“No match can turn these scattered feathers into wings of flame”

6835691756_0f4badf3a3_hA week after I posted my short account of burning some papers and notebooks from the Jane Kokernak Archives, one of my writing-and-teaching colleagues at MIT, Susan Spilecki, sent me a poem she wrote that is a response to it. The existence of her poem is, by itself, extremely flattering. More importantly, the words, images, and sober conclusion gave me new insight into what will probably be a source of conflict and even some sadness for the rest of my life. On the same topic, another friend, Bob Price, emailed me and told me of a box of stuff accumulated since boyhood. He hoped I’d kept at least some of my stuff, though added: “I must agree with you that the dead weight of the past needs to be savagely pruned from time to time, lest it crush us.”

Here is Susan Spilecki’s poem. You can read more of her thoughts on the writing and teaching of poetry at her blog, Building a Poem, here: link.

Plans and Fires, Well-Laid
            for Jane Kokernak

Every thinker has this bonfire coming:
projects abandoned, dreams deferred, lists
left to speak their goals to unlistening ears:
alternate futures we did not live

into, perhaps because the fire refused
to light. Every page looks flammable, but
that promise often goes unfulfilled. As much
as we live toward multiple futures, our bodies

only move in the present, our hearts’ fire
only ignites in the presence of the muse’s rare
phlogiston, an ether hotter than the white coals
of the blacksmith’s fire. Thus, the brave ones

gather these scraps and plans, carry them
(as we have been carrying them for years) out
into the winter field. But just as they
would not blaze for us in those busy years,

no match can turn these scattered feathers
into wings of flame. No gas can turn wood pulp
and ink into light and heat. Charred edges
holes seared here and there. That’s all.

But water, too, destroys. Though it appears soft
and harmless, pretty even, the rage of water
engulfing these past predictions, sinking in
to their false promises, turns their To-Do Lies

into a mush with the aroma of ashes. Though
we anticipated a tiny inferno, we should have
known it would end, instead, like this: a mere bog
of unfinished beginnings and unlightable fires.

Susan Spilecki

Image, Match, by Mark Greenwood on Flickr

Imagine a point in the future when you will look back at this moment

be awesome

There is this notion of “anticipatory regret” that is supposed to make you avoid doing something bad by anticipating or imagining the negative consequences of the action. You know, you won’t lie if you imagine untangling yourself from the inevitable web of lies spun out of the first one.

Years ago, I read the novel Therapy by David Lodge. For a long time, I attributed to that novel a different, more positive take on anticipatory regret: that it can help you do something good and desired that you imagine feeling future sadness about if you don’t do it. As I remembered the plot, I recalled that the middle-aged Tubby, who was invited to go on a pilgrimage with his former sweetheart, goes with her because he imagines that someday he could deeply regret not going.

I recently re-read Therapy — which sadly does not hold up well, though I remember it as a shining moment in my history of reading pretty much all of Lodge’s novels up to a point — and, although Kierkegaard’s arguments about regret are part of Tubby’s inner calculus, I found nothing about anticipatory regret.

Perhaps the different take was and is my own.


In the spring, for one of my classes I got into the habit of holding open office hours in a classroom, so students could drop in and talk to me about the assignment and, if they wished, sit for a while and write together. One time, 10 students showed up and stayed! Another time, only one did, but he stayed for two hours to work on his report. He would write, ask me a question, write again, say something out loud, write again, and so on. “What do you write?” he asked me at one point. This was an unexpected question, it being a computer science (writing) class and me so clearly not a computer scientist. Why would he, or any CS student, care?

I hemmed. I hawed. “I have written some essays… tried my hand at poetry… last summer wrote a story.”

“What about a book?”

“Well, a while ago I started working on a novel, but then I stopped because I thought it might not be so good for my mental health.”

“What do you mean?” He was still looking at his own screen, writing.

“Like, the story was too close to home. I wondered if I should be getting my thinking in order instead of projecting it all on a novel.” As I was saying this, it sounded stupid to my own ears.

“THAT IS MESSED UP!” he exclaimed, kind of laughing. “That does not make any sense.”

I, sheepishly, “Well, it did to me, at the time. But, yeah.”


You know, when you say something out loud, or you write it down, then you have to think about it.


Continue reading

Money for artists (and that includes writers)

If you are an artist, there are several reasons why you should be seeking grant and fellowship support for your work:

  • money to make art, learn more, and develop career;
  • support for the scope and completion of specific art works;
  • recognition and encouragement;
  • credentials in the artistic community; and
  • because you’re a worker, and workers get paid.

If you are an artist, there are reasons why you think you don’t need money in support of your art work:

  • I make art; I don’t seek money.
  • My work stands for itself; I don’t want to talk about/explain my work.
  • I have a day job that pays me enough to live. I don’t need money.
  • I haven’t developed enough as an artist to ask for support.
  • Fundraising is salesy, and I don’t want to do it.

People, my eyes were opened to both of these sets of reasons when, in April, I gave a guest lecture/workshop to students at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (SMFA), at the invitation of an artist who teaches a class there on “Creative Futures,” which helps undergraduate and graduate students plan for the career part of being an artist.

Because I worked in development for many years before becoming a writing teacher in 2003, and because I’ve had significant experience doing freelance grant-writing more recently, I was invited.

But… I have never applied for grant support myself (for writing projects) nor have I helped any individuals seek grant or fellowship support.

I turned, therefore, to my artist and writer friends for their insights into and advice on the world of grants and fellowships.

Continue reading

The David Sedaris method

3882941631_b1929e63a6_mI recently read the 2013 collection of essays by David Sedaris, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. It made me laugh; it made me think; and it made me write a review: link.

One of my favorite essays, which unlike many of the other essays has not been previously published in a magazine or journal, is “Day In, Day Out.” He describes his faithful practice as a diary keeper, beginning September 5, 1977 when he and his friend Ronnie were hitchhiking along the West Coast. He was mailing letters and postcards home to friends, but had no fixed address and so they could not write back to him. “And so I began writing to myself,” he reports. For a few months, he used paper place mats that he picked up at the diners they ate at. Eventually he switched to sketchbooks and “began gluing things around [the] entries: rent receipts, ticket stubs–ephemera that ultimately tell [him] much more than the writing does.” In 1979 he started typing his entries and recording details of his daily life, “writing down things that seemed worth remembering.”

Then came drug addiction (crystal meth, he says), and six diaries in a row amounted “to one jittery run-on sentence, a fever dream as humorless as it is self-important.” Re-reading the diary entries by his former drug-addicted self, he “wanted to deny him,” but couldn’t.

That’s the terrible power of a diary: it not only calls for the person you used to be but rubs your nose in him, reminding you that not all change is evolutionary. More often than not, you didn’t learn from your mistakes. You didn’t get wiser but simply older.

Since the first day of daily diary writing in 1977, he has been “consumed” by the habit. He has skipped, “on average, maybe one or two days a year.” The diary is tied to his practice as an essayist. He spends the day recording observations (e.g., “a T-shirt slogan”), overheard conversations, and thoughts (e.g., about an argument with Hugh) in a notebook, and the next morning he tries to do something with them. “Over a given six-month period,” Sedaris writes, “there may be fifty bits worth noting, and six that, with a little work, I might consider reading out loud.”

4372725422_461681d55dIn more than 35 years, he has filled more than 136 diaries, which he keeps in a locked cabinet. He has also indexed the volumes, and the index itself is 280 pages. He worries that: “I’m so busy recording life, I don’t have time to really live it.” Once, after his laptop is stolen, including eight weeks of his diary that he hadn’t backed up, he exclaims, “Two months of my life, erased!”  Hugh reminds him that he “had actually lived those two months.” It wasn’t his time that had been stolen, Hugh asserts, just the record of it. After years of diary-keeping, this was “a distinction” that Sedaris “was no longer able to recognize.”

Image of notebook stack by See-ming Lee on Flickr via a creative commons license
Image of red notebook by Jean-Jacques Halans on Flickr via a creative commons license


Paper, thread, fabric, and glue: be still my heart

sewn pamphlets

sewn pamphlets

It’s winter break, and the MIT community offers weeks of workshops during its Independent Activities Period, or IAP. Some are brief, some occur over days, some help participants build work or academic knowledge, and many are just for fun.

This week, I went to the MIT Libraries’ introduction to bookbinding workshop. To get to the location, I followed a series of signs that began buildings away. In the library, the signs took us into the basement, through the rolling book stacks (‘wait, there’s something behind here?’), into a far corner, and finally into a room which opened into clinical brightness: the Curation and Preservation Services Lab. It was like the secret room in a secret-room dream.

The lab is a model of both warmth and order. The space is about the size of two undergraduate teaching laboratories (or, maybe equivalent to three medium classrooms hooked together). Walls are white. There are several workstations, a few bench height. There is a GIANT paper cutter, and I wish I had a photo of that — the lever was raised, and no doubt you could butcher a chicken with its guillotine blade. Over the sink, the staff had arranged its kitchen implements (e.g. a tea strainer) on the kind of peg board you’d use in a workshop. Everything I saw was in its place and clean. Pinch me.

One the largest workbench was an arrangement of small rectangles of decorated papers and others of solid fabric, spools of linen thread and hanks of colored embroidery thread, and a few tools. On other workbenches were compositions of workshop supplies, one setup for each participant: paint brush, white glue, a cloth paper weight (like a bean bag), a linen wrapped brick, paper to protect the work surface, and paper to sew into a pamphlet.

first steps at making case

first steps at making the case

Some people might get excited walking into a bakery or shoe store. The array of paper and the just-so placement of supplies made this heart beat faster. I also had one of those moments of thinking: It’s so awesome to work at a university. Everything good happens here.

One librarian introduced the workshop and described the purpose of the lab. It’s a “hospital” for the library, and they do both prevention and treatment. The staff also advises on disaster preparedness and disaster response. Honestly, I instantly felt that I was ready to change my occupation. ER for books, people! Continue reading

Hands down, the best literature conference anywhere

This past weekend, I attended the Children’s Literature Summer Institute 2013 at Simmons College, my graduate school alma mater. Among academic conferences, it is one of the best, managing to be smart and profound but not stuffy. As Lois Lowry, the keynote speaker, conveyed in her talk: We are all in this world of children’s literature together.

About 150 people – teachers, writers, illustrators, grad students, librarians, editors, scholars, and fans – attended. Strangers were instantly affectionate. The featured authors and illustrators were approachable. I made a conference friend, a school librarian who is also a Simmons alum, and I really enjoyed having one person with whom I could continuously share impressions and enthusiasm. I also loved being at Simmons again and remembering my professors, my friends, and my years of learning.

I gathered much good insight and advice from the many author and illustrator talks, which were all prepared and differently framed around the Institute’s theme for this year: Love Letters. I took notes. I hope it will all stay with me, motivating me to return to some projects I have set aside in doubt and helping me stick with them.

From my notebook: a list of the speakers, in order of their appearance, and ideas and inspiration I wrote down as they spoke. There are 13 of them, a baker’s dozen. Keep reading after the jump.

Shane plays; Jack records.

Shane plays; Jack records.

1. Shane Evans, illustrator and writer: website

He gives himself an assignment to journal on the same topic for 41 days. The topic might be truth or love or some other big idea. He does this “because I’m lazy.” Once, for 41 days, he asked a different person every day the same question and photographed him/her and then put it all on his website.

Interesting metaphor: mountain top vs. valley. “Nothing grows on top of a mountain; it can’t breathe. We have to go down to the valley; it’s where nurturing happens… We talk about highs and lows – what’s wrong with the lows?!”

He showed a slide of works from 10 visual artists who are his inspirations. I wonder: who would be my 10 inspirations? What would it be like to take a work from each of them and hang it over my desk?

Shane is also a musician – went to college with Taye Diggs – and got us to sing along with him… TWICE.

2. Deborah Freedman, illustrator and writer: website

She is a former architect. Looks at books (physical ones) as “a spatial problem.” She said, “a picture book creates a space.” She believes an iPad won’t do that, or can’t do that yet. (I wondered, “Why not?”) She likes things she can touch; she likes things that exist in space: “I like the book.”

Talked about balancing “intuition and rationality.” She does that in her sketchbook; she starts a new one for each project. Once she has an idea, the first thing she does is to “go to the library and look at every book about that idea.”

In picture-book making, pacing is very important. She works this out in a storyboard, and she’s constantly “pacing and re-pacing.” (I noticed that pacing is a quality of stories and books that several of the writers or illustrators mentioned in their talks.)

Tight limitations are a gift, she said, using those words exactly. I liked her.

Continue reading

Animal rescue league

Jimmy asked, “How was your day?” We are sitting in the living room. I get the couch, the best seat, and he the green chair.

Our usual weekday subjects are work and kids.  The conversation is always better if there’s an anecdote.

“Grace called me twice this afternoon. She found a cat in the yard without a collar, and she wanted to talk it through with me.”

wild thing, you make me stalk you (june 2013)

wild thing, you make me stalk you (june 2013)

I described the stream of texts she sent, her eagerness to locate the owner, and desire for me to come home and help. It was late afternoon, and I was wrapping up anyway. By the time I pulled into the driveway, Grace had already called an adult friend for cat-catching advice, posted a photo on Instagram, searched craigslist for “lost cat,” and speculated as to who in our neighborhood might own the cat.

cat_textShe and I stalked the collarless cat for a little while, trying to herd it back to our yard where we believed we could think and plan better. After we tip-toed into the fourth neighbor’s yard, I said to Grace, “I’m going home to get a laundry basket so we can try catching it.”

The cat eluded catching with the laundry basket. Grace finally said, “I sense this cat is smart enough to survive and find her way home. And I think I know whose cat it is.” We abandoned pursuit.

Later, she took our dog Winston for a walk and rang the bell of some new neighbors. Indeed, the cat belongs to them. The woman told Grace, “She lost her collar and we haven’t replaced it yet. But we know she’ll come home when she’s hungry.”

I told Jimmy that I hoped we weren’t going to become those kind of people, always on the lookout for strays. Continue reading

If a tree falls in an empty conference room, does anybody hear?

Last weekend I went to Orlando, Florida for an academic conference. Two colleagues and I were on the program to present a panel (that is, three integrated short talks) on the teaching and learning opportunities in original research projects for undergraduate mechanical engineers. We had been working on our project since last January: drafting the proposal and later the paper, revising them, drafting the slides, rehearsing, revising the slides, and going over them again. I estimate that about 250 woman-hours went into our talks.

Two people came to our panel. That’s right, two. Oh, and one came 15 minutes late.

This is the thing about academic conferences that everybody knows about but no one does anything about: there are too many panels on the program for the number of attendees, which disperses the audience among too many rooms. Yes, some panels I attended had 30 people in the audience, the size maybe of a class of students. Usually, you hope for at least 8 to 10. But two? Well, that’s just disillusioning, as one of my colleagues said. Our work had almost no effect.

I wonder, selfishly, what else could I have written with the same 100 hours I contributed to the panel? One could say I learned a lot from the research I did (my talk was based on a qualitative study I conducted among students on their experience of a set of assignments), and my colleagues and I consolidated our understanding of our own work through this experience, but, really, to have an audience is better.

In the talks I went to, the best was by keynote speaker Manuel Lima, who presented from his book Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011). He argues that, as the dominant paradigm for visualizing knowledge has gone from the tree to the network, ideas of beauty must change from an emphasis on symmetry and order to complexity and disorder. Lima’s presentation ranged over history, art, science, Gestalt psychology, and our digital world. He used beautiful, disparate images from handmade manuscripts and other artifacts in surprising ways. Illustrations of trees, like this one from 1202 by Joachim of Fiore (in Lima’s book), gave way to abstract art and in particular a network-like painting, Autumn Rhythm, done in 1950 by Jackson Pollock.

The Tree of the Two Advents (1202)

I sat at a table with Manuel Lima at lunch and heard more about his ideas; I bought his book and got his signature. One always gets something of value out of these academic conferences. I am intrigued by the shift from trees to networks as the paradigm of knowledge in our era and by our ideas of classical beauty giving way to complex beauty.

Networks are not just at the center of a scientific revolution; they are also contributing to a considerable shift in our conception of society, culture, and art, expressing a new sense of beauty. As we continuously strive to decipher many of their inner workings, we are constantly bewildered by their displays of convolution, multiplicity, and interconnectedness. And the most elaborate of schemes are the ones that apparently seduce us at the deepest level. — Manual Lima, Visual Complexity (2011)

This is a big idea, the only one at the conference. My colleagues and I were ready with a well-done yet admittedly modest idea. Is this the thing to do, which Lima has done: dedicate one’s self to bigger ideas and bigger projects?

Image credit: The Tree of the Two Advents, Joachim of Fiore (1202), via Brainpickings.org

Bounty of writers’ insights

Sweet autumn clematis (link) reaches its full beauty in early September and then lasts. I have a few spots of it in the yard — over an arbor in the front, along both sides of the chimney, and climbing up the neighbor’s fence — and this summer it exceeded its usual proliferation while I wasn’t looking. Suddenly, it seemed to explode into my attention. One day I said to a member of my editorial staff, Grace Guterman, “Please, when you have a moment, go out in the yard and take some photos for me!” I wanted to preserve the lushness. She did.

Also this month I have noticed in the news a proliferation of commentary from writers on writing that surprised me in some way. So that I don’t lose these good finds, I’m going to catalog and excerpt below the three that made the greatest impression on me.

1. Brian Martin recommends that writers train like athletes. Excerpts from his article in Tomorrow’s Professor:

Write for 15 to 30 minutes every day. Yes, that’s it: the core requirement is daily writing, at least five days a week, preferably seven.

Coaches expect their athletes – swimmers, runners and so forth – to train daily. Junior athletes are expected to show up for training every day, at the same time. Swimmers put in the laps and runners put in the miles. This sort of training enables dedicated high school athletes to achieve times better than world champions a century ago.

So what were top athletes doing back then? Those were the days of amateurs, usually from the upper class with spare time and access to facilities, who trained when they felt like it, typically on weekends. Very gentlemanly. But their performances weren’t outstanding by today’s standards.

What about writing? Most academics seem to be operating like the gentleman athletes of the past. They wait until they feel like writing. That usually means when they have a big block of time, or are forced to meet a deadline.

Most academics learn binge-writing from doing assignments in high school or undergraduate years. Binging becomes increasingly dysfunctional as tasks become larger. Writing an essay overnight is possible, but completing a 300-page thesis requires planning and sustained work. Continue reading

Writer’s Dozen: Peter Selgin and Limits

This is the fourth in a series of posts, called “A Writer’s Dozen,” on texts that have been important to me as a writer.

When he was in his early 20s and struggling to get started as a songwriter, Peter Selgin was attacked by a black Labrador retriever owned by the woman for whom he was apartment sitting in New York. The dog chomped into Selgin’s left wrist. He underwent microsurgery to address significant scarring around the ulnar nerve that affected feeling in and mobility of the hand. Results were minimal.

This event is described in his essay, “Confessions of a Left-Handed Man,” which is the centerpiece of a new book of essays by the same name. I first read this essay in Best American Essays 2006.

Always a left-handed artist and writer, Peter Selgin knew at age 25 that the full manual dexterity of his dominant hand would not return after the attack and surgery. In the essay he recounts his attempt to train his right hand, which felt like “trying to sing with [his] fingers holding his tongue,” to do what his left hand had always done for him. Around this time he also broke his leg. One night he walked on crutches to the East River with thoughts of killing himself. He had always been the left-handed boy — had identified himself as that — and the mirror opposite of his twin brother George, a right-handed boy who became an economist. At the river that night he had a “good bawl” and “hobbled back” to his room.

Twenty years later, he wrote the essay from a point in time he no longer felt that his left-handedness had any special meaning. It simply was. Furthermore, he continued to write and make art with his compromised left hand. The work he made before and after the injury, though, have “nothing in common” with each other. He calls his style “naive, even primitive,” and he asserts that his “lack of dexterity has freed [him] from glibness, which in turn has delivered [him] from the temptation” to show off.

Even though Selgin’s theme for his essay is humility — he says that, for an artist, “to master humility” is as important as mastering the techniques of his medium — for me, the lesson is about limits that we cannot overcome, that we must work within. There is nobility in this, and necessity, once the sorrow passes. Continue reading