What is your profession? I’m dying to know. I will show up there and take over your clients. I will prescribe their pills or write their briefs or cobble their soles. I can slice and stitch with the best of them; after all, I took Home Ec.
Or maybe I should show up at your workplace and insist that you show me what you have learned to do over years, what you have paid to learn, and how to do it, free of charge? Or maybe I should laugh at you when you say that one must diagnose the disease before making the incision?
Here is how we writers become so: We spend years feeling tortured, true or not, and scribbling onto any scrap of paper that’s large enough for a word or two. We have journals. We have burned some of them. We have saved others. We have many half full, many overfull. Then we pursued writing-related tasks with vigor, fading into the background in school and work to observe, store up material, notice how people talk and act and are. We have been called odd snobs, different, dangerous, powerful. We have been taunted and less frequently heralded our “gifts” with the word. Our gift is obsession with the music of language, the ability to tune in.
We have read with quiet abandon. We have studied the written word, intentionally, osmotically, we find no greater joy than in the annals of another writer’s imagination. We have allowed others’ voices to inform, infuse our own. We have studied, studied, and continue to study the story, how it works, when it’s working, when it’s not. We have made our rookie mistakes in the privacy of our own rooms or in the semiprivacy of our educations, writing workshops, writers’ groups, families, friends, LiveJournals.
We do not insist that these mistakes be proffered publicly. We are not proud of them. We do not hear editors’ rejections or suggestions with scorn for gatekeepers. We thrive in rejection, we allow it to make us better, we recognize that we may never have success. We do not write for publication, we write for writing, for self, for art, for work, for pain, for pleasure, for sex. If we are published, of course we are pleased, but we do not begin with that in mind. We begin with the word in mind, the story, the sadness, the soul, the voices, the joy around us.
We do not begrudge you your desire to be heard. But we wish you would stop blabbing so loudly about how unfair the world that does not welcome your scribbling is. We wish you would remember how you toiled to learn your trade, the one that is not book writing. We wish you would stop believing that because you can speak you can write. We wish you would stop thinking of writing as a cash cow.
Please, write. Please do. There can never be enough writers. But before you fire up CreateSpace and start selling your print-on-demand for $24, read. And read again. And read until your eyes are dry and shrunken. Until you’ve read more books than anybody you know. Then write. And write long and hard. Until you’ve logged millions of words, tens of thousands of pages. And once you’ve done these things, you may be surprised how many of those pretentious, self-aggrandizing, gate keeping, nay saying, parade raining editors are willing to reconsider your work.
So I’m thinking about making my blog schedule Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and changing my posts from uploading very early in the morning (usually between 6-7:30 EST) to later in the afternoon (3:00 EST).
I’m also going to be out of town the next two weeks, so my posting schedule might get wonky anyhow. I’m going to try to share cool pictures and happenings, but I also begin grad classes, participate in a Major Family Wedding, and engage in the usual poverty-battling activities.
I’m not complaining. I choose to live like this. It’s the best way to be a reasonable mom for now. There will be plenty of time for capitalist ambition.
But if you live in the tri-county area, you should consider taking my Writing Workshops at Penn College in the Workforce Development and Continuing Education program. They are unbelievably inexpensive, and they will be loads of fun, plus open, welcoming, liberal, and kind.
Listen, today is independence day. Independence is cool. Independent publishing is cool. But some people don’t find it to be liberating. Some people are ashamed.
In my work as a journalist, I have encountered some self-published authors who are so defensive about being self-published that their websites are full of lies.
So in honor of freedom of speech, press, and publishing, I have the following things to say to ANYBODY who’s considering self-publishing.
1. If you’re embarrassed about self-publishing, DON’T DO IT. Get traditionally published instead. If you’ve sent your manuscript out and nobody wants it, it probably sucks. Work on it some more and send it out again, okay? Don’t give up.
2. If you decide to self-publish, call yourself a self-published author, instead of a published author. Don’t lie about it. It’s not cool, and journalists and anybody who needs help being impressed will find out you’re lying.
4. But if you write on your resume that you were a manager when you were a clerk, and a potential employer calls for a reference, you will not get the job.
5. Ergo, if you write on your website that you’re a “published author” and it turns out that you’re self-published with no other publishing credits, well, that’s a problem. Or if you write on your website that you’ve written a dozen books, but these books can’t be found anywhere because they are nowhere linked with your name, that’s also a problem.
So focus on what you have.
6. Self-publishing is hard work, and if you’re honest about it, people are going to be a lot happier to help you achieve sales goals, and help you to publicize. If you’ve done it, own it! Shout it! Be proud! It’s an accomplishment!
6a. But if your writing sucks because you didn’t spend any money on improving it or listen to any editors before you went to print or epub, don’t expect it to be easy to find people to be as proud of you as you are.
7a. And if you think I’m reliable and want to take my word for it, here are some other Self-publishing Help posts. Here, Here, Here, and Here.
8. Writing your web copy in the spirit of plausible deniability has a ripple effect. I take my responsibility to the truth as a journalist really seriously. I know a lot of journalists who do. We won’t, in good conscience, propagate half-truths. We will either not mention your invented credit, or explain it in language that is plainer than you would prefer it to be, plainer than you have explained it.
9. You lose 100% of your credibility if any look deeper than the surface of what you write on your website reveals half-truths or blatant lies, or things that can’t be fact-checked (which are always read as lies, even if they aren’t, so don’t tell them!).
10. Local press (where you are) and tons of print and web magazines welcome writing from freelancers. These publishing credits, when you get them, are often easily linked online (which is good for your web presence or online portfolio), and a totally transparent sample of your work. They also signal that you have the chutzpah to pursue work in writing, even if it isn’t what you believe you are cosmically destined to be doing, whether that’s writing fiction or poetry or lyric essays or memoir or whatever.
11. There are HUNDREDS of literary journals that accept work from unpublished people. Subscribe to Writer’s Market online, or go get the book, and submit, submit, submit.
12. None of this is sexy or easy, but nothing worth accomplishing, is sexy or easy. Most writers who make their living writing what they want to write instead of what they are being paid to write spend years in the trenches of copy editing, news jockeying, and doing work that is far outside their ideal writing life before they get to do what feeds their souls. But they do the stuff that feeds their souls anyway. They keep at it. Even though it’s hard and unsexy.
13. You should, too.
14. And always tell the fucking truth, even if you perceive some kind of stigma on your truth, okay? Lies are never worth it.
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?
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?
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?
But if you’re thinking about self-publishing, or wondering if you should pitch an agent, and have done even a small amount of web research, you’ve probably also seen the term “book doctor.”
Maybe you’re wondering what, precisely, is the difference?
Sometimes, people call themselves book doctors and they are really developmental editors (meaning they are equipped to help you develop the plot of your story, your characters, the big meaty bits: they will help you with the big revisions). But be careful! Because sometimes, these are folks who’ve self-pubbed, who haven’t used editors, and who don’t know their hand from their face. Sorry. I don’t like to be a crass hater, but it’s true. You don’t really have to be qualified to hang a shingle on the internet. You just have to be able to figure out WordPress or Blogger, and trust me, both are doable with any modicum of tech savvy.
Sometimes, book doctors are reasonably successful genre authors who can help you with the kinds of books they write. In my experience, traditionally published genre authors are well-informed on the demands of their particular market. They’ve read everybody like them and can probably tell you if you’ve got something sale-able on your hands.
But book doctors take the temperature of your manuscript or your ideas and asses their marketability, saleability, and they’ll be your book or proposal doula, too–they’ll be on hand to talk you through block, or help you slash darlings. They can give you tips on leveraging social media, blogging, author plarform. They can help you pick software for accounting. Maybe some of them would even make you a sandwich.
Book doctors–good ones–are the first stop before trying to publish or self-publish. Sometimes, before even developing a full draft. But make sure that the book doctor you hire is legit, and has experience with what you want to do. Ask for references or testimonials or both (if there aren’t any on their website, and even if there are). Ask for a copy of their resume or CV. Legit people won’t balk at the request or feed you a line about confidentiality agreements. They will comply happily with they information they may provide while satisfying the demands of heir confidentiality agreements.
7-10 Yes – You are probably okay without a book doctor, but if pitching at least 30 agents and editors doesn’t yield any results, perhaps consider a consultation with a book doctor.
4-6 Yes – You would probably benefit from a book doctor. You could probably muscle through without, but your job would be easier with one.
0-3 Yes – By all means, get on the horn this instant. Maybe even reconsider your authorial aspirations before you’ve done a little more work or research in that direction. Check out a conference in your field or a writing workshop or both.
I made some eBooks. And listen, I know that my graphic design skills leave something to be desired.
But each consists of 55ish pages (+/- 10K words) of the best stuff on this blog. Notes on Life and Love is something of a memoir in essay, fiction, list. On Writing and Living is all about writing and how to live as a writer, from style and grammar to a version of The Productivity Post.
I selected the content in these two books based on the stuff that gets found the most in searches, and the stuff that people seem to go back to again and again, or the stuff that people were most enthusiastic about in the comments.
Here’s why I did it:
1) I like to try new stuff and see what I can learn.
4) Because, as much as I am put off by the notion of monetizing and marketing, working for free is stupid. As an artist, working for free takes money from other artists. I wrote a post about that before.
5) To see what kind of feedback I get, whether people are more interested in learning about writing from me, or in hearing about my life.
Philosophy of Commerce for Artists
Just because the internet tells us to give our work away for free doesn’t mean that some people aren’t willing to pay for it. I love Bandcamp because it lets musicians put their work up, and gives consumers of it the option to pay or not to pay.
I know there are consumers of art who want to pay for it. And there are those who don’t. And there are those who can’t. I’ve been all three.
Probably, in another decade, there will be Bandcamp for writers, too. For now, I’m taking my cues from Bandcamp, because the music industry has been de-centralizing for about a decade now. I hope the books market will adapt more quickly. Yes, yes, people can sell their books on Amazon for $0.99 if they want, but that’s not really the same. Bandcamp gives art consumers the option to pay what they can, what they want, or nothing at all. It asks, “What is this worth to you?”
But I’m legitimately thrilled that you’re here, so I’m completely happy if you keep hanging out here without paying a red dime.
But if you want to, you can. If you have the means to, and you’re entertained or educated or edified here, please do.
Sort of like how you buy cookies from the girl scouts or your kids’ or grandkids’ fundraisers so support the work behind those things. Buying my eBook helps me pay my internet bill, put gas in my car, and feed my kid.
And if you’re an artist who agrees, feel free to rob my ideas wholesale. This was all very easy to set up, and I did it in a matter of hours. I’m happy to help. Hit me with the Contact form.
You can have either eBook for free here, or by clicking the eBook tab above. If you know somebody who’d get a kick out of one of them, please share it. Post a PDF on your own blog if you dig. I want people to read what I write.
You can pay $5.00 for either eBook on the right-hand menu over there. You can pay with your PayPal account or via a credit card as facilitated by PayPal. You don’t have to have a PayPal account to make this work.
If you don’t want the eBook, but you still think that April Line Writing is worth a bit of your hard won cash, you can just click the Tip Jar. That’ll take you to a “donations” page where you can tip as much or as little as you like.
Because the next thing is that I’m going to do a Newsletter.
And with my slower posting schedule, the posts are getting better. And there will be much to share about grad school, my sister’s wedding, my Freelancer’s Collective for Business project (with my pal Ryan), and the stuff I’m reading over the summer.
People build pipe dreams on blogs. Bored housewives blog. Authors blog. People who are selling something or themselves blog. People blog to give advice, to build their businesses, for personal fulfillment.
I have been thinking about my own blog a lot lately. I took a week off so that I could spend some time thinking through some posts, and get a few in the hopper.
And I’ve been really annoyed lately by artists who work for free. When we work for free, we steal money from ourselves and other artists.
But I work for free all the time, on my blog. Sort of. My blog is an investment in my future, it does not bring me money yet. I’m aiming for 1,000 true fans over the next three years (but certainly by my 35th birthday, my 32nd is right around the corner).
And I do get paid from it. Here’s what my blog pays me: 1. Writing practice, 2. blogging discipline/skill set/Wordpress Savvy, 3. great connections with swell people in the writing/book/publishing world, 4. clout and authority in the same world, in which I’m hoping to be entangled professionally for the rest of my life.
Baggott recently asked some important questions
Julianna Baggott is an author I admire particularly because of her refusal to eschew commercial fiction as worthless even though she is also part of the academic literary community, and her ability to have feet in both commercial and literary worlds; and because she writes commercial fiction as it should be written: with respect for the craft, with commitment to language, and with love for her readers. She also writes under the names Bridget Asher and N.E. Bode.
She has a blog. I read it sometimes.
She recently posted a piece entitled, “The Death of Blogging and… Blogging” In the beginning of the post, she said she read an article about how blogging may be dying. She admitted that it might make her happy if that is true, and she asked some other important questions, too. Go on, then. Click & read the whole post.
The question she asked that filled me with the most glee is this:
I’m worried more broadly about free content in the Information Age and — amid the incredible inundation of things to read — how do writers of books convince the public that some words still need to be paid for? Have I contributed to a cultural message that words are cheap, if not free?
The truth is that good words aren’t cheap. They are very costly, whether or not the writer is ever paid. Good writers spend a ton of time writing: writing well can be an incredibly inefficient process. Trouble is, we writers are more desperate to be read than we are to be paid. After all, getting a job as a food server is easy enough. So is getting a job for the state or at a gas station. There are zillions of ways to get money that have nothing to do with writing.
Conversely, (unless you’re Julianna Baggott), getting articles placed in magazines, newspapers, literary journals–getting manuscripts in front of agents and editors is excruciatingly difficult. I got a rejection kind of recently, and no matter how many I get, no matter how many times it says essentially the same thing–which is basically, “You know this is a subjective thing, kid. Stick to your guns.”–it stings. It sucks. It envelopes me in self doubt and makes me want to zing back to the editor what a tasteless toad she is to not want my brilliant essays, stories, articles, or ideas.
Of course, I can’t, and I don’t, I ultimately don’t take it personally, and I will try again. Right after I shake the self doubt. That part of it does get easier. At first, I’d lose a day to wallowing. Now, gimmie four minutes.
Baggott also observed the following:
It’s hard to talk about making money as a writer in our culture, in general. Why?
1. You’re in a career where the most common adjective used to describe your job title is “starving”; Poe died in a gutter. Real artists shouldn’t expect to make money, right? (The Poe reference is an important one — as Poe was a writer who certainly wrote for money to support others.)
2. Many people believe they can write books — unlike, say, perform brain surgery — and so writers aren’t doing anything particularly remarkable.
3. Many people want to write and writers should be thankful to simply get published at all. Who do we think we are, anyway?
Yeah! Especially that third one. Sometimes the sense is very much, “How dare you care if I screw up your work, how dare you care that we’ve paid you practically nothing for it! You’re lucky we’re taking your work at all! Hell, you should pay us!”
Most of the magazines and papers I’ve worked with have been lovely, really. And their editors are skilled, dedicated people who see the injustice, but are powerless, or are doing the best they can.
And I would add to number two that not only do many people believe they can write books, many people who have no business at all writing books do, and get paid–probably not handsomely, but paid–to do it! I direct your attention to exhibit A: The Boddice Ripper. I recently edited one that would’ve been particularly shredded in any college-level writing workshop.
So is the problem giving the work away for free, or is the problem that we don’t value good writing culturally because a) not enough people can tell when some writing is better than others and b) we live in the Information Age, as Baggot points out, and so much writing is free on the internet, why would anybody pay anything for any writing at all?
Regardless, writing is a profession. It takes a long, long time to get good at it, and being a good writer is much rarer than the present cultural mood would indicate. Baggott references the 10,000 hour rule whenever she talks to and about writer hopefuls. And she’s right. It’s not a craft that’s come by easily. And there are loads of good writers who never make a dime.
So what do you think about free content? Is it helpful or harmful? And if it’s harmful, what can we do about it?
Lately, I’ve been encountering a ton of spelling errors. I don’t know if it’s that the people who learned how to spell before spellcheck have mostly retired, or if it’s something else, but I am generally more amused than annoyed about errors like these. I have a pretty good memory and I’ve done a lot of reading in my life, plus, have an overfondness for the Dictionary, which is how I’m able to spot them, and certainly I am imperfect at this…
I love the thrill of learning new stuff about words, though. I can’t wait until I learn how to access Wilkes’s subscription to the OED from home. Oh, the perks of being a student.
Here are some of my favorite mixups from manuscripts (with pictures):
Hairsbreadth: Yes, the breadth of a hair. One word according to Merriam Webster’s, and here’s a touch of etymology. Here’s how I’ve seen it: Hare’s breath, hairsbreath, hare’s breadth, etc.
The jig’s up: A jig is a dance. When the jig’s up, reality checks are imminent. One of the
funniest spelling errors I see is “the gig’s up.” According to M-W a gig is only a job for an entertainer in the fifth sense of the word as a noun, and that that a gig could also be a cylindrical spinning thing, a thing to do with sailing, or a grotesque or ugly person, among other definitions. This is why I love English.
Wiseguy: When a writer means mobster and writes wise guy, I think, this is kind of a contranym: when the same word can have opposite meanings. It’s not exact here, because wiseguy is different from wise guy, but you catch my meaning. A wiseguy is a mobster. A wise guy is a funny person or jokester. The word that gave me the concept of contranym is staggering: The moon is a staggering distance from the sun. I am lucky to live staggering distance to the bar. Very big in the first use, very small in the second.
Tack vs. tact: A tack is a push-pin, but it’s also a method or course, especially one that’s drastically divergent from previous methods or courses. Tact is a social nicety in which a person knows how to speak without offending others. Here’s an example of a hilarious misuse, “He thought he’d try a new tact.”
Pour-over, pore over: Pour-over is a method for brewing coffee in which a porcelain (or
plastic) cone-shaped brew basket rests on a coffee cup, and it is brewed, one cup at a time. When one pores over something, one studies it closely.
Canvass, canvas: Canvas is that stuff that shoes and sacks are made of. Some artists paint on canvas. Canvas is a noun. When one is surveying an area in hopes of
catching a criminal or electing a particular person, one goes canvassing, and uses a second s and a verb.
Farther, further: This one is the trickiest of all of these. Farther connotes distance, as in, “if she could make it a touch farther, she’d be home free.” Further connotes concept, so to encourage or increase the reach of an idea or philosophy. For instance, “She hoped that if she saved the puppy, she’d further PETA’s cause.”
How about you, fellow editors? A favorite or funny misuse? Have you been seeing a lot of spelling errors in the world, too?
Whenever I read, I’m always dissecting the author’s psychological process. Not, I promise you, whether the events of a story or poems mirror an author’s own life. I am a fiction writer, so I know that it’s almost always synthesis or loads of practice or having paid careful attention. It is hard to write interestingly about one’s own life. Unless you’re David Sedaris, and when it’s brass tacks, it’s probably hard for him, too.
What I’m looking for in the words of other writers is clues about how they feel about things: issues, people, events; or insights about their writing process: sometimes you can tell when a writer gave up and took a short cut, or you can locate his “real” story in the words that are there–that is, you can see a writer’s affection more clearly than the writer himself can, if you read carefully.
If you read here regularly, you know that I’ve been feeling a little bit militant about injustices toward women and the way we American women seem to be keeping ourselves in these corners of oppression, and how our politicians are happy enough to help us stay there.
Imagine my fancy when I read–perhaps erroneously, more on this later–some poems that seem to be truly angry at women in this utterly delightful collection.
Don’t misunderstand: I am not calling Merton a misogynist. The poems are art, and exist outside of Merton’s consciousness, or perhaps in spite of it. Perhaps I’m identifying Merton’s anger with his mother or wife, isolated to those two people and nothing to do with women in general. Or maybe I’m misreading it all together. The book provides for much thematic wrangling, to review each poem or theme would be to write a second book. So I’ll take a closer peek at these few poems I read as being non-feminist.
Perhaps Merton’s poems that deal with women angrily are presented as a critique of the things men say about women, I’m thinking specifically of one called, “The Way Women Are,” whose first two lines are, “She says there’s no reason for me to be jealous,/ even though he’s good with his hands.” The implication here is that the woman in the poem is being unfaithful and lying about it, but the poem is about the speaker’s experience of that phenomenon, which he attributes to “the way women are about these things” in the last line of the poem.
There is one that he writes to the speaker’s progeny, “Advice My Daughter Will Probably Ignore,” in which he describes an eel of a man who is setting himself up to take advantage. The last two lines of the poem may indicate something of Merton’s observance of The Way Men Are. It goes, “by then,/you’ll have heard it all before.”
Taken as a collection, the poems are funny and insightful and largely unpretentious. They are short, simple, revealing of the human condition. Merton writes with sensitivity and freshness. Former US Poet Laureate Charles Simic said it best in the foreword, “…he knows what it’s like to be at the other end of the stick.”
Another thing I love about these poems is the way the ones with epigraphs interact with them. The poems literally speak to the epigraphs, often in humorous ways. Here’s a great, short example:
God does not play dice
Not, at least,
since that day in the garden
when He rolled snake-eyes.
Back to the women
Here is a full example, and the first poem in the book, also set in the garden:
The Original Sin: Adam’s Story
God saw that I was lonely.
He was right about that.
The rib thing, though–
consider the stars,
the beasts, fish,
birds, all that.
Don’t tell me he had nothing left.
What I saw
when I saw Eve–
her long hair, breasts,
the absence between her thighs
That was all right
until the business with the snake,
the rising of my desire.
I have read this poem now four times and re-typed it one time. I can’t not read the tone of blame in the last stanza: Eve was all right till she made me sin.
And maybe Merton’s intention is to draw attention to the absurdity of this social trope: the notion that all of men’s misbehavior can be attributed to women in some way.
But then there’s the poem, “All Hallow’s Eve,” in which Merton invokes both Joan of Arc and the witch who tried to eat Hansel and Gretel after the speaker “taste[s] his mother’s ashes.” How is it productive to compare any woman to a misunderstood (probably delusional) warrior and a cannibalistic witch? I want it to be productive.
So then, do I read this mother in this poem as Merton’s mother, so it is about one woman instead of all women? Or do I read her as any mother, which would be sensible considering the references to well-known historical and literary female figures? Do I interpret the reference to Joan of Arc as someone who was strong and impressive and unconfined by the cultural moment in which she lived (but then ultimately was when she burned as a sorceress and adulteress), and the reference to Hansel’s witch (Gretel’s apparently already been eaten) as something about hunger instead?
Now two things: These are five poems in sixty-some that it’s not even absolutely clear are overtly antithetical toward women as a group. And they are still good poems. In 1980, Merton wrote a book called, Enemies of Choice: Right-to-life Movement and Its Threat to Abortion. It’d be hard to mistake the thesis of that book. So clearly, Merton himself is fond of the notion of women as people with thoughts, ideas, choices, and rights.
But I think that the best poems offer multiple valid possibilities for interpretation, and I think the best poets are ready for questions like these. So, Andrew Merton, write on. I can’t wait to read your next book.