Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt
I've mentioned this book before, in passing, but it's time for a fuller discussion of PARTI-COLORED BLOCKS FOR A QUILT by Marge Piercy. For books about writing, I rank this one right up there with Stephen King's ON WRITING and Anne LaMott's BIRD BY BIRD.
PARTI-COLORED BLOCKS first appeared in 1982, and at first glance, today's writer may find all the references to the Women's Liberation Movement dated. Also, the book was part of a "Poets on Poetry" series, and those who write prose may be tempted to pass it by for that reason. Not so fast! You don't need to be a woman or a poet to find much of value here. After all, Piercy is a novelist too, and she does not slight prose in this collection of essays on writing.
As for the issue of feminism; it raises several questions for today's interested reader: Which battles that Piercy describes have finished, and which are still going on? Are women less marginalized in today's publishing world? If so, who is marginalized now? How does being marginalized affect one's writing?
Ultimately, however, it's all about the writing. There is much here of use: interpretation of poetic symbols; discussions of how to conduct a reading (including an amusing true-life example of why it's important to speak clearly, loudly, and slowly); a guide for critique groups; and so on. But there are three aspects I want to focus on more specifically: politics, writing for fun, and nuts and bolts.
One point Piercy makes several times is that art is never divorced from politics. She claims that in artwork that supports the current cultural paradigm, the politics become invisible and such works are reviewed on their artistic merit. But artwork that challenges the dominant political view is often judged on its politics instead. Question for readers: Do you agree with this? If so, what viewpoints are likely to be "outside the mainstream" of today's culture?
Another issue Piercy addresses is the importance of amateur practitioners of an art. She believes that art should not be practiced exclusively by a professional elite: "A healthy amateur substratum in any of the arts produces people who understand what's really involved in that art. Studying the piano or the violin may not lead you to perform, but it may give you pleasure and it may help you appreciate someone who has spent the necessary years and passion learning how to use that instrument to capacity." In the world of writing, this means we must encourage people to read books, write poetry, take classes, attend open-mike events, keep diaries, and write for their friends and family, even if they don't intend to become professional authors. Writers need a literate environment in which to thrive.
Finally, and most importantly, Piercy addresses some of what I call the "nuts and bolts." Not only does she discuss the importance of revision, she follows a couple of her own poems through several drafts, so we can see the poems being "built." She critiques her own work and that of others to explore what works and what doesn't, and why a writer might choose this word or that rhythm over another. She helps to demystify poetry. Furthermore, the amount of work that goes into crafting a piece of writing becomes evident. When I first read this book several years ago, and read that she continues to revise her work even after it's been published, I looked extra hard at my own revision process and saw that I could stand to do a lot more.
If you're in the mood for a good book about the writing process, I encourage you to take a look at this one.