Saturday, April 21, 2007

Giving Up On Good

Our assignment this month was to write a story, poem or essay with a surprise ending or an ironic twist...a la O'Henry. To be honest, my initial reaction to that assignment hasn't changed much.... I'm still at a sort of low level panic. How in the world am I going to pull this one off? Where do I even begin? And even more fundamentally, why even begin when I don't have a hope of succeeding?

Now, while I'm not experienced with surprise plot twists, I do have quite a lot of experience with that feeling of numbing, freezing self-doubt.

The particulars vary but the tune is the same: I want to do something good. I can't see how I can write a good poem, or a good story, or a good essay. I probably will fail. I don't know how to do it. So, why even start?

You might think this is all about insecurity and a lack of confidence. But I'm not sure. I think the basic problem is one of beliefs. Beliefs that are flawed.

Let me list what I think are some of those beliefs that keep writers from writing, and then let's examine them together. I'd LOVE your help on this problem, so, please comment.

First, I believe that if I am a real writer, I should know how to produce good writing. I should be in control of the process, and I should be able to control the quality of the product. There's also the belief that only the finished product is important. And that only high quality literature is worth writing. I want to examine these beliefs with you in reverse order.

If it's not literature, it's not worth writing.

I think this is the most fundamental of these beliefs. If it's not "good" writing, then I really probably shouldn't waste my time. But this belief begs the question: what is "good art" anyway? Who do I let decide for me what is worth doing? Whom have I chosen as my editor or critic to decide whether my thoughts are worth granting a voice to?

Of course, I can recognize that there are great writers, but I think it's important to get over the idea that my writing is worthless if it doesn't match theirs. Gerard Manly Hopkins or Emily Dickinson (as two examples) are amazingly gifted poets, and in a comparison, my writing doesn't do too well. But I think a little closer inspection reveals that no one, including God, expects me to be Hopkins or Dickinson. They did that well enough. My goal is not to be a "great writer" (or a great anything), but rather, to be myself (more specifically as a Christian, to be myself redeemed in Christ), and to use my abilities and gifts and cultural context and personality to tell the stories and write the poems that I need to write, and that perhaps, in some cases, my community needs to read.

Only the finished product is important

Almost any artist will tell you that something happens in the process of creating that is even more wonderful than a succesful product, or at least the process is so linked as to be irreducible from the product. As I recognize this, the need to know I will have a great poem at the end of a week or a month of writing becomes a little less strangling.

Don't get me wrong, I still want to write poems and stories that I and others appreciate as good reading, but, more and more I don't feel the need for any particular poem I'm working on to be successful. What I need is to write.

I should be in control of the process and the product
We've all heard that good writing doesn't happen in the first drafts. But I've found that even when I accept the rough draft is going to be rough, I still try to demand some assurance that I'll be able to get to "good" by at least draft three, or five, or ten. But this anxiety and need for control usually prevents me from really "going for" it in the first few drafts. I keep trying to know what I'm saying, what I "mean," trying to guess how it will be received by readers who can pronounce it "good." If I stay in that space, I can write something that people generally like. I know the tricks to the writing that follows the rules. But that's not the writing that keeps me writing. That's not the writing that reminds me I'm alive. And that's not the writing that ultimately really excites the thoughtful reader, either.

To get to the writing I care about, I have to say every single time I begin that this time I might very well fail miserably. In fact, I probably will. And then I tell myself, "just have fun, just go for it."

All that matters is that I write, and that I write holding nothing back, without any thought of whether it will turn out well, or whether it will ever have any chance of being understood or appreciated by another soul.

This poem or story will not necessarily be good literature, but this poem or story-- if I am faithful in the writing, in the listening, in the truth-telling, in my work--will take me on a journey. The journey might be two drafts or eighty-two drafts long, and it might result in a "masterpiece" (although that hasn't happened yet), or a rather complicated, rambling journal entry, but "good" or not, it will always be worth the time and attention I have given it.

And so, I come to this "surprise ending" assignment with the same unknowns about the product. Right now all I have is a vague memory of some funny family stories that had little twists to them. I don't know how to write them down, but I'm going to start writing. I don't know if I will let anyone else read what I've written. But I'm very much looking forward to beginning. I'm looking forward to the "playing," and to the journey.

This is where I've come, even through the writing of this blog, but I'd like to hear from you. What are some of the beliefs that prevent you from writing or producing art?


Saturday, April 14, 2007

Snail Mail Art

Today's Bee has an article about Julia O'Connor, Sacramento's poet laureate. Her most recent project, called "Mail Art," encouraged area residents to write poetry and make art on postcards, and then send them through the mail. An exhibit of these postcards is now on display in Sacramento at La Raza Galeria Posada, 1022-1024 22nd St. through the first week of May.

I've heard her read, and she's a fascinating person. I'm sure the exhibit would be worth checking out. Actually, I and an artist friend made one of those postcards (a year ago). But, I doubt we are one of the 400 (out of 912) that made the cut. We'll have to see.

Here's the link.
Thanks to Ginger Irvine for this information!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Bedlam's Bard-- In Praise of Praising

April 11 is the birthday of Christopher Smart, a "religious" poet (according to Writer's Almanac) born in Shipbourne, Kent, England (1722).

This month we're reading a small fragment of one of his two major works of poetry--written while he was involunatarily committed to St. Luke's Hospital for Lunatics (in Bethnal Green) for his "religious mania," which caused him to pray obsessively and in public.

The fragment about his cat Jeoffry is from "Jubilate Agno," (1763) a very long and unfinished poem in which he attempts to give thanks for absolutely everything. He starts this fragment, "For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry. For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him."

He then goes on to do just consider Jeoffry in the context of how he serves the Living God. What follows is an absolutely delightful poem that has raised me out of many a sour or self-absorbed funk. I will link it here

Here are just a few of the lines I love:

"For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life."


"For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction, if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he's a good Cat."


"For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion." and .....

I could go on and on but what I'd really love is for you to read it and love it too, and then tell me which are your favorite lines.

I'd also like to note a couple other fascinating things about Smart and this poem in particular.

1) His delight in the world, and his all-out, nothing-held-back stance of praise. This awes and motivates me at my core. He has invested his whole being into the extent that his work is to sing about a cat, and his reward is the lunatic asylum.

2) The courageous and vulnerable individual. Smart the man, the poet, the artist is wonderfully alive and visible in his writing about Jeoffry. We see his individuality in the observations he sees and in the playful and earnest way he describes the cat.

3) The community. This might be less visible. Surely he didn't fit into society, and he was undoubtedly suffering. But we can see his community in the form that he chose for his poem. His poetry is obviously informed by the Psalms, he displays his affinity for the Psalms writers and the church, although he expresses himself so radically as an individual that he doesn't fit easily in the church. Despite the struggles Smart had and my compassion for those struggles, I have to say I love how he comprehended at a deep level and then appropriated the form of the psalm for his own purpose.

We are all writing in a certain time and place. As I struggle to find the form for my writing, I find every poem I write is very directly influenced by the poems I read and the poets and thinkers I talk to. I hope I can be more influenced by Smart and other praisers like him.

Let me suggest you try to "consider"something...a cat, a dog, a child, a flower, a playground, a meal, a party, a rainstorm, a bird, an ocean, a friend....and note everything you possibly can about that very specific "servant of the living God."

Perhaps you will surprise yourself and end up finding how you too are a mixture of "gravity and waggery."

If you would like to read more of Jubilate Agno (and it's very, very long!) here's a link: Don't try to print it unless you got lotsa time and paper, cause it's LONG. (By the way, it wasn't published until 1939.. that's almost 200 years after it was written.)

Happy Christopher Smart Day!


Monday, April 9, 2007

Writer's Conference

For anyone with an interest in writing poetry, the Sacramento Poetry Center in downtown Sac is a tremendous resource. Check it out at

I attend a weekly workshop--Tuesday nights. Every Monday evening they have poetry readings. They also have a monthly publication Poetry Now. And on April 20-21, the center is holding a writer's conference.

Here is the information I have on the conference.

All events take place at 1719 25th St. in Sacramento. There will be a reading and reception Friday night, April 20th beginning at 7 PM, featuring Heather Hutcheson, Andy Jones, Danny Romero, & Brad Henderson. Saturday, April 21, from 8:30 AM to 4 PM will be a series of workshops with Andy Jones, Brad Henderson, Gail Entrekin, Camille Norton, Heather Hutcheson, Tim Kahl, Sac City Ethnic Theatre Workshop, Danny Romero, and Angela Dee Alforque. See your April “Poetry Now’ for more details. The fees are $25 for SPC members and $35 for non-members. Make checks payable to SPC and mail to SPC Writers’ Conference, 1719 25th St., Sacramento, CA 95814. An entry form is printed in your April “Poetry Now.” The day will close with a participant group reading and celebration.

I probably will not be able to attend, but I'm working my angles right now. I have found this to be a great group of people and a tremendous resource and community, and I highly endorse them! Let me know if you are thinking of going or if you go.


Sunday, April 8, 2007

The Whiskered Muse

This month the assigned reading for our Creative Writers' Group (which meets this Saturday, 4/14 in the library at Oak Hills Church) was a mini-anthology compiled by this blogger and made up entirely of poems about cats and dogs.

Since handing out the poems, I've come to realize that almost every poet has written at least one poem about their pets. They are a very handy muse. And I'm feeling quite bereft that I haven't one. Now I tell my husband, "I need a dog for my writing."

I like to know as much as I can about the writers I read. I guess it helps me put their creative work in context. So, here is a quick biography on most of the poets we read this month. Almost all this information is taken entirely from "The Writer's Almanac," which I mentioned in my last blog entry.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, "To Flush, My Dog." "Browning was born March 6 in Durham, England (1806). She fell off a horse as a child, and as a result was an invalid for much of her life. She was doted upon by her father until she was 40 years old, at which time she fell in love with the poet Robert Browning, and secretly married him. Her father never allowed her back into his house, and returned her letters unopened. Her intensely happy 15 years of marriage ended when she died in Browning's arms, in Florence, when she was 55." (W.A.)

"Choosing A Dog" is by William Stafford, who was born January 17, 1914 in Hutchinson, Kansas. He was a Christian who was involved in the early years of what later became the Civil Rights movement and then, as a registered conscientious objector during W.W.II worked at a number of alternative service camps across the country. He had a discipline of writing every morning, and some of his best poems were written during the years of the war. He taught at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon and was one of the country's most respected and prolific poets. The novelist James Dickey said he was a 'born poet,' and that "poetry was the easiest way for him to communicate."

"Dog" is by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, born March 24 in Yonkers, New York (1919). "He wrote A Coney Island of the Mind (1958), the best-selling book of poetry in the country during the sixties and seventies. He also started the only bookstore in the United States ever to become a stop on a tour-bus route -- San Francisco's City Lights Bookstore. He spent World War Two in the U.S. Navy, took part in the Normandy invasion, and arrived in Nagasaki six weeks after the atomic bomb was dropped; he said that was when he became a pacifist. He got a Ph.D. at the Sorbonne on the G.I Bill, then went to San Francisco, where he met the poet Kenneth Rexroth, and started a venture to publish small, inexpensive volumes of poetry. The fourth volume in the series was a long poem by Allen Ginsberg called Howl. A Customs agent seized the book and arrested Ferlinghetti, and he became the focus of one of the biggest obscenity trials in the country. The book was ruled not obscene, a landmark victory for freedom of speech. Ferlinghetti is one of the few poets in the United States who has never held a job at a university, never received government funding, and never won a Pulitzer. He said: 'Like a bowl of roses, a poem should not have to be explained.'" (WA)

Elizabeth Coatsworth wrote that very cunning poem, "On a Night of Snow." If you haven't read it, you should. There's an Elizabeth Coatsworth mentioned in the Writer's Almanac, but that Elizabeth is only referred to as a children's book author, so, I'm not sure if it's the same lady. However, one thing I have observed is that the name Elizabeth appears to be well suited to the writing personae. I would like to tell my parents, "You should have named me Elizabeth, for my writing."

"Sister Cat" is by Frances Mayes. She also wrote that very popular novel, Under the Tuscan Sun, which got made into a movie I haven't seen. So I suppose her cat is eating some delicious Italian pesce for dinner tonight. She's also a professor of creative writing at San Francisco State U.

Christopher Smart wrote the poem fragment about his cat, Jeoffrey. His birthday is April 11, and that's this Wednesday. So, I'm going to post something extra special just for him soon. I think I will launch an all-out crusade to make his birthday another holiday, similar to those for St. Valentines and St. Patrick. I will probably do this with all the enthusiasm and vigor of an earnest slacker.

If you don't have a copy of the poems, let me know and I'll email them to you. How 'bout you read them and tell us which is your favorite and why. Also, let them teach you how to write a poem or a story or just a quick personal essay about a pet you've known. And then, come Saturday and share what you've written with us.

Happy Writing and Happy Easter--


Sunday, April 1, 2007

Spring and Baseball and Poetry

National Public Radio--only one of my addictions--has had a few poetry features I want to share.

On Saturday, March 31, there was a story about baseball haikus. The interviewed poet said baseball is perfectly matched to the haiku form, and they read a few delightful baseball haikus.
Here's a link:

And this weekend's "A Prairie Home Companion," was the annual spring poetry contest, with lots of poems about spring by poets like us.... Here's a link to the lyrics: . My favs are "For Millicent and Giovanni, who are going to need a bed" and "Bribe."

If you have time, give them a read or listen, and then...why not write your own spring poem or baseball haiku and post it here?

Also, Garrison Kellior, the host of A Prairie Home Companion, has a daily radio feature called "The Writer's Almanac" on which he reads a poem each day. You can access it online or have it delivered (in a newsletter format) to your email box daily (for free).

Here's a link: To subscribe to the newsletter, go to the upper right corner.

And here's my attempt at a baseball haiku. This is to commemorate many poetic (soft)ball games of my childhood played in our front yard:

The cherry tree is
second base. The dog runs off
with the ball again.