Listening: A Guest Post by Beth Gilstrap
The kind of cold I’ve never really experienced. Snow in my eyes. Mascara wetted, smeared like war paint over my right cheekbone. I learn in an instant I’m better off sliding my feet rather than putting air between them and the ground. Snow boots would help. Whispers of AWP Miami move through my slowing blood. Dizzy. Looking for ground, for birds, for the song of my people.
Funny how weather matches, or rather, sets the mood.
Crowds push through doorways, lunge for the popular, the revered. Words of the few cause the rest of us to crave. But I suspect we long for more than regard. I can’t name it. I wrestle in and out of suffocated rooms, pulled up and through, I am threaded, woven into a mass. I blend into the tapestry, a cacophony suddenly flattened, quieted. I sleep, a muted red covered by finer fabrics waiting for someone to paint the room around me in the same shade, to draw me out, to shove me into the face of the world and say, notice.
I’ve searched for my tribe as long as I can remember.
I could talk about lack. I could talk about longing and wanting and loss. But I won’t.
I sit in a darkened theater filled with metallic taste of rage and regret in my mouth when two things happen:
- Cheryl Strayed says she wrote her memoir Wild and poof, her tribe found her.
- I sob, listening to Strayed’s letter to her younger self, as did the stranger beside me. Without a word, she handed me a tissue.
I grew up surrounded by musicians. I sat, cross-legged scribbling in journals as my brother and his friends strummed guitars, belted out songs, and created new rhythms and melodies. Quiet most of the time, I held myself in, bobbing my head or tapping my feet as I wrote. I built myself a paper fortress. I was at the council meeting, but sang only within the confines of my head.
Benjamin Percy describes literary fiction as someone drinking tea and having an epiphany. I agree with what Percy and others, like Lauren Graff, say about the need to do away with genre distinctions, and champion good writing in general. Percy uses the Aaron Copland essay “How to Listen to Music” as a framework for his lecture.
You listen for sheer pleasure of sound. This is the way most people read as well. You put on music for background noise, wash yourself in the pleasure of sound without digging deeper. I tend to listen to punk and heavier rock when I clean. It gets me moving faster so I can kick dirt’s ass.
When you listen in this way, you lean forward instead of back. You ask what the piece is trying to say? You attempt to reach understanding. You wonder about artistic intent. This is where you analyze. This type of search and meaning making is not usually associated with what the literary world terms “genre.” “Genre” is the equivalent of pop music. It is seen as brain candy, whereas literary fiction is perceived as at once, quiet and subversive. All of these are of course, false boxes, the stuff of marketing.
As it Exists
This way of listening is what I would refer to as formalist; at least, that’s what they’d call it in the literary world. You listen the way the music exists. Principles of form can only be recognized by years of training.
Percy argued that writing, like music, is best when it occupies all of these spaces. We, as literary artists, should commit to the sensual, to expression, and to the artful composition of our works.
And then, Juliana Baggot says, “Think about one ear you’re whispering into,” and my thoughts on what I seek begin to change. My tribe is a behemoth creature sitting with numb knees in a circle, waiting to listen with its one good ear. Like a mantra, I hear time and again, “Write the book you have to write, and see what happens.”
Though I have my fair share of disenchantment with writers and the industry, I know my tribe will come. Eventually. And I return now, to quiet and work at painting the walls red.
Beth Gilstrap is an upcoming writer-in-residence at Shotpouch Cabin with the Spring Creek Project for ideas, nature, and the written word at Oregon State University. She earned her MFA from Chatham University.
Born and raised in North Carolina, she spent as much time as she could barefoot, climbing trees, learning to cook, and making up stories. Though she hasn’t climbed a tree in a while, she still works toward unattainable perfection in food and fiction. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Blue Fifth Review, The Minnesota Review, Superstition Review, and Knee-Jerk Magazine, among others.