Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Why You Write

I've been thinking about the moment of epiphany a lot lately.  Google the term and you'll find religious and literary iterations, but though they're accurate in one way, they're rather, on the whole, misleading. Yes epiphany is "an experience of sudden and striking realization" and "breakthrough" and may be "manifestation of a deity" yes, yes. But here's the issue with such definitions for me.  Epiphany is therefore conjured as a rare occurrence, a kind of wondrous, magic experience, an Oprah "Aha" moment in which one enters into a spiritual struggle and eventually sees a kind of light and learns acceptance and is inspired and things get better...

But who says that epiphany leaves you feeling so much better? In James Joyce's quintessential epiphany story "Araby," a young boy moves, in a brief three pages, from the romantic, moist, sustaining illusions of childhood into the darker, dry, difficult world that is reality. The plot in brief: a boy has a crush on a girl, and promises to buy her a keepsake at the local fair.  He gets there late, and there really isn't anything much to buy. The story ends with these lines:
Gazing up into the darkness, I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.
My students are usually not impressed with their first reading. Nothing happens! they say.  It ends so quickly, without resolutionIt's not about anything! He's so dramatic! Our discussion usually focuses on how the boy, throughout most of the story, has used his imagination to illuminate and beautify his world.  Carrying packages for his aunt through a dingy market, he pretends to be a knight on a quest:  "I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes." He dreams of the girl he hardly knows and believes that by getting her a small keepsake he can win her love. What is a crush, after all, but a thoroughly imagined love? 

And then, at the fair, in an instant—an unremarkable, tiny instant—he sees the folly of his thinking. He sees how the world he has always accepted—his imagined world—is only that. What was I thinking? he seems to be saying. In this way he is no different from all of us who have to, one day, move from a childhood or innocence through our particular door of experience, one way or another. No matter what happens from then on in his life, this moment, this realization, will always be a part of his experience, a tincture to his view. It will be the aesthetic which shapes his life's materials. If there is a light involved, it is light only that it illuminates a life less rose-colored. If there is inspiration, it is inspiring only in the true definition of the word inspire: to breathe life into. That is, it will be as much a part of his daily life as each breath he takes and probably as imperceptible as well.
And it is no different for us all. Your epiphany, too, which you may not have realized: you have already had that one. And it has been a part of all you have done and will do. If you write, you may not even be fully aware of it. Depends what kind of writer you are, I suppose. But it's there. Your tiny, essential epiphany, when you moved from innocence to experience.

Each of us has had that moment when we realized that the world as we had always imagined it was not the world as it was in reality.  If I asked you to name that moment for yourself, what's the first thing that comes to mind?  

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Your Moment of Social Class

From Amor Towles' Rules of Civility:

    "The butterfly display was easier on the eyes, but it too evidenced a certain amateurishness.  The insects were pinned on the felt in such a way that you could only see the topside of their wings.  But if you know anything about butterflies, you know that the two sides of their wings can be dramatically different.  If the top is an opalescent blue, the underside can be a brownish gray with ocher spots.  The sharp contrast provides butterflies with a material evolutionary advantage, because when their wings are open they can attract a mate, while when their wings are closed they can disappear on the trunk of a tree.
    " It's a bit of a cliché to refer to someone as a chameleon: a person who can changed his colors from environment to environment. In fact, not one in a million can do that.  But there are tens of thousands of butterflies: men and women like Eve with two dramatically different colorings—one which serves to attract and the other which serves to camouflage—and which can be switched at the instant with a flit of the wings."

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Next Big Thing

Michael Klein has generously tagged me for The Next Big Thing interview series. Here's my self-interview about my recent book.

What is your working title of your book?

The book is called Dear Editor.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I was trying to figure out what makes a poem a poem. It's not line breaks, because we've all seen work with line breaks that isn't poetry-there's something else, something I couldn't but wanted to define that contributes to the poem, a way of thinking, as Blackmur says in his wonderful definition, an "animating presence."

When you write a poem you use a different mind than when you write, say, a generic submission/cover letter. It's something vital, something wander-y, in the poetry mind, and I wondered: is there a way to isolate the essence of that restlessness, even find a form that emphasizes this? One day, I thought: what if, when she goes to compose the cover letter for submission to the editor, the poet doesn't, or can't, turn off that part of the mind and voice and heart that's actively involved in writing poems? What would happen if her poetry mind overruled her cover letter? And then, as I drafted each day, the discipline of the letters evolved into something that seemed apt and evocative of the daily act of getting oneself into the world, about the nature of being, not to mention the letter writer's insistence on a reality that is more in her sense of the world than the world outside. 

What genre does your book fall under?

Poetry. Epistolary.

What actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Anyone with a Super 8 camera, really.  You. Also: Lena Dunham before Tiny Furniture, Tavi Gevinson before Rookie, Lili Taylor in Say Anything. This isn't real, right? I'm using my imagination. Speaking of which, forget the movie, can I just have Lili Taylor read it out loud? Because I love her voice.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Dear Editor is a book of poems in the form of cover letters to an unseen, all-knowing editor.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Dear Editor was published by Persea Books.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I write over the summers, so: three years of summers.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

The story of a writer wondering in the world seems to me to be a part of every writing endeavor.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Dear Editor emerged from a strange intersection: a combination of trying to trying to figure out what makes a poem a poem, and a conversation I had with one of my students about sin and daily penitence. It seemed to me that there the two issues bewildered me equally. I mean bewildered in a kind of archaic sense: 'be” meaning "thoroughly" and “wilder “ meaning "lead astray, lure into the wilds." I felt led into a wild, but it was not a pathless wild, It had many intersecting paths, like in a fabulous maze, and then I walked in.

What else about the book might pique the reader's interest?

I've talked elsewhere about her frustration with metaphor, and her fascination with chess and with girl saints, both iconic narratives concerning power, strategy, and discipline. The Amy Newman of the book is especially interested in the girl saints' ability to break into blossom or burst into fire at the slightest hint of bullying. She much admires that ability, and her letters become increasingly concerned with what it means to persevere in spite of the silences she encounters, to quietly continue in the private monologue—what she fervently hopes is a dialogue—she has begun.

But she's also just a lonely girl in high school, exploring her sense of being in her world: am I a part of it? Am I outside of it? Am I a pawn? In any case she is enthralled by it. And I think this feeling is not limited to her, but extends to all us.

And here are the writers I've tagged for the series:


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