I haven’t had wifi for about a week. I was dog sitting, apartment hunting, getting a second job (part time), and moving the week prior. Sorry for my lack of posting. Service should resume next week. Thanks for bearing with me, I’m excited about the promised book review!
Yeats, Long Walks & the Influence of Reading Widely
I don’t know if there’s a place left in the world for nature poetry. I would like to hope there still is, although I don’t know what it would look like. Surely sprawling pastoral verse is gone. It seems trite to continue celebrating a natural state we have abandoned so long ago. There are microplastics floating in the very air we breathe and the water we drink. The world is on fire and underwater more now than ever before. The earth is sick and we are the disease. Maybe there’s a place for nature poetry, although it must adapt to the current state of things. Instead of celebratory in beauty or wondering in mystery, maybe we should lament; elegiac poems have a place for what once was. Maybe the fantastic can take hold, showing what could be or what will only ever be imagined. I want hope to be the foundation even in the midst of cautionary and dire warnings.
I guess my point is that I feel drawn to the natural and to poems about the natural, even as we become a relentlessly artificial society. I want big, shady trees, and grass between my toes, and the promise of place I may never go. Yet those places should remain unreached by all of humanity. I hope to achieve a deeper connection with the natural world, and in so doing, I want to recognize when to leave well enough alone. Just following this thought process inspired me to write the following:
Blue Marble Blues
It is home, and not quite home,
and as I stand alone—alone
beneath the sky and breathing air
that all the world and creatures share—
I know I share in this great earth
which we’ve valued as less than worth
the effort it takes to spare its ruin
(yet I know it’s all our doing);
this fever, this madness, this slow decay
will bring us, with Earth, to the end one day.
I always skew darker than I’d like when I consider turning these thoughts into a poem. I take comfort knowing that many poets revisit and rework their poems throughout their careers. Perhaps more experience and practice will allow me to shape the above poem into a more hopeful version of what it is now. We shall see (I swear this is my tagline now).
These thoughts were prompted by my recent reading, and a big trip out West (which I talked about here). I’ll be doing an in-depth review/analysis of A Conspiracy of Stars in the coming weeks, but this book, my current reading of W. B. Yeats’s work, and a new obsession with hiking (frustrated by too many obligations this summer) have led me to focus on poetry inspired by, and responding to, the natural world. Not that Yeats would be the first poet one would think of when considering poetry on nature, but I’ll get there. My reading up to now has been quite sharply focused on nature and how we view it, and react to it, especially in nonfiction. I suppose this is a consequence of being a Park and Resource Management student. Lately I’ve read, split by genre (sort of):
The End of Night
Mountains without Handrails
The Wild Muir
The Origins of Creativity
How It Ends: From You to the Universe
O’Keefe (art book)
The Genius of Birds
A Walk in the Woods
Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness
H is for Hawk
Leaves of Grass
A Conspiracy of Stars
Next, I’m jumping into Ravens in Winter. I’ve got a few other good ones on the TBR pile. A Conspiracy of Stars is the last book I finished, and while fiction it delves into a lot of what I was rambling about at the beginning of this post. It also touches on the question: Knowing what we know about our planet and how we’ve damaged it, would we do any better if we had a chance to start over with that knowledge? Like I said, I’ll get into that question in detail in my next post.
Here also is where Yeats comes into the discussion. Instead of the pastoral flavoring of Romantic influences, Yeats threads his poems with almost a kind of yearning for that earlier (e.g. mythic) past, which he knows is only really existent in his mind. Like longing for an unrequited love or expecting the glorious return of King Arthur, there is beauty in the memory, but no real hope of the thought achieving reality. It’s not so much of “what once was” as “what could’ve been,” wrapped up in the tone of Yeats’s work. Take a look at “Adam’s Curse” for example:
We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.’
That beautiful mild woman for whose sake
There’s many a one shall find out all heartache
On finding that her voice is sweet and low
Replied, ‘To be born woman is to know—
Although they do not talk of it at school—
That we must labour to be beautiful.’
I said, ‘It’s certain there is no fine thing
Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.
There have been lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
Precedents out of beautiful old books;
Yet now it seems an idle trade enough.’
We sat grown quiet at the name of love;
We saw the last embers of daylight die,
And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.
I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.
There’s a melancholy here, and a sense of time gone past and chances lost. The scene is “one summer’s end,” the close of a season and the turning toward the end of another year. “Since Adam’s fall” conjures up the perfection of a long gone past and the ruin that followed, up to the present. The phrase indicates the Biblical fall from grace of humanity, after which Adam and Eve were banished from the Edenic paradise. Following this pattern of language, the time of day is evening and the speaker watches as “the last embers of daylight die.” The summer is ending, the day is dying, the speaker and his companions are fallen creatures, subject to death and decay.
Then there is the consideration of the “old high way of love,” the courtly romance as lionized by stories of knights and ladies and noble deeds. The speaker calls up images of courtly behavior her and his companions only know from stories, from long forgotten history, and even here there is the sense that this history is more of a mythology (Arthurian archetype, again) viewed from the present through a lens which glorifies the distant past beyond reality. The speaker seems to acknowledge this, but speaks of it nonetheless. The last two lines betray this knowledge of time marching on and memories of the past not being what they seem. And the speaker admits, “That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown/ As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.” They’re perhaps yearning after something that is no longer there, and worse, may never have been.
Now is the “so what” of this whole thing. I said I’ve been thinking about long walks, and these in the woods. Follow my thoughts. What we view as the wild isn’t the real wild. The closest you can get to that is the back end of Siberia or somewhere above the Brooks Range in Alaska, or maybe not-yet-mapped tributary of the Amazon River. Humanity’s fingerprints are everywhere; we’re good at shaping the world around us, for better or worse. But! when we consider that what we view as wild now is not the true wild that begs the question: What is? Is it any remaining wilderness pre-Industrial Revolution? pre-Transatlantic exploration? pre-Christianity? Pre- pre- pre- all the way down to prehistory. But what then? Humans were shaping the world before writing existed, and what we know isn’t known from experience or memory, but from written and archaeological records.
Following this distance from the first humans, huddled together in a shallow cave through the night sometime before fire was known, we return the question I asked earlier. In response to reading A Conspiracy of Stars, with distance from the ruined earth, but knowledge of how it was destroyed and the ability to do better, will we do better? Or will we long for the imagined past, where we gloss over the ruination for a dose of nostalgia and longing for what it never really was but how we choose to remember it? I’m looking forward to diving deeper into this book in my next post. The second book in the series, An Anatomy of Beasts, by Olivia Cole, is out already and I’m looking forward to reading it too.
I hope you can follow my thoughts here. They’re a bit scattered, reaching back to pre-fire humanity and forward to the stars beyond our Earth-bound home, and trying to connect some important dots in between. Maybe we should act like getting off this rock is not a viable option, quit worrying about what’s gone, and start trying to do better by what remains. We don’t know exactly what we’ve lost, but we do know what is left to lose. Let’s value it a little higher.
*from William Butler Yeats: Selected Poems and Four Plays, M.L. Rosenthal, ed. (4th ed.)
She kept her heart
a secret garden
full of weeds,
beautiful though behind
Thorns and brambles
the old pathways
wound lush and green.
I found this poem–crossed out–in the back of an old notebook. I like it. It fits my current mood. I have no idea how old it is. Please enjoy!
The phrase “Kill your darlings” makes any writer want to run and hide when it comes time to edit our work. I’m here to tell you: it hurts, it certainly does sting like the dickens to kill those darling scenes you’ve written, those turns of phrase that speak beauty to the soul of the writer but which serve no purpose in the present story. I’m also here to tell you that time heals most wounds.
I am (even still) in the throes of edits with my first novel. I have cut my little book baby up, and pastiched it back together with found parts. It’s not a monster for all the nips and tucks I’ve performed on it, however, far from that. My story is improving with each pass and each brutal cut excised from the saggy middle, and I’ve been adding bits here and there as well. I was, admittedly, very intimidating by the prospect of editing something as gargantuan as my whole novel. I had every right to be; it was unwieldy, I was close enough to be crushed under the weight of purple prose and extraneous scenes, or lost in swirling plot holes—a mile wide and bottomless as the abyss. Then I found some advice on the lovely internet (lovely that day, as I was seeking help and found it, miracle-of-miracles) that, though intended for the outlining and planning of as-yet-unwritten novels, still served me well in organizing the mess that was my current draft.
Here I will share the link to the original post, and how I adapted it to suit my editing, rather than planning, needs.
I didn’t do sticky notes because I wanted this to be portable. The writer of that post recommended focusing on specific key moments in the story, and building from there. They are nested within the three-act structure, as follows:
Act II: Part One
Act II: Part Two
Help from an outside source
These are the catalyst moments of a novel. The scenes are the individual steps that bridge the spaces between them. The number of scenes between each of these key scenes can vary widely depending on your pacing, plot, and style of writing. I happened to write seventeen scenes each for Act I, Act II: Part One, and Act III. Act II: Part Two only has ten scenes. Don’t ask me how that happened. It is what the story wanted to look like as I went through and really figured out where things were going and how quickly they were getting there. I think it’s because the tension ramps up after the midpoint, as the plot begins to unravel toward Act III and the climax of the story. All the story arcs are coming together. I wrote scenes based on what stuck out in my memory from my story, without consulting my draft at all. I allowed myself to forget some things to leave room to create new things. I’m confident only the essential parts remain.
Now that I have a solid look at what each scene contains and where it lives within the larger narrative, I can drill down and work on a scene by scene basis for now. My draft is still rough enough that I can do spot work and leave the rest relatively unscathed. In fact, I can make more improvements! My novel edits aren’t so intimidating anymore. After all, what’s the easiest way to eat an elephant?
One bite at a time.
I went through my scenes list and located all the completely new scenes, ones that had not existed until I did this exercise and learned what was missing that needed to be included to fill major gaps in the plot and further character development. Those will be my first task: writing these new scenes to fit into the rest of the novel.
Next, I’ll isolate scenes that I’ve changed in some way, or that need to be changed to keep the narrative flow intact or that will improve the story with some change. I call these broken scenes will need to be corrected or edited to go with the direction of the novel as a whole. Lastly, I’ll go through the draft and remove the scenes that didn’t make it to the scene list. These are dead weight. I’m hoping after working so hard to clean up my novel with new and improved scenes that it will hurt less to cut the ones that aren’t necessary, no matter how much I labored over them.
Don’t delete those scenes entirely. I’ve said it before: create a folder for these orphaned darlings. We don’t have to go killing wantonly anymore. I have a dedicated homeless scenes folder where I go for inspiration on new projects by sifting through the detritus of previous work. You never know what darling may make an encore appearance.
Just don’t let it come back to haunt you…
That’s the recap on editing, and some helpful hints and tips I’ve picked up on the journey. Let me know if you try any of these or have other tips you’re willing to share with fellow writers.
Keep on scribbling!
I’m slogging through edits on my novel. It’s been quite the interesting ride, molding this decade-old idea into the semblance of a book, and I have some thoughts on the process as I dial in to the bitter end of working on it.
First: First novels are hard. This is not a secret. Even after writing a few others and getting a better feel for how to tell a cohesive story, it is hard. It’s even harder to go back to my first book and gut it in order to tell the story it was supposed to be when I began it so long ago. I didn’t have the tools or the knowledge then that I have now. Hopefully in another ten years I can say the same thing about, say, a fifth novel that I’m editing. I want exponential improvement. I’ll be happy with incremental progress.
Second: Sometimes, you have to go back to the beginning. I’m currently gazing on the chasm of a miles wide and infinitely deep plothole situation. My solution? Outline the thing. I’ve allowed myself to make critical changes and throw whole story arcs out the window in order to better the book. I’ve been a pantser for my entire writing career, but I have to say it is quite the relief to start tabula rasa and let the story form organically, yet with a critical underlying skeleton. I am having a much easier time handling various character arcs and narrative threads this way. It’s not a detailed outline, just a scene list to keep me on track.
Third: I still must be kind to myself. The more I learn, the easier this gets. The more I ignore what I’ve learned and return to old habits, the harder it is to hold on to the joy of writing. I love the creativity, but I have to force myself to adhere to structure when editing, and in making time to edit, and I sometimes get down on myself. This is the “business” side that some people do not like. I enjoy it best when I step back to see the bigger picture of my progress. I focus on the improvements made to the story rather than the often agonizing process of making those tough decisions.
It also helps to imagine seeing my novel on a bookstore shelf. That’s a goal I can get behind.
Speaking of goals…I plan to finish my scene outline this month, and develop a list of scenes to fix/add/cut from that so I’ll have a clear idea of what work needs doing in July. Wish me luck!
My posting schedule has been nothing but spotty and inconsistent since I started this blog. I always hoped to post once a week and delve into a variety of topics on regular rotation. The reality has been much different. I don’t think it’s a lack of ideas, or time, or even motivation. It may have to do with a lack of focus. I’ve been feeling down quite often lately. If I bothered to get a proper diagnosis I might find I have some situational depression at the very least. Armchair psychology aside, I want to do better at the writing business in general. To do so, I must find my focus. I have to look at why I continue to persist in this pursuit if it doesn’t seem to be enough in itself to keep me focused. Am I just lacking in self-motivation?
I want to write. I want this to be my career, alongside whatever I’ll be doing with my master’s degree. Writing is something I’ve always enjoyed, and I believe it is something I’m good at. I just haven’t hit on the rhythm that works for me, on what drives me to pursue the goal even when my focus is trying to go elsewhere.
Thanks for stopping by and listening. Habits are hard to develop, but I’m trying to put in the effort. That may mean more posts and longer hours at a computer every day. So it goes.
National Parks, Reading Goals, & Walk to Mordor Update
I returned last week from a trip to three national parks in California. This was organized by one of my graduate professors, and was, hands down, one of the best camping trips I’ve been on. We visited Death Valley NP, Sequoia & King’s Canyon NP (SEKI henceforward), & Yosemite NP on a ten-day round trip through the region. We started and ended in Las Vegas, which was its own weird kind of magical when we first descended on Sin City, but the shiny wore off for most of us upon returning from the woods. A fake Eiffel Tower simply can’t compare to the magnificence of Half Dome, nor can a dancing fountain hold up to the thunder of Yosemite Falls. I’ll tell you what…
Better yet, in the same way that I shared my trip to Arizona several years ago, I want to show you. Behold! pictures:
I also posted a few related pictures with nice captions on my Instagram. Go check it out here:
I also read nearly an entire book during my flights to Las Vegas. I chose Edward O. Wilson’s The Origins of Creativity because I haven’t gotten my hands on Biophilia yet, honestly. I wanted to get into the mindset of inspiration before getting into such inspiring landscapes. I purchased The Wild Muir: Twenty-two of John Muir’s Greatest Adventures, selected and introduced by Lee Stetson. Stetson is an actor at Yosemite who portrays John Muir for various programs in the park and around the country. I didn’t know this when I bought the book at SEKI; I happened to see a park ranger flipping through it. That sold me. I got the chance to see one of Stetson’s programs in Yosemite, but I forgot to have him sign my book when I spoke to him afterwards. Regrets! I really enjoyed his show, and how he interpreted Muir’s tales. I had only read a few of the stories before going, and it stoked me to finish reading the book, which I did on the return drive to Las Vegas. That book didn’t even make it to the flight. Fortunately, I bought another book! This one, Gloryland, is by Yosemite park ranger and NPS legend, Shelton Johnson. This one is signed! I own a signed book by an author I have met. Johnson earned a literature degree in his undergrad before switching to the park service as a career. Hey, this gives me hope. I met several rangers on this trip with a similar trajectory. I haven’t finished this one yet, however the writing is excellent and the story is intriguing. Shelton does a program as a Buffalo soldier, which is also what his novel is about. I don’t know much about the Buffalo Soldiers, but I will when I’m done reading. They are tied to the history of Yosemite, hence Shelton’s book. I’m finally getting some reading done.
I also got some miles in for Walk to Mordor. This trip occurred during the last days of May and the first week of June. I logged 22 miles in May. I logged 36 miles in June, with 14 and some change on a single day! I need just over 20 miles to get to Old Man Willow and 23.28 to reach Tom Bombadil’s house. That is also the 98-mile marker. I think a previous post said that was like walking to Wheeling, WV from my house. I’ll have to cross-check that.
Basically, I got a lot of walking, reading, and sightseeing done on this trip. It was wonderful.