Tag Archives: Pierce

Chanelling the Energy

I am not one of those people who can multi-task well. Perhaps the whole idea of multi-tasking ends up meaning that a person does a lot of things in a passable way, as opposed to doing them really well. I want to do things really well. As a result, I sometimes don’t get much done. I don’t start because I know (or think) I don’t have the time to finish.

For eight years, I have been working on a project about An Gorta Mór, the Irish Great Hunger. Books take a long time. From the start, I knew that I wanted to write a creative manuscript and not an academic one. That was partly because I had just finished a major academic project in Pierce: Six Prairie Lives. But it was also because I am more poet than scholar and because I knew that my specific focus couldn’t be written any other way. An academic undertaking has to end up with things that can be known, and I was going to write about specific people whose lives could not be known.

It takes just as much research to create what cannot be known. At least, it does if there’s to be any credibility. So, for years, I have read. My shelves have books about Irish plants, tools, history, myth. I’ve read about how to cut and dry turf, how to keep evil out of a cow’s milk, how to prepare for childbirth, when to plant potatoes and how to dig and fertilize the beds. I have visited the National Archives in Dublin, the Museum of Country Life in Turlough Park, the National Famine Museum in Strokestown–several times each. I have peered at microfilm in the National Library in Dublin, perused the 1749 Census of Elphin, the 1825 Tithe Applotment Books, Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837),  Weld’s Statistical Survey of the County of Roscommon (1832), Shaw Mason’s Parochial Survey of Ireland ( 1814), The Destitution Survey (1847)  and pored over maps, field books, and aerial photographs. I have compiled lists of birds, fish, and mammals native to Roscommon, and included what they eat, how they sound, what season they’re found, what terrain they like.

Every year since 2004, I have spent weeks in Ireland, and since 2007, a lot of those weeks have been spent in Fuerty Parish. I have stood on the land my people worked, stood on the bog where they cut turf, stood in the church where they worshipped, stood in the graveyard where they’re buried. I have walked and walked the roads. And I have started to write. Almost from the start, I knew what the first line would be, and that is always a vital sign for me. When the first line comes, I feel confidence.

Here I am, after eight years, in sight of the finish. Never one to do things the easy way, and always one to let the work tell me where it wants to go, I am writing a book length poem, of seven syllable lines, lyric and narrative, salted with the Irish language, weaving history, myth, and culture. I know that I will polish once I get all the way from 1834 to 1849, but a full and nearly finished draft will be done by mid-February. I’m committed to that.  I’m channelling my energy, designating January as Hungry Grass month. I’ve set an average daily line quota. I need a talisman against distractions.

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All in the Name

Almost always, the titles of our favourite books and movies somehow capture the whole work in a very few words. A title serves as a doorway that we step through into the work, and by the end, we have a clear vision of how the title functions. Maybe most readers don’t think about titles having a function, other than getting a reader to pick the book off the shelf. A title has to have meaning. Think about naming kids. We choose carefully, something with meaning, something symbolic, some kind of statement, a signpost. Pet people do it, too. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but the other name wouldn’t work the same way in a poem.

My first book is called Shattered Fanatics, and the cover image is a rather crushed looking carved figure. I chose the image because it looked to me like a shattered fanatic might look. The phrase comes from a student essay, some terrible kind of typing error, and I immediately could see what such a person might be. A shattered fanatic is someone who has believed absolutely and then realized, standing at the stake, waiting for the fire, that nobody was going to show up for the rescue. The faith is shattered. The poems inside the book are spoken by such people. When I chose the title for Pierce: Six Prairie Lives, I wanted to honour the family name and to acknowledge the importance of the individual family members. I wanted to situate their story clearly in their place, and I did not want a pedestrian title. I wanted something that set them apart from any other family biography in the way that I felt they were demonstrably apart in their lived story. I wanted something with their strength without being prosaic about it.

My current poetry manuscript has a working title drawn from myth, “The Hungry Grass,” an image apt for the story being told. Naming takes thought. I’ve always told my students that essays are like babies: if you can’t name it, you shouldn’t be having it. Or writing it. A title doesn’t have to be  labyrinthine, or elaborate, or grand. Think of On the RoadHamletPride and PrejudiceJane Eyre. A title just has to fit. Like a glove. Perfectly tailored.

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Currently Writing

My current bio project has required me to change my method, and I’ve had to adapt to someone else’s timetable. When I was writing Pierce: Six Prairie Lives, I was working on a personal project, not being paid for it, and working largely on my own timetable. The research took years, and I could pursue any line of investigation I wanted. In the end, the voice was all my own, interpreting all the research as I saw it. Everything meant what I decided it meant.

Writing for hire is a completely different beast. For one thing, it pays, making it a very nice beast. But that also makes it a more demanding beast, in terms of finishing the manuscript and in terms of the subject’s image. There is a fixed (supposedly) timeline, set out in the terms. The client has last say, and therefore controls the research entirely, what to share, what to withhold. The writer writes, and having writ, waits for the client to approve.

For the last week or so, as I try to sort all the research, I’ve been thinking about an article I recently read. The subject was the biographer’s voice. If the biographer’s voice doesn’t emerge, then it’s nothing more than transcription. That’s a sobering observation. If I’d wanted to be a stenographer, I would have gotten a different kind of training. My hand, my critical eye, will be present in the shape of the finished project, but I have to create a place for myself in the story of someone else’s life. I hope to be there in the transitions, those spots where meaning and connections are made. And, I have to accomplish that in such a way that the whole reads as though there is one voice only. It will take deft handling.

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A Writer Writes

I’ve been writing all my life–as a child, on walls and on sheet music. When I was twelve, I decided to write a novel about war but was devastated when I got to the end of page one and realized I knew nothing about war. A high school English teacher encouraged the class to enter a writing contest in the local newspaper, and I wrote a poem for the purpose. It won. I still have the cheque. Poetry is my first love, and it was my first book: Shattered Fanatics. The second and third books are both biographies: The Business of Marriage and Medals and Pierce: Six Prairie Lives. Now, I’m working on a third biography and a second poetry manuscript. My work is far more polished now than it was when I wrote that my sister “is a pig girl” on the bathroom door jamb, although that was as sincere as it gets.

But, even though I’ve written hundreds and hundreds of pages, and even though I’ve been writing most of my life, I still find it difficult to be disciplined about it. I’ve never been a write-every-day writer. Sometimes, when I have a writing assignment, I find myself paralyzed, unable to start. But, I have learned enough about my writing process to know when I’m stalling and when I have to wait. It’s important to be honest. Tomorrow, I’ll be at my desk, sorting a mass of research for the bio. Somewhere in all that material, there’s a shape all its own.

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