and I see us separating / In him
his face that was my face / Becoming yours / His nose still mine
I see us separating
McCrae’s couple married in a bug’s thorax, a place where seemingly they could not get their footing. They married in a battlefield, and in moments where they were separate from those around them, and each other. Their relationship moved as quickly as speeding trains, as did the world around them, as did time. But they married, even when emotions ran high, even while knowing their flaws, even when their son was diagnosed with autism. There is a sense of the narrator pushing forward despite the terrible odds stacked against him. There is also that sense that love alone is not enough. McCrae writes: “half of love is hope,” and “no animal outruns its past.” When I read these lines, I feel the defeat.
There is so much music and beauty in these poems. We see nature here: birds, the mountains, a bee, a pond. And there is shadow, too. In “The Cardinal is the Marriage Bird,” for example, the book’s introductory poem, we see a symbol of hope becoming a harbinger of what’s to come. The cardinal is the marriage bird, but it is also “a shadow on the snow but still/The sunlight on the snow”; it is “a flash of shadow and the cardinal is the shadow bird/A flash of wound...” The beautiful and the terrible cannot be extricated from each other because they are inextricable strands of life. Spring is a tree “raw with birds.” A beautiful woman walks, but is also bodiless according to her country; she is seen and also dissolved in that seeing: “she loses / Her body” if she ever really had one (of her own). And being mixed, half, mulatto means that you “Will recognize yourself in the singing you / Will not recognize yourself in the songs.”
These poems communicate a yearning for connection that I relate to, and they show that there are barriers that separate husband from wife, son from the father, man from other people, and also God. For all of the trying in marriage, in fatherhood, in life, and in spirit, that sense of separation persists. The textures of these poems create a feeling of trying, clutching, even when there can be no holding on.
The language in these poems feels simple but to think so would be a mistake. These poems are masterfully wrought. One of many of McCrae’s talents is in his power for relaying raw emotion to the reader. The reader is brought into the text and feels every word. For example, in the poem “The Boy Calls Twilight,” the narrator observes his son with love and also the kind of distance that comes with acceptance; love being an inherent emotion for a father, and the distance because there is nothing he or his wife can do to change the boy’s state:
Despite the heartbreak in these moments, they are beautiful. The reader in these moments can’t help but be in the narrator’s shoes, experiencing these dualities.
Mule reads as an artifact of living. It harbors no judgement over the life it reflects, nor does it wield anything over the reader. These poems are intimate, and as a reader of these poems, I felt the same heart pangs of loss via memory that the narrator portrays, and I was also prompted to remember my own. Further, as in McCrae’s book Blood, the poems ring like music, the lines echo and refrain, and the pauses and fragments serve as overlapping song lyrics (for example: “His ghost we didn’t know him in his bel-/ly no. We did not know him no the son/ We had we do not know the son we have”). These poems could be sung.
Every writer struggles with motivation. Sometimes, a writer’s own body throws up a test of motivation—the eye strain from staring at the screen too long, the writer’s cramp, the carpal tunnel. Sometimes you might feel too sick to work; it’s that much harder to create an insightful comment on the human condition when your own condition leaves something to be desired.
Like a lot of people, I revert to toddlerhood when I get sick. I do better than some, I think, but not nearly as well as others. If, for instance, I’m waylaid by a rhinovirus, my natural tendencies toward self-pity and misanthropy shift into a higher gear. I want to be left alone on my couch with my clogged sinuses and my bad TV. I don’t want to do anything physically or mentally taxing… which means I don’t want to write.
When this happens, when self-pity has gnawed on me for a little while, eventually I think of a particular writer I’ve admired for many years, and the thought of him doesn’t so much inspire me back to the page as it shames me back. Truth be told, I’m not sure he would have bothered with something as fatuous as “inspiration.”
This acerbic spectre, Dennis Potter, wrote novels, films, and journalism, but mostly he wrote for television. He wrote most of his work while suffering from a severe case of psoriatic arthropathy, a chronic condition that struck him in his twenties and plagued him for the rest of his life. When it flared up, Potter became a very sick man. His skin erupted in raw psoriatic lesions; arthritis would paralyze his joints, leaving him bedridden. Sometimes his temperature rose high that he would hallucinate.
Across a thirty-year span from the sixties to the nineties, his plays for British television pushed back the corners of the small screen, leading his audience between the past and the present, the wished-for and the real. Potter’s plays toyed with dramatic conventions: in some, adults played the roles of children, and characters in other plays expressed their feelings by lip-synching to the popular music of the author’s childhood. In Blue Remembered Hills, Brimstone and Treacle, and Pennies from Heaven, among many others, Dennis Potter explored the twilight regions between innocence and experience, love and lust, the idealized then versus the compromised now.
In The Singing Detective, Potter’s quasi-autobiographical masterpiece, his protagonist Marlow also suffers from psoriatic arthropathy, and Potter’s script stages his hallucinations as bizarre musical numbers, both unnerving and funny: “Dry Bones” scene from TSD 1986
Marlow, in the next bed, is at last trying to write with a pen again. He has it held in his hand by a kind of splint made by the hospital, like a pen-holder attached to his hand. A physiotherapist—a woman in a white coat—sits on the bed beside him, watching.
MARLOW: It’s not very legible, and it hurts, but—I tell you one thing. For the first time in my life, I shall have to really think about the value of each and every little word. That’s dangerous, that is. (The Singing Detective, 225)
To write well is to test your determination. How determined are you to express your ideas clearly and artfully on the page? How determined are you to get it right, no matter how much revision that might take—and how determined are you to sit down and do it at all, when life puts up barriers, eats up your time, saps your energy? If you do finish something, how determined are you to get it published? Would we write differently, push to get published, if we wrote with urgency, like we had received a terminal diagnosis?
Potter died in 1994, of cancer that might have been caused by medications he took to mitigate his psoriatic arthropathy. After he received his terminal diagnosis, he resolved himself to finish two final scripts before his death. He achieved that goal, working with the help of precise pain management and driven by his own commitment to writing--what he called, very sincerely, his vocation.
In his last days, he found an unexpected serenity in the practice of his craft. In the introduction to the posthumously published edition of those two final plays, Potter described what he experienced as “now-ness,” the beauty and the immediacy in his every perception:
The rim of the coffee cup, the faint seagull-wing cusp made by a slant of light on top of the coffee…The hard edge of the continent that was my desk, the emptiness of the paper, the wonderful slithers and curls of letters and punctuation marks, and, above all, the curious little bite as the fine-tipped pen I work with made contact with the crisply waiting paper! I could of course go on and on, multiplying to distraction, but it didn’t come out as promiscuous multiplication at all, rather as division. A paring down to what was precisely here precisely now in the very present tense itself full stop. (Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, xii-xiii)
The identity of a writer can be a slippery, tricky one. For years, I hesitated to call myself a poet, even though I was writing poetry. Really though, it’s pretty simple: if you write, you’re a writer.
One thing that can help a writer to own that identity is to establish a regular writing practice. It doesn’t have to be every day — having time, space, energy, and ability to maintain a daily writing practice is a huge privilege — but finding a way to make a habit out of creative practices can drastically affect a writer’s output, as well as their sense of self. I always feel more me, in touch with more layers of my secret selves when I’ve been writing because it gives me a chance to work through and out all the impressions, fears, and wonder that swirls in my head.
I first developed a writing practice the year I moved to Berlin to process the death of my best friend. It was still cheap then (2006), and I’d saved up enough money to take some time off work. Once the initial shock wore off, I’d sit at my desk every weekday and write for five or six hours. Showing up to that practice was the first time I really felt like a writer — because I was writing almost every day. I was showing up for myself, actually doing the thing I always wished I had more time for. I learned that the act of writing, detached from any outcome, makes me happy, makes time disappear in an almost magical way: even when I’m struggling with a piece, I can get lost in word choice, a quest to find a crystalline expression, forgetting myself to become more myself. When I look at the clock, hours have passed, as if hypnotized by concentration.
However, when I came back to the United States and started working again, my writing time slipped away to just few hours a month. I was living in Brooklyn, and even though I was taking workshops at The New School, NYU, and Poets House, my writing practice was sporadic at best. I stopped introducing myself as a poet; as the practice faded, so did my link to the identity.
Things changed when I moved to Denver in 2013. Suddenly isolated from many of my old friends, I had more empty hours to fill, and writing was one way to do so. It helped me feel less lonely, even if I was just communicating with myself. I began spending four or five hours every Saturday at my desk, and more started coming out. The practice helped me to remember who I was (a poet who used to extensively, someone with a huge family both blood and chosen) even though I was far and detached from what had been my life up till then. I wrote about formative, older times as well as my then-current sense of displacement until they eventually wove together to reconcile disparate identities.
When I finally settled into a regular writing practice, I was fed up with myself for wasting time scrolling the internet and watching too much TV. (I still do these things; everyone needs down time, but now I do them in smaller amounts.) So I made myself a quick, handwritten sign and pinned it over my desk: “Make yourself do stuff.” I also printed out the squirrel of judgment and tacked it up next to my sign. Once again, I began to tell people that I was a poet, but more importantly: I felt like one.
Writing regularly, for me, can be a self-reinforcing act. If I’ve worked on a poem or read some poetry in the morning, my day takes on a poetic cast; I’m much more receptive to seeing kernels of potential poems, and more likely to jot them down in a notebook to act on later.
Two years later, that sign I made for myself feels much less urgent; I do and make things pretty regularly now. But the sign stays up; it’s good to have reminders. Michelangelo would agree.
Still, there are times when, no matter how long I sit, the writing just won’t come. It’s important for me to maintain the practice, even when not feeling creative, so during those times, I:
- Write a letter to someone, even if I never send it.
- Edit old work instead of creating new work.
- Draw something! Writing is muscle memory, and at least my hand was moving; sometimes, that triggers writing.
- Submit work to literary journals.
- Read literary journals or other inspiring works.
- Discuss projects and goals with a writing buddy.
- Create and update a list of places I’d like to submit work (including open/close dates, what they’re looking for, and other fun stuff I track in a spreadsheet).
- Try a writing prompt.
- Create and update to-do lists for creative projects.
- Open an old notebook to a random page and type up whatever I find there.
- Pick an interesting moment from yesterday and write a flash piece about it, 500 words or less, or maybe even 150 words if 500 seems daunting.
- Create realistic small deadlines for myself for a larger project and put them on my calendar.
- Organize my pieces or poems, sometimes in a spreadsheet.
- Type up notes from old workshops or classes I took that were inspiring.
Through establishing a writing practice, one with a structure that suits my physiology and schedule, I’ve established a discipline that makes me proud. The concept of publication doesn’t matter much to me (OK, it does a little, most writers want to be read), because I’ve grown to love the practice itself.
It reminds me of the power of language, that I can believe in myself as a poet, even on the tough days when words just thud, because I have faith that if I hold the practice, the flow will come back; it reminds me of what I can do: alchemize words, thoughts, and images into a piece that (hopefully) conveys something, perhaps a fleeting feeling, that lives beyond the realm of ordinary communication. And that’s magical.
Showing up to my writing practice taught me that I can show up for myself. I’ve learned to trust that though I have bad days, uncreative slumps, if I keep working at it and hold space for the practice, they will pass. The point is to keep practicing it. As Alexander Chee remembers Annie Dillard’s advice:
“Talent isn’t enough. Writing is work. Anyone can do this, anyone can learn to do this. It’s not rocket science, it’s habits of mind and habits of work. I started with people much more talented than me, she said, and they’re dead or in jail or not writing. The difference between myself and them is that I’m writing.”
When you get down to it, the practice of writing is an action. You do it, or you don’t, and either way, you learn something about who you are. My writing practice taught me that doing what I love makes me happy, regardless of outside judgement; what does yours say about you?
We didn’t ask for pieces about borders and refugees, place and displacement, but that is what we received. From the political to the personal, these works invariably had something interwoven about isolation and loss. The work we present to you in our inaugural issue is made by artists in a variety of media: painters, photographers, poets, fiction and nonfiction writers— many of whom are working to blend genre into something new, yet who may still write or create art traditionally in order to break with tradition. And throughout, pairing visual arts with written works, we’ve blended in a layer that shadows or echoes the other.
While the English language has long been a symbol of imperialistic power, used to create hierarchies and division, we also recognize that this language can be reformed. We persist with the language we have, revolting against it to arrive at what and how we want to communicate, because as Adrienne Rich says, while writers cannot refuse the language they have been dealt, writers “can re-fuse the language given to him or her, bend and torque it into an instrument for connection instead of dominance and apartheid: toward what Edouard Glissant has wonderfully called ‘the poetics of relation’.”
It is apt that the issue begins with Metres’ and Kalfopoulou’s pieces around the relationship that exists between language and suffering— about human beings in displacement. The collection progresses between a consciousness of self, whether in relation to geography, physical or literal, to the conscious attempts to fracture and reconfigure language. At the heart of our collection is the complexity of familial relationships, straddling elements of discord and the need for acceptance.
These are the works joining Manet at the ‘Salon des Refusés’, works that are brilliant and necessary, always uplifting and mercurial, speaking from the future — a medley of ‘re-fused’ works, for us, the Inverted camp celebrating those members of the Refusés. The works in Inverted Syntax inaugural online issue, including The Art of the Postcard series, are a meditation on what Ada Limón asks, about how we live, how we live in the world, amongst inevitable loss and suffering. Each piece, a fearless creation ubiquitously resisting conformity and complacency, takes memorable, haunting approaches to art and language that turn us inside out and convey novel insights into the human experience. Once you let yourself enter this space, your senses start reaching outside the imposed language lines and you start allowing yourself to experience language, including art, viscerally, on your terms.
Read online issue 1.
In my first summer in the Mile-High MFA, I decided to try submitting some of my tanka poems. Sometimes defined as “five phrases on five lines,” tanka is a Japanese form that has a strong imagistic approach connecting human emotions with nature imagery. In particular, I like a form called tanka prose – essentially a prose poem accompanied by a tanka. I submitted several of my favorites to Ribbons, the journal of the Tanka Society of America. A while later, I got a lovely rejection letter --not a form letter, but a personal one, where the editor made comments and gave me advice about the poems, then thanked me and said “not this time”. Her suggestions seemed reasonable (although I was a bit unsure), so as part of my poetry semester I rewrote and submitted the poems as part of one of my assignments. I told my faculty mentor what the editor had suggested, and he read them. His advice back to me was essentially that he disagreed with the editors; he felt that by making the suggested revisions, I had taken the heart out of the pieces. After a long talk with him, I realized that it wasn’t about whether my poems were good or bad, but whether this journal was the right home for these pieces. There was nothing wrong with what the editor asked, but it did not reflect what I was trying to do.
I learned that the trick in publishing is finding the right home for my work, and realizing that, in the end, it is my artistic decisions that matter. This makes rejection less painful; after all why would I want my heart to be laid open for someone who doesn’t want to see it, or wants me to change it substantially for them to like it? It is not always easy to discern what should stay and what should go, but following my voice has never set me wrong.
Between fears of rejection and the challenge of staying true to your work, submitting can be daunting. But we don’t need to let it be. Instead, we can see it as part of our writing practice. Bring to it the same attention and awareness that you do writing the piece.
There are a few guidelines I have found that help in the submitting aspect of my writing practice:
First: read widely. By perusing the many journals and websites that offer a platform for your work, you will have the pleasure of being exposed to dozens of writers, and many, many pieces of work you might not have encountered otherwise. I find that this enriches my own writing; exposure to other writers’ works is critical.
Second: peruse the website of a potential journal. There will be clues within its pages, both subtle and overt, that might help you determine if your work would be a good fit. Read any sample pieces you can find. Do you like what you read? Can you see your piece sitting next to that one you just read? Most journals have some samples available on their website. Some tell you authors that they like. Pay attention. Browse through them. Enjoy. Savor.
Third: follow their guidelines. They will tell you how many words or pages to submit, the subject matter they are interested in (sometimes they have a theme) and what, exactly, they want. Do follow directions. It may not get your work in, but it will prevent your manuscript from being thrown on the editing floor before even being considered. So, read, pay attention, follow directions. Simple but important.
Fourth: keep track of what and where you are submitting. Some journals ask that you do not submit to another journal while they are considering your work (although I find this is rare), others don’t care (but you should let them know if a piece you submitted is accepted elsewhere). Start a regular submissions log using Excel or Word or a lovely handmade ledger.
However you do it, keep track of both rejections and acceptances. You are in good company; own them with pride. Golding's The Lord of the Flies was rejected 20 times before being accepted. Gertrude Stein submitted poems for 22 years before having one published. (YIKES!) Beatrix Potter self-published The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Rudyard Kipling was told he did not know how to use the English language. Who knew?
The poet Andrea Rexilius (1) used transfer paper to print all of her rejection letters on a slip…and she wore her rejection slip! Check out this post for more other famous people who experienced rejections for their writing. It will make you feel better, guaranteed: you are in good company.
Getting published takes persistence. Don’t give up.
Fifth: don’t be discouraged. (See paragraph above.) It is a matter of luck, being in the right place at the right time, and submitting often. Having good work is only a part of it. Remember that all rejections – and for that matter comments or critique – are subjective. I have several pieces that were reviewed by three or more people and got three very different responses. You have to keep submitting. It is not a reflection of your work that you get rejections. Fiction writer Rachel Weaver (2) offered advice early on in the MFA program that I always remember: if more than one person gives you the same advice, pay attention. Go back. Revise. But in the end, you are your own creative director.
Sixth: set yourself a goal. Set aside one evening (or morning if you are a morning person) and plan to submit at least one piece on that day. My goal is to submit at least once a week. You can set your goal according to your time. For novel or memoir writers, there are also places that accept excerpts of novels, novellas or longer bodies of work, like A Public Space, Missouri Review or Literary Mama. Or maybe you have some shorter pieces, short stories or flash fiction you can submit. Whatever you have ready to submit, just set yourself a goal and do it. Learn to see submitting as part of your writing practice.
I’ve followed these guidelines, and this is what it looks like for me: My goal is to submit at least one piece a week (I make it a rule to submit two pieces for every rejection). I am trying out all sorts of journals, even ones I know are a long shot because, well, you just never know. The process of submitting is educational. You discover artists that you never knew you loved, and you begin to see yourself as a contender.
There are a plethora of journals out there and discovering where to submit can be daunting. I used Duotrope which is a searchable subscription service that catalogs dozens of journals for all genres. Access is $5 a month and it has been worth it to me. My submission log keeps me hopeful: I currently have 35 rejections, 17 acceptances, and one poem republished in the “best of 2017” category for that journal as well. I have four essays and 15 poems being reviewed. It isn’t going to happen by magic, getting published that is. It’s going to happen by submitting work.
This week I received two letters: one was a form rejection, the other wrote that they “adored” three of my poems, which will be published in the November issue of Mojave River Review. I couldn’t be happier. Well, getting my first book published might make me happier. It’ll only happen if I submit it. I am working on that. Not that long ago, I had nothing being rejected, reviewed, or accepted, because I wasn’t submitting anything at all. You cannot predict if your work will be accepted or rejected but know that, either way, it is about taking a chance and submitting, because you never know what that journal needs at that moment. So, take heart. At times it may seem that no matter how much you think your piece might fit in, they will disagree. Then sometimes when you least expect it, they love it. The point is, if you arrive at a place where you can own your work, you’ll always feel motivated to submit.
1. Dr. Andrea Rexilius is the program coordination and Poetry faculty mentor at the Mile-High MFA program at Regis University. She is the author of five books of poetry.
2. Rachel Weaver is the author of Point of Direction and a faculty mentor for fiction at the Mile-High MFA program at Regis University.
“All serious daring starts from within.” -- Eudora Welty, On Writing
I read an article recently about how the throat opens, how singers train the apparatus of voice -- how singing properly feels completely different in the body than one might imagine. Like certain smells or flavors — or sex or giving birth — the act of open-throated singing is pretty much impossible to describe. Even the label “open throat” is inaccurate. The throat only widens a few millimeters, though it feels cavernous. The sensation of the opening, of the voice freed from the body, is an illusion.
By contrast, in the recent glut of headlines, arguments on social media, I am choked. Through the constant influx of disturbing information, I am witness to pain, grief, chaos. I feel trapped between seeking quiet and screaming urgency. The fact I have a choice between using my voice, in relative safety, and choosing silent observation, speaks to privilege. At worst, I face ostracization by/from friends and family who don’t share my opinions. At best, my words might offer solace to those who are like-minded and feeling alone. Vocalizing on social media or walking together in marches has proven a source of strength and community for people who feel powerless and isolated, particularly those living in places where they find themselves in the minority.
I see the use of voice equivalent to having or using power -- as in, my voice is a powerful tool, and I may or may not choose to use it. When I am shouted down (say, on social media or at the Thanksgiving table), someone attempts to control my voice. My power (my ability) to speak is ever present, though I may stay quiet to conform to social niceties. We all face those moments. That's not the same as a true threat of violence, the loss of job, etc. -- real factors for many who fight inequities in our culture.
Rebecca Solnit makes an important distinction between our reasons for silence, stating “What is unsaid because serenity and introspection are sought and what is not said because the threats are high or the barriers are great are as different as swimming is from drowning.”
It’s easier to disappear into a book or the bubble of a yoga class than to pen this blog post. But I don’t want to drown.
So my mandate as a writer now becomes: how to give power to the voice, and perhaps, in doing so, embolden others who remain silent to speak? Because I don’t believe I’m alone. I believe there’s a slow gathering of voices and a stubborn refusal to drown. Or, in the words of Anais Nin, "The day came when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”
Creative writing teachers, especially in workshops, like to ask “what is at stake” in a piece, suggesting our writing finds its power, its center, in what’s at stake. I have come to see that concept extend beyond our writing, however, to ourselves. The act of writing -- being an act of performance, of informing community -- makes the writer vulnerable. The real "what's at stake" is the writer. We are what's at stake.
The vulnerability is real. To press through the vulnerability -- to arrive in a place of full voice, of honesty, in the writing expresses power to the audience. So what is it to have sound caught in your throat? What is it to have words trapped in the body? And how do we train ourselves, as writers, to translate to paper the power of what we feel, but struggle to name? We practice.
Create a word cache by making a list of words, free-associating with the concepts “open” and “close,” as in “open is _____” and “close is _____,” or “opened is _____” and “closed is _____.”
Write out as much as you can remember about a time when you felt most free.
Write out as much as you can remember about a time when you felt constricted.
Write out as much as you can remember about a time you took a risk.
Write a few paragraphs or 10-12 lines as a set of rules, drawing from your word cache and your memories.
Then, just as we might take up singing or baking or knitting, or yoga, we practice. One of my favorite yoga teachers is fond of saying, “It’s called ‘yoga practice,’ not ‘yoga -- got it!’” He snaps his fingers for emphasis, and chuckles at us as we sweat and groan and fight for another millimeter in a forward fold, drawing us away from the illusion that that millimeter is what matters. In that way, we practice writing.
As writers, I believe we begin with audacity. We accept that we were not designed for everyone to like what we have to say. We dare to look inward and unhinge the thing locked in the throat, to then commit to outward expression and let ourselves become “what’s at stake”. We get good at saying what we want to say, open-throated and unafraid.
By the end of October, we will launch our inaugural online issue. Our singular goal is to become the center of your reading universe, to monopolize your reading space, to make sure you have Inverted Syntax on the mind all of the time. In the next few weeks, you will notice a difference with our online content. We are aiming to intensify the online reading experience with an online aesthetic that will match the work and articulate the visceral. And, you should brace yourselves because we have scoured our submissions (which were read blind) and solicited artists, writers, and even filmmakers to bring you something indescribable, something that will intoxicate your senses. And while the online issue is going to leave you exhilarated and inspired-- possibly inducing hyperventilation--just wait and see what the print issue in January 2019 does to you.
Jesica writes, "Being at the start of something, being part of an endeavor’s nascent phase, feels exhilarating. There is no rulebook, and we are not writing one so much as recording our choices, creating documentation.
Most writers and artists are compelled to do some kind of record-keeping, including sculpture, comics, poems, and songs. To create something is to cheat death a little: this thing you make may outlive you, if only on a bookshelf, or someone’s memory. As a record of the retreat weekend, I offer this account.
For the future, we will create Inverted Syntax.”
That said, we are going to be closing our submissions window on Friday, October 5 and taking a break from reading submissions; however, our 'Blog Submissions' and 'Join our Team' are STILL OPEN! We will also be taking a break from emailing you our biweekly-ish digest so that we can focus on finalizing the journal’s issues. You’ll probably not hear from us again until we launch the online issue. Until then, we hope you will invite others to subscribe to our digest, and we hope you and others ‘Like’ our awesome posts on our social media feeds. We hope you continue to share your love for Inverted Syntax with your friends, family, neighbors, strangers--anyone who will listen.
Read Jesicas “A Record of an Inverted Retreat”
This letter was also emailed to the journal’s subscribers.
The urge to create is fundamentally human, whether we write poems, sing songs, or paint pictures. Creation is a form of record keeping, one way of saying I was here, this happened. In an attempt to capture some of the magic I got to experience as Editorial Assistant at Inverted Syntax’s first staff retreat, I present here a record of what it was like to be at the beginning stages of an exciting project, meeting the other editors, finding our own way together. Inverted is a journal about exploring hybrid forms, finding out what happens when we go outside the given lines.
Our Founder/Editor-In-Chief, Nawal Nader-French, had planned a full agenda in which the primary purpose was to work on Inverted’s first online and print editions. However, the retreat weekend up in Boulder County was balanced out by fun, creative events, such as a poetry workshop, meditation time, a painting session, video calls with other editors and writers, and of course, writing. There wasn’t anything on the agenda specifically about team-building and camaraderie, but those were some of the best outcomes of the weekend.
The other Inverted editors knew each other from Regis University’s Mile-High MFA program, but I’d never met any of them in person (though we’d had plenty of communication over email and Submittable--the digital platform we use to track submissions). This could have been nerve-wracking, but immediately upon arrival, Nawal made me feel beyond welcome in her gorgeous home with thoughtful gift-filled tote bags and conversations about poets we both admire. The other Editorial Assistants, Melanie and Allissa, greeted me with warm hugs, and soon enough we were all bonding over wine and a massive welcome dinner. Melanie, a nonfiction writer, drove in from Oklahoma, and Allissa, a poet, had driven in from south of Denver, so we all appreciated the decompression.
Friday evening we attended a local poetry workshop at the Firehouse Art Center in downtown Longmont. Getting there became an impromptu team-building adventure after we discovered someone’s notebook had been left on the car’s rooftop and we had to work together to retrace our path, joining forces to find it. Luckily, it was recovered and still intact; the tire treadmarks gave it extra character. The workshop itself was a quietly meditative experience in which attendees got a prompt (write 10 lines about “Home” and then edit them based on a series of suggestions), followed by everyone reading their work and giving each other feedback.
Though we knew that Saturday would be starting early and packed with activities, we all stayed up past midnight talking about life, getting to know each other better, playing with Nawal’s adorable beagles, and sometimes even discussing writing.
Saturday morning began with a guided meditation led by Melanie, who teaches yoga and has a perfect voice for leading such an exercise. I’d thought the meditation lasted about 15 minutes, and was stunned when she told us that it was closer to 50. A focus on the creative chakras and Melanie’s guidance put us in an open mindframe and made us more receptive to creativity, ready to read, organize, and assemble upcoming issues.
Nawal opened up the day’s editorial duties by proclaiming that “We are rewriting the rules,” setting a tone of freedom without expectations, which we ran with. Since Inverted Syntax is a new journal, there isn’t an inherited, existing framework to adhere to; we can make new decisions as we go.
A video call with Andrea Rexilius, a poet and Program Coordinator for Regis’s Mile-High MFA, confirmed this approach: consider the journal’s layout like you would organize a manuscript. Stay open to a narrative arc, or consider folios (chapters within the journal), which will be subconsciously informed by our aesthetic and the pieces we’d already selected for publication.
One of my favorite parts of the weekend was sitting in a circle, reading accepted work out loud to each other. We savored favorite lines, sometimes gasping, getting goosebumps and tears from being moved by pieces we’d read before. It was a gorgeous reminder of how art can break against you again and again, like a wave, how delicious it can be to get drenched.
Throughout the weekend, we kept up a lively discussion about the differences between publishing online or in print. We talked about how a piece posted on the internet has a better chance of reaching many more people than one that’s perfect-bound and physically distributed. How some pieces feel more urgent, like witnessing refugee experience, and thus should be published in a way that gives them a chance at the greatest possible audience. How online issues have a spatial advantage over ink: a 25 page piece would take up a quarter of the print version but can unfold at length on a website, without restrictions. How lucky we are to have both routes available to us now.
It is exciting and a little intimidating to realize that since Inverted Syntax is a new journal, there’s no formula for how to run it; we can collectively decide the best way to do things, find ways to make the form best fit and reflect the content. For example, while some Editors-in-Chief wait until their readers finish going through the slush pile to narrow pieces under consideration, Nawal was in Submittable for hours every day looking for new work. Instead of sticking to one genre, readers were encouraged to provide feedback on submissions in every category. After all, Inverted’s mission centers around hybridity.
Soon it was getting dark, and it was time time for a video call with David Hicks, the Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Regis Mile-High MFA. After some discussion of the retreat life and what we’d been up to, he generously invited all of us to attend one of his writers’ retreats next spring! As part of the support that Inverted Syntax receives as a journal partly supported through The Mile-High MFA, the retreat invitation included a personal manuscript consultation, for those of us working on our own books. It felt like winning a small fellowship.
Once we hung up, it hit us that we’d been at it for almost 12 hours, and that we were approaching the end of our productivity. It was time to pour wine and take a break. Canvases and paints appeared, Nawal’s Ghanaian-influenced curry released its enticing aroma from the stove, and we finally put our work aside. I’m still thinking about that curry, topped with tomatoes, onion, peanuts, banana.
As we unwound from Saturday by collaging and painting with acrylics, we took turns reading from our own work, pieces that not many others had yet heard. Reading poems-in-progress felt like making proclamations: I am here, I made this. Creating and sharing art as a way of raging against, or embracing, the void.
We discussed our wish list, dreams for the future: possibilities of a local reading series, the AWP conference, poetry contests, maybe even another retreat someday for other writers. Then we pivoted towards administrative duties and deadlines, playing with design for the online issue and entering pieces onto the draft site in advance of October’s online publication.
Too soon, it was time to go home.
Being at the start of something, being part of an endeavor’s nascent phase, feels exhilarating. There is no rulebook, and we are not writing one so much as recording our choices, creating documentation.
Most writers and artists are compelled to some kind of record-keeping, including sculpture, comics, poems, and songs. To create something is to cheat death a little: this thing you make may outlive you, if only on a bookshelf, or in someone’s memory.
As a record of the retreat weekend, I offer this account. For the future, we will create Inverted Syntax.
When I first started writing creative nonfiction earlier this year, I panicked. I am a person who likes to solve a problem, to tick a box, to arrive. I am at my most satisfied when I have completed something, or at least achieved a portion of what I set out to do. Similarly, in writing poetry and fiction, I like to get to a point that I can call it good enough, send it off, and all is well. But when it came to writing nonfiction, I found I couldn’t do that; letting it go, even if to only one or two people, didn’t feel like ticking a box or solving a problem. It felt like exposing parts of myself and parts of my mental and emotional processes that I wasn’t sure I wanted anyone to see--those thoughts and attitudes I experienced but which I was afraid to commit to in writing. I couldn’t hide behind the guise of a character or a voice not my own, as I sometimes did (or could plausibly claim to do) in fiction and poetry. It was painful, and I was ready to quit.
At first my nonfiction work only existed as side notes to the novel I’m working on while I attend the Mile-High MFA program at Regis University. As I wrote parts of the novel, thoughts and memories would arise, and I felt compelled to stop to write them down before continuing with the book. After doing that several times, I thought that maybe those side notes could become works of creative nonfiction. However, I knew very little about how to go about doing that, so I decided to learn. I signed up for a dual-genre study, with creative nonfiction as a secondary genre, and began to work on my first piece for submission to the workshop. Writing creative nonfiction allowed me to directly address my experiences, which was refreshing, but it also left me feeling raw and exposed in a way I hadn’t expected.
In creative nonfiction, I am learning, the writing process and the mental and emotional processes of the writer are often one and the same. As Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola explain in their creative nonfiction textbook Tell It Slant, “As you write [creative nonfiction], in a sense, you re-create your own past and your sense of self, and you do so in front of a live audience, over and over again.” In other words, the process of our becoming--the mental and emotional development that is usually kept private or only shared with those closest to us--becomes part of a nonfiction writer’s work and thus becomes accessible to anyone who reads it.
With my love for all things tidy and complete, the thought of exposing the mess of my process to another person, let alone one I hardly knew, was terrifying. During my first several attempts at writing creative nonfiction, this fear nearly paralyzed me. I thought, as we often (and usually mistakenly) do, that I was alone in my fear. When I finally went to members of my writing community with my concerns, nonfiction writer and faculty mentor Kathryn Winograd gently but firmly told me that creative nonfiction is about “the messy process of the mind, not about the neat, pat answer,” and that fear and discomfort over facing and exposing that is sometimes part of the deal. My adviser and poet Andrea Rexilius suggested that I step back and hybridize to give myself a little of the cover that fiction had been providing me.
I took the advice of both mentors, and, slowly, it helped. Telling myself that, if I needed to, I could hide parts of my process by retreating to fiction freed me up to put on paper what I wanted to say without the immediate fear of being exposed. Reminding myself that every writer has a messy process, and that one of the points of the creative nonfiction genre is to explore and capture that process, gave me the courage to stay in it.
In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg warns us that “it is important to remember we are not the poem.” She reminds us to “stay fluid behind those black-and-white words. They are not you. They were a great moment going through you. A moment you were awake enough to write down and capture.” Human experience is infinite, and words will never be able to capture the entirety of a person’s existence, or a character’s, or a moment’s.
I am slowly learning to let my work stand on its own--to let it be a moment, a perspective, a snapshot of a specific time and a specific place--rather than expecting it to represent me permanently and in entirety. I’ve had to learn that, just like in life, I will never be able to tick all the boxes in my writing, or to wrap up my thoughts in a complete and tidy package. This perspective makes me more willing to embrace and disclose the mess of my process.
It is both a frustration and a relief that I can write until the end of time and never capture it all. The boxes will never all be ticked, the problems will never all be solved, and I will never completely arrive. I try to remember these things now when I still feel anxious about exposing my process via writing. The words may be mine, and they may be a reflection of a moment through my perception, but they are not me. I am made up of infinite moments captured and uncaptured that can never be fully rendered in art. Ultimately, I’ve decided (see how I wrapped that up neat and tidy, there?) that I’m okay with this, partially because it’s an unavoidable part of life so I kind of have to be, but mostly because that’s exactly where the most lively and interesting parts of writing--and life--happen: in the exploration, the uncertainty, the mess.
Resources and Additional Reading:
“Writers on the pain of hindsight in publishing”
Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones
Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, Tell It Slant (creative nonfiction anthology and guidance)
Kathryn Winograd’s website
Andrea Rexilius’s website
When I began writing poetry, I had the tendency to fill the lines with abstractions that left my classmates with the difficult task of understanding the poem. We’ve all heard numerous times how an overuse of abstractions does not allow the reader to grasp your meaning. We’ve heard how concepts such as love, freedom, and hope have meanings that are too subjective and should be avoided when writing poetry. But for me, being able to use abstract concepts in my writing has allowed me to come closer to shaping the expression I want readers to experience. That is, an impression of the visceral through language. And yet I know there aren’t words that can ever deliver the true elements of my experiences. For years, I did not understand how to write from the perspective of the reader -- my poetry would consist solely of abstractions, and the responses were always the same: that I needed to anchor the feelings to something concrete. I was told that it wasn’t realistic to envision that any human would be able to understand terms like grief without an image of what grief looks like to me. Language is flawed when it comes to sharing experience, but for me, through the use of abstraction in poetry, I think it comes close as possible.
As an artist inspired by cubists, expressionists, and impressionists, I enjoy looking at ways I can let my imagination artistically capture the mood, the light, and the shape of a thing, a person, or a place. In abstract art, the concrete is broken and image is distorted. It’s as if you’ve peeled an apple, which has then lost the security of its coating. The core of the apple is vulnerable both to the way in which it was peeled and to the perspective of the person who took its skin.
As a poet, I feel similarly about letting my mind create a world from my subconscious. Ezra Pound famously said to “go in fear of abstractions,” arguing instead that the image should be described in its purest state. As in visual art, when I abstract lines in my poetry, my imagination feels free to create a world outside the expected frame. Abstracting lines means that I can come up with the wildest metaphors, then rework them into the thing I am creating.
Still, abstraction without imagery, I am told, is not enough -- especially when it presents a unique challenge for the reader to interpret meaning. I often find myself being pulled back to address meaning and from where the meaning is derived. When that happens, I ask myself: Am I allowed to create something that makes the reader work for the so-called meaning? How do we define what is undefinable? It’s as though there must be a reward at the end of writing an abstract piece of work. Are abstractions then most powerful when they are earned? That is, when the poet has reached deep enough to connect it to something concrete, allowing the reader to better experience the visceral through language?
This experience of the concrete through the abstract -- this “taste of earned fruit,” as I like to call it -- is what I now strive to work toward in my poems. It is a term derived from a moment in my favorite professor’s office. She said, “PJ, what you wrote here is not concrete enough, but because of the line above it, you’ve earned the use of this abstraction.” It is delivering my interpretation of an open-ended concept. If the reader can experience that hard-to-define abstraction from my perspective as a writer, then I have earned the satisfaction that comes with using abstraction to allow the reader to come close to connecting to my experience.
Typically, when the meaning of a line is elusive to the reader, it tends to be described as abstract. But meaning is a subjective and wandering thing that appears at different times in different minds and changes all the time. Why then should it matter how abstraction is used, when not everyone will receive the meaning in the same way? But it is possible, I have discovered, to bring a sense of satisfaction to the reader with an elusive abstracted line by anchoring the abstraction to something specific.
While what I wish to express cannot always be captured in words, words are how I convey my deepest pains and joys. And I have learned that if I want to bring my pains and joys to the world, then I have to create them in a way which allows others to access them. I have often heard that if I am the only one able to experience my work, then I have not dug deep enough to create a good poem. “The English language would be without some of its most memorable poets,” writes Rabi Shankar, if abstractions were written off completely (In Praise of Abstraction). Using Wallace Stevens’s poem, “On This Beautiful World,” Shankar helps us explore abstraction. In this poem, we witness Stevens’ effective use of the abstract because he associates it with the concrete:
On This Beautiful World Of Ours composes himself
and hems the planet rose
The poem attempts to promote the sensation of abstraction of beauty. While the language choices initially create abstraction through what feels like syntactic confusion, the specificity of the color, rose, the character of the lecturer, and the verb to hem all work together for a full visceral experience for the reader. We often think when an abstraction occurs in a thing of beauty, or is associated with a thing of beauty, the beauty of the thing is lost. Beauty as an abstract concept is one which does not hold finite meaning. The poem that attempts to define “A beautiful world” through concrete image is one where poet and reader discover this beautiful world through abstraction. And the poet has earned the fruit of his effort. “Because at the middle, if only in sense and in that enormous sense, merely enjoy.”
Because the thing that makes a beautiful world is subjective. It’s just as subjective as identifying the thing that makes a beautiful poem. Without abstraction, we would never be able to discover those to-be-avoided cliché truths about beauty, love, and freedom for ourselves. With abstractions we can instead be conduits, completely disappearing as the subconscious takes over to bring the writer's world to light. Within those spaces, where the abstraction and concrete meet to create the metaphysical, the reader can finally know how to experience my interpretation of grief, love or beauty. Without definite or fixed meaning, the reader can still experience the blood-pumping sensation that comes when allowed access to the taste of the poem; that is, the taste of earned fruits.
Ravi Shankar’s In Praise of Abstraction: Moving Beyond Concrete Imagery“
The Ultimate Poem Is Abstract” by Wallace Stevens
I have always felt that my writing was an act of independence, and an assertion that I had control of my emotions. When I first started writing, it felt good to me that, even though my emotions were written out on paper, I had the sole right to them. It felt like therapy. It made me feel strong and capable. I found solace in my solitary practice, and I liked having physical control over my thoughts and feelings. Here they are, sorted out in a way that feels right to me on the page and I can share that or throw it away.
Sometimes, though, my writing felt selfish. When I got serious about it, my time became less dispensable. The people I loved (often not writers themselves) felt neglected because in addition to the time I was taking to write, I was also busy with biology homework and handing out pancakes at the local IHOP--the normal undergrad gig. There weren’t many in my life who fully saw the value of the work I created, or the necessity of writing as a form of therapy. There were times I felt unsure and frustrated, and even times when I felt totally uninspired because of the lack of support. So naturally, it became my own responsibility to take care of my writing needs, and to do what I needed to do to stay sane. But writing all alone is a difficult practice, and hard to sustain without support.
I met the person who would become my friend and my writing partner in January of 2017. Pj and I clicked right away. We were the only two poetry students in our cohort at the Regis’s low-residency Mile-High MFA, so we were instantly paired off together. The person that you write with doesn’t have to be someone who shares the same beliefs or that writes the same way; my work was winding and abstract while Pj’s was imagistic and compact. However, I always valued her advice and insight, and because of our mutual visions, our work naturally moved in a similar way towards a complex web of emotions and ideas that we are both happier with.
Pj is from Houston, and for ten days every January and July, we attended lectures and workshops together. Most importantly, though, during that time, we wrote. While we got so much done during those ten days, it still didn’t feel like enough time. After the first residency, we didn’t do a great job of keeping in contact. We sent a text message here or there, but nothing organized or planned.
The most important part of having someone to write with is that you hold each other accountable. Finally, knowing I had to take action if we wanted to stay in touch with our creative partnership, I set a notification on my phone for every Friday: “Check in on Pj.” Whenever the notification went off, I sent Pj a quick “How are you?” text, which inevitably led to a conversation about our latest projects and our lives. I quickly fell into this Friday routine, and even the simple back and forth check-in had me feeling like I needed to write more and feeling more inspired.
It wasn’t until the the third Mile-High MFA residency when program coordinator and fiction writer David Hicks, along with his colleague and close friend, Sophfronia Scott, gave a powerful lecture about their relationship as “writing buddies”. The idea instantly clicked. I knew that Pj and I would be able to write together in the same way. We already had started a habit of maintaining contact, which seemed to be the biggest hurdle. David and Sophfronia discussed how they had used various video chat services. We took that advice and ran with it, so when the residency came to an end, our writing buddy relationship didn’t.
The concept of writing buddies is not a new one. It's no secret that T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound exchanged letters and that Pound heavily edited Eliot’s draft of The Waste Land. The New York School of Writers, which included writers such as Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and Barbara Guest, were known for their collaborative work both amongst themselves and with painters. In The Art of Poetry: Poems, Parodies, Interviews, Essays, and Other Works, Kenneth Koch writes, “We were very close friends, John, Frank, and I, and poetry was a big part of it... we inspired each other, we envied each other…we were almost entirely dependent on each other for support” (213).
With inspiration from other writers who had done the same before us, the weekly text message between Pj and I turned into a weekly video chat. With that method of communication, we developed a routine that works for us, and we now cover a lot more ground. We always spend the first half of the chat talking about what we are up to and how our writing is going, which is always the most valuable aspect of the chat for me. The weekly writing feedback and advice that I get from Pj, and hearing about her own struggles as a writer, all come together to inform my writing. Because of that, I never begin the second half of the chat, (that is, the writing part), feeling like I don’t know what to write.
Elizabeth Bishop describes her first talk with her lifelong friend Robert Lowell about writing poetry as "exchanging recipes for making a cake." Pj is always showing me new recipes, and it saves a lot of time; where I might be experimenting with too much salt or licorice, Pj may have already tried it and be able to give me the feedback that helps me get to my desired result more quickly.
One of the other benefits of having a writing buddy is that it is much harder to slack off when you have a camera pointed at you (or another set of eyes on you, if you are in person). For our sessions, Pj sets a timer, or we just go until one of us is tired. Sometimes I read instead of writing, or do whatever else it is that I need to do. Sometimes only the chatting gets done, and not the writing. Sometimes our planned writing schedule gets postponed three times in a row. No matter what, though, we plan the next chat.
The distance between Houston and Denver no longer feels as far as it once did. Writing together with Pj via video chat versus in person has still had the ability to transform my work. We have both learned to find what is lacking in our own work by seeing the strength in one another’s. We share our words and worlds. That experience adds a new vocabulary and allows me to see the power of a single image or the impact of a well-placed line break. Having a writing buddy has meant receiving and offering insights, making suggestions and asking questions, and it has helped me make significant changes to what and how I write. Not only do I get more writing done, but the quality of the work I create has improved along with my feeling of confidence and self-worth. The writing buddy relationship we have built is genuine, and I feel only great work can come out of it.
Because of establishing this writing buddy relationship, I no longer feel the guilt of neglecting others around me. I no longer feel selfish in taking this time to write, because it’s not just about me. Having a writing buddy is about making a commitment to support someone else in their writing. It’s about holding each other accountable to the work. But it’s more than that: We erase the doubt that we have for ourselves about our potential as writers and the difficult aspects of our own work.
Koch, Kenneth. The Art of Poetry: Poems, Parodies, Interviews, Essays, and Other Work. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI, 1996.
Preview Koch’s book here
Though I’m now several years sober, I have usually shied away from delving too deeply into my personal experience of addiction (or my family’s experience). Who would want to read what people in twelve-step programs would call “war stories”—sordid tales of alienated girlfriends and vexed relatives, lost jobs and DUIs, trips to the emergency room and various rehab clinics? Why would I want to relive those experiences, fictionalize them, and put them on display for the world?
I never saw myself ever fictionalizing my life as artfully as other fiction writers until I read Lucia Berlin's stories. Because of her work, lately, I feel less hesitant about using a real event as the seed for a work of fiction. In reading Berlin, I realize that the central aim of her work--like any conscientious writer of literary fiction--is to unearth and present to her readers, the humor and devastation embedded in the human experience, which is probably the most powerful aspect of writing.
In carefully wrought and deeply affecting stories often drawn from her own unusual life, Lucia Berlin displays lives thrown out of balance by addiction, poverty, cultural displacement, and simple, powerful human urges--for love, belonging, and comfort. If you’ve never read a Berlin story, you need to add her to your reading list.
As an aspiring short-story writer (and one who shares many of the same thematic interests as Lucia Berlin), I found a great deal to admire in the posthumous collection of her selected work, A Manual for Cleaning Women (2015), published eleven years after her death. The pitch of emotion Berlin summons in her stories, with language that somehow manages to be both spare and rich, is painfully intense and incredibly engaging. Her stories about alcoholics—Berlin herself struggled for much of her life with a crippling alcohol addiction—have all the unsparing honesty of Raymond Carver, but where Carver’s drunks are often lost or numb, Berlin’s alcoholic characters suffer terribly, and she makes us feel every twinge of their thirst.
“Unmanageable,” one of the short stories in the collection, follows the efforts of its Berlin-surrogate narrator to secure a drink in the early hours of the morning. The story holds a bitter irony in its title: though the narrator’s drinking problem has clearly reached the point where an outside observer could call it “unmanageable,” the narrator displays focus and determination that no alcoholic in the maintenance stage of her drinking would find surprising, or even especially remarkable. "Taking the bottle with her, she went to the bathroom then. She showered and combed her hair, put on clean clothes. Ten more minutes. She checked to see if the door was locked, sat on the toilet and finished the vodka [...] She moved the laundry from the washer to the dryer. She was mixing orange juice from frozen concentrate when Joel came into the kitchen, rubbing his eyes. "No socks, no shirt” “ (153).
Berlin is concerned with engaging the reader in her characters’ desperate everyday realities, such as the alcoholism of the narrator in “Unmanageable.” Through the recovering alcoholic’s journey, she asks readers to connect with their own humanity, recognizing that life can be messy and unromantic, and fraught with its own kind of peril.
Berlin once said in an interview that, "I think writers want to change their realities in some way. You want to show what’s lovable and beautiful and so you sift through your life and you can look at it one way, or you can look at it another. And writers, I think, are people who need to affirm, need an affirmation about their life. And to me, it’s a way to make things positive, not in a corny way, but to make beauty out of negative things or difficult times, or just to make sense” (Lucia Berlin: Writing Advice And More…).
Indeed, Berlin’s ability to sift through her life, to mine her personal experience for story material in an attempt to make sense of it, is quite artful. Having herself raised four sons while working assorted odd (and sometimes degrading) jobs, locked in a long battle with alcohol addiction, Berlin honed her talent for portraying everyday human struggles to an amazing sharpness. She excels in capturing the moments of grace and beauty that arise in the midst of family dysfunction, economic struggle, and substance abuse. “This sounds funny now, but it wasn’t then when she was sobbing, sobbing, as if her heart would break. I patted her and she flinched. She hated to be touched. So I just watched her by the light of the streetlamp through the window screen. Just watched her weep. She was totally alone, like my sister Sally is when she weeps that way” (Panteón De Dolores 251). While she conveys breathtakingly lovely demonstration of empathy for her characters, Berlin, still never glosses over their struggles, or the hurt and bitterness her characters feel.
Lucia Berlin's clarity of language enables the reader to share in her raw, hard-won honesty about her addiction, about the damage it permitted her to do to herself and her life. She reminds me that employing my own experience--however uncomfortable that might be for me, the writer--is crucial to the emotional depth of my writing. Berlin reminds me that writing good fictional characters is about revealing what it means to be human, and that experiences are not the only place I should look when I set out to create a plausible character, but to always look into my own heart.
Learn more about Lucia Berlin
Other books by Lucia Berlin
- Angels Laundromat: Short Stories.
- Phantom Pain: Sixteen Stories.
- Safe & Sound.
- Homesick: New & Selected Stories.
- So Long: Stories, 1987-1992.
- Where I Live Now: Stories, 1993-1998.
- Evening in Paradise: More Stories.
Being an obscure or emerging writer often means taking a day job while you submit your creations to lit mags, and sit and wait for that big break. However, being an artist who works outside of your creative field doesn’t have to be a death sentence for creativity. In my experiences, I’ve learned to make the dichotomy between the repetitive, dry writing I do all day and the weird, open, poetic things I write in mornings and on weekends, work for me. Navigating the gap between the two has enabled me to more effectively channel my creative energies for my personal output.
Those of us with jobs know that those jobs can help make us better writers, even when they aren’t related to academia. In fact, finding inspiration for our creativity isn’t limited to those working in writing fields. Day jobs outside of creative spheres and practices can be necessary for any number of reasons, but more than that: they can enhance instead of detract from artistic pursuits.
For example, when I worked as a cashier, I jotted down snippets of overheard conversation to later use in a poem or story. If you work in a coffee or retail shop, you may want to try crafting flash fiction pieces about the people around you. A landscaping job in late summer could lead to ruminations in the form of a braided essay on the cycle of seasons and the human condition.
Repetitive tasks often seen as boring can free up your brain to process ideas in the background. How many good ideas pop up when you’re not paying attention?
A 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, found that bored people “are more likely to engage in sensation seeking”—that is, to look for activities or sights that engage their minds and stimulate the brain’s reward centers. These people are more prone to “divergent thinking styles”—the ability to come up with creative new ideas. “Thus, boredom may encourage people to approach rewards and spark associative thought" (Article).
The key in making the most out of associative thoughts is to always jot down the idea, even if it’s just a quick note spoken into your phone. I always carry a small notebook in my purse, just for this purpose.
These days I’m working as a technical writer, which means that among other things, I write the not-super-exciting content of the Help section for software applications. Besides instilling the discipline required to work under periodic hard deadlines, being a technical writer has inspired me to use technical language creatively. When I write up bulleted lists of usage rules, bullet points can find their way into my poems, or when I learned how to read code to document APIs, I was inspired to write poems in the format of Java. I’ve even written a poem as a set of FAQs.
When writing for my day job, I do so in DITA, a subset of XML that requires every topic to be categorized as a concept, task, or reference. This organizational method, called information typing, has changed the way I conceive of certain pieces of writing. First, I ask: what type of information am I trying to convey? which leads to what’s the best form to communicate it? This questioning has transferred into how I approach my creative writing process, and can open up a piece to possibilities that I hadn’t previously considered, such as hybrid forms that fall outside the scope of a traditional poem.
A large part of writing involves observing your surroundings, both external and internal. Indeed, writing is a practice that happens even when you’re not actually writing. When you are at work, start paying attention to your surroundings. On your breaks, turn your focus to mining potential material for your artistic endeavors: interesting characters, energetic language, activated observations, physical metaphors. If you can practice watching for interesting images or moments, even while performing the dullest of tasks, it becomes easier to recognize those moments outside of work, to reach for that notebook, and to make time to write.
For example, if you’re in the same small space every day, like a cubicle, consider going macro to observe the smallest details and shifts in light, see what ripples off them. Try sketching how the shadows make you feel. Or, follow in the footsteps of poet, Frank O’Hara, (who wrote Lunch Poems during his lunch breaks when he worked at MOMA), and use your lunchtime in your day job, even if it’s once a week, to practice the art of writing during those spare moments. You don’t have to be attached to the outcome; the writing doesn’t have to be good, just focus on the practice. Eventually you may look at your notes and discover something you can use.
So if you’re working in a non-academic job and jealously watching others turn their creative passions into actual, rent-paying jobs, try to remember that without that dull job, you might not have material to tap into. Instead of feeling your job is stifling your creativity, start paying attention to how your job can fuel it. The dream of supporting yourself through your creative output is already happening to you everyday. It’s up to you to find ways to channel it purposefully.
Approaching novel thoughts: Understanding why elation and boredom promote associative thought more than distress and relaxation
Code Poetry: Poems Written In Programming Languages
Source Code Poetry
Free Download of Frank O’Hara’s book, Lunch Poems
Actors who play one role, return years later to play another with pleasurable Shakespeare-esque, metatextual results. But mostly, the dead are always able to be revived--nothing ever dies. Nothing is ever final, and there is rarely a neat solution to a conflict. Soap operas have taught me that when reality is challenged, the possibility for creativity opens up and that can make you a better writer. (Check out Lit Hub’s "I LOVE SOAP OPERAS (AND THEY MADE ME A BETTER WRITER" by Deborah Shapiro).
Indeed, reality is shaped by language, so if we subvert language, storytelling, imagery, isn’t it possible we initiate the potential to alter reality by altering those constructs? If in reality, we must encounter death, why not subvert language, redefine its constructs, and perhaps, like in the soaps, live forever? Is it because life isn’t ever presented so neatly that we seek to control it? Is it because that challenging tradition implies experimentation? That we avoid it because it requires stepping into an unknown, embracing the unusual, the unorthodox approaches to form and aesthetics, to discarding the familiar. Form and structure offer control over the environment, and it feels cozy and safe within a solid plot outline, within a satisfying conflict and resolution. For some writers, these components are guideposts, while for others, they are limitations; limitations towards understanding the other and thus our own humanity.
Experimentation can free us to once again write expressively and bring us closer to the self. In writing and art, experimentation functions as an agent of renewal. As writers and artists, we need to practice experimentation as a way to help us reinvent our approaches and use it as a vehicle to help us get out of structure and form, rules and rigidity. When I experiment, I am looking to extend, perhaps even subvert, the boundaries of what is considered artistic practice. Subverting traditional practices in writing allows something new to grow within ourselves and in our work. Most literary works have in some form been at one point experimental before becoming accepted as the norm. As a movement, experimentalism is associated with modernity, implying a rejection of traditions, values, and forms. Experimentalism favors self-consciousness, fragmentation, discontinuity, capturing real life which is often ambiguous. What may appear alarmingly random, is life coming at us in unusual and sometimes disconnected moments. When we step back, real events and scenes are disjointed. And yet historically, we narrate within structure, fearing the unknown in the deviation, and instead insist on portraying work with continuity, even when life does not present itself that way.
One way to step into the realm of experimentation is to consider recycling work that already exists. When I say recycling, I am saying rearrange, redesign, rethink, cut up what exists, and find something new in what already exists. When we recycle through found poetry, erasures, or collaging, we detach and re-adhere, graft others work, and undermine the authority of the author and self, allowing us to better understand the self and the other. By subverting the expectations of what makes something art or poetry, we open the door towards invention.
Recycling language is the realization that one does not need to generate new material. It’s about repurposing what's already been created. And through the process of repurposing, there’s this sense of unpredictability and an element of chance. Writers who repurpose permit a set of unreasoned rules to shape the fate and configuration of their use of language. Writers who experiment with recycling, replace making something new with choosing from what already exists and rearranging them in new ways. And with that, previously written language, like the preconceived versions of ourselves, can come to be seen and understood in a new light.
There are a few methods I like to use to recycle. One is through found poetry, including erasures and collage cut-up technique. When finding poetry, I seek out a pre-existing piece of writing with a non-literary function. By adding, deleting text, and making changes in spacing and lines, phrases, and sometimes whole passages from other sources and reframing them as poetry, I can redefine that text and make something new. The writer Annie Dillard in “Mornings Like This: Found Poems” writes that turning a text into a poem doubles that poem’s context, “The original meaning remains intact, but now it swings between two poles.” I like the idea that the use of found texts and images shake fundamental assumptions about artistic practice. I like that with found texts, we can obscure the line between the everyday life and high art, raising important questions about why we value some objects as art and not others; raising questions about how we assign value to the other and thus our humanity.
When creating from found texts, we have to be both observant and imaginative. If we focused on language and structure instead of on utility of a text, many texts that we read during our day (e.g. instructions in a manual) could be the basis for a found poem. When we re-configure pre-existing language into new systems of imagery and ideas, we place voices in conversation with one another across centuries and continents and we can transform the self.
Experimental poetry, such as found poetry, reveals that we are not separated singular beings, but beings found within the other, in layers and dependent on one another. It reveals that we must step into the space of the “other” to be able to borrow from the “other.” When we repurpose texts and rearrange them into new conversations, we establish that life is in conversation with multiple layers of life, interacting with past, present, and future. Using others words and grafting them to our pages, we see text composed of other texts; that is, one’s self as composed of other selves.Roger William Gilman, an American writer, philosopher, and educator wrote in his article, “The Raw and the Cooked: writing cento” that:
When a self is composed of other selves, its self-interest is not in mortal conflict
with others’ interests. When we are composed of each other, violence against an
“individual” Other is violence against one’s “own” Self. And so we are always on
all sides of any war. Every side loses a war. If we recognize that we live inside
each other we will see that we cannot afford to war against each other. When the
economic, political, and cultural interests of nations are in bed with each other,
legs intensely intertwined, they cannot afford to fight. Cultivating our humanity
lies in our regarding Our self as an Other’s self. Such gardening can happen only as
Seeing oneself as another.
In the search for words, we are searching for ourselves, and we find ourselves embedded in the other. And sometimes, the world is found in both what is left and how it is redacted. Closely associated with found poetry is the erasure or blackout poetry — which is poetry that is found by erasing words from an existing text, often in prose text, and framing the result on the page as a poem or prose. The results can stand as is or they can be rearranged into lines and/or stanzas.
As an example, take the work of artist and writer Tom Phillips who marries poetry and art in the same space. Phillips has spent about 50 years redacting text to the most creative levels. Calling his work “a collaboration with the author of the original work and a fight”, his creation a A Humument is originally a Victorian novel that has been altered on every page, either by painting, collage or cut-up techniques, to create an entirely new version. Phillips writes, “I took a forgotten novel found by chance. I mined, and undermined its text to make it yield alternative stories, erotic incidents and surreal catastrophes, which lurked within its wall of words. I replaced with visual images the text I’d stripped away.”
By collaging, Phillips not only erased but took cut-ups of disjointed and discontinuous text and placed them into new discourses. This idea of being able to subvert language, a narrative, inspires me to use cut-ups in my writing as a way to rupture and tap into the secret of language. Major postmodernist author and artist, William S. Burroughs once said of collaging that “when you experiment with cut-ups over a period of time, you find that some of the cut-ups and rearranged texts seem to refer to future events”. Similarly, David Bowie, known for using cut-ups in his lyric creations, said in an interview, “If you put three or four dissociated ideas together and created awkward relationships with them […] the unconscious intelligence that comes from those pairings is really quite startling sometimes.” This “unconscious intelligence” that emerges from dissociated ideas guides my pen, and its existence directs my desire to want to use language to create a reality that operates on a soap opera continuum--where stories are repurposed and reality is subverted.
The literary collage, or the cut-ups that Burroughs and Bowie refer to is a blend of pre-existing texts usually by several different authors. It is the act of removing texts out of original spaces and rearranging them into something new--the act of bringing together fragmented texts from unrelated sources, assembled and juxtaposed into new formations. When I cut up and push things against each other, different discourses present disparate ideologies, contrasting perspectives create productive ambiguities. This collision of ideas through cut-ups often times gives life to different voices and new relationships between the unrelated, whether they are events, objects, or images. As an experimental writer, I am often looking to capture the discontinuous yet seamless appearance of life. With collaging, I can express my creativity through the texts I choose and the way in which I arrange them. Using cut-ups allows me to juxtapose the texts, and for a resonance to occur between divergent texts without the forced appearance of seamlessness.
When we experiment in writing and art, we remix old and new approaches to form and aesthetics, and this is an incredible opportunity to remix ourselves. It is an incredible opportunity to reconfigure our prefabricated molds of self-identity. It allows us to approach creative writing through other means than personal experience. And that approach can infuse work with creativity.
When we remix language, we remix reality, we take apart pre-existing text and images, we make them ours, we undermine the self, we become the other, and we realize, there is no “the end,” no finale to the show. And when we go there, we begin to shake off the restrictions that interfere with creativity. When our words overlap, our lives overlap, and like a soap opera, our stories live on forever.
Digital ways to Collage
Language is a Virus
The Lazarus Corporation Cut-Up Links
Another cut-up machine
Generate random text
Dada Poem Generator
Burroughs Video on Cutups
Burroughs cut-up poems
Bowie video on cutups
The Strategy of Simultaneity in Ted Berrigan’s “The Sonnets"
Kenyon Review articles on Erasures
Tom Philips website
Tom Phillips Video
Austin Kleon on Erasures and found poetry
John Ashbery audio recording of To a Waterfowl
Line Sources for To a Waterfowl cento
Wolf Cento by Simone Muench
Found Poetry Review (archived)
A found poem Dash it by Annie Dillard
Submit your Found Poetry
Abstraction In Poetry
A Manual For Cleaning Women
At The Inkwell
Diana Khoi Nguyen
“In Praise Of Abstraction"
Jesica Carson Davis
Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop
Meet The Mags Volume 2
Mile High MFA
Nawal Nader French
New Years Letter
New York School Of Writers
Poems In Programing Language
Punch Drunk Press
Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers
Salon Des Refusés
Source Code Poetry
Syntax Physic Opera
Tell It Slant
The Singing Detective
William S. Burroughs
Words Beyond Bars