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.

 

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.

Notes on Scraps of Paper

Often inspiration for a story or poem strikes when I’m in the middle of something else. My paying job, for instance. I have a habit of scribbling quick notes on scraps of paper, hoping I’ll remember the entire thought later. Sometimes I make notes on a book I’m reading. Sometimes I forget these notes until I rediscover the scrap of paper many weeks or months later. Maybe in the pocket of a pair of pants I haven’t worn in a while, to give a real example.

Here are some notes I just found in my own handwriting. It’s a list (?) on one sheet:

character identification

takes place night

extreme close up on eye

music

clothing – a.p. – true

horror lies in sympathy

What does it all mean? Your guess is as good as mine.

 

Duotrope to Begin Charging Fee

Starting Jan. 1, 2013, Duotrope will make most of its information available to paid subscribers only. I understand why they need to do this, but I’m bummed. I’ve found the site to be a valuable source of practical market information – the average response time feature, especially. The search filters have been pretty awesome for me, too. I’ve sent a donation or two to help keep them running, but not much, to be honest.

It’s the age-old quandary for the spare-time writer who would like to get somewhere with the art, but is inching along. How do you justify to yourself and your family the time you devote to this activity, if you’re spending a lot more money than you’re bringing in? Duotrope’s fees look reasonable. $5/month. But honestly, I’ve never made more than $120 in a single year with my writing. I want to support them, but can I afford to?

I can’t remember the number of times I’ve read articles telling me I have to attend conferences if I want to get my writing noticed. Or enroll in an expensive writing program. Or…do something that costs a lot of money. Who can afford that? I also see a lot of people for whom writing is an expensive hobby. If they’re happy, that’s fine. If my writing time turns out not to be much more than a hobby, that’s fine, too. I have a day job. But an expensive hobby is out of the question. I’m not poor, by any means. I have everything I need and more. But I’m also not in that small percentage of the population who don’t have to budget so much. And I’m frugal by nature.

I completely support this move by Duotrope. I believe it’s a good value. It still doesn’t mean I can pull the money from my budget at this time. Ah well, I will thank them for the years they’ve given me and be grateful for that. And maybe, if things change slightly for me, maybe I’ll be able to subscribe eventually.