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Updated: Jun 17

by Irene Cooper | June 6, 2023

cracked stone ecru-colored wall with dark blotches
photo by Hannah O'Leary

The poet Carl Phillips won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for his collection, Then the War. Phillips is a favorite poet—sensual, surprising, and cerebral. He’s a Black man, and gay, and has embodied and explored those identities throughout his body of writings, starting with his first collection, In the Blood, published in 1992. In 1992, AIDS is rampant, and riots break out in Los Angeles after four police officers are acquitted of the beating of Rodney King.

Bouncing around Google just after Phillips won the Big P, I came across a video of the poet reading his poem, “Dirt Being Dirt.” Obvious to say, but it bears repeating: A poem is one thing on the page, and another on the tongue. The last line hits hard, and differently, across experience: “You broke it. Now wear it broken.”

Some weeks ago, Sherrilyn Ifill, who for ten years served as the head of the Legal Defense Fund— the non-profit civil rights organization and law firm founded by Thurgood Marshall—gave the annual Robert B. Silvers lecture at the New York Public Library, entitled, “How America Ends and Begins Again.” Friends, it is an example of rhetoric such as we have not seen in some time—honest (brutal, even), informative, and, impossibly, hopeful.

I’ve seen a lot of references, lately, in creative nonfiction and elsewhere, to kintsugi, the Japanese art of finishing the mended seams of broken pottery with gold: Cracks not only visible, but celebrated. It’s often difficult, however, to celebrate our fractures and fissures, our breaks. But there are other, perhaps more practical responses.

Ifill talks about listening to the people in the margins, the falling off places, if you want to hear the truth. She offers, too, a number of actionable suggestions on what to do with that truth. Phillips writes:

The orchard was on fire, but that didn’t stop him from slowly walking straight into it, shirtless, you can see where the flames have foliaged—here, especially—his chest. Splashed by the moon, it almost looks like the latest proof that, while decoration is hardly ever necessary, it’s rarely meaningless:

Writers sometimes worry they have nothing to write about, that their writing is merely decorative, or otherwise unworthy of attention. I would argue that the pull to write indicates the need to write, and a need for that writing. Creative writing takes courage, as well as time and energy and fortitude. That is, if the writing is trying to get at something. Which is not to say that truth is always the catastrophic fracture: One may crack a joke, or break into a grin, or bust out laughing.

The bold, golden seams of a vase or bowl that has undergone kintsugi suggest to me that the piece is stronger, now, at the site of the break—and that the piece was worth the attention to repair it. Ultimately, we may not want our revisions to be exhibited quite so nakedly in our work. But as I read through my first draft and start to be aware of the various fault lines and fires, I understand that this is where the beauty begins, in the attention to the unfinished, needful edge.

This is where I’ll learn how to wear it broken.

Learn more about how to invest in and develop your creative writing at The Forge. Already a Smithy? Go write.

Kintsugi treated black bown with gold seams on a mat of concentric indigo circles on top of a wooden plank surface, under a night sky with a full moon obscured by clouds

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by Mike Cooper | May 7, 2023

Once we have passably answered the question of why we write (or at least have stopped losing sleep over it), we run smack into the next question: Who am I writing for?

If you already have an answer to that, I encourage you to stop reading this right now and go on with your happy life. Bake a cake. Plant some flowers. Read a book. Go and write to whomever your audience may be.

If you’re still here, you’ve probably—like me—been wrestling with this question for a long while. You may have started out—like me—writing for your parents, or a sibling, or a friend. Maybe you still do. When we learn to write in school, we write for our teacher (Mrs. Frazier). Then come love letters to a significant other (Mary Beth Hagedorn). Maybe a letter to the editor (Fix the damn pothole on 3rd Street!). Some people write to themselves, some to an imaginary being.

I believe that all writing is good writing (like violin practice), so even if we fill journal after journal with our thoughts and observations and then stuff them in a trunk in the attic (or burn them in the back yard) never to be seen by another living soul, I think it’s still beneficial.

To “publish” means (according to Merriam Webster) “to make generally known; to disseminate to the public; to produce or release for distribution.” So, if we’re going to “disseminate to the public,” who the hell is “the public?” Is it the nameless, faceless crowd in the dark theater? Is it “Everyman?” Is it a jury of your peers? Is it anyone willing to listen?

Some people say that you must write, first and foremost, for yourself. But does that mean that you are writing to yourself? Some people say to write to one (external) person, whether real or made up. Some people say to write to an actual “audience”—perhaps a fan base or like-minded individuals. John Steinbeck shared this little bit of wisdom:

“Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death, and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn't exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person—and write to that one.”

Mary Karr keeps a bell jar on her desk filled with a collection of small, surreal skulls. She says this is who she writes for (along with an assortment of pictures of famous authors she has on her writing room walls).

I usually write for my wife, Irene, because she is the person I most want to impress in the world and whose feedback is most important to me. But sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I write to a complete stranger, or a younger version of me, or someone else completely.

I think that no matter who you write for, you should consider how your writing will be of benefit to them—how your questions can help them to see the world a different way. Don’t tell them something they already know.

And, in order to overcome “Editor’s Block,” the two most important things for me are:

1) To write to someone who encourages and loves you.

2) Not to attempt to write to everyone.

So maybe put a little mirror on your writing desk, or a picture of a loved one, or a famous author that you respect, or a stuffed animal. And consider these words from Margaret Atwood:

Perhaps I write for no one. Perhaps for the same person children are writing for when they scrawl their names in the snow.
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by Ellen Santasiero | April 4, 2023

Photo by Ajin

Last month I participated in a twenty-four hour “playfest,” which meant I agreed to write a ten-minute play in eight hours, overnight. I know. Crazy is as crazy does.

Of all the positive outcomes of that experience, one stands out. It was afterward when one of the actors in my play said, “I get what you were doing with the bag of chips.” (O, to be understood!)

The play is set at a Very High Tech startup that caters to its Millennial employees’ basic needs for catered lunches, on site acupuncture, and egg-freezing.

So, my protagonist, twenty-nine-year-old Nate, has on his desk his drink of choice and a bag of chips. Nate is a brilliant coder and team leader working on a Very Important Project that will change the world, utterly. Except he’s failing. He can’t get the program to run. So the Big People Upstairs (who are, of course, the same age as Nate) add a new member to Nate’s team: a boy in his late teens, a Wunderkind, just as Nate once was.

At first, Nate resists the young coder and his fresh ideas, but eventually he accepts that the kid is, in this case, a better coder than Nate himself, and that he should and will capitulate to the kid’s superior knowledge and skill. That’s all well and good for Nate, but how does the audience know that he’s had this internal realization?

Enter bag of chips.

Before Nate asks the kid, “Whaddya got?” he crosses the room with the bag of chips and—wait for it—proffers the open bag to the boy so he can reach in for a handful.

You get the picture. A crunchy olive branch, a salty peace offering, that kind of thing.

Even in the mind-numbing novel of ideas, The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, which I’m reading right now for reasons best explored in a different post, objects sometimes do the talking. The story’s protagonist, Hans, loves to smoke a cigar after meals. He’s addicted to cigars, in fact. One of the tiny internal shifts that Hans experiences—one that will allow him to stay at the sanatorium in Switzerland and not return to his former life at sea level—is made visible to the reader when Hans notices that the cigar doesn’t taste as good as it usually does (it tastes bad, even), and tosses the cigar into the edelweiss, never to be seen again.

“No ideas but in things,” said William Carlos Williams in 1927, which is just another way to say, no things in your story without a job to do.

Objects are just waiting for us to give them a job to do in our stories. And, they’ll work for free, with no expectation of lunch, catered or otherwise.

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