Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The conversation poet Matthea Harvey and author Edward P. Jones didn't know they had

Hidden selves. Photo by d e x t e r, flickr

They appeared before me two days apart -- one a notable poet, artist, and picture book author; the other a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. Yet what they said met in my brain as one fluid conversation, a bite-size master class about imagination, creativity, and gumption in writing.

First was Matthea Harvey's keynote at the Barrelhouse Conversations and Connections Conference on April 13. Her meditation on the creative process was a thing of beauty, as much meant to be read and seen as heard. Two nights later Edward P. Jones sat down with my Contemporary American Writers class to discuss his novel The Known World. We'd already spent weeks sifting through the novel and analyzing its craft elements; now we had the chance to ask him, in the flesh, if all the genius we perceived therein was invoked or involuntary.

I spent the last month vaguely recollecting their comments, which is a polite way of saying I was busier thinking about writing than actually writing because after several rejection letters and not-exceptional grades I was seized by a crippling fear I would never be interesting, much less published. Yet when I went back to my notes to compile this post, I remembered the flush I'd felt when each of them spoke -- a warmth spreading to my fingertips, my brain nodding, my subconscious saying, "You know what they say is true."

The following quotes are real; their arrangement is patently false. I present them only as they've been bouncing around in my mind, glomming onto each other in weird combinations, waiting for me to internalize their wisdom and return to my own pages. So, here goes.

An Imagined, Short Conversation Between Matthea Harvey and Edward P. Jones

Matthea Harvey: There's "wonder and weirdness of being a percieving human being -- aka, a writer."

Edward P. Jones: People seem to downplay the importance of imagination. ... We're born with imagination -- we might as well use it.

MH: Write like the self you hide and can't convey when you're speaking.

EJ: I myself am the only reader I have in mind.

MH: Our fingerprints are all over our poems and stories.

EJ: I am wedded to the idea of telling the best possible story I can.

EJ: The story should be captivating and the language be engaging. ... In the end, your job is to entertain.

MH: Expand your emotional palette. Try what doesn't come naturally to you.

EJ: A little bit [of symbolism] can do the job, but sometimes you have to carry it further.

MH: Get unstuck using formal or traditional forms. You dance different waltzes with different partners.

EJ: If you have an ending in mind, it guides you like a star in the sky.

MH: If I listen to my own work hard enough, I will figure out how to revise it.

EJ: It's the way it has to be done, so you do it.

MH: Keeping on when you feel hopeless is hard -- but worth it.

---

My lesson: Make the least obvious choices and follow them to their "logical" conclusions. Surprise the reader. Risk yourself. Watch what happens.

Prayer #247: "Write Like the Self You Hide"

Help me write like the self I hide,
the part of me that steeps in shame
or whoops, elated, at moments
captured only in a writer's sights.

Help me write like the self I fear,
the part of me too terrified
to fall in love with what I love
so deep I'll lose my sense of "should."

Help me write like the self I want,
the part of me that longs for blurbs
and prizes, yes, but more the part
that craves transcendence above all.

Amen.