It’s never really over

i carry

E.E. Cummings canvas over my writing desk                                Photo: Catherine Keefe

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in

my heart)

 

I first met E. E. Cummings’ classic love poem as a student in a high school literature class.

What made a significant impact on me, almost as much as that perfect description of profound love, was that in a class where broken grammar rules could cost me a perfect “A” on a paper, I was introduced to a writer who not only flaunted language rules, but was exalted for it. The difference between mistake and craft, I learned, could be intention.

Why would a writer play with language like that? Literary critic Norman Friedman offers a likely answer in E. E. Cummings: The Growth of a Writer: “Cummings’ innovations are best understood as various ways of stripping the film of familiarity from language in order to strip the film of familiarity from the world. Transform the word, he seems to have felt, and you are on the way to transforming the world.”

A writer transports a reader with language, transforms the small world within the walls of our individual human experience into a kaleidoscope as big as the universe of all the possibilities this life might hold. We construct tiny snow globes, lay them on a giant digital shelf and beg anyone to please engage with us.

You hold more power than you can ever imagine sings Sarah Bareilles in “Brave.” All you have to do is “say what you want to say / and let the words fall out / honestly…”

here is the deepest secret nobody knows

That’s another one of my favorite lines from the E.E. Cummings poem,”i carry your heart with me”.

Here is one of my deepest secrets.

I truly hate the end of each semester. I always think I’m forever saying goodbye to you students who I’ve gotten to know through words, both spoken and written. I hate goodbyes and I hate not knowing for sure that I gave you enough. I always wish I had another hour or two, another week or more, to pass along some tidbit of rhetorical technique we never got around to covering. Would you become more effective writers if we practiced spotting faulty logic? Could I have worked harder to find more diverse voices for you to read from? Should I have forced you to remember everything we talked about by adding quizzes to the syllabus?

The end of the semester for me is a torment of “All The Woulda-Coulda-Shouldas” as Shel Silverstein wrote in Falling Up.

“Layin’ In The Sun,

Talkin’ ‘Bout The Things

They Woulda-Coulda-Shoulda Done…

But All Those Woulda-Coulda-Shouldas

All Ran Away And Hid

From One Little Did.”

Oh, we had more than “One Little Did.” Actually, it was more like 10,000. Yes, we wrote more than 10,000 words. We read. We crafted. We drafted. Composed. Created. We closely observed how writers use language to write about place. We experimented with poetry and prose, with research and structure and voice. We created manifestos about our beliefs about place and our theories of writing this thing called Creative Nonfiction.

i carry your heart with me

I teach because I believe with the conviction of a person who holds a job with one of the lowest-paying ratios of salary compared to level of higher education, that there is absolutely no better way to spend my days than in the company of young minds on the cusp of taking over leadership roles in government, businesses, medical fields, educational and cultural institutions, and families. At the end of my life I want to honestly say I did all I could to pass along knowledge which might empower and uplift humans, that which might lead to justice and dignity for all.

I teach you because you always teach me. Be persistent. Try more than you will master. Succeed humbly. Be funny. Be kind because someone always has more going on behind their smile than you might ever imagine. Be brave and try something new.

You are one of 19.9 million students enrolled in a degree-granting institution, according to a recent report by the National Center for Education Statistics. That number represents the population of the entire state of Florida.

And if you were born in 1994 or later, you’re part of an as-yet unnamed generation. According to a 2008 article in The Boston Globe, writer Joshua Glenn says, ” You’re a member of a generation that’s too young to characterize in any remotely meaningful way.”

You students are as unique as your speaking voice, an utterance so individual that audio voiceprints are as singularly identifiable as fingerprints.

Learning to effectively wield words, using your own unique writing voice, is learning how to construct a reality. Our words transform the world we inhabit.

Consider the possible responses to “What did you see today?”

Nothing.

A bird.

Two Sara Orangetip butterflies leaving a shadow of outstretched wings on the brown dirt of Orange County’s Bell Canyon Trail.

 fluttersWhat I Say Today                                                         Photo: Catherine Keefe

A writer can give you butterfly wings on a path, or a writer can give you nothing.

What will you do with all that power?

 

 

This is all true.

“Nomade, 2007” by Jaume Plensa, found in Des Moines Sculpture Garden, Iowa
 Photo Credit: Catherine Keefe

 

Everyone asks why there can be no fiction in Composing Self.

Exactly, I say. I say there’s enough to blow your mind in the world without having to stop and say:

But. Is. This. True?

I say, only those who don’t have to worry about the next meal and the roof overhead have the luxury of stopping to study this thing called “self” and why writers might create one. I say you’d better look around and share your voice with those too weak to speak and you’d better write true or you might be dismissed.

How real is this?

Let’s say:  911,395,855

That’s how many “undernourished people in the world right now” there are. Were. It grows by the second.

1,557,016,576 is the bigger number of the bigger number of “overweight people in the world right now.” Growing too.

Real time statistics fluttering up each second on StoptheHunger.com

Who could make that up?

Do you know how many bodies are – according to the very real “Famine Scale” – a “cause for concern?”

That real scale is made up of steps based on body counts, numbers per thousand, steps reaching toward heaven on piles of corpses creating an overall “Crude Mortality Rate.”  Is there any other kind of mortality rate from a preventable death?

These silent statistic sentinels hold back a monsoon. Behind each digit rounded to the nearest million

is a name,

a name with a real live birth date and a coming-too-soon death date

with mothers human

and fathers too

real

infants.

Meanwhile, we’re over here stuffing ourselves. Really really, I could write a story about that, replies the one who writes novels as if this has never occurred to me.

As if I’ve never read Hamsun or Kafka, García Márquez, or Lispector, or Morrison or Martel.

“But what about testimonial literature?” my friend from Argentina asks, the one who survived barely the unclean war and has lots of fiction to contribute.

“We call it fiction so no one can say, ‘that didn’t really happen.’”

I say, enough of that open door.

“But what about censorship? Your perspective is so Freedom of Speech American,” says my friend who won’t let me use her name or place her birthplace on the map.

Exactly, I say, my freedom means I can limit your “write to censor.”

And then, the intake of breath. And the question, as if I’ve never read Dante.

“Ah, but why allow poetry?”

They all ask this, as if I’ve somehow allowed myself to unwittingly be trapped by the “I.”

“Is poetry true the way nonfiction is true?”  They ask, licking their chops, waiting to pounce upon a debate I may be unprepared for. Yes, I say, and now I can let David Shields and his Reality Hunger Manifesto take over because he got to the page first.

“The poem and the essay are more intimately related than any two genres, because they’re both ways of pursuing problems, or maybe trying to solve problems.”

And I’ll defend further than David, to where my limb droops under the weight of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s line: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

Poems are true the way music is true the way photography without Photo Shop is true, the way flesh and sunrise and dirt and death, birth and hunger and warm hands are true. The poet is the response, the mirror, the lens to reality. Poetic inspiration – quite literally, poetic inspirare from the Latin “to breathe” – is shaped by the willow whistle of crafted composition to give language to the universal human experience.

You can write a poem without a character, a poem about an apple, a pie, a sun.

You cannot write fiction without character.

I can’t keep track of every human right now.

I don’t want to add imaginary numbers to the people to keep track of in my heart.

Everyone asks why there is no fiction in Composing Self.

Exactly, I say.

It is all too true.

____________________________

What you just read, is one example of a manifesto.  Put, most simply, it’s “a public declaration of intentions, opinions or motives,” according to the authors of “Writer’s Community,” a blog dedicated to writer development.

Can you write a manifesto for your final?

What’s a manifesto?

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, Japan. Photo Credit: Catherine Keefe

The most memorable manifestos have altered the way we think and do. A manifesto should be a declaration of war against complacency.

Steven Heller, design critic.
To read Heller’s introduction to an art exhibit dedicated to manifestos, click here.

According to ENG 103 students, with a little help from Google, Wikipedia, and dictionary.com, here’s a rudimentary definition of manifesto. (And yes, we know those are not solid sources, but they are where we began our exploration.)

A manifesto:

  • Is a written document that pertains to an individual’s belief.
  • Is written with an aggressive or passionate tone; it’s used to spark social debate.
  • Is a proclamation of one’s set of beliefs arranged in order to prove his or her point.
  • Is a personal opinion, expressed through strong thoughts that turn so persuasive they become fact. POV is key.
  • Is a public declaration, supported by facts, statistics, history, background information and examples.
  • Is a declaration of a set of morals that provides alternate solutions to what exists.
  • Originated from words: Latin manifestes, and Italian manifestare . “readily perceived by the eye, evident.”
  • Can be written about anything, but the central idea must be supported by evidence.
  • Makes use of emotion, or pathos, to persuade.
  • Must be strongly believed in by the author(s).

Students’ list of famous manifestos throughout history: