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.

 

 

50,226

Quick note to say that for the first time ever I successfully completed National Novel Writing Month. My verified word total is 50,226.

Celebrating with a pastry.

 

Poem:Seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds

Like holiday poetry? Here’s one I wrote a few years ago for Halloween.

 

Seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds at Age Seven

My mom was there but not — asleep on the couch,
head lolled back, mouth open wide
enough for a parakeet to fly in
had ours not died already.
My dad was gone.

Nobody knew my brother and I
were getting away with something.
Late night TV. The Birds.
We dared each other to watch.

Normally I’d try lifting my mom’s
lower jaw into place once or twice
of an evening; I worried
about moths and things.
But this night I wouldn’t risk waking her.

Later I wished I had,
even months later, an eon of regret in childhood –
when I’d look up from my coloring in the afternoon
having heard a flutter near the window
knowing sharp beaks could slash right through the screen,
when I’d run flat out the three blocks to school
books held over my head as a shield,
and especially when the crows gathered at dusk,
raucous and shifting and crowding, and then
more especially when they settled down,
waiting.

 

(This originally appeared in Well Versed.)

Politically Correct: Musings and a Poem

Several years ago I wrote a poem about a phrase I kept hearing: politically correct. Or political correctness. Or PC. It was used to shut people up, like duct tape over the mouth. Espouse a position that makes someone else feel guilty or uncomfortable? You were likely to hear that you were “just being PC.”

For a while, the term faded away, at least in discourse to which I was privy. Now it’s come roaring back. All over the place, I hear people proudly proclaim “I’m not politically correct.” The implication being, I suppose, that anyone who has a different opinion on the issue at hand can’t really be sincere. The implication being: “Deep down, you know I’m right. It’s simply inconvenient for you to admit it.”

To me, answering someone’s challenge or question or opinion with a dismissive charge of political correctness is the laziest kind of ad hominem attack. Instead of considering the issue, you call them a name and are done with it. Uttering the phrase “politically correct” absolves you of the need to listen or reason or self-examine. It’s right up there with the antiquated practice of calling women hysterical every time they challenged the status quo.

Since the term is back in vogue, my poem seems timely once again. I had fun playing around with it. I hope you have fun reading it.

Parity Considerations

Politically correct?
Is the accusation a
pertinent criticism
or just a
peevish complaint?
Does it matter whether my actions
are a result of
passive compromise
or of a truly
principled cause?
Could it be that
persistent charges
of PC are no more than
panicked counterattacks
against anyone refusing to fit a
particular conformity?
Should I lay aside my
personal convictions
out of fear that some
piously corrupt
person might
possibly call
me names?
If someone else can
purchase compliance
from me with
pretentiously contrived
allegations of PC
does that make me
politically correct
or
politically incorrect?
Pardon my confusion,
but if you are
preoccupied constantly
with whether I’m “just being PC,”
whom does this say more about,
you or me?
Please clarify.

 

How to Handle Critique

Critique. I merely type the word and my breath feels shallower, my airways a little constricted. My hands shake a bit. Critique – so dreaded and so necessary. Like a trip to the dentist.

It’s hard, when I’ve had to fight even to carve out time for my creative efforts. Then I’ve wrestled down every word in succession, pinning them to the page. I’ve labored and worked, but it’s been worth it, because at the end of it all, I’ve produced this beautiful thing, an item of wonder. I’m exhilarated by my amazing feat, having brought forth a newborn baby piece of writing. But when I show it off, someone comments that it smells like someone needs a diaper change, oh and maybe I should do something about that case of cradle cap on the infant’s scalp. And its head sure is shaped funny.

Criticism of your writing. It’s going to happen unless you don’t let anyone read it, ever. Even now, I’m already anticipating what people will think of this post. Too many metaphors and similes smashed all together at the beginning? Probably. So how  can you handle it without being crushed and giving up? I can’t say for certain what will work for you, but I can share what’s helped me over the past few years.

*Is the criticism unsolicited, from a family member perhaps, who wanted to see your writing and so you shared? If the work is still unpublished, give yourself a few seconds to consider whether their comments are helpful. If not, feel free not to think about it any more. One of the most frequent complaints from family members is “But it didn’t happen like that.” Upon which the author  patiently explains that of course it didn’t, because here’s what the word fiction means. You don’t even have to explain much, though. You don’t have to justify or defend your writing. You can end the conversation with something like “That’s an interesting perspective.” Then turn your mind to more pleasant topics – kittens, puppies, flowers – whatever makes you happy.

*Is the criticism solicited? Have you asked for feedback from beta readers? When you receive it, remember it’s what you requested. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with every comment, but if you trusted someone enough to ask for their advice, then you should weigh their words with deliberation, an open mind and gratitude. Nobody has an obligation to read your work. Everyone is busy. Everyone. If someone has volunteered their valuable and limited time to read your writing and do what they can to help you make it better, thankfulness is a better attitude than butt-hurt.

*Have you asked someone for critique and then realized it was a bad move because their advice is bad? True example: I was once in a group where a member had a written a short story with a conceit centered around the name of the main character. I found the idea clever and touching. Someone else suggested the author change the character’s name because it was too old-fashioned. Of course, then there would be no story. If this happens to you, do what this author did. Say, “Thanks for your ideas” and then ignore it.

*If everyone in your group makes the same criticism, they’re probably right.

*Not every beta reader is mentally healthy. I’m fortunate in the extreme to be included in a writing group that includes genuinely nice people who are all good writers and who all want everyone in the group to succeed. But some writers are insecure in the extreme and their critique of others is based more on a desire to cut the person down than to help them become better. It might take a few encounters to recognize this dynamic, but if it happens to you, there are a few options. You can stop asking for advice from that person. If they’re part of a group you don’t want to leave, go back to “Thanks for your comments” and then do your best to ignore them. You can defend your choices, but I find this usually bogs down group discussion and leads to nothing good. If you see Insecure Cutter doing this to someone else in the group, don’t be shy about saying, “I had a different take on the piece.” The good news is that folks like this tend to bounce from group to group, so if you wait them out, they’ll likely go on to be a thorn in someone else’s side soon enough.

*No one person can provide everything you need in terms of feedback. No matter the level of their own writing/editing skills, no matter how good their intentions, no matter how diligent their reading of your work, nobody is going to give you perfect advice. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Some people have a good eye for plot structure, others have a good ear for character voice, some will catch all of your inconsistencies and help you make your writing more cohesive. And each reader has his or her own reading preferences, personal issues, and experiences that will shape their own experience of your work. If you’re writing science fiction, but your writing group buddy is a western writer, both of you might have limitations in what you can offer the other. A good story should transcend genre, so you’ll still have a lot to give. The western writer can still spot plot holes, character motivation and more. But she might not be the best one to ask about whether your description of the space ship is believable. I swap manuscripts with a couple of writers who work in the young adult field. They tend to tell me my paragraphs are too long. Sometimes I shorten my paragraphs. Other times, I decide they’re thinking in YA terms and it’s not applicable to my novel. Read “Life of Pi” some time.

*If different beta readers express disagreeing opinions on the same bit of text, it’s likely a matter of personal taste. Go with what you like.

*Even someone who generally offers excellent, dispassionate comments on your work can get derailed if you hit on an issue that’s personal to them. I once, long ago, had a reader who insisted I needed to expound on the backstory of a minor character, and in fact, make that backstory more central to the plot. As the conversation progressed, I discovered my character reminded my friend strongly of her aunt who had married a man much like the husband of my character. For her entire adult life, the friend had been bewildered about her aunt’s choice of spouse and this was what she wanted me to explain. Well, I couldn’t explain her relative’s life choices to her. I could only tell the story I was telling.  I’m sure I’ve gone on similar tangents a time or two when I was the one critiquing.

*Sometimes it helps to be specific in your requests. You can say things such as, “What I’d like for you to look for is whether the dialog is realistic” or “Can you follow the action in the action sequence?” or “Is my main character’s motivation clear in this scene?”

*Above all, remember this is your work. Your creation. Stay true to your artistic vision. When considering whether to follow a beta reader’s suggestions ask yourself if the advice helps you fulfill your artistic vision or asks you to change it. Here’s another analogy, because I love them so much. If you love bowling, get advice from folks who will make the bowling experience better, not from people who want you to switch to tennis.

Is that one too many analogies? Thanks for your input. I’ll consider it.

Sibling Writerly

I’m reading a narrative written by my brother, when I see the catalpa tree sitting there right in the middle of the page.  He has transplanted it from our childhood back yard into the thick of his prose. I snort out a mouthful of tea. That’s my tree; I was already using it. It’s an important symbol in the story I’ve been working on.

MINE!

MINE!

 

This isn’t his first offense. The same thing happened with a lilac bush. I’m the one who accidentally dug up the remains of our pet parakeet while playing in the shade of said bush. Surely this gives me some custody rights. I suffered for those lilacs, and he usurped them.

ALSO MINE!

 

Every writer I know evokes personal history in the practice of his or her craft, even for fiction pieces. In fact, workshop leaders all over the place are teaching us how to do it effectively. The problem for me comes with having another writer in the family, a sibling near my age. We’re both drawing from the same well.

My brother and I are creating parallel universes, where our characters drive identical Chevy Novas and own twin tortoise-shell cats. Despite my entrenched status as a grown-up, I find myself willing to share no more graciously than I did as a child. Perhaps I could be more generous if he wasn’t such a good writer. I suspect any resentment I feel is rooted in the fear that he’s putting our memories to better use than I am. Showing me up again.

My writing brain is becoming tinged with a new paranoia. One morning, I begin penning a description of a character, basing him on a former next-door neighbor. I stop mid-word, suddenly worried that my one-eyed vegetarian has a doppelganger residing somewhere in the pages of my brother’s notebooks. Worse, the hypothetical double could be a more fully realized individual than my guy, leading a more interesting life.

I falter for most of a day, returning again and again to my computer, only to sit and stare and wonder what to do.  Should I call my brother and propose a division of historical assets? Perhaps we could make a list and split it in half, like when we put masking tape down the middle of the living room as kids, saying “That side’s yours; this is mine.”

Or I could stick to events and people I encountered independently of him. Surely I have a wealth of my own material waiting to be garnered from unshared classrooms, solitary outings. I should have enough, I think, without dipping into his past at all. I almost convince myself I can be satisfied with this solution. Then I picture myself, six years old, saying I don’t want anything to do with your smelly old Matchbox cars anyway. The toys in my own room are more fun. Oh dear.

I did want to play with those cars. And I do want to use these memories. I feel the steam building inside again. I have as much right to them as he does. More, in some cases. I should be able to use whatever material I see fit.  I’ll just have to get to it first. I’ll out-write him, race my characters through the (dramatically enhanced) events of my own life before he has a chance. I must hurry that girl into the wagon she will crash into a rose bush, shatter that boy’s teeth in a bike wreck, get the elderly neighbor started on her valium habit. Then I’ll have two young siblings race each other to the car, vying for the front seat.  Or not.

I do need to be an adult, I realize, if I’m going to get anywhere with my writing. I close my eyes, counting my breaths, clearing my mind.  When I lift my lids, I see with a new clarity.  There is more than one catalpa tree in the world. There’s no reason the streets in my stories can’t be traversed in Buicks. And as for the one-eyed vegetarian?  I pick up the phone, dialing my brother’s number.  “Do you remember that old neighbor of ours with the eye patch?” I ask. “Are you using him for anything?”

**

This is a piece of creative nonfiction. A few details have been changed in the cause of making my life seem more interesting. It originally appeared in the now defunct ByLines Magazine.

Penciled In – Short Story

Did you know May is Short Story Month? I found out rather late in the game. But since it’s still May for a brief while, I’ll share a short fiction piece I wrote a few years ago. This story originally appeared in the May, 2009 issue of THEMA – the “Box Under the Bed” issue. Before I get to the actual story, I’ll use this opportunity to say that THEMA is an excellent little magazine. If you’re looking for something good to read, and/or if you’re looking for a prospective market for your writing, take a look at it. Even when they’ve rejected me, I’ve received thoughtful and helpful responses on my writing.

Now the story:

Penciled In

I was written in pencil. This represented a compromise between my grandmother, who believed Mama shouldn’t waste a name on me because I wasn’t a keeper, and my mother, who swore I would live and believed I should be listed in the family Bible in ink with the rest of the family. My grandmother kept the Bible in a locked pine box under her bed. I never did get changed to ink, though Mama asked about it occasionally. Granny always claimed she’d get around to it, but then would add, “It might be wise after all to wait a little longer just to make sure.”

The way she’d look at me made me feel like I was shrinking away to nothing already, as if I’d be gone without a trace in just a few minutes. I hesitated to go to bed some nights for fear I’d simply disappear in my sleep.

I was the only thing Mama ever stood up to Granny about. Mama told me how she insisted on having a bed set up right next to the wood stove when I was born. She’d hold me there between the warmth of her body and the heat of the stove, making sure I didn’t have a chance to go cold and stiff. Once I overheard my two aunts talking. They said when Mama realized I didn’t have even the strength to suckle, she soaked up her milk with a clean rag and squeezed drops into my mouth.

Granny never forgave Mama for being right, never completely admitted Mama had been right. I remember her arguing with Mama over whether I needed new pants. Granny told her, “The boy’s never going to get to any respectable size. He doesn’t outgrow his clothes but once every couple of years. If he’s too big for his breeches it isn’t in any physical sense.”

She used to short me on food too. Sometimes she wouldn’t set a place at the table for me until Mama reminded her. Then Granny would say, “Oh, I clean forgot he was here.” As if I hadn’t been there every dinner time my entire life. More often she’d serve out tiny portions onto my plate. If Mama then dipped out more for me, Granny would shake her head and ask, “How much do you think that little thimbleful of a child can hold?”

Granny’s always been substantial, sturdy, every bit as strapping as any farm hand she hired. And she doesn’t make room in her life for those who are too small and weak to make room for themselves. She’s never lost an opportunity of telling people she weighed over 10 pounds at birth, as did all three of her children. I was about a third of that when I was born, according to what I’ve heard.

Mama had me too soon. My early birth was due to her emotional upset at losing my father so unexpectedly. He got into a barroom fight, or else he was trying to break up a fight, or he walked in just as one man was shooting at another. Somehow he found himself in a bar and ended up taking a bullet. Nobody ever was arrested. The story was too confusing for the sheriff to unravel. I’ve heard about eight different versions myself. Well, all the witnesses were drunks.

My father was big, like his mother. I used to look at the only photograph Mama had of herself and Daddy together, taken just after they got married. In the picture they were standing close to each other. Daddy stood there broad and tall, taking up most of the space; even his whiskers seemed extra thick. He had his arm around Mama, a little wisp of a thing, with the top of her curly blond hair just grazing his shoulder. She wore a white gauzy dress. Daddy looked something like a bear who just ambled out of the forest, and Mama like a woodland fairy he’d found and carried with him.

Granny didn’t consider my mother to be good for much of anything; couldn’t understand why my father had brought such a person into the clan. My grandmother measured out her days in complaints over the meals Mama didn’t cook, the garden she didn’t cultivate. Of course, whenever Mama did try to help, Granny wouldn’t allow it. She’d grab the hoe right from Mama’s hand, declaring, “ Whacking the top off a weed’s no good. You have to be strong enough to get it by the root.”

Sometimes I thought Mama poured so much energy into taking care of me just to show up Granny. Keeping me alive was the one thing she could accomplish, against the predictions of just about everyone.

It was because of me that Granny had to keep Mama after Daddy died. Mama didn’t have any family of her own to go to. I know Granny hoped I’d take after my paternal side and serve as a replacement for Daddy. Or failing that, she wished I’d have the decency to be prompt about the journey to my heavenly home, preferably taking my mother with me.

Instead, I arrived early, extraneous and runty, neither condition ever to be remedied during my time in Granny’s household. When I first went to school I had to sit on a dictionary to see over the top of my desk, even though the teacher put me in the littlest seat at the front of the room. Embarrassed for anyone to know I came from her family, Granny tried to convince Mama to enroll me under a false name. By the time I started seventh grade, this past year, I had only moved back two rows. I’m still not tall enough to see over the heads of any but the youngest children.

I doubt I’ll be going to eighth grade. I’m not sure I’ll make it to the end of this summer. Right now I can’t think that far ahead. I can’t seem to think any farther than getting some food into my stomach and figuring out where I’ll sleep tonight. Once it’s dark, I can probably sneak some vegetables from a garden somewhere, maybe find a barn to hide in.

Mama died last week. She took ill one night shortly after dinner, and passed on two days later. I put on my best shirt and trousers for the funeral. That’s what I’m still wearing, though they’re not looking so good now. I’ve ripped a hole in the left knee of the pants. The shirt is stiff with mud and old sweat and grass stains. It’s amazing to look at it and think it used to be white just a few days ago.

I rode to the graveyard in the buggy with Granny. She didn’t tell me to; I just saw her climbing up behind the horses and assumed I should too. Not many people attended, only Granny and myself, my two aunts with their husbands and children, and the preacher. The service was brief; everyone seemed in a hurry to get out of the hot July sun. If there’s a minimum requirement for the number of words that can be said at a funeral, the preacher barely met it. I don’t remember much more than “God’s will be done.”

Next thing I knew the wagons were driving away. Everyone forgot me. I didn’t mind; I wanted to stay there with Mama a little while. I don’t know how long I sat by her grave. A couple of hours maybe. I talked to Mama, told her how much I missed her already. I asked her now that she was in heaven, could she be my guardian angel? Then the men came to shovel in the dirt. They told me I should go, so I walked back to Granny’s house.

I thought the family would gather there, bringing food, like people do after funerals. But when I came in sight of the house, I didn’t see any extra horses or wagons. Apparently they all went back to their own homes. By that time, I only wanted to go lie down in bed anyway. I was hot and my shirt was sticking to my skin; my head hurt and I felt like there was a sharp rock inside my chest, ripping a hole in me.

I walked on down to the house thinking that once in bed I might not get back up for several days. However, when I put my hand to the door latch, I found it was locked. I knocked, but didn’t hear anything inside. I stood there for several minutes, pondering where Granny could be. Finally I decided all I could do was wait for her to come home. I went around back and drew up some water from the well. I took a long drink and then poured some over my head. It didn’t do much to revive me. Feeling a thousand years old, I dragged myself up to the top of the small knoll beside our house and let myself drop under the shade of a maple tree. I fell asleep right off.

I woke up at dusk, groggy and confused, wondering why Mama had left me outside, sleeping in the grass, instead of bringing me in to my bed. Then I remembered. I looked down and saw lamplight through the window. Granny was home. Once again, I made my way for the door, aiming to get to my own bed. Once again, the door was locked. I could hear Granny moving around inside this time. I banged my fist on the wood and hollered, “Granny, it’s me.”

I received no reply. Eventually, I climbed back up to my maple tree and watched the stars begin to dot the sky. I wondered if Mama was looking down on me. “What should I do Mama?” I asked. No answer there either.

True night had come by that time. The dark seemed like it was grabbing at me, and the mosquitoes were eating me up. I ran back toward the house, stopping in the front yard to catch my breath. I began to tremble all over, standing there completely alone. I felt smaller than I ever had before. The thought came to me that if I shouted loud enough for long enough, someone somewhere would hear me and come to see what was the fuss, a thought immediately followed by the fear that it might be coyotes or wolves who heard me. My legs felt about as substantial as pudding by this time.

Wobbling a bit, I crept closer to the house. Instead of the door, I headed for the window. I peered inside, not knowing what I expected to see. There was Granny, sitting at the table, the wooden Bible box next to her. She was snipping a photograph with her sewing scissors, the picture of my parents. She was cutting them apart. When she finished, she lay Daddy down on the table, smoothing him out. Then she took Mama and threw her into the wood stove.

Next she went to the shelf where she kept her writing things: paper, pencils and such. She picked up something and brought it back to the table. Taking a key from her apron pocket, she opened the pine box. She lifted out the family Bible and opened it up. After staring at it for a moment she put her hand to the page. I saw then what she was holding – an eraser.

Copyright: Ida Bettis Fogle