Sylvia Plath and Catching Up to Shakespeare

“I’m chock-full of ideas for new poems. I can’t wait to get time to write them down. I can’t let Shakespeare get too far ahead of me, you know.”

— Sylvia Plath

They say every writer who wants to improve their craft has to be a reader first. While I haven’t always followed the advice to a tee—I haven’t always been a writer, or a reader, or both at once—I have found that when I have, reading only makes me feel more worthless, impotent, and my efforts futile. And now these feelings seem to have come to a head, and I have come to my wit’s end, now that I have had my first taste of Shakespeare.

Growing up my teachers tried to get me to appreciate his rich wordplay, lively relatable characters, and imaginative plots, but I struggled with the language and never got very far or very much out of Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet. I gave him another try this month with Twelfth Night, and now I know I should never have tried to be a writer at all.

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt this way. I try to read and learn from many of the greats, but each one only highlighted my ignorance more and more. I’ll never have even half the talent of these authors. I will never write anything so moving, and I will never be known or remembered, so I should just give up, and sometimes I do.

Still, no matter how discouraged I get I still love writing and can’t seem to quit her entirely. So, I’m here again, lost and exhausted of my own faults but looking to try something new.

I’m far from being chock full of ideas though. I once was, and I hope to be again someday, but self-doubt is a hell of a drug, and I don’t know how to kick the nasty habit. Even when the words come slow, they still come, just never the ones I want. Never the ones I had always wanted to write. I gave up on all my dreams because I know I can never tell the story the way it appears to my mind’s eye and I can never teach the people what I know is right in my heart.

Where have all my ideas and ambitions gone? I have a feeling they are still there floating in the shadow of my self-consciousness. I suppose courage is what will get them back into the light. I suppose when you believe you can do things, or at least when you don’t know that the things you might do could be ugly, or stupid, or that you might one day lose interest or fail to finish things, there is no end to what you might do. But, it’s nearly impossible to unsee what is now painfully obvious.

And even if I was all wrong about my own ability and it was all just a matter of learning, of cracking the code and finding my voice and a good muse, I’m still far too far behind to ever catch up. I’m too old to learn new tricks. I’m too old to race the young, the strong, the flexible but maybe I’m looking at the race all wrong.

They say that practice makes perfect, but my practice rarely results in progress, let alone perfection. I’ve read that in order to get better you have to fail more and fail better, and that sounds a little more up my alley. That is how I can catch up to Plath, and Woolf, and Austen, and maybe even Shakespeare himself one day. I will embrace my fear and run by failure instead. I know I have enough failure in me to fuel a lifetime of work and more. I will stop trying to be as good as everyone else and fail the very best that I can instead.

And once you have set your heart on spectacular failure suddenly the ideas come by the dozen, and the words flow free as rivers. If I’m going to fail anyway, I can at least make it look good. If I am going to fail anyway, I might as well express myself, and tell the absolute truth. If I am going to fail anyway I might as well fail every single day and make it big, and bold, and bright! If I am going to fail anyway, I might as well make it my own and share every catastrophe with you.

I might as well be a proud failure considering failing is better than never trying at all and if I am so sure I’ll never be successful I should work to collect the same weight in flops and defeats, yes?

So, I have a new mission it seems, to fail more and better than anyone else. To earn even the possibility of my name among those greats by a paying in rejections, criticisms, and loss.

I’ll need a list, notebooks long with no two items the same, of ways I want to fail is what I want to work on now. I want each line to be a bigger and more impressive way to fail than then the last, and I have to start with them straight away!

It won’t be a hard task I’m sure. There are infinite ways to write failures out of short stories, essays, poems, hell, there are whole books I feel floating around inside my head I can fail at too. No, Shakespeare won’t get too far ahead of me now, nor Plath, nor Woolf, nor Austen or any of the rest.

I have them in my sights now as none of them could dream to fail like me!

***

U1889231Sylvia Plath was an American poet, novelist, and short story writer.

Known primarily for her poetry, Plath also wrote a semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. The book’s protagonist, Esther Greenwood, is a bright, ambitious student at Smith College who begins to experience a mental breakdown while interning for a fashion magazine in New York. The plot parallels Plath’s experience interning at Mademoiselle magazine and subsequent mental breakdown and suicide attempt.

Along with Anne Sexton, Plath is credited with advancing the genre of confessional poetry initiated by Robert Lowell and W.D. Snodgrass. Despite her remarkable artistic, academic, and social success at Smith, Plath suffered from severe depression and underwent a period of psychiatric hospitalization. She graduated from Smith with highest honors in 1955 and went on to Newnham College, Cambridge, in England, on a Fulbright fellowship. Here she met and married the English poet Ted Hughes in 1956. For the following two years she was an instructor in English at Smith College.

In 1960, shortly after Plath and Hughes returned to England from America, her first collection of poems appeared as The Colossus. She also gave birth to a daughter, Frieda Rebecca. Hughes’ and Plath’s son, Nicholas Farrar, was born in 1962.

Plath took her own life on the morning of February 11, 1963. Leaving out bread and milk, she completely sealed the rooms between herself and her sleeping children with “wet towels and cloths.” Plath then placed her head in the oven while the gas was turned on.

***

Thanks for reading! If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for inspiring reads + existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering. Or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

 

Advertisements

Stephen King and Writing by Questions

Writing, like any other art or discipline, takes daily practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats—both living and dead, famous and not—apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week’s inspiration comes from the prolific American author Stephen King.

“You’ve blown up your TV and committed yourself to a thousand words a day, come hell or high water. Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about?”

— Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

The first hurdle to writing is getting your butt in the chair and keeping it there. The second hurdle is getting the pen moving, or your fingers typing. The body only needs training. You only have to employ a few days of treats and punishments to get the hang of sit and stay but to get your mind to show up is like coercing a stray cat to follow you home.

I can get my butt in the chair but lately getting my mind to show up is near impossible. My body is easy to control. My mind, on the other hand, has one of its own. It wanders inside itself and finds plenty to do that isn’t writing at all. It thinks about all the things I should be doing, the dishes, the laundry, that email, that book I wanted to read, that movie I wanted to watch. I get antsy. I get tired. I feel guilty and decide that I don’t want to write. If it happens often enough, I decide I shouldn’t write. I’m obviously not good enough or disciplined enough.

I give up and get up and doing everything but write. I do anything but write. The pen doesn’t move the screen stays blank.

But there has to be a way to coerce the cat, and there has to be a way wrangle a mind and wring the words from it. One bit of advice I’ve come across time and time again is to start with questions. Questions get the wheels turning. Questions interest the mind and make it want to work with you. Questions lure it along the way you wish to go and reveal what it is you are setting out to say to write about.

The first question you should ask yourself is an easy one, what do I want to write about. You don’t have to be specific here. I like to write about humans, and emotions, and the way how we ought to live. Simple.

You can’t begin if you don’t know what you are talking about. What genre are you writing? Is it fact or fiction, persuasive or story telling. Are you going to write a poem? A story? An essay? Who are you writing about? Yourself, a celebrity, a person who doesn’t exist, are they even a person? You have to get these basics down before you can build a shape or structure but those questions aren’t so hard, and you can always change the answers when you please.

So, once you’ve gotten a start, the next step is getting you to the end, another writing hurdle. I’ve found that the best way is to keep asking questions of yourself, and your writing.

Begin with the what and then make a list of whos, hows, and whys to keep you going. You need this list of questions to tease out what you mean to say and how you can go about saying it in the clearest way possible. The list is personal. And after you have one you can copy and tweak it for every piece you write. You can have one for fiction and memoir and maybe one for blog posts and for articles you pitch. You come up with whatever questions you like, or you can steal them from other writers. Here are some of mine:

  1. What do I want people to get out of this?
  2. Who am I speaking to? Who am I speaking for?
  3. Why should they care?
  4. What am I trying to say?
  5. How do I want to make people feel?
  6. What will people learn? About me? Themselves? The world?
  7. What has been forgotten?
  8. What is the truth?
  9. Where does it hurt?
  10. What has helped?
  11. What is missing?
  12. What makes this any different?
  13. Is this boring? What would it look like if it wasn’t?

I don’t always have all the answers, and many of the ones I do have are similar, but the differences are subtle enough that they can help me illuminate what I think and feel and how I can structure my writing to articulate that to my readers. These questions aren’t perfect, and they do not guarantee concise or compelling writing, obviously, but they help get me home even if the path is rocky and winding and I get lost a few times along the way.

The answers can be long or short and often I can write the whole piece by taking my answers, expanding them, rearranging them, and adding a little emotional flair.

I tend to check in more than once while writing a piece. I write my first draft and go over the questions again to see if my convictions have changed and if I need to move n a different direction. I write a second and check in again, and after editing to grammar and structure, I glance over it one more time and ask myself if I’ve said what I needed to say.

Writing this way keeps me focused and on topic and whatever I wanted to say that didn’t fit can become another post or piece, and I can answer the questions all over again from another angle.

Of course, you can come up with your own questions, ones that work for you and the way you write and whatever genre you work in. You are free to borrow my list too, or you can search for other ones from writer’s who know much better than I. Here are a few I’ve found:

“We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing?, Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there you get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”

― Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing

and

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:

  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:

  1. Could I put it more shortly?
  2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

— George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

Some others I am considering:

  1. Why do I need to write this?
  2. Am I ready to share this?
  3. Can I get paid to write this?

Sometimes I have more fun answering these questions than I do in writing the actual piece. And sometimes I get too focused on them and have a hard time moving from a list of facts to writing something with color and emotion. It’s easy to figure out what you mean to say, the hard part is figuring out how you mean to say it. So, when I realize I am only spinning my wheels, doing something that feels like writing but isn’t, I keep in mind the second half of Orwell’s advice:

But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.

I don’t think he was actually endorsing this method, but I think there may be some value in employing it as needed. Whenever you become too strict, too wound up, when the boundaries of all these questions make your mind move in mechanical ways, and your writing loses its humanity it may be time to open your mind and let whatever words float by make their way on to the page, for a while.

You have to give yourself boundaries, but you also have to give yourself time to just write it all out of yourself, no matter how bad or ugly it might be at first. Then, when you have exhausted your ready-made sentences and your mimicry you can go back to your list of facts and find a middle ground.

It’s good to have more than one approach, one structured and one not to keep you from getting bored or lost. The brain needs both, creativity needs both. If you find yourself having trouble finishing your writing, or maybe you have trouble writing when inspiration and motivation are running low, try beginning with questions and go back to them whenever you need a little leading to the end.

***

3389Stephen Edwin King was born the second son of Donald and Nellie Ruth Pillsbury King. After his father left them when Stephen was two, he and his older brother, David, were raised by his mother.

Stephen attended the grammar school in Durham and Lisbon Falls High School, graduating in 1966. From his sophomore year at the University of Maine at Orono, he wrote a weekly column for the school newspaper, THE MAINE CAMPUS.

In the fall of 1971, Stephen began teaching English at Hampden Academy, the public high school in Hampden, Maine. Writing in the evenings and on the weekends, he continued to produce short stories and to work on novels.

In 1973, King’s first novel Carrie was accepted by publishing house, Doubleday. King had thrown an early draft of the novel into the trash after becoming discouraged with his progress writing about a teenage girl with psychic powers. His wife retrieved the manuscript and encouraged him to finish it. His advance for Carrie was $2,500; King’s paperback rights later earned $400,000.

King and his family moved to southern Maine because of his mother’s failing health. At this time, he began Salem’s Lot. Soon after Carrie’s release in 1974, King’s mother died of uterine cancer. His Aunt Emrine had read the novel to her before she died.

After his mother’s death, King and his family moved to Boulder, Colorado, where King wrote The Shining. The family returned to western Maine in 1975, where King completed his fourth novel, The Stand.

In all King has published 54 novels, including seven under the pen name Richard Bachman, and six non-fiction books. He has written nearly 200 short stories, most of which have been collected in book collections. Many of his stories are set in his home state of Maine. His books have sold more than 350 million copies, many of which have been adapted into feature films, miniseries, television shows, and comic books.

Seriously, I cannot recommend his memoir On Writing enough.

king_what_sq.png

***

Thank you for reading! If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for inspiring reads + existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering. Or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee

Check out my previous quotes from Stephen King.

Featured image via Unsplash

Kahlil Gibran on Weariness and Writing

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes daily practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week’s inspiration comes from the Lebanese-American artist, poet, and writer Kahlil Gibran.

“I want to write more but I cannot. I am a little weary and the silence in my soul is black. I wish I could rest my head on your shoulder.”

— Kahlil Gibran, Beloved Prophet: The Love Letters of Kahlil Gibran and Mary Haskell, and Her Private Journal

These past few weeks something strange happened to me. I have been touching on it and mentioned it in post after post because writing it out feels like the logical way to solve this problem. The problem? I stopped wanting to write.

Writer’s block isn’t something I believed in. I learned from Austin Kleon that a problem of output is almost always a problem of input. If I felt stuck I only needed to get out in the world, in real life and online equally, to search for ideas to steal, to pull apart, to transform into something all my own. For as long as I have been blogging I have never had a shortage of ideas.

No, this was something different. I stopped wanting to try to write.

Writing felt like work. It felt pointless. It felt pointless because there are so many who are better than me. It felt pointless because I don’t know how to be more writer and less blogger—not there is anything wrong with blogger. It felt pointless because I am worthless as a writer. I want to say things, but I have no idea how to say them. Too much is flying around inside my head. I flit from one thought to another, one message to another, one interest to another. It felt pointless because I am so turned around and confused and insecure and scared and lost, and I don’t know how to get out.

I do know. I’ve written about that too. I just have to do the work, but first I have to work out how that looks for me.

In the meantime, I’m acknowledging how hard this is and why. I’m spending a little time letting myself feel what it’s like to try to be a writer. I’m looking at what is working and what isn’t, what sets my soul on fire, what turns it black, and what makes it go silent and keeping track of what I do in response.

I’m marking what I do when I can’t write, and what it is that gets me writing again. So far I’ve only found that rest is important and a sense of safety and support is crucial. Part of the reason I chose this quote specifically is that a shoulder to lay on has been the best help I could find.

Every writer I have read seems to have trouble writing, a revelation that is both comforting and frightening. I feel on more even footing with the greats but even more fearful that this dread, this pain, this fear will never go away. Writing will never be something I can do easily and with pure joy. It will always be this hard. I imagine it will always feel something like drowning, or like pulling teeth, or like healing broken bones. The only difference between the greats and me is that their pain produces better results than mine, for now.

If writing is so taxing for the soul, then all writers must have a home to run to too when they become weary. If they don’t, I imagine they write about that too. Maybe they move from writing poems to expressing themselves in other ways. Home can be found within yourself as well, you know?

As for me,  I have someone who loves and supports me. I am one of the lucky ones. I have a shoulder to lay on, arms to hold me, and ears to hear me whine and rage about my future failures. I have someone who cheers me on when I make progress and who supports me when I fail.

It’s wonderful to have such a home inside of such a person, but all the love, support, and self-reflection will only get me so far. The rest of the way has to be made with hard work and words on paper. I just have to fucking write.

So, I will keep a notebook with me at all times and keep my pockets filled with pens. I’ll have a journal to fill page by page every day and a tiny notebook to take with me wherever I go to jot every passing thought in. I will write on scraps of paper and in the margins of books making conversation with every author I whose work I read.

I will write love letters and thank you notes. I will write to rant and to praise. I will write essays and poems and stories both true and false. I will write what hurts and what feels good. I will write the lie and the truth. I will write what has been forgotten and what has yet to be known. I will spill secrets and expose my darkness to the light. I will write what life is and what it isn’t, what it should be and how we make it there.

I will do what I always set out to do and what I had always done before it occurred to me that writing could be something I do for me, for others, for money, and for recognition. I’ll just write and forget all the rest.

***

khalil-gibran-9Kahlil Gibran was born on January 6, 1883, in the town of Bsharri in modern-day Lebanon (then part of Ottoman Mount Lebanon) to Khalil Gibran and Kamila Gibran. As a result of his family’s poverty, Gibran received no formal schooling during his youth in Lebanon. However, priests visited him regularly and taught him about the Bible and the Arabic language.

As a young man, he emigrated with his family to the United States where he studied art and began his literary career, writing in both English and Arabic. In the Arab world, Gibran is regarded as a literary and political rebel. His romantic style was at the heart of a renaissance in modern Arabic literature, especially prose poetry, breaking away from the classical school. In Lebanon, he is still celebrated as a literary hero.

He is chiefly known in the English-speaking world for his 1923 book The Prophet. The book, composed of twenty-six poetic essays, is an early example of inspirational fiction including a series of philosophical essays written in English poetic prose. The book sold well despite a cool critical reception, gaining popularity in the 1930s and again especially in the 1960s counterculture.

Gibran was an accomplished artist, especially in drawing and watercolor, having attended the Académie Julian art school in Paris from 1908 to 1910, pursuing a symbolist and romantic style over the then up-and-coming realism. Gibran held his first art exhibition of his drawings in 1904 in Boston, at Day’s studio. During this exhibition, Gibran met Mary Elizabeth Haskell, a respected headmistress ten years his senior. The two formed an important friendship that lasted the rest of Gibran’s life.

Haskell spent large sums of money to support Gibran, extensively edited all his English writings. Sometimes Gibran dictated his ideas to Haskell while Haskell found the proper words. Haskell’ contribution to his writing, including The Prophet, was such that by today’s standard she would be acknowledged as co-author.

The nature of their romantic relationship remains obscure; while some biographers assert the two were lovers but never married because Haskell’s family objected, other evidence suggests that their relationship never was physically consummated. Gibran and Haskell were engaged briefly, but Gibran called it off. Gibran didn’t intend to marry her while had affairs with other women. Haskell later married another man, but then she continued to support Gibran financially and to use her influence to advance his career.

Gibran died in New York City on April 10, 1931, at the age of 48. The causes were cirrhosis of the liver and tuberculosis due to prolonged serious alcoholism.

He is the third best-selling poet of all time, behind Shakespeare and Lao-Tzu.

gibran_weary-sq.png

***

If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for inspiring reads + existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering. Or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

Biographical information via Goodreads and Wikipedia

Featured image via Unsplash

Jorie Graham on Capturing the Past

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes daily practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week I have chosen a quote from the poet Jorie Graham.

jg_fp_and_p

Jorie Graham was born in New York City in 1950, the daughter of a journalist and a sculptor. She was raised in Rome, Italy and educated in French schools. She studied philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris before attending New York University as an undergraduate, where she studied filmmaking. She received an MFA in poetry from the University of Iowa.

Graham is the author of numerous collections of poetry, most recently Sea Change (Ecco, 2008), Never (2002), Swarm (2000), and The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974-1994, which won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

About her work, James Longenbach wrote in the New York Times: “For 30 years Jorie Graham has engaged the whole human contraption — intellectual, global, domestic, apocalyptic — rather than the narrow emotional slice of it most often reserved for poems. She thinks of the poet not as a recorder but as a constructor of experience. Like Rilke or Yeats, she imagines the hermetic poet as a public figure, someone who addresses the most urgent philosophical and political issues of the time simply by writing poems.”

Graham has also edited two anthologies, Earth Took of Earth: 100 Great Poems of the English Language (1996) and The Best American Poetry 1990.

Graham is known for her deep interest in history, language, and perception; the critic Calvin Bedient has noted that she is, “never less than in dialogue with everything. She is the world champion at shot-putting the great questions. It hardly matters what the title is: the subject itself is always ‘the outermost question being asked me by the World today.’ What counts is the hope in the questioning itself, not the answers.” Graham has received numerous honors and awards for her work, including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship and the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

She has taught at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University. She served as a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets from 1997 to 2003.

“There’s no way back believe me.
I’m writing you from there.”

— Jorie Graham, Overlord: Poems

It seems like a sign or an interesting coincidence that I should come across this quote from Graham so soon after finishing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which was concerned very much about returning to the past. When I saw I thought immediately of a scene near the middle of the book, when the narrator, Nick, is talking to Gatsby about his longing to get back Daisy Buchanan, a girl he had to let go some years before, and who he hope to get back.

Gatsby has been throwing one of his famous parties and invited Daisy to attend. She didn’t have a good time nor did she seem to like the company Gatsby is keeping. He’s a bit disappointed at not being able to please her and make her understand what he is trying to do. Nick listens and advises him not to be too hard on Daisy, after all, “you can’t repeat the past.” Gatsby replies:

“Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can! I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before.”

Nick goes on to wonder about Gatsby:

“He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was…”

Of course, Gatsby’s longing to return to the past, to go after Daisy and try to recapture what they had will be his downfall, that is how these kinds of stories go. If he had only moved on, and let her move on to, he might have made a good life for himself. Or if he had discovered writing and found a way back to the past that offered closure and cleansing

The laws of this universe are such that time moves one way and one way only. The past can’t be returned to, but we can express our frustration at being forced to live with no instructions or guarantees and no ability to go back and fix what we got wrong. We can express our heartbreak and our loss and our suffering/. We can even express our wishes and our dreams of what might have been had we turned left instead of right at the fork five years ago. We can’t relive the past but we can sure as shit rewrite it.

It’s strange to think too that everything you read is from the past and everything you write is to the future. I mean, I know that but to consider the past, and the future too, as a physical place that writing is either going to or coming from feels weird.

By the time you are reading this, I will have left my place behind this screen and gone on to finish my day. You may even be reading it days, weeks, maybe a year or two from now. I wonder where I am? I wonder what twists and turns my life has taken in that time. I wonder what wisdom I could send out to myself, or to you from here?

As for the past, I may not be able to speak to my old self, but I can comfort the part of me that is still hurting. I can talk with an old self who feels joy and hope. I can sit with myself as a child and capture a bit of her innocence again, in a way.

This is the loophole, a poor one, but it’s all we have for now. We’ve been gifted with an ability to vividly imagine new worlds, and we have cultivated out knack for language and learned to share those worlds with each other. We found a way to beat time, to loop back, to jump forward, to redo this life or make a new one entirely. We can live on this planet or another, light years from here. We can live in another time. We can travel to heaven or hell. We can see our lost loved ones again and tell them what we never could in life. We can fall in love, give birth, beat our enemies, become the leader, the savior, the hero, the genius, the one that everyone wants to have or wants to be.

We can be Gods.

But only in our heads, and only on paper, and that just has to be enough. Trying to go back never works. It can’t be done. Writing can help though. It can get you through your feelings. You can get them out, you can find closure, you can have what you want, in a way. Writing can be your therapy and your friend. It can help you discover the thing, that part of yourself, that you missed and reclaim it. It can keep you from getting stuck.

We’ve never been able to revisit the past, but somehow we have never gotten over the desire. We’ve never been able to let go of regret, but we found another way with writing. Take advantage of it because there is no other way back.

Trust me, we are all either writing from there, or writing about then, and we should know.

graham_believe_sq

***

If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for some existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering + some interesting reads from others. Or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

Biographical information via Joriegraham.com and The Poetry Foundation

Featured image via Unsplash

Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Trying to Matter

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week I have chosen a quote from the beloved and prolific author Amy Krouse Rosenthal.

1351773Amy Krouse Rosenthal, born April 29, 1965, in Chicago, was an American writer of both adult and children’s books, a short filmmaker, and radio show host.

Rosenthal had several books on the New York Times bestseller list, but she is probably best known for her memoir Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, her children’s picture books, including the Little Pea, and the film project The Beckoning of Lovely.

She published more than 30 children’s books between 2005 and her death in 2017. She is the only author to have three children’s books make the Best Children’s Books for Family Literacy list in the same year. She was also a contributor to Chicago’s NPR affiliate WBEZ, and to the TED conference.

Rosenthal made short films using her iPhone or Flip camera. Some invite further interaction from viewers, some are social experiments, and some build upon each other to become something else entirely. Her films include 17 Things I Made, Today is a Gift, ATM: Always Trust Magic, The Kindness Thought Bubble, The Money Tree, and The Beckoning of Lovely.

Chicago Magazine described The Beckoning of Lovely as:

Rosenthal’s masterpiece, unfolding over the past two years, began with a YouTube video called 17 Things I Made. In it, she invited viewers to meet her on August 8, 2008 (8/8/08), at 8:08 p.m. in Millennium Park to make an 18th thing together. That thing was a party. She expected a group of maybe 30, but roughly 400 curious people showed up, surprised to find themselves singing, dancing, blowing bubbles, and giving flowers to strangers. One couple met and fell in love. “I wish there was a word less obvious than ‘magical’ to describe that night,” Rosenthal says. “It was meaningful to everyone in some way.”

On March 3, 2017, at the age of 51, she announced that she was terminally ill with ovarian cancer by way of a New York Times Modern Love essay, You May Want to Marry my Husband, written in the form of a dating profile to help her husband date again once she dies.The article was picked up by several news sources and quickly went viral online.

Rosenthal died ten days later, on March 13, 2017.

“Just look at us, all of us, quietly doing our thing and trying to matter. The earnestness is inspiring and heartbreaking at the same time.”

― Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Textbook

I am ashamed to say I only just discovered Rosenthal through her final essay and through another favorite author, Austin Kleon, who, like everyone else who read the piece, was deeply moved and saddened by the news of her cancer. I wish I had discovered her sooner. She was clearly a lovely and loving person and a great inspiration to all who knew her or followed her work.

I am working my way through her videos, slowly but surely, and have added her books to my ever-growing TBR.

Her essay was something else, something I can’t quite describe, something all at once disturbing, heart-wrenching, and so, so, beautiful. I tried to imagine myself in either of their shoes, Amy’s or her husband’s, and I concluded that under the circumstances it was the greatest gift a writer could give to their partner in their final moments. I can’t stop thinking about it, and my beautiful girlfriend, and what I would write to and about her at the end of my life.

I am not exaggerating when I tell you that this essay has changed me.

Rosenthal, I think, accomplished what most writer’s set out to do. To reach the hearts and minds of people and in doing so live on forever in what she teaches and inspires in others. She left a body of work behind that, in just the short time I have been consuming it, has brought me to tears and pushed me to rethink why I do what I do, how I do it, and how much of it I do.

Her work, her earnestness and attempts to matter, are inspiring and heartbreaking, and I see now that this all any of us are ever trying to do.

We want to leave a mark and while we know the odds are against us and the competition is steep we go on plugging away in home offices, crowded cafés, and in all the crevices of life, as Rosenthal once said, and it is beautiful.

I wish I could see all of you doing your thing. I wish you could see me too, sitting here at the kitchen table typing slowly, deliberately, every word here hoping that when you read it, you will be moved to change and work the way that Rosenthal inspired me to change and work.

And when I am finished, I’ll open another blank draft, and write again, and again, and again, to try and reach you.

I do it for the same heartbreaking reason I believe Rosenthal did, because time is short and what else can you do? What else is there really to do except bend all your energy to becoming a part of the great wave of humanity. What other reason do we do anything but to try to be a part of a future we will never see?

And how else can you do it but to get up every day and just do it. So far, from what I have seen, this has been Rosenthal’s message: Create, create, create! With every free moment of your life create something! Don’t work so hard trying to achieve fame and fortune, work hard making the world a better place and the rest will follow.

I like that message. I like the idea that I can just be me and my tribe will come along to support me in time. Stop chasing the world, just create with an eye for what is good and right and one day you will look up and what you have put out will have come back to you after all. That is how I want it to happen for me.

As for Rosenthal, I will end by saying that to inspire and be loved long after you take your last breath, that is the closest to heaven I imagine a person can get. That is where all the great writers go and I hope one day you and I can be among them too.

***

Thank you for reading! If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for interesting reads + my own existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering, or buy me a cup of coffee perhaps?

Biographical information via Wikipedia, Goodreads, and WhoisAmy.com

Featured image via Unsplash

M.H. Abrams on a Writer’s Desperation

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week I have chosen a quote from the American author and literary critic M.H. Abrams.

23abrams-1-obit-blog427Meyer Howard “Mike” Abrams, born July 23, 1912, was the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in Long Branch, New Jersey.The

The son of a house painter and first in his family to go to college, he entered Harvard University as an undergraduate in 1930. He went into English because, he says, “there weren’t jobs in any other profession…, so I thought I might as well enjoy starving, instead of starving while doing something I didn’t enjoy.” After earning his baccalaureate in 1934, Abrams won a Henry fellowship to Magdalene College, Cambridge, where his tutor was I. A. Richards. He returned to Harvard for graduate school in 1935 and received a master’s degree in 1937 and a Ph.D. in 1940.

During World War II, he served at the Psycho-Acoustics Laboratory at Harvard. He describes his work as solving the problem of voice communications in a noisy military environment by establishing military codes that are highly audible and inventing selection tests for personnel who had a superior ability to recognize sound in a noisy background.

In 1945 Abrams became a professor at Cornell University. The literary critics Harold Bloom, Gayatri Spivak and E. D. Hirsch, and the novelists William H. Gass and Thomas Pynchon were among his students.

Abrams was an American literary critic, best known for works on Romanticism, in particular, his book The Mirror and the Lamp. In it Abrams shows that until the Romantics, literature was typically understood as a mirror reflecting the real world in some kind of mimesis; whereas for the Romantics, writing was more like a lamp: the light of the writer’s inner soul spilled out to illuminate the world. In 1998, Modern Library ranked The Mirror and the Lamp one of the 100 greatest English-language nonfiction books of the 20th century.

Under Abrams’s editorship, The Norton Anthology of English Literature became the standard text for undergraduate survey courses across the U.S. and a major trendsetter in literary canon formation.Abrams was not only the general editor of The Norton Anthology, but he was also the editor of The Romantic Period (1798–1832) in that anthology, and he evaluated writers and their reputations.

Abrams died on April 21, 2015, in Ithaca, New York, at the age of 102

“I think most of the things I published have been published out of desperation—not because they were perfected.”

— M.H. Abrams

I still do not have the honor of calling myself a published author. My book has stalled, and I am looking to other things, for now, but I think I do know something of a writer’s desperation and reasons for publishing. I have felt it with the publishing of every post, poem, personal essay, and story I have posted here and elsewhere on the internet. Surely these published pieces, bits and parts of my life and larger themes, were pushed out into the world out of at the same sort of desperation too and surely none of them left me perfected.

The word desperate, to lovers of this craft, means two things:

  1. (of a person) having a great need or desire for something.
  2. (of an act or attempt) tried in despair or when everything else has failed; having little hope of success.

A writer is a person with a great need for expression and communication. We write because there is nothing else that will satisfy that need. Art maybe, but writers often gravitate toward the clear expression that language can offer over the murky interpretations of art. We work to satisfy these needs, and we do it with very little hope for success. Still, we persist. Our need outweighs the hopelessness I suppose. Our need will not allow us to feel hopeless. It has to work, because if it doesn’t, who are we?

I am desperate to say something, to tell you something. All writers are. A writer’s work is at least hard, even if it is not always fast. Writers bend all their time, giving as much as they can give to words, words, words, always the words. Giving everything they h to getting them out of ourselves and into the world hoping to have an effect. Hoping to move someone, hoping to become and move themselves.

Why the urgency? Why the intensity? Why do whole worlds hinge on our abilities and dedication?. Why do these things scratch at us so? Why do we hurt ourselves this way? What do we hope to achieve?

The desperation stems from our inevitable deaths I am certain. No tomorrow is promised, we know that, and writers feel it more acutely than most. We know that if we hope to leave behind the thing in our chests beating to get out, we must work hard and fast. We must make choices and sacrifices in our lives, and in the work too, to do just enough, to say just enough, to get the message out in a way you can live and die with.

Desperation is a writer’s friend. Desperation leads to an outpouring of work. It leads to pens flying across pages and fingers flying across keyboards. It leads to a body of work that might be less than perfect but at least says what you were meant to say.

But I wonder, what will happen to the ones who don’t make it?  With a life lived straining toward work we may never get right? How can a writer cope with in obscurity without acknowledgment? What if I am among those who no one reads, hears of, or remembers? The thought alone makes me want to pick up a pencil and write furiously whatever comes to mind. The thought alone fills me with anxiety and hunger. I am reminded of my drive and my reason: To tell my truth. To get at what makes us all so great and terrible a force in this universe, even while we mean nothing and matter, not at all.

Desperation is a writer’s friend, and it may be the very defining thing that sets a writer apart from dabblers and fakes. Charles Bukowski wrote that a writer without desperation is nothing at all, and I am inclined to agree. Writer’s need to feel always on the verge of losing life and sanity without words or our work wanes both in quality and quantity. We forget to care about the truth and telling it, in just enough time.

When you sit down to write you should be sweating like you’ve just sat down to disarm and disassemble a bomb set to go off in seconds. You have to be struggling like you need food, water, or air. Write like the world depends on it, like your loved ones lives depended on it, like your life and legacy depend on it, no matter what your subject, from dystopian future to sci-fi, to memoir, to children’s books, and on down to little blog posts like these. Write like it truly matters whether you succeed or fail.

Of course, there ought to be balance, like all things. Walk the line between desperation and contentment, between urgency and patience. There has to be positivity and joy when you sit to write too, not just fear and anxiety. Find peace and focus in the knowledge that you are doing the work you were made for and that someone out there will agree. Even if it is one person you save through your sweating, you will have achieved your objective.

Balance is what keeps you getting better. It’s what keeps your ideas clear, organized, and coherent. Your words will mean nothing if rushed out there disjointed and jumbled.

Do not fear the desperation, the need, let it push you to stay dedicated to getting better and getting your name out there. Keep hold of that need, it will keep you going, and remember that without it, you are no writer. Keep it, cultivate it, let it guide you, but do not let it control you and never let it hinder your message.

Be desperate to get better, to learn, and to hone your craft. Be desperate to be different, desperate to show the world something new.

 

Be desperate to get it right.

 

***

If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter on life, love, and suffering (:

Quote via Alec Nevala-Lee

Biographical information via Goodreads and Wikipedia

Featured image via Unsplash

Willa Cather on Telling The Truth

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week I have chosen a quote from the American writer Willa Cather.

Willa Sibert Cather, born December 7, 1873, in Back Creek Valley, Virginia, achieved recognition for her novels of frontier life on the Great Plains, including O Pioneers! , The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia. In 1923 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours, a novel set during World War I.

willa-catherCather grew up in Virginia and Nebraska, and graduated from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, initially planning to become a physician, but after writing an article for the Nebraska State Journal, she became a regular contributor to this journal. Because of this, she changed her major and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English.

As a student at the University of Nebraska in the early 1890s, Cather sometimes used the masculine nickname “William” and wore masculine clothing. A photograph in the University of Nebraska archives depicts Cather dressed like a young man and with “her hair shingled, at a time when females wore their hair fashionably long.”

After graduation in 1894, she worked in Pittsburgh as writer for various publications and as a school English teacher for approximately 13 years, thereafter, at the age of 33, moving to New York City for the remainder of her life, though she also traveled widely and spent considerable time at her summer residence in New Brunswick, Canada.

Throughout Cather’s adult life, her most significant friendships were with women. These included her college friend Louise Pound; the Pittsburgh socialite Isabelle McClung, with whom Cather traveled to Europe and at whose Toronto home she stayed for prolonged visits; the opera singer Olive Fremstad; the pianist Yaltah Menuhin;  and most notably, the editor Edith Lewis, with whom Cather lived the last 39 years of her life.

Cather’s sexual identity remains a point of contention among scholars. While many argue for Cather as a lesbian and interpret her work through a lens of queer theory, a highly vocal contingent of Cather scholars adamantly oppose such considerations. For example, scholar Janet Sharistanian has written, “Cather did not label herself a lesbian nor would she wish us to do so, and we do not know whether her relationships with women were sexual. In any case, it is anachronistic to assume that if Cather’s historical context had been different, she would have chosen to write overtly about homoerotic love.”

She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1943. In 1944, Cather received the gold medal for fiction from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, an award given once a decade for an author’s total accomplishments. She died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 24, 1947, at the age of 73 in New York City.

A resolutely private person, Cather had destroyed many old drafts, personal papers, and letters. Her will restricted the ability of scholars to quote from the personal papers that remain. However, in April 2013, The Selected Letters of Willa Cather—a collection of 566 letters Cather wrote to friends, family, and literary acquaintances such as Thornton Wilder and F. Scott Fitzgerald—was published, two years following the death of Cather’s nephew and second literary executor, Charles Cather. Willa Cather’s correspondence revealed complexity of her character and inner world. The letters do not disclose any intimate details about Cather’s personal life, but they do “make clear that [her] primary emotional attachments were to women.”

“The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artist, the great artist, knows how difficult it is.”

— Willa Cather

Being truthful is not the same thing as being honest. Being open is not the same as not telling a lie. One is to answer when asked. The other is to pour your soul out thoroughly and unprompted. One is hard to do, the other feels almost impossible.

Telling the truth is complicated, tiring, and terrifying and writers and artist do it every day.

Telling the truth means making yourself vulnerable to judgment and rejection but since no man or woman is an island telling the truth can mean exposing not just yourself, not even just your family and friends, but your hometown, your gender, your race, and even your age group. It means that what you say means something and you have to carry the full responsibility and ownership of what you reveal.

Being truthful is painful. I’ve read over and over that the best way to be a writer is to just write but what do I do on the days when I am too afraid and too hurt to welcome more eyes and acknowledgment? What about the days when I am already exhausted and have nothing left to help carry the weight of revelation? What about the days when I cannot look myself in the eye let alone allow strangers to see such deep parts of me? What about the days when the truth is too disturbing and scary to examine? How do I do on those days?

The ones who say “just write” I wonder if they understand how much the tears sting and how the real the old memories feel when they pour put of you.

There are so many times I sit down to write my truth, and I find I have built so many defenses against what I carry deep down that I see no truth worth telling. I am nothing, I feel nothing, and nothing has ever hurt or helped me.

Society tells me to be happy and grateful and ordinary and getting past that to all the ugly things we would rather look away from is like pulling teeth or climbing mountains. Telling the truth starts with a search, and the mazes of this world are complex on purpose. The truth is hard to find and what you find may be nothing but illusions. More lies. Tell those too until you learn, I suppose.

I wouldn’t go as far as Cather in calling anyone stupid, but I would say they are a whole lot of ignorant, uninspired, and non-introspective ones out there. I would say I am among them, and so are many other artist and writers aspiring to do better too. The truth never comes easy, and the need to hide and run for cover never leaves us. Writers tell other writers what writing ought to feel like, forgetting what is hard for them will be hard for others too.

It’s rare to find people who open so easily and unapologetically, but we cannot deny that the ones who do are the best among us. Most people live lives so closed up and cut of that such vulnerability is beyond comprehension. I have met husbands and wives, sisters, and best friends who reveal less to one another than a writer does to the world.

Being truthful is hard. There have been many times I have written something that left me in tears and utterly exposed. When I read back over pieces like that, I get embarrassed and afraid. They are just too truthful, too raw. I edit and chop away at the feeling until I am once again cloaked and covered. I know that in doing so I have turned my work into lies but being so open is something you have to build up the courage to do.

And that is what all this practice is for, I suppose. Not just to write better but to write a little more truthfully every time. To write what we are again and again. To write what has been forgotten and what is wished to stay that way. To write about right and wrong and reality, about broken dreams and broken hearts and about the way the world doesn’t care or owe us a damn thing, it is exhausting! And it is the most fulfilling thing we can do.

Write often. Open yourself often. Feel pain, feel joy, feel fear, hope and anger, as often as you can and write, write, write, but never deny to yourself or anyone else that it is the hardest thing to do. Never minimize the worth and the work of what you and other writers do every single day.

***

If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for interesting reads + my own existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering, or buy me a cup of coffee perhaps?

Biographical information via Wikipedia and Goodreads

Featured image via Unsplash