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?

 

 

Go deep

Your generation needs your voice, but swimming in the shallows of written expression will get you nothing but a handful of rocks.

Shallows

                       Sugar Pine Point, Lake Tahoe                                                      Photo Credit: Catherine Keefe

According to a recent article posted on Flavorwire, titled “2013’s Worst Writing About Millennials”:

The past 12 months saw more ill-founded, hysterical, condescending, and generally awful writing than ever about what so-called “millennials” are up to and why it’s ruining the country.

Writer Alison Herman collected examples of what she calls “the lowlights of this year’s coverage.” Included in her list are the “Me Me Me Generation” story from Time magazine and a New York Times piece titled “Sex On Campus: She Can Play That Game Too.” One of Herman’s biggest complaints about the articles?  “Reducing an entire generation to a series of lazy stereotypes,” and a “lack of actual statistics.”

Read the entire Flavorwire story here.

Then be inspired to set the record straight with your own truths about your own selves.  Insert your  voice into the unending conversation.  For goodness sake, go beyond stereotypes and include facts, statistics, and primary research in your work this semester.

Maybe next year’s list of “2014’s Best Writing By Millennials” will have your name on it.

Uh one, and a two, and a…

Summer Twilight.  Photo Credit: Catherine Keefe

When I sit on my back porch late on a summer night and listen to mothers call in their children, I remember when I was a kid.  My mom’s voice from the screen door never penetrated the more engaging shouts of, “not it!” or “olly olly outs in free!” My sisters and I stayed out, playing Hide and Seek or Freeze Tag, scratching at mosquito bites on our arms, until Dad finally boomed, “Girls! Come in now!”

It occurs to me that this summer ritual, repeating year after year with interchangeable characters, is a lot like writing advice.  Sometimes we need to hear something more than once for it to register or for its meaning to sink in.  Sometimes, even when we are repeatedly told, information remains meaningless unless we actually need to use it.

Just in case you’re ready to bang around again on the old keyboard a bit, I offer three tidbits of advice to guide your writing practice.  These nuggets crossed my computer screen within the past 24 hours, and you know how I believe when the universe tells you something three times it’s wise to pay attention. Individually, these bits are all sound, but a delightful serendipity occurs when read together as I detect a common thread of guidance woven within them all.

Sure, I’ve told you all these things before. But maybe you were like me on summer nights as a kid and you missed the voice calling from the dark.

Exhibit A:
You can see some great word nerd humor on the Brevity blog. “Famously loquacious Fidel Castro discovers brevity.”

Now while the Brevity editors usurped that headline for laughs, and used a reader’s knowledge of the fine points of capitalization to get the joke, there’s good writing advice here beyond a nudge to pay attention to grammar rules. Reporter Paul Haven, who wrote the story with that fabulous headline, points out that Castro has a new method of communication. “His normally loquacious opinion pieces in the local press lately almost have been short enough to tweet, and sometimes as vague and mysterious as a fortune cookie.” The gist of the news is that Castro who was once known for rambling at length has, in the past week become unexpectedly and cryptically pithy.  If you want the complete story, link here.

Writer’s Takeaway:  That which is unclear equals confusion for your reader and brevity doesn’t always equal clarity.

Exhibit B:
Work-in-Progress is my daily morning read as it always offers a bit of stellar writing insight by Leslie Pietrzyk. The June 25 post is dedicated to the idea that writers these days seem preoccupied with presenting “big ideas” rather than illuminating the small ordinary characters and lives that make up the real world.  Leslie excerpts an interview with novelist Joshua Henkin who believes this tendency comes from writers’ insecurity. “They’re insufficiently confident that the story they’re telling is worth telling, and so they dress it up with a lot of grandiosity and big ideas; they deck it out in pyrotechnics…”  This quote comes from a fiction writer, but the idea absolutely applies to nonfiction as well. You can check out the fabulous Work-in-Progress here, or the complete interview with Joshua Henkin here.

Writer’s Takeaway:  Have confidence in your craft and just tell a damn good story.

Exhibit C:
“And” is a conjunction meaning “together with.”  In other words to employ the Writer’s Takeaway from Exhibit B, you have to practice your craft to develop rightfully earned confidence. By now you’ve realized there are no AYSO “Everyone’s a Winner For Trying” medals awarded to writers just for effort.  So, how will you seriously hone your craft?  You’re still reading this blog. Good.  Very good. That’s such a great start I’ll give you an official CK “You’re a Winner For Still Reading This Blog” medal.  But what else do you read?  How about paying attention to Draft a New York Times series about the art and craft of writing? Check it out here. In the most recent installment “The Voice of the Storyteller,”  author Constance Hale points out that, “By using some subtle devices, a narrator can reach out to the reader and say, ‘We’re in this together.'”  She defines voice as, “Reflecting a combination of diction, sentence patterns and tone…the quality that helps a writer connect with a reader, and it turns the writer into a narrator.”  And then Constance concludes with this thread, this brilliant golden strand of wisdom that seems to be popping up everywhere I look today. “Writing style begins with clarity. Find the right words and decide what to leave out.”

Writer’s Takeaway: Intentional composition and editing = clarity and a really cool voice.  And all that = a damn good story.

Of course I could have summed all this up with my mantra.  Read. Write. Edit. Repeat.  But sometimes it’s nice to say something in a new way.

Here’s to staying out in the dark as late as you wish, but remember when you finally do come home, write well about what happened.

Here. Voices.

Photo Credit: Catherine Keefe

A Monday Morning Game

Compose a paragraph. Well actually, compose  three.  Select one different aspect of yourself, one different voice, to present in each.

See an example of how this works:

1:
Sending smiles and hugs, love and good cheer.

We went green this year – highlighted most picturesquely by a family vacation to Costa Rica to hike, raft, watch lava tumble from a volcano, body surf, and play some wickedly competitive games of Heart and Gin Rummy. Low impact to the earth, perhaps, but highly impactive to the innocent bamboo table upon which the nightly dramas unfolded…From my 2008 Christmas letter.

2:
The establishment of preciousness residing in each individual creates two new hypotheses.  First, if each individual is a “delight”, then there must be a corresponding distress whenever “the human form” falls.  Secondly, if this poetry gives voice to the feelings of the common man, the assumption must follow that the common man has experiences which warrants attention.  The given in this equation is that humanity, in particular the artistic soul, is tuned to resonate to good.  Wordsworth establishes the location and legitimacy of this reverence for all mankind in the title of  “The Prelude, Book VIII”:  “Love of Nature Leading To Love of Mankind”.  Nature is the model for this assumption as nature provides beauty….From “The Accidental Traitor: Gandhi as Wordsworth’s “Happy Warrior,” a paper I presented at the International Wordsworth Conference in England.

3:
Well hello gorgeous! I’m talking to you morning sun on the kitchen table once again… My current Facebook status, posted Saturday.

Who says you can’t speak different languages?  Which self will the readers of your final project discover? Why?

What personal vocabulary belongs in this self?  Write a list of words to draw from. Include images and references that relate to this self.