Mary Jane Ryals, "On Writing"
Hot pink cosmos flowers lift their faces just now to the late summer sun. Flies buzz like happy drunks in the manure just the other side of these summer flowers and the bird bath. I can run my fingers across the rosemary and smell that fragrance on my fingers. Crickets and cicadas racket-shickit-zhackit in echo-y invisibility just beyond in the woods. I chew on some mint and want more. Bees work endlessly on the bee balm, and when the crickets pause together, the buzz saw sounds in the distance.
I'm living with friends in the Appalachians, temporary though it is, teaching at a small college nearby for the term. But I am trying to do what Wendell Berry tells us to do. To paraphrase Berry: Stop. Put down the phone. Get off the computer. Pay attention. The rocking chair is painted purple. Two gardenias, tiny as a baby fist, creamy as, well, cream. Mourning doves coo in the late morning. The brief sound of woman talking just down the hill.
I try not to sit down to try to write the best American Poetry Review poem. I say, please stop fretting about creating the plot for the next New York agent you can wow. And don't paralyze yourself with perfectionist standards. We write because we love to write. So I document. Play with language. Paint with words. Tell a story. Who cares? I let the purpose be need and care. Is that NOT what the lavender on the other side of the gardenia pot is doing--growing with all that luscious scent, medicine, food for honey bees? Just growing because it needs to, slowly, and dare I say with great care?
There's a woman writer I know who introduces herself with her life tragedy. “When I was eight, my mother shot herself in front of me at home.” And now the story of a cat, Martini, who I live with here in these Smokies, who has been shot and still has a bullet in his spine. Martini pulls himself with his powerful front end everywhere. He loves to cuddle. He must be squeezed to empty his bladder twice a day. He doesn't complain, and he loves to eat and be petted. He's getting better at walking the back end of himself after his bullet incident. He seems not to understand or need pity. In this world, we have a million ways of dealing with tragedy. Writing can deal with all of them at times.
I remember beginning the only novel I've published so far. At 37, I faced doing a creative dissertation with a three-month-old daughter who filled my writer arms completely. I finally found a small bouncy chair my brother had been rocked in 25 years before. (Thanks, Mama, for your saving ways.) I'd write so quickly, so desperately, that I merely plotted. It went, “okay, now her dad has put her mom in an institution, and now her black friend who's not supposed to be her friend gets found out and punished, okay, and then her father's redneck friends party in the house and talk about killing black people while she listens upstairs, and now...” Meanwhile, I tapped my foot on that little bouncy chair as I tapped fingers on the keyboard. 'Please stay asleep,' I'd pray to my daughter. I knew from having had a son seven years earlier that my writing time was limited. In a matter of months, my daughter would be crawling, trying to eat roaches, trying to climb down stairs, trying to pull heavy bowls down onto her head. Total vigilance was in order. The novel only came to about 125 pages. My daughter began to crawl about three months later, and I'd done a rough draft of a novel. I did the best I could at the time, having worked as a poet and journalist, never a novelist, for years. It was not a great American novel. It didn't raise any interest with agents or editors. But I got it done, rewrote it between mothering and teaching, and got the PhD.
Have you ever looked at images as they appear under an electron microscope? We look sloppy, icky, nasty, vulgar. If you look at, say, a capillary under that microscope, it does not closely resemble a perfectly cylindrical pipe with fluid running through. A side section of a tissue shows red blood cells that remind me of a vast lake with several smaller lakes nearby, none of which are round. All are oblong in different ways. Clumps. Not the perfect circumferences from your geometry class. Clumps line the walls of the surrounding endothelial cells, causing bulges in the "circle." Outside that lie nutrients (oxygen), waste (carbon dioxide), and the whole mess looks like a streaked Italian marble table top. Like layers of chaos hardened into rock. Another example--certain side sections of muscle, show large mitochondria which provide energy to muscle. Mitochondria, to the eye, look uneven in size, diameter, placement. Frankly, they look like a mess. Biology. The human landscape close up. Why should our first writing look like anything but chaos, a mess, weird marbling?
Should our kids learn handwriting? That is--how to write with pencil and paper? That's a contemporary question in the culture. Kids can't really use cursive, and by the way, Should they? Is the question. And should they even be "writing" on anything that's not technologically based? But typing on a screen, those smooth, clean Arial letters, imply that "perfection" is at our fingertips. Hey, what is perfection anyway?
Here it is afternoon, now, the same day I wrote about manure and cosmos and rosemary. Pay attention, the crickets bree in a high pitch, the breeze now warm, the red shed's white door stretching open, it seems, inviting. I eat chicken in a vegetarian household here, and give scraps to Martini. My notes and lunch and cell phone and calendar and glass of water sit scattered by the computer--oops, turn off the computer! I should be on a campus, sending my syllabi, as administration has asked, for students to see. I'm here writing instead for the first time in months. No, I do not write every day. I write when I write. Screw writing every day. Rules are sometimes necessary, but in creativity?? I practice when I can. Stop, listen, watch, pay attention. Whether you're a writer or not. This is the only life we have. First, live that. Then write.
Soft rain plunges to earth this later afternoon, and the smell of grass and earth rise like a morning fog off the mountains. Like the heat of cooking that simmers scent, sending it anywhere it can. Water-fire. I go to campus where the students are registering, hunting for classrooms, finding lamps for dorm rooms. An oak's acorn plunks on my head, reminder of the autumn ahead. Oh, yes, my head would make a proper bed for a new tree better than the tar road the hopeful seed pings down to off my head. But someday, my head would serve as great compost if we still bury bodies in the future. “Compost Happens,” says the navy blue t-shirt worn by a father with his student.
A perfect garden needs rain and shit. It requires “compost,” what we call ruin, decay, time. The four o’clocks in the home garden have closed now, in the rain. Doesn't a good piece of writing require good weeding? Editing? A good rainy cry over its not readiness? My life and this day do not have drama or story. But we don't make good writing art from an uneventful day, do we? We hone the suicides in our lives, the bullets in our spines. Next, we weed that garden, water it, shape it, wait for it.
Do I contradict myself, said Walt Whitman. Back to the oak tree, and I'm walking the opposite direction, back towards the car. Under the oak that wanted the top of my head for its garden child, a dreadlocked student passes me. He plays a song on his guitar while he walks and sings 'Home is where I lay my head.' He's composing in the rain. I think he's nuts, until I realize I'm walking with pencil and pad in hand, furiously writing “rain, acorns on my head, Compost Happens.” Sometimes, writing or creativity is urgent as acorns wanting your head to somehow work.
Wendell Berry fusses at friends who use the word “environment.” He says that word is an abstraction. Someone asked him, so, what do we use? He said, “Say what it is. Jon Summers' farm down the hill.” So when we talk about “revision” in a piece of writing, what do we mean? Students tend to say great stuff, like “scratch it out and do over again.” Or “go over and change words around.” Another says, “I see if I am rambling. I see if I can put a better word in or leave one out,” and “usually when I read what I have written, I say to myself, 'that word is so bland or so trite,' and then I go and get my thesaurus.” Another calls it “Slashing and throwing out.” My favorite, because it fits my own writing, goes like this: “It means taking apart what I have written and putting it back together again.” It's the grunt work of farmers, of gardeners.
I'm working two days after I began this essay. I had put it aside overnight, then did the old scratch out and do over routine. I didn't spend much time with it, and my friend who lives here and does the gardens just told me he spends tons of time with the garden early on; then he gets tired of it, and leaves it alone. You could have fooled me. His lush gardens produce food for tiny creatures, and it glows with colors. And it produces food we can eat. Last night, his girlfriend Linda pulled yellow squash, zucchini, green peppers and basil off the plants, threw in some mushrooms, and roasted them on the grill. This morning, birds I don't know chirp and peep, and I hear a helicopter, and then a motorcycle buzz. Then it's quiet again. Sunflowers begin to go limp, and some leaves on the dogwood have already gone gold and even rust. A mountain slopes beyond the front yard, and at the low curve, the tip of another mountain peaks up. Pay attention, I tell myself, to the world that keeps us fed, alive, healthy, breathing, creative.
Mary Jane Ryals is the author of The Moving Waters, a poetry collection, and the novel Cookie and me, both from Kitsune Books. Cookie & Me, which won a Bronze Medal in the Florida Book Awards, tells the story of a cross-racial friendship in the 1960's in the deep south. Ryals, who currently teaches at Warren Wilson College in Asheveille, NC, is poet laureate of the Big Bend of Florida. Along with her husband Michael Trammell, she edits Apalachee Review.