Cities are full of stories. Some days ago I read an inspirational quote on Instagram (silly, I know, but still) that said that people run constantly into stories. Writers catch them, other people don’t. I am not totally sure that things are so black and white, but it is interesting. It is true, everyone has a story to tell in a city like London. A part from the stories of individual people, anyway, cities have something else: they are concrete proofs of the changing of times. Ron called session 4 “The City as Living History”, and all the readings were themed on the presence of history in places. The class, anyway, did not start with a discussion about the role of history in poems: as usual, we read the catalysts quotes, which were focused on inspiring and encouraging us to write. Writing is hard work – harder than anyone could expect. In fact, I often hear people saying that writing is easier than the other forms of art: more people can write well. But being a write is not a matter of writing well, with correct grammar and good ideas. It’s much more than that. First of all, writers need commitment and dedication. No one is going to ever take this out of my mind: commitment, passion and dedication are way much more important than talent. The importance of sitting down and writing is really underrated by those who say that writing is easy. As Pearl Cleage, one of the catalysts of this week, says: I don’t think there is a secret. I think that it’s hard work. You have to do it. You have to get up, think about it, go to your desk, write things down. She then talks about her friend, author Toni Cade Bambara, saying that she didn’t like to call herself an artist because it would have been put herself in a sort of higher position, like she was better that people who worked in other fields, while being artists mean to be dedicated and to spend a lot of time crafting your work, re-writing it and working hard on it. An artist, she says, is a cultural worker. Part of this work is to resign ourselves to the fact that hard work is required to do creative work. Getting up, having a coffee and writing is really the secret of it – not being hit by the lamplight of the Musa. Giving ourselves deadlines and writing as much as possible. It’s really as simple as that. Which means, that of course, is not simple at all. Focusing on the passion and understanding that craft and discipline are absolutely necessary, says Cleage, is important if you want to “do it right”.
I completely agree with this. This is the reason why I think that limitations are good for writers. Giving ourselves deadlines, having a good, serious plan that imposes us to wake up in the morning and write for six hours is a huge obstruction that we need to follow. We need to commit ourselves totally to writing if we want to be good writers. This does not mean that we do not have to do our (paid) work or to avoid relationships with people. It just means that we need to write as soon as we can, as much as we can. We need to do it because it is what brings us joy and what makes us feel at our best. This is, at least, how I personally feel about writing. Still, it is true that sometimes, even if you give your best with writing, you may fail. People may not like your work. Magazines may refuse to publish your work. The second catalyst, novelist and essayist Teju Cole, says that writing is mostly failure. This could bring us down, but actually, it doesn’t. The important thing, for the “failing” writer, is to understand whether the failure is productive or not. Then, Cole quotes Samuel Beckett, who said this: Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. It is reassuring to read something like that by such an author as Samuel Beckett.
Ron also read us the words of Lucille Clifton, a well-known American poet. She said that you cannot play for safety and make art at the same time. You have to get past your own fear. It’s alright to be afraid, but if you draw back from what frightens you, then you may as well stop writing because, in a way, everything is frightening. Every morning, you wake up to the unexpected, to what might kill you, but you have to do it anyway. In a sense, getting up and writing is like getting up and going to work or to uni or just facing everything that might happen to you everyday.
The last catalyst, instead, focuses on the themes that trigger our writing. What do we want to write about, what is the point of our writing, what do we want to scream to the world? These are very hard questions. I have started to ask them only during this MA. What are my themes, what do I write about? It is such a hard question. Richard Hugo, the third catalyst, says that our triggering subjects are the ones that ignite our need for words. We need to be honest to our feelings. Our obsessions, he says, led us to our vocabulary. This is such an interesting thing to think about. Re-reading my first five obstructions, it is not easy to find a thread that link them all together, also because of the subject and “limitations” that we had to follow, but I think I can see something. I can see an interest in sexuality, for example. But these obstructions are just very rough drafts. When I will edit them and decide what to do with them (eventually, also throw them away), I will manage to see what is the point of my own poetry. With fiction I know where I want to go, but with poetry I think it is a bit too early to say.
Concerning fiction, for this class Ron gave us three beautiful poems and, surprisingly enough, two short stories. It was interesting to analyse and see which were the problems and dilemmas that triggered this problems: reading The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, for example, is incredible because even if it was published in The New Yorker on June 26th, 1948, it still shows and tells a lot about American traditions. It is a very powerful story, where details build up the whole scene until the climax, when the lottery shows itself in all its horror and tragedy. The reader sees this horror only at the very end, when it is revealed that the lottery is not a normal lottery, but a moment when one citizen of the small town where the story is set is sacrified and the whole population throw rocks at them. The first part of the story seems to depict a normal village, simila to any other. Some rules and traditions have been discarded, but some other are still considered essential in the village. Kids gather stones. Only at the end the reader will know what they are used for. The story is all about how dangerous traditions can be if followed blindly. It was interesting to read it just before the election of Mr Trump in the US, and it was also very interesting to listen to the reading of the story by American author A.M. Homes for a podcast on The New Yorker.
So, important themes and politics may inspire and trigger stories. Bloodchild by Octavia Butler is a very different piece. First of all, it is science fiction, a genre that I deeply admire and that I don’t think I would ever be able to write. In this story, men bear children. Human beings, called terrans, have escaped planet Earth, but the aliens that they encountered outside need men to host their offspring before their birth. So men are seduced by the aliens, called Tlics, thanks to the use of narcotics. The worms that come out of these unions grow into sea serpents with tentacles, who will use the body of other males to host their babies, which will be born in bloody operations.
The protagonist is Gan, a terran. His mother exchanged him to the Tlic T’Gatoi in order for her to bear her own human children. She needed to sacrifice one of her sons, and Gan is that son. T’Gatoi is a friend of his mother, but there is hostility between the two females from the very beginning of the story. When Gan witnesses an alien birth in horror, he is sickened by the idea of being impregnated by T’Gatoi, and starts considering the idea of refusing her. At the end, he agrees with his destiny to save his family: T’Gatoi would take someone else in his family anyway. This story received different interpretations. The theme of the reversal of gender roles is of course very important. Some say that this story is a love story between two very different human beings, other say it is a come-of-age story about a pregnant man who bear a child as an act of love, and other see it as a slavery story. It can also be a story about humanity destiny: if we have to escape the Earth at some point, what would be the price that other creatures in the universe could make us pay to stay in their planet? Butler said that, when she was preparing for a trip to Peru, she read of this insect, called botfly, that puts its eggs in wounds gotten from other insects. She was terrified by it, and she started exploring the idea in her own writing. She said that things that disturb and intrigue her make her write: she needs to write to sort out her problems.
These two stories made me want to write more. I guess this is what good stories trigger in other writers, right? Our obsessions, problems and dilemmas bring us to our pieces, lead us to our work, even if these obsessions are just as mundane as small insects.