Tag Archives: creative practice

When your writing seems . . . weird.

Yesterday my writing felt odd, awkward, out of place. So I picked up Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and read some perspective-setting words and then filmed this.

 

Craft Matters: Timing is everything. Or is it?

We whirl through our days amidst commitments internally- and externally-imposed; some weeks we have to squeeze in our writing while waiting for the doctor, the oil change, the vet and yes that is my upcoming week.

But today I read this terrific post by Noa Kageyama, whose equally terrific blog, The Bulletproof Musician, frequently addresses matters of effective practice and discipline that applies to all of us aiming for artistry. This one looks at a study that examined how efficient learning is when it’s done at night rather than in the morning.

Don’t mess with my morning mojo, my writing muse whispered. You can’t write after three in the afternoon! I will not watch the sunset with you! 

No matter how gorgeous the sunset, my muse thinks evenings are Not a Good Time to Write. I'm going to see if she's right.

No matter how gorgeous the sunset, my muse thinks evenings are Not a Good Time to Write. Is she right?

 But the *evidence* shows that people learn and remember their learning more efficiently and effectively if they tackle it in the evening, go to bed, and then practice again in the morning. Huh. Is my muse really so special that she will be exempt from evidence-based research? Actually, is this really about my muse, that elusive spark of inspiration, or is this about the simple learning and practicing of craft?

I think it’s the latter. If I want to get the compound-complex sentence down cold (my current craft focus, inspired by David Foster Wallace’s jaw-dropping application of basic grammatical tenets), I need to learn its form and practice it.

Although I’d like to think I’m very special, I suspect that I’m no more special than anyone else when it comes to my grey matter. So based on Kageyama’s post, I am going to ignore my muse and set up some evening craft reading-learning-practicing exercise sessions for myself, followed by next-morning follow-up craft reading-learning-practicing exercise sessions.

I’ll let you know how it goes in about a month–and if you have any experiences with how you’ve learned specific writing craft, tell us all about it in comments below!

Writing Fail . . .

I’m playing with video because, y’know, if a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth at least a couple thousand. Includes terrific words on forgiveness by poet David Whyte.

Words fail …

During one of my annual treks to Taos, I visited a friend who taught fifth grade in the school for the Cochiti Pueblo outside Albuquerque, NM. My visit coincided with feast day, and although she’s Anglo like me, she was invited to many of her students’ and former students’ homes, as well as to the traditional, day-long dances. I got to tag along.

On the approach the Pueblo, and in the Pueblo itself, there were signs delineating those parts of the community that are private, including the church and kivas. These signs state very clearly “no pictures.”

There are nuanced layers around photography of indigenous peoples; photographs can and have been used to create distance between, and domination over, picture-taker and pictured. And, my friend pointed out, participation in a ceremony is an experience to be had; it can’t be captured for later. It has to be lived.

But just watch, she added. Someone will try to take a picture and the elders will confiscate their camera. Sure enough, twenty minutes after the drums began and the dancers circled into the square, a tourist with a telephoto lens had made his way onto the church balcony (yes, the church that had “no public access” signs at each door). He raised his big ole camera and began clicking away. And it felt wrong. It was more than disrespect. It was robbery.

My notebook: closed because I am experiencing rather than noting!

My notebook: closed because I am experiencing rather than noting!

Fast forward to this past week, when I spent five days at the Brave New Story workshop with Jeffrey Davis, Laraine Herring and Cathy Shap, all members of the Tracking Wonder team. Instead of taking “pictures” (aka notes) about their facilitation techniques and observing my reactions through my intellectual lens,  I accepted their invitation to step fully into my body and my story. I let them guide the workshop sessions and I participated wholly: I listened to my colleagues in the workshops rather than stereotyping them; I howled and danced and cried; I wrote and read brand-new words about my story’s protagonist. I emerged from the week with clarity, a renewed dedication to my story, and a new-to-me reluctance to talk about the experience. My friends and family all want to know, What happened? What have you learned? What was it like?

Rainbow on morning mindfulness walk at Mohonk House.

Rainbow on morning mindfulness walk at Mohonk House.

I have some pictures of the place we stayed, and of my new-found friends, but those doesn’t begin to capture my transformative experience.

For once, I haven’t figured out the words to tell the story of what happened. I lived it. It was magical. It was deeply personal even though I shared it with 17 other women and the Tracking Wonder team.

And I’m honoring my heart’s instinct to hold the experience close for now. To allow it to live inside me instead of tossing it hither and yon in anecdotes and intellectually satisfying summaries.

In this part of my story, the point isn’t the words. The point is the being and doing, with passion and integrity.

May it be so for you as well.

Happy Birthday, us.

I pride myself on my capacity for informed choice about all manner of things: food, writing, garden design, paint colors, politics, religion. This is also known as Snobbery. Since my early twenties, when part of a summer internship was harvesting fish (read: clubbing them to death in a shallow pond), I have  bought into the worldview that All Meat is All Bad, All the Time. So it’s a fine how-do-you-do that for this Father’s Day slash Fourth of July, my family has celebrated by purchasing a grill. To grill meat on.

Our family’s vegetarianism was shaped by a variety of factors: general health, animal welfare, economics (personal and global). Our change of heart was shaped by changes in the meat available (local), the quality of it (high), and economics (personal) that allowed us the privilege of buying that local meat from local farmers. Plus, y’know, it tastes good.

But whose god? Whose lord?

God is on everyone’s side, right?

So perhaps you can imagine why I shudder every time I see a sentiment similar to this. I’ve experienced the expansion and humility inherent in reversing my  righteousness about dietary choices: if that lesson can be found in pork loin, I think it’s very likely that claiming one’s nation is blessed by god/lord is equally un-humble. Yet from the Amish to the Zen Buddhists: we claim the way. We are living the right way. The best way. Some of us do with humility; some of us with rigidity.

It’s similar to poets proclaiming the purity of their pantoums, the novelists touting the truth of their tomes, etcetera.

I have discovered that sometimes a poem is what I need to percolate through my morning*; other days I want to drizzle a short story atop my pancakes. And on summer afternoons, what joy to forget the heat and humidity in a deep cool pool of a novel. The range of expression and connection available to us through words is the ultimate just-right gift. We can connect and ponder and be awed through whatever form works for us.

Despite experiencing the power of the breadth of literary choice – or choice in anything: Ice cream flavors! Car colors! Fireworks! — we deem our choice of spiritual practice all-or-nothing. We are either tripping lightly down the lovely shaded path to salvation or tramping through the briars on the overgrown trail to damnation.

I know a spiritual practice is different from a readerly practice. Although both are, ideally, daily events, spiritual reflection and connection is often most effectively sustained and deepened within the frame or structure of a specific set of beliefs; it’s hard to go deep when surveying the surface. Just as the poet might splutter and flail about in the novelist’s form, so might the Buddhist flounder in a Catholic mass.

Except: some of the more effective prose writers have been poets; some of the more effective spiritual and secular (read: political) leaders lift up and articulate religions’ fundamental similarities. We are most powerful when we expand ourselves to integrate the blessings of other forms of writing, of praying, of being in the world.

America came into being in large part so that folks could practice a non-governmentally approved religion – so we could practice different ways than The Way that had been decreed. It was a good idea then, it’s a good idea now. And it’s always fun to have a big ole party. With ground-beef burgers and veggie burgers.

Happy birthday, us.

* Because no birthday is complete without a poem, I offer this, which was part of Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac yesterday and offers a different perspective about narrow choice than the one I promote above. Like most of life, both-and are true.

Imagine This

by Freya Manfred

When you’re young, and in good health,

you can imagine living in New York City,

or Nepal, or in a tree beyond the moon,

and who knows who you’ll marry: a millionaire,

a monkey, a sea captain, a clown.

But the best imaginers are the old and wounded,

who swim through ever narrowing choices,

dedicating their hearts to peace, a stray cat,

a bowl of homemade vegetable soup,

or red Mountain Ash berries in the snow.

Imagine this: only one leg and lucky to have it,

a jig-jagged jaunt with a cane along the shore,

leaning on a walker to get from grocery to car,

smoothing down the sidewalk on a magic moving chair,

teaching every child you meet the true story

of this sad, sweet, tragic, Fourth of July world.

All works are equal

I’m not going to throw my hat into the ring of commentary-on-Ferguson. I’m not going to think about how there-but-for-the-grace-of-god-go-I in regards to random violence. I’m not going to imagine the pain of Brown’s parents. I’m not going to listen to the estimates of when the elephant will become extinct (most likely in my lifetime. I’m broaching 50, so you can do the math).

I am going to remember that I asked Priscilla Long, in regards to her Work Inventory, why she didn’t note where her pieces are published. Because, she said,I have a body of work I want to do, and it doesn’t matter where it’s published. All works are equal.

All works are equal.

I am going to remember the giggle I couldn’t suppress while waiting to board airplanes this summer, when the gate agents called the “first class/priority” passengers to come through their priority boarding area. Which means those passengers walk over a rubber-backed 3×5′ piece of polyester carpet atop the regular carpet, to the left of the “boarding area” sign. They walk over this piece of carpet and they get to sit down first and they get to sit in seats that are a bit wider and if the plane blows up or disappears they get to lose their lives. Just like everyone else.

All works are equal.

I am going to reflect that on the day Captain Byers died in Iraq, my local obituary page held death notices for Catherine Cupp, Alma Frey, Goldie Gearhart, Lillian McClean and James May. I am going to assume that each person left behind a “to do” list, an unrequited love or two, and others who will remember their frown, their laugh, their bad puns.

All works are equal.

I am going remember that Michael Brown’s status as a young black man headed for college is a distraction from our disgrace.

All works are equal.

I’m going remember that the effect an essay, poem, screenplay, or novel has on any one person is as much, if not more, about the person reading than the work itself.

All works are equal.

I’m going to work today.

 

 

To write, perchance to produce?

World Cup Cafe

World Cup Cafe

I returned to Taos for the third consecutive year last week, for the Taos Summer Writer’s Conference. It’s a highlight of my year. It’s a highlight because it’s in the desert southwest; because its attendees are, to a one, interesting, informed, and intriguing; because it’s an excellent “reset” button for my writerly self; because it’s near Taos’s World Cup Cafe; because the World Cup Cafe serves a mocha borgia; because I feel like a brilliant writer after a mocha borgia; because when I fell like a brilliant writer I am a more productive writer.

Productive writer. An abstract concept that toddled into my thinking three years ago when I first read Prisicilla Long’s must-have-if-you’re-a-writer book, The Writer’s Portable Mentor — an abstract concept that steadied itself and began walking, sure-footed, during the time I worked with her (for the second time) at the Taos conference this year.

Prisicilla Long's book ...

Prisicilla Long’s book …

Long, like Macklemore, notes that the greats aren’t born great. They’re great because they paint/write/practice a LOT. Long suggests writers make a “list of works,” an inventory to track their pieces’ completion dates, where they’ve been sent, and when they’ve been accepted. In The Writer’s Portable Mentor, she says,

The list allows you to see the work you’ve done and it signifies respect for work done. It allows you to track your yearly production. It allows you to find any given piece to take up again. The list gives you a practice that you now share with those high-achieving creators who do quantify their works. (Georgia O’Keefe, 2.045 objects; Edouard Manet, 450 oil paintings among other works; the American painter Alice Neel, about 3,000 works; dare we mention Picasso? — 26,000 works; the remarkable short-story writer Edith Pearlman has published, according to her website, more than 250 works of short fiction and short nonfiction. That of course, does not tell us how many works Pearlman has composed.

I have a modest list of works that has grown incrementally for the past three years. And I do mean incrementally, because I haven’t been able to focus on more than one writing activity each day: if I’m generating a new short story, that generative free writing takes all my writing time. Ditto editing and conceptualizing.

But this year, for the first time, I managed two, sometimes three, types of daily writing during the conference: generative, editorial, and conceptual. And I did this because I told myself, per Long’s advice, that I only had to do it for 15 minutes. Those 15 minutes, for five days, yielded a found poem, an improved short story, and several roughed out story concepts.

I’m sure this capacity was enhanced by the total absence of my Domestic Goddess responsibilities, Engineer Hubby, our two sons, the dogs, the cat and that pesky groundhog in the backyard — a lot of my writing is done while it appears I’m daydreaming, and there’s no daydreaming time in my Real Life. Nonetheless: I’ve managed the 15 minute practice every single day, for a week, so I know I can make progress on several fronts simultaneously.

Here’s to slow, steady and productive. May it be so.