Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Northwest Inland Writing Project Summer Writing Retreat: Day 2

You can read about Day 1 of this writing retreat, here.

And so I wondered, can I lead day to day workshops that hangs together, that are coherent, that work almost like paragraphs in an essay, one day leading right into the next, today's workshop growing out of yesterday's?

In preparing for these workshops, I wondered if it would work to make leniency the central principle of the whole week. I wondered if the four principles I introduced on day one would work as a foundation for looking at the deeper ethic of leniency as a way of thinking about writing and becoming freer as a writer.

In deciding to make leniency the week's central principle, I decided to go public with my deep affection for Gerald Stern's poem, "Her Right Eye Catches the Lavender", found here. I've been thinking about this poem for at least fifteen years, its images and insights have informed much of my thinking about writing and informed how I conduct my writing classes as a teacher.

I've never, however, assigned this poem to a class of students. I've never introduced it when leading a workshop. I've been afraid that the poem is a private eccentric pleasure, a poem that speaks deeply to me, but that would not hold power for others. Somewhat timidly, with some restraint at first, I introduced "Her Right Eye Catches the Lavender" on Day 2 of the writing retreat.

The group loved it. The poem stirred wonderful discussion and a variety of compelling and enjoyable interpretations. My hope was realized that the poem would help us all see the beauty of being transformed from a stricter, narrower view of the world to a more lenient one, as happens to the speaker in "Her Right Eye Catches the Lavender."

And, so, we focused on the poem's climactic question: "Why did it take so long/ for me to get lenient?" and I presented the following ideas regarding why being lenient might be of great help to a writer:

  1. To "get lenient" first and foremost defines one's attitude toward oneself as a writer: to be lenient with oneself opens the way to being authentic, writing in one's own voice and style because one is accepting of one's own way of doing things when writing; leniency helps one be more awake, more conscious of the world and one's experience because leniency lightens the pressure to be critical, to judge the world. Without prejudice, one is awake to more of the splendor of the world's variety and more awake to it; leniency opens the way to let it rip….it's a stance of acceptance, of forgiveness. Too many writers are stymied by unreal and unrealistic standards. Ease those standards, forgive oneself for a lousy effort, and accept everything one writes and one is liberated. Fear and harshness dissolve. Leniency also frees up the writer who might live mostly in the head to indulge in the sensuous wonder of locating experience in the body, in the senses, of having a more immediate and concrete experience with the world rather than a more objective, analytical, distanced experience.
  2. Leniency opens up different and fuller way of seeing the world: it's immediate, less critical; seeing the world leniently means seeing much more beauty in the world. For example, the speaker in the poem "Her

    Right Eye Catches the Lavender" has lived year after year after year and missed the beauty of gulls He asked, "Why did I never see that?" He had not become lenient. He had decided that gulls were "rats with wings" and "gluttons" and his lack of leniency denied him the gull's wonders.

  3. Leniency is way of exploring the world and one's experience that is not judgmental and makes anything a possible subject for poetry, memoir, illustration, metaphor, story telling, etc. I've been around countless people who lack leniency; often these people convey the idea that their criticism and negativity is a sign of intelligence.
  4. A synonym for lenient: generous. The best writers are generous of heart, mind, and feelings and in their insights, observations, and use of language. The hardest writing for me to read is from the stingy, the miserly, the overly constrained, the writer whose omissions lead to dishonesty and distortion.
  5. Leniency is a way to explore truth. So often we think of truth as what can be documented, as getting what happened right. This is important – but truth is not only about what happened; it's also about what happens…Northrup Frye wrote that we don't go to Macbeth to learn what about the history of Scotland; we go to Macbeth to learn what happens, what a man feels like when he gains a kingdom and loses his soul. Shakespeare is a lenient poet, story teller, and dramatist. All he asks of us is to believe….not suspend our disbelief, but to do the positive thing: to believe….to be lenient…and we do…we watch his plays and look at all the things we believe in, that we are lenient about: we believe in ghosts, disguises, love potions, reunions, a statue coming to life, magic, and other improbable things, not because we believe they happen, but because by being lenient about plausibility, we learn more fully what happens in the larger drama of human nature.
  6. Leniency in writing frees one to compress events, rearrange chronology, get some facts wrong, embellish something that happened, and make things up whether one is writing poetry, memoir, fiction, or creative non-fiction. Readers who cannot be lenient get stuck on the small elements of what they read, become sticklers for whether a piece gets all the facts right. Such a narrow understanding of human activity often denies such readers access to the larger truths of life because they are zeroed in on what is small. Strictness narrows one's mind. Leniency frees the mind.

I thought the writers at the retreat might enjoy practicing being lenient, and so I recommended three writing prompts, and, indeed, we opened Day 3 of the retreat by listening to some very good pieces of writing that explored the possibilities of seeing an event or an experience from a lenient point of view.

Here are the prompts I recommended:

  1. Remember a specific event in your life when you were not lenient: maybe you were not lenient with yourself or were not lenient with another person: write the story and when you get to the point where leniency could have occurred but didn't, rewrite what happened. Invite leniency into the story and then imagine the consequences of the leniency and write the story as it didn't happen, but as you now wish it would have.
  2. Think of someone toward whom it is difficult for you to be lenient or someone who never seemed lenient or kind or tender or compassionate. Invent a situation in which they are lenient or generous or forgiving or tender. You might want to look to Li-Young Lee's poem "The Gift" (see the poem below) as a model….in this poem, Lee either remembers or invents a situation in which his usually distant, overbearing, and demanding father tenderly removes a sliver of metal from his young son's hand.
  3. You might want to explore the beauty of something you have been inclined to think of as lacking beauty…write a poem or memoir passage or story about coming to see the beauty in something the way Gerald Stern comes to see beauty in the gulls.

The Gift

To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he'd removed
the iron sliver I thought I'd die from.

I can't remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.

Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy's palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife's right hand.

Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he's given something to keep.
I kissed my father.

-- Li-Young Lee

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