The Seeker

A Meta-Cognitive Journal About Writing… Plus Other Stuff

Archive for February 2019

Jackass Stubborn

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Parhelion Literary Magazine published my essay “Never Enough” two weeks ago.  It’s nice to return to writing creative non-fiction worthy of publication (back in the day I actually studied CNF as my focus at Northwestern).  To be clear, I’m not lamenting my lack of CNF publications—more like I’ve been wondering when I would write something “true” again. Alas, the muse of truth and writing shat upon me about a year ago and I found my way through, eventually.  I guess it was a matter of waiting patiently while I was busy writing a shitton of other stuff, mostly flash fiction for a few venues and endlessly practicing poetry.

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The muse could have taken a gentler shit and I wouldn’t have complained, but maybe it needed to be weighty and delivered with some velocity to get me to explore some undiscovered country.  Still, the emotional toll of the piece made writing it a real slog at times, especially after the eleventh draft and 8th month of shaping and the fourth rejection.  

That’s right:  Rejection. Four of them before I withdrew it from every other publication I submitted to, and three more even after I wrote v12, resubmitted it, and before PLM picked it up.

The problem all along was that the piece lacked emotional resonance.  To portray the facts of the attempted suicide I witnessed, I settled on a straightforward narrative in past tense.  Writing that was difficult enough across 1800 words, but it also caused the piece to lie flat and two-dimensional on the page.  Past tense hinted that the situation was resolved, varnished, and sanitized. But even months after it happened, I wasn’t feeling varnished and sanitized about what happened.  So how do I communicate that in my writing?  I needed something to distinguish my narrative, and I needed to be honest about where I was in my head with what happened, regardless of how uncomfortable that was.

Thankfully, I’ve taught a creative writing class for the last thirteen years.  And thankfully, too, I sometimes listen to myself when I endlessly harp to my students about some things.  One of those things is how poets use the shape and structure of their poem to convey meaning beyond the words.  A simple example of this the poem “Raking Leaves” by Brian Fanelli. We take a good look at this little gem and talk about all the ways we feel the action and low-grade exertion of actually raking leaves.

There is something soothing about the scrape of a rake,
the rhythmic process of pulling dead leaves,
bending to pick them up, dumping them
in curbside lawn bags,
something soothing about the way the sun
warms your hair one of these last
seventy-degree days as you labor past
soreness in your arms, until you forget
emails to send, reports to file,
take-home work you left at the office,
until you forget the splendid mums will shrivel,
the tree that sheds now will wear nothing soon,
and you will curse the cold.

I constantly harp to my students, too, that what they learn writing and studying poetry should translate to their other writing.  So how does shape and structure translate to a different genre?  By fragmenting the narration.  Once I broke my past-tense narrative into discrete episodes, some as short as a few sentences, something broke loose in my thinking.  I started to feel on the page the emotional dissonance I experienced as the suicide episode unfolded.  I think, too, that perhaps I didn’t have a grasp on  how the whole incident affected me even a few months after as I was still writing the first version.  If I didn’t know the extent of it, how was I going to convey any solid meaning to the reader?  Changing the narration to present tense helped give it a documentary hand-held camera feel and keep the story happening right now with little or no hope of wrapping it up and putting a neat bow on it.  I already had a solid symbolic ending I caught by paying attention to the ordinary things happening around me as I processed the issue, and the present-tense narration really helped emphasize it.

What counts the most, though, beyond these elements of craft that worked pretty well, beyond finding meaning in what happened, was reclaiming “Never Enough” from the endless void of rejected and unpublished writing that I all too often contribute to.  I’ve never reached into the void before and snatched a piece back.  Hell, I never had the experience before where the remedies donged like a bell in my head while I was teaching and encouraged me to reach into the void.  But I’m nothing if not stubborn, and I wasn’t willing to let the story go until I had another say in the matter.  If only I could find a way for my students to be so stubborn about something that doesn’t involve their behavior choices or their phones.  Maybe I could get them to run Cross Country.  They’re still at that age, and doing that is definitely what made me so damn stubborn.

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Written by seeker70

February 16, 2019 at 4:31 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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