Saturday, June 17, 2017

Put on your bifocals

A few years ago, I got a sinus infection so bad that it apparently pushed one of my eyeballs out of shape. Before the infection, I had 20/20 vision. After, things remained out of focus, and I found myself in need of some visual assistance.

Of course, at a certain point my eyes were going to need a little extra help anyway, so my second pair of glasses turned out to be the dreaded bifocals. (And let me just tell you, the first time wearing those was a trip. Literally, because I couldn’t figure out (a) where the floor was, and (b) what my feet were doing relative to the floor.) Even after a year and a half, I’m not used to tipping my head up or down depending on what I’m trying to look at. For instance, when I go to a hockey game at the arena, it usually takes me until halfway through the first period to remember that I’m not watching on TV, and therefore need to angle my head accordingly even though the apparent size of the little skating people is the same.

All the same, having gone through a few weeks where I wasn’t entirely sure that my vision would recover even partially, I’m grateful to be able to cheat Nature a bit and keep reading.

I was thinking this week about the power of bifocals—being able to focus on things both near and far despite the weaknesses of aging eyes, without switching glasses every few minutes—and how that relates to telling stories and writing poems.

Writers need to be able to view their work through a number of lenses, and switch between those lenses with a certain degree of ease. We wear one pair for rough draft work and another for editing. We filter our work depending on the setting or the perspective of the narrator, the market at which we’re aiming or the images we want to linger in our readers’ minds. Recently I drafted a story, one that has some resonance with my life out here in the real world, and I have an emotional attachment to those resonances. That was the story I needed to tell myself, about sisterhood and sacrifices.

Do these glasses make me look more intellectual? That's my 'I wish I was watching hockey instead of writing' face.

When I had saved the completed draft of that story, I took a moment to enjoy the fact that I'd finished something I didn't hate. Inevitably, though, I also thought about the ways in which the story didn’t work. I could see where trying to force the story into a familiar folkloric pattern, I’d weakened it. Looking at it through another lens, I began to see the loose threads and ways I could weave them back into the story. I spotted some places where I had sacrificed the emotional heart of the story for the sake of generating action for the plot.  

As I read other people’s fiction more thoughtfully, it grinds the lenses through which I see my own work. If I can learn more ways to see the patterns of stories—bifocals, trifocals, or more—the world deepens, the layers grow sharper for a reader. I don’t feel a need to outwit readers, and believe that anything I write should be a like a table set for anyone who happens to wander in. Not everyone’s going to like what I’m serving, but I can at least offer a welcome rather than a slammed door.

Yet at the same time, I believe writing and revising while switching between lenses can create worlds that feel more real—more truly resonant—for anyone who takes the time to visit.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Emptiness vs. Lack

Lately my spiritual reading has been divided between a book by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn and poetry by the Sufi mystic Rumi. One thing in particular that fascinates me is the way in which two such different spiritual paths can converge on similar ideas. Lately I've noticed how both Thich Nhat Hahn and Rumi talk about emptiness as a key element of spirituality.

At first I found myself a little resistant. In our culture, emptiness implies an absence, an unfilled need. Emptiness, in other words, is bad. But then my poet tendencies kicked in, and I started to think about emptiness in other ways. In the Christian tradition, the principle of sacrifice turns up again and again--both the great sacrifice of Christ, but also the smaller ways in which his followers can abandon their sins and weaknesses, give up our wants in the moment for something better in the future.

It occurred to me that the common denominator in all these faith ways is the idea of emptiness as potentiality: creating space for something better and higher, rather than merely going without. Emptiness is a state of readiness, where the person who seeks greater insight prepares a place for that insight. It's like leaving a field fallow one year so it's ready for seeds and summer's growth the next.

Maybe it's a symptom of the core problem in our society that we see emptiness not as potential, but lack. A friend and I were discussing what we call 'the famine mentality' recently. It's at the root of our unhealthy relationship with food and my tendency to buy more books than I can read. I know there's a hole, and I grasp at ways to fill it.

It manifests in broader ways, too: the sense that immigrants will steal jobs or pose a threat to safety. The worship of financial ruthlessness over generosity. The zero-sum approach to relationships of all kinds, from romance and marriage to parenting and friendship. If I can only see my own loss in someone else's gain or success, there's only lack, not emptiness. Consumed by the need for more to fill the hole, I've left no room for the possibility of joy and peace.

There's a great deal of anger and blame going around, over what's gone wrong in our world. And there's much to fear. But I think we won't get better until we stop seeing only what we lack, and start cultivating an empty place--an open place--for hope and kindness.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Haunted Ground

At the entrance to the Salaspils transit camp near Riga

In 1987, I spent three weeks in what was then the Soviet Union as a student ambassador. We stopped in Moscow and St. Petersburg (which was still Leningrad back then), in Sochi and Azerbaijan, in the Baltic capitals of Tallinn and Riga. We saw some amazing, beautiful things while we were there, and met kind and thoughtful people. And maybe one day I'll tell you about that, but today I'm going to talk about the place that made the deepest impression of all.

When the Nazis invaded the USSR, they expanded their extermination program, collecting Jewish people and anyone else they deemed undesirable and transporting them to concentration camps to the west. They built places like Salaspils, outside Riga, collection points from which they'd ship their victims. 

A memorial statue at Salaspils

Nazis committed horrible crimes at the transit camps, too. Maybe not on the scale of a place like Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen, but still sickening, in the inhumane treatment of innocent human beings, the cruelty, the callous disregard for life and families and the most basic principles of morality.

Until that day, the Holocaust was something of which I was aware, but only on a superficial level (yes, genocide=bad). It was a terrible thing that had happened far in the past, but it seemed to intersect little, if at all, with my fortunate life. But walking through the remnants of the camp, seeing the pictures, hearing the stories of families torn asunder . . . It made me think, on a level I hadn't before, about what it all meant, the big picture, but also the individual lives. 

Another of the memorial statues

I've tried three or four times to write a stunning conclusion to this, and I can't believe the things I feel I ought to say. Like, "Torturing people is a bad idea for a lot of reasons." Or, "It's a bad precedent to turn legal residents away at the border and keep them from their families and jobs." Or, God help us, "When I was a kid, 'alternative facts' were known as lying and no one approved."

Here's the thing about power based on fear: The people who hold it always have to generate more fear to keep that power. They always have to have someone, something, to destroy. The rest of us are just a means to an end for those who think that way, and being a true believe will not save you once you cease to be useful.

The ghosts of the past are calling out from their haunted ground. Will we listen to their warning?

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

First Publication of the New Year, and thoughts on the perfect detail

I don't think I mentioned I have a poem up in the latest issue of Abyss and Apex. The poem is one I wrote for my younger son, who always has good (and tough) science questions for me.

So, please enjoy "The Volume of the Universe."

On a writing craft note, I've been thinking about one of the book's I'm currently reading, Tana French's The Secret Place. I'm a recent convert to her Dublin Murder Squad stories, and one of the things I like best about them is her keen eye for detail. See, as writers we hear a lot that we need to 'show, don't tell.' And that's good advice, as far as it goes, but there's also the matter of making sure the right--the best--detail is there to bring the scene to life.

So, in the beginning of The Secret Place, French introduces a character, a teenage boy. She brings him to life, rowdy and secretive, close to his friends and ambivalent about his boarding school. And this is how she ends the scene:

Chris Harper is all ready for this year, he can't wait; he's got plans.

He has eight months and two weeks left to live.

That last line: Nine words, one syllable each. It's specific. It's just the right amount of specificity, in fact. If she'd said 'about nine months,' it would have made me think of pregnancy, not murder. If she'd strung out months, weeks, days, hours, it would have taken on a ridiculous quality, like a lovelorn comic character mourning a busted relationship. Instead, it's a finite boundary, beyond which Chris Harper will cease to exist. The clock begins to tick. Reading that line gave me goosebumps, and it made me want to read more.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Stringing words together

I can make myself write fiction even when nothing particular is sparking, and sometimes things start to flow just because I've taken the time to show up and accept the words in their imperfection. The same isn't true of poetry. When I try to force the issue, I'm invariably unhappy with the result. It's a good idea to hang onto those poems anyway; sometimes a line is worth keeping, or the title gets used for something better. But for me, poems need to grow organically, in a way fiction drafts don't.

I was thinking about that today because the title of a poem leaped into my mind. (Usually I get either the title, or the first line. Sometimes, rarely, both at once.) The title that showed up was "Blood and Chocolate." Not sure yet what it will become. It may take a day or two, or a year, for the rest to make itself known. I'm learning to be okay with that.

But as I gathered up clothes for a load of laundry, I found myself wondering why it was so clearly "Blood and Chocolate," and not "Chocolate and Blood." For the record, I think either would make a good poem, but the latter is not my poem title. I'm not sure why.

That's one of the things I find interesting about writing in general, and poetry in particular. Some things, some sentences or rhythms or combinations of words are just right. And some are just wrong, even if they're grammatically correct. It's a leap of faith, getting from correct to right.

Maybe this is why some people tend to sneer at 'workmanlike' prose or verse. It gets the job done, but avoids taking risks. It conveys the message, but doesn't reach beyond the surface elements of the poem or story.

At least with poetry, there's a tradition of making odd juxtapositions of images, which is a lot of the fun of writing poems. Sometimes I don't take enough risks, because I don't want to create poetry that excludes readers. One of my goals, usually, is to make something that any person can pick up and enjoy at some level, even if some of what I'm doing eludes them. I don't see much value in artistic snobbery; there is beauty in a tumble of stones even before you realize it's the wall of an ancient ruin, decaying in the sun.

Maybe there's no real mystery here. Maybe "Blood and Chocolate" is inevitable, a tidal wash of words beginning on one beach and running to a different stretch of sand. But I can't explain it, not entirely, and I'm not sure it would be wise to try.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Current reading, and 2016 favorites

I just started reading Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism. One of my goals for the future is to read more deeply in politics and philosophy, and her book was recommended by several people. Written shortly after the end of World War II, it focuses on twentieth century totalitarian regimes, particularly Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

In the introduction, Arendt writes, No doubt, the fact that totalitarian government, its open criminality notwithstanding, rests on mass support is very disquieting. It is therefore hardly surprising that scholars as well as statesmen often refuse to recognize it, the former by believing in the magic of propaganda and brainwashing, the latter by simply denying it . . . She goes on to add, However, the point of the matter is that this [knowledge of massacres and abuses] did not in the least weaken the general support of the Hitler regime. It is quite obvious that mass support for totalitarianism comes neither from ignorance nor from brainwashing. (Arendt, vii)

One of the history books I read last year, Martin Kitchener's Speer, challenges Albert Speer's whitewashed account of his years as Hitler's architect and accomplice. Kitchener skewers the apologetics of other historians, and their willingness to accept the way Speer glossed over his role in the Nazi regime. In an age where fake news and post-truth politics seem to be the order of the day, Kitchener's book was a powerful reminder to me of the need to dig deeper and not take any public figure's story at face value.

I'm off to read some more, but I also wanted to mention some of my favorite books of 2016, which I've broken down between fiction and nonfiction. I was . . . not very diligent about posting reviews on Goodreads this past year, but I'm hoping to do a better job going forward.

Ivory Vikings, Nancy Marie Brown
The Essential Rumi, Coleman Barks, trs.
Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear, Margee Kerr
The Witches: Salem 1692, Stacy Schiff
Maximum City, Suketu Mehta
Where Nobody Knows Your Name, John Feinstein
The Confidence Game, Maria Konnikova
Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better, Pema Chodron
Stamped from the Beginning, Ibrim X. Kendi
It Ended Badly: 13 of the Worst Breakups in History, Jennifer Wright
Grit, Angela Duckworth

Emissary, Melissa McShane
The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, N. K. Jemisin
Broken Harbor, Tana French
Nevernight, Jay Kristoff
The Peripheral, William Gibson
The Raven Boys and subsequent volumes, Maggie Stiefvater
The Tyrant’s Law, Daniel Abraham
Worlds of Ink and Shadow, Lena Coakley
What Is Not Yours, Is Not Yours, Helen Oyeyemi
A Darker Shade of Magic, V. E. Schwab
The Paper Menagerie, Ken Liu
The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant, Jeffery Ford
Etched in Bone, Anne Bishop
A Green and Ancient Light, Frederic Durbin