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Tag: Writing Down the Bones

In Which I am Not

In Which I am Not


I’ve run across a pattern here in Goldberg’s book, or at least a pattern for me, one that resonates in me: owning whatever we want in our writing, and then freeing it (31). She expands on this in her chapter “We Are Not the Poem” in ways that ultimately don’t work for me (she applies the discussion to gaining too much recognition for a particular type of writing, and reading that work too often in public – problems I don’t have, and don’t ever anticipate having, to be honest), but where it does work for me is earlier, in her establishing, clarifying discussion of the issue:  “the problem is we think we exist” (34). We think that our words, once we get them down on paper/bits & bytes/whatever, that they are frozen and permanent. This isn’t the case, at all, and as writers we need to remember this (or learn it).

For instance, my first class as an undergraduate was a literature class, and it was one of the really, really basic ones – a good way to start, honestly, and as it dealt with such an array of writers (Langston Hughes and Shakespeare both were represented) it must have been a survey class. Amazing the things that stick in the brain, isn’t it? Anyway, in this class, we discussed “Battle Royal” (a part of the novel, “The Invisible Man”) and much as I would later be frustrated by wondering what exactly was in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, I was frustrated mightily by the discussion of the briefcase Ellison’s protagonist receives.

The instructor was a graduate student, working on his thesis (I was SO IMPRESSED by this, that he would just so blithely toss this out, like it was nothing), and I always referred to him has “Mister,” even though he was miles younger than I was at the time. This didn’t feel strange in the least. But I asked him what the meaning for the briefcase was, pointing to a specific line describing the case, wanting more, and specifically wanting the “more” to be an absolute. He responded, “What do YOU think it means?”

This was not helpful to me at all, at the time, I thought. I understood in general terms that the meaning of the briefcase was mutable, and that the instructor wanted me to apply my own critical thinking skills to the reading and my new knowledge about Ralph Ellison and Ellison’s purposes in writing and come to some greater understanding of the briefcase as more than just a leather satchel. Yes, yes, yes, all fine and dandy, good, great, stellar. But what does it MEAN???

You would think that as a child I skipped to the end of a book and read the ending first, but I never did.

The words Ellison wrote in “Battle Royal” that confounded me so much were full of intention, purpose, and meaning, but they weren’t concrete at all. They changed, depending on who was reading them and what personal experiences the reader brought to the reading. That wasn’t what was important, though, and that’s not what is important in my writing either. What’s important is Goldberg’s description of the freeing nature of writing, and “that moment you can finally align how you feel inside with the words you write” (34). That moment is what was important for Ellison, I bet. His book, “Invisible Man,” is full of terrible metaphors for how life was for brown folks in his day, and what life was like as a young man trying to make his way in a horribly racist world. I bet there was some power for him in laying all those words down, describing how it was, but not making it so explicit that people were locked in to one reading. Goldberg says that that moment is key, because once you mesh your words and your feelings, “ “you are free because you are not fighting those things inside. You have accepted them, become one with them” (34). I don’t want to put words in Ellison’s mouth, or his pen, but I do like to imagine that even if he couldn’t be free from the situations that lead to his writing “Invisible Man,” he could at least feel some momentary power just through the articulation.

Goldberg says that there is no permanent truth that can be captured and held in a poem, and I believe her. We, as readers, change all the time, and she, as author, changes along with us, just like we do. The words stay the same, but the meanings they bring with them are constantly changing and shifting. I guess my question becomes whether or not that makes me more or less intimidated by the act of sitting to write?

Poking Garbage

Poking Garbage

I’m continuing my reading and working with Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. I’m finding it helpful for me, as a writer (how weird is it to apply that title to myself, even though that’s what I am, and have always been), but also I’m trying to see it through the lens that my students might use. I know that they struggle – as do I – in finding ways to make their writing work for them, and to make it do the things that they plan or envision. Where I think we differ is that I already trust the process, and know that if I keep doing what I’m doing, I’m going to get at least a reasonably decent bit of writing out of this exercise, eventually.  They don’t have the experience with writing that I do (obviously – that’s what school is for, after all), and my job is to (among other things) offer them opportunities to engage with the process, and develop that trust.

That’s a big part of what Goldberg is discussing when she talks about “composting,” because basically, you’re getting out there and working in the dirt, and not seeing any real improvement, you’re just poking around in the soil. That’s what composting is – it’s bringing air to garbage, bringing important bits together like a recipe, even if you don’t quite see how that’s going to be any good at all later.

Goldberg reminds us that this sort of work takes time, and she offers us a definition of that work as “composting” when she writes that our “senses by themselves are dumb. They take in experience, but they need the richness of sifting for a while through our consciousness and through our whole bodies. I call this ‘composting’” (15).  Trying to write about something before it’s been fully composted is going to get you a bunch of…well, garbage. I tried to write about some life experiences that I knew were important, and that I knew could be useful to other people in my situation, and it was just flat. The words were “thrown-out egg shells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones” without the opportunity that I was able to give myself to think on the whole thing (15).

Obviously, it’s not possible to compost things for your writing only after the experience is done. Some things are things that don’t ever end – you can’t wait to write about them until you’ve navigated the entirety of the experience because that will never happen. The experience continues throughout your life, and at no point will you have time to compost it in its entirety – we do eventually run out the clock, after all. But we can compost the various bits of it, and I think that for me this is important to do. I’ve got to work on seeing My Story as discrete parts that make up the larger whole, but ultimately, it’s not ever going to be done, even when, according to the world, the laws, the people around me, it should no longer affect me. So I can’t compost the whole thing – I can’t save up all the bits forever. If I tried to do that, I’m afraid that I’d wind up hauling this garbage around with me forever, and part of my intention in actually telling My Story is to unload all these damn egg shells, coffee grounds, and smelly garbage.

Another important aspect of the concept of composting is that it answers a concern I have had myself, and have encountered in much of the academic discussion of personal writing: it’s just damn navel gazing, and what good comes of that in academic work? Goldberg addresses that nicely when she writes that her students who are clearly composting “are raking their minds and taking their shallow thinking and turning it over. If we continue to work with this raw matter, it will draw us deeper and deeper into our selves, but not in a neurotic way. We will begin to see the rich garden we have inside us and use that for writing” (16).  I see part of my job with my students to be introducing them to new tools they can use in their lives to help them navigate tough decisions, and to help them think in my complex, nuanced ways. Writing helps us to do that, and our first and best area of consideration (we can’t help it, as humans) is always ourselves. I have worried myself that the writing I have my students do is too fluffy for academic vigor, and that it’s not working the muscles they need to develop enough, but Goldberg has connected the dots here for me in a way that I had not considered previously.

Finally, I have to comment about the visual with this page. As you can imagine, if you Google image search for compost, you will get scads of pictures of piles of dirt. You’ll also gets lots of photos of dirt with hands either IN the dirt, or offering the dirt to the viewer. I had to scroll WAAAAAY too far down the page to find a set of brown hands. My privilege astounds me sometimes, and really pisses me off a lot.

Finally, a non-white hand. WTF? No brown people compost???
Finally, a non-white hand. WTF? No brown people compost???
Giving Natalie Goldberg This Moment

Giving Natalie Goldberg This Moment

As Natalie Goldberg asked me to do in her chapter “Writing as a Practice,” I’m going to sit down right now and give her this moment. What’s running through me?

I’m alone in the house, with just two sleeping pets, and I’m surrounded by calm, and green, and music. I’m writing – a thing I didn’t expect to ever get to do, and haven’t done for myself, in a very long time. I get so caught up in worries about what I’m writing and doing and thinking – what would other people think if they could hear inside my head? I’ve worked for a very long time to shut those voices down (and that’s a large part of what led to my drinking – shutting the Peanut Gallery in my head up). I guess I could track my learning to be concerned with what other people thought about what I was doing to the influence of various people in my life, in the past, but does that really matter? I get caught up in the why, and the fixing of the problem sort of gets shuffled to the background while I try to understand why.

Sometimes we don’t get to understand why. Sometimes we just have to do, and go, and be, and let the why remain an asked question, but be comfortable with no answer, or no answer that we can hear (I believe we get answers more than we realize, but that frequently, they just are outside of our range of hearing).

Am I warmed up now? Am I excited to start? Do I believe I can? Let’s go see.