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

Hashtag Hysteria, or #YouDontNeedAHashtagForEverything, or Do You Know What Hashtags Are Actually For?

Dear beloved social media friends,

Can I call you my friends?  I’ve never met some of you, but I feel like I know you intimately.  You show me photos of your sushi and take me with you on your family’s travels.  I know where you work and what cocktail you’re sipping after hours.  You even confide in me when you’re mad at someone (although sometimes you’re quite cryptic about who that someone might be).

hashtag definition

Source: Oxford Dictionaries (www.oxforddictionaries.com/us definition/american_english/hashtag)

Because I’ve come to care about you through our frequent exchanges of miscellany and minutia, I’m writing to inform you of a worrisome trend I’ve become aware of lately: the overuse, misuse, and obscenely liberal application of hashtags in any and all social media communiqués.

Let me explain what hashtags are supposed to be for.  They are to connect similar threads so that we can follow a specific topic. For example, I might post something about ObamaCare and include the hashtags #ObamaCare #HealthCare #HeathInsurance.  But wait, I wouldn’t do that.  That’s too political.  More realistically, I might post something about kittens.  In my post, I might include the hashtag #Kittens, so that other kitten aficionados can find my post.

This is how hashtags were intended to be used, but they’ve morphed into something else entirely.  Now, they seem to have become an excuse to shout out random proclamations, like some kind of social media Tourette’s.  Example: I just made a batch of chocolate chip cookies!  Woot!  Woot!   They are delicious!  #Yummy!! #JustLikeMomsCookies!! #ChocolateAfterMidnight!!   Or, another example:  I spent my entire morning waiting for the cable guy.  #FourHourWindowMyAss  #AwfulService  #Frustrated!!!!!  (Quite often, the perpetrators guilty of peppering their posts with useless hashtags are the same people who abuse the exclamation point.  In fact, that would make for an interesting study: hashtag overuse correlated with the frequency of exclamation points.)

It’s an alarming trend.  People are even using hashtags in places where they aren’t functional (i.e., not clickable), like in blog articles and text messages.  What do they mean?   #NotSureWhatThatsSupposedToDo

I fear that if this continues, we’ll lose sight of what hashtags were actually intended for.  We won’t be employing them to connect related threads; rather, we’ll forget how to construct a coherent sentence altogether and be reduced to disjointed shout-outs of single words and short phrases. #StopTheMadness!!!!

Friends, I implore you, please utilize discretion with your hashtags.  While they are useful, and admittedly they’re trendy and cute (and everyone agrees you look super-cool when you use them), they are in danger of becoming degraded into nonsense.  Here’s a helpful pointer: if you can’t click on your hashtag and find any posts other than your own (or, furthermore, if your hashtag isn’t clickable at all), it’s probably not relevant.  To anything.

With warmest wishes for healthy hashtag use,

#Jennifer 

Show Me The Door

“Show me the door, and I will walk through it.”

This is the promise I made to myself during the most difficult time of my adult life, when all the elements of my existence seemed to be in discord.

doorwayIn the months – truly, the first raw years – after my mother’s death at the age of 60, not one thing in my life felt congruent with me. In dealing with her illness and death, I’d reconnected with parts of myself I’d long buried or shoved aside.  I now felt obligated to honor my “highest and best” self unequivocally.

This transition started many years before Mom actually died, when she suffered a traumatic brain injury. After that, my husband’s career was sucked into the vacuum created by the collapse of the housing market. Then our dog succumbed to a swift and brutal illness.  Mom’s cancer was diagnosed shortly after the loss of our dog, and although I carried on with my usual optimism and bravado, I must admit to feeling a little beset.  Still, I had this sense that even these difficult circumstances were leading me somewhere – deeper into my own life, to a more complete knowledge of myself.  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

The Language of Death (or, Why Can’t We Talk About What Actually Happens?)

Since my mom died, I’ve noticed a phenomenon: people avoid the word “death” and all its conjugates.  They pull on latex gloves of language and hide behind germ filter masks of syntax, treating the subject as if it were contagious, substituting cumbersome IMG_20130404_165651_005euphemisms like “passed away,” “passed,” or the clinically sterile preference of health care practitioners, “expired.”

These people who recoil when I say “my mother died” are probably the same ones (and I’m assuming here, because I’ve never broached the subject with them) who regard the funeral practices of yesteryear as morbid.  I admit even I find it a little distasteful to think of a deceased (dead) relative lying in state in a flower-bedecked parlor for the days leading up to the funeral, allowing family members to bear eyewitness to the various stages of decay and putrefaction that naturally commence postmortem.  But aren’t we modern-day mourners truly the more morbid, so afraid are we of the eventuality of death that we cannot even speak of it directly? 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

Acknowledging the Darkness

In the wake of multiple losses, I haven’t had a choice. The darkness clings to me like a fog, like vapor. The shadow is that space between what I thought I wanted – between the life I would design, were I the intentional architect of my own destiny – and what is.

trees in fogDisappointment is the result of expectations. We all have them; our minds work overtime devising the best possible future for ourselves. We will find fulfillment in our careers and our relationships, we tell ourselves. We will live to a ripe old age and die peacefully in our sleep, hands clasped, a faint smile playing about our lips. Those we love will enjoy similar longevity. They certainly will not suffer, and neither will I.

Then something happens that clashes with this optimism. Our rose-colored glasses are rudely torn from our faces, and we squint, disbelieving, in the glare of reality. Someone gets sick. Someone gets hurt. A job, even an entire career, evaporates. We throw up our hands and rage at the heavens. “Why me?” we demand. “I don’t deserve this.”

Maybe not, but the universe doesn’t operate on some moral balance sheet, doling out challenges and tragedies only to those who are deserving or feel able to “handle it” at the moment. These things that help us grow – that make us resilient, compassionate, and deep – they hurt like hell and we’d never sign on for them willingly. We are much more content to doze in the back row of the classroom of life.

Ben Franklin said, “No pain, no gain.” To that I reply, “No shit.” Experience tells me he was absolutely right.

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! 

Living a creative life requires…sleep?

The other day I picked up my pen and began my daily notebook entry.  I write two pages in my notebook every day whether I feel like it or not, even when it seems I have nothing to say.  If my mind wanders, I just write what bubbles to the surface.  I don’t worry if it’s brilliant, original…I’m simply putting pen to paper.  It’s my jumping-off point, a place to begin.

What came to mind on this particular day was dinner…namely, what’s for dinner.  I’ll swing by the store on the way home, I wrote.  I need cottage cheese, juice, etc., etc.  Then I stopped myself.  There I was, in my special writing space, the time I have Is sleep necessaryset aside for myself, for my creative work, and I was using it to make a shopping list.  Even though I give myself permission to write whatever comes to mind, I have hopes of directing my creative energies a little more effectively than that.

The truth is, sometimes I feel too tired to be imaginative.  More immediate concerns crowd my thoughts, thoughts of work and dinner.  “Too tired to be imaginative” is probably an oxymoron, though – imagination is second nature.  Or first nature.  Daily living is an imaginative act when one examines it closely.  Our lives are poetry…we even think in metaphor.

What takes self-discipline (and therefore energy), then, isn’t creativity itself.  It is taking the initiative and setting time aside – real, substantial time – to focus my thoughts.  I don’t mean a rushed two pages scribbled in my notebook while I’m waiting for someone to return a phone call, in which I’m so preoccupied all I can think about is what I will make for dinner.

It’s about intention, and being tired impairs my ability to perform this essential step in the creative process.  When I am spread too thin and/or haven’t had enough sleep, it’s easy to become consumed with work and such vital concerns as what to feed my family.  Those things are necessary and need attention, but a creative person has another set of needs to be happy and contented.  In order to live a fulfilling life creatively, we must make choices that promote emotional and physical well-being.  That can be difficult to do when tired.

Worse yet, when I am tired, I don’t really care much about my creative welfare.  Tunnel vision takes over, and I only feel capable of dealing with one thing at a time.  I lose my ability to see the big picture.  I’m hungry.  I need to eat.  My thoughts get pared down to basic necessity.  I’m not worried about writing the Great American Novel, or the next poem, or the next entry in the Naked Notebook.

So maybe the first lesson in nurturing our creativity is this: go to bed.  Go to sleep.  Stop trying to maximize every minute of every day, and instead focus on getting those eight hours, or seven hours, or whatever is needed to see beyond what’s for dinner and achieve the state of mind needed to create.  Conserving energy and making space in our busy lives is how we make ourselves available to “the muse,” whatever that is, whenever it comes.

It seems we don’t need a reason

Today I have the time to write, but there isn’t anything I want to write about.  Not my fingertips, sore from heavy garden work in Mom’s leather gloves.  Not my yard, lovely and filled with promise.  Not my dreams, uncomfortable and seemingly empty of meaning.

train b&wThere’s nothing to write about, not the same old things or anything earthshattering and new.  The same people, the same work.  The same face in the mirror.  The same train whistle in the not-too-distance, on its way to somewhere.  I don’t even feel particularly curious where – I, who used to gaze up at the sliver of a jet traversing the blue and wonder to what faraway place all those people were headed.

These days I don’t wonder much about things.  There are so few answers that satisfy.  Even a material answer doesn’t satisfy the big-picture question that underlies all things – why?  Any of it?  Why worry?  Why accept?  Why try?

Yet we always worry.  We strive for acceptance.  We can’t help but try.  The fact that we do is underscored by a certain hope, an innocence.  It defies logic and is at times impractical, but still, there it is.  There’s no way around it.  To hope feels right.