Des Fruites de Mer – A Poem

Des fruits de mer

 
I knelt beside a tide pool, cold,
the brackish water swirling black,
and studied there a fragile skirt,
a disembodied jelly head.
And I in giving nothing much
toward purchase price of this event,
paid my respects to that great sea,
its living things, as well as dead.

Then at once the abandoned shell
of a red abalone snail
blushed brightly in the dragging surf
and took me near the water’s edge.
This I gathered to carry home.
And there with treasures standing by,
one in the hand, one in the mind,
I thought upon the bounty that
the sea had given me that day –
a shell, the surf, a spray of mist,
salt on my tongue, the sting, the taste.

But best of all, with its great eye,
did judge my worth, no more, no less
than any other passerby,
and blessed with memory instead,
a tattered hood – a jelly, dead.

*Poem originally published in the Summer 2014 California Writers Club Literary Review

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Discovered Alter – A poem

Discovered Altar

I watched as several sparrows gathered on the window ledge, today
Each rapping lightly at the pane, pick-plucking at the screen.
A gathering of birds, brown, their beaks agape, gasping for air.
They appeared to be looking for a way through the glass,
Their heads tilted up, gazing at something on the other side.
On the inside ledge there was an arrangement of dried flowers.
A dozen dark red roses stood bound by a gray and fraying cord, the old leaves
Gold but not shimmering, distinguished in their brittle, textured death.
A small bowl, handmade and glazed, lazed at the foot of the bound corner roses
Cradling crumbled buds of maroon with accents of yellow-gold, like incense,
Like potpourri with no scent.
And in a jar, filled nearly to the curve of the neck and capped in black,
Bits and pieces of how many more roses I could not guess.
These, it appeared, were what the birds were after, fluttering up the glass,
Hopping along the outer ledge, knocking to be let in.
I counted five birds at once, alive and kicking at my window,
And then suddenly they were gone, though your arrangement stayed stock still,
Like the image of your smile, impressed in my memory.
Like the echo of something I hadn’t quite heard.

© T. James Moore, 2013
May not be reproduced without permission

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Ekphrasis: A Thing Among Things I’ve Gotten Myself Into

Ekphrasis – noun. A literary description of, or comment on, a work of art.

Yeah, I’d never heard of it either, not until I became involved with the Writers of the Mendocino Coast. Last year the Writers hosted a collaborative art show whereby local artists painted pictures and local writers were chosen to write a poem or short story about the paintings. By way of application I submitted work for this year’s production and two days ago I was notified that I have been chosen as one of eighteen writers to participate in the show.

The way this works, as far as I understand it, is that at the July meeting we will gather, writers and artists together, to receive a completed painting from one artist to one writer, wrapped in paper, which the writer will then steal back to their creative abodes where the painting will be unmasked and the writer will compose their ekphrasis. Ekphrasis is a Greek word combining ek “out” with phrasis “to speak,” and so the word literally means to speak out about a piece of visual art. The definition is further understood to mean that which through written word enhances the visual work on a new and profound level. This is to say that the ekphrasis does more than describe the painting. Rather it illumines the visual work in some way that is emotionally, spiritually, and/or aesthetically enlightening.

I am excited about this opportunity. I was accepted on the merit of a poem I wrote recently about an experience I had by the sea. The poem follows:

Des fruits de mer

I knelt beside a tide pool, cold,
the brackish water swirling black,
and studied there a fragile skirt,
a disembodied jelly head.
And I in giving nothing much
toward purchase price of this event,
paid my respects to that great sea,
its living things, as well as dead.

Then at once the abandoned shell
of a red abalone snail
blushed brightly in the dragging surf
and took me near the water’s edge.
This I gathered to carry home.
And there with treasures standing by,
one in the hand, one in the mind,
I thought upon the bounty that
the sea had given me that day –
a shell, the surf, a spray of mist,
salt on my tongue, the sting, the taste.

But best of all, with its great eye,
did judge my worth, no more, no less
than any other passerby,
and blessed with memory instead,
a tattered hood – a jelly, dead.

I don’t really know what the selection process is for the project, but I chose to submit “Des Fruits de Mer” because I thought it was a good example of what art often does: it replicates life. This is what we mean by mimesis, and the irony of art struck me in considering the possibilities of the ekphrasis because of the following. Paintings often depict nature in an attempt to capture something wonderful about the world. By copying the organic world in an image the painter is doing what Stendhal said is the work of the novel: it holds up the mirror to society and records what is there. The painting is not the world, nor is the writing the world, but both are a mimesis of the world. Ekphrasis then is the mimesis of mimesis – a synthetic elevation of a synthetic representation. This epiphany (for me, not necessarily for you) is exciting! What does it say about the creative practice? I think for the student of art, of writing, and/or of life, ekphrasis is an opportunity to dig deep into the art of representation and explore what is both in the world and in the interpretation of the world at the same time. Likewise it is an opportunity to make and understand connections between concrete and abstract impressions, at times dispelling the illusion of mortal life and at others confirming it. Try it for yourself. Choose a random painting, preferably something you are not familiar with, and compose a poem, short story, or an essay about the work that brings the painting to a higher level of aesthetic value. In the process I daresay you will learn more about the creative process and connection with the world than in almost any one lecture or, even, one incredibly interesting blog post!

I will update you all in the coming weeks on the ekphrasis project. I am also waiting for good news on a recent story submission. As for July, and online teaching, expect to see some posts about the exercises we’re doing in class. I anticipate a lot of new discoveries in July, things stimulating and wonderful about the craft of writing. I’ve already discovered a bunch of new stories I can’t wait to share. Stories by Annie Proulx, David Foster Wallace, Louise Erdrich. So many things to learn – it’s good to be a writer, don’t you agree?

Diversify Your Writing!

This is a call for writers everywhere.  Break away from your genre and write it all.

I imagine the idea of branching into an unfamiliar genre is intimidating, daunting, or perhaps completely uninspiring.  After all it takes so much time and effort to write what you know the best – why would you spend a single moment on anything else?  I’ll tell you why.

Poetry:

What are the fundamental characteristics of verse?  It has clear pacing, a musical quality, sometimes it rhymes or alliterates, and a lot of people are terrified of it in college.  Even this much knowledge hints at valuable lessons for the prose writer.  By first studying , and then attempting to write poetry, the prose writer is opened to concepts that the novice is at best subconsciously aware of, namely pacing and the specifics of vocabulary.  In prose it’s much easier, and therefor far too common, to use tired language.  This is due in part to the novice writer’s idea that prose is easy, and that its direct style does not require as much attention as some of the other writing forms.  Poetry, meanwhile, lives and dies by its rhythms and the specificity of the language.  By practicing this highly ornate form the prose writer is awakened to possibilities in story writing that are often dismissed as white noise in the back of our minds.  But pace, rhythm, even the more ornamental qualities of poetry work very well, and indeed are required, in prose.  Poetry raises our awareness of these elements and can ultimately lead to better prose writing.

Drama:

Drama and fiction (short stories and novels) have a lot in common.  They both portray fictional or semi-fictional characters in a conflict-driven situation.  For the dramatist the keys are setting, stage direction and dialogue.  Dialogue is what carries the story in drama, and that story is brought to life as the actors move throughout the stage setting, thereby communicating vital information to the audience.  In thinking about these details in play writing, the prose writer is brought more acutely to an awareness of their importance.  Though different in their treatments, the tools of drama are just as prevalent in prose.  By working through the process of writing (and perhaps performing) a play, the prose writer learns to pay more attention in their fiction writing to the details that make the story come alive.  The imperative that a play accomplish its task successfully in front of a live audience should be no more urgent for the playwright than it is for the fiction writer whose audience is silent, though no less deserving of a responsible performance.  The playwright suffers the risk of being booed or seeing her audience abandon the theater if her work is sub-par.  For the fiction writer there is only rejection and silence, and often no understanding of why.  Writing a stage-play, therefore, is one way of becoming more attuned to what is necessary in all writing – proper detail.

Non-fiction:

Non-fiction, whether journalistic or creative, requires of its scribes that they do thorough and proper research.  Even a simple opinion piece is best served if the author knows all of his facts before carrying on with his diatribe.  A single misquote of a fact or citation diminishes the writer’s credibility .  For the fiction writer the message is clear.  Even the most obscure piece often needs a little research into something – the foundations of mythology, or the ancient traditions of religion, the laws of physics, the laws of man.  In order for the story to be believable it must have not only the pacing and lyricism of poetry and the definitive descriptions and dialogue of drama, but it must be as factually accurate as required in order that the writer maintain credibility in telling his story.

And the non-fiction writer benefits as well from practicing the creative angles of fiction.  Fiction pays attention to deeper meanings, makes connections to seemingly disparate concepts, and makes prose more lively so long as the writer is diligent in avoiding cliches and amateur trickery.  All but the most practical non-fiction can be just as entertaining as fiction if the writer understands how to tell a story.

The one caveat for the diversified writer is this – each discipline requires its own investment.  The differences of each are substantial and require separate study of form and function before they can be harvested.  The good news is that each form can be studied fairly quickly if writing basics are well understood.  On the other hand it takes a long time to master writing in any one form.  I believe, however, that consistent, earnest writing in a variety of forms develops an overall mastery of the craft, and that writers willing to delve into other types of writing not only enhance their growth but attain aptitude in new forms at a faster pace, and to the great success of all of their efforts.

So the challenge is laid out: move beyond writing fiction to poetry, drama, non-fiction.  Master the language and the art of writing so that no door is closed to you.  There is everything to gain and nothing (but a little time invested) to lose.  In writing across genres the genuine student of writing becomes doubly, even triply informed, reinforced in those basic elements that make up the writing practice while expanding into the unique characteristics of various writing types.

Fiction Is the Devil (One more reason you feel like a failure but are not)

I once had an acquaintance who was a very good poet.  Supposedly whenever he needed a little money he would write up a few poems, publish them, and get paid.  Just like that.  Good morning, how ya doing, and thanks for the cash.

I read his stuff and I have to tell you, it was pretty good.  I was not surprised at all that he had this ability to write impacting, emotionally strong poems that publishers were happy to buy.  One day I enthusiastically said to him, “Hey, your work is really good.  You should write fiction, too.”  His reply?  “No way!  Fiction is way too hard . . .”

Now, let’s get one thing clear.  No form of writing is easy.  Every type of writing requires one to engage the mind, exercise the faculties, stretch the vocabulary to make an end product that readers can appreciate.  Poetry lives and dies by image, specificity, and rhythm.  Creative non-fiction relies on the detail of poetry and the pace of narrative to enhance the factual details as they (allegedly) happened.  We are dealing with language after all, and language is slippery, evasive, challenging.  No, it’s not at all that other writing is easy, it’s that fiction is just so especially difficult.

What I posit here is an arguable position.  Narrative is, in many ways, narrative.  One thing happens and then another.  Cause and effect.  Characters behave accordingly by making choices and acting those choices out.  Challenges rise up, tension builds, all the basics of an engaging story are there and each form has its own demands.

Yet, writing fiction is like learning a foreign language.  You’ve got a whole history of the language at your disposal – words you’ve never heard of with meanings for things you perhaps didn’t even know were defined.  You’ve got slang, idiom, sentence structure, an accent.  Each component means something.  In short fiction each component means everything.  Compare this to an essay in which you may well be telling a story, but it’s your story, as you experienced (or researched) it, and even if you have the skill to add the details that make it come alive and become an enriched and engaging piece of writing, the details, some of them, were given to you without your having to invent them.  The same cannot be said of the poet, because the poet is capturing something entirely different.  But the poetic mind is alive with the music of emotion.  In poetry there is a moment, with jade vines and lemon mists wafting through sunlight.  There are passing glances with promises of romance, the sponge of a bitten lip, the echoes of a yowling dog interrupting the serenity of a still night.  Fifteen lines of poetry is a sprint into the senses and then it is done.

And then there’s fiction.  The great, smirking Cheshire Cat of composition.  The wisecracking, oddball of everything that written language can be, encompassed in a form that is as narrowly missed as it is narrowly gained.  The details have to be the right details.  The sentiments must be correct.  The dialogue must sound true.  The story must arrive at its natural conclusion or all is lost.

I once read somewhere (and I paraphrase) that “no story is so good that it can’t be ruined in the telling.”  This is the daunting reality fiction writers face.

But whether we accept that fiction is the most difficult form to write in or that it is merely as difficult as any writing is, it is worth remembering that our struggles with writing stories in no way makes us a failure.  It is true, I suppose, that there are failed writers.  I suppose as well that this definition of failure is subjective, as I imagine that there are published writers who feel their final output was a failure, and there are unpublished writers who simply quit the endeavor without reaching their million words or, because of some other distraction, walked away from the page and never returned.  For me this latter failure is the only failure.  Even as I stare at the blank page in search of a story, or the middle of a draft lost at sea, or finally at the complete first draft in desperate need of revising, and I feel all of the bitterness that this work engenders, I know I will not quit.

Nothing is more rewarding than completing a difficult task.  When I’ve had a good writing session I know at the end of it that I have earned my keep.  I have satisfied my job as a writer and as a soul that needs replenishing.  When I do my work I am happy.  I love all types of writing – even grant writing.  But fiction, ah, fiction.  This is where I am most challenged, and with that challenge comes the promise of the highest reward.

To defeat the bogeyman of fiction one must only wrestle with it until it is exhausted.

And we have infinite stamina.

What Do We Mean by “Writer”?

“What do you write?”

You know the question.  Someone at a gathering mentions to someone else that you’re a writer and the invariable question comes.  Oh, we love this question, don’t we?  It’s a chance to share, perhaps with a modicum of modesty, that we write fiction or poetry or essays . . . And yet, there’s a guilty feeling inside.  Am I really a writer?  I have sixteen stories that have never seen the light beyond my room.  Fifty two poems.  A drawer full of rejection letters.  The question depresses us.  We feel inadequate and go home later either vowing to write better or maybe thinking we’ll give up on this business about being a writer.  No more questions, no more inadequacy.

But you don’t give up, you just drag yourself to the writer’s whipping post and pluck halfheartedly at the vision of your story.  All because you want to be a writer.

I didn’t use to call myself a writer during the years of real inconsistency.  I would have spurts and fits, and sometimes I would complete a story, particularly when I was in college and could make it part of my curriculum.  But then there would be long summers of suffering the call to go outside against the call to stay in and write.  There were events to attend, obligations to fulfill, gatherings.  And then the question came – what do you write?

Eh, fiction.

Nothing published, nothing to prove I was a writer.  Just my word.

I failed to realize, in those days, that I wrote volumes of quality business documents.  Memos to bosses, reports on conference events, letters to students, and though these weren’t stories and no one was giving me awards, I put a lot of thoughtful energy into those things to the point that when it came time for my colleagues to write memos they would ask for my help, ask me to review their work because I was “the word guy.”  Meanwhile I would write a poem here or there, about anything that inspired me, and these poems would end up in the hands of friends who wanted to keep them, or as gifts, and people took pleasure in reading them.  I never sent a single one out for publication because I was a fiction writer.  Fiction writers don’t write poems and nice, well-crafted memos.  And there were journals, too, at various points.  I kept records of some of my thoughts, stacks of papers with ideas and musings and daydreams.

What do you write?

Eh

All of my confidence as a writer was based on writing in one form.  If I wasn’t blowing through fiction and publishing across the planet then I still was not a writer.  I made the mistake of thinking that to qualify as a writer I had to be making progress on the one thing I wanted most.  I didn’t recognize the truth of what I was told by one of my earliest instructors: “Writers write – one word at a time.”  He did not say “writers write fiction – one word at a time” or “writers write poetry, memoir, essays.”

Writers write.

As I continue to work with others who have a love of writing I hear over and over how they despair about being any good.  Many of these people are fiction writers, and they complain that their stories are boring, uninteresting, that they don’t have what it takes. But writers write.  They do it every day.  They write on scraps of paper or they try to make a boring old memo exquisite.  They draw pictures on their meeting agendas and dream up stories about them.  In quiet moments they put down a few words, grab an inspired moment out of the air and pin it to the paper so they can come back and examine it later.

If you are putting in the effort to write then you are a writer.  We are what we do.  Words are as interesting to us as color, as music, as the smell of our favorite food.  They are a flash of naked skin, a sound we can’t pinpoint until we investigate.  We read them, think about them, and write them down.  We may want to make them into stories or poems or essays that someone else will love, and perhaps we will if we don’t quit.  But as long as we write we are writers.  This is as noble a calling as any because writing is hard, and when we get it right and can share it well with others we connect with our world and our world connects with us.

Many people want to be writers but they don’t write.  Perhaps they don’t read.  They just want, and wish they had the initiative to do what they imagine.  Writers do it, in every form they can, as often as they can.  Writers write.

Writing takes the same dedication as plumbing, law, medicine, teaching, managing.  Anything you can imagine takes as much effort as it takes to be a writer.  You can no more expect to be an expert carpenter the first day on the job than you can expect to publish your first writing a week after you finish it.  You start by carrying materials, rolling hoses, shoveling dirt.  With enough time and effort you move up to hammering nails, setting walls – you get the idea.

So next time someone asks what you write remember that writing is not one-dimensional.  If you write, you are a writer.

What a Million Words Will Get You

I have heard it said, or more likely I have read, that we writers don’t find our voice until we’ve written one million words.

The first five times I read this it didn’t sink in.  I read “million words” and thought ‘it will take me forever to write a million words – I’m just not going to worry about it.’  But you know what I did worry about?  For the last twenty years I have lamented the fact that I did not have a real, independent and bona fide style.  I had no idea where this ‘style’ thing came from, how my favorite writers got it, why I couldn’t find it.  I was like David Banner trying to discover the answer to the tragedy of why I couldn’t make an important difference when things depended on it.  But even then I was no closer to becoming the Hulk.

For writers style is everything.  Style determines our use of language, the originality of our expression, the nature of our themes.  Style is about the choices we make and how we tell our own individual truth.  Without style we are still amateurs at best, and perhaps we are still imitating other writers.  Imitation is fine.  It has its place and time.  Eventually, however, we must arrive at our own style.

I have to admit that style is a concept I have largely ignored outside of fretting over not having it.  I never directly addressed style in teaching writing students about writing.  Perhaps this is a good thing, or at least justifiable in the sense that most writing students (freshmen and sophomores) haven’t written enough to know their style.  This is not to say that young writers can’t or don’t have a unique voice.  Some people are just well attuned to their own nature from an early age and can express themselves with fair originality.  But style, I mean style.  That comes from somewhere else.

For Christmas I was given two books by writer Natalie Goldberg: Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind.  I just finished reading Wild Mind and among the gems of writerly wisdom that she imparted in that book was a return to this notion of a million words.  A writer does not find his or her style until they have written a million words.  She wasn’t even saying it as a fact, but was passingly observing the adage, yet the realization finally bloomed for me that I had not yet accomplished style because I simply had not written enough!

*Haaaaallelujah*

As weird as it might sound I had toe-giggles when I realized that I wasn’t a no-talent loser, I was still just finding myself.  Why hadn’t I gotten the message before?  All of the angst I carried prior to this epiphany was like the lost despair of the ugly duckling.  I wasn’t good at what I was supposed to be – and yet, all I had to do was be what I was supposed to be more.

Oddly enough, though not so oddly considering that this is how I do things in life, as the realization that I needed to write my million words to gain my style finally settled on me, I also realized that I have finally identified my style – and just recently.  This fall I wrote a story that not only manages the characteristics of magical realism which I thoroughly embrace, but also the lyricism of poetry.  This story I wrote, which is in revision right now, was unlike anything I had ever written.  It was relaxed, fluid, ephemeral, mystical.  Many of the things I deeply enjoy in the books, movies and music I experience.  I like the unusual, the weird.  Chuck Palahniuk, David Lynch, Daniel Johnston.  But because I was out of practice (being inexperienced due to a lack of writing enough) my writing had been stiff, distant, cautious.  At last, however, the event met with the training, and I am happy to say that my style is now on the horizon.

I admonish all writers, from this moment on free yourself from worry that you don’t have the talent or that you don’t have an original voice.  Write your million words – and I do mean a million.  Write out some terrible, bland stories, even a whole novel as I did.  Remember last year I finished a 560 page manuscript?  Remember how I edited it down to 330?  It turns out that the exercise was largely to fulfill my million words, and next year I will be rewriting the entire thing with . . . wait for it . . . style!

Have I actually written a million words?  Honestly I don’t know.  A million words is around 3,000 pages.  Yeah, I’d say I’ve written that much in my time.  Probably almost three times that.  But I don’t think all of those words count.  Our million words need to be intentional, focused, unflinching writing in our most creative moments.  A million words of fiction, a million words of memoir, a million words of poetry.  A serious writer can do it in a few short years.  This is how many famous writers established their careers as twenty-somethings.  But regardless of how and when you do it, what you will get for a million words is yourself, and your readers will get you, too, and your stories, and all of the enrichment that literature brings.

Enjoy the process, my friends.  There is nothing like the call to create – take the steps necessary to honor your craft.  Read a million words.  Write a million words.

And then write a million more.

T