Transformation

Over the course of our three weeks in Iceland, we had countless discussions about what makes good writing as we sat in untraditional “classrooms” covered in moss and rock. One of the topics that we touched on frequently is that effective creative writing includes some sort of transformation. In order to engage a reader, there must be a change or sign of growth, whether it be major or minor. This idea resonated with me. I found myself thinking about it while we were climbing mountains, riding horses, and hiking glaciers. While I was out there pondering how to show transformation in my poems, I was too busy to notice the transformation that was occurring in myself. 

Before we embarked on this study abroad trip, I didn’t consider myself a writer. Sure, I had taken English classes for years and had written hundreds of papers, but I never sat down to write just because it was something I wanted to do. I had taken one creative writing class at Geneseo my freshman year, but I felt out of place among students who were on track to write novels and were much more eloquent than I was. My deep-seated fear of criticism and failure made me reluctant to share my work with others. When I applied for this trip, I ignored my insecurities about creative writing because Iceland was at the top of my must-see list. However, my doubts about my writing capabilities crept to the front of my mind in the days leading up to our departure. What if I wasn’t good enough? What if I couldn’t think of anything to write about? What if everyone was super smart and judged me for what I wrote? My anxiety resulted in my procrastination of the first blog post, and before I knew it, I was sitting in the terminal at JFK trying to write something coherent so I wouldn’t bomb my first impression on these new people. As I read the other posts, I couldn’t help but think that I made a big mistake by signing up for this program. These people knew how to write. I didn’t belong here. I wasn’t a real writer. 

I can’t pinpoint a single moment when the change happened. Looking back, there were little moments that added up to a major shift in the way I feel about myself as a writer. There was the first day when we sat in a circle on the black sand, and I prayed that Lytton would not call on me first to share my sentence. But of course he did, and my heart leapt around in my chest as I read it out loud to a group of strangers. To my amazement, the others seemed to actually enjoy what I had written! There was the time I surprised myself and volunteered to share my paragraph in a writing exercise on the boulder beach. There was the night I sat on my bed in Reykjavik and typed for hours just to produce an eleven line poem that I immediately emailed to my mom because I couldn’t wait for her to read it. There were the days writing in cafes, sipping coffee, and feeling like a local because I had a purpose in this foreign city. There was the time when I grabbed my notebook from my nightstand to write down a line that had come to me as I tried to fall asleep. There were the hours when I recited my poems over and over in my head to distract myself from my aching, blistered feet on long hikes. There were the workshops when I didn’t feel a sliver of anxiety about my new friends discussing my poems because I truly wanted their criticism to help me improve my writing.  And there was the time on the plane ride home when somone asked me if I had a pen they could borrow, to which I replied, “Of course I have a pen. I’m a writer!”

Sounds of Writing

New Oxford American Dictionary:
Write: (no obj.) have the ability to mark down coherent letter or words.
Writing and words have a strong association, being that writing is made up of words thrown together to create sentences. But to write a word, one needs to spell a word. To spell a word, one needs to know the sounds of the letters. And that is exactly my problem, I don’t always know the correct sounds of letters, or more specifically, the sounds letter make together.
I am a self-described dyslexic person (as in it just took me three times to even spell correctly the word dyslexic). This has only been a recent realization, but after reading the signs of dyslexia in teenage/adult years and realized they mirrored my own issues, it seemed to make sense.
I have poor sound-letter association. As in I will say a word in my head or aloud with the wrong syllable stressed or incorrect pronunciation. This will then trick my mind into thinking that the wrong letter fits with that sound. For example, I used to always think the word “supposed” was spelt “suppost” as in the ‘d’ sound turned into a ‘t’. This is common for me for multiple sounds. ‘A’ and ‘O’ are frequently switched, so is ‘I’ and ‘E’, ‘S’ and ‘C’ (as in a few lines ago I tried to spell ‘recent’ as ‘resent’) and many other switching of individual letters or even short combinations of letters.
This isn’t because I’m uneducated or don’t care how to spell things, it is because my brain legitimately doesn’t realize the switch of letters. I can say a word in my head and not realize I am pronouncing it wrong. I will then try to write out the word the way I am hearing it. But because I am pronouncing it wrong, I can only spell it wrong. It has become an issue in speaking as well. I have said words the way my mind believes it to be pronounced correctly and don’t realize that I am saying an incorrect word. This is especially an issue with words that have similar letters and sounds. Such as an issue today in trying to say “monogamy” by instead said “mahogany.” (And yes in trying to spell those words, I misspelled both, and actually needed to phone a friend in remembering how to say ‘monogamy.’)
That is the other issue, if I don’t know how to say it, I don’t know how to write it. This comes up when I am presented with new words. I have a hard time knowing the association with the letters on the page and how their sounds relate to one another. The phrase “sound it out” doesn’t work in this case because I don’t have the ability to know the sounds in the first place.

Not only do I deal with these struggles on a daily basis, but I then try to write freely. There are countless times where I will get caught up trying to spell a word. It is unbelievably frustrating to stare at that little red line under a misspelled word, so badly misspelled that even auto-correct can’t help you, and be dumbfounded that the word isn’t spelt how your phonetically hear it. It is even more frustrating when you know that you know the word but can’t manage to spell it because the sounds are off. And with that it is embarrassing when you misspell a word, but the misspelling is a real word, so you keep using the wrong spelling and never realize. For the longest time I spelt “half” as “haft” and even submitted a piece where “budge” was substituted in for “budget.”
The absolute worst, is getting so stuck on a word and try to spell it correctly, that you forget the rest of the sentence that you were trying to write. To compensate, I try to just streamline thoughts and correct the spelling mistakes after the sentence or paragraph is completed.
Unfortunately for me, there does not seem to be a solution to my sound association problem. There is nothing, that I know of, that can teach my brain to resister and remember sounds the correct way. But do I give up writing because of that? No. This just means I take it slower, memorize more spellings of words and use thesaurus to give me alternatives.

Departing Concretes for Abstract

One thing I have been grappling with here in Iceland is the appropriate use of abstract reflections.  In a landscape as dramatic and uniquely beautiful as this, I feel it is very easy to write strictly in terms of concretes.  What there is to see, what has happened, etc.  The landscape itself practically begs to be written about.

However, mixing in our reflections with these concrete elements in a manner that is understandable and concise is another thing entirely, and has become a point of interest for me.  Writing a piece that strikes the perfect balance between showing and reflecting through the use of things such as objective correlatives is quite difficult.  I feel as though I have the concrete aspect down pretty well, and constant use of a thesaurus has granted my scene writing terrific specificity, but without that extra layer of deeper thought my writing is being held back in a way that cannot be remedied by any other means than including such reflections.

I first started thinking about this aspect of my writing, the deeper thought aspect, after receiving a comment on my poem from a reader who “did not know what to think”.  After pondering the comment, I realized I didn’t know what to think myself.  It wasn’t in my writing, or even in my own mind.

Since then, I’ve been making every effort to go beyond the surface layer of my writing, to make myself reflect upon what I’ve experienced, and to share those reflections effectively with my readers.  I think it may be one of the hardest aspects of writing, and it has also led me to understand how vastly I have under-appreciated the difficulty of the craft.

An Ocean Between Us

The Republican National Convention has been underway for four days now.

I had to Google that. I set out to write a fairly BS’d post about the chaos of American politics and how it relates to the chaos of other countries’ politics and then tie it all together in some really deep and meaningful way and thought that would have been a decent opening line. But the truth is I am not a “political person” (or a very deep and meaningful thinker for that matter, especially when I’m on a deadline, but that’s beside the point). Certainly, I’ve been a bit more involved this election cycle than last, partly because this is the first election I’ll have voted in, and partly because this election, like no other election I know of (I’m not really a history person, either), has rocked our culture to its core, sucking up even the most apathetic and ignorant of us into its frenzy of slogans, sound-bites and Facebook brawls. But, despite all that, I’d still rate my interest as relatively low. I do feel guilty about that now that Donald Trump has America by the throat, and is ready to squeeze as hard as he needs to so he can achieve whatever wild goal it was he set out for when he joined the Republican ticket as nothing more than a running joke (is that a pun?). But, at the same time, I’m a white, middle-class guy who has, at this point in his insulated life, heard about quite a few political and national tragedies but felt the consequences of absolutely none of them (not directly, anyway). As much as I can say to people that it would be a nightmare if Trump were president, how hypocritical it would be of Sanders’ supporters to sell themselves out and vote for Hillary, and that we need some sort of ground-up restructuring of our political system, I can’t say that I really feel as though the quality of my life for the next 4-8 years is hinged on who gets elected and what we do about it as a nation.

Continue reading “An Ocean Between Us”

Get Out There

Sometimes you just need to get out there.

Especially when you’ve spent the last four months in a writer’s block-induced fury. You wrestle with the typical writer’s struggle–the need to constantly improve–and you over-analyze everything you’re doing wrong. Sure, you do some things right. Maybe you have strong dialogue, or your sentences flow nicely sometimes (so you’ve been told), but what about your weak characters? Or your limited vocabulary? Or your bulky paragraphs? Or your confused messages? Or your lack of focus? Or…

And then your passion starts to mess with your head and you stay in your house for weeks, relentlessly staring at a blank page. Perhaps, you think, if you stare hard enough, the ideas in your head will project themselves onto that paper, and you won’t have to sort through your thoughts. Even in your early twenties, long after you’ve dismissed notions of fantasy, you’re still disappointed when the page stays blank.

That’s when you need to get out there. You need to travel beyond the realm of you bedroom and see the rest of the world, see everything it has to offer. You need to see gargantuan mountains capped with mist, rocky titans that greet you as you pass them on an isolated road. You need to see images of the sky projected on sprawling, crystalline lakes. You need to see crimson twilight in a scar in the clouds where night should be, when night should be. You need to see landscapes of boundless white ice and perpetual black sand. You need to see moss on jagged obsidian, remnants of an old lava flow that buried a village, a remnant of when nature once reclaimed its territory in a glorious, rumbling firestorm. And when you see these things, you’ll be inspired to keep trying, to put what you see into words on paper. You’ll need to capture your thoughts, your experiences, your feelings, in print. Then, you’ll remember why you do this. You’ll remember that you can do this. At least until the writer’s block sets in again.

And when it does, get out there again.

From Hot to Cold and All the In-Between

In twenty-four hours I went from swimming in a pool, to walking on a glacier.  In twenty-four hours I went from wearing a tank top and thin sweater shirt to three layers and a winter-time beanie. Within two hours I went from snapping pictures of a waterfall to that of the snow covered hills.

How is any of this possible? I found myself asking in my head as I stuffed my hands deeper into my pockets not willing to admit that I should be wearing gloves.  I was just walking up hill away from a waterfall, sweating in my long sleeves, and that was even after I had removed my coat, but now?  Now we are etching GENESEO into the snow as we make our way to a glacier. 

We file back into the car and I rub the redness away from my face. It blew my mind how quickly the climate and landscape could change in just a little bit of time and some strips of pavement, or in our case- dirt roads.  The car bumps and shakes as I stare out the window.  It is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.  I have been to both coasts of the U.S. and I have unknowingly walked on inactive volcanos and lived on old glacier beds but that was nothing compared to what Iceland holds.  There few places in the world that have glaciers and even fewer where volcanos sit nested near them and hot springs spill out of the same mountains. It’s almost as if nature is an artist who took their best paintings and smooshed them all together into one large canvas, somehow it fitting seamlessly.

Sitting with wet socks and muddy shoes from when the glacier water had tried to suck us down, we stop and file of out the rain streaked car, pausing to take photos of the rainbow that had appeared connecting the dirt road of the glacier to the dirt road of home.  In a few moments the rainbow is gone and in awe I board back in the car imagining what the next section of nature’s masterpiece will be.

Grateful for Isolated Iceland

To me, it would seem that current events have been especially grim as of late.  Life has taken on an uneasy undertone as the frequency of mass shootings committed in America reaches an all-time high, and the political climate appears to destabilize more and more with each passing day.  Perhaps it is not the case, and I am being melodramatic, or perhaps it is just a product of my relatively newfound devotion to keeping up on things, especially American politics, but I mustn’t be alone in having these thoughts.

After waking up yesterday morning to yet another mass shooting, things seemed to fade to greyscale, as they often have a way of doing in light of such tragedies.  The only solace to be found was in the fact that it was not committed by Islamic extremists, and that alone I interpreted as an illuminating factor of how hard these weeks have been.  After the Orlando shooting, the worst in American history, I was left with a heavy heart, just as most of you were I am sure.  It hurts to see so many of our fellow countrymen and women needlessly stripped of their basic right to life, and to see so many others divided by the fear these egregious actions aim to cause.

After kind of a rough morning, I finally got myself out of the room and into the city of Reykjavik.  If I had known how much it would help my spirits, I would’ve done it much earlier.  Seeing other people carrying on with their days, smiling, laughing, eating, walking, taking pictures, just living their lives in general, helped me enormously, returning color to my life.  It almost feels like cheating, watching events of this nature unfold from afar in the comfortable isolated safety of Iceland, but I am relieved nonetheless.

Finally, in my extensive reading about these morbid affairs, I came across an old quote from Martin Luther King Jr. that outlines the problem with this trend perhaps better than anyone can, and I think I’ll conclude this post with it.  The United States could greatly benefit from another prophet of Dr. King’s caliber.

I’m not sure if it was a product of the website I took it from, but it is spaced in a way that is rather poetic, and I have elected to keep it in that same format below.

Thanks for reading.

 

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Plot, enclosure, fishpond

Five minutes into writing for this prompt, and I’m thinking about fish tanks instead of place. So let’s talk about fish tanks. Wikipedia, the origin for most of my CNF inspiration, prefers to call fish tanks aquariums. Apparently, they were developed in 1850 when a chemist figured out that, by adding plants to an underwater environment, you can produce enough oxygen to sustain a small number of fish, and the idea caught on pretty quick. By 1853 the London Zoo had an aquarium installation, and the dude who installed it was writing a book whose title was The Aquarium: An Unveiling of the Wonders of the Deep Sea. Of course, before the guy who “invented” the aquarium, other cultures existed that had ways of sustaining sea creatures in tubs or marble boxes, so the origin story of fish tanks isn’t all that clear cut. Most origin stories are not very clear cut.

Aquariums, as it turns out, are actually a specific type of vivarium. A vivarium “is an area, usually enclosed, for keeping and raising animals or plants for observation or research.” In a way, then, we can think of settings as vivaria. We create settings as a way to ground our characters, our readers, and our selves. Settings are our foundations for scene, but they are static boundary. The interest, for the reader, is never the fish tank, but the animals inside of it. Our characters, our ideas, our wordplay is what makes the glass worth staring through, and the setting serves to hold everything together.

Place, I think, is less like a fish tank and more like a lake or an ocean. It’s contained within a larger sphere, like setting; however, they are the main attraction of their own accord. I think the difference between setting and place lie within this train of thought. Place is what can grab a reader all on its own. It’s dynamic. It demands its own story, and anything else the writer throws in (quotes, plots, alliterations) is an addition to an already exciting party. Place is what encourages the story to happen instead of being a backdrop to it. In that way, I think that place functions as an amorphous combination of setting and a character. I’m not sure if that’s how it actually functions in my writing, but I think that’s how I would like it to.

Writing and Place

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     When I think about writing and place, I think about a change in place. Some of the times when I have been most inspired to write were when I was experiencing a new place. Our surroundings have a significant impact on the way we think and feel. A change in place can make us see the world in a way that is completely foreign. Visiting a new place with a different culture, landscape, language, and way of life can be a bewildering experience. It allows us to gain a deeper understanding of the world we live in as well as seeing ourselves and our home from a new lens. Writing gives us an outlet to reflect and react to this new understanding. Every life experience can influence the way we write and think about the world, but a physical change in place can inspire us to write with a fresh perspective.                                                                                                                      

        As we begin our journey to Iceland, I think of Seneca’s saying, “Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” A change in place can be renewing and stimulating by changing our outlook. It is easy to get caught up in daily routines and the same way of thinking when you stay in the same place for an extended period of time, but a change can provide a break from the ordinary. New experiences and places contribute to our “toolbox” and can enhance our writing in profound ways. Visiting Iceland will be unlike any experience I have had before, and as I get to know the land I am confident I will improve as a writer. 

Why does place matter to my writing?

Within the broadly-defined practice of creative writing exist many distinct disciplines.  One such discipline, formally known as creative nonfiction, focuses on the recollection of that which we as writers have experienced in our own lives.  As a writer who has much more luck putting his own life into words than bringing the words themselves to life, nonfiction is an area of great interest to me.  In my limited study of the subject, one place-related term I came across frequently was “distance”.  “Distancing” yourself from the event you wish to write about can often grant a fresh piece, a reinterpretation in a new light, a recount which has shed the suffocating emotions that hinder true discovery and development.  Writing is anything but static, and I would argue that moving not only through time but also through space is important in providing necessary “distance” for crafting a creative nonfiction piece.

 

Throughout my life as a young adult, I have traveled a great deal.  Almost yearly, my family takes trips to the Carolinas, Ohio, New York City, and the Adirondacks.  Less regularly, I have been up and down both coasts of the United States, (from Seattle to San Francisco in the West and from Montreal to Orlando in the East) to Spain, to the Midwest, or to Canada.  My memory in and of these places has always been good, but as I age it is being ruthlessly worn by the incessant flow of time.  I have felt on multiple occasions as though my memories are continuously slipping through the cracks, escaping me forever, helplessly lost in the ever-growing void between myself and my childhood.  However, I am granted solace by the way these memories tend to return to me, appearing spontaneously in my mind’s eye as if they had never left, entirely intact.

 

Oftentimes I have observed this event to be triggered by a related experience.  I’ll see someone or something that spurs contemplation in my subconscious, firing a chain of neurons at a moments notice, and before I know it, a memory previously forgotten is at the forefront of my conscious thought.  I marvel nearly every time it happens.  Naturally, traveling aids this somewhat haphazard process.  Something about experiencing new things tends to help in uncovering the old, and too often is it that I feel the bland monotony of a well-scheduled life weighing on my creativity.

 

Although I may not know exactly how these memories return, or be able to predict when they will, their appearance grants me a superb opportunity as a writer to revisit pieces of my own history.  It is my hope that the more I travel the world around, the more I will be able to rediscover memories forgotten.