Becoming the Living Poet

I’m getting ready to take the train from Aarhus to Copenhagen for the second time this month and am fairly certain it will go significantly better this time. I’m a little nervous about how successful I’ll be at the task of finding housing and settling-in in the next 10 days, but I have faith and a few tricks up my sleeve. I am confident I can figure out a way to land on my feet.

Got some good news a couple of days ago. I answered a call for graduate instructional aides and was selected to lead group discussions in an intro. to poetry class. The task sounds rather similar to the apprentice teaching I did for ‘intro to poetry’ classes as an undergraduate, but hopefully there’ll be a little more responsibility. It’ll be good to be working with beginning poets again. I love sharing my love of poetry with people who are only just beginning to find their poetic passion. It helps put me in touch with my younger poet self and remember what it was like to discover a new literary world that few others seemed to understand or appreciate. Plus, I always have to think harder about poetry when I’m putting in a position of needing to explain it to someone, which allows me to see it from angles I don’t bother to tilt towards much anymore. I think this is going to be a great experience.

The big news for this blog’s immediate future is the impending internet blackout. I’m not at all certain when I’ll have internet access again, hopefully within 10 days or life will get unpleasantly interesting.

Before I go, I thought I’d copy and paste some of the links that have been clogging up my tabs lately.

For your perusing pleasure:

Emma Newman over at Post-Apocalyptic Publishing just keeps getting more and more good ideas about how to promote her writing. First she began podcasting her novel, Twenty Years Later, chapter by chapter to rave reviews (her efforts have caught the attention of a small press who are now considering publishing her work, everyone cross your fingers). Now she has come up with the idea of creating a short story club in which members submit suggestions for stories, she selects one of the ideas, and then sends the completed story to her group as a special treat just for them. I think it sounds like a brilliant way to connect with readers who might later purchase her novel after enjoying her stories so much. I am eager to observe how this idea works out. Here is the info. on the club if you’d like to participate.

Over at Writing-World.com there’s a lovely article rather simplistically titled, What Is A Writer?. The article talks about how myth’s about who a ‘real writer’ is or how a ‘real writer’ should behave creates submitter’s block and prevents good writers from getting their work out into the world. I’ve been suffering from a nasty case of submitter’s blog myself, a topic I’d like to address on this blog as soon as I get moved into my new place.

The Los Angeles Times featured an article on their website called The Lost Art of Reading which I absolutely adore and really should print out so I can read it again a few years from now. The article is about how in an instant information saturated world, reading is a form of meditation.

So I’m here online and I shouldn’t be. I’m here because I forgot my passport, couldn’t get on my plane, and had to pay a fee to transfer my ticket back to Sacramento to a week later than I wanted to leave Denmark.

For the last few days I’ve been alternately crying and disassociating because I’ve been having trouble dealing with how stupid and incompetent I feel. I’ve done some brainstorming on how I can be more organized and less distracted by anxiety in the future, but a part of me just doesn’t see the steps I’ve taken to do better next time as good enough. A part of me wants to hurt the lesson into me until I learn it good and proper this time.

This is a form of self abuse and I need to stop tolerating it.

A while back I wrote a post about self-forgiveness. It’s one of my favorite posts on the blog because every time I re-read it, it never fails to help me feel calmer and more accepting of my personal growth process.

In the post I quoted this passage on the Mayo Clinic’s article on forgiveness:

Also, remember that forgiveness often isn’t a one-time thing. It begins with a decision, but because memories or another set of words or actions may trigger old feelings, you may need to recommit to forgiveness over and over again.

It’s been a rough few days and it’s bound to be an even rougher week if I can’t ever so gently and ever so lovingly snap myself out of this doom spiral.

Yesterday morning as I was tumbling through the darkness, through the haze of emotional pain and indifference, I heard a tiny voice in the back of my head whispering urgently, Pull up! Pull up! The voice was my survival instinct and it was telling me if I didn’t point my psyche in a direction other than down I was going to crash hard, I was going to hurt myself. While I am very grateful to that tiny voice that protects me time and again from full on comatosed, can’t leave the bed depression and physical self injury, that’s a lot of burden for one tiny voice to shoulder. I need to stop pushing myself towards some sort of psychological abyss and expecting my sense of self preservation to pull me back from the brink in the nick of time.

In short, I need to make good on this promise to become my own best friend. I need to stop casting the first stone whenever I make a mistake.

My partner and I have been having a lot of communication problems lately, mostly because I’ve been so clogged up with shame over the mistake I made and also because a part of me has been expecting my partner to help make it right for me. My partner hasn’t been able to do or say much to stop the pain because it’s no longer my partner’s forgiveness I am seeking, that was given long ago. The person who refuses to be compassionate is myself towards myself.

I decided to catch up on a few Freak Revolution posts in the hopes of finding something that would either help alleviate some of the angst or at least help remind me not to expect the person I love to fix it for me. (Freak Revolution is a blog about communication and self acceptance. Not sure why I haven’t added it to my blog roll yet. I read it all the time. I’m remedying that now.) I came across a post that did both. It’s called The Little Girl and the Hammer.

The post is about a difficult time in the author’s childhood right after her parents had divorced when she felt that the only time she could get positive attention was when she was injured so after healing from a broken wrist she tried to break her own ankle with a hammer so that the positive attention wouldn’t stop. When she realized she couldn’t intentionally injure herself, she became very clutzy and suffered a lot more injuries that she did and did not intentionally cause depending upon your definition of intention.

Now I don’t think that’s why I forgot my passport. I don’t think I unconsciously wanted to push back an already difficult move on a tight deadline by a whole week and cost myself $500 in flight and train fees (the airport is in Copenhagen, not Aarhus, so one of the things I had to pay for was the two way ticket back to Aarhus to take the 3 hour train ride of shame back to my departure point). I do think the fact that I got literally feverish with depression and cried on and off for days after making the mistake has a lot to do with how and when my needs got met when I was growing up.

Like the writer in The Little Girl and the Hammer, I too had a somewhat difficult relationship with my mother. I wasn’t neglected, but my mother was a very emotional person (not unlike I am now, really). She was a single mother, not at all ready to have a child, who did as good a job as she could have under the circumstances as she struggled to feed and cloth me and keep a roof over my head. She was a survivor, a refugee from an alcoholic family and a short, but disastrous marriage.

From an early age I had the impression that the odds were stacked against us. My mom was holding back the big scary world as best she could, and it was my responsibility to help in the only way I could, to be as strong as she was. Unfortunately I was a very sensitive child, so that often didn’t work out too well. My mom wasn’t always terribly sympathetic of my eccentricities, but she did care about me deeply, she just didn’t always have the patience necessary to deal with my moods. Thinking back I can recognize a great deal of my mother in how I often see the world, a long series of catastrophes that need attending too with brief respites of peace which are to be aggressively defended from any intrusion of negativity.

My mother was dealing with her own issues and I don’t blame her for this in any way, but it seems to me that I was taught the lesson that minor sadness, anger, and pain should be dealt with as quietly as possible and that the only hurt that warranted another person’s attention was disaster level hurt. Thus, I learned to hold in my pain for as long as I could and then if I couldn’t keep it invisible, fall apart as completely and dramatically as possible to ensure I got sympathy for the pain I was supposed to be hiding.

Acknowledging that those were the coping mechanisms I learned as a child, it’s time for my adult self to further acknowledge that there are other ways of coping with emotional pain.

I’ve spent many years of my life hoping the pain would just go away. I’d go to college (nope, still dealing with anxiety and depression), graduate from college and get a job I enjoyed (still there), get into a healthy relationship with a person who loved and respected me (still anxious and depressed, though admittedly less than when I was in emotionally abusive relationships).

It isn’t my external circumstances that cause the anxiety and depression. Admittedly, lapses in self respect that cause me to put myself in bad circumstances and do self destructive things (like not doing the self care I needed in order to calm my anxiety long enough to focus on packing properly and thus nearly trapping myself in a foreign country) add fuel to the emotional instability fire, but these are just symptoms.

The real problem is that I get so wrapped up in the ‘shoulds’ and the endless layers of guilt, anxiety, and self-loathing that surround not doing a task perfectly that I forget to ask myself a more fundamental question: What do I need to ensure that this task gets done and that my emotional needs are met while I’m completing it?

So OMG I need to pack, but I don’t know where to start, ahh, ahh, ahh, what if I forget something?!?!?! doesn’t address the underlying question: I’m feeling anxious right now and trying to avoid the source of anxiety, what do I need to feel less afraid and overwhelmed? What do I need right now to ensure that I don’t forget anything and can get home safely?

The answer was probably to sit down, make a cup of tea, and write a list of everything that needed to be in my suitcase, and then possibly to have my partner read over the list to see if I’d forgotten anything. And most importantly, to forgive myself for the things I couldn’t finish before I left, and focus on the things that had to be finished in order to leave.

I recently read Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem and came upon this great quote:

To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference. If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are pecularily in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out – since our self-image is untenable – their false notions of us.

I am ready to recommit myself to the path of self love and self-forgiveness. I am ready to stop crying, brush off the mistakes of the past however egregious, and move forward in the quest to find housing in San Francisco and begin my studies as an MFA poet. I am prepared and committed to offer myself encouragement when I stumble, rather than condemnation.

When I was writing this post I also ran into this quote, which was a heartening reminder of what’s really important:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. — Theodore Roosevelt

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

– An Excerpt of the The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Elliot

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is probably my favorite poem of all time, which is odd because T.S. Elliot is far from my favorite poet. I love the sense of attendant anxiety surrounding everyday actions. Eating peaches, drinking tea, talking of Michelangelo; these are the minutia that make up our daily lives. There is joy in that and yet there is also terror because these are the existential objects we are using to fill up the well of life and when the well is full we will no longer be able to draw from it. Whether that ceasing is merely a transition to another plane of existence or a permanent deletion from the fabric of reality is an open question, but the answer hardly matters to the anxiety being spoken of in the poem.

There is a great deal happening in the next few weeks and I am trying to remind myself that there will be time.

My time in Denmark is coming to an end and it is a bittersweet transition. There is a great deal waiting for me in San Francisco. New poems, new friends, new professors. I can’t wait to start the MFA program and get to know what has always been my favorite city from the perspective of a local. The sadness comes in with the not so negligible detail that my partner will be remaining in Denmark for another year in order to finish a master’s program there. The simple fact of my partner’s proximity has been such a luxury these past two months. We lived together for three years prior to transitioning into a long distance relationship a year ago and like most things that are wonderful, but constant I took the time for granted. When my partner joins me in San Francisco at the end of this year I shall probably take it for granted again but for now every kiss, every hug, every meal shared together feels like a precious gift and one that is about to be wrended from my grasp in a few days time. It already hurts and it hasn’t even happened yet and the pain just keeps getting bigger and bigger and closer and closer. Ah well, to quote Ani Di Franco’s words in the song, ‘Buildings and Bridges: we are made to bleed and scab and heal and bleed again.

There is a great deal of joy to counter the sadness. No sooner had I begun pondering the question of how to better connect with other writers, when I was invited to begin contributing to a newly forming blog collective called, The MFA Chronicles. The MFA Chronicles is a group of first year creative writing MFAers blogging about the joys and terrors of being a creative writing graduate student. The blog collective was masterminded by Jonterri Gadson, an MFA poet attending the University of Virginia. As far as I know Jonterri who twitters as @JaytotheTee is still looking for new contributors so if you’re a first year MFA student who wants to participate be sure to drop her a line.

In my last post, Ch-Ch-Changes I asked some questions to try and get at ways that this blog could become a more effective resource for other poets. These were the questions:

Any of you have any ideas on how this blog might help poets become better poets?

What kinds of online resources are useful to poets and other creative types?

What are your favorite poetry-related websites? What kind of poetry websites do you wish existed that don’t seem to?

These are ongoing questions so if you missed the last post and have anything to say about them don’t be shy, but I was really impressed by the caliber of the answers I got in the comments. Here were some of the amazingly awesome suggestions:

-Demystifying the process of poetry in some way.

I initially took this to mean the process of submitting poetry for publication, but it could really be any aspect of poetry whether it be gathering inspiration, line breaks, type-setting, editing. There’s a ton about the process of poetry creation that often goes unsaid and we should talk about those mysteries. We can be like a magician’s convention sharing the how to’s of magic tricks. (Just realized I stole the magic trick analogy from @JaytotheTee who tweeted it just the other day, but it was such an apt one.) I like the idea of making the process of writing poetry more mindful and less mystical because when it becomes this almost spiritual, unearthly happening brought on by muses it becomes very passive. Poets who fall into that mindset then start to do things like wait for inspiration to write, when as Jack London said, You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.

-Posting interviews with up and coming poets, particularly poets releasing their first book.

The more I think about this idea which involves me actually having something to say to other poets at readings other than the awkward, “so um… that one line in the first poem you read was really good… I like crustaceans too”, the more I think that interviewing up and coming poets for the blog is a fabulous idea. It gives me an excuse to have conversations with other poets that I’d want to be having anyway and it gives me a vehicle to deliver to you some clues to the most burning of all poetry question conflagrations: how do you get a poetry book published?

-Another person thought that documenting my experiences as an MFA poet would be an enjoyable read for other poets.

I worry about making this blog all about the MFA experience. Obviously the MFA experience is going to be very central to my perspectives about poetry for the next few years because I’m going to be a full-time graduate student, but I want to emphasize that I don’t believe that every poet has to get an MFA or that MFA poets are necessarily superior to non-MFA poets. Getting an MFA improves your writing when it provides you with a solid writing community, but a really good writing group and a disciplined writing practice could do the same thing. I chose to pursue the MFA route because I really like teaching poetry. I think reading and writing poetry enriches people’s lives and I want as many people as possible to start doing it, and more to the point I want to have an active role in encouraging people to read and write more poetry, thus having a piece of paper that certifies me as a poetry expert is going to be useful for me professionally. If you just want to write poetry and maybe get it published an MFA might help or it might not. I want to emphasize that when I’m talking to poets I’m not just talking to MFA poets or poets who have been published, I’m talking to everyone who has a passion for poetry and who wants to improve their craft and get their work circulating in the larger reading world.

I want to thank everyone who commented on my last post because it really got me thinking about how poets can help each other and the age old question ‘what do poets want? – a question I’ve been trying to answer since my days as poetry club president in high school and college.

It’s been so lovely talking to you that it pains me to tell you that these lovely conversations will have to be put on hold for the next two, possibly three weeks while I complete my move in San Francisco.

Until I find and move into a San Francisco apartment I’ll be on a near complete internet blackout. Feel free to still leave them if you wish, but comments will go unapproved and unanswered and tweets will go unreplied starting the morning of August 5th and continuing until further notice.

Wish me luck settling into San Francisco. We will speak again soon, hopefully in a better time and a better place.

Some modest, but nevertheless noteworthy changes have been afoot on this blog. The most obvious one is that the title has changed. Sometimes one word makes all the difference. Instead of being called “The Living Poet” this blog will now be called “Becoming the Living Poet”. After writing the post, Invisible Readers I rewrote my about page in order to shift the blog’s focus away from being my space for personal growth to a space for poet’s to work on personal growth.

Honestly, I’m not sure yet how this blog is going to help other writers, but identifying the question is always the first step towards brainstorming solutions.

Early ideas:

-Creating a ‘blog a poetry book day’ to try to put the tiniest of dents in the vacuum of good poetry reviews.
-Starting an online and perhaps in-person poetry book group. (I want to get a feel for my schedule as an MFA student first, but this idea has been nibbling at me for a few months.)
-Starting a regular submission ritual on the blog. (This one is entirely doable. I would just need to *gasp* commit to posting about it every week on the same day. I’m thinking we’d start with a very small reachable goal. Either one submission or one hour spent on working on a submission every week. If you can’t find an hour in one day you can split it up into 15 minute increments throughout the week. I’m thinking it will be ‘Submission Monday’. Unfortunately I don’t think I should start it until I get into San Francisco because in about a week I’ll be on internet blackout for two weeks and it’s no fun to start a ritual and then put it on hiatus immediately.)

Any of you have any ideas on how this blog might help poets become better poets?

What kinds of online resources are useful to poets and other creative types?

What are your favorite poetry-related websites? What kind of poetry websites do you wish existed that don’t seem to?

Leave your answers in the comments.
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I wanted to add some new people to the blog roll who have some great things to say about poetry, writing, and creativity.

Jessie Carty, a Charlotte-based poet, writer, editor, and teacher has a lovely blog called 58 Inches where she muses about poetry as well as documents her daily life. She also teaches writing, creativity, and social media classes so be sure to check if she’s teaching anything if you ever find yourself in the ‘Tar Heel State’. (And if you have any notion why it’s called the Tar Heel State please let me know.)

Mildly Creative is a blog created by mildly creative individual Ken Roberts who has devoted himself to help[ing] others take the steps, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem, towards a life of creative abundance. The focus of Mildly Creative is on authenticity and creation over perfection. My favorite post series so far is How To Be Authentic with People Who Don’t Understand You.

Post-Apocalyptic Publishing is a blog written by Emma Newman, a novelist trying to publish her first novel. Is she any good you might ask? Well, I think she’s fabulous and I know this because she’s been podcasting her novel, Twenty Years Later chapter by chapter. Twenty Years Later is a young adult novel that takes place in post-apocalyptic London. (And don’t scrunch your nose at it being young adult, it has the same kind of all ages appeal that many of Neil Gaiman’s young adult novels have.)

And I wanted to draw your attention to a blog that is already on my blogroll, Soul Sleuthing where you’ll find the wonderful post series: Gumshoe’s Guide to Getting Off the Couch still in progress.

That’s all for now. Hope you share your opinion on what makes a good online poet’s/writer’s resource. Until next post!

Right now on my about page there are two underlined sections. There is the sentence fragment: you’ve definitely come to the wrong place near the top of the page. The fragment is at the end of the following sentence:

If you’re looking for sage advice from a famous poet who’s published a small library and won a host of prestigious awards then you’ve definitely come to the wrong place!

At the bottom of the page is this sentence:

I’m writing this blog for myself to an imaginary reader. If you exist, you can read along if you like…

Last week, immediately after identifying some literary magazines I’d like to submit to I threw myself headlong into another project which I didn’t write about here because I was, quite frankly, not sure if I was going to do it or not.

If you’re curious I haven’t yet submitted to the two lit mags I said I would submit to. I will check in with you next week about my progress. Sometimes I suspect that many of the projects I complete I do so in an attempt to put off other projects I’m avoiding, but that’s a musing for another time.

You know the thing I was working on, that I didn’t tell you about?

Well, I did it.

I entered the Art of Nonconformity’s Unconventional Writing Contest.

I don’t want to speculate about whether or not I’m going to win. Let time tell that. Either way you’ll get to read the entry. If I win I’ll post a link to the article, if I lose I’ll post the whole article.

I do want to talk about what I learned about how I feel about this blog after entering the contest.

I learned that, shock of shocks, despite the almost militant declarations on my about page that I don’t care if anyone is reading or what readers think, I want people to come to my blog and read what I’ve written. I want people to leave comments. I want people to retweet my links.

If I didn’t want that I wouldn’t have entered the contest.

And yet after I sent in the entry, after the initial blush of excitement over the article had faded, a little voice in my head let out a trembling whisper:

If you win this contest, you’ll lose all that’s left of your invisibility. They’ll be nowhere to hide. This blog won’t be safe anymore. It will be filled with readers!

I think it was two fears that initially caused me to latch-on to the concept of invisible readers:

1. That no on would read my blog and I’d feel embarrassed and blocked talking to myself.

2. That people would read my blog and find it simultaneously too academic and too emo. In short that people would read my blog and hate it.

The concept of ‘invisible readers’ was a wonderful safety net because it served as a reminder that even if no one showed up or everyone hated what I had written, the audience in my mind was more important than any living hostile audience.

I am grateful to my invisible readers because they gave me a comfort zone in which to start this blog and continue for as long as I have.

But gratitude aside it’s time to let the invisible readers go.

Why?

Because I have real readers now and I don’t feel that I can honor and connect with them properly if I keep referring to them as invisible readers.

I also don’t think it’s healthy to assume that all real readers will be hostile and bored.

It’s time to stand up and say I’m a nonconformist and an academic and I’m not ashamed of that. I’m ok with other people thinking I’m too weird and too serious.

I’ve been doing a pretty good job of being my rambly, over-analytical, insecure self in this space and it’s felt good.

It’s time to acknowledge that this might not be an empty room and that’s ok.

Or this might be a party that no one shows up to and that’s ok.

I think the most important thing I can do both for myself and this blog right now is to stop trying to rigidly control what it’s for.

While I was thinking about and working on this post I reread several of Havi’s Blogging Therapy posts, the series that pretty much got me here. (The two above links are from that series.)

Something she says in the Why Even Bother When Other People Are Doing It Better? post always comforts me:

You can’t see how useful it is for other people to know that stuff is hard for you too or that you’re also going through things that they experience.

But the rest of us know. We, your “right people”, can see it. And we need you.

So I’m going to make two very small changes to this site:

1. I’m going to change the about page to be more welcoming to potential readers.

2. I’m going to try to be brave enough to acknowledge the possibility of a real living audience when I write.

Maybe I’ll even leave questions for people to comment on from time to time. I’ve been terrified of doing that for fear that no one would comment and I would feel alone and vulnerable, but I think in the last three months of blogging I’ve finally gotten to the point where I can give myself the validation that I need without being defensive about it.

I don’t need to announce every few lines that I don’t care if anyone comments or not to know that I’ll be ok if no one comments. I’ll be ecstatic if they do comment, but I’m no longer afraid that it will wound me if they don’t.

I realize writing this post won’t be a magic spell that generates traffic and commenters, but I want to acknowledge aloud that readers are welcome, commenters are welcome, and that I would be open to this site someday becoming a community.

In the next couple of weeks I’m going to start thinking about who this blog’s ‘right people’ are and share that information with you when I’ve fleshed out some ideas.

My resolution: I will strive to not be so dominated by my fear of being harmed by false hopes that I risk killing the true ones.

You block your dream when you allow your fear to grow bigger than your faith. -Mary Manin Morrissey

In the last month I stumbled upon two books that most writers would probably get a lot out of: Writing A Woman’s Life by Carolyn Heilbrun and How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Bottom.

Writing A Woman’s Life is a brief (a little over a hundred pages) history of how women authors have been depicted in biographies. More specifically, it asserts that a lot of patriarchal assumptions have crept into how female writer’s lives have been depicted by biographers. Marrying or failing to marry has been over-emphasized and the quest for literary greatness or artistic self-actualization has been minimized in a way that has not been seen in biographies written about male writers.

How Proust Can Change Your Life is a combination literary criticism and self help book. I haven’t come across a book as eruditely hilarious since reading Eats, Shoots, and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Guide To Punctuation by Lynne Truss. Marcel Proust is the author of In Search of Lost Time, a seven part novel which is for France, as far as I can tell, what War and Peace is for Russia. I’ve never read Proust myself (I might after reading him summarized), but previous knowledge of Proust is definitely not a prerequisite to enjoying this book.

One theme running through both books is how reading effects people and why books are important.

On this topic Helibrun tells us:

What matters is that lives do not serve as models; only stories do that. And it is a hard thing to make up stories to live by. We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard. We live our lives through texts. They may be read, or chanted, or experienced electronically, or come to us, like the murmurings of our mothers, telling us what conventions demand. Whatever their form or medium, these stories have formed us all; they are what we must use to make new fictions, new narratives.

The above Heilbrun quote really inspired me so I did a bit of free writing about it. Here is what I wrote:

The parameters within which you define what is and what is not possible to do, or be, or see in your lifetime are not neutral or impersonal. How one defines one’s own limitations has a lot to do with one’s environment and the influences one has been exposed to. This is why reading is so dangerous, not because we become what we read, but because we can choose to become anything we can imagine and reading expands that threshold. Reading changes us because it delivers a silent invitation for personal transformation. It reminds us of the possibility of new beginnings and alternate endings.

Alain de Bottom provides the following Proust quotation (presumably translated by himself) on the value of books:

In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without the book, he would perhaps never have experienced in himself! And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its veracity.

He also quotes Proust on the topic of the limitations of reading:

It is one of the great and wonderful characteristics of good books (which allows us to see the role, at once essential, yet limited, that reading may play in our spiritual lives) that for the author they may be called ‘Conclusions’ but for the reader ‘Incitements’. We feel very strongly that our own wisdom begins where that of the author leaves off, and we would like him to provide us with answers when all he is able to do is provide us with desires… That is the value of reading, and also its inadequacy. To make it into a discipline is to give too large a role to what is only an incitement. Reading is on the threshold of the spiritual life; it can introduce us to it: it does not constitute it.

Proust’s first quote seems to be saying the opposite of what Heilbrun’s is saying. While Heilbrun asserts that stories have formed us, Proust tells us that stories are but a tool by which we see ourselves more clearly.

Is it possible that when a book triggers a deeper level of introspection that in turn paves the way for the formation of a new model of living?

The unique way a novel draws you into the mind of a character, allowing you to experience their thoughts viscerally as if they were your own, can open you up to insights you simply wouldn’t get to in your daily life. At the same time those insights tend not to leave a lasting impression unless they are in some way extensions of thoughts that have already occurred to you, but never so eloquently or so wittily or in such an extreme fashion.

So books can expand the depth and breadth of a person’s thinking, but only if they start from a place that feels familiar and take us somewhere new from there.

So perhaps we care about characters in books because we recognize them as ourselves in the Proustian sense, but the process doesn’t stop there. We are then driven to create new fictions, new narratives in our own lives because the book allows us to meet a version of ourselves we’ve never met before and would like to carry with us after we leave the book on the shelf.

I think Proust’s description of a book as an ‘Incitement’ is dead on. The words written in our favorite books drive us towards new words and new thoughts.

I think Heilbrun is correct that we live our lives through texts, but it is not the texts of a single influential book or even an entire canon. The texts in which we live are the texts that play through our minds on a daily basis, the internal words we choose to narrate our actions that steer our lives in this direction or that.

Even if some of us never commit our stories to paper, we are, each of us, moment to moment writers of our own lives, choosing our dialogue according to the motivations we believe most realistically portray the character we have chosen to become.

In my post, Submission (Not the Kinky Kind) I professed an interest in rejection letter art projects.

Ever since I made that commitment a nagging voice in the back of my head has been telling me not to wait until August to start submitting work. If I’m really serious about amassing a collection of rejection letters that any working writer would be proud of there’s no time like the present.

I thought a good step in the right direction would be figuring out where I wanted to submit work and making a commitment to do so.

Below I will list no more than 3 places I plan to submit work to in the next two months and then I will make it happen.

-On a friend’s recommendation I think I will submit work to Room Magazine. After reading the online samples of poetry the magazine has accepted, some of the work I have in the notebook I brought with me to Denmark could fit the tastes of the magazine, so I could feasibly type of work and send it out tomorrow. I still need to finish my Paris and Barcelona postcards. Perhaps I’ll finish all that this weekend and send it out in one big bundle. I would like to have a submission sent out by the end of next week so I will make that a formal goal.

-I also plan to submit to the Bitter Oleander Press because I like their style and hope they’ll like mine.

-There’s a contest being held by 13th Moon Press that I want to submit to for feminist women poets. A submission is 3 poems no more than 500 lines total. There’s an entry fee, but I have a good feeling about the contest so I’m going to bite the bullet. The deadline is September 8th. Some of the work I want to submit is boxed up in Norcal, but I should be able to just make the deadline when I move to SF.

I’m feeling pretty good about my choices. In the next week we’ll see if I can do the hard part, which is of course, the follow through.

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Off topic, caught up on the Practicing Writing posts I was behind on today. Here are a couple of links Erika Dreifus found that I particularly enjoyed:

-Realistic and only slightly disheartening article about one teacher’s rewarding and excruciating experiences teaching high schoolers poetry: D’Oh On A Grecian Urn

Tips on how to obtain a review copy of a book

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And very far in this blog’s past I mentioned wanting to revisit some of the poems I liked in high school to try and figure out what makes a poem Valuable in the sense that it touches someone’s life.

I put the project on hold because I couldn’t figure out how to do it in a few posts. When I started walking down the dusty memory lane of my poetic preference past I was bombarded by poem after poem of early influences. I think deconstructing my influences might have to be a gradual, piecemeal process until I find some way to make sense of the data.

So here’s a poem whose last line haunts me to this day:

somewhere i have never traveled, gladly beyond by e.e. cummings

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully ,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

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Reading this poem makes me recognize that it often isn’t literal meaning that draws me to a particular poem. The last line is the part of the poem that has echoed in my brain for years, popping into my head at strange moments. But what does the rain having small hands literally mean to me? The image is one of tenderness, fragility, and longing. It evokes an intense feeling without an object. I think that may have been what originally drew me to e.e. cummings as a poet – his ability to mean intensely without saying anything sensical, his ability to emote a message that was wordless and yet unmistakable.