Writers. Groups.

Untitled-writerCreative writers, who are often solitary creatures given the kind of work we do, nonetheless must communicate with the wider world: that is, after all, the purpose of poetry. It is a form of artistic communication using words as medium. I do not know much about the (possibly long?) history of writers offering feedback, critique, encouragement or collaboration with one another aside from the more well-known spats and criticisms of Some Famous Authors. I do know that during the 20th century, evolving from artistic and literary salons of the 1800s, there arose the idea of writers’ groups and writers’ retreats, seminars, getaways, workshops…culminating in the MFA program, I suppose. Despite the popularity of the concept, I have had people ask me about writers’ groups and whether or not I recommend joining one.

First, I think we must ask: What is the purpose of a writers’ group? What do writers gain by meeting regularly and discussing their work, sharing their drafts, listening to feedback, and offering one another advice on publishing or goals or career moves? Is the writing group a place for jealousies and competition, or an environment of encouragement and networking? A bit of both? Is it good for friendships? Is it useful?

Then, we can ask: For how long can one expect a writers’ group to run? Months? Years? Decades? And how committed to the group is it necessary for members to be; and what number of members works best? How does it work, assuming that it does benefit the members? What happens if someone gets hurt, or angry, at the group or at a member in the group?

And where do we put the apostrophe? Writers’ group, or writer’s group? Or do we ignore the apostrophe? (Sorry. Had to make a punctuation observation.)

Full disclosure: I have been a member of writers’ groups for most of my writing life. I joined my first group in 1980 in Brooklyn, NY. I joined a loose coalition of poets when I moved to Philadelphia and some of us met for critique, though mostly we participated in readings. When I moved to my current region, I was invited to a feminist writers group; my spouse and I purchased our first house from one of the member poets! After that, I was invited to two other groups. One of the groups “clicked” for me. I have met with this core group of poets and writers for nearly 25 years now, and the experience has changed me.

The artistic question here is: Has the experienced changed my work for the better?

The personal question is: Have I benefited from the experience?

bookmkheartleaf

Redbud leaf in fall

I could perhaps write a book on these questions, but I am far too lazy. As to whether my work is better because of the discussion and critique, I’m pretty sure the answer is yes. Even though my colleagues are not famous writers, they are excellent and thoughtful readers–and that is what one most requires from this sort of group. If you want to improve your writing, you must have readers who can tell you whether or not they “get” your work.

Or make you reflect carefully upon why it is they don’t.

Have I benefited personally? That one is an easy and certain yes. I have a community, a very small community, devoted to creative writing and willing to read and think about that sort of work. I have learned–from their writing itself and from our discussions surrounding ideas pertinent to the process of writing and revision–much about their daily lives, backgrounds and fears and hopes, their cultures and their passions, their careers, their health, their homes (in which we meet). We have shared recommendations on which books to read, which poets to learn more about. Often, we disagree. Without conflicting opinions, no forward momentum. We are passionate, we are gentle, we are probing. Sometimes we probe too deeply. We learn to back off when necessary. We also embrace.

During 25 years, there have been serious losses, real tragedies, that our members have lived through, written about, survived. Such strength. Such humility. Such proof of the ways art can help people to express to others that in their grief they are not alone. That in their love and in their confusion they are not alone. That others feel the weird varieties of joy, the ambiguous sensations, the coincidences, the empty hours, the gladness in small things that human beings experience.

And also…might you consider a different line break here? It might heighten the punch of that phrase, and function as stronger alliteration in the following line.

Just a suggestion.  😉

 

 

 

 

 

 

Surely compelled

Ann Lauterbach from her book The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetic Experience

We make music, painting, sculpture, films, novels in order to mediate our mortal visiting rights: a specifically human wish to intercede, to punctuate the ongoingness of time and the seemingly random distributions of nature. This punctuation is called history or, more precisely, culture, or, more precisely still, history of culture…

The phrase “to mediate our mortal visiting rights” feels particularly resonant these days, as some of my elderly best-beloveds appear to be navigating that region–mediating it–at present; [to mediate: “divide in two equal parts,” probably a back-formation from mediation or mediator, or else from Latin mediatus, past participle of mediare “to halve,” later, “be in the middle,” from Latin medius “middle”).  –thank you Online Etymology Dictionary]. The two halves, between one world of what we call the living and another which is the end of life, there is really more of a continuum, however. The “gray area” can be quite enriching and lively. Or not. These are ways we create, or punctuate, our personal histories: the year grandmother broke her hip, the year Susan entered school, the year the Twin Towers were destroyed. These, among other “random distributions of nature.”

I think it is true that the arts help us with the wish to intercede somehow, and also–a different sort of wish, it seems to me–the wish to mediate. Lauterbach seems to conflate these wishes. I see her point, but I am not sure I agree wholly.

~~~

Intercession. Isn’t that also a form of prayer?

[“intercessory prayer, a pleading on behalf of oneself or another,” from Latin intercessionem (nominative intercessio) “a going between, coming between, mediation,” noun of action from past participle stem of intercedere “intervene, come between, be between” (in Medieval Latin “to interpose on someone’s behalf;”]

~~~

…the way words make sentences and sentences paragraphs is also a kind of constellating, where imagined structures are drawn from an apparently infinite fund: words, stars….these acts of narrative and imagistic invention were surely compelled by the inexhaustible human desire to transfigure the incomprehensible into intelligible form.

Lovely–and here, I agree completely: “surely compelled.”

~~~

Writing for me is associative, meditative, and digressive.  ~ Ann Lauterbach

images                                        pompeiian woman-writer

 

Thanks to art critic and blogger Sigrun of sub rosa for alerting me to the existence of this book.

Beatrix Potter, interdisciplinary artist

Beatrix Potter came to mind yesterday when I watched a young rabbit struggle into a fix as it tried to escape from me through the newly-reinforced fencing. It had gotten in at a spot we left open after some hours of work on a hot day yesterday, but it could not locate the open span when I cornered it among my beans.rabbit-014

In “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” Potter writes: “Peter was most dreadfully frightened; he rushed all over the garden, for he had forgotten the way back to the gate…he ran on four legs and went faster, so that I think he might have got away altogether if he had not unfortunately run into a gooseberry net…”

Very observant description of cornered-bunny behavior. I felt rather sorry for the bunny in my vegetable patch. It had squeezed itself between a gap and then found itself impressed against chicken wire, and for a few seconds there was a mash-up of fur, feet, and fencing in a whir of sheer panic. The rabbit freed itself, however, with an acrobatic twist through a gap, ran back into the garden; and after a few false tries, finally located an unreinforced section of the garden fence and escaped toward the hedgerow.

~

Potter was an admirable writer of engaging prose, a terrific watercolorist and an amateur mycologist whose careful observations of the plants and animals in her Lakes District farm environs still draw admirers to her work. I think of her as a kind of turn-of-the-century interdisciplinary artist, though I cannot imagine she would ever perceive of herself in that light. She might agree that she was an excellent observer of the world–a quality that benefits scientists, artists, writers, journalists, and farmers. If all you think of when you see her name is “children’s books,” go to the Beatrix Potter Society’s website and learn how much you did not know about her.

 

 

Valuable to know

One of the philosophy faculty members at my college perennially assigns an end-of-term paper in which the freshman student must defend whether (or not) a philosophical principle, view, or argument “is valuable to know.” He has a list of possibilities, such as “Is Descartes’ concept of the body-mind problem valuable to know?” and “Is Aquinas’ proof of God’s existence valuable to know?”

The students wrestle mightily with these essays, although the professor’s question does not in itself constitute a major philosophical argument; even when we disagree with something, we may still feel it is valuable to know. The students do not always recognize that they have to make and defend only the view that knowledge is valuable. They tend, instead, to re-argue the philosopher’s claims…which confuses them, but also works to help them learn what those claims are and how they operate as arguments.

This bust resides in the Louvre, and was found here: http://www.humanjourney.us/greece3.html

Socrates. This bust resides in the Louvre, and was found here.

Philosophy, the art of thinking about thinking, by its very nature creates confusion on the path toward greater understanding. Or anyway, that should be the intention. What I like about this assignment (which I often see when I am tutoring) is the way young people come to terms with the material while they are in the process of composing the paper.

Here is how the tutoring sessions tend to go: I look at the first paragraph for context and clarity. Then I look at the claim and help the student clear up any grammar or mechanical errors. Then the student writes about what, for example, Aristotle’s claims about moral and intellectual virtue are. Usually this section comprises two rather vaguely-worded general paragraphs presenting claims by the philosopher, paraphrased in freshman-student sentences, and two short paragraphs presenting opposing views come next.

Here is where grammar and rhetoric are friends. I read each sentence, and I tell the student what he or she is saying in the sentence–based on how well the student can write or proofread, what the sentence says and what the student meant to say may be rather distant partners. So we work on that. As we plow through the paragraphs, the student gets a chance to re-think his or her arguments about and understanding of the philosophical questions at stake in the essay. Sometimes, I can almost see the lightbulb of comprehension beginning to glow in the student’s mind.

It really demonstrates what I tell my students all the time: Writing helps thinking! And so does discussion. In my office, for half an hour, the student gets a sounding board for his or her own ideas and then writes them down. Not all of my students get terrific grades, but it fascinates me to watch them in the process of coming to understand that pretty much anything can be valuable to know.

 

 

 

Connected

Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections revolves in part around a family’s interconnected–and expanding–circles of influence (of harm, mostly, but also of steps toward healing) as the “patriarch” begins to lose his health and independence. It’s a depressingly familiar scenario for many of us who have aged parents. I often hear anecdotes from friends and colleagues about how an elderly parent’s decline tears apart family connections and lately have been living the problem a bit more close at hand.

So I am mulling about how we are interconnected, and also about how we decide to narrate our connections: the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we tell others. That’s the poet/observer in me mulling; but I also want to find out more about the psychological side of the equation, so I recently read Christakis’ and Fowler’s book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, which takes a social-science and statistical look at what connects human beings to other human beings. 330px-Broad_chain_closeup

Writers are often our keenest social observers, and as it happens, Hungarian poet and writer Frigyes Karinthy wrote a story (“Chains”) that more or less posited the six degrees of separation theory back in 1929. Franzen’s novels tend to explore how even seemingly-minor disruptive or dysfunctional human relationships create butterfly-effect chaos among those connected to it–even among people not closely connected to the ‘disrupter.’

Christakis and Fowler examine much more than the six-degrees theory, such as how those human connections build themselves into social cascades, cultural norms, support systems, clans, families, political parties, and economic outcomes. On the one hand, these claims seem obvious: of course our relationships are based upon shared connections, and of course those relationships have impacts upon our lives. We know this intuitively, but now scientists want to give us proof.

Stuart Kauffman’s book At Home in the Universe offers “hard science” studies (though based upon theoretical computer- or math-based simulations) in physics and biology that suggest random disturbances, or chaos, can create chain or even lattice-like behavior. He suggests that if molecules or genes behave the way the simulations do, the cosmos may continually undergo a sort of self-organization that leads to forming connections.

Hence: life. Or life as we experience it. In which small differences in initial conditions can be amplified into transformational events that do not affect anyone in exactly the same way.

That’s more or less the butterfly effect, but it could not happen in social situations among human beings if we were not so interconnected or interdependent. Social beings require other social beings as support systems: that’s how humans work (with, naturally, the occasional outlier).

butterflyOur poets, playwrights, and our fiction writers–the narrators of human existence–understand isolation and community in non-scientific but no less valuable and authentic ways. They have been telling us for thousands of years the many ways we are connected.

Maybe what the scientists should do next is read hundreds of years of great literature as evidence of how social networks shape our lives. Science can learn as much from the humanities as the humanities have learned from scientists…

What we, as observant human beings in a chaotic world, intuitively understand.

 

Siesta, lacuna, pause

I am preparing for travel, and then I will be away from my computer for about a fortnight; and then, I shall be recuperating from my travels! For the first time in quite awhile, I am taking a rest from blogging.

Though I fully intend to get back to these pages after my return. There is nothing like a journey to invigorate, to inspire reflection…the clichés about journeying and questing are well-earned. Another part of the journey that is less celebrated, however, is the need for pause and the space between journeying and being home (or at journey’s end–which may not be home).

One activity I’m sure I’ll be doing is walking, and some of that walking will be along the paths of Windermere. Perhaps I will even encounter “a host of golden daffodils”–it’s about the right season for that.daffodil photo Ann E. Michael

Maybe I’ll read Gloria Steinem’s latest book, My Life on the Road, as I travel. She’ll make me feel like quite the amateur.

 

How to start

My students often get confused at the beginning of their essays; a common complaint is “I don’t know how to start!”

I feel for them. Beginnings are difficult. Recently I was wondering why that is so.

~

Driving home during a blizzard–concentrating on seeing the road, staying off the shoulder, anticipating the curves, watching for oncoming vehicles. Tense, I’m trying not to clutch the steering wheel. Eight miles home seems long when the visibility is nearly zero and the back roads have not been plowed. And then a blur of activity to my right, a thunk against the passenger side window, and a sweeping shape looms in front of me, veers; a fan, dark stripes, pale breast-feathers, strikingly yellow claws. I’ve nearly hit a broad-winged hawk. And that thunk was a smaller bird that had been harrying it through the snow.

Broad-winged Hawk Flying

A startling incident, that experience heightened my awareness of where I am (in the world), in which environments (natural and human-made), and when (now!).

Sometimes, happenstances such as this evolve into, or figure in, poems that I will eventually write. The image, the occurrence, offers a way in.

~

Returning to my question about how to start: the blockade many people make for themselves is that they think they have to know what they want to say before they write anything. “What is it I am trying to say?” the writer asks. We have been instructed to keep in mind our aims when we write.

I suggest it may be a mistake, though, to figure out what one wants to say before trying to write. When my student writers are truly stuck at the start, I ask them to write what they notice, what they experience, what they hear. Just write it down, describe it: the soft thud of the sparrow (if it was a sparrow–allow for speculation), the sound of wind against the car body, the clearly-visible buteo in the windshield where before there had been near-whiteout. What is it I want to say about the drive, the shock, the tension, the world of natural things? I don’t yet know, but I am writing.

~

Thanks to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and Raptor Preserve, Kempton PA.