Monday, February 9, 2009

i found my voice in emails, love and anger

I don't think I have ever written a poem using lower-case first-person pronouns (i thank you God)*.

If I did, I'll never admit it. As it is, my poetry leans toward the just awful. I don't need to broadcast my ineptitude by making the the beginner's mistake of trying to be e.e. cummings.

Not that I don't understand the impulse: cummings was my high school crush. To this day, when I read his "everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes*," I am so overcome by his breathless extravagance, I feel that a rush of wind has blown open my windows and caught me by surprise.

Or something.

Whatever that feeling is, I want to give it to my readers. Or I want to give them Walter Wangerin Jr.'s grandeur. Or Marilynne Robinson's gentle intelligence. But I can't. When I try, I only embarrass myself.

The lower-case cummings himself offered me the cure, and the challenge, when he said:
To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.
What an act of faith it takes to be nobody but myself. To do that, I have to trust the God who made me, and trust him in the face of the most distressing limitations of energy, wisdom, and creativity. I have to believe that I am fearfully and wonderfully made, and since he looked at what he made and said, "It is very good," then the thing that makes me unique must be a good thing.

Wow. Who'd have guessed?

But I still have a problem. I have fallen in love with so many authors, and I have swallowed their voices whole. How do I know whether the voice that emerges from me is my own voice, or a bad imitation of theirs?

Emails have helped. When I shoot off a note to my friend, it's generally me talking, especially if the friend is one I've known for a long time, one I feel comfortable with, one who would answer with a rolly-eyed emoticon if I said anything that sounded false or pretentious.

Anger helps. If I write about something that makes me so angry the words shoot out my fingers, so angry I spit lightning onto the page ...well, if I spit fast enough, it's probably my own lightning I'm spitting.

Love helps, but I must be cautious with love. Nothing so profoundly inspires imitation. Fall head over heals for a lover, a dog or a sunset, and I'll be quoting Shakespeare, cummings, Billy Crystal and John Denver, all in the same paragraph.

Love is the thing that impels me to truly examine things. What is it - specifically - I love about this person, this object, this situation? I write down every answer I can think of, and then reject all answers that seem familiar or commonplace. If I'm not left with one or two that are mine alone, I try again.

What a surprise. In writing, as in all of life, love is the thing that demands eyes of our own to see, and ears of our own to hear.

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)*

*Poetry snippets from i thank you God for most this amazing by e.e. cummings


Anonymous said...

I've enjoyed this blog very much over the last few weeks! And to find someone else who had a high school crush on e.e. cummings gets my week off to a great start.

My pastor quoted C.S. Lewis yesterday & it seems to apply to the topic (or maybe it just struck such a deep cord in me--as someone striving for publication--that I want it to apply). Lewis said, "Any fool can write learned language. The vernacular is the real test. If you can't turn your faith into it, then either you don't understand it or you don't believe in it."

Michelle Ule said...

I agree. In anger I type very fast and push the keys all the way to the desk.

When thoughtful, I move gingerly and in slow motion.

In love, it comes in fits and starts and often with some tears.

I'm not going to tell you how long it took me to write this. :-)

Bonnie Grove said...

Rainer Maria Rilke in a letter to an aspiring poet:

"No one can advise or help you - no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself.

Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.

This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?"

Lori Benton said...

"To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.What an act of faith it takes to be nobody but myself. To do that, I have to trust the God who made me, and trust him in the face of the most distressing limitations of energy, wisdom, and creativity."

I've read this passage over and over. It's both honest and infused with faith. Well said!

Word Verification: pagums

"Pa gums his food since most his teeth done rot out."

Patti Hill said...

Katy: Whenever I read anything of yours, I feel like I've been hugged and invited home for dinner. It's lovely.

The voice we all want to hear is honest, motivated by love, and completely vulnerable. That's why when Jesus speaks--coming to earth as fully God and fully man--the world is hungry for his words.

My desire to write was sparked by reading Joy School by Elizabeth Berg. I wanted her for a friend. We had so much to talk about, and I knew she would answer me straight. I closed the book, feeling like I'd been beckoned into a life, a friendship. And I wanted to do that for others.

And so, an honest, good-willed, and vulnerable voice is what I aim for in my writing. I can't write with Jesus' voice or that of Ms. Berg's, but I can learn from their examples.

Are there any other good examples out there?

Kathleen Popa said...

Melinda, I love the Lewis quote. I had a teacher in college who said almost the same thing: if you can't say what you mean in plain language, perhaps you should question what it is you really mean. There's a priceless scene in Lewis' novel, Perelandra, in which Ransom translates Weston's grandiose speech about the continuation of the human race into a language that lacks abstractions. Delightful stuff.

Michelle, how great to see you here! Yikes! How many keyboards have you broken lately?

Bonnie, I love that quote. Can never get enough of Rilke.

Lori, thank you for the compliment.

Patti, you have been hugged and invited home for dinner. When can you come? "Honest, good willed and vulnerable." Great watchwords for all of us. I love Elizabeth Berg, too, and God bless her for inspiring Patti Hill to write.

Steve G said...

Lori - Hah! at Pa gums...
Funny, Bonnie asked why I want to write. I didn't know she was doing homework for her blog... I said something about the freedom of creativity. There's a freedom to be and to do in writing. Much of life tries to pigeonhole and box, but stuff like writing is freedom - except for all those rules about capitals and spelling (which Bonnie likes to ignore) and the like. Now I know why e. e. wrote the way he did!

Word Verification: rakedug - Asking the 15 year old how his chores went "raked Ug!"

Latayne C Scott said...

Katy, your wonderful essay stirred creative juices in my soul. To me, that's the kind of use of language that not only moves me, but also provides an insight into the practical side of writing.

It has been my experience that people who are not writers believe that the creation of meaningful strings of words is somehow automatic -- that writers lean back at their desks, get a mental infusion of words, and then write them down. I loved your very useful tip of weeding through your thoughts until you find those that are authentically yours alone -- and yours that authentically describe what you want to say.

I also really appreciated your reference to Perelandra. I've worked in non-fiction most of my writing career, often writing about technical subjects about which I have no background. In writing about nuclear power plants, for instance, I learned to keep asking questions until I got information I could understand and pass on to other non-technical readers. If I could digest it, then I could give it words that others could access too.

As fiction writers who want to carry a precious and often incomprehensible message of the Gospel of Christ, we have a task that is thus feels familiar to me. If I can mentally work through the nuts and bolts of what it means to serve an often "mysterious and terrifying God" then I can hope to give readers access through words to some of those abstractions.

That's a worthy goal, and I'm running after it as fast as I can.

Latayne C Scott

Latayne C Scott said...

Okay. After I posted a comment, I found this incredible interview:

She's the author of Eat, Pray, Love -- and her descriptions of what she calls the creative genius made me sit back and listen.

Kathleen Popa said...

Steve, I love what you say about the freedom of creativity. You're so right. How many vocations are there where the world actually wants you to be different? We don't necessarily want our CPA's, our lawyers, our administrative assistants to be unique. Creative, perhaps, but only in the way of being more of what a CPA or lawyer or assistant should be: creatively shrewd, or creatively efficient.

But what does the world ask most of its artists, its dancers and poets and writers? Surprise us. Knock us off our pegs. Do something new.

What a challenge and what a privilege.

Latayne, what a wonderfully uplifting video by Elizabeth Gilbert. I liked it so much that I added it to our Resources page (see link under Novel Matters header).

Coincidentally, I recently read an article by Ms. Gilbert that also encouraged me. I love especially what she says about self forgiveness. I added that link to Resources as well.

Patti Hill said...

She's talking about God! The first thing we know about God is that he's a Creator, and then he makes us in his image. We are creators, too. It's his divine spark that makes us ALL able to apply creative solutions to our lives. But there is a calling and equipping by God, as seen in Exodus 35, when he calls Bezalel to build the tabernacle. He was given skills and he developed skills, a sort of creative partnership with the Creator. And we know his name. What a privilege and how humbling.

What we must also recognize is that God portions out this creative calling to those who credit him and those who don't. The rain falls on the just and unjust. I need a monsoon right about now.

"Lord! Shower me!"