Writing the Red Flags

from dreamstime.com

This past weekend at Tybee Island was the first time I’ve set foot on the beach since I was caught in the rip current in Southampton, NY in 2018.  I thought I would feel fear, but when my sister and I went out last Friday night, it was low tide, the water warm, and the waves almost gentle.  In other words, the ocean felt safe to me.  It was a different story the following morning—the wind was crazy, the waves at high tide so rough that I just couldn’t make myself go in.  There was also a red flag warning—and can you get any more obvious than a red flag literally warning you there’s danger?  Three years ago I ignored the warning, and we all know how that turned out. I learned my lesson.

I think writing is the same way—there are times when writing feels easy and safe (and of course we love those times!), but there’s also those red flags that tell us that maybe we need to reconsider, or even back away.  That’s not to say we shouldn’t “write what we’re afraid to write”—we should, absolutely, write our lives, our stories, our poems that challenge us to be our most authentic selves.  Sometimes that means we write about difficult or painful memories.  Sometimes that means we share what we’re afraid will make us look ridiculous, or damaged, or imperfect.  Some danger is good.  Too much danger and we risk losing ourselves.

What do I mean?  I think there’s a chance that we can give too much of ourselves away when we write.  After all, we are “baring our souls” in one way or another—and when we write about unprocessed trauma that’s when the red flags go up.  We can unintentionally re-traumatize ourselves when we really mean to heal.  Of course, writing about the things that have shaped us is necessary, but I wonder how much good we accomplish if writing about an experience that was painful, terrifying, or devastating makes us revisit those dark places?

What boundaries do we have in place that will protect us?  Have we gone through counseling to process our trauma?  How do we know that what we write won’t revisit trauma on someone else?  If we don’t have boundaries, and we haven’t had the benefit of therapy, we are putting ourselves in danger of revealing too much and re-opening old wounds.

That’s always a danger with writing, I suppose, because to write and share something means you risk exposure—you invite the audience in, and once an audience is involved, you’re not entirely in charge of your work or the interpretation of experience anymore. There’s danger to the writer in the act of audience consumption of work.  How will the audience react?  Will they judge the person you were when you experienced what you experienced?  Will they discount your interpretation of events?  Will they harass you?  Will they reject you?

I think about my own experience trying to publish poems about past trauma in my life.  It never goes well.  I’m not afraid so much about sharing my life—I’ve had plenty of therapy, so I’m well and truly “processed.”  I just think I’m really bad at it.  (And honestly, does the world need more poems or a memoir about child abuse?  I doubt it.)

Not every experience that’s happened to us (or we were involved in) needs to be written about and shared.  Maybe that’s the difference.  Maybe, now that I think about it, we should always write the red flags—what scares us, what seems dangerous.  That’s what journaling is for—it’s a controlled environment:  we are both writer and audience, and there’s little chance of discovery and judgment.

But sharing traumatic experiences in published writing can be as dangerous as a rip current, where even the strongest swimmers can drown.  Are we prepared for the fall-out, to ourselves and to others?  If we’re not ready, then the work should probably stay private.  At least for now.  When the waves are less rough, we can always venture back out.

A Little Bit About Rain, a Little Bit About Writing

It’s so rare to be enjoying a thunderstorm here in my part of Georgia (Marietta)—usually it rains for 10 minutes and then stops, and the humidity jacks up to 600%.  (To be fair, once this storm is over, the humidity will probably reach 600%, but that’s neither here nor there.)  The point is, I’m not being disturbed by neighbors working on their yards and stirring up a racket with power tools.  It’s tapering off a little now, but I don’t mind, as long as the sun doesn’t try to hack its arrogant way through the gray sky.  (Which is so rude!)

Why am I talking about the weather?  Shouldn’t I be talking about writing?  I think I am.

Writing, sometimes, is like a storm, and sometimes like a drizzle (not to be all binary in my thinking, but…).  Since I’ve returned home from Rockvale, it’s been bone dry.  I don’t say this with a “waaaahh, feel sorry for me” warble in my voice.  I have put the time to good use—supporting my writing by researching venues and submitting work to a number of places I’ve never heard of before but that look interesting.  I’ve also been working on a couple of applications for future residencies, which would be wonderful if at least one panned out. As I was telling myself the other day, publishing is a numbers game—you just gotta keep sending out work to places and hope it hits.

It takes stamina though to submit work.  I know several writers who only submit a few times a year, and then I know a guy on Twitter who bragged about having 266 active submissions in his Submittable queue.  (Not gonna lie, that’s definitely something worth bragging about.)  The highest number of active submissions in my queue ever was probably 75, but I was kind of a submitting machine in 2019, and since then I manage around 30-35.  Of course, logic says, if I believe publishing is a numbers game, I should be submitting more, and I do think that for sure, but I also know that you can’t do everything.  As much as I’d like to have 75 subs in the queue, I will be happy if I maintain a goal of 30-35, replenishing as needed as the rejections (and hopefully acceptances!) roll in.  I can do a lot of submitting over the next four months…you know, assuming those pesky job responsibilities don’t impede me too much.  😊

*****

Recently, I’ve been assisting a new-to-poetry writer.  She found me on Poets & Writers, and just cold-emailed me about helping her develop poems, talk about craft, and work on process and revision options.  It’s been so much fun.  We’ve been meeting via Zoom, and I’ve kind of based my work with her on the creative writing tutorials I’ve run for graduate students at Georgia Tech.  The difference is, she’s older, she has earned an MFA in fiction (so she’s not new to creative writing or the heavy-duty commitment it entails), and she seems really invested in poetry.  (She took poetry up during Covid; she said that coming up with long-form fiction was too difficult with the world so askew, and so she decided to try poetry instead.)  We’ve only been working together since the end of June, and I don’t know if this is a short-term gig or long-term project, but I’m really enjoying it. I bet all writers could use a coach at some point.  I’m sure I could have any number of times.  Hopefully, she’s finding our sessions productive, and the comments I make on her poems to be useful.  It’s definitely been useful to me…now, if I could just remember some of the “nuggets of wisdom” for myself that I’ve passed on to her!

In other—but somewhat related—writing news (related by coaching, that is), I recently became one of the inaugural members of the Georgia Tech Faculty Writing Fellows, a program through GT’s Office of Professional Development.  This honor comes with coaching sessions, writing retreats, and writing exchanges.  It will be a lot of work, but I’m really looking forward to the opportunity.  Of course, most of the writers in the program are tenure-track researchers—I’m probably the only creative writer—but hey, extra eyes on work are always a good thing.  And while I work on this next book I can use all the eyes I can get.  Plus, it’s nice to have a fellowship on the old CV, you know?  Even if it’s just something through work.

Ah well, the sky is getting lighter and I see sun reflections off cars and the cul-de-sac puddles.  And now a blaze of sun.  The storm was lovely while it lasted.

I hear a mourning dove somewhere outside cooing.  I think she liked the rain too.

What My First Week at Rockvale Has Taught Me

A painting of the RWC farmhouse, in the front room

Way back when I was studying for my comprehensive exam in contemporary women’s poetry for my PhD, I remember sitting on my bed with all my books spread around me—opened hither and thither, bookmarks and stickies shoved in higgedly-piggedly everywhere. My love of note cards began here—so much easier for memorizing passages from poems. I could riffle through them constantly.

At any given moment, I was also reading five or six or sixteen books, and I went through so many mechanical pencils underlining important poetic passages, Bic should have given me stock in the company.  The method was decidedly chaotic, but somehow I felt like a true scholar.  This is what I imagined that the life of the mind would lead to:  being holed up with dozens of books around me, taking notes, and writing.

A view from the front porch

Real life, not so much.  But this week at Rockvale has reminded me a little bit of that crazy time.  I have been reading a wide variety of books (from Greek myth to poetry by Katherine Smith and Sandy Coomer [the doyenne and proprietor of Rockvale] to YA fiction by Melissa Marr and Ibi Zoboi to books about immigration) and journaling and taking notes and hand-writing poem-ish things.

I’ve tried sitting down at the computer directly and writing, but that hasn’t worked so well for me.  Instead, I have had some good luck writing messily, not even my best handwriting, just scribbles and scratches and erasures.  And while the poem-ish things aren’t yet poems, I have found that when I go to type them up, they’re not nearly as bad as I fear they might have been.  For sure, they are drafty as an old robe, but there are many potential kernels, waiting to be popped.

I did not come here thinking that I would be transformed (for all the experience is proving transformative)—I am wise enough to know that you take your emotional shit with you everywhere you go—but I have felt open in a way that I’ve not felt in a long time.  How can I explain?  It’s like I’m only responsible to myself.

It’s downright amazing to be cut off from the penny-ante minutia of day-to-day work.  I am still working—probably 12-15 hours a day since I’ve been here—but because it’s “professional development” time, because I am working solely on my creative growth, I feel remarkable.  Awake.  Like I’m not sleeping through my life, filling it up with things that don’t matter.  And I don’t feel guilty about it either.  I can’t check my email?  Oh well.  They’ll have to figure it all out without me.  And that’s totally ok. (It’s fan-fucking-tastic.)

Horse paddock…check out that Tennessee sky!

Of course, the goal is to produce a number of poems that can go in my new manuscript—but maybe part of the problem of the last year is that by not having a break (either a vacation or teaching in Scotland as was planned two summers in a row), I’ve kind of forgotten what my own company is like. I’ve forgotten how to be just “JC the Poet” instead of “JC the Administrator/ Managing Editor/ Teacher/ Cat Lady/ Wife/ who writes poems in her puny spare time” person.

How many poems I’ll have by this time next week, I’m not sure.  But midway through, I’m feeling motivated, expansive, and ready to see what the next seven days will bring.  If Rockvale has taught me anything, it’s that a different setting doesn’t change everything, doesn’t make you any more of a scholar than you are already, but it changes things enough to give you some useful perspective.

Yes, Virginia, I Do Need a Room of One’s Own

Ah, to be outside one’s typical milieu for the first time in 16 months!

I think about how it is when I am at home, trying to write—the cats are constantly jumping up on me, getting in the way of my computer, sitting on the books I’m using for research, whatever.  There are endless things to clean (not that I get up and clean them, but whatevs, they taunt me).  The phone rings constantly.  The emails and work fires intervene.  Someone in the cul-de-sac invariably manicures on his lawn, the incessant whine and growl of lawnmowers and weed-whackers destroying my concentration. It is hard to find a creative “zone” when too many things make demands on your attention.

Scout, with Sandy petting him

Since I have been here at Rockvale (in Tennessee, 35-ish miles south of Nashville as the crow flies) I have reveled in the almost uninterrupted quiet.  I read here in my “cell” (a beautifully appointed room with a cozy chair and desk and bed with a quilt on it from 1925) or in the fireplace room (which smells of a century of winter fires), and write in a little pool of sunlight on the enclosed porch.  It is almost like I alone have run of the place.  But there are other women here too, working on their own writing, finding their own paths.  Except for a little chitchat in the kitchen when preparing meals, the only noise is the AC turning on and off.  What must it be like to have this kind of quiet all the time?  I think I didn’t realize how exhausted and depleted I’ve been feeling until I rediscovered my own being here in this writer’s colony.  I am truly decompressing.

Mama… a.k.a. Little Mexico

From my window, I can see a paddock, and usually there’s a mama and her foal far out on the other side, nipping the grass.  Today they were over by the fence nearest me, so I went out there and got to pet Scout.  His mama (whose real name is Little Mexico (?)) didn’t come too close, but Scout seemed pretty interested in me, and in debonair Finn and chonky Ollie, the two cats who came running when they saw me.  (I can’t escape cats!)  Scout was so interested that he gave me a big chomp on my forearm—which hurts a bit, but didn’t break the skin.  Still, I’d pet him again if he came to this side of the fence.

Finn

Ollie (who is really Oliver)

I feel grateful to be here.  I think after a year and a half-ish of being shut in the house, I just needed…another house. 😊 I needed a place of clutter-free, basically cat-free peace.  (And wifi and cell service are spotty, so I’m even hard to reach, which actually, I love.) I am hoping to get some good writing done.  I’ve already brainstormed a number of ideas of where to go on my next project, I’ve organized a list of what I have, I’ve done some journaling (I know, what a shocker!) and I’ve read two whole books for research already.

Tomorrow, I’m writing two poems if it kills me.  And maybe I’ll go visit Scout again.

Saintly Visions & a Writing Mania Miracle

Quick Note:  It’s been a while since I’ve written (obvs.)—but in my defense, I was having problems with WordPress’ posting/editing interface, and it took me a while to figure out the sitch. Turns out I’m an airhead.  Anyway, it’s squared for the time being.  Now, onto the post!

So, a few months ago I was lamenting my writing.  Or rather, my lack of writing.

This seems to be a typical thing with me.  I suppose it is for many writers, though—you just go through phases, some of which are productive, some of which suck ass.  And of course, my ever-present and generally intolerable BFF, “Deppie,” has made a real nuisance of herself in my life:  that is to say, the dysthymia and anxiety pretty much kick my ass every day. (Sometimes, I tell myself:  just get through the next hour—and that’s the best I can manage.) But this isn’t a post about effed-up brain chemistry, this is a post about writing.

–from makeameme.org

As I was saying:  in February (technically, two posts prior), writer’s block (you know I hate that term, and try not to use it because it always feels like a crutch) was a thing.  I mean, THE STRUGGLE WAS REAL. 

(–from Lucasfilm/Disney)

Poetry and I repelled each other, although there was always kind of a Rey/Kylo (Reylo?) thing going on between us. And while it upset me (not just the least of which had to do with thinking about my writing in terms of the most recent Star Wars trilogy), other more pressing things on my mind (like staying alive) took precedence.  So, I just added “writer’s block” to the list of THINGS THAT MAKE MY LIFE MEANINGLESS O WOES ME. And carried on.

And then I had a vision of Mary Magdalene.

I know this sounds hokey.  Just go with me on this.

Digging through some old files on my computer, I came across a poem I had written years ago about Mary Magdalene—it had been nominated for an AWP Intro Award (which it didn’t win—big shock there)—and it got me thinking.  What could I do with this poem?  Would it just continue to sit in the file in perpetuity?  Or could it be part of a sequence?

The only way to see if a poem will be part of a sequence is by writing another one.  And then another one.  And so on. To help myself focus, I looked at image after image of Mary Magdalene through the ages, remembering the bond I used to have with her (as well as other women from the Bible).  I read hagiographic blogs and articles. I wrote a dozen poems or so, of varying qualities.

The Penitent Magdalene

Caravaggio, The Penitent Magdalene, ca. 1594-95

Some poems were ekphrastic because I believe in THE DREAM (writing a good art poem one day—and I do love me some Italian Renaissance/Baroque paintings), some were my typical narrative poems-with-a-wry-bent, some were just fragments (the Caravaggio poem is in limbo…for my sins). While I still need to revise and complete the sequence, it feels like I’ve accomplished something, and that takes a bit of the edge off.

And then (!!!)—I started another sequence of poems.  I mean, I wrote (and revised!!! OMFG!!) 25 poems in the span of 6 weeks.

I was like HamiltonI worked nonstop.

Or to put it another way, it was as if I had a visitation from The Madonna and she told me to me to get into the groove.  So I did.  And I’ve even started sending them off into the world.  Two of the poems will be published in Soul-Lit: a Journal of Spiritual Poetry in the near future.  Maybe more acceptances will be forthcoming.  (I can hope.)

If I sound amazed, I truly am.  But I don’t want to sound like I’m all, “look at me, look at me, I’m so fricken awesome.”  This is not me espousing a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps approach to writing. (Barf. I would never.) This is not me trying to lure you to my Patreon (which I don’t have—but maybe I should?) or to broadcast an infomercial at 3 a.m. promising that “You too can conquer writer’s block! For six equal installments of $29.99, you can download my step-by-step method…” It’s just me being surprised at how inspiration (another word I hate when it’s applied to writing) works sometimes.

I have slowed my roll somewhat since the middle of April, but I haven’t rolled to a stop.  So that’s a win.

My to-be-read pile                       (from NYPL Digital Collections)

A lot of work is coming my way though—I’m plodding (slowly) through a ton of reading to do for Atlanta Review (now that we’re down to basically only me as the reader/typesetter/social media maintainer), and a pile of research I need to for my next major WIP is accumulating on my bedside table. (Every time I look at it, there’s another book on the pile.) And of course, the new Fall teaching schedule dangles before my eyes, even if it’s still a couple of months away. Not sure I can maintain much rolling at all, with all this going on.  But slow and steady wins the race, or something like that?  I just need to keep trying  (Which is difficult with that beyotch Deppie albatross hanging around, but I’ll try.)

The middle one is “Deppie.”
(from NYPL Digital Collections)

***

Anyway…enough blathering. I hope your writing is going well.  And I hope you, my beloved 5 readers, are staying safe and healthy, even as the world opens back up.

Basketcase

from the NYPL Digital Collections

CW:  Depression, myopia, navel-gazing

The pandemic is almost a year old (in the US, anyway), and it’s been a horrible year for so many people, including the half-a-million folks who’ve died from Covid, and their families.  Then there was the bizarre and unbelievable insurrection on Jan. 6th (Epiphany!), and now the Texas power grid disaster and the below freezing temperatures across the country—with people dying, in their houses, without heat or water.  It seems that we are beset with tragedy everywhere.  I don’t want to sound dismissive, though I fear it might, if I say that the year has been hard on me, because I haven’t been able to write like I’ve wanted to. 

Of course I was saying that five months ago, too.  And in the intervening months, there were Halloween, and Thanksgiving, and Christmas, which are always bright spots, if momentary. But my depression persists—made worse, of course, by the tragedies that surround this country, the inability to see family and friends (oh my goddess, do I miss my Mom), the loss of a friend to suicide last October, the incessant stay-at-home-ism—the endless, endless darkness (not to be a drama queen or anything) that has just taken the spirit out of me.

I can’t seem to do anything. I don’t want to get out of bed. I don’t want to do much more than read books (to take me away from myself) or sleep. I’m irritable, sad, lonely, hating myself, and suffering migraines all the time.  Sure, those are all garden variety symptoms of depression (well, maybe not the migraines), and I’m still relatively high functioning (though I can’t manage household cleaning chores), but I am exhausted all the time. Weary. Unmotivated to the point of laziness.  And so very, very heartbroken about my writing.

Yes, I know there are thousands of people who have it worse.  I know that. I loathe that I’m sounding like a whiny little bitch, when relatively, there is so much decent (if not good) in my life.  But part of the depression sphere is that knowing something objectively doesn’t mean anything if you can’t feel it.

***

Feeling anything has come hard to me as an adult. How many therapists have said to me that I live too much in my head?  Some of that, I’m sure, comes from feeling too much as a child and a teenager, when I was told over and over again that my feelings were invalid/ unreasonable/ ridiculous/ unwanted. So I learned to suppress so much of my humanity—just became a floating intellect. I was pretty good at school, so I did that.  Kept my emotions in check as best I could for as long as I could, till I didn’t seem to have them anymore.  (Like I intellectually love my family and friends—they are great, wonderful people—but I secretly wonder if I really feel that love?  Like, can I ever feel anything, authentically?  Or am I always processing everything on such an intellectual level that I’ve atrophied anything else that was real inside of me?) Everything on autopilot.

Or is this all just depression talking?

It’s not a lie to say that I have developed a true fear of writing (scriptophobia!) this past year.  Fear is a feeling—though I “feel” very intellectual about it. As in, I can compartmentalize it—and do the writing I need to for work without a thought.  But when it comes to my own writing, I’ve been terrified (again, intellectually speaking).  What do I say?  What does it matter? Who cares if I write or not (besides me)?  I’ve wondered if I’ve forgotten how even to write poetry.  Or if I’ve developed a fear of poetry (metrophobia).  This is beyond writer’s block (which I don’t actually believe in)—this is something fundamental, and deeper.  Like poetry is a mountain I can see across the forest, but forget about crossing the forest, I’m floating by in a river, trying not to drown.

And maybe it’ll just be temporary.  Like, maybe this past year is too much to process, and the only way to “cope” (not very effectively, of course) is depression and an “inability” to write.

***

Intellectually, I know I will write poems again, when I’m not so depressed and stuck.  But it’s hard to feel it.  But, even when I do write poems again, to be honest, I know they will be the intellectual exercises they have always been for me.  That’s why I’ll never be a great poet—because my poems don’t have an emotional core, they just don’t—but it will have to be good enough to be good enough as poet. Because if I’m not a person who writes poems, I’m not sure what my point for being is?

Thanks, always, to my five readers for reading this. I wish I had something better to share than just head garbage.

Write About It? I Wish.

From the NYPL Public Domain Collection

Six months ago, back when quarantine was new and more frightening than annoying, I was advocating writing through the boredom like that would be easy.  But what I failed to think about—or even take into account at all—was that, far from having so much to write about that I’d be crazy prolific, churning out poems like a bakery turns out baguettes, I might actually find myself frozen, unable to write anything at all.  And yet, that is precisely what happened.  I’ve written maybe 5 poems altogether.  In six months.  Five poems is usually what I do in a single month.

Now, Writer Twitter is where I get a lot of my anecdotal evidence about writers, but it seems that I am not alone in my frozen state.  Many other writers have struggled to get words on a page, and I find myself taking comfort in that somewhat—like, at least I’m not the only one.  But I feel really quite miserable about it because I always believed that IF I had “unlimited” free time, I would have so much more to show for it.  Granted, I have been working, but I save a couple of hours not having to commute every day (or even getting dressed—heh), and that time adds up.  But when you can’t write, all that ends up as is two more interminable hours, making the days seem even longer, endless.

Of course, there are the nauseating writers who obnoxiously crow about how much they are accomplishing with this time—how they are writing more, submitting more, and publishing more.  Well, excuse me for being a jealous hag, but bully for them.  Take your accomplishments and stick them where the sun don’t shine.  Yes, I know, that’s mean.  I should be happy for them that they are feeling successful.  But mostly it just makes me sorrier for myself.  Why couldn’t that be my experience?

If I’m honest, part of my inability to write is lack of outside stimulation.  When you don’t go outside except once a week to the grocery, your life becomes insular and small.  I get pretty tired of my own company.  (Which, if you think about it, would be a GREAT reason to write fiction—you could make up a wonderful, interesting world and live there vicariously.) (But that would require my imagination to work, and sadly, it’s in the shop and looking like it’s D.O.A.)

The other, more compelling reason, is a depression that has just gotten out of control.  I don’t talk about it too much, because after all, what have I got to be depressed about?  I have a job, a wonderful home, and a loving family.  But when I don’t have my writing, I feel like an utter failure. I miss language.  I miss falling into a poem and feeling that transformation that poetry brings me.  My therapist, who is neither a reader nor a writer, doesn’t really understand this situation and tells me, not wrongly, that writers write, so get off my tuffet and write something.  Which is not especially helpful.

The problem with this depression is that in many ways, it’s quite compartmentalized.  Yay for high functioning! I am taking care of financial business, exercising, cleaning the house periodically, doing my job, teaching my class.  But it’s just so damn hard.  It’s exhausting.  Sometimes, the thought of getting out of bed defeats me.  Of course, I get up, because my cats would slay me if I didn’t feed them.  I don’t stop taking care of them just because I feel miserable.  Which is as it should be. But being compartmentalized like that means that there’s just not much left over to be me.  To be JC the Writer.  Like I can only manage so much, and that’s it.  Anything else doesn’t fit in the compartment.  It takes its toll.

Sometimes, though, I wish I could just fall apart.  Throw my hands in the air and just give up.  Stay in bed all day and cry.  Just be one fucked up mess.  Then, no one would expect anything from me.  And then I could feel justified in my not writing.  Well, I mean, how could I possibly write when I’m a total basket case?  Nobody expects anything from people like that.  Oh, so you’ve only written 5 poems in six months?  Well, you poor dear, of course not, not when you feel absolutely on death’s door.

But being responsible has always been a strength as well as a weakness.  And so I struggle valiantly, doing what I can when nearly every day feels like agony.  And maybe only once in a while admitting to my close friends that I’m not doing too well.  But after all, no one really wants to hear about my depression—can you blame them?—so I mostly just suffer in silence.

And instead of being genuine and honest about it, I make things worse by hiding it—proving to myself (at least) that I am responsible and taking care of things and don’t need to rely on others, who, after all, have their own problems and are struggling in unique ways as the pandemic wears on.

All of this is to say that I know I’m in a really bad place when I can’t write.  (And don’t think it hasn’t occurred to me how much of a fraud I feel, telling my students they need to write constantly, and then not following my own directive.)  I want desperately to write something—even this blog post is a big deal, and let’s be honest, it’s really just a navel-gazing poor-me—but every time I sit at the computer (or face a page of paper), it’s just blank, blank, blank.  Nothing comes to me.  At all.  And all the tricks I teach my students to do to fight off writer’s block seem to fail me.  It’s intolerable.

I really don’t know what to do.  If any of my five dedicated readers have any suggestions, I’d be happy to hear them.

Stay safe and Covid-free, y’all.  And keep me in your prayers, if you pray.  I need all the help I can get.

Writing Prompt: Feeling Confined? Write About It!

Confinement has become a way of life for many of us without so-called “mission critical” jobs.  Those of us who can work from home are doing so, and while I initially thought working from home (on more than a one-day-a-week basis) would be great for my writing, I find that I’m spending a lot of time worrying about Coronavirus—for my family, my students, the country—and this worry is a killer on creativity.

I thought some of you might be in the same boat, so I came up a writing prompt that might help you generate some ideas and write something new.

Steps:

  1. List 10-20 objects that are “confined” in some way.  They can be temporarily confined, or confined long-term.  (Some examples I can think of right off the bat:  my cat is confined in my arms like a baby; a fish is confined in its bowl; a turtle in its shell; a letter in its envelope; our internal organs by our skin, etc.)
  2. Choose three to five you like the best and describe how the objects are confined. What is keeping them from escaping their captivity?  You can be literal here or you can lean towards the fantastic.  (In the case of my cat, what’s keeping her in my arms is the hope for many, many neck scritches and angel kisses.  Also keeping her from escaping:    Once she sits down, she’s there for the duration.)
  3. Determine the object’s “liberation quotient”—that is, how likely could it be freed from its confinement? What would it take for it to be liberated?  Is it just someone takes the letter out of the envelope, or is the process more involved?  What is an unexpected way the object could be liberated?  Does it want to be liberated?  How do you know?
  4. Find your connection. Think about your own confinement in terms of the three objects you explored. How is your experience of confinement similar or dissimilar from that of the objects?  What resonances do you find?
  5. Read over the notes you’ve made, jot down any additional thoughts, and write a three-to-five part poem, flash fiction, flash nonfiction piece (one part for each object) that uses these images in a creative way to explore our (or our character’s) relationship to confinement.

I’d love to read what you came up with, so feel free to post your piece in the comments field!

Re-centering

Right now, with the Corona Virus going on, it’s hard to think about anything besides that people are dying and the only thing we can really do is socially isolate ourselves and wash our hands to the Alphabet Song (or Happy Birthday, twice).  But while that is true, it’s also important that we don’t lose sight of what makes us us—whatever it is that makes us feel humanity, we should try to continue to do it, even as we make health and safety of ourselves and others a priority.

For me, that’s writing. The last few months at work, I was putting sometimes 50-60 hours a week trying to get everything done, and unfortunately, what had to give was my writing.  I was just too tired to work on poems, after I had been in the salt mines, and I realize now that more than just what I thought I lost (some sanity and true connection to my inner world), I temporarily lost some of my humanity.  Not surprising, when you become an automaton for work.  But not writing—not connecting—contributed to my anxiety and worsened my already pretty heavy depression, and frankly, no job is worth that.

I am sorry that it’s come down to a pandemic to allow me to write again—but I also feel better for the first time in several months.  I’ve been writing, revising, and sending out poems to journals, and it feels like me again, a re-centering.  Usually, the nudge that AWP provides in the Spring also helps my productivity, but this year the Ed. decided (rightly) that we should probably forego AWP since both of us tend to be immunocompromised. (Everyone knows all you have to do is sneeze my way and I pick up a respiratory infection.)  But it was hard, not getting to chat with writers I know as well as visiting with the people tabling in the Book Fair. The energy from that is so motivating.  So, I’ve just been reading the journals that have stacked up around my house, and I’ve been combing Submittable’s Discover tab, looking for new journals to explore and possibly to submit to.  And, I’m finally connecting to the project I’ve been batting around in my head for months, and that feels good too.

In related news, I’m looking forward to my official release date for What Magick May Not Alter, which is April 17th.  So, that makes my book an Aries (and you know how Aries and Taurus don’t mix too well 😊).  But I’m excited for my book to be out in the world.  I’ve sent ARCs out to several people, with the hope that they would kindly write a review, no matter their opinion.  I know for a fact that one person has written one—she’s just waiting to share it a little closer to its birthday.  And another person is in the process of making a YouTube review and told me that he “damn near couldn’t put it down,” so that is great news. I’m still looking for some readers/ reviewers, so if anyone is interested, please let me know and let’s figure out how we can get a copy of What Magick May Not Alter in your hands!

I know this was a short post—I’ll try to do better than write one post a year!  Maybe I’ll even get back to my Wednesday posts, who knows?  Until then, be safe, sequester yourself, and wash your hands. And if you believe, pray.

Where will it take me/ what shall I do?*

long island surf

Image from the NYPL Public Domain Digital Collection

During these falling and ebbing tides, a riptide can carry a person far offshore. For example, the ebbing tide at Shinnecock Inlet in Southampton, New York, extends more than 300 metres (980 ft) offshore.

–from Wikipedia

Now they tell me.

After I was swept out to sea on a rip current in Southampton, NY (yes, it was as scary as it sounds), the first thing anyone said to me at the writer’s conference (after “Oh My God!”) was “Write about it.”

I’m now two weeks past my fight with the ocean (where the ocean almost won), and I still don’t know what to say about the experience. Not really. I keep thinking I need to process it, but writers generally process things by writing about them.  Perhaps language is stronger than a nine-foot wave?

But that nine-foot wave that began my ordeal is all I can focus on.  I keep seeing it and remembering how instead of trying to swim through it, I turned around and tried to run from it, taking the full force of its power that knocked me over and began to drag me away from shore, filling my mouth and eyes with sand and salt and something viney, maybe kelp.

It’s that gray-green wave I keep seeing when I close my eyes, that creeps into my dreams and pulls me away from everything I know, making figures indistinct, small, if I can recognize them at all.  I am looking for new language to describe this feeling, but it’s as if the gray-green wave is pulling me towards every cliché you’ve ever heard about drowning—drowning in self-pity, drowning one’s sorrows, this drowning woman grasping at straws, etc.  Nothing seems real to me, but that gray-green wave.

And yet, the weird thing is, the fear and doom I feel now is all after-the-fact.  When I was in the moment, gasping for air and feeling helpless but trying to fight my way out of that current, fear and doom were not what I was thinking about.  I never thought, You’re going to die. Instead, I was angry.

Maybe that was adrenalin at work, my way of not losing my head—by focusing on my anger. Anger because misgivings about the waves had troubled me before I went in—I even wrote about them in my notebook while I watched the water.  Anger that I didn’t listen to my gut which said, Don’t do this, don’t go in, even between the safety flags. Anger for knowing how to swim well, and yet not being able to right myself and break free from the tumbling surf.  There is a kind clarity in anger, I suppose, and I was level-headed enough to quit struggling and to take the blessed hands that wound up hauling me to shore.

But now that wave haunts me, even four hours inland.  I didn’t go back to the beach after that day—I couldn’t.  I didn’t even want to see the water again—which is irrational and yet somehow petulant, as if the ocean betrayed me—who loves the ocean beyond most things (except cats, my mother, and Jesus)—when I’m the one who betrayed my own good sense to stay safe.

*****

I am looking at Google Maps of Coopers Beach, and from overhead the beach looks like nothing special, and the crests on the waves hardly as imposing as an eyelash.  Perhaps someday I will be able to view the experience through the transformative lens of art, and write the poems that I am meant to write about it.  For now, I think I will just end this post here—without details, without a timeline, without anything beyond the memory of that nine-foot gray-green wave.

 

*Lyric from Robert Palmer’s song “Riptide”