Getting Unstuck

Tiny Lights: A Journal of Personal Narrative hosts an online forum for contributors to weigh in on the question of the month. October’s topic was the ever-timely (or ever-untimely, depending on how you look at it) problem of writer’s block: How Do You Get Unstuck?  Some words of wisdom I found especially useful:

Arlene L. Mandell: “Hereʼs a radical idea: Perhaps itʼs all right to be stuck sometimes, not to be a busy little writing bee frantic for that next fuzzy morsel of pollen. Badly mixed metaphors like this one often come from the need to put something, anything, on the page.”

Harriet Gleeson: “The problem was possibly triggered when a respected mentor suggested that I could aim at a (first) chapbook using the theme Flight, the metaphor which has been winging its way into my work recently with no particular effort. The thought of publication was maybe too exciting — I started to WORK towards the chapbook perhaps — WORK the metaphor into my current piece, when what I needed to do was quit flapping and trust the thermals.

This time the problem hatched I realized that I had been trying to strangle words and images into the shape of the metaphor – deliberately setting out to write the content in terms of birds, flight, and other avian qualities. Sanity was further reinstated when I remembered that I do not need to pin every detail of the poem to the metaphor (indeed it would then be a poem about birds, I think). With this thought came relief. Immediately ways to proceed with the poem began to move in my consciousness.

The resulting feeling of relief led me to reflect on the experience and I remembered a quote from Jane Hirshfield: ‘A work of art defines itself into being, when we awaken into it and by it, when we are moved, altered, stirred. It feels as if we have done nothing, only given it a little time, a little space; some hairline narrow crack opens in the self, and there it is.'”

Susan Bono:
“[N]o piece of writing is worth finishing if you already know what you want to say. Why pursue the obvious unless you’re convinced you’re God’s sacred messenger, bound to deliver your message under threat of torment and damnation? Writing demands a state of confusion, which leads to groping, which in turn leads to dead ends and getting stuck, time and time again. The whole point is finding your way out.”

Tamara Sellman:
“[A] change of scenery and pace can unlock a lot of previously stuck doors. While digging dandelions out from underneath the arborvitae, a word might come to mind and spin off associations that lead to the solution I need to correct my plot’s course. If I were to drive across town, an image might suggest a new dimension for my setting. An overheard conversation at the market might reveal something about my character that I didn’t know before, something that would explain why he’s behaving oddly. The trick is to be open to possibilities for your story writing during all times of the day, not just during your writing time. This way, you are more likely to find that skeleton key that fits all your problem-solving needs. “

How have I gotten unstuck, at various points during the writing of my novel?

*Attended the Three-County Fair
*Watched inane movies about teenagers
*Listened to music that my characters enjoy, but I don’t
*Marched in a gay parade
*Read fashion magazines
*Spent the weekend in New York City
*Asked my characters what I should do next (the answer is usually “Please don’t kill me!”)

I doubt that this will be helpful to anyone else, but if you get any good advice from my characters, please let me know. Keep in mind that Prue is the only one with any sense.

Recent Publications: Juked, Fulcrum and Others

A roundup of my recent publications news:

I just learned that I won an honorable mention in the 2007 Juked Fiction and Poetry Prize for my poems “Confession” and “The Opposite of Pittsburgh”. (Partial credit for the latter poem goes to “Ada Porter”, the character in my novel who actually wrote it. I just do whatever the voices in my head tell me.)

In other news, my poem “Zeal” was accepted for the 2008 issue of FULCRUM: An Annual of Poetry and Aesthetics, an exciting journal edited by my old Harvard classmate Philip Nikolayev and his wife Katia Kapovich. (But as George W. Bush said when he went to Yale, I got in solely based on merit.) Philip’s latest book is Letters from Aldenderry.

Another poem, “Delivered”, will appear in the prose-poem issue of Poemeleon next month. I’ll link to it here when the issue comes out.

Finally, the University of Texas School of Law has made available online some poems I had published in the 2004 collection Off the Record: An Anthology of Poetry by Lawyers, a special issue of the journal Legal Studies Forum. I also have a prose-poem, “Goodbye Capistrano”, forthcoming in their 2008 anthology.

“Once Again” by “Conway”


“Conway”, my pseudonymous correspondent at a maximum-security prison in central California, has gone another round in our poetry war with “Once Again”, a response to my poem “A Difference of Opinion”, which was itself inspired by Stephen Dobyns’ “Artistic Matters” from his 1996 book Common Carnage. And the beat goes on…

A Difference of Opinion
by Jendi Reiter (1996)

Once there was only the mud
and one-celled things with just enough 
internal to themselves to be alive,

but too soft to fossilize, leaving no trace
of themselves in history except the evolved 
for whose sake billions of them were flung away 
    by nature

like soldiers or confetti.
Finally the moment came
when they began to prey upon one another,

cell against cell, and only then
did nature sit back in satisfaction
to watch the sharp beauty of spikes grow,

the monumental callousness of armor,
the cunning of hooks, all the hard immortal 
that make scientists exclaim, “Wonderful life

in which there are so many things to study!”,
as Cain’s children cried,
those founders of music and brass and 
    iron artifice.

To be a predator is to know many things.
The prey knows one big thing: how to run.
From this single-mindedness the idea of 
    purity grew.

That took care of us for centuries.
Now we know only many little things again,
but purity makes us fear to let them collide.

For nature, who fears no decisions,
the purpose of difference is war.
The best head may arise,

a brighter feather, a harder hand.
Of all the newborn spiders casting their threads 
    on the wind
a few survive, the rest are birds’ food and 

The purpose of speech is hesitation.
Even utopias can’t be discussed
in case the lion and the lamb

have a difference of opinion,
the lamb feeling entitled to a paradise of 
    its own
where it needn’t pretend to forgive

the lion, who simply wants to go on
being haughty and idle and unshaven.
That black fly keeps buzzing and banging against 
    the window

of your study, disturbing the reasoning
of the opinions you’re writing. What keeps you
from crushing it with your thumb?


Once Again
by Conway (2007)

An Amoeba brought forth a cure
the lure of life, end of boredom
from the dull lull of granite.

Then, incontent to be alone
it detached, dated itself (literally)
connections were made, to be broken

leaving a token to share, or
care for, when splitsville came.
For shame! could this be incest?

We detest the word, action
but that bird, those bees, flowers
trees all carry the same obnoxious disease.

Life, O’so simple the sound
that separates us from dirt
the ground that becomes granite.

Is this all we can expect of our planet
or will we be separated again
like an amoeba to begin

a separation nullified
the preparation multiplied, infin.;
to be tossed in a soup

as the stomach turns, churns
“these are the days of our lives”
brought to you by, our sponsor.

That all mighty amoeba, he who
she do — always leave you
alone to split, then spit again

on the hand that feeds
or lonely heart that pleads
bleeds the land then leaves

a mess, of amoeba bodies strewn
behind the trail instead, wed
as earth swallows up her dead.

So now you see, the dirt
is not so boring as once thought
for here the granite’s caught

feeding while it sleeps
seeding though life weeps
through the soil of earth.

We find nature in this story
the glory of our planet
from the dull lull of granite…

Book Notes: Couldn’t Keep It to Myself

Bestselling author Wally Lamb led me to some crucial insights about self-acceptance, forgiveness and gratitude with his novels She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True. Now, in his role as writing workshop leader at a women’s prison, he’s empowered some forgotten and outcast members of our society to understand how they became who they are, and to make the rest of us recognize our common humanityCouldn’t Keep It to Myself is the first collection of autobiographical essays by Lamb’s students at York Correctional Institution in Connecticut. The sequel, I’ll Fly Away, was just released.

Emotionally, this book is a hard read because of the numbing similarity of their traumatic pasts. The women’s voices, however, are fresh and individual, even humorous at times. Childhood sexual abuse is virtually universal, and the pattern is often repeated in their adult relationships. Several of the authors finally struck back against men who were abusing them or their children, yet received life sentences despite their status as battered women, due to poor lawyering or prejudiced judges. Small moments of hope and resistance shine out as all the more precious, such as Bonnie Foreshaw’s fight for a religious exemption that would let her wear a skirt instead of pants with her prison uniform.

The authors never deny responsibility for their crimes nor plead victimhood as an excuse to escape punishment. What their stories reveal, however, is that they are real, complex people, not reducible to their worst act (as Sister Helen Prejean would say), who are often enduring far harsher sentences than the facts seem to merit. Given the deprivations of their early lives, talk of “coddling” prisoners with educational programs and other rehabilitation opportunities is ridiculous. They are only being given, for the first time in their lives, opportunities for self-understanding and dignity that most of us take for granted.

Apparently these ideas were too explosive for the State of Connecticut, which was so threatened by Lamb’s project that it filed a six-figure lawsuit against the book’s contributors for the cost of their incarceration. Contributor Barbara Parsons Lane received the PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award in 2004 for fighting for inmates’ freedom of speech. Lane was released in 2004 and continues her advocacy for women behind bars.

The media loves to focus on abuses of the system when criminals get an absurd windfall, but ignores the much greater number of cases — not newsworthy because too routine? — where women already beaten down from childhood by poverty, domestic abuse, and neighborhood violence are punished as if no decent person would have broken under the strain. Reading this book will challenge your ideas of “us” and “them”. How much are our free, law-abiding lives creditable to our own self-control, and how much to the fact that when trauma struck our own lives, we had the cushion of a safe home, a good education, or financial security, to keep us from a desperate act?

Secular Film and the Sublime

Two films I saw this week have something to teach Christian artists about communicating the sublime. Neither was particularly deep, though one had pretensions in that direction. Both were about 40 minutes too long, the lack of character development eventually making me lose interest in pure visual sensation, but what a sensation it was.

Most relationship-driven movies I’ve seen are directed like large-screen television shows, while the action movies are like video games, with lots of “shock and awe” but little attention to beauty. Across the Universe, the Beatles musical directed by Julie Taymor, is one of the few that sensually savors the visual medium and delights in exploring its extreme capabilities. So much so, in fact, that I was seduced by the experience of the film, and only afterward felt slightly dirty upon realizing what a work of propaganda it was.

For one thing, drug use is shown in a wholly positive light. No one gets addicted, has a bad trip, or gets arrested. It is portrayed as a revolutionary act, seizing back the life force that the war-mongering government wants to crush, when in actuality it’s more likely to divert one’s energy from changing the world. Violence by the government is bad, but violence by student radicals only bothers the hero because it takes up too much of his girlfriend’s time. Inexplicably, despite undergoing arrest, deportation, PTSD, homophobia, and unresolved love triangles, all the characters are reunited unscathed at the end for a love-fest concert on the roof. I usually hate the Patrick Duffy Returns/”It was all a dream” ending gimmick because it betrays the audience’s emotional investment in the story, but for once, that would have felt more honest.

However, for its artistic technique alone, the film is worth admiring. In the most mind-blowing scene from “Across the Universe”, which I unfortunately couldn’t find on YouTube, our young artist-hero is cross that his girlfriend is spending all her time with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. To an ethereal rendition of “Strawberry Fields Forever”, he nails strawberries to a canvas in orderly yet grotesque rows, bleeding red paint, while in split-screen the girl sings along to the television set where her brother is slogging through the Vietnamese jungle. Does that sound ridiculous? On-screen, it was completely amazing; in words, it is too literal, like seeing how the magic trick is done. That’s what I mean about the power of the visual.

To get a taste of Taymor’s sinister, trippy, carnivalesque style, watch the YouTube clips of I Want You, a horror-satire scene where the heroine’s brother is drafted, and Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite, an LSD-fueled circus in the style of Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python animations (with a little bit of Bread and Puppet Theater thrown in).

It probably wasn’t Taymor’s intention, but this film convinced me not to take drugs. If I get this disoriented just watching other people take drugs, I can’t handle the real thing.

For a different type of wild ride, last night I saw Warren Miller’s Playground, a light-hearted, visually stunning tour of extreme winter sports around the world. Putting aside the slight absurdity of a rap soundtrack accompanying footage of rich, hunky white boys falling off very tall mountains, the film captured the skiers’ overflowing joy and playfulness, as well as the courage and spiritual peace they find in taking on some of the world’s most dangerous slopes.

Am I ungrateful to wish that all this beauty added up to something? Or unrealistic, to wish that so-called Christian films were willing to provide this much physical pleasure? I’m not talking about putting Jesus on a snowboard to attract the younger generation. (Though the footage of Chris Anthony sand-surfing with sheiks in Dubai gives you some idea of what this would look like.)

I just can’t help comparing these two films to the 2005 version of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” the movie all Christians were supposed to love. Tilda Swinton as the White Witch came closest to the sublime — that shock of alien, terrifying, untamed glory. Aslan was, well, a computer-generated lion. Fantastical events were shot in a literal style, as if there were no difference between fleeing from talking wolves and escaping the Nazis. I didn’t understand why the film didn’t satisfy me until I compared it to Taymor’s surrealism. Christians need to edge away from naturalism if we’re ever to give people a glimpse of the wild, inconceivable God.