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Sometimes It Feels Good to Let Go

My most satisfying piece of writing (or writing experience) was 40+ pages of fiction that I eventually trashed. Not literally. It’s collecting digital dust in my digital archive somewhere.

So why did I write 40+ pages of fiction, you ask. Mostly because I like to add plus signs to numbers to casually indicate approximate quantities, but I was also working on my undergraduate senior writing project. It was a two-semester writing requirement to complete my B.A. in Creative Writing. What made it (a little more) daunting was that I was mostly a poet at that point and had only written fiction for the two or three classes/workshops that required it. But I am a narrative poet, so storytelling came quite naturally. What did not come naturally was sustaining a narrative for more than a few stanzas. It was like going from being a sprinter to a marathoner. And all sorts of things need to be managed on that same longitudinal scale when writing 40+ pages. Plot, setting, character development, pacing. Even finding enough language was rough. I was used to every word counting in a poem. Sustaining that kind of “charged” language in a short story would not only be tedious, it would be ridiculous.

But there I was, cranking out 40+ pages of fiction. I had an epigraph, an idea and a character, and I ran with it. The result, based on the feedback from my workshop group, was something that was sometimes artful, sometimes beautiful, but mostly it was a lot of description of a guy riding his horse through the woods with some occasional flashbacks to his past. At the time, it was monumental (in a good way). But when I had to try to move that story forward and maintain that descriptive mode, it was monumental (in a bad way). I started to panic, I felt that I had made a mistake, I remembered to breathe.

I thought about the stories that had inspired me or given me the courage to write my story. The two essential pieces of literature for me at that time were “Michael Kohlhaas” by Heinrich von Kleist and “The Passion” by Jeanette Winterson. They are very different tales, but the strange, dreaminess in Winterson and the righteous violence in von Kleist helped me reformulate my approach to the tale I wanted to tell. My first move was to let go of those 40+ pages and start fresh. I ended up with 9 pages that weren’t very descriptive, but they were telling a good story.

The satisfaction in this experience was twofold. I learned to be able to let go of a substantial piece of writing that wasn’t accomplishing what I knew I wanted to do, and I took a few steps towards being able to manage all the parts of a good story. That new (to me) mode of writing, that reassessing of style and content, allowed me to produce four mini-stories, each with its own protagonist but each connected chronologically and geographically to the previous tale. I enjoyed the challenge and the process and the outcome. One day I’ll revisit those pages and maybe even be inspired to tell that tale again.

 

NOTE: As per usual, it wouldn’t be a CWE grad assistant blogpost (head nod to Meg DeJong) without a music reference. My folktale was partially inspired by the English folksong “John Barleycorn.” As with any folksong, there are many variations. My first encounter with it was the version performed by Traffic (“John Barley Corn Must Die”). The song is about John Barleycorn, a personification of the cereal crop, barley. He suffers at the hands of all the people involved in the processing of the grain, from the farmer to the miller to the consumer. It’s full of themes such as revenge, violence, sacrifice, resurrection, alcoholism and scapegoating. All of that influenced my story, and some of the scenes of violence in the Traffic song reappear pretty blatantly in my tale as well. It was difficult to deal with violence in my story. I didn’t want it to become a purely shock-value element, but I didn’t want to “turn the lights off” during those moments either. It was also difficult from a realism standpoint, just finding the words to portray the scenes believably.

Anti-climactic.

“You’re so slick, honey, Know every trick now
You know I want it, I want it so bad
You know I need it, I can’t believe it
So come on baby, Please relieve it

Got to give it to me
You got to give it to me” – J. Geils Band, Give it to Me

“But I’m in so deep. You know I’m such a fool for you.
You got me wrapped around your finger, 

Do you have to let it linger? Do you have to, do you have to,
Do you have to let it linger?” – The Cranberries, Linger

 

What the hell is satisfying about writing? Am I ever even truly satisfied with anything I’ve written?

To steal a story that a classmate told recently, the poet Charles Wright used to read Poe while drinking wine late at night, and “feel intense about intensity” before he wrote anything down himself. If there’s anything satisfying about writing, it’s that: those intense feelings of intensity.

That’s at its most and least abstract.

More specifically, satisfying could mean fulfilling a desire/need, or freeing from doubt.

Writing does both and neither. It promises to fulfill a desire and withdraws at the last moment, leaving traces of provocation.

It attempts to convince, but never succeeds, especially if you’re a liar or magician yourself and see it coming.

But that’s where the real satisfaction lives, in the tease and the trick.

I suppose that all writing I do fulfills a desire and a need, but once it’s fulfilled it doesn’t go away…making it not really fulfilled at all. Writing – the need to write, the act of writing, the abrupt stop of all writing – is endlessly there (and not just because I’m a grad student). Every time I write in a journal something funny or cute that my son said is satisfying. Every time I write down another source for my thesis research, it’s satisfying. Every 20 page paper I complete for a course (so far 6 or 7) is satisfying. Every poem I urgently write after semester’s end is satisfying. Being humorous, rebellious, cantankerous, occasionally intelligent and always weird in my writing is satisfying.

There are pieces of writing that I’m particularly satisfied with, which is to say that I’m not satisfied with them at all. There are pieces of my writing that really dissatisfy me, which is to say that I’m totally satisfied with them.

Satisfaction is different than satiety. Gluttons and martyrs know the difference.

And appetites replenish.

 

Chased by my laughter

I once wrote an Ars Poetica-style letter to my mentor. I’m a weird guy, I know. But in there, and I’ll misquote myself, I say something along the lines of writing is like “moving my hand through a river of pages, chasing something shining wet with my childlike laughter.” That’s not even close, but you get the gist of it.

In truth,

who I am as a writer is a little bit like a mash-up song…

 

“It’s a little bit funny, this feeling inside. I’m not one of those who can easily hiiiii…”

“iiiiighway to Hell! I’m on the Highway to Hell! No-oo stop sign, speed limit! No…”

“…where man, living in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody, making all his nowhere…”

“plan keeps coming up again. The plan means nothing stays the same, but the plan won’t accomplish anything, if it’s not implemented, like it’s always been, and it makes me think of…”

“everyone’s afraid of their own lives. If you could be anything you want, I bet you’d be disappointed. Am I right? Am I right, am I right, am I…”

“Right now!..it’s your tomorrow…Right now!…Come on, it’s everything!…Right…”

“round baby, right round, like a record, baby, right round, round round. I got to be your friend now, baby, and I would like to move in just a little bit…”

“closer to God. Through every forest above the trees. Within my stomach, scraped off my knees. I drink the honey inside your hive. You are the reason I…”

“Staayyyy. Just a little bit longer. Now the promoter don’t mind, and the roadies don’t mind. If we take a little time, and we leave it all behind, and sing one more…”

“song to pass the time. Yeah, a melody to keep me from worrying. Or some simple progression to keep my fingers busy, and words that are sure to come back to me. And they’ll be laughing, and they’ll be laughing. My mediocrity. My mediocrity…”

 

Featured in this mash-up: Elton John, AC/DC, the Beatles, Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, Van Halen, Dead or Alive, Nine Inch Nails, Jackson Browne, Bright Eyes

“Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, Missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you.”

At any given moment Meg the Writer is

The bridge in “Get on Up”, stardust, syrupy pancakes, a teacup (with only honey), puffs, seaweedy sea foam, the last stick of Bubble Yum, a .22 snub nose in a black lace garter (must be close to shoot), multivitamins, a book with the corners gnawed off, pie, clenched teeth, dusty sunglasses, Duck Soup, fingerpaint, funk and pillow forts, red poppies, sliced lemons in cold drinks, a ring twisting on a finger (nervously), the smell of baking cookies and cars being fixed, banana split smush, alien toes, Raoul Duke, assorted cheeses, never (sometimes) pencils, stilettos, secular hallelujahs, lots of superglue (for the broken parts), occasional whiskey, shaking moneymakers, umbrellas and bubbles, ripe peaches, antibacterial soap, a (sold) red Stratocaster and Peavey amp, ctrl alt delete, moisturizer, not enough water, bad bearings, El Duderino, discarded crusts, breezes when you most need one, (lost) hair ties, several times broken thumbs and chipped elbows, a king sized bed, slightly moist dirt, channeled Claudia Cardinale, greasy diner menus, the number 3, a (full) moon, silver silk, grilled veggies, ballet shoes on flat feet, Blue Mountain Lake, quicks quarks and also quacks, lime green bumpers, homemade whipped cream, Japanese Maples, Spirographs, ancestors, stacked decks, dried paintbrushes, nakedness, spoons, (disregarded) double yellows, one very delicate item (love), and lots of unmentionables as I’ve already mentioned.

Backlog Blog #2

I would like to state that anger doesn’t manifest in my writing…

“Sometimes I feels so nice, good god
I jump back, I wanna kiss myself”

–James Brown, “Super Bad”

…but it’s a little more complicated than that.
“Yes No. Maybe. I don’t know. Could you repeat the question.”
–They Might Be Giants, “Boss of Me”

For me, anger is that emotion that I don’t deal well with. I deflect, avoid, withdraw, suppress. I can it up, label it and save it for the apocalypse. It’s a wrench in my mental works, or a stick in my spokes, or whatever they say. It stops my machinery. I get gummed up and bogged down by anger. Sure, over the years I’ve had my moments: shouting at walls, punching a door, slamming a door, getting in someone’s face. But 99% of it is passive-aggressive. Even in the few spots where I actually “write angry,” I go back and revise my emotions. In writing, recognizing and modifying emotional manifestations is an exercise in tone.

 

“You know, you really make my life difficult when you can’t even bother to do some dishes when you’re home all day.”

vs.

“Hey. I’d really appreciate it if you could just wash a few dishes at some point in the day. I am having trouble keeping up on them by myself.”

 

Mind you, this is when you have the chance to revise a text. Anger, when spoken, is more difficult to recover. I have used this technique of modified tone when writing emails or memos to coworkers. I certainly consider tone when I write poetry, but I don’t consider anger. Maybe it’s the Incredible Hulk in the room that I refuse to acknowledge, or maybe human emotions are more complex. We like to distinguish ANGER as if it were a pure thing we could identify when we see it:

Image result for angry face

For all we know this guy is straining to lift some heavy weights or is in the midst of celebrating the game-winning goal he just scored. He could be really scared.

The point is, it’s not that easy to know what anger is. When we add words, it only gets more complicated. That’s why we have so many ways to qualify and modify it: irritated, pissed off, furious, livid, annoyed, miffed, peeved, apoplectic. Anger is just an inaccurate idea attached to one vaguely defined dimension of the spectrum of human emotions. Also, it’s all sorts of tangled up with everything else we feel and know and do. So sure, anger manifests itself in my writing. It probably manifests itself in my every waking moment in one way or another (maybe it’s just a byproduct of driving in NJ), but it’s not some simple, singular thing. That we try to hem it in with language is kind of futile and kind of beautiful. I’m sure anger has its place. I’ll let you know when I find it.

Backlog Blog #1

What consumes me is a compelling story.

It’s why I read volumes of poorly written fantasy novels, i.e. Robert Jordan, John Marco, Terry Goodkind, Stephen King. (Sorry kids, no George R. R. Martin)

It’s why I can “endure” some “bad” vocals for the sake of good lyrics:

“William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll
With a cane that he twirled ‘round his diamond ring finger”
—Bob Dylan

“Eating snowflakes with plastic forks,
And a paper plate, of course. You think of everything.
Short love with a long divorce,
And a couple of kids. Of course, they don’t mean anything.”
—Isaac Brock

“There’s a middle aged woman, she’s dragging her feet.
She carries baskets of clothes to a laundromat.
While the Mexican children kick rocks into the streets,
and they laugh in a language I don’t understand. But I love them.”
—Conor Oberst.

It’s why I can’t stand a pretty song with bad lyrics (a.k.a. the lyrics to almost every song I have ever tried to write).

  • Ex. Bad lyrics:
    I had a dream
    You were waiting for me
    On the other side of sleep
    But these blankets and sheets
    They are empty
  • Ex. Good lyrics:
    There’s a cigarette in his left hand, there’s a picture of her
    in the darkest little corner of his mind.
    He rolls down the window, and lets those memories float
    out with the ash over the highway

It’s why I write narrative poetry even if people think that stories don’t belong in poems.

  • Ex. Narrative poem (in progress):“I am in the backyard again, dreaming with my hands / plunged into the dirt. I hold the marvelous collapse / of everything in my fingers. My father mows the lawn”

It’s why I fell in love with Haruki Murakami’s novel, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. I like my stories a little dark, a little unbelievable, a little complex. I like my characters to be complicated and difficult to read. I like it better when they’re not cool, when they’re the underdog, when they have guts and doubts and a little touch of madness.

It’s about stories, storytelling, stories within stories, recollection, memory. Tell me a story, tell me your story. Tell me again. Tell me the best parts. Now tell me the worst parts. Now tell me the truth. Now start from the beginning. Pretend there’s no ending. Pretend you’ll continue tomorrow. The lights are off, but I can’t sleep. I read a story from my own past. I had forgotten almost nothing. I was consumed anyway.

“Says she wants to dance to a different groove, Now you know what to do G bust a move”

Currently consuming me are: one self-study, a paper related to the National Writing Project, a paper applying Foucault’s “Birth of the Prison” and “Power/Knowledge” to the literary canon, a paper on Whitman’s counter-counterculture within “Song of Myself” and “Bardic Symbols”, a research symposium presentation and research on the cognitive benefits of humor in the writing center. I think “that’s it.”

Enter the warring Megs, one with OCD and another who just wants to play. Neither one can totally shut off.

“Slim lined sheik faced
Angel of the night
Riding like a cowboy
In the graveyard of the night
New York witch in the dungeon
Of the day
I’m trying to write my novel
But all you do is play” – T. Rex, Baby Boomerang

Consume can mean taking up all your energy and attention oooorrrr it can mean “to completely destroy, as with fire.” I’m kind of an expert at walkin this line, it’s just more intensified right now.

So how do you walk the line?

You don’t, you dance it.

I’m writing now. I’m going to devote some serious time today to at least two of the aforementioned projects. But I’m also going to dance in my kitchen a lot randomly throughout the day and also when I cook later (another Zen way of walking that line).

Kitchen dance playlist (current, though constantly changing, asterisk indicates I get especially consumed and dance in a way that counts as cardio for the day):

“Signed, Sealed, Delivered” and “Superstitious” Stevie Wonder

“Trenchtown Rock” Bob Marley

“Son of a Preacher Man” Dusty Springfield

“You Sexy Thing” Hot Chocolate*

“All Night Diner” Modest Mouse (recently added, thanks Peter)

“Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker)” PFunk

“Bust a Move” Young MC   (Bust IT!)*

“Use Me” Bill Withers

“Jailhouse” and “Ball and Chain” Sublime

“Work it Out” Beyonce

“You Got the Love” Chaka Khan and Rufus

“What’d I Say (Pt. 1)” Ray Charles*

“Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” Sly and the Family Stone

“Dancing Days” STP version

“Got to Give It Up” Marvin Gaye

“Leavin Here” Pearl Jam version

“Think” Aretha

“Annie…” and “Back in the Day” Erykah Badu

“Pump it Up” Elvis Costello

“Gettin Jiggy Wit It” Phish version

“Groove Me” King Floyd*

“Green Onions” Booker T & the MGs

“Baby, It’s You” Smith

“Boom Boom” and “Don’t Bring Me Down” The Animals

“My Favorite Mutiny” and “We are the Ones” The Coup

 

I double dog dare you to put any of these on and not dance. Try it. Be consumed. Hell, come to my kitchen if you want. Have a drink. Laugh at me dancing.

Then go back to being consumed.

Tutus make the experience even better (FYI)

Tutus make the experience even better, FYI. This is an actual portrait.

The Works of George Saunders

About a year ago I watched a PBS documentary about George Saunders, an American short story fiction writer.

writer

From there I was led to a google search of a commencement speech he gave at Syracuse University titled “Err on the Side of Kindness.”  The main point of the speech was a rethinking of the usual commencement  thesis that advises graduates to go out and succeed; conquer the world; go get it!  Saunders told the graduates, that yes they should do all those things, but more important, most important, is, in the process of all the decisions they will be making, career choices, relationship choices, power struggles, all of life’s challenges and tribulations, to be kind to all of the people they come across.  He put the speech into context by recalling a young girl who moved to his Chicago neighborhood and who was not treated kindly by the kids in the neighborhood.  Saunders looked back at that brief relationship with regret, and he asserted that the moments in life that the graduates would regret in the future would be those in which they were mean, not nice, to the people they encounter.  I was moved by the speech and I am not giving the speech its just due.  But here is a link to the full speech. Err on the Side of Kindness – George Saunders.

From there I was intrigued and went to the best local book store in New Jersey, Montclair Book Center

Many of Saunders’ stories share common themes and patterns. They often move away from a linear structure and put the reader in the thought patterns of a character before returning to the story. They often involve the plight of outcasts in American society; the depressed, the poor, the bullied, the downtrodden.   And yet I have never read a funnier writer than George Saunders.  His stories make you feel empathy and sadness for his characters, yet always leave you laughing and wanting to tell a friend about the story you just read.

The story that sticks with me most “Sea Oak” which is written from the perspective of a male stripper who lives in a dangerous, low income housing complex, with his Aunt Bernie and his sister and cousin who both live at home with babies. I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but I will say that it takes magic realism to a new place; a scary place; a hysterical place, full of surprises that make you reflect on your own life, while sympathizing with all of the characters in the apartment.   “Sea Oak”can be found in a book of Saunders’ short stories called “Pastoralia.”  Here is a link:  Sea Oak – George Saunders.

If you enjoy it, please go out an support this great author at a local, privately owned book store like Montclair Book Center.

I have at times been consumed by authors; Vonnegut, Hunter Thompson, Lydia Lunch come to mind.  But George Saunders has reinvigorated by thirst for literature in a way that no writer has before.  Thanks George!

Struggling with the Rights of the Author

The piece of writing that consumes me as of late is the memoir of my late Colleague and friend Rien Niemandson. I am only the editor of this piece, so I am simply writing the introduction, organizing, editing, and adding commentary in the way of notes, when I deem notes appropriate. However, I’m fining it difficult not to commandeer Niemandson’s narrative for my own purposes. There is always the danger of writing yourself in a story , in which you do not belong. However, Niemandson and I worked together at CCC and sadly, he took his own life on the one year anniversary of my father’s death. The intersections of the various parallels between Niemandson’s death and my father’s as well as his own life and my own life are making resisting the temptation to cross the line from editor to writer difficult to overcome. Thankfully, I have the help and support of my family to aid in this task. My Father has already penned the prologue to the text and my Grandfather has offered his services on the epilogue. I think this is the solution to all my problems. Three Norman’s are better than one.

I’M NOT MAD

HOW DO I MANIFEST MY ANGER IN WRITING? LIKE THIS. THIS IS ANGRY WRITING. WE ALL KNOW IT’S A SUREFIRE WAY TO LET SOMEONE KNOW YOU ARE YELLING IN TEXT FORM. YEAH, YOU HEARD ME – AND YOU DON’T EVEN NEED TO TURN UP THE VOLUME.

Although I do shoot out the occasional “ARE YOU [insert expletive] KIDDING ME?!” text (which often resolves nothing), I’ve found that angry writing can serve concrete and very beneficial purposes. Personally, I have a hard time writing anything unless I’m moved by some overwhelmingly intense emotion, with anger being one of them. Some of the best and most personal writing I’ve done has been initiated in fits of rage when I could find solace in nothing else. I’ve taken to the keyboard or grabbed a pen and paper to express thoughts that were better left unsaid aloud, and I think that’s important… to be able to distinguish between what should be spoken and shared and what should be written and tucked away (or set on fire). Angry writing affords you enough time to make the more logical decision. It’s a different kind of “counting to 10,” though the writing time will most likely last more than 10 seconds. Angry writing is a deep breath.

Sometimes my angry writing consists of fragmented thoughts, while other times it takes on the form of a letter to a friend or a poem. One of the goofiest moments I had as an adjunct instructor so far was when I was a bit frustrated with my students and went to write a passive aggressive email, but what came forth from my fingers instead was this:

Thanks to all those who came to class last night.

I hope your midterm grades didn’t give you a fright.

I was happy to meet with you all as you did peer review,

But sad those who didn’t submit drafts will receive minus two.

Just a reminder if you look on your syllabus you’ll see

An important note underlined at the bottom of Page 3:

If you’re absent you’re still required to submit what’s due,

Whether a central claim or paper draft, this rule holds true.

Even on Halloweekend, deadlines are firm,

And meeting them will help you be successful this term.

I look forward to collecting your papers Monday night.

Add commas where commas go, and don’t forget to cite.

I hope your Halloweekend is super sweet,

And that your papers have no tricks; make each one a treat.

So very corny. I know. But what could have been an email that said “WHAT MAKES YOU THINK YOU DON’T HAVE TO SUBMIT A DRAFT IF YOU’RE ABSENT FROM CLASS?” and “YOUR LACK OF CARE FOR YOUR WORK WILL NEVER FLY IN YOUR FUTURE JOBS” took on this shape instead. Could the students tell my blood was boiling? Not really. [They actually complimented me on the email during our next class period.] And I know that after I cooled down I would’ve regretted sending a passive aggressive email, so I was pleased that I took my writing breather to work through my thoughts.

Angry writing is all around us. We see and listen to it every day in the form of song lyrics. We’re able to connect to the combination of the words and music, which help us feel or release our own anger. Listen to an Eminem song. Throw on some heavy metal. This type of music moves us to feel and serves as a great example of the power angry writing can hold for us too.

I think it’s essential to draw the line between public and private writing when it’s so jam-packed with emotion. Not sending a passive aggressive email you’ll later regret or one of these YELLING-I HATE YOU-YOU ARE ALWAYS WRONG-YOU ALWAYS ANNOY ME-AND IF WE WERE TOGETHER IN PERSON MY HAND WOULD BE IN YOUR FACE texts is a step in the right direction. We all just need to take a deep breath, sigh the thoughts out onto the page, and take an extra moment before clicking “send.”