Category Archives: writing

let the rocks speak

Our forms displace a precise amount of air.
We have volume.
Your thoughts do not.

We remember all that made us.
You do not.
The air and the fire, the currents of water,
grains of sand, and eons of pressure.

Our value is not relational.
Yours, sadly, is.

Gutter, rooftop, buried, shattered, exalted, exposed,
it is all the same to us.

You collect us as trinkets.
That does not make us trinkets.

We adore gravity.
You do not.

It’s no accident
the only time you felt real today
was when you walked in the rain
and through water-speckled glasses
looked at your dog
looking at you.

[After losing several posts connected to these pictures, I submitted myself to them. The story of conspiracy and monopoly (think: Comcast) and co-dependence and Murphy’s law (mine, the Universe’s) will have to wait].

Writing helps

img_7054I don’t know who I am. I don’t know how to be. I don’t know what’s next or even, sometimes, what’s come before. Even “where am I?” is a difficult question these days.

Writing helps.

If I let a few days pass without scribing my three pages, I come a little unmoored. It took a while to notice this. These unholy pauses are sometimes followed by a great volume of ink, often equal to the aggregate number of missed pages. Now I’ve instituted a ‘catch up routine’ — whenever I miss a day, I mark my notebook where I’d be had I written every day. And then I catch up.

It seems to matter.

Strangely, writing makes me feel better even when dedicated to identifying what’s bothering me. Turns out, knowing what’s bothering me even without remedy is preferable to being bothered and ignorant to cause.

Does anyone understand why this is so?

I’ll answer the above questions, out of curiosity? Can you?

Who am I?” All the labels hang like loose chads, so I’ll let Joni Mitchell’s words stand in as answer: “I am a woman of heart and mind, with time on her hands, no child to raise…”  Maybe?

How to be?” How to be with respect to writing, that is: Stay at it. Don’t let doubt in any of its guises derail you. The rest is detail: collect 18th century language; bounce between public risk and private assembly; keep assessing the story’s pace. Keep at it. Vanquish doubt.

Where am I?” I’ve lived at this address for 23 years and in this town since 1986, so it’s strange to feel like I don’t really belong here. Did I ever? And if not here, where? Having been uprooted every few years growing up, I wanted stability for my boys and this was a good town for them to grow up in. But now? And it’s not just the leaf blowers.

The state of our nation and our planet shove disorientation down my throat in a manner most vile. Is this country mine anymore? Will there be a coup? Who will take him and his cronies down and when? Knowing that MILLIONS of Americans share my shock and grief doesn’t alter the central fact of my fearful alienation. Where am I, indeed!

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Boston Climate March

I’ll leave you with Naomi Klein’s key note speech from the recent San Miguel’s writers conference. It is hair-raising in its precise measure of our perilous state but also galvanizing… perhaps the best political media I’ve taken in for weeks.

‘We don’t have four years,’ she says. ‘The planet doesn’t have four years’.

‘The entire political system has to change,’ she says, ‘We have to SWERVE.’ (What does that mean?)

‘It’s not enough to resist. We have to also build.’ How? How?

 

PS “Daily Pages” as developed by Julia Cameron in “The Artist’s Way“‘

Feedback on chapter five

Yesterday was my day to get feedback on some manuscript pages. Much was very positive (always nice to hear) — the prose was “vivid” “raw,” “transporting,” with credible characters. The rapes described: ‘disturbing without being gratuitous’ (but would they have used the word ‘rape’? –  good question).

The more critical feedback addressed some of the ongoing difficulties. These difficulties are listed below in no particular order:

1). It’s my first attempt at writing a novel. 2). There’ve been some ongoing (sometimes heartbreaking) caretaking responsibilities during these same years. 3). Voice. Voice. Voice. 4). Race. Race. Race. 5). Tempo (is this section too interior? have I spent too much time describing the light?)

Voice goes to research and it goes to structure and it goes to race (including but not limited to problems of cultural appropriation) and it may be the single biggest ongoing challenge I face. If I ever dump the project (and believe me, I consider it often), this will be the reason.

To put it another way:  How, as a white suburban Yankee in the 2000’s, do I craft a southern landscape with authentic (or at least not mortally offensive) white and black characters set in the mid-eighteenth century? 

I chose to tell the Eliza Lucas Pinckney chapters in first person and the bondwomen sections in third person close. I didn’t think I could pull off first person for the enslaved characters, a decision that seems alternately respectful and cowardly. Even third person close is very very hard. Until a professional asks me to revisit these two overarching decisions, I’m sticking with them.

But, can I rethink the complete absence of an omniscient narrator? Not having one means that historic conditions have to be explained vis-a-vis the characters. It can be cumbersome. Plus, I’m denied any opportunity to make modern observations about human bondage (which, in the thick of things, believe me, I do really want to make).

Some historic junk I’ve assimilated so thoroughly that it flows into the narrative easily and then the issue is — does my reader understand what I’m talking about? what’s a ‘factor’? is a ‘Guinea’ a ship? why say ‘rigger’ when ‘sailor’ would do?) Other times, it’s just clunky and it’s hard for me to know if I’m showing off (look what I’ve learned!) or whether the historic business at hand is essential to the story.

“working in the brakes… certain winds over Barbados brought the smell of a slaver long before its sail appeared on the horizon… Noah was a quadroon… the cutter monkeyed to the ground, hand still clutching the machete”

Anyway, when the idea was floated to allow myself the occasional insertion of an omniscient narrator, I was very open to it. And, guess what? I’ve been hearing this new voice talk all day and it’s not at all who I expected (i.e., white, female academic). Instead, he’s a sly and humorous bondman. I suspect his forceful commentary will ‘lay some learnin’ on me way before he does on you. I don’t think he’ll get a name. We’ll see. I’ve also kept the Barbadian cane grower who rapes one of my main characters (Sally aka Melody) nameless.

Tomorrow: how what I learned about accountability at the Organizing on (Safety) Pins and Needles anti-racism training on Wednesday applies to manuscript feedback.

(Note next day: Nope. Can’t go there yet).

Photographs were taken February 2017, at MacLeod Plantation on James Island.

The act of tiny fingers

Here’s a 6.5 minute crude lament from today’s writing class. The prompt was to begin a piece with the line, ‘he steps a foot away and spits’. I stumble a few times and need to figure out how to turn pages more quietly, but hope the mistakes aren’t too distracting.  Please let me know if viewing is problematic. Maybe YouTube’d be better?

Here it is in print (I fix a mistake in the 1st paragraph):

 

The Act of Tiny Fingers

He steps a foot away and spits. His phlegm lands in a glistening lump. He is a master
of distraction and will impose no bounds on his tricks… certainly not propriety or hygiene.

He will steal your dog, rifle through your purse just for fun, and decapitate your peonies some moonlit night in June.

You wake heartbroken at the pink debris, no idea he’d been by.

He picks his teeth and scratches his balls — especially in front of young women — as if those young women didn’t already feel the menace of his maleness.

He’s a ticket to hell. He’s hell itself.

But, don’t take it personally. He will do whatever crosses his path.

Of course he has a predilection for things with slits between their legs — see how even in calling out his sins how his sick cosmology taints our capacity to name ourselves!

But yeah, he’d prefer to fuck with girls or women but boys don’t get a free pass because of course by now you know that our gross master’s magic depends on opportunism.

He’s a sneak, but only for fun because he has the power to impose blatant violations openly. Day in and day out, he commits his atrocities. A fallen building here, starvation mid-Africa, soul-stealing all along the streets of Detroit.

I hope I don’t need to tell you who funds our clever sinner, now do I?

Big pharm, gun makers, gas and oil dealers and all their unmanned, creepy minions. Is it easier to sit atop your high horse, Mitch McConnell’s of the world, when your balls have been handed to you so long ago you can’t remember where you hid them? Did you hide them? A trophy of shame and compromise.

Oh the calls how they come! The justice mavericks need money more than ever and I’m just trying to eat my lunch, watching bad crime show re-runs. The insistent demanding fundraiser wasn’t having my refusal — kept on sputtering her message — Emily’s List! Georgia! 2018!  I stopped being annoyed and became something like amused. But the wallet remained clamped shut until she misspoke (did she mispeak?) and called the Koch brothers, ‘the Cock Brothers’.

At that point, I might’ve handed over my first born. “Just for that,” I laughed, “here’s my Visa number, expiration June 2018.”

It is no glum, exaggerated prognostication to think we might not be here come June 2018.

He grossly clears another load of phlegm and lobs it through time and space so that it almost hits my shoe. Such precision! Such calculation! Of course he’d slobber on my foot if he so chose. I know it and he knows I know it. It’s all a game to him — tally and torment. Grabbing and removing lawmakers’ manhood one minute and violating an anchorwoman the next.

But! But! The predator’s ratings rise — like his purple veined member! Apparently, the dollars of hard working folk and the dollars of companies willing to take a stand don’t matter as much as we’d like to think.

Did he use a microphone? Was it greased with spit?

And you want to call ME gross? Does the reporting of violation constitute violation?

In the morning we rise, no longer unclear about what the matter is. Remember those frosty mornings in November — in that early time of disbelief when you’d wake and scramble through memory wondering, “Now what is it that’s so god-damned awful?”

Oh. Yeah.

The prankster works at all ends of a crisis — first (but not first) mortgage scams denying people of color entry to the middle class, then a so-called war on drugs (the Devil loves euphemism in case you don’t know), then the double, triple standards of education, employment —

Oh Christ! The line of sin is so long just recounting it takes more juice than I possess, but for now think: LEAD. Lead in the water. Not an iffy contaminant, but a known poison with known, documented harmful results upon ingestion, especially to growing brains.

Oh how we worried about paint chips in our 200 year old house! Waited for the blood work. Sighed with relief. Such privilege!

Syrian babies make buffoons cry on television. Or was it the man-baby’s wife-daughter who cried and inspired his missile attack? Talk about compensation! Maybe half our problems would go away if the giant fool could simply (simply?) fuck his daughter.

I am prepared to wipe my shoe if need be.

But am I brave enough to launch a kick — particularly when I am too short to reach any tender pieces above the knee?

The Devil operates in abstractions, too, but revels in the bawdy, the crude, the parts that smell and tug and shove and release. It’s not me reveling.

I can’t even make a gob of spit like that. Is phlegm production related to lying in any way? If so, there must be rows of spittoons in the House and Senate and along the corridors of our formerly esteemed White House.

The overwhelm of destructive might be working — shock and awe, they said, shock and awe. Or was it fire storm? I mix the metaphors — proof in point. When we turn on the news and the most recent, singular, and shocking revelation makes you reach for the clicker, that’s the Devil’s work, too. He wears us out.

Pandora has a place here, too. Let’s ask — how? How? How on earth do we stuff this bile and vitriol and regressive policy back into the box?

Don’t we already pay with pained childbirth and cancer? Must we also suffer as witnesses to the act of tiny fingers turning a clock back decades? Undoing, undoing, undoing.

Oh please, spare us — just go fuck your daughter.

 

Possible keys

Mary Oliver : “The best use of literature bends not toward the narrow and absolute but to the extravagant and the possible. Answers are no part of it; rather it is the opinions, rhapsodic persuasions, the engrafted logics, the clues that are to the mind of the reader the possible keys to his own self-quarrels, his own predicament.”

In class this week, we read Sunday’s NY Times Book Review interview with an author: Fran Lebowitz. These columns invariably make me feel stupid: the books on the author’s bedside are weighty; I’ve often never heard of their favorite writers, never mind read them; their pithy, intellectual observations about books I have read, don’t ring any bells. That’s part of why Fran Lebowitz’s responses were so refreshing. They were so NOT that. Also, she’s just hilarious. Read the interview for a wholly different take on the best use of literature.

Meanwhile, it snows. Time seems out of joint. REALITY seems out of joint. My sister is not well. In between tough personal conversations and the outrageous stories of intrigue coming from Pennsylvania Avenue, I sew, I clean, I walk the dog. And sometimes I edit. This was a good week. I may have put four chapters to bed.

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And, there’s always food! Tonight: roast chicken with cornbread stuffing and a delicious salad. The bird’s sizzle and aroma say: home, comfort. Plus, it’s Friday.

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Lastly, from a TED talk about belief and doubt that I listened on my way up to Salem yesterday, one person’s answer (I think it was Billy Graham) to the question: so what has surprised you the most in your many years? He said, “the swiftness with which life passes.”

“The swiftness with which life passes.”

That, too, is on my mind.

Who do you come from and to whom do you pray

ripCary & Nana 7-4-95I don’t come from a faith that much honors the ancestors (that is my mother, above with my first born. The B&W is me, circa 1981). That’s why when I read about African belief systems that make ancestor worship central, it feels foreign.

The ancient Celtic bent toward Nature as guide and source, on the other hand, fits like a glove. No wonder I love the writing of Mary Oliver — her poems read like 9th century monastic poetry from Ireland. I find sustenance in her words. Wisdom.

In writing about human bondage in early America, I have often wished for (and on occasion asked for) some sign from the ancestors of the enslaved. Should I be writing this story? Is it okay? Am I okay?

Thundering silence.

Hard not to wonder. But because I am such a master of doubt, it’s hard to give it much weight either.

IMG_7910(A little aside — This cloth, from my Middle Passage series, is somewhere. I never backed it because of the beautiful stained glass effect when hung in a sun-filled window. The others in the series use my favorite house motif to examine both loss and sustenance of culture from one side of the sea to the other. This one, though, explores the sails. All those sails, riding the currents, powering ships packed with black bodies, flapping signals of wealth to some and horror to others).

IMG_7521Anyway, maybe because the anniversary of my mother’s passing was two weeks ago, maybe because there is so much transition in the lives of my sons, making me reflective and sometimes sad or anxious, and maybe because one of my characters is modeled closely on my mother, I have been thinking a lot about my parents.

And duh! It is the guidance and help and esteem and love of my very own dear parents that I should be calling up. My ancestors know me. They dwell in me. They know where I trip up and why. And they (most importantly in this business of moving forward), understand fully my strengths.

They’re the ones to call upon — even about writing a novel about black and white people with NO GENETIC links to me whatsoever.

And so I did. Call upon them. And they did answer.

Losing things and finding them

Are you a person who loses things a lot of the time or just now and then? A recent New Yorker article by Kathryn Schulz takes a beautiful wander through the topic. Subtitled, Reflections on Two Seasons of Loss, Schulz examines not just the business of losing things, but also what it means to lose our minds and loved ones.

Things go missing so much in this house that I have categories for lost objects, not unlike the childhood game of calling out ‘warm’, ‘cold’ or ‘HOT HOT HOT’. I usually can tell that I’m going to retrieve a lost object before I find it and often sense its general vicinity. Lest you think that gives me some sort of advantage, know this: even a ‘hot’ lost item with a felt sense of place can take DAYS to find.

In my early twenties, my checkbook went missing so often that the bank tellers on North Street rolled their eyes to see me coming. I’ve gotten somewhat better. Medication helps.

In spite of my incapacity, family members are right to ask me where things are, since in addition to being an over-the-top loser of things, I’m a good finder. Is that uncommon? My mother used to call me “old eagle eyes” and ask me to round up her scissors.

When the “where’s my” question is posed to me, it feels like more of an imposition that it might otherwise, because I’m kinetic. Being kinetic means I have to take notes to remember anything and that to find a lost object, I have to move my body. When both boys were home over Christmas, I really enjoyed cooking for them and felt neutral about loaning the car and picking up. But the “where’s my?” routine was annoying.

“Where’s my jacket?” “Where’d I leave the fob?” “Did you move my paycheck?”

I was asked to find things I hadn’t used, touched or seen. Being winter, I’d have to unearth myself from a blanket, heating pad and lap top (that’s two cords and a lot of fabric). My joints hurt sometimes. I’d groan. Then I’d wander around the house, maybe finding their lost thing, maybe not.

Objects can move from one category of lost to another. ‘Fucking vanished’ is a category, but believe it or not, a mutable one. Some things that I could swear after a vigorous, multi-day hunt have been taken by leprechauns do in fact show up. (‘taken by leprechauns’ is a whimsical name for ‘fucking vanished’). It is especially hard when something that feels retrievable shifts into the ‘permanently gone’ category.

Frequently losing things teaches you about attachment, sharpens intuition, and inspires resourcefulness in coming up with substitutes. Humility is involved. But those are topics for another time.

Let’s instead descend into my studio, which is really messy (also a topic for another time). Yesterday when I went downstairs to find some xerox color copies I’d gone to some trouble to make a few months back, I wasn’t sure how readily I would find them. That they were pretty much right where I’d thought they’d be felt like a gift.

There are about forty-five collages ready to be mounted to card stock. Then, at last, they will be SoulCollage cards.

Because I hate to measure and really suck at it, it took a good long while to mount just five of the collages. At five a day, I’ll need eight days to get through the pile. But guess what? After an especially demoralizing day of writing, the task actually satisfied. I took my time. I enjoyed working toward a goal with manageable and discrete steps — so unlike finishing a novel (am I finishing? is it a novel?)


Off to walk Finny, then back to my laptop (wish me a more productive day!)

  • (thank you for posting on FB Michelle ! Even though we get The New Yorker, I might have missed it)