semesters, since I basically grade student papers two weeks out of every three, it meant I was not getting much done for the whole frigging year.

But lately, I have noticed that I am getting more done during the semester. This is due to a few things. First, from 2008 to 2012 I was teaching at two schools and doing a second Masters degree at a third (cuz it turns out the Masters degrees are collectible: get the whole set!). Ironically, I was doing this because I had gotten so burned out teaching. It was often a gruelling process to balance all that stuff, but, much like getting hit over the head with a baseball bat, it felt GREAT when it stopped. Suddenly I had extra time to do things, like write, or like watch old TV shows or read novels or pop culture textual criticism (cuz as an English teacher, I nerd hard).

Second, all those papers? There is a trick to using the thing you would rather not be doing as a counterbalance to what you do want to be doing. I can get any amount of writing done if I am staring at a pile of 38 student papers. Grade some, write some, grade some, write some. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Finally, if next month turns out to be One of Those Mays, dry, barren, devoid of writerly hope, etc., I will try not to worry about it and just call it a vacation. Read some light novels. Kick back for a change. Failing that, I can sing you the Song of My People:

I am not writing!

I am not writing!

I will neeeeeeeeever write again!

Woe betide me!

As the block rides me!

I will neeeeeeeeever write again!

It actually sounds a lot like the Darth Vader theme, now that I think about it, or possibly Wagner…

The Ups & Downs of Giving My Brain a Home


We each have a unique brain, but my lately my own brain has been acting particularly unique. On Tuesday, as I was heading for work, I started thinking about what I would write in the next blog. When I got to the train, I dug around in my coat for a file card and wrote 24 lines in very tiny handwriting to capture my ideas before class. I do realize that a lot of you young whippersnappers, especially those born after the bicentennial, probably would have tippy-tappy typed yourself a text or email, but you would, I argue, be losing out. The e-world does not have the serendipity of the material world (Oooh, now there is an epigraph. Everyone: go write me a poem with this as its heart’s kernel! Report back.) It is hard to accidentally come across something you have put into the ether as I did yesterday when I found the file card my cat had knocked off the dresser, a file card scribbled last year when I was at a bookstore, remembered the book and the line in it and copied it down, knowing I would eventually use it to write something (which I had done a few years earlier when I first read the book, but I lost that particular note). Serendipity on top of serendipity.

Anyway, my brain. So as I was entering the building where I teach, looking at my notes, I suddenly started singing in my head:

Chicken scratch blogpost, I don’t care!

Chicken scratch blogpost, I don’t care!

Chicken scratch blogpost, I don’t CAAAAAAAARE!

My master’s gone away!

Sigh. But there is also an upside to hosting my particular brain. On Monday afternoon, just as I was waking up from a nap, I could see, as if typed on the inside of my skull, the line, “As children we come to experiences bone to bone, with no kind skin to muffle the uproar.”

I know, right? Amazing!

I immediately knew that it was the beginning of a poem, at first I thought the poem about Troy but as I sat up and scrambled to get to the computer to write it down, I realized that instead it would enable me to write about the origin of the character I would argue is the Best Damn Villain Ever in popular culture, Xena’s nemesis Callisto, portrayed by the very talented Hudson Leick, who apparently now teaches yoga. That seems a trifle ironic, given that Callisto is a very likeable psychotic mass-murdering fiend. I even saw a short, 4 minute, YouTube video that explains with clips from the shows, just why Leick’s Callisto is the Best Villain Ever (so it is not just my opinion, huh!).

This is why, despite all my protests that There Is No Muse, GRRR!, I can absolutely understand why the ancients would make up the idea of the muse. Even I, after briefly minoring in psychology in college, have a hard time giving my own mind credit for such an unlikely phenomenon as the perfect gift of a perfect line after a damn fine nap. It is easier to give somebody else credit, whether that’s nine generous Greek chicks or God. The Greeks are the ones who handed us down the idea of hubris, the dangerous self-pride or arrogance that offends the gods. For writers, inspiration is a precarious thing, as illustrated by all the blogs on WordPress alone that focus on writers block. Even for me, the instinct is to be cautiously humble…

When Writing Gets in the Way of Blogging about Writing


Welcome to Spring. Finally! Yes, I have spent the last two days reading and writing about ancient Greece rather than writing about reading and writing about… You see the problem. Once again the idea of competing priorities takes the stage. The difference is that in my last post, the priorities were literary priorities: rhythm versus flexibility versus imagery versus placement in the poem (e.g., need for transitions or closure). Basically, poetry as problem and solution over and over again.

In contrast, the priorities this weekend were those of time and space. My roommate, talented filmmaker, Jack Siberine, was making another film in our apartment, and it turns out that to make a ten minute film, you pretty much have to shoot ten hours or so of footage (or whatever they call it in the digital age) as well as feeding your 16 person crew pizza, and moving all the furniture out of one room and into others and vice versa. This makes those of us who would rather not get in the way spend time at cafes and the library.

Do not get me wrong. I am a big fan of both cafes and libraries, because 1) duh, coffee and 2) libaries are where the books live. But it does change the kind of work you can do, particularly when the cafe you have chosen turns off its free WiFi on the weekends to get a faster customer turnover. Sigh. Now that I finally have a mobile thingy (iPad), I cannot use it. So instead I wrote poetry. Longhand. Because it Just Feels Better.

What do you do when your normal routine is obstructed?


Process: Notes on Competing Priorities


Okay, so yesterday I wrote a poem for which I am using the working title Odyssey, because it ended up being about Odysseus and Penelope. Let me unpack my process.

Inspiration: Something my yoga teacher said, because, duh, Erica Magro Cahill. “The intimacy of a beating heart inside your beautiful skin…”

Part 1. The image of my heart peeking out from behind my sternum on an x-ray of my esophagus and larynx.

Problem: The point I want to make is about the heart but suddenly my larynx is involved.

Solution: When we sing, we don’t think about the bits of our body we are singing with, we think about the heart and what it does and wants. This leads to the idea of singing comfort to a “fearful, feral/cornered self within another body contained in skin, the reverse of Siren song.”

Part 2. The image of the skin as a map, marked by scars, wrinkles and ink. Using the concept I got from two separate students last semester that it helps when you suffer from depression to tattoo a message or symbol on your body to remind you that life is doable. This allowed me to use the line that Sir Terry Pratchett quotes in his recent nonfiction book, A Blink of the Screen, which he attributes to G.K. Chesterton, “Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist, for they already know dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.” But of course, this is wordy and I already have the map, so:

Application: “Even tied to the mast, straining against our good sense,/We remember: Here be dragons. Reading our skin,/We recall, relieved: Dragons may be slain.”

Part 3. I need to get from Odysseus tied to the mast back to Penelope waiting on Ithaca, fending off suitors with her ten-year-long craft project. I start with the sail as a reminder of our fate as it is woven by the maiden, matron and crone: “We weave what they give us/Into something of use…” I transition to Penelope’s weaving. In the original, she tells the suitors that she cannot marry anyone until she finishes weaving her father-in-law’s shroud.

Feminist Revisionist Mythmaking: (Okay, here is the fun part!) I turn the shroud instead into a 1) tapestry of 2) Penelope herself as the matron Fate weaving and unweaving a tapestry of 3) Odysseus’s ship. “She turns its prow repeatedly/Back toward Ithaca. With each reweaving,/She brings the hero that much sooner home.” With this I take the power of the Fates and the Gods who are pissed off at Odysseus and give it to Penelope, making her thwart all of them and get her husband back sooner. Very meta.

Part 4. Now the first three parts have had relatively even stanza sizes: 1) 3 stanzas of 6 lines, 2) 4 stanzas of 4 lines, and 3) 4 stanzas of 5 lines. That is just the way that it worked out. When I started Part 4 I had a big long stanza that I did not know how to break. I had two ideas when I started the section: that all of us are all of the things I have discussed: “ship, map, compass, sail;/…the perilous waters and the sweet,/ Populous shores of home… ” But I also wanted to talk about fate and choices and somehow get some closure back to the x-ray. Further, although I did not hew the line, I was pulled in the first three sections toward blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter, I suspect because the topic is Classical Antiquity and Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” (the Latin name for Odysseus) is in blank verse. But when I broke that first stanza of this section in half, I found that both of them started with a middle length line, followed by lines that got longer, followed by lines that got shorter: kind of like waves going in and out of shore! Nice… Then I noticed that the first was six lines and the second fifth: kind of like my verses were ebbing….

Solution: ALWAYS FOLLOW ARTISTIC SERENDIPITY. (Repeat after me: I meant to do that!) All I needed then were two more stanzas with a similar tidal/ebbing structure, so I ended with:

“How hardy this tremulous heart

Peeking around the mast, not deaf to these

Lyric-less singers, the waves assembling,

Disassembling, dissembling…

How impotent the gods

Who made us like themselves: willful,

Changeable, immortal.”


Waterhouse, John. Ulysses and the Sirens, 1891. Penelope and the Suitors, 1912.