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Poetry on the Brain

A brain scan provides evidence of something I’ve suspected for a while now: catch me at any given moment and I’ll have a poem stuck in my head that I can’t get out (or at least, that I can’t extract without mangling it).

 

Stuck_Poem

 

 

 

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Going Public with “The Border”

Six Minute Story is a website that provides you with a random image, story framework, or first/single sentence prompt and demands “Tell me a story, and make it quick!” With a six minute timer counting down, you’re under the gun to flesh out a story and once your time is up, no editing is allowed.* At that point you can choose to post your story or trash it. The site’s tagline is “A cure for writer’s block” and for me it certainly is.

When audiobook narrator Xe Sands declared that during the month of September she was going to pull from the Six Minute Story pool of Creative Commons licensed pieces for each week’s Going Public Project recording, I was reminded that although I’d found writing while timed to be an excellent way to prompt myself to write outside of the site, I hadn’t utilized it in a while. I’m usually a slow and deliberate writer and pushing myself outside that comfort zone is a really good thing: the quick scramble to put something down is invigorating and every now and then the ticking timer seems to short-circuit my conscious writer and drags my subconscious writer to the front of the class, as it did with this random prompt:

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From the Flickr photostream of h.koppdelaney and CC licensed as noted on that page

The end result was a piece of flash fiction named “The Border” and I think it’s pretty much the coolest thing ever that Xe picked my (re)entry piece at Six Minute Story to record for this week’s Going Public post.

 

I live near a border between two countries that’s very clearly demarcated on the physical landscape but in addition to the lines that can be found drawn on a map, there are often less tangible boundaries that we transit. When you push yourself to move outside your comfort zone and venture into the new and scary – whether it’s having a go at public speaking, starting a new job, letting down your emotional barriers at the beginning of a new relationship, or any of a thousand steps forward you might try to take – you can find yourself in a new country. If you’re lucky you find a home there: sort of an emotional upward mobility, as it were. Or maybe you go back to where you were before and can set out in a new direction the next time.

There’s also an emotional crossing that exists that’s a less welcome journey: not the day trips back and forth between happy and sad or success and struggle but the open-ended ticket that takes you into a depression that you think will never end. It’s a walk into a landscape that’s so overwhelming it’s all you can see and the memory of a place where you’ll be happy again and there are people who love you and things you look forward to doing has faded from sight, even though it might be just around the next curve in the trail you’re mindlessly trudging along.

I had a relative who committed suicide when I was a teenager and for a long time I was confident I could at least point to that metaphorical country on a map and reel off statistics about its topography and population. I would have told you that I was pretty sure I’d even visited it a time or two or at least been to its border, maybe had my picture taken next to the “Welcome to Depression” sign, maybe even taken a few steps across. As it turned out, I was wrong. (In fact, I’m pretty sure that was Greenland I’d been pointing at.)

I have taken a trip there now (no, I don’t mean to Greenland) and if you don’t already know, it has a population of one. You. No family who would be permanently marked by your absence. No dog who displays irrational joy at seeing you emerge safely from that small room with all the falling water you seem to like to stand under EVERY DAY OMG ARE YOU CRAZY!? No bookseller who has the next in that series where you seriously considered pretending to be a blogger just to try to get an advance copy to see what happens next. Nothing else existed in that country except me, sitting on a bed, looking at the loaded revolver I’d gotten out because it was the largest caliber I had and vaguely wondering whether I shouldn’t do this outside so there’d be less of a mess for someone to clean up.

Here’s the thing, though. It may be out of sight but there is a country other than that one and you deserve to live there. If you’ve gotten lost and can’t find it, I suspect there’s someone in your life who can if you just talk to them. If there isn’t someone on hand, there are experts at navigation who can help you find your way back. In the U.S. you can find some of them at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Please, if that’s someplace you are or might find yourself, never let your journey end in depression.

 

*When you’ve written a few stories and gathered a certain “Reputation” count, you get the ability to edit your posted stories
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Connections

I was inspired by a recent post on a book review blog I follow to go through old pictures looking for photographic proof that I have been an avid reader since a very young age. I’m not sure that proof exists, even though any picture snapped during my childhood should have had a better than average chance of catching me with a book in my hand given the amount of time I spent reading. Reading isn’t, of course, the most photogenic activity so I didn’t have much hope of finding what I wanted but after petitioning my mom for access to her store of photos, I sat down and dug in. It turns out that the box and album she presented me with were primarily photos given to her by my paternal grandmother (many of my childhood photos are apparently boxed away in a location unknown to anyone in the family).

I’m not a woman who makes connections easily nor do I possess much skill at holding on to those connections I do make but I was filled with an ineffable sadness and a very real sense of grief as I flipped through picture after picture of people I didn’t know, as well as images of people I do or, more often, did know but not nearly as well as I should have. I was struck by a pretty simple fact: when you lose both sets of grandparents by your teen years, you’ve never made it through exactly the wrong age range to know that outside of your self-centered adolescent world, some of the people you love most have an entire history of amazing experiences that you’ll never be able to ask them about. It’s an irony that doesn’t go unnoticed by me that I’ve always enjoyed the fact that my father’s side of the family was filled with inveterate storytellers and that my college application essay described my desire to capture that oral history.

Flipping through the photos I realized there are questions I didn’t even know I could or should ask. I spent a lot of time with my (paternal) grandparents when I was a child and those memories are some of the happiest ones I have. Grandma and I would sit across from each other for hours playing cards (Spite and Malice was our game of choice) at the old oak kitchen table that had been waxed so often that I could scrape my thumbnail across it and leave a mark. In a way, her stories became the mythology of my childhood. She seemed to make her life a song, with notes of joy and pain a harmony woven throughout. Sometimes she’d pause part-way through, shaking her head as if amazed she’d lived through it. Her husband running cattle on a Spanish land grant that stretched 100 miles along each side. Hustling the boys out the door in the middle of the night because a dream had warned her that he was on the way home from the bar, drunk and ready for a fight. The shop she opened in that small New Mexico town after the divorce – one of the first to sell “ready-to-wear.” The bobcat my father brought home to raise and the rattlesnakes in jars that startled her when she came on them unaware. She was a conjurer, making my father suddenly appear as a mischievous child who tried to ride the milk cow instead of an angry man who saw rebellion in nothing more than the flicker of an eye. Looking at her photographs today made it clear that there was so much more to know about her life, as well as my grandpa’s.

As much as I learned about my grandma from her stories, I know next to nothing about my grandfather’s history. He was actually my grandma’s second husband and not my father’s biological dad – a man I never met. Oddly, the stories Grandma told were all about her first husband so even second-hand knowledge of the man who was always just “Grandpa” to me is nearly non-existent. When I was in my early teens, my grandfather committed suicide. He walked to the end of the driveway and shot himself – the assumption being that he was ensuring my uncle, who was visiting at the time, would be the one to find him when he went to collect the mail rather than being discovered by my grandmother, who had been struggling with health issues for some time. It’s hardly a surprise that there were a lot of questions bounced around in my family relating to “Why didn’t we know?” and “What could we have done to prevent it?” Just after the funeral, my grandma told my youngest brother and I that Grandpa has been wondering why we never came to visit much any more. That question was a painful wound that I carried around for a long time. As I flipped through pictures of him, I was struck by the fact that even as a much younger man, he always looked old, as if he had carried more than his share of sorrow his entire life. All I knew of him was that he loved listening to baseball games on the radio, he had a tattoo on his arm, he smoked, he was an amazing carpenter, and he loved me and my brothers without reserve, just as we loved him. As much as I wish I had known him better, I think at least maybe we got the most important part exactly right with that last bit of “knowing.”Even the small set of photos my grandmother had that were from my childhood were a revelation to me. I can dredge up memories for far less than half the occasions depicted in the photographs and although snapping pictures is, of course, usually done during the happy times, seeing the joy on my father’s face as he held or played with his children was something of a slap in the face to me because that joy is not what I remember from childhood and I’m at a loss as to how to parse the truth behind it all.Worth more than a little consideration now is what kind of (deeper) relationship I can create with my immediate family. I don’t know that I can manage it with my father. I’ve built walls there that I can’t even begin to understand how to dismantle, even if I had the desire. My mother has reached a point where her memory is slowly fading and sometimes even remaking itself on-the-fly and if I’m ever going to make sure we both know each other as adults, outside of the parent-child bond, now is the time to do it. It may also be a good time to look at the relationships I maintain now, how much of myself I’m willing to expose, and what legacy (not in some grand dynastic sense but just in terms of the connections I make) I am making for myself and those I love.

Maybe your forties is a typical time to kick-off an existential crisis, start wondering about the paths your life has taken, consider what legacy you are  going leave behind, or begin to regret what you’ve let slip by in the rear-view as you tried to follow the map to your future. I don’t know whether this is a passing phase or a permanent change in perspective. I just know that today I was able to let long overdue tears of regret for things I’ve  lost fall unchecked and as rich as I’ve felt to have had those family connections, I feel equally poor for not recognizing in time how much deeper they could have been.

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Adrift/Muse

Poetry is a recently acquired… oh, let’s not call it obsession but rather… interest for me. Reading it has allowed me to serve up a dose of the evocative in my normally quiet and routine daily life. As for writing it, well, that serves two purposes: it’s given me an outlet for those short sharp bursts of either inspiration or emotion that seem intent on elbowing their way to the front of my consciousness and it’s slowly influencing my long-form writing which is often too verbose and frequently contains repetitive elements.

Yesterday, my attention was caught by a phrase that went something like “…[it] washed over them in a heavy wave and [she] felt it draw something back with it…” and was struck by how well that expressed a large part of how my logical brain perceives creative inspiration. Unfortunately, only once has the experience been even close to that dramatic with the outcome a piece written almost whole cloth and seemingly with little-to-no conscious input.

I’m very much a construction worker when it comes to writing. I usually have a flash that forms the foundation but after that it’s board-by-board methodical labor. I was divided in where I thought this poem was going. My initial understanding was that I was going to write about “the muse” and I did write a piece along those lines but it wasn’t quite clicking into place. When that happens I’ll strip a poem back down to its core elements and see what else can be built of it. The rewrite wasn’t wholly successful because I ended up frustrated that it repeated thematic elements I seem to be stuck on recently but it rang truer than my initial attempt so now I’ll let it rest for a while until I decide whether to let it stand or tear it back down again.

What does your process look like and how often are you detoured from the expected path?

 

Adrift

Your voice rolls in
crests and breaks
with a discordant crash

It recedes and I lose
my footing – common ground
giving way

You are entrenched
and I am unmoored
in this rush and retreat

Nothing in me understands
how to navigate
this unexpected surge

A shift in the current
and I awake a stranger to myself
washed up on this new shore alone

 

The original piece:

 

Muse

The voice rolled in
crested and collapsed
with a discordant crash

When it receded it
drew from me everything
held tightly for too long

Base offering
spilled to the ground
from my cup

Until, sifting rough grit
through my hands, I find benediction
in the rush and retreat

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Who Do You Write For?

I was mulling over a couple of tweets from @6minutestory recently. The first was a Kurt Vonnegut quote and then a question was posed:

“Kurt Vonnegut said, “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” Which one person do you write to please?”

Shortly before that tweet was one for a link to the following quote:

“I’ve met hundreds of students and talked with them about their work… What they really want isn’t fame or fortune but permission to articulate feelings that were somehow off limits within the fragile habitat of their families. They are hoping to find, by means of literary art, braver and more-forgiving versions of themselves.”

— Steven Almond, in his article on writing MFAS

I was struck by a similarity in theme between those two quotes and had to ask myself who do I write for? The Almond quote really resonated with me because it quantified a major facet of my writing life: much of what I write has a foundation in emotions better suited to my (much) younger self. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that. I think it speaks to an emotional immaturity that I can’t believe I’m admitting to. The fact is, I often write to communicate with or please that ghost of childhood that shadows me.

The question then becomes, how do I learn to write to my adult self? Or is that still too much about me? My interpretation of Vonnegut’s quote was ‘write to please yourself’ but maybe I should learn to write outside myself for an external but presumably singular audience. If you sit down and dissect your creative work – assuming dissection and creation coexist in you comfortably – who is your audience?

My response to myself (because I need more me in my life apparently) is That’s boring! Who wants to write about adult responsibilities and complacency and growing older? Where’s the zing in that? Sure, you could write about nature but wouldn’t you rather make nature a juicy metaphor for emotional upheaval? I don’t know what the answer is, I just know my inner writer and I need to sit down and have a long talk about growing up.