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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Thing With Feathers at Thanksgiving 2017

The other evening, the 10th grader announced she had an English assignment on the symbolism in an Emily Dickinson poem. Which one, the husband and I asked. 

“Hope is the thing with feathers,” she said. This is the first line of the poem, since Emily Dickinson’s poems are numbered, not titled. And what a first line. 

As we were in high spirits and on our way out to dinner, I felt it incumbent on me to reply that at this moment, a moment in which I was driving because the husband was on call, a moment of darkness and chill, a November moment, “Hope” was the thing in faux shearling. 

I am allowed to make fun of my own name. 

Others, famous others, have done so. Alexander Pope, author of "The Rape of the Lock", an 18th Century English satire of courting and romance, if memory serves, wrote, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” This sounds promising and optimistic; unfortunately, as an English major I know the second line of this couplet: “Man never is, but always to be blest.” That is, blessed. That is, hope is a state of frustration. 

I feel sure I’ve written about this before. The Latin root of hope means to expect or wait. To expect is to anticipate. Perhaps anticipation is a pleasant state, but it is a state of unfulfillment, and the sense of Pope’s lines, and the etymology of the word, back that up. Is there anything sadder than unfulfilled optimism? Is there anything sadder than always expecting a good result but never achieving it?

Of course there is. Crushed optimism. Crushed optimism and never even anticipating good is worse. 

So this is why, perhaps, Mrs. Bombadoodle chose this Emily Dickinson poem, poem number 314, according to the American Poetry Foundation, but also called poem number 254 by the Poetry Foundation. I’m sure there’s a story there, but I do not know it. I have two volumes of ED’s poems in the basement that I can search out. My point lies elsewhere. 

My point is that we need the unironic view of hope that Dickinson offers in her poem. Right now we need it. It’s the dark time of the year. It’s a dark time for our country. We are heading into Thanksgiving, though, a generally excellent holiday (setting aside the whole Pilgrim and Native American genocide thing and thinking about the inclusive and grateful iteration of the meaning of the holiday). We need to let our feathered things sing. If Emily Dickinson is to be trusted, our feathered things are singing, even in the storm, regardless of our intent. The undaunted “little Bird” will weather the storm. All it asks is nothing. It just keeps singing. We are wired to hope, and it must be for a reason. I trust it will carry us through, proving just enough fuel to keep us working towards a better, more equitable country. In fact, according to the dictionary, an archaic meaning of the word is trustShe’s singing now. I hear her. 

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Annals of Successful Parenting: Writing

The 10th grader is annoyed with her English teacher, Mrs. Bombadoodle. Annoyed is perhaps too mild a descriptor. She’s been fulminating against Mrs. Bombadoodle. Mrs. B is requiring from her a five paragraph essay of 800 words, comparing and contrasting The Odyssey and The Wizard of Oz (the movie). She’s been complaining about how she can never write only eight hundred words and how unreasonable that is. And she can’t get started. She had to write one paragraph for homework the other night. Then she has the weekend to finish the draft of the essay. Then she will have to rewrite it and hand it in. This job feels impossible to her. 

This is one of those parenting moments when my desire to be Supportive Parent runs alongside my Beleagured Writer. Supportive Parent would listen and say, “Oh my. My, my. You can do it.” Beleagured Writer would say, “Uh, yeah. That’s called drafting, revising, and editing. That’s called writing.” Educators call this “the writing process.” They would, wouldn't they? 

It just so happens I am reading Draft No. 4 by John McPhee, which is about writing. Honestly, I have been mostly a fiction writer, and John McPhee is a famous nonfiction essayist whose work has been often in the New Yorker. By which I mean, in a roundabout, indirect, and therefore perhaps poorly executed way, to say that I haven't read all of his work. However, he is a professor of writing, and he's written a book about his writing process. I have been struggling with my writing, and when I struggle, I dip into inspiration via other writers’ books on writing. The eponymous essay has a great section on writer’s block and self-doubt. In short, the message is that he suffers from it, mostly during the time when he’s trying to write the first draft. Best of all, for this Beleagured Writer, he says that anyone who doesn’t is not to be trusted. I would insert a quotation here, but I’m writing from an undisclosed location apart from my book. Namely, from my father’s apartment. Furthermore, I smell like rancid body lotion, which is not pleasant. While packing, I tossed into my suitcase a hotel bottle from my stash. Apparently, it turned. 

McPhee also says that writing is all about revising. This is my truth, too. Once something is on the page, it is much less frightening and daunting to work with. But getting started. Oh my word. 

And then he has a great passage about trying to write and not being able to, and so writing Dear Mom, and then complaining all about what you’re trying to write but can’t. And then cutting out the “Dear Mom”.

That made me laugh, because he wrote it funny, and it is funny and well-written. Also, it reminded me of probably the best writing advice I got in college. Perhaps ironically, this advice came not from a professor, but from a classmate in my dorm, Darlene. One day, I was whinging about having trouble starting a paper, and Darlene, who was from some place in South America, and had creamy skin and soft brown eyes and hair with bangs that fell over her eybrows, and long limbs and delicate fingers, but whom I had never thought of as any kind of writer, said to me that she just wrote her papers in the first person. “What?” I gasped. I had never considered anything so informal, schooled as I had been in the thesis, supporting statements, conclusion five paragraph essay format. The ten commandments of school essays. First person and flow and informality in an academic paper? What about topic sentence, quotations, and references? 

“There aren’t as many “I’s” as you think,” she told me. “You can just take them out afterwards.” 

Darlene wore pleated jeans. They were fashionable back then. We agreed that our desert island makeup would be mascara, definitely. Darlene had a handsome boyfriend named Peter, who also had dark hair and eyes. I believe they got married. 

When a professor later told me I wrote well and my essays had a nice intuitive flow, it was because of Darlene. 

As for which part of me wins the race with the 10th Grader, Supportive Parent or Beleagured Writer, let’s just say I offered the comment that being forced to write with limits can be helpful.

I added, “It’s all about revision,” which was not what she wanted to hear. So it made me feel better to learn from John McPhee that he told his daughters the same thing. It is all about revision.

And where I am I with my book’s revision? I’m at the stage of avoidance. John McPhee also cops to it in his book, thanks God (as my sister the psychoanalyst says). And he told his daughter to put her draft away for a little while and then go back to it. That is what I told the 10th Grader. She listened, although I must admit that she had already decided to take a break. “These things need to sit for a while,” I said. She was halfway up the stairs by then. 

They need to marinate. I believe in steeping, the subconscious, the unconscious. I believe, as John McPhee says in his book, that while I’m not writing, the work is still percolating in the background, maybe even working itself out. 

And I said it first. 

At least in my life. 

The tenth grader turned in 900 words. We shall see how strict Mrs. Bombadoodle is. Writing is about rules, as so much of life is, and also about knowing when and how to break them.