March 14, 2015
My publisher at USC Press, Story River Books, asked me to put this up as a blog.
So, ok. But I have to couch it with this little PSA:
The following talk was presented to a gaggle of seriously diverse and delightful aspiring writers (high-school age) at the University of South Carolina’s Honor’s College Writing Competition. Holy bananas were they adorable! As a teacher, you would kind of want to eat them like bon bons. We crave desire, the difficulty of being earnest, seriousness that borders on crazy, but teeters right between crazy-awareness and crazy-as-super-fun. As both teacher and artist, this gathering of students is the secret spice in inspiration, in motivation, and hope. They are fragile enough to care, still.
I have severe essential tremors (it’s hereditary, so you can probably accuse both my parents with ease). They get nasty bad—as in I can be my own personal earthquake—if I am stressed externally or internally. Unfortunately, even emotional excitement counts as “stress” and will make me shake. So here I am, in front of probably the least forgiving population ever (American teenagers—actually French teenagers might be worse), who are very exciting, and I’m supposed to stand up, walk to the podium, and give my talk. This, of course, is after having watched them watch my shaking hands signing their books for them….Most of them just looked curious.
No. Sorry. Not standing up. I read the talk below sitting down. But you know what? These young men and women (and I think some were perhaps in between gender lines), were delightfully understanding. Not surprising, I guess. And they laughed when I said why I wasn’t standing up—in a good way. Never under estimate the empathy of aspiring artists. So, here goes:
I am so grateful to be here with all you story tellers today. Congratulations on getting here—enjoy the journey. It is an honor, also, to be standing with our state’s Poet Laureate. Seriously. How cool is that?
I am so excited that there are those of you who chose to be here and there are the rest, who may be here with a certain amount of reluctance. Reluctance, and the facing of it—whether or not one overcomes it—is a great seduction and a great tool in any narrative, whether between the characters in the story, or between the story and the reader, or between the writer and what she has written or will write. It is an intricate tension to be a little uncertain of why one is walking this particular road and not quite sure, but slightly pouty, and slightly curious about what’s around the corner.
So, one thing I would say to the artists among you is honor your reluctance.—and as importantly, honor the reluctance you experience from others.
In both cases: Don’t fight it. Don’t be angry with it. There is no need to resent it. Follow it. See where she leads, in her round about way; after all, she is not only the road less traveled, she is the one you avoid unconsciously. And whatever you are avoiding unconsciously is probably blossoming with rich, dark and blindingly bright foliage, that weeps and wilts when you aren’t there, when you don’t touch, explore, pluck and witness it. I would suggest to tend that garden lovingly., gently and with awe.
I was asked to speak about how and why I write. How, I don’t know what to say: words are like herbs to me and putting them together is like stocking an apothecary—for myself, and I can only hope for others as well.
Despite my love of words, I don’t usually think in words. I think in shapes, in patterns, in the colors, textures and scents of emotion—and I am as visually talented, artistically speaking, as a blind mole rat. Actually, probably less so, since they find their ways quite facilely. So I take words as shapes, color and flavor and try to make sense of my other senses—the ones whose expression of I am rather poor at—and write what I sense, see, and most of all, feel.
The stories in Lost Cantos began with two experiences:
The first was for a friend who had lost her way. She is beautiful…in all ways. She is complex. She is like a Kirin, a griffin, mermaid, or harpee and she got turned around—not surprising, because when you are so many things, do you walk, fly, gallop, or devour? And which way, and how fast do you go?
Normal conversation didn’t light her way or ease her struggle, so I wrote what I saw of her soul and of her life path. I wrote it in equal parts as a prayer, as a release for me—because caring for someone and being unable to help them is a feeling that drags one’s heart out of one’s chest and makes one face whatever one is reluctant to– and in hopes she would see her iridescence reflected in the story and that she would come to inspire her own soul. It’s a lot to ask of words. It’s a lot to try to get out of words. I can’t say I succeeded, but I can say she ended up officiating my wedding.
The second experience was of being in that very position in relation to myself and my own life. It’s one of not-knowing, and therefore, of trying to see, to seek, with a dedication that runs through ones veins.. And then, and here’s the kicker, of seeing what isn’t yet, learning that I don’t know what I thought I knew and know what I thought I didn’t, and therefore, finding out that “knowing” is a trickster, the coyote of the mind, and most of all the importance of balancing reluctance with anticipation, and mining disappointment for jewels of insight, anticipation, growth and resolution, and lighting one’s way with impossible hope.
So I have no choice but to write. That is my medicine. The world feels like so very much and I am naïve and ignorant with most other avenues of processing that experience. So, that’s what the stories mean to me and that’s why I write them.
What I hope for each of you is that you find modes of expression with which you excavate your reluctant and beautiful gardens, tools to tend them, gently but passionately, and pride to share them during each of their harvest seasons.