A day or two after our meeting to discuss her manuscript, a client sent me an email, part of which I excerpt (with permission) below:
“I read some Mordecai Richler this morning . . . (He is) masterful at creating scene and character. I promptly decided to put my pen away – forever.”
I understand the frustration. There have been times when, after reading Neruda or Hemingway, Garcia Marquez or Morrison, Oliver or Auden — the list is endless — I’ve wondered, What am I doing? Who the heck do I think I am to think I can write? I am a fraud!
But the truth is, reading the work of good writers, listening to their rich, melodic voices, can be a source of inspiration. They sing to us. Soothe us. Provoke us. Ignite us.
The more you pore over their exquisitely sculpted sentences and stanzas, the more you listen to their commanding voices, the more you’ll begin to recognize and appreciate the way good writers create surprising and provocative combinations of words. How they break convention in effective, engaging ways. You take it all in and allow it to ferment, to work mysteriously in the deepest, quietest recesses of your unconscious mind. In doing so, you create an environment conducive to developing your own writing style.
It’s an inexplicable process — the way our singular voice emerges from the choir of the masters. A kind of magic, really. Not to say this alchemical transformation occurs without effort. You’ve got to read — a lot. You’ve got to write — a lot. You’ve got to sit at the desk pounding out paragraphs and poems. In time, you’ll find your own way to caress the language. Bend it to your will. You’ll begin to hear your own voice with greater clarity and confidence. Confidence that you, too, have an inspiring song to offer the world.
* * *
Speaking of voices . . .
Mary Oliver died last week. She was 83. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, she was a highly-acclaimed and dearly beloved American poet. Perhaps the country’s best-selling poet of the twentieth century. Her voice, which certainly inspired me over the years, was and will forever remain clear and authentic.
Nature was her muse. And it is perhaps because of her insistence on writing clear, straightforward poetry steeped in the beauty and simplicity of the natural world, that she was sometimes ridiculed by the critics. Not enough edge to her poems, some said. A poetry lacking in the abstruse requirements of the self-anointed intellectual class, perhaps.
It is easy to understand how a poetry infused with the metaphor of Nature rings hollow in today’s intensely urbanized world. A world that seemingly grows ever more tone deaf to the rhythms and rhymes of the earth. We once considered going into the mountains and forests as a sort of homecoming. A returning to the source. We found solitude, and sometimes solace there. We could experience a genuine spiritual renewal in the midst of the grasses and trees and sweet-watered streams flowing under a cobalt sky. It is from this realm that Mary Oliver’s poetry derives its strength, its wisdom, its empathy for the human condition.
But our culture’s current relationship with nature has less to do with the spiritual and more to do with the material. Nature has now become little more than another Instagram opportunity, a stage for adrenaline seekers and social media influencers whose principal aim in relating to Nature is to monetize her. It is little wonder then that a voice like Oliver’s no longer seems relevant to modern conversation. Instead, critics of her work disparagingly classify it as overly sentimental. Simplistic. Banal.
To those of us who still regard Nature as a place to both seek and often find spiritual significance in life, Mary Oliver’s poetry, her sublime voice, will always provide an intelligence and compassionate insight that could only come from her profound connection to the woodlands and rivers she called home.
Mary Oliver, a voice worth getting to know. A voice worth hearing — over and over again.