Comfort zones redux

What do we mean by “comfort zone”? People use it frequently, especially in self-improvement and creativity-related writing. Has it become an empty phrase? It’s so subjective–which is entirely the point, I suppose. If we can manage to agree on what the idea means, we still must confront the continuum of such a zone. I reflect on my tolerance for aesthetic discomfort often, especially when I am reading or observing creative work. For example, I like listening to jazz; some jazz soothes, some excites, and some takes effort to hear–I have to be in the mood for confrontational experiments with sound such as performances by The Art Ensemble of Chicago.imagesAEC

Similarly, while I love art, I cannot imagine living with “Guernica” on the wall…or Goya’s “The Third of May.” Or anything by Francis Bacon. Some creative works are meant to push viewers out of their comfort zones; some are no doubt as uncomfortable to create as they are to view. A work of art that takes emotional and craft risks puts the artist not only at risk of critical rage or misinterpretation of intentions, but also at the very personal risk of failure.

And that effort is important, that willingness to fail. Without it, nothing invented or imagined can be achieved.

I am not a good painter, and trying to paint clouds or winter trees or landscapes means I am going to paint bad pictures. I have better gardening skills than painting skills, but I love trying a new seed or plant or cultivation method, even though the results often don’t succeed. Pushing the comfort zone has mixed but invaluable rewards.

Poems practically cry out to enter such territory. Often I find that even poems that contain in their lines and imagery moments of hope or great love and comfort simultaneously discomfit me. It fascinates me; how does the poet first compose, then revisit and revise, the poem that must surely be even more uncomfortable to write–to confront? (Search for any anthology on a difficult topic and therein will be many such poems.) Most of us prefer to avoid pain zones, so we stay within our comfort zones.

~

In Zechariah 12:2, the Lord promises terrible punishments for the enemies of Judah. Elaine Scarry approaches the conundrum of pain’s subjectivity (among other things) in The Body in Pain. I find wonder and ideas in the continuum of pain zones, in the concept of pain as punishment versus the concept that life is dukkha and inevitably contains suffering, and many other perspectives that people take concerning anything from mild emotional stress to mental illness, age-related physical problems, various forms of “disability,” and the Wong-Baker FACES pain rating scale.

Here, from WORDPEACE online, a poem of my own that I found uncomfortable to write, and which some readers have told me is uncomfortable to read. Taking the risk:

A Cup of Reeling [for the sufferers]

“Pain is…language-destroying.” Elaine Scarry

It is I am told all in my head but the body how the body loves the head
where language resides in the soft and voluble brain
and hurt undoes every synapse until sweat and stress the bullet
between clenched teeth [as if to aid?] good god deliver me
groan swear-word ululation weep and reeling, eloquence undone.
The crucible my own right leg: fire pulley strain does not allow
gravity or, god, motion, my evidence convincing to me only to me
unavailable to others [no one privy to, spare me, my—agony—
no object but destruction of objects no intention but self-obliteration]
Pain’s constructed in waiting rooms, waiting for morphine
or anything anything; I am animal in pain and sentient in my pain.
Good god who dares believe in me now that I believe in nothing?

 

~

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Bro-ken

In the northwest sky this morning, mackerel-sky and mares’ tail clouds like fins, wispy and broken up against the blue, brought to mind the book I’m reading: Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks. In this book, essays on place and environment interweave with “word hoards” or mini-dictionaries, a rich lexicon of regional terms that describe specific observations concerning weather, geographical formations, topology, the sea, plants, moorlands, mountains, and mines. He uses the word adit! (See my post here.)

 

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mares’ tail clouds

 

Macfarlane’s word hoard draws mostly from the British Isles, but his essays–in this collection, many are based on books he has loved–assert that naming is noticing, noticing is loving, and loving means preserving or saving. “Language deficit leads to attention deficit,” he says. He’s not incorrect. My own experience concurs; for the past few years, I have had less time and energy to walk my meadow and take the two-mile amble along the back roads of our neighborhood, and as a result, my written expression feels both a bit contracted and less precise. I need to get back to the land.

Meanwhile, more broken things, from which (see this post) we may encounter or derive good words. The most recent break happens to have been the nose of a Best Beloved. I think it is time the broken things spell gave us a break.

In that vein, here’s a 1932 poem by Carl Sandburg, “Broken Sonnet”:

May the weather next week be good to us.
The strong fighting birds, so often ugly,
Jab the songsters and bleed them
And send them away; the wranglers rule,
The fast breeders, the winter sparrows,
The crows.  The weeds, the quack grass,
The tough wire-grass, they have it all
Their way.  May the weather next week
Be good to us.

~

 

Forward

Lately, less gardening and more writing; we have experienced the region’s not-uncommon August/September drought period. My vegetable garden has given me about all it can at this point, so what remains to do is clean up. That’s a job that will have to wait, because I’m processing new poems instead of pears.

I tell my students that writing is a process, but the processing I’m doing now is more akin to the verb form of process, in the sense of “to treat raw materials in order to change or preserve them” (Merriam Webster). That could be another metaphor for the revision process…

Also applicable is the etymology of the word process {from pro “forward” (from PIE root *per- (1) “forward”) + cedere “to go”}.

So, forward I go. More drafts, more changing the raw materials of poems (what would those be? words? ideas? emotions? observations?). More going forward into the whole process. “Without hope and without despair.” (That’s Dinesen by way of Carver.)

 

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Agency

It’s a bad idea to get into gardening if one happens to be someone who requires complete control of things. Nature’s behavior, it turns out, manages seldom to be controllable by human beings. One reason I enjoy gardening is the chance to keep trying a new approach, a new variety, a new method; if I cannot control the environment, I may at least find an adaptation that works for awhile.

This year, it’s a short-season, baseball-sized melon I’m experimenting with, and potatoes grown in a bag, and hard beans in addition to haricorts vert, and a different set of heirloom tomatoes. The method I developed some years ago to deal with insect-borne and moisture-spread viruses on zucchini no longer works for me, alas. Next year I will try something else–because I do love grilled zucchini.

~

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Bounty

There’s a difference between control and agency, and I’ve been pondering this since the illness and recent death of a long-time friend and fellow writer. Agency, as it has come to be used in psycho-social circles, means having the freedom and the ability to make decisions. It’s not quite the same as controlling–it hasn’t the same aims behind it. Also, agency implies responsibility. Controlling people are more apt to place blame, whereas a person with agency makes choices and accepts the responsibility of those choices.

That’s the sort of person Bill was: gentle, quirky, humorous, exceptionally smart, persistent, and devoted to the people he loved and the causes for which he advocated. He decided what mattered to him, chose the sort of life he wanted to live, and took responsibility for those decisions even when other people might have wanted him to do otherwise. He made, and kept alive, connections and relationships. He worked on being a better self and a better citizen of the world.

When it became clear that two weeks of hospital treatment had made no difference in his illness, he chose to go home under hospice care. I wrote to a fellow member of our writers group that I was a little bit in shock but also unsurprised at his decision. She said that yes, Bill has always believed in agency.

~

Agency is one of those terms, like mindfulness and intentionality, that can be overused by pop psychology and self-help best-sellers until it is nothing but a cliché.  The etymology tells us much, however:

agency (n.)

1650s, “active operation;” 1670s, “a mode of exerting power or producing effect,” from Medieval Latin agentia, abstract noun from Latin agentem (nominative agens) “effective, powerful,” present participle of agere “to set in motion, drive forward; to do, perform,” figuratively “incite to action; keep in movement” (from PIE root *ag- “to drive, draw out or forth, move”).  [Thanks to Etymology Online]

 

That would be my friend and critic Bill, drawing forth and setting in motion; effective, powerful, someone who could do and incite to action, and make wise and purposeful choices in his life.

How-to

What prompts a poem, really? Probably differs from writer to writer to such a degree that discussing inspiration can be an intriguing discourse among fellow poets but not a method to instruct anyone “how to.” A poem, or any work of art, can be interpreted or reconstructed through analysis, but simply following someone else’s instructions is unlikely to lead to meaningful results.

Among my Best Beloveds are a few people who are excellent how-to writers. They can write about how to build a boat, debug a software program, light a face for photographic portraits, construct a Windsor chair, use a beading pattern to make a bracelet. This sort of work is surprisingly challenging to write well–think of how many times you’ve been frustrated by a poorly-written manual for one of your digital or mechanical devices. Good, clear, concise how-to writing requires intelligence, accuracy, awareness of the reader’s skill level, critical analysis, and a clarity of style the unpracticed writer lacks. And by unpracticed writer, I mean most of us!

After 25 days of writing poetry drafts, I cannot suggest to anyone how to write a poem. Perhaps someone with more experience in the process (such as Luisa Igloria) can weigh in on how to write a poem (she teaches creative writing, after all, at Old Dominion). At the end of this month, I will resort back to my usual process of intermittent drafts; though it’s possible that this month of discipline will stick–maybe I will be more productive for awhile. Mostly what I will need to do is to REVISE! Because with 30 drafts to work on, I can stay busy tweaking and reworking (and giving up, occasionally) on poems for months to come.

~
Lilacs

Because I had early morning errands,
because I had to change my route,
because creek’s tributaries are still swollen,
the brief commute
took an ambit unexpected
through small towns, over the rutted bridge,
delayed by schoolbus signal flashers, waiting
for foot-dragging kids.
Pollen drifted on the windshield
because it’s that time of year,
because two days of rain and spells of warmth
have settled here.
Because I decided not to worry,
because no one would mind if I were late,
because I opened the car window, I saw lilacs blooming
beside the cemetery gate.
~

 

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Letters

I have been reflecting on the practice of letter writing and how it improves writing skills because it is, essentially, practice in written composition.

I teach writing, and one thing I notice among students who ‘don’t write well’ (in their words) is that they struggle to develop a voice in their written essays. In the hundreds of years before telephones and tablet devices, literate people learned a voice and style not through school essays but through frequent letter-writing practice. If a total stranger were to read aloud to me letters from my two grandmothers, I could identify which grandma penned which letter by style alone.

The adventurous 19th-c. traveler Isabella Bird, to take another example, once wrote a 116-page letter to her sister, Henrietta! Bird’s letters form the basis of her many travel books, which are entertainingly told with an eye for humor and for accurate, sense-based description–her voice remains intact in her work, long after her death.

Today’s poem draft is a prose poem in the epistolary mode.

~

Entanglement

I think of you so often, especially when weeding the perennials, a task
we have so often done side by side and in so many seasons, you and I knee-deep
in goldenrod and wild aster that invades the irises and wild indigo each June,
or earlier in the season, on chill and drizzling April days, clearing shot-
weed, ground ivy and chickweed from the creeping phlox and daffodils.
You’d be dismayed at the state of my ornamentals this year, your perfectionist
streak critical of the stray wanderers, stands of sedum that need dividing,
the dust on my piano, ottoman replete with cat hair, my cupboards in disarray.
I miss your diligence and vivaciousness, the way you take your coffee scalding
hot, your eye for color, your bold opinions I have so studiously ignored.
Today it is raining and the book I’m reading describes quantum entanglement
theory, “a physical phenomenon that occurs when pairs or groups of particles
are generated, interact, or share spatial proximity in ways such that the
quantum state of each particle cannot be described independently of the state
of the others, even when the particles are separated by a large distance.”

I miss you.

 

~

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Epistle as writing practice

I am often asked by my peers why “young people” do not come to college with exemplary writing skills. Because I feel protective of my students, I wish to defend them–not always an easy task. My first response is that they have not had enough practice in writing to develop adequate fluency, and I generally follow that by admitting that many of my students have never really read books for leisure or out of passionate interest and that they are quite adept at other forms of communication (social media, looking at you!).

Last year, I decided to spend one class period on epistolary writing. I recognized that one way I developed confidence in expressive writing was by writing letters. Lots of them. Every week to my parents, almost as often to my sister, to my best friends, to sweethearts, grandparents, anyone I cared about. Probably 30 years of letters, which later morphed into lengthy emails as the technology developed.

Letters. Who writes them any more? Certainly not today’s college freshmen, if my students offer any objective measurement of their generation.

The epistolary mode offers students a chance to exercise the use of second-person as a governing pronoun, a style that formal academic writing shies away from except in certain forms of persuasive writing–the opinion column, for example. Teaching my students NOT to employ “you” is such a constant effort that I thought letting them write letters would give them a much-needed break from prescribed academic conventions and allow them to loosen up their sentences a bit.

Before I assigned in-class letter-writing, I asked whether any of them ever writes letters. Not one hand went up. I withdrew from my tote bag a clutch of old correspondence (yes, of course I would be that person who keeps the letters people write to me). After flourishing an envelope–with a 29-cent stamp–I disclosed the contents, a ten-page, handwritten letter from a dear friend. The students audibly gasped. “How long did that take to write?” “Did you read all of that?” Sure! When long-distance phone calls were expensive, letters were social media. We couldn’t just snapchat a photo of ourselves standing on a pile of snow and caption it “Snow!” We’d have to send a photo. Or we’d have to describe without the visual–and this is a practice my students have almost never had to employ.

Lack of informal writing practice translates into lack of writing practice, period.

I even read passages from three letters aloud, and the students were impressed with the vivid writing…writing by “non-writers.” “You could write like this, too,” I told them. “You just haven’t needed to do it, and therefore you think you can’t do it.” Then I asked them to think of a person, a specific person, and come up with a reason or purpose to write to that person, and then just write. The response was amazing. Some of these students wrote more in 15 minutes than they ever have for an in-class assignment. Most of them enjoyed it! One student even said that “this old style of long form texting intrigues me” and plans to start writing letters to a sibling once a week.

Success!

~

Letter Writers Alliance is an informal site promoting the hand-written, postal-mail delivered epistolary correspondence. Members can sign up to find a pen pal or just browse the site for stationery, pens, letter-writing tips, etc.