Category Archives: Writing

Why I Write, this Sunday Night

Updated Monday night: Sometimes I write things and wonder if I should publish them, and I should probably have listened to that voice of doubt last night. What I originally wrote felt like it had energy, but it was not a useful energy. What I wrote below is just a note of frustration with, well, myself. It probably doesn’t need to be read. But I’ll leave it up as a reminder to myself that, well, it’s OK to feel frustrated at times.
Edited the day after: Sometimes I think that I should simplify my sentences for publication because not everybody will want to dive into my own voice as much as I do. On the other hand, the value of my writings may not lie in being simple.
On the weekends I usually tell myself that I should use that free time to post to the blog. But giving myself this assignment seems not to make me feel good about editing my work, and I think I need to be in an open, receptive mindset in order to edit my work well.
Sometimes I think that there’s more to being alive than simply producing words and ideas, and then those are the times I tend to go and lie next to my dog on the floor and see what he’s paying attention to. Sometimes I just nap. I can be alive without having to write all the time. I live through writing, by writing, but I don’t want to confuse my need to write with anyone else’s need to read my writing. And I’m posting and editing this now so that I can pare back the thoughts of a moment of tired frustration. I may not even like this revision by tomorrow. We’ll see.
Original: I write everyday. I write in complex sentences. Sometimes I think that I should simplify my sentences for publication because not everybody will want to dive into my own voice as much as I do. On the other hand, I’m not sure that my writings have all that much to say, so their value may lie in being an extension of my attention …
I would like to blog things from my writings on the weekends, when I have time and energy to blog. But using the blog as a need to publish, giving myself this priority, this assignment, this deadline, seems not to make me feel good about editing my work, and I think I need to be in an open, receptive mindset in order to edit my work well.
I write every day but sometimes I think that writing is just an arrangement of words and ideas and that there’s more to being alive than simply producing words and ideas, and then those are the times I tend to go and lie next to my dog on the floor and see what he’s paying attention to. Sometimes I just nap. I can be alive without having to write all the time.
I write every day. I write to live. I live by thinking and writing. It’s a decent lifestyle, really it is, but also … I don’t want to confuse my need to write with anyone else’s need to read my writing. And I’m posting this now so I can feel that I did something blogable today.

Links: Narrative empathy, for good or ill

For good:  This article by Amy McLay Paterson at Vox cites these articles suggesting that reading literary fiction improves readers’ ability to empathize.

For ill: “How Stories Deceive” suggests that “when we become swept up in powerful narrative, our reason often falls by the wayside,” and people can get conned.

Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University and the director of its Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, studies the power of story in our daily interactions with friends, strangers, books, television, and other media. Repeatedly, he has found that nothing makes us receptive, emotionally and behaviorally, quite like narrative flow.”

Narrative ads, like some of Budweiser’s Super Bowl ads, “work because they appeal to your emotions by drawing you into a story that you can’t help but be moved by. From that point on, you are governed by something other than reason. Emotion is the key to empathy. Arouse us emotionally and we will identify with you and your plight. Keep us cold, and empathy won’t blossom.”

Paterson gives an example of how empathizing with imaginary characters can be frustrating: “I cursed myself for wasting energy on an unworthy title, hate-reading the last 200 pages of The Rosie Effect because I’d liked The Rosie Project and wanted to make sure that everything turned out okay.”

In other recent news about narratives: “All Stories Are the Same“: This article makes a claim about the universality of this narrative:

All plunge their characters into a strange new world; all involve a quest to find a way out of it; and in whatever form they choose to take, in every story “monsters” are vanquished. All, at some level, too, have as their goal safety, security, completion, and the importance of home.

But this article oversimplifies when it claims that “all stories are forged from the same template, writers simply don’t have any choice as to the structure they use; the laws of physics, of logic, and of form dictate they must all follow the very same path.” And I don’t agree with this article’s emphasis on following the “template” — “a piano played without knowledge of time and key soon becomes wearisome to listen to”  — as if an artwork being “wearisome” were a sin.

And this:Christmas: The Greatest Story Ever Told?” at The Atlantic points out that this narrative “contained many of the time-tested elements of good storytelling.” But of course, this narrative is significantly fictionalized in its basic facts:

The beautiful Nativity story in Luke, for instance, in which a Roman census forces the Holy Family to go back to its ancestral city of Bethlehem, is an obvious invention, since there was no Empire-wide census at that moment, and no sane Roman bureaucrat would have dreamed of ordering people back to be counted in cities that their families had left hundreds of years before. The author of Luke, whoever he might have been, invented Bethlehem in order to put Jesus in David’s city.

Nonfiction: My Dad’s Advice

The following is something I wrote to submit to a fiction contest, and it wasn’t chosen, but actually this text is nonfiction. (The fiction part was that I was lying about it being fiction.) I don’t often like to formalize my memories and experiences such as I did below — something about the artifice of memoirs bugs me — and I prefer to write in my journal about things that have happened recently. But writing this piece below was valuable, as I think I learned something about myself as I wrote it.

My dad sat on his truck’s tailgate, and I sat next to him in our farm yard on a summer afternoon. I was about to start my senior year of college, and he’d just been fired from his sales job (fired for reasons relating to his depression, I later found out). I told him that I was intimidated by the thought of soon having to start a career and go to a job every day for the next 40 years. I asked him how he had kept going to work. He said he just did it, one day after another, to support his family. I had been hoping for a deeper answer.

I never really knew my dad. I knew him for 25 years before he was killed as a passenger in a car wreck, but I failed to get a real feeling for who he was.

I could recite the facts: when he graduated college, how he met my mom, and what jobs he worked before and after their divorce. I could name some of his habits: falling asleep in front of the TV on winter nights, taking our big, wooly dog Fritz on rides around our farm, chuckling at the lambs of his flock as they pranced and skittered. I could even tell about experiences we had together, like the time I asked him whether he had smoked cigarettes just to raise his blood pressure high enough to avoid being drafted for Vietnam. (His answer, as I recall, was, well, he really didn’t want to go.)

But somehow I never got a sense that I really knew him. And now I question whether what I wanted from him is even possible. For what does it really mean to know a person? It has been so easy to close to my mom and my friends and my wife, that maybe I just get a sense that they are familiar and present to me, and I don’t try too hard to describe what knowing them means.

But I don’t think I ever felt that same nearness, even when sitting right next to my dad. We started hugging each other on visits after he moved out of our family house — we’d never really done that before. I know the feeling of having my arms around his chest, and thinking that somehow we were kin, were using, living in, very similar bodies. Yet, I imagined him as hollow somehow — that something that was there in other people wasn’t there in him. Of course, there’s no thing to label as what a person is, in any of us — but others are more natural at seeming like there is?

When I was 25 and about to get married, I again asked for advice, this time about relationships. I had surprised him by stopping by his house on a Saturday morning. I don’t remember him giving me any guidance at all. He probably didn’t intend to push me toward finding my own answers, but perhaps my questioning, my questing, was his legacy to me.

Fiction: What happens?

Below is a fiction dialogue I wrote for a local public radio station contest, which declined to use it, so I’m publishing it with this wonderful blog.

“What happens?” Tom asked. He grabbed a Greek yogurt, blueberry, from his fridge and sat in his green recliner.  I had a few more seconds to think of a response as he got back up to get a spoon. He peeled back the foil lid, scooped the fruit from one plastic well into the larger yogurt zone, slurped up a spoonful, and then looked at me and waited.

“Things happen,” I said. “Events, experiences. Birds fly from one powerline to another. A squirrel bounces across the street one moment, and is flattened the next. You mixed up the yogurt and it can’t be unmixed.”

“That’s not what I mean,” Tom said. He took another spoonful of yogurt, striated with blueberry juice  like carrara marble, and swallowed it.

I squinted at him, partly to query him and partly to engage my brain.

Tom scraped the last of the thick dairy from the hard plastic and set the tub and spoon on an end table. He put his hands palms-down on the arms of the recliner.

“What I mean is — well, I’m not sure what I mean. But there’s gotta be more to it than what you just said.”

More to what, I asked.

“Life,” he said.

“Shoot,” I thought. I can predict where this is going. I suddenly felt safe in a banal way. I waited to again be brought to the edge of a mental chasm, to see how he’d drive the idea while staying between the cliff wall of known thoughts and the dropoff of cleverness.

“Well, not life itself, which is far too abstract. When I squash a squirrel, I’m also killing its children,” he said.

“Mary Poppins steps in time,” I said.

Tom ignored me and continued, “I’m ending a piece of that which gives life, that which IS alive, and which, according to evolutionary theory, has been continuous through unknown generations of individuals for more than a billion years. I just ended it. … That doesn’t make me special — but I can’t recreate squirrel life. And sometimes I end life so as to continue my own.”

“But when I’m alive, I’m eating yogurt. I’m turning food into thought. It’s literal food for thought.”

And we were both silent a moment. He closed his eyes and lay back his head.

I said, “Your need to define life and what happens is an emotional need, and not necessarily an intellectual one.”

“That’s a valid point,” Tom said. “But it doesn’t answer the question.”

“Which question, again?” I said.

“The question of what happens,” Tom said. He added, “Maybe we get in trouble when we ask such vague questions. But maybe these simple questions can be the most profound.”

“Maybe. But maybe they’re also just simple,” I answered.

He leaned toward me from his chair and said, “We’re alive, you and me, right here, right now. Doesn’t our very existence pose the question of what it is to be alive?”

I think I finally got his point: “And you’re wondering if considering this question is exactly the right, or exactly the wrong, thing to be doing with this experience of being alive.”

My Hand, Writing

I'm layin' down some words.

I’m layin’ down some words.

So, I’ve been filming myself writing.

Yes, this is me just playing with my smart phone’s camera. And yet, when I watch these videos, I’m a little startled by the weirdness of watching my hand moving across the page and not knowing what I’m gonna write.

But it also strikes me that this is not a type of video one typically sees. When a movie shows a hand writing, there’s usually a voice-over reading the words as they’re written. And I’m used to looking at my writing while I hear my own “inner voice” stating the words that I will write next, so watching a video of writing makes me aware of how quiet it is, how unobtrusively writing fits in to even a typically non-intellectual place like a small-town McDonald’s or Jimmy John’s.

Me 'n' some people lucky enough to witness my writing, 13 Aug. 2015, McDonald's, Oregon, Illinois.

Me ‘n’ some people lucky enough to witness my writing genius, 13 Aug. 2015, McDonald’s, Oregon, Illinois.

Of course, these videos, silly as they are, might be verging on this.

Limits of storytelling: Notes from 17 to 27 August 2015

A housecat as a fascist or socialist realist hero.

A housecat as a fascist or socialist realist hero.

So many stories, fiction and non-, seem to take a moral stance, to teach a lesson, as if character or person gets what one deserves. But when my dad’s life story ends with his being killed as a passenger in a car accident, it doesn’t seem like there was anything he did to deserve that outcome. Perhaps what some stories teach is that the world is an arbitrary place. Perhaps what I learned from my dad’s story is that stories fail to explain real events. [17 August]

Why should I get the fun and satisfaction of writing and then hope/expect others to do the less-satisfying reading of what I’ve written? Maybe the reason one writes is just to write, and readers are missing out on that fun. And what if readers don’t want all the stories writers might want to tell them? [18 August]

Narratives could be conceived as a way of picking pieces out of experience in order to find a bigger pattern. But that pattern itself has little connection to physical reality, or perhaps there’s no connection. At its core, a narrative is a cause-effect relationship (an effect without a cause, like my Dad’s death by car accident, isn’t a satisfying story), but so many aspects of one’s life-experience aren’t cause-effect. [19 August]

In the first page or two of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is the clause “[the] hill curves up.” But this is a metaphorical verb, because the hill isn’t doing anything. The only one doing anything is the human narrator whose mind is perceiving the a curve — which is a noun — but the mind interprets that visual as an action, “curving.” Perhaps many — or all? — verbs are metaphors, or are, at least, interpretations by the observer or storyteller. Even to say “See Dick run” is to gloss over the particular muscle contractions, body movements, and forward motions that are what running physically is. [19 August]

After school, as the cross-country squad at the school where I teach got on its bus to a meet, I heard the coach say to a student, “No, you can’t go with us ‘cuz you’re not on our team.” [19 August]

Reading parts of a Tomas Tranströmer poetry book (I think it was The Great Enigma), I’m almost a little angry that these poems are so vague and dull, going nowhere — maybe they sound cooler in Swedish and I can just blame the translator. But why would any poem need to be so ponderous? Why wait until there’s some intersect with Meaning to elevate some lived experience? Why not just write our concretenesses? At least Charles Olson’s “Maximus Volume 3” is weird. [20 Aug.]

To use (refer to, etc.) Hemingway as some ur-writer, as some model of The Writer, is to flatten down what he was into a role we in culture at large need to be filled. “Hemingway,” then, becomes a common shorthand (in that it may seem clever to use a particular name) for The Writer: the most-respected, well-known, etc., writer. I recently read someone say that something similar is happening to the reputation of David Foster Wallace, that who he was is losing nuance as his name starts to refer to him as an icon. [20 Aug.]

I don’t think the book I’m teaching to sophomores, Of Mice and Men, is racist and sexist — though of course, the racist and sexist words and descriptions the book uses to show certain characters’ racism and sexism are racist and sexist. But my question is, why make a book with such bad characters? Why would I want to spend time with these rude idiots? I suppose the book could be said to be depicting conditions of certain people in a particular setting, but how are readers to react to this? If a book is claiming that these particular characters represent people generally, that claim can’t be believed, and if a book is claiming that these particular characters are just reprehensible, then why would I bother? There’s no doubt ugliness and beauty that could be found anywhere, so why choose to prioritize the ugly? In other words, why would a read a book with a sad ending? I tend not to enjoy crying. [21 Aug.]

Of Mice and Men is like a snow globe: when we start reading, there’s a past already in place, then the author repeats it (Lennie grabbed a woman in Weed, then in the story he grabs Curley’s wife), like shaking a snow globe and letting the snow fall once again. It’s a closed world, with the setting of a ranch that seems closed off from the world once George and Lennie arrive. George reacts to what Lennie does, but never really tries to intervene to try to get Lennie some appropriate mental health treatment. So it seems that George and the other characters are content to let the set-up play itself out. And so it goes. Perhaps a fiction like this book recreates a scene so as to relive it, to study it, so as to make meaning? In real life, whenever I’ve had to make a tough decision, as George does at the end of Of Mice and Men, (though I’ll admit that I’ve decided to shoot a man in the back of the head), I don’t go back to dwell on that moment as being special. But I might tell a brief story about the decision afterward. [21 Aug.]

The value and fun of having one’s own ideas rather than reading someone else’s ideas! How strong and fresh seem the ideas we ourselves come up with! [21 Aug.]

I’m skeptical of any text assigned in a class. I feel a need to not-affirm, to question, any claim asserted by Of Mice and Men. Today I told my students that it’s a “weird book”: Curley’s keeping his hand soft for sexing up his wife, George praising whorehouses, Curley’s wife not even getting a name, Crooks being called the n-word, all these brusk, brute characters. I hope I’m teaching my students to be skeptical. It’s even valuable to be skeptical of my own ideas, as fun as it is to have new ideas. [21 Aug.]

Maybe it’s kinda weird that teachers direct students to read books that the students may not care about. I’ve told my students that we have to read the books in the curriculum, but that I hope my students question the claims that these assigned texts make. Maybe the skills students learn from analyzing literature can also be applied to analyzing any claims they hear in their lives. [24 Aug.]

I wouldn’t want Joan Didion’s career (not that anyone’s offering it to me). It’s lame to write about other people (and by “lame,” I don’t mean only “uncool,” but also “lame” in the sense of “not whole, not in working order”). All definitions of others, fiction or nonfiction, are, at least potentially, condescending — maybe in the basic idea of thinking that any person can be adequately represented by another person. Fiction writers can imagine and describe characters that are very unlike the writers themselves — but as a reader, I’m under no obligation to accept these characters as real or as representative of real people. Joan — well, all nonfiction writers who propose and try to defend theses, claims about the world, do something that may not need doing. Even scientists, who try to model the physical world in concepts, are doing something that seems too limited to me. Can’t there be a writing that’s not judged merely on the correspondence of its claims? Why does fiction, an endeavor defined as factually false, need to have realistic characters? Not all fiction is, of course, but why is “I don’t believe a real person would act like these characters” a legitimate criticism of fiction? Can there be fiction without characters acting like they have human consciousness? Or do we readers tend to equate willful agents with humans? A counter example would be the novel Wild Season, where animals are doing animal things rather than doing human things. [26 Aug. and 27 Aug.]

Why tell stories portraying other people (who aren’t like you) when you could tell your own stories with new forms? [27 Aug.]

There’s so much repetition in Of Mice and Men, as if Steinbeck were trying to teach something instead of just telling a story. Steinbeck is treating us as if we’re simple, or as if he’s giving us a speech and we’ll quickly forget what he’s said, with this repetition. Perhaps, like patterns in music, repetition (motifs, symbols, foreshadowing) in fiction is satisfying, but in this book, at least, it’s too simple to be deeply satisfying or intriguing. [27 Aug.]

‘Time Closes One I’: Erasures and rewrites of Rod McKuen’s ‘Lonesome Cities’

Rod_for blog (1)

So, last January, about the time Rod McKuen passed away, I picked up his poetry book Lonesome Cities, which I’d obtained long after its publication in the 1960s but which I’d never read. I didn’t really like the poems: their language felt too chatty and their subjects too familiar and too precious.

But alongside each poem was plenty of blank space in which I could rewrite the poems to my own taste, to make the poems sharper and stranger, more surprising. Some of the poems are simple erasures (see also resources here), while others have some words replaced by sound-alike words, and all poems have certain amounts of re-arrangement, editing, and rewriting (however those definitions may overlap).

I debated whether to put my new poems alongside McKuen’s originals. I have chosen not to, partly out of concern not to step on his copyrights (and this writing process felt like authentic creation, but it also prompted questions of what, exactly, copying means). But I also don’t think comparing the new to the old is necessary, as the poems below range far beyond the topics of McKuen’s poems to represent their own questions of consciousness and philosophical inquiry.

Here are my poems, with reference to the titles of the originals the new poems came from:

“An Out,” an erasure of McKuen’s poem “An Outstretched Hand”

Each of us was God.

Some of us grew.

The wind bent.

Darkness-up life.

Love is, is.

Each eye turned sound,

shoulders their feet.

It takes a hand.

Ω

“Sting,” an erasure of “Rusting in the Rain”

The old world coming stops as it goes.

Did anybody ever grow older?

Come see where we have been.

Ω

“I’ve,” a rewrite of “I’ve Saved the Summer”

I’ve.

I give you to winter when new.

I’ve need. Darkness can feed. I’ve kept your smile.

You were 19. You’re older, you’ll know.

I know no answers. Your way lies somewhere.

But I’ll give you the road.

Ω

“Like the Window,” a rewrite of the last 2 stanzas of “It’s Raining”

It’s like the window if we wait.

There’s here now. Don’t be anymore.

It’s the crickets.

Do you think? You love.

Raining.

Ω

“Summer’s It,” an erasure/rewrite of the last 2 stanzas of “Sommerset”

wind

the memories–

times: summer’s set?

Life,

day: Sunday

month May,

years–

summer’s it,

Time?

Ω

“To Glean Sin from the Crows,” a rewrite of the first two stanzas of “Sommerset” made by replacing each word in poem with a sound-alike word:

Several ways were sunny.

Canned eels’ mouths were made.

Sand heavy birds down a long cane;

that seems to compensate

for muddy ears. Comb fuzzy bats.

Tin filters amore.

Hens heal ivy. Where summer went,

him no team ignores.

Cats rhyme some more. They gored some pigs.

Endure, he knew, but how?

Repair in size our wooden trunks.

Two seen beneath a stall.

Cows mainly hear enough of static

to glean sin from the crows.

Whine was learned, yet summer kept

land-cropping all sender’s snows.

Ω

“I Live That, Always,” an erasure of “The Single Man”

I live that, always.

For just a night,

the talk wasn’t a better day.

At home, or in his private cloud, I am

a time I can’t remember.

The house might have been help.

Ω

“Cans,” an erasure/creative edit of “Cannes”

Cans waking in the morning

sweep down the street.

The empty bottles go back.

As crossword puzzles on the sidewalk,

a new foundation crawls

back under buildings

to avoid the Jets.

Still adjusting our heads,

we shoe up in the hallway

and lose bed.

Thank God for the coasts.

Ω

“Form,” an erasure of “For Bimby”

Some things you can put down.

Sheep grazing on the airport stale February days.

Smile balloons look to me.

Surprises held in the day.

A blaze with tourists and cats ruins time.

Her smile is elaboration lost

Ω

“The cross Atlantic,” erasure/edit of “Atlantic Crossing”

I gave up a while.

I had written songs to my family’s safe for years.

Had some women liked my animals in luxury?

I’d miss me, but they’d be it.

The way did much paint.

I’ll admit there were eyes I’d keep.

All in all, I was ready, so I pray more.

God had frightened years.

He first did run down.

We’d play together if we weren’t one another.

Ω

“Beaching Manhattan,” an edit-rewrite of “Manhattan Beach” as a prose poem

I’m working in a house at Manhattan Beach. Eddie came by last weekend with two women and some books. The books and the women were stacked. (Ha!)

I sleep and breathe the waves. I think of my breathing. I mist my attention on the traffic. Familiar rooms sink past my songs. A half-packed suitcase buys me oughts.

My dog does stuff up on the beach–she doesn’t seem to care that this is the very end of the land. My friends may as well be weathered sticks or bottles sans notes. My dog smells of the smells she smells; they settle on her fur.

Boats fill harbors in a dance stretching back 10 years in a morning. I live mostly in afternoons.

I nearly died. Fever made doubt or walks along. I stayed alive. Letters came, and “I” was the island I would go for. The asshole rides me to see the dog embark a seal.

Ω

“Four for Hands,” an erasure-rewrite of “Concerto for four hands”

Shadows time me.

Mischief

winter

empties forms.

A mattress

grows tired

of some

backs.

Ω

“Now You’re Even,” an erasure-edit of “New Year’s Eve”

The snow

branches

like cherries.

Wind falls

like windows

dying.

The old die.

A hundred

time-products

choose me.

I am the green ground.

I have faces.

I need,–I know.

The town slopes

the curtains.

The next room waits.

Villages rain like celebrations.

Ω

“Urban Herb,” an erasure-edit of “Suburb”

The mountain winds around petals. A desert country like smoke. Those electric-nows pine for perfume towns. The smile is smiles. Centurions anticipate chopping. Down the trees and down the hills, ants make flat.

Ω

“Bag Age,” an erasure-edit of “Baggage”

Only one day shoulders disappearing.

Room crowds your face.

Help me suppose it gone.

Leave me so I stand.

Ω

“Boa Rid,” erasure-rewrite of “Boat Ride”

You yawn.

The boredom drove.

God was full.

You were Texas.

Your tongue, again, knows.

Your arms water time, privately.

Ω

“In Dian’s Summer,” an erasure-rewrite of “Indians”

In Dian’s summer,

riot-bank frogs

empty man.

Every thicket beds flowers.

Sunshine does the painting.

The hills buy the buffalo tower

and fence. Off the factories,

we’ll build shadows.

Men die but gray.

Ω

“Engineer of Pallidity,” an erasure and inversion of “Venice” (pages 34 through 31)

a whole long moment meets time.

I am handsome; a mirror could have a hope.

Find a way to own my reflection.

I excite you with motor cuisine. You, I’ll never smile.

The glance—once—keeps you. I buy. You coin the world, and back a secret.

The sun targets me. The sun beaches you.

My hair lies. I’m your engineer of pallidity.

Tomorrow, sun ends home, shade.

Waiting, the birds.

Feeding. Ignoring me, you, chattering, the pigeons.

Coming. Moving. Eating. Chewing.

Ω

“These,” a selection-rewrite of “Three”

I face country tablecloths.

I index fingers.

I till now.

I paint 20 minutes.

Your eyes say grapefruit.

I ruin mornings.

I draw evenings.

I even drawings.

Ω

“Tuesday,” an erasure/sound-replacing rewrite of “Two”

Back to look—I, you. No!

Understand: I speak same as I bathe,

with a winnowing and a leafing through.

The heat throws. Off, we wormed each other

into tarps in different booths.

Turning me, months mediate a simile.

In the laboratory at the lakefront,

there were some seaweeds in a hair curler—

my mind looked at them—

I had drained my face from the stairs.

Ω

“When,” an erasure/rewrite of “One”

When you corner change

and wrinkle it into day,

you and lovers lose

water to leaded crystal.

Ω

“Disbelief,” a re-make of “Morning, Three”

At any “and,”

disbelief smiles “yet, “or.”

Ω