July 11, 2018

Revision: Nails, Stitches, Stories

This is a story about revision. This is about fixing built things: re-arrangements, adjustments, and alignments.

Last week, a carpenter arrived to build a new set of steps for the front of the house. He had a pile of high quality lumber and good equipment. He did a great job, except the placement didn't look right. The post for the railing somewhat obstructed the flow out of the door, especially if one were to be carrying a couch, for instance.

This was only a matter of inches, but the stairs made everything wrong, even the door and  sidewalk. I contacted the contractor, and he agreed. Relieved that the contractor was on top of it, I tried to imagine the ways that they might move this heavy structure. Would they disassemble the solidly nailed steps? Would they use jacks to lift the stairs? Would they use a winch?  Would there be wheels involved? I had no idea. But I told myself they would know what to do. These were trained professionals with a lot of experience.

At 8:00 am the next day, the carpenter appeared with a helper.  I asked if it was difficult to move a set of stairs. "I have no idea!" they said. I laughed weakly. So. They had never done that mistake before. Oh dear.  Leaving them to their work, I went inside and then I left to run an errand. When I came back, it was done. The stairs were in perfect alignment and they were completely stable. Was it hard? I asked. The answer from the workmen: "No, surprisingly."

The next day, I was sewing a pair of linen pants. This was a very simple pattern for beginners, and I had experience with sewing. I made an adjustment to the pattern to add pockets. This didn't go well. Next, I sewed the front and back leg pieces wrong, and I had to do it over. The whole time, I was thinking about the carpenters. After I fixed the pockets, I moved on to the waistband.  I'd miscalculated and inadvertently shortened the rise.  I had to rip out the stitching and change the seam allowance, tricky because I had already reinforced the stitching four times. I'd spent $40 on the fabric, and it was beginning to look like I'd wasted time and money. At several points in the project, I almost threw the unfinished pants into the back of the closet. But I made myself continue. Suddenly, things came together. I can wear them. They even look professional.

Then I went to my manuscript in progress. I had hoped the stories would spring fully formed and perfect from the moment of inception. They didn't. I laid them out on the work table, my desk, and gazed from the window into the garden, not seeing the garden. The apple blossoms were falling, each leaving a small ovary, and these would soon swell. It did not look all that promising. I had no idea what to do, but this was no reason -- at all -- to quit. The answer will come in the completion.

The Pleasure of the Text

Roland Barthes, in his book The Pleasure of the Text, posits writing as a form of seduction, and his form expresses his content. The book is a profound collection of fragments about pleasures of texts.  In the table of contents, instead of chapter titles or headings, there are key terms.  These are embedded in the paragraph fragments.  The first half of the list of terms are alphabetized and they are paired consecutive page numbers.  Not so random, those fragments. The second half of the list of terms have no page numbers at all, although the terms can be discovered within the book. His page numbers have set up an expectation, and then he interrupted or disrupted the expectation.  This is perhaps an example of what he terms "cruising" the reader. The key words from the second half of the list are in the text, and the reader must discover them. The following phrases express his metaphor: 

...the cohabitation of languages working side by side... 
...there is always a vacillation--I stumble, I err.... 
...it is intermittence...which is erotic: the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing, between two edges...it is this flash itself which seduces.... 
...what happens to the language does not happen to the discourse: what "happens," what "goes away," the seam of the two edges, the interstice of bliss, occurs in the volume of the languages, in the uttering...: not to devour, to gobble, but to graze, to browse scrupulously, to rediscover...  
The text needs its shadow: this shadow is a bit of ideology, a bit of representation, a bit of subject: ghosts, pockets, traces, necessary clouds: subversion must produce its own chiaroscuro.   
...the word can be erotic on two opposing conditions, both excessive: if it is extravagantly repeated or on the contrary, if it is unexpected, succulent in its newness.... 
...implying a split, a cleavage... 
...text is made, is worked out in a perpetual interweaving: lost in this tissue--this texture--the subject unmakes himself... 
...Pleasure's force of suspension can never be overstated.... 
...the voice, that writing, be as fresh, as supple, lubricated, delicately granular and vibrant as an animal's muzzle...
And certainly, poetry that gives pleasure does all of this. In Barthes' arrangements, positions, and subversions, he revels in language. The book lingers, explores, slows, and penetrates.

Work Cited

Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Translated by Richard Miller, Notting Hill Editions, 2012.

May 17, 2018

What I Learned From Teaching Creative Writing

Structured writing exercises and formulas can produce results, but the results aren't useful unless the writer uses their own unique voice.

Fifteen minute writing exercises produce surprising and pleasing results.

Photographs are great prompts. "Write a letter" is a great prompt and useful for teaching how to stay inside a character's voice.

Nouns and verbs provide visual images and action, but adjectives and adjectives provide none.

Decisions about punctuation and syntax might reflect one's writing voice. They also might reflect poor proofreading.

What gets in the way of your work can become your work.

Scenes are the building blocks of essays and fiction. These are made of character and action. The character always wants something, but he or she meets an obstacle. The next action reveals character and advances the plot.

Dialogue should have subtext. It signifies a constant exchange of power that might be romantic, physical, political or social. It communicates conveys conflict, attitudes, and it is shaped by intentions. environment/setting, secrets, objectives, and conflict. Dialogue can provide backstory and relationship dynamics and desire.

Fiction has sometimes been described as conflict: man against man, man against nature, or man against self. There is another way to look at this: fiction is about trouble.

Don't judge a piece of writing too early. It needs time. On the other hand, not much happens without a due date.

Teaching has helped me to articulate my own values and goals as a writer.  Reviewing the basic skills help me be skillful in my own writing. 

Support (encouragement and critique) for writers is essential. Students love to work in pairs or groups and collaborate.

Teaching is a creative act. It takes time and attention. Because the rewards of teaching are more tangible that months or years spent on a novel or new writing project, it's easy to value it more than one's own creative writing.

All the time, I witness people with talent who lack motivation and simply don't do it. I witness people with less facility for writing work hard and create great results.

Doing my own creative writing is the best way for me to stay in touch with the struggle to create a new piece of work. 

Creative writing is an excellent way to prepare for a career in any field.  It gives students practice with project management. Good writing demands deep listening, attentiveness, problem-solving, persistence, originality, and receptiveness to feedback.  When we learn to nurture our own creative projects, we have learned patience. Creative writing teaches us to work hard and make changes. It's a true gift to be able to adapt and respond to challenges.

April 27, 2018


by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

To sin by silence, when we should protest,
Makes cowards out of men. The human race
Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised
Against injustice, ignorance and lust,
The Inquisition yet would serve the law,
And guillotines decide our least disputes.
The few who dare, must speak and speak again
To right the wrongs of many. Speech, thank God,
No vested power in this great day and land
Can gag or throttle. Press and voice may cry
Loud disapproval of existing ills,
May criticise oppression and condemn
The lawlessness of wealth-protecting laws
That let the children and child-bearers toil
To purchase ease for idle millionaires.

Therefore do I protest against the boast
Of independence in this mighty land.
Call no chain strong which holds one rusted link,
Call no land free that holds one fettered slave.
Until the manacled, slim wrists of babes
Are loosed to toss in childish sport and glee,
Until the Mother bears no burden save
The precious one beneath her heart, until
God's soil is rescued from the clutch of greed
And given back to labor, let no man
Call this the land of freedom.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox(November 5, 1850–October 30, 1919), from her 1914 book Poems of Problems (public domain | public library), written at the peak of the Women’s Suffrage movement and just as WWI was about to erupt.

Carl Sandburg: Hyacinths and Biscuits

Poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits. ~Carl Sandburg

At a Window

Give me hunger,
O you gods that sit and give
The world its orders.
Give me hunger, pain and want,
Shut me out with shame and failure
From your doors of gold and fame,
Give me your shabbiest, weariest hunger!

But leave me a little love,
A voice to speak to me in the day end,
A hand to touch me in the dark room
Breaking the long loneliness.
In the dusk of day-shapes
Blurring the sunset,
One little wandering, western star
Thrust out from the changing shores of shadow.
Let me go to the window,
Watch there the day-shapes of dusk
And wait and know the coming
Of a little love.

April 16, 2018

What is Poetry?

The Greek word poiesis means “making.” 
  • Jorge Luis Borges believed that “poetry is something that cannot be defined without oversimplifying it.  It would be like attempting to define the color yellow, love, the fall of leaves in autumn.”  
  • Joseph Brodsky described poetry as “accelerated thinking."
  • Seamus Heaney  called it “language in orbit.”
  • Coleridge claimed that poetry equals “the best words in the best order.”
  • Gertrude Stein decided, “Poetry is doing nothing but using losing refusing and pleasing and betraying and caressing nouns.”
  • George Santayana said that “poetry is speech in which the instrument counts as well as the meaning.” 
  • Paul Valery said the difference between poetry and prose is physiological.  
  • Marianne Moore says it like this: 
It comes to this: of whatever sort it is,
it must be "Lit with piercing glances into the life of things";
it must acknowledge the spiritual forces which have made it.

April 14, 2018

Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein (1874–1946) decided, “Poetry is doing nothing but using losing refusing and pleasing and betraying and caressing nouns.”

Poetry & Memory

Poets and writers draw material from every day experience, from place, from memory and from interactions.

I gather together the dreams, fantasies, experiences that preoccupied me as a girl that stay with me and appear and reappear in different shapes and forms in all my work. Without telling everything that happened, they document all that remains most vivid. ~Bell Hooks, essayist 
The past is never dead. It’s not even past. ~William Faulkner, novelist
Certain experiences mark us, and images and memories lodge in the subconscious to emerge and re-emerge in dreams and in stories. They frame an individual's reality and filter new experience.  In poetry, another element is the body.

Paul Valery said the difference between poetry and other kinds of writing is physiological. Poetry is connected to the breath. Whether or not the poem is in formal verse, the rhythm, meter, and beat affect the lines in a poem, and these affect the reader who speaks these lines. In a poem, a reader steps into the breath of the writer for a few moments and from the writer, through the page, experiences the images, the body, and the experience. What has marked another writer is capable of marking a reader.  

Writing teacher William Zinsser said: 
Memoir isn’t the summary of a life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition. It may look like a casual and even random calling up of bygone events. It’s not; it’s a deliberate construction.
As a window, a photograph, and a deliberate construction, the image and poem is grounded in the body and also is a pattern of sound. It may be lyrical or not. It may be formal or not. The poet chooses words, vowels, consonants. The poet creates the energy.

I think of the poem as an instrument. It is a body with memory; a culture with a his(her)story. It has a shape with a resonant chamber, an architecture with a listening space, an ear for sound and composition. The poet deliberates on every element: the sound might be mellifluous or cacophonous. The poet makes the pauses and almost-rhymes, the length of lines and stanzas, and the arrangements and disarrangements. Along its strings or nerves, music rises in the images.  Listen. See.

March 31, 2018

Advice from Virginia Woolf

"Then let your rhythmical sense wind itself in and out among men and women, omnibuses, sparrows—whatever come along the street—until it has strung them together in one harmonious whole. That perhaps is [the writer’s] task—to find the relation between things that seem incompatible yet have a mysterious affinity...."  from A Letter to a Young Poet, 1932. 

Read more at https://lithub.com/essential-writing-advice-from-virginia-woolf/

March 4, 2018

Writing Workshop for Women Veterans

Women Veterans are invited to a retreat at Giant's Ridge in Biwabik.

I will be teaching a writing workshop at this event, on Saturday May 5, 2018 from 3:00-5:00 pm.

Every veteran has a story to tell, and we welcome you.


Recently, the Washington Post reported the United States has 2 million women veterans, and once they are back from duty, their service is often unacknowledged or even forgotten in our culture. Their stories are just now beginning to emerge.

Read more at :

Publishing opportunity for veterans: https://iowareview.org/veteranswritingcontest