“Berryman” by W. S. Merwin

So much insight here, and so many great lines (“. . . but he was deep / in tides of his own through which he sailed / chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop”), but these are the ones that grabbed me hardest: “I asked how can you ever be sure / that what you write is really / any good at all and he said you can’t . . .”

hecatedemeter

2016-black-woman-writing-and-journal
Berryman
I will tell you what he told me
in the years just after the war
as we then called
the second world war
don’t lose your arrogance yet he said
you can do that when you’re older
lose it too soon and you may
merely replace it with vanity
just one time he suggested
changing the usual order
of the same words in a line of verse
why point out a thing twice
he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally
it was in the days before the beard
and the drink but he was deep
in tides of his own through which he sailed
chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop
he was far older than the dates allowed for
much older than I…

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Van Morrison, John Lee Hooker : I Cover The Waterfont

This isn’t about writing exactly but it speaks to me so strongly as a writer that I think it might speak to you too. The Immortal Jukebox is one of my most favorite blogs.

The Immortal Jukebox

Often, when we tell the story of our own life, to ourselves, or to others, the narrative teems with incident. An action movie filled with high drama.

Now, reflecting on my own life I have come to realise that a more apt comparison would be one of the contemplative, steady gaze movies directed by Robert Bresson from France or Yasujiro Ozu from Japan.

The meaning is won, revealed, not through a hectic series of heroic events but powerfully accumulated through close attention to small details and patient meditation on the weathering, sometimes destructive, sometimes ennobling, passage of time.

Life is mainly waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

Waiting for what you want or need the most.

Waiting for your mother’s or father’s attention.

Waiting for the fabled excitement of love and romance and high passion to blow into your life like a hurricane.

Waiting for someone to recognise you as the one they…

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Simplify: A Key to Revision

Here’s a wonderful quote that arrived this morning from the Business in Rhyme blog:

The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.

— Hans Hofmann

I don’t know about you, but my early drafts sprawl. I’m currently working on a nonfiction piece that’s supposed to weigh in at 800–1,200 words. It’s currently at least 3,000 words and counting. (Since I do my first-drafting in longhand, I’ve no idea how many words there are. This is one reason I do my first-drafting in longhand.) Once I figure out what I want to say (in nonfiction) or what the real story is (in fiction), I can start cutting back.

This quote aptly describes what I’m doing when I’m line-editing my own work or someone else’s: clearing away the excess so the “necessary may speak.” I’m not much of a gardener, but I often describe this as pruning or weeding. Often the excess was necessary to help you get to where you’re going, but once you get there it’s not necessary any more and it may get in the way.

What’s “necessary”? That’s up to you, of course. If you’re like me, you’ll probably find that when you step back from a work in progress — when you come back to it after a week or two or three away — some words and phrases and whole sentences will no longer seem as necessary as they once did. A good editor or astute second reader can come in very handy here.

Writing poetry, especially poetry in traditional forms, taught me to make every word count, and to recognize words that weren’t carrying their weight. Writing prose with length limits has done likewise. But I’ve also learned that the words that get cut from the final draft were necessary to help me get there, so I’m happy to let the words sprawl across page after page until I run out of steam.

The Usefulness of Poetry | Talking Writing

A really wonderful essay by Gloria Heffernan. It’s not just about the usefulness of poetry; it’s about the usefulness of all the writing that isn’t done primarily for money or a wide audience.

Check out Talking Writing too. It’s a very good e-zine that approaches writing from all different angles. The newest issue focuses especially on teaching.

Source: The Usefulness of Poetry | Talking Writing

Stretching

The nice thing about poetry is that you’re always stretching the definitions of words. Lawyers and scientists and scholars of one sort or another try to restrict the definitions, hoping that they can prevent people from fooling each other. But that doesn’t stop people from lying.

Cezanne painted a red barn by painting it ten shades of color: purple to yellow. And he got a red barn. Similarly, a poet will describe things many different ways, circling around it, to get to the truth.

—  Pete Seeger

I love this quote. Once upon a time poetry was one of my two word mediums. (Nonfiction was the other.) I loved working with traditional forms, especially sonnets, villanelles, and sestinas. They taught me to listen to the words, to say them out loud. Every word had to count, and I had to trust each word to do its job, all the while knowing that I couldn’t control exactly what it did once I let it go.

Gradually my lines got longer and longer. One multi-voice poem turned into a one-act play. From plays I slowly eased into fiction, though I’ve never ceased to think of myself as primarily a nonfiction writer.

It’s been a very long time since I tried to write a poem, but every day I draw on what writing poetry taught me: to listen to the words, to play with them, to let them play with each other.

Am I still “stretching the definitions of words”? Probably not. An essay can include many hundreds of words, a novel many thousands. Too much stretchiness causes ambiguity, which is fine in a work short enough to be read and reread several times but not so fine in a long work whose readers may accept the occasional detour but still expect forward motion.

Still, I do plenty of circling around in both fiction and nonfiction, less with the words themselves than with the images and scenes I create with them. They blend and they clash, they resonate and dissonate. (Two dictionaries think I made “dissonate” up — maybe I’m stretching words after all.) Sometimes they startle me.

Wrote Emily Dickinson, a master of the poet’s art:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies

Perhaps the truth really is too blinding to be faced directly. I have no idea. I’ll let you know when I find it. For now, exquisite precision doesn’t seem to be getting me any closer, so I’m putting my faith in slant and indirection.

Sturgis’s Law #2

Earlier this month I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. Here’s #2:

Given enough time to fill, even the most intelligent commentator will wind up making stupid statements.

When I was growing up, we had the news at 6 and the news at 10 (or 11), and it didn’t last more than an hour. On Sunday we had talking-head shows like Meet the Press. They didn’t last more than an hour either.

With the advent of cable TV came channels that delivered news and commentary 24/7. The quantity increased, but not the quality. Blather is cheap. Investigation and analysis are hard. There’s good stuff out there for sure, but you have to wade through a flood of drivel to find it.

Print journalism, like print in general, imposes limits. The space available is finite and the words have to fit into it. In my newspaper days, ads would often come in or be cancelled at the last minute. I’d have to cut a story on the fly to make room or figure out how to fill the hole. I learned, among other things, that no matter how well-written and well-edited a story was, I could nearly always cut two or three or four column inches out of it without doing serious harm.

sufferedThe web doesn’t impose space limits. Bloggers and others writing for the web could theoretically go on forever — but we don’t. Paradoxically perhaps, when it comes to the web the standard advice is “keep it short.” We could go on forever, but most readers won’t stick with us that long. There are limits, but they aren’t spatial.

We writers like to kick against the restrictions imposed on us by circumstance and by (you’re way ahead of me) editors, but restrictions are often a good thing. Think about it.

Tasks with deadlines usually get done before tasks without.

Cutting a 3,000-word draft to fit a 1,000-word limit often sharpens the focus and tightens the prose.

Poets make every word count because they have to. Not only do poems usually have fewer words than stories and essays (even flash fiction and nonfiction), they’re also shaped by the limitations of rhyme, rhythm, and/or meter.

Early drafts can sprawl. Sprawling is good — it sure beats being blocked. But it’s revising and editing that make the piece, whether poetry or prose, by shaping and focusing — by imposing limits.

deadline miracle

What Makes a Real Writer?

Stacey, who follows Write Through It and blogs at Diary of a Ragamuffin, posed this question: “What makes one a real ‘writer’?”

She added:

My reason for asking:  After 15 years of teaching, I decided to change careers and have begun a job as a reporter for my small-town newspaper (that is owned by a not-so-small-town corporation).  They knew I had no journalism experience when they hired me.  After four  months, I’m beginning to wonder if just anyone could do the job I do.

I’m not sure if what I do each day is what I had hoped it would be.  Often there is not enough time to write reflectively, and when there is, there’s no one qualified to critique it (in my opinion).

The answer is that there’s no answer, but you know I’m not going to stop there, right?

First off, I worked eight years for a small-town newspaper, the Martha’s Vineyard Times, in a succession of overlapping capacities: proofreader, features editor, features writer, theater reviewer, copyeditor. Reporting wasn’t my forte, but I did a little of that, mostly covering stories when no “real” reporter was available.

So I’m here to assure Stacey: The job you do can’t be done by just anyone, or by just any writer either. The fact that you’re wondering probably means that you’re good at it. You’ve got the knack. You learn fast. You’re able to apply your experience in other jobs to your journalism job.

Been there, done that. I wasn’t a journalist either when I got drafted to fill in for an editorial typesetter who was going on sick leave. I was scared to death I’d screw up, but I needed the work. I could type, I could proofread, I could write, and I had several years’ editorial experience. Short version: I loved it, I was good at it, and pretty soon the paper hired me as a part-time proofreader.

The tricky thing about job description “writer” is that it covers so many different kinds of writing. Reporter. Novelist. Columnist. Essayist. Poet. Diarist. Blogger. Biographer. Academic. Copywriter. Technical writer. And so on and on. No writer does all of them. No writer I’ve ever met wants to do all of them.

I know some crackerjack journalists who won’t cop to being writers. In their minds, writers write books, or fiction, or literary criticism. What writers don’t do is write for newspapers. You see the paradox here? If real writers don’t write for newspapers, then the writing in newspapers isn’t real writing.

Of course it is. If it isn’t, what the hell is it?

That's me, long before I knew what an editor was.

That’s me, long before I knew what an editor was.

In my teens and twenties, I assumed that a real writer had to know grammar and punctuation backwards and forwards and be a world-class speller besides. So I developed those skills. It wasn’t until I got a job as an editor in the publications office of a big nonprofit that I realized that in the real world these skills made me an editor. I hadn’t even known what an editor was. Some editorial skills belong in every writer’s toolkit, but you don’t have to be an editor to be a real writer.

Poets & Writers is a venerable organization that publishes a bimonthly magazine of the same name. Doesn’t the name imply that category “poets” isn’t included in category “writers”? It does to me. Plenty of poets either don’t call themselves writers or are semi-apologetic when they do: “I just write poetry. I’m not a real writer.”

Same deal as with journalists: If what poets write isn’t writing, what is it? And if the people who write it aren’t writers, what are they?

About her journalism job Stacey noted: “Often there is not enough time to write reflectively, and when there is, there’s no one qualified to critique it.”

This is true. Journalism means writing to deadlines, and deadlines don’t stand around waiting for the writer to get it perfect.

Deadlines don’t wait for editors either. Accuracy is more important than a perfectly crafted sentence. Spell a kid’s name wrong and her parents and grandparents will remember it forever.

Me, checking the boards at the Martha's Vineyard Times. You can tell it was back in the Pleistocene because the paste-up was pre-digital. October 1993.

Me, checking the boards at the Martha’s Vineyard Times. You can tell it was back in the Pleistocene because the paste-up was pre-digital. October 1993.

Working for the newspaper made me a better writer and a better editor in more ways than I can count. I learned I could write and edit with phones ringing off the hook and people bringing me press releases 12 hours after deadline. I learned that endings don’t have to be perfect because the last two or three inches of a story would often be lopped off when a late ad came in. I learned that writers who can turn out prose like yard goods may write sloppy sentences but they sure come in handy when a scheduled story doesn’t show or an ad gets pulled. I learned that in the work of novice writers the lead paragraph is often buried a third of the way down. I learned that I can turn out a coherent theater review even when I haven’t a clue what the play was about. (It was Beckett’s Happy Days, in case you’re wondering.)

I learned that “good enough” often is good enough, and it’s actually pretty damn good, though for sure you could do better at a writers’ retreat. For a congenital perfectionist like me this was huge.

So what makes someone a “real writer”?

Marge Piercy nailed it in “For the Young Who Want To”:

The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.

 

That’s the last verse. Read the whole thing. Read it often. You don’t have to be young.

Poets and Punctuation

A couple of posts ago I advised even non-poets to read lots of poetry. “Good poets make every word count,” I wrote.

Synchronicity rules: The wonderful Brain Pickings e-newsletter just featured a short digression by poet Mary Oliver on this very subject. She set out to “write a poem that uses no punctuation” so she could “see what I could do simply with the line break and the cadence of the line and so forth.”

The poem is “Seven White Butterflies.” The Brain Pickings story includes both the text of the poem and a video of the poet reading it. Check it out.