How Writers (and Cicadas) Work

I’ve been rereading Annie Dillard’s fine Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, for the third or fourth time. It’s a marvelous work, almost like drinking in the molten stuff of imagination itself, for the language of the book is a series of fireworks, pinwheels of whirling thought, cascades of explosive insight, and then soft candles of introspection.

Dillard gets her nose right into nature, flopping face down on the ground and opening her eyes wide, and—with her alchemy of observation forged into words—tells us what she sees and how to see it, in a way that makes pages breathe. Among the many things that struck me in this reading was a passage about how cicadas go about their business:

“In the South, the periodical cicada has a breeding cycle of thirteen years, instead of seventeen years in the North. That a live creature spends thirteen consecutive years scrabbling around in the root systems of trees in the dark and damp – thirteen years! – is amply boggling for me. Four more years – or four less – wouldn’t alter the picture a jot. In the dark of an April night the nymphs emerge, all at once, as many as eighty-four of them digging into the air from every square foot of ground. They inch up trees and bushes, shed their skin, and begin that hollow, shrill grind that lasts all summer.”

Now, that passage is much less poetic than countless others in the book, but the thought of those burly insects biding their time, working the years, establishing and refining all things cicada threw me into considering how long as writers we might be buried, mere potential, waiting for wings to harden. It’s always amusing when there’s a new writing sensation, some breakout author who’s touted as the newly crowned best and brightest, and you learn that they also have three other novels that never made a stir, and four that they abandoned or are still gestating. Loud (and potentially annoying) as those cicadas might be, they earned their shrill grind. The long seasons of work are often invisible to outside eyes, buried to all except the worker.

Words Have Sound, as Well as Shape and Sense

Sometimes writing work is a shrill grind. Yesterday I started reading my newly completed novel aloud, in order to hear the rhythm of the words, to see if the sentences made music. I’d already edited it on screen, but putting voice to the page let me hear the places where the saxophone squawked rather than soared. In the space of twenty-five pages, I made at least seventy-five corrections, sometimes just transposing two words, sometimes shifting a phrase from sentence middle to end. It reminded me of when I’ve been given something to edit by a writer who thinks it’s near done, and I return it to them dripping the blood of the red pen—the horror!

So, more than 200 more pages to go—a bit tedious, but it’s cicada work: something buried will burst forth. I’ll be happy if the damn thing crawls, much less takes wing. Let’s end this with another passage from Dillard’s work, this time from another book I highly recommend, The Writing Life:

“One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. …Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

Open your safes, writers. Whether you let the silver lie thirteen years or seventeen, you must let it go. Otherwise, it will tarnish. (Besides, you might be able to make the latest sale on quill pens at Walmart.)

The Transient, Enduring, Gone-But-Forever-Now Plums

For the last six or seven years, I’ve thought the plum tree in our yard was a goner. The tree would produce another season’s worth of sweet, juicy fruit, and in the picking, I’d see the deep, dry cracks in the boughs. And the trunk: if you give it a good thump you hear a resonant return like a bass drum. It’s at least half-hollow, rotted out—that its core is half-empty seems the loudest beat of the old tree’s death knell.

How could it keep producing when its heart seems cracked? It’s an old tree, at least 30, maybe even 40 years old. It suffered a deep indignity last year when I stapled a rubber mat over the biggest of the trunk holes, where a big bough was lopped off before our time here, developing into a decaying maw that winter rains only worsened. Yet, for all that, for all its wear, its visible weight of age, its craggy twisted lines, we have the crown of blossoms seen in a photo from this spring, we have the thrill of seeing the green plums beginning to ripen, we have the bright explosions of pleasure from biting into their red ripeness.

Tree Twisted Into a Metaphor for Writing

I’ll go out on one of those cracked limbs and twist this into a writing metaphor: When I picked the very last four plums from the tree yesterday, it made me think of how many times I’ve felt deficient, deformed or hollow as a writer, how I’ve felt that the trunk was cracked, the flowers few. But lately, even though there are more cracks than ever, I’m producing more, and the production is better, sweeter. I’m trying not to hold back any more, because I’m not sure how many plums there are to come.

So, I look at that old tree: It sings of its past, its plums to come, its plums now. Makes me think of Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, though I don’t think I could get much in the way of a boat out of its sere limbs. But in the sense of the tree saying, “This is what I have. It’s yours. Take it.”

I want to do that with writing as well.

What better way to round out a post about plums than with two of my favorite William Carlos Williams poems, both plummy:

This is Just to Say
I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

And this:

To a Poor Old Woman
munching a plum on
the street a paper bag
of them in her hand

They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her

You can see it by
the way she gives herself
to the one half
sucked out in her hand

a solace of ripe plums
seeming to fill the air
They taste good to her

So, bite the plums, write the words.

How to Write an Object Poem (with Tears)

I belong to a fun writer’s site, The Write-Brained Network. There are all kinds of writers, all kinds of writing issues discussed, and occasional informal contests on the site. A recent one was to write an “object” poem, using this assignment: “Discuss how objects have lives and that they are often markers in our lives that help us recognize where we’ve been. They contain a special luminescence, connecting our past to our present.”

Though I enjoy reading some poetry (Rilke, astonishing; Billy Collins, charming), I know very little of its formal structures, and know less about writing it. That said, it’s a fun exercise to try writing out of your genre, so I thought I’d write an object poem about the humble sandwich. But instead, this came out, almost immediately after I started writing:

Sad Sandwich

Sad sandwich on the bedside tray
moved in haste, forgotten in the empty house
bedding thrown back in caught anxiety
the last sandwich

Thousands of sandwiches before
handled with his child hands
then later, workingman eager, lunchpail eager
laughing with full mouth, laughing with work friends
then later, cold sandwiches in the bomber,
cold over Berlin, cold over Korea

Then, long past being able to make his own sandwich
my father's hands, delicate, veiny, persistent
still enjoying his sandwiches
but now all slowed, a slow sandwich, eaten contemplative

Thousands of sandwiches, thousands now forgotten
the one appearing on the daybed tray forgotten in a minute, two
but still the slow pleasure of the chewing, the body's nod
yet, this last sandwich, a sad sandwich,
abandoned in the slant of afternoon light
my father, gone forever, this past New Year's Day
the plate now empty, the hunger unending

Writing That Surprises the Writer
This was one of those odd experiences as a writer, much as fiction writers say that their characters do things that surprise them as they’re written. Here, I’d intended to write a light poem, and instead, it morphed under my fingers to be a tribute to my father, who died a few months ago. Without my even intending it, the poem became “.. a special luminescence, connecting our past to our present.”

So, an object poem, written with surprise tears. It always amazes me, the weight of words.