• Resisting Writing

    “Under every deep a lower deep opens.”       –Emerson Our habitual stories usually protect us from the mystery of our lives.      –Thomas Moore This...

You have to hold your mouth right.  It’s what my dad said when we fished.  The fish won’t bite unless you do.  And if one of us didn’t catch any, “Guess you weren’t holding your mouth right.”  No one ever said what “right” meant, and of course we didn’t ask.  It was another adult thing that we were supposed to intuit or figure out.  Holding your mouth right means closed, as in No Talking.  That much was clear.

I experimented with pursing my lips, the way fish lips looked to me, then held my mouth at a slant, one side lower than the other, like a fish’s grimace when you dragged it out of the water.  I couldn’t tell that either one helped any, but getting still enough tot try these out, I noticed things.  Movements at the surface of the pond and where the deeper water seemed to start.  Half-submerged logs and branches we called “stick-up’s” near Dad’s red and white bobber.  I slid my line closer to his.

Focused on how I held my mouth, I was too busy to pull my line out every minute or two to see if I had caught anything.  All of which made catching a fish more likely.  Working out the puzzle of how to hold my mouth, I forgot to be anxious.

It occurs to me that I can apply the same strategy to writing — especially in this time when the words are slow to bite.  If I hold my mouth just right, I might notice where the water shifts hues and dip my a line into a deeper spot, attend to that edge where shallow mets deep.  There’s often food for thought there.  And perhaps I’ll look more closely at what’s pushing through the surface — “stick-up’s” and menacing logs I’ve avoided approaching in words.

How does a writer hold her mouth? closed? pursed? askew?  Does she bite the tip of her tongue, lick her lips?  All of the above — and more.  The writer mostly allows her mouth to rest at its ease as she listens to street sounds, to the person across from her or the one behind her in line, to the wind between branches or buildings, to a remembered voice still alive in her somewhere.  And especially to children — or anyone — speaking in language fresh and mysterious as words are to her when they first start to bite, when the tug of their life at the end of her line is almost more of delight and deep joy than she can land.

Engaged this trail of thoughts, I don’t put the pen down every five minutes, convinced I can’t write anything that matters.  Trying to figure out how a writer holds her mouth takes my mind off the need to produce a first draft worthy of the effort, as if all first drafts aren’t meant to be returned to the water to grow a while.

On the bank of that pond I once pulled up a sleek bass.  Iridescent as it came free of green water, the fish bowed its length to a furious arc, stippled and streaked blue-gray-jade, fierce as fire.  I pulled the bass close, lifted it from the hook with a light hand.  I slipped it back into the bright patch of sky caught in the pond and took myself home in the dusk.

Author’s note:  Writing this post made me go looking for William Stafford’s essay, “A Way of Writing” (from Writing the Australian Crawl.)  I remembered that Stafford compared his daily writing ritual to fishing.  I’m glad I sought out the essay, which I had not read for years.  It richly repaid my search.  You can read it online here http://ualr.edu/rmburns/RB/staffort.html and more about Stafford and his work here http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/william-e-stafford

I’ve written about fishing before.  Larkspur Press www.larkspurpress.com/ published one of my fishing poems, “Fishing with my Father in the Middle Field Pond,”  as a broadside.  Carolyn Whitesel did the gorgeous illustration.

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The Easy Square

Sudoku stymied me.  I did not want to work the daily puzzle because I failed, and I did want to work the daily puzzle because I failed.  It was a lot the way I felt about writing when I started out.  With Sudoku it wasn’t long before my urgency to make the puzzle work overcame my discomfort with failure and I bought a book of puzzles with a section of strategies for filling in those nine by nine squares.  For a while I worked puzzles with a single-minded focus.  I x-ed out the complete failures and tried another one until I began to get it right more of the time than not.

That was seven years ago.  The daily Sudoku puzzle is a ritual for me now.  Something I look forward to.  I still fail, but I know that that failure has more to do with being tired or impatient or agitated than it does with the solvability of the puzzle itself.  One evening when I was particularly frustrated with what should have been an easy puzzle, I heard my inner critic/coach say, “Calm down.  Do the squares you can do.  Don’t worry about the rest.”

Simple, right?  Obvious.  But in my desire to finish the puzzle I had been stopped by all the squares I had not and could not fill in.  I went back over the grid and found one square I could fill.  Then another.  Absorbed in doing what I could, I was surprised when, in a little while, the entire grid was filled.  I had completed the puzzle without realizing it.

I’ve been working on a novel for quite a while now.  Writing it in between writing poems and essays and teaching classes and being a mother/sister/wife/grandmother.  When I heard that inner voice say, “Do the squares you can do,” I was stymied in the midst of revising the novel.  Blocked by the sheer mass of pages and the “undoneness” of the whole. Were there easy squares I could fill in?  And couldn’t I use this same tactic to complete the sequence of poems I had struggled with for a while?

I began to look for the easy squares, not only in my poems and the novel, but also as I dealt with an unusual string of family crises.  If I could calm myself down and do what I could do rather than focus on what I could not, knots began to unravel.

Revising a poem, I could drop that line that said too much, end the poem sooner — an easy square to fill.  Working on the novel, I let go of the opening pages and went straight to what felt good and easy to me, started there and let the “easy square” feeling take me to what needed to come next.  When someone called with a problem I could not solve, I thought, “Where’s the easy square here?”

I still fail a lot of the time — the poem doesn’t work, the novel revision is ongoing — but more often, finding what I can do loosens what had felt impenetrable.  Looking for the easy square makes me smile.

Even if I don’t succeed every time, I’ve discovered a way of working that often leaves me gratified and surprised.  I look up and see that the final square is filled.  The poem is ready to submit again.  My sister’s voice sounds lighter on the phone.  The novel is finding its way.

Many people, entrepreneurs in particular, are fond of saying that they’ve “re-created” themselves or that they are “self-made.”  While reinventing yourself can seem spectacular, I tend to believe Tolstoy was right when he said, “True life is lived when tiny changes occur.”  Even the self-made woman grew, cell by cell, thought by conviction, into the self she proclaims as “brand new.”

Many people, entrepreneurs in particular, are fond of saying that they’ve “re-created” themselves or that they are “self-made.”  While reinventing yourself can seem spectacular, I tend to believe Tolstoy was right when he said, “True life is lived when tiny changes occur.”  Even the self-made woman grew, cell by cell, thought by conviction, into the self she proclaims as “brand new.”

As a writer, I pursue regeneration in the form of revision.  When I teach, I tell writers that revision is not tinkering, but rather the work of allowing your piece to reveal itself to you in its wholeness and subtlety.  In fact, many times revision turns out to be nothing less than bringing the work fully into being.  A good deal of revision turns out to be listening and waiting for the phrase or edit that is just out of reach.  Like an old-fashioned doctor or nurse, we must sit with the work, watching for what it can teach us about itself.  We are midwifes to our writing, I tell my students, not mechanics.

As a woman “remade” in part by cancer, surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, and more recently by a total hip replacement (necessitated by the aftereffects of cancer treatment), I am interested in regeneration.  Could biomedical engineer one day insert a starfish gene into breast tissue and allow women to regenerate what they’ve had to sacrifice on the altar of staying alive?  Could necrotic bone tissue be taught to grow again?

Curious about how far I could carry the metaphor of remaking, I did a bit of research to see to what extent the human body recreates itself.  Most of us have heard some version of the “fact” that the human body completely replaces itself every seven years.  Turns out this is not the case.  The latest research (or at least the most recent that’s been popularized in media outlets) comes from Jonas Frisen in Sweden and supports what scientists have known for a good while now:  different cells replace themselves at widely differing rates depending in part on how much wear and tear they receive.  Some quite slowly, others (like our gastric lining) every several days.  (Nicholas Wade, NYT, Aug. 2, 2005)

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The friends that have it I do wrong

Whenever I remake at song,

Should know what issue is at stake:

It is myself that I remake.

One of the most infamous of revisers, William Butler Yeats, wrote this quatrain in defense of his continual rewriting.  Like Yeats, I believe in remaking the self.  And in my writing as a means of self-creation and self-understanding.  Revision, then, for me as it was for Yeats, is at least in part a “coming into being” of the work.  A form of growth and refinement that takes us as writers (and people) closer to the heart of what we want to say (of who we are meant to be).

I often use the Buddhist phrase “original face” to speak of the poem that waits beyond our revisions.  Revising, we move word by sound by image, incorporating contradictions and associations, toward a wholeness only glimpsed in our early attempts to get something on the page.

What relationship does the remade self have to the “original” self?  If we assume that the “original” poem is the first flash of feeling or first splash of words, we will not allow time and space for the poem that embraces as much of possible of what prompted that first flash.  On a physical level, if I assume that my younger self or some image of that self is my “original” self, I deny that my original face contains every version of the body/face I have experienced so far, as well as those I have not yet known.

I am/am not the five year old who played in that sand pile.  (A sand pile inexplicably built right next to the gasoline pump where my grandfather refuels all his farm equipment.)  I am almost completely not her on a cellular level (which for me is where metaphor begins).   Toward what kind of wholeness am I being revised?  Toward what does my writing (as expression of being) aspire?

So far in their research, the Swedish scientists have found that cells in the brain and in the heart may persist for a lifetime.  Brain and heart, I am still in some ways that girl — not fully realized yet, but all there from the start.

Original face embraces duality — what might be and what has not yet been, what is gone and what is here, what is us and what is not, the absent breast, the hip implant.  Writing and revision teach me that the process of “remaking” is real — every scar a story to be held fast or shared, a healing accomplished or not quite achieved.  At its best, writing clarifies us and enlarges us toward what we may never fully become.

see also The Scar Project