Two more poems from nonpoetic sources.
I put the source of the first one after the poem itself, because I’m curious how easily you can tell what it’s about. Please leave a comment letting me know.
Two more poems from nonpoetic sources.
I put the source of the first one after the poem itself, because I’m curious how easily you can tell what it’s about. Please leave a comment letting me know.
There are several ways to “find” a poem, but our assignment was an “erasure poem,” where you take an existing text and black out lines and words. The poem is what’s left, rather like Michaelangelo and the block of marble.
I was in a stream-of-consciousness sort of mood, so I downloaded a transcript of a Trump campaign speech, and to my surprise—since I’m in no way a poet—produced something that I rather like. (WordPress doesn’t let me reproduce the line breaks nicely, so I turned it into a photo, below.) Read more
Every June, Girls Write Now, where I volunteer as a writing mentor for a teenager, publishes an anthology of specially polished pieces by that year’s group of girls. This year Newsweek ran a big story on the GWN program, featuring six selections from the anthology. And one was by my own mentee, Winkie Ma! I am beyond thrilled.
Her piece came out of one of GWN’s monthly genre workshops: Dystopian Flash Fiction. I had vaguely heard of flash fiction but had never met it, so to speak. I haven’t written fiction since my 20s, so a fiction workshop is a challenge for me. Adding a 500-word limit and making the piece dystopian didn’t make it easier. I was happy to find myself producing a bare-bones concept of a piece with a strong theme and a twist at the end that could actually be done in 500 words (currently on my list of things-to-work-on).
If ever your brain battery feels dead, this exercise will give you a recharge. I learned it in my Girls Write Now mentoring program and tried it out with Winkie Ma, my teenage mentee.
Start by generating a random list of 5 words. We used a smartphone set to Swype. Squiggle a finger across the keyboard and it’ll pop out a word. We took turns doing this til we had five words. (Half the fun is inventing new swyping patterns and seeing what words you get.) You can also use a website like this one to generate your words. Or there’s the pre-digital close-your-eyes-and-stab-a-finger-on-a-dictionary-page technique.
Now set a timer. You have 5 minutes to write something—anything—that includes all 5 words. To make it harder you can require that the words be used in the order they were generated in (we didn’t).
I’m not good under time pressure so was gratified by how quickly my brain woke up and produced a coherent piece of text for each set of words. And it was probably the most fun of everything we did this year.
Here’s our best set.
earth chap gecko omits kings
(I was impressed that Swype knew the word “gecko.”)
As climate change warms the earth, my skin begins to chap under the hot dry sun. Before long, I’ll be as leathery and warty as a gecko. And I won’t be alone. The sun shines on everyone—kings, queens, and commoners. It omits none from its intense, baking attention.
“That’s dark!” Winkie exclaimed when I read it to her. Her own invention was sunnier:
“Oh, Lizzy,” the king sighed, slumping into his diamond-encrusted throne. “You won’t believe the day I’ve had so far.”
The king’s gecko glanced back at him, its tongue flickering. The king took this as an invitation to continue.
“It’s been so hectic. Nearly the whole declaration had to be omitted because of how vile my writers are. Then, I lost my speech, and the media was not impressed. And just now, my subjects burned my robe!” he exclaimed, showing off the burnt edges of the silk. “It’s just been so long.”
Lizzy looked back and cocked its head.
The king smiled. “Lizzy, you’re such a down-to-earth chap. You’re my only true friend here. You know that?”
The gecko snaked its way to the king’s shoulder, and both of them took a nap in peace.
I particularly enjoy the way the same group of words evokes such disparate visions. It reminds me, when I feel stuck in well-worn phrases, that writing is infinite.
And so, it seems, are the varieties of geckos.
This fall I became a volunteer mentor for Girls Write Now, an organization that pairs New York City public high school girls who have a passion for writing with professional women writers who pass on their craft. I find myself going back to basics, trying different writing styles and genres; it’s a little like being a baby writer again.
My mentee and I began with exercises in the building blocks of writing: interviewing, note-taking, description. Last week, we did character description. We sat on a bench in a plaza outside a mall and picked out a man sitting a couple of benches away. For 15 minutes, we both wrote as minutely detailed a description of him as we could, then compared our texts. We chose a woman and repeated the exercise, this time trying to write in the other’s voice.
As it turned out, the comparison wasn’t that interesting, for we had noted pretty much the same items—clothes, details of face, hair, what the woman was carrying, what we thought the person was feeling—and made rather similar observations. What really struck me was how interested and involved I became in these two quite unremarkable people.
I had felt rather resistant to this exercise, perhaps because I associated it with fiction, which I haven’t tried to write in a long time, although I’ve done essentially the same type of description in my nonfiction. But it turned out to be intensely engaging. By the time we finished I was dying to know these people. The man appeared to be Latino, maybe 60, with a poker face; the woman was black, about 40, very well groomed and dressed, and looked tired. Each obligingly stayed put on a bench for just the 15 minutes we needed.
I see now that my shift from faint hostility to fascination resulted purely from the quality of attention forced on me by the exercise. Because of the set, almost grim expression on the man’s face I assumed he was bad-tempered. I kept watching, because I had to, and saw him smile at the antics of a couple of children running around; his expression changed completely. Suddenly I saw him as quite kindly.
We had guessed that the woman might be waiting for someone (since she looked at her watch), but then I thought: maybe she was taking this rest on the bench as a brief respite—time for herself before she had to go home, cook dinner, and take care of other people. The more I watched, the more I felt for her, shouldering these obligations after working all day. Maybe I was right—no one came, and eventually she hoisted her bags and walked off. But I wished I could have talked to both of them and found out.
So what generated this involvement? Simply: paying attention. There’s a famous story about Louis Agassiz, a Swiss naturalist who taught for many years at Harvard. His new students were presented with a preserved fish on a tin platter. He would tell the student to look carefully at the fish, then leave the room, not to return for hours. One student,Samuel Scudder, wrote an account of being left alone with the smelly, hideous fish. He thought he had seen everything there was to see in that fish after 10 minutes; but after several hours, desperate, he had the idea of drawing it, “and now with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature.” But when Agassiz returned, and he proudly recited his discoveries, the professor said, “‘You have not looked very carefully… Look again; look again!’” And he left me to my misery.” With nothing else to do, Scudder started to see still more in the fish. Each time he gave Agassiz a new list of observations, the professor said, “That is good, but that is not all; go on.” The misery continued for “three long days.” Only later did Scudder realize “the inestimable value” of this lesson in how to observe.
And here was I, feeling pressured by having to observe for 15 minutes. After 10, I too thought there wasn’t much left to notice. What would have happened if I had extended my observation for an hour?
The lesson I draw isn’t the same as Scudder’s. It’s about a different effect of close attention: the emergence of interest, curiosity, empathy, even loving kindness. In meditation you are supposed to observe with nonjudging “bare attention,” without agenda or assumptions. I wasn’t even doing that—I had the opposite of an open mind—yet look how this brief exercise changed my mental state.
In the early 1990s I had the wonderful fortune of spending time with Jean Klein, a teacher in the Hindu Advaita tradition. Klein grew up in Czechoslovakia and Vienna between the wars, studied medicine and music in Berlin, then when the Nazis came to power fled to France and Algeria. He left Europe in the early 1950s for India, where he met a teacher and experienced a complete awakening. He returned to Europe and began to teach himself.At the time I encountered him, I had little experience or intellectual knowledge of Advaita, Buddhism, or meditation, so my reaction was pretty naïve—not a bad thing, I guess. What I mostly remember was the extraordinary experience of being in his presence. It is amazing to be with someone who has no agenda, no needs, no defenses or barriers, no fears, no expectations, no anger, but only total openness, acceptance, and loving kindness. You can actually see the meaning of that puzzling Buddhist term emptiness. It’s as though the personality is transparent. (At one session, Klein remarked that “the personality is a tool you use when life asks. Then when the situation is over, you lay it down and it’s not there.”)
Advaita sees the entire universe as one undivided reality; its nondualist teaching resembles aspects of Buddhism. Meetings with a teacher take the form of dialogues.
One dialogue I attended took place just before my first book was published in 1992. About to leave for a mini-book tour in California, I alternated between states of expansive excitement and contracted fear. I got up the nerve to ask Klein about this.
He slewed around in his chair to look at me and said, “Ask the question more precisely.”
I explained that I was about to do public speaking and could feel my energy expand because I was happy that people appreciated my work. Then I’d get scared and contract. I didn’t mention that the “work” was a book.
“You want the appreciation,” he said. “You were seeing yourself as a doer.”
“Yes, I was,” I said.
He looked at me and said, “If a man writes a book, he’s not really writing that book.”
I knew instantly that was the heart of the issue. “Well,” I said, “I’ve written a book, and I know I didn’t write that book—but I forget.”
He looked at me a few moments longer—there was immense kindness in his gaze—but said no more, likely because he saw I had gotten it.
And I did, at least in my mind. I’d forgotten the awareness I had had, during the process of writing, that the book was actually coming through me. Instead I saw my self being “the author” and my fear was of that identity being undermined.
My fear didn’t all drop away after that. I remember vividly how petrified I was the first time I sat in a radio broadcast studio waiting for the host’s first question. Yet during that segment, as well as the later interviews and talks I gave, I found myself responding out of a space much like that mysterious source of writing (described in this post and this one). My answers were far more skillful than if they had been formulated purely by my intellect. To put it as Jean Klein had, I wasn’t really answering those questions. The question to ask then is: who was?
I’ve been mulling over some journal entries by Flannery O’Connor, written in 1946–47, when she was twenty-one and a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The entries show her struggling with the tension between her ambition to be a successful writer and her desire, as a devout Catholic, to think about God “all the time.”
You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. … what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by this shadow that is nothing. …
What I am asking for is really very ridiculous… at present I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately. (New Yorker, 9/15/2013)
She wants success but she’s also afraid it will give her a swelled head, which will get in the way of being able “to love God all the way.” So she keeps reminding herself of things that will keep the shadow from growing.
When she produces a story after a dry period, O’Connor notes that it wasn’t really she who wrote it. “Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story—just like the typewriter was mine.” Then she begs him to make the story a “sound,” good one because she doesn’t know how to do that herself.
Some time later, she cycles back into discouragement. “If I ever do get to be a fine writer, it will not be because I am a fine writer but because God has given me credit for a few of the things He kindly wrote for me. Right at present this does not seem to be His policy. I can’t write a thing.”
I am not a mystic, much less a Catholic or even a Christian, but this strikes a chord for me. If you disregard the specifics of her terminology, she is simply talking about where the inspiration to write something comes from. In my experience, that’s a mystery: the ultimate source isn’t one’s self and isn’t under one’s control. (I felt this most purely with my own two books, which I wrote from the greatest depths I was capable of. But even in collaborations, when I’m setting out other people’s ideas, I often find solutions to problems of structure or expression arising in intuitive leaps out of “nowhere”—not quite the same, but close enough.)
In the early stages of conceptualizing my first book, The Women Outside, I remember sitting on my knees on the floor and suddenly having a sense of a column of energy—or something—streaming upward from my head and mingling with some larger entity “out there.” Or maybe the energy from out there was coming down into me. It’s been so long I don’t recall. But the feeling that I was connecting to something larger than myself was clear. It never happened again, but as I worked on this and my other book, Slaying the Mermaid, I felt quite distinctly that they were coming through me from somewhere else, entering in the region of my solar plexus, then traveling upward to where my brain could operate on them.
I wouldn’t call that larger something God, but there are other options: the collective unconscious, universal mind, nondual awareness, the unconditioned, Buddha-mind, rigpa, consciousness with a capital C… and those are just from traditions I know something about.
It’s quite literally inspiration, which comes from a Greek word meaning God-breathed and a Latin word meaning blow into. That is, a divine being is breathing something into you. The ancients spoke of the muses, O’Connor speaks of God. I don’t know what to speak of, but I know what it feels like.
And I agree with O’Connor that it’s good not to get a swelled head, but rather to remember the mystery.
You might think a choreographer wouldn’t have much to say to writers, but you’d be wrong. Twyla Tharp has been creating dances for a long time, and from what I can tell has fought and won all the battles involved in making something out of nothing. Her book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life absolutely nails the issues any creative person faces.
For example: “Writer’s block means your engine has shut down and the tank is empty. Being blocked is most often a failure of nerve, with only one solution: Do something—anything.”
Then she gives a bunch of exercises to “do.” What’s key for me is that most involve moving your body. One more quote: “I can’t say enough about the connection between body and mind; when you stimulate your body, your brain comes alive in ways you can’t simulate in a sedentary position.”
This is true. Being a dancer was never even on my radar. Even those group exercises where you act out a name or word or idea always made me feel awkward and dull. But I decided to try a couple of Tharp’s ideas. That is, I had to force myself. The level of resistance was astonishing. But I got on the floor and assumed the postion for Egg: knees bent up to my chin, arms hugging them. Nowhere to go from here but out—somewhere. Tharp lists Exploded Egg, Scrambled Egg, and Egg-Cited as some “eggs” that her students have come up with. I managed Rolling Egg and something I’m calling Flailing Egg.
I noticed that the movement was fueled by the tension in my body. That is, initiating the movement gave the tension a place to go. Then it took over and shaped the movement. I didn’t need to figure out where to move next; I just went along for the ride. The movement broke open the shell of tension (or resistance), and the idea for this post popped right out of the crack.
Doing these exercises went beyond the old “go for a walk when you’re stuck” idea. It was more formal, more structured, focused directly at making something. More powerful.
Have you had an experience of this kind of movement sparking an idea, plan, other inspiration? I’d love to hear about it.
Of course not. I typed it on my computer keyboard. But have you noticed how commonly pen is used to mean write? In this age of the keypad and touch screen, pen is such an anachronism that it jars me every time I see it.
The Wall Street Journal noted last December that Cyndi Lauper had “penned an essay for Rolling Stone” describing how going off the fiscal cliff would harm LBGT youth. The New York Observer reported that former Lehman Brothers vice chairman Thomas Russo “has penned a book about this country’s pressing financial calamities.” A blurb for The Now Revolution, a book telling businesses how to use social media successfully, exclaims that the authors “have penned a book that truly isn’t a social media book.” And the writer of a website touting the benefits of posting articles to content mills in order to create inbound links to one’s own site actually titled his site “Penned Articles.”
I’m guessing that none of these people wrote by hand.
This breezy usage of penned irritates me, maybe partly because I’ve been “penning” less and less myself. Initially, the physical connection between brain and pen in hand was integral to writing. Then I began typing first drafts directly on a typewriter and editing them by hand. I’ve now reached the point where the last few books I wrote stayed entirely inside the computer—no printouts. The brain-hand connection still exists, but through the fingers on the keyboard.
It’s interesting how language changes, creating this disconnect between a word’s current usage and its original meaning. Pen dates from the 14th century and comes from the Latin word for feather, the original writing instrument being a quill. The notion of a pen as an object held in the hand that uses some kind of fluid stuck, even as writing implements became metal pen points, then fountain pens, then ballpoints. It stuck so tight that we continued to “pen” books with typewriters, and now with computers.
I once had an Israeli client who relished his excellent command of English and loved pointing out to me how Americans’ usage of certain words was incorrect, because, he insisted, their etymological meaning was quite different. Mindful of my English-major course in the history of language, I pointed out in return that languages evolve over time, so the meaning of words naturally changes. Thus presently used to mean at once, but now means in a while. Fast originally meant immovable; now it most often means rapid.
My client was quite unmoved by this argument, perhaps because modern Hebrew is a new language. Hebrew had been used only in a religious context for centuries, so when the settlers in Palestine revived it as a living language in the early 20th century, they had to invent many words for contemporary ideas, objects, and actions, often derived from word roots. So Hebrew hasn’t had time to evolve the way English has; the new words are still close to their etymological origins.
Normally I enjoy seeing how a word changes. But I want penned to go away.