You can’t fire me…; or, the Challenges of Overcoming Self-Doubt

I’ve been reading a lot of contemporary poetry, hot off the presses kind of stuff, from well published, lauded, awarded, fellowshipped, granted authors. And I have NO IDEA what is going on in these poems. NO IDEA. And I think, well, no wonder my work is getting rejected left and right; I’m clearly COMPLETELY OUT OF TOUCH with the contemporary poetry world. That’s it. I am NEVER GOING TO WRITE AGAIN.

Then I encounter a poem coming through my email here, shared over Facebook there, a book handed on, and I find poems that make me think wow. That is good stuff. I am loving this work. Wow, how did that poet do that? And I think, well, no wonder my work is getting rejected; there is NO WAY I can write work as good as this. That’s it. I am NEVER GOING TO WRITE AGAIN.

My Inner Voice kindly says nothing in the wake of these outcries. I do catch, however, an eye roll. What. WHAT? She turns on the vacuum cleaner, mimes an inability to hear what I’m saying. I know she’s thinking this too shall pass. Oh, shut up, I say to Inner Voice, into the din of the vacuum. You missed a spot.

In her provocative essay “American Originality,” Louise Gluck writes, “As American poets increasingly position themselves against logic and observation, the American audience (often an audience of other writers) poignantly acquiesces…The literary art of our time mirrors the invented man’s anxiety; it also affirms it. You are a fraud, it seems to say. You don’t even know how to read.”

I certainly have felt this with these books. That I am at fault, and ashamedly so. If I only learned to read better… But the other part of the equation Gluck presents is that the writers themselves are deliberately resisting connection with the reader. Is that true?

In what is so far a lively telling of the relationship between Rodin and Rilke, Rachel Corbett in You Must Change Your Life, in an aside, briefly outlines shifts happening in their era in thinking about the brain, art, aesthetics, psychology. She describes the new premise this way: “The moment a viewer recognizes a painting as beautiful, it transforms from an object into a work of art. The act of looking, then, becomes a creative process, and the viewer becomes the artist.” She discusses the idea of an empathy between the artist and the observer: “When a work of art is effective, it draws the observer out into the world, while the observer draws the work back into his or her body.”

So I must believe that I am lacking in the requisite empathy as I encounter these poems. I am insufficiently open to and sensitive to what is being expressed.

But does the creator also have a role in the empathic relationship? If the sentence above about the effectiveness of art is true, doesn’t it suggest that the maker must take some responsibility for the observer’s/reader’s/listener’s response?

As a maker, I resist that. On the other hand I do believe that I must fully feel my own response to the world in order to create work that will engage you the reader in that response.

On yet another hand (octopusishly, now, as I believe I’ve run out of hands) as I said, many of the authors I’m reading have been published/awarded. So SOMEONE is “getting” their work, someone (and important, fellowship-judgish someones at that) are responding empathically.

So again I must conclude that I might be able to respond to this work if I tried harder. But I also conclude that I am creating my own work, in my own response to the anxieties of my world. So if I must have empathy with someone, let’s start with me.




Wind of the Wings of Madness; or, On Three Billboards and Greek Tragedy

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri struck me as great in the way of Greek tragedy, complete with tragedy’s alter-ego, comedy. All the characters want something utterly understandable and completely impossible. The horrible things they do to try to get what they want are completely traceable in a direct line from that passionate wanting and the doubtless also deeply passionate knowing the impossibility. It is humanity at its most complexly and awfully human: ridiculous/sublime, fear-ridden/love-addled.

Yes, the characters’ actions are extreme, their own logic is stretched to the shredding point. But none of it is entirely beyond the bounds of what we know is possible, given human history, given, even, if we’re honest, from some aspects of our own personal histories. Is there not some time you acted out of deep passion to do something stunningly stupid? Yes, maybe it was not horrid, not criminal, but was it not a kind of insanity that came out of a deeply felt moment? Did you not act, even a little, out of a madness?

I watched these characters, most of whom I could feel at least a moment of empathy with, and felt the horror when I wondered if I wasn’t watching madness, madness with a very normal face, a plottable trajectory from sane. There is a ruthless vision at work in this movie, and I admired writer/director Martin McDonagh’s willingness to create layered characters who are neither entirely likable nor entirely detestable, and events that tumble outward in chaos that seems controlled by vengeful gods. Like a Greek tragedy, events unfold that are large and looming as a train bearing down and you’re stuck on the tracks: the situation seems improbable, but the outcome terrible and inevitable.

There is tenderness in the movie, sometimes inadvertent. There is grace, often unexpected. Is there redemption? What confounds me about humanity is our capacity for redemption, and our resistance to it. I’ll let you decide for yourself.

But as a writer, I challenge myself to write as unblinkingly of what we are capable of, to be as ruthless in my gaze, and as empathic.

Let Me Give You a Hand; Thoughts on Work

Following on the thoughts of a previous blog post about the photography of Lewis Hine, I got thinking about the incredible work of Brazilian photographer Sebastiào Salgado, who took stunning pictures of, for example, the miners in the terrible gold mines of Sierra Pelada. Unforgettable images of this hell of large- and small-scale greed,, where men were paid pennies for what owners made millions from…except for what got smuggled away. And so it goes. I got thinking too about the slaves who built the pyramids. And then I found myself, just by happenstance because of my poetry book reading group, reading Pablo Neruda, specifically, The Heights of Macchu Picchu. In these poems, Neruda considers the still-standing edifice of the Incas, and finds himself thinking of the builders. He imagines their sweat and bones in the stone. He writes:

Dame la mano desde la profunda…

Mirame desde el fondo de la tierra,

labrador, tejedor, pastor callado…

Mostradme vuestra sangre y vuestro surco,

decideme: aquí fui castigado…


Give me your hand from the depths…

Look at me from the deeps of the earth,

plowman, weaver, quiet shepherd…

Show me your blood and your furrow,

tell me: here I was punished…

Work is a complex thing. It can be a soul-sucking, time-burning depletion, or it can be an expression of the full being. There can be grace on a production line, I imagine: pride in efficient, high quality work done safely by a team who believe in their product. But when I think of work, I think of solitude. That’s just me. I think of the times I’ve lost myself in my work of mind and hand — the swirl of thinking and logic and overcoming obstacles, being imaginative in problem-solving, articulating something effectively. And having fun in the process. Loving, in fact, the process. I also think of all the jobs I’ve had that were not that at all, were depleting in various ways, mostly because I either didn’t care about it or didn’t feel valued, or both.

My product is not in stone and will not last a human lifetime much less generations. What is the value of work whose outcome is ephemeral? For that matter, what is the value of work that lasts?

I saw an article today in which a tourist referred to Macchu Picchu as just a bunch of ruins. I remember being shocked at how small the Mona Lisa is, as I peered through shoulders and around people’s necks to try to glimpse it in the crowd, then moved on to stand undisturbed for a long time in front of a Dutch master painting of a family bent over a candle. But a recent article in The Atlantic revealed some of the craftsmanship, artistry, and just plain magic of what Michelangelo did to create the Mona Lisa, my initial underwhelm-ness notwithstanding. What a process. I feel richer for knowing what he did.

It seems a form of prayer, somehow, that kind of deep working, the earnestness with which we can approach whatever our work is, a prayer not to some external deity, but invoking the best of humanity.


Fanfare for the Common Man; or, This Is Us; or, Loving Lewis Hine

I attended an art exhibit recently of photographs by Lewis Hine, a documentary photographer who catalogued the American immigrant experience and the American worker experience. Noses blobby or aquiline, cheekbones craggy or hidden in fleshy cheeks, bodies long and thin or squat and wide, the workers whose faces he carefully captured in light and shadow in the early part of the 20th century were at factory production lines, or high up in the skeletons of skyscrapers, or bent over careful handcraft, and reflected all the kinds of faces our heritages shape us into.

It seems like our culture idealizes and idolizes the rags to riches story, and in our dreams we’re the rich who’ve made it. But for most of us, it’s not rags to riches but rags to carefully chosen items from the Sears & Roebuck catalog to a good bargain in the Sears mid-winter sales, and a life lived as decently as possible, with a care to make things better for the kids, and then death, the great equalizer. Most of us are neither heroes nor villains, neither grand successes nor terrible failures.

As so many are finding through the test-your-DNA craze, we’re an improbable mishmosh of ancestry, a shmear of who made us, layered with the ways we’ve encountered the world.

A book by the door of the exhibit invited people to write tales of their own family immigration story, and people scrawled of a grandfather who came through Ellis Island and worked his whole life on the production line, another who made it through law school to end up on the Supreme Court. Hine’s photos show the lines of work, both wear and muscle, laughter and worry, fatigue and rapt concentration.

I listened to my fellow visitors imagining what it was like to be among the throng stuffing the staircases of Ellis Island’s intake building, or recalling a relative who’d worked at the same industry pictured, or noting the likeness between an old photo and a family face.

This is us.

We’re not the riches nor the rags but the way we live, the work we care about, the camaraderie we enjoy. Let’s idolize the doing, not the having-done, the what-money-we-made, and the look-what-we-bought.

Let’s take our funny faces, bulbous foreheads, thin lips, our beady eyes or wide-set, dark or pale, and look at each other with the kind of care Lewis Hine did, loving the variation of lines, loving the same fears and hopes glowing from all the different eyes. Let us now praise unfamous men. Let’s try to work at the hard work of getting along together.

Coming in from the Storm; or, On Friendship

In keeping with the zeitgeist, I’ve been struggling with enjoying Bay of Spirits by Farley Mowat about his ten years spent sailing around and living in the southeast coast of Newfoundland, the endless storm-ridden weather and wonderful stories of the hard and fun-loving people he met in the tiny settlements in the deep, craggy bays of that coastline, as the whole tale is told against the barely-mentioned backdrop of his having cheated on his wife then abandoned her and his two young sons to take up life with a young woman who joined him for this life at sea and by the sea. The bastard tells a good story.

At any rate, I was struck by this quote by a fisherman in one of these tiny hamlets that foundered for years in the boom then long bust of the fishing industry in Newfoundland. He said: “Stormy times as might make a man wonder could he do better on a different voyage…The truth on it be, me sons…I don’t believe as he could. We shapes our course as we wants to, with them as we wants alongside…”

This struck me, as I read it the day after my latest birthday, and the day after I spent a lovely evening with friends, and anticipated a coming evening with my husband in a second evening of birthday celebrating, and feeling rich with birthday calls and cards and well wishes and the riches that have happened upon me on this voyage whose twists and turns I sometimes had a hand in, but sometimes was driven by winds and tides I could not control.

Ahoy, me mateys. Drop ye an anchor and abide a while. Glad to have ye alongside.