The Summer 2012 MFA residency is almost here! We’ll be posting public reading and lecture schedules soon. In the meantime here’s Program Director Debra Allbery’s opening remarks from last January, which may just inspire you to revisit that lonely piece which has been languishing in your ‘drafts’ folder, waiting for your kind attention:
This talk begins with a stairway in Florence, in the Laurentian library which Giulio d’Medici commissioned Michelangelo to build in 1525. He worked on the library’s vestibule and reading room for about ten years before he left for Rome. Although Michelangelo himself wasn’t involved the stairway’s actual construction, it was built according to his specific written instructions and a clay model he’d made. It was a marvel both in its reintroduction of architectural elements from the past, as well as in its originality and innovation. Giorgio Vasari, who not only chronicled the lives of the artists of the time but was one of those who built the stairway, wrote, “He made such strange breaks in the design of the steps and he departed in so many details and so widely from normal practice that everyone was astonished” (680).
I first encountered the Laurentian in Alberto Manguel’s wonderful book The Library at Night, and it was his paragraph on it which set this talk in motion. He writes:
…the stairway suggests a spatial complexity that seems almost impossible in so restricted a space, a laboriously intricate passage proposing at least three different routes, an obligation of choice entirely appropriate for someone entering the realm of books.
The area of the vestibule is small; Michelangelo treats it as if it were vast, so that the steps cascade into three descents with no railings… Writing to Vasari from Rome before construction had begun, Michelangelo said that he indeed remembered his original design for the stairway but only “as if in a dream.” That is the quality that best defines the finished work. (158-159)
A spatial complexity that seems almost impossible in so restricted a space, an obligation of choice entirely appropriate for someone entering the realm of books –. As the 20-year-old Emily Dickinson wrote to George Gould: “And that is what they call a metaphor in our country. Don’t be afraid of it, sir, it won’t bite” (L34). Our entries into writing, whether those be the first inklings that this art would be one’s calling, or the decision to enter a formal apprenticeship, or, at the heart of things, each return to that confined and infinite space that is the blank page—these, too, are both simple and multiple, restricted and vast.
The various rituals or habits writers have adopted may of course be useful only for those writers, and yet they fascinate, and, in their way, reassure, in their variety and in the solidarity they convey , as well as in the ways they speak to or illuminate the essential privacy of the process. We’re not all Trollope, after all, sitting down each morning at 5:30 with a stop watch, churning out a thousand words an hour; we’re not all Margaret Atwood, who said, “Put your left hand on a table, put your right hand in the air,” and a plot eventually will come to you.
Whether or not we sense ourselves quite so dramatically being an aerial for the muse, (and to be fair, Ms. Atwood said that she herself had never needed to actually employ that technique she described) the physical settings and conditions for composition are key for so many —the right pen, a certain brand of notebook, sequestered silence in one’s own home, the background bustle and pulse of a public space. Though I’m sure many of you compose on a computer, there’s something essential for many of us in beginning by, to borrow Seamus Heaney’s figure, digging with the pen—drawing the words, as Paul Auster has said, from the body, hearing the words being drawn on the page. Alice Munro sits down at her dining room table and writes her first drafts in longhand; Nabokov stood at a lectern “facing a bright corner” and wrote his novels on index cards, arranging and rearranging them; he compared his composition style to that of building a bird’s nest. Stevens composed his poems while walking to the office; John Cheever needed to make the gesture of going to work by putting on his suit and hat and then taking the elevator to the basement of his apartment building.
And we develop individual practices for the process of exploring and developing the works we have underway, adding to our perspective—Ishiguro “auditions” his characters, trying several chapters in each character’s voice, before deciding who’ll narrate the novel. Don DeLillo gives each paragraph its own page (the white space helps him see the sentences better, he says ). Eudora Welty would pin her entire draft end to end into one long scroll, (anticipating physically what a computer would make much more manageable virtually in a few decades) so that the stories “could be seen as whole and at a glance – helpful and realistic.” She wrote to William Maxwell in September 1953:
When the stories got too long for the room I took them up on the bed or table & pinned them, and that’s when my worst stories were like patchwork quilts, you could almost read them in any direction […] “The Ponder Heart” was in straight pins, hat pins, corsage pins, and needles, and when I got through typing it out I had more pins than I started with. (41-42)
Similarly, Jane Cooper told me that she liked to pin all the drafts of a poem-in-process to her draperies, so that all the versions would be before her at once.
But for many of us, the ideal conditions for writing are exactly that—an ideal, and so, a rarity. Those externals that prepare the ground or clear the airwaves aren’t controlled entirely by us, but are circumscribed and shaped by the rest of our lives—the obligations of a job, the needs of our families, the day-to-day demands. Necessity is a make-do and frugal mother in our fractured and multitasking lives, and inspiration, as ever, is an inconstant wind, arriving in the midst of all the other turbulence—we grab what’s at hand – receipts, napkins, backs of envelopes—to write down an image or a word that suddenly has that reverberation, to record an overheard exchange. We make connections within, while making the connections between tasks—which for me means, inconveniently and potentially dangerously, while I’m driving. Exhibit A: the back of my son’s haircut receipt, with notes on this talk written at a red light. Marie Ponsot says she keeps a basket of them, a catch-all—“There are days when, you know, you’re pushing your cart around the supermarket with the kid in it, and something comes into your head that you can hold onto, and you want to make it permanent, to give it some kind of shape” –so that the poem isn’t lost, and so the day doesn’t, as she says, “evaporate out of your language life.” We learn patience, we learn to cultivate memory, writing whole poems or paragraphs in our heads—that, in fact, became my own survival technique, spending ten years as I did in a beige cubicle surrounded by white cinderblock and fluorescence. I learned to hold the poems in my head all day, draft stanzas and revise them within, so that I could work on them on the page late at night.
And we work when everyone else is asleep—that 4 a.m. of Plath’s Ariel poems, “that still, blue, almost eternal hour before cockcrow, before the baby’s cry, before the glassy music of the milkman, settling his bottles” (195). Toni Morrison would get up at 5 to write when her children were young—“before they said Mama”— and the habit continued after they were grown:
…at first, [I] thought I didn’t have a ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee and watch the light come. …. And I realized that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space I can only call nonsecular… Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transaction. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense. (358)
Those generative silences may also, at times, be obstinate, obstructing, self-perpetuating ones; we all have had times, or will have times, when whatever we’re listening for simply isn’t accessible, when there’s no reception. We can line up all the ideal circumstances on the outside, but we all will have days when we feel blocked–when each word feels pulled singly and with great effort, as Kafka said, “from empty air” (Kafka 137). This is from his diary:
June 1 1912 Wrote nothing.
June 2,1912 Wrote almost nothing.
June 6,1912 Without weight, without bones, without body, walked through the streets for two hours considering what I overcame this afternoon while writing. (203-204)
What I overcame… We wrestle with the limits of language and our own worries about our inadequacies to the task, the demands we make of ourselves and the shadows of influence and the dizzying array of choice—and we overcome all that by being willing to just cast out, dive into it, make mistakes and learn from those errant wanderings, just putting pen or pencil to paper. (Marie Ponsot says, “just write the, the, the, and your brain will get bored and give you a noun to go with it.”) We overcome it through immersion in the great works which achieve what we, someday, aim to, which instruct and attune us, and so often provide an express route to that nonsecular space—so that we can begin to pick up the signals, hear the harmonics of whatever word or phrase or image has resonated for us, whatever has given our creative divining rod the message,“Dig here.” Where we can begin to see the shape behind a suddenly luminous word, or chart the pathway between two images we feel certain are linked. Jane Cooper, in writing about her own period of silence, said, “I had to get through the perfectionism of those early poems, to learn that no choice is absolute and no structure can save us. …If my poems have always been about survival—and I believe they have been—then survival too keeps revealing itself as an art of the unexpected” (Cooper 44).
Without weight, without bones, without body—the external conditions we create for entering writing are to this end, after all—so that those externals disappear—so that we become, as Marilynne Robinson describes the condition she aspires toward: “as forgetful of my own physical being as I can be” (455). That dissolve and concentration, that paradoxical externalizing of the self in order to head into the interior, is nicely outlined in this prescription from a 1922 entry in Virginia Woolf’s diary, which opens with a wonderful phrase that recalls Michelangelo’s as if in a dream:
The way to rock oneself back into writing is this. First, gentle exercise in the air. Second, the reading of good literature. It is a mistake to think that literature can be produced from the raw. One must get out of life…one must become externalized; very, very concentrated, all at one point, not having to draw upon the scattered parts of one’s character, living in the brain. (Woolf 47)
Gentle exercise in the air: check. The reading of good literature: oh, yes. Getting outside of our lives for a bit: you are here. Think of this residency as the vestibule: a small area treated as if it were vast, a spatial complexity that seems almost impossible in so restricted a space, a dense and dynamic entryway into the calm of the reading room of the months ahead. This program as a whole—in its deeply-invested faculty, and its focus on reading as a writer, in all its structure encompasses—provides a remarkable entryway into your writing lives. And if apprenticeship is necessarily a solitary journey, know, too, that you have all of these companions making it as well, facing their own obligations of choice. Learn from each other, learn from those who’ve gone before—and may this residency, and the semester ahead, embody for each of you “the art of the unexpected.”