Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Ars Poetica

Ars what? Ars who? Ars you kidding? It’s right there on the syllabus under Course Requirements: Ars Poetica (3 Pages). Fifteen percent of the total grade. When we get to this section of the syllabus our professor, a lithe, pretty, published woman with a PhD and an easy smile, mentions that we must write an Ars Poetica in addition to two “new pieces” along with one revised work, each piece being at least fifteen to twenty pages. I am silent. My chest is heavy with panic. Does this woman realize that I do not reside at a writer’s colony?  Sure, I'd love to be as prolific as Alexandre Dumas or Joyce Carol Oates but my production, given my real life situation, has its limitations. I’m going to need to establish the habits of Honoré de Balzac and write from midnight to dawn, pretend that sleep is not a daily essential.

I stay focused on her as she continues to rattle on about class participation. She asks if there are any questions. I appeal with parched lips whether our pieces must be a minimum of fifteen pages, what if they’re a little less? Uh oh, I think immediately, the dumb question. I asked the dumb question. “Well,” she responds, “if the story can be told, told well, in a little less than fifteen then that’s acceptable.” I sigh a bit and nod thankfully. I’m wishing I hadn’t forgotten my bottled water in the car. I could use a swig right now. I'm wondering if I'm the only one in the class who doesn't know what Ars Poetica is.

It’s a small class—only four students, including myself, and three of them are in the Master’s program, they are young, two are completing their theses, one is about to begin (I find out) teaching my daughter sixth grade Literature. I am the only student not in the Master’s program, but I am thinking about it, I say, at the beginning of the class during introductions. Considering. Thinking. I also say that I read quite a bit but I didn’t get as much summer reading done as I had hoped. I have two middle-school aged children, I mention, sort of as an excuse. So I have just confessed that I am old (which is self-evident), and that I am a mom and a slacker. Now I know what they’re all thinking: a soccer-mom-slacker; a suburban-soccer-mom-slacker; oh right, this will be an interesting addition to the program. I didn’t confess to the suburban-soccer-mom part but I’m sure that this is also self-evident, even though I have worn long boot-cut jeans (on a very hot day when I ordinarily would have worn a skirt) and a funky t-shirt to class. I am not purposely attempting to appear as a not-too-old-to-go-back-to-school-non-soccer-mom, or bohemian, Generation Y, or Gen-Xer—which I couldn’t possibly pull off anyway—but rather to look just cool enough to mask any connection to suburbia, and maybe the soccer mom thing(which might draw one to include that I'm a bored suburban mom in need of a "new thing"), or an SUV or any idiosyncrasy approximating eighties yuppiedom and conservative white-bread (not that I am either), yet I betray myself by way of introduction. And I suppose denying my baby-boomer conventional suburban lifestyle would be dishonest, even if it doesn’t truly represent my inner rebel, beatnik, free spirit (or is this just how I’d like to view myself?).

And this, I reason, is why I am back in school for creative writing. This is how I rebel mid-life. At nearly fifty years old, it’s time to follow my true passion, time to step beyond the evening adult-ed writing classes, time for some moxie, see if I have any real skill, finesse, artistry. It’s why I still have that letter my fifth grade teacher sent to me the summer after that school year, after Holy Family closed, after the coolest hippie-teacher ever—Mr. Sawyer—returned to New York in his shiny, baby-blue, white-capped VW bus. “Keep writing, Jayne,” Mr. Sawyer wrote, “keep it up, follow your heart.”  It’s why I am collecting dusty, esoteric books on writing and literature. I have a lot of catch-up to do. I have to look up Ars Poetica.

I jot down notes: get Lydia Peelle—Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing. Pick up Virginia WoolfTo the Lighthouse. Wait a minute, don’t I already have the Woolf book? I’ve already read it, haven’t I? I strike through the note. I look at my young, cagey classmates. What do these kids know about flax and prunes and Metamucil and perimenopause? Could they craft a literary work of art out of prunes and purgatives? Bloated peri-prune prose? I’ll bet not one of them has ever scrambled down the laxative aisle at CVS. Why am I thinking about this?  Probably because I’m sure they can write circles around me just as easily as my children can (with knees straight) touch their fingers to their toes. See? Like it’s the sort of thing anyone can do anytime. I’m just not that limber—of leg or locution. I’m the only one who can’t write down one damned word in my notebook when our professor tells us to quickly scribble our thoughts on what a story is. What is a story? Hmmm. What is a story? Hmmm again. Everyone is writing but me. Blank, nothing going on here. I’m just the kid who’s going to ask all the dumb questions which is exactly why I refrained from asking what should have been my first query: if the professor could please clarify the meaning of an Ars Poetica. No, I refuse to expose myself as this student—yet I know I’ve already made the fatal error. I start to write choppy sentences about story, from a reader’s point of view, and maybe from a writer’s, but since I am not a writer (not really) I feel no authority. And then, what I fear most happens: she asks us to read what we wrote. The young students, the ones who haven’t had a twenty-eight year hiatus between semesters, write full lyrical sentences about what they think a story is. I read mine, the last choppy-sentenced paragraph: tell with honesty, humility. Sustained suspension of disbelief (duh, I can’t believe I just read that, isn’t that Story 101?). Theme should deliver message of hope… must contain substance, relevance, heart… so its audience may be captured by its spirit, transformed by its message. “Oh, a tall order,” says the professor, “story as transformative…”  I respond saying that I do believe that writers have a certain “responsibility” and we discuss this for a moment, thankfully just a moment, because I want to run my  philosophy right off the road as it’s launched from my lips, realizing that I have once again undeniably dated myself by the use of one term: responsibility.

Funny thing about writing is that I am so engrossed with the craft, honing technique, words and phrases constantly running around my brain, the need to jot everything down as soon as the thought springs, that I have become an irresponsible mother. I am the mother who is late to pick up her kids, who forgets to buy blue knee socks, pick up a gallon of milk, even make dinner sometimes. I’m inarticulate for fear of cognitus interruptus, my kids ask me questions and I’m mute, mind full of words, fractured sentences pogoing in my head. Completely irresponsible. Ars Poetica irresponsible.

The professor passes out a reading selection to be discussed at our next meeting, and asks us to bring in an author’s piece to review next week. The dumb question leaps from my mouth again, a conical dunce cap, it asks, “Contemporary?”  Yes, contemporary confirms the professor, Faulkner and Hemingway will not do. Remember?—relevance? —that is what I wrote/said isn’t it? The professor wraps up the class an hour before it is due to end. The young ones seem happy to go. But wait—an hour? I have a sitter until 7:00pm! I can’t go home now. I get in my car and decide drive over to Barnes and Noble and look for Lydia Peelle. They don’t have her, so I look at other literature, I browse the new hard covers, I look at the “how to” books, books about writing, and grammar. I buy Lorrie Moore’s new book—A Gate at the Stairs; and, Mystery and Manners—a book that I hadn’t before seen which contains select Flannery O’Connor (a favorite of mine whom I don't believe would be considered "contemporary") writings. I’m near the one hour mark now and should really go home, so I make my purchase and head outside, into falling darkness, for the car.

When I get in, my husband is in the kitchen and our sitter has left. He has prepared dinner for the kids and I am grateful, I’m still working through the student-to-mom transition, not yet ready to dive into household minutiae. I ask him—my clever, bookish husband—if he by any chance knows the meaning of Ars Poetica. “Know, I don’t,” he says simply. And mon dieu, I am encouraged, I am plumb delighted! My husband, the one with the English/Creative Writing degree, does not know (or, at the least, does not remember) a thing about Ars Poetica! Does this mean there is hope for me? I race to my laptop, plug "ars poetica" into Google and find that it is a term meaning: the art of poetry. What that translates to is essentially writing poems about poetry, literary poems, like those of the greats—Aristotle and Horace—not geometric shaped limericks, haiku, sestinas and cinquains. This does not bode well for me, as I am not terribly excited by poetry, I am too pragmatic for poetry, I am about as poetic as a rock. For me, poetry is to literature as scrapple is to gourmand, the entrails of both frightening to me. But perhaps that’s because I never quite flushed out the proper seasoning.

So I’ve got my work cut out for me. I have serious fear factor to confront. Tonight though, I think I’ll start decompressing by making school lunches, ironing clothes, washing dishes. I’m welcoming the distraction. I will listen to my children, I will answer their questions, I will tuck them in at a reasonable hour. After which I’ll review my favorites—a little O’Connor, some Capote for smiles, and maybe doze off with Lamott’s Bird by Bird, which has been perched bedside for some time now. I always keep it by me for inspiration and courage. I wonder if Ms. Lamott has ever written an Ars Poetica.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Feeling Negative, Anxious, Frustrated... Change Your Trailer

Feeling low, negative, anxious, suspicious, angry, frustrated, intimidated, trapped, misunderstood, paranoid? Dr. Wayne Dyer (and who doesn't love Dr. Dyer?) talks about paradigm shift, casting away conscious and unconscious crutches, taking a look at old habits and excuses and recognizing the absurdity of these crutches. Once one has acknowledged ones vices, one is freed to turn it all around, alter the path. Well, that's only a smidgen of Dr. Dyer's philosophy, in a bitty brown nutshell, but it's healthy advice and good therapy. 

I've been feeling a little defeated lately, unsure of the direction in which I'm headed and whether I've got the tools and chutzpa to get me there. A little concerned about this semester's writing workshop which starts tomorrow (haven't got a single idea in my head, completely, utterly blocked). And then I saw thisa bit of unconventional therapy and inspiration (click on the arrow!): 

So there you go...  think of your life as a movie (oh, the dramaor maybe it's more like Monty Python, in which case you need not read further). How's it playing? Having fun? Waking up with a bright smile on your face or dread hovering over your head? Feeling like it needs a little recalibrating, take a few things out, move some items around? Here is another mode of paradigm shift:  Change your movie. Change your movie's trailer (after all, do we not review our life as a series of snippets?). Edit and tweak until you are beaming with benevolence, have affirmed your self-worth, inner-goodness. Re-write the whole damn thing if you have to, but make sure its ending is heartwarming. Change the soundtrack, too—to something that makes you want to clap your hands and roll your shoulders. Let the revised version play over and over in your head. Self-affirming trailer.

Oh, happy Sunday. Glorious, rainless, staggeringly brilliant day. Absurdly bright. Shining. A hummingbird breezing about my hanging fuchsia. Today, is the perfect day for a hike up Solsbury Hill, a paradigm shift, a trailer transformation...

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Ring Ring Goes the Bell...

(Feel free to keep groovin' to the music while you read this.)

Books covered. Check.
Lunch packed. Check.
Uniform ironed. Check.
Calculator functioning. Check.
Summer reading complete. Check.
New schedule in hand. Check.
Smile on Face. Check.

'Tis truethe very first day back to school for you, my sweet eighth grader.  Do you look the least bit worried?  You couldn't be happier—how you love your school, you think your going off to a party, a Chuck Berry concert, twisting the day away, a back-to-school lollapalooza of World History, Algebra 1 and Art. A full year of Art! Again! What will you do when you have to take a real elective, like...well... Spanish or French (oh Français s'il vous plaît, please choose French)?

Eighth grade, where The Language of Literature awaits you, Little ManI'm already sifting through your at-home duplicate copy (which I purchased online because I know that you'll forget to bring your book home and anyway, it's an awful heavy reader to be lugging to and fro school) of this hard-covered magnum opus. I see a whole section dedicated to Mark Twain. Twainthe one who wouldn't let school interfere with his education (but I won't tell you about that particular quote) yet still managed to become one of our greatest American writers. Perhaps you read about him in this year's Old Farmer's Almanac—you know, the one in our first floor bathroom. Maybe I will actually convince you to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn this year. Maybe I'll read it again myself. And maybe your English teacher will help you understand the significance of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451your required summer readingthe little novel that so frustrated you, its theme you thought irrelevant, or maybe just odd (technology attached to you at the hip). But know this, Little Man, in 2010 this fifty-seven year old parable, a literary classic, could not be more relevant! Oh, maybe I should just rent the movie and have you watch it. 

Eighth grade, where Science will reveal many serious matters, compounds, mixtures and important minerals (like diamonds), and we can talk all about Libebcnofne and Namgalsipsclar... and other little tricks... and my days in chemistry class with Mortimer Simons—the original mad scientist.

Eighth grade, where the algebraic equation is waiting to wrap its linear arms around you and perplex you with all its inequalities. Sorry to say Little Man, I won't be of much help to you in that cozy little huddle. I recall the cold cuddle I had with Mr. Buonanno when he told me with his mean molars and thin eyes that I passed his high school class "by the skin of my teeth."  It won't do you (or me) much good if I finger through the duplicate copy of that colossal codexask your uncle, the one with whom I went to college, about my, shall we say, adventure with Math 109. I've forgotten now how many times I took it. (And as far as I'm concerned, parentheticals and expressions ought to be reserved strictly for use in sentences.)

Enjoy 8th grade little man, because after this year it gets pretty serious, in high school that is. Doesn't it?

Hail, hail, off you go Little Man... 

...American history and practical math, you'll be studyin' hard and hopin' to pass. (Won't you now?!) 

Meanwhile, I'll be waiting for your 'lil sis to return to schoolnext week!at which time I'll be doing the twist. Hail, hail School Days!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Bottom Lines

I picked up my daughter's school skirts today at our local tailor. I had the option of having the uniform company hem them, but decided I could get it done cheaper at our Downtown Tailor, and preferred to give him the business. Besides, I'd save on the shipping costs; but, it turns out that perhaps I should have accepted Donnelly's offer to hem the skirts. Perhaps, at fifteen dollars a pop, I should have done it myself. Yes, fifteen dollars per skirt. Per skirt, are you sure? I asked.

Yessa, we-a sure-a, the tailor said in his thick Italian accent.

I had thought about hemming the skirts myself. And I had been thinking about reintroducing my sewing machinethe very same Singer Confidence machine that I bought last October when my daughter announced that she wanted to be an Ugly Doll for Halloweenafter a minor sabbatical, to thread and fabric.

Up until last year's Halloween, most of the costumes that I had made for my children had been fairly simple, fashioned with hand stitching, velcro, hot glue, or double-sided tape. Really, it's not such a big deal hand stitching fluffy brown dog ears onto the hood of a grey sweatshirt. I rationed that making costumes was less expensive (seriously?) and more unique than purchasing an outfit from a catalog; vastly more satisfying then seeing another trick-or-treater wearing the same costume smeared all over with chocolate.

Only, last October I realized that a costume based on those quirky but adorable Ugly Dolls was going to be a bit of an undertaking. And would also require a bit of an investment. So I did a quick cost-benefit analysisthinking of all the things I could easily whip up, darn, hem and rework, and all the money I'd save doing it myselfand when the Little One shopped around for just the right felt fabric and notions, I grabbed the perfect sewing machine, promising myself that I'd use it more than once. So many projects, so little time... it'll be a snap with the Confidence... and it'll practically pay for itself.

And what fun we had making this costume!

And later reincarnating it as a giant stuffed Ugly Doll...

Did I say minor sabbatical? Well, sort of. The machine has been sitting idle on a basement bookshelf for only nine short months. Where does the time go?

Come to think of it, I'm not really sure that I did consider the sewing machine when I dropped the skirts off at the Downtown Tailor (the one with the uptown prices). I'm not sure if I even contemplated that rudimentary cost-benefit analysis. I vaguely remember that I wanted the skirts hemmed quickly, and skillfully, and at the right price.

Fifteen dollars?

Does this hem look perfectly straight to you?

Are you sure?

Because I must have complete Confidence that I'm getting my money's worth; that the bottom of those skirt lines are absolutely, positively, one-hundred percent faultless. That those cost-benefit calculations of mine are right on. And that I shouldn't have, under any circumstance, done it myself. Anyhow, I couldn't possibly have hemmed them as well as a professional, right?

Cost. Benefit.

Net result:  The hems have to be, simply must be, cheaper than last year's Halloween costume; the level edges of the skirtspure perfection. And, after I dust off the Singer Confidence, this year's costumes will be a real steal.