Writing Is Art

Writing is art. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, but it’s a phenomenon that I’m sure veteran writers have been dealing with for ages. What I mean when I say writing is art is that even if the writing is labeled “nonfiction,” it is a creative endeavor. It is not intended to represent the whole truth, nor can it. It is a slice of life, a snapshot, one angle on the truth in any given moment. That is not to say nonfiction writing is a lie – it’s not! But it is a piece of writing. It is not meant to convey the totality of the feelings and intentions of the writer.

writing is artNeither should the writer attempt to explain, justify, or soften the writing. This can be very slippery territory indeed. I’ve never published anything I regret, but I do wish I hadn’t answered questions about some of my pieces, and I have vowed never to do it again. Once, after reading a poem I’d placed in a lit journal, a well-meaning relative asked, “Was this about so-and-so?” She already knew who the poem was about, I’m sure, because enough of the details were recognizable. So the question caught me off guard and I answered, “Yes.”

“I thought so!” She sounded pleased – she’d solved a puzzle. She knew the inside story.  And I instantly regretted affirming her suspicions – because the poem didn’t tell the whole truth. It was only one piece, one facet. If you read that poem and thought, “This is what Jennifer thinks about so-and-so,” you’d be wrong. Did the poem represent a thought I’d had once about so-and-so? Sure. A recurring thought, even. A poetic thought. But it wasn’t the complete story. A poem can’t be the complete story. It’s a poem.  Continue reading

CASH GIFTING AND BARBECUE SAUCE: On becoming a “real” writer

A wise friend once told me that I can discover what I want in life by paying attention to what I envy in others. So, when I ordered the Great American Poetry 2005 anthology from Amazon and felt a pang of resentment upon reading what I considered to be an inferior poem, I realized an important truth about myself: I secretly wanted to write and publish. Perhaps I wouldn’t be so jealous of these supposedly paltry poets if I were sharing my own writing with people.

getting paid to writeMy first attempt at becoming a “real writer” was clumsy and misdirected. I responded to a Craigslist ad offering money for SEO (search engine optimization) Internet articles, which needed to conform to strict guidelines (2% keyword enriched, 400 to 600 words long, and 60% original with the keyword in the title). I treated the articles as writing exercises and made each 100% original. I googled statistics and vetted sources. Although I relished my newfound status as a “professional” writer, the novelty of the articles quickly wore off, and churning out 20 pieces on a single keyword became tedious at best. After being assigned the keyword “barbecue sauce,” and then later “cash gifting,” I decided that perhaps I needed to expand my horizons. (The prospect of writing ten articles about a popular condiment and a notorious scam can do that to a person.)  Continue reading

A New Skin (a poem)

Recently, I had the supreme pleasure of participating in a workshop (I actually organized the workshop, because when you are a poet in a small community and you want to go to a workshop, sometimes this is what you must do) by the incomparable Susan Wooldridge, author of poemcrazy, among others.  If you haven’t had the pleasure, you really must contact her immediately and find out when her next workshop is.  If you live on the other side of the world, then at the very least purchase a copy of poemcrazy and give yourself over to Susan’s completely accessible yet infinitely wise approach to the creative process.

Sgoat rock beachomething magical happens in these workshops.  Somehow, as Susan stands barefoot on a couch waving an uncapped marker and making birdcalls out the window (eliciting an outburst of raucous barking from a nearby dog – and believe me this is all part of Susan’s plan), I forget myself.  I forget that I call myself “a poet” and that my poems are supposed to be perfect, profound, and publishable.  I forget that since my mom died I have written about virtually nothing else, that my notebook is now a jumbled collection of brooding snippets into which I hope may someday waft a whiff of redemption, at which time I may or may not organize said snippets into a pseudophilosophical collection that I most definitely will not call The Mother.  I am reminded that I am a writer because I love words, that when I find the right ones, and put them in the right order, it inexplicably makes me a better human being.  

The following is a poem written at our recent workshop; it is virtually unedited from when I scribbled it in my notebook that day.  Susan led us in generating a “wordpool,” a list she wrote on an oversized piece of paper taped to the screen of our hostess’s TV.  The words were gathered from various publications that Susan distributed , urging us to comb through them, find words we liked, and call them out to her so she could add them to the “wordpool.”  We were then given a prompt (“my shadow says…”) and asked to use those words in a piece of spontaneous writing.  I have underlined the wordpool words and prompt so readers can appreciate the process and see how working from a list of words can take one’s writing in unexpected directions. 

A NEW SKIN

In the molten coastlight
of moon on sand
my shadow says to me,
“You don’t listen.”

Erasing those bruises
to discover what’s left whole,
what’s worth saving,
is no work of vanity.

Still, as if plucked
from the seamless water,
my shadow shivers.
Digressing currents bring snatches of empty envy,
inexplicable loss

“I am sorry,” I say
even though it isn’t a crime
to not know better.

Unearthing this blame
is the beginning.

The rest
is up to the moon.

Written at Poemcrazy workshop, 4-18-14, from the prompt, “My shadow says….”
Wordpool words underlined

About Writing Spotaneously

Yesterday I had the good fortune of attending a workshop by poet and author Susan Wooldridge, author of poemcrazy: freeing your life with words (among others).

Wooldridge’s approach to poetry is refreshing.  In one exercise, participants were encourage to “gather” or “steal” words from an assortment of books we found on our Dictionarytables.  The words we collected formed an eclectic list (a few of mine: witness, severed, mustard, halo), then were incorporated into poems.  The results of such an exercise will always be reliably surprising because we are forced to exceed the boundaries of our tired vocabularies.

Doesn’t everyone get in a rut with words?  I know I do.  We think in clichés and universal truths.  It’s okay sometimes – these recognizable phrases provide footholds in everyday conversation.  They are familiar.

But unless you are determined to write the worst poetry ever written (which would be a challenge in itself, judging from the marginal poetry being slung around out there), you’ll have to dig deeper.  Think:  The rain drummed on the roof.  Boring, right?  What an overused phrase!  But when we consult a random word list, things get more interesting.  The rain stuttered.  The rain raged.

Wooldridge offers a valuable reminder to seasoned writers and beginners alike: these words are ours, they belong to us.  We can grab them and use them in fresh, exciting ways!  And they are as near as the closest dictionary or dusty poetry collection, forgotten on a back room bookcase.

Each Friday on the Naked Notebook, I publish a Friday Freewrite. I offer a writing prompt and invite you to write on the given topic for 90 seconds – that’s all! – and see where your thoughts take you.  If the prompt doesn’t speak to you, good!  Then write about its opposite, or write about how terrible it is and how much you hate it.  Write about how you despise writing exercises and prompts in general, how they make you slog out worthless drivel on a topic you care nothing about.  Just write!  Rules were made to be broken and should never come between a writer and the page.

A freewrite, or a workshop exercise, isn’t designed to produce a polished piece.  Those may occasionally arise from an exercise, and that’s great, but it’s rare and often the product of much further work and editing.  More often a writing prompt simply serves as a tool to get started, a jump-off place.  These tools help us access our spontaneity and write faster than the sharp-toothed critics who nip at our heels and tell us wings can’t rust or rain can’t rage.

*As a footnote, many thanks to Writers Forum for offering this fabulous workshop! 

Poetry as Spiritual Practice

I have been known to say that poetry is my religion.  By this I mean that through the writing and reading of poetry, I feel connected to the creative force that dwells within all of us.  What that is, I think, is quite individual – each of us experiences God, spirit, or what we consider divine wisdom, in a different way.

I’m pretty sure there is a poem in this photo, though I have yet to write it.

As I mature and my spirituality deepens, I find that poetry and writing still bring me that feeling of connectedness, but only to one facet of the spiritual experience.  Poetry gives a voice to emotions.  It is a way to be with feelings, images, experiences.  There is no need, in poetry, to extrapolate or draw conclusions (though many try to do just that – not a useful approach to poetry in my opinion, either for the reader or the writer).

When I write a poem, it is usually about an emotionally charged subject.  If I am working with an image – a leaf, or a rusty truck, or an open door – it represents something much more than the simple, everyday object I’m describing.  That mundane and familiar thing is a stepping-off point, an opportunity to go deeper.  In writing poetry, I’m not wallowing in my emotions or being hysterical; rather, I’m settling in and examining.  I’m seeing something clearly, both for what it is and what it represents.

Spiritual practice as a discipline is much broader: it is holistic; it is looking forward, integrating, improving, and being.  Poetry is simply the truth, the being.  The seeing what is, and trying to find the right language to say it.  That is all.