Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Finding the Right Words

Writers love words. Writers love paper-- filling it with words, word-images, word-related images. When the words don't come, sometimes we panic. We think we're "blocked" and we'll never write another inspired piece again. We begin to listen to that Inner Critic again, who loves to tell us that there's nothing new in the universe and therefore why bother to try to write something worthwhile. Inner Critic takes delight in trying to convince us that we have nothing to say, it's all been said before, we couldn't possibly say it better than...[fill in your favorite writer(s) here].

I tell writers who attend my workshops that everything we do is about the writing. About our stories. When we aren't actually committing our stories to paper, we're gathering information for them, researching anecdotes, picking up on the best way to express what is, in essence, often not amenable to expression on paper (or verbal expression of any sort, for that matter). If you aren't writing in the conventional sense (pen to paper, fingers to keyboard), you're still creating. The words will come.

Years ago, writer Susan Baugh helped me put into words this same concept. I took her workshop on writing the fairy tale at the International Women's Writing Guild conference sometime in the late 1990s, and my WiseWoman character's quest paralleled my own: finding the right words. In the end, she discovers she had the words all along:

GRANDMOTHER TURTLE: a fairy tale about finding the right words
by Marilyn Zembo Day (with thanks to Susan Baugh)

In the beginning, Grandmother Turtle knew all the words. She had seen the books in the moment before time began, run her gnarled fingers over their richly textured leafs. She knew the magic words on the rough-hewn pages of the bronze-toned volume. Her fingertips had traced its deep-furrowed lines and the blood-red rubies encrusted on its cover. She remembered the quieter, simpler lines in the silver book, adorned with turquoise, more beautiful than the distant mountains glimmering in Mother Moon’s reflection.

Especially, she loved the feel of the amethyst-strewn cover of the golden book. It was the one containing the special words, the spells of intention, the very sacred notes to live by. Grandmother couldn’t recall them all now but she knew they were out there… waiting for her. It was not an urgent need to bring them back into the fold, at least not until most recently. Life had been peaceful. The Mother had been good to them.

Now, however, Grandmother was troubled. Just this morning, as Father Sun slithered early fingers of light overhead, she had seen Raven alight jauntily atop her daughter’s hut. Today, on the day her first granddaughter would be named and taken into the clan, the cocky ebony bird dared scamper in a backwards circle, cawing and cawing, proclaiming his supremacy. Now the entire village knew he had staked his claim, and it was up to her to challenge his insolent declaration. To do so in safety and in absolute certainty she would not fail, she needed the words. And they remained just out of her mind’s reach.

As the younger women bustled about the village carrying water, pounding grains for bread and cakes, and preparing tasty treats with succulent berries and crunchy brown nuts for the ceremony, Grandmother Turtle pulled in her head. She covered it with the elder shawl her daughter had woven for her when she first sought to leave the house of her birth to nest with Ran. The finely constructed garment attested to Seeda’s expert skills and reminded the elder Wise Woman of the pain she felt when she realized her daughter was not the one to whom she would pass on the Wise Woman ways. These many years, she thought it would be a woman from another nest—and she watched each village girl-child with heavy heart, from the moment of birth, searching for a sign. When Seeda told her mother that her last moontime was long before first snows covered the mountains, Grandmother dared not hope the Mother would give them a girl-child. It was almost too much to wish for… and yet the Wise Woman knew in her bones, heard the whispers of the ancestors that this was to be so.

Serana came into the world squealing and kicking, greeting her mother with pain and joy. Grandmother counted three stars shooting across the midnight sky on that evening. And she heard Wolf howl as she buried the baby’s wombnest under the window of Seeda’s hut. Until today, Serana’s destiny rested easily in the hands of Great Mother. She would be named and welcomed this day, and Grandmother Elder would proclaim her the next Wise Woman of the Clan. All of this was as it should be. And then Raven arrived.

The Wise Woman shuffled quietly away from the village, toward the blue-black forest. She needed to think. She must solve the dilemma of the words. It would be disastrous to give the child a Wise Woman name without the magic words of intention. She would sit beside the talking stream and meditate on the problem. As she sought her place on the large boulder next to the water, she did not see Raven soaring above. She knew not that he hid in the boughs of trees beside the brook as she pondered her next steps.

Presently, Grandmother grew weary of searching her mind for words. Her head began to nod and her eyelids grew heavy. The shawl slipped from her head as she decided to move from the rock to the soft green grass. She spread the elder garment out, lay down upon it and promptly fell into a deep, deep sleep.

In due time, she felt a tugging at the shawl beneath her. Opening dream-doused eyes, she was amazed to find Wolf pulling at it. She had never been this close to Wolf before, always honoring his need to run free in the wilds yet paying attention whenever he called to her. She knew he did not dally frivolously. He brought messages of great import.

Cautiously, Grandmother opened her eyes wide so that Wolf gazed full into her violet depths. “Wolf,” she murmured quietly. The magnificent creature stopped tugging but continued to grasp the shawl in his mouth, mesmerized by her gaze.

“Wolf,” she repeated, more affirmatively.

He dropped the cloth from his mouth and stood at attention, waiting.

“Wolf?” This one was a question. The great animal needed no further words. He knew of the books and of her need.

“You know where the bronze book can be found,” he told her. “You were there in the moment before time.”

“Yes,” she replied, “but I do not remember the way. It has never been necessary to take that journey again and the path is not clear for me.”

“Clear or not, it has never been an easy route,” Wolf intoned. “The forest is thick and lush, and you will be tempted to stray from the path for rest and water many times. If you hesitate or falter, all may be lost.”

“I understand, Friend Wolf. But will you guide an old woman on her journey?”

“Aye, I can do that. If you will give me this rich shawl in exchange. It will warm my lair on cold nights.”

“It is yours the moment the words are mine.”

And they set out through the thick woods, moving quickly through foliage so thick and trees so tall that Father Sun barely touched their essence. Fleetingly, Grandmother wondered about the naming ceremony, knowing the clan would wait for her return for only just so long. It mattered little—the naming meant nothing if the words weren’t blessed. On she trudged, following Wolf deeper and deeper into the unknown.

The path narrowed as they walked and began to climb steeper trails. The old woman moved more and more slowly, sometimes losing sight of Wolf up ahead. Soon, when she had not seen her guide for some time, her pace slowed and she began to think of the little brook and the pleasant nap she’d been having when Wolf found her. “A deep drink of that water –that would be wonderful right now,” she thought, and suddenly she sighted an old stone well in an unexpected clearing ahead. Next to the well, a worn, smooth boulder invited tired, sore hips.

“Just a moment’s rest and then I’ll be much better,” she said aloud. She started to walk toward the well, her parched throat urging her forward. Reaching it, she drew on the frayed rope, pulling the bucket closer to the surface. s she pulled, in the distance she heard Wolf howl, a long, wailing warning. But the thirst was greater than the risk. “An old woman needs water and rest,” she said, for no one to hear but herself.

As she brought the water bucket closer to the edge of the well, a bright red-tinged light flowed from the vessel. Grandmother was at once full of both fear and curiosity. In awe, she reached into its depths and pulled from it the first book, the Bronze. She let her palms caress the perfect red stones. She opened the volume, fanning red-tipped pages, letting them fall open as the Mother saw fit. Carefully, she moved toward the boulder where she would rest and gather the knowledge needed.

But this was not to be, for as she lowered herself to the stone, her grip on the book loosened and, without warning, Raven swooped down and caught the Bronze tome in his beak. Without looking back, he soared skyward and then on into the deep woods beyond the clearing. In the distance, Grandmother heard Wolf’s mournful cry once more.

In despair, Grandmother Turtle slumped to the ground in front of the huge stone. She no longer wanted the stale water of the well. Her only hope now lay in the two other books. But where were they to be found?

Just then, she heard a gurgling sound—almost as if she were back at her little brook. Thirst once again urged her on. A few feet away, at the edge of the forest, the bubbling sounds got louder. Not long afterward she found herself following a bustling stream to where it became a lake so clear it was almost silver. The sky, as it touched its shores, shone turquoise. Birds chirped contentedly and fish gaily leaped in and out of glistening waters.

Grandmother Turtle sighed and bent down to drink. When sufficiently refreshed, she looked up and was surprised to see the whiskered face of a huge catfish bobbing out of the water only a few feet in front of her. This was unlike any fish she’d ever seen, however, as its eyes caught hers in its direct gaze and it seemed to smile.

“Ho!” greeted the fish. “I see you have mighty thirst.”

“Yes, Great Fish. I am on a journey and the road has been long without water or rest. I very much needed the gift of your beautiful lake. Thank you.”

“I think perhaps you have a greater need than this water or you would not be here.”

“Why, yes, that is true. I am seeking…”

“You need not explain. I know of what you seek. It is simply difficult to understand why. After all, the books were yours before time began.”

“I know this but the words have been lost to me for some time now. If I do not find them, all is lost for my tribe. We are a small group and, without a Wise Woman when I am gone, they will lose the magic and perhaps soon lose all.”

“Grandmother, I can help you if you wish, but it is a long journey at best and sometimes dangerous. And you must be careful not to eat anything along the way. The woods along the shoreline are full of tempting fruits and nuts—but to ingest anything endangers your goal.”

“I have quenched my thirst and rested a moment. I will have no need for anything else. I will be nourished by the discovery of the books.”

With that, Catfish directed the elder to follow him. She trekked for miles along the shoreline, climbing over vines and fallen tree limbs, scratching her calves and sometimes tearing the edges of her long skirt. Always, she watched for Catfish to leap again from the ever-more-urgently flowing waters. In time, the waters began to rage and she lost sight of Great Fish as the flow dropped off ahead. Where the water dropped in a crystal shattering waterfall, the land too dropped and she began to scale rocks and earth beside the falls to seek the lower waterway. The movement downward was time-consuming and exhausting. Grandmother’s stomach began to call to her, reminding her it had been a very long time since she’d appeased it. Her energy was waning.

As she reached the smooth surface at the bottom of the falls, she noticed bushes filled with scrumptious red berries and tempting brown nuts. Catfish was nowhere in sight. Hungrily, Grandmother turned toward the abundant bushes and, as she turned, the crystalline falls looked as though a blue-green light was emanating from behind its waters. Curious, she stepped closer and realized she could actually walk behind the waterspill. She followed the light into the cave behind the falls and beheld the much-desired silver book, round turquoise stones adorning its cover, sitting on a plain stone altar within. Without hesitation, she walked to the book, took it into her arms and brought it to her breast as though it were her new grandchild. She turned and exited the cave quickly, hesitating only long enough to reverently touch the place which had held the book for so long and to open randomly to glance at a single silver-edged page.

Outside, her stomach growled once more. “I have it now,” she remarked to the wind whipping at the berry bushes. “I can eat a berry or two for energy on the long trip back.”

She reached for the most succulent of the fruit in front of her and, as she did, the winds grew stronger and caused her grip on the precious volume to loosen for just a moment. In that instant, Raven swooped from his perch above the waters and stole away with her treasure. Up into the sky he escaped, vanishing into the mist.

Trembling, Grandmother Turtle brought her hands to her face and began to wail. “Oh, Great Mother, all is lost! My foolishness has cost my granddaughter her rightful place as Wise Woman. Our clan is doomed. I do not deserve to be Wise Woman myself—I have listened to my body and not to my spirit.”

Grandmother cried and prayed, prayed and cried, for some time, until she looked up and noticed the long scaly body of Snake at her feet. Snake’s large head undulated above the ground, yellow-green eyes glaring at the elder woman.



“Do you stare for a purpose?”

“Yes, Grandmother. You moan and you pray to Our Mother, yet you have nothing about which to grieve.”

“Ah, but Honored Snake, I have much to grieve. I have brought disaster upon my people.”

“You have done no such thing. Your people await your return as we speak.”

“I cannot return without the words.”

“You know the words. They were given to you before time began. What is the problem?”

“I am an old woman, and the words escape me. Without the books, I cannot be certain of these truths. Will you help me in my quest?”

Time remained as suspended in air as the Great Snake’s head, while Grandmother waited for his response. Finally, fangs flicking in and out with each word, Honored Snake assented. “You may follow me to the Golden Dragon’s lair, where the Book of Intentions can be found. Once there, I can slither into the cave and let you know when the Gold One sleeps. While he rests, you can sneak past him and grab the book. Only you must not be distracted by anything in the cave and you must especially not speak a word. If you do, all will be lost.”

Grandmother agreed and they went on their way. The terrain covered was less rugged than her earlier path and the old woman was beginning see hope once more. But then she heard the terrible roar of the angry dragon in the distance and she was not so certain.

“Do not fear,” Snake advised. “He will sleep and you will get the book.”

Not long afterward, Snake’s expectations proved true. He returned from the cave, nodded silently to Grandmother and she crept past the entrance into the bowels of the monster. Immediately, she sighted the brilliant golden book. She focused on the soft purple amethyst stones encrusted on its cover, noticing the perfectly chiseled edges from which lilac and white light flowed. It was easy enough to attend to the beauty of this tome yet, as she streaked out of the cave with the book clutched to her breast, a rustling sound from somewhere deeper in the cave distracted her. The moment’s hesitation caused her to stumble. She quickly regained equilibrium but the small noise disturbed the dragon enough to make him rise and sleepily evoke a half-roar.

Grandmother picked up speed and raced outside with the golden volume. Out of breath and jumpy, she stumbled once more, dropping the book to the ground. For one brief second, she saw the golden pages as they flew open on the ground. Then Raven again honed in on the treasure and carried it off beyond sight.

Bereft, the old woman fell to the ground. She didn’t care if the Dragon awoke and came looking for the book thief. It mattered not if she ate or drank or rested any more. Raven had stolen all the books, and Serana would not be the Wise Woman. In fact, there would be no Wise Woman when she died and her clan would cease to exist.

Just then, she heard a small voice say, “Return.”

Looking up, she spied Grandmother Spider weaving her web in the vines overhead, hanging between bushes and trees. “Return,” Spider was saying. “Go back to your people.”

“How can I return empty-handed?” she asked.

“Return. You are full now. Return.”

Without another alternative, Grandmother Turtle decided to listen to Wise Spider. She walked away from the dragon’s cave, climbed back up beside the crystalline water fall, followed the silver lakeshore and passed the stone well before coming to the end of the path at her meditation brook. There, on the boulder beside her brook, lay the three treasured books, shining in the sunlight.

Grandmother walked to the boulder, thanking the Mother for her kindness and understanding. As she approached, she noticed a spider web spun across the base of the rock. She reached to open the bronze book and gasped as it fell to dust. The silver and gold tomes also turned to ash as soon as she sought to open them.

For a cold stale moment, she froze and then, in a moment before time began, she sought the path back to her home. The elder shawl slipped from her shoulders to the ground, as Wolf howled in the near-wood. Grandmother held her head high as the path before her glowed. he was returning to her village, where she would lead the naming ceremony for Serana, Daughter of Joy, Woman of Truth.


1. Write about a time that you couldn't find the right words. Maybe it wasn't about writing a poem or a story. Maybe it was a time you needed to impart bad news. Perhaps someone was hurting and you didn't feel there were adequate words. What did you do? What did you say? How were your actions/words received?

2. Make a list of 5 to 10 of your favorite words-- ones whose sounds you love, or whose definitions intrigue you. Choose three of them-- write a short piece that includes them all.

3. I once led a workshop on the fairy tale at the IWWG conference, adding "a feminist twist" to it. What's your favorite fairy tale? Can you rewrite it, modernizing it, perhaps even adding a feminist twist? or a gay twist? or another "twist"? Maybe you'd like to make it a poem, or a play!

4. Fairy tales, like myths, include hero(in)es who are sent on a quest. Usually they encounter at least three challenges, sometimes they meet three or more "guides" who help them along the way. Using this structure, you might set up a three-stanza poem (verse or prose) in which you are the hero(ine). What might be your three challenges (in a day, week, year), where might you find your guides (pets, the homeless guy on the corner, a hummingbird in your garden...)? Write your tale, perhaps adding a stanza before and after the three challenges to bring it all together.

5. When you think you're in a Writer's Block stage, write this title at the top of your page: Why I Write. Then start writing with "I write because..." Don't stop to cross out or re-read or change anything. Let it flow. Unlock. Be a writer.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Writer as MapMaker

The writer is an explorer.
Every step is an advance into new lands.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

I am thinking quite a lot about maps of late. Mostly, this is because the WomanWords 2009 Retreat is just around the corner (last weekend in April – see the program schedule at http://www.stillpointretreatcenter.com/) and I have many more “organizing” tasks to accomplish, as well as pulling together my workshop program and materials. Our theme is “Directions: Mapping a Woman’s Life.” The problem: the more I read, the more ideas bubble up; the more ideas, the more I wonder how I will boil it down to the couple of short hours and the few related handouts that will be mine to fill (I’ve invited two other writers as additional presenters for the weekend so the onus is not totally on me). It’s a daunting yet creativity-enhancing task in itself.

The seed planted for this theme came from a sister writer’s workshop at the International Women’s Writing Guild (http://www.iwwg.com/) summer conference, an event I attend every year. Colorado poet Marj Hahne (http://www.marjhahne.com/) has offered “Poem as Map” at the conference more than once and, as with all her sessions, it was crowded with participants last June. Over the years, Marj became so enamored with maps (and their potential as writing prompts) that she developed a weeklong set of classes that sparked many Creative Fires, leading to some fabulous poetry (and a few prose pieces as well, I’ll bet!). There is so much fodder for writing here—maps, plans, directions, signposts, geography, paths… the list goes on.

Think about it. The writer sets up a sort of road map for the reader. In a novel, it can be more extensive, taking that reader not only to myriad scenes in different locales, but possibly into other time periods, worlds or universes. What we do, as writers, is set up our piece so that we lead the reader (and ourselves, as we scribble words) into a world we are developing. Setting up a story (or any prose piece) usually demands a plot. A plot is a plan which gives you direction, tells you where you’re headed. Maybe you don’t stick with the original road map, but it’s a guide. As in life, we take side trips or veer off in a totally different direction—but the plan got us started.

The poet also creates a world, inviting readers in for a glimpse. Most poems, however, do not reach Homeric lengths (not novel-length) and so likely do not require elaborate planning. In fact, overplanning a short poem reeks of overkill, as in murdering your Muse. Still, we start off with a thought, a direction in which we expect our writing will proceed. Do we always wind up where we expected? Have you ever begun a poem you thought was about one topic and discovered that the finished work addressed a different one (maybe in conjunction with the starter thought, maybe not)? Ah, visions of “The Road Not Taken” (Robert Frost’s classic)—if you had not veered onto a different path than the original idea, would you ever have written on this theme? If you had forced yourself to stay with the first thought, would it have led to a better poem, a more publishable one, something more universal? Or would the original path have taken you to a dead end?

Aside from the obvious mission of writer-as-explorer, there’s the simple fact that maps—cartography— offer plenty of great writing prompts. Years ago, at a women's spirituality conference, I attended a workshop led by Becky Holder, a popular storyteller in which participants drew maps of the inside of a house/building/flat where they had once lived, preferably in childhood, definitely removed from their present situation. Stories subsequently shared with the group came from that exercise. My friend Judith Prest wrote a wonderful piece from a writing prompt in a memoir session led by Hannelore Hahn, Founder and Director of IWWG, that suggested describing the entrance to a childhood home. That prompt led Judy back to her beloved home in Delaware, where she walked the path to her country home once again (a short essay which eventually aired on public radio).

Marj offered a few “structures” that were helpful too, along with plenty of examples of poems. Although I don’t usually write much during IWWG conference week (I'm there for networking and inspiration), except during classroom sessions, I took time to hone the following poem written in “Poem as Map” because it was the piece I wanted to read during the Evening Readings:

by Marilyn Zembo Day

If the Oscar-winning actor with the bulldog face
called it the armpit of the world;
if the governor of the state cannot see but has vision,
and the sense not to consort with high-end hookers
(but not sensitivity enough to keep personal affairs in his own pockets;
if you checked the mayor’s closets for a tanning machine
or his desk for Coppertone coupons;
if your car discovered potholes deep enough
to reach cobblestones and trolley tracks;
if film directors searching for early American architecture
drive north to squander cash on sweating thoroughbreds
under the unrelenting August sun;
if winding paths bring bikers past old locks of the Erie Canal
where picnickers toss neon Frisbees
along the muddy Hudson’s shoreline;
if the world can’t remember it exists
because downriver sits the shinier, busier Big Apple;
if every other street, park or landmark sports
a name more common to a tulip-toned country
dependent on dikes and dams for survival;
and if those tulips, early in May, adorn hundreds
of parks and gardens and walkways—
you’re in the only state capital in the country where
a government building masquerades as a giant egg
nesting in its cold, concrete coop.

Another IWWG workshop leader, Maryland poet Carol Peck, has inspired many a writer with an exercise designed to bring back childhood memories. While the specific workshop had nothing to do with maps, per se, it had everything to do with scanning your childhood for sites/sights that evoke memories. Memories of sounds, textures, and more—all of which enrich the writing. As Carol emphasizes, these writing exercises come from other sources and they are to be shared—and so Judy and I sometimes pull out this exercise when we co-lead a journal writing workshop. I often use the following poem as an example:

by Marilyn Zembo Day

Where I come from
trees don’t touch the sky
they whither and sometimes die
set in impotent dirt squares
wired against the wind
roots searching for sustenance
slithering and gasping below concrete slab.
no catalytic converters controlled poisons
and the streams were those of Fords and Chevys
wending their way to offices, apartments
and perhaps, occasionally,
toward places where Tree Gods flourished.

Where I come from
huge plate glass windows
threw our reflections back at us
screaming our needs
transistor radios, Frigidaires,
Barbie dolls, G.I. Joes,
Playtex girdles, Timex watches
grab the newest technology
purchase the perfect fad
and your life won’t require
juicy shiny apples, budding green leaves
fresh living air

Where I come from
three dark flights of stairs brought visitors
to blue collar linoleum
cracked walls, cracked wallets
love silent but an undercurrent
flowing beneath poker games and bingo
soap operas and True Confessions
plaster-pitted walls and plastic dime store curtains
better than drafty castles and echoing mansions
bourgeois, lived-in

Where I come from
nature is a picture in National Geographic
or a visit to Aunt Naomi’s
a ride to Uncle Charlie’s camp
Tree Gods still play
where Uncle Charlie fished and rested
and they dawdle and dance yet at my aunt’s
although houses now encroach
not yet concrete graveyards
not like where I come from.

I am intrigued by the routes I might take as I journey toward the 2009 WomanWords Writing and Expressive Arts Retreat. The highway to Still Point is clear enough: I drive Route 9 north from Albany for maybe half-hour/45 minutes and it’s a few more turns and about 10 more minutes until I’m there. But the path to my workshop, to creating road maps for women who want to write that weekend, to making further connections on this short-lived roadtrip of life—these are all part of the mystery, the magic, that is Creativity.

For the folks who might be interested, here’s a list of some books I’ve acquired as I pull my workshop together:

Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer by Peter Turchi
You Are Here: Person Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination by Katharine Harmon
Maps: Finding Our Place in the World edited by James R. Akerman and Robert W. Karrow Jr.
How to Lie with Maps by Mark Monmonier
Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands by Michael Chabon


1. Let my poem, “My Hometown,” inspire you. Marj Hahne suggested using the “If…” starter, leading to the “then…” conclusion (you don’t have to actually include the word “then” in the poem; I didn’t). What town/village/city do you consider to be your home base? You might make a list of specific memories, definite objects that you recall before starting out. Perhaps you’ll research poems written by others about place and, liking a particular format, you could style your poem similarly. Take your reader there. Make him see the space, feel the emotions, detect the scents. You might name the place or you might not.
2. Another possibility: start with “Where I come from…” and continue on. This works well for many people. Try to use specific images. Work with metaphor (your room was Nancy Drew, paper doll cutouts and dried up watercolor boxes…) and simile (your room was like the mother cave [warm? safe? welcoming?]) to enrich the writing.
3. Where do you go in your mind when the world becomes too chaotic or too wild? My husband was in the Air National Guard years ago with this muscular, seemingly down-to-earth guy who, when someone got bent out of shape about something or seemed sad, would say, “Now go to your happy place.” Maybe that’s a prompt too: who’s the most unlikely person to come out with such a statement? Is there a story in that? Imagine a top exec at a failing manufacturing company coming up with that statement in a strategy-planning meeting, or a terrorist toting a bomb. Write about your imaginary place, or your character’s.
4. Go to a store and buy a map— of a place some distance from you. Or pick up one of those tourist-type maps of an area while visiting a place other than where you live, the kind with cute little icons of houses and hotels and tourists-trap stores. Open the map and let your eyes wander the surface. Let something catch your eye: a name of a place, a river, a juncture of two roads, a continent. Let your imagination go. Write.
5. One of the essays in Chabon’s book (listed above) starts out with the sentence, “I write from the place I live: in exile.” Start an essay or poem with, “I write from the place I live…”
6. Consider the title of another book listed above: How to Lie with Maps. In his introduction, Monmonier states, “A book about how to lie with maps can be more useful than a book about how to lie with words. After all, everyone is familiar with verbal lies, nefarious as well as white, and is wary about how words can be manipulated… yet education in the use of maps and diagrams is spotty and limited, and many otherwise educated people are graphically and cartographically illiterate. Maps, like numbers, are often arcane images accorded undue respect and credibility.” When did you feel a map lied to you? Did you get lost? Was the mileage incorrectly represented? Or did you read the map incorrectly? Another prompt-- from the quote: tell about a white lie you told that backfired on you.
7. Tell a road trip story. Don’t name the places—just give the details about the places, using all, all most, of the senses (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste).

Sunday, March 22, 2009

So What Is a Sestina Anyway?

I started blogging because I needed a place on the web where I could post new poetry written from writing prompts offered from the cyber space group Poem (or JustOnePoem, as it's called on Carolee and Jill's blog). Of course, I'm an eclectic writer so this is about more than poetry. But today is "posting day" for our first writings based on our group's first poem-prompt(s), which happened to be "Delta Flight 659: to Sean Penn" by Denise Duhamel. It's a sestina, a form in which I'd never written. In fact, I generally write in what I guess is called an "open form" since it offers more freedom (I am assuming, based on its definition, that "free verse" is an open form). Mind you, we were not directed to write in any particular format-- just to let something about the poem become a writing prompt for us. I happened to like the challenge of adhering to a form yet letting it allow me to voice whatever I needed to say. In fact, two poems came to me during our "writing week"-- my Voice had a few things to say!

At the International Women's Writing Guild conference at Skidmore College (Saratoga Springs, NY), writer/artist Jan Lawry has led a workshop for several years. Even though there's a multitude of workshop options, I try to drop in on at least one of her six sessions because she always offers something that tweaks my Muse into action. A few years ago her prompts were actual poems by both other writers and of her own. Like JustOneWriter, she suggested we find our prompts in the poems offered-- including the possibility of using the same form, or format, as the author. I found this "spin-off" idea not only helpful but inspiring. I didn't always attempt to follow the same structure but when I did, something seemed to magically flow onto the paper (maybe not in perfect shape, but later to be honed into a final piece).

Before I include the two poems into this blog entry (and I'd like your feedback on them, if you so desire to click onto Comments below and offer it), let me first recommend a book in case you're inclined to try your hand at a specific poetic form. Once I'd read Duhamel's Sean Penn piece, I consulted The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland. It gave me the basic structure of the sestina, some history of the form, its contemporary context and plenty of examples. I highly recommend that, if you're curious about other poetry formats too, such as the villanelle, the sonnet, the pantoum, or the ballad, you check this volume out.

And now, my new poems. Duhamel's poem, in addition to urging me to create a sestina, also prompted me to write a poem addressed to a celebrity. I'd recently viewed the film "The Great Debaters" and was moved by the true story of the courage of this group of young African-American college students who dared to debate issues that, in their time and place (Texas, 1930s), could have gotten them lynched. It helped that Denzel Washington is a star that I admire. Having lived through the 60s and walked in a few local equal rights/anti-war marches, this was a no-brainer as to why I'd choose the topic-- but how to put it into a poem? I discovered that the form served me well, although I didn't follow the specific pattern of words within each stanza to the letter. [Note that I've included a picture from those days, a local march, me & my friend Roy!]

After Viewing The Great Debaters
by Marilyn Zembo Day

What are we left with, Denzel Washington,
when the music stops and dancers
depart, hopes dashed against white-washed wall,
strung-out children setting a place
for freedom at a skewered table,
imagining Martin, Malcolm… waiting

for Barack? If it doesn’t feel like dancing,
Denzel, if dreams cloud the wait-list,
which hopes then get forever tabled
while corruption pervades Washington?
Opposing agendas from wall-eyed
senators hinder, delay replacement

of archaic laws etched on placemats
from Greensboro, where obedient waitstaff
balked at Langston’s crumbling wall,
legal feet accustomed to a slow-dance
of separation, their guts awash
with the bounty of rancid tablefare.

Picture a traditional southern tableau:
straight-backed Negro servant placing
the evening meal before George Washington,
this man who would not be king, awaiting
the two-step of master-slave dinner-dance.
I ponder the miracle of an image wallpapered

onto a stone-and-cotton cultural wall,
blistered by the fires of a thousand washerwomen
who refused to take the bus, disrupting the waiting
hangman and dictating the tempo of the dance.
I could not envision an emerging replacement
yet I took a seat at the apocalyptic banquet table.

Tell me, I wanted to know, how you choreograph
a revolution. Assure me that the weight of irrefutable
truth will someday uproot complacency.
Denzel, I wanted peace. Handwashing
the feet of exhausted walkers, I, the wallflower,
indulged. I played the game of waiting.

But no one waits forever, Mr. Washington. Elijah’s
unattended place at the table requires attention.
I would’ve danced at the wall just as joyously for Hillary.

The idea for the second sestina came from a picture that my friend Leslie Neustadt sent to me via Facebook, an image of the "melancholy" Mary Magdalen painted by Renaissance painter Artemesia Gentleschi. Leslie knew of my interest in the Magdalen but she hadn't known I'd also become a "fan" of Gentleschi's work long ago-- back when my daughter Kristen did a college paper on this gifted artist. I had never heard of her at the time, but then who knew about women artists from that era? First of all, few women would've been given the opportunity to study art (Gentleschi's father was a painter)-- and then there's the fact that the winners write the history and the "winners" in those days were men (no comment on current status; suffice to say things are improving but we're not there yet).

I'd also read Susan Vreeland's novel, Artemesia, and loved it-- highly recommended. Vreeland takes what she researched on the artist and the times and imagines her circumstances: her art, her being raped and (being considered "property" of her father) having little recourse, and more. Between the novel and the painting of Mary Magdalen, the poem took form-- a sestina form, that is.

Paintboxes and Whores: Inspired by
Artemesia Gentileschi’s Mary Magdalen as Melancholy
by Marilyn Zembo Day

I am writing this poem, Artemisia, hidden
behind a cheap library desk, body
hunched into the absurdity of paintings
of women toting sacred oils, called whores,
and saintly men who thrust that sharp-
edged label upon them. A curve, a breast,

a body should not incite rage. Breast-thumping
testosterone motives aside, what hidden
agenda did he harbor, what sharp-
textured dream haunted his body
that he would violate, then call you whore?
Artemesia Gentileschi, is there enough red paint

on an artist’s pallet, in an entire paintbox,
to depict what lurks below your broken breast?
I am drawn to your golden Magdalen, whore
of your unforgiving Church, and I imagine you hide
behind your easel, building a mythic body
of work, slicing into your abuser with sharp

Biblical strokes, a woman’s sight sharpening,
narrowing, with each layer of paint.
No one said to you, “Love your body.”
Perhaps wrenched from a reluctant mother’s breast,
sensuous touch became something to hide
lest you emulate the first-century whore.

Once someone said we’re all whores
for something or someone. Whether sharp
or soft, sound still breaks into the silence. Hidden
messages, cryptic or decoded, continue to paint
the landscapes of women’s lives. To keep abreast
of terror wreaks another kind of trauma on the body.

Beyond the wall of my bookish enclave somebody
drones on about overdue fines, while I play word-whore,
seizing on every trick to lure the Muse to my breast.
My Critic batters every image, his voice shrill, sharp.
His laugh is a coiled rattlesnake. How could you paint,
with so many ghosts, so much to hide?

Somebody scraped the paint away, Artemesia:
Sharp-tongued whore, in the bosom of feminist truth,
like Mary, I invite you to come out of hiding.


1. Try writing a poem, or a letter, to a celebrity or famous person. Perhaps s/he's a particular favorite of yours. Maybe you want to tell her/him how s/he's inspired you, or that you like something s/he's done recently (a film, a song, lending support to a charity, etc.). How were you inspired by this person? Or was it the opposite-- did her/his actions anger or sadden you? What questions would you ask of this person?

2. What's your favorite movie? Or what film most recently evoked strong emotions for you, made you think about an issue or an era? Go with those emotions, thoughts-- let words draw out what needs to be expressed.

3. Either go to a museum or Google a favorite artist. Choose a painting and see what it evokes in you. Think about what the artist was seeing but also let it speak to your own history and feelings. Does something that's happening in the work of art bring back a memory, pinpoint a particular time or person in your life that you hadn't thought about in a while (or have been thinking about but not doing anything about it)? At a recent workshop I attended led by Therese Broderick, one of her prompts worked particularly well for me: start with "This reminds me of..." and, whenever the flow gets blocked, write the same starter-phrase again and keep going.

4. Are you a Baby Boomer? Do you remember the 60s? (Try not to start with the cliche, "If you remember the 60s, you weren't there.") Did you march? Were you a hippie? Did you go to 'Nam? Did you embrace Free Love? Were you a big Beatles or Stones fan? Write the memories. Maybe this becomes a book, or a chapbook-- to be published or not.

5. Write about courage. What is it? How does one find the courage to sit at a lunch counter when your actions could lead to death? How do you survive rape and become an accomplished artist? How do you get from wake-up to sleep-time each day? Give examples. Tell when you've been courageous (and yes, you have-- just acknowledge it).

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


I have a new car: a 2009 Saturn. It wasn’t our (hubby Bill’s and my) intent to purchase a new car this year but our daughter’s need for a new/used transport was coming to a critical head (maybe she could take our old Saturn), and then there was that new jumpstart-the-economy tax deduction as an incentive (buy a new car this year, claim tax paid on it as a deduction in January 2010). We couldn’t find a decent used car for her at a reasonable price—at least not quickly—and so the idea of Kristen’s acquiring my beautiful (in my eyes anyway—it’s served me well) white station wagon popped up. In the end, we decided to pay off one car loan to acquire another.

But that’s not really what this blog entry is about.

I am not a car person. I almost never remember what kind of a car someone drives, although maybe its color might be recalled (I know Grandpa Boyd had a blue car and that my mother always said that he never had an accident but he probably caused a few because he drove in the middle of the road). I don’t have the name of auto manufacturers and their model names on the tip of my tongue. Some remain familiar for one reason or another: in my younger days, I recognized Corvettes, Carmanghias (although I probably still don’t spell that one right), Volkswagen bugs, Ford Falcons (my brother George’s first car) and... aw geez, now I can’t even remember the name of that cute little white foreign job that my cousin Diane drove (she’d pick me up at the bus stop on campus my freshman year at SUNY Albany, announcing her arrival a half-mile away with its noisy muffler). I thought the Datsun Z was ultra-cool, but then I was unduly influenced by the fact that a guy I had a crush on drove one.

I don’t even like to drive. If a car runs well enough, has automatic transmission, sports little enough rust on it so as not to embarrass me and, nowadays, doesn’t consume gasoline faster than a camel slurping water at its first oasis in days—I’m a happy camper, uh, driver/owner. I also want a CD player that works.

When I walked into the office the day after we’d looked at new Saturns, I wasn’t jumping for joy at the prospect of a larger car payment—but I could tell my co-workers that we would be submitting paperwork to the credit union to see if they’d approve the loan. Asked what model car I’d chosen, I said, “Oh, it’s a Saturn Acura.” Oops. Wrong model for that dealership (I’m still not sure—would an Acura be a Toyota? Nissan?). We’d considered the Saturn Vue, which had much more room for art materials to be carried to my workshops, but it was worse on gas mileage and much more expensive.

Once the loan was approved and Bill had corrected my model mistake, I was again asked what kind of car I was buying, this time via telephone by my friend Mary. “A Saturn Aura,” I replied. Mary hesitated a mini-second and then said, “How appropriate for you.” Of course I knew exactly what she meant. I have earned a reputation as a more-or-less New Age-y person, mostly because of interests in feminist spirituality, labyrinths, personal altars, mandalas and things of that nature; thus, “Aura” would trigger her reaction. In response to her next question, about its color, I had to say, “Well, I don’t want to tell people that my Aura is gray.” That evoked a laugh.

I am not into “auras” as in the New Age definition (whatever that is) but I do understand the concept. I think it’s really not far from the definition in my Webster’s, which reads, in part: 1. a distinctive and pervasive quality or character; air; atmosphere; 2. a subtly pervasive quality or atmosphere seen as emanating from a person, place or thing…

Years ago, when I worked part-time as receptionist at Mandala Center for Creative Wellness (one night a week to offset the cost of renting space for my writing group), I got to know a well-known, local psychic who sometimes leads workshops on detecting auras. Theresa offered walk-in readings on some of the evenings I sat at the desk, and we hit it off quickly as we chatted—especially once I realized how down-to-earth she was. Once, I asked how she can “teach” someone to see another person’s aura. She told me that we all have that ability but it gets lost as we grow older and more acculturated to Western values. In other words, I surmised, we stop trusting our intuition—which can tell us lots about a person when s/he walks into the room, when s/he first speaks, when s/he gestures in any way at all. What she was doing was telling people how to access their natural psychic abilities.

“But,” I queried further, “what if you just don’t see a color, what if you don’t see anything around that person?” “Make it up.” “Make it up? No way.” “Yes, make it up.” If we don’t “see” anything, we should still feel something. And colors have emotional meanings to us. Is there anyone who hasn’t thought of red as passionate, or painful, or exciting, or sensuous? How about blue as peaceful, or nurturing, or cleansing? It is Theresa’s position that we begin to see auras after we learn to trust our own feelings/ intuition about our people-judgments.

My friend Leiah Bowden creates gorgeous Energy Portraits (www.lightspeak.com), and she teaches others how to do the same. At her workshop, ever the feet-on-the-ground skeptic, I couldn’t follow her into a deep meditation (I have too much “monkey mind” to meditate well) yet I immediately took to the process of adding colors to my Energy self-portrait. Without prompting, I applied Theresa’s make-it-up theory to the activity—only I found that I wasn’t making anything up. Here was the red passion of my creative fire; there, a violet sensuous love of life; in this corner, golden sunlight, my general optimistic nature… and more. Leiah’s portraits are auras on paper. A fleeting glimpse of the soul using color.

My Aura is gray. My 2009 Saturn Aura, that is. But then perhaps, if I want to imagine it, my other aura is tinged with a bit of gray too—steel gray, a gentle but firm courage that buoys me up in harder times and allows that “general optimism” to flourish into abundant joy in better periods. Mary was right: how appropriate.



You’ve read about my Aura/aura—now it’s your turn, reader/writer/artist. Here are a few options:

  1. Stand in front of a mirror and imagine your own aura (who knows—maybe you’ll actually see one!). What color is it? How far out from your body does your aura extend? What do you think the colors represent? Does the aura change while you’re watching yourself in the mirror?
  2. Write a story about a wo/man who’s never seen an aura before but all of a sudden starts seeing them. One of them, emanating from a co-worker, frightens her/him. Why? What happens, once she sees the aura?
  3. Write a “car memory”—your first car; the family car growing up; the first time you made out in the back seat; the last time you went to a drive-in movie; how you met your mechanic, whatever memory that emerges in which a car somehow shows up.
  4. You buy a new car with a mystical name. It takes you on an adventure. Where do you go? How long are you gone? Include feelings, sights, smells, noises. Make it a fairy tale or a myth, if you like.
  5. Go to Leiah Bowden’s website and check out the Energy Portraits. Try creating one of yourself or someone you know. Make a meditative afternoon of it. Better yet, sign up for one of Leiah’s workshops!


Let me know if you created anything—writing or visual— from the above prompts. Make my aura shine a little more golden!



Sunday, March 15, 2009

Getting to Know Me...

How much ego does it take to create a blog? I mean, one has to think, "I have something to say..." or, more to the point, something to say that someone else might want to read-- right? On the other hand, there are plenty of people in the world who seem to just talk (or write) to hear/see their own words. Most of us can make a short list of some of those acquaintances in the time it takes to start-up your computer. I don't think I fall into the latter category (?) and yet I still find myself cataloging the reasons why I'm clicking away at the keys on my laptop at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night-- when I could be delving further into the latest book that's caught my imagination or at least washing a few dishes lingering in the kitchen sink.

When I joined the cyber "poem" group started by local poets Carolee Sherwood and Jill Crammond Wickham and touted on Facebook, I read that poetry written from their prompts should be posted on our blogs or websites so members of the group could offer their feedback. Unfortunately, I had no blog (although I'd been saying I was going to start one for over a year) and my WomanWords website fell off the online wagon a few years ago for lack of time (both mine and my daughter's-- Kristen was doing the set-up for me). I sent a note to the FB group saying I wasn't sure what to do about this. Carolee assured me that I could post my poetry on FB in the Notes section. Given recent hype about FB in the press, I'd been careful NOT to post much there that hadn't already been published somewhere else. So this was the kick-in-the-butt I needed. Reason #1 for A Woman and Her Words.

Reason #2 is simply that I love to write. At times I'm driven to tell a short tale or two about growing up, about something I heard, about something too good not to share. I have a friend in California, Pat G., who says she loves it when I "go into story mode." According to Pat, there's a distinct change in tone in my e-mails when this happens, which is when her eyes open wide and she pays close attention. Lots of times this is when I tell a story about growing up in a large family-- not of siblings but of a multitude of aunts, uncles and cousins. Pat and I have been friends since my first attendance at the International Women's Writing Guild summer conference in 1995, when she was housed for the week in a room next to mine. She's only been able to attend that event perhaps two or three times since then (once my husband Bill and I picked her up at the airport and drove her to the campus), and yet I'd bet she knows me better than many of the people with whom I worked for years in a state agency. Stories do that. Shared words can create bonds.

Under other circumstances, I would say that #3 Reason had something to do with my love affair with paper. I love the look and feel of paper. Paper entices me to do something with it. Fill it with words. Cover it with images, color. Tear it up for collage. It's probably why I started writing. I can remember long afternoons as a kid, no one to play with (my brother was off somewhere, most likely), when I'd open a black-and-white composition book and fill its pages with "lesson plans" and lists of imaginary students. Once I walked the block to Woolworth's, a crisp dollar bill rolled up in the palm of my hand, and bought-- instead of a few comic books or something "normal"-- a rent receipt book. It just called out to be purchased and filled with imaginary tenants. More recently, on vacation in the Maryland/ D.C./ Virginia area, I kept my husband, daughter and two friends waiting while I drooled over tons of items in a "paper" store in Old Town Alexandria (I wound up buying four large, and not cheap, sheets for collage). But certainly blogging isn't about paper, not unless I print my entries and put them into a binder. Hmmm... maybe...

This blog is about Expression. Mine and my readers (I'm assuming I'll have a few). My WomanWords E-Newsletter seems to have been well-received since Day 1, with its Quote, Writing Prompt, list of Books I've read and copious suggestions for submitting work, creative events and other possibilities. Some of that is likely to find its way into A Woman and Her Words, but I'm thinking this is more than a newsletter. The plan is to not have a plan. In the beginning, it will be more like the freewrites we writers should be allowing ourselves to do: it will be allowed to evolve. Especially, it will be about my creative process and I'll be interested in hearing how my process resonates and/or differs from others'.

As an opening, I posting (below) a poem written at the IWWG conference several years ago in a class called "Writing from Our Religious Pasts." The workshop leader was Kathleen O'Shea, a former nun and a writer previously nominated for a Pulitzer for her nonfiction book, Women on the Row. The crux of this class was that so much of our religious past forms us. During the week we wrote from childhood and other "religious" experiences, but our final assignment was to write about what we currently believe. As an introduction to Marilynology (I stole that term from a fun exercise currently going around Facebook-- using your name and adding the "-ology" after it is part of the game), here's the result of Kathleen's final writing prompt-- for me-- at that summer conference:

by Marilyn Zembo Day

I believe the Divine
is Within and Without
but that those who do not seek Her
will find it difficult to experience Her

That sometimes the answer
is a question
and the question may lead
to more puzzles
the complexities of which
in themselves
might be answers.

That knowing that I will never know
with absolute certainty
all of the answers
or even a considerable amount of the questions
adds to the mystery and affirms
that life is deep and changing
and linked to something greater than ourselves.

I believe that I can name
my Inner Divinity as I choose
but that She is really nameless and genderless
balanced in her love for humanity;
I picture her saddened, tearful
at the violence done in her various names
wanting to pull all men and women to her breast,
to comfort, reintegrate us into her womb
that we might re-learn our Oneness.

I believe that all life is a circle
and that we return, return, return
that, as science informs us,
our energies, atoms, do not dissipate;
all energy in the Universe continues to exist,
simply evolving into different forms
just as all of our stories
shapeshift in our many voices.

I believe in the Soul
insofar as it is somehow linked to our own Divinity
and in that it speaks to us through our creative urges
and that if our creativity is stifled
we become as broken bits of glass tossed aside by the Creator
when we might have been a stained glass window
reflecting back to the world
all that we have become and
all that we leave behind.

Now here's what YOU, reader/writer, can do. You can pick up your pen and start with "I believe..." and just let go. If you get stuck, start again with "I believe..." or try "I don't believe..." This doesn't have to be spiritual or intellectual or anything at all. It only has to flow from your pen (or through your keyboard). It could be that, at the moment, all you can believe in is the t.v. remote and its ability to take your mind off the crappy job or the possibility that your husband is having an affair or your empty nest. Don't judge what you're writing. Writer Emily Hanlon says you get it down and then you pick out the jewels later on. And if there are not jewels this time, there will be eventually. If you don't write at all, there will never be jewels. Write.