Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Jonathan Bower: But does it Sing?

“Language can do what it can’t say.” – William Stafford

“Somehow I too must find a way of making things; not plastic, written things, but realities that arise from the craft itself.” – Rilke, in a letter to Lou Salome (August, 10, 1903)

I haven’t been at it very long, and it’s not a career, but I can say that after a few years bumbling along the learning curve, I have come to love the opportunity to teach creative writing at the undergraduate level. There’s no space now to detail precisely what I love about the work, but I enjoy it in such a way that – even though I usually teach only one class a term – when people ask me what I do for a living, I now and then respond that I teach creative writing. There are many reasons for answering in this way, but for now I’ll only share that when asked, this option has a nice ring to it.
My hands down absolute least favorite part of the job, however, is being on the receiving end of the English department’s email requesting textbook orders for the coming fall term. Whether due to internalized, projected outwardly-applied pressure, this email’s appearance in my inbox calls to life again that feeling that I need to provide for my students THE definitive text that will aid in their process of becoming Writers. It hardly helps that I’m no fan of 99% of the books I’ve read that I can only ever think to classify as “Writing about Writing.”

I have a bookcase full of them, and, god, how I’ve tried to get on board, to find them helpful, as well as to understand or imagine the ways these help other writers feel like they’re onto something, that they’re making progress. There’s a veritable industry of these works aimed at turning everyone who thinks they should or need to write a book into a published, and maybe even award-winning author. Do “Writing about Writing” books have their own Amazon.com store? Their own New York Times Bestseller list? If you answered in the affirmative, it wouldn’t surprise me.


Last week in workshop, a student turned out an essay detailing the period in her childhood when her parents divorced. What might have proven a maudlin or overwrought affair instead capably and compassionately brimmed with candor and, though bittersweet, offered sincere but maturely restrained reflections on events that I imagine in real time bristled with gnarly barbs and a caustic, if not nuclear, amount of energy.

For instance, after a heartbreaking but humorous introduction to her father’s character at the start of the piece, the writer offered a flashback, sharing the story of how her parents met. Her grandmother – her mom’s mom – hired her dad as a magician for a party. “In the middle of the event,” she writes, “one of my dad’s white doves met its demise in the dining room ceiling fan, covering the white linen table cloth in bird blood.” Her grandmother decided then, our fellow writer shared, that she absolutely didn’t like her father after that, and that she had it out for him ever since.

The morning I reached this moment in her story, I couldn’t contain myself. I laughed out loud, and also became restlessly giddy in my seat, too – never mind that I was also writhing with envy, self-centered as I am, wanting that material for my own as stock footage for my personal archive. As a painfully shy male, as well as a divorced father, I simply couldn’t help marveling her dad’s gumption, that he - after staining his host’s white linen with bird blood – actually dared to ask this woman’s daughter out on a date! And then she, his future wife, said yes! Marvelous! Isn’t it?

At a songwriting workshop I attended this past summer, one of the workshop instructors complimented a classmate’s line in a lyric by noting, “That’s good real estate.” That’s how I felt about this the sacrificial white dove bleeding all over the tablecloth, the magic trick gone madly a wry. You want to honor the spaces around that detail and attend to the rest of the design with care and undivided attention.  This student’s got an enviable piece of real estate on her hands.

But the outward, visible, physical reaction to what I was reading was actually a slimmer, paler version of my inner-response to the piece, complimenting on an interior level any and every encounter I’ve had with multiple art forms over the years. There’s a physical sensation involved, and the only way I know to describe this connection – my appreciation and recognition of the thing that’s occurring or has occurred – is to, in the case of writing, recognize that the moment “sings” on the page.

It’s a nearly audible, and thoroughly physical sensation that reaches outside of the sometimes sterile (though of course entirely useful, necessary, and functional) “grammatically correct.” (“Grammar is a piano I play by ear,” wrote Joan Didion, emphasis mine.)

These moments bound past convention, allowing language, as William Stafford shared, to “do what it can’t say.” The deepest truth or resonance of a work never, in my experience, simply or merely shows and/or tells. It rather hums, vibrates through you – the assembly of words and images resound like a tuning fork through your entire being. Prose, for all the silence and solitude that accompanies the writing process, can sing a song that, like Bon Iver’s ‘Holocene’ or Van Morrison’s entire Astral Weeks, you can feel on and under your skin.


A magician, an artist in another craft, releases his white doves to the air in good faith, and the entire expectant gathering is instead bathed in blood. A white linen tablecloth, and one grandmother, will never recover.

The absurdity, the terror, and the hilarity of it all.

Early into my writing life, I elusively sought a way to achieve, realize, or seize on those kinds of moments. I collected books that I hoped would “magically” help me realize and sculpt these into good writing. In more recent years, however, I’ve learned that life hands these events to you indiscriminately, and that you’re give a choice as to whether or not to even note them, and to then labor over them in the hopes of weaving them into a work aspiring towards art.

Given this, I now feel that it doesn’t matter what “textbook” we order or plunge into from one term to another: The most important text my students will have in their library will be the 99¢ single subject notebook from Walgreen’s (or the Moleskine, if they care to splurge) in which they scribble these “bloody white dove” moments, “magic tricks gone a wry” as they randomly occur or recall them. There’s no single text that I can find or have found that can teach a writer to cultivate the active attention and intention that comes with noting or discovering them. 

In the process of recognizing these jewels of experience for what they are, we begin noting the light they give off when glimpsed at this way, or the prism that hits the page when you slant it this other way. An attentive presence, with ears and eyes so attuned to life’s ‘perfect pitch’ delivery, combined with, sure, of course, a copy of Strunk and White, a good dictionary, and the nerve to read your clunky prose aloud in the yawning silence of your own room (or car, as I’ve had to do now and then), and I’ve little doubt a writer’s prose can achieve its musical moments. With the proper care and attention, you can play Joan Didion’s “grammar piano” to the tune that causes your reader to experience the mystery of prose singing under and on his or her skin.

My role in the workshop many nights feels like an unadorned privilege. I have the opportunity to aid other writers in a process not just of construction, but discovery. I get to work alongside them – our pickaxe’s swinging – as we mine our lives for the moments that have caused the blood to pulse and pound in our ears and bellies and chests a little harder. Did the doves flinch or shudder on the table after they landed? Or were they just white lumps of dead weight, plopping to earth?

We know these moments by a marked cadence, their unusual arrival and rhythm as they flow into the running stream of our lives, clarifying for us that universal melody, the song of, to paraphrase Mary Oliver, “the world offering itself to your imagination, calling to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting – over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”

(Jonathan received permission from his student to quote from and refer to this particular essay from his workshop.)

Jonathan J. Bower is a writer, songwriter, father, and creative writing instructor living in Anchorage. He is currently trying to survive the final days of a Kickstarter campaign intended to cover the post-production costs of his new album, Hope, Alaska, which will be officially released in late October. If you’re interested in previewing his music, you can visit his Kickstarter page, https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1606719488/hope-alaska-album-release  or his website, www.jonathanjbower.com . Register now for his three-hour 49 Writers workshop Our Stories and Their Songs on Oct. 11.

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