Whidbey Writers Workshop, Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, MFA Graduation
23 Aug 08
President Wilmoth, Chairperson Grove, Members of the Writers Association and MFA Governing Boards, Director Ude, Faculty, Staff, Family and Friends of the Graduates, and Members of the Class of 2008, who are Caleb, Tanya, Stefanie and Laurie–thank you for inviting me to speak.
My title today is “Lifetime Writing.” But talking to writers who would like to make a lifetime of their writing is a tricky proposition. Indeed, the teaching of creative writing to students who are aiming high is a subject of much discussion, beginning with the argument over whether writers are born or made. The novelist Somerset Maugham said, “There are three rules for writing well. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.”
I myself think writers who go on writing over a lifetime are helpless not to. We are getting something from writing that we have come to crave. I suppose it must be, part, electro-chemical. Scientists have discovered, for example, that people who constantly make jokes, even at inopportune moments, are getting a physical kick from it. They have created a little circuit in their brains that shoots them some dopamine whenever they make a joke. Stanford researchers discovered that a good joke activates the same brain circuits that can be stimulated by, as they put it, “cocaine, money or a pretty face.”
In other words, the class clown is addicted to comedy, the physicist who works overtime may be addicted to equations, and the lifetime writer may be addicted to language.
The Hungarian/Transylvanian-born psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi,
writes of a feeling he calls “flow.” The flow he means is the state we enter–he also calls it “optimal experience”–when we are so totally involved in what we are doing that we lose track of time. We feel serene, sometimes ecstatic. We have a sense of clarity. We transcend our egos. Whatever we are doing, doing it is its own reward.
That’s how it is for me when I write poetry. It’s midnight, and suddenly it’s four a.m. Where did the time go? In a sense, a person who has an all-consuming passion escapes time. A feeling of discovery erases the clock face. We say about people with a passion that they “lose themselves” in their work. Which really means, in another sense, that they find themselves in their work.
But surely the addictive qualities of writing are pretty weak tea, as drugs go. We have all experienced writer’s block, and we may all know writers who have gone cold turkey and never looked back. They found other things to do.
There are other seductions in writing for those of us who keep at it. One is the chance to express the otherwise inexpressible. Writing has room for ideas, for polemics, for every element of utilitarian prose, but, in the end, imaginative writing is about how life feels. That is the sense of the poet Ezra Pound’s pronouncement that “Nothing counts in a poem save the quality of the emotion.”
Admittedly, “quality” is a big word in that sentence. When it comes to emotion, sometimes words fail us, and at other times none are needed. But what if we sometimes feel that we need to find words to express something more than the material moment? What if feeling is crucial to it? Raw emotion by itself won’t do. When we hear a person screaming, we usually can’t tell what he or she is saying.
Nor does yelling say much more than “ouch!” Imagine, for a moment, that I latch onto one of you just outside the door after this, and I grab you by your lapels and I pull you up real close to me–I “get in your face,” like they say–and I say to you, “Listen, I have to tell you something, something important about all of us. Whatever good and beautiful feelings and thoughts we contain–love, hope, faith, charity, compassion–we also sometimes contain some not so good and not so beautiful thoughts and feelings. Greed, jealousy, selfishness…. Even, sometimes, hate. And those feelings, too, can overtake us completely.” And then I could attempt to really convince you by pulling you even closer to me and staring into your eyes like Robert Mitchum playing the part of the itinerant preacher in the movie “The Night of the Hunter,” in which he has L-O-V-E written on the knuckles of one hand and H-A-T-E on the knuckles of the other–I could pull you real close to me and shout, “Hate! Hate! Hate!”
And what would be the effect of that? Well, for one thing, you’d want to get away. You wouldn’t be convinced of anything except that I was manic or crazy. But suppose I said it this way:
My hate is like ripe fruit
from an orchard, which is mine.
I sink my teeth into it.
I nurse on its odd shapes.
I have grafted every new variety,
walked in my bare feet,
rotting and detached,
on the fallen ones.
Vicious circle. Unfriendly act.
I am eating the whole world.
In the caves of my ill will
I must be stopped.
That, I think, has a different effect. I wrote that poem 45 years ago and, a year or two later, in a high school in Chicago, a young woman in the front row told me she had come across that poem and was afraid of me, and I had to reassure her that I wasn’t like that. Which reminds me to remind us that we need to keep in mind that the speaker in a poem or story is not necessarily the author–but someone who knows a lot about the author.
So much for trying to pin down hate. Let’s take up love. In the movie “The Girl on the Bridge,” a young woman says that “Life begins when you make love.” Of course she had it right except for the word “make.” Well, now I have to tell you that one summer my wife and I made love on the sidewalk. A young woman across the water in Port Townsend had arranged coins on the sidewalk to nearly spell out, in big letters, “L-O-V-E,” and so, when she asked us if we wanted to “make love on the sidewalk,” she got our attention.
The young panhandler had turned an abstraction into something tangible. I was going to say “into something concrete,” but hey! a sidewalk is always concrete. The trouble with abstractions like “love” and “hate” is that by themselves they have no specific meanings. No one knows what “I love you” means. We each have to fill in the meaning from our experience. Poetry and its cousin, song, are often used simply to try to say, “I love you.”
So one day I set out to write a love poem for my wife, Dorothy. I had written other poems to her, but I wanted to write a better one. Christmas was coming. If I could write it in time, I could have it secretly printed and framed and wrap it in a big box for Christmas.
But the world is chockablock with love poems. So I wanted a line with which to begin that would not seem to be the usual thing. I called my poem, “To Dorothy,” and I began it with this line: “You are not beautiful, exactly.” Well, if you write that line to your wife, you had damn well better write another line. This is a poem some of you may know because I include in every reading:
You are not beautiful, exactly.
You are beautiful, inexactly.
You let a weed grow by the mulberry
and a mulberry grow by the house.
So close, in the personal quiet
of a windy night, it brushes the wall
and sweeps away the day till we sleep.
A child said it, and it seemed true:
“Things that are lost are all equal.”
But it isn’t true. If I lost you,
the air wouldn’t move, nor the tree grow.
Someone would pull the weed, my flower.
The quiet wouldn’t be yours. If I lost you,
I’d have to ask the grass to let me sleep.
Words are words, and feelings are feelings. That’s why there are so many love poems in the world. To express how life feels, we have to go by way of dream images, song lyrics, music, dance and mime, painting and sculpture, fiction and poetry. It’s in art that we shape what we feel.
So lifetime writers are both addicted to language and enthralled by the possibility of expressing the otherwise inexpressible. If that weren’t sufficient, there’s another seduction inherent in writing, one that may sound banal but is the very reason that students flood into writing classes. It is simply that art is the big yes.
Much of our lives involves the word “no.” In school, we are mostly told, Don’t do this, do that. Don’t do it this way, do it that way. But art is the big yes. In art, you get a chance to make something where there was nothing.
The big yes of art begins with the permission to abandon ourselves to the materials of an art. There is a quatrain by the Spanish poet, Antonio Machado, just four lines of poetry, that speaks to this. Machado wrote:
People possess four things
that are no good at sea:
anchor, rudder, oars
and the fear of going down.
I grew up on the Atlantic Ocean, and, like many of you, I know the importance of oars, rudder, anchor, and even a healthy fear of the deep to remind us to play it safe. But no, says Machado, “People possess four things / that are no good at sea: / anchor, rudder, oars / and the fear of going down.” What’s the point? The point is, why go to the same islands all the time? Why have the same thoughts all the time? Why not abandon oneself to the current–or, in the case of art, the materials–and end up somewhere new, somewhere heretofore unimagined?
There is a fair amount of improvisation in the arts, a good deal of flying by the seat of one’s pants and going on one’s nerve, lots of accident and a whole lot of dumb luck. Artists accumulate techniques, but they also trust their instincts. It’s hard to get writers, in particular, to fess up about how they make art because they fear that, if they tell you the truth, you won’t respect them in the morning.
The story goes that one of George Balanchine’s dancers asked him what the ballet they were rehearsing was about. In order to dance it, she said, she needed to know the story. But Balanchine wasn’t one of those choreographers who thought ballets needed to tell a story, and he said, “It’s not about anything; it’s just steps.” But the dancer said again that she simply had to know what the ballet was about, and Balanchine said, “Okay, then, it’s about time.” And the dancer said, “What do you mean it’s about time?” And Balanchine said, “It’s about fifteen minutes long.”
As tricky as it may be to find words for feelings, it’s just as tricky in the sciences. Have you heard the terms “Dark Matter” and “Sticky Stuff?” If they sound to you as if they refer to things we can’t see and can’t shake, you have it right. Yet these are scientific terms–”Dark Matter” and “Sticky Stuff”–terms used in astronomy and quantum physics.
I like ideas to have a little dirt on their shoes. So I was downright giddy when the astronomers came up with the term “Dark Matter” to refer to what they can’t see that lies between what they can see. In other words, Dark Matter is the stuff between the stuff. Meanwhile, the quantum physicists decided to refer to what holds together the smallest recordable elements of the atom as–what else?–”Sticky Stuff.”
What good words for the unknown. I may not be able to follow Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, but I feel I understand in my bones the concepts of “Dark Matter” and “Sticky Stuff.” I have not traveled in outer space, I do not leave my body, I have never–not even once–been abducted by aliens, I am neither a psychic nor a seer, but I have been living with Dark Matter and Sticky Stuff my whole life.
In what we think of as “literary writing,” to distinguish it from journalism and utilitarian prose, we travel in dark matter and sticky stuff–perhaps increasingly. Thanks to 24-hour news, satellites and the Internet, the human condition is now in our faces as never before. It’s an old saw that “old age is not for sissies.” Well, it turns out that neither is youth. More than ever, philosophy and art are not luxuries. They are not just personal pleasures or college electives. They are survival skills, and we ignore them at our peril.
Of course, just as there is no one way to write and no right way to write, there is no right or wrong about subject matter or intentions. We are, all of us, multifarious. The same writer who writes of war and rotten politics may write also of the earth, the clouds, flowers, birds, shop tools, eccentric relatives, or even other works of art that register with his or her inner self.
Alas, the possibility of an audience sometimes impinges on the freedom of our art. Let’s admit it: novelists want that date with Oprah, essayists want that syndicated talk show, and poets want their listeners to faint.
A sizable audience can happen to a writer, but I would emphasize again that imaginative writing, like philosophy, is a survival skill. The person who gets the most out of a piece of writing is the one who writes it.
As a poet, I take to heart a story about the great Greek poet, Odysseus Elytis, when he was about to have a book published by Copper Canyon Press, an independent publisher located in Port Townsend.
Sam Hamill and Tree Swenson, the founders of the Press, went to Athens to meet Elytis. On the appointed day, they came down from their hotel room and hailed a taxi. When they gave the driver the address, he whirled around and asked, “Do you know who lives there?” “Yes,” they said, “we have an appointment.” So all the way there, the taxi driver recited from memory poems by Odysseus Elytis.
Elytis greeted them at the top of a stairway. He poured them some refreshment, and then, since Sam and Tree were publishers of good-looking books, he began to show them beautiful books of his poetry that had been published in Greece. And Sam and Tree started to get nervous. Somehow they realized that these collections had been published in huge editions: 80,000; 100,000. And they decided they had better fess up.
“In America,” they told Elytis, “we don’t have audiences of this size for poetry. If we publish a book of yours, it will be in a much smaller edition: perhaps three to five thousand.”
But Elytis said not to worry. “A poet,” he said, “needs three readers. And anyone who is any good has two friends. So you spend your life looking for the third reader.”
In art, the more so if one is not desperate for an audience, one is as free as one chooses to be. Does everything one writes prove worthy of rereading, even negotiable for an audience? Of course not. Does it always feel physically, mentally and emotionally wonderful to write? No. Asked decades ago by an interviewer why I write, I said, somewhat flippantly, “Because it feels so good.” But then the interviewer turned to the poet George Starbuck with the same question, and he said, “Because it feels so good when I stop.”
To the graduates of 2008, congratulations. You made it to the finish line. You also made it to the start line. I think graduation remarks are supposed to contain some advice. So here’s the advice part of my talk. Look after your insides. Remember to do something for others for free. And trust in dumb luck, but remember that you have to make yourself available to it. Above all, enjoy yourselves. A character in a Kingsley Amis novel says, “There aren’t many benefits to sanity, but one of them is being able to tell what’s funny.”
Thank you, again, for inviting me to be part of this. I’ll end by teading a poem called “White Clover.”
Once when the moon was out about three-quarters
and the fireflies who are the stars
were out about three-quarters
and about three-fourths of all the lights
in the neighborhood
were on because people can be at home,
I took a not so innocent walk
out among the lawns,
navigating by the light of lights,
and there there were many hundreds of moons
on the lawns
where before there was only polite grass.
These were moons on long stems,
their long stems giving their greenness
to the center of each flower
and the light giving its whiteness to the tops
of the petals. I could say
it was light from stars
touched the tops of flowers and no doubt
something heavenly reaches what grows outdoors
and the heads of men who go hatless,
but I like to think we have a world
right here, and a life
that isn’t death. So I don’t say it’s better
to be right here. I say this is where
many hundreds of core-green moons
gigantic to my eye
rose because men and women had sown green grass,
and flowered to my eye in man-made light,
and to some would be as fire in the body
and to others a light in the mind
over all their property.
“My Hate,” “To Dorothy,” and “White Clover,” reprinted from Nightworks: Poems 1962-2000, copyright © 2000 by Marvin Bell.