Member Monday: Writing is Art by Jennifer Phelps

Welcome back to Member Monday.  It’s a pleasure to once again feature member Jennifer Phelps.  Welcome back, Jennifer!

Writing is Art

by Jennifer Phelps

Writing is art. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, but it’s a phenomenon that I’m sure veteran writers have been dealing with for ages. What I mean when I say writing is art is that even if the writing is labeled “nonfiction,” it is a creative endeavor. It is not intended to represent the whole truth, nor can it. It is a slice of life, a snapshot, one angle on the truth in any given moment. That is not to say nonfiction writing is a lie – it’s not! But it is a piece of writing. It is not meant to convey the totality of the feelings and intentions of the writer.

Neither should the writer attempt to explain, justify, or soften the writing. This can be very slippery territory indeed. I’ve never published anything I regret, but I do wish I hadn’t answered questions about some of my pieces, and I have vowed never to do it again. Once, after reading a poem I’d placed in a lit journal, a well-meaning relative asked, “Was this about so-and-so?” She already knew who the poem was about, I’m sure, because enough of the details were recognizable. So the question caught me off guard and I answered, “Yes.”

“I thought so!” She sounded pleased – she’d solved a puzzle. She knew the inside story.  And I instantly regretted affirming her suspicions – because the poem didn’t tell the whole truth. It was only one piece, one facet. If you read that poem and thought, “This is what Jennifer thinks about so-and-so,” you’d be wrong. Did the poem represent a thought I’d had once about so-and-so? Sure. A recurring thought, even. A poetic thought. But it wasn’t the complete story. A poem  can’t be the complete story. It’s a poem. 

Works of nonfiction, poetry, and fiction alike take on a life of their own. Writers know what I mean. When I sit down to write a personal essay, I have something I want to say, but then at some point, craft intervenes. I’m not suggesting everything I write is some monumental achievement of craft, but the aesthetic is there. My writing needs to have tone, cadence, flow, internal consistency. An essay needs to stand alone, to be cohesive. As I’m writing, these elements start to matter. So, sometimes I include ideas that fit with the piece the way it is taking shape, and I omit others that don’t. To quote filmmaker Robert Flaherty, “Sometimes you have to lie in order to tell the truth.” There are no lies in my nonfiction writing, but sometimes the whole truth is confusing, incongruent, too large in scope. As a writer, it’s my job to pare it down.

To tell the whole story in any given piece would be an insurmountable undertaking, and the result would be ridiculous and contradictory. I can’t write: This person really pissed me off, but then I thought about it later and I could see where all the years of abuse she endured while in foster care really affected her ability to emotionally connect, and all things considered she really meant well, so although I felt uncomfortable at the time I guess it was really okay.  Maybe.  It might be the whole truth, but it’s awful writing.  (Unless you’re Allen Ginsberg…then it’s genius.) When I’m writing, I have to stick to the topic and slice through. The result is a cross-section, like a single image from a CT scan. At times the whole picture is unrecognizable from the slices. So it is with art.

It’s important to remember that a piece of writing isn’t a doorway to the innermost thoughts of the writer, or even a window – it’s a keyhole.

There’s another arty element at work here too – the reader. People probably won’t like me saying this (oooh…controversial!) but I think writing is a bit of a Rorschach test. We definitely recognize this factor when viewing paintings. For instance, why is the Mona Lisa smiling? There are a zillion interpretations, and her expression evokes different responses in different people. We’re often comfortable with this type of ambiguity in visual art.

People don’t tend to think of writing this way, though, unless it’s poetry, and even then we often assume there is one “correct” meaning, that the intentions of the writer are present and decipherable in the text. We seem to think that because words have prescribed definitions in certain contexts that we can take them at face value and can read a piece and analyze the writer, the writing, and the subject matter.

I suggest that this is not true!  What a reader takes from any given piece of writing just may say as much about his or her own prejudices, predilections, and state of mind as it does about the writer. Some pieces of creative writing are clearly more subjective than others, but it’s an idea worth considering. In the eye of the beholder, and all that…

There’s a quote I love by Stephen King, from his book On Writing. He says, “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered.” If he’s right, polite society and I parted company quite some time ago. I’m okay with it, but I’m still learning how to share my writing, how to respond to the varied reactions I get respectfully while remaining true to my own intentions. I’m finding that in these situations, what I don’t say is every bit as important as what I do say – just like when I’m writing. When I can’t speak to the whole truth, I’m just as honest as I can be – and I try to make it sound good.  That’ll have to do.

A Note from the Webmaster: If you’re a Writers Forum member in good standing and would like to be featured on Member Monday, please send your submission to writersforumwebmaster@gmail.com. Submissions should be 75-750 words, appropriate for all ages and error free. Please include a short bio, a headshot and any related links. The author retains all rights and gives permission to Writers Forum to publish their submission on the website and/or in the newsletter. Thank you!

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Member Monday: Home by Jennifer Phelps

Welcome back to Member Monday.  It’s a pleasure to once again feature member Jennifer Phelps.  Welcome back, Jennifer!

Home

by Jennifer Phelps

This is a picture of my house – or rather, my yard – of which I will only show a small piece because I am stubbornly private. It’s a good house and, like all good houses, has held its share of pain as well as joy. Call it “seasoning.”

wpid-IMG_20131106_164243_419.jpgI like to say I’ll be here forever, which of course is just one of those silly things we tell ourselves when we love something and can’t imagine letting it go. Who am I to speak of forever? My existence is only a small blip on the radar screen of forever, here and gone in an instant.

My house, though, I love unapologetically: its wide windows that show me the rain, stars, and moonlight; the squeaky hinge on the bathroom door that I could lubricate but somehow never do; the crooked corner in the living room that inspires speculation about drunken drywall contractors.

I love the way light winds its way into each room at a slightly different angle, the way the hall closet still smells of someone else’s candles, the too-sunny greenhouse window that cooks even the hardiest of plants to a pulp in the dense heat of summer.

Best of all, I love the garden, home to hundreds of Pacific tree frogs and numerous speckled, smooth, and mossy boulders – all of which I adore with shameless fanaticism. I love the neighborhood with its foothills for walking, its backdrop of dusky mountains, the way the wild pushes its brambled back up against my fence.

And I even try to love the neighbors – honest, I do try.

I fill my home with the things I love, the cobalt blue KitchenAid mixer that was a wedding present from my grandma, my mother’s bust of Mozart, the old rocking chair my parents carried me to for comfort in the wee hours, the pets I dare to love even though I know they will one day break my heart, and my special people, who share with me daily their truth, wisdom, and grace.

This house is and will be witness to the mundane, the profound, the astonishing.  It is witness to our lives.

 

A Note from the Webmaster: If you’re a Writers Forum member in good standing and would like to be featured on Member Monday, please send your submission to writersforumwebmaster@gmail.com. Submissions should be 75-750 words, appropriate for all ages and error free. Please include a short bio, a headshot and any related links. The author retains all rights and gives permission to Writers Forum to publish their submission on the website and/or in the newsletter. Thank you!

Member Monday: Old Friends by Jennifer Phelps

Welcome back to Member Monday.  It’s a pleasure to feature member Jennifer Phelps.  Jennifer’s piece, Cigarettes in the Volkswagen was recently published in the 2013 issue of the Santa Fe Literary Review.  Welcome, Jennifer!

Old Friends

by Jennifer Phelps

We all need quiet in our lives.  We must sweep off the table and make space for it.  My life’s work dwells in the quiet spaces between things – of that I am certain.

When I was little, I had plenty of quiet.  We lived way out in the country, in the middle of an apple orchard, and I was always alone.  I had no siblings, no neighbors with kids, no playmates.  What I did have was an active imagination, and I was a voracious reader and so I enjoyed robust adventures of my own conjuring.

friendsStill, I thought I was lonely.  I built tree forts and yearned for a friend – a Diana to my Anne (of Green Gables) – to come climb with me.  We would giggle and tell secrets.  She would know my heart and understand me without a word.

I thought I was lonely, and maybe I was, with only an aloof cat, the mute companionship of a sweet-natured dog, and the rough-barked apple trees.  But as it turns out, along with the tree houses, I was also building something else.

I was building a relationship with myself.  I asked myself questions and listened to the answers.  The trees were my companions, the tractor-torn clay of the earth.  I ran barefoot and my feet became tough and impervious to rocks.  I ate plums and mulberries – and apples, of course – warm from the tree.

When I started school, I was confused by the complexities of interactions with my peers.  Many of them were abrupt, judgmental, inconsistent.  I began to see relationships as troubling, unsatisfying, and hurtful.

I have been blessed with some very dear friends in my life, but a true and durable friendship, as many of us know, is an uncommon thing.  That Diana to my Anne – that “kindred spirit” that L. M. Montgomery spoke of – I don’t know that I’ve ever quite found her.  Unless…

Unless I am that friend, to myself.  When I think about it, this dialogue that has continued for well over 30 years, this old and comfortable knowing of myself that goes deeper than words, has served me well ever since my childhood, when such self-companionship was forced on me through my isolated circumstances.

When I’m alone, undistracted, and able to really be with myself, it’s like a visit with an old, dear friend.  I thought I was waiting to meet her, but maybe she’s been here all along.  She’s been waiting in the quiet spaces between things…and she is always there for me.

A Note from the Webmaster: If you’re a Writers Forum member in good standing and would like to be featured on Member Monday, please send your submission to writersforumwebmaster@gmail.com. Submissions should be 75-750 words, appropriate for all ages and error free. Please include a short bio, a headshot and any related links. The author retains all rights and gives permission to Writers Forum to publish their submission on the website and/or in the newsletter. Thank you!

Member Monday: Cigarettes in the Volkswagen by Jennifer Phelps

IMG_20130719_162041Welcome back to Member Monday.  The Writers Forum board sends our sincerest congratulations to Writers Forum member Jennifer Phelps, who was recently published in the 2013 issue of the Santa Fe Literary Review.  The review selected her poem Cigarettes in the Volkswagen.

Cigarettes in the Volkswagen

by Jennifer Phelps

She found them between the front seats

of her mother’s old VW bug:

two dry husks of cigarettes, long forgotten,

discovered as she dutifully detailed the car –

a teenager’s task – cramming the vacuum

crevice tool into that awkward abyss,

sucking up tarnished pennies and old French fries,

the Volkswagen an accidental time capsule,

the Viceroys evidence of the free spirit

her mother was once, before she became wife,

Mom, perfectionist, tyrant –

maybe even before she became unhappy.

Back then she was just a kid selling records

at the music store on Fourth Street,

listening to Janis Joplin wail and sob on LP,

staying up late, talking and smoking,

making plans as if her ideals could never

be bruised with the blunt force of disappointment,

as if she would never assume

the heavy veil of responsibility,

as if the day would never come when she could love

her unborn daughter enough

to quit for good the carefree nicotine habit,

as if that daughter would never grow up to write

reminiscent poetry labeling her mother tyrannical, unhappy;

the same daughter who took a moment’s pause

from her cleaning chore to pick up those cigarettes –

those tattered testimonials to a long-forgotten innocence –

touching them briefly to her lips in a kiss

before reluctantly letting them go.

A Note from the Webmaster: If you’re a Writers Forum member in good standing and would like to be featured on Member Monday, please send your submission to writersforumwebmaster@gmail.com. Submissions should be 75-750 words, appropriate for all ages and error free. Please include a short bio, a headshot and any related links. The author retains all rights and gives permission to Writers Forum to publish their submission on the website and/or in the newsletter. Thank you!

Best of Member Monday 2012 #3

The Webmaster is off to Uganda; great time to re-run past Member Mondays based on fan comments.

In the Gaps
by Jennifer Phelps

I’m focusing on living in the gaps. It’s been a little over two months since my mother died,and when she was sick everything was gaps. She was hanging in a gap as if suspended over a gorge, halfway between earth and sky. Nothing was clear-cut when Mom was dying, and oddly, that somehow made sense. As if that’s what dying is: slipping into the gap.

Here’s what I mean by gaps.  Recently I e-mailed a poem to someone. The poem was called “Trying to Raise the Dead” by Dorianne Laux, one of my favorite contemporary poets.  My reader replied, saying that he found the poem, like most poetry,  “cryptic.”  I have never been of the mind that Laux’s poetry is circumspect or obscure with a difficult-to-delineate meaning. This reader was hung up on the details. The narrator is at a house. “Whose house?” my reader demanded. She’s at a party and she doesn’t know the people that well. “Why is she there? Why doesn’t she know them?” She’s outside, and the others are inside, singing. “How come? Why doesn’t she go back inside with them?” (To this, I answered, “Maybe she was smoking a cigarette.”  Geesh.)

Poetry leaves gaps. I’m comfortable with them. Not the esoteric, overly academic puzzle poems people love to praise, probably because they figure something so convoluted must be intelligent. Laux’s poetry isn’t pretentious or overworked. It just leaves open space so that when I read it, I can make it mine.

My mother loved poetry, understood the gaps, was in her element in them, actually.  But she loved music more.  She used to say that music speaks to that for which there are no words. So does poetry, I say. Good poetry, anyway.

Now that Mom is gone, I’m left trying to articulate to people what made her special, what it is that I miss. What I miss is that she knew a deep truth. That knowing was her unique gift. I will miss her facility with gaps.

I suppose my mother can be found only in those spaces between things now.  Wherever, if anywhere, the essence of her exists, it is not on this physical plane. At least, this is what I tell myself so that I don’t keep looking here. I look there – in the gaps. I listen to song after song, read poem after poem, trying to find one that makes me feel just the right way. Makes me feel like she is still here.