Jul 20

With No Way Out, I Find a Way Out

My back was against the wall: a beautifully conceived project, unique but entirely do-able, and do-able only by me (among all the people on earth) except there wasn't the money.

Because of a technicality -- they had my letters of rec but had lost my application and proposal -- I didn't get the $1500 fellowship I thought was a sure thing. (No academic should ever count on "a sure thing.") "Apply again next year," they said. Except I don't wait until next year for anything anymore.

That same evening I put my proposal up on Indiegogo.com, a crowd-funding site that's like the better-known Kickstarter. Understand that I never do things like this. But I was so annoyed, it was so unfair, and -- most of all -- the project was so important and it wouldn't get done unless I did it. Within 12 hours I was fully funded. By campaign's end, thanks to some very kind and believing people, I'd raised $500 more than my goal. Of course Indiegogo takes 9 percent, and taxes on the funding are around 20-25 percent, but there was enough money for lodging for eight working days. That's how long I think it'll take me to page through 696 letters and 158 books in the Sylvia Plath archive at the University of Indiana-Bloomington.

What am I doing there? The archive was purchased from Aurelia Plath in 1977. Aurelia of course kept all of Sylvia's letters, and her personal library, art projects, and more from 1940 until Sylvia left the U.S. for good in 1959. Aurelia, a professor of business in the College of Practical Arts and Letters at Boston University, knew and taught Gregg shorthand, and wrote Gregg shorthand notes on the letters and their envelopes, and in the books. I first visited the archive last fall and saw these markings, which the archive called "unreadable," although they weren't to anybody like me, who had been forced to learn shorthand before it became obsolete. Despite the hundreds of scholars who have dug into this archive, no one had ever transcribed the shorthand. I believe Aurelia's remarks might reveal new facts and patterns.  So I was determined to go there and do this systematically.

There's a prayer that simply says "Make a way." A way was made because this one time I wasn't ashamed to ask for something I needed. I would have been more ashamed to give up.
Apr 17

The Idea Box

ideaboxA former student had a carpenter husband who made this graceful box, and she brought it to me in thanks for the class, and it's gorgeously made and I love it. But what to put in it?

For a long time I kept writing ideas for poems on passing scraps of paper, would lose them, and then lose the chance to write the poem, because the moment of conception, if not captured, never returns. I have actually gotten out of the shower to write down a fleeting idea, or stopped in the middle of a block, put down my things and got out some paper and a pen, and recommend this -- taking your ideas THIS seriously. respecting them THIS much -- to everyone who writes. I've written ideas on post-its and the backs of business cards and the strangest paper scraps. And when I want an idea I go to the idea box and poke around. Today's scrap, a recently inscribed one, said "Polite Applause." So I drafted a poem about polite applause. Yesterday's pick from the idea box was "Hostas." I got partway through it and finished it today. There's a scrap in there that says "Diana Cancer," as in "Her mother's Diana Cancer," and that idea needs to be thought out, but I think it's a good one. Oh, these scraps say all sorts of things, such as "A dinosaur bit me" and "bare metal." They needn't make sense. They're seeds of a poem. The idea box is my best way to keep intact ideas that need to wait.
Oct 08

"On the Coming of Evening"

"On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study, and at the door I take off the day's clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly, and, reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for.

"I am not ashamed to speak with them and ask them the reason for their actions, and they in their kindness answer me, and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them."
- Letter from Niccolo Machiaelli to Francesco Vettori, 10 December 1513
Jun 21

I Could Vacation on This Money, Or I Could Print a Book

I signed the contract, wrote the check, and mailed it at the P.O. today. Asked the clerk for a pretty stamp. For good luck. I'm in high-risk territory here. If I do this wrong, if I'm deceiving myself. . . But if I do this right . . .

This is a self-publishing project: an illustrated little inspirational book for women. The fantastic drawings by Sheila Kennedy will make the book of work of art. This project has long roots. At a printery I'd seen adorable little books, like children's books, except they were for adults; loved the shape and size. Then in my files I found the list, 31 lines, that would become the text. I'd written it to restore myself after a rough patch. Re-reading it I was surprised it was still "alive." I thought, this could help somebody else. My Inner Critic had a field day:

*who will read this? *you, writing inspirational stuff? *you want to kill your reputation this will do it! *you really want to embarrass yourself! *it will cost seeerious money! *where will you find an illustrator? *what qualifies you to try to inspire people? *why isn't it a book of poems? *you are crazy!

But I shut up my Critic (he looks and sounds like Christopher Hitchens). It wasn't easy. It was like the Puritans in old Plimoth: If somebody in town went nuts or on a bender, they dragged him to his house, tossed him in and then nailed the door shut, to let him cool off. Just in the last two weeks I first spoke of the idea to other writers. I explained the concept or brought them the text, nervously asking, am I crazy?

Finding the illustrator was easy; I was led to her. I didn't seek design and printing estimates; knowing its likely price and what I wanted, I asked for it and signed. My publishing experience, all of it, came in very handy. (I'm the kind who'll park the car in the first empty space and walk, rather than keep circling to find one closer to the entrance.) And, gritting my teeth, sent the check today.

Several streams had run together: the business course that said manifesting "crazy" ideas was the sanest thing to do. My editing of faith-based book manuscripts, which I found strangely moving although I am not religious. Karmic issues I won't go into. The "now or never" bit. The "leap and the net will appear"/"walk by faith, not by sight" bit. (Did it before, risking much more than I am now.) The "better to regret what you did do than what you didn't do." The "dare you dare you, double-dog dare you." The "I could vacation on this money or I could make this book. I'll make the book."

May 08

Annie Dillard Helped

Annie Dillard (nee Meta Ann Doak) helped me today as I chose 6 unpublished poems to submit to an anthology that is no sure thing, that I suspect might never be finished or published. So I wanted to hold back a couple of poems just too good for it, thinking: I bet these could impress a bigger editor -- later. Then Dillard's words came to mind:
"One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better."
And I sent my 6 best poems and felt the rightness of it, the healthiness of having set them free, trusting that I will write even better ones. Thank you, Annie.
May 05

Showered with Jewels

Proof that great ideas DO often strike in the shower! A news brief in the June 2007 Ladies Home Journal quotes recent research: "'Our skin is designed to naturally administer the right proportions of molecules to have a beneficial, stimulating effect on our thinking,' explains Frank Rice, Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience. . ." Credit your endorphins -- the stuff that gives you your natural highs, like those you get from exercising or massage. Or maybe from hugs. I read somewhere that for maximum creativity, you need 12 hugs a day.

What's a few wet footprints on the carpet compared to inspiration? Each gift of sudden inspiration comes only once, to only one person. You don't want to lose it. Even Emily Dickinson thought, " 'Twill keep," but it won't -- and you don't want to have to say along with her, ruefully, "The Gem was gone -- /And now, an Amethyst remembrance/ Is all I own."* Get out of the shower, out of bed, or pull over the car, and write down that idea or first line. I do, even if it's a bother. My personal research says that you have two or three minutes before the gift turns to vapor. (Writers do receive other gifts -- such as book ideas -- that are less perishable.)

To be an artist is to be a channel or gateway for creative power. Enjoy your appointment to the welcoming committee!

*"I held a Jewel in my fingers--" (#245)
May 05

Going to Readings is Good for Your Health and Ego

Poet Erin Belieu read at Washington University's Duncker Hall last night. Full house; did my heart good to see it. She read "In The Red Dress I Wear at Your Funeral," the climactic long poem from her critically acclaimed new book, Black Box. I am so glad I went. It was good in all ways for my health as a writer.

At least once every two weeks I attend a literary reading or event in order to stay current, to learn, to enjoy, to listen to the hot new poets or honor the hot old ones. Always I keep a notebook and pen at hand, because it seems that poems attract poems -- at readings, the whole room fills with them, like butterflies -- and I want to capture my share to take home. Some of my best ideas for prose and poems are conceived at readings. It's a stimulating environment, full of thoughts and ideas: totally writer-friendly.

That said, I like Ms. Belieu's poems, but at their best they are only about 5 to 10 percent better than mine -- a great boost to my confidence. And on the way home it occurred to me that no matter how painful, the end of a love relationship is not at all like real death. That metaphor originated with court poets who wrote for the elite. We in the wealthy USA use that metaphor to lend drama to our lives. Anyone who has seen death knows that by comparison, a love relationship gone bad is bubblegum.
May 05

Better Than Money

"I have to let you know," said the young poet who sought me out at the party, "that your new book inspired me to write my first nonfiction. I've had some stuff to deal with, and I thought first that I might write it as fiction. But it came out as nonfiction. It's my first essay. I just wanted to thank you."

"That's really great," I said.

"And whenever I got sort of stuck while I was writing it, I would look at the essays in your book and see what you had done. I used them as a sort of template."

"I'm glad," I said.

"I never thought I'd write any nonfiction. It was such a surprise!"

"Poets tend to write good nonfiction," I said. "Could you tell," I added, "in those earlier essays, whose template I was using? James Baldwin's," I said. "You can see me imitating his sentence structure. Until I got my own."

"I love James Baldwin. I've read a lot of his fiction. I love Sonny's Blues, and use it in every class I teach. But I didn't know he wrote essays."

"He wrote great, great essays. His fiction really doesn't compare at all. I hope you can get the collected-essays book called The Price of the Ticket. If I have any regrets," I said to the poet, "it's that during his lifetime I must have had the chance to hear James Baldwin read from his work, maybe on a campus, and I must have passed it up. I'd never even heard of him. I was already in my 30s when I first read his work. But his essays were my inspiration."

"Yours were mine!"

And later I thought: That's more proof that only good has come of my having the nerve to self-publish. I don't mean money; I can go work at Wal-Mart and make money. I mean true genuine good.