Tuesday, July 12, 2016



Writers are always searching for perfect words to paint powerful images. We shade with appropriate adjectives, we color with clauses, we expand our definitions with details; we specify , we clarify, and we bring our images to life by describing what they are, what they have,  and what they do.

Another often overlooked way to create powerful images is by telling what something or someone or somewhere is not.

We can approach objects, places, people, situations, and events from the opposite or unlikely side, from a new perspective,  by examining what  our subject is not, what it does not have, or what it cannot do.

Like looking at the negatives of old photos, we can examine the negative spaces as a means of creating a similar, yet different image- -a shadow image.

An Angel for Solomon Singer by Cynthia Rylant contains a powerful and poetic description of a room, considering all that it is not,  and all the features it does not have, and all the things Solomon is not allowed to have or do in this room-- all things for which he longs.

Solomon Singer lived in a hotel for men near the corner of Columbus Avenue and Eighty-fifth Street in New York City, and he did not like it.  The hotel had none of the things he loved.
His room had no balcony ( he dreamed of beautiful balconies).  It had no fireplace (and he knew he would surely think better sitting before a fireplace).  It had no porch swing for napping and no picture window for watching the birds.  He could not have a cat. He could not have a dog.  He could not even paint the walls a different color and, oh, what a difference a yellow wall or purple wall would have made!

With these negative words, we not only see the dismal hotel room in which Soloman dwells, but we also feel his loneliness, his weariness, and  his pain.  A description of what the room actually contains, what it actually looks like, would not have created an accurate image for us, nor fill us with the same empathy.

Once I noticed the power of this not/no in this passage, I began to see this technique in other texts and  to experiment with it in my own writing.

One of my attempts with this technique is this third section of a longer five-part poem, The Dancer's Dream Suite

She never planned to be a dancer.
She was not the ballerina who befriended each neophyte dancer that entered the company.  She never immediately smiled as visitors entered the studio to witness, to gawk-- to envy the lithe bodies stretching and bending on the highly polished hardwood floor.
She had none of the easy dancer banter hidden in her mind that fell effortlessly from the mouth of her sisters in pink. She had never been like the current starling darling of the company, a little girl dreaming of elegantly spinning from the time she was three.
She never wore a tutu for Halloween or ran into her yard in ballet slippers before her mother could remind her to change.
Dancing was not what she intended to do and she never intended to stay in this place.
The company was not her family, as the Russian proclaimed, and most of them were not even her friends.
No one applauded her successes and waited with flowers for her after the last performance to take her to a late dinner as Jake’s Café around the corner where the other dancers gathered and stayed long into the night dancing wild unstructured gyrations that were not part of classic ballet.
No-- instead she exited the stage door, caught the train home, riding silently, neither looking out the window or at her fellow riders.
No-- instead she returned home to feed her cats and read trashy grocery store novels until she fell asleep alone, dreaming of children she didn’t have and their father whom she had not yet met. © RobinWHolland

This dancer comes to life as we consider what she is not, how she has none of the expected characteristics of  a dancer. Again, her loneliness is tangible and resides in the negative space.

I recently was introduced to two additional  and powerful uses of negative space.

As I read the poem Lure by Robin Coste Lewis in the collection Voyage of the Sable Venus, winner of the 2015 National Book Award for Poetry, I was struck by the quiet horror that we feel as the narrator recounts  an incident of incest that "did not take place"  in her childhood. The negative statements recounting her truth render the images and events all the more disturbing and haunting.

Her poem begins:

I am not there.
(We are not in that room.
I am not sitting on your lap.
I am not wearing the yellow
and white gingham skirt so pretty
Grandmother just made for me
this morning....

In a recent interview about her work  with Nicole Sealey at PEN America, in response to a question about the most daring thing  Lewis had ever put into words, interestingly, she responds by discussing Lure and what she was not intending to do with this piece.

... “Lure,” is an exploration of incest and its long-term impact on survivors. That was challenging to write because... I wasn’t interested in being shocking, or even cathartic. If all I can do is to get my poem to go “Boo!” that might be thrilling for a second, but it would be cheap, gimmicky. I’m also disinterested in catharsis as a goal. As a tool, sure, but as a goal I remain suspicious. So what if we all cry. Who cares? A poem is not an Oprah episode. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against crying. I hope my work allows the reader to access sensations that have been locked away or ill-considered. But when we make that the sole mark or goal—“I cried...” —we miss out on poetry’s deeper properties, which can take us far beyond emotional release. And so when thinking about how to write about incest, I knew catharsis was not enough. I wanted more. I assumed my reader was more intelligent than me, so then there was no need to over-explain, or to trick my reader with a gimmick, even a gimmick about abuse. Also, I never want my work to be a sly narcissistic invitation that requires the reader to look at me instead of the poem. 
You may read the entire interview here.

 E. Lockhart begins her young adult novel, We Were Liars  by having one of her characters tell us  about the negative spaces of the family who populates her novel--who they are not.

Welcome to the beautiful Sinclair family.
No one is a criminal.
No one is an addict.
No one is a failure...

On the first page of this novel we are immediately intrigued as she alternates between what the Sinclairs are and are not, leaving us wanting to know this privileged family, to understand their particular pains and specific situations, as they gather each summer on their private island.

 And finally, as I was looking for something unrelated on the internet this week,  I re-encountered one of the most well-known protest poem/songs --The Revolution Will Not Be Televised by one of my favorite artists from the 70's, Gil Scott-Heron. ( This song is the first cut on Pieces of a Man.)

You will not be able to stay home, brother
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag
And skip out for beer during commercials
Because the revolution will not be televised
The revolution will not be televised
The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox
In 4 parts without commercial interruptions....
I  smiled as I realized the entire structure of his poem/song  is in negative space--- the revolution will not......
I also smiled at how times have changed--- and how not being televised, not being streamed, not being seen instantly, everywhere, is no longer an option.

You can listen to to the entire song here  and read the complete lyrics here.

The power of no, not and negative spaces.
The underside, the shadow image.

We can use these negative statements and views to look with new eyes at objects, places, people, situations, and events.

What is not?

 Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Reread the samples and others you may locate.

Describe an object or a place  by telling about what it is not.

Write about a person, their circumstances and situation--- tell their story using only negative descriptions and statements.

Write about an event- a trauma, a sadness, regret, or a celebration by detailing what did not happen--either as a technique to describe what actually happened in the manner of Robin Coste Lewis in Lure- -or to examine what truly did not occur.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016


Writing comes
and I welcome it
grabbing it as it enters--
a passing phrase
a fleeting image
gossamer words
fashioned into
half-finished sentences
as I wait
in the places
where writing
has visited me before.

 In Beyond Walls, Amy Frykolm describes poet William Stafford's habit of rising to write poetry each morning before dawn.

Stafford didn’t write before dawn only because it was quieter then. He wrote in the early morning because he had greater access at that time of day to the unknown. His method for writing poetry was based on something he called “welcoming.” He would sit and welcome the language that came to him. Once an interviewer challenged him on this practice. ‘Don’t you ever revise?’ the interviewer asked. I do, he said, but only by welcoming still further. “I drift back through the poem with something of the same welcoming feeling I had when I began it.” He didn’t set out with an idea. He set out with an intention to welcome whatever came, almost always something that hadn’t been known before.

I know this "welcoming"--this process of language that comes  unbidden, yet  indirectly invited, always. And, although, I do not intentionally arise early each morning to write,  I  remain in what Donald Graves calls a "constant state of composition."

I have always explored these "comings" in poetry, feeling free to wonder and wander as I write, exploring, expanding, and transforming ideas, language...  and myself.

I have found myself in the last few years, however, reading and writing more nonfiction, creative nonfiction..... essays, if you will.

I have become interested in this form as I continue to experiment, in general, with the many possibilities for blending genres.  This form seems most like poetry to me in its ability to build  and arrive where I may not have intended to go, but am so glad I did.

It was with great delight that I discovered Katherine Bomer's newest book, The Journey is Everything. about teaching essay writing.

Bomer also discusses the connection between poetry and essays, confirming my suspicions and intuitions:

To me, the essay is most like a poem in tone. Like poems, essays might focus on something minuscule and with luminous language, render it enormous; or they might find something considered ordinary and demonstrate how extrordinary it is.  Essays stun me the way poems do, inviting me to consider an aspect of the world that I did not  know about or to look with fresh eyes at something I thought I already knew. (page 18)

Both Bomer and Fryholm remind us of the origins of  the word essay, and of this literary form , as well as the role of Michel de Montaigne in the genre's creation.

Montaigne retired from his role as a French statesman and retreated to his estate around 1571.  There he began reading and writing and essaying--trying words, ideas, and language.  He wrote about his everyday world, philosophy, religion, politics, human nature, and more.  In Book 1, his essays included such titles as:  

On Sadness, 
On Idleness, 
On Liars,
Our Emotions Get Carried Away Beyond Us, 
On Punishing Cowardice, 
On the Power of Imagination.

His many essays ( 3 books) were ultimately published in a massive volume entitled Essais-translated Attempts or Trials.   Project Gutenberg offers  The  Complete Essays of Michel De Montaigne

For more on the background, context, intentions, and writing processes of Montaigne, you may find helpful this article, Me Myself and I by Jane Kramer from The New Yorker.

Amy Fryholm closes her article about the essay with an invitation to explore our own worlds in the manner of Montaigne :
Essay writing, in particular, is an invitation into the “not yet” of our own experience where the unknown has an opportunity to speak to and through us.

So I want to try--- I want to essay  my world, my memories, my experiences. I want to welcome  the inklings, the tiny thoughts that come  that lead to deeper writing.

As with any writing we are learning-- or trying,  it is useful to immerse ourselves in that form, to take time to notice and name what we see-- and to think about how we might, then, translate into our own writing what we have noticed.

 Several collections have been useful for me as models,  mentor texts, for exploring the form.....  for pushing me, pulling me toward welcoming, experimenting --- trying ---essaying.


 I also recommend  " The Best" Series published each year:


And finally,  I offer books  that give advice, suggest exercises, and other ways to practice as you grow in essaying.  The first I own, the other two are currently on my To Be Read Pile, ready to assist me in my latest  journey.


 Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Select a topic to explore in the manner of Montaigne, starting with a title such as On___________.

In your writing explore what you know and what you don't know about this topic.  What is uncertain or troubling ?  Is there a call for change or growth for you or for your community? 

What do you discover as you write?
What questions arise, suggesting further exploration and writing?

Or spend some intentional time attentively observing your surroundings, encounters and conversations as you go about your day.  Write an essay about one observation, exploring why this particular observation is important to you.


Monday, May 23, 2016


United States National Institute of Health

We are all unique.
Although that sounds trite, this is the truth we tell our children and  each other.

And it is true.

But it is also true....that some folks are a bit more unique than others, face challenges not faced by most, learn lessons that remain unlearned by many, and have much to teach us all about living.

A  new law in North Carolina has highlighted challenges and prejudices faced by transgender people, bringing them to the front pages of our newspapers,  to the nightly news on our television screens, and directly into our dinner conversations.

This law, which is a solution looking for an imagined problem,  discriminates against, and in some ways criminalizes, an entire segment of our society, but also provides opportunities for discussions in which we all may learn, increase our compassion and understanding, and become more truly ourselves.

I have had several frustrating conversations lately in which people  have made definitive statements and  bold  proclamations regarding transgender people, the new law... and bathrooms, all without the undergirding of facts-- no biological, medical, or other scientific information.

In so-called religious arguments, there has been no solid biblical, doctrinal, or canonical basis.

In  purported safety and security assertions, there has been no statistical, historical,  or incidental evidence.

In no case was there a specific or personal experiential basis.

In each of these conversations, perhaps out of fear or  benign ignorance, or more sadly, hatred or malice, people simply expressed as their own, the unexamined opinions of someone  else.

In each of these conversations, there was no willingness to critically analyze or explore their own position or other possible views.

This reminds me of similar conversations in the past when folks denounced Harry Potter books or The Satanic Verses,  but hadn't read the books--  or when people were picketing The Last Temptation of Christ, but hadn't seen the movie.

How do you have a conversation in this empty context? How do you have a conversation where there is no information of any kind to examine?
It is impossible.

As so often happens, books show up when you didn't know that you were looking for them.

On the heels of these several discussions, I encountered Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart, a perfect book to enter into these recent frustrating conversations.

This book offers a fictional, yet realistic slice of two lives lived in the bodies of people struggling to become who they really are.

In Gephart's thoughtful portrait of Lily, we enter the mind, the heart, and  the everyday struggles of a transgender girl as she seeks to become herself, honestly and openly.

We also enter the challenges of Dunkin, as he struggles with Bipolar Disorder.

 I believe that understanding comes when we are able to look into the eyes and faces of  another, when we can walk with them through their lives, when we can listen with open ears and hearts to their desires, hopes, and fears. Books and movies along with personal encounters and interactions, allow us to do this.

In a recent blog post, Benedictine Sister, Joan Chittister, reflects on the movie,The Danish Girl which also deals with a transgender journey:

A universal call to authenticity for some, it is, at the same time, a call for universal love from those who companion us through any of life’s moments of disjunction and despair. 
 It is everybody’s story at one level. And its ending is meant as a life lesson for us all. The fact is that until we become what we are meant to be, none of us can ever be truly happy.

How do we become who we are?  How do allow and support others  to become who they are?
How do we answer this universal call to authenticity and compassion?

We all find ourselves unique in many ways.

And as you search for additional books  that will provide opportunities for honest  conversations about differences  and our struggles to be who we are, these few may be a place to begin:

Cerebral Palsy
Facial Differences
Eccentric Creativity and Intelligence

Asberger Syndrome

Hearing Differences

These books and many others which are available help us begin to answer these questions:

What does it feel like to be different?
How do I respond to those who are different?
How do I respond to others who mistreat those who are different?

How do I become me?
How do I support you as you become you? 

Today's  Deeper Writing Possibilities 

Because of a new law passed in North Carolina, transgender issues are in the news.

Read several related news articles and respond in poetry.

Or you may choose to read and write about an issue in the news that is important to you.

Rattle, one of my favorite poetry journals,  has a feature entitled  Poets Respond.

You may want to submit your poem  for publication.