Archive for the 'creative practice' Category

Thinking about Scout

amywink May 7th, 2018

This weekend, I found myself talking about Harper Lee and Emily Dickinson, two singular writers and icons of literary difference both of whom our culture would like to make much more manageable and comfortably definable than either wanted to be. Saturday, as I sat with friends, I told a little story to the child who had climbed onto my lap about Harper Lee and her great book, To Kill a Mockingbird. When one friend brought up Lee’s second book, I explained I had not read that to my surprised audience (among whom I am notorious for reading). So I continued, saying that I was disturbed by what happened to Harper Lee and the push for the publication of her “second” book, which was clearly an early draft of her original masterpiece and one which she had not published without significant pressure from others who desperately wanted to make her into a different writer than she was (and cash in her reputation as well)–I may not have explained all of that because the 4 year old sitting with me might have found it all quite dull and I am pretty sure if she wants to know, she’ll ask me again some time. I know she was listening.

Sunday, I spent some time explaining how I came to be who I am now and how I discovered the route by which I would eventually come to know myself as writer and autobiography scholar. In the context of my narrative, I talked about how I had finally found the cache of women writers culture had hidden when I took the first Literature By Women class at Southwestern University (now famed in song and story) and was introduced to writers I had not known (Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Margery Kempe, Virginia Woolf, Alice Walker, etc, etc, etc.) and writers I had been looking for: Emily Dickinson and Charlotte Bronte, whose novel Jane Eyre I had read when I was in 8th grade (by myself, not in school). At the moment of those revelations, I had only known Emily Dickinson as “the” woman poet who in my education had only been described in terms of her oddity: how she was weird, how she never married, how she only wore white, how everyone wondered what was “wrong” with her, how she may have had epilepsy, or migraines, or agoraphobia, or. . . .(and the other woman poet I knew of in high school, Sylvia Plath? Crazy.)

But in that class, and others I took at Southwestern, Dickinson was recognized not just for her oddity but also for her poetic genius. One of my professors, herself an oddity and poetic genius, explained to us in our writing class that if we had only seen a single poem of Dickinson’s (I think it was A Narrow Fellow in the Grass), we would still have to recognize her as the poet she was, even if she never wrote another thing. Of course, Dickinson’s own poetry, bound into chapbooks for her friends, or left stuffed in her desk to be found after her death, was simply for herself and her circle, which I found out much later was quite large and she kept up correspondence with at least 90 people. That is hardly a recluse. But once her family decided to publish, they ended up wrecking what had been her unique voice in an effort to make her poetry more like other poems of the day. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I heard what I continue to think and hold as the most succinct and apt description of Dickinson: “She just didn’t like stupid people.” Amen.

I have been thinking of both these writers and how our culture likes to box them up into a nice package, surrounded by speculative questions. Harper Lee “only wrote” the one book, how sad. “If only” she had written more. And yet, To Kill a Mockingbird is an amazing autobiographical novel. If that was the only thing I had written, I’d retire quite happy thinking “my work here is done.” If the book I wrote interrupted my quiet life and forced me to be more public than I ever was comfortable being, I’d retire from public life as well with a “No, thank you.” (Anne Tyler keeps to herself and does just fine. Mary Oliver too. We are not all able to be aggressively public as publishers want us to be, jumping through hoops on command). Perhaps this is what disturbs me most about Harper Lee, that we forced her to be more public, to be the center of constant speculative demands that she perform more for her audience, that somehow we are more important than she was to the production of literary art. We would have preferred she perform for us, instead of listening to her own still voice and choosing the life she wanted. But she gave us the amazing story of a little girl, suddenly coming into understanding of the world around her and remembering what her life had been like because of that moment. That’s plenty.

Dickinson chose the life she wanted and seemed quite happy at it–she wrote over 2000 poems. I have no demand for “if only” from her– but our culture continues to wonder about her, particularly speculating on her relations with others: Was she a virgin? Did she have an affair? Was she a lesbian? Was she a pawn in hiding the affairs of others?

Seriously. What is wrong with us? Did we never graduate from junior high school? The woman wrote 2000 poems!!

What is wrong with us, of course, is sexism. That we view writers who are women through a different kind of lens than we do writers who are men. It’s the lens that Joanna Russ explained in her book How to Suppress Women’s Writing, first published in 1983, the year I graduated from high school, and a book that continues to be relevant to this day.


But I am glad the book is still out there and is now being discussed in my broader circles than the graduate class on Feminist Theory in which I read the book in 1988, though I do have to keep reminding myself that this is a good thing.

I have been thinking of these two scouts, Lee and Dickinson, lately because I have lived unconventionally as well and recently someone tried to put me into a nice conventional box. It is an odd feeling, that unintentional boxing, and one I had not run up against in a long time (not since my mother finally gave up trying to do it after I turned 40). I bucked against it instantly because I am allowed to live my life to the contrary. I cannot be put in a box. I will keep living and working to make sure no one else has to live in the box that someone else decided was the better fit. And I will keep telling the stories of my resistance.

We can all tell how we lived our own lives differently; how we enjoyed our time on this earth; how we came to know ourselves in new ways so that everyone who listens can think of their lives and how to live despite what the world may tell them is the “right” way to do so. Our lives are far more complicated and interesting than convention allows them to be. Sharing the stories of how we dared greatly ourselves, especially if our own daring is not what others might understand, makes daring greatly even more possible.

The story I want to tell the four-year-old about Harper Lee is not the story of Lee’s “failure” to write more, or the crappy first draft her public demanded to see and claimed was her second novel. I want this child, this scout who climbed into my lap, to hear the beautiful story of someone who wrote an amazing and wonderful book about a little girl named coming to understand her world and that one beautiful book keeps making a difference for those who read it, and that one book was enough to set in motion an enormous change in a world deeply reluctant to shift. I want to let her know that Harper Lee was enough and what she did, in her own quiet and unconventional way, was plenty.


amywink April 27th, 2018

for Stacey 1964-2016

At any moment,
or perhaps just not any
but the moment of
happiness or need,
I stumble into the emptiness
where you were,
and falling I am swallowed
by that deep chasm
of our friendship.

What I missing now,
those moments I’d have turned
to you to celebrate
some teaching glory,
or the moment you
carried me through
some aggravation
on your sharp wit,
or when you stood fierce,
unmoving, against my adversaries,
daring those you would so happily,
so eagerly vanquish,
or when you stood
always ready to help me risk
a leap into the unknown.

What I am missing now
is how you knew me,
how you understood
what troubled me,
how you accepted
who I was without question,
and even in those rare moments
when you discovered some included flaw
suspended in the amber of my self,
how you held that relic
up to the light in wonder
and discovery of a glowing treasure
that you would turn as priceless gift instead.

Tending My Eden

amywink April 14th, 2018


A stranger stopped by
yesterday to tell me he
could make my yard spectacular
by clearing what he deemed
a mess and overgrown.

I asked the price for such
a miraculous change
and knowing that it wasn’t
something I could,
or even would, afford
despite the lower
second offer, I declined
because he didn’t know
where the beauty was
in all the mess he saw.

But I know beyond the mess.

I know what delightful beauty
waits here in this wild unruly green.

What may look like death
is only dormant and
will by my patience
eventually erupt
in spectacular bloom
when I have greater
need of the glory.

I know where the memories are,
the things I’ve inherited,
and my reasons for planting
some of this rough growth
that has endured in my benign neglect.

I do not mind the mess
I am simply waiting to attend.

And by this morning,
this gardener has woken
into this cool Spring day
and with my happy spaniels,
I have begun this seasons’ work,
thinking of the loveliness I have made,
what things I know of deliberate planting,
what I understand of different
rates of bloom or the timing
of my pruning if I am to be rewarded
with the flowering I intended,
what I must by necessity
cull if everything is to grow
as well as it may, and even
what volunteers I will
allow and foster simply
because their surprise will
make this unconventional Eden new
with their blooming
if I will wait
to see what happens
in this greater undertaking.

This garden may not be a landscaper’s dream,
stripped of difference for easy mowing.
Because I have planted something else
and I myself will slowly
tend all that is growing
into the wilder beauty
that I intend for it to be.

Forty Days

amywink April 2nd, 2018

I wrote every day of Lent except two– Palm Sunday, and Holy Saturday, two days I was simply being. I do not think that is a failure of my devotion and discipline since I was not really trying to achieve a “perfect” record, but more of a mature understanding of my faith and creative practice–which did take some effort, especially at the beginning.

We think of discipline as punishment, but in this instance (and others), it’s simply the ability to keep to a task, to improve a skill or practice. I posted 37 entries here under the “Lent” category. Some days, I wrote more than a single poem, some days I wrote privately. As much as I tried to make my practice a regular timed habit, I was not able to restrict myself to a rigorous schedule because my practice actually expanded, growing into the rest of the day, beyond what I usually think of as my best writing time.

Mostly, I did write in the very early hours, in the quiet before the dawn, because that is the time I have to think without interruptions, the time to carry on this daily conversation with God. But some days, our conversation was long and it wasn’t until late in the afternoon that I found the idea I’d kneaded throughout the day, or sometimes, a lightening bolt would strike later in the day, after I’d written already in the morning.

Of course, I never ignore the lightening bolt. One doesn’t.

Kristi asked yesterday if I planned to keep doing this, writing every day, and I said yes. My forty days were about learning something new, changing the way I understood my relationship this specific creative gift, developing my relationship with the Divine, and learning how to answer what I have been asked to do. This gift is, of course, far greater than each individual poem or paragraph. It’s a gift of vision as well, a way of seeing the world and then, turning that insight into a living practice and then sharing the vision with others. I tell my students that poets are trying to communicate with their readers, trying to get them to see common things in an extraordinary way, or extraordinary things in a common way so that we may be changed in our vision through theirs. We may not always catch sight of what a poet is trying to divine for us at once, but we need to keep looking. Poets keep looking too.

Kathleen Norris wrote that a friend recommended she give up “anxiety” for Lent one year. I recognized the virtue in that and I believe I ended up doing a little bit of that as well–though it does linger, it’s significantly less– but I have come to understand that the thing I gave up was actually distance. I moved closer to God, moved closer to people, moved closer to understanding, and moved closer to being who I am supposed to be, so that I may do what I am for.

Easter: Risen

amywink April 1st, 2018

In the faces of our
fierce and brilliant youth
standing against
this petty darkness,
we see our rising.

In their faces, those we
have not forgotten,
those who walked,
those who worked,
and those who died,
we see our rising.

Together, we stand
at the threshold
of our promised land,
this life we enter
now forever changed,
knowing we will
not turn back.

We are together rising,
this fierce and unrelenting hope.

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