Stripped to the bone

Writers must be able to represent their inner experience, feeling, beliefs, and attitudes such that they can then be shared and understood in a public forum. Forging the relationship between personal and consensual symbols is difficult and may never be completely successful. This is the crux of the challenge facing each writer. –R. T. Kellogg, The Psychology of Writing, p10

It’s been a while since I rolled up my sleeves and dug into an academic book. I’ve been choosing my non-fiction from among the well-researched popularizers, like David Rock, whose Your Brain at Work I adore. Flow that carries the mind along, and the last quarter of the book packed with citations…that’s where I’m hanging out. 

The Psychology of Writing is not that. I stalled out on the various definitions of schema in chapter 1, and so am barely inside chapter 2. But I plan to persist, in large part because of that quote.

That quote? Yep.

One of the reasons I fell in love with Andrew when I was twenty was because he would–and could–critique my poems. Even then an engineer from crown of head to tips of toes, he would nevertheless dive into work hot from my pencil and tell me not just whether the words were the right ones, but whether the white space was deployed accurately. I’ve known very few people who ‘got’ my spacing well enough to suggest changes.

At the time, I was pushing my work harder and harder towards what I saw as its logical conclusion: an absolute minimum of words, deployed across a page so that the tension of their placement built the rest of the poem’s meaning. Work polished like bone left outdoors, everything–everything–stripped away. Stretching “the relationship between personal and consensual symbols” to its limit.

To its breaking-point, in fact.

I remember it precisely. We were standing in my parents’ Houston living room, all beiges and books. Why were we standing? Andy had the printout in his hand, was studying it intently. He said, “I think this is too much. I can tell that these words are packed with meaning–for you. But I don’t know what exactly they mean to you, so I feel like I’m missing something. If you want to communicate, you’re going to have to back off a little.”

It was a delightful moment. No, really! I had done what I set out to do; I had found the edge between my internal world and the world outside. Without Andy’s insights, I wouldn’t have been able to drive as far into the heart of my obsession with saying just what needs to be said but no more. He gave me the chance to find my inner boundary, the chance to solidify my poetic voice.

It’s made the rest of my poetry-work much more straightforward. I know where to stand if I want to be shared and understood. As dancers will tell you, knowing where/how to stand is the beginning of everything else. And in hindsight, twenty is a good age to begin.

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