Light splashed this morning
on the shell-pink anemones
swaying on their tall stems;
down blue-spiked veronica
light flowed in rivulets
over the humps of the honeybees;
this morning I saw light kiss
the silk of the roses
in their second flowering,
my late bloomers
flushed with their brandy.
A curious gladness shook me. [Read more…]
Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweeping of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.
—William Butler Yeats, from The Circus Animals’ Desertion
My grandmother worked in a rag shop. That’s what the family called it, and as a child, I understood it to mean precisely what it sounded like: a business in our hometown of Jamestown, New York, where rags were made. According to Grandma, the Salvation Army provided her employer with the raw materials, donating the clothes the thrift shop couldn’t sell. I used to picture Grandma sitting ramrod straight among coworkers, ripping shirts, pants, skirts, and dresses into pieces, while she told her ribald stories, making people laugh and laughing along with them. [Read more…]
I recently read Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water. In the beginning of her book, L’Engle shares a wonderful quotation by Jean Rhys: “Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.”
What a gorgeous piece of wisdom. Rhys does more than simply meditate on her craft or her role as a writer. She celebrates the creative community. Eloquent, evocative, inspiring, reassuring, this quotation speaks to me.
The opening is a command: “Listen to me.” Rhys has something important to tell us, a special knowledge learned through hard work and experience or perhaps through epiphany. But before she shares it, she wants to make sure we’re paying attention. [Read more…]
Late yesterday afternoon, the kids and I walked around our property. The daffodils are blooming. Their yellow heads, like cheerful bonnets, fringe the house, dot the meadow out front, and form bright clumps along the thicket. In the woods, I spied my first trout-lily of the season. The hyacinths are also opening, but that’s pretty much it. It’s too early for the tulips, forsythia, and violets and too late for the pussy willows. Thinking I might cut some willow branches for the house, I trudged over to the ditch where the scrubby trees grow, but their silvery catkins had already puffed into yellow balls. [Read more…]
I’m keeping the teacher’s name to myself, but I’ll tell you this: I liked him. We all liked him. Cheerful, energetic, creative, funny, kind: there was a lot to like.
But on one particular day, our teacher did not like us.
I don’t remember the season, the time of the school day, or what grade I was in, though I think it was seventh. I don’t even remember the subject. But I remember, on this unfortunate occasion, how displeasure reddened the teacher’s face. He paced in front of our neat rows of desks, papers scrunched in his fist at his side. Those papers were our tests, the examination we’d all—every single one of us—bombed.
He halted and whirled around to fix his frustrated gaze on a kid in the front. “Did you study?”
“Um…no,” the student mumbled.
“What about you?” he barked at the next student. “Did you study?” [Read more…]
In junior high, I kept a diary. Diligently, every night before bed, I recorded my day, from what happened first to what happened last, and included the relevant people and places.
I remember something peculiar about this ritual. While writing (perhaps about the potato side dish my mom prepared to accompany the roasted chicken), I felt…uneasy, dissatisfied. Bored out of my freaking mind. In fact, the diary could have won an award for the most BORING writing ever committed to paper. What I resisted including in my bland log—and yet, what would have added the necessary spice—was conflict. [Read more…]
Nathaniel Hawthorne, in his preface to The Marble Faun, directly addresses the audience—calls the reader “indulgent,” “gentle,” “kind.” I rather like wading through Hawthorne’s prose and finding myself so respectfully and hopefully described. Can you hear the plea in his choice of words? It is as if he were begging, “Go easy on me, reader. I’m about to pour my heart out.”
After you have finished writing something, you, too, will long for a gentle reader. You might confront this completed something, whatever it is (poem, story, play, essay), much in the same way that a new parent gazes upon an infant. “Why, look what I made. How remarkable. Wonderful!” And then, with consternation: “But so vulnerable.”
Alas, the world is a cold, cruel place. (Sorry, but it’s true.) You will send your precious masterpiece out into the wilderness with a basket crammed chock-full of your hopes and dreams. And though your darling might fall into the hands of a gentle, indulgent, kind grandmotherly sort, it more likely will bump into a vicious wolf (who works as a fiction editor for a literary magazine and delights in issuing speedy rejections. His den harbors whole piles of shards and rubble—the jagged remains of hapless submitters’ crushed egos.) [Read more…]
The best writers are enchantresses. Their books bewitch us. But how do they cast their magic? This is the question that lingers after I finish a superb novel, and I’ll research the writer to try to answer it, delving into those sources readily available on the internet—reviews, biographies, interviews. I especially enjoy reading the interviews and getting the inside scoop on the author’s life, like the time of day she writes, the snacks she eats, the books she calls her favorites. I relish these details. The admissions of rituals and preferences compel me, as if such minutiae were the stuff of alchemy.
There is one interview question, however, that frequently and obviously rubs authors the wrong way: “Where do you get your ideas?” And honestly, the most common retort rubs me the wrong way: “I go to the idea store and buy a good one.” It’s blatantly snarky (and sadly unoriginal. Writers grumble this all the time. They must also visit the cliché store).
Maybe the sarcasm is a way to hide uncertainty and fear, for the truth is, probably few writers know exactly where they get their ideas. The ideas seem to beget themselves. (And—eek—what if they stop spontaneously reproducing?)
This is true for me, too, of course. Sometimes I’ll read over a story that I’ve recently drafted and find myself scratching my head and asking, “Where did this come from?”
So though I wish I could divulge the secret source from which powerful ideas spring, I’m not sure what that source is. But I do have an inkling of where intriguing ideas lurk, and I want to share a few of these nooks, crevices, and dark corners with you. [Read more…]
Thinking (stressing) about this first blog—getting it started, struggling, scrapping it, and starting over again—has me thinking about other firsts. Like when I first started writing stories ten or so years ago. Let me tell you how that felt.
The agony surprised me. I didn’t expect it for two reasons. One: I already was a writer—a poet (or I liked to think of myself as one, anyway). I’d practiced poetry writing in college, studied under a few great wordsmiths, like Ruth Stone and Paul Muldoon, and continued to pursue that passion after graduation. I was used to paying attention to words, staring at the sky for long periods of time, and (whenever a bit of imagery or a neat turn of phrase popped into my head) scrambling to find a pen and a piece of paper to jot down the words before they fluttered away. Writing poems was like catching fireflies. The verses already existed, hovering over the goldenrod and chicory like an earthborn constellation, decorating the darkness with their mysterious glow; I just had to act quickly enough to nab them. [Read more…]