Writing as Though I Had Wings

hand with penI’ve come to that cross-road in a writer’s life where she has to choose between writing what she wants and writing what earns her bread. It might even be one of those modern five-way stoplights where several roads merge and one must decide whether to turn gently to the right, to join the path ahead, or — most alarming of all — veer to the left and go against the traffic, hoping for a break in the rush to slip across. What to do?

And I think I might go for the difficult and risky choice.

This is absolutely one of those moments where, if speaking to young writers, I might say, “Do as I say and not as I do.” Because who would counsel a writer to leave off the path toward Easy and instead push forth into the Difficult? You want success? Don’t do this.

But then I think of all the advice given to me, especially in the past few years, about “Follow your bliss,” and “Do what you love.” Let the angels lead you where they will. I think of the quote from poet Mary Oliver, “I want to think again of dangerous and noble things. I want to be light and frolicsome. I want to be improbably and beautiful and afraid of nothing as though I had wings.” Angels, again. So, I think, well, maybe I should. Maybe it’s time to chase this.

What is the this? It’s a long story, so to speak: My family history, reaching back into long ago when my people first 1545231_10153695308530455_1715698475_nput foot on American soil. Before it was American. Or after, just a century ago, before two great wars and women’s suffrage and Prohibition. I’m looking at my roots, of getting here, of what was left behind and what they came for, and what they achieved, and what it cost. And whom it cost.

So think of slavery and the Trail of Tears. Think of the British Raj and the Industrial Revolution. Think of the Orphan Train, of blood and bones. And — of healing, atonement, and mercy.

Oh, I don’t know how to write any of it, either. I’ll have to get there and see. But I’m finding myself obsessed with the vision I have for this story, and the possibilities. Maybe I’ll give it a year and see what happens.

Maybe I’ll be afraid of nothing as though I had wings.

Don’t think it strange —

bw sketch writingI’ve been on the hunt for a fountain pen. I had one around here somewhere, I swear, but of course it’s gone, like the rest of my mind when I want to find something. I am the proud owner of not just one, but two feather quills with filigree silver points, but I don’t exactly want that kind of ink experience.

Somewhere, back in the beyond, I once owned a Montblanc pen, not top of the line, but a fine instrument. And it has gone the way of all things I used to have: into the nevernever of my attic, lost in my old desk at work, left behind at the exhusband’s before we parted. Gone. I can be Zen; I have no attachment. Except — I want a fountain pen I can actually use.

I want to be like Jo March in Little Women, ink-stained fingers and passionate ideas flowing, the pen scritching across the parchment rapidly but not fast enough. Sometimes — despite my speed with a Biro or a laptop — only ink and paper will do.

I get a hankering for old things. For the old ways, with no electricity or internet.  I have a manual coffee grinder and a washboard. A kerosene lamp and a cast iron pan. I have a manual typewriter, too, for such a time when — well, why would I need a typewriter after the apocalypse, anyway? Will Daryl and his zombie-hunters need to see something typed up in triplicate? I doubt it. But I have these fancies and so I indulge them.

Life would be split asunder without letters.
— Virginia Woolf

Lately I have been exploring the family crypts, as it were, old letters, lists and certificates, as I search for clues about how things were back when we owned slaves or pioneered in a new land, when we crouched in steerage for three weeks, sick and damp, arriving in Nova Scotia or New York with a cough and a dream. Copperplate handwriting was the norm, and it shows itself on every document, in every packet of letters.

I get a hankering for the old ways, want to put nib to paper and spiral out a lovely line of news to a distant relation: The weather has been fine, the corn is tall, and I had the best blackberry pie I’ve ever had last night. I want to fold my paper into thirds and crease it, seal the envelope with a kiss, stamp and send it on its way.

I am sending a piece of myself to you. My heart on paper, in your hand.

A letter for your thoughts.

As soon as my new pen arrives.


April is the Coolest Month #NaPoMo

poetry-monthApril is National Poetry Month. As the Poet Laureate of Alameda, I’d like to invite you to crack open a poetry book and read one, just once, this month. Read an old favorite, like T.S. Eliot, perhaps, whose Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is one of the finest examples of 20th Century poetry (“Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table…”) – or maybe watch performance poets you’ll find on YouTube, like Suli Breaks’ “Why I Hate School but Love Education,” or Savanna Brown’s “What Guys Look for in Girls.” (No, seriously, GO WATCH.)

Poetry is dangerous, not weak or sappy. Poetry is powerful. It’s spoken or written truth.

Or read this and dismiss the entire topic. Why read a poem? Why should poetry matter, anyway? Elena Aquilar, an educator from Oakland, California, says that, “Poetry promotes literacy, builds community, and fosters emotional resilience. It can cross boundaries that little else can.” And she gives five good reasons why we need poetry in our lives.

  1. Poetry helps us know each other and build community. I saw this in action at Island High School’s poetry slam in October, when students reading poems about their lives were uplifted by the entire school listening, appreciating and applauding each individual’s work. Their poems rocked my world.
  2. When read aloud, poetry is rhythm and music and sounds and beats. Babies and toddlers may not speak yet, but they hear your words and learn from you. Nursery rhymes matter – they tell stories, show playful use of words; children learn rudiments of music and math from keeping a beat in a poem.
  3. Poetry opens venues for speaking and listening. It’s good for children and students of all ages to practice both speaking (reading aloud or memorizing), and hearing the words of other students, or other cultures, told in poetry. Rhyming poems are easier to remember than non-rhyming poems (they’re harder to write well, too!). I read some old favorite poems with the Trinity Seniors a few months ago and the elders listening spoke the lines they remembered along with me.
  4. Poetry has space for those learning a new language – English or other languages. A simple haiku (three lines of 17 syllables total) is a simple glimpse into nature, and a toddler can appreciate it, a kindergartner can write it, and an English language-learner can access it. Poetry is universal. Take a listen to the bilingual students at St. Joseph Notre Dame, who publish their works in English, Spanish and French, in their annual poetry journal, Prisms.
  5. Poetry opens the world to us. W.B. Yeats said this about poetry: “It is blood, imagination, intellect running together…It bids us to touch and taste and hear and see the world, and shrink from all that is of the brain only.” (Italics mine.) Every time you “like” a Facebook meme featuring a line from Rumi, Maya Angelou, or Basho, you’re sharing poetry. You are opening yourself to a wider imagination, to the current of creativity that flows among us, unique to humans. You set your foot into the river of human experience.

(To read more of Aguilar’s thoughts on why poetry matters, read her article online at Edutopia, “Five Reasons Why We Need Poetry in Schools.” )

2015-02-04 19.07.12But doesn’t it sound boring? Go read a poem? Yawn…Worse than algebra! Worse than memorizing dates in history! Better, then, read along with me this month as I explore the poetry of four high schools and the students writing and reveling in the spoken and written word. I’ll be posting a feature every week in the Alameda Sun for the month of April – National Poetry Month.

If poetry isn’t for you, perhaps the almost-adults who are about to step into the world will enlighten you about how poetry matters to them. You like Alameda, don’t you? These students will help shine a light on the future we all share.

And by the way, it was T.S. Eliot who said that “April is the cruelest month” (The Wasteland), but I like my way better.


Julia Park Tracey is Alameda’s Poet Laureate. Follow her on Facebook at Facebook/AlamedaPoetLaureate. If you’d like her to visit your classroom or club, email julia.editrix@gmail.com.

Writer as Middle Child: It’s a Thing.

1450795_10152413190959698_1790904472_n My friend Jack Mingo says that writers are middle children who just want to speak uninterrupted. He may be right. I’m a middle child. Can’t you tell?

I’m one of five children. Our mom developed a color code to keep us organized, and that was the color of your beach towel, your swim bag, your cardigan, your home-sewn dress. My elder sister was blue; my younger sister was purple. I was red. (I still am.) My brothers were both green, or else one was green and one was light blue. But my mom had it down, and that’s all that mattered.

We lived in three- and four-bedroom homes, and if anyone got his own room, it was our eldest brother. Later, after George left for the Army and college, little Brian got his own room. But as the middle girl, I either had an elder, a younger, or both sisters in with me. We knew families in the neighborhood who had more kids (the Catholic Buckleys, the Mormon Sorensens; my mom’s best friend always joked that my parents weren’t Catholic, they were careless), so who could complain? We had enough to eat; we had all our needs met.

But whether it was a lap, a hand to hold crossing the street, or time alone with a parent, there wasn’t enough for all of us. And privacy? What was that? With siblings who were either athletic or super-academic, there was competition all around me. There was scrapping, bickering, torture, too. Dogpile? Why not?

But, as it happens, I’m sensitive. I don’t like competition. I like to be quiet and alone.

first gradeToday, I have social anxiety that causes me to break out in hives and have the shakes before I speak to a group. I almost always balk at going out to parties or having people over. I’m exhausted by too much noise, sound or conversation. I don’t like to talk on the phone. I much prefer interacting through the computer. Social media is awesome – I get to see lots of people while sitting home alone in quietude. It’s the perfect balance for me – alone, but not lonely at all.

I can see a direct link between a mom with a lap full of younger siblings, a busy dad working two jobs to make ends meet, and the whirl of a full house around me, to the dim space under the kitchen desk where I hid to read. And when the house was quiet when the other kids went out to play, I knew the script already, and played elaborate games happily by myself. Dolls took on adventures that I imagined; my stuffed animals came to life in their own tales. And it wasn’t long before stories crept from my pencil.

With less cacophony, I wouldn’t have had to find a quiet place to read and write. With more attention – more focus on me in a smaller family – I might have already said all the things I still have yet to say.

The Artist’s Way

022_22 (2)A few years ago, I went to Europe to visit my eldest daughter, who was working in London for six months. We met up in Paris, and after some days there and in Belgium, we crossed the Channel to England and finished our sojourn by visiting a plethora of literary sites. People who know me realize that I am a Jane Austen aficionado and understand that a trip to her native land, and a walk through her very environs, is like a heroin hit to me: once is not enough, and I suspect I’ll anxiously pursue more of All Things Jane until I die.

The literary trail began in Paris, with a visit to Shakespeare and Co., the bookstore-cum-refuge for ex-pat Americans. Hemingway hung out there when he was writing in Paris with the Lost Generation. There, I found his short book, A Moveable Feast, and devoured it like a box of truffles. Each small chapter, savored, melted deliciously, bringing the reader almost unto tears. Indulging, I remembered how formative Hemingway was when I first began writing in earnest (no pun intended), how important the declarative sentence, the dearth of adjectives, the use of the appositive was to him, and how that shows up in my work, when I’m on it. How he says we must always endeavor to write the one true thing in our stories.

We walked the Left Bank boulevards and hopped trains to Flanders, into Belgium, slipped on cobblestones, supped on bread and cheese and wine; climbed the steps to Sacre Coeur and savored the silence in St. Sulpice; strolled among the tombs in the city of the dead called Père Lachaise, a cemetery housing Moliere, Chopin, Colette, Gertrude Stein, Oscar Wilde, Heloise and Abelard, so many more with stories to tell.

We left behind the City of Lights, and arrived in London in time for Shakespeare’s birthday, and though thwarted in our efforts to get to Stratford-Upon-Avon, we ate birthday cake in a pub called Shakespeare’s Head. We strolled in Hyde Park near the statue of Peter Pan, taxied through Regent’s Park and Primrose Hill, where Pongo and Missus had their Twilight Bark, and passed Platform 9 ¾ in King’s Cross railroad station, where a luggage cart sits frozen halfway through the wall, caught in its magic, left behind by one of Harry Potter’s mates.

106_106No matter where you go in England, there’s something or someone literary, whether it’s Dickens or Bronte or Woolf or Pepys. A walk through the National Portrait Gallery was like flipping through an old yearbook – there he is! There she is! I gazed on their faces, some of which I’d never seen before. Who knew Byron was such a fop? That Mary Shelley was so demure, Wordsworth so dour or Keats so tragic? I didn’t, and yet I did know, from sitting in their words, like soaking in a tub with the most delightful essences and bubbles to surround me.

And there, in a case like a precious jewel, was the one known portrait of Jane Austen, a sketch and watercolor done by her not-very-adept sister, looking like a child’s scribble, or my big toe. Flat, lifeless, sour and awkward, the little icon gazes into the distance over my left shoulder, her neck impossible crooked, her arms crossed and fading from sight. Was this my Jane? My hilarious, observant, wicked Jane? Alas for all of us, the pathetic miniature is all we have.

There is a quote that hangs on my bulletin board, a handwritten index card faded from sunlight:

“Although sometimes I have felt that I held fire in my hands and spread a page with shining, I have never lost the weight of clumsiness, of ignorance, of aching inability.”

So saith the sage John Steinbeck.

I took along notebooks and wrote poem after poem along the way of my travels, grasping for an image that wasn’t a European cliché, a snippet from the known world, and tried hopelessly to capture in some rare new form. The mot juste. The one true thing.

But I look over what I wrote and think my words are no closer to capturing the light than Austen’s portraitist.