Hesitance in Writing, and Maksik Interview

A short, fantastic interview with writer Alexander Maksik is up on the Tin House website. Maksik discusses the popular tendency to shy away from writing sex in contemporary fiction and says:

Who becomes an artist out of a desire for safety? The aversion to writing about real intimacy is symptomatic of what I see as our growing cultural aversion to sincerity. And far more frightening, is a growing atmosphere of caution. Since when have good writers been cautious?

Lately I’ve been thinking of my own hesitance to address a number of subjects openly, both on social media and in my creative writing. Up until recently, I thought that my creative writing at least was a space where I pushed forward without much self-policing, but recently I read several short stories I wrote years back and was astounded by the difference between my boldness then and my hesitance now. It is true that I did not think as much about the construction of identity/identities in those years but wrote more intuitively—and my critical eye is largely a positive development—but I would like to recapture more of that intuitive movement that allowed me to follow characters from page to page with complete openness and affection. Reading Maksik’s interview really did bring some of that energy back.

Charlie Smith’s “Fortune”

As a writer, I love coming across poems that both inspire and intimidate me. This morning I read “Fortune” by Charlie Smith. In it, the speaker describes travelling through northern Mexico with a lover who has just found out she is pregnant. Smith’s work with setting is rich and tight, and the speaker’s honesty in voicing his need to be alone moved me. Below are some verses, but you can read the entire piece on Poetry Foundation:

I didn’t want a child,
and I was tired of closeness, tired
of being kind, so was glad to be alone
a while and lay down under a jacaranda tree,
and watched through leaves the changing pattern
of the sky…

Mark Doty’s “Atlantis”

It is a chilly day in Bloomington, and I’m reading Mark Doty’s “Atlantis” on Poetry Foundation. The poem is startlingly honest and elegant, and it makes me want to dig in more deeply when it comes to my own work. Here are some favorite verses:

I’ve seen
two white emissaries unfold
like heaven’s linen, untouched,
enormous, a fluid exhalation. Early spring,
too cold yet for green, too early
for the tumble and wrack of last season
to be anything but promise,
but there in the air was white tulip,
marvel, triumph of all flowering, the soul
lifted up, if we could still believe
in the soul, after so much diminishment…

Writing Exercise

Yesterday, I read the Paris Review interview with the French writer Emmanuel Carrère, whose books often combine journalistic reporting with first-person confession. In the interview, Carrère describes a writing exercise he practices, learned from the German Romantic Ludwig Börne:

For three successive days, force yourself to write, without denaturalizing or hypocrisy, everything that crosses your mind. Write what you think of yourself, your wives, Goethe, the Turkish war, the Last Judgment, your superiors, and you will be stupefied to see how many new thoughts have poured forth. That is what constitutes the art of becoming an original writer in three days.

Carrère finds this to be excellent advice and practices it when he is not working on anything. I felt inspired and started it yesterday myself. Even though I often journal, the session yesterday felt different than it typically does. It was as if Carrère had given me permission to be entirely present with my emotions and opinions, and my assurance with the pen grew and grew the more I wrote.

In the end, after reaching clarity, I felt a need to start a new piece of fiction but was dry for ideas. So I did what I sometimes do: I read poetry by writers I admire until one of their images inflated into a whole scene in my mind. The poem that struck me was “Autumn Sky” by Charles Simic, particularly the following stanza:

The stars know everything,
So we try to read their minds.
As distant as they are,
We choose to whisper in their presence.

The scene it generated was one where two adolescents—country children who have grown up in neighboring houses—lie in a field and look to the stars. Their unusual dialogue moves the piece into a speculative realm, a genre I’ve been drawn to lately. I’m excited to be revising and polishing this piece now.

Chapbook and Upcoming Flash Piece

I’m thrilled to announce that my chapbook, We Cradled Each Other in the Air, is available for purchase on Amazon. It contains a variety of meditations, lyrical pieces, and absurdist narrative shorts, and it’s part of a book-length volume with the chapbooks of writers Chella Courington and Diane Payne. I’m grateful to novelist Samrat Upadhyay for the following blurb:

“Spendl’s fiction pieces in this chapbook impress and instruct. These sharp gems are like, as Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer has said of this form, ‘flash of fireflies.’ With swift movements they illuminate the vulnerabilities and triumphs of the human soul.”

In other news, my new flash fiction piece, “Crumbs and Porcelain Cup,” will be published by Bayou Magazine from The University of New Orleans. I completed the piece recently–during a lunch break at a local coffee shop–and am excited to have found such a lovely home for it while still riding the high of writing it.

Loving Oneself and Lisel Mueller

Last night, a friend and I talked about what it means to “love oneself.” I explained that one can learn to care for one’s body through diet and exercise or for one’s mind through study and meditation. But when these practices become routine, is it not easy to start looking past oneself again and not give oneself the active tenderness the term “love” implies?  My friend proposed an active practice: we could perhaps think of personal “faults”—varicose veins, for instance—and then imagine them on the body of a loved one instead. When tenderness emerges—as it inevitably does for many of us, since we cherish others more than we cherish ourselves—we can turn that tenderness upon the same part of ourselves.

Today, reading Lisel Mueller’s collection Second Language, I was startled by the poem “Identical Twins,” which references a permanent, secret “other” inside us all. Here’s the piece:

When they walk past me in the park
I shiver, as if two black cats
had crossed my path. Uncanny,
as if I were seeing things.
As if I were seeing two of me,
myself and the one in the mirror,
who must also be the one
I talk to when I’m alone.
The one I call “you,” who loves me
better than any lover.
It is as though these sisters,
who tie their shoes in their same double bows
and bite their fingernails
down to the same horizon
existed to expose
twinlessness as a sham,
to let us know they know
about our secret:
the lost, illicit other
kept under lock and key
in the last room of the mind.

These days, riding the subway
to work and back, I notice
that the passengers move their lips
ever so slightly. I watch them
lean into themselves
as if toward a voice,
and then turn to the window
to search the backlit face
in the black, speeding mirror.