Sometimes it Takes a Poet

“We must risk delight.  We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment.”

This is an excerpt from a poem by Jack Gilbert who recently died. I wrote him a letter a few years back to try to put into words what this poem did for me.  When I have written what might qualify as a “fan”  letter I try to make it so remarkably moving, witty, revelatory, and profound that surely they will see me as someone of merit with extraordinary insight. They will want to have dinner with me and long talks by a slow flowing river. Then, when I’ve posted those few letters and heard the mailbox clunk shut, I realize that the one-way-street aspect of admiration is exactly what it should be. It is enough. Anything else is about my little, persistent, (yet surely attractive) ego. So, though Michael Chabon, William Zinsser, Bill Moyers, Jack Gilbert (the above-mentioned poet) and Eddie Izzard may have kept a folder labeled “Claudette” I don’t need to know about it.

Back to this poem “A Brief for the Defense.”  I heard it read by Jack Gilbert in a video at a UCLA awards ceremony that he was unable to attend. I was sitting in a large auditorium listening to a series of awards for fiction, non-fiction, journalism, etc. and finally, poetry. He began to read and I saw that the poem was asking a question that has haunted me for years, each time going  unanswered for I never got traction. I could find nothing to hold onto.  It eluded me and left me feeling poor in spirit and a lesser person than I would like to be. More than anything, it left me wanting. My question was, and remains something like: What right have I to be happy in a world so tough and unrelentingly filled with poverty, pain, injustice and deprivation? What right?

 As I watched and listened to the image of this elderly poet, unknown to me until this evening, he came to a line at which a storm of tears swept my face. It was a punch to the heart, the kind you have waited for and realize you will never forget.  He asked my same question but didn’t stop.  He pushed further and found the answer in the wider, knotty human condition into which we are all born with its tragic, elegant and breathtaking beauty.  I couldn’t have done it by myself. I needed a poet.  2013 was a year deserving of such a poem as this.

Enough about my epiphany. There may be something here for you.

A BRIEF FOR THE DEFENSE  from Refusing Heaven—Jack Gilbert

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight.  We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment.  We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world.  To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island:  the waterfront
is three shuttered cafes and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.








I love the theater.  No, I mean, I love it. I love doing it. Now I love teaching for the same reasons. They come from the same place.

This kind of love isn’t a casual one-off statement thrown into dinner conversation. It is core for me from a place I couldn’t begin to verbalize which is what knocks me out about large ideas—love, belief, and sacrifice—those ideas.   They are bigger than words and their origins mysterious.  Even undefinable they are an engine that can keep you in motion.

Though I no longer act I shifted into some place equally fulfilling by teaching.  And not teaching acting, but teaching writing. I had no idea this is where I would land but once here, it felt like meeting an old friend who had been waiting for me. I began to see how my years as an actress donated to this transition.

The other day in class my long time pallie Mitch Ryan who has spent a life time acting in almost anything you have ever seen said, “You know, I don’t care a fig about TV and movies. Theater is where it has always been for me. Writing feels that way too. ” Mitch is someone who, after a long career in acting, dipped into writing and found it wasn’t such a stretch.  In fact, many of the people I work with are theater actors, already sharing practice and principles with writing.  We love the theater because we get to slow down and find what works and why. We get to make it ours and it’s easy to love writing for the same reasons, process being the glue between disciplines.  You will find if you have been spending time in one, you can borrow from it for another.

Okay. Think about this:  when you are doing play, all you have is the script and the story on paper. Then you begin to say the words. Throughout rehearsal, you add movement, and intention reflected bythe behavior of the character. You are bringing the words to life by interpreting them with your body, your inflections and your expressions.  That same element of behavior is key to good writing. The actor “behaves” in person, in writing, your characters must “behave” on the page.

Try these examples on:

“Bill reached down the whiskey bottle.  His big hand went all the way around it.”


Dennis carried the drinks outside then, the plate of sandwiches on top of one of them.”

Alice Mc Dermott

“He went into the kitchen and drank two glasses of water. He turned off the living room light and felt his way along the wall into the bedroom.”

Raymond Carver

“He put his hand on the dead boy’s wrist. He was quiet for a time, as if counting a pulse, then he patted the stomach, almost affectionately, and used Kiowa’s hunting hatchet to remove the thumb.”

Tim O’Brien

…and then, probably my favorite and certainly most charming…

“Wherefore, the clerk put on his white comforter, and tried to warm himself at the candle; in which effort, not being a man of strong imagination, he failed.”

Charles Dickens


Look at your lines of dialogue and see what you can offer the reader by way of gesture, attitude and movement to demonstrate a feeling.  Show it with behavior.  It’s fun. If you find this puzzling, then sit down and remember one big family dinner. Go around the table of aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws and describe how everyone eats; now that’s behavior!


Here’s how it goes:

Nice Smart Young Woman New to Writing: (Enters class on a Friday morning her laptop under her arm) Shit. I didn’t write anything! (She slumps down into chair, dropping her oversized handbag to the floor.)

Me: So what does that matter? You’re here anyway. That’s the deal.

NSYWNTW: Well yes, but I don’t have anything. I just couldn’t write. You know, here I am going on and on about the same old crap—going to the health clinic in fucking Sylmar because I don’t have any money and about how awful they treat everyone even if you’re a legal immigrant, which most of them probably aren’t, and how just saying that makes me feel like a racist, and the health care system being fucked even for people like me who have a heart condition and have to have their blood taken every month, even from when I was  kid and then calling my crazy mother to see if I could drop in on her knowing she would say “It’s not a good time,” not because it wasn’t a good time, but because she has turned into a hoarder and there are no chairs to sit on and you have to climb over stacks on the floor and I can remember a time when she was beautiful, really beautiful and it makes me so sad.

Me: Oh. Yeah…..and…?

NSYWNTW: Well… just nothing.

Me:  (head down on the table laughing helplessly) “Nothing” you say?  (another fit of laughing)

Of all the people I get to work with the ones new to writing are often my favorites. They show up because there is something they want to say, they wonder if they can and if they do, will it be worth it.  They are at their most curious and innocent at the same time—a great combination. The liberating logic is, if you don’t know how to do something, then you can’t screw it up. (If  wanted to be a taxidermist, for example, I wouldn’t have any expectations. Rest easy. I’m only saying.)

They may just want to get something off their chests: memories, losses, scary stuff, secrets. And that’s a bad thing? If it makes anyone feel better to write their experiences (like the NYSWNTW,) and in the doing discover something deeper that with care can lift into story, isn’t that growth? I ask you, where does fiction come from anyway?

The newcomer may move on without latching on to a project and if so, I don’t mind  because for sure I know they  leave better readers with respect for the layers that inhabit any creative effort.

Then there are the times when someone new to writing finds that spinning a tale can be much like flying a kite. You run into the wind, let out the string and once up, your job is to hang on to the wonderful flying thing in the sky.

(Forgive me for becoming all rainbow-ish, but the analogy was irresistible.)

Art is not an esoteric remote ideal, it is grounded in ordinary, lived lives and imagination. The bottom line is, novice or professional, the imagination is a muscle and gets stronger with use.

P.S. I’ll take an excited newbie any day over “I’ve got a book in me, I just know it. Everyone says so.” Shoot me.

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