Sunday, December 13, 2009

I Could Use a Box of Words

This week I’ve got nothin’. The well is empty. I have ideas and images for the final two posts of December for Christmas week and New Year’s week, but for this week I’m at a loss. Words fail me.

The photograph above is of the family Scrabble match on Christmas Day 1978. My father-in-law, who was a killer Scrabble player and insisted on at least one friendly game of cutthroat Scrabble at family gatherings, was making what was no doubt a high scoring play. My husband, who snapped this shot and recently came across the negative in his files, said: Look at my tiles, I got nothin’. I feel the same way this week, except I seem to be working with only consonants, as though I’ve been disemvoweled.

Yesterday, a good friend of many years came over for lunch, bringing good stories to share as he always does. Not written stories, but conversational stories told in the be
st tradition of storytelling. We expect that of him, and he knows it. What can I bring, he always asks, and we tell him to just bring a story. No stories, no lunch.

One story he shared was about his box of words, which the nuns at his grammar school made the students keep. I could almost see him as his little boy self carrying his shoebox full of words on index cards to and from parochial school.

I could use a box of words of my own right now.

He at
tributes his spelling ability today to that box of words. Says he can spell almost any word without having to look it up because he had to memorize that box of words. Told of how he recently impressed a coworker by rattling off the spelling of the word egregious without having to look it up.

Man, those were some heavy words those nuns made you carry around, I told him. I’d envisioned words similar to what was in my Fun with Dick and Jane first grade reader. He clarified that egregious was not in his little boy box
of words, but just happened to be the word his coworker was trying to spell. Whew. What a relief.

Despite my love of words, they sometimes fail me. I’ve taken a few runs toward this week’s post, but abandoned them because they felt forced, tedious. The words had no spark. I didn’t love those words. They weren’t accomplishing what I wanted them to do. They lacked the spark of discovery that should accompany the act of writing. And if they sparked no insight for me in writing them, they were certainly not going to light any fires for the reader.

I’ve felt this way before. Felt that I’d written myself out, that the well was dry. It was how I once felt in a workshop led by writers David Jauss and Pamela Painter, facult
y members at Vermont College where I earned my MFA. I admitted to David that I felt empty, that there were no words left, and he smiled knowingly and said: But that’s when you’re getting to the best material. Wells fill from the bottom. It’s where you can tap into the purest source.

Those may not have been his exact words spoken a decade ago, but it’s the essence of what he told me. And he was right. I had a very productive semester following that particular workshop. Now, I no longer panic when I hit dry spells and instead trust that the well is filling from the bottom. Trust that I’m about to tap into something good.

This we
ek I’ve pulled two favorite books on writing craft from my bookshelf: Words Overflown By Stars, edited by David Jauss and Alone With All That Could Happen, written by David Jauss. These essays reassure me of what I already know, remind me of what I’ve forgotten, and teach me what I wasn’t yet ready to grasp before. And best of all, they reconnect me with the very special place of the MFA program at Vermont College, which has recently become the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Words Overflown By Stars is a compilation of essays from lectures on craft by some of the faculty at Vermont College. Included are many of the fiction writers I worked with there, either in workshop or as semester mentors: Ellen Lesser, Bret Lott, Diane Lefer, Doug Glover, Christopher Noel, Francois Camoin, Sue William Silverman, and David Jauss. Others are by faculty I knew and whose lectures and readings I attended, but didn’t work with directly, such as Phyllis Barber, Victoria Redel, and Syd Lea. Also included are essays by the poetry faculty and by prose writers who were not on faculty while I was there. Take a look at the table of contents.

The title Alone With All That Could Happen is enough in itself to get me writing, just by implying that something will happen if I settle myself down and quiet my mind and let the words come. These are essays that I revisit over and over, each time gleaning something new.

Maybe I don’t need a box of words after all. I have books of words – as inspiration, and to serve as my compass.

News and Updates:

A big thank you goes out to Laura Didyk at She Writes for selecting In This Light as one of the three blogs she reviewed as Curator of the Week there. Her words were particularly meaningful during this week when I was struggling to come up with a new post. In her review of my blog, Laura writes that it “has a truly calming effect. And as a poet who is inspired by images, In This Light makes me want to get out into the world, walk around, and keep my eyes open.” It’s always rewarding to hear the posts have connected with a reader. Please be sure to check out Laura’s own blog, Outloud.

Photo Credit:
“Family Scrabble” copyright © 1978 by Kevin Scanlon, used by permission.

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1 comment:

cynthia newberry martin said...

I love that image--the well filling up from the bottom and tapping into its purest source. I have both those books beside me on my desk. I can't wait to read them.