From Sentiments to Sentences – Part II


Hiya!  I’m back from where I left off yesterday. Hopefully I didn’t leave anyone in a great deal of suspense, as this post will only reek of anticlimax :).

What I was about to continue yammering on about last night, at any rate, was that sentimentality is not the only way my past informs my writing.  To start, yes, I’ve had a lovely life—I’d be an ungrateful twit not to acknowledge that and count my blessings every day (I know, la-dee-frickin’-da, right?)—yet to be honest it concerned me this would hurt my writing, make it too naive, idealized, and anything otherwise be too two-dimensional and cliché.  And that’s a very valid concern…

I couldn’t help but peek ahead in my very-neglected Room to Write book, where on page 90 Bonni Goldberg says:

“Where we come from influences both what we write and how we write. […] This is why six people can describe the same tree differently. Each person sees it through a unique set of experiences.”

And then she warns that:

“Cliché seeps into writing when writers forget or neglect to bring who they are into the piece.”

This reinforces what eventually got me over the above concern.  Everyone’s life brings something to the writing desk, and maybe some of things I don’t understand first-hand consequently don’t have a place in my writing. Maybe this, then, helps me narrow down my focus, find my creative niche where what I do know can be optimized.  OR maybe what I don’t know presents that extra intellectual-emotional challenge that could be enriching to explore further through research and imagination, as when a method actor immerses into a new role.  In that way, I don’t have to be so pigeon-holed after all.

Then there is the simple fact that, despite general trend, my life of course hasn’t been entirely rosy! I know pain, heartache, depression, and have sharpened my teeth around anger and resentment pretty well in my day…I may idealize the past out of sentimentality, but I’ve also brought in the darker emotions from the tougher experiences I’ve had—case in point being the “writing-as-therapy” I mentioned yesterday. As a result, my protagonist shared in my own downturn, and in a way we worked through it together.  Then, when I succeeded in pulling out of mine, I could outstretch my hand to lift her out of hers.

I’m not going to do the writing prompt today, but the exercise on that above-mentioned page from Room to Write asks us to write about our origins, beginning with, “I come from.” In doing so, we’re to also consider the sensory details coinciding with our memories that, by virtue of experiencing them, have impacted who we are.

Now, to put my teacher-cap back on briefly, I can’t help but recall from this a poem I had to teach my sophomores during a unit on discovering our cultural identities and identifying how they shape our individual frames of reference:

Where I’m From, by George Ella Lyon

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.

I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons,
from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I’m from He restoreth my soul
with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.

I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.

Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.

In “An Interview with George Ella Lyon,” the poet says:

“If I weren’t from Appalachia (or from my family and my genetic expression and my experience — I don’t know how to separate these), my writing — and I —  might be bolder.  I might live in New York or L.A. and push it more. As it is, I’ve chosen to stay close to home and to be somewhat restricted in what I’ve written and/or published.  I anguish a lot about hurting or betraying family members…On the other hand, if I weren’t from Appalachia, my work might not have the same support of noncompetitive colleagues, of a community of memory, and of strong voices from my childhood that still speak in my head.  Certainly it wouldn’t have its roots in the rocky creeks and high horizons, the enfolding spirit of trees that I call home.”

Though kids inevitably groaned over reading and writing poetry, I always loved this activity because they’d surprise themselves—by recalling and isolating the simplest of images, smells, sounds, tastes, and textures, they’d craft their own “Where I’m From” poems that offered profound insight into who they were, and I think in the end they were proud, learning that if they seized the power to really know themselves, they could harness the power to write.

Such a simple exercise here, yet so dense as we draw out the good along with all the bad to build the organs and flesh around the skeletons of our characters and infuse them with blood and soul.

And YOU, my dears? How does your sense of self inform your writing?

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About thefallenmonkey

Primate that dapples in writing when not picking others' fleas or flinging its own poop. View all posts by thefallenmonkey

17 responses to “From Sentiments to Sentences – Part II

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  • Glen

    your experiences have to slant your writing – how can they not? As long as you are in control of it, I reckon all should be well./

    • thefallenmonkey

      Agreed. I think there’s definitely a risk of getting carried away—among other things, it could offend people being written about if they recognize themselves…or maybe too much of the same thing keeps recurring like a broken record…or maybe there’s not enough of a stretch to acknowledge other types of personalities/lives for the reader to identify with….so on and so forth.

  • Agatha82

    You’re spot on that our life experiences seep into our writing, at least if we allow it, but sometimes, it’s painful to dig back into moments we’d rather forget, however, I think they make for stronger writing, if you can re-use them, and recycle them as fiction somehow.

    • thefallenmonkey

      Yes, a friend of mine has long been wanting to write a book about her life, but there are certain things she doesn’t want to relive as well as a lot that she wouldn’t want certain people to know. I’ve been encouraging her to write a novel rather than autobiography for the very reason that it can be fictionalized, and telltale details can be altered into less recognizable forms, and if anyone asks, it can all be chalked up to imagination.

  • tahliaN

    If you don’t write from your own perspective, one that must draw from your past experiences ( where else does it come from) you won’t have a unique voice, then your writing will always be lacking that special something. I think writers have to be brave enough to really put themselves into their work, my slant would be my fascination with perception and how mind works.

    • thefallenmonkey

      Ha, yes I guess that’s quite true that our experiences can only be in the past. It’s interesting, as I believe some folks perceive fiction as a place to hide when it’s actually quite the opposite; even as a reader, books constantly make you confront your own experiences and ideologies. I love that…and I love your slant as well—perception/the mind can generate such rich, thought-provoking material!

  • Sharmon Gazaway

    Thanks for sharing this poem! I’d never heard of G.E. Lyon and it’s uncanny how simply coming from the same region can make people so similar–I feel I could have written the interview and poem–um, yeah, if I had that kind of talent!
    I liked how you worked through your angst w/ your MC and then reached back and lifted her out, too. Very poignant, and one of the many gifts writers have to deal w/ life.

    • thefallenmonkey

      So glad you enjoyed the poem! I like its simplicity and how even though it’s so private to the author’s experiences with very specific references, what the mind fills into the gaps really fleshes out the person behind it all into someone identifiable. I don’t doubt you absolutely do have the talent to write a poem like that, and I think you should! 🙂

  • Milo James Fowler

    So glad you’re back in the land of the living (blogging), CK.

    We really do need to be able to accept ourselves as human beings even as we accept ourselves as writers. I’m sanguine/melancholy, so half of my stories are humorous, and the other half are quite grim. But because I accept myself, I can accept the split personality my fiction sometimes exudes.

    • thefallenmonkey

      I think having those different sides adds so much storytelling—it makes you a versatile writer in tune with different sensibilities, and that can attract different types of readers. Just as Tahlia has commented here that she has a fascination with perception/the mind, I am positively intrigued by people’s dichotomies—I see it in myself, too, and have definitely played on that in my writing as well. And you know, I think even combining the humorous with the grim can make for a great tale—do you find you have many stories falling in-between like that?

      • Milo James Fowler

        A few; dark comedies can be a lot of fun.

        • thefallenmonkey

          Such a fan of the dark comedy. Even what wouldn’t be considered a comedy but has humorous elements to take some of the edge off (or actually add to it) are so entertaining—example: I just watched “Bad Lieutenant” the other day. My God, such a despicable character and uncomfortable movie to watch, yet in so many ways it was downright hilarious :).

  • Eva

    Phew, that was a long break indeed, for both you and me. Glad to have you back, though!

    On the topic. I personally think it is close to impossible to NOT write about your experiences in books, even only with things that you experience with people, but wrapped in a thrilling story.
    I found out after I had finished my first ms, which to my conscious knowledge had nothing to do whatsoever with me or my life. Still, it had a lot to do with things that move me and keep my mind busy, questions I ask myself, things that I fear and desire.

    So I do really think that the author always is in the book, even if he doesn’t realise him/herself…

    • thefallenmonkey

      Yay! So glad to “see” you again, Eva! Yeah, from what I know of your novel plots, I would hope you didn’t empathize personally with assassins 🙂 But I know exactly what you mean as far as it still being very much you written into the book in terms of your own thought process and interests.

  • Ollin

    “As a result, my protagonist shared in my own downturn, and in a way we worked through it together. Then, when I succeeded in pulling out of mine, I could outstretch my hand to lift her out of hers.”

    That’s exactly it! Um, I could just re-write what you wrote, but why? You’ve said it so well, and I think you are more honest than most writers {like me} who might not want to reveal that in a lot of ways their main character is kind of them in disguise.

    But that’s the challenging part about writing is it? In order to write a specific emotional plane, we have to go there first ourselves, then we can describe our characters in that same place. But if we have never been “there” how can we ever write about “there.”

    As always very true, very real, very thoughtful.

    • thefallenmonkey

      Thanks, Ollin! “But if we have never been ‘there’ how can we ever write about ‘there.'” – so very true. Imagination can only carry us so far, and I think it’s a great imaginative feat when we’re able to put such spins on our own experiences, tying sometimes totally unrelated pieces of ourselves/lives together that make sense in a whole new way for the story. Cheers!

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