Giving Up Self

As I mentioned last week, I attended a workshop called “Writing Masterful Scenes” at the Writers’ Institute in Wisconsin. The presentation began with advice to immerse the reader in the story and make him/her feel something. Presenters Garvin and Storm talked about conflict and tension. To make the reader feel the sensuality of a love scene or the breathtaking tension of a chase, the writer must either have known these states of being or be able to imagine them sufficiently to describe them in poetry or prose.

But do we want to unmask ourselves? Do we want to reveal that we know how it feels to make love or how it feels to be chased?

This leads me to share what I’ve learned in Neil Gaiman’s Master Class. Though not a regular reader of Gaiman’s fantasy genre, I’m always curious about the workings of the creative mind, and what better way to find out than to take a master class from someone like him!

Lesson Two partially focused on revealing oneself in stories, or as Gaiman put it, “walking down the street naked.” Since I sometimes write emotive poetry, I’ve experienced the shudder of putting into verse an experience so personal or painful that it is difficult to share. “My Guernica,” published in Let Us Be Raucous, is a deeply personal poem about the suicide and an attempted murder committed by my grandson, Gideon, while on drugs, and the death of another grandson, Matthew, who jumped off a viaduct. Both events occurred within a six-month period.

In the poem’s attribute, an excerpt from my diary, I asked, “Don’t these calamities happen to other people?” Not always. After recovering from the initial shock, I knew it had happened to my family and to me. Years later, I decided to write a poem about the tragedy.

Gaiman talks about cloaking truths in fairy tales. The truth for children in “Little Red Riding Hood,” and other fairy tales, is that you can’t trust everyone. When I decided to write about the boys’ deaths, I wrapped the horror of our family tragedy in Picasso’s painting “Guernica.” I conveyed our violent truth through Picasso’s truth about war and needless killings.

From the last two stanzas of “My Guernica”:

A three-eyed nurse says: Guernica has come.
Like the matador, my pretty grandsons are dead.
My daughter’s baby lips, which compared my breasts
to apples, now propped open like a guppy’s.
She will live. The bullet lodges near her left ear. 

I sit on a chair and howl.
This is written on newsprint, this telling. 

I walked naked down the street in this poem. Though I chose to tell this story through the conveyance of Picasso’s masterpiece, (one of my grandsons was a handsome Latino), I revealed my personal hell. I did sit on a chair and howl.

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