Tag Archives: writing

Refrain

Not what is said, but what is redacted,
what is lost, what is left to remain
rotting unused, the surplus of being,
the bare inch scribbled in ordered margins,
the cast-offs, the dog-ends, the what-have-yous,
repurposed, made new, orphans adopted
and put to work at once, small hands hefting
the litter of some dark pop svengali,
and what remains? But the lulling refrain
of so many shekels, falling like rain
into the beak of the sky-staring cock,
a new Narcissus with the same sad fate.
Better the dirt; better to be grounded,
forgotten, never known. I know. I know.


No ADT

There is a house, and – spoiler alert – the house is you,
and you don’t own it, and the rent is too damn high,
so sometimes you leave to wander the moors – if you have moors –
and if you don’t, you just go down to the bus station
to accept hand jobs in exchange for – whatever – pay?

But you always leave the door unlocked, when you go,
not because you don’t value your things, but because
you value your freedom more – it’s worthless –
so when you come back, people sometimes have read
your diary, and sometimes, they’ve stolen your shit.

Sometimes, you sell your own shit – you make a sign –
you stand in the front yard, rudely hawking your wares –
and go back inside, pants pockets filthy with lucre,
and continue painting your Mona Lisa.
She smiles – they never notice her.

Only sometimes, they do. Or at least, someone does.
Sometimes they pay – usually not – but it’s okay.
This Mona Lisa ain’t gonna paint itself.
But when they see you, shirtless, a sack of organs
like everyone else – there goes romance.

One of these days, the house will burn down,
and you keep spending the insurance money on smokes.
Back to the bus station – back to the moors –
back to wearing a name tag. Back to black.
You open all the windows. Turn on all the lights.

With any luck, when you die in a fire,
strangers will get bummed out – majorly –
before continuing to not give a shit, as usual.
What did you expect? A statue? A cookie? Salvation?
Sola fide or GTFO.

… and that’s writing.


Arachne in Exile

Consigned to spin indefinite,
the weaver of lore births her silk
in hushed pride, god-mocking patterns
bending lines through space, unabased;
abandoned, her blanched satires bloom
to full fruit at long last, the work
itself enough in the absence
of acclaim and censure alike:
here, a hanging drained cicada
drapes across Leda and her swan;
there, a monarch flutters in vain
to free itself of Europa…
and having writ, she moves on, the web made
one spot stronger, far from the marketplace.


The Fastest Kid in Class Gets Left Behind: Winning, Losing, Writing in Spite of It All

We all sat next to the wall at one end of the gym, where the P.E. teacher had told us to wait while she paired us up to race one another to half court and then back again. When it came time for me to run, I did so, sprinting back and forth at a breakneck pace while my competitor ran beside me in a swiftly diminishing parallel, his arms and legs pumping with the kind of graceless regularity one might see in a politician answering questions for reporters during his morning jog.

It was the first time I ever remember winning anything that mattered to anyone else, the first time I remember having that feeling of besting someone else, of demonstrating my superiority. I remember the praise of my peers, the warm glow of suddenly being in the spotlight. I don’t remember a thing about how the kid who lost the race reacted. Who ever does? The reason that winners write the history books is the same reason that negative results are seldom published in academic journals: we have an urge to duplicate success, but the thought of failure is too frightening to contemplate. Failures are to be forgotten, quickly shunted down the nearest memory hole, lest negativity prove to be infectious.

I don’t know why I won. Maybe it was because, though neither of us was particularly athletic, I lacked weight while he had it to spare. Maybe I was just faster. Or maybe it comes down to the cliché that I read dozens of times while grading developmental writing responses to the prompt, “What are the qualities that a great athlete must possess?” A great athlete “wants it” more than the next person, to paraphrase all those students who were, in turn, plagiarizing countless interviews with sports figures, who are not held as accountable for vague usages as someone is in a writing class.

Did I “want it” more? Did winning matter more to me than it did to the one who lost? Maybe it was a question of stakes: there was no tangible reward for winning, no trophy and no cash prize, only the approbation of my peers. But maybe that was reward enough.

Or maybe it had nothing to do with the reward; I certainly don’t remember my need for approval being the impetus for my speed. And though I know we are rarely the best judges of our own characters, I’ve never thought of myself as a highly competitive person. In fact, the older I became, the more losers started to bum me out, and I felt less and less desire to create more of them by my actions.

Unfortunately, even though I generally avoided sports, life is filled with zero-sum games. Viewed through one lens, any adjunct making the leap to tenure track is a win for us all – there’s still hope! – viewed through another, there are significantly more who sit by their phones, waiting for calls that never come. I am only with the woman I am now because I did not let the broken heart of a friend who also had feelings for her stand in the way of my happiness.

Maybe I was the fastest kid in my class, but I may have just had a slow class. Competition is a relative thing, although when one is younger, the scope of one’s abilities is more difficult to determine. Losing a race to another kid in your class has to tell you something: you will not be a track star. You will not be an Olympian. Your face will never be used to sell shoes. Maybe the kid you lost to will grow up to do any or all of these things, but you will not. Because if you aren’t even the fastest kid in a class of sixty, in a small town of less than a thousand, why would you ever dream of competing regionally, nationally, or internationally? One race, and your horizons are altered for life.

On the other hand, maybe you are the fastest. Maybe you win every single race against every single person in your class; maybe the races aren’t even close. Where are your horizons then? When you are demonstrably the best, and when you are told again and again that the only way to make your mark in life, to succeed, to get ahead, to win, is to find what you are best at and to pursue it relentlessly… where are your horizons then? Are you the best, or are you only the best of those in your immediate vicinity?

I never tried out for track. I was fast, but I didn’t want it. I didn’t care about running, and so I never thought about where I was ranked outside of the narrow group of contenders that I faced in school. What did I care about?

I cared about writing. And I wanted to be the best.

So I became the best writer in my class. And, in turn, I thought about what it meant to be the best writer in the region; in the country; in the world.

Of course, I had no serious competitors: when you’re the only one who cares at all about winning, winning becomes a trivial matter. And since I was the only one who seemed remotely interested in writing anything beyond the bare minimum that was required for class assignments; since I was the only one who was standing up before the class and sharing my stories; since I was the only one who loved writing the way my classmates loved football or fishing or any other activity that took precedence in their thoughts… I began to think that my tiny corner of the world was representative of the entire thing, and that since I was the only one who was interested in writing, I would be given the task of being a great writer by default. I would do the job no one else wanted.

Going to college and participating in a creative writing program should have served to knock sense into me, to dim my expectations. The presence of faster runners, even if their speed was difficult to judge when compared to my own, should have made me realize that there would come a time when I would strain to keep pace, only to see a slight backwards glance of pity as a fellow competitor bolted for the finish line while I fell over, too tired to carry on. But by the time I found myself arguing with my thesis advisor over which changes were good edits and which changes were butchering my intent, it was too late. I was committed.

Of course, a decade out of grad school spent falling far short of the starry-eyed dreams of success I once had, the last few years of which have been spent struggling (and often failing) to provide for my new family, has finally managed to dispel my dreams of becoming a runaway success on the strength of one brilliant novel pounded out in the space of a few months. As it turns out, it was not a faster runner that did me in but rather the realization that another cliché is true: the race is not always to the swift, nor to the skilled, but time and chance happens to us all. And I have matured enough to realize that I chased success as a writer without ever having a clear understanding of how to achieve it, what it was I was chasing, or when I would know that I had found it.

I see now that there is more to writing than being the best, and that, in truth, there is no “best.” Writers may compete for seats in MFA programs, may compete for staff positions at newspapers, may compete for the attentions of agents and publishers and readers, but in the end, there is no race, and the only runner that a writer competes with is the writer him or herself. If writing puts food on the table, it is a good thing for those who need to eat, but it does not make it good writing. Nothing does. Even assuming that the now-irrevocably fractured canon of English literature someday deigns to allow your writing into it, there will always be critics who strive to declare it overrated.

Maybe redefining success sounds like a euphemism for failure to those who have found it through conventional means. But success in writing for me is no longer tied inextricably to some goal that I may never reach, whether due to a lack of desire, a lack of talent, or simply a lack of good fortune. And I am all the happier for it.

It is in that spirit that I decided to publish my first novel myself while working on my second, because while I believe that my work is good, it probably does not have the “mass market appeal” that would entice an agent into picking it up. And I would rather see it out in the world, garnering a few readers here and there, rather than never having been read at all.

And if it defies the odds to become a success? Well, my horizons may have changed, but it doesn’t mean I’ve given up. I’m still out there, running as fast as I can. If you’re a writer, I’m sure you know the feeling.


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