“A Symmetry of Surprises” : Thoughts on Writing, Writers, and People

from Flickr user Keith Williamson

I generally write the post first, then pick the picture.  But today, I had these two great quotations about writing, and couldn’t figure out how to get there.

So I went shopping at Flickr for images using “writing” as a keyword.

I ended up with these fountain pens writing without human intervention because I think a couple of things are true:

First, writers experience an out-of-body thing as they write sometimes.  I call it going to the zone (that’s what it feels like to me: being on another plane of focus or consciousness).  I used to get the same sort of feeling when I drew from observation.  I have heard bunches of writers say that they don’t know how they do it, just that it’s compulsiveness, that they can’t stop.

Sometimes, writers even deny responsibility for their creations: they talk about it as a bolt of lightening, or as something that is received.  Stephen King talks about storytelling as excavating–dusting off an artifact into which the artist breathes life.

Though I am presently unable to access her book for an exact quotation, my friend Carolyn says that genius occurs at the intersection of the spiritual and creative, and she reminds us that we have become culturally accustomed to confusing the notion of genius with savant; Carolyn says that everyone has genius, it is not some special thing, and anybody can find her own genius.  Her book is called Awesome Your Life: The Artist’s Antidote to Suffering Genius.  I haven’t finished it myself, but it’s delicious so far, I recommend it.

I think that writing is a process of exploring genius, both the spiritual and the intellectual bits of it.

Second, every writer I know and have ever met is fascinated by other people.  This fascination is visceral.  After watching a fairly stupid TV show, I was reading a bit about microexpressions on the internet (a quick google scholar search shows that these are being studied with regard to politics, deception, law enforcement, etc), and got to thinking about my own intense fascination with other humans, and my ability to read their manner or listen closely to their language and figure out that something is bothering them or that they’re hiding a strong feeling.  I like to watch people argue, kiss, eat, discuss, dance.

While I was at the residency, something for which I have been ridiculed personally was natural in our group:  When observing people, we made up back stories for them based on how they walked or talked or ate.  We would trace them back to their childhoods and speculate about their jobs, how many lovers they’d had, what major event in their lives brought them to that point, and after just a few minutes, it felt like we were speaking truth.

I don’t know about you, but that’s exciting to me.

And that’s why I want to share these two quotations from Robert Mooney who’s one of the Wilkes faculty. He also teaches at Washington College His book, Father of the Man is on my to-read list based on the fact that on the fiction panel, he admonished us to:

“Be a deep sea diver of the human psyche.”

And said that:

“I just travel into the dark… A lot of fiction is a symmetry of surprises.”

What quotations have inspired or affirmed you as an artist, writer, person, scholar, soul?

I Got Annoyed by Stephen King, Then I Loved Him.

From Flickr User AZRainman

Right.  Until a few weeks ago, I had never read a Stephen King anything.

Don’t get pissed.  I’m just not interested.  I do want to read The Green Mile, but that is all.  I have seen a couple of the movies made from Stephen King novels/novellas: The Green Mile, The Stand.  That might be it. I honestly do not know.

It’s not in my aesthetic.

But I had to read his writing manual/memoir On Writing for the Wilkes Residency.

This was my emotional experience during the reading:  First, there was boredom. So I skipped the “I was the kid of a single mom, I want you to know that was hard” part, and started in on the section that was about writing.

Then there was utter annoyance.  The annoyance came as much from King’s arrogance as from the fact that I feel ambivalent about the usefulness of reading books about other writers’ processes.  I’m not saying that I have nothing to learn.  To the contrary.  I feel like I have tons to learn.  But I’m not going to learn what I need to learn about my process from Stephen King.  I’m going to learn that by reading and writing, and that is all I want to do, ever, basically.

Then there was indifference.  Here was my thinking: all right, King.  I know you hate adverbs.  I get it.  I hate them too.  I’m with you that more writers should learn some stuff about craft.  You’re right about the tool box, but you’re not knocking my socks off, here, buddy.  You really ought to be.  You are one of the few writers in history to actually get rich from writing.

Then there was anger.  I found some of the examples he used to be just preposterous.  The book was like barely confined King ego.

Then there was creeping fondness.  I promise you I fought it.  But he’s kind of funny.  And he’s earned the right to speak with authority about writing.  And he didn’t speak with any guilt at all about getting rich on writing.  I find it to be obnoxious when people feel guilty about getting rich.  I want to tell them that if they feel so guilty about being rich, they should do something useful with their money, live like paupers, and quit whining.

And by the last fifty pages of the book, I was lapping it up like a black dog in summer.  And it wasn’t really what he said so much as how he said it.  He’s frank and honest and underneath the bravado/braggadocio, there’s this twitchy, insecure artist.  The same one that lives in all of us writers.

I am alone in this assessment of King’s book, that is 80% yuck, 20% I love you, Stephen King.  Most of the other folks at the residency all louvvred the King book.  Which was sad.  A lot of them were vocally antagonistic toward the Brande book, Becoming a Writer.  I enjoyed the quiet doggedness with which Brande wrote and recommended to a writerly life.  There really isn’t a better example.

After all, we can’t all be King.

On the Road: Reflections on Ambition & Art

Painting by Norman Rockwell, Image from Cliff1066 on flickr.

As you know, I’ve just returned from my first residency at Wilkes University. I’ll go twice a year for 2.5 years and on the other side of 3, have an MA, and an MFA, an internship in teaching or publishing, and I’ll have a manuscript, a(t least one) revision of it, and all sorts of connections with the world of publishing.

If you know me, you know that I’ve always been a word nerd.

And if you were in my head all the time, you would know that at least 70% of the time, even though I make money as a writer, have publishing credits, and have a Bachelor’s degree (and am now working toward the terminal degree) in writing, I am sure that there’s nobody less qualified to do what I do, that I’m a fraud and a sham and have just been tricking people my whole life into believing that I’m a proper writer.

But know the most valuable thing I learned at the residency?

That every other writer feels that way, too.  Even writers as excellent as the ones I was lucky enough to meet and to hear read.

This is not to say that I feel like I’ve got nothing to learn.  The contrary in fact.  I’ll learn more in Wilkes’s program than I could’ve possibly predicted.

And I feel, for the first time since Pearl was an infant, that I’m both home and on the road to destination Realizing Goals.

I got permission to be constantly thinking about the stories I want to tell.  Those ideas that were bashing about in my wee noggin have grown larger, more defined.

And instead of running away from each of those ideas with some kind of fear, and some kind of narrative about why I can’t write that story now, my dilemma is that I can only pick one.

I don’t know if it is a feature of the artistic temperament or if it is that I was ingrained from a very early age that though I am welcome to try to do whatever I want, it is unlikely–statistically–that I will meet with any real success and that I should seek fulfillment in the menial, that explains my fear when facing my creative pursuits, my desire to put them off, to own any other path or career choice.

But spending a week around people who see the world as I do, in the kooky writer way, and with working writers who are generous with their insights, resources, time, and energy, well I don’t remember the last time I felt so creatively and spiritually fortified.

What about you?  When was the last time you felt creatively fortified?

Residency Day 5: Beauty, Blight, and Bombast

There’s a group of about 4 men, possessing a complementary nose for mischief, and they travel together in our “cohort.”  Our “cohort” is our group of writers entering the MFA program at the same time.  Why is it not a class?  I do not know.  These men are delightfully rowdy and goofy (they remind me of my youth) and one of them put a picture of himself on his lab wallpaper on these super sexy iMacs in the lab next to where we get our learn on.

I was so amused that I asked if I could take a picture of the picture, and then–ham that he is–he posed with it.  So here’s this week’s dose of the metaphysical:

This is a lovely view of the River Walk.

This is a detail from one of the entrances to the YMCA here.  Freaking gorgeous, but surrounded on many sides by economic depression.  This is a queer little town.

The food and coffee are bad.  I am looking forward to cooking again.

Everything else is righteous.

I leave you with a sample of some of the people I might get to have as a mentor and whom I will spend the next 3 years learning to know, like, professionally man.  I am the freaking luckiest girl in the world.  No, really.  They’ve put on readings for us every night, and there are more excellent & successful writers here than it seems prudent to list.  Maybe it’s not prudent to list any of them, but I’ve heard every one of the ones below read and I’m telling you now: go buy their books.  Delicious.

Kaylie Jones

Beverly Donofrio

Nina Solomon

Cecilia Galante

Michael Lennon

Nick Mamatas

Sara Pritchard

John Bowers 

Kevin Oderman

Nancy McKinley

Residency Day 1: Setting

Wilkes-Barre is renowned for being a totally blue-collar city.   It feels a little like Pittsburgh: universities surrounded by middle class & slums.  A lot of queerly frightened white people.

And I am getting sick with nostalgia for proper city living.

I got here a touch early, and the first person I met was Dr. Culver, the program director.  She is nothing like I pictured, but hugged me straight away.  Then I met a guy named J.C.  I will save my questions about a potential Messiah complex for workshop.

Here’s the view from my little apartment (which is like a glorified dorm suite with a proper kitchen and a full bathroom.  It’s slick).

Here’s another view:

And here’s the funny little balcony.

And here’s a bit of nostalgia.

For the first 18 years of my life, my dad was self-employed.  He had some kind of business relationship with a guy who owned a building & business in Wilkes-Barre, PSC or Petroleum Service Company.  People here say “Wilkes Bear Uh.”  Or “Wilkes Bear.”  Dad says, “Wilkes Berry.”  So it was kind of a big deal to get to go with dad to “Wilkes Berry.”

Once, maybe twice, dad brought me here visit this cat called Ron Sims (the one who owned PSC). He had a Merry-Go-Round horse in his office, and who also owned some kind of staging company.  Mountain Productions, I think?  Anyway, this was in the hey-day of New Kids On The Block (oh gawd), and Ron Sims gave me a spent backstage pass.  I was 8, and I had no clue, and so I said to my dad, “Don’t you have to go to a concert to use it?”

What I remember is the pained look on my dad’s face.  My ignorance and disappointment hurt his feelings, you know, on my behalf. He wasn’t sure how to break my little heart while still making me understand that the dude was giving me a cool present.  If he were me, he would’ve blogged about it later. I don’t remember what he said, but he explained the concept of collector’s items and memorabilia.

I put the backstage pass (which was this crazy fluorescent green fabric-covered square of poster paper) in my desk in my room where it stayed until I didn’t care anymore, and the New Kids were fuzz on the cultural horizon.

Here is a picture of the setting of that memory, the PSC building.  I took this picture across the parking lot for the Family Dollar and thrift shop where I went to buy toilet paper and the tooth brush I forgot.

The Effort Word [sic]

From Flickr user geishaboy500

If you know me, you probably know that I have a potty mouth.

I have, intentionally, not been 100% cautious about swearing in front of Child.

Diplomacy and discretion are two skills that not enough people have.  While this is pure theory, I suspect that understanding the value of an inner life, and of recognizing that different sets of people require different sets of tactics for getting along, is tantamount to a person’s success in life.

One can accomplish almost anything if one is charming.

The Effort Word [sic]

Child was playing outside with her neighbors.  She came in and told me, solemnly, as if presenting herself to the gallows, “Mommy.  I accidentally said the effort word.”

I said, “Do you know what the effort word is?”

“Yes.”

“What is it?”

Her eyes got wide, and she said, “Fuck.”

Then she clapped both hands over her mouth and appeared to brace for reprimand.  She relaxed visibly when I started to laugh.

“I just said it to myself, Mommy.”

“So you said the effort word in your head?”

“Yes.”

Still chuckling, “That’s okay, Child.  Just don’t say it at school.”

“Okay, mommy.”

“You can go back outside to play.”

The end.  Or so I thought.

I was so tickled by the whole incident, that at dinner that night, I asked her to tell Fella about the effort word.

She started out differently.  First she said, “Well.  I just said it to myself.” pause.  “We were playing Monkey in the Middle, and I messed up, and I just wanted to say something.  So I said, ‘I’m a fuck!'” And again she slapped both hands over her mouth with a look of terror in her little eyes.

“Oh,” I said.  “So you said it out loud to yourself?”

“Yes.  And my friends told me that was very bad.”

“It wasn’t, Child.”  I was laughing again, Fella was silently chuckling, too.  “Like I said before.  Just be careful.  Don’t say the effort word at school.”

I felt so happy to have a kid who is thoughtful and responsible enough to want to admit to me when she said something that she thought would make me angry.  I felt like the important thing was her desire to come clean.

Instead of making me angry, the incident made me feel like a good mom of a great kid.

Another day, I’ll post about how linguistic taboos are limiting and unfortunate.  Today, I’ll let you yell at me in the comments if you want.  Or not.  What do you think?  How do you handle your kids with swearing?

Post Script

I’m a big fan of Cake.  The band, not the confection.  And I’m not one of those moms who has a CD selection of stuff that’s Just For Kids in the car.  I feel like, within reason, Child can listen to what I like.  And what Fella likes.  She’s already been exposed to more different sorts of music than I knew about until I was in college.

So she likes a few tracks from Fashion Nugget, and I generally indulge her desire to be DJ in the car because it keeps her from talking about stuff during which I space out and then she gets upset when I space back in and she has to repeat herself.  So we sing together which is good for the soul.  One of her favorite songs is, “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps,” and after we listen to it a bunch of times, I let the next song play, and I always skip Track 11, called “Nugget” because it contains egregious use of the effort word [sic].

But on the way down to my mom’s the other week (it’s a 2-hour drive), after making up some new lyrics to The Comanche Song, officially titled “Comanche” from Motorcade of Generosity,  Child asked to listen to “Perhaps”, and after about 8 repeats, reminded me during the next track, “It’s Coming Down,” that the one after that was the one with the bad word and that I should remember to skip it.  It’d been a while since we listened to The Perhaps Song.

“Thanks for reminding me, Child.”

“But mommy.  What’s the bad word in that song?  Please tell me?”

“I can’t tell you, Child.  But you know it.  You just said it the other week.”

“Is it freakin’?”

“Nope, not that one.”

“But it’s the Eff word?” (Where’d she learn that it’s not the effort word?  Dangit!)

“Yup.”

“Just tell me, mommy.  I don’t remember.”  (See, people?  Swearing around your kids will not scar them for life)

“How about we just listen to the song.  You’ll know it when you hear it.”

“Yeah yeah yeah!”

“But before we do, what are the rules about those kinds of words?”

“I can’t say them around grandma.”

“When else?”

“At school.” She thought a minute, “And at my friends’ house, or if I’m at the mall.”

“Very good, Child.  You know why we can listen to this song  now?”

“No.”

“Because you understand when it’s not okay to say words that could get you in trouble.”

“Just play it, mommy.”

“Okay.”

Then we played the song about 12 times and it was still playing when we pulled into mom’s driveway.  Child was visibly proud of herself.  I know I didn’t do anything in my last life or this one to deserve such a great kid.

What Do You Do with a BA in English?

From Flickr User MrsDKrebs

If you’re me, you spend a lot of time writing, and then go to graduate school, but don’t finish it, and then wait a few years and try again.

I’m so pumped for all of you to see tomorrow’s post.  I think you’re really going to like it.  It is about Child and it is funny.  It is funny because kids are funny, and sometimes they are funny in adult ways but they don’t know why.  It is a thing that makes being a mother a total joy.

But next week, I’ll be at the residency.  I have not posted ahead because I am hoping to make the time to write my reflections on the residency while I am there.  But just in case they keep me too busy writing (which I hope they do), I’m letting all of you know that I might not be on my regular schedule next week.

All will normalize on Monday the 25th.

I know I’m going to have billions of things to share when I get back.