When Miriam Finishes Wandering the Desert: Everyday Magic, Day 911

Late last night, as I sent my novel Miriam’s Well to my wonderful publisher, Steve Semken of Ice Cube Press, I reworked a summary of this 500-plus page book that’s been at the heart of my writing life for 13 years:

In this modern day retelling of the biblical story, Miriam wanders the political and spiritual desert of a changing America, torn between her roots as the Jewish daughter of a Black father and white mother, her yearning for home, and her brothers, Aaron, a successful New York City attorney, and Moses, a Kansas autistic artist. An astonishing cook and singer, Miriam has a knack for showing up to feed and help people at at landmark events, including People’s Park during the Summer of Love, the Wounded Knee encampment in South Dakota, the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, the Oklahoma City terrorist attack, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. As she seeks the promised land, she shows her people, and eventually herself, how to turn the chaos and despair of our times into music, meals, and meaning.

The amazing painting (sunset on the Platte River) by Anne Burkholder that will be on the cover of the novel.

This morning, waking up to the first day in the many years when I wasn’t finishing this book, I realized, that for all intensive purposes, the Miriam of my imagination is done wandering the desert. I got off easy compared to biblical Miriam’s 40 years of wandering, after which she never even got to the promised land (at least in that telling of her life). I’ve gotten lost, and eventually found, in many sentences in the writing and revision of the book, thanks to my tried-and-true process of writing what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts,” then reworking my words for eons. I’ve read the in-process book in entirety aloud to Ken twice, and parts of it to Brave Voice participants occasionally, but from here on, the “in-process” part of the process is finished.

It’s a strange feeling to complete a big book that takes everything you think you can do, and asks of you to do more and go farther. So many times, I couldn’t figure out how to develop a scene, flesh out a curve in the plot, or show, with greater transparency but still enough mystery, who a character is. As I tell my students and workshop participants, sometimes you just have to tell yourself you’re not just smart enough to write something at the moment, shrug it off, write something else, then return to the page. Also, writing is a way of knowing: my hands on the keyboard had led me often to language that was far beyond me thinking into words.

Now I’m sitting on the porch in the rain during a morning thunderstorm, reminding myself I don’t need to rework something in the book that I loved writing so much. Despite the glory of being finished, I’m sad. Then I remind myself: I’m only leaving the writing of it. I’ll be doing readings from this novel for anyone who will listen for years, and I’ll be talking at length about its nuances, and what might happen to Miriam after the end of the novel (although I wish I fully knew). Of course, there will be many more times to proofread the book, even after the advance copies are printed and distributed this fall in time for us to garner some reviews for a Passover 2018 release date.

In time, just like Miriam, I’ll be done wandering, and in the case of such a long-term project, wondering how to shape each paragraph, lift and close each chapter. Miriam will find her next story, and so will I.

20110620_5447Yesterday, I finished the last poem, the one I couldn’t conjure for weeks, and not for lack of trying. Part of the 70 poems in Chasing Weather: Tornadoes, Tempests, and Thunderous Skies in Word and Image, the book I’m doing with splendid weather chaser and photographer Stephen Locke, “Rain,” capped about three or four years of writing weather poems (after many decades of writing weather poems because weather is the fascinating soundtrack to our lives).

As a poet, I’m not used to writing a body of poems on deadline although there have been plenty of times I’m pushing and praying through a poem for a special occasion. Because poetry is so hard to get published, usually, I have years (decades even) to linger over a book, but for this one, that goes to the publisher, Ice Cube Press, within a week, I had to throw myself into the mercy of the page. Sometimes the right line, image or rhythm would come, and often, it wouldn’t. I tended to play with the not-quite-right poems by trying them out with very short, then very long lines, each time, tweaking the language, and hoping some fresh new image landed in my lap. And that’s kind of the essence of poetry: you show up on the page, surrender all, work like crazy, pay attention while not paying attention, and hope the gods give you something to say.

Such was the case with this poem, which went through many versions, and which I began again to write a dozen times. Part of the challenge was what to say about storms and life that I hadn’t said in any of the other 69 poems. Now that I found something that feels good to me, I let it go, carry the manuscript to a wonderful writer who will proofread the poems for me, and then send it to my publisher. While I’m done chasing poetry (for a short while), we’re not done chasing dollars to fund the high quality printing of this book, so if the work connects with you, and you’d like to buy your copy in advance, and support a small press, please see our indiegogo campaign here. Meanwhile, in honor of being finished, and of this blustery, rainy day, here is “Rain.”

Rain

The wall of noise dissolves to rain,

a world held in place by a million falling threads.

In the balance, the fur on the coyote’s belly,

worn as leather but marked with a lifetime of fights,

and the lake hungry for new stories to swim with the old.

Lightning angles and wishbones, branches into branches

that mimic what grows or tunnels below.

Scenery unrolls quick-silver — expanses of land

or water, sky and darkness — in the flash that lights up

all the lines of roads and clouds, cedars and shorelines,

before sealing all back together in shifting hues of night.

What seems like the end, again a beginning.

What can’t be said, suddenly pouring down everywhere.