A Word About Redemption Stories

I love a redemption story as much as anyone. But there are certain necessary elements — remorse, concern for people who may have been hurt, an attempt to make amends, a change in behavior going forward. If those pieces are missing, it’s not a redemption arc. It’s a story of a stunted character trying to shirk responsibility.

Patricia Highsmith is the only author that immediately comes to mind who successfully made a character like this the main focus of her stories. Usually, a character of this nature would have a starring role only as an antagonist to the hero. And if said character gains power, that’s not evidence of redemption. That’s just upping the stakes.

Yes, these thoughts were prompted by current events.

 

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Poem: Allegiance

Allegiance

The city filled with flags proclaims
its puffed-up patriotism
the billowed colors clamoring
for adoration, for awe.

The crest of a cardinal catches
my eye instead, my loyalty pledged
to saving it, to a future of
scarlet feathers brightening trees.

A constellation of white wood
anemones on the creek’s bank
garners my allegiance, my hope
for beauty in the years to come.

The first blueberries of the year
bring with them a taste of wonder
and a wish for a republic
filled with enough fruit for all.

Tomatoes, roses, rainbow stripe,
great whales, clean snow, and polar bears,
blue morpho butterflies, clear skies –
all things for which I take a stand.

-Ida Bettis Fogle, 2018

***

I’m sure I will still wear my red, white and blue as I usually do on July 4th. I will not miss my city’s fireworks display. And I still find things to celebrate about our country.

But I wrote this poem because I feel that patriotism lately is being overtaken by nationalism, and that too many people — especially those who are positioned to really do something about the environment — are more interested in immediate personal gain, while not looking at the big picture.

My Favorite Authors Pitch Their First Pages

I recently sat in a “First Page Reads” session where two agents, an editor and a creative writing professor collaborated to Gong Show writers on their work. Writers were instructed to submit anonymously the first page of a work of fiction. A moderator read each work aloud, while the panel of four followed along from printed copies, stopping the show when one of them found a spot where they would quit reading if the piece were submitted to them for publication.

Writers were expecting constructive feedback on the entire first page. But for the vast majority, it was only some snarky comment after a sentence or two, with the rest of the page not even being read. And it was all done with an air of this is the one right and true viewpoint. Also, without any positives to balance the negatives, or remarks about what was working on the page. This is a major peeve of mine, seeing aspiring writers bullied and discouraged by those who could be helping and encouraging them.

crumpled paper on gray surface

Photo by Steve Johnson on Pexels.com

I’ve had enough work published, and experienced enough legitimate editing and critique to be able to put the “feedback” in context and not take it to heart. But I could see this wasn’t true for some other participants. Attendees who entered the room buzzing with optimistic anticipation left an hour later looking defeated. At least one was muttering about giving up entirely. Well done, panelists! I can’t believe I paid money for that experience.

And here’s the thing. For every work they scathingly lambasted based on only a couple of sentences, I could think of a book I loved that would not have passed their muster. I imagined some of my favorite authors pitching first pages to this group.

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.

“That’s enough, Mr. Twain. We don’t need to hear more. So much wrong in one sentence. The character speaks directly to the reader. Just no. Fiction is never written in second person. And the over the top dialect. Nobody has the energy to read that for an entire book. Stick to mainstream English. You know, how regular people (people like us) talk. Next!”

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide.

“Stop, stop, stop. Ms. Hurston, you’re giving the reader no idea what this book is about or even whether a character is going to appear any time soon. This is mere philosophical meandering, not a story. Show us some action. Next!”

“To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.”

“Mr. Steinbeck, did no instructor ever tell you not to open with weather? You never start a story talking about weather. It’s simply not done. Next!”

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

“Hold up. You’re telling, not showing, Ms. Rowling. Next!”

“To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die.”

“The first words of a narrative should never be dialogue, Mr. Rushdie. Next!”

So there you go. Put the literary world in the hands of this panel and we would have none of these wonderful works.

I hope the writers in the room who looked so downcast will come to realize this. I hope they will realize they are in excellent company.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Worst Poem I Ever Heard

Poetry Books

Credit: brewbooks. I’m sure their poetry reading was fabulous, unlike the one I’m describing.

I wish I’d said something, after the reading. I wish I’d approached the esteemed professor, though I was a young nobody, not even one of his students. I wish I’d had the nerve to tell him You’re not so enlightened. I wish I’d said to the those heaping praise on him That was some messed up crap. Sometimes I wish I’d shouted out in the middle, while he was still at the mic. I wish I’d booed while others were politely clapping.

The poetry reading was memorable, I’ll give him that. It was the late 80s or early 90s. My blood still boils decades later.

He read a serial killer poem, but not really a serial killer poem. It was about Ted Bundy, in particular, but not really about Ted Bundy. It was about a woman who had a conversation with Ted Bundy without being abducted, but it wasn’t about that, either.

The poet spun a verse about a fat girl who later discovers her girth made her an unattractive target. But think about it. How would she find that out? The poet thought he could get in the head of this young woman he called a girl, whom he referred to as a fat girl. He related her thoughts to us as he divined them — how being a fat girl (and by extrapolation unattractive, joyless, unfulfilled in life because nobody would date her) had only been a curse until that fateful day. But upon realizing her hideous visage (not his words as I remember, but the meaning behind his words as I remember) of fat had saved her, she becomes happy with her looks, for the very first time in her miserable existence. Again, I’m pretty sure miserable existence was not his exact phrase, but was his exact meaning.

At the end, some of us sat stony-faced, unclapping. At least there was that. I hope someone said something to him, showed him the many layers of wrong upon wrong in his poem. A colleague, a nephew, a daughter — someone who could make him listen. I hope he came to know. I hope he never published that poem. I hope he never again read it aloud. I hope he burned that poem. I hope he now carries around ashes of regret for having ever written it.

Poem for Kathrine Switzer

For National Poetry Month, I’ve been writing a poem a day and keeping them hidden on my computer. But I finally feel like sharing one.

Yesterday, Kathrine Switzer ran the Boston Marathon again, fifty years after becoming the first woman to finish it officially. Bobbi Gibb had run it unofficially the year before. This inspired my poetic efforts yesterday.

Poem for Kathrine Switzer, April 17, 2017

What did they think would happen,
fifty years ago, if a woman ran?
Would we all be deprived of the cake
she should have been baking instead?
Would the race be sullied,
the stain forever ringing its collar?
Or worst of all –
the boys would have to share,
not only that day but all the days to come?
Well, worse came to worst
and she ran again in Boston today
with thousands of women on the course
while somewhere, surely,
some man baked a cake,
the downfall of civilization complete.

**
— Someone asked, so I’m adding this. You can share this. Feel free to copy and paste, even, but I would like a credit. Ida Bettis Fogle, author. Thanks.

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Credit: Kinchan1

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

upstream

 

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.