Language’s Mystery And Its Relationship to Writers

5d9cf373-e31c-400e-9fe0-1655625ab9b2My husband and I got into a discussion of poetry and our different approaches to it. His training is in new criticism. Mine embraces more contemporary work, though I’m eclectic and like many different styles, including John Ashbery’s method of disjointed narrative. My husband recognizes I’m onto something that Melville was alluding to in Moby Dick—the gap between language and what it tries to depict…how language organizes and creates our way of seeing.

After this conversation, we looked at some poems I had written recently, and he was reading them differently than previously. This time he was able to grasp what I was doing. We talked of how our training can shut us down, put blinders on us. He said, “Joseph Brodsky believes language has a life outside of us and uses the writer.”

I agree. I think there’s truth to the statement “in the beginning was the word.” Language is absolutely mysterious in its relationship to humans and the things it touches.

I also see a relationship between impressionism, some kinds of abstract paintings, and the poetry I write. It tends to mainly suggest something. Give only enough information/detail to set the readers’ imaginations working. I don’t want everything spelled out. I want mystery in my poems (and my prose)—new worlds.

I’m reminded of this quote: “Mark Rothko, painting his stripes in Greece, was asked: ‘Why don’t you paint our temples.’ He replied: ‘Everything I paint is a temple.’” I’d like to think that everything I write is one.

There seems some evidence for the idea that we are changed by the things we create—actually shaped by them. Ralph Ellison shares it. He says the novels we write create us as much as we create them. How mysterious language is and its relationship to writers.

The Writer as Chameleon

The other night I dreamt that I had at least seven different selves that I circulated among. I wasn’t surprised. My roles in the outer world shift regularly from writer to teacher to vp of USF’s part-time faculty union, to mother, to wife, to social director, to cook. But I also realize that writing fiction, poetry, and non-fiction calls on very different aspects of myself.  MoodyNosyBeWeb(1)

When I’m involved in creating a fictive narrative, I have to allow myself to enter into many different settings, characters, and feeling states in order to pull it off. For example, with Fling!, the novel that will be published in July, when I wrote the section on Mexico City, I had never been there. Nor had I visited the city in the 1920s, one of the time periods that occur in the book. But through research about the city, and inhabiting my own imagination, I somehow managed to pull it off. I not only created a believable environment, but I also established a character that fit into that period.

When I write poetry, something different happens. I don’t start with a particular character or setting. Instead, I’m motivated by a feeling or an image or an unexplainable nudge. Nor do I have any idea where the poem is going, though the same is true with fiction. I’m always heading off a precipice, never knowing where or when I’ll land. Poetry seems to be sparked by some inner urge and often leaves me with a quandary or unanswered question. The poem remains a mystery in many ways even to me, the creator.

Non-fiction draws on some aspects of the above two genres, but a very different self takes charge here. While I also don’t usually know where I’m going when I write non-fiction, I am less dependent on mood and characters to guide me. Here, ideas tend to rule, and I dance between them, letting one spark another until a mosaic forms and I have an essay.

Do other writers have a similar process?

Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty: A Mixed Bag

I have mixed feelings after just completing Ann Patchett’s memoir about her friendship with Lucy Grealy, a poet/memoirist/essayist who died at 39 from what appeared to be a drug overdose: Truth and Beauty: A Friendship. Grealy was diagnosed at age nine with a rare form of cancer that is often fatal. It caused the doctors to remove her jawbone. During her remaining years, she went through 38 surgeries. Various doctors attempted to restore her jaw and implant lower teeth (which she didn’t have) so she could chew properly. As it was, she was limited to eating only very soft food.

On the one hand, Patchett does a great job of resurrecting Grealy in this book, an attempt, I’m sure, to keep her friend close by, even though she was dead. Patchett had saved most of Grealy’s letters over the years, and she intersperses them throughout the narrative, giving readers a flavor of Grealy’s thinking and writing. Patchett also captures the intensity of their friendship—they really seemed more like sisters than good friends—from the time they became roommates at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

In spite of being disfigured from her many surgeries, Grealy seems to have had considerable charisma and loved being among people and partying. She was a flamboyant social animal who lusted after men, sex, and life. Patchett appears to have been more subdued and grounded, offering stability to her friend that she didn’t have herself. It appears Patchett even was something of a mother figure, especially in the sections where she describes carrying the 100 lb Grealy from taxi to apartment after her various hospitalizations.

While I’m impressed with Grealy’s heroic response to her terrible fate and with Patchett’s apparent commitment to her friend, I also am interested in the writing life that’s captured here. Both had residencies at prestigious places, such as the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Yaddo, and Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies. They shared their struggles for recognition and success, each achieving fame in her own way, and they were a central part of the NY literary scene. So it’s a book well suited to other writers.

However, Patchett’s memoir makes it sound as if Grealy’s friends were her only family, and we rarely hear any mention of her actual family’s response to her. As a result, Patchett comes across as equally heroic as Grealy in her devotion to her friend. But I wanted to know more about how Grealy’s situation impacted Pachett emotionally, but there’s very little self-reflection here. I also am puzzled by the title Truth and Beauty, both very abstract words that tend to idealize this relationship and seem far from the nitty gritty reality of it.

There seems something cancerous at the core of this friendship Patchett describes that hasn’t quite been diagnosed or resolved, neither by the book nor by Patchett herself.






A Message for All Writers!

I came across this Charles Simic poem and believe it’s speaking to us writers. Of course, I’m sure it has multiple meanings. What do you think?
The White Labyrinth
There is one waiting for you,
On every blank sheet of paper.
So, beware of the monster
Guarding it who’ll be invisible
As he comes charging at you,
Armed as you are only with a pen.
And watch out for that girl
Who’ll come to your aid
With her quick mind and a ball of head,
And lead you by the nose
Out of one maze into another.

Blogging into Visibility

One of the first things my publisher told me to do before my novel Fling is published in 2015 is create a fan base. I don’t think he was referring to the kind of fan I’m used to, a mechanical object with rotating blades that whirl around and stir the air. In a way, though, I suppose the kind of fan my publisher was referring to can stir things up and call attention to our work.

Yet for someone of my disposition (I don’t love big parties or crowds; I prefer quiet intimate dinners with close friends and enjoy spending time alone), making the kind of outreach that marketing a book requires is hard. Not only is it all consuming, taking time away from the precious little I do have for writing itself, but I also must enter a world totally different from the one I’m accustomed to.

I’ve had to learn the language of twitter (I still haven’t a clue how to make that networking approach work); tumblr (not sure exactly what this does); and Facebook (I’m a neophyte, but I’m learning how to add “friends,” many of whom I don’t know, and I’m very good at liking things that stand out); triberr (can’t figure this one out); and Pinterest (not sure how to employ this tool). I’ve signed up for blog rolls and blog hops. I’m investigating virtual book tours since real ones don’t do much for unknown authors. At the moment, I have a 15-page marketing plan, and I’ve only scratched the surface! It will be a book itself by the time I’m finished.

This sounds like sour grapes when I should be grateful that my novel will be published (and I am!), but how will all of these activities make people like my writing or become a “fan”? This marketing madness is an aspect of writing I hadn’t anticipated. While I was familiar with the demands of researching publishers and publications for long and short work, both poetry and prose, the business side of what we writers do, this other aspect of publishing has totally changed my life.

It’s also one of the reasons I am writing this blog (as so many other writers are doing), trying to make my presence as a writer known beyond my immediate friends (who must hate receiving all these posts!). At times I wonder if I’m just preaching to the choir since most writers have the same goals: We’re enrolled in Goodreads and Librarything. If we’re women, we try to keep connected with Shewrites. We’re all trying to sell books, but are we actually reaching those readers who aren’t writers themselves, the ones we want to attract?

I would like to hear from other writers who are also going through this process and have advice on how to survive it. Meanwhile, here I am, stirring up a little air on the Internet in my search for fans.




Making Lemonade: How To Transform Rejection

A writing friend of mine has papered her bathroom with rejection slips.   Viewed in that context, they become less weighty, put into perspective.  As writers, we tend to think of rejections from publishers as negative.  But rejections can be gifts in disguise, offering us a way to make lemonade out of lemons.

There have been times when, once I let the initial sting of rejection subside and looked at the piece again, I could see why it wasn’t ready for publication or right for the place where I’d sent it.  Often the work still was in an early stage, but I hadn’t recognized that yet.  When we don’t have someone to edit our work, we can misjudge it, so it is important to view some rejections as professional feedback, not a rebuff.

In one rejection I received, the editor was kind enough to point out I hadn’t hit the emotional center of the piece.  I was remaining too general, skirting the heart of the story.  Once he pointed out my omission, I was able to literally turn honey into gold, the actual title of the article.

In another instance, I had written an article on cats.  The editor of a cat magazine returned it without any comment, a response that can hurt even more than the typical form letter.  That was a few months ago.  Today I picked up the essay and could see clearly what wasn’t working: it didn’t have a sharp focus. Again, I hadn’t hit the heart of the piece.

After making a European grand tour recently, I wrote my first travel article, wanting to make other travelers aware of some problems I’d run into.  I sent it off, expecting immediate acceptance:  after all, the article made so much sense.  Well, that was exactly the problem.  The piece was too factual and needed more personal flavor. In this case, one travel editor, while patronizing, at least made valuable recommendations. I just overlooked his manner.

We writers need to create something beautiful—or at least useful—out of what might seem a negative experience.  Make lemonade out of a lemon.  Turn honey into gold.