I’m sorry for all the ways I can’t say goodbye.
I’m sorry for the depths my heart travels
when you are near; time and again,
I stand on the train tracks;
time and again, I pretend to dismantle the bomb,
I lie to myself,
and we lie to each other
(I’ve counted these wasted days greedily,
a strained collection of sorrows
that a wiser person might ignore
and a stronger person would cast out –
I hold them as a reminder
of every question I never dared to ask).
I’m sorry for all the times
I couldn’t say I love you; I’m sorry
for all the times I did. I’m sorry
for the stubborn set of my courage,
the way I cannot seem to take no
for an answer – the way I wage
war and love without regret.
I’m sorry that I am braver than you.
I’m sorry that I tried too hard.
I’m sorry that I asked too much
and yet, somehow, too little.
I was never after
what you did not offer, never
less than proud, never less than honest,
never so weak
that I would tell you what I really wanted.
I’m sorry that I always ask
forgiveness, never permission; I’m sorry
for all the secrets I tried to drown
in water too shallow; it was always madness,
it was always, this is my heart –
have it. It was never, I have a claim
to this, give it. Call it a sacrament
or a sacrifice – it does not matter,
either way, my chest is still empty.
I’m sorry for all the wolves
and the broken glass. I’m sorry
for all the times I hid from you,
all the times I refused to cry,
all the worlds I failed to imagine,
because I knew what home felt like,
and how to get there,
and how to stay,
and how to keep it safe.
Somewhere, there is a crow
hell-bent on more than just surviving.
Somewhere, there is a man
who understands that my apologies
are all like water, each word
a rainstorm – each feeling
How long can
two hearts drown? How long
can a mermaid pretend
to be something she is not?
Have you ever seen the way a bird makes a nest? It grabs little bits and bobs of things, bringing them back to the spot it’s chosen, and fashions a home out of other things. Sometimes, the bird gathers bits of branches, and other times, it hauls back a selection of string. Whatever is gathered is woven together with the utmost care. There are, undoubtedly, some rough edges. The nest isn’t always perfectly round. It’s all found items and creativity, founded on instinct, hard work, and wiggling things to suit a particular space. Each piece serves a purpose. The goal is simple: creation.
To me, that is how a poem is made. You start by gathering. Sometimes, it’s just an idea you want to convey. Sometimes, it’s a feeling. Sometimes, you overhear something that leaves its fingerprints on the moment – or your heart – and you need to explore it. It’s emotional theft, sometimes. You steal feelings/inspiration from everywhere you can, like a Magpie. Moments. Glances. Situations. The underside of someone else’s heartbeat. And you fashion that inspiration into a trail of words, creating something new.
Writing poetry is all about feeling something (see Keating’s speech in Dead Poets Society). It’s also about examining some aspect of life in all its crazy incarnations, twists, and sideways moments. If you read a poem and it resonates – that’s a good poem. It’s like life: a moment that makes you feel something down to the roots of your teeth is a moment that matters. It doesn’t have to be a perfect emotion. Your heart might feel like it’s playing the bongos on your ribs. Your pulse could feel like it’s trying to murder you. But there’s a reaction. You know, without a doubt, that something is happening to you.
Poems, of course, don’t spring up out of thin air. No piece of writing does. There’s a person behind the pen. This will come as a shock, but: every writer writes different. There’s no one size fits all. There’s no correct answer. Writing isn’t math. And thank god, because math is evil. But I digress. With poetry, a lot of times, there are a thousand different ways to create something. Some poets are confessional (Plath – and I’d argue Ted Hughes, in his later work). Others bare themselves in a less personal fashion, which is why it’s important to never confuse a poet with a poem’s voice. That happens a lot in poetry. But if you read Robert Browning’s Porphyria’s Lover, you’d be ill-advised to assume that Browning is into autoerotic asphyxiation, which is a method of interpretation the piece – positing that the speaker accidentally murdered his lover in flagrante. Point being: you cannot always read a poem as a mirror.
At its core, I believe that poetry is passion, distilled in a heap of words. It’s a heartbeat captured in a bottle, shown off to the world. A poem that makes someone remember something, that conjures an old ghost, that turns an idea of its head, or that simply makes someone think – that’s effective. Joan Didion famously wrote, “In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.” And I couldn’t agree more. It’s important to examine life from every angle, otherwise, we’re not really paying attention, are we?
So, this is all a rather lengthy ramble, leading up to this: I wrote a book of poetry. It’s called I Don’t Love You Pretty. The poems are an examination of love in its less pristine incarnations, where it’s not all shiny or pristine – it’s a mess, but it’s a wonderful mess. The Greek myth of Theseus centers around a labyrinth. Eventually, Theseus finds his way out of maze by following a ball of string. To me, that’s a perfect metaphor for love. Sometimes, it’s the maze in which we find ourselves trapped. Other times, it’s the ball of string – the thing that leads us to safety. Love doesn’t have to be easy or safe – it just has to be worth the mess. So, if you’ve ever been in love – and seen beauty in its mess – check out my book. Who knows – it just might make you feel something.
What makes a good story?
The answer is a thousand things. It is also a single thing. It can be anything from the way a character cries to the beautiful way moonlight shines on broken glass.
A good story makes you feel something. Anything. Anger. Outrage. Hope. Confusion. Love. Regret. Excitement.
I say ‘good’ story, but what I mean is ‘effective.’ Because ‘good’ is too vague a term, and it makes me think of banana bread and my grandma. A short story is not banana bread. Or, to my knowledge, my grandma.
The next question is usually, How do you write a story like that?
The answer is easy. It is situated right between Hard Work and Talent. It’s the same answer give by anyone who has ever invented, fixed, or created something (from a poem to an airplane): you just do it. You try. You fail. You try again. You fail again. You don’t give up. You don’t give in.
The secret, I think, is to allow those Moments of Despair. You know the feeling you get when you feel like everything you’re writing is wrong – and you’re one step away from blow torching the whole mess? Shriek. Yell at the sky. Threaten to throw your laptop, cell phone, or Kindle out the window. Rage. Eat chocolate. Find some alcohol.
Watch television. Read a book. And then…get back to work. Because the truth is that half of life is simply this: don’t give up.
As a kid, I thought I could get through anything – a hurtful friend, a bad day at school, being passed over for a chorus solo – if I just put one foot in front of the other. One step, then another. And there it is: progress. Writing is the same. You put one word in front of another. Sometimes, it’s like magic and being drunk – and having a really good laugh. Other times, it’s like visiting the dentist, without Novocain, while your boyfriend breaks up with you via text message. Oh, and he’s been dating your sister.
Easy vs. difficult. Not impossible, mind you. Difficult.
The last question is usually this: Why did you write that?
I could lie to you. I could make up a story. I could tell you that I get my ideas from a tiny unicorn that lives in my My Little Pony lunchbox. But that would totally ruin my Rock Star image. The real answer is: I don’t know. For me, most of the time, I start with an image or a line. Maybe it was something somebody said to me. Maybe it was a memory that a certain smell pried loose. Maybe it was the magic unicorn in my lunchbox. I honestly don’t think it matters, as long as the words go on the page. As long as things are written.
This morning, I sat down and I wrote a draft for a story. It’s unlike everything I’ve ever written before, and I’m surprisingly okay with that. If I start writing the same type of thing over and over again, that’s when all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. We all know how that story went.
The best advice I’ve ever gotten is this: don’t give up. The second best is probably: read everything. The third might be: write whatever story wants to be written.
Each short story, each poem, each novel – each piece of writing (complete and incomplete) is a lesson that only you can teach. It’s also a lesson that only you can learn. Not even story is going to be perfect or even vaguely publishable. Some will be complete shit. Some will toil as Really Bad Drafts forever. Some will see character changes and a mountain of post-it notes.
But I’ll say it again: each one is a lesson. It’s a stepping stone, a learning experience. Good stories (effective stories) get rejected. It has to resonate with your audience. Sometimes, that audience is you. Yourself.
Rejection isn’t exactly failure. It’s not a nice day at the beach either, because everybody wants to hear the word yes. But it is what you make of it. It is also what you take from it.
You get what you give. Write the best story you can. Then, write another.
Yesterday, I found an interesting conversation going on at Janet Reid’s blog. The entry was about memoir writing (beautiful quotes there), and I stopped to read some of the comments. I was intrigued, and I put in my two cents.
A commenter was arguing that all fiction is part memoir. Or, put another way, that everything a writer writes is partially autobiographical. The implication is that every work of fiction bears the author’s real life in it.
I can’t agree to that. For one thing, it means that a writer can only write about himself/herself. So, Harry Potter is really J.K. Rowling in disguise. What would that mean, exactly, for Nabokov and Lolita? Or Robert Browning’s erotically charged (and possibly lethal) Porphyria’s Lover?
While I do agree that writing is informed by an individual’s life experiences, I do not think it’s the only foundational element. For one thing, imagination plays a large role in writing. If I imagine a talking unicorn in a book (The Last Unicorn, anyone?), does that mean I see myself as a rare, endangered creature? Or am I simply trying to tell a story – and I happen to think unicorns are cool? That fictitious unicorn is just that: fictitious. It’s a tool. It’s a way to tell a story. It is a means to an end.
I don’t believe we’re limited to only the things that occur/happen to us (as writers). I know I’m speaking like some sort of collective. I promise, I’m not a member of the Borg. (Resistance is futile! Hand over the coffee!) That, in my opinion, is where research comes in. It’s where historical texts come in. It’s how a writer can fill a plot hole or flesh out a character. (That imagery always creeps me out. Flesh OUT? As opposed to what? Flesh IN? Ick.) It is a large part of historical fiction, where the gaps are filled in with truth via research. For instance, Deanna Raybourn’s and Michelle Moran’s novels.
The beauty of fiction (and I hope this isn’t a trade secret) is that it isn’t true – but (good fiction, effective fiction) rings true. It’s why internal struggles resonate with an audience. It’s why people still root for the underdog and for Good to triumph over Evil. I think that if all we wanted from fiction was truth, we’d read non-fiction.
What do YOU think?
“Please give me some good advice in your next letter. I promise not to follow it.” ~Edna St. Vincent Millay
“A few weeks after the worst day, I started writing lots of letters. I don’t know why, but it was one of the only things that made my boots lighter.”
— Jonathan Safran Foer
My friend Andrea and I have started writing letters back and forth. I think the last time I had a pen pal was when I was seven. And, being seven, that didn’t last long.
I have Amy Brown stationary that I love, but never used. I’m using it. I even had to order more. Because some things should be said on pretty fairy paper in purple ink. Even if it’s reminiscing about passing notes in high school — or complaining about the story I have been working on.
I’ve written out cards before – brief notes. But letters? Not in a long time. This is fun, exciting, and really rather refreshing. Because it’s not instant. In this world of fast food, instant coffee (gross, but will do in a pinch), and minute rice – it’s NICE to have to wait for something.
It reminds me of something important: anticipation. How often do we lose that in today’s world, emailing instead of calling? Texting instead of talking? I wonder, honestly, how badly our communication skills will suffer. In fact, the other day I read about schools that will no longer teach cursive.
What…? *blinks* That’s crazy. As a person, you still need to WRITE things. You need to sign your name. Surely, cursive isn’t a lost art. In school, I hated learning cursive. I was TERRIBLE at it. I have the world’s worst handwriting short of an epileptic doctor. (Sorry, Andrea.) I couldn’t understand how to make my writing neat and flowery. I looked at my friends’ handwriting, and I felt like I was writing things out with a pen in my teeth. But I was always glad that I learned it. It was a rite of passage. I was a grown up (ha!). I could write in cursive!
Now, I know the truth. Well, truths. 1. I will never really be an adult. (Says the person who is frantically searching for My Little Ponies on tv.) and 2. I don’t want to be. (Growing up, completely, is for suckers! Cake for breakfast! Cake for all! Thank you for flying Church of England – Cake or Death?) and 3. I have grown too dependent on things like spellcheck and typing.
Halfway through my last letter to Andrea, my arm began to cramp up. There was pain, like an overused muscle. I realized, as I was trying to write the last paragraph, that I wasn’t used to writing that much at once. The letter was not extraordinarily long: a page, front and back. I should not be in pain from that.
I was appalled. It was a lot like being a marathon runner, only to come to find that running around the corner caused me to be winded. I was ashamed of myself, as someone who used to write entirely by hand. (Now, I only write poetry by hand. I can write that on the computer, but I like the feel of writing it out. In pencil. Only ever in pencil.)
I don’t want to lose the art of letter writing. Yes, I can write a damned good email. I will make you laugh. I will tell you that you’re being a twit. I will reassure you. But it’s SO much more fun to do that on fairy stationary, damn it, in purple ink. With PURPLE stamps. I also have fairy address labels, and I love them.
So, if I have your address – and you want a letter – let me know. It might take me a while (and I may have to ice my hand), but I will send you one. I will also apologize in advance for my ridiculous bad handwriting. (And Andrea, your letter goes in the mail today. It was ready yesterday, but I left it on the table when I went out. Drat it!)
What is a skill that you find less prevalent? What art forms do you miss?