Writer’s Dozen: Mary Oliver and Sound

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

on the Provincetown shore, 2010

Words have more than meaning.

Words have sound, and how words sound affect the quality of something written.

For example, you could use either the word “moist” or “damp” to describe the armpits of a character’s shirt; the meaning — slightly wet — is about the same. And yet the sound of moist, which causes a pressing together of lips to create the mm, a pursing to form the oy, and then a sinister baring of teeth for the soft and hard st, evokes more disgust than the simple, matter-of-fact damp with its softer consonants.

D and p, in fact, are mutes, and m is a liquid. These are terms for types of consonants, grouped into what Mary Oliver calls “families of sounds” in A Poetry Handbook (Harcourt Brace, 1994).

Sounds of words matter — Oliver compares the nouns stone and rock and the commands “Hush!” and “Please be quiet!” — because, as she writes, “there is, or can be, a correlation between the meaning, connotation, and actual sound of the word.”

I love this book for its clarity, simplicity, and helpfulness. At different times in my life, especially my teens and mid-30s, I have had a great impulse to read and write poetry,  with scant formal training in it, and by that I mean no college or grad school poetry workshops. I did, as an adult, take a few classes in poetry through the Brookline Center for Adult Education, where I learned and wrote a lot. (One doesn’t have to get credits to get educated, I say.)

It was around this time I encountered Oliver’s Poetry Handbook for the first time. Over the years, whether I’ve been writing poetry or not, it has been a helpful reference on sound, meter, rhyme, and line breaks. Even if you are more a poetry reader than writer, this book can help you understand how words and combinations of them can do their work.

On rhythm, she writes:

The reader, as he or she begins to read, quickly enters the rhythmic pattern of a poem. It takes no more than two or three lines for a rhythm, and a feeling of pleasure in that rhythm, to be transferred from the poem to the reader. Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures, and when we feel a pleasurable rhythm we hope it will continue. When it does, it grows sweeter. When it becomes reliable, we are in a kind of body-heaven. Continue reading

Writer’s Dozen: Natalie Goldberg and Bones

Goldberg, pen, and cake

Permission, sincere belief, and urgency: those are what Natalie Goldberg gives to readers of Writing Down the Bones (Shambhala Publications, Boston: 1986). This post is the first of Writer’s Dozen, a series on 13 texts that have meant a lot to me as a writer.

When I first encountered this book, in the graduate-level Teaching Writing course at Simmons College in the spring of 2003, I wondered why Professor Lowry Pei had assigned it. I cringed reading the first chapter, “Beginner’s Mind, Pen and Paper,” and Goldberg’s hokey advice on choosing a “fast-writing pen because your thoughts are always much faster than your hand” and purchasing “a cheap spiral notebook” over a “fancy” one so that “you feel that you can fill it quickly and afford another.”

Let’s get to the point, I thought. The pen-and-paper suggestion seemed to be a detour and right at the beginning of the book when I was eager to get started. Clearly, this was for adults, and did they really need guidance in finding these most basic tools? If they do, they’re not going to get too far as writers. The snob in me was having her say in my internal dialogue.

Other chapters describe the timed “egoless” freewrite, writing as daily practice, distance of time, and some more fruitful topics. My position on Goldberg’s method started to soften, though, only when I read her command that we shouldn’t “identify too strongly with [our] work.” Words, when writing them, are “a great moment going through” the writer. Not being a Buddhist, as she is, I didn’t quite understand what she was getting at, but I found it a relief to think that I could write deeply and then move on to deeply writing something else, having left the old thing behind, done.

My initial resistance to Writing Down the Bones and the spiritual dimension to Goldberg’s approach had to do with my age (38), agnosticism, and experience writing and getting writing (for work and school) done. I didn’t think I necessarily needed anyone to tell me to write, write lots, write regularly. At first, I wondered if this book was intended purely for the beginner or the unsure, which I believed myself to be not at all.

But I quickly liked and was intrigued by the ideas of this writing professor, Lowry Pei, who has since become mentor, colleague, and friend, and I thought I’d go along with it and see how Goldberg fit into Pei’s approach. I was still keeping my emotional distance from Bones, not sure it applied to me. Continue reading

Writer’s Dozen: a new series

For several months, I’ve been keeping a list of texts that have meant a lot to me as a writer. Some are as long as a book and are explicitly about writing, in particular about practice, process, and style.  A few of my picks are essay length, and a few are about visual art, e.g., photography and ceramics, yet the authors articulate principles that, in my view, apply to writing.

This list of 13 of my fundamental texts will turn into a new series, Writer’s Dozen, starting with my next post. I am inspired in part by an essay I read recently, by Tom Bissell, called “Writing about Writing about Writing,” in which he takes stock of some staples in the how-to-write section of his local bookstore. It’s a balanced analysis; he finds reasons to both mock and praise the books he features. On my list and his only two overlap: ones by Annie Lamott and Natalie Goldberg. Bissell admits to varying personal interest in the other books he critiques, which include Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist (his one writer’s-life-changing text), Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, and Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life.

I highly recommend Bissell’s essay. He has a tougher sensibility than I, but the heart of his argument is consistent with my motivation for choosing 13 personally influential texts and commenting on them in my upcoming series. About books about writing in general, Bissell asserts:

Most writers have thoughts about writing as an act, as a way of understanding oneself, or as a way of being, and they are often interesting. I have any number of thoughts about writing, all of which I find incomparably fascinating… A how-to-write book saved my life, then, but it did so existentially, not instructively. Many of the best books about writing are only incidentally about writing. Instead, they are about how to live.

Indeed, my favorite books about writing or art are, in their way, about how to live.

First up: Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, a book that initially disturbed me and then later settled down and found its place in my habits.

Image, “Pencil Art,” by Nalini Prasana on Flickr via a creative commons license.

Adrienne Rich and “The Trees”

The poet Adrienne Rich died at age 82 yesterday, March 28.  The New York Times in its obituary describes her as “among the most influential writers of the feminist movement.” This is true. Let’s also acknowledge her as one of the great writers, period, of the 20th century. Her body of work is still fresh and relevant.

The most recent issue of Granta included a new poem, “Endpapers,” which prompted me to re-read the anthology Facts of a Doorframe (new edition, 2002) and essays Arts of the Possible (2002). I first read her work deeply in a graduate class taught by Renée Bergland at Simmons College, which I attended from the age of 35 to 38. This is perhaps late to come to Adrienne Rich, seeing that she had been around as an influential writer since the 1960s, but it was the right time for me. Awakenings, after all, tend to happen once a person has some adulthood under her belt. A favorite poem from Doorframe is “The Trees.” If you know me or are a reader of this blog, this won’t surprise you. What’s surprising about the poem, however, is how unromantic it is for a nature poem: trees in a greenhouse break out as though patients from an asylum.

See below the jump for an excerpt of the poem by Rich and an excerpt of a paper comparing Rich’s “The Trees” to Frost’s “Birches” (another poem loved by me) I wrote in April 2003 for Renée’s excellent women’s poetry course. I have some new thoughts on the poem, too. Continue reading

Writing to confront the human heart in conflict

At last, another writer has excavated an issue about writing that has been worrying me. Does the desire to write and publish spring from some creative well (that is the hope) or does it spring from neurosis (that is the worry)?

In Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Steve Almond, story writer and essayist, argues convincingly that the rise of writing workshops parallels a decline in talk therapy. He claims that what brings many individuals to writing, and to MFA programs, is less an interest in craft than a location for their “loneliness and sorrow.” About himself as a young writer, he says

I figured I had gone into the literary racket because I had urgent and profound things to say about the world and because I was a deeply creative person. But looking back, I can see that the instigating impulse for me, for all of us really, was therapeutic. We were writing to confront what Faulkner called “the human heart in conflict with itself.” And not just any heart. Our hearts.


copyright: Pina (2011), by Wim Wenders

A few weeks ago, Jimmy and I went out for a quick dinner at Mantra (definitely on the down curve) before seeing Pina in 3D nearby. This you should see. Determined not to talk about the children or money, we discussed our side projects: he’s working on a novel about a discontented middle-aged man trying to reconcile himself to his life with antics both professional and personal, and I am working on a YA novel about a family of three children who have been abandoned by their parents and are trying to make it on their own, without revealing their situation to concerned adults around them. The more we described the characters and events to each other, the more concerned I became.

“Um,” I finally said, “Don’t you think this is really, really messed up?”

“What’s messed up?” Jimmy asked, perhaps having more fun with this conversation than I was.

“That maybe what we’re writing aren’t really novels, but just projections of our own subconscious conflicts and desires? Like maybe we should quit writing and straighten ourselves out?”

copyright: Pina (2011), by Wim Wenders

Jimmy responded with a writer’s answer: “In my writing, I’m trying to go to the places I fear to go.” Apparently, in his novel, the protagonist’s wife is killed, and this is upsetting to Jimmy, and so he’s writing into the terror. Armchair psychologist that I am, I speculated to myself that he also secretly and occasionally fantasizes about the disappearance of his own wife. (That’s okay, as long as I can remain alive in another dimension.)

And, hey, my subconscious is besmirched too. My protagonist may be a 13 year old girl and not a middle-aged married woman, but the mother of this girl — and the father — end up abandoning their kids in a series of events both planned and unplanned. What does that say about me? Continue reading

I am instantly in love with this project

This notice from The New Yorker caught my eye and rang the wonder bell.

Patrick Shea, an elementary-school teacher and musician who lives in Brooklyn, has spent the past three years setting “Moby-Dick” to music, writing one song per chapter. He’s performing them with his band, Call Me Ishmael, during a weekly residence at Pianos, a club on the Lower East Side.

I found Patrick Shea’s blog and song list. I found the song for possibly my favorite chapter, 89: Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish. My one-word review: peppy.

Not sure these songs will climb any charts, but no doubt Melville would have related to this display of obsessiveness.

Ready or not for my close-up

A good thing about living in a household with artistic people is that there is always someone around to sing a song, pick up the guitar, give technical assistance with Photoshop or Audacity, draw a picture or diagram, edit a draft.

This morning, before she headed to camp, I asked Grace to take a photograph of me for a post I was writing for my blog on A Sweet Life. I gave her a few suggestions: I wanted a close-up of me; fatigue or frustration would be the emotional message; and I didn’t want my facial expression to convey the message — it had to be posture or color or something else.

We sat in the kitchen at the table, she across from me. She stage-directed me. “Use two hands.” Then, “Try one hand.” Or, “Too much hair.” She’d look at the camera display screen. “Smile a little so your face is smoother, but not so much that you’re smiling.” “One more time, and sit forward.”

She picked one. Wow, it looked so stark and real. I could see a ligament in my neck where it meets the collarbone and the nasolabial fold that improves when I’m smiling. But I wasn’t smiling. Did I really want to look this plain? Couldn’t I get this junior artist to put a visual spin on it?

“Could we try Toon Camera?” I asked. Continue reading

Snarky little bits

The Boss of Me, by Kathryn DeMarco

I do not know of many representations of diabetes in art or culture, at least ones that interest me. There is the movie, Steel Magnolias (1989). The Julia Roberts character Shelby, who has diabetes, is possessed by a hypoglycemic episode (really, it’s freakishly portrayed) while in a beauty parlor chair, as you probably have seen, and she later dies young.

Ann, the protagonist of the Kathryn Harrison’s novel, Exposure (1993), has diabetes, too, but does not die young. A New Yorker, videographer, crystal meth addict, and shoplifter — doesn’t she sound busy? — Ann doesn’t take insulin when she is supposed to and yet she does take that meth. Clearly, she has (out of) control issues. It’s a strange story, even stranger than I’ve described, and yet at least Exposure is literary.

Art is not required to be representative. I know that. But still, I can’t help but look for myself out there. As a woman, for example, I do like to read novels with women characters. It follows that, as a person with diabetes, I might like to read a few good novels with diabetic characters or see diabetes refracted through film, music, or visual art.

I’ve stayed on the trail, and several weeks ago I came across the work of collage artist Kathryn DeMarco, who makes self-portraits, some featuring explicit or oblique references of her body with diabetes. Online, I found her portrait above, The Boss of Me, and stared at it a long time in recognition. I’ve held the same pose, looking in my bathroom mirror, holding up my shirt to look at the white adhesive patch on my midriff, the pump held in my hand like a heavy fish still attached to the line. And the look on the face — not smiling, not frowning — is sober and forthright. Like mine, when I look at myself. Continue reading

A hunt for illustrations

"love & fear," by David Pham on Flickr

Usually, I use my own photographs as illustrations for posts. Sometimes, I hunt for them on Flickr, which involves the dual challenge of finding images that communicate, although not too tritely, and that are licensed by Creative Commons.

The search for the image does not come before I write the post or even after I’m done. I search sometime in the middle, when I know what the post is about yet I am still developing the idea or story. The right image is not only for the reader’s experience, it’s for my writer’s one. A photograph is inspiration and a kind of information.

Yesterday, I wrote a short piece for A Sweet Life on loving and fearing my doctor. Link. It started out as loving him and hating the visits, but when I searched Flickr for love/hate images, I mostly found pairs of hands with “love” inked on one set of digits and “hate” inked on the other set. Trite. The frustrating search helped me, though, realize that “hate” was too extreme a characterization of what I feel about quarterly visits to my diabetes doc. Fear is a more apt complement to love.

And so I browsed through Flickr images for love twinned with fear, and, in addition to many mentions of 1 John 4:18,  I found the above image by shapeshift (David Pham). Taken in 2005, the photograph is of a mural on the wall of a construction site in the Mission, San Francisco. I like the intimacy of the pair, with the human heart and skull dwarfing them in size. She is showing him something; he looks down at it, literally. They smile, even though the fragility (and glory) of the heart and the unavoidability of death hover over them. These observations and others, whether I dealt with them explicitly or not in “Why I Love and Fear My Doctor,” fed me while finishing the post. The reflection, prompted by the image and my hunt for it, took me to a different ending than the one I had planned.

Of course I hope the illustration does some work for the reader, too.