G – The Art of Going

“Let us go then, you and I . . .”

—T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

A character in my novel-in-progress has an inner universe filled with a series of gray, crumbling skyscrapers. But they don’t fall down, they decay slowly, sideways, glass and concrete and beams splitting from the foundations and simply extending. In a world of continuous motion—of people coming and going, places growing and disappearing, names and faces that simply cease to be—the sideways city is the one constant in her life, a place that time and gravity do not touch. That is, until an event finally causes it to come crashing down.

When my own inner world imploded last year, and I lost the one person I didn’t think I wanted to live without—I turned to words, and more specifically to poetry, to restore some sense of order. Poetry offers more questions than real answers normally, but at least it tends to keep me busy in the search.

I did this for days, trying to figure out where I should go next. Where I needed to go. I had to rebuild my city, sideways or not. One that could grow from the knowledge I’d acquired throughout the preceding year, however painful. Something more solid for the future.

One poem that I turned to was T.S. Eliot’s, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and I have returned to it—or a part of it—for this post. I think the poem speaks the most about the way we move within the shifting time-place dimensions of our lives—the way we are always in a momentum of no-return, with people and even ourselves. I have always thought of myself as a point within this coming-and-going paradigm, occasionally intersecting with other people and places at the crossroads. Sometimes these encounters end in “Let’s go, sometimes in let go.

In a rare stroke of luck, I found the answer I was looking for from the first line of the poem: Let us go then, you and I . . . Let us go, let us go. Let go. Life, like love songs, like love, ends. And indeed there will be time / to wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ And ‘Do I dare’. Indeed. Time until time is no more. So: Do I dare / Disturb the universe? The answer is yes. Always. Dare to being. And to end. To go, then.

Either way, we are our own sideways cities; it’s up to us to choose how to rebuild. We’re at the mercy of motion and at some point, for us, it will end.

However, no matter what may come of the crossroads, we still must step forward. We are going; and in going we learn to be.


What is the poetry that inspires you? What gives you a sense of motion?

Senses Enrich the Story

Senses Enrich the StoryWe all know senses are important, right? Sight, scent, taste, sound, and touch are as important to our characters and stories as they are to us. Our senses allow us to take in the world around us, but they also help transport us into memories.  What does the smell of rain or the sound of a train mean to your character?

Senses enrich scenes

Just as beats help break up and give flesh to the bones of dialogue, senses give clues to atmosphere and the character’s state of mind. “Elsa perched on the edge of the chair as her hostess poured tea,” is clear enough. But “Elsa perched on the edge of the chair, hoping the proffered tea was pungent enough to mask the  medicinal smell of the sick room” gives us a completely different impression. Or “Elsa perched on the chair as her hostess poured tea, the scent of which brought her back to her grandmother’s kitchen.”

Other senses could work the same magic. Perhaps the hostess has tremors our character notes, or she’s wearing a floral dress that reminds our character of someone from her past. Is there a mantle clock that chimes or does the heated porcelain of the tea cup trigger a response?

Senses invoke memory

Some great flashback scenes begin with a sense that sweeps the character into a memory. “Tom remembered that day clearly” is a statement. “The heat from the asphalt rose through Tom’s oxfords and  produced a shimmer on the horizon, just as it had that day when…” Or “The hot pavement and heated air brought her face clearly to mind. “Let’s go swimming,” she had said.”

Scent is a major player in memory recall, but so is music. The right song or snatch of lyrics easily transports me to a moment in my past and does so for characters as well. A certain touch can also bring the past sharply into focus, especially if the memory is an unpleasant one.

Senses improve recall

Police and therapists use a technique called “the cognitive interview” to help victims and witnesses to access their memories with greater detail. In this type of interview, the person is put into the scene by recalling what their senses were registering at the time. Once the memory of time and place is firmly established, the recall of the interviewee is usually sharper and smaller details are more easily remembered. You can try this yourself by recalling what your senses told you in a particular memory before the main event happens. If your character is a witness, victim, or investigator, this is a tool you can use.

Other senses

I would argue that there are other senses important in the scheme of things. The sense that air pressure has changed could indicate a door or hatch has just been closed or opened. Temperature, air flow, gravity, motion, and others also affect your character. We are aware of more than we realize and adrenaline heightens that awareness.

Try to give a specific when using a sense. Rather than tar smelling hot, does it smell oily, burnt, or heavy? Tea can be delicate, flowery, herbal, pungent, earthy. Touch can be grazing, reassuring, frightening, directional, or emotional. A sound can be grating, grinding, soft, metallic, sighing, startling, or out of context/unexpected. Taste doesn’t only relate to something put on the tongue. Defeat can taste bitter. Fear might taste metallic. Lemonade could taste like childhood.

Sight is the sense we use most often with our characters since we are essentially reporting what they are seeing and doing. But sight is richer when not used alone, and how your character process what is seen is unique to them as well as mood dependent.


If you (or your character) had to lose one sense, which would you choose and why?

How Poetry Broke me Open

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Photo (C) Michelle Mueller, 2013

Mis küsib elulahkmel heitlik maru!
Kuid sina enesele annad endast aru.

What asks the errant storm at life’s crossroad !
But you must answer for yourself.

           — Betti Alver, From Tähetund

 

Three and a half years ago, I was sitting shyly in Avignon, France around an unknown family’s table while laughter and curiosity and, yes, words darted around me with strange syllables and foreign footsteps. I understood maybe half of it and, in my social awkwardness, even as they asked me questions, my face flushed with the gracelessness that comes from trying to barge my way through a language when the words don’t want to come freely.

However, during my three-week stay with that family, my host-mother did say something to me once that I easily understood:

You are a flower who has not yet bloomed, Michelle.

In what way? I wondered. I didn’t ask her to clarify.

Half a year later, I was sitting in the first creative writing course I’d ever dared to attempt. The professor was a published poet; my classmates in the workshop came from all walks of life. I didn’t know what to expect; I’d never before tried sharing my writing with strangers or, for that matter, even with other writers.

We started the first nine weeks of class with poetry. I was mortified to have to go home and force words on the page. They felt like French, oddly shaped, badly bent on my tongue. In need of improvement. I ended up slapping words down just to be rid of them, barging my way through. And by the end of those nine weeks, my teacher had called my poems in honest, but kindly constructive terms: mediocre, nothing special.

I wholeheartedly agreed. I’m just not a poet, I said when I met him for consultation.

But you have a gift, he assured me, referencing the short story I’d written for his class that — based on the mediocrity of my poetry — had shocked him so much that he’d asked me to meet with him privately in the first place, you can go far.

But how far? And with what? I wondered. Where, exactly, am I going?

I wrote one “good” story for a class and it did not answer any more of my questions. It created new ones. It left me in doubt. I had gone through the majority of my writerly life with the firm conviction that I am not a poet. That class seemed to prove it. But, where then, when I wrote lyrically, when I wrote along the boundaries of prose with a poetic voice, did that leave me? What exactly did I write, then?

What is that singing in my head, now? What is that intonation of words, the colors and shades of myself left behind like music?

I’ve tried to fit into a framework, to define myself through some more stable medium. I’ve tried to write another short story about Estonia, for instance — because I wanted to write about the things I’ve experienced along the way: the culture, the language, the distant light of winter. Stories have a way of solidifying an otherwise abstract world; they embark from a (usually) well-defined beginning and move towards a (hopefully) well-defined end.

Yet I am a student of languages; I put words together mathematically with a hint of the artist’s brush. I am a lover of anything that speculates implausibility and makes it believable. I love the bruises a beautifully rendered story leaves on my heart.

But, over the years, as I’ve developed as a writer, I’ve found that most often when I’m looking for an escape, for answers, for anything quiet, I turn not to novels or stories, but to poetry.

Poetry is my lighthouse. The desire to read Betti Alver’s poem Tähetund resonated so deeply within me that I packed my bags, bought my one-way ticket, and enrolled as a Master’s student here in Estonia just to read it in the original language. Now it’s the backbone of my Master’s thesis. It’s teaching me linguistics; it’s teaching me myself.

Poetry is a dark force in my heart, a rendering of explanations unexplained. My mind is filled with poems and poetic lines (of other poets) that I read and re-read and remember, that I carry with me, that have changed my life. Poetry touches me in a way no other style of writing has. Poetry is the only thing in life that has forced me to move to get to where I want to go.

I am not a poet are words I have spoken until I believed them, utterly. Because I feared what being a poet meant. I’ve been running myself in circles trying to find my voice, my style. The thing that puts me into words.

But walking among these poetic people, these Estonians who built their world on songs and held onto everything they are through words when words were not free to them, I see myself now, how I’ve finally grown into that thing I feared, how perhaps I’ve been that thing all along.

Because I am a poet. Not always a good one, at times mediocre. But do I not try to understand the sculpture for the stone it once took the Earth years to make? To parse the wind outside my window? To create these beings in my head — these people-of-words, these characters — whose existence is fundamentally an extension of my own. Is this not poetry?

Two years ago, I moved back to France for a longer period of time. I climbed the fence, ignored the barbs of a badly rendered sentence, and kept going. I learned to speak. I met my former host-family for dinner one night and sat around their table, laughing and letting the words fall as they should, one after the other. And as I was walking out the door, waving good-bye, my old host-mom called out to me: You’ve finally bloomed, Michelle!

And as I walk the streets of this foreign land — this home to me — among the people who have taught me not to fear myself, I think — well, yes — indeed I think I finally have. I have finally broken open.