"Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart." ~ William Wordsworth

The Writing Life Too

And if you're reading this, it means you're not writing.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

The Writing Life Too
“Here’s the secret to the universe: Everything has structure. From snow flakes to fire, everything has form and function. And this applies to the craft of writing." Jay Bonansinga

The clouds are back in Portland after days, weeks of sun and impossibly lovely weather. I’ll confess to needing a respite from the sun which winks of distraction, beckons me outdoors when I need to be writing, slants down through the skylight above my desk onto my computer screen. My agent has given me guidelines for a rewrite, so distractions are not welcome, because, frankly, I can easily manufacture plenty on my own. Besides, I’m moving in a few weeks and everywhere I look, I see things that need to be packed.

Warning: a small politcal rant follows--
Today there are more hearings about the prison tortures in Iraq. Last week I tried watching Rumsfeld on CNN but his lies, dissembling, misdirection, avoidance and convoluted rhetoric pissed me off so much I had to switch to Air America, the liberal talk radio (hallelujah!)for those who don’t listen to it, to calm my nerves. Actually, that's a lie because the talk show hosts on AA are far from calming, but at least it's nice to hear people who I agree with about this political mess we're in. So I’ve become hooked because much as I love NPR, I need to bail out from time to time and CNN is distracting too especially when the ever-smirking Rumsfd--may he rot in hell--and certain Republican senators are on the screen. I wish I was one of those quiet, contemplative types, but I spend a lot of time alone in my office and I need noise to work by.And then when my brain is too stuffed, I head into the outdoors to sort my ideas.

This morning I had a long, complicated dream about an Indian reservation and rose to write about it, but then my morning poem became an agony about the prisoners tortured in Iraq. Since when is our military run by Hannibal Lector? We’re piling up deficits by the billions for future generations to pay off because we're paying a bunch of mercenaries to do our dirty work. And let's not talk about the obvious sick thrills that a bunch of out of control psychopaths or sociopaths were having far from home. But photos don't lie. And government "contractors" (alias mercenaries) are doing what, where? Since we’re a society that no longer questions our government’s crimes, my poems do.
End of rant.

But for those of you who aren’t interested in politics, I want you to know that when I’m not writing about my rage at government I’m riffing on the sweet parts of life. A few days ago I wrote a poem based on the memory of the first of May when I was a girl and we delivered May baskets in the neighborhood. This week Portland is full of roses fresh and dewy in new bloom. Like spring, the roses bursting into May is a yearly surprise. Portland is called the city of roses and aptly named. The climb telephone poles and spill out of gardens and onto sidewalks. Roses are everywhere in every velvet hue and size and their perfume follows me when I walk past.

I’ve been teaching and editing a lot lately. Last weekend a workshop on fiction middles in Eugene. When I teach fiction workshops I talk about the underpinnings and structure of fiction. In screenplays, the structure is a given, the format a guideline. In fiction it’s the foundation that beginning writers need to learn. All writing requires scaffolding. Now buidling scaffolding isn’t glamorous or easy, but it keeps a rickety story upright. Imagine music or other arts without scaffolding. Imagine Brahms without chords. No chords means no music.

If you don’t understand how fiction works, you’re likely going to suffer when you try to create it. Without some knowledge of the when and how things work in fiction your story will likely fall apart. To write something as complicated as a novel without a plan is like building a house without a diagram. Okay, I think I’ve thrown in enough similes and metaphors here.

So here’s the story on story: fiction is a record of changes that are inflicted on characters. Theses changes, are actually a series of crisis that create a world of hurt for your characters. Each crisis becomes progressively worse as the story goes along and sends your character into a tailspin and forces him or her to take action and select goals. Fiction requires that you constantly implant surprises that rev up the story and keep the reader engaged.

Scaffolding, structure—it holds up the world and your story world too.

Saturday, April 24, 2004

I’ve got lilacs in every room—white, pale purple, deep purple, their crazy perfume spilling into the air. I stole them from neighbors’ yards, a shameless undertaking every spring. I am stealthy, I travel with clippers since the branches are woody and I half expect an irate homeowner to dash out of his house with a “Stop! Thief!” warning. But I’m never caught and the perfumed beauties last about 3 weeks since I keep replacing faded blooms as I find more lilac bushes in my walks and travels around town.

Lilacs remind me of home where they bloomed in late May. Spring was such a big deal in northern Wisconsin—a noisy, melting snow extravaganza. The gutters alive with rushing snow melt. Spring was for hop scotch and jump rope. The sight of the bare, dry sidewalks after months of snow and ice was shocking, naked as angle worms. The old fashioned flowers of my childhood enchant me most. Yesterday at Fred Meyer’s the woman ahead of me in line had a wagon full of plants, and I envied her Bleeding Hearts. When I was a girl my Aunt Gene showed us how to disassemble them to shape them into a tiny ballerina. My mother had a flower garden and I remember the fringed heads of the Matisse blue Bachelor Buttons, a row of peony bushes favored by ants. A huge patch of Lilies of the Valley grew along one side of the house and I remember the deep green stems and their tiny white bells, and their heady, thick scent. Sometimes I wear cologne that smells like Lilies of the Valley and once I walked into a room and a man younger than me said, “You smell like my grandma!” At the time I was in my late 30’s and his comment worried me. Of course, as I age and nostalgia sometimes takes over reason, I would love to smell my grandmother, or at least her house where pies were baked and children were freer than at home.

I’ve been meeting with a lot of editing clients lately. I have a manuscript about how art influences the brain and yesterday met with a client who is writing a book about yoga and cancer. Last week a woman drove up from a small town midway in the Willamette Valley where she lives on a vineyard. I’ve been teaching creative nonfiction or narrative nonfiction for years now and always tell my students that everyone has a story to tell. But lately, my clients have extraordinary tales to spin. This woman, has a twisted story of a father, a famous sculptor who created a fabled past complete with a Nazi death camp and skiing in the 1936 Olympics. She was raped and escaped with her mother from her father’s cruelty during a perilous trip to Alaska. She became a TV evangelist and has recently raised money for her school district by creating a calendar of photos of naked farmers. She radiates contentment and energy.

Two weeks ago my client was a woman who found love in an elephant tent of a circus in Italy. And I learned that when elephants are together they sway in unison to some ancient rhythm. The previous week it was a retired businessman who also worked for the Regan administration. He believes that business people and politicians have a duty to protect the earth and although he was warned he’d be fired for his views and for closing down nuclear plants, he followed his conscience.

My Wednesday morning creative nonfiction group contains women who are mostly older than me and this semester I’m astounded by their lives. One woman, who is enlightened and good has created a community in Salem that is so generous and right-minded that if we could replicate it in every neighborhood or town, it would save the world.

I wrote in my first book that I never felt more alive and humble than when I was with a room of students who were writing and reading their stories. I’ve been ill on and off a lot these past months, not sleeping much and frustrated by that fact because it interferes with my writing and I have that drowning sense that I’m behind in all my tasks. So I’ll take new medications and make changes in my life, but I’m thinking that the thing that will bring me back to me is the stories all around me, and the power of story in us all.

I jotted in my notebook that Scott Simon on NPR talked about his newly adopted baby and how she’s is already wired into his heart and he mentions rivers and the lyrics of Moon River—there such a lot of world to see. I am off to teach again today a fiction class. Oh the stories, the stories that fill our lives and imaginations.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Another spring morning and the cherry blossoms above my skylight are starting to fade and are dropping onto the deck below like fat snowflakes. I’m back in Portland after four days at the Coast and the latest news trumpets death and disaster in Iraq. 280 Iraqis are dead, 40 killed while gathered for afternoon prayers in a mosque. The mosque was hit by a Hellfire missile and I try to imagine the sort of outcry and war mongering that would happen if Americans would be bombed in their churches. 400 wounded, 15 Marines dead and thousands protest on the outskirts of Fallujah. The names of the ancient cities roll off the tongue like poetry, but the whole region is wrapped in rage and sorrow. Meanwhile, Condoliza Rice is testifying before the 911 Commission. I wish there was a way to apply lie detectors to the folks in this administration, some neat proof of their monstrous lies and crimes. But enough politics.

I went to the beach alone intending to write a lot, but when I arrived discovered my laptop wasn’t working. Not sure what the problem is, but it seems like its toast. So I read a lot—what a luxury-- and wrote poetry and notes and observations to myself in my notebook. And walked and walked until my legs ached, the ocean sapphire and my memory roaming like a kite in the wind. By the time I left the waters of the Pacific behind I felt slowed down and quiet. Of course, then I returned to my to-do list waiting for me back in Portland.

I want to recommend Dennis Lehane’s latest book Shutter Island which I read while the ocean waves crashed below my open window. If you’re not a mystery buff, there is still much a writer can learn by analyzing his techniques. It’s set in 1957 on an island near Boston which houses Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. The protagonist is U.WS Marshal Teddy Daniels, and, to quote the book jacket, nothing at the hospital is as it seems and neither is Teddy Daniels. There is not a single wasted word throughout. He uses weather, a hurricane raging through the island, to make things happen in the plot and it’s fun to watch how the storm begins, then peaks, then the aftermath. He’s created a world that’s vivid, breathing, and deep. On page 51 as the storm is just beginning: “No one came to their table at dinner. They sat alone, damp from the careless spits of rain, the warm breeze that had begun to carry the ocean with it. Outside, the island had begun to rattle in the dark, the breeze turning into a wind.”

But mostly there is terrific narrative drive in his novel—the sense that every element in the story pushes it forward. An urgency that the reader is caught up in and thus cannot put down. One way he used narrative drive was to portray Teddy as more and more desperate and isolated as the story progresses. To beat on him, mercilessly, including a grim encounter with a gathering of rats that he is forced to walk through. I work with lots of fiction writers and many techniques in writing are difficult to master, but this sense of time ticking and push can be difficult to instill in a story. One solution is to read with a pen or highlighter marker in hand and keep noting how authors slip in their techniques. Notice how in the first pages we learn that Teddy is afraid of the vast ocean and that his father died at sea—creating sympathy and empathy from the get-go. Notice how setting can cause tension and create mood. Notice how he uses dreams and back story to reveal character and deepen the mystery. Notice how every word counts.

Monday, March 29, 2004

So here were the problems that I imagined when I started this web log. First, that it would be difficult to squeeze in enough time to commit to it. And second, that since my life is rather dull at the moment, that I’d bore readers with my entries. Guilty on both counts. Because the truth of many writers’ lives is that we’re not fascinating creatures, but people who lock ourselves alone for long periods of time, emerging a little dazed, blinking at the world.

And a few days ago I read through this log and realized that I was repeating myself and because I was sleep deprived decided to take a break. And I'm writing today knowing that I sound drunk on spring and that I'm repeating myself, because this I know--a writer's world must sift into her writing by means of the senses.

So here is my life. I live in Portland, Oregon a green, green place with a climate not unlike the Mediterranean if it rained more there. A desert balances on the rim of this region. I walk to free my mind and limbs and work out at a downtown gym and host little dinner parties with other writers in attendance. I am a former chef and am happy to report that I am not on the Atkins diet but I do eat organic foods. And I attend lectures and films and plays and watch HBO—whatever it takes to replenish my creativity. I listen to NPR most of the day and follow politics, feverish for the truth of our times to be more revealed. And I teach writers and I fix the words of people who are trying to become better writers. It adds up to a life that is sometimes brimming, sometimes quiet, sometimes filled with shared struggles and laughter.

But I spend a lot of time at this desk. It as an old desk that about ten years ago I painted a forest green but the paint has been peeling off. Above my head to the right is skylight and for the past few days the window has been filled with the cherry blossoms of the too old-too tall tree that looms over the building and my lower deck. I’ve just returned from another walk—going out at about 8 strolling through Irvington, my old neighborhood. The dog walkers were out—I counted 8 carrying that plastic ball-throwing device that I wish I’d invented. There were three people performing Tai chai in the park, and there was a sleepy-looking homeless man trundling a shopping cart as he searched for cans and bottles among the yellow recycling bins lining the curbs, workman arriving in pick up trucks at a remodeling job, a garbage collector and a man who arrived at the ATM machine driving an old gold colored Mercedes and wearing a gray sweat suit and slippers. There was the woman who was walking matching Scottie dogs—black and white like salt and pepper—tugging them away from the flower beds.

And everywhere flowers—tulips out in full force—yellow and red ones lining the sidewalk and magnolias of varying shades of pink and purple and two last, giant Japanese cherry trees—thank you for late bloomers everywhere. But as I walked along in the newly-minted morning, spring screaming a jazz riff along with birds twittering, I was so keenly aware. So alive and grateful for every breath and every gardener’s tired back. This is a city of gardeners. A city with soft edges. I plucked small petals and leaves as I walked along, rubbing them between my fingers, leaves soft as velvet. The morning breeze against my neck and face exquisite. And if you move through the world noticing, noticing, noticing, if you manage to capture a bit of the bliss of a season, if only for a few moments of sensory awareness, your writing will be become a breathing world. And readers will visit there.

My third grade teacher was Mrs. Schultz. She was six foot tall, large boned, with a startling and hair tipped mole on her chin. Lutheran with a fervor that did not allow Catholics in heaven or utterances of "gee" or "golly" in our conversations. She was fiercesome and stoic in her need to push multiplication tables and Bible passages into our forming skulls. Her dresses were tailored with white collars and fell well below the knee, her shoes sturdy and thick soled. No softness, no lap. But she created seasonal bulletin boards that this time of year would be romping with lambs made of cotton balls. She taught by repetition, and I fear, so do I.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

The official arrival of spring happened a few days ago. I was in the Tacoma, Washington teaching a fiction workshop to a room of women. Later that afternoon we stopped at a bulb farm in Puyallup. Here, as in my home state of Wisconsin, the names of Native American tribes recall its first citizens: Puyallup. Cowlitz, Seattle,

The bulb farm was landscaped in spring flowers, containers spilling over with blooms, an old bicycle loaded down with baskets of tulips and hyacinths and daffodils. Everywhere you looked, the colors of spring, beyond a daffodil field, the air soft and the lush promise of spring touching every corner of the farm while bees drowsed among the blossoms of a cherry tree.
I woke too early on Sunday morning thinking about the workshop the previous day, mentally revising how I might have done things different. As the sky changed from slate to blue, I concluded that I’d talked too much. A workshop participant once called me a “torrent of information” and I use that blurb in my marketing material. But sometimes I’m uncomfortable with my style; sometimes my workshops are not as interactive as I plan. During this particular workshop, I spent most of the morning lecturing, although this is not the usual format for a workshop. It happened because about a fourth of those attending didn’t have a fiction manuscript in progress and one of the writing exercises required a story in the works in order to complete it.

So I talked a lot and we looked at examples of story openings and discussed some of the odd realities of fiction writing: Fiction characters suffer monstrously. In fact, in most stories they’re fairly miserable throughout and the opening pages must introduce sympathetic details about your protagonist. These pitiful or pitiable details create sympathy in those first moments when we meet him or her and as the story progresses, that sympathy will shift to empathy and thus the reader becomes entangled in the unfolding events. We talked about Stones From the River and Trudy Montag’s heart-breaking habit of hanging from doorways in order to stretch and tying silk scarves around her too-large head to keep it from growing. We discussed an elderly woman who witnessed a murder in the first pages of an Agatha Christie mystery; the flies buzzing along Inman’s’ open wound in Cold Mountain; and the sad facts of the protagonist in The Shipping News.

Fiction openings are densely packed and difficult to write because they’re the doorway that leads from reality to the world of the story. An opening must introduce setting, character, voice, point of view and reveals a story question and goals, and a character reeling from a change that has been inflicted. Fiction characters are constantly thrown off balance, often teetering toward ruin through most of the story. I was thinking about this and concluded that the underlying structure of fiction is opposite of a bridge or some sturdy foundation. The world of a story is an earthquake zone, a fun house of distortions. It’s based on a series of changes, surprises and reversal—a log of changes.

In the past few days I read a novel by Jacquelyn Mitchard called A Theory of Relativity. The themes of the story are wrapped around adoption and what makes a family. I know that the author has both birth and adopted children, but the themes are heavy handed and overshadow all parts of the story. There were parts that I skimmed and skipped over, pages and pages that seemed overwritten. I was especially annoyed with how the setting, a small town in northern Wisconsin, was indistinct. I was doubly annoyed that the small town I grew up in was part of the story, but it was as if the author had never been there. She scheduled meals in fancy restaurants that don’t exist and although of course, you can create fictional restaurants, in this particular town it didn’t make sense. She also never adequately explained the distances between places although the characters were constantly traveling up and down the state and in one scene a character lolls on the shore of Lake Michigan, although it’s hundreds of miles away. But skimming along, I read the whole thing in record time because I wanted to know the ending and because she inserted surprise after surprise, misery after misery, until the whole human stew was finally sorted out. Life is messy; fiction is messier.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

The Writing Life Too
“If you listen carefully enough to anything, it will talk to you.” George Washington Carver

Spring has taken over this town, in fact it’s rioting in the streets. Yesterday I walked with a friend up Mt. Tabor. It’s an extinct volcano and the view at the top is marvelous, the sounds of the city a far-off rumble, the old fir trees at the top magnificent sentinels. No matter the temperature, the air is always crisp like a forest glen under the trees. After 9/11 I walked with a friend there, slowly climbing upward, talking about how the world had changed in a only a few days. People were gathered in clumps, speaking in whispers, watching dusk settle over the city as lights began winking on below. It was in those moments looking down at the city, walking round and around, that I became knit back together. Yesterday, we looked down at one of the pools lined with trees abloom in soft pink, sky reflecting in water. We spoke of a new marriage and how a woman can hold her own in a relationship.

In one of the parks where I often walk around a cinder track, trees have blossomed overnight and the air is thick with the perfume of blooms. These past few months I’ve usually been there alone except for few dog walkers, but these days families are picnicking, a couple sprawls under a tree made of tiny white flowers, kids lean out from the merry-go-round, birds giddy and busy everywhere. Soon soccer and baseball teams will inhabit the diamonds in the middle of the track, their uniforms bright splashes of color against the green, green of the fields.

It’s a good thing that it’s spring and not November. We need the softening days for hope. The past week was filled with grim news. On April 11 terrorists struck trains in Spain, killing 200, injuring 1200. Rescue workers struggled to save the injured, the babies. Hearses carted off body parts and what is left is the grisly task of identifying remains. And, of course, determining who the mass murderers are this time. These days it’s especially dangerous to be America’s friend and an election proves that the Spanish people want to be heard. I watched television news and scenes from throughout Europe vigils in the rain, people railing against the craziness of it all. An investigation fallowing a trail of clues, making arrests.

The Bush campaign aired a bizarre commercial twisting facts and simply stating outright lies about Kerry’s Senate record. Kerry has answered with an ad discrediting the distortions. But let’s not go into politics because there are too many lies to count—it’s an exciting and enraging time—so much at stake before we go down. Speaking of down, the Dow is down almost 500 points in five days. 15 million people are unemployed in this country. If I wasn’t writing and teaching people to wring their hearts onto a page, I’d be made of tears.

But back to writing. Recently I read somewhere that writers are scavengers and that word stuck in my mind. Of course it’s easy to scavenge this time of year—you walk outdoors and get drunk on the first flowers of the season. A feast for the senses lies just outside the window. I walk the downtown streets in the morning, heading for the gym and the oversized planters along Morrison Street are bursting with jonquils, tulips, daffodils and hyacinths. The view from the graceful, old, second floor windows at the gym is changing daily, snow-capped Mt. Hood in the distance gleams white.

Scavenging knows no season. For writers, scavenging is a necessary habit because good subjects aren’t just lying around waiting to be scooped up or alighting like a golden dove on the page. Thus you need to keep a stockpile of images, sensory details, memories, bits gathered from eavesdropping. Scavenging teaches us awareness and this noticing will make your writing more alive. A stockpile of images and bits can be helpful for all sorts of reasons. My gathering can trigger a poem, be the source code for an article or story. Scavenging can become a kind of writing practice or you can slip small the details you gather into fiction. Trust me, if you start gathering, you will use the material.

I know this too well from my early morning poetry writing sessions. Sometimes my mind is dull when I first wake, so I’ll start writing about anything I can cling to—a dream from only moments earlier, the color of dawn, a bit of news on the radio. So to face off against that blankness I’ve become a collector. I slip most of the things that I scavenge into my writer’s notebook. Yesterday I was reading through one and found a note about a couple in Texas who bought a house and discovered a 30-pound bees’ nest in the wall. I’ve copied Gavin Ewalt’s Sonnet: Daffodils where he riffs on how Wordsworth really loved daffodils, claiming they were flashers, exhibitionists. I’ve written about the mornings when I leave the gym and spot a gaggle of toddlers, holding onto an orange leash. It’s a little nerve racking to watch them cross the street together despite their teachers urging, “Use your quick feet.” “Take big steps.”

On the next page there is the memory of The Weekly Reader and the smells of my grandmother’s cellar—part grave/part damp earth/part spider and my older brother ordering sea monkeys from the back of a magazine. On a page I’ve labeled “Overheard” lines like “cowboys with saddles that became pillows under the stars.” and “hair the color of sunset.” A notation that Bush mentioned ‘war’ 33 times during his interview with Tim Russert on Meet the Press.

I keep adding to my writer’s notebook: In a village in Italy a giant dinosaur looking creature has been spotted. On a recent walk through a northwest neighborhood I approached a school on a Friday afternoon. Two boys, about ten, were serving as crossing guards. One was crowing about the weekend ahead. The other solemn with duty, manning an orange flag. He escorted me as if we were on a busy street in Manhattan although there was not a car in sight. And afternoons from my elementary school days flashed back as easily if I were a time traveler. I was never a crossing guard, but these days, in my life as a writing teacher I feel like one. And perhaps like the boy I can be too earnest, too worried about dangers.

Monday, March 15, 2004

Driving home yesterday as dusk thickened into night, I listened to Ursula Hegi interviewed on San Francisco’s Arts and Lecture program.

Hegi lived in Germany until she was 19 and has been living in this country since. Most of her stories and her amazing book, Stones from the River were told from a female protagonist’s viewpoint. In this wonderbook, Hegi tells the story of Trudi Montag, a dwarf, and her pains and struggles in Germany as the war descends on the land. I believe there are many reasons for reading Hegi. I first encountered her in an excerpt of Stones published in Story magazine and was flattened by the power of her storytelling. But what this story also reveals is a deep understanding of how ordinary Germans allowed the Nazis their reign of terror. Her newest book, Sacred Time features a male protagonist who the reader first meets when he is seven, living in the Bronx.

Hegi compared the intense characterization of her stories to the same techniques used by Method actors. She described how first she chases the characters, making lists about them, trying to understand them. But then, there is a point when the characters chase her and as she goes about her day, drives her car, etc. the characters are with her. She described how as she writes a scene, she is feeling exactly what the character feels at that moment in the scene. And that she rewrites 50-100 times in order to write deeply about her characters.

As I listened to her talk in her lovely accented voice, I was remembering some of the early scenes about Trudi and the thunderclap moment that occurs when she finally understands that she’s a dwarf, that she’ll always be different from the other people in their village. I recalled the details about her mother’s funeral and how day after day, Trudi hangs from the door frame, trying to stretch herself taller.

The best writers weave details that cause a reader to sympathize with their characters in the first few pages of the story. In first paragraph of Cold Mountain we are immediately sympathetic: “At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring. Inman’s eyes and the long wound at his neck drew them, and the sound of their wings and the touch of their feet were soon more potent than a yardful of rooster in rousing a man to wake. So he came to yet one more day in the hospital ward….”

Over the years when I teach classes about fiction openings I’ve described the first few pages of What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!, a mystery written by Agatha Christie in 1957. She opens the story this way: “Mrs. McGillicuddy panted along the platform in the wake of the porter carrying her suitcase. Mrs. McGullicuddy was short and stout, the porter was tall and free-striding. In addition, Mrs. McGillicuddy was burdened with a large quantity of parcels; the result of a day’s Christmas shopping. The race was, therefore, an uneven one, and the porter turned the corner at the end of the platform while Mrs. McGillicuddy was still coming up the straight.” The reader follows her through a series of difficulties and humiliations until she settles into the plush train cushions, falls asleep and wakens to witness a murder, although she cannot see the victim’s face. And when she reports it, is not believed. And so the story is launched in three deftly woven pages.

Readers need to sympathize with characters in fiction and memoir from the first moments they meet him or her and this sympathy must transform to empathy and finally, taking on the character’s struggles as their own. In this way fiction becomes involving and satisfying. But sympathy is not sentiment and it is not achieved though melodrama, or in the case of a memoir, whining or venting.

I am left with the memory Hegi’s voice in the dark as I drive toward home, and her notion that she writes to discover her characters’ truths.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

I just returned from a walk, this time around a cinder track in a park that overlooks the train yard and shipyards, the river and the Tualatin hills beyond. There is a lot of sky at this park and I often walk there as weather systems slip into town, marveling at the many hues of gray that exist in the Northwest.

I walk for many reasons because it burns off stress, builds muscles, works the heart. But I walk because I find that as a writer that my ideas flourish when I walk. If I’m stuck on a particular piece of writing, I go for a walk and usually can move past the blockage because some new insight occurs as I move along. And years ago, Brenda Ueland who wrote If You Want to Write espoused the same truth. She wrote: “For me, a long five or six mile walk helps. And one must go alone and every day. I have done this for many years. It is at these time I seem to get re-charged. If I do not walk one day, I seem to have on the next what Van Gogh calls “the meagerness.” “The meagerness,” he said, “or what is called depression.” After a day or two of not walking, when I try to write I feel a little dull and irresolute….

“….For when I walk grimly and calisthenically, just to get exercise and get it over with, to get my walk out of way, then I find I have not been re-charged with imagination. For the following day when I try to write there is more of the meagerness than if I had not walked at all.

But if when I walk I look at the sky or the lake or the tiny, infinitesimally delicate, bare, young trees, or wherever I want to look, and my neck and jaw are loose and I feel happy and say to myself with my imagination, “I am free,” and “There is nothing to hurry about,” I find then that thoughts begin to come to me in their quiet way.”

A few pages later she writes, “And how do these creative thoughts come? They come in a slow way. It is the little bomb of revelation bursting inside you. I found I never took a long, solitary walk without some of these silent, little inward bombs bursting quietly: ‘I see. I understand that now!’ and a feeling of happiness.”

Like Ueland, I’ve discovered that when I walk I am living in the present and that’s not always easy. I find in my life that I’m always trying to tug myself into the now because my brain is usually buzzing with plans and projects. Recent creativity research indicates that the left-right-left-right movement of walking stimulates memory and the right brain. Walking brings ideas. Research has also shown that the right brain, a place of dreams and images, is also meandering during a walk, and is associative. So ideas are shaken free, connections happen, metaphors come to mind. There are other ways to tickle the right brain—highway driving, showering, gardening, the moments just before sleep and when you first wake—routines and activities that don’t require too much attention, where the mind can roam.

But, you cannot take your problems, the recent fight with your boyfriend, your child’s bad grades or your many grievances or worries with you on the walk. Or perhaps you can dwell on these trolls in the first minutes, but then you need a way to let them go. To let the brain swim in a quieter realm and nudge forward words and ideas and phrases.

There are many tricks in the writing life. Techniques that make it easier. Habits of strength that bring forth words. Walking is free, and it’s good for you and it allows your mind to roam. Like Ueland, when I’m walking, I’m noticing the naked trees, the new buds, the changing hues. The palette in nature always refreshes the eye, pushes me from my daily concerns. I don’t know if the same magic occurs on a treadmill, although some ideas come to me while in the gym and simply moving and staring into space. But it’s the sky and living things that nudge my imagination with astounding efficiency and will do the same for you. Jessica Page Morrell

Monday, March 08, 2004

I teach writers. I coach writers. I edit writers. I am a writer. But, of course, those occupations that I listed first, steal time from my own writing endeavors. My answer is to wake before dawn and write a poem as my tea kettle boils, then, with the sky breaking into the room, I move to this office and sit here my fingers moving over a keyboard that makes pleasing sounds as the words are punched in, click, click, click. I sip tea as I write, and NPR’s Morning Edition hums in the background. In this way, voices from the planet slip into my consciousness and I try to balance ideas and my daily to-do list and a bit of caffeine so that I’m not too twitchy to get my thoughts onto this screen.

This is my epistle to the writers who find me here:

I am writing sixty-odd miles east of the vast Pacific. This is a place of waters. Trees. Some mornings I want to slip away and drive to the endless shore and let the sound of the waves wash over my tumbling thoughts. But I rarely give in to this urge. Instead I perch here, in a room with a skylight and a window, with a view that somehow opens on to a much bigger world.

We all have our favorite authors, stories that linger or haunt. I keep talking about certain books like Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. His characters moved into my imagination, his fresh word combinations and beautiful language inspired me, and his insights into the tender places inside us all swept me into understanding. This is why we read fiction.

Writers must read critically. Noticing how the innards of a story fit together. For me much of the pleasure of reading comes from admiring all the architectural details that hold the story together. The elements of design that make it beautiful. I read the third chapter of The Great Gatsby to my students, each time struck by the elegance of his words: “There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. “

Then there are the chart topping, prolific writers —Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates and the romance writers who crank out five titles a year. Writers of heroic word counts. They occupy their desks like sea captains, rolling the vast waves of ocean through swell and storm. Their fingers rattling along the keyboard. Meanwhile, someone else is tidying the cabins, pumping the bilge, manning the radio. The ocean roars, they are implacable, eyes fixed on the horizon, stories churning. Intention is all.

I write in spurts. My energy blooms and fades. At times I work steadily or feverishly on a deadline. Other times I can barely sit for more than a few minutes and I interrupt myself, i pace, end up in the kitchen, staring unseeing into the refrigerator. Until I tell myself that I'm not hungry and tug myself back to the chair, the desk.

I cannot see the ocean or any body of water from here. And I am no captain.

But if my world was water, then my desk is more rowboat than ocean vessel. My muscles tire from the strain of oars against water. Often the shoreline has disappeared and lonely miles separate me from comforting land, and I’m surrounded by looming waves.

Yet I am still a writer.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

Jessica’s Writing Life Too
I am writing in the early hours, morning has not yet found the world. Spring has arrived in the Pacific Northwest and with it the on and off again drone of rain, every surface glistens. Pouting clouds shifting across the sky, a heaven of slate and gray and steel. Over the next few months a fairyland will ripen here.

I was thinking about a class I taught last October—a group of women writing creative nonfiction. And about how writing about your life often means writing about loss. This particular group of eight has been gathered, with some additions and subtractions, for the past two years. Some powerful confluence brought us together, it is clear.

I tread that sticky ground of trying to be mentor and guide, but of course, as so often happens, they teach me. They write stories of heartbreak—a young artist’s untimely death, a daughter’s latest incarceration for crank, a long-ago beating at the hands of a man now on death row. I could never imagine that the tapestry of stories could contain so many sorrows and misery, often too much for the body to hold, so they end up on the page. In a room of women who respect our right to grief and memory. And, of course, there are also lighter stories of remembered snowstorms and travels and how Buddhist philosophy can be applied life. The room often rocks with laughter and appreciation of women who have earned-hard-won wisdom.

A woman in the class whom I’ve come to greatly admire, talked about how she’d spent the week writing in her journal, trying to sort out the freshest layer of depression in her life. How she’s learning to perhaps call it grief. Lately, in order to write a column about her lifelong involvement with the poor and homeless, she’s been rereading old files, visiting old journals, sorting through her past. And has found so much pain on those pages she doesn’t know what to do with it.

So we talked awhile. I mentioned that Shakespeare advises us to ‘give sorrow words.’ I mentioned that when I was younger that I only wrote when I was depressed, which in my twenties, was often. Then I’d return to my journals, rereading the rawness of an unfulfilled life, of a young woman stuck again in a bad relationship, yearning for power, for peace, for some self-understanding that would pull her to a new land. And I’d want to call an ambulance for myself. Find a place where someone could tuck away my sorrow-racked body amid flannel and soothing murmurs, to care for my many woes. My journals were a sign that I was too often sad. So for a while I stopped writing them. Or I switched to poetry to explore my latest heartbreak, my doubts, my search for the real me.

Thirteen years ago I started teaching writers. I stumbled into this profession and was raw and unsure in those first years. But I learned fast and discovered that somehow I was called to chalk-smelling classrooms where adults clustered at night, looking for a way to rip open their hearts onto a page.

And in those first years of teaching, I finally found ways to balance the good and bad in my writing, and to help my students pull all the parts of their lives onto the page. Because, of course, venting is easy. One tool that is amazing useful, is instead of (or in addition to) writing in a journal, try keeping a writer’s notebook. This habit represents a switch in perspective. For me, these notebooks, humble composition books, are a gateway to my creativity, the source code for my writing and life. Instead of looking inward all the time, I look out at the world, noticing, always noticing. And listening. Because if you’re only plumbing your inner life for material or sustenance, you’ll miss what lies all around. So many glories. So many small moments of true brilliance. Gifts and jewels scattered at our feet, shimmering everywhere if we only slow down to notice.

My notebooks are filled with snippets overhead on NPR, bits from CNN, snatches of conversations, sights gathered during walks and trips, the sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes heartening moments that happen while teaching. I muse over Martha Stewart’s felony convictions, the latest war rumbles. I capture the latest government lies and blunders, the jokes I heard at a Molly Ivin’s lecture, a conversation with a friend about a philosophy called “the Church of Five Beers.” I tend my notebook like a faithful gardener, watering and fertilizing, spreading it open for the blaze of sun.

Over the years I’ve also created a lot of writing exercises for writers, written a book for writers and am now working on other books for writers. In my workshops I write along with my students and one exercise that sounds corny, but is illuminating and strengthening, is to simply sit and list all the things that you love. I list socks and violas, and making soup on a rainy Autumn afternoon, and tending my garden and memories of the snow angels I dusted in the wide, white banks of my childhood.

Noticing takes us from our grief and preoccupations into a bigger world. Noticing can also hurt because there is much horror out there that will likely catch your eye and heart.
Especially for my student who has been working with the homeless, the forgotten among us. Their sorrows have become her own. But a joy list brings hope. It reminds us of our tender humanity and the glistening threads that make our days.

Saturday, March 06, 2004

March 6, 2004 Never separate the lives you live from the words you write.

This blog is for writers about writing and our connections to writing.

Writers are everywhere. It takes only the smallest glance to prove that simple fact. I write this in a small office toppling with books, drowning in papers. Witness the proliferation of blogs on the Net. The would-be writers, the boring writers, the types who should never call themselves writers. And the poets, the storytellers, the geniuses and gods among us. So many fine and talented writers that we cannot breathe the air for all the glory of words.

I am aiming for a thoughtful corner amid the Information Highway. As I write these words I realize that Information Highway, like so many, is a term already spoiled in youth.

This spot will be part garden, part instruction, part diary, part inspiration. All those parts add up to more than I can settle on this page the first time out.

Today I went to lunch with two fellow writers and an agent. It was one of those rare lunches that writers tell their friends about. The kind that could appear on an HBO series. With maybe a little more lipstick for the camera. A few chic accessories and handbags in sight. Some of us counting carbs. Four women in an ethnic restaurant in a trendy city chatting about new book contracts; books recently written in a five month-have-I-lost-my-mind-rush; deals in the making; the meaning of romantic suspense and genres we don’t read. Interspersed with plans for a Niagara Falls wedding, hilarious tales of on-line dating, and a discussion about how an agent cannot really sell a writer’s work unless he or she loves it. We dispersed. I met an editing client then went out for a walk and bought pink tulips.

As I drove along on my errands, I passed trees resplendent in pale pink blossoms. Every spring it is the same. The flowering trees suddenly bloom, a surprise so complete and deep that when you pass these beauties you need to remind yourself that yesterday you were sitting in a third floor office in a meeting you’d rather forget for several reasons. But the window dead ahead was a giant and you watched as three ticktocked to four and the sky turned to gunmetal and rain slashed against the glass. You wished for your umbrella and the gray went on forever, obscuring soft hills in the distance. And yes this was a viewpoint change.

And then today, pink blooms as soft as baby’s eyelids are pouting in the formerly naked trees.


Some parts of this day have already soured, but what I know is this: Beginning and struggling writers believe that the gap between them and the publishing world is a vast, vast chasm. But anything can be circumvented, crossed, made real. There IS a receptive place out there; readers longing for new words, who need to be entertained, delighted, informed. We are the storytellers, the truthsayers. We are the means, the keepers of the flame. The magic is ours.

So write for the love of it. Write to make a buck. Write to entertain yourself, to tell your kids about the vast skies of your childhood. Write because the churning angst and pain within can only be soothed by words. Write because though its an activity undertaken while seated, it makes you stand tall. But mostly, just write.