A Slow Pull of Orange Taffy
Let's take a gander at happy. A yellow balloon sprouting from a small hand? Perhaps a bologna sandwich on a cold plate. Getting carded at the booze store for a bottle of Rum. A clean desk. A new fountain pen unveiling the poetry in a page. A cloud in the shape of a breast. The real thing warmly swelling into a palm. Pudding: chocolate, vanilla, bread, spiced. A Salter sentence that rips your gut. Read it again and it does the same thing. A Salter sentence should be mentioned twice. An hour with the wife sans no. Thirty minutes of yes, yes, yes. A laugh released from a white throat easy as breath. Solitude. The bubblegum tongue of a lonely dog. Warm sand welling between toes. Long, straight fences and wild grass. Stacks of books. The purple throb of a pulse. A lemon squirt against the roof of your mouth. Compliments. A slow pull of orange taffy.
These are all ordinary things, I think, but elevated. Two years ago my son's favorite toy was a snarled mess of green string. He played with that string for hours. He found something in it that wasn't easily seen. An elevating factor. I don't know whether that unseen but felt thing was in the string all along and his attention was open enough to spot it, or whether his attention gifted the elevation through the gazing. It doesn't really matter. He lost it. He didn't lose the string, but he lost the wonder for it. It happens to everyone.
How do we stop that loss? I look at this six inch Spiderman ruler on the kitchen table where I'm writing this. A hazy light slips along the edge of it. The bottom of the N erupts in glare. I turn the ruler and the glare is swallowed by the letter. I had never thought of the N as ravenous, but given the circumstances, it can be as hungry and wanting as an E, I suppose. The sticker curls up at the edge. The zero and the five have faded into thumbs and erasers. It'll snap against a wrist if bent, that anger not evident until the application of the duress. It'll aid in the creation of straight lines. I lay the ruler down on a story I'm working on. The blurry zero against the capital of the first letter in a paragraph, I lay the six against the final period and draw the line. This ruler is violent in its critique. See there? I didn't even bend it and it lashes out. Perhaps it recalls the earlier experiment. That's to be expected, I guess, being a ruler and prescribed by numbers, one shouldn't require it to confess a different alphabet. I liked that paragraph. I put the ruler back down. It's a six inch, spiteful editor.
Perhaps I am like that ruler. I have an alphabet already; I can't confess another. The paragraph that now lays under a line is ripe with an image. I am drawn toward it the way a magnet compels iron. Often, it is the image in fiction that elevates. It was my hope that paragraph might glow from within and infect the words around it with a light, however the ruler proclaims it's more the flash-bang of a metal fork in a microwave. Must beauty elevate through the diminishment of what's around it? How do we elevate without casting something else down?
My son's string wasn't better than his other toys; it merely arrested his focus for a while. The ruler's mandate is to focus the ink along a line. I put the paragraph back in and submit it to an online critique group, another sort of ruler for focus. It doesn't contribute, I'm told. It overshadows. It complicates. Don't make the sentence so large. Exactly, precisely, how does such a thing occur? My wrist stings. Hovering over a page in my notebook, my pen fears the approach. The intent is to pen a series of !!!!!, but they slip out the fearful nib and crash against a line, arrive as ?????. Why should a particular sentence read like any other?
An action taken on a page without confidence results in a shallow text and words hollow as an empty soda can. A fine writer by the name of Donigan Merritt once instructed me on the dangers of writing workshops. He said that handing in your work for criticism at a workshop is tantamount to offering your pregnancy to a malevolent midwife. He was right. I thought that if I listened to everyone and worked hard to find value in any comment, no matter how flippant or negative, that my writing could only improve. My desire to get better is almost frantic. I'm not sure why. I was fine for twelve years without words. No, that's a lie. I wasn't fine. Who the hell rewrites a business memo twenty times trying different paragraph structures? Yes, I did. It landed me nearly two million dollars of computer equipment from a stingy Board of Directors. I've received kind words about my writing from a few people in the last four months and those moments buoy me. Those are the moments between strangers that elevate. Kind words are my green string.
There is joy in this process as long as I can pick up an object and wonder what it'll do next. It is the nature of taffy to pull slowly. The culling should not be rushed. Reach into the roiling bin of orange foam. Reach in and pull the taffy out. Cradle it in your mouth and savor. It's occasionally necessary to splatter some on your shoe or scatter it across the counter. Never mind that. Fill your throat with hot stars and sing. Watch out for the bah-humbug ruler, however. It's left-footed mean.
more of Donigan Merritt's workshop advice, here:
The Iowa Writers Workshop
words: Brad D. Green, Texas (elevatetheordinary)
image: Steve Wing, Florida (about & more)