Monday, February 25, 2013

An Expat in Amsterdam

Moving to Amsterdam has changed me. 

No part is untouched. All of me imprinted. 

I’ve learned to let it come. I’ve watched the shelf of self tilt, almost all of the things placed there (look! this is me!) fall, some crash, some crack, some slip to be swept away, and some don’t move at all. I am curious to see what stands when the shelf is still. 

Those strong remains will be me who writes. 

In a new country, married to a man from this country, my eyes have had a chemical peel, and I can see things. Beautiful things. The light is different, pavement different, letter boxes different, high-tops different. Smells different. Warm socks on, but feet are always cold. I see two men pass my window, and I recognize them as he from California and him from Florida. They are not. But my peeled eyes see, and say to my brain, ‘all is familiar.’ And the brain makes its branches longer, seeks to connect what I don’t know to what I do. 

And that takes a lot of energy. I sleep more. I write less. Everything takes twice as long. Shopping. Cooking. Navigating. Present-buying. I’m staring at the differences; my eyes noticing with the sharpness of a baby, and my brain seeking to connect, always straining to connect to what it already knows. 

Supermarket. Small. Shopping cart. Key in cart? Coin slot. Coin needed. Coin. Thick gold? Euro. 20 cent piece. Slide in, key out. Push the cart through rail into the entrance. Foreign words on jar labels, smaller isles, people pushing, faces set, eyes at the horizon. Seasick? No. Northern European. Not personal. These are the things that fill my mind. The nominal, the daily. 

Less comfortable, but more alive.  

The poet Denise Levertov speaks of such changes. Born British, Levertov was self-taught, botanical, musical.  She fell in love with an American poet and left England for America’s Black Mountain poetry and the likes of Kenneth Rexroth. She called herself a pilgrim in the country of art. She called herself rootless.
She catches her nutrition, her inspiration, like an orchid’s roots catching dirt on the back of the wind. 

Writing still takes discipline. There’s this romantic idea that writing depends on place. I will write well when I am. There. Anywhere. Just far away-there. Even in Amsterdam, the land of dykes and docks and canals and crooked houses and bikes, coffee shops and cafes, where inspiration is fully visible, writing still takes discipline.  

Most of my familiar goods were brought here by suitcase, and the word kilograms now has a worthy meaning, like hours or months do.  I saved some of those golden kilos for my Levertov poetry.  

They sit on a shelf in my home below the Dutch children’s books I hope to read soon. The snow falls outside, and inside I look at my computer. Rootless, I must write. It is a discipline I need, to help me make sense of this new world.

Born in Oklahoma and proud of her Midwestern roots, Erin van Santen-Hobbie obtained an MFA from Florida Atlantic University and currently lives in Amsterdam with her husband Frans. She is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys compiling soundtracks for the pieces she writes. In fact, she suggests that you listen to Annie Betancourt’s song “Birds of the Air,” from the album Three Hundred Songs while reading this blog post.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Patterns in the Noise

The ability to allow sloppy prose to fill the page, ignore MS word’s blood-red squiggles and green-grammar nagging is certainly an act of faith. When I first tried this method, I had strong doubts that I’d understand my early drafts, much less find anything of value in them to make the effort worthwhile. This was not the case. Instead, I found myself able to decode haphazard gibberish days, weeks, even months later. Discovering meaning in messy drafts led me to create them with abandon. Now, I write them with a feeling that’s suspiciously close-kin to confidence; where I once feared drowning in a sea of noise, I now find, on the worst of days, the lack of comprehension only reaches my waist. 
Against the repeated warnings of my attorney, I’m going to argue that fiction writers not only listen to but trust the voices in their heads. Of course, for some of us this may not be the best guidance – but let’s imagine Joe Stalin adjusting the garnish of a picture-perfect omelet in the foreground (ignore the charnel house just behind him) and talk some serious shop. After all, writers who aren’t ruthless in the pursuit of crafting better fiction cannot hope to produce work that’s even remotely interesting.  And, frankly – if writing a story doesn’t strain your emotions, if it doesn’t make you feel somewhat vulnerable, you’re probably not doing it right.

But what about the worst of writing sessions? What about the crabbed notes scratched out during some constipated-creative drought? What about fever scrawling, produced in a cold sweat with three bottles of Robitussin down the gullet and a Thrill-Kill Cult track blasting on auto repeat? How can I argue something worthwhile can come from the hot mess generated in such a state?  I don’t know how it happens. It just does. In the majority of my roughest of drafts, I can locate patterns of meaning within the noise. More importantly, these patterns often lead to something raw and genuine: unlikely angles, weird points of entry, or disconcerting descriptions that I’m unlikely to produce otherwise.

Watch this hustle to be clear: I’m not saying the explosive, bottled-up frustration I describe is something universal, normal, or healthy. Nor am I prescribing some insipid activity like free writing or the use of chemicals. How you do what you do is your business. What I’m advocating is the hyper-development of negative capability. I’m advocating a wholehearted embrace of ambiguity and faith that the chaos and clamor of the roughest draft might lead to improvements and innovations that are substantive and worthwhile.

Don’t limit yourself to trusting the drafts that are going well; shit – those are cause for celebration.  Instead, trust there is something worthwhile in those scrawled pages damp with coffee or that word document typed all in caps. What’s worthwhile may end up being the majority of what’s on the page, or it may only be a fragment; but trust that something of value will happen within the noise. Then get loud.

AJ Ferguson holds an MFA in fiction from Florida Atlantic University where he teaches writing. Most of his free time is spent working on a novel-in-progress and various other projects. You can keep up with his most recent forays and misadventures at:

Friday, February 8, 2013

When the Cats Eating Their Food Gets Too Loud, Simplify

Lately I’ve been staring at blank screens, the cursor blinking, unable to write. If there was no computer in front of me, an onlooker might think I was meditating or sleeping. I start sentences, build opening paragraphs, then highlight them all at once and demolish them with the delete button.

I don’t believe in writer’s block in the same way I refuse to acknowledge being sick. I’ll fight it off, with drink, inspiration, pacing, and often all three at once. Starting a story, confronting the blank page, is one of the hardest things a writer has to deal with, and despite my constant starting, deleting, starting, deleting, in the larger scheme of things I believe I’ve actually learned something important. Well maybe two things, but they’re related.

First, some pressure is good in most endeavors because pressure (even self-imposed) produces action, and sustained action leads to improvement. However, too much pressure is usually counter-productive, as I feel it has been for me. Athletes and writers aren’t much different; a tense body, or a tense mind in this case, doesn’t allow for proper functioning, and so you end up missing free throws, or ruthlessly deleting sentences. You over-think, grow frustrated, and maybe start yelling at your cats for eating their dry food too loudly. How to pull back from this kind of mental paralysis is the second thing that I learned.

As I was about to break an empty beer bottle on the edge of my desk and threaten my cats with it for distracting me with their relentless appetites, something simple and seemingly profound occurred to me. I scrambled to write it down on a sticky note; it has been my North Star ever since. In black felt-tip pen it said: “It’s all about themes you choose to explore.” There are many ingredients to consider when you sit down to write: where’s it happening? What are the character’s names? What’s the first line? Etc, etc, etc. These are all important, but in my own experience, the theme of what you’re writing is often overlooked, but maybe it shouldn’t be. Like a bear hit with a tranquilizer I felt myself relaxing, I lowered the bottle slowly, and I was finally able to approach my writing with a renewed sense of purpose.

By thinking more about why I was writing a story, and less about how I should be writing it, I found that deciding where a story takes place, or what point-of-view it should be told from, could be answered more easily by thinking about what I was trying to say by writing the story in the first place. By choosing to focus more on theme, I simplified my approach and was thus able to stop myself from over-thinking, and my mind seemed to exhale as a result. As writers with arduous careers in front of us, it’s easy to let the pressure to produce wear us down, but finding ways to build ourselves back up might be just as important, for us and our loved ones.

Dan Kennard currently teaches at Keiser University in Port St. Lucie, FL and lives with his wife and three cats.