Friday, December 14, 2012

Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Sestinas

So, some exciting news from the closet today. I've been published in McSweeneys! The piece is a quirky little letter, written in the form of a sestina, from a resident of the fictional Fox Hills neighborhood to the homeowner's association regarding the type of bow residents are allowed to affix to their mailboxes at the holidays.

I wrote the piece many years ago after visiting my in-laws at their house in a suburb just outside of Raleigh. It's true that they could not decorate their mailboxes unless using the bow being sold by the association. From that starting point, I came up with the rest. Those neighborhood rules made me angry and so, as it is with much of my work, the act of writing the poem was cathartic.

But, I digress. You came here to learn about sestinas. Maybe the word rings a bell, taking you back to freshman English and that sonnet you had to memorize and recite in front of the class.




Oh, I see. You blocked that out, didn't you? Well, never fear. A sestina is simply this:

1) A poem of 39 lines
2) with six stanzas, of six lines each
3) followed by an envoi of three lines.
4) The lines are unrhymed
5) and contain the same six end-words in each stanza
6) but in a changing order that follows a set pattern.
7) The envoi (last three lines) gathers up all six end words.

Okay, I can see your head spinning. Perhaps you're a visual learner. Does this help?



When I see this chart, it reminds me of math, and I hate math. But there's something quite nice about using a formula to write. Once you've committed to a form, once you've chosen your six words in the case of a sestina (as you can imagine, that choice is very important), you're free to be as creative as you want to be, but with a safety net in place. Sometimes, having a billion choices available to you can stifle the creative process. Sometimes, limiting your options can actually lead to something  wonderful and surprising.

I spend 95.356% of my writing time on prose, but occasionally a poem sneaks in, though almost always in free verse. This piece in McSweeneys is the first sestina I've attempted. Will it be my last? Not sure. But I do know that writing poetry exercises a different part of my writing brain, and considering I've been devoting nearly all my hours toward finishing a novel, that other part of my brain is looking a little flabby.

And so, next for me...Heroic Couplets!!! Mmmm, maybe not.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

This is Where the Magic Happens

Please try not to be jealous...this is my current workspace, a bedroom closet. Notice the window, however! It looks out over our front yard. The branches of two maple trees hang very close to the window, providing me with ample opportunity for nature watching. Cardinals, titmice, house finches--all have made recent visits. I've watched squirrels perform death-defying stunts. I've watched butterflies copulate on the windowsill (!). It all provides a pleasant distraction. If the window wasn't there, I could not work in this space. I'd get claustrophobic. I know it seems I should feel that way regardless, because of the tight quarters (the space measures 6 feet long by 3 wide), but the window makes it feel wonderfully open to the world.



There's a doorway on each end. In the picture above, I'm standing in the doorway to my three-year old's room. I rarely use this entrance because I'd like my son to forget the closet is there. (I don't want him to get the idea the closet is his playplace.) So, I enter from my bedroom side, shown in the picture below. Those are my darling husband's shirts, which brush my left arm as I type.

Here's how it works. I carefully reach underneath the shirts to set my coffee and any required printed material on one of my three lovely TV trays. I get a towel to clean up the coffee I spilled. Then, I crawl under the shirts, hop in the chair (not moving an inch, because the chair is already against the wall) and realize that my ancient laptop is out of battery and needs to be plugged in. There's no outlet in the closet, and really none nearby, so I have to attach my industrial extension cord, crawl back out and run the cord to the bathroom, which has the three-pronged outlet required.




Here's the cord. Yes, it really is a tangled, knotted mess. I didn't pose it that way just for you. You would think in the many months I've been working in the closet, I would have taken the time to unravel it, but you'd be wrong. In my precious two hours (daily) of writing time (while the littlest one is at preschool), I don't have patience for such things. And isn't it more fun to just repeatedly tug at the cord, swearing profusely, until I break something?


I know what you're thinking. There must be a better place in my house to work. I actually have a big desk and several full bookshelves in our finished basement, but every time I tried working there, it just didn't feel right. For more on my initial move from basement to closet, read this previous post. Every writer has a place where she feels most comfortable working. Some writers love wide open spaces, love the constant din of a public place, a crowded cafe perhaps. I love the feeling of being enclosed, far enough away from my duties as a stay-at-home parent that I can fully inhabit the fictional world of my writing. And anyway, I tried working at the dining room table, but I can see the dirty dishes from there. In my closet, nothing matters except the thoughts in my head translating to words on the page.

About a year ago, I started a complete rewrite of my debut novel, "Come As You Are." My husband suggested that, before I get going, we first re-do the closet into a proper office. As much as I wanted to dive into decorating, I didn't want to slow down the writing. Despite all the closet's flaws, I wrote much of the book there. Now that the book is done, and I'm getting ready to start another, I'm dreaming again about how to make the closet a beautiful, functional space. Perhaps re-designing my closet-office will be my reward for finishing the first book. Or perhaps I'll stick with all the good karma that's already in the space and just keep yanking that extension cord.