Revisionings

I’m at this weird moment with my writing.  I am, on one hand, working on very very very (to borrow Anne Lamott’s absolutely perfect term) sh*tty rough drafts.  They’re the kind of drafts that are necessary for the kind of work I’m doing, which is very difficult and very personal and therefore means that I need to write faster than my brain can run, because my brain will just be like, stop stop STOPSTOPSTOP, and nothing will ever get done.  On the other hand, I’m working on almost-to-the-very-end-of-revising-and-beginning-of-submitting revisions.  In other words:

  • I’m cutting large parts of poems out and yelling things like stop trying to make fetch happen at them and then re-writing from the few lines that remain.
  • I’m spending most of a day (well, okay, a week) working on a poem, trying to coax it out of the form I at first forced it into (because it
    Here are some of those notes I was talking about in all of their cryptic glory.

    Here are some of those notes I was talking about in all of their cryptic glory.

    seemed like it wanted to be a pantoum, it really did) and into the form in which (hopefully) it’ll do something close to working.

  • I’m taking three hours to get two lines right.
  • I’m taking out all of the commas and capital letters and then replacing all of the commas and capital letters.
  • I’m changing “the Alabama Shakes’ Boys and Girls” to “that Alabama Shakes album” and realizing that that tiny change revealed exactly what the essay meant all along, and what I needed to do to make it mean that.
  • I’m trying to translate and expand cryptic notes I leave myself on my phone, on my laptop, on my Kindle, on my Post-Its, on the skin beneath my thumb, on a receipt for a McDonald’s smoothie.
  • I’m remembering what I meant by FUNERAL WHAT’S SAID STOPPED WRITING ESP ABOUT BC ALSO THIS ISN’T THE CLIMAX END TO TENSION THAT CHANGES THINGS CATS.
  • I’m taking out all of the commas and capital letters and then replacing all of the commas and capital letters — except for two commas and one capital letter, which finally, finally makes the poem work.

It’s an interesting in-between place.  It’s a good place to be — bringing work into the world, preparing to send work out of the world — but it’s also an uncomfortable place.  And it’s that, that discomfort, exactly, that makes it such a good place.  When the writing gets too comfortable, I start worrying.  I start thinking, this is not good.  Because writing — good writing — requires risk, and that’s far from comfortable.

This has also made me think a lot about my students, who are all in a very similar place.  I’ve often thought that learning how to write is a kind of apprenticeship: you learn the craft from reading and watching someone work, from listening to them talk about how they approach their work, and you learn the art from practicing the craft, from being willing to take risks and sharpen your skills and to work and work and work.  Sometimes, I’ll think of the writing teacher as the leader of the apprenticeship, but more and more, I feel like that isn’t true.  I feel like it can’t be true, because no one can really be a master.  I feel like perhaps the real apprenticeship is to the art itself, to all of its mysteries and wonders, all of its moments of despair and whimsy and confusion.  We’re all in the same boat, in a creative writing classroom, wherever we sit, and I often think that the teacher’s job is to start conversations, to nudge students towards risk, to give them a vocabulary to talk about their work and a way to apply those terms and techniques to their own pieces.  I think it’s also a teacher’s job to learn — both through one’s own work and reading and from one’s teachers.

Every day, I walk to my office with my folder and grade-book and Diet Coke and Altoids and I feel — excited.  Thrilled.  Nervous.  Lucky.  Most of all, lucky.  I’d say that this has been an exceptional semester in which I’ve been lucky enough to teach some exceptional students, but really, there’s nothing exceptional about it.  Instead, it’s been the rule.  I’m continuously grateful to be surrounded by such minds and such energy, such unfailing appetites for learning.  I’m grateful to my students for being willing to talk through the routes they’re taking in this strange landscape language makes for us — and I’m grateful to them for the daily reminder that though we are all making our own way in this landscape, we are, none of us, ever truly alone.

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Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Alice B. Toklas*

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself and my writing, it’s that major breakthroughs and advances — well, they don’t come easy.  Sure, from time to time a breakthrough will come hurdling through the clouds and sky and onto my laptop or notebook page, but I know that I can’t depend upon that.  I also know that these breakthroughs only come hurdling through the clouds and sky and onto my laptop or notebook page if I’m there at my laptop or notebook page.  In other words, I do sometimes have breakthroughs out of the clear blue sky that make everything very much easier,

This is a photograph of the feline Alice B. Toklas, who is the hero of today's story.

This is a photograph of the feline Alice B. Toklas, who is the hero of today’s story.

but said out-of-the-clear-blue-sky everything-easier-making breakthroughs only come from hard work.

And when I say hard work, I mean hard work.  I mean hard, frustrating work.  I mean minutes and hours and days and years of hard, hard, hard frustrating work.  And sometimes it takes a very long time, and always it takes being honest with myself in a way that isn’t exactly comfortable.

It’s a funny thing, being a writer — often, when I finally figure out how to do something and do something well, it’s exactly the point when I know I shouldn’t get comfortable.  If I get comfortable, I do the same thing over and over again, kind of like my treat addict of a cat, Alice B. Toklas — she’s figured out that if she goes in the kitchen and meows and looks up at me in this certain unbelievably pitiful way, she will receive two treats.  But writing isn’t like that, no matter how pitiful the look I give my laptop.  Eventually, the treats stop coming.  Or else the treats do keep coming, but they’re increasingly stale.  Like, moldy stale.  Yes, I’m doing something I figured out how to do, and sometimes even to do well, but I’m not growing.  I’m not moving to the next level.  I’m not taking risks and challenging myself and thinking, really thinking, about what I’m doing.  I’m not engaging with language and the way it’s built.  I’m not doing myself or my work any favors.

And so I keep pushing myself to push myself, even if I don’t get the treats.  And usually, when I’m moving towards a breakthrough, there are no treats anywhere to be found (apparently, I have decided to stay with this metaphor and stretch it beyond its capacity.  Which is, incidentally, one of the things that I do when I’m not pushing myself the way I need to push myself as a writer.  Harumph).  There are just — pardon me, but Anne Lamott’s phrase is too perfect not to borrow — shitty first drafts.  And shitty second and third and fourth drafts.  There are hours of staring at a screen, putting a line in one place and then moving it and then deleting it completely, only to put it exactly where it was the next day.

See?  Frustrating.  Like, beyond.

And that’s the state I was in a while ago, when I realized that I had no idea where Alice B. Toklas was (the feline Alice B. Toklas, of course; it’s pretty clear where the actual Alice B. Toklas is, or was).  This is generally bad news because it could mean that she’s eaten a couch or gotten arrested for spying on my neighbors.  I started walking around the house very slowly and saying Alice very softly, both because I didn’t want to scare her and

This is the ball and the corner in question.  I'm posting a photograph of it mostly to remind myself, in the future, of what kind of ball Alice B. Toklas likes for when Alice B. Toklas eats it or gives it to the cicadas or something and I have to buy more of them.

This is the ball and the corner in question. I’m posting a photograph of it mostly to remind myself, in the future, of what kind of ball Alice B. Toklas likes for when Alice B. Toklas eats it or gives it to the cicadas or something and I have to buy more of them.

because a disappeared cat is a generally terrifying situation.  When I found her, she was in the corner of my bathroom, trying to wedge her let’s-call-it-big-boned-and-just-very-furry body between the toilet and the bathtub.  At first I thought this was just another thing that Alice B. Toklas likes to do, like licking the windows or hiding under things by only putting her head under them and closing her eyes.  Then I started hearing a bell, and I realized that there was a reason for her hiding behind the toilet, besides, you know, hiding behind the toilet: she was trying to get her ball out of the corner, and with the kind of complete and total focus my cats usually only give their food bowls or my feet when they want to bite them.  I decided to help her out and picked up the ball and threw it, expecting her to jump joyfully after it.  Instead, she just looked up at me in great confusion — or, at least, more confusion than usual, which I admit is quite a bit of confusion.  I said what and she just sat there, staring with great confusion until, finally, she walked off in defeat to chew on a sofa or something.

That’s when I realized that it wasn’t the ball itself that Alice B. Toklas wanted; it was the challenge of getting to the ball.  She enjoyed the struggle, the fight.  She loved the work itself — and then the bell went off in my mind.  I realized that’s what I needed to do, too — to let myself relax, to allow myself the shitty first, second, third, fourth, and nth drafts, and to just enjoy playing with language, finding new ways into words.  I may get the ball.  I may not.  In the end, really, I think it’s not about the product but the process — not the solution, but the struggle — and learning to be happy with both.

* That is, the feline Alice B. Toklas, of course.  Everything I learned from the human Alice B. Toklas is only legal in Amsterdam, Washington, and Colorado.

There is no Frigate like Book

There are a few small but appreciable benefits from dealing with Circumstances, and all stem from the fact that Circumstances tend to make one re-evaluate and re-think — and Circumstances often give one the time one needs to re-evaluate and re-think.

That sentence was hella awkward.

In less vague and oddly formal third-person terms, I guess I could say that, every so often, it seems like I go through Circumstances that require me to sit back and think about what I’m doing with and in my life, about what really matters to me and on/with what I need to spend the precious-beyond-precious time I have.  And for me, time and time again, the answer is always the same answer: words.

NOTE: Gertrude Stein does not necessarily share my enthusiasm for all things bookish.

NOTE: Gertrude Stein does not necessarily share my enthusiasm for all things bookish.

I think that most, if not all, writers come to write because they love words, which means they love to read.  Most, if not all, of us have a moment tucked inside of us, a moment when words suddenly became more than words, when words unfurled inside the mind into something as enormous and wonderful and even slightly frightening as Jack’s beanstalk, and with its power to transport.

That’s the frightening part — the power — and also the tremendously beautiful part.  It’s what every writer, I think, is, in the end, chasing: the power to transport herself and someone else, in the same was as she herself has been transported, through words.  When I was a little girl, my father took me to the library every weekend, and I remember walking from shelf to shelf, pulling books off the shelves and opening them into Vs, reading random paragraphs to find which ones I wanted to take home.  I always knew when I found the right one: the shelves vanished, the library vanished, the entire state of Alabama vanished, and I vanished with them.  It was just the words, the world that they made.

The Circumstances through which I’m currently moving and living have given me, wondrously, the quiet time I needed to spend with words — both with my own and with others’.  It’s the kind of quiet time I need, from time to time, to recharge.  I think it’s very easy, especially if you’re a person who’s trying to get published or whose job related to words, to get discouraged, to let the rejections overtake you, to lose faith in your own language.  Or, at least, that’s what happens to me, and it happens far more easily and frequently than I often admit.  It’s also very easy to get so wrapped up in publishing and competition and ego (or lack thereof) to the point where your own words aren’t necessarily your own.  It’s easy to forget the small miracle that happens every time a pen hits a page.  It’s easy to forget that more often than not, the writer isn’t the one in control.  The words are.  A writer’s place isn’t in speaking.  It’s in listening.

Reading — living, for a few hundred pages or so, in another’s world, living and listening and loving through and in their words — is the way I remember this.  It’s the way I return, again and again, to the sense of awe that made me begin writing myself.  I mean this in several senses of the word: amazement, yes, but also fear, and the sense of reverence that comes from wonder and terror.  I mean this in the sense of respect of language itself, of how letters and words and sentences build upon themselves, seemingly of their own volition and power.

Though the Circumstances I’m dealing with this summer aren’t necessarily the most pleasant Circumstances, I’m very grateful for them.  They’ve given me the space I need to sit and be quiet and read.  They’ve given me the space I need to remember: I’m still the girl standing somewhere in the vacuum of vanished space and time, a book an open bird in my hand.  I’m still there, in awe of the words, of the world they make.

The Story Behind “The Damage”

Today, one of my dreams came true, and I say that without exaggeration: a piece of mine, from Inch magazine, is featured today on Poetry Daily.  I found out about this a while ago but didn’t really believe it was actually happening until I saw it today, and I’ve had to look at it again and again to make sure that I’m not just dreaming.  I mean, I’m not, right?  You can see it too?

Here's a picture of the beheaded cherub.  I miss it, still.

Here’s a picture of the beheaded cherub. I miss it, still.

I thought I’d write a short blog entry about the piece, since I’m always curious about the poems that pop up on Poetry Daily and, well, like, everywhere that poems tend to pop up.  I won’t tell the whole story behind it because a.) I already did that, and b.) then where will the mystery be?  Suffice it to say that the story behind this involves a huge move, which is a new beginning, and a huge break-up, which is, of course, an ending.  Besides the relationship, a few things were broken during or missing after the move: a couch cushion, my bicycle, and the head of a cherub on this terrible and beautiful planter my grandmother had used as storage for cotton balls.  It was a strange time, a time when beginnings were muddled with endings, and I could hardly tell the difference between the two anymore.

Flash to September of 2012, over a year later.  A friend and I had just finished a stint on The Grind (explained beautifully here by Grind founder Ross White) and were following it up with a submissions grind.  We promised each other that we’d send out at least one piece a day.  One Saturday, I was poking around for places to submit short essays and I came across Press 53, (which, as it turns out, published a remarkable collection by fellow Grinder and all-around amazing poet and person, Shivani Mehta — Useful Information for the Soon-to-be- Beheaded) and then Press 53’s Tumblr, with their weekly 53-word story prompt.  The prompt for that week was to write a 53-word story about moving.  I read the prompt and the rules and then promptly shut down my computer and headed to Hobby Lobby for some emergency crafting supplies (the emergency, as always with Hobby Lobby, was just that it was Saturday, and they’re closed on Sundays, which always sends me into a crafting/quilting/crocheting tail-spin — what if I need very fine glitters on a Sunday?  It happens more often than one would think).  As I wandered around trying to figure out why there were so giant zebra-striped flowers, I found that my mind was working on a poem.  When I got home, I wrote it: and word count showed me that it was, miraculously, 55 words.  I cut two, and submitted it.  Boom.

Of course, the micro-essay (though I guess now I should probably call it a prose poem) was rejected.  I revised and sent to another magazine.  Rejected.  Repeat.  Rejected.  Then, I saw a call-for-work for an all-micro-essay issue of Inch, one of my favorite magazines, and I sent to that.  Miraculously, it was accepted — and so began the road to Poetry Daily.  I’m especially happy that this is the poem that made it, since Inch is a journal I really love and a journal that shines light on oft-ignored micro-forms, and since they were willing to give this triply-rejected piece a fourth chance.

Sometimes, I’ll end up with a poem or essay that just feels like a gift.  It feels like a well-made thing, though I don’t feel like its maker.  This poem/essay was just such a thing: I hadn’t intended to write about this part of my move — ever, really — and I didn’t set out to focus on the beheaded cherub.  But there it was, and then it was on the page, called into being by forces which didn’t seem entirely under my control.

I suppose, when I think about it, it does make sense that I wrote this poem at this time.  It was a time when everything seemed to be changing, again.  My relationships changed, my friendships changed, my health changed and therefore my body changed, and therefore my world and the way I lived in it changed.  I didn’t make a move, but the world around me moved.  It was a time of muddled beginnings and endings, and I again couldn’t tell which was which.  It was the beginning of a moment of great change, from which I am only now starting to emerge, to look around, and to assess what was damaged beyond repair and what remains.

And this, I suppose, is the greater gift, the greater dream come true: to have a poem that acts like a lens and focuses on what damage is, and what beginning and ending, for me at least, really means.