Tuesday, February 27, 2018

A toast to the NEA hopeful


I don’t know what’s going to poke up through the centers of the bright green bunches of leaves that line my front walkway. I know what’s there—hyacinths, crocuses, daffodils, tulips. Until they come to flower, I’m not sure what it is I’m looking at. I anticipate beauty.

Spring means flowers, but it also means the deadline to apply for a Creative Writing Fellowship through the National Endowment for the Arts. These applications happen on a rolling basis—every even year, poets can apply, and every odd year, prose writers (fiction or nonfiction) get their chance. I write in all of these genres, although I identify most readily as a poet, so I never miss a chance to be considered.

And why would it? The fellowships are for $25,000, and applying is free. A lot of writers complain about the multi-step application process, which includes verification of eligibility and a description of the project, among other odds and ends, and some throw up their hands partway through and opt out.

Not me. Maybe it’s because I’m an experienced grant-writer, but I see the NEA application as straightforward and simple—and $25,000 is totally worth an hour or two of effort. 

It’s like those bulbs that pop up where and when I’m not suspecting them. They wait underground, completely self-contained, until roots nose out from the basal plate, and deep within the tunic of the bulb, a lily makes ready to emerge and surprise me with its richness.

I wouldn’t mind being surprised with a little richness.

This past weekend, some of my poet friends had scheduled a toast to celebrate the completion of their grant applications. It was an idea of my friend Anna Leahy, who is a remarkable poet and thinker, well worth Endowment support. The toast was on my calendar, too—but as a part-time instructor and a freelancer, I’m constantly booked, and my personal projects, like applying for grants, often get put off until the very last minute. Because of this, I wasn’t ready to raise my glass, though I clinked for my friends in my imagination.

Writers are like that, I’ve found. There’s some competition, as anyone would expect, but there’s so much more. We help each other out. We inform each other of opportunities. We remind each other of deadlines (like the NEA fellowship application, due March 7, 11:59 p.m. Eastern time …). There’s sometimes a tinge, or more than a tinge, of envy when the grant recipients are announced in November—but for now, we toast. We’ve made the effort; we’ve put ourselves out there, planted our bulb, and now we wait.

Who knows what the current Congress and administration will do with the NEA? More than ever, sending off that application feels like shouting into a well. But I really believe in a nation that backs the arts—an investment that time and time again has proven to pay real dividends. The arts make up more than 4 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product ($704 billion in 2013, according to the NEA). And every practicing artist I know gives back in some way—through service, through mentorship, through meaning, and through beauty.

Artists are a good bet—no, a good investment. And all along the side of my lawn, I see green shoots, reminding me of how our hopes in one season sometimes manifest beautifully in another.


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Me, with some of my spring flowers

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Making the most of pockets of time



I’m finding myself pressed for time these days—and “pressed” is a perfect word for it. When you press down hard on something, something has to give. Something goops out the side. When the hours of my day are packed full, what goops out for me is my writing.

Why writing? I think it may be because it’s something I’m not rewarded for, and no one is depending on it. There’s no paycheck linked to my completion of a sonnet. My short stories don’t need homework help. I’m not married to my essays.

And there’s another, bigger reason, too: Writing is hard. It has its technical challenges, obviously, but I’m talking about something a little different here. Good writing, even if it’s the wildest, most impersonal fiction, gets down into our messy inner places. If it’s good, it digs into us, and that’s uncomfortable—even painful at times.

It becomes easy to avoid our writing when our time is limited. We may continue to make time for social media or TV shows, but isn’t it true that writing well requires more time than that? We can passively poke around the digital world while doing other things, but writing requires our whole selves, and it’s not something we can easily hop in and out of.

In most days, I find that I have brief windows of time that no one has a claim on. I’m talking about the ten minutes in the school pickup line or the five minutes on hold with the cable company. As an instructor, maybe it’s the fifteen minutes of in-class writing time I assign my students, or five minutes in the parking lot after work.

These windows aren’t enough for me to write something. Even a small poem requires time for reflection; I’m not just putting down words. But they are useful for keeping the pump primed, the flow going. Lately, I’ve been trying to make the most of my pockets of time, so that when I do have an hour or more of writing time, I’m not empty. There’s something right there at the surface I can draw on to begin.

For those in the same position I am, here are a few five-minute jump-starts I’ve found useful:

Listing. Listing is such a powerful creative technique. A quickly generated list is weird and associative, and it’s practically self-propelling. One item flows into the next. When our inner censor is turned off, we can make surprising connections—the same kinds of connections I love to make in poetry. A journaling type of list is one possibility (“Ways to make more of my time”), but we can also go in a more creative direction (“Ten things I didn’t expect to find on Mars,” or “Reasons I choke on water”). The more fanciful, the more I like them.

Character sketches. This seems like a fiction exercise, but writers in any genre can stay limber by writing a character sketch, or even a description of a real person. I wrote a poem not long ago about my junior high government teacher, who sexually harassed me and treated me very cruelly (#MeToo). Before I wrote about him, I worked to remember him—the sheen of sweat on his upper lip, his nipple-high trousers. My character sketch didn’t end up in my poem, but the vivid memory of this man prepared me to tell my (tardy) truth.

Word associations. This is just what it sounds like. I start with a word, and then I write a new word that the first word calls to mind. I try to avoid forming any kind of narrative; writing in columns down the page instead of in paragraph form is a helpful strategy. I think it must be a characteristic of our minds that we try to make meaning and build associations. What looks like a list of words often tells a secret story, usually about ourselves.

Haiku. If we wanted to write a worthy haiku, we would need much more than a brief window of time in which to do it. This is far from a throwaway form, and I have a great deal of respect for it. But when we’ve pulled forward at the fast-food drive-thru to wait for our fries, we can bust out a quick three lines based on whatever is visible through our windshield. Not everything we write is for posterity, or even for publication, and a pocket-of-time haiku keeps our observational powers honed.

Create a prompt. This idea comes from fiction writer Michael Czyzniejewski, who says he often uses moments when he’s on the run, walking from here to there or standing in the grocery line, to think of a way he can be creative later. When writing time becomes available and we hit the page with a prompt in mind, we save some time that we might otherwise spend trying to decide what to write about.

Envision a revision. I suspect all writers have memories of good ideas that didn’t take off, or any number of failed drafts. Why not take five minutes to apply a new perspective to those pieces? I’ve always found time and distance useful to solving my composition problems.

Read. We can always benefit by sticking a book in our bag to provide inspiration. I also love reading short pieces online. A great place to read the best flash fiction around is SmokeLong Quarterly, and for nonfiction, I love the essays and brief craft pieces in Brevity. I also like to read a poem and noodle over it for a bit, just to see where it might transport me.

Give a lecture. This is embarrassing, OK, but I’m going to put it out there. Sometimes I like to give little lectures to imaginary classrooms about some aspect of writing. It’s just a thing I do when I’m by myself, maybe driving a long distance. The thing about lecturing is that the lecturer is forced to clarify her own thoughts before communicating them with others. The faux lecture, an apparent act of foolishness, can actually be very instructive.

Even the busiest person can eventually carve out an hour or two. These five-minute exercises can keep us limber enough to make the most of our time when our lives allow it.



Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Sometimes an exercise is just an exercise



I was reading submissions for a publication recently, and I came across a poem with a distinctive and unusual title. Below it, in the epigraph position, was the attribution line—something along the lines of “After Pablo Neruda,” only a different poet was named.

On a hunch, I looked up the poet and the title together, and what I suspected proved to be true: One word of the title had been replaced with another, and the poem itself enacted this Mad Libs substitution strategy throughout.

Imagine, as an example of this, if we were to start with a widely anthologized contemporary poem, maybe Li-Young Lee’s “Persimmons,” and change each persimmon to a kumquat. That poem is based on confusion between the words “persimmon” and “precision,” so I suppose we’d need a comparable word to stumble upon, like, I dunno, “ketchup.” 

When the speaker is punished for confusing “kumquat” and “ketchup” by a teacher—not Mrs. Walker, of course, but Mrs. Stalker or Caulker or something—what we find is not a poem that grows more and more original with each substitution; instead, it’s a poem that is increasingly beholden to the original.

The important question is this: Whose poem is our new “Kumquat”? And the answer should be obvious: It is Lee’s.

Imitations provide important lessons for any artist, and not just literary ones. Whenever I visit a major art museum, I see students sketching important works into their notebooks with their pencils. There is much we can learn from our creative forebears.

In almost any creative writing classroom, the imitation poem or story is a standard exercise, and such a transformative one. I don’t recommend eliminating this exercise any time soon. 

But students do need to know the difference between an exercise and an original creative work. I wish more writers would embrace the notion that it’s OK to do exercises, and that not everything we commit to the page needs an expanded life in a literary magazine.

Musicians understand this idea. They might begin their practice session with scales and arpeggios, but these are intended as warm-ups. Mere finger exercises don’t merit a trip to the recording studio. They’re just a precursor for what comes next.

Likewise, visual artists and designers often start with sketches. These might go somewhere and they might not, but they serve as a way to keep the fingers limber and the ideas coming.

Playing around with scales might suggest a pleasing progression of notes, and sketches might suggest a viable work of art—that’s often the hope. The exercises are an important step in the process, but the actual artifacts—pages of initial sketches, perhaps—are not usually seen as work that requires saving.

We writers are a different story. When we put effort into a piece, we tend to want it to go somewhere. We’ve worked hard and made some discoveries—writing always seems to lead to insight; that’s just the nature of it. Sometimes there’s an idea, an image, a turn of phrase that isn’t easy to re-house in a new piece, so we’re left with scraps. Often, our scraps remain scraps; an occasion to use our discards may never arise, and we’re left holding the most brilliant unattached sentence or phrase the world has never seen.

That imitation poem I encountered in a submission file had some nice moves in it, and many of these were the poet’s own. While it had a copied structure—both formal and rhetorical—it had some original flourishes. I get why the writer wanted it to find an audience, and the attribution line shows an admirable desire to honor the original writer. (By the way, I do believe a poem can start as an imitation and rise to the level of original art, but it has to involve much more than substitution to do so.)

I just wish we writers were more willing to let exercises be exercises. It feels important to publish, but there have been many occasions when I’ve gone off half-cocked, publishing a poem before its time, or publishing a poem that, in a more sober mindset, would never have come into its time—a poem that was meant to start and end its life as an exercise.

In writing this, I may seem elitist or stodgy. What I’m really trying to do is to make a case for play. What would the state of poetry look like if we writers let ourselves goof off more? Taking off the pressure to publish—taking away those expectations and stakes—gives us freedom to have fun. 

There’s no reason an office can’t be a playroom from time to time.

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