Saturday, August 10, 2013

Your People and the Importance of Finding Them

I've been thinking a lot about community lately—and here I'm going to be talking about the writing community in particular and the poetry community in particular-particular, but I think the non-writers in my vast audience can probably generalize this to their own pursuits. I know that it's because I've only been back from my Connecticut poetry conference for a week and I'm still living with one foot in each world, as it were. I have not yet come fully home. I am simultaneously, as I said to a friend, home (and blessedly so) and homesick. Because the importance of being with people who understand what you do cannot be overstated.

I first felt this when I went to Stonecoast, the low-residency program where I got my M.F.A. in creative writing. I started the program in July of 2005, and I will never forget the feeling of home that I felt there almost immediately. The women who were on the same floor of the dorm with me that week have become some of my closest friends, so there's that, but it wasn't just that I found a group of funny, talented women to hang out with. It was that for the first time in my life (I turned 36 that week), I felt like I was with "My People." Before Stonecoast, if someone asked me what I did, I didn't tell them I was a poet—I told them I was a writer. They all, almost without exception, asked me if I was writing the next Harry Potter. If I chose to further explain that I was a poet, there was often a long pause, as if I had told them I was a funeral director or sold human body parts on the black market. Then, if I was lucky, they would change the subject. More often than not, though, they would say, "Oh…I hate poetry."

Great. Thanks for that insight.

I'm not sure why I felt responsible for whether people liked the art I'd chosen to become involved with—or the art that had chosen me, I suppose. If I'd become a sculptor, I doubt I would have felt the need to be cagey about it. Or if I'd been a stonemason or a painter or a lounge singer (I would have made a fantastic lounge singer, but that's another post for another day, and I like my weekends free at any rate). Going to Stonecoast changed all that, because the questions there came from other writers. And while most people know how to write, we don't all know how to write. Non-writers sometimes have trouble grasping that, but I'm not sure why—everyone has, at some point, recognized bad writing, haven't they? Or recognized writing so good it blows your mind? Stonecoast was the first time I was asked about my writing by people who understood the answers as writers. And while there were some people there who hated poetry, they were largely respectful enough to keep their mouth shut about it, because they understood that even if they didn't care for the genre, they cared for the work.

I've felt similar things at similar places since—I made a couple more really good friends at the Frost Place in Franconia, NH, and then solidified those friendships and expanded them to include others at the Connecticut conference, which now includes a bunch of poets I call my friends. Two of these friends, I should mention, were at Stonecoast with me. One of them was in my dorm suite that very first summer, and the other is the reason I went to the Frost Place to begin with, which means that she's also the reason I ended up in Connecticut. In short, I owe an awful lot to Stonecoast, and not just in terms of the student loans.

So this is all a long prelude to the important shit, which is here: you need to find Your People. I don't care who those People are. I often wonder if accountants have as much fun at their conferences as writers do at theirs. I seriously, seriously doubt it, but how do I know? And yes, there are writers who are jerks—egocentric, obnoxious, overly-serious, power hungry (which cracks me up, especially in the poetry community, because really…there's so little power there to struggle for. Poetry is essential to the human spirit, but that's not the kind of power I'm talking about. We struggle with ourselves for that kind of power—nobody else can take it from or yield it to us). And I'm going to share with you the secret for dealing with those sorts of writers. Are you ready? You might want to sit down, if you're not doing so already. Okay, here goes:

Don't hang out with the jerks. The jerks are not Your People.

Your People want to support you, not use you. Your People want to support you because they love the accounting and they respect the accounting and they want you to be as good at it as you possibly can be. They want you to grow and learn, yes, and that makes for some difficult conversations, yes, but they also want to revel in your successes. Your People want to be so blown away by what you do that all they can manage afterwards is a string of obscenities (okay, so maybe that's just writers). They will, in all likelihood, eventually love you, and you will love them. You have been warned.

This does not come without some sacrifices on your part. You need to be willing, first of all, to be known. It doesn't mean that you need to air all your dirty laundry in public, or clip your toenails in front of the other accountants, or tell them when you have your period or if you've got a weird lump on the back of your knee that's worrying you. It's best if you remember to chew with your mouth closed (because being known requires sharing food with people—you understand that, right? Eating is one of the most basic human rituals, and I don't mean knowing which fork to use). But you do need to be open to being understood. You need to be willing to risk being unaccepted for any number of reasons (you won't be—if you've chosen Your People correctly, you won't be, and if you've chosen them incorrectly, then what does it matter if they accept you or not?). You need to know that things can get ugly, and you need to know that the worst thing that happens when they see you ugly is that they will have seen you ugly.

My poet friends have, between them, seen my ugly crying face (because, dear readers, I do not cry pretty). They have seen how easily I sprout horrific bruises. They have watched me struggle with non-poetry work, with poetry, with grief, with marital spats (not that we ever have those, because our marriage is perfect, right?), with jealousy and rage and shame. Some of them have seen me run (also not pretty) or, worse, AFTER a run (seriously not pretty). They have been present when an errant seatbelt unbuttoned my blouse, when I had something hanging from my nose, when I have opened my mouth when it should have been shut (that happens a lot, though, so it's not really all that surprising).

So fine, Ruth, I can hear you saying. This is friendship. What does this have to do with whether I hang out with other accountants or not?

I'm not sure. One of the reasons why I'm writing this is an attempt to clarify it for myself. I can tell you that something is essentially different when you are with people who do what you do. Part of it is that you don't have to explain that part of yourself, I suppose. Part of it is that the people involved with any endeavor have a shorthand that can make communication faster—which makes more time for opening yourself up to meaningful conversations. The important part, for me, is that other writers—and other poets even more so—understand something that is a huge part of me, but that the non-writers in my life cannot completely understand. And I'm lucky, in terms of being a poet—my non-writing friends and family appreciate what I do, respect what I do, and take it seriously. A lot of writers, and perhaps the vast majority of writers, especially those who have no real hope of commercial success (which is the default measure of success in this society), don't have that level of support. Jed has twice—TWICE—supported us financially so that I could concentrate on my work. His idea, both times. I never would have asked it of him. Despite the fact that it often poses challenges to him, he cheerfully sends me off to retreats and conferences so that I can be with other writers. There have been years, like after the deaths of my father-in-law and Turquoise, where I did not want to leave, and he talked me into it. And he was completely right to do so.

In other words, I have the most supportive non-writer community that I can imagine, and it is still a necessary luxury for me to be with other poets. Intensively, exclusively, extensively with other poets (and that's more adverbs than you can probably find in all of my poems combined, so you know I mean it). It recharges me creatively. It teaches me and allows me to teach. It saves my poetic life, again and again. It gives me material and focus that lasts me well into the intervening year. And it strengthens us as a community—my writing community lives all over this giant country of ours, and in other countries as well, although the Connecticut group I just left is mostly based on the East Coast—so that our lesser interactions, via email and Facebook and Skype and phone calls, are more likely to happen, and have more meaning when they do.

So find Your People, people. Find them, and allow yourself to be found. Talk accounting with them all night long, over a really good bottle of wine (or the best bottle of wine you can find for under 15 bucks. Whatever). Talk about the things you're passionate about beyond accounting. Ask a lot of questions and listen to the answers instead of waiting for your chance to speak. Open a second bottle if that's what it takes. And when you find them, recognize them. Tell them you've recognized them. Make the effort to stay connected with them. The worst that will happen is that they'll turn out not to be Your People, and you'll need to find new People. The best that can happen is a miracle.

Five Things that Don't Suck, Random Edition

1. being married to a guy who will just pick up a book called The Body in Pain from the library and not ask any questions
2. not being the body in question
3. sleeping in a little
4. starting a new day without any songs stuck in my head
5. sweat

Friday, August 9, 2013

Five Things that Don't Suck, Coming Back Edition

1. talking shop
2. wanting to talk shop again
3. long runs
4. wanting to run long again
5. semicolons, used responsibly

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Five Things that Don't Suck, Genius Edition

1. the genius I married
2. being smart enough to recognize him for the genius he is
3. how very, very brilliant he is
4. basking in that brilliance
5. sea otters

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Five Things that Don't Suck

1. beautiful running weather
2. coming to terms
3. coming home
4. solid ground
5. days where a nap is unthinkable because of how much great stuff is happening

Monday, August 5, 2013

Five Things that Don't Suck, Post-Concert Edition

1. the insane technique (?) of Smashmouth's keyboardist
2. the Gin Blossoms' commitment to the tambourine. And to alcohol.
3. Mark McGrath's knock-kneed, hip-swinging dance moves
4. Sugar Ray's cover of "Blister in the Sun" (and no, I'm not kidding)
5. Fastball's lyrics

Sunday, August 4, 2013

On Returning and Being Returned

This is not the post I started writing yesterday. I returned from a week-long poetry conference yesterday afternoon, and have spent the hours since trying to describe this singular experience. I don't know that I can, partly because its singularity involves so many aspects: it's homegrown and self-managed (we have no leader, though we do have a fulcrum who knows who she is even if she doesn't want to admit it); it's the most respectful—and therefore trustworthy and therefore trusting—group of writers I've ever been privileged to work with; have I mentioned the sheer talent? and brains?; it's focused but free; it's serious but never self-important. These are some of the smartest, funniest, most talented people I've ever met, and it's a blessing to be included in their company. We started at the Frost Place in New Hampshire, and developed our own conference from there. We just completed our third year together in this configuration, and we have the dates set for 2014. But the ins and outs of the way the week works (and it does work, beautifully) are not important to anyone but those of us who were there, and perhaps some of the people who love us.

If you've been reading, you know I've been struggling to come to terms with my cousin Turquoise's death last spring. I have had times of clarity and times of utter bafflement, been knocked down by how funny she was and how beautiful, been blindsided by waves of grief that come from nowhere in the middle of an otherwise pleasant encounter—while reading a book, say, or having a laughter-filled conversation with friends. It's been further complicated by the fact that Jed lost his dad almost exactly a year before Turquoise died—a death I also grieved, and continue to grieve, deeply. When Turquoise died, Jed found himself asked to relinquish his mourning in favor of mine—not a spoken request, not even an implied request, it was simply his understanding of what I needed. Neither of us was capable of fully making this switch, of taking on the roles in the grieving process into which we would have naturally fallen otherwise.

As a poet, the past couple of years have left me a little stranded. I spent an intense two months writing poems for Turquoise, as if I needed to get everything said as quickly and fully as possible despite the fact that time suddenly and terribly became a non-issue at some point during that process and the fact that I never had any intention of her reading them—though addressed to her, they are about my grief, not about her, and I wanted our last interactions to be about her, or at the very least about us. The writing was an internal drive, one that I didn't bother trying to understand or direct. And then I was done. The relatively few poems I've written since then are decidedly different from what I think of as my "regular" work—more sparse, more desperate, more exposed (as are the poems I wrote for Turquoise). I knew as I was choosing poems to bring to the workshop part of the conference that my recent work made my struggles clear in a way that I was not sure I was comfortable with, but I also knew that I trusted the people I'd be working with to respect the work, and to handle it with a view towards making it as strong as possible. Lesser poets, even—or perhaps especially—ones who love me as these poets do if such a thing is even possible, might have been intimidated by the task of doing justice to the material without hurting me on a personal, not artistic, level. Not these poets. Treating me like the dangerously fragile person I was trying not to become would have undone me, the way a hand placed in solace on an arm or a shoulder can make me cry when I am trying not to, only, I feared, in a much more fundamental and potentially permanent sense. I knew these poets would treat the poems not just as they should be treated, but as I needed them to be treated. And so I sent them. And when it came time to choose poems to read for the group, I saw again how stark I had become in my work, how much tension my poems held in an effort to contain grief and fears and my own conviction that some things needed to be spoken aloud (as it were), but that doing so had the power to unravel me beyond repair.

God, I've been depressed, I thought.

I spent an hour or so one afternoon sitting with a friend by the frog pond at the retreat center, talking poetry—his, mine, some of the work we'd seen in the workshop that day. As we talked, I realized that part of the difficulty I was having with these newer poems was my inability to distance myself from them in the way I usually can. I firmly believe that there is a clear and essential difference between the speaker of a poem and the poet, and that to assume otherwise is a recipe for disaster as a reader. I flaunt this belief as often as possible, creating personas who allow me to explore other perspectives—even the poems I have written about real events and real losses often contain lies or details included because they strengthen the poem, because they make the poem feel more honest even if they are not themselves honest. Those invented details are often enough to give me—the poet—a distance from the work. And I have poems where having a non-me speaker allows me to explore human failings in a way that I would not be able to if I had to rely on my own direct experience, again because it creates a distance between me and the page (and if you know me at all as a poet, you know that I do love me some human failings).

The poems I've written over the last year and a half or so do not contain this distance, and most of them have no persona, no "speaker" that I can point to and say, "That is not me." And when I realized this during the conversation—a realization that came almost simultaneously with the emergence of the words from my mouth, as if someone else were speaking for me—I was flooded with the enormity of the potential of what I'm doing now. I saw possibilities in the work I'd created, and the tiny cracks of insight that had been forming on my work as a whole as I try to craft it into a new manuscript began to widen with a ferocity that was a little intimidating but also comforting. I am high from the relief of it, from the sudden certainty of what I am doing (although the how of it continues to elude me, and might well do so until one day I realize that I've simply done it and how doesn't matter).

It was good to be with poets who know me and my work, and who honor in me things I don't always honor in myself. It was good, for example, to be shown the hope in my recent poems—hope I did not deliberately include and did not recognize. It was good to be returned—and allow myself to be returned—to the giddy creativity I'm capable of when I am in the right place at the right time, and when being in love with the universe feels right and true instead of like a burden that carries with it the constant awareness of the overwhelming potential for staggering losses. And, on a side trip while driving my friend to the airport, it was good to return to the ocean, to my ocean, to the place that has been the seat of much of my grief, yes, but also the place that has been my source. There is solace there again, and maybe even peace. Yesterday, as we climbed around on the rocks, picking up seashells and stones, there was even joy. At any time over the past two years or so, if you had told me I had forgotten joy, I would have said you were wrong. But I was the one who was wrong, as I learned repeatedly over this past week. As we were leaving the beach, my friend thanked me for sharing it with him, this place that is my home ground and unmistakably the home ground of my poetry, and I told him I used to bring all the people I loved there. So above everything else, it's good to be able to do that again. You come, too.

Five Things that Don't Suck, Not Quite Prepared for Re-Entry Edition

1. paper clips
2. the tokens that remind us where we are, or who
3. knowing the difference between who and whom, but being okay with people who screw it up because of the further knowledge that "whom" is a dying breed
4. little missives from various parts of my world
5. that moment when the missing ends and the hugging begins