The Servant Girl & The Mistress

In 1941, divorce lawyers insisted that Henri Matisse put all his art into storage. In photographs of Matisse before 1941 we see him in his studio surrounded by his artwork. Then, rather suddenly the walls were empty. At this same time, Matisse, who was 71 years old, underwent surgery and was then confined to a wheelchair. His painting career came to an end. Imagine him, sitting in a wheelchair surrounded by the white walls of his studio.

Matisse is on my mind because I went to the Minneapolis Institute of Art to see the special exhibit of his work that is on loan from the Baltimore Museum of Art. On display in several rooms are paintings, sculpture, prints, and his book Jazz.

Matisse took up a pair of scissors – or, let us say shears, an old-fashioned word, but closer to what Matisse was doing: as he put it, painting by cutting up paper. Scissors is related to chisel; whereas shear is related to cut, separate. He could sit in his wheelchair and cut shapes out of brightly colored paper. It is probably these paper cutouts that most of us know Matisse by. He’d sit in his chair with pieces of bright paper and cut shapes, letting the paper fall away onto the floor around him, until he was surrounded by mosaic.

Many of the cutouts we know come from Jazz, a book of cutouts that Matisse paired with text in his open, curvaceous, and playful script. He began this project intending to illustrate a series of poems by a French poet on themes of the circus or the theater. How delightful that, while his body was uncooperative, his mind and his hands could imagine acrobats and clowns. He abandoned the poet’s verses and instead wrote his own messages.

On one of the pages he wrote:

If I have confidence in my hand which draws, it is because when I was training it to serve me I resolved never to let it overshadow my feelings. I am very aware if there is any disagreement between the two of us: between my hand and that undefinable part of me that seems subjugated to it.

The hand is but an extension of sensitivity and intelligence. The more it is supple, the more it is obedient. Never should the servant girl become the mistress.

The artist, Henri Matisse, at a ripe age, forced to give up the means of expression he’d depended upon for decades, had a supple hand. He could turn it to his purposes—make it obey—no matter whether it was grasping brush or shears. What does this mean, this business of suppleness, of obedience.

Carry water long enough and you do not splash, your shoulders rise to the labor. Pluck strings and you grow callouses, your fingers know where to land and they do not complain.

The artist, by making every day, by putting the hand to work, builds up a relationship between brain and hand, between imagination and sable dipped in carmine, in which the hand carries out whatever the brain calls upon it to do, without hesitation. And the hand does it without complaint.

This suppleness, this obedience – can the writer claim it too?

Someone who sits down to write a sonnet for the first time does not enjoy the suppleness and obedience that Matisse speaks of. In fact, this writer begins to sweat when she has written a line that’s short one iamb and she can find nothing to complete the line. Or she bleeds because she must rhyme with “oat” and boat/coat/moat take her away from the poem so she bleeds more. She has become the slave herself, slave to the rhythm, slave to the rhyme.

My first book of poems is a collection of fibonaccis – all poems that follow the same form: if you count the syllables of each line you get the fibonacci sequence (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13). I remember writing the first fibs, stopping to count syllables, asking whether the number of syllables met the rule. But after awhile I did not have to count any more; I felt the pattern. My hand had become supple and obedient.

It is perhaps no wonder that so many writers stick with a form over a long period. The beginning sweaty, bleeding time has its excitements—a frisson of danger. But the creative full-body experience only comes later, when the hand has become the servant.

Here are a few books by poets who stayed with a form, kept at it until their shoulders rose to the task, until their fingers knew the patterns:

Dream Songs, John Berryman

Kyrie, Ellen Bryant Voigt

All Night Lingo Tango, Barbara Hamby

American Sonnets, Gerald Stern

Please, add to the list in the comment section below.

Author’s Bio.: Athena Kildegaard writes poetry mostly, but she has also written short stories, scripts for television, columns, and nonfiction. Her books of poetry are Rare Momentum (2006), Bodies of Light (2011), both from Red Dragonfly Press, and Cloves & Honey (2012) from Nodin Press. Her poems appear widely in literary journals and anthologies. She has received grants from the Lake Region Arts Council and the Minnesota State Arts Board and the LRAC/McKnight Fellowship. She is a lecturer at the University of Minnesota, Morris.  Check out her blog/website at http://athenakildegaard.com/.

Packing for a Pilgrimage

In the first prompted exercise in a recent writing workshop we were asked to jot down ten things we would take upon a pilgrimage. And then we were instructed to cross out three. Not so simple, as it turned out. The first three I eliminated were the first three I had written, and I reluctantly gave up my comfy down pillow, my sensible shoes, and my collection of New York Times crossword puzzles to keep me occupied during the “down times.”

The next three rejects included (gulp!) my camera, and as I worked through the last of the list I surprised myself by surrendering my notebook and pen for the blessed security of a talisman. Or, more accurately – talis-men.

Let me explain. I once experienced a year that included three car accidents in succession. I hit two deer with one blow as they leapt into my path, ran over a fleeing coyote as he dashed across the road, and sent a pedestrian flying. The last incident was the most traumatic, of course, and while she was also responsible for entering my line of direction, and thankfully and amazingly only suffered cuts and bruises, the whole business of setting out on the paltriest of journeys, never mind searching for The Grail, became daunting after that.

And so, as I made up my pilgrimage packing list for the workshop and momentarily struggled over the last entry, I threw in with a certain sense of silliness, my old remedy and creative technique for calming my driving and journey fears those years ago. And just as the first entry became the first to go, the last was left, necessary and pre-eminent.

At the workshop, after all the unpacking and discarding, the reluctant letting-go of this and that and the panic of leaving my notebook behind, I called upon the ultimate necessity – my Driving Angels. I had named them Zepheriel and Mercuriel and decided they were “Angels in Training,” novices that could be sent to protect a newly Nervous Nelly like me.

I imagined them perched upon the hood of the car, ever excited, letting the sea wind blow through their hair, straining to look around the bend in the road. They would laugh with joy as they hung onto their newly earned halos. The more intense the weather, the better they liked it. The crazier the freeway traffic, the more thrilling the adventure.

And we had many. There was the magic day dolphins arched along the shore, seeming to race the car until they abruptly turned west and vanished from sight. There was a foggy night when a small dog appeared in the headlights, trotting rapidly ahead before dashing into the dark of a turnout, and we pulled over and called and whistled and pleaded until the frightened fellow came running and leapt into the back seat. There was the motorcyclist down by the side of the road, and we raced to the nearest café to call 911.

When I fly, I marvel at how flight supervisors on the landing strip must gape in amazement, can hardly believe their eyes, at the awesome figures, each sitting astride a wing of the plane. And passengers waiting to board, looking through terminal windows, gasp at winged creatures flying a large golden ball, coming in for a landing.

A real, in-the-flesh pilgrimage might be enlightening or scary, and most likely both. By its very nature a journey is meant to challenge and push beyond our comfort zones with a promise of something greater at the end. But I suspect the real enlightenment always occurs in the treading of the path.

I think I better understand the writing exercise now and the importance of recognizing what is most important for a pilgrimage. My angels have served me well over the years, calmed my fears, encouraged me to travel, and most importantly, fueled my imagination.

Credit Note: Inspired by Karen Hering’s writing workshop, May 18, 2014, Underwood Unitarian Church – “Pilgrimage into Creativity: Seeing with Pilgrim Eyes.”

Diane Johnson’s first dream was to grow up and become a writer. After seven decades in coastal California, she has returned to her prairie-Norwegian roots in Minnesota with her husband, allowing time to reflect upon and write about change and transformation, along with her passions – gardening, wildlife and the environment. She belongs to the Fergus Falls Writers Group and writes the blog: http://snowbirdredux.com/. She has been published in A & U, America’s AIDS Magazine, Northwoods Woman, and the Fargo Forum.

 

Writing From Your Roots

Last summer, while participating in a writers’ retreat, I was introduced to the writing of Junot Diaz, a native of the Dominican Republic, who is as well known in today’s American literary circles as another Dominican, Sammy Sousa, is to American League baseball fans. Diaz’s fresh, insightful, often startling, use of the English language has earned him a 2008 Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, and other prestigious awards.

His most recent book, This Is How You Lose Her, introduced me to the ribald street language of his American/Dominican subculture. It is a bastardized English that emerges from the raw human emotions of resisting, as well as adapting to a dominant culture, of trying to figure out what is real with intimacy, sex and love, and of searching for personal balance in a flurry of social change.

With a master fiction writer’s touch he introduced me to his marginalized life, between Santo Domingo and New Jersey, allowing me to experience the stunning brilliance, the raw brutality and the loving tenderness of the characters he creates. His emotional honesty and artful use of idiomatic language are a clinic in creative writing.

Our Upper Midwest Region has many sub-cultures needing “insider” literary voices to bring them to our attention much like Junot Diaz has done with his Dominican heritage. He happens to be an “insider” with considerable literary talent.

We are a region which is becoming increasingly diverse as the changing economics of agriculture and high-tech industries emerge. We need poets and memoir, fiction, and script writers to depict what it is like: to grow old in a small town, to be an immigrant, a prisoner, a returning soldier, a displaced migrant worker, to live on a reservation, to lose the farm, be a long-haul trucker, to be unemployed, an oil field worker. . . the list goes on and on. Most of us are “insiders” of one subculture or another who can chronicle and express the personal, familial, and social changes we experience. This is best done by “insiders” who practice the craft of creative writing.

I have found by participating in writer’s workshops, classes, and reading how-to-books I develop and sharpen my craft as a writer. By studying with accomplished Upper Midwest authors, I have expanded and deepened my understanding of my own roots and in the process have uncovered ways I can contribute as an “insider.” Finally, by reading new, contemporary voices like Junot Diaz I am challenged to experiment, try new ways, and to think and write in a fresh voice.

Lake Region Writers Network’s mission is: “to cultivate and celebrate creative writers by building a supportive community.” We invite you to join us for our Sixth Annual Writers Conference on Saturday, October 4th on the beautiful fall campus of M – State, Fergus Falls. Our theme is: “Writing from Your Roots.”

Noted Minnesota poet and author, Heid Erdrich, will give the keynote and talk about writing from the center of Turtle Island, North America. Sound intriguing? Then join Heid and six accomplished Minnesota writer/teaching artists in workshops where you will explore and experiment with “Writing from Your Roots.”

For more information and to register online, got to this webpage: http://lakeregionwriters.net/writers-conference/.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Writer I Am

by Ann Schwalboski
With a wink and a helping hand from Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham

I am Ann

I am Ann
A Writer I am

That Ann-I-am
That Ann-I-am!
I’m a plodder
a puker
a ponderer
on paper

That’s the Writer I am.

Do you like
outlines and plans
Ann-I-am?

I do not like them
I do not like
outlines and plans.

Would you like them
here or there?

I would not like them
here or there.
I would not like them
anywhere.
I do not like
outlines and plans.
I do not like them
That’s not the writer I am.

Would you like some dialogue, setting, and plot?
Yes, I would like some dialogue, setting, plot!
That’s how I like to write
That-Ann-I-am
That-Ann-I-am

I dream dialogue
Layer in setting
Weave in plot

Would you write inside a box?
Would you write bound by locks?

No, I would not write inside a box
No, I would not write bound by locks
I do not like them
I do not!

Isn’t it perfection you seek?

Perfection?
There is no such thing!
Chasing it creates blocks
That’s not the writer I am.

I am Ann
Yes I am
A Writer I am

And so are you
Yes-you-are

Do not write inside a box
Do not write bound with locks
Do not create those blocks

Just Write

You are a Writer
Yes-you-are
A Writer-You-Are!

 Author’s Bio.: Ann Schwalboski teaches college composition and children’s literature courses online for M|State —Fergus Falls, as well as speech for Herzing University. She hopes that everyone will remember that the goal of writing is not perfection; it’s the process!

 

The Pull of a Photo

Need an idea to start writing? Here’s one that works for me when I’m feeling stuck.

It starts with a photo album. Perhaps you’ve experienced the pull of an album of old photos. Opening one can sweep me away like a mountain stream. Whether the photos are of myself or of previous generations of my family, it doesn’t matter. Either way, a photo can draw you deep into your own memories like a sinker to pull your fishing line down to where the fish are.

Give me a photo album and I’m likely to be submerged in my own thoughts for an hour or more. Time dissolves. I think that’s a sign of some important thinking going on. So take advantage of it.

Plunge into one photo, one that attracts your attention, for one reason or another.

First, describe what is in the photo: where you are in it, how old you are in it, what you are doing, what the weather’s like. If there are other people in the photo, describe their gestures, posture, clothing choices, and perhaps you can detect their thoughts or feelings at that moment as well. In addition to your sense of sight, try to describe the sounds, smells, textures, and perhaps tastes that the photo encapsulates. Notice I’m asking you to describe the photo using present-tense verbs, as if the photo is happening right now. This enlivens your writing.

After you’ve described the place and the people, think about what is not visible in the photo. What I mean is, try to answer the following questions:

  • Who is behind the camera?
  • Why is the person behind the camera taking this particular shot?
  • What were you thinking about when it was taken?
  • How did your life, the life of others in the photo, or your relationship to the place change after the photo was taken?

When you explore the answers to these questions, sometimes the photo takes on more importance than you previously realized. Perhaps it becomes a milestone along your life’s trek, or perhaps it symbolizes a “calm before the storm” (or a “storm before the calm”) in our emotional ties to others.

If we stop and consider the number of photos, either in paper or electronic form, that we tend to collect over the years, the amount of writing that is waiting for us is staggering. If each photo has the potential to become a poem, a vignette for a memoir, or the basis for a short story, think about how much writing those photos could generate. Rather than waiting for the lightning of inspiration to strike you, just look into the dynamo of a photo album!

Author’s Bio.: Yahya Frederickson is the author of three chapbooks:  Returning to Water (2006) and Trilogy (1986), both published by Dacotah Territory Press; and Month of Honey, Month of Missilles (2009), published by Tigertail Press. His poems have appeared in numerous national journals. A former Peace Corps Volunteer and Fullbright Visiting Scholar, Yahya is currently a professor of English at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

Can Anyone Really Teach Writing?

One Saturday morning, I noticed a package on our front porch. Puzzled I opened it and was pleasantly surprised to see that a playwright friend of mine sent me Wonderbook; The Illustrated Guide Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff Vanderweer. An attached card said, “Go get writing!”

I stopped cleaning house and curled up with this new book instantly. Never mind those other books that were stacked up, waiting to be read for years. This one looked so beautiful on the outside that it demanded to be read immediately.

I admit that I detest reading books about writing. I’d rather do housework or watch stupid television before reading a technique book. When writer friends talk enthusiastically about How To books, which one they consider the Writing Bible, or which author is the authority, I have nothing to add. So it is unusual that I would open Wonderbook at all.

The frame of the book resembles a college textbook, with basic chapters covering point of view, voice and how to start a story. Authors and college professors contributed essays on various subjects related to the craft. The illustrations were entertaining and unique. If you have to read a How To Book, this one has a lot of “eye candy” plus great basic information about writing.

One essay by Kim Stanley Robinson stated that the technique of “show, don’t tell” was a “zombie idea killed forty years ago…by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.” What a blow.Less than twenty-five years ago when I attended The National Writer’s Project in El Paso, Texas, “Show, Don’t Tell” was the hallmark of good writing. This meant I was obsolete in writing technique at the very moment trainers sent me out to teach young writers. Yet, this discouraging thought verified what good writers know: rules in writing are thrown out the minute someone does the opposite better. It also validated my feelings about most How To books: just because it can be packaged and sold, doesn’t mean anyone can completely capture the skill of writing.

All this made me wonder, can anyone really teach good writing? It is, after all, a craft, an art, a skill. Our colleges usually insist freshman take a year of composition, and high school English teachers still require the research paper. These institutions recognize the need to master technical writing.

But creative writing is so hard to teach that usually it’s not in the budget of a small town high school. In college, you might find one or two classes on it. Compare that to theater or art, where most college campuses have whole buildings dedicated to those disciplines.

Though defeated by the Don’t Bother Showing moment, I found two liberating ideas in a different composition by professor and writer Mathew Cheney. First, he wrote, “One of the most important expectations to give up as quickly as possible is the expectation of being original.” Shakespeare’s work wasn’t remotely new, so if the old bard could steal ideas, I guess it is all right for me. However I’ve longed to hear critics refer to my stories as “fresh” or “unique.” If I can’t produce fresh work, why bother writing? Cheney called originality a burden, and wondered if anyone would ever write anything with that kind of burden. Fear of not being original has been a burden for me, and it’s time to let it go.

A second helpful point he made was that expectations are “the cousin of ambition,” and that all of us have the ambition to be the best. He stressed in his essay that harboring the ambition to be the best leads to defeat immediately. I can truly relate to this. I always felt that my playwright friend is a much better writer than I. However, the truth is, we are different writers with unique styles and we write in different genres. The idea that I don’t have to be as good as anyone else as long as I do the best I can, is quite liberating.

The book is also thorough in scope. For example, the chapter covering Point of View, actually explains Second Person, something I had not heard about in ages. Second Person is used so infrequently, and usually badly, that most writers don’t ever attempt that perspective. In fact, few high school English teachers mention it to their students at all. It was good to be reminded that Second Person exists, and it was wonderful to have solid, successful examples.

I suspect Wonderbook will someday be a college textbook. It’s a good one and deserves that kind of status. And while I may not spend hours delving into other “writing Bibles,” this one gave me some peace of mind and a few reminders. Besides, looking at the artwork was fun. To my playwright friend: I’m now properly inspired to “get writing.”

Author’s Bio.:  Beth Rose is a former high school literature and composition teacher, who lives and writes in Henning, MN.

What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?

A well-meaning friend of my mother asked me the question many years ago, and I had to think about it. In those days, if you were a boy, the common accepted answer would have been fireman or policeman. More often than not, little girls, being put on the spot, responded with social correctness by choosing nurse, teacher, mommy, or if they were dreaming big, ballerina. When I was a little older, I might have secretly confided that I would like International Film Star or World Famous Explorer added to my resume. But this was a time when I had only seen the movie, Dumbo, and I hadn’t yet read “I Married Adventure” by Osa Johnson (and wanted to be her).

I never coddled my dollies, drilled them on their numbers, or pretended to burp them. But I did regularly prop them around in a semi-circle, Melsina and Marcella the large baby dolls in the choice rocker in the middle. Teddy and Jocko, the Australian koala bear, snuggled at their feet. Nurse Jane had to be propped on the side of the chair because her legs didn’t bend. Leilani in her green grass skirt and Elizabeth, the very proper English girl, sat together because they were unlikely but bosom chums. Beloved Belindy completed the grouping with the Raggedys, of course, sprawled in front.

When they were quietly assembled, I sat on a small stool and opened a book. I hadn’t learned to read yet, so I turned the wondrous pages and told the stories of what I saw –tales of being bundled in bed with a stuffy nose, kept company by miniature creatures who trounced among the covers and burrowed about the pillows; the adventures of a golden haired maiden who rode in a chariot pulled by sweet tabby cats, up and over the rainbow; a winter world of icicles ruled over by a beautiful but scary queen.

Eventually I learned to read and write and proudly shared my stories, written pain-stakingly in pencil on lined notepaper, and as the years passed I filled up many notebooks and read my tales to others beyond my little group.

All these years later, in retirement and after many different jobs and wearing a multitude of hats, I find myself in our upstairs office/all-purpose room, where whatever doesn’t fit in another part of the house is deposited. To my left sits Melsina and Marcella in a child’s rocking chair, Nurse Jane and Leilani and Elizabeth are propped about, Teddy and Jocko are on the bookshelf and the Raggedys are nearby.

I sit in the middle, typing away on my computer keyboard, telling tales. I know just what I want to be when I grow up.

Author’s Bio.: After retirement and a lifetime of living in California, Diane Johnson moved with her husband three years ago to her ancestral roots in Minnesota in order to be near family, to retreat from the hustle of the west coast, and to provide time and the environment to reflect and write. She is a member of the board of the Lake Region Writers Network, the Fergus Falls Writers Group, and she writes the blog: snowbirdredux.com.