Dreams and Dissertations, Poetry and Prose, Inspiration and an Eaglet Named Hope

by Marisa PC

A week or so ago, I dreamed that I attended a combo pool party and poetry reading, which featured Dana Levin and Jessica Helen Lopez. In the dream, both poets read, and then we ended up talking in the pool. It was nighttime, the pool was lit from beneath the water’s surface, the colors of the dream were turquoise and muted gold and night sky, but those details are merely atmospheric. The happiness I felt upon waking told me the importance of the dream: that I should partake of more poetry.

An interesting message, given that I’ve been doing just that. I’ve recently read Dana’s Banana Palace, Bonnie Arning’s Escape Velocity, Mark Doty’s Paragon Park, and I’ve started Jennifer Givhan’s Protection Spell. Classic poems by W. H. Auden and e.e. cummings have echoed in me, soothing and stirring me during these difficult political times, while Lisa D. Chavez’s “In an Angry Season” and some of Jericho Brown’s more recent work does the same. And since the presidential election, I’ve attended nearly a dozen readings, maybe more, and found myself grateful to hear the work of up-and-coming poets I’m lucky to know, poets like Crystal Zanders and Colby Gates.

I’ve kind of been wanting to try my hand at poetry again, even though I know this “hand” to be prose-laden, too literal, leaden. This morning I drank my coffee and read poetry and had an eagle-cam streaming online, and I scribbled three poem portions. And look, I don’t know whether they’ll be poems. They’re really just scribbles right now, but isn’t that the way we start?

The poetry I was reading this morning? It was MFA student Aaron Reeder’s dissertation, From the Kingdom of the Lost. I’m on Aaron’s committee, and I started reading it last night. I prefer to read poetry dissertations twice—once to get a sense of what the manuscript as a whole is trying to do and another time to see how the individual poems are puzzled together to achieve that end. But as I read Aaron’s work, I could already see the book in the manuscript; that is, I understood that I was reading a fully realized poetry collection. It had me in its grip, tightly, tenderly. I was a passenger brought along on an emotional journey, and near the manuscript’s end, I suddenly found myself in tears. Big, drippy tears.

I used to cry all the time over the least little thing. Now I’m crotchety and crusty and cranky, and I don’t cry so easily, so the fact that Aaron’s work had me in big, drippy tears speaks for the level of his accomplishment. Once I’d finished my reading and my crying and my coffee, I walked the dogs, and when I got home, I scribbled some scribbles that I like to pretend may go toward poems.

This is where I admit, as we approach the end of the Writer’s March, that I’ve done little else. I haven’t come close to achieving the goals I set four weeks ago. But I’ve submitted some finished pieces, gotten a positive rejection from a top-tier literary journal, done a couple of line-edit-level revisions, toted around notes for a novel in hopes of working on it, dashed off some notes and done some reading for another piece I’d like to work on, and oh yeah, scribbled some pretend-poetry scribbles that maybe just maybe someday will grow up to be prosy little poems.

No matter my lack of complete success with the Writer’s March, I’m exiting this month with renewed inspiration and determination. Some of that has come from my participation here, but most of it has come from working with the four MFA students whose dissertations I’m lucky to be reading. These MFA students, they are ending this month (whether or not they’ve participated in the March) by meeting a huge goal: the completion of their dissertations. Each of these students has constructed a book-length work. Aaron’s is a poetry collection. (Look for it soon!) And I’m also working with a fiction writer and two creative nonfiction writers.

Celia Laskey, the fiction writer, has put together a novel in stories called Under the Rainbow. Last summer on a hunch that it would be good, I volunteered to read it. I was right: It was good. In fact, it was better than I’d expected. Truth be told, I offered to read Celia’s manuscript because of its subject: An LGBTQ task force moves to a town voted the most homophobic city in America with the intention of creating opportunities for education and inclusivity. Each story is told from the point of view of a townsperson (the majority of them straight and terrifically conservative) or a task force member. I well remembered my time as a student in fiction workshops and how distressing it could be to have readers who just didn’t get my queer themes and characters. I hoped to be a good reader for Celia and a sounding board as she worked through her revisions. As usually occurs when I read another writer’s work in progress, I became involved in the storylines and found myself caring deeply about the characters, queer and straight alike. And beyond that, I found myself studying Celia’s manner of storytelling—how she manages to employ first-person POV and show each of her characters fully and actively, revealing not only how they appear to other people but also what their inner lives and most private hopes and disappointments are. I can’t wait for the day I hold a published copy of Celia’s book.

I finished Cat Hubka’s manuscript, The Price of Admission, just yesterday morning and am blown away. I’ve known Cat for a number of years now; I worked with her when she was an undergraduate. As I turned the pages of her memoir, I saw how she’d incorporated the work we’d done together with all the work—so much work!—she’s done since. At the end of our first semester together, Cat met with me. She talked with me about one of her four sons, Mike, who died in his late teens. In our meeting, she told me she loved him and wanted to write about him. Though he is not the focus of Cat’s dissertation, Mike is threaded through its pages, as are her other sons, as are a number of other people who have played important roles in her journey into and through the early years of her sobriety. Because I have known and worked with Cat for a while now, I knew portions of her story, but reading her work allowed me insight into many aspects of her life that I hadn’t guessed at. I feel such tenderness for my friend, even at the parts she may refer to as “assholery,” and I feel pride in seeing that she has something original, compelling, and sometimes startling to include among recovery narratives.

Tomorrow I receive Ana June’s manuscript. I don’t know its title yet, and I don’t know how she has navigated the stories from her life that she may tell in it. In our conversations about writing, Ana has spoken of connections between the physical health of the body–specifically the woman’s body–and the assault on the environment, so perhaps these themes will be woven through her work. And as with the other MFA students whose work I’ve been reading, I’m sure I’ll be engaged, amazed, and inspired.

It’s very late—early, actually—and I’d like to bring these musings around to a point, but I’m not sure I’m going to succeed at that. Obviously, I’m not going to succeed at fulfilling my Writer’s March goals, either. But I want to thank all of you who have written for the blog, especially founder Sam Ocena, and I want to congratulate those of you who have accomplished some or all of your writing goals for the month. I am inspired by you, as I am by the MFA students whose committees I have the honor of serving on, and that inspiration is energizing. I’m going to go forward from this time and partake of more poetry—and more prose too. Best of luck to you as you end the March and the month of March. Here’s a video of an eaglet named Hope fledging—that is, flying from the nest for the first time earlier this month. May we all fly on strong wings. May we lift one another up.

video from American Eagle Foundation, Northeast Florida webcam, 2 March 2017

Dive In!: Actions Speak Louder Than Thoughts

by Marisa PC

One day about twelve years ago, I met with Sarah, a then-MFA student in poetry, to talk about her first attempt at writing a short story. It was a good story, a good discussion, and a strong stride toward friendship. I wasn’t Sarah’s fiction teacher, but as her friend, I had the pleasure of reading each of her stories and hearing her ideas for fiction. I distinctly remember when she ran one of those ideas by me: “I imagine my point-of-view character as a man who has a large aquarium with tropical fish. He likes to sit in front of the aquarium and think.”

“Good,” I said, “but he can’t sit and think in front of his aquarium during the story.”

Sarah wrote the story. The POV character was too busy juggling his duties as the husband of a dying woman with his affair with another woman to sit in front of his aquarium and think. But the aquarium was there, filled with tropical fish who also needed caring for, and now merely a feature of the story’s setting. Sarah knew of her character that spending time contemplating his fish calmed him. She also understood, after our conversation, that letting him sit and think on the page would create a lull in the action, a lull from which the story might not be able to recover. Continue reading

On Copying and Imitation as Practice, Not Plagiarism

by Marisa PC

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Every semester, as I teach scene-writing, I dedicate a class or two to dialogue. The content and pacing of dialogue are themselves worthy of discussion, but they are not my subject today. Instead, I notice that in at least half the cases, my students have difficulty punctuating dialogue correctly and sometimes struggle to paragraph it as well. Each time I teach it, I reflect on why these technical particularities come so easily to me. I’m detail-oriented, sure, and blessed with an undying love of grammar and mechanics. However, I’m also aware that no one—no teacher in a classroom, I mean—took time to teach me the hows and whys of dialogue punctuation. I’ve decided I learned how to do it through the practice of imitation.

In high school, I was already full of original stories to tell, but sometimes when another author’s work inspired me, I would rewrite it. I would copy in longhand whatever words had caught my attention, because I wanted to experience what it felt like to have such amazing words unspool from my pen. In no way was my copying an act of plagiarism. It was, rather, an act of homage—and of apprenticeship. I kept whole notebooks of song lyrics and passages from poetry and prose that moved me. Once, I even copied an entire novel but changed the point-of-view character to the one I preferred. Quite possibly, my long, attentive copying sessions led me to learn dialogue punctuation. I’m fairly sure it led me to learn other things about writing, too.

Among the creative writing textbooks in my possession is one by Nicholas Delbanco called The Sincerest Form: Writing Fiction by Imitation. I haven’t used it with any of my classes, but I find it an intriguing approach. Delbanco introduces each chapter with a short story—Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” Bharati Mukherjee’s “The Management of Grief,” and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” among them—and follows with a step-by-step analysis of each, along with ten exercises promoting imitation of the story. The exercises for O’Connor’s story, for example, include incorporating dialect to write a scene between two characters discussing the Grandmother, writing five different endings, and expanding the relatively small role of the mother. An anthology of other stories and exercises follows.

Perhaps you have objected, as so many do, to the notion of imitation as a vehicle toward learning. You have your own style, your own stories, your own original you-ness of writing. I get that, I do, but Delbanco makes a strong case for such practice, pointing out how often we learn by example in other ways. We learn to walk and talk by example, he points out. Actors study other people’s actions and intonations; artists in their apprenticeship attempt to reproduce what they see. Delbanco goes on. And I’ll join him in promoting imitation as a fair practice.

Today I invite you to copy several pages of a story, essay, or book you admire or several poems by a poet whose work inspires you. Use longhand, and feel the words. If you want to take the exercise further, try writing a short original passage or poem of your own that follows the structure and mechanics of the admired piece. See whether you can develop a sense of how the author or poet of the piece you’re imitating made each decision—from word choice and sentence structure to development of character or theme. And if punctuating and paragraphing dialogue gives you fits, by all means, copy a long, effective passage of someone else’s and take note of what the author is doing!

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In regard to the photo: Felix LaFollett is an African gray parrot who has his own Facebook page and is trainer to the people with whom he lives. As many of you know, I live with three parrots, and though they often repeat words, phrases, and noises, they are never merely imitating. Their gift of clear communication is one we humans should learn from and hope to emulate.

Fret Not!* On the Reasons Behind the Rules for My Fiction Workshop

Guest post by Marisa PC (Tyger Burning)

Dec 2015-July 2016 004 (152).JPGIt’s that time of the semester again. The students in my fiction-writing class are getting ready to turn in short stories for workshopping, and I’ve had the nerve to give them rules to follow as they write—stuff like writing from the POV of a living human character who’s interacting with other human characters in a contemporary time and in a setting they’re familiar with. Don’t kill off a character in order to resolve a conflict, I say. Don’t write a story that begins or ends with an alarm clock, I say, or one that depends on coincidence or one that ends with the gimmick of “It was all a dream.” Don’t turn in a would-be episode of whatever’s hot on Netflix or at the movies. Don’t, don’t, don’t, I say. Amid all the don’ts, I include the all-important one, so important that it’s underscored on the list of content guidelines on my syllabus. “Genre work is forbidden,” I’ve warned, “and turning it in will result in a grade deduction and possible failure of the assignment.”

Inevitably, this rule makes the light go out of the eyes of about half my fiction students, while the others appear unfazed. The class—an intermediate-level undergraduate fiction workshop—has literary fiction as its focus, I’ve said, so the repetition of the rule should come as no surprise. Even as I hammer home what sorts of things I’m looking for in their stories, I wonder who this semester’s rule-breaker will be. Who will insist on setting a story on another planet or adding a dragon into the mix or having a zombie take a bite out of an expendable character or treating the reader to a day in the pet beta fish’s life from the pet beta fish’s POV? And is there any chance at all that that rule-defying risk-taker will compose a successful story? Continue reading

Sweet Inspiration

–by Tyger Burning (Marisa P.C.) in loving memory of Gena N. (1963 – 1996)

Gena N. and me in fifth grade, with some kid in a hat that screams 1970s

 

Confession #1: I’ve officially written only TWO of the days of the Writer’s March. That means putting words on the page. As usual, I’ve done a lot of work in my head, but that’s not what the March is about.

Confession #2: I agreed to write this post several days ago. As usual, I crafted it in my head. It was wonderful. It was about a recent hike I went on with my friends and how I didn’t finish it but didn’t feel bad about it. I was going to make it into a metaphor about writing, sort of.

Confession #3: I wrote this post last year for Writer’s March, but it wasn’t used. I hope it’s of use to you now. Maybe it will be of use to me in these last days of the march. (By the way, the photos are today’s additions.)

 

Sweet Inspiration

Hello from Marisa! How is your march going? Today’s post is intended to encourage those of you who may be struggling to keep up with your goals and to inspire all of you to remember the early inspirations in your writing life.

 me in third grade

The first half of third grade was coming to a close, and I had just turned eight. We’d been working on multiplication tables, cursive handwriting, and the proper use of ballpoint ink. I don’t remember what we studied in English, only that my teacher, Mrs. Zettel, taught us how to write poems. They had a bouncing meter and a strong dependency on rhyme. I wrote my first poem in rhyming couplets. It was an eight-line masterpiece titled “December”: “December reminds me of red and green. / It also reminds me of Christmas string.” I meant “tinsel,” but “tinsel” didn’t rhyme. “It reminds me of Santa Claus / and how he makes such a ho-ho pause.” I didn’t know what a “ho-ho pause” was; the important thing was that “pause” rhymed with “Claus” and “ho-ho” was, obviously, an onomatopoeia representing Santa’s laughter. I remember the rest of the poem too, but I trust you get the picture: Its reliance on rhyme was wreckage to image and accuracy.

At eight, I didn’t still believe in Santa. But Christmas was coming, we wouldn’t have to go to school for a few weeks, there would be decorations and presents, and that was what was on my mind when we were assigned our first poem. I don’t remember anyone else’s poem. I do remember how much everyone else loved mine, though. Mrs. Zettel, of all people, loved my poem! She was a strict, paddle-wielding teacher who rarely smiled. She often wore an avocado-colored dress that raised up to reveal her girdle whenever she wrote on the chalkboard. She was a stout woman who pinned her graying hair in a swirl atop her head. She seemed old. She may not have been. But Mrs. Zettel, she raved about my poem.

Mrs. Zettel with a rare smile, not looking so old after all

All my classmates loved my poem. Most important among them was Gena N., my first love. (She looked like Barbara Feldon/Agent 99 in Get Smart!, I swear it to this day. A lifelong fan of my writing, Gena N. also read my first novel during study hall our senior year of high school.) Anyway, it was also important that my parents and grandparents saw greatness in my poem. Writing those eight lines was the only thing I’d ever done in the whole of my life that made everyone lavish praise upon me.

Gena N., out of focus, but looking decidedly like Agent 99!

The next year I won the fourth-grade poetry contest, and Mrs. Bullard took me to hear Elizabeth Spencer read. Our class made books — mimeographed, stapled affairs — of our poetry and drawings. One of my poems was about springtime. It mostly rhymed. In fifth grade I continued to meet with success for my seasonal writing; my poem “The Year Is Here” (about Thanksgiving) was published in the local newspaper. That year I also wrote and illustrated my first book, The Golden Pond, during lulls in class; it was about Jesus’s second coming and his deep despair over pollution. I probably plagiarized an anti-littering commercial that was popular at the time, but I forgive myself because that was before I knew what plagiarism was.

In short, at school I was becoming known as a “writer.” And my family still supported my work. I wrote a poem about our pet cat, Fat Cat, and won a local poetry contest with “Butterfly,” about a monarch who met its death when it fell prey to a crow. When my great-grandmother died just before my ninth birthday, I wrote a poem called “Granny.” (“Granny was a good old soul. / She lived to be quite old.”) I used my finest penmanship and wrote its seven lines with the faintest of pencil strokes. That last line, standing alone with no rhyming couplet, may symbolize my grief, or perhaps it marked a Coleridgean inability to finish. When I handed it to my grandmother, she cried and cried. That poem made her so happy. She quoted it often.

It’s true that puberty made a mess of my poetry — I suddenly found concrete images expendable and replaced them with tortured, abstract emoting — but I’m not writing this post to supply a history of my writing. Instead, I mean to pay tribute to those earliest positive influences on my writing — in particular to Mrs. Zettel and Gena N. — and I wish to encourage you to think about yours. Who has been most supportive to you along the way? What are your earliest good memories of writing? Who and what inspired you? What did you write about?

P.S. I would like to thank Sam, creator of the Writer’s March, for being another voice of inspiration. Thanks, Sam!

 me and Sam, still in school

 

Lessons Writers Can Adapt from Popular Culture

I have to begin with a “writer’s confession” of my own: I’d love to plagiarize Sam’s post from yesterday. For the past couple of weeks, I’ve known I have this blog entry to write, and I shuffled through ideas for it but repeatedly found myself face up against a wall. I still haven’t figured out a way around, over, or through that wall. I wanted to write about that wall — an admission that I’d run into it — and then Sam wrote about her version of it first. I imagine my wall as a tall and long row of brick cinder blocks; I’m flush up against it, it’s scraping my skin raw, and neither of us appears to be moving anywhere. But I’m responsible for a blog post, so we’re stuck with whatever is about to come out extemporaneously.

My friend Lisa, who did not sign up for the Writer’s March this go-round, happily reported to me this evening that she’d managed to do a march’s worth of successful writing anyway. I confessed that I haven’t. I’ve written a good bit more than usual, yes, but not what I had in mind or as much. I told her I was having trouble coming up with an idea for tonight’s post. She’s been working on a retelling of the fairy tale “The Beauty and the Beast.” She said, “Why don’t you write about the Beauty and the Beast of writing?”

“Then I’d be stealing your idea,” I said.

“You have my permission.”

So, yeah, I could write about the beautifully romantic notions of what it means to be a writer — for instance, the glorification of the “starving” artist — and the beastly agony that is the real work, but no, no thanks, not tonight.

I watched Dancing with the Stars tonight. I have learned to love this show. It’s happy candy. This is the only second week of the new season, and the dancing is already notably better than in past seasons. But some of the “stars” are nervous, stiff; their limbs fly every which way, they miss the beat (sometimes most of the beats), they lose their place, and their performance smiles are often coupled with a deer-in-headlights look in their eyes. I like this show because of those dancers, because I get to see celebrities I may or may not recognize doing something different, something out of their comfort zone. And I often get to see them progress in their abilities.

I was talking with a student today (Ava, who is also doing the Writer’s March) and mentioned the cut-and-paste process of revision. You don’t do this on the computer. You take your manuscript and a pair of scissors, and you cut after every scene or, if you’re feeling especially bold, into the heart of the scene. Then you lay out these physical pieces of paper in a new arrangement. You shuffle them again and again until you’re forced to consider new ways to develop existing scenes and obviously new ways to structure the overall piece. Ava shuddered at the thought of doing that to her manuscript, and I admitted I’d rejected the idea outright when my own teacher recommended it to me. It sounded like so much work. But my real problem with it, I know now, was that I was doing something outside my comfort zone. I wanted then and still want to be able to write a manuscript successfully from beginning to end. Dear readers, I inform you that that has never actually happened. Only once did a fairly solid draft of a five-paged essay come out in a mostly usable form. As it turns out, every time I’ve dared make the mess of cutting up a printed-out manuscript and laying out the pieces on a table or on the floor, it’s worked to my advantage — or rather, to the advantage of the manuscript needing scrupulous revision.

I don’t know that I’ve succeeded in making the connection to Dancing with the Stars clear for you. Something about pushing yourself beyond what you’re comfortable with to discover other talents or at least other possibilities, that’s the connection I’m aiming for. Try something you haven’t done before when you’re revising. Rewrite a critical section by hand without referring to the original draft. See if anything new and useful results.

More than anything, I’m thinking about Wednesday, the day after you’ll read this post. Wednesday is Lady Gaga’s birthday. If I haven’t told you lately or ever, I’m a huge fan. No, you’re not thinking huge enough. Huger than that. Now think huger. Okay, you’re almost there. Anyway, for the past couple of years, as each semester draws to a close, I’ve brought up Lady Gaga’s musical and performance abilities in relation to writing. Believe me, it matters not one whit whether you like, appreciate, or loathe and scorn Lady Gaga as an artist. My analogy goes beyond that. It’s this: I admire her because she has a far-reaching grasp of the musical and performance traditions that precede her, yet her work also pushes past existing boundaries and shows promise of great advances. Some view her as a Madonna wannabe, but I hear Prince and David Bowie, Queen and Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Elton John, KISS and Liza Minelli, and others too. Some may hear party songs, dance-pop, and see an overmade-up bewigged crazily dressed gimmick of a pop star. I see someone in command of the construction of her persona(e). I could go on. Ask, and I will.

But what I want to emphasize is her knowledge of tradition and her ability to transcend it. I believe that the latter is entirely contingent on the former. Novice writers — all writers — should read, read, read. Read deeply and read widely. Read what gives you pleasure, read what you’re assigned, read what your friends and teachers and other writers recommend, read for pleasure, yes, but also read critically. Study the tradition you’re working in. “Read beyond the syllabus,” one of my professors once told me, which seems the most obvious sort of advice. As you discover kinship with writers whose work you enjoy and/or admire, try to find out which writers influenced them, and add to your reading list accordingly, ad infinitum.

Spend some time this week enjoying and studying the writers who have influenced your work or whom you want to influence your work. Steep yourself in the tradition. Consider why you admire their writing. What themes or techniques inspire you? Which characters live for you beyond the page? Where is a writer’s language most lyrical, most precise? Think about it. Then write.

Me, I’m going to call it a night!

“Something Amazing”: On a Prose Writer’s Appreciation of Poetry

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, Pieter Brueghel, @1558

I began my writing life as a poet. I had just turned eight. A decade passed, more, and I churned out hundreds of poems, possibly close to a thousand. But I was one of those self-proclaimed poets who never read poetry for pleasure or edification; I read only what I was assigned and only for symbolic and literary analysis. That’s as much preamble as I will give at this point. What is important is that in my early twenties, after a few rough critiques by actual poets and people who “knew” poetry, I pretty much put an end to our relationship–or at least the pretense of a relationship I had with poetry. Another decade passed, and I found myself working on a Ph.D. in fiction writing. Ours was not a multi-genre program, so the one and only poetry course I had to take was not a workshop (O, thank you, lucky stars!) but rather a class that went by the daunting title of Form and Theory of Poetry.

The class was made all the more daunting by its professor, a fussy fellow with a fussy mustache who made no secret of his disdain for the fiction writers in the program. His reputation preceded him, and those of us in fiction held off on taking the class until we could hold off no more. He was demanding, that man. He expected us to memorize things about poetry: dozens upon dozens of terms, scansion (not only the metrics but particularly the theoretical aspects), the centuries-long history of the sonnet and all its transformations, metrical and rhyme schemes for dozens of types of poems (yes, there was a time I knew the sestina’s intricacies without having to look them up). He gave us tests. He made us write explications of poems, 20-paged papers detailing every choice the poet had made, and no, we could not use outside sources. Had the poet used internal rhyme, slant rhyme, eye rhyme, and to what effect? If the poet wrote in blank verse, in which lines did the poem depart from iambic pentameter, what was the metrical departure, and what impact did it have on the reading? How was enjambment used? Why, aside from the obvious grammatical usage, were certain caesurae employed? What sort of stanzas had the poet chosen, and what impact did the breaks have? What about line length? Did lines end on masculine or feminine syllables, and why? And don’t forget, under any circumstances, about alliteration and assonance!

I am telling you it was frightening. He was frightening!

Part of what was frightening, as you may suspect, was that I’d abandoned my relationship with poetry altogether. I could toss off a few quasi-intelligent remarks about Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” or Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” but beyond that, I knew very little. I dreaded that class.

Then that dreaded professor read Robert Frost’s “Birches” aloud. He’d assigned it to us for one of our first class meetings, and I’d read it diligently, several times, something about a boy swinging through trees or something. All I could think was how ill-prepared I was for this class; I felt my own ignorance. But when my professor read the poem, I understood it perfectly. I followed along as he with his sonorous, reverent voice made music—no, poetry—of Frost’s words. I even got the joke.

Poetry—it’s from the oral tradition, right, so wouldn’t it make sense to read it aloud?

One of the two poems I was given to explicate was W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.” I confess that I was dumbfounded by it at first, as with most of the poems we read. I was supposed to scan the poem and write a 20-paged explication with no outside sources. I felt like an impostor. I have no idea how many times I had to read the poem—and read it aloud, hearing its music and rhythm—before I started to grasp it. I could pick out its symbols, sure; I’d done that sort of thing bunches of times in high school and college. But what did it mean that Auden had chosen to begin his poem with a line in which the word “they” had no antecedent? What did it mean that he had provided that so-called antecedent in the second line? How did his 21-line poem’s structure echo sonnet structure, and for what reason? You get the drift.

It was a dreadfully difficult class, and much as I came to love the sound of my professor’s voice as he read aloud the poems he had assigned, he remained a dreadfully difficult professor. But damn it, I worked harder than I’d worked in any other class, ever, and I earned A’s on every assignment (this from a professor who didn’t generally give them), and my fiction professor/dissertation director told me he’d gone and praised me behind my back.

This memory came up today after a conversation I had at work with two MFA students in poetry who are set to graduate next spring. I let them know I’d be glad to be on their dissertation committees if they needed another reader. Then I mumbled a disclaimer about how, despite being a prose writer, I’d still be able to give their poetry a fair read even though I wasn’t as familiar blah blah blah. Why, I wondered later, had I taken myself down a notch or two or twenty, diminishing my potential value as a reader of their work? Even though writing poetry doesn’t come naturally to me, the fact is that I know how to read and appreciate it. I know how to plumb its depths. What I learned in Form and Theory of Poetry stays with me to this day, moreso than most of what I learned in my Ph.D. fiction classes.

Today I’d like to share Auden’s beautiful poem with you, one I can almost quote from memory because I long ago had to write that arduous/worthwhile explication. Read the poem aloud, slowly, feeling the music and the meaning of the words. Pause in your reading when you reach a caesura, not when you reach the end of a line. Then have a look at the painting by Brueghel and read the poem all over again.

Once again, I see I’m writing for an audience of prose writers. Poets won’t need the instructions I gave above! But it’s my wish today to have those of us who identify one way or another, poet or prose writer, seek appreciation from a genre we may shy away from. Now click HERE to read Auden’s poem “Musee des Beax Arts”

On Loving Your Characters, Especially the Ones You Don’t Like

Disclaimer: I could speak or write at length about successfully creating round characters and earning reader sympathy, but for some reason when I drafted this post Sunday night, this is the angle I took. Upon rereading it, I understand implicitly what I hope I’ve said but remain uncertain about whether or what it might communicate to readers. Ah well, it’s my turn to blog, and this is what came out. –Marisa

This past weekend, I watched the HBO movie Game Change, which covers the months between John McCain’s announcement of his choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate in the 2008 Presidential election and his concession speech the night of Barack Obama’s victory. In order to do any justice to what I’m about to write, I have to out myself as a Democrat who pays increasingly close attention to politics as I age. Even though I felt certain that Obama would win the election, I feared for our country every time Sarah Palin made a public appearance. I don’t think there’s any way I can put this delicately: I don’t like her. I don’t agree with her ideologies, I don’t find her well-spoken or savvy, and I don’t appreciate the use of false folksiness to win votes.

It was clear that Game Change was made by people who shared my views. The movie was a compilation of Palin’s Greatest Hits – Greatest Flubs, that is – all drawn from interviews, speeches, and the debate. It claimed to offer a “balanced” characterization of Palin. It claimed veracity in the depiction of events. During her recent appearance on Anderson Cooper’s talk show, Julianne Moore (who played Palin) insisted that she would not have taken the role if every aspect of it hadn’t been “sourced.” In short, the filmmakers wanted the audience to accept the movie as fact, as the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Its reliance on Palin’s public appearances for source material gave credence to much of the film, but many scenes required artistic license: What were those behind-the-scenes meetings with Palin really like? When she stumbled through interviews with responses that were, at best, convoluted, and became fodder for Tina Fey and numerous Saturday Night Live skits, how did she react? The movie imagines those moments for us.

I suppose Game Change does offer something of a “balanced” characterization of Sarah Palin. It shows her toughness and her vulnerability, her ballsy self-confidence even when the pressure was at its most extreme. It shows her in loving interactions with her family and addresses her support of special needs children. But it also shows her in a semi-fetal pose after the debacle that was her interview with Katie Couric; Moore as Palin lies on the floor with a bevy of notecards scattered about her, the very notecards she’s been studying so that she doesn’t confuse the Queen of England with the Prime Minister or the war in Iraq with the war in Afghanistan. Excellent as Julianne Moore’s acting was (and she should start working on her Emmy acceptance speech now), I was thrown out of the movie: How was this scene “sourced”? Who was present to witness Palin slump back against her sofa as she watched herself caricatured by Tina Fey? Who decided to make Palin appear nearly catatonic for days upon days following the Katie Couric interview?

As a teacher and writer of creative nonfiction, I understand the agency of the author’s imagination as he or she reconstructs or invents scenes, dialogue, and so forth to convey the “greater truth” of a story. That is precisely the “creative” aspect of the craft. But as a viewer of this movie, I scoffed at the filmmakers’ claims of factuality in what was depicted. When I saw these obviously invented scenes of Palin’s private moments, I sympathized for Sarah Palin in ways the filmmakers didn’t intend to provoke. Perhaps theirs was a round characterization—they called it “humanizing” Palin!—but it reeked of fiction. And because I teach and write nonfiction, I was appalled at the filmmakers’ audacity in calling this portrayal “truth” or “fact.”

“Based on a true story”? Sure. Accurate? Who knows? I have a feeling there’s no reliable source for many of the movie’s events.

So I wanted to say something about the necessity of loving one’s characters, of constructing them with care – no matter whether they are the stuff of your fiction or your nonfiction. When you judge your characters, it diminishes the integrity of the writing and may throw the reader out of the story. You also run the risk of revealing more about yourself (and usually not in the best light) than about your other characters. Ideally, you want the reader to sympathize with your characters, all of them, because of the care you’ve taken in presenting them, and not because of your conspicuous disdain for them! There is, of course, a kind of writing intended to serve as a mouthpiece for your viewpoints and philosophies – you’re reading that kind of writing now, natch! – but in character-driven pieces, seek to be as objective and multi-dimensional as possible. “The artist must be only an impartial witness of his characters and what they said, not their judge…,” Anton Chekhov wrote in a letter to A.S. Suvorin on 30 May 1888. “Let the jurors, that is to say, the readers, evaluate it.” Today’s challenge is to write about a character you don’t like (can be someone real or fictional, though the former may offer the bigger challenge) and explore what there is to like and appreciate about that person, without qualifications or judgments and without being patronizing.

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If you’re still reading, I’ll share a little of my review of Game Change:

Possibly the most striking moment … occurs when Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin slumps back against her sofa, the picture of defeat, and watches Tina Fey satirize Sarah Palin in an instantly iconic performance on Saturday Night Live…. The impersonation is brilliant, truly funny. The scene from Game Change is more subtly brilliant. It shows a depiction of Palin that the viewer is supposed to accept as true. In other words, that’s not Julianne Moore dressed and made up to look like Sarah Palin; that’s Palin herself, the real woman, the way she really reacted when she saw the Tina Fey skit. The viewer of Game Change is expected to believe in this Sarah Palin, while the viewer of Saturday Night Live always understands that that’s Tina Fey up there hoping to tickle our funny bones. But both are performances; both are representations of Palin; both capture something of the spirit of the woman this country saw catapulted onto the national stage during the 2008 presidential election; both capitalize on her mistakes and unpreparedness to take on the role of Vice-President of the United States. But Game Change wants its viewer, perhaps, to take its “Sarah Palin” as the real Sarah Palin rather than a constructed character pieced together from interviews, speeches, and witness accounts.

… It was Game Change‘s too-serious desire to be taken as the truth that ruined the movie for me, ultimately.… Every movie “based on a true story” has fictions beyond its disguising and meshing-together of real-life people, its dialogue and scenes recreated for dramatic effect, etc. But despite Julianne Moore’s superlative performance, this uber-serious portrait of Palin is no less contrived than Tina Fey’s and Adam Samberg’s….

Let the Object Tell the Story

Good morning from Marisa! I hope the first week of your march is going well!

Ever since I first read the essay “The Aging María,” I’ve been astonished by Judith Ortiz Cofer’s ability to convey in only one paragraph a narrative of three generations of women by focusing on the work of time and the elements on a yard statue of the Virgin Mary. At the same time, the piece reveals something of the deterioration of spiritual faith, and even more about its steadfastness. The essay is a descriptive tour de force, a marvel of concision, clearly situated in place and character. Though only 327 words, its scope is immense. Because of copyright laws, I cannot copy it here, but you can find the story online HERE.

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Today, if you are in need of a writing prompt, think about an object you possess that can tell its own story or stories. It might be something quite ordinary that has been around a long time. Perhaps it has symbolic or talismanic importance to you; perhaps it holds sentimental value. Maybe no one else knows its significance—so your job is to recount it. Describe it in lush sensory detail. Reveal its history. Place it in the spotlight, show it in a scene or two, and see whether your focus on it reveals something about your own character. Let yourself write freely and fully; if you get something you can use, you can always go back later to revise for precision and concision.

Though this exercise is geared toward nonfiction writing, fiction writers can also work with it. Think of characters who are defined by the objects they value or are always seen with (Linus and his blanket, Silas Marner and his gold, any one of Tim O’Brien’s soldiers in “The Things They Carried”). In what ways can your characters’ objects help to tell their stories?

Poets, by the way, I do not mean to neglect you. This exercise seems like one you might practice often, in that it asks strong images to carry narrative impact.

Happy writing, everyone!

Leap Day Gives Us One More Day to Rest before We March

Hello out there from Marisa! Yesterday I wrote a Facebook post about my resolution to march again this year, if only by myself, and sparked the interest of numerous writers. As it turned out, Writer’s March inventor Sam T. already had plans in the works to get the blog up and going again. I haven’t told her about my decision to take the initiative and add a blog entry today, but here goes.

Sometimes I like to try out my students’ ideas. Someone suggested (using the anonymity of end-of-semester evaluatory forms) that I should continue to give my students new creative assignments once our workshopping was underway and all they were required to write was letters to one another. Okay, so my position is I’m not stopping anyone from going forward with creative endeavors. I just can’t do all that additional grading when my focus is so entirely placed on evaluating workshop essays. Nevertheless, this semester I’m asking my creative writing students to keep an “image journal” — short, tight descriptions of people, places, and objects. One of my teachers back in the day asked her fiction workshop students to do keep such a journal, and by the end of that quarter, I was “seeing” in ways I hadn’t seen before. Ordinary features of my daily life popped and scintillated, pushing forward their extraordinary qualities and demanding to be described!

Later this week, I’ll be writing the assignment for my classes. I may also notify them about this site and ask whether they’d like to participate. Oh, and I’ll try to encourage them not to feel thwarted in their creative pursuits just because we’ve come round to the culmination of our class: the full-fledged ESSAYS!