The Quest for the Question

My friend, Mary, and I recently took part in a writing retreat at the Madeline Island School of the Arts in northern Wisconsin. We’re both working on book length projects and needed time away to focus.

Madeline Island School for the Arts

Madeline Island School of the Arts

“Write about your dark side,” says Mary one night. We are trying quick writing jumpstarts to make our way into the difficult work.

Earlier that day I said I was going to write about my dark side; and indeed, I had taken a stab at it. Now we laugh.

My dark side seems funny for some reason.

One  morning, the leader of the retreat, Elizabeth Andrew, asked us to frame the central question for our lives. She talked about how this central question will inform our memoir work. It will be the heartbeat.

Tonight, with a stricken look on her face, Mary says, “I don’t have a central question!” And we laugh again.

Mary and I are a little lost in the quagmire of finding our central question.

Elizabeth also asked us to think of a central image in our work.

“I don’t have a central image either!” Mary says.

That morning, Elizabeth suggested we dialogue with this central image. “Like Vicky’s telephone poles,” she said. The first day of class I had talked about how my memoir, Long Distance to North Carolina (tentative title), might use the metaphor of telephone poles and lines stretching across the country from Minnesota to North Carolina.

I glowed like a model student—the teacher’s pet—I had a central image!

And I set off writing a dialogue with telephone poles.

Mary’s face was puzzled. I could see her across the room. A little frown on her forehead.

Later as we sit in our cozy apartment, the same frown comes across her forehead as we talk about the day. “I don’t have a central image. Or a central question,” she says.

“We’re poets, “ I say, “Maybe we don’t think this way.” But now we’re trying to step out of our poet minds and write memoir. Maybe we have to go about it—this book creation—in a different way. We can try anyway.

But back to the workshop and the leader’s comments: she was saying, “Write out three central questions in your life. Then choose the one that stands out.” She listed three questions from her own writing as an example. It seemed easy.

I sat there like a lost sheep. My central question? All I could think of was “What will we have for dinner?” It is certainly the one most asked in my house these days. John to me: “What’s for dinner?” Me: Blank look. “Dinner?”

Finally I did jot down three central questions. But even now I have to look back in my notebook to see what they are—that’s how central they must be!

Here is what I wrote:

What does it mean to be here a short time?
What (where) is here?
What am I longing for?

The last one intrigues me because I love to listen to Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, and especially Leonard Cohen late at night—and go to some funky place—like I’m sixteen again or thirty-two. Am I this age, in a rather old body, still living in the romance of a much younger version of myself? Okay. Move on.

So I chose the first one: What does it mean to be here a short time? The short-time question brings to mind the theme of mortality and immortality, a theme rooted in my spiritual life as well. Life and death. Life after death. Birth and death. In the body and out of the body. Longing for another place and time. Pleasing decay. All big questions to infuse my writing. But what happened to my central impetus to write about my mother and her life? She was here such a short time–even though she lived to be almost 96.

Maybe what I have to say is bigger than her life or mine. Yet I can’t get to the bigger questions without being mired in the details–or enriched by the specific moments we live, even in this moment as I struggle to see beyond myself.

Maybe I’m getting closer–or larger.

Now for my second question: what or where is here? And where or who is she?

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Writing Idea: If you’re working on a book-length project (or even a shorter one), what is your central question? Central image? Try a quick free-writing about what you see as possible questions. Even if you draw a blank, write some of the questions you circle around in your work. Or question why you don’t have questions! What about the images that keep coming back again and again as you write? Is there one question or image that stands out above the others?

Thanks to Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew, the leader of our June retreat at Madeline Island School of the Arts not only for this writing idea, but also for an amazing, inspirational week.

Our Group

Our Group                 June 2015

 

 

Hands

As I watch my hands curl over this keyboard, watch fingers reach and hover above the keys of my laptop, I see hands with a different mission than my father’s whose photograph hangs by my desk.

My father sits in the foreground in a bass fishing boat—most likely some time following his stroke—in his late seventies. His left hand is hidden from view, maybe he is reaching for the tiller of the motor ready to start the outboard and head to a new fishing spot, or maybe he and my brother are just drifting along the edge of this backwater lake in southeastern North Carolina. His right arm rests on his thigh with his fingers lightly twisted around a fishing rod.Carl fishing in Sutton Lake

He sits in repose with the heel of the lightweight rod at rest on the boat’s bottom. His fingers hold the rod as if the whole matter of fishing is rather incidental to the being there—the physical occupation of this space on this small boat on this expanse of water. Since he occupies the foreground, most of the picture is background. It is a quiet sunny day, and there is only a light ripple in the blue water behind him. The trees and bushes stretch out above him receding into the distance. My eye follows where he has been. He is toward the end of his journey. Yet it is his hand in repose that interests me.

His hands were the hands of a workingman. He worked outside almost all of his younger life as a lineman and then as an electrician for the Civil Aeronautics Association and a private electrical contractor, Tally Electric, before starting his own electrical contracting business when I was in high school. By the time he was in his seventies, his hands were crusty and red from long exposure to the southern sun.

The forefinger of his right hand was crooked—bending toward his palm slightly and a bit to the right. He joked and said that when he pointed at something he had to make a slight adjustment because if the viewer followed the angle of his finger, the object would be the wrong one. How did he hurt that finger? Was it in the fight he told me about when he was a young man? Or was it when he smashed it with a sledge-hammer in a construction accident?

One day in Minnesota when I was filling my gas tank on a cold winter day, I banged the forefinger of my own right hand on the gas lid. It was a frigid day—way below freezing–and my hands were numb. So I didn’t realize until several days later that my finger had formed into the exact same tilt as my father’s and never did straighten out.

My hands also show the effect of a childhood spent in the sun—the skin is wrinkled. Even when I was in college they had already begun to age. I remember a boyfriend holding my hands and saying, “What’s happening to your hands?” Yet mine are not the hands of a workingwoman—at least not those of someone who worked as my father did outside. Mine are the hands of a teacher, a mother, and now a grandmother. As a mother and teacher, my hands were sometimes covered with eczema—a red rash from the chalk on the blackboards aggregated by dishwater from cleaning up after our family of five. Then there was a callous on the inside of the middle finger of my left hand—a callous from holding the pen and writing comments on thousands of student papers.IMG_8653

Years ago when I lifted my new granddaughter, Ella, out of her high chair, she wrapped her hand around my bent finger. Her fingers were small and perfect and as smooth as the inside of a porcelain teacup. Mine are puckered with veins covered by loose crepe paper skin. Yet still these fingers of mine are agile enough to stretch over the black and white ivories of my new piano and to move across the letters of this laptop.

As my hands float over the keyboard, they seem to be a direct link to a stream of images. They are being asked to transform pictures from the past into meaning. They form words to reflect on the moving water of time—a different, more abstract place than the one my father’s boat rests upon in that lake where he fished.

In the picture of my father, I see that he wears the navy blue coveralls that were his signature attire and a beige fishing hat with a back flap to keep the sun off his neck. He has a look of readiness as if he knows that with the next spot on the lake and the next cast he will catch that bass. But if he doesn’t, that’s okay too because at the bottom of the picture is a big red ice chest full of cold drinks and maybe a cheese sandwich. There’s a lot of space behind him—and time—but he’s at peace it seems. I like that in the photograph he is up close and that if he put down the fishing rod, he could reach across and take my hand.

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“Stretch forth your open hands,/ Take all the gifts that Death and Life may give.”                                                                      –William Morris, The Earthly Paradise. March.

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Writing Idea:  Many artists practice sketching hands. Each person’s hands tell a story. Try a word sketch of your hand or someone else’s. Maybe you can use a photo and do a word sketch of the person and his/her hands.  Go where it takes you.

Aunt Clarissa’s Pound Cake

In the last blog, I promised you a recipe. But first my story:

The children were tired after spinning around on the State Fair rides. We had toured the animal barns and seen the Big Pig, filled up on cold milk at the twenty-five-cent-all-you-can-drink milk stand, and climbed on the huge green tractors on Machinery Hill. It was late afternoon on a hot August day at the Minnesota State Fair, and the streets were a mass of people. A strange mixture of corn dogs, cotton candy, and human sweat filled the steamy air.

“Can’t we get our ice cream now?” asked Susan, my daughter, who was maybe nine or ten years old that summer. She was ready to head to the agriculture building where we always saw the bees and devoured huge cones of sunflower honey ice cream. “No. Not yet,” I said, “We’ve got to go this way to the creative activities building.” I pointed in the opposite direction.

The boys were still little—both squirming in their double stroller. My parents, Ruth and Carl, who came every summer from North Carolina for State Fair, were with us too.

On this particular late August day, we were all together as we made our way to the creative activities building to see the cake display. “We have to check it out,” I said as we pushed the boys in the stroller through the crowded aisles around displays of quilts, handmade baby sweaters, carved duck decoys, and stamp collections towards the cakes.

Every year Gloria, my neighbor across the street, entered her bagels in the state fair baking competition. Each summer she encouraged me to enter my pound cake. She kept telling me that my pound cake might win a ribbon. I thought that Aunt Clarissa’s cake was much too ordinary to win anything in a cake contest. Of course, we all loved it—with its fine buttery texture and tender crust. But to me, it was just an everyday cake, one that my Southern relatives would serve at any meal—no icing, nothing fancy. When I was a girl, my mother’s favorite sister, Clarissa, baked it every time we visited her in Mt. Olive. Later Mother made it when I came home to North Carolina. And now, I had made it so many times I knew the recipe by heart. images

“Oh come on,” said Gloria. “You have to enter it.” So a few weeks before my parents’ visit, I spent a steamy August day in the kitchen baking. I made two cakes that day because the first one looked a little flat. I dashed up to Milt’s Grocery and bought fresh baking powder, butter, flour, and eggs and made it again. Our house had only a couple of window units to air-condition the bedrooms, so the kitchen must have been a hundred degrees by the time I finished. My friend June’s daughter from across the alley came over to watch the children. I jumped into the car, my wet hair clinging to the back of my neck, and took the cake over to the fairgrounds in St. Paul to be judged.

By the time my parents arrived for their August visit, I had almost forgotten about the cake. But now, here we were, our entourage, approaching the glass-enclosed display in the creative arts building.

We saw a big group standing around the cakes. My husband peered over the crowd as I tried to jockey the stroller in closer to the case. Susan slipped between the adults and pressed her nose against the glass. Finally we all managed to crowd around the cake display. At least a hundred cakes were arranged on shelves behind the glass—brightly frosted layer cakes with heaps of red, yellow, and blue flowers, all-chocolate cakes, yellow cakes with fluffy vanilla frosting, pineapple upside down cakes, every cake imaginable.

In the center, on a pedestal, surrounded by half-a-dozen ribbons, sat Aunt Clarissa’s plain pound cake with its sprinkle of powdered sugar. One huge blue ribbon said, “Grand Cake Sweepstakes.” On the card next to it, I read my name and the carefully lettered words, ‘Best Cake of the Fair.’ ” I was stunned. We crowded in front of the cakes and took photos and acted goofy. “Well, what do you know,” said Daddy.

“Mom’s cake won! Mom’s cake won!” said Susan to her two little brothers as she jumped around their stroller, pointing to the cake. I just stood there, shocked to see Aunt Clarissa’s ordinary cake taking its place so proudly among all the fancy cakes. Mother’s eyes were a little moist. “I can’t believe it,” she said.

Later as we headed over to buy our honey-sunflower seed ice cream cones, I was thinking, No, it’s not my cake. It’s Aunt Clarissa’s cake. She deserved that moment of glory.

Her pound cake pops up at most every meal at our house when my now grown children with their children come home. I take it to people when they have lost someone, the way I have now lost Ruth and Carl and Aunt Clarissa and all my many aunts and uncles. I take it to people in the neighborhood who are sick. I bake it when I need a lift.

I’ve tried to branch out and make other kinds of cakes. But I’ve made this cake so many times now that I can whip it up quickly. In a little over an hour, we’re poking toothpicks into its center to check if it’s done. We’re cutting into the moist steamy interior even before it has cooled. Aunt Clarissa’s pound cake never disappoints. All those memories are baked into its warm center.

Daddy an Me  State Fair 1982

Daddy and Me                                   State Fair 1982

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Writing Idea:  Do you have a story about a recipe–a story about a certain food that just keeps popping up again and again in your life–and in the lives of others?

After writing this piece about the pound cake, I see that the one I really must write is about Aunt Clarissa, my mother’s favorite sister. Maybe your recipe and story will unearth another one.

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Here is the recipe for Aunt Clarissa’s Pound Cake. I’ve always said that I give this recipe and the cake itself only to people I love. I hope you do the same.

Aunt Clarissa’s Pound Cake

3 cups sugar
2 sticks butter
1/3 cup shortening (Crisco)
1 cup milk
5 eggs
3 cups flour (cake flour works well, but any kind will do)
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla

Bring milk, eggs, and butter to room temperature.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease (using Crisco shortening) and flour a large Bundt pan. See note.
Blend together butter, shortening, and sugar.
Add the eggs, one at time. Beat each one into batter.
Mix together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a separate bowl or large measuring cup.
Add flour mixture and milk, alternating—end with flour.
Add vanilla.

Bake at 325 degrees for one hour and ten minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Let the cake rest for 10 minutes before turning out on cake plate. Sprinkle with powdered sugar.

Note:
You can use Bakers Joy spray, which has oil and flour together, for preparing the Bundt pan. Be sure that all areas of the pan are covered with shortening and then flour to prevent sticking. Use a very heavy-duty Bundt pan (Nordicware), rather than the lightweight ones. Also be careful not to over-beat as you add the flour. If you use the large Kitchen Aid mixers, beat for only a short time—just enough to combine the ingredients, during the flour adding stage.

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My Love Affair with W. B. Yeats

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I had not heard from Mr. Yeats in years. He was buried in my bookshelf with other old friends, tucked away in closed pages, long gone. Or so I thought–until this past October when I visited Ireland, a country in love with writing and with its writers–especially with William Butler Yeats.

In the interest of compression, the story goes like this: My husband and I were leaving the National Museum of Ireland where we saw the Cashel Man preserved in the Irish peat bogs. He was buried during the early Bronze Age, 2,000 BC, making him 4,000 years old!  (They had bogs; we have blogs.)

"The Lake Isle of Innistree"As we left,  we saw a notice for a Yeats exhibit next door at the  Irish National Library. “Oh my gosh,” I said to my husband, “we  have to go in.”  And there, as if Yeats too had emerged from the bogs of my memory, I found him still alive.  I heard his sonorous voice reading  “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” His words were music. The images of Innisfree were projected onto transparent screens:  the bees, the clover, the land. I listened as  other Irish poets read more of his poems. I was transfixed. One of my favorite poets, the complicated William Butler Yeats, whose poems sent me spiraling as a college student, was here alive and well. For the next hour, we made our way around the exhibit, visiting smaller rooms with multiple inter-active exhibits that captured his loves, his marriage, his politics, his interest in the occult, his writing, and finally his death and re-burial in Ireland. As we left, I knew that my love for Yeats had never really been lost.

If you won’t be making a trip to Ireland anytime soon, you can visit the Irish National Library exhibit and take a virtual tour. Go to The Life and Works of William Butler Yeats.

A few weeks after we returned from Ireland,  I opened my e-mail to find  that Yeats was still speaking to me. There in my mailbox was his poem, “Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” (Poem-a-Day, Academy of American Poets). Go to a Video Homage to “Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” for a lovely reading of this poem.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve met many times with my friend, W. B. Yeats, reading his poems and biography and tracking him down on the internet.  I discovered a favorite poem, “When You Are Old,” one of his best-loved poems, written when he was quite young. As an extra bonus, I found a wonderful love story related to “When You Are Old”  from the Favorite Poem Project (founded by former Poet Laureate, Robert Pinsky) about a young woman, her grandfather, and her husband-to-be. The lovely video shows how one poem can connect several people and give meaning to each of their lives. Click here to watch it:  “Yeats, When You Are Old,”  Favorite Poem Project.

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When You Are Old

BY WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

 

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Writing Ideas: Take the phrase “My Love Affair with _________.” Try out different words to fill in the blank: “My Love Affair with the Ocean,”  “My Love Affair with My ’62 White Buick Convertible,” “My Love Affair with Chopin or Elvis.” Don’t think too much about it. Just write for at least ten minutes. There’s passion there–and longing. I know.

Or take the lines: “But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you/ And loved the sorrows of your changing face.” There’s plenty there to fill a few pages of your writer’s notebook. Go.images-9

Can Writing Be Taught?

Can writing be taught? This question was recently debated in the “Bookends” section of The New York Times Book Review (8/24/14). Both Rivka Galchen and Zoe Heller agreed that, yes, it can be taught. How well or why the teaching of writing is so debated when we accept that we can teach biology, chemistry, history, ethics, music, painting–these are the issues raised by Galchen and Heller.

Since I am an old English teacher, who spent the better part of her life trying to teach writing, or composition as we sometimes called it, to college freshmen, I do believe that writing can be taught. But over the years, I must say I  struggled with the way it was taught–and I frequently doubted my ability to teach people to write.

The Comp 101 classes, still required in most colleges and universities, grew out of the old rhetorical tradition dating back to Aristotle and Socrates. During the Greek and Roman times, rhetoric was a part of public discourse. How do we convince people to see our side of the argument? It grew into a detailed study of sometimes formulaic methods of argumentation and debate.  A quick check of the definition of the word rhetoric reveals the inherent problem with the rhetorical approach to teaching writing:

1 : the art of speaking or writing effectively
2 : the study or use of the principles and rules of composition
3 a : skill in the effective use of speech b : language that is not honest, sincere, or meaningful

Note that this definition begins with the word art, but ends with the more current association with rhetoric:  “language that is not honest, sincere, or meaningful” as in “cut the rhetoric and get to the issue.” In George Eliot’s Middlemarch, the word appears in this sentence:  “No speech could have been more thoroughly honest in its intention: the frigid rhetoric at the end was as sincere as the bark of a dog, or the cawing of an amorous rook.”  

This passage occurs early in the novel and refers to a long speech in which Dorothea’s pedantic future husband, Mr. Casaubon, has attempted to express his ardor for Dorothea. But his rhetoric is frigid. This is a foreshadowing of Dorothea’s and Casaubon’s disastrous marriage. Mr. Casaubon wants to tell Dorothea how he feels, but his brain has become so tangled up with rhetoric that what comes out, while sounding good, is really a mess. Unfortunately, Dorothea is blinded by her idealized notions of love and her own lofty ambitions.

With the classical, rhetorical approach to writing, people often learn the techniques of effective argumentation as a substitute for truth and honesty and real thinking.  It is much easier to teach the structure of the five-paragraph essay (or theme as it was called by my ninth grade English teacher, Mrs. Murphy) than it is to teach how to write clearly and truthfully with insight and even a dash of creativity.  All you need is an introduction with a thesis statement that includes three points that you must develop in three body paragraphs and finally a conclusion to re-state or summarize the three points. And so can begin the death march to disastrous writing.images

Dorothea, because she is young and wants to be in love, makes Casaubon’s speech mean what she wants it to mean. Mr. Casaubon’s life work is to write the great book, which never gets written. No wonder. He can not be true to himself. How to teach a person like Casaubon to write? There is no easy, fill-in-the-blanks formula. That is why we can keep telling budding writers to read, read, read great writing. But it is deeper than that. Thus the dilemma of teaching writing.

Still I bow down to my English teachers–especially the great ones, who tried their best to help us see the light. How can I ever forget thin, waif-like Miss Walsh, my eleventh grade high school English teacher. Or my ninth grade English teacher, Mrs. Murphy, who was sturdy as a fire plug, and a formidable opponent to those in her classes who could not, or would not, learn all the comma rules or how to diagram sentences. My brother did not have the same high regard as I for dear Mrs. Murphy. “She ruined my ninth grade year,” he said recently. There again the predicament of teaching writing–how not to kill off any love for the written word that might be trying desperately to blossom. I know too many people who hated their English classes and can only remember their red-penciled essays.

That’s why I never used red pens: only blue ones.

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5-paragraph-monster

This image was from a home-school teacher, who teaches the “Five-Paragraph Theme”  as a monster. Truly scary! Oh, well.

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Writing Challenge: What do you have to say about your English or writing teachers?  Go for ten minutes in your writer’s notebook. Can writing be taught?

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In my next blog, I’ll talk about my recent visit to Ireland–and my emotional moment with William Butler Yeats. Also I still want to tell you about the workshop I attended this summer with Rebecca McClanahan and what Rebecca, a master, taught me about writing.

In the meantime, let me hear from you. I always enjoy your comments and e-mail.