I am from Detroit. The history, grime, music, chaos, and kindness of this town have marked me: marked my flat, midwestern accent, and, more subtly, my eyes and ears. As Annie Dillard suggested decades ago, simply learning to see a place, to “notice” its hidden elements is a key element of craft.
Two writers with Detroit roots, Jamaal May (Hum) and Cal Freeman (Brother of Leaving) offer readers visceral and immediate contact with the worlds their poems inhabit. These writers share a powerful commitment to compassionate noticing. In “How to Enter a Bank-Owned Home,” Freeman drops us in front of a ”caved-in/wooden porch” with a moment of disarming simplicity. In “And Even the Living Are Lost,” May places us in a dice game, weighed in a small boy’s troubled, vulnerable eyes:
a bottle shatters, a door slams shut
and the sound ricochets off the pavement, darts off
like some worried pigeon while your son stares at us.
How long has he been staring at us?”
In very different ways, May and Freeman insist on a heightened awareness that leads toward a deepened communion with a “place” populated by rarely heard voices and untold stories.
Perhaps “craft” is too often understood in terms of “the act of verse-making.” Indeed, mentors and friends have helped me understand form, helped me cut abstractions and details not integral to the core of a poem. But a key element of craft might be one that William Carlos Williams sharpened while awaiting births and deaths. Like many of the writers whose work stirs us, Williams understood that receptivity is part of the writer’s “craft.” When I teach “The Sparrow,” I may emphasize his stanzaic form, his stunning choice of a metaphor that captures his father’s fire. I ought first point out that he watched a real sparrow, that attentive “noticing” is an essential moral ingredient in “imagism.” Not surprisingly, Williams saw and valued his poor patients, elevating them above abstraction and stereotype.
From ancient times, one role of the lyric poem has been the conveyance of an essential story, the vital “news” not provided by other means. To become containers for faces, voices, and images we’ve seen and heard, we need a reservoir of compassion and attentive eyes and ears. We need to let go of our laptops and our personal ambitions to enter the world of our communities. We may find among virtually unseen “neighbors” a plethora of surprises. If we treasure these gifts, we might also begin to populate our work with some of the people and places (Baltimore, Compton, Detroit, Cleveland, etc.) our culture pushes to the margins.
ABOUT MICHAEL: Michael Lauchlan’s poems have landed in many publications including New England Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The North American Review, English Journal, The Dark Horse, Nimrod, Tar River Poetry, Harpur Palate, and The Cortland Review.His most recent collection is Trumbull Ave., from WSU Press. Learn more about his book and listen to him read a poem or two by visiting here.
Craft of Literary features flash essays on craft, CW pedagogy, and publishing by emerging and established writers. For more information, click here.
CRAFT OF LITERARY 1.4: Featuring Betsy Johnson-Miller – “Don’t Strangle Your Brother: The Imperative Mood in Writing”
The best way to get me to dig in my heels and say no? Try telling me what to do. Eat your peas. No. Run five miles. No. Stop and smell the flowers. No no no (even though I love peas, running, and smelling flowers). Hence, the mystery: why is every poem I write lately in the imperative mood?
“stay// stay till half past the tulip’s eye,”
“crawl out// what will pierce you/ will pierce you,”
“live this/ and every day/ without reins”
What I have begun to realize is that there are different kinds of imperative moods. The first kind is what I call the god/mother imperative—the thou shalt’s or thou shalt not’s. This is the voice of the wagging finger: Clean your room. Be good. Pay your bills on time. Don’t strangle your little brother, no matter how much he deserves it.
The second kind of imperative mood is more capitalistic. Buy this. Wear that. There’s even that website—eat this, not that.
These first two are the kinds of imperatives I resist with every fiber of my being. Why? Because their main motivation is to point out what is wrong with me. They make me feel badly about myself. I am not enough. I will never be enough, never have enough. And I can’t bear to hear voices like that—either in my life or on the page.
But I’ve come to realize that there is a different kind of imperative voice. It falls more into exhortation, and this is what I have been writing (and reading) lately. The beauty of this kind of an imperative mood is that it addresses what isn’t working. It slices through all of the protective layers I pad myself in and makes me discover and acknowledge the ways I am broken. It addresses the fact that I am thirsty, dying for a wise voice calling out to me in my wilderness. This kind of imperative voice doesn’t tell me what is wrong with myself or what I need to buy in order to be happy. It listens to what a soul—my soul—really needs. It invites me to be my most authentic, my best, my most wide-open self.
And so I listen.
To Mary Oliver telling me I do not have to be good.
To Rumi, who urges me to start a huge and foolish project without caring one whit what others think of me.
To my Self, who is ready to crawl out, be pierced, and live without reins. A self who is ready to say yes. Yes.
ABOUT BETSY: Betsy Johnson-Miller lives in Minnesota and teaches at the College of St. Benedict/ St. John’s University. She also works at the Collegeville Institute. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Boulevard, Alaska Quarterly Review, Gray’s Sporting Journal, Portland, and The Cortland Review. Garrison Keillor has read two of her poems on The Writer’s Almanac. Her collections of poems Fierce This Falling (2012) and Rain When You Want Rain (2010) are available from Mayapple Press.
“Much of our talk and action, but not all; there seems something which may conveniently be called ‘value,’ something which is measured not by minutes or hours, but by intensity, so that when we look at our past it does not stretch back evenly but piles up into a few notable pinnacles, and when we look at the future it seems sometimes a wall, sometimes a cloud, sometimes a sun, but never a chronological chart. Neither memory nor anticipation is much interested in Father Time, and all dreamers, artists and lovers are partially delivered from his tyranny; he can kill them, but he cannot secure their attention, and at the very moment of doom, when the clock collected in the tower its strength and struck, they may be looking the other way. So daily life, whatever it may be really, is practically composed of two lives — the life in time and the life by values — and our conduct reveals a double allegiance.”
– E.M. Forester from Aspects of the Novel
Craft of Literary features flash essays on craft, CW pedagogy, and publishing by emerging and established writers. For more information, click here.
Just as I won’t take that step off the ledge of a plane to dive into the wide mouth of the sky. Just as I would never skinny-dip with you in your grandfather’s creek. So too do I not surrender myself to my writing.
This is not a new concern for me, but I’m coming to realize that it’s the key; it’s the answer for how I cross the bridge from where I am in my writing to where I want to be.
When I sit down to write a poem (poetry being my primary genre), 90% of the time I’m working on a concept or a narrative, and just as frequently, I have a good sense of where I want the poem to go. But, even when the direction of the poem is unclear, I try to fall back on elements I know to be true of most moving poems: a turn, crackling metaphors, anaphora (especially since my poems are usually free verse), precise lineation. Theoretically, I also push for a well-spun ending that’s both earned emotionally and concludes/renews the meaning of the poem. In each phase of the writing process, I command total control over the poem. I tell it what it will be, who it will be, when it can take a piss. While I’ve written several poems I’m quite proud of, others I’m starting to see as little constipated capsules of inhibition and stunted growth; they don’t breathe, at least not on their own, and they don’t end with effortless gusto, in part because the poem itself never stood a chance to go where it was meant to go. I’m the girl with the bird clutched in my fist wondering why it won’t fly.
I’ve found this to be even worse in my attempts at writing fiction. In speaking of his new novel Purity, Jonathan Franzen said “you have to wing it. If you don’t then it seems like it’s written from an outline. And the idea is to start to set yourself some impossible kind of place to get to, and it becomes an adventure.”
Is that it – am I afraid of adventure?
Two poets who let the poem go where it wants to go? Mary Ruefle and Dean Young. I can only imagine that they follow each poem into the cornfield, through the chicken coop, over the hill into a metropolis, and then hail a taxi back through the conclusion. Their poems surrender control and find in so doing a kind of artful freedom. Henry James says that the first lesson for a writer is to learn to be worthy of this kind of freedom.
I must surrender control. When I open my Mac to a blank document, I need to learn to take a running leap into the sky of the project – to stop writing from the ledge (where I have total and complete control) and start writing mid-air, where I don’t know if I’m safe or where I’ll land.
Christie Collins is the editor of Pretty Red Shoes and the Red Soles Series. She is also doctoral student studying Literature, Creative Writing, and Writing Pedagogy at the University of Louisiana Lafayette. Additionally, she teaches full-time in the Department of English at LSU. Her poems have recently appeared in Cold Mountain Review, Reunion: The Dallas Review, Wicked Alice, So to Speak, Still: The Journal, and Canyon Voices. Her chapbook titled Along the Diminishing Stretch of Memory is available through Dancing Girl Press.
“And I told him all that and then I knew I couldn’t tell him the rest and that I couldn’t marry a man I couldn’t tell this story to.”
-Amy Bloom, from her story “Love is Not a Pie.” Published in her collection Come to Me.
Craft of Literary features flash essays on craft, CW pedagogy, and publishing by emerging and established writers. For more information, click here.
My home office is always a disaster, constantly doubling over as a sanctuary for my cats and a storage room for the piles of papers and boxes that my husband and I don’t know where to put yet. But, as of a few weeks ago, my home office became my only office, at least for the next seven months, which means that I had to make it a workable space, one that I could actually see myself walking into in the morning with a cup coffee.
Before I reorganized the office, my husband and I both had already stopped using it in any productive capacity. Boxes of storage lined the walls, books were everywhere, cat hair clung to the rug and the chair. It wasn’t unusable, but it wasn’t an environment that I wanted to be in for very long, especially not one in which I wanted to sit down and wait for the creative muse to come and whisper in my ear. Let me just say – I wouldn’t call myself an organized person, but it does feel good to be in a space in which every item has a place. My thoughts are scattered, hardly ever organized. I need to work in a place that isn’t a disaster like my mind always seems to be.
To improve my home office situation, I made three big changes:
1) I bought a filing cabinet.
2) I redid my bookshelves.
3) I added two more lamps and new art/décor.
I can’t believe I only just recently bought a filing cabinet. We bought a two drawer set-up (pictured below) from Office Depot that looks like a piece of furniture. I now have ample space to file away not only personal documents but also school and work documents.
My bookshelves were probably the biggest overhaul, and I know that for some people bookshelves aren’t even a part of the home office space. But, for the PhD student in Literature, they are the focal point of the office — and of the work, for that matter. I first moved all my bookshelves to the same wall to consolidate space and to create a single bookshelf look. Then, I had to do something about the coloring. They were so dark that they really dominated the feel of the room. I had seen on Pinterest a few months ago that people were starting to wallpaper the backs of bookshelves in order to update the furniture or just to give it a different feel. So, I went to Lowe’s and found this paper I liked – I knew I wanted to go light since the shelves were so dark. I cut and pasted the wallpaper to the inner back of the shelves with little trouble. Also, the paper I chose can be painted, so that could be another touch added. After, I was pleased with the new look. Not as dark and formal as before.
The next task was to put the books and other items back in a new order. I differ from other readers and writers in that I don’t keep every book I buy. I only keep books that I truly think I’ll refer back to in the future. So, as I was pulling books off the shelves before the wallpapering, I made a stack of books to give away/sell on Amazon. I also stacked the unshelved books in categories by genre. Most of the information on Pinterest had women and men reorganizing by book color and size. Wow, those must be people who don’t actually read/use their books, although I will admit that the pictures looked amazing.
I organize my books by genre, sub-genre, and then alphabetical order for works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, meaning that I don’t bother with alphabetical order for reference books and anthologies. Then, I also added in favorite items – pictures, mementos, rocks, and pieces of art – to give my bookshelves character. My husband calls this my shrine to myself. Hmm, there’s probably some unflattering truth in there somewhere. Always, my 1928 Remington typewriter takes center stage on the top.
The following site was helpful for ideas on bookshelves:
In the end, I added new lamps and new décor. The lamp lighting is especially helpful, giving the room a subtle and inviting feel, not as intense as my overhead lights. I chose a new white and gold piece of artwork to go above my bookshelves to contrast with the dark wood of the shelves, and then I picked orange accents to hang on either side to bring out the orange tones in my rug. In the future, I’d like to paint the walls, but this was a quick, cheap, and efficient project that created the useable work space we needed. Now, if I can just get my pets to chill out, so I can get some work done 🙂
CRAFT OF LITERARY 1.2: Featuring Kate Gregory – “Pulitzer Prizes as Bridge Between Journalistic and Literary Arts”
Journalists and creative writers often find themselves at odds. The former follows AP style and a flat, austere sensibility toward sentence structure and detail, letting the facts dominate. The latter firmly believes in description, artfully manipulating language to create imagistic pieces that breathe life into characters and places that only exist – at the outset – in the writer’s mind.
All journalists have little time for creativity and some simply don’t have the patience for it. Yesterday’s stories are too often gone in tomorrow’s garbage, and every day reporters run, harried and without coffee, out of their warm beds toward a deadline that seems paradoxically trapped in their own shadows. Novelists, poets, and the like have the relative luxury of time, and they spend it reading, usually, and then as their ideas, like children, are born and take shape, they carefully craft masterpieces that may take as long as years; they have the singular gift of defining their own limits.
The Pulitzer Prizes are so good at reminding all of us that no matter how our attitudes and approaches toward writing may differ, journalists and literary writers have a common, important, remarkable talent for relating the human experience in a way that render audiences forever changed. Moreover, they provide their fellow writers with a new arsenal of inspiring materials – work that compels even the most experienced writer to further hone his or her skills in the hopes of writing a narrative so strong and unique that it weaves itself inextricably into the tapestry of our culture’s cumulative tale.
I’d challenge journalists to stop the mad dash for a moment, if they can, to pick up Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See and note the palpable truths of life in World War II-era Europe. I’d also charge a novelist to pick up a copy of The New York Times ten steps away from them at the coffeeshop and introduce themselves to the real characters that populate the newsprint. You’ll be a better writer for broadening your scope, and you’ll develop more respect for people who are, at their core, your kind.
Kate Gregory has a B.A. in English from Ole Miss and an M.A. from Mississippi State. She is a lecturer of English composition at MSU, an associate at the Congressional and Political Research Center at Mitchell Memorial Library at MSU, and regular contributor for The ‘Sip Magazine. She lives in Starkville, MS, with her husband and her cat. Kate has a food and travel blog, theoldcrossroads.com. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @katesgregory.
There’s no poetry in driving from Louisiana to Texas, though I did think I felt something deeply poetic in the dark eyes of a black mare who I saw riding in a trailer. The horse’s hair blew in the wind, and she gave the appearance of running backwards, even as she stood still in her domain. No poetry on the highway, not even when I passed by EXIT KINDER and found the name to be a rare mix of meaning and mass transport. No poetry could be derived from the fall of night or the rain that began to pour outside of Houston or the flash flooding or how no other soul was on the road, the city dark, so much rain and road water on my windshield I prepared to be shallowed whole by the city and its wet mouth. No poetry in the roadside motel I stopped at in Brenham, Texas, where the Bluebonnets blossom wild in the spring. But, the next day when I drove into Round Top, Texas, I found a rain-hazed morning, a cathedral stuccoed with seashells, poems etched in stone. ~Christie
“He uses too many adverbs,” is one of my workshop friend’s common complaints.
He goes through workshop manuscripts crossing out every adverb he sees. “No one gazes ‘longingly’” he says, “and no one is ‘very’ anything,” and by this he means people in stories shouldn’t be ‘very good’ or ‘very fast’ or ‘very important’, and even when I point out the last example in his list is an adjective, and not an adverb, he insists his point stands. Adverbs are the lazy writer’s tool, and adjectives are almost as bad.
“Extremely tall,” he says, is not a useful descriptive because ‘extremely’ doesn’t give the reader a cogent sense of what’s being described. “Very” is worse because it’s even less specific. No one knows what amount of time ‘very long’ is, but if a savvy writer were to type, “it reminded her of when she was in the waiting room during her father’s double bypass,” then this would be the sort of description readers could really grasp.
I’ve wanted to point out to my friend (who is a very good writer) that the problem he sees in workshop can’t be reduced to some simple rule. Writing is highly idiosyncratic, and writers need to use what they can to create whatever effect they need.
In the first two pages of The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway uses the word ‘very’ twice. He does it ironically, but he does it, and Nabokov almost never fails to use adjectives in his character description, which leads me to believe rules are for suckers. This post is three hundred words and contains: highly, common, lazy, cogent, really, simple, savvy, and very and many of them are absolutely necessary for conveying meaning. Sometimes writing is hard and sometimes it’s very hard, but no rule is going to be perfect.
ABOUT SAUL:Saul Lemerond’s originally from Green Bay, Wisconsin. He’s currently working on a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. His book Kayfabe and Other Stories is available on Amazon. He’s happy he’s finally moved south because his hands get really cold in the winter.
You’ve heard of a found poem, but what about a found poet? Meet Cubs the poet and his partner in crime who set up their meal trays, typewriters, and index cards in urban areas writing poems. In New Orleans, you’re never short on music or culture or booze or gumbo, but by happenstance on this day, we found word-artists at play, busy crafting metaphors at their tiny desks before then taping their finished products to the street posts, each poem for sale for $10. If you tell Cubs you’re a poet, he’ll insist you have a seat in his chair and type out a poem. He’ll feed you cashews and tell you about his dreams to take his street poem venture across the far seas. If you buy one of Cub’s poems, which have each been carefully typed on his vintage typewriter, he’ll highlight in yellow his favorite lines for you before signing his name (in the form of a cub-foot symbol) along with the date at the bottom of the poem. Thank you, Cubs and company, for bringing poems into the streets for the world to bump into. ~Christie
I’m posting the Creative Writing Studies (a broad term covering issues of CW pedagogy, theory, and craft in regards to poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction) reading list I compiled for comprehensive examinations in my program. This list is in no way comprehensive; there are thousands of other articles and books that could be added. I chose, however, to focus on quality over quantity. Also, this is an on-going list, so I’ll be adding to it as the months pass. I am also open to suggestions if anyone notices a must-read book or article not on the list.
Reading List: Creative Writing Studies
Section I: Craft of Poetry/Poetics
Aristotle. Poetics and Rhetoric
Auden, W.H. “Writing.”
Bell, Marvin. “Noun/Object/Image.”
Bly, Robert. “Reflections on the Origins of Poetic Form.”
—. “Recognizing the Image as a Form of Intelligence.”
Edson, Russell. “Portrait of the Writer as a Fat Man: Some Subjective Ideas or Notions on the Care
& Feeding of Prose Poems.”
Eliot, T.S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”
Frost, Robert. “The Figure a Poem Makes.”
Fussell, Paul. Poetic Meter and Poetic Form
Hall, Donald. “Goatfoot, Milktongue, Twinbird: The Psychic Origins of Poetic Form.”
—. “The Line.”
Heaney, Seamus. “Digging.”
—. “Feeling Into Words.”
Hirshfield, Jane. Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry.
—.“Poetry as a Vessel of Remembrance.”
Larkin, Philip. “The Pleasure Principle.”
Levertov, Denise. “Work and Inspiration: Inviting the Muse.”
—. “Some Notes on Organic Form.”
Levis, Larry. “Eden and My Generation.”
—. “Some Notes on the Gazer Within.”
Loy, Mina. “Feminist Manifesto.”
McPherson, Sandra. “The Two-Tone Line, Blues Ideology, and the Scrap Quilt.”
—. “The Working Line.”
Moore, Marianne. “Humility, Concentration and Gusto.”
Pound, Ezra. “A Retrospect.”
—. “The Teacher’s Mission.”
—. “The Serious Artist.”
O’Hara, Frank. “Personism: A Manifesto.”
Oliver, Mary. A Poetry Handbook.
—. Rules of the Dance.
Olson, Charles. “Projective Verse.”
Ortiz Cofer, Judith. “Tell it Slant: From Poetry to Prose and Back Again”
Rich, Adrienne. “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision.”
Rilke. Rainier Maria. Letters to a Young Poet.
Ruefle, Mary. Maddness, Rack, and Honey.
Schmitz, Dennis. “Gorky Street: Syntax and Context.”
Simic, Charles. “Some Thoughts about the Line.”
—. “Images and ‘Images.’”
Stafford, William. “A Way of Writing.”
Vendler, Helen. The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar: Essays on Poets and Poetry.
Yeats. W.B. “The Symbolism of Poetry.”
Young, David. “Language: The Poet as Master and Servant.”
Section II: Craft of Fiction/Narratology
Bal, Mieke. Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of the Narrative.
Barth, John. “Can It Be Taught?”
Bell, Madison Smartt. Narrative Design: Working with Imagination, Craft, and Form.
Booth, Wayne. The Rhetoric of Fiction.
DeMarinis, Rick. The Art and Craft of the Short Story.
Forester, E.M. Aspects of the Novel.
Gardner, John. The Craft of Fiction.
Herman, David, and James Phelan. Narrative Theory: Core Concepts and Critical Debates.
Hemley, Robin. Turning Life into Fiction.
James, Henry. “The Art of Fiction.”
Kercheval, Jesse Lee. Building Fiction: How to Develop Plot and Structure.
McNally, John. Vivid and Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction.
O’ Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose.
Prose, Francine. Reading Like a Writer.
Van Cleave, Ryan G., and Todd James Pierce. Behind the Short Story: From First to Final Draft.
Section III: Craft of Creative Nonfiction
Cheney, Theodore A Rees. Writing Creative Nonfiction: Fiction Techniques for Crafting Great Nonfiction
Cohen, Dorrit. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction
Gutkind, Lee. Keep It Real: Everything You Need to Know
—. “The Creative Nonfiction Police.” In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction.
—. You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction—from
Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between.
Miller, Brenda and Suzanne Paola. Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction.
Section: IV: Related Literary Theory
Baktin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination.
Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author,” “The Rhetoric of the Image,” “Writers, Intellectuals,
Bloom, Harold. Anxiety of Influence.
Freud, Sigmund. “Creative Writers and Daydreaming”
Sartre, Jean Paul. What is Literature and Other Essays
Section V: Creative Writing Pedagogy & The Workshop
Bishop, Wendy. Released into Language: Options for Teaching Creative Writing.
—. “Teaching Undergraduate Creative Writing: Myths, Mentors, and Metaphors.”
Bishop, Wendy, and Hans Ostrom, eds. Colors of a Different Horse
Donnelly, Dianne, ed. Does the Writing Workshop Still Work?
Hal, Blythe. “The Writing Community: A New Model for the Creative Writing Classroom.”
Harris, Judith. “Re-Writing the Subject: Psychoanalytic Approaches to Creative Writing and Composition Pedagogy.”
Harper, Graeme. On Creative Writing.
—, ed. Teaching Creative Writing. New York: Continuum, 2006. Print.
Harper, Graeme, and Jeri Kroll, eds. Creative Writing Studies: Practice, Research and Pedagogy.
Hunley, Tom C. Teaching Poetry Writing: A Five-Canon Approach.
Leahy, Anna, ed. Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom: The Authority Project.
Light, Gregory. “From the Personal to the Public: Conceptions of Creative Writing in Higher Education.”
Mayers, Tim. “One Simple Word: From Creative Writing to Creative Writing Studies.”
—. (Re)Writing Craft: Composition, Creative Writing, and the Future of English.
Orr, Gregory, and Ellen Bryant Voigt. Poets Teaching Poets: Self and the World
Vandermeulen, Carl. Negotiating the Personal in Creative Writing.
Zhao, Yan. Second Language Creative Writers.
Section VI: Writers on Writing, Reading, and Living
Ann Patchett’s “The Getaway Car”
Dillard, Annie. The Writing Life.
—. Living By Fiction.
I’m not someone who identifies with the hashtag #IAmCharlie. Does this make me a proponent of violent Islamic extremists? A denouncer of free speech and freedom of the press? Absolutely not. The attack on the staff of Charlie Hebdo was senseless, cruel, and completely horrific. I do not nor will I ever support violence of any kind. Furthermore, I believe that censorship of any kind is a dangerous, slippery slope. All this being said, I do have a few nagging thoughts on the issue.
First of all – the hashtag – let me draw a comparison. In 2013, the death of Margaret Mary Vojtko created a viral frenzy on the web, prompting supporters to hashtag #IAmMargaretMary. Vojtko was an adjunct instructor at Duquesne University whose sudden death and lack of job security and medical benefits created a heated dialogue about the realities of adjunct instructors across the United States who, despite their credentials, often do not have job security, benefits, or a liveable wage. Margaret Mary Vojtko became a martyr for an already on-going debate in higher education, and for me personally as a college educator at the instructor level, this story hit home in a lot of ways. I proudly touted #IAmMargaretMary on my twitter because I felt this matter deeply echoed concerns of my own. For me, saying #I-Am-Margaret-Mary meant 1) I felt strongly about the issue of adjunct instructors in higher education 2) I am literally like Margaret Mary because I am also an instructor at a university.
However, there was always a logical problem with using this hashtag with the first person and copula verb because, metaphysically speaking, I was not literally Margaret Mary Vojtko. Like all hashtags, however, using #IAmMargaretMary created a dialogue over social media for people to voice their support and concerns. I personally felt that 1) the cause was a worthy one 2) that I had enough in common with Vojtko and 3) that I supported every angle of the debate enough to join in on this popularized hashtag.
However, for me, the same is not true of #IAmCharlie or #IAmCharlieHebdo. Why not simply #Charlie or #CharlieHebdo or #ISupportFreedomofthePress? Again, perhaps I’m a stickler for linguistic accuracy. I am not the publication Charlie Hebdo, so why use that phrasing? But, more meaningful to this debate is while I support Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish freely, I don’t support a lot of what they publish. In my mind, hashtagging #IAmCharlie, to some extent, carries with it that you not only support freedom of the press and the staff of Charlie Hebdo but there’s the denotation that you also support the content of the magazine, as well.
Not sure what they publish? Here’s a link to some of their content translated. It’s a truth widely acknowledged that many Muslims believe that it is forbidden to depict the Prophet Muhammad, so you can imagine how these images would anger some Muslim conservatives or extremists. But Islam isn’t the only religion mocked by this publication.
A few days ago, I posted the article “I Am Not Charlie Hebdo” by David Brooks on my Facebook page to much debate. But for me one part of Brooks’s article is absolutely true: “The first thing to say, I suppose, is that whatever you might have put on your Facebook page yesterday, it is inaccurate for most of us to claim, Je Suis Charlie Hebdo, or I Am Charlie Hebdo. Most of us don’t actually engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humor that that newspaper specializes in…Most of us do try to show a modicum of respect for people of different creeds and faiths. We do try to open conversations with listening rather than insult.”
It’s not like I can’t take a joke. Most people who know me know that I have a very crude sense of humor. I would be a complete hypocrite to laugh at the things I laugh at and then criticize Charlie Hebdo. And yet, I don’t in private or in public mock religions that aren’t my own. I also don’t make a living mocking sacredly held beliefs and institutions. For me, the bottom-line is this, while I believe the publication had a right to publish what they wanted to publish, if I had been on that staff (not that I would ever work for such a publication), I would have been wearing a bullet proof vest under my clothes for years. Should this be the case? Should artists and writers have to fear for their lives? Of course not. But we aren’t going to change the minds of militant Islamists or any religion’s extremists anytime soon. For the foreseeable future, saying or showing whatever you want to will carry with it the risk of offending someone, perhaps offending to the point of violence. They call it risky because risks are involved.
Which leads me to my next point… was it a good idea for Charlie Hebdo to publish yet another depiction of Muhammad on their most recent issue? Part of me says yes – as a way to show that writers or artists will not give into fear or intimidation. Part of me says yes, but part of me asks if this publication is worth the potential for more innocent lives to be lost. Two days ago, it was reported in the New York Times that tensions were heightening in Muslim groups around the world following the release of the most recent issue. Just hours ago, riots in Pakistan and Niger have left innocent people dead. So now, as a result of publishing the Prophet Muhammad on yet another cover, not only are the twelve staff members of the publication dead, but people are continuing to die. So tell me this… who is profiting from Charlie Hebdo’s political stand? What group of people profit when the issue spans multiple countries each with different laws regarding freedom of the press? Is it a global stand against terrorism? If so, I’d prefer Charlie Hebdo to not be leading the cause.
Even one of Charlie Hebdo’s co-founders seems to disagree with the magazine’s latest depiction of Prophet Mohammad. See more on that here.
Let me put it this way, if I thought global censorship and freedom of the press were truly at stake here, I’d pick up my large pencil-weapons and march into battle. But I don’t think this is the case. In fact, I think in some countries where freedom of the press is enjoyed that freedom is so free that anything (responsible and true or not) can be published, yet very little is happening to teach the masses how to interpret what they are exposed to – there are whole communities of people in the United States and in other countries who think that anything they see or read on the internet or television is truth… in the same way, perhaps, that extremists weren’t able to overlook the Charlie Hebdo cartoons as gross, tasteless satire.
By continuing to publish the images that created the problem, this publication (and those who support it) are waving a flag for artistic expression and freedom to speak and publish, but are they really doing anything to tangibly help anyone? All I see is that more people are dying. Are they doing anything to make the world safer or better or are they just calling the bluff of the bully on the playground? Art has long since been a medium for calling out prejudice and injustice, but in this case, art is a deadly weapon, and if Charlie Hebdo continues to publish Muhammad on or in their publication, more lives will likely be lost. If they choose this path and even more people die, then they are no better than the extremists who stormed into their office wielding guns.
In 2010, all of my New Year’s resolutions involved various kinds of corndogs I wanted to try. Kimchi corndog. S’more corndog. I believe resolution # 3b had to do with learning how to make a sauerkraut corndog. I came up with this list both as a joke and as a reaction to my failed resolutions of years past. I know I’m not alone in feeling that resolutions are sometimes a rocky way to start a new year. Sure, they are full of hope and good intentions, but in some ways, we set ourselves up for failure by coming up with resolutions too far outside of our normal habits. I want to lose 50lbs. I want to run a marathon. I want to find a husband. I, I, I. Me, Me, Me. How grossly self-fulfilling resolutions so often are. Perhaps, we should wish for others’ happiness. Perhaps, we should try something like this year I just want to keep striving in my job and stay healthy.
But there’s just something so hopeful and luminous about a New Year. My culture has taught me that I need to christen the New Year with a bunch of well wishes for myself. In so doing, I welcome the New Year like the wise men kneeling before the Christ child. Here, New Year, I say. Here, take my unrealistic goals for myself. I honor your newness. By March, I’ve failed at my resolutions so very hard. Who am I kidding: they usually don’t last a week. I then inevitably feel like a failure and at no point throughout the year do I try to pick back up. I mean, if you don’t start on the 1st of January and continue it every day, then it’s not legit, right?
I’m just going to go ahead and call bullshit on this kind of thinking – the kind that makes me feel like that if my goal isn’t executed perfectly in a predetermined amount of time then it’s over, done, a failure. I’m starting to feel like that no matter what goal we set for ourselves it should be coated with kindness and support for ourselves. It’s never too late to start on a goal, to pick it back up, to revise it.
Of course, the person I’m preaching to the most is myself because I’m at the start of a very important year. This year, I took a leave without pay from my job at LSU, and I am devoting myself to my PhD program at ULL, but more importantly, I hope to make writing a habit rather than a neglected hobby.
Going from not writing daily (sometimes not even weekly) to writing daily feels like the equivalent of trying to lose 50lbs before March. I know without a doubt that it’s not going to come easy. For as important as writing is to me, it’s hard. I get frustrated, overwhelmed, and discouraged every time I write or revise. There’s some delicate balance I need to learn this year – a balance of pushing myself to write daily even when it’s a struggle while also being kind to and supportive of myself.
Recently, I read Ann Patchett’s essay “The Getaway Car” and found it to be a very helpful read on the matter of creating habits out of hobbies. Granted, Patchett did sell her first book for a large sum of money and has been successful since. There are, perhaps, craft essays by writers whose path was a little more realistic.
Regardless, what all writers of any level of success have in common is that they all swear by the daily writing process. Writing daily, or at least writing regularly, on a schedule. Making writing a priority right up there with work, and students, and errands, and personal hygiene.
Now, I’m no sheep. I wouldn’t walk off the proverbial jagged cliff if Ann Patchett did first. I’m also not trying to follow anyone else’s exact path. That being said, if someone has excelled in a field that you aspire to also excel in, shouldn’t you listen to their advice? Or, in this case, most writers who excel give this same advice: writing daily. I can’t spend any more time not hearing this or not heeding it.
Also, I plan to keep a daily log of my writing activity. Last spring, I read Steinbeck’s Working Days, a journal of his writing of The Grapes of Wrath. In fact, this was the only required text in Craft of Fiction: one writer’s daily journal through a process of writing one of the great American novels. Steinbeck’s entries are short and often written in sentence fragments with character names abbreviated. He’s not trying to impress anyone in his writing journal. And yet, the collection of these short, daily snippets shows the expanse, the pursuit of the project. There are days he can’t get work done. There are days when he’s nervous and too hard on himself. There are days when he writes two chapters before dinner. His vision is clear throughout (again perhaps not the most realistic example), and he stays on track, continuously protective of his writing schedule.
I’m not going to call this a resolution. I’m resolved and all, but I’m not good with resolutions. This is a pursuit. A pursuit I know going in will be a struggle, and I will probably fail more than once. But I’m going to allow failure to be part of the process.
Dear John Barth, you’re a lucky man because you look like one of my oldest and dearest friends Alex Byrd… well, when he was bald, at least. In fact, the resemblance is so close that I think there may be some similar DNA up in there. Regardless, I’ve only read a few of your stories, Mr. Barth, but I want to thank you for your obsession with Metafiction. You see, I get it. How can one not look to the genre that’s perpetuating, facilitating all of one’s truths? Why must the genre be a mere definition and not a thing to be exalted on high or at least studied within the work itself?