Ive always had a dog. Always Until we lost Saffie last year i swore I couldn’t do it again. She had been beside me for 15 years. I had two cats Lucifer and Luna who had both been rescued from work. You need to change your job Jeff had said or I’ll have to start […]
Last fall I gathered all the wrinkled peas dropping from the blown nasturtiums and dried them on newspaper shoved to the back of the trestle table. I hoarded the dried seeds in a sandwich bag propped behind the dusty tequila and cassis bottles on the sideboard until spring. I planted them everywhere there was soil and hope of water and shade. Nasturtium flowers are edible, peppery, cheerful fellows. Each year the colors of the blossoms shift, mutate, shades and streaks similar, yet not the same.
I took Mercy to the river to swim this morning. We walked the path down to the old boat landing through foxtail grass and swaying bishop’s lace, the sky turning white as the sun rose higher, cool by the water but rising hot mid-morning through the fields. The dog dives like a land seal. I stood at the bank flinging sticks in the water and saluted a passing drift boat.
Wrestling a rewrite on a long stubborn essay, shying from the squintingness of it all, I received an email from Cagibi accepting a 300-word postcard piece for publication in late August. (Thank you, Sylvie and Christopher. Just when one is ready to surrender, something shifts. ) Read “How to Set the Dining Room Table,” a creative nonfiction work in the latest issue by Elizabeth Jannuzzi. It’s a brilliant narrative device flawlessly executed.
“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
― haruki murakami
When I palm the tennis ball a new dog is confounded. I whisk the ball into a crook of the elbow and challenge the dog to find it. He lolls his tongue and shifts his eyes in a show of uncertainty. An inexperienced dog is baffled by sleight of hand. (Sleight: the use of dexterity or cunning, especially so as to deceive. A useful word.)
Mercy, the one-eyed pirate, grew up sitting through my tricks applauding with a thump from the tip of her tail. She knows them all now. She studied on the sleights. She knows a ball does not simply disappear, it is concealed somewhere nearby. New feints and magic ruses are met with skepticism. She trusts her nose, not her eyes.
Writing slowly, writing by hand. I type a fierce 90 words per minute, but what use is the page? Layers of bubble wrap is all it is; there may or may not be something valuable wrapped inside.
Common writing craft advice is “just write.” There is a post today on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog advocating exactly this approach. It compares forcing out a first draft to purging after a night of binge drinking: write a draft, vomit words onto the page, go back later, edit, revise, rewrite. I understand. Some days I agree. Often trash sentences are better than freezing, better than no words at all. However, once words take up residence on the page that space is claimed by squatters. The mind settles on the done-ness of things, whether the work reads or not. We are easily misdirected. It’s dog magic.
The winter solstice is the moment the sun halts its southern descent and hangs holding the horizon on the Tropic of Capricorn, the place of the fish-tailed goat. The word solstice, a noun, derives from Latin and means simply the Sun stands still and there she lingers. Located halfway between the equator and North Pole on the 44th parallel, southern declination is sharp. By Christmas Day, the sun climbs north by an astronomical minute, a fraction of a degree.
There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling,
Whether as learned bard or gifted child;
To it all lines or lesser gauds belong
That startle with their shining
Such common stories as they stray into.
Is it of trees you tell, their months and virtues,
Or strange beasts that beset you,
Of birds that croak at you the Triple will?
Or of the Zodiac and how slow it turns
Below the Boreal Crown,
Prison to all true kings that ever reigned?
Water to water, ark again to ark,
From woman back to woman:
So each new victim treads unfalteringly
The never altered circuit of his fate,
Bringing twelve peers as witness
Both to his starry rise and starry fall.
Or is it of the Virgin’s silver beauty,
All fish below the thighs?
She in her left hand bears a leafy quince;
When, with her right hand she crooks a finger, smiling,
How many the King hold back?
Royally then he barters life for love.
Or of the undying snake from chaos hatched,
Whose coils contain the ocean,
Into whose chops with naked sword he springs,
Then in black water, tangled by the reeds,
Battles three days and nights,
To be spewed up beside her scalloped shore?
Much snow is falling, winds roar hollowly,
The owl hoots from the elder,
Fear in your heart cries to the loving-cup:
Sorrow to sorrow as the sparks fly upward.
The log groans and confesses:
There is one story and one story only.
Dwell on her graciousness, dwell on her smiling,
Do not forget what flowers
The great boar trampled down in ivy time.
Her brow was creamy as the crested wave,
Her sea-blue eyes were wild
But nothing promised that is not performed.
Woolgathering once literally referred to the act of gathering loose tufts of wool caught on bushes and fences as sheep passed by… by mid-16th century the word woolgathering came to suggest the act of indulging in purposeless mind-wandering.
Gather wool: hands forever stiff with plucking tufts from stiles and bramble.
Many or most get lost at the beginning, wandering about to find wool, a flock of sheep. Sheep do not volunteer to be stripped of their riches. Gathering wool is the chaotic business of first drafts, of culling a beast from the herd. The bleater must be driven through a chute into a small stifling shed. (Having a dog bred and trained for this purpose helps, but weaving a collie into this extended analogy is awkward.)
With the bawling sheep secured in the shearing shed, there is a tussle to throttle the beast and pin it to the straw. I confess I’ve never sheared a sheep, though I’ve hacked many dreadful first drafts. I’ve seen it done. It’s hot, dirty, bloody business, both for the shearer and the sheep. Words must be brawled down like fleece into a heap of filthy wool.
When the fleece is finally stripped and spread across the shed floor, the trembling sheep is allowed to return to pasture, a naked rustic muse. The creature spent the winter grazing in muddy pasture, dragging her belly through weeds rife with burrs, dribbling poop down her backside. Fouled wool will never do for knitting, no.
The fleece must be cleaned. First it must be skirted and then it must be washed. Skirting is vile work, but it is a first draft. Print out the pages, spread them across the kitchen table, and scan for chunks of dried poop, clumps of hay, cockleburs and caked mud. (Don’t overthink, we are nowhere near killing our darlings.) Pick out the noxious bits. A snippet from the Craftsy website applies so literally:
“Yellowed or brittle sections should be removed. You can always set some aside and come back to it later to see if it can be salvaged for other uses.”
Compromised wool unsuited to the current piece at hand might be recycled into a poem. While it’s wise to preserve a first draft intact in the raw original form, I am guilty of continually overwriting while revising. Someday I’ll open a folder for every project and save each file version. Perhaps one day I’ll organize my sock drawer and spice cabinet as well.
Toss aside the nasty bits. Throw them out. Passive voice, “to be” verb formations, tense disagreements, blundering word choices, all go into the black plastic bag. Next, stuff all the skirted wool into a mesh bag to wash. At this stage in writing, one pauses to ruminate, considering on the structure and thesis of the entire project. I ponder in the shower.
Sheep wool is covered in grease called lanolin. This natural oil is excreted from the body of the sheep and saturates its coat. Due to this oil, sheep are waterproof and able to contentedly graze over many days of soaking rain. One needs to wash away excess lanolin. We come to divide the worthy wool, the words that will stand, from the dross.
Fill a tub with hot water and squirt in a generous measure of liquid soap. Do not use your own washing machine as this will only result in remorse. Go for a walk. St. Augustine wrote that solutions arrive when walking (solvitur ambulando) and he seems trustworthy. Let the wool absorb the water and soap, but don’t let the water cool or the lanolin will not wash away.
Repeat four or five more times. Rinse well. Spread the wool out flat to dry for several days. Print the piece of writing. Place it on the kitchen counter, near enough to scribble in the margins between peeling carrots and chopping them. Let it sit. Make notes. Re-read the paragraph you were so proud of and strike it. Reconsider and write “stet” in big block letters.
Once the wool is dry, comes teasing and carding. I have never done this. I am relying on the internet to help extend this metaphor as far as it will go. I do knit, however. I have observed other hardy handy souls carding wool and spinning it into yarn. Carding wool further cleans, straightens, and separates the fibers, hence the apt cliché of going over a page with a fine-tooth comb. It is here, finally, when you return to the work to restructure it, reinvent it, and rebuild it to be both worthy and whole.
After the wool is carded, it’s spun into yarn. This is an art unto itself, one that requires rhythm and tactile intelligence. This cannot be taught. This might be learned. Spinning is the nebulous writing gift talent. We will leave the spinner, a Clotho of the dark sisterly Moirai, to work her magic.
Only now and finally, is there a skein of yarn. Do not knit from this skein, as it will only tangle. Wind the yarn into a ball that will not ravel as it unrolls. As you wind, dream the words, hear their music, and smooth the stray strand back into the twisted fiber. Select the needles and note the pattern, count the stitches as you cast on.
Read the piece and read it again. Read until you know the words without reading them. Print another copy to leave at hand near the kitchen sink. Consider the root of each word; reconsider that phrase, chain by chain, stitch by stich, row by row, work through the yarn’s tension until the skein is dealt, the work ready to cast off. Bind it well.