I scanned a few poems in a 2006 edition of the Virginia Quarterly Review and I know now that I’ll not ever really be that kind of poet. I can’t right now. I’ve lost my fearlessness. There are subjects I won’t touch, and I suspect it’s the mother/daughter/sister in me that keeps me from the hard edge of things. Maybe.
Alan Shapiro’s piece in the VQR about his suicidal son is an excellent example. He writes honestly and the whole piece is in fact a father’s panic. But there it is in the VQR, after all, an essay typed up, refined, rewritten, sent in an envelope with a cover letter for possible publication, and the part of his brain that wrote and rewrote and mailed it actually had no trouble with the father part of his brain that witnessed his son’s anguishing moments. He has no trouble converging personal tragedy and marketable commodity. Maybe he thought of it as a gateway for others to understand their own parallel experiences. Maybe. If that were so, the piece would have been sent somewhere besides the Virginia Quarterly Review. I actually see this as an ethical problem. I’ll have to think more on that.
Where does that come from? When my mother made me throw out the journals she’d found buried in my secret jeans drawer, was it a heavier weight than I realized at fourteen? Maybe it’s taken me thirty years to hear the real message in that afternoon – words can hurt, so be careful what you write. It’s the lesson learned in Harriet the Spy, really. I should read that again.
Over the years that afternoon has protected my writing with an easy-to-swallow coating and made me constantly aware of a disapproving audience lurking out there, ready to pounce.
Audience is everything.
It never occurred to me that I must be published to be a poet until I began teaching at a university, which is ironic since one of the darlings of the writing department is the National Writing Project. The NWP is a haven of scribbling that insists you are a writer if you write. Period. They’ve made almost a religion by throwing tent revival summer institutes where tired public schools teachers raise their lives to the ecstasy of finally having something to say and the opportunity to say it on paper. I know because I’ve spoken in tongues with them for seven years. The Writing department loves it for the grant money and the exposure and the fine ideals, but the unarticulated truth is they understand those thrilled public school converts are only teachers, not really writers. If they were really writers they’d have PHDs, teach at fine universities, and be published. Oh my.
The university is, after all, a machine we feed with published words – our proof. Despite any high talk we are all invisible wanna-bes if not publishing, even though the words constantly stream on the page and I am everyday a writer.
To sustain that little publishing voice, the one that insists every piece I write can or must be publishable, is to suspend a highly critical audience in my head, and the audience has my mother’s horrified face telling me to throw out the words, and the raised eyebrow astonishment of some colleagues who, wearing their PHDs from everywhere and nowhere are openly surprised an emergency hire, ex-high school teacher actually writes anything at all.
So the writing becomes smaller, and I’m suddenly aware I have the wrong audience in my head. That ghost audience has to go away so my writing can take chances and believe itself again.
The bottom line is that all our lives we are collecting audience, and some of them simply shouldn’t be there. I can sit here at the page wondering if it would be different if I were a man, or childless, or an orphan, or could wear a PHD like some once meaningful football jersey number, proof I’d been an intellectual quarterback on some winning Big Ten team. The censuring and disbelieving voices are really rattling away in my head. It’s much worse than that – they’re listening. I’ve gathered an unfriendly audience of silent readers and allowed them to sprawl on all the furniture in my head. They put their feet on the coffee table and leave empty bottles everywhere. It all muddies up my writing and I suspect it’s time to clean house.
The best and bravest writing I’ve done in my life birthed through a mountain of emails to and from a small group of writing women I never met. They were all of them stunning writers. Stunning. I didn’t have to shop at the grocery store with them or wonder if they knew anyone I knew. Those gals were intimately anonymous, and we all wrote fearless, intensely guttural pieces. It was the perfect girls’ night out of writing. Looking back, I realize now we were taking enormous personal and literary chances every single day, and the writing was very nearly perfect. All of it, because we were the best possible audience. It lasted about four years and then one by one we fell off into our busy lives. I miss us, but more importantly I miss the freedom we gave each other as writers and readers. Their disembodied collection took up all the chairs in the jury box and there was no room for the doubters or the disapproving in my head.
Ultimately it’s about who I let in as audience. If I make invitation to the negative, that kind of jury will simply walk right in, set themselves up in uncomfortable highback chairs, and squirm like unhappy toads while I feverishly try to please the unpleasable lot of them. Even now as I write this I’m aware I’m trying to be a Very Good Girl, so I have work to do.
I’ll just keep on writing as if I were actually a writer.
(Who knows what this will eventually be. I'm just scribbling.)Roe’s house had been for sale as long as anyone could remember. He freshened his advertising once a year or so with new paint to attract attention. No one ever slowed to take down the phone number and no one ever called. Once in a while Roe would mention figures to the neighbors and family – usually around Christmas but mostly after church. He estimated and reestimated appraisals for local properties most nearly like his own, upgrading his own eventual gross sales price with each passing year.The Hutto house was certainly something to look at, and when Roe was diligent with the yard work, it could actually be seen from the road. The house began as a three-room tar paper box built off the ground to keep it cool in the summer. Since his great-grandparents constructed it in the mid-thirties with money from cotton picking and sharecropping, there had been a few changes. This was the Hutto Starter House. Roe’s great-grandparents began their married lives in this house, as did all the freshly-marrieds in the family.Electricity glowed illusory from three single, dangling wires – one in each room of the house. The open back porch was enclosed to accommodate a toilet, tub, and sink some years ago, and the other half was dangerously wired in devotion to a rusted washing machine that did not now nor had ever worked. The interior walls of the house were solid two-by-fours and appeared to have been painted variously at various times, showing traces in the living room of a hurried winter newspapering.The whole house, porches and all, measured a scant 20’ x24’. If a visitor stood at the epicenter of the Hutto home, he could be reasonably comfortable in all three rooms at once.
There was a place by the north wall covered now by a rather frantic Olsten photograph of Roe’s daddy, Petrus, grimacing proudly in his Screaming Tigers football uniform back when the pads were small and helmets were metal. The football portrait represented specific skills of movement or prowess – a postured still just violent and childlike enough to make his mother’s heart sway and his father suck in his own gut in admiration. Behind this frozen gridiron legacy was a valentine card pasted directly on the two-by-four and painted around, but never over. It read, “TO MY SWEETEST ONE. I ADORE THEE” in a flag of beautiful scripting carried aloft by a mainly naked, smiling cherub. The paper was thinning and faded and bore neither the name of the adored nor the giver of the sentiment. The Hutto family considered this a sacred relic of sorts: at some time some member of their family had a feeling strong enough to warrant the purchase of such a card and was too overcome with the depth of that emotion to mar it with one single, secular, mark.The house was built as it could be paid for and was never really completed. It existed in a permanent state of flux where the work seemed to create and redouble itself to keep the house from being complete. Each spurt of enthusiastic newlywed workmanship shone outwardly and inwardly like fine and many colored sandstone layers. The main roof was originally tarred roll roofing that had been replaced and patched, but never changed. That front porch was an afterthought and its corrugated metal roofing was added even later than that. A rusted-out section had been covered by an odd piece of green corrugated fiberglass that filtered the Arkansas sun like a Cold War atomic afterglow.It's hard to put a price on a house like that.
4:00 at Hobby Lobby“I don’t usually never do this kind of sewing. Usually do the high dollar stuff. Custom sewing. I don’t never do that three-dollar stuff or alterations. Don’t have no patience at all for them kind of people. They worry you to death. Only the high dollar stuff.” Pam wore a plaid scrunchie in her hair that perfectly matched the Christmas-plaid cats on her sweatshirt. The cats had little plastic pearl-eyes.
She shifted her enormous mass from right foot to left, positioning her right fist into a hip for counter weight. She had the practiced coolness of a woman who wears a lot of gold rings but seldom looks down at them.
“ This here’s just for some Christmas presents an’ stuff. I generally only do custom sewing for rodeo and pageants. I’m very familiar with sequins. Do ‘em all by hand. Only the high dollar jobs, though.”
Pam’s nonchalance became one of the finest things she had attempted this week. She breathed deeply the moment, hoping not to alter it by saying even one syllable too much. She let here eyes become disinterested and vague.
“ I also train rodeo queens,” she exhaled while picking up and discarding packages of uncovered, coverable buttons.
The small, bent woman with the scissors looked up from the table and nodded appropriately while systematically measuring and cutting a variety of polyester fringes for Pam. She meticulously remeasured each and taped the fringe just at the cutting point to prevent fraying.
She had to. That satin fringe was almost two dollars a yard.
It's a breezy Sunday night. Almost cool, like October really ought to be and sometimes isn't here in Arkansas. The house is quiet, the lamp is low, and all the dishes are done. I'm making time to write, which always makes me happy.I should be golden.I'm not. There are papers to grade, class planning to do, and a frighteningly long list of things I Did Not Get Done during the Fall Break. I'm a little ranty, a little mean about the papers I did grade. Not because they're bad, but because they oozed into break despite my best efforts. There's a spot on my carpet that needs attention, and there are spiders in my garage that need killing.This is my M.O., my downfall. Intellectually and pedagogically I know for certain that writing doesn't require a perfect moment or a room of one's own. I'm also fully aware that creativity isn't necessarily a special, spiritual moment of jupiter-aligned-with-mars magic. I teach this every day.I just fall back into it every once in a while. It's like eating cheesecake. I can go for a year being smart and strong and then, POW. There's cheesecake on my fork. The writing habit is just as mysteriously interrupted. I don't know how it happens.That's actually the reason for this blog. A self-imposed daily post gives me enough reason to make the words come out. The posting itself keeps me from whining and ranting pointlessly, which is what happens in the little journal I carry around.At any rate, the papers still need grading, the spiders and spots need eradication, and I don't have anything to wear to work tomorrow. Who cares? The dishes are done, I've written my post, and there's no cheesecake anywhere near me.Success.
All this time I thought I was at the tail-end of the Boomers. Not so. It seems now I'm officially a member of Generation Jones, a new subgroup born between 1954 and 1965, squeezing in between the Boomers and the Gen Xers .If you were born in the late fifties or early sixties, you're a Joneser too. We're half-idealist Boomers, half-Xer cynic mutts. In other words, we expect Camelot and are genuinely surprised when the castle turns out to be a house of cards we saw put together by sleight-of-hand. We're always in a state of constant letdown, it seems, and always Jonesin' for the ideal.In the same year, we watched Vietnam war protests and man landing on the moon. We saw Dick Nixon and his five o'clock shadow step down, then ate Twinkies during The Brady Bunch. We entered segregated elementary schools and graduated from integrated high schools. We swore not to stay in loveless marriages like our parents did, then sashayed right down the aisle and eventually got divorced. And remarried. And divorced.I have a great many women-friends who've gone about relationships this way, so it's not just a matter of our National Identity as Gen Jonesers. It's personal. And there are a lot of us.
Nothing says "hope" like a forty-something woman having her first child.We don't trust anything to go as planned, either personally or in Washington, but we keep voting and getting married and having kids anyway. It is important to note, however, that Washington is still chock-full of Boomers. Politically, we Gen Jonesers haven't made it to the dance yet. Maybe it's because we're too busy running kids to soccer games and being overinvolved in their schooling. Then again, we do know how to drive our SUVs to the polls.I've got some more reading to do on my new identity as a Gen Joneser and on our Generation Y progeny.