My writing used to be very abstract. Last summer at Kenyon Young Writers Workshop in Ohio, my instructor referred to “sky” language and “ground” language. So I could write a poem about a “sky” concept like love, death, God, suffering, etc., and to make it real, conceptual, more relatable, I’d use “ground” language, such as personal details or precise descriptions.
Another example: One criticism of Shakespeare’s sonnets is that they use too much “sky” language and not enough “ground” language.
Anyway, my writing used to be mostly or all “sky” language or ideas. I think this is in part because I wrote for myself, so when I read my poems, I could understand them. But if other people read them, they would be confused by the lack of specificity.
The other part is because it’s hard to write about what’s true.
So I’ve been lingering on the past for a while, and that’s what I’ve been writing about. It’s dark, as I’m sure you can imagine, and I’m not eager to share it. To be fair, I don’t know who you are.
. . .
We’ve been having board meetings for the Glass Knife (Country Day’s literary magazine) spanning the week before and the week after spring break. These are mainly for literary pieces, which get ranked on a scale from 1-5 by every staffer. During the meetings, editors and assistant editors of all departments get votes and decide which pieces get into the book.
One day we talked about a piece with a lot of “sky” but little “ground” language, and I was adamant about keeping the piece out of the book. Our discussion got pretty heated, and we didn’t finish deciding during one lunch period, so it rolled over to the next.
By that point, I’d thought a bit more about the piece and how it related to my own work.
See, my work started getting more grounded only recently. Before then, many of my pieces had been taken seriously by the Glass Knife. This also reminded me of a conversation I’d had with a teacher pushing me to be more specific in my work. The teacher didn’t prefer one style inherently over the other, but they wanted me to experiment.
And then I realized I was applying my own artistic choices to a piece that was not my own by thinking it was “too vague” to be a legitimate piece.
In my own writing, I see more abstract pieces as a middle ground, or a bridge, between my emotions and a finished poem. So in the spirit of inclusivity, I’ll include an abstract piece here. I still don’t think I can or should publish everything I write in this blog, so I’ll leave it as an abstract. Make of it what you will.
Here I’ll clue you in a little more into my process than in previous blogs.
About a month ago, I went to an aunt’s funeral and wrote a poem called “Coconut Waters,” which I shared with my English class for an informal presentation. This is a stanza from that poem:
There’s a large moment when one believes the unbelievable. It’s called “selective distortion.” Getting there is not the hard part. Acknowledging your mindset is wrong is the hard part. Acknowledging you’ve been brainwashed is the hard part. Acknowledging it’s not your fault is the hard part. Moving on is the hard part. Unthinking the unthinkable is the hard part.
Through all the drafts of “Coconut Waters,” this stanza stood out to me, and I knew there was something more to be done with it. Here’s the first draft of the piece I started writing based off that stanza:
There’s a large moment when one believes the unbelievable. The moment is large because it is long, because it accumulates over time, as a slow-acting sinkhole. Like the frog in boiling water. It’s called “selective distortion.” Not like the frog in boiling water. This just means that you accept events which coincide with your world view and distort events that do not so they fit with your view. Getting there is not the hard part. In fact, it may be the easy part. Say something terrible goes wrong in the life of a child. They think it’s their fault, that this happened to them because they’re a bad person. Now every time something bad happens to that child, they think, “Yes. I deserve this. Because I am a bad person.” Now an innocent child believes themselves the devil—believing the unbelievable. Acknowledging your mindset is wrong is the hard part. Because this fundamental truth has defined and distorted your outlook on life for a large moment. Because if the foundation is off, everything must come down. Only then can you rebuild. Acknowledging you’ve been brainwashed is the hard part. Because who brainwashes themselves? Everyone. Acknowledging it’s not your fault is the hard part. After all, it’s all in your head. There must be plenty of other ways to cope. Your subconscious had to go and pick an insane one. Moving on is the hard part. What does “moving on” even mean? What even is “closure?” Who has attained either ever? Unthinking the unthinkable is the hard part. Sure, you can tell yourself till you’re blue in the face that you don’t deserve x, you do deserve y, but once x happens again, you’re back in the sinkhole. You’ve accumulated years of distorted evidence to the contrary. You went from sane to insane, stuck in the depths of a black hole. You’re trying to crawl out, grasping at a particle, a wave of light to prove your state of mind. Because in total blackness, you can imagine all the light you want, but all you will find is blackness you created.
I looked at the format of the above and hated it, so I changed up the format to accentuate the lines from the original stanza. I also made some edits. (I’m lying — the edits came much later. But for the sake of brevity, I’ll include the working draft here.)
There’s a large moment when one believes the unbelievable.
The moment is large because it is long, because it accumulates over
time, as a slow-acting sinkhole. Like the frog in boiling water.
It’s called “selective distortion.”
Not like the frog. This just means that you accept events
which coincide with your world view or self-image and
distort events that don’t, so everything matches up perfectly.
Getting there is not the hard part.
In fact, it’s unbearably easy. Say some terrible accident occurs
in the life of a child, who thinks they’re somehow at fault because
they’re a bad person, with little to no concrete evidence to support this.
Now every time something even minutely bad happens to that child,
they think, “Yes. I deserve this. Because I am a bad person.”
So an innocent child trains themselves to believe
they are the devil incarnate—believing the unbelievable.
Acknowledging your mindset is wrong is the hard part.
Because this (misguided) truth has defined
and distorted your outlook on life for a large moment.
Because if the foundation isn’t solid, everything must come down.
Acknowledging you’ve been brainwashed is the hard part.