11 April 2012

European Travel

What is it about travelling to Europe that inspires creativity?

I just got back from a trip to Greece: one week on Santorini and two days in Athens.  I also did some reading during the trip (Neil Gaiman's American Gods; I'm halfway through) and I'm sure that had some influence on me.  But I had an overwhelming feeling that I needed to get back to work on my novel.  Is it the ancient architecture? Is it not Europe, but travelling in general?  Is it just getting away from the mundane and seeing other people doing things that seem so exotic to us, but are actually mundane for them?

Maybe it's this: whenever I hear people speaking in a language I don't understand, I assume they're having some profound conversation that I wouldn't be able to keep up with even if it were in English.  Since I speak a total of five words in Greek, this happened a lot.  And when everyone around you is having important conversations, it makes you (or at least this is true for me) want to do something more.

Whenever I think of this, I think of Hemingway.  When I lived in Spain, I could walk out on my balcony and look at Hemingway's favorite restaurant, also touted as the world's oldest restaurant: El Botin.  That kind of thing makes you want to sip some absinthe and do some writing.

Well, now I'm back home, so it's time to take some of that inspiration and put it to work.  I have my pictures to keep me inspired.

03 April 2012

Writing on the Outside: Moving Beyond the Page

I have been doing a lot of thinking about the writer as both a public and private figure.  With the publication of my chapbook of poems this spring, I have had to come away from the writing desk (computer screen) and interact with other people.  People who might want to buy the chapbook.  People who want to talk about my poems with me.

One of the most excruciating things for me is coming out of my writerly shell.  I am happy to think deeply about my writing, and well, to write my writing.  I am even happy to send it off into the world for publication.  As much as I want others to read my work, I cringe when people want to talk about it.

Richard Siken, a poet, famously said, "If I have to explicate my poems, I have failed as a writer. I have wasted my life."  Although this statement is dramatic, I know scores of writers who nod their heads at the sentiment of it.  Just let me write my pages!  Read them, but please don't ask me to explain myself!!

When work gets published, when a writer takes part in a reading of his or her work, and (hopefully) when it comes times for a writer to sell books, he or she MUST move beyond the writer's desk and into the public eye.  How to do this?  Better yet, how to do this well?

The best advice I was given about how to interact with others came from Facebook.  Someone said that their writing mentor told them, "Be kind, engaged, and generous with every person you meet."  Hard to do, but absolutely true.  What does this actually look like in action? 

To start with, kindness means that I don't get to be snarky.  I have a sharp tongue and often "zing" friends and colleagues.  Sarcasm is my native language.  When in public, this does not serve me well.  What I think of as humor, others, especially strangers will take as ass-hattery.  Not only will I look like a jerk, but the next time a person sees my name in print he or she will tell someone, "Don't read that, he's a jerk!"  Being kind means allowing others to have opinions about my own writing, even if I disagree with them.  It also means taking a compliment well.  Say, "Thank you." not "Whatever."

Being engaged means being present with whomever you are talking to.  Let that person be in the spotlight.  At a signing table, with a long line, don't keep looking over that person's shoulder to see how many other people are waiting.  Stop thinking about how hungry you are.  Actually take the time to listen to what is coming out of the other person's mouth.  Nod.  Make eye contact.  The same eye you use to view the world as a writer, needs to be present at a reading, a signing, in a conversation.  As Ram Dass says, "BE HERE NOW!"

Finally, there is the generous part.  This is the hardest to pull off for me.  My idea of generosity is not letting a person see me roll my eyes when it takes them longer than five seconds to go through the door I am holding open for them.  Being generous is an extension of being engaged.  It means that I am not the center of attention.  My work is not the center of attention.  This can be hard for a writer to understand.  Being generous with others means that they are actually the focus.  In a sense we write for our audience.  Our poems, stories, and art arrives are created specifically for the person standing in front of you.  Yes, that person.  Yes, you.  

Without an audience my writing is nothing more than a kind of journal, however artful.  Learning through trial and error.  Growing social skills no matter how painful.  Smiling instead of furrowing our brow.  These are real and necessary acts for writers.  We must do them as we step away from the writer's desk and into the public eye.

As writers we don't need a makeover for the camera, we just need to remember to treat our readers with the dignity they deserve.

12 March 2012

Kinds of Reading: The Way in Which We Approach Text

I have been co-teaching an undergraduate class in poetry writing this semester.  We spent a good deal of time at the beginning of the year reading books and discussing the writer's technique and use of craft.  The final portion of this section ended with students writing about a single poem, an analysis of the craft elements that the poet had used to to persuade, manipulate, and move the reader.

This sort of reading, reading for the elements of technique and style is done largely by students and other writers.  How does Cormac McCarthay describe a landscape book to book?  What is the typical plot trajectory of Marian Zimmer-Bradley's dozens of novels?  Writers and scholars want to examine how the magician does the trick on the page.

As my class moved on, we began discussing another way of reading: emotively.  The reader approached a book of poems, one poem at a time, and examined how the poem made them feel.  It was hard for my students to stop analyzing their feelings.  I repeatedly had to tell them, "You are going too far" or "Don't explain why."  I wanted the class to become aware of how they felt about a piece of writing independently of how the author did that or what the poem might mean.  It lead to a great discussion on how an emotional response to reading can be linked (for the reader) to an associative memory that has nothing to do with the text.  One student responded, "I was upset by this poem about the boy being bullied in the pool because the same thing happened to me when I was little.  I thought I deserved to be dunked."

Thankfully, the class did not veer into a kind of group literature therapy, but it could have done so once we got our brains turned off and our feelings turned on.

As I read another book of poems, I saw that I read poems that moved me in three kinds of ways.  On the first read, I read emotively.  If the poem moved me, I would reread it.  On the second read, I looked at the syntax.  I read sentence to sentence to get the "meaning" of what the writer had put into words.  On the third and final pass, I looked for the writer's technique.  I created a map of sounds that the writer used throughout the poem, line to line.

In looking how I read a poem, I discovered new things about myself.  For one, I found that on a first read that the literal meaning of a poem has less weight for me than how I respond to it emotionally.  Who knew I was so able to let go of "what is going on" in a poem?  I didn't.  I had always assumed that I got my emotions from the sentence level choices.  Once I understood the what I figured out the mood.

Consider thinking about your own reading habits.  How do you come to the page?  What does this tell you about how you process what you are reading?

For example.  The first image I showed you in this post has nothing to do with the subject matter.  You might assume the bird is a robin.  It is spring.  You have likely seen robins hopping across the lawn in search of food and nesting material.  Why post a picture of a robin?  But then you would be wrong again.  It is a matter of perception.

The bird in the first photo is actually an Oregon Towhee.  I saw one yesterday in town and almost mistook it for a robin.  A closer look revealed it to be the towhee.  Let this be a metaphor.  We may think that we read in a certain manner (robin) and discover something else entirely (towhee).  You find an actual robin below.

05 March 2012

Divided is Printing

As I type this, the spring 2012 issue of 5x5 is printing.  Can you believe spring is already almost here?  The Minnesota winter has been pretty mild, although that hasn't stopped us all from saying, "Cold enough for ya?"

We're very excited to feature the work of a high school student on the cover of this issue.  Here's what it looks like:

That's called "My Heart is Breaking," and it was created by Eleanor Leonne Bennett.

We're also really excited to have a comic by Nick Straight.  It's called "Saplings."  Here's the first frame:

Just a taste.  But you can pre-order your copy by clicking on this link:

In the meantime, you can check out more of Nick Straight's work at Drawmit!

If you're already a subscriber, you can expect your copy in the mail around the 20th of March.

Thanks for reading.

28 February 2012

The Academy Awards

The 84th Academy Awards aired Sunday night.  If you missed it, well, I did too.  I don't have a TV, so I couldn't watch it in real time, but I do have a computer, so I was able to catch some stuff the next day.

Let me first say that I enjoy movies both as a form of entertainment and as a form of art.  Not that those are mutually exclusive.  Some may say that movies and television have been the death of reading.  I don't know if I'd go that far, but there's probably some truth to it.

I didn't get into the Harry Potter movies until...I think it was the fifth movie.  I watched that one in the theater, and now I own all the DVDs.  Sunny and I watch them all at Christmas time, because to us they're Christmas movies.  Most of them came out around Christmas, they have Christmas scenes, and most importantly, they are fantastic stories.  Fantastic stories really make the best Christmas movies.

It wasn't until this last Christmas that I started reading the books.  Sunny bought them all for me for my birthday, which is right after Christmas (now you know and you have no excuse for not getting me a gift) so I finally started reading them.  I'm on book five right now.

While I'm one of the first people to criticize the film industry for its lack of creativity (How quickly did they remake Spiderman and The Hulk, both of which were adaptations of comic books to begin with?), I do appreciate seeing film adaptations of books that I've read.  And now, I'm learning to appreciate reading the books after having seen the films.  There's so much more story in the books.

For the fun of it, let's look at all the Oscar nominees for Best Picture and see how many were based on books:

     Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close written by Jonathan Safran Foer.
     The Descendants written by Kaui Hart Hemmings.
     The Help written by Kathryn Stockett.
     Hugo, aka The Invention of Hugo Cabret, written & illustrated by Brian Selznick.
     Moneyball written by Michael Lewis.
     War Horse written by Michael Morpurgo.
          Actually, the movie was based both on the book and the play written by Nick Stafford,
          which was based on the book.

Midnight in Paris, The Tree of Life and The Artist (the winner) were original.

When I was a kid, I would get so annoyed when film adaptations of books I'd read deviated even marginally from the original story.  Silly me.  I've now come to appreciate how different media can tell similar stories in different ways.  I'm really looking forward to seeing The Hunger Games.  Although I'm certain a film won't be able to capture the intricacies and nuances that are present in the book, it may be able to add something new.

I enjoy seeing film adaptations of books.  Sometimes I've read the books before seeing the film, and sometimes seeing the film makes me want to read the book.  So no judgment that two-thirds of the Best Picture nominees were adapted from books.

Now if you're going to create a movie based on a theme park ride (Pirates of the Caribbean) or a board game (Battleship), that's creativity.  Good luck.

20 February 2012

On "Divided"

The universe, a kind of “whole,” is divided into gravitationally bound systems—galaxies of stars, stellar remnants, gas and dust and dare I say dark matter. We divide solar systems into planets. We divide the globe horizontally and vertically by lines of latitude and longitude. Planet Earth is divided by bodies of water into continents, which are further divided into countries, which are divided into regions, states, cities, villages, neighborhoods, houses (which are divided into rooms—some families under the same roof are divided). The pages of the Rand McNally you might keep under the passenger's seat of your car are divided by the Interstate Highway System, roadways and waterways like strings of lights draped from one city to another, each city a little bulb, lit up, or not.
The divisions on a compass rose orient us: north, south, east, and west.
            “When possible, make a U-turn,” the GPS lady says when we veer off course.
            My address: The Universe, Milky Way, Earth, North America, the United (not “divided”) States, Idaho, Moscow (I don't yet know you well enough to say exactly, but I could).
            Because of division, or in spite of it, there is no such thing as a permanent address, however—I am always moving (we are all transient). Relative to the sun, I am moving at approximately 30 kilometers per second; for Earth, as you learned in elementary school, back when you didn't consider “division” beyond obeli on wide-ruled notebook paper or the question of enough cupcakes for everyone to have two, is in orbit around the sun. Division likewise animates Earth's crust in the form of tectonic plates that diverge and converge and transform (massive rafts in motion) as the molten matter we tread upon changes beneath our relatively tiny feet. We keep walking.
            We divide time: eras, centuries, decades, years, days, even down to the the tick of a clock, the tock of that watch upon your wrist or the one that was your grandpa's hidden in your pocket.
            The body is divided into systems (you know them), all of which must function in sync to keep the heart beating, the eyes open, the feet stepping—until that final breath, that is (a great gasp), divides the living from the dead. Some say there is an afterlife, however. Some say there is rebirth, too: the Ouroborus eats its own tail. But for better or worse, as cognitive beings, depending on our system of belief, many of us operate under the assumption of binary divisions, or we challenge them as such: life/death, woman/man, happiness/sadness, external/internal, creation/destruction. Through division, we order chaos. We grid things. We keep time ticking in pockets. We frame our days on walls. To divide a batch of cupcakes evenly, sometimes we have to split them in half—there are beautiful little acts of violence like that we live by.
            Division creates boundaries and chasms (canyons grand). Sometimes these boundaries warn against trespassing: KEEP OUT. Sometimes we straddle or transgress them anyway. We hop a fence. Is there any escape from division and the boundaries it forms?
            I don't know. But even tectonic plates, responsible for the disasters we fear, are artistic—mountain-makers. Tectonic, from tectonicus, pertains to “building.”
            Perhaps the act of art is possible because of the / or the ÷. As artists, we hop some fences, or we knock them down, or we raise them up again as best we can. “Can you hear me now?” we sing, hammers swinging.
            5x5 derives its name from the ratio of signal-to-noise, or S/N, a kind of division that compares the level of a desired signal to the level of background noise or static. 5x5 is the best possible ratio for carrying a voice through space. Thus, in terms of radio transmission, 5x5 translates to the answer all artists hope to hear: “I can...perfectly.”
            The artists in our upcoming issue are as clear as what croons from your car stereo on a good day (or when you're not driving through tunnels), and maybe even clearer. There are no “tunnels” here, no static. Stay tuned!
            Over and Out (for now)—

             S.J. Dunning

12 February 2012

On Sound and Vision: The Soundtrack of Your Writing

As readers, we are often stunned by the prose of the page, but how many of us think about the author toiling away to get their words in front of us?

Writers do.

I sometimes sit in front of a poem, or sentence dazzled.  I think, "How could a writer do this?"  I then begin to imagine him or her in the process of composing the work of art.  Ultimately, this means that I am imagining myself writing it as well.  How could I write something this good?

When in my cups (the self-pity cups) I imagine that the writer I so admire is always brilliant and has completed the entire novel on the first draft.  We all know this isn't true, if for no other reason than editors love to edit.

Imagining other writers, helps me to consider my own writing practice.  A large part of that practice for me lately, has been listening to music.

I know that many writers compose a book or piece of work with a set of songs to help them "get into the mood."  For myself, I find words with music distract me.  I have a hard time considering the next line of a poem is "Baby Baby Baby noooo"drifts through my stereo speakers.  Sometimes the words even leak out onto the page.  The horror of find upon rereading my new draft, "The gate slapped shut, an ultimatum / a gunshot.  The car that gunned out of the driveway / the radio in the room playing on / as if nothing was going on at all/ and I was like baby baby baby ooooh."

For this very reason, I tend to listen to the classical NPR station while writing or reading.  Sometimes if I leave the radio on another channel, I will find myself composing and then yelling at the radio: SHUT UP!  When trying to summon up feelings from the past, I might play a song I associate with that period in my life or even a whole album.  I wrote an entire essay about teenage angst and The Cure's album Disintegrationhttp://kinemapoetics.blogspot.com/2011/07/jory-mickelson-on-cures-disintegration.html

My question for you this week is what kind of background noise fills your writing?  Is it the chatter of people in a busy cafe?  Is it the sound of your children fighting or playing Wii?  Do you impose absolute silence while you compose?

What is the soundtrack of your own writing life?