Wednesday, December 18, 2013

More of the Best-Ever Writing on Writing

"Ten of the greatest essays on writing ever written."

 A few days ago, Flavorwire published another of its infamous lists. With that title. I don’t disagree that the essays listed are brilliant. I admire them all. Return to many of them often. But the list irritated me for several reasons. Greatest essays on writing ever written. Ten white authors? Only three women? Nothing written more than ninety years ago? Nothing in translation?

So I decided to whip together my own list. It’s the Year of the List, apparently, so I’d better get mine out there before 2013 races off and leaves me brushing its dust off my coatsleeves. 

I welcome your additions to:  

Wendy's Top Ten: Some of the Best-Ever Writing on Writing ~

"Art Positions," Marco Rountree, from Madrid, 
Art Basel, Miami Beach, December 2011
 #1) Gloria Alzaldúa's  How to Tame a Wild Tongue or, even better, “Tlilli, Tlapalli: The Path of the Red and Black Ink” 

These lovelies are back to back in Borderlands: La Frontera: The New Mestiza (Spinsters/Aunt Lute Press, 1987)

#2) Aristotle's Poetics 

Like the slogan for Goddard College’s low-residency creative writing programs: “the first and still the best.” Yes, Poetics is composed of incomplete lecture notes; it was never intended for publication. But it was definitely the first. And we’ve not lived it down yet, two-thousand-three-hundred years later....

#3) Toni Cade Bambara's “What It Is I Think I’m Doing Anyhow” (1980) 

This lovely, energetic essay contains one of my all-time favorite quotes on writing:

“The greatest challenge in writing, then, in the earlier stages, was to strike a balance between candor, honesty, integrity, and truth—terms that are fairly synonymous for crossword puzzlers and thesaurus ramblers but hard to equate as living actions.” 

You can find it, and many other lovely essays on writing, in Janet Sternberg’s The Writer on Her Work (Norton, 2000)

#4) Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz's “Respuesta a Sor Filotea” (1691) 

In which sor Juana defends women’s write to study, write and teach, in a letter to her bishop, all the while addressing him as señora, as if he were a nun. A shortened version of this revolutionary essay, translated to English by Margaret Sayers Peyden, appears in Peyden’s anthology Mexican Writers on Writing (Trinity University Press, 2007).

#5) Gabriel García Márquez's brilliant 1981 interview with a (rather underinformed and badly outmatched) Paris Review interviewer

In spite of being asked terribly dull questions, with his then-teenaged son pressed into service as English-Spanish interpreter, García Márquez comes up with gems like this:
“Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry. Both are very hard work. Writing something is almost as hard as making a table. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood. Both are full of tricks and techniques. Basically very little magic and a lot of hard work are involved.”

"Art Positions," Marco Rountree, from Madrid,
Art Basel, Miami Beach, 2011
#6) Walt Harrington's recreation of Rita Dove creating a poem, published by the Washington Post in 1995 as “A Narrow World Made Wide” 

Later published in anthologies as “The Shape of Her Dreaming,” it’s one of the best evocations and explications of the creative writing process that I’ve encountered.

This short-and-sweet essay began life as perhaps the only interesting presentation ever given the Modern Language Association (MLA) annual conference, in 1977.

#8) Lu Chi
's The Art of Writing

This work in verse is as relevant today as when it was written seventeen hundred years ago. I wrote an essay inspired by it a few years ago, you can read it here.  

#9) Elena Poniatowska's introduction to Here’s to You, Jesusa!

This excellent exploration of the ethics and politics of immersion reporting appears only in the novel’s English version (published in 2001 and translated by Deanna Heikkenin).

#10) Luis Alberto Urrea's short essay about why he wrote his lovely 1999 book Wandering Time, titled “A Note from Luis” 

It is true that LAU could scribble driving directions on a cocktail napkin and I’d probably call it brilliant work, but this little ditty really is.
Post Art Basel, Miami, December 2011

It seems I'm always happy to fritter away my writing time reading essays on writing, so please send your suggestions along! 


Sunday, April 7, 2013

Thanks for the Beauty, Poetry. Thanks even more for the Truth!

“There are two ways to worry words. One is hoping for the greatest possible beauty in what one has created. The other is to tell the truth.”
--  June Jordan

Poetry reminds me of what’s possible, rejuvenates my faith in myself and all the other selves that crowd this ravaged planet, in those times when my faith stretches thin. This month, I give thanks to poetry for all it has given me. Yes, I should give thanks every month, as Kwame Dawes so sagely reminds us, but there are so many things for which to give thanks in this life. 

To celebrate poetry this month, my friend (a gifted poet) Susan Rich is curating the annual Big Poetry Giveaway. I’m happy to participate, giving away three books of poems that I love. All three tell the truth, and manage to be beautiful, too. (I think June would approve.) A few words about each one:

While I was in the MFA program in Bennington, Vermont, at one January residency, photographer and poet Star Black joined us. She documented several days of what is affectionately (and sometimes derisively) called “the vortex.” At the time, I knew nothing more about Star Black than this: she came from a military family (like me) and she wrote stellar sestinas (most decidedly not like me). On our last day together, she shared her visual documentation. In that vortex of sentences and fragments and punctuation marks (usually ?? or !!), Star created a (both beautiful and truthful) narrative and lyric representation of the place, without using a single word. And so, as part of the Big Poetry Giveaway, I want to share Star Black's 1995 book of poems, Waterworn.

One summer while I was in college, I fell in love with a boy from a small town near Ponce, Puerto Rico. In the dead of the following winter, I visited his island for the first (and, so far, only) time. Our romance disintegrated before winter had melted, but the visit stayed with me. During the 1990s, I devoted many hours to activism on behalf of Puerto Rican independentistas, honored to be part of a network that stretched from Chicago, Boston, and New York to San Juan. I thought a lot about the distance between Gringolandia y la isla. For these reasons, Naomi Ayala’s 1997 collection Wild Animals on the Moon & Other Poems spoke deeply to me. (You can read four poems from the collection at In Motion Magazine.) I hope her words might speak to you, too.
Yael Flusberg in Sarasota, Florida • WLC 2010

I was introduced to Naomi Ayala’s poetry by my dear friend Yael Flusberg, whose own 2010 collection, The Last of My Village, shows how love and wisdom can shimmer through pain. (You can read a poem from the collection and also see how beautifully she reads its title poem.) I’ve written about Yael’s poetry before. Twice I’ve invited her to come and share her poetry (and luminous self) with my students, once at New College of Florida and once at Pacific Lutheran University. Both times, the results were magical. I look forward to sending some magic in the mail, perhaps to you?

If you would like to be in the running to receive one of these gifts of poetry in the mail, please just leave a comment below, saying you'd like to be in the running for one, two or all three of the books. I'll pick from three hats at the end of the month, ask the winners for postal addresses, and send out the poetry books on May Day!  

Happy National Poetry Month!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Made in America: My Next Big Thing

Midge Raymond and me on our joint book tour, Portsmouth,
New Hampshire ~ September 2011
A month ago -- hmm, that would be last year -- my dear writer-friend Midge Raymond posted a Next Big (or Best) Thing Q & A about her novel-in-progress, My Last Continent, to her wonderful writing blog. She invited me to do the same. So, here I am, shyly hauling my current writing project out of the dark corners of my mind with answers to seven questions about Made in America. And when you’re done here, you can look forward to reading about the current book projects of four writers whose work I adore. (I adore the writers just as much.) Check out the blogs of Deborah Miranda, Donna Miscolta, Natalia Treviño, and Anastacia Tolbert to learn about their Next Big Things.

Ready? Here we go:

What is the working title of your book?
Made in America: Four Corners of Life. I feel skittish even calling it a “book,” at this point. I’m not quite sure what the word “book” means in 2013, so let’s just call it my current Big Writing Project, or if you prefer, my next big thing.

What is the origin of this book idea?
Call family on the National Parks Tour ~
Douglas Call, 1976
I grew up a Navy kid, never putting down roots because I knew we’d never stay anywhere long. My home zip code has started with every digit from zero to five, along with eight zip codes beginning with nine. (And for the past eight years, the fabulous 98118.) I’m a child of this country’s corners; born in Florida, I have spent a decade each in Southern California, New England, and the Pacific Northwest. One of the few constants in my itinerant life has been time spent in our natural places, from the Petrified Forest to Acadia, from the Olympics to Biscayne.

With Made in America, I want to explore how our national parks have influenced our sense of what it means to be “American”-- a term that both angers and fascinates me. (And on a practical note, I wanted to spend more time outside in beautiful places.)

What genre does your book fall under?
It’s a series of linked personal essays, some of which lean toward the historical and others toward the lyric.

If your book were transformed into another art form, what would it be? (OK, the original “Next Big Thing” question was: “Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?” But I’ve never aspired to have my writing adapted for the screen, so I’m bending the rules.)
Hardwood Hammock, Everglades National Park ~ WLC 2013
In the Ernest Coe Visitor Center at Everglades National Park, there is a huge mosaic in the floor: a map showing the park’s eight ecological habitats -- hardwood hammock to mangrove swamp -- in vividly tinted ceramic tile. I sometimes imagine my book in mosaic form, but instead of nicely glazed and fired clay, its pieces would be broken bits of my grandmother’s china, mismatched plates from Goodwill, seaglass, a shell collection from four decades of beach visits, and small stones unearthed by spring digging in the garden.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
A lapsed student of biology sets out to explore the natural world in the four corners of the continental U.S., becoming enmeshed in the complex tangle of patriotism, environmentalism and imperialism that characterizes our national parks. 

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Studio at Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller
National Historical Park, Vermont ~
WLC, 2011
I’ll tell you when I’m finished. I have spent about half my time over the last eighteen months in the “information gathering” stage: reading, researching, talking to people, mulling things over. During that time, I’ve spent a total of seven months living and working in four national parks (Everglades, Joshua Tree, Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller, and North Cascades­­) as an Artist in Residence. When I get home to Seattle in February, I’ll start working on a first draft.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
My parents, who packed my brother and me into our ‘68 Chevy Malibu in the summer of 1976 and drove us over 7,000 miles from our home on the California-Mexico border northeast to Zion, then north to Yellowstone, then Mt. Rushmore, then to the east coast, then south and west all the way back to the Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest. Thirty days of cheap motels, friends’ hideaway sofas, and hotpot-and-cooler meals, so that my brother and I could have the gift of the National Parks Tour. This book is my thank-you note.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
It will have pictures! And audio! And perhaps maps. Maybe even video. I don’t have the details worked out yet (I’m a hopelessly analog person, pushing a handcart down the information superhighway), but I envision Made in America as a digital book that actually takes advantage of the great opportunities this technology offers us as readers – and as writers. (Unlike the digital version of my 2011 book, No Word for Welcome, which is less visual than the print version, which simply shouldn’t be….)

Another tidbit to pique your interest: a chapbook! The first national park where I was Artist in Residence published a lovely, 24-page, single-essay “chapbook.” (No video or audio, but it does have photos.) You can order Tilled Paths Through Wilds of Thought right here at my blog -- see the link to the right. You can read an excerpt from the chapbook at the online magazine Guernica – but the real thing is much cuter. And I’ll sign it for you. All for the price of a latte. Get yours today! And, as always, thanks for reading.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Four Years, Two Inaugurations, and Richard Blanco’s “One Today”

“The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains / mingled by one wind—our breath. Breathe. Hear it…”

-- Richard Blanco, January 21, 2013

As I tuned in the presidential inauguration today, I was most looking forward to the poem. 
At Othello Station, Southeast Seattle, 2012

It is the only part of today’s event about which I could feel unequivocally optimistic. I’m not a fan of winner-takes-all voting and I realize that President Obama never promised to be anything but a centrist (those who felt disappointed by his first term perhaps weren’t truly listening to him during his campaign).

But I was thrilled to hear that Richard Blanco would be the inaugural poet. Richard and I are both members of the Macondo Writers’  Workshop, have many mutual friends, and are the same age. Hearing that he had been chosen as the inaugural poet felt like a sweet success for several interwoven movements for social justice, movements that have defined my generation. And the simple brush with fame amazed me: I knew (ever so slightly) someone who was now a member of a very small club that included Robert Frost and Maya Angelou.

President Obama's speech was an excellent warm-up act for the inaugural poem. For the first time in my life, I actually agreed with more than a few words of an inaugural speech. I felt the hard work of so many, who have struggled for so long, acknowledged in the President’s words:

“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began.  For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.  Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”

Our journey will not be anywhere near complete then, but we will be a bit farther down the path.

I held my breath as Richard Blanco took his place behind the podium. He opened and closed his mouth twice before he began speaking. I imagined all that might tumble from his mouth: a scream, a sob, a shout of victory. A second of silence and then his poem: a gift of collective images and private moments, a mirror held up to reflect many of us, lines of simple elegance:

One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love

Fir forest, Whiteley Center, San Juan Island,
January 2009
Four years ago, I sat in a forest cottage at an island writers’ residency, watched President Obama’s first inauguration on my laptop, and traded FaceBook notes with high school classmates I’d not seen in two decades and would likely never see again. Most of them, like me, had not voted for Obama. I couldn’t bring myself to vote for a candidate who supported two unconscionable wars, rather than universal health care and marriage rights. I’d gone Green while my long-ago classmates had gone to the elephants. But on that day, for a few minutes, we all felt proud of our country.

Rock pineland forest, Everglades National Park,
January 2013
Today, I sat at a picnic table in a pineland forest of the Everglades, watching the inauguration on my phone. We are closer to some of us having access to health care. We are closer to equal love under the eyes of the law. Civilians are still dying from the wars we wage. I yearn for Maya Angelou’s riverside.

I can see Richard Blanco, and so many others, yearning for the riverside. I hear our collective breath, as expressed by our Inaugural Poet:

We will keep dreaming, imagining, questioning, solving.