Thursday, January 28, 2010

Thank you Mr. Salinger

R.I.P    J.D. Salinger

The recent passing of J.D. Salinger reminds me to read The Catcher in the Rye again. It's my ten year reunion for this one. 

I believe writers should revisit books that fascinated or frustrated them during the first read. I return to stories that amazed  in five or ten year increments.  I also revisit and discover interest in books that did not appeal earlier in my writing career. They assist my progress in writing and reveal how my tastes and appreciation can change.  So many books, so little time. . .but I must return to the early ones that had an impact.

A fellow in eighth grade encouraged my fledgling peek at The Catcher in the Rye.  He wanted to become Holden Caulfield and thought of me as his sister, Phoebe.  I had deeper aspirations for him but played along in case he might reconsider.  He quoted lines of the text and tried on Holden's ideals.

His voice quivered when he recounted the first time Holden runs into the F-word.  This occurs  in a stairwell of his little sister's school.  My friend felt a similiar concern that nasty kids would explain it to the naive ones in a way that would taint them forever.  Then they would see the world as dangerous.

Where Holden imagines the word on his gravestone, my friend wanted to glamorize it with a new meaning in writing.  He tried a variety of poetic slants and repetitions, sounding it out in whispers and screams.  It always appeared with the same intensity and meaning to my tender ears.  Even then I questioned its literary ability.

Five years later I read the story again and marveled at how Salinger used the F word.  I never see it written without referring back to his phrasing.  I advise my students if they want to use it, read Salinger. Make it purposeful.  Give it an opportunity to shock, surprise and provide enlightenment the way it does for Holden.

Some writers who use it for shock value in dialogue believe repetition works.  Once again, compare any writing to the scene in "Catcher'"  I've highlighted it so you can squint and imagine it not written out.  Then read the sentence aloud with its full expression.

"I went down by a different staircase, and I saw another   F You_on the wall. I tried to rub it off with my hand again, but this one was scratched on, with a knife or something. It wouldn't come off. It's hopeless, anyway. If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn't rub out even half the 'F You' signs in the world. It's impossible."

If you want to make a point with the F word, make it a work for you.

Creative Read and Write:  Think about the first book that had an impact.  Share a story about your experience.  Read it again and write your current reactions.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Last weekend I attended a lecture by poet, David Whyte.  He shared his feelings that even though life causes constant heartbreak, we need to keep resusitating ourselves.  "When you close down to heartbreak, you cannot hold things in affection," he said.  "The whole of creation is just waiting for you to appear and stay open." 

"Everything is waiting for you," he repeated as he questioned why everyone needs to be "up" all the time.  It goes against nature to avoid changes. Nature follows a pattern of growth, fullness, cessation and decay.  Nothing in the world is "full on" all the time.  Why do we think we need to?

Whyte encouraged a courageous conversation with oneself and then others.  We have so many loses in life,  part of the healing involves the willingness to come out and be found again. 

When I consider his thoughts, it seems his metaphor for heartbreak involves the F's we do not like to face: fear, failure, and frustration.  How do we make Friends with them?  Also, we must learn what they have to offer us without pushing away.  A Ferocity in our attitude keeps us patient through the minor f's.  This involves the creative spirit in both writing and facing life's challenges. Think of the flow of nature and go with the seasons. Sunshine all the time will bore us.

I have always questioned the heartbreak metaphor. In reality,  the heart does not break. It does not even fray, for goodness sakes.  It's a muscle. If we keep it energized by dietary choices, exercise along with positive involvement with each moment, it will stay healthy. It will receive and expel blood and do work as life passes through us. 

Creative Write:  Write about your Ferocity as you overcome life's f's.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Write like rain or waves.

"Here is a man who is turning the emptiness of space into a sheet of paper, the waves of the ocean into an inkwell and Mount Sumeru into a brush."        - Hoyen of Gosozen, 12th century

"The shot will go most smoothly when it takes the archer himself by surprise." Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery.

A Zen view of  how to write advises that our "artless art" must flow out of the subconscious. Doing is not doing. Technical knowledge does not provide enough.  Practice and relenting to the process make it happen. 

We write and write until we've created our own rules  If we move out of our own way, writing spurts and splashes in the stream of rain or water.

Like a muscle, the more we write, the more we gain strength and momentum.  Fortunately, with age our writing muscles become stronger regardless of the aging process on other body parts. 

If we pay attention to our "every day mind" and moments in movement,  we will happen upon ways to express our emotions and thoughts.  Awareness makes us alert to all possibilities.  What just zoomed by?  How does that connect to the aroma of coffee in the morning?  What does sleep feel like when tired?  How does satisfaction taste?  What if. . . and then what?

How can the write art become purposeless?   Aimless?  If we attempt to intellectualize it, we've lost the moment. We need to write.  It's that simple.

Lao Tzu's water metaphor fits the writer's life.  Go with the flow. Trickle or rush around obstacles. Gush! Exert and deluge. Yielding will overwhelm all.

Writers need the surprise that delights when swimming in words.  Let it happen. . .just write.

Creative Write:  Take a day without a goal.  Write to float, swim or splash about in words without a destination.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Day of Interpretation

Before the next onslaught of rain and wind, I started along my running route. Palm branches the length of cars cluttered the middle of the street. I raced in before and after cars to drag the fronds into the gutter away also from the bike path. 

The morning sprouted blue and sunny. I felt helpful and even found a dime.  A variety of looks, gestures and honks negated my glee.  No walkers stopped to help either. Avoiding the audience response, I continued to redistribute the branches during my jog down the hill.

The sidewalk had caved in along my route by Wind 'N Sea beach.  Today the repair sported initials and phrases. Lines included praise to the sun and hopes. I stopped to read and said to the fellow in charge, "Oh, I arrived too late to write!"

That comment inflamed his distaste. He grimaced and raised hands to sky.  "I spent hours getting this just right and look what people have done. Now I have to smooth it."

"Have you read any of it?" I asked.

"They don't appreciate the work it takes.  Bet they'd not like a job they had to keep doing over and over," he raised a wrench.

"They'll just do it again if you're not here to stop them," I said.

He became more agitated until I shared my morning story. 

"Well, I know you were trying to do a good deed, " he said finally letting a smile escape.

 "Appreciation!  They just don't get what we're trying to do.  Why not put sheets of paper on the curb and encourage them to write you a Thank You rather than writing in the cement?"  

His eyes shifted and the smile enlivened his eyes, "OK," he said. 

"May I take your photo? Let's appreciate each other today.  Thanks for what you have done to fix the dip in my running route.  More people appreciate it than you know.  Try attaching the paper and see what happens."

He smiled and I ran on.

I wonder what the sidewalk engravers will leave if he does attach paper for their writing?   Will he return to fix it again?  Did I meet Sisyphus today?

Creative Write:  Write about a recent day of  "interpretation."

Friday, January 15, 2010

Exercising Intuition

The artist of life
         opens shutters
  listens for the shadow bounce
       to taste
           a flight of letters.         

We absorb life in three ways: visually, auditorially and kinesthetically.  The intuition gains access through all that passes near and through the senses. Everyone has a natural focus on one area that stimulates before the others.

I tend to hear and smell first. My eyes take over in response to those messages. Photography stores my visual cues for later. I search for musicality and discover the silences.

This shift of awareness into the other areas adds texture to writing.  It assists receptivity and exercises the ability to nudge intuition.

It's a thrill to mix and match and taste the air.

Creative Write: Expand the potential of your authentic voice by spending time exercising the areas you do not normally access first.  For a week write one day from sight, one from sound, another from body sensations.  Incorporate all at the end of the week.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Windows and Light Trails

Consider a window: it is just
a hole in the wall, but because of it
the whole room is filled with light.
Thus when the mind is open
and free of its own thoughts,
life unfolds effortlessly,
and the whole world is filled with light. 
  The Second Book of the Tao, Stephen Mitchell

During a visit the San Diego's Wild Animal Park, I noticed the Great White Egret and its posture in the water.  A window in openness and reflection, illusions surrounded the bird. Its reflection provided a quality beyond grasp. A mystery of light trails appeared in its presence as water rippled away and back again.

Another fellow stood on the bank feathered in gray with a silly expression.  Called a shoe bill, the bird had no apparent mate.  A sign indicated his endangered nature.  He wriggled and made unbirdlike sounds bouncing on one leg, then the other.

Light penetrates and leads if we permit it. Even those without wings will fly.

Creative Write: What light travels for you today?  What windows do you notice? Discover stories or poems that lurk in the unlikely connections.


Sunday, January 10, 2010

Polishing Self-Awe

When working on a project, writers push the pen and keys without applause.  Oh how we stretch and surge to avoid self-judgment while words drip rather than splash and tumble upon the blank space. 

Do we need to pursue and polish self-awe?

Pablo Neruda reveals his adoration of words.   Feel the self-awe:

You can say anything you want, yessir, but it's the words that sing, they soar and descend . . . I bow to them . . . I love them, I cling to them, I run them down, I bite into them, I melt them down . . . I love words so much . . . The unexpected ones . . . The ones I wait for greedily or stalk until, suddenly, they drop . . . Vowels I love . . . They glitter like colored stones, they leap like silver fish, they are foam, thread, metal, dew . . . I run after certain words . . . They are so beautiful that I want to fit them all into my poem . . . I catch them in midflight, as they buzz past, I trap them, clean them, peel them, I set myself in front of the dish, they have a crystalline texture to me, vibrant, ivory, vegetable, oily, like fruit, like algae, like agates, like olives . . . And I stir them, I shake them, I drink them, I gulp them down, I mash them, I garnish them, I let them go . . . I leave them in my poem like stalactites, like slivers of polished wood, like coals, pickings from a shipwreck, gifts from the waves . . . Everything exists in the word . . .*

After diversion, concentration, or a time of relaxation, it becomes possible to catch the Awe as a breakthrough; an unforeseen depth. The rush of of mind in delight will sail across the page. We avoid thoughts of success, failure and judgment and let them fly from the creative space until no shadows of doubt remain.

If we write until the tension eases, waves will rise from the belly to heart to breath. The magic of  self-awe will keep us bouyant in any sea. 

"WOW, I wrote that!"          

Watch applause rise
                Spindrift spins in high fives.

*From Memoirs by Pablo Neruda (NY: Penguin, 1974), p. 53.

Creative Write:
  Write yourself into the awe.  During a time of writing that appears sluggish, stop and read a favorite writer or an inspirational piece. Take a walk and use your observation skills in all directions with a focus on details of  nature. When you return, write for 15 minutes. Don't stop until a word, phrase or idea thrills to the bone and buoys you above the clouds. Mine to the depth of experience to discover your creative joy of words. 

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Can you Kandinsky?

(Brieflezend Meisje bij het Venster)c. 1657

An article in Smithsonian magazine (October, 2009), "Teaching Cops to See" provides ideas for writers to use also.  Amy Herman, art historian and attorney, teaches police officers the art of perception. She shows how to fine-tune their visual acuity to translate to investigating crime scenes and to prevent crimes. 

"There are no judgments or wrong answers," Herman explains when she takes a group to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  She invites them to delve into the paintings for the details and notions about the situation. She advises officers never to use the words, clearly and obviously, "What's obvious or clear to you might not be to someone else," she says.

"What do we see here?"  She asks and has one person describe the scene to another who has his back to it.

Writers benefit from paying close attention to scenes from fine art or photography also. Delving into the creative nuances and details of another art form engages its mysteries and awe. It provides fodder for writing.

Spend time looking at paintings of the Dutch Masters.  They painted in detail with story and emotion.  Also, observe abstract and impressionistic painters. Develop your concrete skills to play and write a story from the perspective of Vassily Kandinsky.

Creative Write
: Observe realistic paintings, abstraction and photography. Move right into the scene and describe it from front to back. Then go the opposite way in another. Bring in all the details to evoke the situation. Then add sounds, scents and tastes.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Mind's Loam

How do we plunge into the mind's loam?

It takes discipline to push beyond the surface and dig to the roots of thoughts and feelings. It also requires a combination of risk and playfulness to revolve the ordinary into inspiration to write into and beyond.

Writers relish ways to capture the spontaneous, the uncapturable.  I write this thinking of the Black Phoebes that live on my block.  They remain dedicated to their ritual of flying from street signs to house rooftops to catch their meals. They have no concern with my desire to snare them on camera.  The blur they leave against the azure morning reminds me of their dedication to the job at hand.  What terrific writers they would become!

During an eighteen month period when we lived in an apartment near a park, I studied Phoebes and watched their intentions.  I found them a metaphor of consistency and devotion to their task at hand as they spent the day flying and catching their variety of treats. 

While I retreated to write in the park, our country experienced the events of 911, a dear friend battled cancer, our home took longer than anticipated.  We lived in a circus of chaos and noises observed in the environs of a small apartment. 

Each day I observed the Phoebes, I began to realize the importance of doing what needs doing in the moment.  I pushed life's discomforts aside and became curious about the activities beneath the earth, smelled each new day's fragrance of eucalytus and cut grass. 

The sycamore trees above me changed with the seasons and the Phoebes built their nest and raised young.  I watched as they gave flying lessons to the fledges.  The miracles unfolded day by day in nature's way.

I learned from the birds and their occupation with moments.  My fascination with a search for words and an awareness of the nuances around me kept me going during the events of that period of time.

Creative Write: Take time today to delve into the loam of your experience.  Choose one to write about and see where the free write takes you.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Puppets of Experience

How do we write what concerns us that we just don't want to put into print? 

Many writers and poets use this as material. James Frey altered the truth and called it memoir when he could not sell the manuscript as a novel. Philip Roth writes in his novel, The Counterlife,  of how family members of a writer find themselves in material they don't believe is "right."

When Michael Greenberg approached his sister about writing a memoir concerning her manic breakdown, she said, "Mikey, if you tell the truth about me, I don't want to read it."  When her brother gave her the manuscript to review, she said, "I felt I was reading about someone else named Sally who had been to hell and was the only who didn't know it.  How many people get to look at themselves in such a way?"

When Wallace Stegner wrote, Crossing to Safety, he contacted family and friends to advise them of their appearance in his novel.  They read drafts and did not recognize themselves so he had no worries. 

No matter what we write someone might think the I or he and she involves them or the writer's life.  As writers we have the opportunity to take a peek at life's possibilities from a different place.  We wonder what happens beyond the window. No one sees the same face peeking out.

A way to express your life frustrations, emotions or experience involves mixing them into characters to talk and behave for you.  Plunk individuals into the middle of your angst or ennui. It helps to move from first to third person and change the sex of the protagonist. Create the puppet that will translate your frustrations into publishable work.

Creative Write:  Choose a situation of frustration or rejection.  Define this in two characters away from the original source.  Put them on a train or plane.  Have them work through their issues. You may even discover unique solutions to a personal struggle in this way.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Hunger of the Stalking Mind? Or a gleam in time?

Desire does not bring poems.  The hunted can only abide how opportune the killer's lunge is and how deftly sharpened its blade. 
                                        Richardo Pau-Llosa

Poet, Ricardo Pau-Llosa, writes of the inspirational moment as a "hunger of the stalking mind."  He feels creativity requires a hunt for the moment it cannot grasp, let alone pity.

What obsesses a writer in the moment that jars from the onslaught of every day thoughts and feelings?  Can we hunt for topics or stalk them until they relent?  Will they behave if trapped or captured this way?

I do not become a stalker of experience. Ready for gleams that beckon, my notions might not connect immediately. As a result, I feel more like the collector and collator of their sparkle rather tracking them like a hunter. I save experience, surprise wonder in a kaleidoscope to twist, turn and view the assimilation of color and shine. Eventually a series of clicks shift and sort for me.  

A series of gleams arrive and dovetail or flee. Why?  They relish the freedom of flight.

I keep a notebook with me and record the flashes so later I can spin through pages and observe what will shift into perspective. Shine with silly.

Pau-Llosa likes to use parables as metaphors in his poems.  I've discovered the idea of a myth provides potential. 

This poem resulted from such a series of gleams that reflected and refracted at a later date.

Spanish Pomegranate

The Alhambra, red fortress, spreads on a hill,
a sleeping lion waiting beyond the years
layered by conquerors and inhabitants.

In a corner, pricks of stars focus light
where Washington Irving spun his stories.
Where women wept and men plannedconquests,
birds swirled, leaving shadows behind. Visions
slipped into the pools, then vanished.

Behind harem doors, a woman sang her bondage,
sought freedome with each breath. She wandered
rooms, leaving her scent in clove and jasmine.

One day of a different wind, she tied her soul
to a swallow.  They flew to  a grove in Jaen
So far from fear that once her feet touched,
she blended with the earth.  Her blood flows
through pomegranate flowers each spring.
                                             Avocet, winter, 2010.

Create Write:  Go through your journal or notebook for words that gleam.  Will a poem result?  Try writing a myth or parable.

Water the Bamboo

Greg Bell, a motivational speaker provides the metaphor, Water The Bamboo,*  to explain that success in life's endeavors takes both time and work. 

With giant timber bamboo, farmers begin with a seed.  Then they water. Nothing happens in the first year. In the second year, nothing sprouts. In the third year, still no growth appears. They water and wait.

In the fourth year, the bamboo stalks will shoot 90 feet in just 60 days! The bamboo requires patience and water before it springs from the soil.

Writers need to realize this also.  An idea in seed formation may take years to sprout into a piece of writing.  We nurture ideas but often must wait for their time to blossom.  Patience becomes key as well as staying aware and vigilant for the connections among the sensory imagery that swirls around us in each moment. In the meantime, we write

We require the echo-effect of memory to bind the past, color the present, then springboard to the future. What do the tendrils of experience enable us to write about?  Our greatest assets become the curiosity to catch life in motion, then let the percolation and synthesis occur as our intuition collates the variety of associations. The commitment to a writing routine means watering our bamboo.

Bernard Cooper believes, "Writing takes place in body, mind and emotions.  It catapults the writer beyond him- or herself."

Creative Write: Begin today to pay attention to the world from your own perceptions, not others' ideals.  How do people, culture and society travel through you?  Experience moments in the same way with your sensory awareness.  Reflect on your observations and experiences.  Then discover the words to connect these insights to others. Decide about your values and what you care about. Water the bamboo of your own words.