Writing that has a pulse

Recently a friend shared a quote with me from the poet, Mary Oliver, and also introduced me to her work at the same time as I hadn’t come across her before. I’m very glad I now have as even though I don’t write poetry, and we don’t publish any here at WestWord or over at Retreat West, what Mary Oliver said really resonated with me.

‘YEARS AGO I set three “rules” for myself. Every poem I write, I said, must have a genuine body, it must have sincere energy, and it must have a spiritual purpose. If a poem to my mind failed any one of these categories it was rebuked and redone, or discarded. Over the forty or so years during which writing poems has been my primary activity, I have added other admonitions and consents. I want every poem to “rest” in intensity. I want it to be rich with “pictures of the world.” I want it to carry threads from the perceptually felt world to the intellectual world. I want each poem to indicate a life lived with intelligence, patience, passion, and whimsy (not my life—not necessarily!—but the life of my formal self, the writer). I want the poem to ask something and, at its best moments, I want the question to remain unanswered. I want it to be clear that answering the question is the reader’s part in an implicit author-reader pact. Last but not least, I want the poem to have a pulse, a breathiness, some moment of earthly delight. (While one is luring the reader into the enclosure of serious subjects, pleasure is by no means an unimportant ingredient.)’

― Mary Oliver, Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems and Poems

These are the things I aspire to achieve in my own writing, and they are the kinds of things I would love to publish in this new journal.

After reading this quote, I went and borrowed a book of Mary Oliver’s poetry from the library. I have been reading The House of Light and there is one poem in particular that stood out for me so far, which is the one that opens the collection ‘Some Questions You Might Ask’. It’s all about the nature of reality, the soul, and the flora and fauna we share this planet with. Subjects that are coming more and more to the fore in my own writing.

So, as I write on and edit my own stories I am going to try my best to inject that pulse, that breathiness, that moment of earthly delight. To write stories that have sincere energy and a spiritual purpose, that feature characters that have passion, purpose and intelligence and that can also be lighthearted and not take themselves too seriously. I don’t think it will be at all easy to achieve but I will enjoy trying as, over the many years I have been writing fiction, I have come to learn that it’s the doing of it that really matters to me, the developing of my craft for its own sake, not what happens with the stories once they are finished.

I thought about which stories I have read that I feel do achieve this and one that came instantly to mind is ‘Story of Your Life’ by Ted Chiang. This novella was the inspiration for the movie, Arrival, and it’s a story I have read several times now and each time I take something different from it. It’s published in the collection Stories of Your Life and Others.

SPOILER ALERT! Only read on if you have read the story/seen the movie, or don’t mind finding out what happens!

The story is narrated by Dr. Louise Banks, who is a linguist, and she is speaking to her daughter on the day of her conception telling her the story of her life. It alternates between the past and the future, weaving together the arrival of alien spaceships and her work to decipher their language, and what will happen to her daughter as she grows up, before dying young.

The story explores ideas of determinism and whether or not we have free will through the aliens, who experience their entire life simultaneously rather than sequentially from birth to death. It poses questions about choices – how would we live if we knew the future?

In an interview Chiang said that “Story of Your Life” the philosophical debates about whether or not we have free will are all abstract, but knowing the future makes the question very real. Chiang added, “If you know what’s going to happen, can you keep it from happening? Even when a story says that you can’t, the emotional impact arises from the feeling that you should be able to.”

As Louise is a linguist, and the story centres on her work to decipher the language of the aliens, communication and language is also a central theme and it plays with ideas that language is not only how we communicate our thoughts it also determines what we can think so thought becomes action in this way.

The ideas about time also got me thinking about the nature of reality which was a topic already prevalent in my mind when I first read this story. What is real, the present moment, if we experience everything at once? Not something I have an answer to but my mind loves to play with this idea.

After reading Mary Olivers quote and thinking about ‘Story of Your Life’ I went and re-read it again to see how I felt. It had been about a year between readings. And I can definitely say that, for me it still delivers all of the following:

  • “rest” in intensity
  • rich with “pictures of the world”
  • carry threads from the perceptually felt world to the intellectual world
  • indicate a life lived with intelligence, patience, passion, and whimsy
  • ask something and the question to remain unanswered
  • to have a pulse, a breathiness, some moment of earthly delight

I am currently running a test course over at Retreat West to try out a concept of linking chapters of the Tao to short story writing, and I feel that what is coming out in this course, both in the workshop content I am creating, and the stories the participants are writing in response to it, is also delivering on these elements. So now I have to find my way, and the time, to deliver all of this in my stories too!

Have you read Story of Your Life? Did you think it delivered on all of these elements? What other stories would you recommend that you think do? Do let me know in the comments.

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