Mind the gap

Writing, like any complex skill, is an accretion of layers of experience and learning. Writing well is an mixture of a lifetime of reading deeply and widely; years of study, including apprenticing yourself to other writers; and practice, focused practice incorporating what you’ve read, learned, and experienced. Most of all, good writing is based on paying attention.

Because I teach in a low-residency MFA program, I spend some time each month reading response papers. Response papers are intended as student reflections on the books they’ve been assigned, some of the techniques employed by the poets, and how what they’ve read applies to their own writing and goals. 

It’s easy for me to forget that I am approaching these works with a much greater level of experience and learning. Sometimes I read over a student’s response and realize they’ve missed the historical context or have no knowledge of an entire school of thought. I panic. How can I give them what they need to advance their work? How can I help them fill this gap in their education?

Then I remind myself that we all have gaps, also wens, scars, and willful blindspots. That the best thing I can offer to my students are maps and questions. I can’t give them the destination to which I’ve already traveled, because the journey is the purpose.

I can keep reminding them to pay attention. That good writing (and good living) is made out of 100% paying attention. This means allocating space, filtering distractions, and making choices that foster awareness.

For me, it’s all about the walk in the woods that turns up a volunteer pansy blossoming too early in the season. A small yellow amongst so much leaf litter. And then at my desk, remembering that the name “pansy” is thought to be derived from pensée, French for thought or remembrance. And that another name for pansy is “heart’s ease.” All the layers, all of the focused attention on this world. All of it poetry. 

Casting Deep Shade

I gave myself permission to devote myself for the weekend to one book. To be within it while the snow fell and then another front pushed in rain. To keep turning pages, stopping only to feed spruce logs to the fire, as the light filtered in over the mountains through the front windows then shifted to the western windows, then faded behind the bench.

I’d waited impatiently for my copy of Casting Deep Shade by C.D. Wright, and like any acolyte, I felt a little nervous. The book opened like slow steps on creaky wooden stairs, the rumble of words, history, memories, science, photography, art, the body. The sound of rumination, of devotion.

It’s not a book. It’s a cosmology. A treatise on how one thing is attached to every other thing. Every. Other. Thing. A map of a brilliant woman’s brain making connection upon connection, pushing further into the distance. Crossing and re-crossing subjects like neural pathways.

When I closed the covers at the end, folding them like doors to a tabernacle made of wood not gold, I thought if I went outside and pushed my fingers under the soil, I could still feel her in the root hairs, branching branching branching. Without end.

Ursula Le Guin and Eagles

I begin to think the eagles in the tree outside my window are channeling Ursula Le Guin. When I read her essays in Words Are My Matter, the eagles trumpet from their perches in the high cottonwood trees. Trumpet is rather wrong, it is much more like emphatic flute players.

I don’t mean to suggest that Ursula had the thin squeaky voice that, incongruous as it seems, eagles possess. But rather, when I start reading these by turns serious, by turns funny, essays, I have the distinct impression of a voice from above, slightly disappointed and frankly exasperated, pointing out where I have gone astray. A voice from a being who could easily rip my heart out with knife-like talons but who will, for now, try to put me back on the path gently but persistently. 

It is so easy to begin to doubt. When our culture spends all of its time telling us that the almighty dollar is the highest good, what then are poets supposed to do? We know each time we set pen to page that monetary gain gathers her silken white robes and heads for the door. So why on earth do we continue? Even those lucky enough to find their words on the printed page know that the audience is small, fickle, and prone to promoting their friends’ work rather than reading broadly. 

So often, writers (especially those poets) will reply that they write because they must. As if writers are some evolutionary subset of humanity, driven to create.

But is this true? We want it be, because lord knows in our current culture we would prefer to be counted on the side of the creators rather than the rising flood of destroyers. Yet I wonder how many of us are simply trying to imagine ourselves into a more congenial world.

“Home isn’t Mom and Dad and Sis and Bud. Home isn’t where they have to let you in. It’s not a place at all. Home is imaginary.

Home, imagined, comes to be. It is real, realer than any other place, but you can’t get to it unless your people show you how to imagine it — whoever your people are. They many not be your relatives. They may never have spoken your language. They may have been dead for a thousand years. They may be nothing but words printed on paper, ghosts of voices, shadows of mind. But they can guide you home. They are your human community.

All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. Without them, our lives get made up for us by other people.”

-Ursula Le Guin, “The Operating Instructions”

How many of us who are scribblers began as deep readers? The kind of kid falling into the open pages of a book and finding a world that felt much more like a home than the place where we hung our clothes.

And for now, we are writing our way into another world that contains us fully realized in all our diversity. Not for monetary gain, but to once again say this is the path that creates my world, this the spell that manifests it into being, the scratch of the pencil on the page or rattle of the keyboard. We send those words out into the world in the hopes that for at least one other person they might provide a signpost toward home.

When one of the pair of eagles returns with a seemingly impossibly large stick to bolster the nest, the other calls out for many minutes afterwards for reasons I can only imagine. Together they are building their home. With these words, I am building mine.