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  • Writer's picturecherylmurfin

Walk-talking About Writing

Updated: Feb 25, 2021

Walking About Writing

The view from Green Lake in Seattle today.

One of the little things I most look forward to these days is walking around Green Lake with my friend Sharon, especially in these last 10 locked-away months of The Great Pandemic.

As some of you already know, Sharon also happens to be one of my beloved aunts, and together we have had some real walking adventures — not the least of which was hiking across the Scottish Highlands and ambling across the mystical island of Iona on that country’s western coast. Both of us are itching for another long-distance wander but that’ll have to wait ‘til the world is safe again.

In the meantime, it’s our every-so-often strolls around the lake — which sits between her home and mine — that I most appreciate. The opposite of well-planned travels, our Green Lake walks come in the midst of our daily living. They feel like kind comments written in the margins of the larger creative works either of us is engaged in on any given day — the poems or blog posts or short bits of memoir we continue to move from our souls onto the page.

I love Sharon’s writing. You’ll see her work in some of my posts from October 2019. As I read her poems, I feel like I am inhaling the living breath of a kindred spirit’s sacred quest. During our 45-minute lakeside ambulations, I love talking to Sharon about writing. I love discussing the process of it, how's it's sometimes exhilarating, often painful, how frequently I get lost and then rescued from the black void of writer’s block.

Sharon understands the solitary world of the writer. For me, it’s sometimes hard to tease out the difference between a singularly focused process and an overwhelming work of inner-rummaging, isolation, or loneliness. She listens to my frustratoin. My walk/talks with Sharon always leave me feeling less lonely as a writer and more accepting of the writer’s call; that is, the work as a spiritual vocation.

As we move around the lake, ideas we’ve been independently noodling on but haven't quite come to a conclusion about bubble up between us, floating out from under our masks into a refreshing dialogue. Or, as was the case today, they come out as a series of intriguing questions to which there are no clear answers.

The overarching theme that walked the lake with us today was that of a poet’s intent:

Is poetry really just self-serving word play? What is the point of it? What makes a poem, or any piece of writing, accessible? As a reader of a poem, do you really need to know what the writer was thinking or feeling to “get” it?

And the BIG question: Is it a requirement that poems published in The New Yorker be SO damn esoteric?

We didn’t come to any hard and fast answers, except to that last question. We decided that abstruseness must be a requirement of poetry submissions to that revered magazine. When Sharon mentioned her disgruntlement with most poems printed in The New Yorker, I laughed out loud. I had a subscription for years and honestly, I sometimes wondered if there was something wrong with me. Why did I find those poems so intolerable and often inscrutable. And yet I forced myself to read them, trying to push through what I was sure was my own literary ignorance.

And maybe literary ignorance it what it was. But my aunt is brilliant, and if she has suffered through The New Yorker poetry with similar pain, well, let me just say I feel validated. I feel vindicated in my antipathy for it’s poems even as I’m inspired by The New Yorker’s prose.

But I digress. It is the non-judgemental exchange with Sharon of questions and thoughts and ideas about writing that is, for me, elevating.

Yes, that is a BIG bubble on the lake.

Of course poetry is self-serving — but is there anything wrong with that? Isn’t the Self the generative power of all art? Art comes from and through the artist. It is OF the person. Writing, no matter the genre, is a reflection of the writer. And the point? The point of poetry is the self-awareness it brings to the poet. Whatever it brings to the reader — emotional engagement, joy, understanding, provocation — is an artistic second layer. I think this must be true of any art.

So, just to be clear, I don’t begrudge the poets of The New Yorker their right to gaze inward. I just wish they were more accessible to me is all. I wish I “got” them.

But what does it mean to “get” a work of poetry? Our discussion of what is and is not accessible ultimately came down to “clarity.” Are the thoughts, ideas, and concepts of the poem or prose or fill-in-the-blank piece of writing clear to the reader in such a way as to evoke a response beyond such frustration as “I don’t get it?” Are the words, their structure, their order, their cadence, clear enough that the reader can have their own experience of the writing — whether or not they really understand the author’s intent?

Which begs the question: can a reader ever really know what the writer was thinking or feeling when the writing was underway?

Personally, I think the short answer to that one is no. We are not mind-readers even if we are well read. So why, then, do we writers write? Why do we ask others to read what we write?

I thought hard on this as we rounded the last corner of Green Lake. Sharon suggested, and I wholeheartedly agree, that as a writer I write to know myself. I share what I write in the off-off chance that my words will resonate with just one other person; that is to say, connect me to them.

I don’t think I have anything terribly important to say. But I do feel a terrible need to connect. Words can do a lot of things -- they can help us or hurt us, give hope or cause disillusionment. But at the most basic level, words connect us. Some people are better able to connect by speaking their words. Some of us feel more clarity, and thus feel better connected to others, by offering our words up to them on the platter of the page.

I am the only one who will ever know what I am feeling right now as my fingers fly across the keyboard. But you, if you are reading this, will glimpse some part of me here, a part of my Self that longs to connect with you. I have a hunch that, ultimately, this is our deepest desire as humans: to have parts of ourselves seen by other humans; to have those parts resonate and be accepted.

After our walk, Posie and I made a pitstop at the vegan donut shop. I have found it is impossible for me to feel bad about a VEGAN donut, especially after a walk.

Outside the shop we sat on a bench across from a gentleman who had five large, leashless dogs sitting at his feet. With all those dogs between us, of course we got to chatting. The man was a font of information about canines and how they communicate.

Posie danced around the edges of the crowd, being alternately dominant — barking to get the other dogs’ attention yet keep them from coming too close — and then submissive — tail slunk between her legs — as soon as the pack turned its united head in her direction.

This back and forth went on for a bit and I thought about putting her in the car in case she was feeling intimidated. But the gentleman gently suggested I not do that. Instead, he invited me to remove her leash and let her work things out with the pack.

“She really just wants to find her place,” he told me, not at all flinch-y about her high-pitched yelps every now and then. The truth is I get nervous when my dog barks, worried it will annoy or upset others.

“Knowing their place in a pack makes a dog feel safe," he added: “That sharp bark explains to them who she is and what she needs.”

Well, hello. Doesn't that just make sense?

Posie’s just using her words.

Like me, like anyone longing to connect. Just using her words, to resonate, understand her place, and to be accepted by the pack.

1 Comment

Jan 17, 2021

Hello dear Cheryl and others! That was a stimulating walk, as usual - to walk and talk - surely that is part of the joy, at times, of walking. Walking to solve problems, solvitur ambulando. *

Then I felt convicted of disparaging the New Yorker poetry choices, thus putting myself in an arrogant light, as if my writing is better than that. Well, it is often different for sure. I thought about how Mary Oliver's work has been criticized for its simplicity, labeled inspirational and accessible, as backhanded compliments. And Billy Collin's labeled "the People's Poet" for his candid and open, "friendly" poems - understandable. Theirs is not the only poetry that is accessible - there are so many,…

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