The numinous, the transcendent, the cosmic—these are like trauma, in that they occur in a constant state of immediacy. Even to say “constant” is to introduce, then capsize, an image of time as a steady line, which, let’s face it, was a leaky vessel from the start. The numinous, the transcendent, the cosmic—they are everywhere. Now. They transcend daily understandings of space and time: They are spacetime. This is going to make choice of verb tense real tricky. So just give up on making sense in any practical terms right now, or just give up on getting any sleep. Once you start placing words in sequence to be read over linear time about mysteries that swamp the idea of time, you are already sunk. In the best possible way.
Naomi J. Williams’ historical novel Landfalls, which recounts the travails of a French scientific voyage begun in 1785, offers many treats to love, among them this sentence: “Who among us does not have the odd friend whose virtues we admire, but whom we do not wish to impose on others?” But the craft lessons this book has to offer go far beyond the strategic use of dry wit. Williams’ story is grand in scope: it’s a voyage into the unknown that covers danger, fear, loss, and violence–both violence suffered and violence enacted. Its characters bond through struggle, and struggle with each other. If it were a movie, the poster would probably feature one of the commanders staring bravely out to sea, wearing a weathered and courageous expression. You know: it’s an epic.
But where does Williams’ story begin? Not with any dudes staring bravely out to sea. Not with anyone toting a sword, or hauling on an oar. Not with any Master-and-Commander-style leaping about in the riggings in dress uniform. Not even with the carnage European expeditions created in the New World.
Landfalls begins with the ships’ stoves. The two vessels–the Astrolabe and the Boussole–attempted to install imported English stoves before their voyage, with mixed success. Much bashing with tools. Much cursing when the stoves wouldn’t fit, followed by much MacGyver-ing to make them fit. Much swearing when the sailors barked their shins on the knobs that protruded into what should have been their walkways through cramped galleys. Much smoke, followed by jokes about the imminent possibility of explosion.
Williams’ strategic decision to begin her epic in the domestic offers a lesson for other writers. Think about it: if you are preparing for an epic voyage, what is among your first concerns? Food. You aren’t posing with your chin’s best angle prominent over the railing. No way. You are accompanying your carpenter down into the hold to make sure your new stove gets installed.
The lesson here, I think, is to consider the large in terms of the small. To tell even a story of global scope in terms of individual daily concerns. I’ve been carrying this thought around for the past week, pondering how to apply it to my own projects. Maybe you will, too?
Poet James Wright, in a letter to poet James Dickey, discussing and quoting poet Stanley Kunitz on August 12, 1958:
“Do you happen to know Stanley Kunitz’s poems? He hasn’t had a wide reputation, but I like him tremendously. I’m going to review his newly published Selected Poems for Sewanee. I really think you would like his poems, and I think I’ll type a couple of them for you on a separate sheet of paper, so that you can see what he’s like. For a long time, virtually unnoticed and yet enduring, he’s been writing poems of real agony and love in a kind of lost and transient underground of the American jungle of academies and businesses. I think that the appearance of his Selected Poems is inspiring. It shows that defeat, though imminent for all of us, is not inevitable. He wrote to me recently, since I know him slightly–and you might like his concluding words: “it would be sweet, I’ll grant, after all these years to pop up from underground. America, it’s true, either spoils you with success of withers you with neglect. What other morality has the artist but to endure? The only ones who survive, I think, beyond the equally destructive temptations of self-praise and self-pity, are those whose ultimate discontent is with themselves. The fiercest hearts are in love with a wild perfection.” Those words mean much to me. Please write. –Yours, Jim
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While many students are still waiting to hear where they will be accepted, some students I have worked with on college applications do have their good news in hand already. Good news has come from Point Loma Nazarene University, the University of Pittsburgh, and McMaster University, among others. Fingers crossed as more acceptances roll in!
On February 16, I had the honor to give a poetry reading as part of the Poetry in Davis series, held at the lovely Natsoulas Gallery in downtown Davis. While there, I read a new piece containing the lines, ” . . . who gladly / roast dessert upon an oleander spear”–and people laughed. Not just one person: plural people. Because more than one person in the room knew that oleander is so poisonous that it’s dangerous just to roast your marshmallows on it. Maybe you, reader, also know this? But it was a delightful surprise to get a laugh in response to a joke I thought I was only amusing myself with. Further proof that a town with this many master gardeners in it is the town for me. I love it here.
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Do you know a high school senior who is hiding under the bed, headphones in, pretending that college applications are not due? Drag her out of there, and send her to me! Now that my UC students have completed their applications, I have room for new students applying to colleges with deadlines in December, January, and February. Let’s brainstorm and write those essays!
I am attaching some highlights of my editorial services for publishers, writers, and scholars. I offer services including
- Copyediting creative books: poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction
- Copyediting craft-of-writing books: poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction
- Copyediting scholarly books: humanities and social sciences
- Manuscript critiques: MFA application portfolios, book and chapbook manuscripts
- Workshops: poetry and prose
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- Hourly coaching
My workshop offerings for writers’ groups will soon include something I am calling the How-to-Publish Roadshow, which will help new writers look like pros as they send their work to literary journals. More soon!
More information will be forthcoming after the upcoming EPIC REDESIGN OF THIS WEBSITE, but this gets things started! Meanwhile, please click the link below to download the PDF.
I am attaching a menu of my services for high school students. As I transition away from my role as Admissions Advisor and Director of Communications for IvyClimbing Education Services, and toward working independently with students on their writing for college admissions and writing that prepares them for college admissions (writing for publication, anyone?), I am developing service packages for
- College Application Essays
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Hourly tutoring is also available. More information will be forthcoming after the upcoming EPIC REDESIGN OF THIS WEBSITE, but this gets things started! Please click the link below to download the PDF. More soon . . .