friday roundup: squalor, sad poems, and blackberries

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This  may or may not have been the scene at my writing desk for most of yesterday.

Dear Reader, it’s Friday again. I’m dashing this off early because later this morning I’m going to see the Bonnards at the Legion of Honor. (!!!!!!!!!) Bonnard is one of my favorite painters of all time. I’ve lost track of whole days paging through books of his paintings, and now I get to go see Real Live Bonnards With My Own Eyes. I can hardly believe it. Isn’t this life amazing?

But first, the roundup:

squalor  n. a state of being extremely dirty and unpleasant, especially as a result of poverty or neglect; from Latin squalere, “be dirty.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about squalor this week. This is because a meme has been circulating on Facebook with a quote from J.K. Rowling on how she was able to be a mother and write a book. The quote, which I believe comes from this interview, is this:

“(P)eople very often say to me, “How did you do it? How did you raise a baby and write a book?” and the answer is, I didn’t do housework for four years! I’m not Superwoman, and living in squalor that was the answer.”

At first I felt a little rush of jubliation: Oh, it’s okay if I neglect all the housework and just write for four years, because this is how you get a book written! But almost immediately, I thought, Ick, I don’t want to live in squalor. Maybe I won’t be able to write a book. I’m by no means a neat-freak, but at the Wee, Small House we all work together to keep the place relatively clean and tidy. Because I want my home to be peaceful and welcoming and relatively clean and tidy. I feel like June Cleaver when I say that, but it’s true. I don’t do well in squalor or anything near it; it distracts me and makes me miserable.

Then my larger-minded self reminded me of a few things:

  1. Memes are not the answer. They are often clever, funny, wise, and/or insightful, but they are not the answer.
  2. I have already written a book, although I have not yet found a publisher for it, and I did it without living in squalor.
  3. Yes, if you want to write a book you’ll have to make tradeoffs.
  4. Every writer gets to decide what her own tradeoffs are. J.K. Rowling was willing to live in squalor; that’s what worked for her. My tradeoffs are usually made in the economies of sleep, time with friends, and the nature of the meals we eat (hello, grilled cheese and tomato soup, once again).
  5. And then, yes, sometimes the writing gets short shrift because of life, life, sewing ribbons and elastics on your daughter’s pointe shoes, and life. To quote Sarah Ruhl: “Life, by definition, is not an intrusion.”

So, friendly reminder: You can write a book. You will have to make tradeoffs. You get to decide what the tradeoffs are. You will find a way to do it that works for you. You don’t have to live in squalor (although you may choose to). Life is not an intrusion. Amen.

sad poems  I am often drawn to the darker pockets of life in my writing, because those are the pockets of life I’m trying to understand. I understand the joys, but I need to probe the sadnesses for their meaning. Sometimes I worry that if people knew me only through my poems, they’d think I was sad, conflicted, and skeptical to the hilt. That’s why I was so happy to come across a short piece by Kelli Russell Agodon this week on the topic of sad poems. She writes about why she’s drawn to dark subjects in her poems, and shares a poem by Linda Pastan that can be everyone’s answer for why we write sad poems. The essay is here; go read it.

blackberries  I’ve been spending a lot of time with one poem this week as I attempt, so far unsuccessfully, to tame my essay on Larry Levis and the elegy. I’ve been spending a lot of time with one line of the poem in particular: A word is elegy to what it signifies.

If you know this line, you’ll know it’s from Robert Hass‘ “Meditation at Lagunitas,” one of his best-known poems. I’ve read a couple different things (the actual sources are lost in the fogs of memory) over the years that kind of criticize this poem as too romantic, or too simplistic, or whatever. I don’t know. I remember coming across it years ago, before I knew who Robert Hass was and before I knew much contemporary poetry, and really loving it. And for me it’s a poem that I learn something new from each time I spend time with it. I still love it, still learn from it. Here it is for you to enjoy.

I wish you the best of tradeoffs and blackberries in triplicate. Thanks for reading!

 

8 thoughts on “friday roundup: squalor, sad poems, and blackberries

  1. “Life is not an intrusion. Amen.” This is a hard but welcome truth, and reading how other writers have achieved their ends is rarely helpful. In my first year of MFA residency, one of the graduating writers talked about spending two weeks at a retreat, refusing to communicate with her family. I thought, “If that’s what it takes to be a writer, I might be something else.”

  2. That’s a great essay on Linda Pastan’s poem. I hadn’t seen it. Thank you.

    And yes, meme’s are no way to lead a life. They are just exhausting (and often mis-attributed or just plain made up). 🙂

  3. JD Salinger’s “For Esmé–with Love and Squalor” offers us another view of squalor, empty of judgment, even meaning–or perhaps full of all the best meaning. Thank you for reminding of this story. It is the best; the sister and brother blow me over every time. Love, Tom

    • Tom, you’ve been enlarging my mind since I first met you. Do you know… I never even imagined a squalor empty of judgment? But now I can. Thank you. Now off to read the Salinger…

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