Chera Hammons: Poet and Writer

"…a slow shutter on ambulation…"

Archive for Mighty Truths

Revision is Re-vision

Dear readers: I know I missed making an entry (is that what this regular random spewing of thoughts would be called?) last Friday, but I have not forgotten about you! I have been busy revising my literary novel. Enough time has passed since I last looked at it that reading it this past week has been like reading it for the first time.

If you’re a writer, some time away from your drafts is a gift, because time allows you the distance you need from your work to be objective about it. Time allows you to “forget” your own work enough to approach it more in the way a reader would, and you will thereby notice inconsistencies and weaknesses that you didn’t see before.

I used to find revision tedious, but now it’s one of my favorite parts of the writing process. I hope that you will learn to love it, too.

The greatest thing I learned in grad school is that revision = re-vision. In other words, it means seeing your work again. Revision, unlike copy editing, is less about correcting grammar or punctuation and has everything to do with structure and ideas. This is where you see if your work communicates the message you intended. Read your work aloud; is there anything that causes you to stumble? If so, why? Is your meaning clear? Should anything be rearranged? Should there be more detail in one place? Less in another?

For prose, you might ask yourself if there is enough of a reason for an event to occur. Characters should have reasonable motivation for their actions. For poetry, you might ask if there’s a more specific word, a more vivid image or comparison, maybe something that can call back to an earlier point in the poem. For both, revision is where you identify your strongest, most important themes and adjust the rest of a piece to support them.

Revision, in short, is what can take a good piece of writing and make it great. It’s one of the most important tools at a writer’s disposal. Wield it. Value it. Understand it. Keep it sharp.

Tumbleweed Warning

Yesterday in the Texas Panhandle, we experienced sustained winds of around 40 miles per hour and gusts of up to 70 miles per hour. While this is windier than our standard windy day, it is not unusual for us to have wind like this. The meteorologists warn us, their concern apparent, to use caution and to check on our pets and the elderly (because the wind really does buffet small animals mercilessly and blow people over– I’ve seen it happen). We simply groan, tie down our possessions, and go about our days.

It is inevitable that while we are away from our homes, we’ll lose shingles, our fences will blow down, the hay will blow away right under the horses’ noses. Driving to work, if you must go on an east-west line, the wind pummels your car, skidding it sideways. You can’t use cruise control. If you must go south, it is easy to speed. If you go north, you will have to push the gas pedal to the floor to get up to 60, and you will be able to watch the needle on your gas gauge drop. It’s like driving into a wall of water. You will notice briefly that every driver has the same focused, tight-lipped expression you can feel on your own face. In certain places, gray dirt will blow around your car, and it will be like driving through the densest fog you’ve ever seen. You must watch for hazards. The birds can’t control their flight, and will hurtle in front of you without warning, or remain stationary in the air, flapping their wings furiously. The huge flag at Gander Mountain will rip in half, and its stripes will drape across the bridge at I-40. Road signs and mailboxes will topple in your path throughout the day. Metal pieces of barns will fly across the road. And then, there are the tumbleweeds.

The tumbleweeds, or Russian thistles, seeds of which apparently came to our area hidden in a cold-hardy variety of wheat seeds, are fascinating plants. When they are on the move, they seem more like animals than vegetation, skipping along with real intention until a fence catches them. Once I stood at a gas station and watched tumbleweed after tumbleweed get pulverized by cars on the frontage road, and it was indescribably satisfying to see the round globes explode into tiny golden twigs. Of course, anyone who lives here knows the annoying sound of tumbleweeds dragging under a car, caught in the undercarriage, and the fun of having to dig the prickly, unfriendly things out of places they have wedged. I have seen tumbleweeds blow suddenly against my horses in the pasture; the horses jump and run away, bucking, then look back with great offense. Tumbleweeds are downright bothersome plants. But during the Dust Bowl, they provided some small bit of nourishment to livestock, and some families even canned them and tried to eat them themselves (if you live in the Panhandles and haven’t read The Worst Hard Time, you should. Some of the details of life here during that era are simply mind boggling).

The research I have done about the Dust Bowl in order to write my YA novel has been engrossing, and it has given me an entirely new way to think about where I live. It is a decade that was touched on briefly in my school history classes, but it molded our area and its people forever. Reading about it, I recognize home– the ruthless droughts and near-constant wind, the people who refuse to give up, and to a lesser extent now, the sandstorms– and it feels sometimes like all we have learned to do is hold our dirt down better. The settlers who caused the problem by turning up too much of the grassland too fast– they did what nearly anyone in their situation would have done. Ask yourself what you would have done, given free acreage and a mandate to grow wheat, and then imagine having to grow more and more to make the living you had made the years before as the price plummeted. They didn’t know better then, and there were so many misconceptions floating around, like the incredible “rain follows the plow” theory, or the idea that the aquifers were limitless (in fact, many people still treat our aquifers that way). The ruin of the land seems to be the direct result of human nature. It seems a miracle anyone survived the Dust Bowl. I hope that we know better now; we have by now ought to have learned to be better stewards of the places that sustain us. I never fully appreciated before the tenuousness of our lives in this area. It is an area that was long called uninhabitable for farmers and the people relying on their produce. We mustn’t take that for granted. The story of the Dust Bowl is, if nothing else, a warning.

But back to the tumbleweeds. Look out for them. Yesterday when I was walking to my car, a student was walking 10 or 15 feet behind and a little to the side of me. She was on her phone. Without warning a tumbleweed shot by me going about 50 miles per hour, and I stopped short and nearly tripped. It missed me by a scant inch. I turned to warn the student, but it was too late. She tried to jump over it and yelled something like, “Oh my god! I have to go!” into her phone. She ended up making it to her car without further incident, and I suspect she learned a valuable lesson that everyone here has to learn eventually– Watch out for tumbleweeds!– they must go where the wind carries them, and they won’t watch out for you.

Where I’ve Been

Hello, friends!

I know it’s been ages since I’ve posted, but I’ve got a good excuse, because as it turns out, I’ve been living with a misdiagnosed neurological condition for about 17 years or so, as near as we (myself & the doctors) are able to guess. I haven’t felt well for ages, have always had weird symptoms and sicknesses, but for the past year, my health has been exceptionally poor, and in a fit of desperation after dealing with 1. debilitating fatigue; 2. months of near-constant heart palpitations; 3. getting lost on the way home from work and driving the wrong way down an access road on which I drove every single day, I switched doctors. I felt that I would die if I didn’t find someone to help me soon, it had gotten so bad. The new doctor did not tell me I was imagining the symptoms or laugh at me when I said I was afraid because I couldn’t think anymore, as my old doctor did. Instead, she ran a plethora of tests– several lab visits with 8 to 14 vials of blood drawn each time– and in the end, we found out that I have Lyme disease. It’s like a cross between dementia, heart disease, arthritis, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, meningitis, and anxiety disorder, among other conditions.

I’ve had increasing trouble reading and writing for the past 8 months, as it’s so difficult now for my brain to make connections, my eyes and head hurt, my hands hurt, and sometimes blocks of text just look like squiggles to me– my brain just won’t connect words to their meanings at times. I’m now being treated and hope to be back to my old self in 18 to 24 months (though I have to admit I don’t know who my “old self” might be, at this point). Anytime I feel relatively “clear,” I work like mad trying to get something meaningful done, but it’s only been recently– the last week or two– that I stopped feeling as if I were just quickly disappearing.

Other writers who have Lyme disease, that I know of, include Amy Tan and Meg Cabot. So there is some hope for me, that I still might be successful at reaching my writing goals.

In the meantime, during those months of fear and worry, Steve Schroeder of Purple Flag Press, whom I had met at a reading, solicited my current magnum opus (current because it is my intention to write more of them) manuscript¬†The Traveler’s Guide to Bomb City, and I sent it to him, though I had it out at about 15 places at the time. Steve used to live in Amarillo, though now he lives in Chicago, and I ended up accepting his offer to publish at Purple Flag because I knew he would take care of the book and value it as I did. I knew I could trust him. That sort of regard from someone for what you create means even more when you are ill. And I’m glad Purple Flag released it, because it turned out exactly as I wanted. It even feels soft and lovely in your hands, inviting, the way a book should feel.

guide

This manuscript has been read and critiqued by many people, writers and friends I admire, and it has been revised, re-revised… Poems in the book have been published in many of the poetry reviews I love to read. This book began as my creative thesis at Goddard College and grew into something that really matters to me. It’s about my home– a place that doesn’t have a lot of poetry written about it. My husband tells me it’s like living for a year in Amarillo, which is nicknamed Bomb City because it is near the nation’s only active nuclear weapons assembly plant. To me, this book is about what we come to accept and why. When the esteemed A.G. Mojtabai called it “very, very good work,” I knew I didn’t have to worry about whether the book had done as I hoped it would do.

It was technically released on January 5th, but I’ve had trouble getting the energy to promote it, which has been frustrating.

Today I’ve managed to get it listed for sale through Paypal here.

I’m also doing a reading at Chalice Abbey Center for Spirituality and the Arts in Amarillo on January 28th at 6:00 p.m., and I’m reading again at the Scissortail Creative Writing Festival in Ada, OK, on Friday, April 7th. If you will be either of those places, you can buy a book from me in person.

I’ll try to post more as my energy picks up– and as always, I thank you, readers, for being here and for perusing my ramblings!

Truth in Tension

I keep coming back to this quote:

“Much of beauty, both in art and in life, is a balancing of the lines of forward-flowing desire with those of resistance– a gnarled tree, the flow of a statue’s draped cloth. Through such tensions, physical or mental, the world in which we exists becomes itself.” — Jane Hirschfield,¬†Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry

It’s something I think I ought to keep in mind, and that’s why I wanted to share it.