The Artist’s Corner – Talking Poetry With Poet Carrie Tangenberg, Part 2

Welcome back to The Artist’s Corner for the second portion of my interview with poet Carrie Tangenberg.  Today, we’ll continue with Carrie’s amazing insight into poetry as well as enjoy one of her original poems.

Why is poetry important?

A literary question for the ages. I can only look through my biased poet’s lens, but I think it’s valuable not just because academia tells us it is.

For me:  Poetry gave me a way to express myself early in life that did not demand absolute clarity or lots of text. I could write what I felt or wanted to feel. I could focus on rhythm and the sounds of words. It didn’t have to make sense to anyone but me, and even then, it took me a long time to be so kind to myself. I used to be quite experimental, moving from puns to invented words and concepts, creating sense out of nonsense. Poetry lets me stretch linguistic connections, explore different word combinations and uses of any given word or phrase, and discover new routes to meaning and beauty.

In general:  Poetry offers a shortcut to evoking reader emotion, making us feel deeply, recalling our humanity. Poems explore, celebrate, articulate, and enhance life, death, love, art, nature, and human connection. Poems invite different ways of seeing everyday things, different ways of thinking about life. Poetry is lyrical, musical, rhythmic, with creative phrase order, language use, lines, and “paragraphs.” Poems present puzzles and riddles to solve and enigmas to wonder at. Poetry can add a touch of class, beauty, spirit, weight, or emotion to more logical or pragmatic ceremonies, presentations, and texts.

Poetry can be challenging, not lying down easily before you just because you showed up to read it. It makes you work by being in stanzas and by making readers pay attention to details to gain meaning. It’s a useful form to renew our concentration abilities, recovering them from Tweet and sound bite, back toward longer literary forms. Among literary modes, poetry pre-dates the novel, the news article, and the textbook. It has longevity. Poetry lets readers and writers approach the depths of meaning to find a way to shine a light and share. Poetry offers greater variety of form than fiction or non-fiction does. It is a diamond of many faces. Poetry offers a niche to fit into when your work or interests don’t fit neatly anywhere else. For instance, poetry lets non-visual artists, listeners, and readers penetrate and fill the spaces between too-reasonable words and wordless music. Songs are poems, and they lend insight into and mark the passage of our culture’s generations.

Beyond that, I refer you to The American Interest online article “Why, Poetry?” by David Kirby (2007). Great stuff. Addressing poetry’s value, he asks, among other things, “Why is there a poet laureate but not a novelist laureate or playwright laureate?” It must mean something to us. Poetry is easier than it used to be, more accessible, and more diverse. New forms are invented on the Internet, and poetry culture moves forward.

As with any art or literature, not all poems work for everyone, but poetry is a unique form with so much mileage that there really is something for everyone.

What do you see as the role of humor in poetry?

As with many aspects of poetry, humor in poetry is often subtle, but there’s no rule against including the comical in a poem that doesn’t also apply to the rest of the poem or non-humorous ones as well. As long as a poem can breathe, that is if it’s of sufficient length, there can be room for humor in even the most serious. The tension between opposing emotions is something that makes art great.

Billy Collins is the perfect example of a poet who has woven humor masterfully into much of his work. See “Paradelle. Silly and/or psycho form from Billy Collins.” – from the Writer’s Digest article “List of 50 Poetic Forms for Poets.

Humor’s role in poetry varies and can be manifold. It can be an effective method of emotional contrast for emphasizing a concept or point, or for deepening a dramatic effect. It can help some readers better relate to a poem’s message. It can be pleasurable in its own right. Then, there are the forms of poetry designed for or generous to humorous content: limericks, rhyming couplets, parody, and others.

There are also poetic forms, such as the elegy, that are meant to be serious. In the end, the poet should aim to match form to content and mood. For a simple example, if a humorous shape emerges from a concrete poetic image, the reader expects funny content.

What is the relationship between your speaking voice and your written voice?

We both tend to be long winded. I’ve always been a formal speaker and an even more formal writer, using words often beyond the understanding or comfort levels of readers and listeners, who in my experience tend to be young or struggling students. But because I dabble in so many different genres, forms, and purposes with my writing, I’m still trying to find a cohesive voice for each. In some ways, just as novelists must put themselves in different frames of mind to get into different characters, a poet can use the poetic space to explore different perspectives and different voices from different characters. The narrator/speaker is not always the author in either poetry or fiction, and they should not be equated. Qualities of an author’s history or personality may echo through his or her work, but not all poetry or fiction is fully or even partially autobiographical.

I think, though, that it is a rare person who is able to speak the same way to every other person encountered in life. Because of this, even our speaking voices are not internally consistent, let alone matched up perfectly with our written voices. On one hand, you wouldn’t want to speak to a stranger the same way you speak to your child or partner. On the other, even when we try to “be ourselves,” we unconsciously hide and reveal, emphasize and downplay, different parts of ourselves depending on who we interact with, our comfort levels, intentions, vulnerabilities, experiences, habits, and modes of being—recreational versus professional atmospheres, for example. People not only can change but do, quite often from moment to moment, in how they represent themselves. It may be dishonest at times, but just as truth can be subjective, so can our identities be flexible. People rarely walk around unfiltered. There’s always a hidden and a visible self. Self-control, invaluable to civilization, means suppressing our first impulses, and that’s a kind of lie, too.

Do you belong to a writing group or community of poets with whom you share your work? Has this been beneficial?

I’m in a writing group, but it’s multi-modal and focused on fiction. Luckily, there are a few members who are also poets, which can add a layer of insight that those less familiar with poetry may not be able to offer. It’s always good to have an outside perspective to consider during revision. With the group, I learn things that apply to all my writing, including poetry.

What do you believe is the measure of success for a poet?

That’s an excellent question. The short answer, unfortunately, is the unsatisfying “It depends.” In this day of self-publishing at the drop of a hat, it’s not the ability to self-publish or be “published.” It’s not solely the ability to get the words on the page with confidence. It’s not necessarily being held in high esteem by authorities with clout, or receiving poetry awards. It’s neither self-defined nor externally defined alone. I suppose it could be a blend of self-perceived success, some degree of circulation of one’s poetry amidst the masses, and some acclaim as a result of that.

If you don’t feel successful, that doesn’t mean you aren’t, but success in poetry can rarely if ever be defined by financial reward or income sustainability. It’s a long-standing sad joke among poets that this just doesn’t happen with poetry alone. A writer has to diversify. Focus on non-fiction of various kinds, including researched biography, instruction books, a cultural niche, or journalism than to rely on poetry for lucrative ends. Once the poet accepts this reality and still commits to the work of writing verse as part of the repertoire, the aim is to continue to develop as an artist, to advance your craft beyond what it was yesterday. If you can do that, and know that you have, you are succeeding as a writer.

What advice do you have for aspiring poets? Do you believe writing poetry can be taught or is it strictly an inherent ability?

Certain principles and several specific forms of poetry must be taught, but writing good poetry also requires innate orientation to the music, cadence, rhythm, sounds, imagery, lyricism, phrasing, or forms of poetry. It requires a thorough understanding of the effective use of language to communicate, to suggest, to imply, and it requires knowing what not to write and how not to write. It requires study, whether self-driven or received in a top-down fashion, as in college or an MFA writing program. True poetry rarely just happens, though I suppose it has occurred and remains possible in that rare individual.

I come from a verse writing education where my professor encouraged further study of certain aspects of my work beyond the scope of my courses. However, I believe a poet can emerge without formal higher education. Poetry is one of those modes of writing with so many variations in approach and form that experimentation and innovation may actually be more readily achieved in poetry than in long-form fiction, for one.

Consistency and cohesion within a poem are key. You can break the rules, but do so across the poem without restoring them at any point. For example, if it’s going to be a poem with end rhymes, you must carry that through to the end. If the first lines are not rhymed, suddenly starting to rhyme part way through is jarring to the reader. If you don’t apply techniques consistently across a piece, you’ve probably written at least two different poems or parts of poems, thinking they’re one when they’re not.

Poetry is all about patterns and the communication of the parts with each other. This is more important in a short form of writing, including short stories, than in longer forms, though novels still do better with some discernible shape—the rising action, conflict, climax, etc.—than without it. If a poem is poorly organized or incoherent or disjointed, it’s really, really noticeable. You can more easily get away with a little nonsense or minor error in a fiction manuscript.

How would you recommend someone reading poetry for the first time approach a poem?

Any poem of significant length, complexity, or difficulty should be read in phases for its layers. First, read it for the basic idea, and then read aloud to listen for its music. Poetry is designed to be read aloud. Next, read it over and over again with a different focus each time, including: (1) prosody, or the elements of versification and metrical structure, (2) meter-related rhythm, (3) form, including stanza division and line breaks, (4) rhyme, alliteration, assonance, consonance, and other sonic devices, (5) use of literary tools such as personification, metaphor, and simile, (6) point of view and speaker vs. author, (7) relationship of title to poem, etc.

Form should reinforce meaning, support and not work against it, so the more you learn about how a poem is constructed, the closer you come to understanding its message. Sometimes, form can be a large part of message. Poetry is a mode not infrequently used in a self-reflexive way, with poems about poetry, to express poetic principles in structure and words. Finally (or first!) and most important of all, try to pinpoint what you like and dislike about a poem and why. This will inform your reading choices, increasing your enjoyment in the future, and help you learn more about poetry and how to write it.

How important is accessibility of meaning? Should one have to work hard to “solve” the poem?

A poet should not make it her primary or even secondary aim to impede the reading of her poem. I don’t believe in purposely self-defeating behavior. If you’re reasonably intelligent and you’ve read a poem repeatedly, discussed it, studied it, and still can’t figure out the major strokes, it’s not worth any more of your time. It’s probably unnecessarily difficult.

However, because there are layers to any good poem that’s not a couplet or simple Haiku, most poems can be appreciated at multiple levels. Something I enjoy most about poetry and any art form is the richness that allows the audience to discover something new with each return to the work. In academia, poetry reading and study involving sustained, diligent effort markedly increase your chances of fulfilling whatever analytical requirements your instructor has assigned. In pure enjoyment especially, however, poetry is in the eye of the beholder. Like all art, it is subject to matters of personal taste. It’s a subjective enterprise and a personal study. If you’re not required to work hard to solve it, why strain?

What do most poorly-written poems have in common?

A bad poem can be bad—or have bad sections—for many reasons. It states the obvious, confuses concepts, turns personal grievance into whining, stops at surface-level emotions and ideas, employs clichéd imagery, demonstrates careless word choice, uses length as a crutch to seem important, applies techniques inconsistently, ends after the first draft, abandons form for content, or, conversely, abandons sensible content to show off a certain structure—or all of the above.

If you start with free verse, let it remain free. Start with metered verse, and it should probably conform to the meter your first lines set, though some poetic forms deliberately shift meter across the poem. Unless your specific purpose is to explore the different effects deliberate shifting between formalism and free verse has on the structure or ideas, pick one or the other and stick to it.

Examples of excessive structural worship include using rhyme in a forced way, writing a sonnet with hackneyed imagery and stale word choice, writing in meter with awkward rhythm (i.e., bad meter), breaking lines in awkward places just keep lines neat, or only ever breaking lines at sentence endings.

There are still other ways poems can be poor in quality, but I think those are the main ones.

What do most well-written poems have in common?

The bottom line is that quality poetry, and any writing, is earned. Achieving quality in most things demands study, careful craft, practice, revision, and polish—and those efforts show in the final product. Beyond the opposite of all of those traits described in the previous answer, freshness and originality, masterful vocabulary, applied nuance, and skilled balancing of all aspects set great poems apart from the herd.

Who is your favorite poet?

Too many to list, but here are the main ones: Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Judith Wright, John Keats, Walt Whitman, W. B. Yeats, William Wordsworth, Amy Clampitt, Philip Larkin, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Billy Collins, Sylvia Plath, Wallace Stevens, Wislawa Szymborska, Matthew Arnold, Wilfred Owen, William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, e. e. cummings, Robert Frost, Louis MacNeice, Marianne Moore, Rita Dove, Theodore Roethke, Adrienne Rich, Derek Walcott, Hugh MacDiarmid, W. H. Auden, Christina Rossetti, Robert Burns, Seamus Heaney, Robert Pinsky, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and many 20th- and 21st-century songwriters.

Other poets I enjoy: William Matthews, Geoffrey Chaucer, Jane Hirschfield, Carolyn Kizer, Mary Jo Salter, D. H. Lawrence, Henry David Thoreau, Dylan Thomas, Robert Pinsky, James Merrill, Richard Wilbur, Kenneth Koch, Patrick Kavanagh, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Donald Hall, Ted Hughes, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Gwendolyn Brooks, William Blake, and Elaine Feeney.

What is your favorite poem?

That’s a bit like asking someone to pick a favorite moment in life or art. Some of those I’m most passionate about, which I highly recommend everyone reads, would be:

American trailblazers: “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman; Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death,” “A Route of Evanescence,” “Hope Is the Thing with Feathers,” “My Life had stood a Loaded Gun”

Best war themed: “Anthem for Doomed Youth” by Wilfred Owen (WWI) and “First Snow in Alsace” by Richard Wilbur (WWII)

A downright favorite: Amy Clampitt’s “Beethoven, Opus 111” and “The Sun Underfoot Among the Sundews” (love, love, love Clampitt!)

Quintessential Romanticism: “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” by William Wordsworth and “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats

A. E. Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young” and Countee Cullen’s “Heritage”

Love breaking the rules: “since feeling is first” by e. e. cummings

Pure contemporary, comic enjoyment: “Forgetfulness” and “I Chop Some Parsley While Listening to Art Blakey’s Version of Three Blind Mice” by Billy Collins

Self-reflexive poem about what poetry should be: “Ars Poetica” by Archibald MacLeish

A good feminist spin-off: “Eve to Her Daughters” by Judith Wright

20th-century metrical verse: “The Sunlight on the Garden” by Louis MacNeice and “One Art” (a villanelle) by Elizabeth Bishop. Most poems by Elizabeth Bishop.

Comparing fish: “The Fish” by Marianne Moore and “The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop

Oh, the sounds: “Root Cellar” by Theodore Roethke and “Lake Isle of Innisfree” by W. B. Yeats

Avant-garde, nature, ephemeral love & line breaks: Book I of Asphodel, That Greeny Flower by William Carlos Williams and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens

A favorite Scots poem: “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns

Epic post-colonial poem: Omeros by Derek Walcott (having some French will help)

Best (only?) nonsense poem I know: “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll

Philip Larkin: “Church Going,” “For Sidney Bechet,” “An Arundel Tomb” & “Talking in Bed”

Sylvia Plath’s “Blackberrying,” “Tulips,” “Ariel,” and “Daddy”

Men of Ireland: “When You Are Old” by W. B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney’s “Punishment”

What kind of work are you most drawn to reading yourself? Do you find yourself reading work similar to your own or completely different?

With writing, I think like attracts like. I seek out what I want to emulate, and I try to emulate what I find most precise, original, musical, and beautiful.

What book are you reading right now?

A book club book: The Good Earth, itself written with lyrical, rhythmic prose by Pearl S. Buck. I’ve recently collected some books of poems by Elizabeth Bishop, Wislawa Szymborska, Judith Wright, and Elaine Feeney. I received A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver as a gift, but I haven’t been as impressed with her work. Also on my bookshelf are almost all of Billy Collins’ poetry, an old complete works of Emily Dickinson, poems by Rumi, and the Norton Anthology of Poetry, 4th edition, along with many other books of and about poetry.

Do the Internet and social media contribute to the well-being of poetry?

I believe so, though I couldn’t say how at the moment. Or, rather, I can’t tell whether the net effect is positive or negative. But like any major cultural force, it does have impact on art. So much is more readily accessible than before this digital information age. Quoting is a pastime for many. And yet, the impulse to speak constantly to others, to comb and scroll and scan through endless talk must also diminish the preciousness of words. We increasingly employ the short form in communicating with one another—the sound bite, tweet, Facebook shout-out, Instagram posting—but that doesn’t make it poetic, any more than reading print copies of novels makes us necessarily more poetic.

Where can one find you on the Internet?

Blog: “Philosofishal

Twitter @Carrielt37

Facebook: Carrie Tangenberg

LinkedIn: Carrie Tangenberg, Writer, Tutor

Do you have any non-poetry/writing creative outlets?

My most prevalent non-writing hobby would probably have to be photography. I like to draw occasionally. I’ll paint a picture every once in a while, but not without guidance; I’ve enjoyed a couple of those wine and painting events. I love color in general, so I dabble in home decorating, gardening, coloring books, and the occasional craft project.

Please share an original poem.

“Ode to Cantwell” by Carrie Tangenberg © 6/9/01, revised 4/10/16, 11/3/17

First composed at Cantwell Cliffs, Hocking Hills State Park, south central Ohio

Ferns cry up the greenest

moss-kissed stones I’ve seen.

Fellows dress in fringe,

and cascade merriment.

 

Velvet mats outdo

a frond-sprawl of delight—

in one vale, fresh spinach,

another, shamrock shake (or

is that lichen?), then lime

green Jell-O, young

avocado—ever glad

in rained-soaked shade.

 

If trees are chefs and servants,

then falls of ale ensconce

a vast buffet, inviting

calls to Cantwell Cliffs.

 

No hearth yet in view,

we walk, my love and I,

grasp at crags and creases.

A share of these replaces

clasping hands—too fraught,

despite appeasing warmth.

 

Plump rock faces, deep-

set stoned eyes, cliff chins,

talus noses, unkempt

joyful, bearded jaws

of giant height (or depth),

bouldered, flaunt their black-

and-green tartan patterns,

like heady Guinness pints

wrapped in Beltane bands.

 

We lurk the upper lip

and scarce escape the teeth.

 

One walking stick—scepter-

shaped, a hovering torch—

guides a canty man

askance our emerald path.

Swift, glad and keen,

earthen steps from rod to

root, his wordless cant:

 

“I am the fateful ambler,

chief of my migration,

god of my life and strife.

I come here to be, to pass,

to climb, to stir green trails

to sight and sense, imbibe

and feast in any weather,

hearth or no, till I’m full

and satisfied. I’m noble

but free, for I leave it all

here, fulsome as before.

 

“Though I look not behind,

I know return is rare.”

 

Serrated plumage wags

at slightest breath of man.

Untrod, the mosses cling.

Ebullient, verdant things.

Genius Indeed

Anyone who knows me knows that I read more than I watch movies.  It’s not that I have anything against movies, there are some excellent ones out there, but I love the place reading takes me.  A little prose to tantalize the senses, characters with whom I can relate or debate, description that draws me in:  I lose myself in the writing to the exclusion of everything around me.  But when a fellow book-snob recommends a movie, I seriously consider watching it.  Such was the case with Genius starring Colin Firth, Jude Law, Laura Linney, and Nicole Kidman.  The movie chronicles Scribner’s editor, Max Perkins, as he oversees the careers of Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway with the emphasis on Wolfe.

The first three actors immediately caught my attention because they are among my favorites.  Turns out Nicole Kidman portrayed Aline Bernstein, Thomas Wolfe’s unofficial patron and jilted lover, with an incredible amount of skill.  She’s matured quite nicely as an actress beyond being a pretty foil for Tom Cruise’s macho-man roles.  When she asks Jude Law as Thomas Wolfe if he knows how hard she’s worked to look at him and feel nothing, her strength radiates from the screen.

As for Laura Linney, who never fails to please, I thought she was underused in this film in her role of Max Perkins’s wife, Louise.  Her character was strong when she stood up to her husband, demanding he spend more time with his five daughters and less with his author, Thomas Wolfe, but she seemed a titch on the peripheral.  I understand the movie focused on the relationship between Perkins and Wolfe, but why waste Linney’s talent on one impassioned plea and nothing more?

Colin Firth as Max Perkins appealed to me as a writer.  Firth’s portrayal was solid, marching steadily on as an editor, drawing lines with his red pencil through a writer’s work with the precision of a scalpel.  I thrilled and cringed all at once watching those scenes.  But the one that delighted me the most was when Firth/Perkins sat on a train reading Wolfe’s manuscript that would become Look Homeward, Angel and realized it was worthy of publication.  Again, I was drawn into the movie by Firth’s slight smile, drawn into his head to the point I could see the wheels turning because he knew he’d hit upon literary genius.  Ah, to be a writer in those days when the relationship between editor and author meant hashing out the chapters line by line while secluded in an office.

The first thing about the movie that caught my attention was the cinematography in the opening scenes depicting the 1920s.  Usually pictures or films from this era are shades of gray or sepia.  Such was the case with the movie until it slowly faded to color past the opening credits.  Only the coloring didn’t change all that much because the streets of 1920s New York were rather gray and brown anyhow.

Now think beyond the splash of color implied by jazz and flappers and you’ll realize this was a great technique to employ in a movie about writers.  You’ll see it throughout the movie from Max Perkins’s cigarette smoke-clouded office slanted with rays of sunshine, to Perkins’s white home against a plain background, to scenes of men in breadlines during the Depression.  This may sound rather boring, but I believe it was a skillful attempt to capture black words on a white page, i.e. writing.  In fact, the whole movie was so brilliantly black and white, that I must give high praise to whoever thought of transitioning the written word to the viewed image in such a way.

Make no mistake, however; the movie was anything but colorless.  Jude Law as the larger-than-life Thomas Wolfe was so over the top with his portrayal.  Clearly Wolfe was a genius, but I flinched every time he opened his mouth, romping around scenes like a Great Dane puppy, and baying his slightly crazy, writerly musings.  I could see why Wolfe needed reigning in and taming by Max Perkins.  Law was at his most unsophisticated, un-Jude-like self; I forgot that he was acting and not truly Thomas Wolfe.

Guy Pearce as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dominic West as Ernest Hemingway provide two nice cameos of the authors.  More exciting was the camera panning what looked to be first edition novels by said authors on the shelves in Max Perkins’s office.  Even if they weren’t, I’m sure I wasn’t the only writer salivating at the dream of getting my hands on a first edition of any of their works.

One small sidebar to the Perkins/Wolfe drama was the tiny restoration of my faith toward F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with F. Scott and banged him up pretty bad on my blog.  (F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Short Stories, Dear Scott, Sincerely HL, Under the Influence).  The viewer is given a small glimpse of F. Scott as the tender caretaker of his mad wife, Zelda.  For me, this persona never came out in Fitzgerald’s writing.  To see him as something other than the money-grubbing, mad-for-fame author in pursuit of the “top girl” was refreshing.

I’ll not spoil the ending of the movie as it delivers more emotionally impactive word-to-image scenes, but I’ll close by saying it was the best movie I ever read.

Baring My Writer’s Soul – Part 23

Recently, at my writer’s group, a fellow writer who is beginning her chosen art form told me that she was advised to not write above an eighth-grade level.  I remember several seconds of stunned silence between us before I asked, “Who told you that?”  Based on her troubled countenance, I don’t doubt that the horror of this suggestion came through in my tone.  I’ve also been told that my facial expressions convey exactly what I’m thinking, so I hope I didn’t overwhelm the poor woman with my response.  I wanted her to run screaming, just not from me.  If I didn’t scare her off, I’ll make sure I soften my reactions when discussing such matters in the future.

Still, I am shocked that this type of bad advice is floating around writer’s groups.  The last time I checked, there were still twelve grades a student in America needed to complete.  Somebody please tell me if the progression of education stopped at grade eight.  That would mean my child, currently a senior, has read nothing beyond an eighth-grade level for the past four years.  That’s insane.  Then again, I recall the small heart attack I experienced when I saw Stephenie Meyer’s The Host on the high school reading list.  Which piece of classic literature found itself guillotined at the inclusion of that piece of tripe?

I have suspected for a long time that the art form of writing was under attack.  My fellow writer’s comment confirmed this.  So when did the dumbing down of American literature begin?  I don’t know if I can actually pinpoint the precise moment it occurred, but I can tell you the moment I became aware of it.  (And shame on me for not being more vigilant if it took place sooner.)

Dumbing down is the deliberate oversimplification of intellectual content within education, literature, cinema, news, video games, and culture in order to relate to those unable to assimilate more sophisticated information.

I remember the day I saw a t-shirt printed with the statement “underachiever and proud of it.”  I had another moment, not quite as intense as that with my fellow writer, but one in which I was completely baffled.  I could not fathom a person or society comprised of people who willingly settled for mediocrity in anything and a world in which one did the bare minimum to get by.  There is no hope of success when one functions under such a principle.

And yet, this is exactly where we, as a society, have fallen twenty-five years later.  It’s as if those who bullied the smart kids for hanging out at the library weren’t content to just harass their fellow students.  They wouldn’t stop until the smart kids not only condoned but encouraged this stagnation of the intellect.  If you don’t get on board—don’t hold yourself back from seeking knowledge or temper your drive and ambitions—you’ll be labeled  a snob in the least and intolerant at the worst.

So again I ask:  why this attack on art?  Because art is dangerous.  Art tells the truth.  Artists are freethinkers who challenge the status quo.  It was a novelist and playwright who said, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”  A gold star to anyone who can tell me who said this.  Here’s where the problem of proud underachiever comes in.  The generation in which this concept became acceptable doesn’t care enough to find out who said the above-mentioned quote or what the quote even means.  They are too lazy to want this information for themselves and are disdainful toward anyone who does.  If it isn’t required of them in school, and based on the poor quality of curriculum in American schools I doubt that it is, they won’t reach out and grasp the knowledge.

That’s pathetic when you consider that we live in an era where knowledge is readily accessible.  No more searching through the card catalog or plowing through large volumes of encyclopedias.  You don’t even have to go to the library.  Just ask Alexa, Cortana, or Google what you need to know from the comfort of your couch.  Be sure to wait until the commercial or you’ll miss the best part of your favorite recorded TV show.

What troubles me about his indolent attitude is that it’s creeping backward and contaminating older generations.  Hopefully it won’t pollute the writing of those already established and feeling pressured to churn out more or older writers just beginning to pursue their passion.  As for me, I am personally committed to fighting this process of dumbing down by writing the best literature I can and by seeking to improve myself in every way.  I am not afraid to compete, to go for the gold.  After all, why run the race if I don’t intend to win?

I’ll most likely be among the first to die if America ever succumbs to an oppressive regime because we all know how much tyrants fear artists.  But If I can leave behind a written work that the next generation, possibly the survivors, smuggle from home to home and hold up as an example of what they should strive for, then my art—my writing—will not have been in vain.

Baring My Writer’s Soul – Part 22

I am making a transition in my writing life.  The reason for this is the complete derailment I experienced in the earlier part of this year.  I know that isn’t much of an explanation, but this short version is free of negativity and the temptation to succumb to it.  I could go on and on telling you what went wrong and how I allowed it to happen, but I do not want to contaminate anyone’s thought process with my own difficulties.  We’re writers; we’ll manufacture plenty of woes on our own without someone spoon feeding suggestions to us.

The good news for me is that my writing passion is starting to return.  The stories are creeping back into my head like deer tentatively stepping from the security of the forest into the wide-open unknown of the meadow.  It was my own fault they were driven away in the first place, and I must and am taking responsibility for this.

For a short time I did nothing positive toward my writing life.  The only connection I maintained to writing was reading.  I hid out in books, believing what I did was helpful, but I was living in denial.  One piece of writing advice that actually saved me was to do something different altogether.  I was struggling anyhow, so why force something that wasn’t coming to me naturally?  Instead, I walked.

My husband and I began hiking familiar trails close to home.  I welcomed the exercise and fresh air like old friends.  We kept at it, and now we look forward to seeking new places to walk.  I took pictures with my cellphone during our hikes, playing at the most amateur form of photography.  The simple act of creativity spurred my mind.  I began to mentally describe what I saw and fashioned one or two-line stories.

My efforts probably don’t sound very constructive to the writing life except for the simple fact that they placed my focus squarely back on writing.  I felt like an adult who had successfully recaptured the magical thrill of Christmas morning.  All the superfluous baggage that people will try to tell you (or you’ll convince yourself of) is part of the writing life simply disappeared.

Again, I’m avoiding detailing exactly what those bad things were for me so that my followers won’t latch on to them.  I’m also cautious in supplying instruction on how to overcome them because too many times we grasp a particular piece of advice as a hard and fast solution to our problems.  When it doesn’t work, we become more despondent and depressed than we were at the beginning.  In short, you must proceed fearlessly on your own to discover and apply what works for you.  Fellow writers can cheer you from the sidelines, but they cannot prop you up nor do the work for you.

With a deep sigh of relief and contentment, I am single-mindedly focused on writing.  The scales have fallen away from my eyes, the chains from my hands, and I am free to write.

Write Happy!

Baring My Writer’s Soul – Part 21

A little over a month ago, I started a new section on my blog called Quotation Station.  It began as a blog post of its own explaining the difference between a quote and a quotation.  The idea was that I’d schedule writing-related quotations for my followers to appear on Friday morning.  They were to be a friendly handshake as we parted ways for the weekend, a final communication before my family began our electronics and social media blackout for Shabbat.  Everyone seems to like them so far.

Last Friday’s post included a quotation from Charles Bukowski stating “Writers are desperate people, and when they stop being desperate, they stop being writers.”  This particular quote fit my writing life so well.  At any given moment of the day, I have felt desperate about my writing.  Desperate to complete it, desperate to come up with new things to write for my blog or a literary journal or a novel, desperate to be published, desperate, desperate, desperate.  All that desperation added up to a lot of miserable living.

What struck me as interesting was that I’m not alone in this practice and belief.  But it also made me question it especially since one of my repetitive prayers was for peace in my life.  Desperation and peace cannot cohabitate, so which did I really want?

Further adding to my desperation was something a wise friend said to me a little over a week ago.  She asked how I was, and I ended up unloading a lot of desperation on her!  Thankfully, she’s not the kind of person to regret having asked.  At the end of our conversation, she suggested that I write from my abundance.  What does that even mean?

About a week after her suggestion, another wise friend gave me a pamphlet of Weekday Morning Prayers and the Bedtime Shema.  I started reading them in the morning and evening, and what an amazing effect they’ve had on my life in just three days.  My peace increased and my desperation diminished.

But wait, my desperate writer’s mind yelled, if you’re not desperate, you’re not a writer!  Turned out desperation was a clingy companion.  However, I was really rather tired of being desperate, and I was not at all willing to surrender the peace I’ve been praying for.  Also, I could keep writing what I loved when I wanted to write it.

You’re just being lazy, my writer’s mind whispered which I instantly knew to be a lie because leading up to the conversation with both friends, things have been falling in place in my life in a wonderful way.  Not to mention that the two chapters I’m somewhat blocked on in my new novel no longer freak me out.  I’ll sit on them for a while and not add to the blockage by stressing my mind out with desperation.  I’ll trust that in good time, the right words will come to me.

What all this boils down to for me is change.  I’m not good with change especially when it’s sudden.  Not that what I was experiencing was sudden, but it could have been if I hadn’t been so resistant to changing for the better as well as admitting that it was better.  It’s better that I’m no longer running on the gerbil wheel of desperation for all the things I mentioned above.

So now I’ll explore the abundance in my life, and I’ll write from there.  I’ve discovered an abundance of talent given as a gift from God.  I’ve discovered an abundance of time which is another gift.  I have an abundance of great books by authors who I admire; I’ll follow their example.  I have an abundance of wise friends whose counsel I’ll seek when desperation desperately tries to re-enter my life/writing life.  I have an abundance of support from my husband, William, who has supplied me with great storylines, helped me work out problems in my plot, and won’t let me stop writing when I’m in the desperation dump.

I have no doubt that desperation will attempt to raise its ugly head in my life.  It’ll evolve and reappear as envy, writer’s block, or self-doubt.  Fortunately, my arsenal is well stocked with abundance.  And in case I forget that, please, dear friend, do not hesitate to remind me as you are part of the abundance in my life.

Write Happy!

Oracle Night by Paul Auster

If you’ve never read Paul Auster, be warned that his work is always a little surreal.  His novels read like a mixture of fantasy, mystery, and a ghost story.  Pay attention to the details because some of them will weave their way deeply into the story and some are loose threads.  The random encounters are rarely random, and even if a character seems like he hasn’t changed and/or made any kind of journey, you as the reader certainly will.

Such was my experience as I read Oracle Night.  I could tell you the jacket flap details, but it would be much more fun to tell you it’s about a writer who writes a story about a man reading the work of a long dead writer who wrote about a man who has the ability to predict the future.  If it sounds crazy, that’s because it’s a Paul Auster novel.

Still, don’t allow that to deter you from reading about writer Sidney Orr and his mysterious blue notebook purchased from M.R. Chang’s Paper Palace or about Sidney’s wife, Grace, and the nature of their relationship versus hers with fellow writer John Trause.  Factor in Jacob, John’s drug addict son, and Nick Bowen who manages to lock himself into Ed Victory’s underground bunker (The Bureau of Historical Preservation), and Lemuel Flagg, a British lieutenant blinded in World War I who has the gift of prophecy, and you’re in the multi-layered world of Paul Auster.

Some of my thoughts as I read Oracle Night included:

Every writer’s nightmare and every writer’s dream:  to write words that actually come true or at least predict the future.

What are these worlds that writers create?

Do we live in the present with the future inside us?

Are we creating futures as we write?

Is the pen truly mightier than the sword?

Such are the questions Auster’s work provokes every time I read it.  I can also recommend Travels in the Scriptorium, The Book of Illusions, Augie Wren’s Christmas Story, and Man in the Dark.  If you need a point of reference, readers of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind will probably enjoy Auster’s novels as long as they keep in mind that he will take it to the next level of wonderfully bizarre.

Good Question

Last week I read an interesting post, What Could Possibly Go Wrong?, from fellow writer S of JSMawdsley. My initial reaction was one of surprise quickly followed by familiarity and finally relief. What S had written struck a chord with me because so many times I’ve wondered why I’m doing what I’m doing with my writing.

My surprise came from the fact that so many writers play it close to the vest never revealing that the writing life isn’t going exactly as they had hoped. S put all her cards on the table by admitting that she wasn’t having fun and planned to rectify the situation by only writing what she wanted to write.

I am familiar with her desire to maintain a quality blog as well as working myself into a tizzy over what to write. When S said she’d give half an hour every two weeks to writing posts, I thought either she’s committing blogging suicide or I’m insane for overworking it. For me, the fear on this subject stems from being told I must have an author platform to market myself prior to publishing my book. This is such a distraction and takes away from my writing time.

By the end of S’s post, I felt encouragement knowing that I am not alone in my concerns. If she can refocus herself by only writing what she loves, so can I. I’d rather be ruled by my passion for writing than by my fear of falling social media stats.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you are a writer, you’re not alone. In fact, musicians, photographers, painters, dancers, and all those who create art, it’s time to wrest your craft back from the hands of those who are more concerned with profits than they are with the creation process. Take inspiration from each other and step back to reassess when things go askew. Rediscover your passion, and then go forth and create.

A Soldier’s Story – Omar N. Bradley

a-soldiers-storyA Soldier’s Story by General Omar N. Bradley is one of the most profound books I’ve ever read.  My friend and fellow writer, William Alford, loaned Bradley’s autobiography to me as a source of research for my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles.  My research required a closer look at World War II, such as those provided by doctors and nurses (And If I Perish, Heroes From the Attic), but I still read Bradley’s account of the war, and I am extremely glad I did so.

He prefaces his autobiography with the inscription, “To those soldiers who must often have wondered WHY they were going where they did.  Perhaps this will help answer their questions.”

I believe Bradley answered these questions truthfully and without the ego that might have come from a lesser man achieving such rank and accomplishing what Bradley did.  As for the tough issue regarding loss of life, he explained how every move made by troops was analyzed and not conducted until the loss was the lowest number possible.  The decision to go ahead, shouldered by Bradley and other men like him, was not taken lightly, and it is not one I would ever want to have.

There are many who would argue that the war was unnecessary, but I concur with General Bradley:  the evil that swept through Europe wasn’t going to go away on its own.  Even with the combined forces of the Allies, the battles were not easily fought or won.  Perhaps unavoidable would be the better word choice in regards to World War II.

Bradley was against actions such as taking a site simply for the prestige of location.  Yet when other commanders’ egos swelled, he remained cordial with them even while strongly disagreeing with their decisions and/or actions.  He went so far as to put his career on the line to get the truth out to the American public regarding one such instance.

Further testimony to Bradley’s humility and strength of character are his accounts of his friend, General Patton.  Bradley spoke frankly about the times Patton overstepped his bounds, yet he never criticized in a way that tore Patton down.  When Patton was placed under Bradley’s authority, the two men worked together quite well and held each other in high regard.

Bradley includes comments from Prime Minister Winston Churchill that are chilling predictions come true.  Considering that the conversation took place in 1945 and wasn’t published until 1951, when Churchill says, “There may come a day when we shall walk into a cabinet room, break the glass over a switch, dial to the nation to be bombed, and push a button to declare war,” I can’t help but wonder if this technology was in place long before we were aware.  More unsettling are Churchill’s words, “But we shall never sit by and permit a minority to force its will upon a helpless majority anywhere,” which speak to the current world situation.

The book concludes with the end of the war in Europe, an occasion that was no doubt worthy of celebration, but I was left with a feeling of melancholy that I could only attribute to the realization that the type of patriotism displayed during World War II no longer exists.  Still, I believe that Bradley’s explanations successfully bridged the gap between those in command and those in the field.  I highly recommend A Soldier’s Story as a worthy read.

None For You!

none-for-youIn an effort to stave off the dumbing down of the English language, today’s The Weight of Words focuses on the versatile word none.

None can have a plural sense as in not any as well as a singular sense, not a single one. When followed by of, you need to assess the object of the preposition (the noun in the of phrase). If the object of the preposition is singular, then a singular verb is in order. If the object of the preposition is plural, one has some flexibility with verb choice. Mostly, but not always, you will use the plural verb.

For example:

None of the cake was eaten. (Cake is singular, so use a singular verb.)

None of the puppies were sleeping. (Puppies is plural, so use a plural verb. However, with English, that ever-fickle mistress, when none denotes not a single one, it is also correct to say, “None of the puppies was sleeping.”)

Confused yet?

When writing your sentence, remember there is an implied noun that answers the question, “None of what?” Again, if that noun is singular, none requires a singular verb. If that noun is plural, it is up to you as the writer and the sense you are trying to convey in your sentence that determines whether or not none requires a singular verb or a plural verb.

For example:

None was eaten. (None of the cake was eaten.)

None were sleeping. (None of the puppies were sleeping. But you as the writer may prefer was as in, “Not a single one of the puppies was sleeping.”)

Somewhere along the way, the myth that none is solely singular appeared. Not only is this incorrect based on what I presented above, but it’s up to you, dear writer, to decide if your context is singular or plural. Now you have the information required to defend your choice.

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