Friday, February 20, 2009
Taking a biographical writing class over J-Term has really shifted my view of what it means to be a writer, or to be a "creative writer," I suppose. For me, writing has always been something that takes place between me and a blank page/screen. It starts with a flash of inspiration, a few words that resonate together. And it comes out of the nebulous ether that is my brain. Maybe that's why I never get farther than a few pages on any story. Because my ideas are so fragmented that they can't stand up to the intimidating blank page or flashing cursor.
But in this class-- in the tradition that has many names, my favorite of which is "literary journalism" -- we were writing stories that had already happened. I got to interview interesting people about their own lives, then try to make that into a story.
That opens up a whole new area of the process: fieldwork and reporting. In literary journalism you will still end up behind that computer, but you won't start there. You'll start out in the world, where all the interesting stuff is anyway. For this class, I took buses to random parts of town that figured in the story, searching for detail. I went alone to a pub and pretended someone had stood me up so I had an excuse to sit, not order anything, and take notes. I sat in the back corner of a tea shop and just watched everything around me, watching how people move through the space, how people interact with each other. I got to ask nosy questions about how people lived. And I had to make them feel comfortable enough that they would trust me, not look at me as a crazy girl with a purple notebook and too many questions. It's terrifying-- maybe every bit as terrifying as fiction/poetry writing. But for some reason, I can more easily push myself to pick up a phone than a pen, some days. And once the reporting's over, I have pages and pages of notes to start from. I know what happens next. All that remains is to tell you, the reader, in a way that keeps you engaged.
Not to demean the actual writing process-- because it still uses so much creativity. Each sentence must still be crafted with care-- more care, sometimes, because I can't invent useful details or bits of dialogue. I must work with the fragmented information I have, while still making it into one cohesive whole. There's an element of self-discipline here that's easier for me-- it's easier to be accountable to the subject of my story when she's outside of me, waiting to see what her life will look like on paper. It's easier not to give up. And isn't that what I've been searching for?
I've always used Gabriel Garcia Marquez's saying that "“there is nothing in the world or the next that is not useful to a writer" as an excuse to be curious. But this sort of writing opens up new areas for my curiosity. If a person or community interests me, then chances are they'll interest others too. And if it's interesting and relevant enough, perhaps a magazine might even--gasp!--PAY me for a story. OK, so that goal is only a leetle more realistic in nonfiction than it is in other forms of writing. But just check out the magazine shelves at Borders. Someone has to write all those articles, for all those completely different magazines. Why can't that person be me?
Not to say that I can't achieve many of these goals through poetry or fiction, or the other forms of writing that I've considered. But I can't deny that some sort of switch has flipped in my brain. Thinking about the world through a reporter's lens, ideas are taking shape in my head that I never even considered before. And for the first time in a long time, I'm excited. I can't wait to get working on the next story.
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
our bodies curled in lazy parallel Ss
on the king’s carpet of flowers, under the sun.
Today we might be flowers ourselves,
gold and white and numerous
as the grass. We are pigeons
preening our purple feathers,
strutting to the water two by two.
We’re lovers, and the sky is bluer
than it’s ever been before,
and the city is teeming with stories
that we didn’t write and won’t ever know.
Look—there’s a girl in red tracksuit bottoms
by the water, with a hand full of bread.
The swan arches his neck, looks over
haughtily at the offering she brings.
(Is this the lake that swans came from,
before they flew into fairy tales
and turned into princes?) There’s a woman
in a sea-green sari, rhinestones at the edges.
The baby in her arms reaches out
for the swan and the bread, but she turns away,
whispers tsk-tsk in an unfamiliar tongue.
Let’s pretend we don’t belong.
Pick a language: French, German, ancient Greek—
today you could tell me the toast is burning
and make it sound like a caress.
Or I could murmur my own sweet nothings—
move right down inside the carriage please—
in the sonorous tones of the loudspeaker.
With love on my lips, who would be the wiser?
Not the flowers, burnt orange gold that line the hedges,
nor the green and white branches that lattice the air,
snipping the sky into petals of lilac blue.
Not the swans. They wouldn’t notice.
The girl marvels at the touch
of the swan’s hard beak against her palm.
The baby tugs at the sari’s silken edge
and the mother dangles it playfully, sings
a tune too far away for us to hear,
even if we were listening.
Welcome to 2009, everyone! (I’m just going to take a moment really fast to panic about the fact that it’s 2009—my graduation year. That’s the year that pops up when you search for me on Facebook. That’s the year that I’m scheduled to become a Real Person. And it has now officially begun…ACK! Okay, panic moment over.)
I usually scoff at the idea of a long list of New Year’s resolutions. But for the past few years I’ve made one resolution, the same every year: to stick with my writing and improve upon it. That sounds like I never write at all after the first enthusiasm of the new year wears off. But that’s not true. I do keep falling off the wagon, of course, but I keep improving as well. Since I got serious about writing three years ago, I’ve accumulated a whole shelf of little bright vinyl-covered notebooks to prove that success. And as I look through these notebooks again, each seems a little more full of detail and creativity than the one before.
This year, however, I hope to put a little more accountability into the writing process. It’s true, I have all my tattered scribble books, but I’ve finished only a handful of pieces in the past three years, and most of those were rushed to meet a class deadline. If I’m committed to writing this way, then my ideas shouldn’t disappear into the black hole of my crazy notebooks and busy schedule.
So this is the form my New Year’s resolution takes this year: not to abandon pieces after that first page or first scribbled draft. For my Marker friends, that means I will be bringing things into workshop more often, as unnerving as that always is for me. And I also hope to post here a few of the poems, stories and essays that I’m working on. The God-talk and musings of these first few posts will probably also continue, since I’m finding to my delight that theology can be just as creative as poetry sometimes.
For the few of you who read this, I hope you’ll comment and tell me if there are any of these pieces worth keeping. And thank you for supporting me on this crazy journey. Also, HAPPY NEW YEAR! :)