Sandford Lynne has written a very popular book on poetry titled “Writing Poetry From The Inside Out.” Thank you Robert Brewer and the fine participants over at Poetic Asides for the recommendation. I am not recommending this book though, at least not yet. It is a beginner’s book and I am a beginning, ignorant poet, yet the book bothers me. Me. I am looking for nuts and bolts and so far the author has only given his attempted inspiration. I am on page 67 and until now it has all been writing BS — “You can do it!” Pfft. I know that; I just don’t know how.” But on with my point I feel so self-secure about.
In the last paragraph of Chapter #4 the author leaves us with his legacy. When I read it I stopped, and not because it is the end of the chapter. I re-read it and re-read it. I have read it several times now, and I have Googled it. Many have written about his lines on this page number 31. I’ll present his full text since I always seem to skip the most important parts when I truncate.
When I think about it, the happiest, most successful, most fulfilled people I know are the ones who, over time, gave themselves the most permissions — in all areas of their lives. Guided by the compass of an inner truth, they did not wait for others to tell them what was okay to do, or wait for others to tell them which steps to take. Through trial and error, they learned how to experiment with their lives. And maybe this is worth underscoring: The best writers give themselves the most permissions. The happiest, most fulfilled people give themselves the most permissions. The two go hand in hand.
I am writing about this prescription to let it go because it has been a theme with me this past year. I run a prompt writing group, and this is really our one and only theme. Let it go! I have written poetry, essays, fiction, and pages full of landfill. I have turned a few of them into novel scenes and maybe one short story. Time flies. Every Wednesday night when it isn’t blizzarding I let myself go as much as I can.
I think I wrote not too long ago about my Douglas Glover workshop. On the way out he encouraged me with some direct advice. “Let it go!” I don’t know if those were his words; he probably said something more elegant. But that was the message. Let it go. Give yourself permission to go for it, and damn it all, go for it!
But an aphorism is useless without action. Words are just words, unless you are writing them. Or reading them. Yesterday I began my first John Updike read. I’ve been picking up his little novels for over a year now, but I have never managed to hold one open in front of me long enough to let anything sink in. I am notorious for that — reading a paragraph and brushing it off. I a a profligate first paragraph reader and a delinquent last paragraph finisher. I grabbed his short story collection “The Music School.” It was first published in 1962 and is almost as old as I am. Some of the stories, maybe all, are likely older. So let’s start from my beginning, I thought. How bad can this be?
The first sentence and the paragraph of the first story — “In Football Season” — hooked me.
Do you remember a fragrance girls acquire in autumn?
Are you serious? Of course I do. I paused while my mind raced back to chasing my wife at university in the autumn of 1979 and remembering her fragrance. My mind continued back to junior high school in 1973 when my interest in girls had exploded open in that young teenage hormonal irruption. The fragrance of girls at the school dances and on the mile and a half walks to and from school each day.
As you walk beside them after school, they tighten their arms about their books and bend their heads forward to give a more flattering attention to your words and in the little intimate area thus formed, carved into the clear air by an implicit crescent, there is a complex fragrance woven of tobacco, powder, lipstick, rinsed hair, and that perhaps imaginary and certainly elusive scent that wool, whether in the lapels of a jacket or the nap of a sweater, seem to yield when the cloudless fall sky like the blue bell of a vacuum toward itself the glad exhalations of all things. This fragrance, so faint and flirtatious on those afternoon walks through the dry leaves, would be banked a thousandfold and lie heavy as the perfume of a flower shop on the dark slope of the stadium when, Friday nights, we played football in the city.
Updike knew his opening sentence would create many of these sensations on its own, but now he directs them towards us. He tells our histories to come alive and be remembered. And then once he has us, at least us knuckle dragging men, he then directs us to the football field. And now we’re all hooked on John Updike.
But was this giving permission in action? What does giving permission mean and how do you know if you’ve given yourself permission? These are questions I ask of my own writings. Am I giving enough?
First, how many grown men would write about the fragrance of young teenagers? How many would write past glancing references and delve into flirtations and implicit inviting crescents? In today’s pedophilia-phobic society? In 1960? Any way you cut it, John Updike explored emerging sexuality without inhibition — at least by 1960’s standards — and went so far as to publish his words. I think it is pretty clear he gave himself permission to explore and write about all facets of the human condition. And the more I read John Updike, the more I fall in love with his free pen. The more I read John Updike, the freer I feel with my own writing hand.