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Monday, October 31, 2011

Ghostly Meanderings

Happy Halloween! My favorite childhood holiday,when we cast off our little selves and became dreadful creatures of the night. It's Samhain, Witches' New Year, All Hallow's Eve. Whatever you call it, the dead are with us today. They always are, of course, because we carry them with us wherever we go. We choose to be haunted, and this holiday celebrates the otherworld and acknowledges its overlap with ours.

A few years ago in Munich I was taking notes for a poem about the ghost of Hitler, doomed eternally to bus tables at the HofbrÀuhaus where it all started. I saw him harried, ordered about by Teutonic waitrons, toting empty steins to the kitchen while trying to grab a bite of schnitzel between tables.

That's where the poem began, but that's not where it ended. All that's left of my original scribblings is the phrase: ...night along the River Isar... 

Poetry is headstrong and tricky. Like an evil parent who promises a treat then takes you to the dentist, it leads you on to places you wouldn't have gone if only you'd known. Places you didn't know were haunted:


Ghost Poem, I

I have seen them too,
These tricks of light.
Or felt them

No one stands there at the window
Gazing through the watery panes
As if waiting

In the alley
No washwoman treads the
Stones ahead singing of spring cuckoos

And that night along the River Isar
The bright moon revealed nothing,
When empty dreams rang out with echoes

But the whispers are different.
No trick explains the sudden voice that says
“Bring me my cane, Rose” or
“That was the other one. I did not mean this.”

A place does not know quiet or alone
Where memories range like scattered leaves across a floor,
And burdened shadows hide no tranquil void
Where tides of murmurs plunge and rise.

And so you see. Someday I'll go back to the Hitler poem. We'll see where it takes me next.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Drive of Dexter

Tonight's the night. It's Sunday. Dexter is on at 9 p.m. and I can hardly wait.

Why do so many of us love to watch this serial about a serial killer? I'm fascinated by Dexter's character, but I wouldn't want to have a beer with him. The stories are good, the acting is great., and, sure, he was raised to rein in his sociopathy and only strike at the guilty who slip the noose. He's a grand avenger who sets straight the slip-ups of the criminal justice system. His killings are grisly, but tidy. There is no sentiment. These are well deserved executions.

That's not reason enough, though. In daily life, I'm against the death penalty.

Dexter calls himself a monster, but we're drawn to him as if he's some long-awaited good guy hero we've all yearned for to bring scales of Justice back in balance. It helps that the actor, Michael C. Hall, is a genius and awfully good looking. I know I would not have the same attraction to the program if Dexter were portrayed by Jack Black, say, or Don Knotts. Evil must take care to be attractive.

So what it is that draws me and so many other viewers? On this eve of All Hallows Eve, my thoughts run to the show's examination of the monster within. We all have one, whether it be serial killer, neocon mouthpiece or proponent of traditional grammar as I once was. Perhaps from Dexter we learn there is a saving grace for all of us, and context can make monsters of us all, if only metaphorically.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Dog Day Afternoon

It is cloudy with occasional spits of rain in Portland today. My husband has the flu. I am recovering from a week in NYC and jet lag. The dogs are tired from guarding the house and begging treats. So all four of us are sacked out in the bedroom waiting for it to get a little bit darker so we can reasonably go to sleep. Or at least read ourselves into drowsiness.

It's OK to do this from time to time. I think our cave ancestors did, and possibly even the pioneers. I have lots to do: plans to make, books to write, and meat to thaw, but even Shakespeare warns us of ambition. Why not use this lovely gray day to slide into the back row and blink slowly in the dark?

Tomorrow is soon enough to do what needs doing. And after that there is Monday. In that spirit, here is a little snooze poem from Edgar Lee Masters, excerpted from "Tomorrow is My Birthday":

"Good friends, let's to the fields - I have a fever.
After a little walk, and by your pardon,
I think I'll sleep. There is no sweeter thing,
Nor fate more blessed than to sleep. Here, world,
I pass you like an orange to a child.
I can no more with you. Do what you will..."

Friday, October 28, 2011

Writing is like sewing -- in public

I watched the finale of Project Runway last night and was delighted when Anya Ayoung-Chee won. She started as the sure-to-lose contestant -- former beauty queen and target of snarky remarks who didn't even know how to sew. Really -- this was the first time she ever sewed. And she triumphed over the worst snark of them all.

Project Runway is one of my guilty pleasures, but I don't watch it for the behind the scenes drama or even because I like high fashion. I watch because I love seeing process become product. From the moment the designers are set their tasks, we see the creative process with all its false starts and seaminess, from sketching to fabric selection to creation, to tearing out seams, asking for help and re-creation until time runs out and whatever they have passes for final.

Sounds like pre-writing, drafting, critiquing, revising, and publishing, doesn't it? We see that the task set the the designers has everything to do with audience and purpose-- which they ignore at their peril. The guidance of Tim Gunn, collaboration among team-members, a broad knowledge of tradition combined with a quest for innovation results in designs with take our breath away -- or make us want to hold our breaths till the next commercial. We see hard work and frustration and triumph.

For teachers of writing, there's a very good lesson about setting the task. The design will only be as reasonable and wearable as the task set. There's a huge difference in garments arising from a challenge to make something out of recycling materials and another that asks designers to use a work of art for inspiration. In the same way, students who choose their own topics and forms based on experience and preference produce more readable texts than those direct to write 500 words on irony in Macbeth. The former, even if seriously flawed, have a spark of life and a potential for something like literature. The latter barely make a dent in meaning, and address no real audience or fulfill a real purpose.

All metaphors break down eventually, and this one is about to. Before I go, I'll make one more observation. Anya didn't know how to sew, but she won anyway. She learned along the way and proved that it wasn't the mechanics of garment construction, but the inspiration and dream that led to victory. She learned to sew by sewing what she cared about.

Watch the finale On Demand -- and think about writing.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Showing Up

My old writing mentor, Donald Murray, loved the stately Latin phrase: Nulla dies sine linea. Not a day without a line. A lot of writing, he said, was just showing up at the page every day. And that's what I am going to try to do.

I write for a living. I write for fun. I write because I am driven to write. However, I have never been disciplined about it. I am 59 this year, and perhaps it's time to start. I began my last book, The Fool's Journey, more than 15 years ago. I can't fart around like that anymore.

Hence this blog. I will try to write here every day. You can try to keep me honest. I hope you will.