The plan

This fall. Three months. 12 essays: reflection, advice, productivity, work, family.

I may or may not post them here, but I am damn well going to write them.

What Am I Doing?

Last week my writing group met at P’s new home near the coast. Despite our group being a writing group, none of us has been doing much writing: P just moved; E has a new job; L is looking for one; I’m distracted by remodeling my house. So our intent for today was not discussing what we’ve done lately, but using the time we had together as a working session.

But after we’d caught up about the latest in our lives, and before we settled down with laptops and notebooks, we discussed:

What are we doing here, exactly?

What is the point of all this writing? What is the goal, the target, what are we aiming at? What is the project?

It was a question I started because it’s one I’ve been wrestling with. My first published poem is coming out in a month or two (thanks, Modern Haiku!); I’ll be a featured reader at Coastside poetry in February; I have hundreds of files of writing on my computer, in various forms and states of finished-ness; I blog here when I feel like it. So there’s progress, and material – but really, what am I doing?

When I was a little kid, I started taking theater classes. Pretty soon I was in a traveling group of kids who performed plays at other schools. I would take the day off from my own classes, go visit somewhere else, put on a costume, become part of the troupe performing onstage for other kids who had in turn been taken out of their classes to watch the show. It was special, it was amazing, it was my first foray into audience.

In recent years, I’ve been reading different things than I read when I was growing up. More non-fiction, more essays, more exploration of what the world is like from various perspectives. More poetry, where the poetry I like best holds some of the same traits: a new angle on an old view, a detailed image, a perspective. And in both cases, beautiful, precise, textural and compelling words.

The classic advice to writers: get up early; write regularly every day; make it a habit; have a word count; don’t worry about quality, this is just a first draft; has never worked for me. I dislike have-tos; there’s a ton of other stuff I need to do first thing in the morning (hello, meetings with contractors and videoconferences with New York and India); and I am more than capable of spitting out vast quantities of prose with very little purpose or provocation (hello, arguably this blog post). The question for me is less what or when than why. If there’s a point, I’ll do it; if not, I won’t.

I’m dancing around the point and the purpose in this blog post. I am beginning to know what it is – it’s something about audience, it’s something about creating something that would mean to others what some of what I read has meant to me – but here’s the trick: I’m also a little scared to tackle it.

I’m not scared because I’m scared of failure or success, or any wishy-washy whatever like that. I’m scared because the internet is scary right now.

I’ve got a mostly-done essay about flying business class. I’ve got notes and ideas about feminism. I’ve got a poem about what it means to get more senior at work. I’ve got thoughts and ideas about power, about good fortune, about cause and effect –

and most of all about ambiguity.

There isn’t, as far as I can see, much support in the world for ambiguity right now. The internet is focused on good/bad black/white yes/no right/wrong hate this/hate that. The conversations around me are much the same. Maybe I’m trapped in a bubble – I hope I’m trapped in a bubble! I hope the whole world isn’t like this! – but within this bubble, expressing doubt, uncertainty, or shades of gray seems like an invitation to slaughter.

I don’t like slaughter.

On the other hand, I believe deeply in ambiguity.

So I’ve got a lot of files on my computer, waiting, uncertain. In ambiguity, lingering, unknowing what’s next.

and

And I missed the deadline. Contributing factors include:

  • Timezones – if you’re planning to submit poetry to a magazine in the UK, well, May 29 there doesn’t end at the same time there as it does here
  • Weather – it was really really nice outside and so I read a book in a chair in the sun rather than cleaning up piece #3 that I wanted to submit
  • Friends – had dinner with friends rather than cleaning up piece #3 that I wanted to submit
  • House – did useful stuff re: planning the remodel rather than … yeah, that.

I did learn some things though, namely:

  • Clearly, submitting these pieces to this issue wasn’t my P0 (ie, highest priority) – I had plenty of things I could have chosen not to do, that I did, and therefore I didn’t do the writing. As my mother says my grandmother said, you do what you want to.
  • I can write really fast when I think I’m on deadline. When I finally did clean up piece #3, on a plane just a few minutes before what I thought was on time… wow, that was fast. And the results are pretty good. I’m happy with how it came out.
  • I also found another poem inside a longer piece I’d written years ago. That was cool.

So. I didn’t make the deadline, I didn’t send things off to this particular thing, but … I did stuff. It’s stuff I’m pretty happy with. Okay.

#amwriting

I’m pulling together 3 poems, a bio, and a cover letter to submit to a magazine I like to read. I’m down to 5 poems, one of which needs massive editing and is really more of a prose-poem than a pure poem but might be incredibly funny when I finish it. Fun of writing vs lure of procrastinating vs difficulty of choosing. Two of the poems are similar in tone and structure; are they a tone and structure that this magazine will find compelling? They’re a little more dense in construction than most of what it publishes. On the other hand, I think they’re good. And they fit the theme. But then… maybe better odds of success if I submit three things with more variety. Three things to submit is not very many! How to choose, how to choose?

Library

It is years since I’ve spent much time in a library. Growing up, libraries were a weekly – or several times per week? – affair, and cross-town too, as my parents drove me far and wide, from my hometown to the next town over, and the next town over after that, in search of the next book in whatever series I was reading, or a new section of children’s or young adult books I hadn’t yet devoured. And ‘devour’ really is the right word. The quantity and variety of books I brought home was limited mainly by the length of my arms: I had learned early that the easiest way to deal with a precarious stack was to hold it carefully with both hands beneath, and then wedge it under my chin.

I don’t know when my frequencing of libraries changed. It wasn’t college; college was all libraries all the time. It wasn’t really post-college either. In Los Angeles and later the Bay Area, I made pilgrimages to UCLA librairies, Berkeley, Stanford, the local public libraries … but in recent years, it’s tapered off. I read just as much or more as I ever did, but the time I spend in public, at public desks, reading or writing or dreaming, has altered.

But a few weeks back, I took a class on essay writing. It took place on one of the upper floors of San Francisco’s Mechanics Institute. I’d never even been in the building previously; the library is membership only, I don’t exactly live nearby or spend much extra time in the city, and I’d never even seriously looked into it. But. That afternoon in the class, I felt the weight and age of the building around me; after the class, I peeked in the window of the reading room. Architectually it’s like Gold Rush meets City Beautiful, east coast done on a dime-sized budget in the west. The building feels solid, with high windows with single pane glass and wooden frames. From the view through the stairwell landing into the reading room I could see both comfortable lounge chairs and deep-set shelving stacks.

In college, I used to hide in the stacks to work. The ceilings were low, the lights were on a timer, and there were always student myths that either a serial killer or several stray couples having sex could be found back there, if only you went deep enough. The elevators were tiny, and creaked as if about to fall through the building. The stairs echoed with every footstep. The silence felt like a preservative, a moment or solution for statis. The air smelled comfortably of the heat of decaying paper, ancient ink, and glue. When I needed to procrastinate I’d read old back issues of fashion magazines from the 1920s; when I didn’t, I’d find an empty desk surrounded by books, no windows, and get down to work. I’ve missed those stacks for years.

And so today, here I am, new-minted membership to the Mechanics’ in hand (or, more literally, in handbag). I’m sitting in an old wooden chair at an old wooden desk. The stacks extend to my left and the lounge chairs lounge on the other side of the room. Light drifts in through those high ancient (by California standards) windows, extended and evened out by flourescents two stories overhead. I’m typing.

It feels strange and familiar, all at once.

These streets


These streets
These streets begin to seem like the end of the world.
With a backlit sky and torn-up cobblestones
we dress in suits and heels to go to dinner
sweating gently in leftover heat
while a gravel voice plays on the radio

‘For rent’ scribbled on empty storefronts hints
what might have been.
The ice cream on the corner has a line around the block.
Two boys on bicycles hop the curb, first on then off.
Condensation drips down fire escapes from air conditioners above
and a lean-muscled woman with tan summer hair
curves her fingers around one last hazy cigarette.

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