Thursday, May 31, 2007

Surprise Endings

So, with our assignment this month to write a poem or story with an ironic twist or surprise ending, I've been doing a lot of thinking about endings, and I've been realizing just how important those last lines are. They often make or break a poem or story. A wonderful ending doesn't have to be purposefully clever and surprising. In fact, that device, if not used with a sort of gentle light touch, often can feel like a sort of cheap trick. But I'm inclined to believe that an ending that perfectly, and yes, even surprisingly, transforms a poem or a story into something that lifts me up out of the dim room of myself is one of life's most sublime pleasures.

More than once I have literally cried out with sheer joy upon reading a perfect ending. Kay Ryan's poem "Things Shouldn't Be So Hard," and a recent reading of Alice Munro's story "Friend of My Youth," both showered me with such uncontainable delight.

I'd like to point you to one of the most delightful and perfect and even surprising endings in modern poetry. The poem is "A Blessing" by James Wright. Read it now, and let me know your reaction.

I don't know enough about writing to say for sure, but my best guess is that the way to write endings like this is to let them surprise you, the writer first. At least this is one way to guard against cheap tricks. Just start writing, as Flannery O'Connor, and Raymond Carver, and Alice Munro and many other masters claimed to do, and see where you end up. If you allow yourself to be surprised, the reader will be as well.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Whatcha Reading?

Writers are first readers. We are most trained by our reading. And most of us are pretty compulsive readers. I know when I read something that excites me, I am so moved, my emotions and love are almost overwhelming. And I want to share what I've experienced. And I want to be a part of it through my own writing.

So, what are you reading? Would you share? What's on your nightstand? What keeps you up late long after you should be asleep.

Right now I'm reading: Annie Dillard's A Pilgrim At Tinker Creek for the first time. C.S. Lewis' book of poetry (did you know he wrote poetry, at that it was published?!), and I'm rereading a collected book of some of Alice Munro's short stories, which are absolutely amazing to me.

I find the voices of Dillard and Munro both are strong and vibrant, full of a kind of clarified vision and love and grace that I long for in my own life. They deeply impact me and resonate with me. I am inspired in the purest and truest sense.

And when I read Lewis' poems, I feel as if I'm reading the most beautiful and honest words from a dear, dear, beloved uncle of mine (because I've read all his other stuff). He's an uncle I've heard expounding and telling stories at the Sunday dinner table for years, but in his poetry he is singing, and praying, and it's just a delight.

What about you? What's got you turning pages right now?

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Thoughts from a mother to other mother artists (and fathers....and other nurturers)

My return to creative writing coincided (not coincidentally, I believe) with the beginning of my life as mother. Among other things, this means that all my creative work, like everyone else's I know, has to fit around my life. Of course, it's a struggle. A toddler doesn't understand the meaning of "A room of her own." Babies catch colds, they have sleepless nights, cranky days. They need. My family (and many others) need me, the physical me, a lot more than they need my writing. And yet, I believe I need to, I would even say I am called to write. I believe that it is an act of faith and gratitude and perhaps even service. And I believe that learning to live with the tension of these different needs and demands and desires, and learning to trust God with those things and with what I cannot do and with what I must do is one of the most important tasks in my writing.

Right around the time I started writing, I read a little essay by Alicia Ostriker called, "A Wild Surmise: Motherhood and Poetry." Ostriker had encountered feminists who argued a woman diminished her life and her value as an artist if she had children. In this essay, Ostriker makes a strong argument against this lie. I was very inspired by what she wrote, so I'd like to quote it here. I will comment though, that I think men, as well as women who don't have children, can also learn from what she's written, to the extent that she challenges us to look at the whole of life, the actual life we have--a life with family and work and bodies and relationships--as valid, important (and I would argue) even sacred subject matter for any writer.

The quote follows. I'd love to hear your comments. I know she will say things that irritate some people, so.... it would be fun to talk about our reactions.

"... For women as artists, the most obvious truth is that the decision to have children is irrevocable. Having made it you are stuck with it forever; existence is never the same afterward, when you have put yourself, as de Beauvoir correctly says, in the service of the species. You no longer belong to yourself. Your time, energy, body, spirit, and freedom are drained. You do not, however, lack what W. B. Yeats prayed for: an interesting life. In practical terms, you may ask yourself, 'How can I ever write when I am involved with this child?' This is a real and desperate question. But can you imagine Petrarch, Dante, Keats, bemoaning their lot---'God, I'm so involved with this woman, how can I write?'

"The advantage of motherhood for a woman artist is that it puts her in immediate and inescapable contract with the sources of life, death, beauty, growth, corruption. If she is a theoretician it teaches her things she could not learn otherwise; if she is a moralist it engages her in serious and useful work; if she is a romantic it constitutes an adventure which cannot be duplicated by any other, and which is guaranteed to supply her with experiences of utter joy and utter misery; if she is a classicist it will nicely illustrate the vanity of human wishes. If the woman artist has been trained to believe that the activities of motherhood are trivial, tangential to the main issues of life, irrelevant to the great themes of literature, she should untrain herself. The training is misogynist, it protects and perpetuates systems of thought and feeling which prefer violence and death to love and birth, and it is a lie.

"....The writer who is a mother should, I think, record everything she can...and remind herself that there is a subject of incalculably vast significance to humanity, about which virtually nothing is known because writers have not been mothers. 'We think back through our mothers, if we are women,' declares Woolf, but through whom can those who are themselves mothers, when they want to know what this endeavor in their lives means, do their thinking? We should all be looking at each other with a wild surmise, it seems to me, because we all need data, we need information, not only of the sort provided by doctors, psychologists, sociologists examining a phenomenon from the outside, but the sort provided by poets, novelists, artists, from within. As our knowledge begins to accumulate, we can imagine what it would signify to all women, and men, to live in a culture where child-birth and mothering occupied the kind of position that sex and romantic love have occupied in literature and art for the last five hundred years, or the kind of position that warfare has occupied since literature began."