Why I Write

I have labored to be more attentive to craft recently, most especially this summer. The last few days, I’ve wanted to sign up for a creative nonfiction course — learn more about the nuts and bolts of essays, memoir, criticism, even interviews — and use that knowledge to overhaul the blog entirely, turning scattered, not quite coherent thoughts into miniature essays.

However, I don’t have $400 to spare, and I’m not sure my time should be spent entirely on coursework. My mediocre scribblings do serve a general purpose even now, as they advance attempts at being thoughtful in a world dominated by reality TV and celebrity trash. Still, I need to get a wider array of tools, and that depends on recognizing the tropes I’m apt to use; comparing my prose with how other writers handle similar situations; making sure I’m conveying not only information, but building the correct tone, setting, mood; better understanding rhetoric, organization, and audience. Quite frankly, that off-the-cuff list intimidates me. There’s a lot to improve, and I really feel like everyone else is a better writer, and I missed some 3 year boot camp in which the rest of the world wrote poems and plays and essays and academic papers and became professional while I struggled to beat the computer on normal in Madden.

So I went to Half Price Books, browsed for hours, and bought a book on writing. With a pastel cover, it looks like it came out of a painting by Fragonard, and I don’t know that it discusses a single male writer. It’s on memoir and features an author whose whole family kept diaries. What’s striking is how different members of her family kept journals for starkly different purposes: one recorded history while serving, another fought with a difficult relationship, yet another unleashed repressed creativity. I don’t know that my own notion of keeping a journal has progressed much beyond 6th grade. Every time I start a diary it just turns into ranting about how I suck, life sucks, people suck, everything sucks. I’m already planning on ransacking the book to copy the format of other people’s diary entries and writing from them. I’d call myself pathetic, but I’m too busy trying to start fights on Twitter.

The book I didn’t buy presents a number of writing teachers talking about how they teach their classes. I didn’t get it because the prose wasn’t sharp enough. Don’t get me wrong, everyone there could write clearly, but it felt like they were trying a bit too hard to write clearly, like they were scared to make a mistake. I want to be taught by people who know how to let their voice be natural; I want my prose to have an economy specific to it. However, that book began with a gem of a selection, “Why I Write” by Terry Tempest Williams. Right after that short essay, there’s an exercise: “Why do you write?” Much of what I’ve accomplished this summer involves editing and getting more personal. My quest for a larger toolkit concerns aesthetics, efficiency, and creating memorable sentences and paragraphs.

It never even occurred to me to ask myself why I write, except maybe for that Reintroduction post. But I primarily put that forth out of a sense of hey, I’ve got new followers, gotta say hi. That post grounds the blog as a whole, but what does it do for specific entries?

I have not been writing consistently from an understanding that whatever I write, it serves a purpose, and whatever tools I use have to serve that purpose. I have not bothered to develop a habit of better identifying why I’m writing something and building from there.

It’s amazing that something so essential can be neglected for so long. It’s amazing that one can devote substantial resources to get better and forget about fundamental questions. To be sure, part of this is that I take Rilke’s exhortation from Letters to a Young Poet pretty seriously:

…ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must”, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. (from the 1st letter)

I’d like to say I am completely devoted to this craft, but that’s like saying I’m in a position to achieve sainthood. I think the other part of why I haven’t tried to say why I write is a vain hope that my work will justify itself. This does not stem from any assumed brilliance on my part, but my own insecurity. This is not me crying “waaaaaah everyone give me compliments and confidence” (ok maybe it is), but something more like this: I got into habits defined once by insecurity, a lack of confidence, a lack of being taken seriously, and those habits and certain feelings linger to this day. I still struggle to put academic papers together despite making batches of notes, outlining the material I want to cover, talking about the thesis and its relevance out loud. There’s always disorganization and sloppiness and a general lack of assertiveness in what I do.

So: why do I write? That’s the exercise I’m going to conduct with myself whenever I decide to put words down. I don’t know that I should answer it unequivocally here. I do know I need to be asking it on a regular basis. I hope it’ll result in something good for all of us.

Emily Dickinson, “My River runs to thee” (162) & “Distance — is not the Realm of Fox” (1155)

Dickinson, utterly unshy about her desires, introduces a problem for those of us reading her. On the one hand, her frankness about sex is refreshing after so much poetic and religious idolization of it. Sex is just sex — people have needs, there are one night stands, there are “experiments,” some people are hot, others not so much, you might want it, you might want something else, it can be bad and gross, the baby is crying in the next room, that meal didn’t sit with me right, etc. — and then, somewhat separately, there are the questions of giving love and being truly loved. Regarding sex, there are poems like “Wild Nights — Wild Nights!” and “My River runs to thee,” below, where Dickinson would clearly like to have some. On the other hand, this is not without complication:

My River runs to thee (162)
Emily Dickinson

My River runs to thee —
Blue Sea! Wilt welcome me?
My River wait reply —
Oh Sea — look graciously —
I’ll fetch thee Brooks
From spotted nooks —
Say — Sea — Take Me!

She self-consciously makes herself a river (“My River”), the object of her desire the sea. In effect, she identifies desire with water. If her thirst, as the kids say, is pronounced, the thirst of her audience is that much more. Blue Sea! Wilt welcome me? / My River wait reply — it is nearly inconceivable the sea will say no. Still, one must not look too eager, even with someone whose lust is like a lake compared to a trickle of water. She has to offer someone with legendary lust something different, she has to make clear that he would miss out on an opportunity. Oh Sea — look graciously — / I’ll fetch thee Brooks / From spotted nooks — would you, dear reader, find someone offering you “brooks from spotted nooks” attractive, or would this be when you mention you have work in the morning and can’t stay up any longer?

“I’ll fetch thee Brooks / From spotted nooks” — I will show you other things worth desiring. Lust does not reduce to simply one object, e.g. water. There are other beauties privately developed and enjoyed, like still waters in quiet reaches, surrounded by verdure, spotted with leaves and light. I can’t help but feel this appeal of Dickinson’s failed. If the object of desire has a reputation and she hasn’t been able to obtain him, this plea is merely a formality.

Perhaps Dickinson realizes this already. The poem contains two conflicting rhetorical arguments. First, there’s the argument of “I have lust, you’ve got lots too, let’s make this happen.” Bringing brooks from spotted nooks fits with this inasmuch it promises something unique. But then there’s the second argument, which is “You should choose me because I understand intimacy in a way you do not.” Even in the midst of what seems to be just wanting sex, there’s a need to be appreciated for what one has developed, what one can give. The rhetoric undoes itself precisely because of Dickinson’s independence; she does not want to worry about being loved even as she chases after someone incapable of giving her that love. Her want to be “welcome” and her command “take me” say more about her insecurity than the actual desirability of her addressee. She’s not entirely sure what she wants, though she possesses unique beauties and certainly has the capacity for love herself.

“Brooks from spotted nooks” might be thought a bit corny, but it changes the poem’s trajectory. Dickinson emerges as someone who can make life’s quiet moments count for more, for she alludes to having command over natural graces. I don’t think we need to leap to one of them being her formidable intellect, though that is ultimately the issue. There are plenty of singles obsessed with their power on the dating market, plenty of couples obsessed with HGTV and making their homestead picture perfect. The only way grace and beauty are really seen, though, is by one willing and able to see them. Someone who wants at least a little wisdom, not someone who can manipulate convention (“I got 50 numbers from women with this simple trick”) or execute its standards (“you’d better like our guest room, we spent 6 months working on it”).

So I think we should glance at a more spiritual love poem of hers. This isn’t to say that there is some magic way around getting rejected, being depressed and anxious, fighting with what love means, making mistakes in relationships. There is a real tension between developing one’s highest erotic powers and actually being an object of desire; if there weren’t, people wouldn’t reread Plato’s Symposium on a regular basis. And there are dumb people in the world and they can make this problem a lot worse. It’s no fun being almost completely invisible or silently shunned by tens, if not hundreds, of people.

Still. What is love like when you think someone does try to understand you?

Distance — is not the Realm of Fox (1155)
Emily Dickinson

Distance — is not the Realm of Fox
Nor by Relay of Bird
Abated — Distance is
Until thyself, Beloved.

Distance — is not the Realm of Fox [abated]. The fox roams, chases, is chased. It marks out a territory, within which there is distance from the things it wants at any given time. It moves swiftly to what it wants. If you could find and move to those you love easily, that would not stop the hurt distance causes. Traversing it quickly does not answer “I need you now.”

Nor does Relay of Bird quell the problems caused. If you really love someone, the idea of them will not do. If you value their presence, then some messages exchanged over that distance do not always help. Dickinson, though, is like the fox, like the bird. She is moving quickly over distance when she can, she is communicating. Her love grows that much stronger because of the difficulties encountered.

We know this because Distance is / Until thyself, Beloved. She moves, she speaks toward. This is continual, progressive. Why? She wants the real person she loves to know he is loved. This is the end result of bringing brooks, from above. When you possess something beautiful, something worth having and sharing, you can value someone else that much more. You can give the support that sustains them, that binds you to them and vice versa. Their presence is needed inasmuch love cherishes beauty, wisdom aims toward the good.

Izumi Shikibu, “Although the wind…”

The moon in Japanese poetry is always the moon. Hirshfield begins a brief, personal interpretation of the poem below with this cryptic, lovely sentence. We’ll return to the sentence shortly. Her interpretation has immediate relevance, as she claims that a life in which one tries to experience no pain is a life in which one cannot begin to understand or have what one actually desires. Her words: “This poem reminds that if a house is walled so tightly that it lets in no wind or rain, if a life is walled so tightly that it lets in no pain, grief, anger, or longing, it will also be closed to the entrance of what is most wanted.”

I suspect Hirshfield speaks truly, but has also challenged us to find her path through the following words so we can better find ours. What is below describes a house that must, in some way, confine and protect the speaker:

"Although the wind..." (from Poetry)
Izumi Shikibu (tr. Jane Hirshfield & Mariko Aratani)

Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.

The wind blows terribly here reminds me that I respond more to noise, to anticipated fears, than to actual dangers themselves. This does not mean there are no dangers, if indeed there is a storm outside. But is there actually a storm? There’s the perception of wind blowing terribly, and then this: the moonlight also leaks between the roof planks of this ruined house. No visible moon, but hints of a moon, shine through the slight openings of a faulty shelter.

“Ruined house” seems to challenge Hirshfield’s interpretation. How could a ruined house have any tightness at all? How could she plausibly speak about a ruin being the same as an elaborate construct meant to keep pain out? But if both the storm and the moon are more or less productions of the mind, then the ruined house must be the soul/self. When I want to avoid facing difficult situations and difficult thoughts, I think I am creating something solid, something amazing, when in reality I’m trapping myself in my own fear. Unable to engage the world, I’m not in a structure engaging the world at all, but somewhere else entirely. “Ruined house” stands crucial, as it is the only thing in the poem hinting that the whole situation, as presented, is amiss.

To go back to the beginning, “ruined house” is the realization that the moon is always the moon. There is a light in the dark that enables us to better live, one that penetrates through all our illusions. What exactly that light corresponds to — the good external to us, the good one searches for — is a good unto itself, something we may never comprehend, but may approach.

Vincent van Gogh, “Ward in the Hospital in Arles” (1889)

That red floor, turbulent with strokes of light and shadow, menaces my vision. This is a hospital ward; surely one can imagine recuperation, wellness. I think of times I’ve hurt and made things worse, times I’ve healed and made things better, and I know I could not have begun healing by envisioning such a terrible path. Still, the initial shock fades away as I attend to the light from windows, the shadows of human beings, the warmth of the stove. The floor holds these also. The windows are too high, providing a disinterested, inhuman sunshine, but it is sun all the same. The shadows, with their motion and irregularity, paint over that garish blood red. They don’t whiten it like the sun, creating blinding spots, but dull it, making it seem manageable. To the left of the stove dominating the foreground, patches of yellow and orange, actual warmth.

Vincent van Gogh, “Ward in the Hospital in Arles.” Oil on canvas, (1889). Photo credit: http://www.vggallery.com/painting/by_period/arles.htm

The scariest part of treatment is the unknown. Not so much the terror that things can get worse, but the terror that I will make it worse. Fighting for survival seems to many of us the deepest sort of courage, even if we reject it as the highest. — Won’t every animal try and save itself? Aren’t there causes for which we must sacrifice? All the same, I want to know I would never quit, that I can see things through. — A group huddles around the stove in the center and foreground of the painting. They are nearly all downcast, none in communication. The viewer might think herself standing near them while they sit. She has just entered, and the stove’s apparatus has taken her by surprise. It features a pipe that nearly cleaves the picture in two, separating one side of the room with nuns and a row of visibly empty beds from the right side of the room. That side features a row where every partition for the beds is closed. Privacy is ghostly when one wants to know how to heal. It’s like the path isn’t even there: who can show the way? Who can show you your own resolve, your own capability? Those shrouded beds already have eternal rest.

The left side: two nuns, one holding a bucket; full beds revealed, with plenty of pillows and blankets; an empty chair near the stove invites. Is this truly where recovery starts? It looks like no true life at all, only the most minimal, temporary, disposable arrangement. This is all a dark joke, right? Right across from our viewer, the vanishing point of the painting, a door with a large crucifix above it. Salvation, so far away. This is a sick place, a mockery of nature. These people mimic people who actually live in the world, the pale ghostly green of the curtains mimics plant life, and the terrible red floor and purple roof call to mind a massive, trembling sunset.

All these thoughts, of course, are unreal. The stove and those around it are seen as if from above. It’s almost like van Gogh painted this on a stepladder, his eyes meeting where the floor, in the distance, meets the door with the crucifix. Our viewer has to confront not only the unreality of wellness, but the unreality of her doubt. How she’s taking in the scene is everything. On the one hand, she’s bearing witness to the afterlife, where we congregate outside of conventional society and nature, between life and death, with God perhaps watching. The afterlife is Purgatory, and therefore both Heaven and Hell. On the other hand, she’s here, in the hospital, and a decision must be made. She has seen this as an unflinching, unwell place. But a puff of smoke rises from one smoker, and in the air hang these green lamps, almost like birds from another world. In the midst of horror, we hope to choose hope.

Blog in Review: “On the way to letting go,” 8/15/17

Emily Dickinson’s “One and One — are One” deals with the anger of a broken relationship. It seems darkly comic to me, but its end is perfectly serious. I do feel the poem’s narrator is on the way to letting go.

Anna Akhmatova’s “Everything Is Plundered” praises her countrymen for their resilience, their hope, during the worst of trials. Her thoughts and language are beautiful, but I wonder what ultimately grounds her vision. I’ve seen love of the particular taken too far quite a bit recently, when I haven’t been hammered with it myself.

Yeats’ “The Living Beauty” initially seems to be about abandoning romance as one gets older. That isn’t quite right, though. His narrator draws content from the most beautiful statues, archetypes for beauty and piety. To be more precise, those statues project a beauty which only appears momentarily. The living beauty doesn’t belong to human lovers, on my reading, as beauty itself has a life of its own.

I took Dickinson’s “A Man may make a Remark” as a poem to memorize for dealing with difficult people. They may make remarks, but you shouldn’t let it set you off. Powder exists in Charcoal – / Before it exists in Fire is her key advice: you can and should recognize your triggers and work to eliminate them. This is strange advice, I know, when so many want to project anger to keep power, whether over their family, their friends, their institutions.

I used Michael Dransfield’s “Flying” as an excuse to talk about Skyrim. I know, there’s nothing more enticing than me talking about video games.

Jane Hirshfield’s “Late Prayer” spoke to me about a world that when given tenderness, projects it back. I didn’t fully realize how much tenderness depends on appreciating one’s own capacity to feel pain.

Finally, I was honored to review Isabella Mori’s “A Bagful of Haiku.” In the review, I go into detail about two of her poems, and I hope you will read her work and what I’ve written and support her. She’s taken the practice of poetry very seriously and there’s a lot to learn from her approach to craft.