Thursday, October 30, 2014

Little Pink Notebook (Part 2)

Fragments of a Life

I thank you, reader, for your patience with me.

What began last week as something intended to be short and simple turned into (as all my posts do) a lengthy rant. In last week's case, a sort of Divine Praises to Mary Oliver. (Non-Catholics, sorry for the vague reference. Catholics, sorry for any unintended blasphemy in my humor.) At any rate, clearly the adoring fan-girl side got the better of me.

To continue last week's discussion, I was describing Mary Oliver's portrayal of the habits of the writer, and how the little notebook she carries demonstrates a constancy in artmaking, a series of daily rituals that never end. It's a way of life I have yet to perfect, but one I am striving for always. Or rather, better to say that my environment is demanding it always.

To quote another recent favorite female author, Virginia Woolf -- that frustrating but magnificently deep writer of the unconscious -- "Passing, glimpsing, everything seems accidentally but miraculously sprinkled with beauty" ("Street Haunting"). Everything I encounter calls for attention. Every image on the street is a detail -- who's to say how vital a detail -- in a story I don't know. Every stranger or even friend I pass by, as I catch snippets of their conversation or notice an expression on their face, is carrying a life-story, one that I will probably never know to the full -- yet, "into each of these lives one could penetrate a little way."

These observations are fragments, fragments of stories everywhere. Pieces that the writer gathers and ties together to make something whole out of it all. At the end of the day, every fragment of my life is a piece of the story I am longing to write.

And so, Ms. Oliver, here is my humble tribute to your small notebook, your "Pen and Paper and a Breath of Air," all your glorious writing habits. My descriptions, single words, equations, poetic phrases -- but most of all, my fragments:

Excerpts from a Little Pink Notebook

The thrill of being that first bird who breaks the blue morning silence

A father gently shaking the child in his arms at the most intense parts of the music, to let her feel physically what is occurring in him spiritually

Is it only I who finds Whitman to be repulsively full of himself?

afraid. a-frayed.

A sparrow drops soundlessly. I've always admired them for their reclusive nature, for speaking only when absolutely necessary.

Priest praying in his sing-song Vietnamese.

limned, cul-de-sac, perspicuity, peccadillo, eidolon, gyroscopically, coterie

the quiet anger of blue clouds

The first streak of autumn in the tree's hair.

I misplaced myself somewhere.

Post-it notes on every piece of furniture -- someone attempting to learn another language: "das Fester," "der Stuhl," "Isst du den Kase?", "Der Kase is gut!"

(Music notes) Imagine you are talking to a wall and must sing inside your head.

Pain ought to be used as a medium to desire beauty and goodness, not as a means to shun it.

Glowing ice-cube as a signature. Tinkerbell drowning in a glass.

"Please be open," he said, and then I realized he was talking about the door.

Obsession with sunrises / sunsets: when the sky is more alive than the rest of the world below.

peppered with mold

Dots of birds darted across the sky like fruitflies; solid wall of clouds.

trenchant, pavonine, peripatetic

He looked at women the way some men look at landscapes, or Vermeers.

Mountain with trees: balding head with uneven hairs

There was always cooking. My mother cooked hours ahead and sometimes days ahead, meals that would be gone under ten minutes.

Sun and color is too busy. Gray allows one to think clearly. This is the best kind of day, after rain.

a rosemary girl

I cannot write entirely alone. For even if I am sitting in an empty study during the midnight hours, I must know that there is someone dreaming in the next room.

exilic, odontonoid, tumefy, demesne, pandurate

"describe your feeling"
"there is no way to describe this feeling"
"describe its indescribability then"

I send you the moon

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Little Pink Notebook (Part 1)

Habits Inspired by Mary Oliver

For at least thirty years, and at almost all times, I have carried a notebook with me, in my back pocket. It has always been the same kind of notebook -- small, three inches by five inches, and hand-sewn. By no means do I write poems in these notebooks. And yet over the years, the notebooks have been laced with phrases that eventually appear in poems. So, they are the pages upon which I begin.
~ Mary Oliver, "Pen and Paper and a Breath of Air"

As an antiquarian at heart, there are few writers in the contemporary world with whom I can relate. A notable exception -- one who I've come to appreciate as a great heroine of the literary world -- is Mary Oliver. Though she is best known as a poet, I confess that I have actually not yet been acquainted with her poetry. But her nonfiction is brilliant. If I could make my writing look like any author's in the world, it would be hers.

Last summer, I encountered a little book of essays by her in a small bookstore. (Actually, it was a whole shelf, and with a skimpy wallet I had to struggle to settle for one selection.) The collection I bought was called Blue Pastures, and within days I had devoured all its words and wisdom. Oliver is an absolute sage in presenting the writer's day-to-day existence. Her essays in Blue Pastures are very much about the process and journey of being a writer. What I loved most about them was their eloquent manner of portraying the writer's life as something intimate, something contemplative. We see her at her desk frowning at interruptions, or outside wandering the wilderness, or as a young girl absorbing Whitman -- and always as a reflective, almost prayerful kind of scholar. It as though her whole daily universe was writing: the observation, the inspiration, the creation of it. In this sense, she has shown the habitualness of writing, how much it must saturate the writer's every moment.

One essay in particular stood out to me: "Pen and Paper and a Breath of Air," which provides excerpts of a small pocket notebook she keeps for moments of inspiration. For about a year now, I've kept a similar notebook -- mine pink and tattered from being stuffed haphazardly in purses and backpacks of all capacities. Whenever a phrase haunts me, or a certain sight I pass strikes me, I whip it out to jot down whatever words I can to record the idea. (This usually occurs while driving; I can't tell you how many times I've had to pull over to write even two words down.) In reading "Pen and Paper," I was glad to see this tradition validated by another, established writer. But more importantly, it struck me how much Oliver and I share -- if I dare presume so much -- in regards to the dailiness of our writing.

There is no moment, to my knowledge, when the writing process stops for me; it is always happening. True, the times I physically sit down to write are relatively sparse. My perfectionist nature is such that the actual practice of putting words into a word document is one to which I must devote an entire day -- hence, it is not a frequent ritual. But for me, writing is more than simply that one step of physical production. It's a habit, an addiction, a constant mode of mind. I see sunlight -- I appreciate. I read a book -- I contemplate. I hear a phrase in my mind -- I am inspired. These are the necessary steps in writing, which take about 80% of the entire procedure. What is finally written, what finally goes on paper (or, on the computer) is something I've accumulated throughout the day. The process never stops.

To be an artist -- and I truly mean be, in terms of identity and existence -- one's artmaking must never end. It must be the lens through which one sees and feels everything, even if only on the subconscious level. It ought to permeate every aspect of our life. It is very much like being in love: even when we are not physically embracing our beloved, love never clocks out, it is always there.

More to come. Grace and peace to you.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Creative Humility

Why Art Doesn't Come From the Artist

Recently, I was having a conversation with a friend who is a musician by profession, and who has read some of my writing. In discussing the differences of our work, said friend made an interesting comment about the contrasting dynamics (ha) of how we approach our pursuits: “My work is mainly interpretive, whereas yours is entirely creative; you have to create something out of nothing.” Whether this statement was a compliment of sorts or simply an observation, there was something about it that stuck with me, and not necessarily in the right way. I think it was the word he used:


Geez, what a weird word.

It shouldn't be so strange to me. After all, I've frequently referred to my writing as “creative” work, and “create” is only a suffix away from that. Certainly, creativity is the leading element for what I do -- it takes a creative mind to arrange words and ideas into a story, to make language aesthetically pleasing and entertaining. And certainly my friend's description was accurate, in this sense: the written story, the arrangement of words, doesn't exist until I put it all together. So why does “create” bother me so much?

Maybe it’s because I've never thought of myself as (to add another suffix) a “creator.” An artist, yes, but a creator never. For a religious person like me, the term "creator" connotes a divine parent, One who forms true substance out of true nothingness. The act of creation here, then, is a godly one, since it originates solely from the will of He who creates and not from any preexisting materials. I'm sure my friend wasn't thinking as philosophically as I am about these terms, and I'm certain that comparing me to divinity is nowhere near to what he had in mind. But to think of myself as someone who "creates" seems conceited, in a way -- not to mention inaccurate.

Perhaps this is only my own, silly paradigm, but I don't see artists as creators. Inspiration, and consequently art, doesn't simply come from nowhere; it is not pure creation-out-of-nothingness. Rather, art by its nature -- by human nature -- is driven and provoked by something outside of itself. As humans living in reality -- a reality made up both of the physical world and the interior processes -- we are constantly being affected by our experiences. We didn't invent this reality, nor did we order it to influence us in certain ways. We are simply submerged in it. Where individual creativity arises is in how we react to that already-created force.

Even those abstract works, which claim to be a pure creation of will detached from representation, are still but reactions to reality -- in this case, the wish to question it. We can't escape the world or the ways it influences us; even our deepest, rawest interior life is still a part of realityArt is always, in some form or another, tied to the environment we live in -- be that a direct representation or a depiction of emotional response. In this sense, the artist is not a inventor of something new; she is an interpreter, and expresser of what she perceives.

Am I insulting artists by lowering their status from creator to interpreter? I don't think so. From my view, there could be nothing more dignifying than drawing ourselves closer to our own humanity. We artists are not so different from anyone else, I believe. We are not some elitist group bestowed with the power to reshape reality. We are human. We see the world, we feel it, and known or unknown we try to react to and express that experience (and, for some reason, the way in which artists express it gets more attention).

Clearly, tomes could be written about the subject, and I apologize for the philosophical ramble. For fear of boring you for too long, let me draw it to a close with a more personal illustration:

For my own part, I have only ever thought of myself as an "appreciator," as one who is simply in love with everything I see. A lover looks at his beloved without any claim in her creation. He doesn't attempt to reinvent, reshape, or replace her (why would he?). Instead, in his limited way, he makes desperate, passionate endeavors to simply express her -- to gesture to her beauty, to capture her essence with his lovewords. When he pours out his emotions, it is she and her influence that he lauds, not himself. He is praising, in other words, the miracle that she was created.

So it is when I write. I don't want to reinvent, escape, or question reality. All I want to do is point to the created world, and say, "Look how lovely it is." Whether you are religious or not, there must clearly be something greater driving the artist other than the artist's own wishes. And it takes a kind of humility, I think, to admit that.

No, reader, I’m not a creator. I am only a lover.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Art of Pain

Fiction, Suffering, and Cowardice

Pain makes people do strange things.

For me, that strange thing is writing.

Some of you may recall my bitter letter to Franz Kafka a few weeks back, in which I lamented about settling for fiction in order to avoid the merciless nature of nonfiction. From this, I imagine it would be easy to conclude that I am a disgruntled fiction writer who is dissatisfied with the genre I have chosen. But in spite of my natural, frustrated love for nonfiction, I must admit to you that I don't entirely hate fiction. I find it to have value on many levels. Sometimes, I believe, fiction can make us see reality more than reality itself can. Of course, here the literary criticism nerd in me immediately wants to delve into Viktor Shklovsky's concept of defamiliarization and the Aristotelian doctrines of art's moralizing potential, but I will spare you that unnecessary torment. For now, I will leave it at this: sometimes, we need fiction to make us look deeper at reality, and to wake us up to life's possibilities and purpose.

But for me, fiction has always been a shield. It's been my way of dealing with pain, even small pain. I take struggles that I've encountered, or seen those close to me encounter, and give it to someone else -- a fictional character. Only, I exaggerate it. Distort it. In my sadistic little way, I make the protagonist suffer more than me. It's strangely, wonderfully satisfying.

But beyond this sadism, there is also a kind of masochism -- albeit, a cowardly kind. When I encounter hardship, some stupid, creative voice inside of me says, "Oh my gosh, this will make an amazing story." I can't help but to see the charm in suffering. I find myself inexplicably drawn to it, desiring to shape it into something breathtaking. But understand, please understand: this isn't courageously facing my pain. It's distancing myself from it. Because, once it's on paper, dressed up in lovely little words, it's not mine anymore.

I guess I consider myself luckier than most, because I've found something to do with my tragedies: I turn them into a story. I crumple and twist them and knot them into a bow, until I've created something awkwardly pretty. I'm lucky to have found writing, because I don't know if I could deal with tragedy any other way. I envy the bravery of those who don't have writing and have to deal with the reality of their hardships--

--I'm so cowardly, I have to fictionalize mine.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014


The Pains of Revising as a Perfectionist Writer

Want to know what revision feels like for a writer?

Have a baby. Love that baby. Form it, nurture it, watch it grow in all its baby beauty. Then take that baby, pull off its limbs, stick the arms where the legs should be and the head where the chest should be and the eyes where the mouth should be and just throw out the ears altogether. Then hold up your disfigured, discombobulated baby to the world, with tears in your eyes and a forced smile on your lips, and say: "Look everyone, I fixed it."

(Disclaimer: I'm not actually advocating that you do this. Please don't mess up babies.)

The process of revision has always been a gory, painful process for me. As a perfectionist who can barely put down the word "the" without considering a stronger alternative, I'm always striving to make my writing flawless the first time around. My writer's brain doesn't know the meaning of "a rough draft" -- I'm simply incapable of producing cursory, unpolished, BS-ed work. That doesn't mean all of my writing is a publishable work of genius, though. It just means that my brain doesn't know how not be OCD-thorough.

It's having this perfectionist's curse, I think, that makes revision all the more excruciating. By the time I submit a short story or essay to my teachers, I've already put an obscene amount of sleep-deprived, nail-biting hours to generate my best work. So when a class workshop ends with a page full of suggested revision notes, it's like someone has taken a pencil to my chest. It's like someone telling me, "Your best wasn't good enough."

Maybe I shouldn't take it so personally. But I don't think I'll ever enjoy being told to bring my work to the dark dungeon of revision -- and I don't think I'll ever wander there by my own choice. Revision is not at all like the actual writing process. The bittersweet, meticulous steps of delving into a story, discovering its motions, and gradually building it will never be the same as revision. For me, revision feels like throwing a dam into a river, disrupting its natural flow. This is particularly true for musically-inclined writers like myself, who work to shape sentences around a sense of rhythm. Asking me to rearrange or alter the rhythms I've made would be like asking Beethoven to rewrite his foreboding Fifth Symphony in a waltz meter -- it throws everything off.

One of the most thought-provoking -- and intimidating -- explanations for revision came from my first creative writing teacher in college. She defined it as "Re-Vision," separate from editing in that this process requires us to consider our work from a different angle, to explore other possibilities, even to the point of reshaping it to be an entirely new piece. By instinct, all of my creative molecules wanted to protest in uproar against this maxim. I wanted to say, "But once you open the door to 'other possibilities,' where does it end? How will you ever know when a piece is perfect?"

But that, my dear Self, is just the point: there is, and there never will be, perfect.

The aim of revision is not to make perfection. Revision never claims to be the successful achievement of that one, perfect, flawless version of a story or poem. Writing, like life, is limitless -- a single story could transpire in any one of a hundred million different ways. There is no right, or wrong, or better, or worse -- there is only contentment.

Writer, don't be afraid of revision. Don't take the call to explore new avenues as an insult. Take it as a challenge -- to examine yourself critically, to pull yourself out of the mud of stagnant, narrow-minded thinking. Don't see it as changing to please others. Please yourself, boldly. Learn to be content, even with your most disfigured work.

And for God's sake -- don't make it perfect.