"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.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Well I’m finally back at my desk with the radio on (Air America) and a cup of Earl Grey tea at hand. It sounds like the morning traffic is a mess and includes an injured goose….After the blistering heat of Indiana, the cool air here feels like diving into a deep, cold stream. This morning I actually closed windows because the morning air was too chilly and it looks like the weather forecast is calling for moderate temperatures for the next week….I’m so grateful.

I returned from the Midwest Writer’s Conference last night and after watering my many pots and flowerbeds (two huge pots of fuchsias in the front are looking increasingly sickly but the rest are fine) I settled onto my couch to finish the last chapters of Sue Miller’s Lost in the Forest. I had picked it up at the Indianapolis airport and it kept me interested as my planes (there was a stopover in Denver) headed west.

It’s the story of a family in turmoil and has three viewpoint characters. It begins in the middle at a point of crisis—the sudden accidental death of a secondary character, John (always a good place to begin a novel) and then flashes back in time, moves forward, and ends in the present. But what’s most interesting about the structure is that it begins in the viewpoints of Mark and Eva—the parents in a family, and at first it appears that the story is about them and their marriage and divorce. But then chapter four slips into Daisy’s viewpoint and Miller starts slipping in a series of surprises and twists. Daisy is their pre-teenage daughter and at an awkward stage when her viewpoint is introduced and as the story continues, her predicament has the most conflict in it and reader interest. The reason her story is most important and intriguing is that she’s the most vulnerable character in the story.

I taught three fiction workshops at the Midwest Conference and in each one mentioned that fiction is about vulnerability. In the Reader’s Guide section of the book Miller writes: “I wanted to have Daisy uniquely vulnerable to the events of her family’s life. Her shyness, her unattractiveness at the moment of the story, her greater vulnerability to her parents’ divorce and the birth of Theo, her greater devastation at John’s death—all those mean that she’s very fragile, very in need at exactly the moment when her parents, too are most fragile and in need….”

I rest my case. Vulnerability, fragility, along with physical danger are deliciously involving in fictional characters, keeping us tuned in and turning pages.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

So last night I experienced what the word “sea change” means. It was about 8 o’clock and the temperature finally starting dropping for the first time in days. I had been lying on the couch reading Chang-rae Lee’s gorgeous novel Aloft with a fan aimed at me, when something drew me to the window and I realized that marine air was arrivng. I immediately started opening windows, installing fans, adjusting my hopes. Besides watering my plants, this preoccupation with trying to maximize cool air while blocking out hot air has kept me busy throughout this heat wave.

I took my book to the patio with a glass of decent rose’ and turned on the sprinkler. It whizzed an arc of spray, the water thrumming against a drain pipe and fence, with damp, earthy smells rising, all reminding me of childhood. I stayed outside sipping and reading, taking breaks to deadhead flowers and tend plants until it was too dark to see anything. I’ve missed being outdoors these past days.

After running errands yesterday I slipped into a theater to watch Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. As I walked across the parking lot pavement the heat felt punishing and frightening and I mentioned to the woman taking money at the box office that watching the movie seemed appropriate under the current weather conditions, but she was confused by my statement. In case there are many among us who don’t believe in the global warming, this film will convince you. The more I listened to the thoughtful and articulate Gore, the more I wondered what the country and world would be like if he were running the country, if the election hadn’t been stolen from him.

When I returned from the film I started telling my across the street neighbor about it. I am flying to Indiana tomorrow to teach workshops at the Midwest Writing Conference and I asked him to water my plants while I’m away. We don’t know each other well but from time to time get together in his yard or mine to talk politics. He was a drill sergeant during the Vietnam War and the experience of readying young men for a frivolous, unwinable war changed him. He told me last night that he’s got a deep feeling in his gut that the country is ready for a violent revolution—that corruption in government and in big business will drive people to rise up. He’s especially incensed about companies that get away with ripping off their employees’ pensions. One of his hunting buddies worked for PGE (a subsidiary of Enron) for 45 years and his pension of almost a million dollars simply disappeared. His friend claims there are no words to describe his loss and rage.

I countered that I sense just the opposite—an apathy so pervasive and stultifying that it will probably take gas prices rising to $5 a gallon (not impossible to imagine with conditions in the Middle East such as they are) to rouse people from their stupor, their hundreds of cable channels and beer. I don’t have answers but this heat is ominous and we need sane, grown up leadership and decision makers. I am reminded of a conversation I had with the novelist Anne Perry last October at the Surrey Conference in B.C. As we discussed politics and the state of the world, I told her that I thought the heart of the problem worldwide was a failure of leadership. Then we both tried to think of a world leader who we respected and were stumped. Mike Slade, an author and lawyer joined us at the table and he too could not offer a name. And so it goes. Today it might reach 90 again, but at least the evening and morning are cool.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

In times of war the truth is so precious it must be protected by a bodyguard of lies. Winston Churchill

This is day four of another heat wave. Today is supposed to be a blistering 96 or 98 degrees with humidity of 51%. (Makes me wonder how hot it is in Iraq today. How the heat feels when you’re wearing Kevlar or whatever protective vests are made of. That is, if there are enough vests to go around….) One of the reasons I live in Portland is to avoid hot weather and humidity. Give me clouds any day and curses to the fools who don’t believe in global warming.

Last night I hung out with a friend in his air conditioned condo. I brought take-out Thai food and we watched Syriana. I’m still thinking about the movie and along with the heat, it invaded my dreams last night and into the dawn. I might watch it again because the plots twists, quick scene jumps, and large cast were a bit difficult to track. For those who haven’t seen it, it’s a bleak political thriller about oil, terrorism, money, and power. Interestingly, lots of mention of Iran and Hezbollah and scenes shot in Beirut (which I doubt is recognizable now that Israel is bombing the hell out of it). After watching the film with all its scheming and hypocrisy played out, you’re pretty sure the shenanigans between Washington, the Middle East oil cartels and American and multi-national oil companies are all depressingly accurate. It was directed by Stephen Gaglan who also directed Traffic and stars George Clooney (also a producer), Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright with roles by William Hurt, Christopher Plummer, Amanda Peet, and the always great Chris Cooper. Gaglan wrote the screenplay based on a book by Robert Baer.

I’m left wondering why Clooney gained so much weight for his role and if he’s still living in France these days. Now if Clooney would run for president, he’s an actor I’d vote for. A thinking girl’s sex symbol; a patriot because he cares about the country and its constitution; and overall modest and interesting man. Thank goodness someone is still making movies about the truth of our times.

Meanwhile NPR is droning on about the latest air strikes and death counts in Lebanon. This is Day 11 and Condoleeza Rice is finally heading to the Middle East for talks. This mishandling and dull-witted, tone deaf, bungling approach is Katrina all over again. Did I mention that heat makes me cranky and I hate this corrupt and inept administration?

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Grace is the absence of everything that indicates pain or difficulty, hesitation or incongruity. William Hazlitt

Last night I was sitting on the ground at Cathedral Park listening to music and gazing across the river at the wide and graceful span of the St. Johns bridge. It’s an amazing bridge—medieval and timeless in design and when I’m around it, I feel transported back in time. Perhaps this sense has been influenced by my reading George R. R. Martin’s series set in the faraway and long-ago Seven Kingdoms. I’m on the fourth book and so caught up in the twists and troubles of the sprawling cast, that it’s difficult to not read…. But anyway, I’ve been thinking about grace and lately I’ve been noticing my lack of it. Here’s why:

In the past month or so I have broken my toe, injured my back, had an allergy attack of such severity that it I had to rush in for immediate tests because it felt like I was having a stroke and heart attack at the same time, my computer died, my waistline expanded, I missed an appointment to be interviewed on public radio because I forgot to write it down, drove one and half hours through a traffic jam for a book signing/ mini-lecture attended by three people who did not buy copies of my book, had a panic attack while driving along a zigzag mountain pass at 5000 feet, took a break from talking to a family member because her mental illness makes me want to smash habanera peppers into my eyes, and while reapplying lipstick outdoors in daylight saw such a haggard visage that I feared someone might land a house on me and wrest my ruby slippers from my curling toes.

Meanwhile, I’ve never caught up on my paperwork, have racked up some impressive medical bills, forgot to check the “do not send” boxes on my club notices, am falling behind in writing my book although a preliminary deadline is looming in a few months, have not sent my agent the proposal I promised her in June, went on a shopping spree when my bank account was anemic, ranted “Don’t you read?” along with other bits of outrage when one of my dearest friends proclaimed there was no such thing as global warning, have counseled several perfectly lovely writers that the manuscript that they’ve been slaving over needs a complete rewrite, developed yet another sinus infection that felt like a sadist was jamming an ice pick into my left nostril and eye, had a bad reaction to an antibiotic, and endured a heat wave without air conditioning.

So if you’ve just been diagnosed with cancer, been recently in a head-on collision, or are in the midst of a bitter divorce, things might not look so bad at my end of the street. But for some of you, you might realize that I’m going through a dark night of the soul that will take a certain amount of grace to navigate. I’ve wallowed through times much worse than this one, and have looked back and wished I’d handled myself with more grace. So I’m trying to readjust to quell myself when I start whining, but mostly to rein in my thoughts, especially the bitter and angry ones, before they take over my mind like wildfire.

Grace isn’t one of my best attributes—I’ve got lousy depth perception and eyes that don’t match so I walk into things (hence the broken toe), I brood, have terrible allergies and a lousy immune system so thus have reason for self pity, spend a lot of time alone and even though I know better, often see the worst in people. I’m the type of person who wakes up in the cold light of dawn regretting something she blurted out the previous evening after the main course. I’ve been known to hold a grudge, swear at rude drivers in front of small children, make snap judgments later reversed, gossip, and nurse slights like a playground nerd picking at a scab. I can remember nightmares from when I was three, and the various traumas, heartbreaks and missed opportunities that make up my history. I often forget to count my blessings, look for silver linings, and or keep on the sunny side of the street.

I’ve frequently fallen from grace and it makes me feel small and uneasy. And I think that grace is related to writing, just as most everything is related to writing. I’m not talking about the religious concept of grace that means mercy, but rather the broader definition. The word has Middle English, Latin, Greek, and French origins meaning everything from beloved and effortlessness and artfulness. It is related to gratus and gratitude. In Greek mythology, Grace is depicted in the three sister goddesses, Aglaia, Euphrosyne, and Thalia, who dispense charm and beauty and are favorite subjects for sculptors. When I’ve come across statues of any of this trio, I’ve paused at their fluidity that is somehow imposed on marbles, symmetry of beauty and charm. Grace is also defined as elegance and beauty of movement or expression, a disposition to kindness and compassion, benign good will.

Because although it might sound like I need a horse whisperer for my clumsy soul, I actually think I’m getting better at grace all the time and because I meet people who embody it and read writers who make me want to reach for it. And because even when I’m hobbling along in pain or sweating through a heat wave, there is always a part of me that cannot be tarnished. This part always notices things to write about and chats away with strangers and laughs a lot, and remembers to say thank you and relishes reading and finds the caress of summer air unspeakably delicious. And feels an enormous amount of compassion for most people muddling around on this rotating planet, especially writers and artists.

I don’t have a formula for grace but I think it’s part humor, part compassion, part resiliency, part generosity and part relishing life in all its shades of black, blue and golden. It is the outward expression of your inner zen and love of life. My graceful self is willowy and patient and always kind to myself. It is part Buddha, part giggling toddler, part downhill skier in the zone. Grace seems to come to me when I most need it like a parched ground needs rain. Grace is when you carry on when you want to whine, when you write when you want to slack off and watch reality television, when you negotiate with your child rather than issue threats and ultimatums,

I’m inspired toward grace by other writers I know, especially those who are coping with bad luck of the draw. I know a woman who left a bad marriage, then reinvented her life with a new job, a new band, and a new methods of dealing with an autistic son. I’ve recently been contacted by a writer who wrote to my as he was reading my book and described how he was hit by a drunk driver traveling at 75 miles an hour. When he awoke from a two-week coma his short-term memory was gone. But he’s just written a book designed to help people with brain injuries; while yet another writer I know who was severely injured by a drunk driver gives talks around the country to teens. I know a woman who was dumped by her husband and doesn’t look back with regrets and instead conjured her first book deal and is off on a road trip that she calls a bliss quest. I know another writer who treats her husband with kindness even during the times he tries to drink himself to death and yet another writer friend who is caring for her brain-damaged husband at home after he was pronounced dead for twelve minutes.

Because of the circumstances of their lives, most of these writers cannot write as much as they want to, or even take vacations from their troubles. But I see grace etched in their every caring gesture, coating their brave hearts.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward; for there you have been, and there you long to return. ~ Leonardo Da Vinci

Last night I was driving home around ten from playing mahjongg. I had won that evening and it was the fifth time I played and I was finally getting the hang of the game, even the complicated scoring system. The game has a certain mystique carried over from past centuries and you begin the game by being assigned one of the four directions and building a wall of tiles. Last year I wrote a book on the I Ching and while researching the topic and Taoism in general, I thought a lot about the differences between the philosophies of the East and West.

With these thoughts tickling my mind, I came to a stretch of the road and ahead me was a low-hanging full moon, that was so huge and magical that I gasped at the sight of it. It was not as burnished as a harvest moon, but still had a pale golden hue, and was gleaming and mysterious as a fever dream. When I reached home I went out to my patio to hang out, bathing in the moonglow, but I could only see it by standing tiptoe and peering over the fence. Disappointed, I went to bed to read but from time to time would peek out the blinds at it, still touched by its magic.

Yesterday I finished reading George R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords which is book three in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. Before the mahjongg game, I tried to buy book four but the bookstore I visited didn’t have a copy so I’ll visit Powells, always a treat to bask in this bastion of books and words. I’ve rarely read fantasy because I prefer fiction that’s more reality based, but this remarkable series has opened my eyes to the potential in all storytelling. To the basic drives in humankind that can be told with sword fights and wolves and castles. Each of the three books weigh in at 900+ pages and is centered around a theme—the first book A Game of Thrones is about honor, the A Clash of Kings about power and the third book betrayal. The scope of Martin’s imagination, which includes a complicated society, royal families and a cast of hundreds, is simply inspiring. The books include maps of the north and south sections of the kingdom and an appendix with complicated lists of royal families, sworn brothers of the Watch (a three hundred- mile wall that keeps the northern tribes of wildings out) outlaws and other houses.

Martin began writing as kid and sold his stories to neighborhood kids and was first published when he was 21. This lifelong apprenticeship is easily noted in his work which is as finely crafted as an ancient tapestry. I’ve started wondering if there is some way I can interview him or contact him. But here are his words about why he writes fantasy:

"The best fantasy is written in the language of dreams. It is alive as dreams are alive, more real than real ... for a moment at least ... that long magic moment before we wake.

Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true?

We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.

They can keep their heaven. When I die, I'd sooner go to middle Earth."

Friday, July 07, 2006

Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

William Stafford

A few nights ago I attended a concert at a new park in the Portland area, Foothills Park in Lake Oswego. It lies between downtown Lake Oswego and the Willamette River and was created from industrial land that was recently purchased. The park has been landscaped with care and walking around it, you can imagine that in five or ten years when the plantings and trees are more mature that it will be a sweet haven of green and wind-tossed trees. A sculpture that commemorates the poet William Stafford sits at the north edge of the park, along a path that winds above the river. It was designed by artist Frank Boyden and is a grouping of lean, vertical stones that creates connections between the river and nature and Stafford's work. Lines from his poetry such as “the stream is always revising” and “water is always ready to learn” are etched into the stones and seem to coax the reader to absorb Stafford’s ideas and the vista at the same time.

One of the stones has this complete poem etched into it:
You Reading This, Be Ready
Starting here, what do you want to remember? How sunlight creeps along a shining floor? What scent of old wood hovers, what softened sound from outside fills the air? Will you ever bring a better gift for the world than the breathing respect that you carry wherever you go right now? Are you waiting for time to show you some better thoughts? When you turn around, starting here, lift this new glimpse that you found; carry into evening all that you want from this day. This interval you spent reading or hearing this, keep it for life-What can anyone give you greater than now, starting here, right in this room, when you turn around? William Stafford

Since I visited the park I’ve been thinking about Stafford’s work and legacy, about the example he lived. How he moved here from Kansas and adopted the West and gloried in the land here. I’ve been especially thinking about how he was a conscientious objector during World War II and served in a conservation corps as his sentence. He wrote about those experiences and he wrote a poem every morning including the day he died in 1993. I wonder what he’d think about these political times when "liberal" has been coined as an obscenity; where Americans are being spied on by their government; where elections are stolen and compromised; and laws, including the Geneva Convention, tossed aside for the convenience of furthering corruption and consolidating power. I wonder what sort of poems he’d write in the midst of all this, what we –poets and novelists and screenwriters—should be writing in brave response.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

So I broke my toe a few days ago and last night decided to stay home from fourth of July festivities so I could rest. If someone or something brushes against it, the pain is awful and I don’t want to imagine what will happen if someone steps on it. Tonight I’m attending an outdoor concert and can only wear flip-flops, so I’ll try to guard my foot from the crowd. I bashed it into the edge of an antique chest on Saturday night and well, there’s not much you can do with a broken toe except bandage it to its neighbor toe and try to stay off your feet.

Since I’ve already mastered editing while sprawled on the couch, I can handle this but am getting behind in my exercise program. I cannot remember the last time I stayed home on the fourth of July, but it seems that that they invented a lot of new fireworks since then. My neighborhood erupted in them last night and one device sounded so much like a bomb going off that I felt like I was living in Baghdad.

Years ago, when I first moved to the Northwest, I visited my brother for the fourth. My brother lives in the Yakima valley and grows wine grapes and cherries on 120 acres. That July we attended a pig roast-luau at one of his friend’s home. Most of his friends work in the wine industry and gather regularly for dinners and parties where remarkable wines are served. I remember the pig had been wrapped in imported banana leaves and our host was groggy and silly since he’d been up the night before tending it. I remember that I had pitched in and helped carve it and felt transported back in time to a medieval feast as I sawed flesh off the huge beast.

There were probably 100 people at the party and later at dusk, I was holding a baby named Guy while the Rolling Stones blasted from the stereo. Guy was about six months old and chubby and dark haired and good natured and adorable. At the time I hadn’t held a baby in years and his heft and smell were familiar and lovely. We were standing out on the road—the couple lived in the country outside a small town and in the distance the fireworks display from town began. The fireworks were perhaps a mile away and as each one erupted into the night sky Guy would coo and sigh and arch his tiny body at the thrill of the glittering display. I’ve never forgotten the newness of his experience and his appreciation of the bedazzled sky.

I think a lot about tricks for living well and how some of these tricks I’m still trying to master and some I don’t know if I ever will. But several I’m good at—living with awareness and trying to see things with the eyes of a child. For some people it’s not possible to hang out with children and slip into their world view so you must do it on your own. Because this freshness of view is like your first fireworks, your first ice cream, your first carnival. If you live with newness and awareness the smallest outing like a trip to the grocery store becomes an opportunity to really see the goods and people and feel the chilled air of the freezer section and notice all the giddy colors of the fruits and vegetables in the produce section. If it’s all new and if you’re noticing all the time, everything becomes an adventure.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

It’s officially a holiday weekend, hot but not blistering and I've been writing since I awoke except for a few breaks for laundry and meals. I've got one more writing project on today's to-do list and then I'm heading out for errands and just to take a break.

Last night I invited two of my former students over for dinner and we sat in my back yard until midnight the crescent moon winking overhead talking about writing and divorce and special diets and trust and men and writing. Athena brought her laptop and showed us photos of her recent road trips including one where her red Jeep is parked within the crotch of a giant redwood. She talked about her blog (www.theblissquest.com) her book deal to write ghost stories about Seattle, and brought along a notebook so filled with life and color and art and whimsy that I wanted to steal it on the spot.

The other writer Mary fretted about finding time to write between working full time, commuting too many hours, playing in a band, and taking care of a dog and special-needs son. She also owns a home and is thinking of buying smaller one, with a more manageable yard as one solution. She described an incident when her son locked her out of the house and she was forced to call the fire department. How when they were breaking into her house, a fireman informed her that her gutters needed cleaning and they were causing water to leak into her basement.
So she hired a kid to clean the gutters, but it’s all a lot to cope with and write too and meanwhile, her agent might send out her novel again if she was working on a new one.

At times like this, when really nice writers deserve a break, I wish I was a millionaire or a fairy god mother. I’d grant Mary a year or two off from work so she could settle into a new novel and I’d provide a gardener and pay for day care for her son. When I was kid there was a television program on the air called The Millionaire. Each episode began with Dali-esque swirling graphics that sort of made you dizzy watching them, as if you were falling into the television set. The concept of the series was that each week the millionaire, John Beresford Tipton, would anonymously give someone a million dollars through his assistant and then the story evolved around the ramifications of this generosity. The millionaire’s associate, the actor Marvin Miller as Michael Anthony, would deliver a tax-free cashier's check on the condition that they never try to discover who sent it, or reveal where the money came from, except to their husband or wife.

Anthony was often on the sidelines as newly-minted millionaires would often run into trouble because of their wealth, sometimes learning hard truths such as money can't buy happiness. The episodes would end with Anthony reporting to his boss about the lessons that the recipients learned. Like Rod Serling’s brilliant series The Twilight Zone of the same period, it managed to deliver drama without being preachy or moralistic.

Some days I have so many yearnings that I can scarcely sit down to write or keep my wits about me. Just this morning I was thinking that if I’d studied math and science more in school I would have loved to work in brain research. The older I get and the more I witness about how people screw up their lives, the more I want to know the brain’s role in our sorrows. Or maybe that’s just a way to acknowledge how difficult writing can be.

But back to Mary and other time-starved writers. Sometimes there are no simple solutions for a crowded life. You try to write the best you can, snatching moments here and there. Parents of young children often must scrabble together writing time like kisses stolen in church. You carry a notebook all the time, all the time. You write when you’re tired and on your lunch hour. But you don’t put it off until the children are grown and the mortgage is paid. I’ve met a lot of these writers who waited until retirement or they had reached a certain point of ease. And just like most of us, writing still doesn’t come easy, they still need discipline and persistence. But what I have noticed also about these writers is that sometimes when they delayed their writing ambitions, that by the time they settled into the writing life, that not only had the fire of their youth waned, but also sometimes passion for things big and small had waned too.