Welcome to Writing the Unthinkable

from Lynda Barry’s What It Is. Why haven’t you gone out and bought this book already? Jeesh. Do I have to say it again??

There are certain children who are told they are too sensitive, and there are certain adults who believe sensitivity is a problem that can be fixed in the way crooked teeth can be fixed and made straight.

And when these two come together you get a fairytale, a kind of story with hopelessness in it.

I believe there is something in these old stories that does what singing does to words. They have transformational capabilities, in the way melody can transform mood.

They can’t transform your actual situation, but they can transform your experience of it. We don’t create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay. I believe we have always done this, used images to stand and understand what otherwise would be intolerable.

It seems that human beings everywhere understand that a child who is never allowed to play will eventually go mad. But how do we know this? And why do we know this? And what happens when we forget?

“I believe we have always done this, used images to stand and understand what otherwise would be intolerable.” I read and re-read Black Beauty as a child, sobbing like the world would end, the description of the torture of the horses almost more than I could bear. But I needed it. It made something real, it told me other people knew about pain.

And I know so many non-Jewish incest victims who, as young teens, were completely fascinated with the Holocaust, all those horrible, awful, brutal details piled up. Some even became obsessed, and developed this weird thing about Jews being the victims we have to all protect (huh, wondering now how much of Christian Zionism this explains???). The ones on the far side of this, the survivors, say plainly that reading the awful stories was a kind of comfort—they made real and physical the level of emotional torment these women faced living in unthinkable circumstances.

Well, not so unthinkable, since the adult perpetrators clearly thought this stuff up and then acted it out in the world. Sometimes I want to know what was so intolerable in their own lives that the scenarios and images they created to make it okay to stay in the world involved hurting children so badly. Guess that is a circular inquiry, though, the question that answers itself forward and backward in time.

If you’ve ever been told you were “too sensitive,” what do you think the motive was behind that particular speech?


Lynda Barry on Why Writing and Typing are Different Things

from Lynda Barry’s What It Is. Go buy this book.

from pages 107-109. Her book is a graphic collage, so the sentences on the page are scattered, not in direct narrative prose. Translating it into only the words typed out loses a lot, but will give you a feel of the power she’s describing and transmitting.

Why write by hand? What is a hand? What is it connected to? What moves it?

A body in motion is moved by……

There is a state of mind which is not accessible by thinking. It seems to require a participation with something. Something physical we move like a pen, like a pencil. Something which is in motion ordinary motion like writing the alphabet. (Or you can tap your fingers 26 times on plastic buttons. This is motion but in the motion there are no variables).

The slowest way is the fastest way.

Being in motion for writing

I have found that writing by hand slowly is faster than a computer-way of doing it, though I know it’s not easy the way a computer is easy. Tapping a finger is not as complicated as making the original line the shape of a S.

Hand writing is an image left by a living being in motion. It cannot be duplicated in time or space. Only by being a being in motion can you know about it.

It’s so hard to do at first. It can make you feel crazy.

Different parts of the brain are used when we make an S by hand and more of the body than a finger tap and images seem to come from this kind of being in motion.

Wow. And yes – handwriting is actually drawing, making shape to represent a thought or image, translated first through spoken language, and through the filter of learned phonemic awareness. Typing is that at yet another distance, another translation, no more forming shapes but only directly recording.

I think that when more of us actually wrote, and we were stuck, we doodled—made shapes that we weren’t investing with recorded language, let our minds wander along the line—and that this served a really important purpose about opening up the mind. How do we do that, if at all, when typing? I know I sometimes start typing “blayh blah blaha blahah b” until more words come. If I stop typing all together, I go check email or facebook then the whole moment is lost.

I do know that are some poems that demand to be written by hand, even though the slow rate of making changes that way is very frustrating to me. I write fewer words by hand, everything is more sparse. Very little of my poetry could be described as “lyric,” but the pieces that are mainly started by hand.

Actually forming letters has a solidity to it, a weight, a process that physically moves through time, that takes time. And energy. And muscles and nerves and ligaments working in unbelievably complex ways.

Which, of course, I am typing to you about.

Lynda Barry on Images and Thoughts

from What It Is, her graphic/illustrated guide to writing. And living. And memoir. And art theory. This is an amazing book. Go buy it.

An image feels different than a thought. It feels somehow alive. If you say your first phone number out loud, you can feel something that is different than saying your phone number now. Thinking your first phone number and writing your first phone number and speaking it out loud are different experiences, but the image is the same. Can you picture where your first telephone was? (p. 34)

What do drawing, singing, dancing, music making, handwriting, playing, story writing, acting, remembering and even dreaming all have in common? They come about when a certain person in a certain place in a certain time arranges certain uncertainties into certain form. (p. 81)

Time + Place are always together. Why? Is imagination a time and a place? Where is your body, where is your mind, when you think? Does it go places? What is movement? Do thoughts move? When people are trying to remember something they often tap their fingers or touch their foreheads. Why does this kind of motion help us remember? Do images have motion? (pp 82-83)

An image is a place. Not a picture of a place, but a place in and of itself. You can move it it. It seems not invented but there for you to find. (p. 88)

What is a story before it becomes words? (p.44)

The Lesbian Bears

The Lesbian Bears
Martha Courtot

here they have not heard of lesbian bears
if they knew they would be afraid
they would form a vigilante party
to hunt wild perverse bear in the mountains

at night while they slept in the open
they would dream of unnatural acts
in brown fur
a female bear would come
wrapping her lustful arms around the bodies
of all the women
then they too would be lost
is this where lesbians come from?

I have seen lesbian plums which cling to each other
in the tightest of monogamous love
and I have watched lesbian pumpkins
declare the whole patch their playground
profligate and dusky
their voices arouse something in us
which is laughing

ah, everything is lesbian which loves itself
I am lesbian when I really look in the mirror
the world is lesbian in the morning and the evening
only in mid-afternoon does it try to pretend otherwise

and when the lesbian wind flutters the leaves
of the bright lesbian trees
sending golden shudders of delight
through the changing lesbian light
the sound which is returned to you
is only an echo of your own lesbian nature

admit it you too would like to love yourself
and each other
now, while the vigilantes
wander the mountains
now is the perfect time

embrace the one nearest to you woman or child
apricot, salmon, artichoke, cow

embrace yourself

Tell/Share/Overshare—when is the line crossed?

How do I talk about my own life while respecting the boundaries of others? What if, say, I wanted to write about a relationship with someone who is an abuse survivor, and the many things I might have learned from that? Do I have the right to share details of that person’s life in order to write about myself? If I don’t have that right, is that then a silence about my own experience being forced upon me? Where is the line between sharing, oversharing, trust, and betrayal?

I wish I had an easy answer, but I don’t. The paragraphs below are from a longer essay I wrote about Chana Bloch’s book Mrs. Dumpty, in which she chronicles her painful marriage and eventual divorce, both driven by her husband’s mental breakdowns. These are first person, autobiographical poems, and they are powerful and beautiful and so well-crafted, and they left me with a lot of questions.

But there is a larger issue for me at play here, especially after reading the essays in section three, “Degrees of Fidelity: Ethical & Aesthetic Considerations” in After Confession—what does it mean for her husband, and for how she relates to him after these poems, that she has written so beautifully her emotional reality of their marriage? She couldn’t have written her truth without revealing his mental illness, the violence, distance, and institutionalization, but still, those are intimate, and potentially damaging, details of his life. What are the limits of how much of that story was hers to show and to tell? Did the ways that she was harmed by him grant her permission to reveal all of this, in the ways that victims have the moral right to say who did what? Or is the telling itself a kind of emotional payback with a manipulative edge? (In all of her work she seems honest and caring, so this doesn’t feel like the case with her, but god knows there are poems and memoirs that exist for that reason.) I’m struggling hard with this issue right now, as I consider what to do with my own break-up poems, the “you” of which will be furious about when or if she sees them. What, if any, responsibility do I have to share or not share with the world intimate details about her? I’ve tried to protect her (way too much, too often, methinks), to conceal her identity, to not go into stories she revealed to me in intimacy that I think explain her behavior. But, ultimately, where does our right to tell our own story violate another’s right to privacy?

Mrs. Dumpty asks this question, and doesn’t answer it in any way. These are exactly the kind of poems that make male critics lose their minds and start flinging accusations of man-bashing, of some kind of conspiracy of women writers to bring men down (to reveal the nakedness of the fathers?), a trend always at its most hysterical frothing peak when certain African American male critics confront Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. “Who is she to say these things about him?” they scream. As a woman, a feminist, I answer, “She is a writer, and compared to what men have said about women for century after century, I think men are still getting off easy.” But as a poet wrestling with my own balance of honesty and integrity, I don’t have an easy, confident, self-justified answer. And maybe I can’t, or shouldn’t.

more on the ethics of first person/autobiographical poetry

from Stephen Dunn’s essay “Degrees of Fidelity” from After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography

Poems […] that involve or implicate family members should raise certain questions for those of us who write them. Why are we writing about this particular subject in the first place? Certainly we have the entire world of experience to draw from. Why this poem about brother, or mother? Why now? And what must such a poem do to involve strangers in what’s personal to us? As the cry of its own occasion, a worthy poem ideally should suggest some answers to those questions.

My experience as both a writer and reader has convinced me that most poems about family should be put in a locked cabinet, like diaries, kept, if at all, as private data for our children to find after we’re dead. Some family poems, of course, driven by necessity and in search of the elusive properties of their subjects, deserve the light of day. For the poems to merit this, their authors need to develop new allegiances—to texture, tone rhythm(to name just a few)—as the poem evolves. In other words, pretty soon aesthetic matters as well as subject matter must be driving the poem. If not, there’ll be Trouble with a capital T in Poetry City. Beware the poet who values content more than the handling of content, a danger especially present in our most personal poems.

[…] Is a poem ever worth the discomfort or embarrassment of, say, the family member it alludes to or discusses? Certainly many poets have thought so, especially since the advent of the so-called confessional poetry in the late fifties. My loosely held rule is that if my poem has found ways to discover and explore its subjet, if it has on balance become more of a fictive than a confessional act, then—regardless of its connections— I will not be discomforted or embarrassed by it.

But to raise the notion of the fictive is to also raise corollary questions. What, if anything, would we falsify, say about our mothers, for the sake of being interesting? Do family stories, written in the first person, make a covenant with the reader that implies a fidelity to the actual? If they were written in third person, would that covenant change? Put crudely, how many among us would sell out our grandmothers for an exquisite stanza?