“To be unwatched is good”

That notion runs counter to our current social media saturation – indeed to this very blog – yet it was Michael Ondaatje’s message for aspiring writers. Speaking at the University of Utah on Wednesday, the internationally-acclaimed author impressed upon his audience the need to start small: small projects with small presses and publications. This allows an author to experiment with form and genre (like Ondaatje) and discover an individual voice without being subjected to scrutiny too soon.

Ondaatje continues to start small in his writing, beginning with a single scene and finding his characters and his story through his first of many handwritten drafts. It is a lengthy process of discovery, but for Ondaatje there is a “pleasure in rewriting that is magical.” He considers the best time in writing to be when the story is still a secret to be shared privately with his alpha readers, away from the discerning eyes of copy editors, critics, and his legion of fans. Ondaatje was gracious enough to make three public appearances during his trip to Salt Lake City, but he still appreciates those times when he can go unwatched.

In honor of it being the first day of National Poetry Month, here is “The Time Around Scars” from The Dainty Monsters by Michael Ondaatje:

A girl whom I’ve not spoken to
or shared coffee with for several years
writes of an old scar.
On her wrist it sleeps, smooth and white,
the size of a leech.
I gave it to her
brandishing a new Italian penknife.
Look, I said turning,
and blood spat onto her shirt.

My wife has scars like spread raindrops
on knees and ankles,
she talks of broken greenhouse panes
and yet, apart from imagining red feet,
(a nymph out of Chagall)
I bring little to that scene.
We remember the time around scars,
they freeze irrelevant emotions
and divide us from present friends.
I remember this girl’s face,
the widening rise of surprise.

And would she
moving with lover or husband
conceal or flaunt it,
or keep it at her wrist
a mysterious watch.
And this scar I then remember
is a medallion of no emotion.

I would meet you now
and I would wish this scar
to have been given with
all the love
that never occurred between us.


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