A manifesto of sorts


If you are writing regularly, you are a writer. If you are not writing regularly, you are another kind of creature altogether. You are a stalled-writer or a blocked-writer or an in-pain-writer.

I’m not saying this to be mean; I have a lot of sympathy for the pain of blocked creatives. I’m frequently one of them. I’m saying this because if you are a writer, then the world needs you to write.

“Are you kidding me?” you say. We have nearly 10% unemployment, large populations of women who don’t have reliable access to birth control, and a progressively more broken political system. We have 40% of our streams and rivers polluted, a chemical industry running almost completely unregulated, and suburban sprawl stealing our wild places. And Facebook is making all of us more narcissistic, while advertisting is helping us become both mindlessly greedy and cynical. So how exactly is my writing going to help any of this?

Because writing, and any art-making, is the inverse of: war-mongering, consumerism, dissatisfaction and cynicism.

Art-making helps you recover your enthusiasm and sincere delight. Now that you are open to your own fragile hopes, you will become more empathetic to other people and to creatures. Every time you create something for your own satisfaction, you give the virtual middle-finger to all the institutions that make it their business to breed dissatisfaction. Every time you create something that has never been seen before, you put the lie to the  idea that we can’t figure out new ways to live in our world. Now that your personal flame is burning more resiliently, you will be more likely to challenge people speaking out of the negativity they’ve been frightened into, or the privilege they’ve taken for granted.

Art-creating is practice for creating our lives and our culture as we want them to be, not just as they’re suggested by the corporations we work for and buy from. Art-making makes you think for yourself. It makes you more tolerant of individual people but less tolerant of the oppressive institutions that people may participate in.

Your piece of art, your painting or poem or screenplay, does not magically make the world better. Honestly, in a lot of ways, it’s just an artifact. But the fact that you made it makes you better because now you feel your own power to create.You are no longer mindless. You can no longer see yourself as helpless. You no longer accept the culture’s simplistic version of yourself, and you will likewise not accept the simplistic versions of other people that are constantly shoved down your throat.

And that’s why, if you are a writer, you need to write. Also, it will make you feel better. Now go out there and write something.

Linky Linky

Jeffrey Levine of Tupelo Press has good advice on organizing your poetry manuscript. Then again, does he?

Humorist Calvin Trillin talks to Jon Stewart about the challenges of writing satirical poetry. You may be surprised by what "Mitt Romney" rhymes with.

Enjoy a good literary feud? Here's Dana Goodyear's article in The New Yorker on the enormous inheritance left to Poetry magazine. And David Orr's rebuttal in The New York Times which includes among other things some comments on The New Yorker's poetry track record. And John Casteen's rebuttal of the rebuttal in Virginia Quarterly Review.

Photos for poets


Visual art inspires me to write, in some ways more reliably than other writer’s poetry. I tend to get stuck in imitations of other writers’ styles, which is like producing a piece of amber with a mashed leaf inside, instead of growing a live plant. Inspiration from visual art is more visceral. You get to come at the impression sideways.

Which brings me to my friend Julia Blaukopf’s book The Rain Parade, a photographic journal of her four months in Ghana.

At times, photography feels sterile to me, and I think it’s because our visual culture is so overloaded with perfect photos: images that are either a) intentionally stripped of emotion or b) overloaded with manipulation to get you to buy something. What I love about Julia’s photographs is that they’re full of feeling but they never force you. They’re not what you’d call pictures of Ghana; they’re more impressions of Ghana. There’s a gentleness and immediacy in them, almost a child’s-eye view of the dusty streets, fishermen working their nets on a beach, a woman making batik fabric. They’re saturated but calm, which come to think of it, is kind of like Julia.



Creativity and confidence

Recently I stumbled upon a conversation on Gawker: a young guy was really upset that he lacked confidence. And the other commenters were sympathetic, and giving him good advice like – try therapy, do something you love and become expert at it, and “fake it till you make it”. But he kept responding, “But I don’t have confidence, and it feels impossible to get it.” His feeling of desperation was palpable, and extremely familiar. I regularly feel this way about my confidence in my writing.

It’s all very well to “fake it till you make it”, but honestly, just like that anonymous commenter, I’d much rather just feel that sense of certainty that my work was worthwhile. Even if people thought I was arrogant for it. A healthy self-doubt is helpful. But a constant, grinding sense of not being good enough is a giant de-motivator for me. And I’m not talking about the need to improve my technique or improve the clarity of my writing or just work harder in general (I need to do all of these), but the feeling that my voice and my way of looking at things has no merit.

Do you feel confidence in your art form? And if so, how did you acquire that confidence? And if not, how do you establish it? Do you think it’s necessary? Is it possible that some of the most successful artists have no confidence at all?

Learning how not to write

How do you write a poem? A poem is about connecting with life more intensely. Emotion, relation, physical reality – connecting with those things. That’s what a poem is. It’s heightened awareness. And when I force myself to write poems, I’m reaching for the result of that awareness, instead of approaching the source. The source is that particular state of mind. So I think I’ve been going about it all wrong. I want to be writing the lines of poetry. Like this:

Rain smell

line of poetry

shells of memories telling an ocean

I want that act. But that act is the result of an internal shift that happens. And I’m not going into that state often enough. I’m not managing that well at all. It’s all very well to read old drafts and begin to make them better. But the creation of something totally new is different. It’s crucial. It’s so fragile.

TV, in two-part disharmony

Ah, Pilot Season. Let’s take a break from Serious Art to discuss my third favorite art form: TeeVee. Sure, plenty has been written about all the new shows, but I think I there’s a vacuum for a Rotten Tomatoes sort of approach. Ie, the show at a glance. And since I have zero credibility as a television critic, I am just the person to fill that niche. Note: I only watched what I was interested in*, lending me even less credibility. Let’s begin!

The format is simple: I tell you the best and worst aspects of the shows, like this: Good, but Bad.

Pan-Am: Cute, but intellectually insulting.

A Gifted Man: Beautifully acted, but probably going to get cancelled.

Ringer: Surprisingly addictive, but, dammit, now I’m addicted to a CW show.

Whitney: Whitney-Cummings-woman-successful-in-Hollywood-yay!, but, EVERYTHING ELSE.

2 Broke Girls: Funnier than “Whitney,” but the one-liners are going to get old fast.

Community: Better than any of the new sitcoms, but I am an idiot for not noticing it for the past two years.

Person of Interest: Michael Emerson! (my weirdly compelling slightly-evil-nerd crush!), but, please don’t cancel this one, CBS, I’m really addicted.

Unforgettable: Inoffensive, but, um, forgettable? (I told you I was unqualified for this task.)

Prime Suspect: I can’t follow my self-imposed rule for this show, because I found it pretty much perfect. (A lot has been written about how the pilot portrayed sexism in the NYPD in an over-the-top way, which is a valid point, but I also suspect we’ve been brainwashed by unrealistically utopian post-feminism on shows like Law & Order.)

Terra Nova: Jason O’Mara and Stephen Lang are likeable even with hacky writing, but three episodes in I am still finding the persistent anti-science bent disquieting. However, I might be slightly prejudiced because I find dinosaurs tiresome.

Charlie’s Angels: Just kidding. I re-read Judith Krantz novels regularly, but even I can’t sit through Charlie’s Angels’ level of cheese.

Did you watch something I didn’t? Chime in with your one-line (or twenty-line) opinions on the various shows I may have missed or was totally wrong about.

* What I’m interested in: science fiction, women protagonists, and all things pertaining to Michael Emerson.