Before I leave the magic and creative rhythm of last week behind, I want to talk about discipline. There’s no amount of luck or talent that can replace discipline in an artistic practice. And there’s nothing harder to maintain. Because no one really cares if I write or not. No one knows. I could tell everyone I’ve written a thousand words this morning and they would believe me and their lives would be unchanged whether it’s true or not. It’s not like email, which has a recipient, and the reward of reply. Writing creative work is different, especially when I’m writing early exploratory drafts, just following the line of words to see where they’ll lead, not planning to place them any time soon. When I’m writing like that, I’m trying to stumble on things in my mind and sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t.
I met lots of incredible new people in Provincetown, people I’d known on the page but not in person and other people I had no idea were missing from my lives until they came into it. One of the first people I met was a new sister-of-my-heart, a woman named Rani, who I know you’ll be hearing a lot about. She’s stunning, inside and out, and between the hard hours of grappling with the page, she and I went for long walks in town and on the beach and told our hardest truths and laughed and laughed and laughed. Each day I woke and drank coffee and did some reading and then went to FAWC at around 830, walking the long way, through the cemetery. Class was from 9-12 and then I’d walk back the quick way to the little apartment I’d rented for the week and eat toast and sprouts and some potato chips and write and nap and write again. The evenings varied, sometimes I’d skip out on my plans because the writing had taken hold, sometimes I went back to FAWC to hear the readings. But no one minded if I prioritized writing, everyone understood if someone had to leave and write. That’s the thing I’m trying to bring into my home life (people may mind here, but I have to not care).
In my class were seven women who brought themselves fully each day, then went home and did the homework (we had so much lovely homework) and poured themselves honestly into that as well. And we were led into this excavation by the brilliant, rigorous, unflinching Susanna Sonnenberg*. I didn’t know how much I would come to genuinely love her, but here we are. Susanna took the week and our writing seriously and set the tone at the very first meeting.
She had us rewrite a lot–write one thing, then put away that draft and rewrite it from scratch. Working on a second book which covers a lot of the same ground as my thesis, I’ve been struggling with this exact thing–I keep trying to cut and paste the shitty writing from my thesis and then feeling like the whole thing is garbage. So while I still feel a pull to be lazy and whine to myself I’ve already written this, I’ve learned this week that writing it again is necessary. That usually when I write something again, I find a sentence or an image that I didn’t stumble on in my first draft. Another thing Susanna emphasized was choice–why that particular word, why is it where it is?
Read this poem (aloud)–click the title, somehow I can’t get the formatting right on this post and I don’t have time to keep fussing with it right now. Then your prompt is: I am obsessed with… Then re-read it, underline 10 adjectives or adverbs. Then remove 5 of those. If you have to replace the verb to do the work you were having the modifier do, do it.
That summer, she had a student who was obsessed
with the order of adjectives. A soldier in the South
Vietnamese army, he had been taken prisoner when
Saigon fell. He wanted to know why the order
could not be altered. The sweltering city streets shook
with rockets and helicopters. The city sweltering
streets. On the dusty brown field of the chalkboard,
she wrote: The mothertook warm homemade bread
from the oven. City is essential to streets as homemade
is essential to bread. He copied this down, but
he wanted to know if his brothers were lost before
older, if he worked security at a twenty-story modern
downtown bank or downtown twenty-story modern.
When he first arrived, he did not know enough English
to order a sandwich. He asked her to explain each part
of Lovelybig rectangular old red English Catholic
leather Bible. Evaluation before size. Age before color.
Nationality before religion. Time before length. Adding
and, one could determine if two adjectives were equal.
After Saigon fell, he had survived nine long years
of torture. Nine and long. He knew no other way to say this.
*Number one on our reading list is Her Last Death, order it today.