Neruda’s Sonnet XX: My Ugly Love

I will confess my first encounter with Pablo Neruda happened when I was eight years old and I was making fun of my sister, who is inescapably romantic. I would torment her by following her around reading from her books of love poetry as gushy and maudlin as I could.

But I remember coming to Neruda’s Sonnet XX, “My Ugly Love” and suddenly my silliness ran dry. There was something transcendent and unexpected about this sonnet that even at eight I couldn’t make light off. Quickly I turned the page and went on to ham-up “How do I Love Thee” (which is easy to make fun of though it’s also quite good), but I stole the book later and re-read that poem again and again.

Here is that poem, translated by Steven Tapscott:

 

My ugly love, you’re messy chestnut.

My beauty, you are pretty as the wind.

Ugly: your mouth is big enough for two mouths.

Beauty: your kisses are fresh as new melons.

 

Ugly: where did you hide your breasts?

They’re meager, too little scoops of wheat.

I’d much rather see two moons across your chest,

two huge proud towers.

 

Ugly: not even the seed contains things like your toenails.

Beauty: flower by flower, star by star, wave by wave,

Love, I’ve made an inventory of your body:

 

My ugly one, I love you for your waist of gold;

my beauty, with a wrinkle in your forehead.

My Love: I love you for your clarity, your dark.

 

Sonnet XX, like all of the sonnets in Cien Sonetos de Amor, is written about one woman Neruda’s wife Matilde Urrutia. While even the most doting of husbands shouldtred carefully before calling his wife mi fea, my ugly one, there’s something exquisitely honest in this poem. This is a lover who does not care if his beloved is unkempt, or invisible, or had an unattractive body and hideous feet. He loves her for her wrinkles and for her imperfections. He loved her for her entire person, even, perhaps especially, for the parts of her that she deems too ugly to show others.

I think that’s the best kind of love any person can ask for.

Though I think any of us would be happy for a partner willing to write 100 poems about us.

 

Batter my heart, three-person’d God

Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for you
As yet but knock; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

John Donne is probably best known for his poem “Death Be Not Proud” which is an incredibly triumphant sounded about the power of the soul over death. There’s a great play called Wit by Margaret Edson that centers a modern scholar’s death and her relationship to this poem.  Donne is also the poet who gave us the phrases “no man is an island” and “for whom the Bell tolls” and “catch a falling star” (which according to Wikipedia, who I have zero faith in, inspired Neil Gaiman to write Stardust).

Donne, was born in 1572, was notorious ladies man until he married Anne More when he was about thirty. This marriage was disastrous for the couple as both of their fathers disapproved of the match; Donne was actually imprisoned for this “illicit marriage.” Shortly afterward, the marriage was proved valid, but Donne had lost his job, his station, and his faith in the Catholic Church.

But he never lost his faith in God (eventually he wrestled through his self-doubt and grief over Anne’s death to become an Episcopal priest). His early poems which were almost entirely romantic often used sacred imagery; while his later poems love letters to God. Many scholars criticized Donne’s poetry for mixing the sensual love with sacrosanct and I suspect most were not published until after his death so he would not be persecuted as a heretic.

My favorite of Donne’s poems is Sonnet 14: Batter my Heart, because of the mixture of violent sexual imagery with a divine prayer. While it’s not a love poem, per say, I referenced this poem in Uninvited Love and figured I would include it here.

The sonnet begins with an appeal to a gentle God to stop being so kind. This is not a speaker who wants his faith tested, but one who wants the divine to shatter him and create him again stronger and more secure in his faith. In order to stand, he begs to be thrown to the ground and broken.

In the next phrase, God’s enemy has captured this poet’s reason and pillaged and plundered him like a “usurp’d town.” He appeals to God to save him from this marriage to the Devil by asking the divine to steal him back, enslave him, and rape him.  It’s one of my favorite lines in poetry:

“Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”

 

Writing Advice 2: Get Good Characters

I’m just after teaching my creative writing class and I’ve been thinking a lot about character.  I’ve been reading and watching a lot of Horror for the MFA and I’ve been seeing a lot of shitty characters.

So I chatted with the students and we thought about character and what makes a good one and I’m going to make a few suggestions today.

Defining Traits:

A good character will have at least five defining traits. This was tough to wrap our heads around.  We spend a good deal of time struggling to separate motivation and goal from character.  Do we love “Life of Pi” because it’s about a boy in a boat with a tiger or do we love Pi because he is a resourceful and optimistic Indian boy?  Is there a difference.

I’m pretty sure I would read a short story about an entitled rich racist in a lifeboat with a tiger (for purely fantasy fulfillment), but to hold the novel Pi needs too be a rich character.

The traits could be emotional, behavioral, or physical.  But most of us could come up with a fairly complete list of three to five for our favorite movies/films.

My go-to example: The Batman!

  • Intense desire to see criminals brought to justice
  • Intense desire to save people
  • Dresses as a bat
  • Intelligent
  • Extraordinarily athletic

Notice how those traits can contradict themselves (Batman can’t kill The Joker because he badly wants to save him).  If a writer finds himself unable to write a list of five traits or sees too many synonyms or physical traits popping into the list, it’s probably a sign that more work needs to be done.

To use a personal example, in my novel Evasive Love, I have a character in a steampunk society who is 1) an intelligent scientist, 2) a repressed homosexual, 3) entitled and 4) used to a high standard of living, but 5) an essentially good person.

To see how all those traits impact the character, here’s his backstory. Elliot’s sexuality puts him in conflict with his society (Victorian ideals) so he loses his wealth and privilege.  He gets back to his standard when he uses his intelligence to design drugs for his boyfriend, a wealthy criminal.  The boyfriend starts using the drugs to kill and poison people and Elliot can’t morally allow this to go on so he uses science to destroy boyfriend’s business and flee.

Character and Archetype

We also hit on using stereotypes and archetypes to access characters.  This was tied into creating writing prompt which involve an adjective, a noun, and a scenario.  The noun tended to be an archetypal noun.  So we had a cocky warrior, a loving mother, a stuck-up hobo entering into scenarios.

While this approach seems a little mad lib in the idea generation. It’s actually very useful in developing a character. If you can identify the archetype your character fits you can play to the type, play against the type, or play inside of the type.

  • Play to type (a hard-boiled detective in a noir murder mystery)
  • Play against type (a hard-boiled detective who is works as a janitor)
  • Play inside type (a hard-boiled detective who is a deeply romantic woman)

Like most things in writing, there’s no hard fast rules, or right and wrong. So a character could be playing with type, against, and inside at the same time.

For example, The Batman!

Batman falls neatly into The Hero archetype. He is motivated to do justice.  His traits are goodness, intelligence, drive lead him to go fight bad guys.

Batman plays against the trend of superheroes by being obsessed with the darkness, dressing as a bat in black instead of in bright colors, being fairly violent and gritty.  (Now-a-days, we call that an Anti-hero, but Batman also holds to his no-kill rule, usually so… still predominately good).

But some writers have also attacked Batman from a different archetype.  If you apply The Orphan to Batman, you show his vulnerability and his longing for a mentor.  If you apply The Mentor archetype to him, you can show a different side of him working the Robin.  All of these conflict and compliment the original archetype of Hero in interesting ways.

No matter how original your characters are, they are going to fit into some archetype.  So why not bring that eventuality into the foreground and use it to make rich characters?  Be aware of the type and work with or against it.

My one warning in creating characters this way is you end up with stereotypes not archetypes. Stereotypes are bad because of their specificity and predictability.  A dumb blonde is not an archetype.  Innocent is the archetype and you’ll notice it had nothing to do with gender or hair color. Ditto to black thug vs. warrior.  While it’s possibly to write a deep and interesting character that matches the stereotype (we live with them every day after all), a good writer will be aware of the stereotypes are work against them.  For example, Legally Blonde plays against type by making the blonde ditzy and fashion conscious but wicked smart.  The Wire plays with type by giving us the interior lives and struggles of a depressed and violent community.

Some links we shared:

Archtypes: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_stock_characters

TVtropes:http://tvtropes.org/

Character, Goal, Motivation, by Debra Dixon

From One Rural Queer to Another…

I met my friend when we were infants.  And although his dad was a doctor and mine worked at a paper factory, we were friends from kindergarten through fifth grade. I was never invited to play at his house, but we would meet every day he could in the summer. We sat on the school bus together during sixth – eight grades, though we never had any classes together and rarely spoke.  In high school, we did not have common friends, but we would spend hours talking about our fears of being ostracized, our confusion with sexual identity, and our constant desire to leave the rural place we were born and find out place in the outside world.

If you’ve heard my mugging stories, he’s the slight person who was with me in New York City, presenting as fem, when I fought off our attacker while I was presenting as male.

After that one trip, he returned to our hometown. I went to New Jersey and you know how that turned out.

In October 2005 while I was a sophomore in college, my friend committed suicide.

I’ll never know for certain if he was really gay or trans. But I do know it was the hate in that town that killed him.

I never thought I would see the day when the ugliness of my hometown would be given the kind of power that it has been given tonight.

By electing a sexist, homophobic, racist, abilist, anti-immigration, anti-Islam hate-monger, we have sent a message to every person in America who is different.  People like my friend are waking up to hear that the weak and frightened hatred of my in rural town – the hate and the fear that killed my friend – has the power.  We told every rural American who is not a typical white cisgendered male that they deserve to be hated and that they should be afraid. We told them their lives don’t matter.

I want to send a different message. I want people in those communities – the Muslims, the disabled, the racial minorities, but especially I want to tell the rural queers like me and my friend – there is nothing wrong with you.

You do not deserve hate.

You do not deserve blame.

You do not deserve to die.

If it seems like the majority of people in rural areas of America don’t want you, get out of the rural areas.  Please. If you live in among people who make you feel unsafe, get out.  If you live among people that make you hate yourself, get out.  If you are considering self-harm or suicide, change your location before you take your life. Please.

I’ll tell you the same thing I told my friend every single time I visited him. It’s hard to change. It’s scary to go to a new place.

But when you find people who will accept you for you, it’s worth it.

I promise.

Please, live.

Writing Advice 1: Get a Good Community

I am not an extrovert.

At the end of any day where I’ve spent time with people, even if it’s friends or family, I am exhausted.  After a four-hour game DnD session, the next day I usually sit by myself in silence for about the same length of time, often writing. When I worked in an

hair-attack

office, I would regularly get stress headaches not from the work but from teamwork, client calls, and every day meetings. My partner has even observed that some days he just needs to leave me in the house by myself to recover from a social-overload as if I can only

take small doses of people, even the ones I love.

But if you know me, especially if you’ve met me in a writing group, you probably think I’m an extrovert.

While I’d love to say that my passion for the craft has raised me from my pit of self-doubt and anger (my breed of social-anxiety trigger the fight, not the flight response), that’s not true. I’ve spent years learning how to interact in polite company so I could learn more about the craft. I knew I would have to take criticism from publishers, editors.  I wanted to share my writing with other writers in critique groups, and I could not wait for the perfect combination of special waterfall princesses to mollycoddle my quirks and phobias.

So I actively searched out writer’s groups and threw myself in, forced myself to engage, and tried to be pleasant. In some ways, it was anti-Disney, I always felt like I’m not being true to myself. But what I’ve realized since – now that I can walk into a room and not feel like everyone wants to attack me, now that I can smile an interact with a stranger without worrying that I’m going to hurt them – is that I faced some demon in my and changed what was true to myself.

In exchange, I found the amazing reward of writing communities.

I don’t care if you’re starting out or if you’re a published writer, there is nothing as rewarding as sitting around with a group of other writers and talking about the craft. It is electrifying to hear other people who’ve had characters come to life and dictate their adventures.  It’s uplifting to find that other people get stalled and doubt the time and effort they just spend writing that ten thousand words. And when you start to know more yourself, it’s immensely gratifying to encourage someone who needs support, someone who needs only to hear the words ‘yeah, that’s happened to me too’ to find the courage to finish the rest of that story.

I’m writing this now because I was reminded in force of this yesterday when I went to a NaNoWriMo write-in in Philadelphia.  Now I live on the Jersey Shore, but I used to live closer to Philly and I’ve met some of these people before.  Since I was going into the city on other business and I thought I’d go early to participate with this group.

I’ve found my waterfall princesses.

There was around sixteen to twenty writers in the same library basement for about four hours writing or talking about writing depending on whether or not a writing sprint was going on.  It was gratifying, uplifting, electrifying everything you could ask for when you meet with other kindred spirits.

It took me about two hours to join in the conversation.  I did end up making some people nervous and offending other because I forgot to check my crazy.  But the community still accepted me, invited me back, linked with me on twitter, too interest in my craft.

I feel inspired not by the work, but by the need to work. I know that there are others sitting at their laptops or writing by hand on notebooks also doing this crazy thing of writing their stories and it makes me want to be part of them, to have something to share and talk about when I meet some of them.  Maybe not in Philly, maybe in Ocean City, NJ where I’m going to another write-in today.

nanowrimo-logoNaNoWrimo, national novel writing month, is a perfect time to meet other local writers. There is no judgement if you don’t make the word goal of writing a novel in a month.  There is no sharing of the stories if you are nervous about the quality of your stuff or the content.  It’s just other people trying to write together.

So my best writing advice to you, especially in November, is to go out and find a community to support and encourage your writing.

It’s lonely to write, don’t go it alone.

 

 

– My third novel will be released soon. Follow me on Twitter or on this blog to learn more.

Every Romance Author Should Read Rumi

Come, seek, for search is the

foundation of fortune: every

success depends upon

focusing the heart.

Your task is not to seek for love,

but merely to seek

and find all the barriers within

yourself that you have built

against it.

The heart has its own

language.  The heart knows a

hundred thousand ways to speak.

 No conversation about love poems could be complete without discussing Rumi.

If he was alive today Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī  would have lived in Afghanistan. A 13th-century Sunni Muslim and Islamic poet, Rumi was so devout in his faith that he wrote in Quatrain, No. 1173: “I am the servant of the Qur’an as long as I have life. I am the dust on the path of Muhammad, the Chosen one. If anyone quotes anything except this from my sayings, I am quit of him and outraged by these words.”

Like the Christian poet of the 16th century, John Donne, Rumi’s love poetry is sometimes indistinguishable from his religious meditations. This might explain why Rumi has some of the simplest yet most profound words of love that I have ever read.

 

The Ache and Confusion

Near the end you saw rose and thorn together,

Evening and morning light co-mingling.

You have broken many shapes and stirred

their colors in the mud.

Now you sit in the garden not doing a thing,

Smiling. You have felt the ache

and confusion of a hangover, yet

you take again the wine that’s handed you.

 

The amazing things about Rumi is how accessible the language is, especially considering Rumi lived from 1207 to 1273. I’m sure quite a bit of the simplicity is the result of the talents of the translators who have bring the poetry of Rumi to the English language from his native Persian, but I also think Rumi chose to write simply so that every could understand the words and instead dwell on meaning of his often short and always profound poems.

 

Let the lover be disgraceful, crazy,

absent-minded. Someone sober

will worry about events going badly.

Let the lover be.

 

Dark Captives in Print!

Just found this in my inbox!

Dear Authors,

 Your anthology is now available in print. It will appear on Amazon within one week, however highest royalties are earned through the createspace store.
Thank you!https://www.createspace.com/6646049

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Taught First Writing Class

Today, I taught my first creative writing class for FELS.  I’ve lead workshops before and I’ve taught college level classes before, but this was the first time I got to do the thing I’m going to Grad school to do.

It was fun. Nerve-wracking, but fun.

This thing I must want to talk about is what this class really responded too. There were a couple things that made some people just light up and I think I ought to lead with those in the future.

First was the explanation of Hero + Conflict = Story which is what I called the course. I started by talking about writing techniques (pantsing vs. plotting). These are different writing techniques, both are valid ways to tackle a project.  A pantser “writes by the seat of their pants”, asks mainly “what if” questions, and make everything us as they go.  This means they sometime write into a wall, don’t know the end, and run out of steam.  Stephen King and Neil Gaiman and Nora Roberts are pantsers. A plotter is someone who meticulously organizes their story beforehand, asks mainly “what happens next”, and writes a pretty clean first draft.  This means plotters sometimes think about stories and never actually write them, get blocked if they run into a section of the story they have not outlined, or run out of inspiration and write dryly.  J.K. Rowlings, James Patterson, and J.R.R. Tolkien are plotters.

The basic building blocks of any story are a good central character and an interesting conflict. Someone we care about and the bad thing that happens to them.

For example, you can get away with a lot of the same story in a romance novel or murder mystery because we care about the character.  Sherlock Holmes, Monk, House, all rely on the same formula crazy guy solves mystery and it’s the strength of that character that makes these successful.  A romance reader knows the main characters will end up together and the writer has to have strong conflict and characters to “trick” the reader into believing they could fail.

At the same time, a writer can get away with having less interesting characters if the conflict is fever pitch height. There’s been a million movies about war, but we are still super interested in them because the stakes are so high. Action films and horror books can have flimsy characters and still be successful because of the conflict. Think about any movie or book you’ve read where you can describe the car chase or the plot, but refer to the lead as “that blond guy” or “the woman- you know… her-”

Obviously a writer wants to do both of these things at the same time.  We want a Rick from Casablanca, who’s cynic and romantic, a coward and a hero and we want to see him facing against the Nazi’s while choosing to lose the love of his life.  We want Isla from Frozen to have terrifying life-ending powers and free herself from confusion, repression, and fear at the same time.

So the most important things are having strong characters and getting them into trouble.

The final thing I talked about was the seven points of storytelling.

  1. A person
  2. in a place
  3. has a problem.
  4. They strive and fail to resolve it.
  5. Strive and fail.
  6. Strive and fail.
  7.  Resolution.

 

I read two stories to the class: “Carpathia” by Jesse Lee Kercheval and “Strongman” by Wendy White-Ring and walked them through seven points with those as examples.

Then I had the class point out to me the seven points in Little Red Riding Hood:

  1. Red Riding Hood
  2. Is in the woods between two safe places
  3. Where she meets a wolf.
  4. She fails to recognize the danger of the wolf’s charm
  5. She fails to listen to her mother’s advice to stay on the path
  6. She fails to recognize the wolf.
  7. She is eaten by the wolf (saved by hunter and learns her lesson).

 

I went on to tell the next part of the story and how the same structure is used as she gains knowledge and power.

  1. Little Red
  2. Goes into the woods a second time
  3. Where she meets a second wolf.
  4. She succeeds in not speaking to this wolf.
  5. She succeeds in staying on the path.
  6. She succeeds in getting wisdom from her grandmother.
  7. She and her grandmother drown the wolf.

The second part of the story is not as well known as the first because: sexism probably.  But also because the first can stand on its own, while the second on its own would be dull.  When Red never loses, when she does everything right she is not as interesting.

 

Then as a plotting exercise, we plotted a story based on the seven points.  The homework was to flesh this story out and to send me a story less than 10 pages to workshop by July.

Next class will start out with by using prompts we wrote  that day to pants a story. Then we will talk about some basics of character development.

Sonnet 23: As An Unperfect Actor

William Shakespeare

As an unperfect actor on the stage,
Who with his fear is put beside his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart;
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite,
And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay,
O’ercharg’d with burthen of mine own love’s might.
O! let my looks be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love, and look for recompense,
More than that tongue that more hath more express’d.
   O! learn to read what silent love hath writ:
   To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.

 

This is another Shakespeare that’s been adapted by Rufus Wainwright (also fuckin’ awesome) and one that sums up my entire feelings on love and the difficulty expressing it.

Willy does a nifty thing here, by breaking up his metaphors.  The opening image is of an actor who fails to stay in character because of his fear and lack of practice. I guess even in Shakespeare’s day, people felt pressured to act and behave in particular way and something as world altering as love, throws off all out easy habits and forces us into new roles. The same langue of theater is used a few lines down in “so, I for fear of trust, forget to say, the prefect ceremony of love’s rite.” I’m not sure if the fear of trust means this actor does not trust himself, will not be trusted by his would-be lover, or that this poet fear to trust the would-be lover with the confession of his passion.  Knowing Shakespeare, it could mean all three. He’s cool that way.

The second image from the third line, that fierce thing who’s own strength weakens his heart is so familiar to me. The image conjures an animal who’s lost control and in trying to express his passions does it too forcefully and destroys his own cause. That metaphor is picked up again in line 7 with “And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay, O’ercharg’d with the burden of my own love’s might.” This beast is burdened by the un-confessed love and decaying with that secret.

This interspersed metaphors serve to undercut the next section of the poem. The poet, in his writing, cannot keep his ideas straight, and yet he pleads for his books, his written words to express his love clearly.

At the final turning of the sonnet, he writes “Oh, learn to read what silent love hath writ: to hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.” The poet surrenders to his love, knowing that he cannot use his own voice or his own written words to express his devotion.  He has to appeal to the lover to learn a new way of understanding, to look beyond his muttering and his roaring to hear “love’s fine wit.”

 

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. –Oscar Wilde