Monday, February 15, 2016

the serious writer

These days I'm drawn to writing advice, even if it feels as though by now I've heard it all. I need to hear it again, differently, the same.

I've not read anything by Christobel Kent, but here is what she says on Book Keeping, the FSG blog:

"The best advice is to sit down and write and keep going till you get to the end. It’s my own advice to myself and the advice I give if asked by aspiring writers: it sounds ridiculously obvious but the biggest problem is procrastination. It is deciding that before you write you need to ‘do research’, or make a cup of coffee or something. You can do research, most writers have to do a bit but you should think of it as a luxury, something you can do after you have done some writing, not before. The only advice I got from an external source was not exactly advice but reading somewhere that Graham Greene wrote in the mornings, then edited in the evening after a drink, or I suppose even two drinks. I was encouraged by that as I was already quite naturally doing the same: editing your own work is easier with your defences down. Best done after one drink. Not advisable after three drinks, when your defences are down and a machete mysteriously appears in your non-drinking hand."

Or how about this, via Poets & Writers:

“The purpose of being a serious writer is not to express oneself, and it is not to make something beautiful, though one might do those things anyway. Those things are beside the point. The purpose of being a serious writer is to keep people from despair. If you keep that in mind always, the wish to make something beautiful or smart looks slight and vain in comparison. If people read your work and, as a result, choose life, then you are doing your job.” 
- Sarah Manguso (New York Times, 2016)

“If it is a human thing to do to put something you want, because it's useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag, a container for people, and then later on you take it out and eat it or share it or store it up for winter in a solider container or put it in the medicine bundle or the shrine or the museum, the holy place, the area that contains what is sacred, and then the next day you probably do much the same again—if to do that is human, if that's what it takes, then I am a human being after all. Fully, freely, gladly, for the first time....

[T]he proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us."

-  from "The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction," Ursula K. Le Guin, Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places

It was obviously especially useful to read this last bit of advice by Le Guin, which I must have come across at some point while writing Rumi and the Red Handbag. That book was always a capacious hold-all in my mind, and I tried to put everything in it I could, beautiful, useful, and poetic. A work of art should inspire, should lift the soul, be uplifting. Perhaps it will also startle, disturb, provoke deep thought, soul-searching, in varying measures. Should it aspire also, as Sarah Manguso says, to keep people from despair? I think that when we connect with a work of art, it's going to do that. How to live, we ask ourselves as we write, and that question is answered in and by and through our writing. I get stuck though by that phrase, 'the purpose of a serious writer.' I mean, I get that, I agree with it. But I have a hard time thinking of myself as a serious writer. It took me years before I thought I had earned the right to call myself a writer. I'm not yet at the serious writer stage.

Okay, so this past week. In a word: exhausting. It wasn't any big deal. Nothing exciting happened, my work load was the usual. But once in a while one's body just says, uh, no. I was tired, I slept poorly, I wrote poorly, I was headachey and dull. And the photos were not really coming. For that I know the remedy: flowers and mini jam-filled doughnuts and just a sliver of afternoon light. With luck, C. came home from school just when I'd set all this up, and joined me in my teatime.

Pretty sure I've shared this next poem here before, but it's a comfort after one of those nights.


by Ellen Bass

All over the world people can't sleep.
In different times zones they're lying awake
Bodies still, minds trudging along like child labourers.

They worry about bills, 
they worry whether the shoes they just bought 
are really too small.
One's husband's died, her son left for college
and she doesn't know how to program the VCR.
Another was beaten by her husband
One is planning a getaway
One holding stolen goods.
One's on the plaid couch in ICU.
His daughter, it turned out
Actually does have a tumour
Even though the doctor said they'd do the MRI just to rule it out.
The woman on the other couch is snoring
which is strangely soothing
evidence that people do sleep.
Some are lying on Charisma sheets
Some in hammocks. Some in jail. Some 
under bridges. One is at the north pole 
studying the impact of pollution
A man in Massachusetts thinks about a lover 
he once had in Dar es Salaam and the jasmine 
blossoms she strung along the shaft of a silver 
pin fastened in her hair at night. Coincidentally, 
the lover, now in Rome, remembers 
looking out the window over the sink 
when she was washing dishes. He was reading
in a lawn chair and she thought how, 
perhaps for the first time she wasn't lonely.

Some are too cold. Some too hot.
Some hungry, some in pain
Some are in hotels listening to people having sex
in the next room. Some are crying
One the cat woke up 
and now she's worried about the rash 
she noticed in the evening and wonders 
if her daughter, who's afraid to swim 
should be pushed
Some get up
Others stay in bed
They eat Oreos, or drink wine- or both.
Many read. A few make intricate
Hallowe'en costumes: a peacock
with eight real feathers in the tail.
Some check their email. They try 
sleep tapes, hypnosis, drugs.
And listen to their clocks tick, smartly,
as women in high heels.

Those who can, cling to their mates,
an ear pressed to those neighbouring lungs like a 
stethoscope hoping to catch a ride 
on the steady sleep breath of the other, to be carried 
like a seed on the body of one who is able.

Right now in Japan dawn is coming,
and everyone who's been up all night 
is relieved. They can stop trying.
In Guatemala though the insomniacs are just 
getting started  and have the whole 
night ahead of them. It's like a wave 
at the baseball stadium, hands
around the world.
So here's a prayer 
for the wakeful, the souls who can't rest:
As you lie with your eyes 
open or closed, may something 
comfort you—a mockingbird, a breeze, the smell 
of crushed mint, Chopin’s Nocturnes,
your child’s birth, a kiss, 
or even me—in my chilly kitchen
with my coat on—thinking of you

- from Mules of Love  

And so I just want to say here as a bit of an aside, is that if you love reading poems, you should really consider buying books of them. There's nothing like being able to pull a book off your shelf of a poet you admire, and read a poem or two. Rediscovering one you liked, finding one you might have missed, or connecting with a poem in a way you didn't on the first reading. Books of poetry are relatively inexpensive - usually under 20 bucks. I think many don't consider buying poetry or are kind of lost in choosing. But you'll read and re-read a book of poetry over the years. It's sort of like buying the record album rather than just hearing the single on the radio.

The book you see in the photos is Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick. I keep coming back to the opening paragraph:

"It is June. This is what I have decided to do with my life just now. I will do this work of transformed and even distorted memory and lead this life, the one I am leading today. Every morning the blue clock and the crocheted bedspread with its pink and blue and gray squares and diamonds. How nice it is - this production of a broken old woman in a squalid nursing home. The niceness and the squalor and sorrow in an apathetic battle - that is what I see. More beautiful is the table with the telephone, the books and magazines, the Times at the door, the birdsong of rough, grinding trucks in the street." 

I don't know why it just slays me and I end up reading it over and over.

And here is this. Everything counts. 

A Message From Space

by William Stafford

Everything that happens is the message:
you read an event and be one and wait,
like breasting a wave, all the while knowing
by living, though not knowing how to live.

Or workers built an antenna - a dish
aimed at stars - and they themselves are its message,
crawling in and out, being worlds that loom,
dot-dash, and sirens, and sustaining beams.

And sometimes no one is calling but we turn up
eye and ear - suddenly we fall into
sound before it begins, the breathing
so still it waits there under the breath -

And then the green of leaves calls out, hills
where they wait or turn, clouds in their frenzied
stillness unfolding their careful words:
"Everything counts. The message is the world."

- from The Way It Is

The message is in the world. The message is in the light. At the beginning of the week, as I said, there was little light, little photo inspiration. So I did what I could: I photographed my lunch. 

And I photographed my tea.

And I even photographed the gritty and grimy bit of winter.

The brutal icy sidewalks.

I kneeled in the snow in the dry pond and tried to capture little bits of leaves and seed pods. 

The neighbourhood rabbit, from really far away (and super-cropped afterwards).

And the confused willows thinking for a second spring might be here.

More tea! Always, more tea.

The somewhat willing model:

Here he's looking up at Rob, asking to be taken for a walk (it was nearly time).

And then wow, it snowed! Again. Which is getting less amusing as the winter goes on, but still, better than the grime and grit.

Snow falls. The fields begin again
their forgiveness. All that dirt forgiven.

- from "Whispered in Winter," by William Stafford

I wish one could press
snowflakes in a book like flowers.

- James Schuyler

And that was the week. I'm ready for another. Hopeful that I might glimpse beauty, find that which will comfort me, inspire, uplift. And you, I hope you do, too.

Wishing you all the calm things.

- Shawna


  1. Comforted, inspired and uplifted (and also grateful for the spots of spring colour). Thank you, Shawna, lovely as always. xo

  2. What a gorgeous poem your blog is, the pieces so beautiful in themselves, the spring colours, the images in the poetry, and resonating with one another in such splendid ways, a Hallelujah to writing and reading and tea and love. And you're so right about the books of poetry...I keep my collection like oracles, always waiting with what I need to know.

  3. You're so right to encourage us all to purchase books of poetry, for the very reasons you share. Yes.
    Oh and these words by James Schuyler, "I wish one could press
    snowflakes in a book like flowers." and that amazing capture of a single snow flake falling ... amazing.

  4. "I wish one could press
    snowflakes in a book like flowers."
    Love this..

    A beautiful post for the beginning of the week. Just dip into work.

  5. The photo of snowy Ace made me laugh out loud! And now I'm craving jelly-filled donuts.

  6. Your photos with the flowers are so fresh and pretty, I felt the puzzlement of 'despair' replaced by anticipation of spring. Thanks.

  7. Umm, so now I'm craving jelly donuts, pizza and tea. I'm going to take your advice, buy more books to add to my, at the moment, very small poetry collection. There is something about holding a poem in your hands and revisiting it over and over again. And speaking of revisiting, I will be coming back here again and again to view all these gorgeous flowers you've captured so beautifully! And that single snowflake oh wow! And then there's Ace who always makes me smile.

  8. Sometimes I wish I could be Ace for just one day - that singular snowflake - amazing and beautiful. xo

  9. The photos this week, particularly of the flowers, are breathtaking. I also love the one of that shadowy snowflake. It is exquisite.

    I do buy poetry...or at least I have started to buy it since reading your blog. I tried to buy it on my nook at first, but poetry needs space and it needs to be read the way it is printed on the page with its pauses and separations. Poetry needs to be read from books. Online like this works too, but you can't take it into the bath with you.

    Lovely post! Thank you!

  10. I missed this post on Monday for some reason.. and this morning, I was needing to hear your calming words you bring to this blog every week. I was not disappointed. Beautiful. Thank you. xx

  11. Ah! That photo with the snowflake made me gasp. I love the way you notice beauty, and open my eyes to it, whether you are looking at freesias or gritty snow.

  12. Thank you everyone. Much love to you all, S.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...