Monday, July 30, 2007

Unprepared, with a case of asparagus

Last week I finally watched my dad’s favorite movie, which he’s been referencing for years: Never Cry Wolf. It’s based on the memoir of a naturalist who gets dropped off in the Arctic (alone with a canoe, a bassoon, and cases of beer and asparagus) with the purpose of studying wolf behavior. At the time (the early ‘80s), wolves were believed to be killing off the caribou herds. With the help of the wolf pack he observes, and the Inuit who saves his life more than once, he learns that the wolves live on mice during the winter, and that they actually keep the caribou herds healthy by hunting down the sick and weak.

We know all this now, but I think it’s interesting to look back to a time when facts that are taken for granted were unknown to modern science. Also, though the movie depicts actual events, I couldn’t help seeing it as a fable. The hero sets out on an adventure, at first idealistic but soon apprehensive of what will occur. He almost dies several times. He meets people along the way, and some who seem friendly turn out not to be, while others who might be discounted as old-fashioned are really wise. Many of his assumptions and expectations are turned upside down, most significantly that the wolf finds and observes him before he has any idea where the wolf is. Ultimately, he finds new definitions of peace and home.

Will wolves become my new obsession? Probably not, although I was really taken with the wolf pack in this movie—their social structure, their struggles and loyalties. Two years ago, around this time of year, I read two YA books, Julie of the Wolves, and its sequel, Julie, by Jean Craighead George. Though aimed at a young audience, these books are based on true observations of wolf behavior, relationships, and communication. The animal parts of me recognized and loved the human parts of the wolves.

Friday, July 6, 2007

The Idea Store

I love the MFA program at Goddard College. I just returned from my third residency there (it’s the start of my third and next-to-last semester). This time I am working with Rachel Pollack, a brilliant cross between rabbi, shaman, and favorite English teacher.

We were blessed by a visit from octogenarian poet Marie Ponsot. I was not familiar with her work, and while I enjoyed her reading, it was in her workshop that I really learned. Marie stated that she believes the sentence is the “keystone in the arch of literature,” and that all forms of writing have the sentence as their origin. The exercise she had us do was to take a sentence (we used William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell”) and rewrite it five times. There are no rules- you can be literal and grammatical, or you can immediately spin out into figurative language. Then, once you have five new sentences, pick one of them and rewrite it five times. She didn’t put a limit on the process, but I did a series of three rewrites.

Marie said, “Students always ask me, where can I get an idea? Well- you can’t send someone to the idea store. But- you can have them do this exercise.” By the third rewrite (we went around the room and each read ours), most people’s sentences were miles away from the original. The process was fascinating and rich. I started out with, “The cistern contains, the fountain overflows.” I ended up with things like, “Rain changes everything,” and “Water will flow uphill.”

One of the assignments I had from Rachel was to tell a story (beginning, middle, and end) in five sentences. After I wrote my first draft, I used Marie’s approach of rewriting one sentence at a time. I actually hand wrote each sentence by itself on a piece of paper and rewrote it five times, dealing with it individually before trying to rework it in the context of all five sentences. When I slowed down and took my prose poem apart so meticulously, each sentence became a doorway to a more complex meaning. Pushing myself to do five rewrites for each component also helped me see multiple possibilities for the piece. Now I have one more trick in my writer’s toolbox!