On Reading and Writing
by Diana Pinckney
Writing that reaches the reader takes him or her on a journey. This is writing that builds its own world, be it a novel or a poem. As a reader and as a writer I like to fall into that world and stay in it until long after I think I've finished the piece. And like Alice dropped into Wonderland, I don't need to understand every single thing about this place, just enough to keep me there and looking for more. Writers strive to create these worlds, and as both a reader and writer, I enjoy living in them. We need to listen and to observe the natural and the manmade world, even if that is sometimes difficult. Lucille Clifton has said that a poet is someone who doesn't look away.
We are constantly learning from each other, from the artist in all of us. "Acting on the page", "painting with words" are some of the ways writing is described. I was a reader long before I began to be serious about my writing. The more I read and write, the more similarities I see throughout the various genres. Well written prose and poetry both advance the action (however large or small), make the best choice of words with the deadwood hacked away, use the particular details that bring the writing to life, and both contain the emotion that drives the piece to an inevitable conclusion that has been hinted at but not given away.
We all have our ways of loving the world and one of mine is through language. I love language for the stories it tells me and for its own sake, the way we respond to the sounds of words and wordplay. My granddaughter, less than a year old, plays with making word-sounds throughout the day, laughing out loud at the various noises bubbling from her mouth. The music and rhythm of a piece of writing draws us in before anything else, I think. My parents read aloud to each other and to me, so the human voice is a wonderful instrument humming in my ears. I like the strange sounds of foreign languages being spoken with their own particular rhythms and incantations. The translation comes later. I do hope to know the meaning, if possible, and I look for story everywhere, even in the short lyric.
In my case, at least so far, it is poetry that holds me in its hot hands. I say hot because I want the blood to be stirred as I read and, if I'm lucky and work hard, as I write. But I'm not happy with confusion. Chaos lurks around too many corners of my life for me to cherish it in what I read and write. Miroslav Holub has written about poetry being a way to stop the "white noise" that assaults our daily lives and Stanley Kunitz dreamed of an art so transparent, he said, that he can see the world through it. This is not to say that I don't appreciate and need mystery. Give me enough of the story to let my imagination take off on what is implied, not told. As in Anne Sexton's advice to tell almost everything and Emily Dickinson's to "tell it slant".
I try to write down things that I read and hear, whether they are the words of well-known poets, a line from a conversation among friends, or something my mother said, whispering back through the years. Oh, yes, memory -- a magic word and remember -- a beautiful word. I think of Shakespeare's Ophelia speaking to Hamlet, "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray you, love, remember". I'm pulled back into the past again and again in my writing. At a conference someone read the following quote, "Memory, you lying opera, you are singing to me now." Perhaps memory is one of the main things that trigger the imagination. I enjoy reading memoirs -- the details -- other lives in other places, other times, the old myths showing up in new clothes. There is a saying that every time someone dies, a whole library burns down. Jack Gilbert writes that what he misses most about his dead wife is the commonplace he can no longer remember.
If at times, our personal biographies elude us, one way to start a new piece is to tell an ancient story we know by heart, but tell it in a different way, changing it somehow. And most important, we may not know where the writing is taking us, but we must care about this particular journey and care about the words we use to get there. In revision there comes a time when we need to ask ourselves, what's at stake here. What is this really about? It's as simple and as complicated as that. The answers to questions about a particular poem can be found in the poem itself if you look hard enough. And revision takes time and patience. After awhile it seems almost all things dovetail in a work and I can only come to that point after some time has passed. The work and the wait are worth it when that happens.
Alan Shapiro says our songs of lament are songs of praise because we lament what we hold most dear. Just as story feeds my hunger for communication and for understanding myself and others, poetry with its contradictions and ambiguities nourishes my need for the mysteries of this earth. Robert Frost talked of the unsaid part being the best part of a poem. This then is the tightrope writers walk; to tell and not tell, using words to produce silence, distance to produce immediacy, searching for answers and finding questions, finding a kind of truth by telling lies, turning to the world as we turn from it to take up pen and paper, giving voice and shape to the ragged edges of our dreams and memories, believing in them enough to put them out there, to let them go and take them in as they make their limping returns. Then to start again. And again, for what we all want is to continue.
First published in Independence Boulevard.