writing life creative
A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it. -Samuel Johnson
Sometimes we write for ourselves in the corners of our minds or journals, but many times we write to share with others, our ideas, dreams, wonder. Many scholars and writers alike have contemplated writing as a discipline that incorporates as much social practice as it does private.
As a practice, writing thinks about audience, converses with readers—strangers—through lived experiences, creative wanderings, research, assumptions, and curiosity. There are exchanges between writers, readers, as we brush shoulders in the busy of our lives within the margins on the page. Somehow acknowledging that relationship, between the words and people reading and writing, is important, transformative, shifting the assumptions of writing into something else less sole and static, to a practice with more collaborative intention.
If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one point, it is this: the surest way to arouse and hold the reader’s attention is by being specific, definite, and concrete. The greatest writers…are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter. Their words call up pictures.
—William Strunk and E.B. White
I love it when I get a letter from you. I love it when you describe the reality in which you find yourself at the time of writing, and I am always struck by the way you manage to describe the world as a whole through the minutiae of your daily existence. I also believe that a body of work without a correspondence lacks something essential: the writer’s humanity. The confessional parts of a novel are not necessarily a confession, whereas a letter is always a confession, a hand held out to a friend.
—Alain Mabanckou, excerpt from the book, Always Apprentices: The Believer Presents Twenty-Two Conversations Between Writers
“Just as [dark] humor straddles the fine line between comedy and tragedy, so the prose poem plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels.” –Peter Johnson
There is some debate about the prose poem as a poetic form; though one could argue this stretching of the lyric, embracing and resisting line break, has that certain presence in the writing of Charles Baudelaire, James Wright, William Carlos Williams, and Charles Simic, among others. As with a great many things, much of the debate is a discipline’s need, in this case literature, to name, organize, categorize. How dare the writer defy literary rules and traditions? And still, may the writer dare to defy literary rules and traditions!
As contemporary poets twist and blur, sever and mend, Johnson’s quote is flexible as it acknowledges how slippery the craft of poetry that curiously finds itself drawn to prose shapes. Could it be that we are familiar and therefore rely on more traditional lines of prose that seem to use the full of the page and the mark of the margin, all while gathering and sorting words into beautifully detailed sentences, densely carved blocks of ink?
While the line is a great concern of the poet, that line is a sentence, sometimes a long willful sentence. When I’m teaching I often remind writers (and remind myself) that poems are constantly negotiating with those sentences—imagery pulled apart and stacked, broken and borrowed, accents strong or weak, and lines of syllables and lovely letter sounds.
It is interesting this curious form, this tension, the prose poem as it dangles somewhere between crafting and resisting, between imagery and narrative, between line and space.
Do you ever blur the lines of poetry and prose?
The debate continues. Check out this collection of essays: The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry: Contemporary Poets in Discussion and Practice
“What breaks in daybreak? Is it the night? Is it the sun, cracked in two by the horizon like an egg, spilling out light?” -Margaret Atwood
He has a line in him that he must mark, must get out on everything including the walls, drawers, and cotton sheets. He brushes with highlighter, crayon, and nail polish. His etchings, fragmented narratives that leave a trail of creative (or mischief): the solar system on the walls, shooting stars and Saturn’s rings, his shaky attempts at lettering, and the drip, drip thick of red and teal nail color on the table and the cabinet. I should be angry—but I’m not.
I suppose my four-year-old’s creative endeavors and my pause to reflect on them are reminiscent of the sighs and acceptance I imagine my own mother must have made, her hands up in the air at any point in dismay or frustration followed by her ultimately giving in to her persistently imaginative child who often made something, anything out of everything—that making naturally involved creative risk and a mess.
It is true I can have nothing precious in this unconventional art studio otherwise known as our home; and even after several encouraging words, threats and squinting eyes, my busy little four year old seems to suggest through his runaway markings that paper just won’t do.
Maybe this is a sign, a call to make or his way of saying he needs an art class. Maybe he’s just looking for some attention and using mischief to get it. My husband recently said, “We’ve got to channel his drawing in some way, it’s everywhere,” and I would agree, we need to make sure he can color, mark, sketch, dance, move, and do whatever else his artful heart desires. Maybe through his four-year-old eyes he’s just hanging out in his gallery, leaving his signature on everything he makes, waiting for us to acknowledge and support his creative. That all sounds good and we’ll get to that—right after we’re done scrubbing, painting, and scolding.
“Do not erase the designs the child makes in the soft wax of his inner life.” -Maria Montessori
To be a tree and read the memory of the leaves;
To be an insignificant pedestrian on the streets
Of crazy cities watching, watching, and watching.
Last night in the crisp groan of autumn, hand in hand my four year old and I walked along the snapping twigs until we found a bright point in the sky. We stood for a moment, shifted our bodies at an angle, dug our feet in the cold leaves, caught a clear glimpse of the moon.
If you find yourself with five minutes of calm, without rush or deadline or email trailing toward the atmosphere, find a sentence that you love. Now listen to it press its golden gesture into the page. Maybe you can copy and paste it somewhere you will remember, send it to a friend, share it online, put it in the comments of this post, write another line before or after to join it―keep it company. Say it out loud, that sentence, keep it with you until the next great one comes along. And if it’s possible that you’ve exhausted all of those options and you still don’t have a sentence you love―write one.
Here, in the room of my life the objects keep changing. -Anne Sexton
This past weekend at a reading, artist, poet, educator, Terrance Hayes, referred to his poem as, “another sprawl of a sentence.” I thought that imagery held an important truth. Another reminder that yes the poem is made up of carefully crafted sentences—perhaps snapped off in their middles or long and “relentless”. “The thing about the long sentence,” Hayes described, “is you just can’t pull out of it…The scene must be carried on the tongue—a blind contour drawing.”
“…the skill of lining events, actions, and objects in a strict logic — is also the skill of creating a world. In other words, sentences are the engines of creativity.” -Stanley Fish
What else? Where do you write your best sentences? Interestingly for me, the topic of the sentence and its significance to writing repeatedly came up this past week in conversations with other writers, at a poetry reading, in my reading about writing. The sentence can seem elusive but we know it is always lurking, trying to say something interesting, fascinating, unique, or surprising.
It is the sentence long or short that pulls together the collage of ideas, experiences, narratives in ours heads and straightens, curls, or bends them around precisely chosen words–words that will not stand still–but break free and crawl across the page as if some ink spill or wondrous spell. Or at least that is what I want for sentences.
What do you want your sentences to do?
We asked the ocean for its rose,
its open star, its bitter contact,
and to the overburdened, to the fellow human being, to the wounded
we gave the freedom gathered in the wind.
It’s late now. Perhaps
it was only a long day the color of honey and blue,
perhaps only a night, like the eyelid
of a grave look that encompassed
the measure of the sea that surrounded us,
and in this territory we found only a kiss,
only ungraspable love that will remain here
wandering among the sea foam and roots.
When your eyes are burning,
red, blurred, and salt covered,
close them for a moment.
When your heart is hurting,
to gather air or wit, words or silence.
When your tongue is tired,
dry and rambling—spit clustered and thick,
Enough Love—let it rest.
This is an interesting quote by E.L. Konigsburg, where it suggests learning should involve a “swelling” of the new knowledge gained, and engage the senses and human emotion, versus simply accumulating facts without taking time to seek meaning and understanding. Education should aim to make applicable connections with learners and with the world around those learners. However, from what I’ve observed in my work with schools, students navigating today’s K-12 education have little opportunity or permission to apply their senses and emotion; and I’m not sure how much time there is for the “swelling” of what is learned.
Students of today seem like they are picking apples instead of taking away “sticky” knowledge. In classroom after classroom I’ve observed and talked to students who have learned to put dense, heavy content circles into buckets—picking and collecting facts as they would apples one by one, without thought or intention (and to continue with the metaphor), without noticing color or bruises, putting those meaningless objects into the bucket without question, day after day, apple after apple. When I talk to students they often describe learning as routine and tedious versus surprising or interesting. I’ve talked to many teachers, who agree.
In my field of arts education, where through collaborative educational partnerships we engage the creative process all throughout learning, we approach teaching and learning differently. As an artist and educator, I work with other artists and educators who imagine and work to ensure what we are practicing in each respective classroom allows room for more depth and exploration—where if students need to pick apples, they will at least have opportunities to hold those apples in their hands and look at them—really look at them. Now imagine learning spaces where students might then examine that fruit from top to bottom, press on that apple’s skin, soft or firm, throw it into the air to see how fast it falls, or take a bite, sour or sweet.
“I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside of you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them. It’s hollow.” –E.L. Konigsburg
We salute you and thank you U.S. Army Major Alfonso P. Edwards, Jr., husband and father, brother and son. And to all of our service men and women, today and everyday we thank you for your service and sacrifice past, present, and future.
And yet, through November, I greeted each morning as though it were spring, as though instead of a daily darkening, both seasonal and societal, we were embarked upon a brilliant new adventure, finding each new day more perfectly illuminated than the last…If I woke up every morning with such zeal, every leaf or cup or child’s hand meticulously outlined for me like a wonder of nature, bathed in superior light, it was because in my heart I held each day the possibility of a conversation, of adventure…
To stand in the corner of the kitchen while the patchwork breakfast warms, snaps and pops, is to reach into the day wondering between the branches, scrambled and prickly, stretched and crossed under and over each other like the yolks and whites forming in the skillet.
The street light still on, yellows a piece of sky among the blue-silver and rose. The day is changing as the clouds drift east, and the steam and spice rise from the stove.
I noticed your arrival quiet and swift this week after several long days, many vibrant conversations, and just as many if not more miles on our car. I would not change a thing about you today: an early morning meeting canceled, a late morning meeting kind and familiar, a pause to hug and say a simple goodbye to a dear friend.
Sitting here I notice the trees baring their leaves on lawns and patios, the crystal glare perched inside the corner between east and west, metal and glass, the passing of time. This day is especially gracious as it begins a long weekend cuddled up in covers, crumbs, and kids, a date night with the one I love; and time, time to just watch the leaves shed their green, turning brown and crisp. I can’t say I even mind the cold down my striped cotton collar as long as the sun is shining, and today it is as full and golden among the blurry clouds as it is broken up in the thick and narrow branches outside my window.
I am thankful.
For me, these kinds of details make correspondence one of the essential parts of a writer’s work—even if we’re living in a time when messages are getting shorter and shorter, almost telegraphic. Well, our correspondence will allow us to flesh things out some, and show a little humanity. —Alain Mabanckou