We write because we think we know who we are, or at least, because who we are in the moment has something to offer to the world. Which notion of course carries the façade that the writer makes the story, and not the other way around.
But more often than not, it’s the writing that reveals the writer. According to VM, whose morning craft talk was titled To Look Again: The Pleasures, Perils, and Perplexities of Revision, “the essence of living is revision.” Our revision process is a form of evolution – evolution of the arc of the narrative, of language itself, of the spirit of the writer, of the ways we express ourselves in this human form. Our best revising happens between fear and hubris (which all writers have some measure of); it happens in a space of willingness. We are willing to pray at the keyboard, to be humbled by lyricism, to re-encounter a narrative arc and imagine a deeper truth. Through this process, we willingly revise novels, short stories, memoirs, poems – all of it – and if we’re lucky, our work brings the reader and ourselves clearer access to character, storyline, and drama.
If willingness is the attitude with which we re-approach the desk, what is the tone of our questioning? Where do we re-begin to re-envision? What practices best lend themselves to going deeper, which is essentially our task as writers?
DL, who won the Oregon Book Award for poetry this year – among other things – talked to us later today about Choosing Prize-Winning Poems, of which she has chosen many. “Does the last line of the poem reverberate up through the rest of the poem?” she asked, two hazel eyes peering from beneath a fine mop of brown hair. “Does it move back up the spine of your work?” She shakes her hand gently from the podium in a vertical line, as if shaking the base of a tree and watching the branches reverberate in reply.
“Each line should have it’s own personality,” she says. “The poet should ask herself, Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going?” She describes the soul of any good poem by saying that it is wrenching away from something towards something else. And she reiterates the importance of first lines: “Does the first line make you want to have sex with the rest of the poem?” Work with that first line, she orders, and set up an expectation. Then exceed that expectation again and again in the poem. (Examples: Dana Levin, Tony Hoagland, Benjamin Scott Grossberg)
At lunch, a handful of nonfiction students – there are only 8 of us to begin with – are talking shop with JB when she is slipped a memo from the director of the program. JB squints at the page, smiles to herself, then sets the note down. “So, what would you guys think about having Jon Krakauer as a faculty member?”
Later, snow falls, ignoring all notions beach and otherwise. It builds up on the rifts of wind-whipped sand and yellowed beach sedges, cresting in little white waves and camouflaging the beach sand against the white of the roaring Pacific. The wind howls and occasional chunks of freezing rain pelt the window, surfing horizontal thermals into the side of the building. A mélange of weather, of landforms, and suddenly no line can be drawn, life is not so simple or carved out, that is to say, suddenly,
it’s hard to tell
where the ocean stops
and the beachfront begins.
It’s hard to tell.
It’s hard to tell
where this will go.
It’s hard to tell
what you will think
of me when I am 3,000 miles away and back home, tucked into the Black Mountains as if humans could divide their experiences like clubs from spades in a deck of fifty-two. It’s hard to tell who started things to begin with, except I can say that riding the elevator from the third floor to the fifth never felt so buoyant as it did with you in it. And that the blue light of your laptop reflecting across your cresting collarbone, was like some distant ocean liner’s signal, giving me permission to try and save whatever might be drowning in you. How many souls have tried to hide in your titanic hull of a heart? You carry ghosts like Medusa carried her snakes, one look into the icy-blue of your eyes and they came writhing out at me. You thought they’d hold your secrets but those eyes, those eyes are locked open like your heart could be someday, maybe is already.
But I project. I imagine. I want the first line to set the stage, but I’m afraid I can’t exceed it. I want to sing your sideshow song of silent know-how. That hip-hop-hidden-cap ladylove you’ve known since age fifteen. It’s a different language and now I’m the one praying at my desk, trying to re-envision the arc narrative of my life, to re-imagine, to go deeper. To allow clearer access to character.[Where sea foam meets snow capped sand ridges. A photo taken from the safety of my fifth floor hotel room.]