Thoughts on Mary Oliver

“And there is the thing that one does, the needle one plies, the work, and within that work a chance to take thoughts that are hot and formless and to place them slowly and with meticulous effort into some shapely heat-retaining form, even as the gods, or nature, or the soundless wheels of time have made forms all across the soft, curved universe…” – Mary Oliver, Upstream

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I’m a big fan of Mary Oliver’s writing. She makes connections, or rather shows connections, that are not obvious on the surface. Her descriptions of nature do more than make you want to re-read the passage. They make you want to go see the world for yourself and then re-read the passage. Her poems are bereft of sentimentality, but full of mindful observation. And I can guarantee there’s some sweat behind those words.

Here’s the thing about writing poetry — it takes work. A surprising number of people don’t seem to know this. I’ve witnessed more than once an acquaintance who, having read only a handful of poems in a lifetime, stumbles upon one of Oliver’s more moving pieces of verse (often Wild Geese) and decides “I, too, will be a poet.” Which is wonderful. It’s wonderful when a writer inspires others to write. But some of these folks harbor the delusion that all it takes to become another Mary Oliver is a walk in the woods, followed by fifteen minutes with a pen, scribbling the first thoughts that come to mind.

I’m not saying it’s a waste of time if you want to do this. It can be a great centering activity and increase your awareness of the world. I am saying not to expect to produce a Great Poem, one that will be anthologized and inspire future generations, without toil. Don’t expect to produce good writing without study, without putting in many hours reading your genre (whether it’s poetry or science fiction or a melding of the two.)

My hope is that everyone with a desire to “write like Mary Oliver” will read her book, Upstream. Notice the phrase “meticulous effort” in the quote above? In Upstream, she speaks a lot about the value of work. She also shares many thoughts about writers who have influenced her – Whitman, Poe, Emerson, Wordsworth. She has read them thoroughly, delving into their techniques and examining the contexts of their lives. She brings the same keen gaze to literature that she does to trees and geese and dogs, looking deeply into the nature of the writing and how it fits into the web of all things.

The woman has put a lot of effort into producing sets of words that stir the souls of her readers. Once we realize this, we can appreciate her even more.

 

 

A Safe Place You Can Take With You

I recently re-read Neil Gaiman’s book, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane.” It’s a quick and thrilling read. The narrator, an unnamed man now in his forties, comes home for a funeral and revisits the family who lived down at the end of the lane from his childhood home. While there, he recalls events from the year he was seven. The happenings included encounters with powerful and sometimes terrifying creatures.

Avid readers will identify with the protagonist when he says, “I went away in my head, into a book. That was where I went whenever real life was too hard or too inflexible.”

Without giving too many spoilers, I’ll stick with saying his situation gets to the point where even his home and family aren’t safe for him. But he still has his books. He reads about Narnia. He reads his mother’s old books about teenage girl heroines who save their country in World War II. He takes refuge with Dick Whittington and his cat. Here’s the really brilliant part. When he’s in danger and can’t get to a book, he keeps himself together by thinking about books he’s read. They’re still with him in his head. It’s even what he says. The safe place is in his head; books get him there.

This struck me because there have been a number of times in my life where no place felt secure, or when I was in a fraught situation where I couldn’t physically leave. But I could read. Whether I was visiting with literary characters who were experiencing the same things I was and thus made me feel less alone, or going on an incredible adventure completely removed from my corporeal life, I could take mental flight through books. Like the boy in Gaiman’s book, I discovered I could create a safe space in my head. I can carry my safe space with me. It’s a pretty good coping strategy. Honestly, I don’t know how non-readers survive.

Happy International Peace Day

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Happy International Peace Day!

What are your favorite books about peace?  Here are a few of mine:

“The Story of Ferdinand” by Munro Leaf. This story of the bull who refused to fight remains one of my best-loved children’s books. I love how Ferdinand has nothing to prove and only wants to be himself, sitting peacefully among the flowers.

“The War Prayer” by Mark Twain. Think about what you’re praying for when you pray for victory in war. Really think about it.

“Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut. For all of it SciFiNess, this gives a very realistic look at how unromantic and ridiculous war is.

“The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Yep, I consider this kids’ tale to be a book about peace. There’s nothing about resisting organized battles, but there’s lots about people from different backgrounds coming together and discovering the dual powers of love and responsibility to improve their lives.

Characters Who Don’t Look Like Me

In case you missed it, NPR recently conducted a reader survey about the best young adult novels of all time. After the votes were tabulated, they published a list of the top 100. Now, they’re discussing why they ended up with what may also be the “whitest ever” list of teen books. I hate to admit, this never occurred to me as I voted nor as I eagerly scanned the final list.

I will mention, in the second article they miss two main characters who are not white in the books. Katniss Everdeen of “Hunger Games” is described as having olive skin and black hair. And Ged (aka Sparrowhawk) of the “Earthsea” trilogy, also has dark skin and hair.

Still, the representation is pretty slim. And this set me to thinking about my own writing. I’m white and I tend to write main characters who look like me. I can think of only one exception. Of course, I haven’t written prolific amounts of fiction (yet.) Part of this is that I’m not sure I would be able accurately to “get” the experiences of people who haven’t lived as a white person in the U.S. I do have some characters who are other races, however. So is this diversity on my part, or tokenism? And how can I tell the difference? I struggle with this question. The few stories I have written take place in my country and I want the population to look realistic, including the variety of people you’d meet.

Ursula K.  Le Guin, I’ve noticed, is a white author who often has characters with darker skin (I’ve already mentioned Ged.) And she manages to pull it off. But then again, she’s writing science fiction, so her characters’ cultures are of her own invention. For the most part, I think it’s important to make a place for a diversity of authors if we want a diversity of characters.

I work in a public library, and I try to be aware of the entire population we serve – baby to elderly, different cultures, different genders, different sexual orientations, different abilities. One small example is the New Biography section. In our “New Books” area, we try to put as many books as possible face out, so patrons can see the cover. We have hangers for a few face-out books on each end of the shelving unit, and sometimes we can fit a few face out on the shelves, as well. I can’t help noticing that most biographies – still, here in the 21st century – are about white men. Really, a large, large percentage of the new biographies we have. I don’t want to short-change anyone, including white men, but I think having a variety of faces show up on our shelves is one small way to make sure different groups of people feel comfortable and welcome using the library. We’re always pushed for time and it’s easy, hurriedly grabbing a handful of new biographies for display, to end up with a wall of white and male. When I see this happen, I try to take a minute to find at least a couple that are female and have other skin tones. I know many of my co-workers do, too.

Now, I’m going to feel compelled to go back through my own book lists I’ve published here and see if I’ve been as inclusive as I could be.

 

Do You Have Something to Read?

“Oh no. I forgot my book!” That was me, in the salon where I had taken my son for a haircut. Imagine it said in a tone of real panic, because it was. I was reduced to reading a fashion magazine while I waited. Not reading didn’t seem like an option. There was printed matter in front of me, after all, even if it wasn’t my first choice of material.

“Do you have something to read?” This is me any time I’m taking a road trip with my kids.I ask this the way other moms ask “Did you pack your toothbrush?”  I try to remind them, as well, if we’re going some place with a waiting room – doctor, dentist, etc. “Bring a book; we might have to wait.” My kids and I have serious discussions about what they’re going to read next when one of them has just finished a book. These are the among the most joyous conversations of my life.

I found the greatest purse at a yard sale. It’s big enough to fit my wallet and a book. I try to keep a book with me most of the time. I know people who claim they don’t have time to read. But I’ve finished many a chapter while sitting outside a school, waiting for a kid to come out the door. Also, I read while I eat breakfast. And on my break at work. I’ve even been seen cooking dinner with a spatula in one hand and a book in the other. I don’t burn too many things. Thank goodness I’ve never caught a book on fire. Yet.

Ursula K. Le Guin on Literature Vs. Genre

I don’t usually use a blog post only for a link, but I believe everyone needs to read this brilliant essay by Ursula K. Le Guin. And then, if you haven’t already, read some of her books. My favorite is “The Left Hand of Darkness.”

An excerpt from the essay: “If we thought of all fictional genres as literature, we’d be done with the time-wasting, ill-natured diatribes and sneers against popular novelists who don’t write by the rules of realism, the banning of imaginative writing from MFA writing courses, the failure of so many English teachers to teach what people actually read, and the endless, silly apologising for actually reading it.”

Read the whole thing here:

http://bookviewcafe.com/blog/2012/06/18/le-guin-s-hypothesis/