The Art of Immersion

I haven’t posted in…I can’t remember how long. I am going to try to make an earnest effort to post more often now that I have graduated from the MFA program.

On Thursday, I took a road trip with a fellow friend and writer. My short story was published in Central Michigan University’s literary journal Temenos. They asked me to come read and attend the reception of the special print edition of their latest issue. After some much-needed encouraging and financial assistance from my family and colleagues, I decided to take the 14 hour car ride with my friend–because I fear flying.

The reception and reading went well. Regan and the Temenos staff were hospitable and supportive. They treated both my friend and me like literary rockstars. I have never seen a more passionate literary journal staff. They truly care about what they do. During the long car ride, my friend and I solved America’s fiscal crisis, developed a cleaner source of energy (in theory) using baby wipes and rocks, and fixed all of the issues we were having with our novels. We passed more dead carcasses than street signs.

On the ride back from Michigan, my friend and I spoke, at length, about his research on immersion writing. Immersion: deeply involved, engaged; absorption. In short, he believes that, when writing, a writer should be fully consumed by the piece. A writer should not simply research but experience the “topic” on which he  is writing. If one is writing about winter, one should experience winter through the senses instead of simply researching temperatures, images, and facts about winter online or in books. It is very similar to  a student who must write a paper. If a student is writing an essay about Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, he should not simply read the SparkNotes on the book, but instead read the book itself and take notes. Teachers know the difference between an essay written using SparkNotes and an essay from a student who has read the book.

This made me think more about immersion, in general. When I think of immersion, I can’t help but to think of baptism, and not only the specific Christian act, but the more general process of purification–initiation. In a sense, a writer must be pure of heart. When I say pure, I don’t mean untainted, as that would be impossible. What I mean is that a writer must be, as a poet, pure of purpose and intention. It is easy to allow superficial influences  to affect our writing and distract us from our literary purpose.

This weekend, I immersed myself in not just the good writing of others, but the great company of other writers with earnest purposes. (This is why I believe collaborative writing can be so powerful and effective when the right souls join.) I began writing as a poet, and so I love speaking with poets about anything, really. Their sensitivity to the world is unparalleled. I met a poet this weekend whom I think was pure in this way–unabashed honesty and passion–which illuminated many things for me, within me. But it was only through the act of immersing myself in the experience that this could happen. In many ways, I had to surrender.

So take that drive to the town dump to smell the sour garbage, walk through a hospital to hear the screams and medical jargon, and eat sushi so that–well, just eat it. It’s delicious. But ultimately, immerse yourself in the pure, in new experiences and environments. Take a chance. But remember to listen carefully. You might find the answer to a question you never knew you had.

Published in: on November 11, 2012 at 3:23 am  Leave a Comment  

Goose Bumps

You and I would get goose bumps,

(and not from night chills,

that icy wind that kills),

You’d light my chest warm,

As I’d watch your eyes form,

In the bed, where you’d speak,

with the night.

Published in: on September 30, 2010 at 1:11 am  Comments (3)  

Moved, like prayer, in writing

From July 16th to July 26th I spent everyday with a group of people waking up, reading, writing, researching, learning, and only resting to eat and sleep. I accepted the fact that I would change. That, during the course of the ten days on Enders Island for my MFA residency, I would learn things that would undoubtedly make me a better writer and person. But, what I didn’t expect were the subtleties, or the very opposite (maybe the same thing) the overpowering, inescapable force that seems to move all people, especially writers with their keen sense of sensing, to peace.

One of the seminars I attended, taught by Leila Philips, on beating procrastination, attempted to reconcile the writer with his anxiety and fears, so that he may find peace and hopefully inspiration. We were given exercises on ways to find inspiration (though I’m convinced it finds you, now), told to go out and find three things that best represented the MFA experience for us. I was at a loss, tired from a previous night of late reading and writing. I grabbed the first three things that I found on the floor in my room: a bible, a book light, and a running sock–holding my nose. When we returned to the seminar we were asked to write whatever came to our minds on each of the items. Then, when finished, we were told to find a common thread between the items, deeper than the MFA experience.

Let’s flashback, less than a year ago my father being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, then my sister a few months later. It’s safe to say that at some point in our lives, each of us will question, whatever our faith may be, our belief in some sort of other-worldly force acting, or not, on us all. Our existence, our purpose: scholars, theologians, atheists, the average Joe, all claim to have the answer when, really no one does–or maybe they do. Before this MFA program I resigned to not having an opinion after years of being force-fed Roman Catholicism. Being told “Don’t do this,” and “Stay away from that,” my entire childhood by shaking fingers that often held the word of God daily. This, mind you, is not a bash on the Catholic church, because without them I would not be my idealistic, moral self, always striving to be a better person. But, needless to say, I’ve wrestled with my faith for the last few years of my life. Never getting anywhere. In fact, as arrogant as it seems, even on my way to Enders Island (a Jesuit retreat center) I was listening to Boston University professor, Dr. Keeft, lecture on The Philosophy of Religion (oh, the irony) as if I would find the answer to all existence on a few CDs held by the Woodbury Public Library. Again, needless to say, it left me with more questions than I had started with.

As I sat there in Professor Philip’s seminar, across the hall from a life-sized statue of Saint Michael pointing skyward, I stared at the objects, the bible, book light, and running sock, maybe hoping that they would levitate off the ground, but they didn’t because I’m not God. Then, as a frightened dog who discovers its reflection in the mirror, I knew there was no escaping–and I didn’t want to escape. The sock: the running, the bible: my foundation, and the book light: illuminating truth. Maybe I was searching, with my analytical mind, too hard. Maybe not hard enough.

After the seminar, I went through all the things I had ever written and saved on my badly scratched flash drive: poems, short stories, sections of my novel. In every single piece of writing I found traces of the faith I had attempted to run away from my entire life. It was the blood of my writing, the marrow of its skeletal structures.

After that seminar, and intellectual discourse on evil and Wally Lamb’s obscene reading in the chapel, I laid in bed, in complete darkness, fighting to find some sort of meaning in the seminar, in my life.

“Can I borrow your book light Tommy?” Scott, my roommate asked.

“Sure.” When he turned the light on, it flickered at first, then went out completely.

“You have to smack it sometimes to turn the light on,” I told him.

He hit the back of the light with a slapping sound on the battery pack and it turned on again.

As I laid there between sleep and dream, I saw the blue-tinted LED light appear to get brighter. I felt weightless, felt the light call to me, pull me, and warm me back into its arms. I had fought hard for a long time, but didn’t have to fight any longer.

* A special thanks to Leila Philips. And, of course, Ruin, Katie, and Ioanna (The Dream Team)

Published in: on July 30, 2010 at 8:27 pm  Comments (4)  

And Now

I’ve taught myself to die

to fold and blacken

like crumpled paper on a fire.

I’ve learned to stop breathing

and see my life in shimmers and shudders,

in flashes and flutters,

stoically.

I command my body to decay,

invite the black flies

to breed maggots on my gums

to feed.

And all the while,

as Oliver said,

“and now, and now, and now,”

and, I am dead again.

And now, I have allowed myself

to die again,

with passivity–No.

With advocacy, even.

And now is the time,

and now is the moment to breathe,

and now is the moment to open my eyes

and see the white.

And see.

Published in: on January 7, 2010 at 2:06 am  Leave a Comment  

The Little Garbage Man In Us All

When I was a boy, I would wake up at 5am, run to my parents bay window overlooking the front street, and wait… For some reason, I had a desire to watch the garbage men pick up the trash, turn the cans upside-down in mid-air, and watch the off-colored white bags fall into the jaws of the truck. I would dream at night of being a garbage man, of riding on the back of the truck, free, and the wind whipping through me. As I grew older, it seemed a silly dream to have. Who would respect, who would honor and idealize a man who picked up garbage all day? To my knowledge, there were no monuments dedicated to garbage men. No national prize given out, like the Pulitzer for writing. No parade, no day in honor of, no nothing. I decided to move on to a much more glorious profession: Writing (ha).

Yes, as I became a young adult, I decided that I had a skill for noticing details and putting them down on paper (that was until I read some other fantastic authors and, as a result: humility). About five years ago I had this notion in my head that I would write the next great American novel. That I would be a short story phenom in no time. That my poetry would change lives and alter the course of history (again, I reiterate, “ha”). Since that time, I have realized that there are very talented people feverishly writing everyday with a far greater gift than I have, which is fine. I am not being self-deprecating, I simply acknowledge the fact that there are better authors out there. I love to read them and they make me a better writer. What strikes me particularly hard is my youth, my original dream to be a garbage man.

Now, do I really want to be a garbage man at this point in my life? Probably not–although, I have considered it after correcting eighty essays. I wish I could to grab hold of the innocence I once had, like a first love at 11pm on a school night. I could tell myself all day that I don’t want to be recognized as a writer. I could lie and tell you that it doesn’t matter whether or not someone likes my stories or is changed by any of them. But, the truth is, It does. And when I was a young boy on my parents bay window, I didn’t care if anyone knew me. I didn’t care if a soul recognized me as a garbage man. I simply loved what they did and admired them for it. I’m an egotistical fool, I keep telling myself, hoping that someone will read my story and be transformed. Then again, I would be calling every writer that ever wrote a story that transformed my life an arrogant jerk with this theory. I guess the notion of having people being changed for the better by my writings isn’t completely egotistical. I do want to simply help people. I want the writing to spark positive change. That has to count for something, right?

When I think more about this, I can’t help but to think of my admiration for the garbage men. In essence, I was a reader and the garbage men were the authors. What transpired back in my parents house wasn’t simply a young boy’s innocent admiration for a man doing something. It was a young boy’s dream of being something in life that inspired others to do something great. Those garbage men inspired me just as I want to inspire readers of my stories. It doesn’t matter if you are a writer, garbage man, teacher, coal miner, burger flipper at McDonalds. Everyday is another day to incite change, change in others, change in yourself. I don’t have to be a writer, or garbage man; so long as I am doing something moral and positive, stay open to constructive criticism, and don’t vegetate, I can inspire. I remember American actress Mary Astor in an interview state, “Once you start asking questions, innocence is gone.” Does that child-like innocence really end after asking questions, as I have been doing in this response? Can we no longer retain any of the innocence of our youth anymore? Oh no! I just asked more questions, more innocence has left my soul! I’d like to believe that I still have a child-like innocence within me. An innocence that believes there is good in the world and I can grow up to become a writer that inspires and transforms my generation. I guess only time will tell with regards to my writings. As for the issue regarding maintaining our innocence, I’ll leave it up to you.

Published in: on November 28, 2009 at 2:31 pm  Comments (1)  

Just How I Like It

Change is good

Change is good

I repeat the phrase while

A boy blows bubbles in the park somewhere in New York

and I am in one of those bubbles,

I am floating up and away,

away from the hoodlums’ graffiti on the train stop,

the ethnic man arguing in partial foreign slang

at a girl who stole a pita, but her mom left her.

The mom went to talk to a strange man with sparkly teeth.

I rise, high above the noise, the smoke,

the 7-11 cups in the street collecting sludge.

It is quiet up here, it is blue and clouds form cupcakes,

the air thin, now too thin,

it is too quiet, it is too lonely up here.

The bubble can’t be popped.

It is a plastic tomb.

I cannot breathe. I cannot hear myself.

I claw up to my ears and they are no longer there.

I cannot see, my eyes have turned inward.

My insides are dark, black,

uncomfortably hot and sticky.

My legs follow my eyes inside,

as do my arms.

I am inward.

I have imploded.

I am nothing.

Published in: on November 20, 2009 at 10:39 pm  Comments (3)  

Montauk in December

Montauk

Published in: on November 9, 2009 at 8:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

Unedited free write/upon transcendental meditation

This is something new, now,

a freedom I never had before,

a child that ventures out past the

predetermined boundary of the neighbor’s mailbox,

apprehensive, bliss, challenged by his own thoughts,

“go on,” the mother says from the glass door,

“you’ll be fine,” she encourages.

Though, I know, maybe that isn’t true,

Mom will be fine, and that is just fine,

but as for me, maybe the neighbor’s dog will get loose,

or maybe I will be fine. Mom doesn’t know. I don’t know.

I know I can’t turn back, but, yes, I will look back– despite what they say–

but I won’t turn back because the air is too heavy,

ready to shatter, the precipice of change,

of rain, or sun beams, or an apocalypse.

Or, maybe just rain. And that’s just fine,

because I am the sun. At least, that’s what Mom always told me.

And I know, that sun always triumphs over rain.

Published in: on October 23, 2009 at 2:39 am  Comments (3)  

On Moral Living

I was recently encouraged to pick up On Writing Moral Fiction by Gardner. The premise behind the work is this: that fiction, good fiction that is, should be moral. He believes it should incite readers to become better human beings, spark some form of positive change, even on the smallest level. That “good” fiction should inspire the reader to seek the Christian virtues in themselves. Gardner’s writing was an opinion, an unpopular one initially, and a reaction to the writing and criticism of his time. Lately, I have been seeing much of the same convoluted, jargon filled, self-aggrandizing garbage that Gardner saw during his time. What is writing supposed to do? If one who writes doesn’t believe that writing should spark a positive change in the reader, what is its purpose? I don’t believe that I am stating everyone should believe what Gardner believed, but, what I am asking is, if not what he believed, then what is the purpose of writing?

For some strange reason, and maybe it’s just me, I can’t help but to think that much of what is being published–referring to fiction– in local and even some successful literary journals, magazines, and other books that I find in book stores, are all the same. I didn’t believe it until someone pointed this out to me. They all have a similar feel and style. A sort of factory similarity. And, if they do not have a similar feel, they are completely inaccessible.  Some of the experimental fiction stories are experimenting with the experimental stories! I will take a well crafted, simple, yet spontaneous and morally driven story any day of the week over a complicated piece of hieroglyphics. Take Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral,”  for instance. I do think this transpires higher than simply literature, which is what I think Gardner may have had in mind, or subconsciously.

I had a professor in college, it’s no secret who this is after I describe him, but we will call him Professor X. Professor X had an extremely different approach to literature than many of the other professors I had at that time. I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly it was about this professor that inspired me. Then, it hit me. A good teacher, mentor, and human being, like a good piece of fiction in Gardner’s words, should incite some sort of positive change. I have had my share of professors that “went through the motions” and taught class as if they were human Norton Anthologies. Professor X once told me that “textbooks are the McDonalds of the literary world, all filler and no nutrition.” That is how I feel about these types of professors that simply spit out memorized lines of Bloom. Yes, they are extremely bright, and yes I learned a lot from these professors, but the teachers that I remember, the teachers I want to emulate are the ones that did as Gardner said good fiction should do. Gardner states, “Much education today is monumentally ineffective. All too often we are giving young people cut flowers when we should be teaching them to grow their own plants.” Simply point me to fertile ground and let me begin.

I am not saying that all human beings need to write fiction in order to create positive change. I use fiction because that is what I do. I assume that whether you write stories, lay bricks, or put the pork in the pork and beans cans, we should do it morally, with purpose (how does one put pork in cans morally? Good question). In any case, I tend to think that if we are also going through the motions, as the professors I mentioned, our words may stick in other’s minds and possibly teach them something, but will we ever make a substantial difference in anyone’s life? Maybe the bigger question for some is, do we want to make a positive difference in others’ lives? Gardner’s questions on whether or not fiction is good are the same questions we could be asking ourselves on a daily basis. What is our purpose for doing whatever it is we do if it is not motivated by positivity, by sheer will and love to change for the greater good of the human condition?

Published in: on October 20, 2009 at 2:27 am  Comments (2)  

Now I know why Niezsche became insane.

When I was in college, I looked forward to the idea of teaching high school students literature. I eagerly anticipated analyzing my favorite scenes from the classics. However, lately the urge to leave mid class and write has overtaken me. The thought of Nietzsche came to mind. When I read him in my latter years of college, I remember reading his words that explained life being pain and anxiety. That “art” is the only escape, temporarily, from a “Godless world”. Now, I also remember that Nietzsche fell into a bout of insanity which led to his death. Nietzsche gave up a life of human contact in order to live in his world of imagination. I do not necessarily agree with much of what Nietzsche promoted, especially the Godless world, but I must say his idea of art being the only escape, besides prayer and meditation–part of art in my opinion–seems to take on a whole new meaning to me as my career progresses.

Nietzsche also said that his principal article of faith is that individuals can only flourish when surrounded by other individuals that share identical ideas and will. This is why Nietzsche spent most of his life lonely, submerged in isolation. Do I think I should become a recluse and lock myself away in a cabin buried in the woods? This Thoreau-esque lifestyle seems a little too extreme,  selfish, and irresponsible (especially due to our new mortgage)–even though I have daydreamed of such fantasies among the screaming, punching, and shoving of the students during period G cafe duty.

So what is the answer? How do we find that balance between art and the responsibilities of life? Do we need to completely disregard our responsibilities in order to be  content, fully, with our lives as Nietzsche alludes to? I am afraid I have more questions than answers. One of my friends, who will remain anonymous, has battled with this conflict it seems longer than I have known him. He has a job that pays the bills, which he is very good at, is admired by many, has a relatively healthy family–wonderful son and supportive girlfriend–yet, I know from being his friend that he is not completely satisfied due to this dilemma. The man I want to be and the man I have to be are at odds, yet, paradoxically enough, need each other. Yes, I do believe I was born with a gift to teach. Without the experiences I have had in life, my job, learning what it is to be a teacher, actually being a teacher, I would have no fuel for my writing I fear.  Without my passion to write creatively, I would most likely have no drive to work, no heart in anything I do. To write, for me, is to live. To simply exist. It is neither a vocation nor an avocation (as Zinsser debates), it just is. It is a necessity, as breathing is a necessity.

I know what you are probably saying, “he is so ungrateful for the blessings he has been given. Most would kill for a job in this economy.” Yes, I do appreciate everything I am given. Of course, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t thank God for giving me what I have been given, and for giving me the strength to overcome the adversity I have faced along my journey. Yes, I have thanked  Lord for a supportive family and for the supportive friends I have met as well. However, to say that internal struggle of my childhood ideology and adulthood realism still doesn’t exist because of everything I have been given would be a bold faced lie. A friend of mine recently taught one of her first classes at the high school level. She walked into the class saying phrases such as, “I am so excited” and “I spent all week on this lesson plan” and walked out saying, “I want to cry”. Like my friend, I always had the ideal image of time. Of always having time to write. I always had the idea that I would be able to write on a daily basis, after a long day of teaching, after walking the dog, after cooking dinner, after grading papers, after all of this. You can see the problem with this logic, or lack there of, especially if you are a teacher.

As stated earlier, maybe we need both parts, reality and idealism. Without idealism, we would have no stars to help us navigate in the open sea. Without realism, we would starve to death literally trying to reach the stars in a boat. Nietzsche could not find this balance. Maybe he was correct. Maybe his insanity is a direct result of realizing the impossibility of reconciling this duality of man. If this is the case, I fear I may have a longer road ahead of me than I originally planned.

Published in: on October 15, 2009 at 1:19 am  Comments (1)  
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.