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Syntax, Serenity, and Spiritual Ratiocination — Say *That* Out Loud Three Times

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If you tuned in last month, you read my ignominious blog, which happily was not as ignominious as I had feared. Stuck in my winter doldrums and with no creative burst in sight, I simply dashed off a stream-of-consciousness blog based on a word that was floating around in my head (ignominious) and hoped for the best.

Based on reader feedback, I need not feel humiliated by what felt like my lazy surrender to the doldrums. Since you guys liked it, and it’s still winter, and there have been no ensuing creative bursts, I’m doing it again.

Forthwith, a series of digressions about the word ratiocination:

Ratiocination isn’t a particularly fun word, not entertaining like ignominious or salubrious or sanguineous or serendipitous. It’s more like calibrated: a serious word. One who is engaged in ratiocination has no time for frivolity.

As you might know or guess, the word ratiocination means the process of forming judgments by a power of logic; reason. The process of exact, methodical thinking. How no-fun is that?

The word stuck out of May Sarton’s memoir like a logic puzzle lodged amongst lyrical poems. In Sarton’s book Recovering, one finds titmice and garden phlox and dogs and cats and poetry and people coming for tea or lobster salad. Not ratiocination.

In fact, May Sarton was actually talking about the opposite of ratiocination when she used the word: “That is the miracle, that my [ex]lover and I have come through together to a place of benign peace and light. Miracles cannot be explained, that is their miraculous nature. They are beyond ratiocination, so I cannot tell what has really happened.”

May Sarton Courtesy NY Public Libraries

May Sarton
Courtesy NY Public Libraries

Although I’m partial to miracles and tend towards the intuitive, I can indeed think methodically when absolutely necessary. As it happens, I’m currently engaging in a nightly process of painful ratiocination, which I am bound and determined to survive. Working with a master wordsmith, I am studying what amounts to syntax on steroids, breaking down lovely lyrical prose into nominative predicates and adjectival infinitive phrases so that I can put them back together into suspended sentences and braided metaphors. This goes well beyond what I studied at Hopkins, and that was difficult enough for me. Syntactical ratiocination — now that’s kind of a fun phrase.

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Ratiocinating Serenity

Since the enlightenment, human beings have put most of their energy into ratiocination. Everything must be sorted out and put into its proper, logical box. “It just doesn’t make sense,” is the ultimate dis.

For someone like me who grew up in a dysfunctional home, the need to “figure things out” is even stronger. In order to stay safe and keep things from blowing apart, kids in such homes feel they must know at all times what everyone is thinking and feeling so that they can control what’s going to happen. All children have a sense of over-responsibility; they think the world revolves around them and everything is a response to them. This is complicated in a volatile home because figuring out how to control circumstances feels like a matter of survival and it sometimes is.

Of course you can’t *know* what other people are thinking and feeling, and you can’t control their emotions or actions. Which is why people from dysfunctional homes find so much solace and recovery in Al-Anon, the twelve-step program for friends and families of alcoholics. There they learn to keep the focus on their own feelings and actions through the Serenity Prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.”

What a relief to let go of the illusion of control and the need to figure things out!

The Serenity Prayer, which is used in all twelve-step programs, describes ratiocination from a God perspective. This might sound like an oxymoron. But if you believe in God, it makes perfect sense to rely on this Higher Power to help you sort out what you can and cannot change. Other people, places, and things are on the “cannot” list. But our baggage (history) may keep us from ratiocinating this out on our own.

Mind, Body, Spirit, Not Necessarily in that Order

I found the Oxford Dictionary’s two model sentences for ratiocination to be odd:

“One of his premises is that ratiocination is dependent on emotion, as mind is on body.”

And this: “One fondly imagines that one reaches opinions by personal ratiocination, but of course many of them one inherits.”

So underneath all of our pondering and “figuring out” are serotonin levels and cortisol rushes and veiled memories. We may think our minds rule supreme, that ratiocination is the highest function, but in fact we’re often ruled by heart and soul. Our gut, if you will.

And — dang if I didn’t end up back here again — it seems to me that there’s a God factor in this mix of heart and soul and mind. I just think there’s a higher power than the human mind. There is some higher Ratiocination going on in this ordered universe, and it includes the nudges and prompts and intuitions that guide our spirit life.

Stream-of-consciousness writing runs like a river; it really has no end. It spills into eddies and spins a while and then keeps going, sometimes riffled by the wind, sometimes calm and clear. I seriously did not mean to end up talking about God again, but most of my streams are going to eddy into God, unless they end up in climate change or maybe social justice.

Go figure.

The Books on my Doorstep

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Like many of you, I am a book addict, so although the arrival of two brown, rectangular packages on my front porch was far from unusual, it nevertheless occasioned a quick intake of breath and a widening of the eyes, if not an actual skip of my heartbeat.

The best part about such parcels is the element of surprise, in that I often don’t remember what I’ve ordered during my mad midnight searches for a satisfying read. The other best part, which is unique to this particular delivery, is that I have been stuck in William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1848 British satire “Vanity Fair” for nigh on four months, and I am a mere one hundred pages from the end of the eight-hundred-page tome. I can see the light of approaching freedom as sure as the days are (finally) getting longer!

William Makepeace Thackeray

William Makepeace Thackeray – Doesn’t he look like a jolly fellow?

I always read a long, dense novel during the winter, usually of the Russian variety but sometimes an Anthony Trollope, which are lighter but still qualify as dense by virtue of their length. But Thackeray — well, I don’t know if I’ll read another one. It’s not entirely the  book. This winter has been insufferably long and cold and dark and dreadful. It’s not Thackeray’s fault my brother died in December. Still, good riddance to both the book and the winter.

Presents to Myself

It was this anticipation of escape from England in the Napoleonic Age that imparted an extra dose of excitement as I tore into those rectangular packages yesterday. Here, because of your intense interest in my personal life and inner musings, is what I found:

  • Portofino by Frank Schaeffer: This is the first in a trilogy, recommended by one of my favorite friends who is also an author with a great nose for a great read. He used to be an English professor and he reads incessantly. If you don’t know Brian McLaren and his books, especially if you are spiritually inclined, you should visit his website. I was attracted to Portfino because it’s set in Italy, a country that won my heart in one two-week stay four years ago, and because the reviews call it “richly ironic and satirical . . . hilarious . . . laugh-out loud funny.” I need that. It pokes “gentle fun at the foibles of religious zealotry without disparaging the deep dedication behind it.” There’s apparently a character in it who always packs a ski sweater and a small Bible in case the Russians invade and send them to Siberia.
  • Elsewhere by Richard Russo: This is Russo’s recent memoir. I only just discovered him a few years ago, and I enjoy his novels for a light read. He’s amazing at creating characters and local color, and I figure those quirky folks and locales must come from his life experience; I want to meet them. Because I like writing memoir and would like to learn to write it in longer forms, I plan to read a lot of quality memoirs this summer. Do you have any suggestions for me? I’ve got quite a collection started, but am always open to recommendations.
  • Anna: A Daughter’s Life, by William Loizeaux: I am reading this out of a deep respect and fondness for the author, a writing professor I had at Johns Hopkins. This, too, is memoir, and no doubt memoir at its best. Bill taught memoir and personal essay, and this book is about the loss of his infant daughter. It is about grief, which will resonate with me, and it’s based on Bill’s journals, which also tracks with my journaling habit. “Stunning, clear-eyed, and lyrical . . . remarkable eloquence, passion, and honesty,” says the Washington Post (reviewed back when the Post had something useful to say). This sounds exactly like the Bill Loizeaux I know.
  • 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East by Naomi Shihab Nye: My appreciation for poetry is really quite new, so this is a big step for me. Nye’s is only the second book of poetry I’ve ever purchased. I once bought a book of Wendell Berry’s poems because it needed to be on my bookshelf – he’s an icon. I had read an excerpt from Nye’s poem “Different Ways to Pray” a year ago and found it very moving, so I put her book on my “to buy later when I like poetry better” list. The time was right.

photo (15)

Here is the opening of Naomi Nye’s poem “Different Ways to Pray”:

∠∠∠

“There was the method of kneeling,

a fine method, if you lived in a country

where stones were smooth.

Women dreamed wistfully of

hidden corners where knee fit rock.

Their prayers, weathered rib bones,

small calcium words uttered in sequence,

as if this shedding of syllables could

fuse them to the sky.

∠∠∠

There were men who had been shepherds so long

they walked like sheep.

Under the olive trees, they raised their arms –

Hear us! We have pain on earth!

We have so much pain there is no place to store it!

But the olives bobbed peacefully

in fragrant buckets of vinegar and thyme.

At night the men ate heartily, flat bread

and white cheese,

and were happy in spite of the pain,

because there was also happiness.”

 

Lovely as her poetry is, I will not allow myself to begin any of these new literary adventures until I make peace with Mr. Thackeray. The daffodils are blooming, and it’s time to leave my winter read behind. Way behind.

What are you reading that’s good? Don’t forget to recommend a memoir for me! Happy Spring.

 

Related Posts:

https://melanielynngriffin.wordpress.com/2013/06/10/for-book-lovers-only/

Other bookish blogs I like:

http://emilyjanuary.wordpress.com/best-of-my-bookshelf/

http://teabooksthoughts.wordpress.com/

Although I’m not a huge beer-drinker, check out my friend Oliver’s blog Literature and Libation. He’s a talented writer.

I Don’t Like Poetry, but I’ve Written Some

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I recently went to a prose poetry workshop at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda. An oxymoron, right? I thought that prose and poetry were by definition different animals. Not anymore, not in the postmodern era when anyone gets to do whatever they want and call it whatever they want.

Prose poetry is basically poetic prose – regular ol’ writing with some of the elements of poetry, like rhythm and repetition and word imagery and  “compression,” which means getting rid of extra words. Obviously the latter is not something I’ve mastered. (Compressed that would read: I blather.)

I was excited to learn about this literary form; it changes the way I think about poetry and makes it more accessible.

I have never understood poetry and always wondered why writers can’t just say what they mean without getting all complicated and obtuse.

In recent years, I’ve come to appreciate poetry (or at least poets) through the Johns Hopkins Masters Writing program . . . but only the teensiest bit. I still have a problem with poetry, but at least I know it’s my problem, not the poet’s.

In fact, I want to be a poet. Then I could wear a beret, right?

Which is why prose poetry is good news for people like me. I love playing with words and sounds and flow and metaphor. Perhaps we non-poets can aspire to poetry?

Anyway, in celebration of doing whatever I want and calling it whatever I want (hey, in summer anything goes), I’m going to share these with you and call them poetry.

Planet Prose Poetry

Night Magic

A winking airplane is as magical as a firefly

If at first you think

it is a firefly.

Renewal

Where the trees stood,

Before the chainsaws came to kill,

Now raspberries and wildflowers grow

And deer come to eat.

Oh Well

The wells don’t dry up anymore,

And I can shower in August

Since the flooding began.

Climate change, they say.

Oh well.

I can shower in August.

Hello?

On the crest of the mountain

Grow two cell phone towers painted blue and green

To match the sky and trees.

How stupid

Do they think we are?

Thanks for humoring me. Poets among you — I would love your feedback in the comments!

Talking Trash in the Literary World

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I’ve been talking with some writing friends about the trend in literary magazines towards, well, trendiness. The editors usually say they are seeking “edgy,” but the effect is more often, well, “trashy.”

A quick aside to express my annoyance about the random use of the word ”well” to mean “for lack of a better word.” (See above.) This over-used affectation was oh-so-clever the first quadrillion times I read it, but it hasn’t been trendy in years, and it doesn’t belong in literary magazines. You can all stop now.

Edgy, Man

Sorry — back to trendy journals. Neither my writing friends nor said journals will be named here. I mean, what if one of us wants to get published in a trashy trendy journal?

Actually, my writing aspirations do not include afore(not)mentioned literary magazines, because we are probably “not a good fit.”

I don’t use the word “motherf**ker” nearly enough.

Ever, actually. I don’t use a-hole in my prose, either. And that, my friends, is what passes for trendy in some corners of the literary world.

I mean, how can you be edgy if you don’t trash-talk like a middle-schooler?

Raw and Daring Language

There’s a best selling author – one of Oprah’s hallowed few – who has coined a phrase, which “has gone viral in the writing community,” according to Creative Nonfiction magazine.

The phrase is, “Write like a motherf**ker.”

Huh? Please tell me that “the writing community” is not inspired by this.

Good Lord, people.

Creative Nonfiction is apparently very inspired. The editor, Lee Gutkind, has dedicated much of his latest From the Editor column to the scintillating phenomenon. Gutkind says that it is “the style, the forbidden ‘MF’ word” that has turned this catchy phrase “into a kind of mantra.” He also advises that “before you can write like a motherf**ker, you have to research like a motherf**ker.

“It is gutsy,” Gutkind writes, “raw and daring.”

No, it is not, Mr. Gutkind.

It is dated and juvenile and stupid.

No offense meant to author Cheryl Strayed who started the hub-bub; I haven’t read her work. She was doubtless as surprised as anyone when her casual words of raunchy wisdom started appearing on mugs and t-shirts. There’s an interview with her in the Creative Nonfiction, which I’ll get around to reading. Guess what it’s called?

Yup – How to Write Like a Mother#&@%*&.

Brilliant

Brilliant

It’s all very exciting for those assembled.

Elissa Bassist interviews Ms. Strayed. Both are editors at The Rumpus, which is where the unique and compelling verbiage originally appeared. Bassist says the phrase has “become an anthem and a lifestyle.”

An anthem?

A lifestyle?

Really?

Ms. Bassist then goes on about “motherf**kitude” and “motherf**kery” for a while before getting down to the interview.

I’m not kidding.

I mean no disrespect for the magazine or the editor, both of which are a well-recognized blessing to creative nonfiction and to the literary world as a whole. I am certainly not lumping CNF in with the trashy trend; that’s why I’m wondering what’s up with this fixation?

And While I’m Being Annoyed

The rest of Mr. Gutkind’s From the Editor column addresses the message splashed across the magazine’s cover:

Who Says Women Don’t Write Serious Nonfiction?

Who, indeed? Is it necessary to perpetuate an antiquated charge like that in 2013?

This headline leads to a suspicion that certain people at Creative Nonfiction spake thus, or they would not need to argue otherwise. “The  headline doth protest too much, methinks.”

The magazine consistently receives more submissions from women than from men, so I suppose we should be encouraged that they decided to print a collection of women’s writing, even if they did introduce it with questionable condescending kudos on the cover.

Questionable Kudos

Questionable Kudos

Or maybe I’m way off base. Perhaps Lee Gutkind’s tongue was planted firmly in his cheek when he crafted that cover, as I hope it was when he expressed the hope that his winter issue demonstrates that “it’s not true that women write only memoir or that they don’t write about ‘serious’ topics.” I am going to assume that he has read serious memoir by women on suicide, mental illness, child slavery, prostitution, homelessness, widowhood, the loss of a child — you know, frivolous girlie stuff.

Whatever the big boys think, I’m going to keep at it, writing like a … like me.

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