"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.

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.