After eighteen months of antisocial isolation, masked interactions, and all-round negativity, I found myself always looking for the dark, eschewing the light. This vicious circle isn’t good in any possible way. Personal relationships become strained, micro and macro outlooks tainted, and not of least import, writing suffers. Yes I contributed to a COVID Anthology (poem was successful); yes I was lucky enough to have a few darker pieces published (not that I am overly ‘light’ at the best of times); but I started feeling some dark repetitions creeping in everywhere. This darkness veiled how I looked at everything. So, this morning, I decided to try some positivity exercise. Immediately I noticed that this activity played directly into my writing.
A pickup truck was tailgating me (tailgating should be a cardinal sin), eventually passed on the wrong side, drifted back into my lane without a signal. Easy to get upset, but I tried to look at the scene from the ‘light’ side instead of the dark. Here’s how that went:
He is in a hurry. Maybe he is a doctor, called for an emergency. He can’t use his signal. Maybe he is left-handed and resting his hand after a close call. I wonder what kind of close call. Maybe it was…
And a story started blooming right then and there. So instead of brooding in the usual anger, I turned the situation on its head, shook it, and — lo and behold — little bits of story fell out. Not bad…
Will I be able to do this all the time? Highly doubtful. But, once in a while, I can a) keep the blood pressure down, and b) get a few ideas or images I can eventually use. Win / Win.
Wherever your ideas comes from, be it image, fact, lie, it is interesting to have some type of documentation surrounding those ideas. Maybe there is a biographical link, a creative link, an environmental link, a detail that someone, somewhere, sometime will pick up about your piece. Because the original ideas are oftentimes NOT the core of a story or poem, they can add a certain depth for the serious reader. Having the ability to “uncover” these gems can be very rewarding to the parsers. To others, this type of backstory doesn’t matter. That’s great. Writing should be for different audiences. But giving the hardcore fans, the historical sleuths, the biographers of the future something to discover can be satisfying.
Writing can be a jigsaw puzzle. Although the endgame is a complete image/narrative, the process, the construction, the genesis is mostly lost to readers. Just imaging the exhilaration of finding a little piece of the puzzler inside the puzzle — a tidbit, a factoid, a revelation. This can elevate the serious reader to another level.
Biographical content is not necessarily the key. “Write what you know” can be the worst advice a writer could attempt to follow. This said, if there is a cool detail that lead to your piece, a detail that you can jot down somewhere in a journal, kept safe for future discovery, that is a priceless nugget. Even if it is totally unnecessary for the final fiction, that nugget can add so much to someone who had taken the time to discover it.
With practice, and by following your personal voice, style, aesthetic, these nuggets will start to manifest in the overarch of your oeuvre: links, parallels, juxtapositions that alone mean nothing; bits that taken together, maybe with the addition of extra-textual notes, become beacons of meaning.
That’s why it is important to save your notebooks, to have someone who knows about them, someone who will, eventually, help the world decipher the hidden stories within your stories.
The author is dead, maybe, but long live the author!
Keeping old books, stories, poems alive is important. Once something isn’t new or on the shelf anymore doesn’t mean it should fade into obscurity. Digital publications that go offline, presses that die, journals that shutter their doors, all contribute to this growing issue of slow word death. Make it a point to seek out and preserve these. Take a screen shot. Find an old, abandoned review and share it. Long live the old-ish stuff!
Here is a poem published 10 years ago in a now defunct magazine. Glad I have my contributor copies.
Why does fresh ground cinnamon taste better? Does it actually taste better? Either way, there is a difference.
To me, the act of rasping the cinnamon into coffee grounds, onto an apple, into a barbecue rub adds to the experience. There is an ownership of the spice, an effort in making the most of the ingredient that elevates it. Instead of just tapping a few shakes from a plastic jar, you actually make the flavour come alive through action.
How does this apply to writing? Simply. Don’t use canned ideas, expressions, clichés, styles, conventions. Make something new. Create something never done. Act on your writing. Go beyond the idea of stringing words together; go deeper, into sound, structure, meaning, history, foundations. Writing should be active and not a passive exercise in retelling. This is best exemplified in Hollywood these days. Reboots. Reruns. Retellings. All boring, adding nothing new… When a well written, original movie comes along, it truly stands out. In each case, there is a conscientious effort to make a masterpiece, outside and beyond what already exists.
Practice by reading different styles, from different sources, from different cultures. Soon, you’ll transcend the words, you’ll find the elemental spice that make the work unique, vibrant, original. Then find your own ingredients, break them down to the constituent parts, build your own, fresh literary recipe.
Lately I’ve noticed a surge of statistics and articles on increasing popularity, discoverability, readability. This idea also seems to be trickling down into the creative writing world, especially poetry. It seems that content is being replaced by style, message by findability. Ok, so this isn’t new, but the sheer volume of noise behind the movement is disconcerting.
Every title of every article is the same, and some of these pieces even offer exact formulae for proper title wording. To me, an old school writer just wading into this new world, it seems self-defeating. It is the definition of vicious cycle: read articles about how to get articles read. While some of the pieces offer great information and insight, many rehash, refurbish, recycle. Does creativity take a backseat to search optimization?
The same holds true for poetry these days. Themes, styles, looks all drain into one homogeneous slush of ‘poeming.’ It is becoming more and more difficult to tell poets/writers apart — it all sounds the same, about the same thing, written pretty much the same way. Where articles use canned headlines, poems use the same short, choppy prose, losing any differentiating, interesting, identifiable characteristics. The essence of voice (see my short piece on voice) is gone.
Randomly select an article in a publication, on the web, anywhere, and truly try to find the author in it. Do the same with some contemporary poetry. Can you really, REALLY, identify the poet? It is getting tough. This is not to say there aren’t many great writers, poets, novelists, etc… I just find it disheartening that it takes much more effort to wade through the swamp of sameness to reach a little island of beauty. And, people are often instructed to become more homogenous:
● How to get reads ● How to get clicks ● How to get published
In each case, the message is simple: be more like everyone else, and everyone will read your stuff. Journals often tell writers to read what they like, what they’ve published, what they don’t like. If conformity was the goal, we would not have Samuel Beckett, H.D., or any other writer experimenting, excelling, inspiring. Instead of compelling, complex, cerebral writing, we would only have short, simple sentences and paragraphs of a certain length, apps to make us write like Hemingway (no hate, I LOVE Hemingway, mostly because he was Hemingway), apps to cut words we don’t need, to suggest better, shorter, more common words… oh, wait, nevermind…
“They don’t make movies like they used to.” “Whatever happened to the classics?” “Now THAT song will never get old!”
When we do find something different, exciting, fresh, a piece, poem, story, novel, song that is identifiable to a particular creator, we instantly know we’ve found something special. It will survive ‘pop’ culture, trends, the ‘must-dos’ of the day. Without differentiation, experimentation, deviation from the blob of sameness, there is nothing special. That’s why, for me, I want quirky titles, non-conforming articles, poems that are still poetry. I think it’s something we should all want, need, demand. My suggestion: make it yours and let the world find you. It doesn’t help to try and make it fit. That just fills the swamp. If it’s good, if it’s yours, if it’s fresh, it will be discovered, remembered, cherished.
Off to a tiny island, to read weird, wild, wacky stuff, I remain — RLR
What is Craft? Enjoyment? Mastery? The little things. Slow it down; learn to make something; lose yourself in something; become a master at something. This takes time, appreciation, love.
Somewhere along the way we have lost patience, we have neglected our ability to be awed, we have come to expect instant gratification with little to no effort. This must end. The very ideals of Craft and Art are fading into a snowstorm of electroniccommercialsocial static.
– No coffee from pods – brew it, taste it, experiment and learn flavour nuances
– No insta-poetry / no social media snippets and sound bites – read a book, on paper, from classics to contemporaries
– No AI – be your own brain. Write, draw, schedule, plan, dream, rebel, expand… on your own terms, through your own volition, with your results and failures in sight
– No shortcuts / no GPS – take the long road, get tired, get hurt, experience things you never would have expected
This is not an anti-tech or anti-progress manifesto. It is a love-letter to Craft, Enjoyment, Mastery. Only through the little things that we can master will we continue to create lasting magnificence. After the little things have hooked you, the Big Things will beckon, and you will gladly seek them out.
where stars whiten
at the death —albeit short-lived—
of the streetlamp
cycle-timed for conservation
frogs creak and croak
he hears them
houses with windows
open to the calm evening air
that carries the din
there are no thieves conspiring
or ne’er-do-wells whispering plans
those night-sounds that bounce
against constructions and preconceptions