Wednesday, August 09, 2006

E Minor

The morning is waning away. Across the street, a leaf blower roars furiously in intermittent bursts. The dogs, jangle this way and that, barking. I'm sipping fairly expensive coffee, enjoying the textures, and subtleties of flavor. The August sky above Cincinnati is occluded with clouds. Our near-antiquated air conditioner churns loudly to my right. Archie is sniffing at the ground near the sweet gum tree, as though he were contemplating digging up the entire tree.

And I'm weary.

This morning, the dogs woke me by dashing up the stairs and nuzzling against me in bed. They had some assistance from my wife, of course, but for a long moment, I did not feel like emerging from the cocoon of the comforter. Instead, I simply lazed there cuddled next to my dogs until Michelle reminded me they hadn't yet been out and I had horrible flashbacks to a similar morning a few months ago when Dixie ended up in our bed without first making a pit stop outside.

After taking the dogs outside and checking my email, I drove a few miles to procure the coffee I'm now savoring and the customary iced mocha for my wife. In the car, alone, I listened to a recently purchased album by a band that's been described as vaudeville punk. While listening to the fifth track—which is told from the point of view of a friend of a woman in a horrible relationship from which she simply can't extract herself—a tear trailed down each of my cheeks.

Perhaps, this is just a side-effect of recent moods—not enough sleep and not enough productivity, but I doubt that serves as a sufficient explanation. The fact of the matter is simply that pop songs occasionally have the ability to touch us deeply. And I think that song touched me in such a way.

Now, I won't claim that this makes for a great song—even though I'm currently quite enamored of the album in question. However, I would like you to think a moment about this. How many pop songs have made you cry? Can you even name them all?

I can't. Granted, this may say more about me than the current state of pop music, but I do think that the "poetry" of pop songs combined with the plaintive chords of a piano playing in minor key can have a powerful emotive effect. More, I think that the artifice of music in our culture, for some reason, does not begrudge us the peculiar emotional release of such music. How else can you explain the vast appeal of a band like Radiohead?

Now, consider literature. How many stories or poems have you read that have led you to weep? I'm guessing that you can count the number of works on one hand—maybe both hands if you're a fairly emotional person with an excellent memory.

Personally, I can only remember weeping when I read The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and perhaps when I read Night by Elie Wiesel. I can't remember a poem that made me weep—although I remember countless that have moved me. What about you?

More, I have managed to write one unfinished story that managed to make readers weep. Yet, the reviews from those readers (friends only) are a bit mixed. When I first showed that story around, searching for feedback, I was stunned by the response. The fact of tears actually made the story much more difficult to revise. In fact, a year an a half later, I still haven't managed the task. Instead, I sent it off to The New Yorker assuming that the visceral response of some readers would certainly be replicated on the editors and result in a pleasant payday for me.


You see, overwhelming tears wasn't the only response. At least one person felt manipulated by the story. Another seemed disconnected enough from his emotions to workshop the piece as though we were still in college. So clearly, the story still had flaws. In fact, with more distance from the story, I recognize many of the flaws and will work to correct them someday.

I want to focus on that notion of manipulation, however. Naturally, any poem or story is designed to manipulate emotions. If a poem did not engage your emotions why would you read it? But where is the line between manipulative maudlin sentimentality and great literature like the memoir Night?

Well, unlike my story, Weisel’s Night engages our intellect. When I wept over that book, it did not seem to be an effect of the writing or the style. I did not feel as though the writer wanted me to cry. Rather, the writer was there with me, somehow managing to describe ineffable horrors. Weisel did not make me cry; he let me cry.

Perhaps, in a larger scheme of things, this is mere hair splitting, but I think it points to the expectations that readers have. For the written word—even a tiny poem—readers have far different expectations from what they expect from a song. With a song, like that track 5, it's a bonus if my intellect happens to be engaged. With the written word, on the other hand, if a writer can't engage one's intellect, then it's mere hack work. It might sell to Hallmark, but the majority of people I know will dismiss the work as a waste of time.

And there's the catch. The intellect and our emotions are often so very opposed that finding a work that engages both—powerfully and effectively—is near impossible. How do you do that?

In all honesty, I'm not sure. But, with each poem, and each story, I try. I work with sounds, structures, and metaphors, using every feasible technique I can master simply to match the sound of a piano chord in a minor key.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006


Dixie, our Jack Russell Terrier, woke me and my wife up at 6:30 this morning, with a series of whelps from downstairs. There was nothing wrong. She just wanted outside for a bit of play. Now, she is stretched out on the grass, soaking up morning sun. Archie is inside, alone, hesitant to move from a favorite spot on one of the ragged sofas.

As for myself, I'm again sitting under the sweet gum tree listening to a choral of cicadas, birdsong, and late-morning traffic, contemplating how to approach the rest of the day. Hopefully, by the time the sun sets over Cincinnati, I'll have written a few words that delight my ear.

Yet, sometimes, even a few measly paragraphs can fill like a trek to the South Pole. You make endless preparations—outlines, notes to yourself, arrangement of your desk, a pot of fresh coffee. Then, you settle in your favorite chair, coffee steaming beside you, almost ready to work. But then you pause for a moment, and check your email, just to make sure you haven't sold a slice of your time to someone else. All clear, so you take a deep breath and get to work, right after you check the news on CNN. And ESPN. Now, while you're at it, you may as well look in on your fantasy football team and make certain that everything is in order for the upcoming draft.

Finally, your preparations are complete. You've donned your metaphoric snow shoes and are ready to trudge into the vast white emptiness of a blank page. But wait, it's been an hour and you've already drank your coffee. You could use a refill just to get the old mind cranking. So, you wander into the kitchen, pour yourself another cup, and return to the office to settle in your chair with a nice steaming cup of Sumatran coffee.

But wait, what was the idea for that poem? Where was I in my manuscript? Perhaps you'll open up a new document at this point, fiddle absent mindedly with the fonts, subtracting and adding serifs before finally settling on the font you almost always use anyhow. Or perhaps you'll open an old file, hoping to be stunned by its quality and to find a work-in-progress that you can continue into the afternoon.

Then, the phone rings (of course). Your spouse wants to say hello or tell you about the deer she saw wondering by the side of the road through suburban streets. You could use a break, even though you've yet to jot down a single word, so you take her call, and then wander to the kitchen where the donuts on the counter are just too tempting.

Soon, the morning has slipped away, and you are beginning to doubt that you can achieve the simple goals you set for yourself earlier this morning.

Does any of this sound familiar?

For me, the past few days have taken on that kind of shape. I've been mired in a bit of a lull and have had trouble focusing on any one particular task for an extended period of time. I think, for a writer, such inattention can be hazardous to your career. Yet, I don't personally think that one or two days of laziness can signal the untimely demise of your aspirations. In fact, I believe that years and years of laziness can settle over the careers of even the best poets.

For me, I've been constantly emerging from long periods of idleness where life's other demands like finding love and earning a living robbed energy from the seemingly less pragmatic goal of publishing poetry. I've spent years of idle time immersed in one duel or another with a video gaming system. I've wasted countless hours looking longingly at creature comforts—like a $50,000 convertible—that aren't exactly congruent with the lifestyle of a poet (or a novelist).

In the 10 years between now and graduate school, I learned that discipline is far more important than talent. Indeed, even if I'm as talented as I think I am on fantastic writing day when the words seem to fall together seamlessly, like the tide washing across the coastline, I know that isn't enough. It may sound trite, but you do have to believe in yourself. More, you have to believe in the work you are doing and provide the work with ample time—regardless of how you come across that time. And when you find that time, you have to utilize.

For me, discipline has been the most difficult challenge of my sapling career. To be honest, I'm not horribly well organized, and as I've said before, one of my favorite past times is sprawling on the couch for a nap with my two dogs.

Yet each day, I set out to explore the figurative Antarctica of a blank page. I struggle to convince myself that, even with a mere handful of readers, the trek that I’m about to embark on will not be a fool's errand. I pack my figurative supplies each day and set off into the snow.

And when I fail—and I do fail—I try to learn from the day's events and begin making preparations for that next excursion. So, now, having returned to the page, I'll keep working until the sun has set. I'll take a few moments, here and there, for a snack or to coddle the puppies. I'll take another breather when my wife returns home from work, but for today, at least, I'm suited up, exploring a barren wilderness, and arranging syllables with the odd mixture of folly and faith that seems vital to continuing. I'm placing one snowshoe in front of the other, one word, the next word, and so on.

And that, for the moment, is all it takes.