Only Connect

I started out my writing life as a poet. When I began this blog in May many years ago, I wasn’t even sure I could write to the right side of the page. But I was a freelance copyeditor and wanted to write about copyediting.

This was before my poetry buddy turned to me and said, “You know what?” When this person says, “You know what?” you know your poem if not your life is about to change.

“The stories you tell about [historical figure] is more interesting than your poems.”

Shit. OK Poet Friend, I will change my life. I will spend hours on this blog whining about how hard it was to form a narrative, to make things interesting, to incorporate what my nonfiction professor called the third voice in memoir, the place one inhabits in a certain location in time, that is, in history.

This leads me to a homegrown residency. I am in a rented attic, listening to the rain. It is our last full day here, and I’m trying to freewrite about why the historical character I am obsessed about is interesting to me. Why do I write about her? How does she fit in?

The poet says, here is object A and object B. The connection between the two, dear reader, is up to you. But I am not writing poetry. I need to expand, I need to understand my own motivations. I need to talk about them in a way that makes other people give a shit.

What writing problems are you facing today?

Rules for Writing Residencies

Go somewhere and write. How hard can it be? Wake up every morning knowing that there is no distraction from the page with the exception of Otto the Cat and your co-residents. There are a host of social rules surrounding co-residents, but today I’m focusing on writing. Because I should be focusing on writing—Oh look, there’s a carpenter bee hitting my window for the 10th time this hour!

You have been given a gift of time. And with this gift, perhaps because you’re Jewish (or I’m Jewish anyway) or perhaps because you’re a writer, comes with a full complement of guilt. You really should be writing. Or patting Otto the Cat. There are no other options.

Earlier this week I compared being at a writing residency to being an athlete. You have to pamper your delicate little psyche so it can keep writing. If your brain needs fresh air, take a walk. If on the third day you feel grief and pain and stress, spend the afternoon in bed reading a delightfully schlocky fantasy novel set in a magical alternative Russia. You will be able to write on the fourth day.

Don’t drink too much. Don’t talk to people who put you off your writing groove, should you have one (and you really should). Don’t despair if on day seven you write 463 of the worst words you have ever written in your entire adult life. They are inaccurate and ugly, but they are 463 more words on a difficult topic than you had yesterday. And on day eight you can attempt to make them slightly less hideous. You can do it. Stretch, walk, hydrate.

You really should be writing.


Copyeditor Screed

You know what I hate? Prescriptivists. Those are the people who grieve because the Internet is now lowercase. They decry the singular “they,” and probably put two spaces after their periods. (Which, spoiler alert, comes from the days of monospaced font and typewriters.) They sniff at people who begin sentences with “because.” Because that’s what their high school English teachers taught them.

Language changes, and it is my job as a copyeditor to keep up. It is the Chicago Manual of Style’s job to keep up as well. Just because I learned one rule doesn’t mean that it will never go away. We are not engineers after all. Style rules are not scientific laws. Language is dynamic and fuckity like the people who use it.

What do you hate today?

Research for Creative Writers

Back in my poet days, it was easy. I could look up facts about whales, anatomy, the violin, crown vetch, whatever obscure item I needed to make my image work. I didn’t have to be an authority on the topic.

If I were a historian, I would know how to breeze in and out of archives to get the information I needed. If I were a journalist, I would know how to call people and get them to talk (in a good way, not in a fake Russian accent mobster kind of way).

If I were an academic, I would have an institution behind me. Instead I have my wavering sense of self. “Hi. I’m a writer? Um. Could I visit your archives? Here’s ten things I’ve published and a sonnet just to prove to you that I’m not an international map thief. And that I’m smart and creative, and never mind.” If I wanted to talk to people for a living I would still be working in bookstores.

If the archives I wanted to visit weren’t in such an expensive place it would all be easier. If my local historical associations awarded gifts to creative writers, it would all be easier. If I weren’t such a fucking introvert, it would all be easier.

But on the other hand, I am not writing the definitive biography of my historical person. I am writing the story of some lives woven together. And my own introverted, curious, poetry-lovin’ self is the narrator. Surely I can pull that off.

How do you do research for what you write? Or create?

Poetry 4-Eva

The other day I was at the dinner table with a group of talky people, most of whom I was related to. The conversations to my right was about spirituality.

“Spiritual work [on yourself, I think he meant] is the most profound work you can do,” my relative claimed.

I’m about as spiritual as your average tree-hugging atheist. Probably less so. I was raised as a secular Jew, became an atheist at 17, and have never looked back. I try to be a good person most days, I love rivers and mountains and stones and woods, but the word “spiritual” isn’t in my vocabulary.

You know what I like better than spiritual work? Sonnets. But I know there are very very few people in this world who give a shit about sonnets. So I don’t talk about sonnets, which are intensely important to me.

And I quietly remember my viola teacher in college who said, “Don’t tell my husband, but I like string quartets better than anything else in the world.” She would understand. (Aside: violas are more obscure than sonnets.)

I am happy that the person at the table has spiritual work. I am glad people are religious, as long as they aren’t being assholes about it. Some of my best friends are married to preachers!

But the thing I find irritating is the utter confidence with which he made that claim. I know line breaks, meter, and metaphor won’t save the world. But it saves my world. What if I had said to him that I thought sonnets were the most important work in the world? He probably would have laughed in my face. (I don’t really think sonnets are the most important work in the word, but it is some of the most important work that I do.)

I wonder if he thinks about other work that is important. I wonder why this overheard comment still bothers me. Is spirituality privileged? What do you think? What bothers you?

Don’t You Hate It When…

One of my work friends told me about the game, “Don’t you hate it when…,” that you take turns playing. This, not surprisingly, is my new favorite game.

Don’t you hate it when you click on an essay that, from the title and header, you think you’d be passionately interested in, only to find it was written by a poet who would rather hear herself put gorgeous images describing her relationship with a friend on the page rather than tell a story and explore the implication of queer women’s friendships as promised by aforementioned title and header?

Don’t you hate it when you anticipate that half your audience will roll their eyes and say, “Man, poets, what can you do?” when in fact you are a poet and you know you can do quite a bit better?

There are times when a person needs to write an essay and a time when a person needs to write a poem. An essay can use imagery and wander, but ultimately its purpose is to inform or take the reader on a journey they can follow. A poem can do all these things; it also should be about something. But the narrative, as a former poet colleague once like to say, can be a bit more buried. The journey can be a little more in the reader’s head than in the poet’s head. The two go on the same journey, but may end up in different places, and that’s okay.

What do you hate?

Writing, Marriage, and Grief

Today Paul wrote about an Iris Murdoch quote.

“Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real.”

Iris Murdoch
“The Sublime and the Good”

At the risk of feeling as if I were doing a school assignment, I would like to respond. It’s been a complicated few months at Fangs and Clause Central. We’re contemplating a move to greener woods, if not pastures, certainly a greener state. This is looking more and more like it’s going to happen. I am excited, terrified, and sorry to leave a few important things about my current life. The rest I will not miss.

I finished the latest edits on the Small Beer book. In order to do this I neglected the dishes, my spouse, and anything that didn’t involve some variation of googling the ABV of a weisse. There has been drama at Second Job. Suffice it to say when I make it to the end of the day, I have no desire to talk to anyone about anything.

But there is my spouse, and he is real. I love him. And so I have to at least make the effort to listen, talk, respond, and otherwise nurture my relationship when all I want to do is crawl into bed with a book, alone.

But more immediately Spouse just went to say goodbye to a friend. His best friend is dying of cancer. How does one support another person through that, especially when he grieves differently than I do? (We all grieve differently of course.)

For 48 hours I am alone in the house. I am only responsible for getting my own self fed, to work, and back home again. (There are some dogs I have to take care of, but they are not too bad, and they are usually happy.) I’m trying not to feel guilty at being relieved to be alone. Books pile up on the spouse’s side of the bed after only 24 hours. Today I would rather stay in bed than go to work, but I am up and around because I love parts of Second Job too.

Grief is coming. The only reward is that we also have love.