Writing a novel is a terrible experience…

flanneryWriting a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.

FLANNERY O’CONNOR

Jon Winokur’s Advice to Writers once again nails my mood.

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« Any Life Will Provide Material for Writing | Main | Writers Don’t Write From Experience »

Writing A Novel Is A Terrible Experience

Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.

FLANNERY O’CONNOR

God’s Hotel

GodsHotel_CVF-200x300My friend Carolynne makes the best book recommendations. So when she said, “Everyone should read God’s Hotel,” way last summer, I ordered a copy. I read the first half or so, and I did like it, but I found myself bogging down in the descriptions of the patients — it was too close to home for me — and I soon mislaid it. At Christmas I gave it to a good friend who works with the elderly.

Then, I saw it on CD at the library. I was between audio books, and I picked it up. Read by the author, Victoria Sweet, it carried me away.

When Carolynne said “everyone,” I figured that was hyperbole. But now I think she was right. We are in a health care crisis in this country, and Dr. Sweet, working in one of the last Almshouses (yes, you heard that right) in California, if not the entire country, gets right to the heart of that crisis.

Who do we take care of? What are people for, anyway? Do we have compassion for people who are sick, of any age, often elderly, for those who are mentally ill, for those who have destroyed their bodies with drugs or alcohol? Do we have compassion? What about those born brain-damaged or otherwise impaired? Who lives, who dies, who decides?

Weaving in her studies of St. Hildegard of Bingen, and her own complex journey, Dr. Sweet raises these hard questions. Ultimately, or so it seems to me, she believes with writers such as Henri Nouwen that we are all God’s children, and deserve to be loved and to belong. Like Atul Gawande and Oliver Sacks, one of things she learns is that her patients have much to teach her.

Here’s an excerpt, taken from the tale of a dying patient who, when Dr. Sweet asked if she needed anything, had a simple, doable request.

“I was, and am to this day, floored by her response. I was, and am, awestruck by such equanimity. She wanted — not euthanasia or a miraculous cure, stronger pain medications or a second opinion but — different food. A pair of glasses. She said nothing about her terrible misfortune. She was calm, matter-of-fact. Somehow she’d accepted her fate, and it was the small things, that were important to her.

“We did change her diet, and we did get her new glasses. Not long after, she moved to another ward, and there she died peacefully, eighteen months later. But her lesson, which I was taught over and over again by so many patients, took me much longer to assimilate. Bravery. A core, a rock of self, radiating courage.” (30-31)

God’s Hotel: a Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine untangled for me (finally) the definition of Alzheimer’s within the definition of dementia. She cares about things like the difference between anima and animus almost as much as she cares about her patients. Dr. Sweet is the sort of doctor one hopes to have at one’s bedside. A doctor who knows the names of not only the patients, but of the nurses and the janitors and the cooks.

And it is written beautifully, in simple, clear prose that makes us see and hear the story as it unfolds.

 

Calling Up the Writer Within — Jill Jepson

writing as a sacred pathI recently recommended this “Short Guide to Writing at 50 and Beyond” to the members of The Writing Lab, but having now read it, I want to recommend it to all of you, even if you are not yet 50. “Writing isn’t a breeze,” Jepson explains, “it’s a challenge.” The rewards go not to the one with oodles of talent, but the one who persists on the path.

“As I look back over the many writers I’ve mentored, coached, and taught, it becomes very clear that the ones who eventually made it weren’t necessarily the most brilliant or promising. It was the ones who persisted. The writers who found success were the ones who failed, then tried, then failed, then tried again, and kept at it even when it looked like they weren’t getting anywhere.”

Jepson’s guide includes a list of “old” writers (Laura Ingalls Wilder, for one), and strategies for how to get started.

I also highly recommend her book, but to receive the short guide, all you have to do is travel to her website (see the link above) and sign up.

And then, of course, you have to write.

 

 

Cancellation, but…

76dc6-1407553467404We have had to cancel our class in Olympia, but are regrouping and hope to offer it closer to home. Let us know if you have any ideas about location or timing.

Bethany & Margaret

P.S.: Margaret–who spends lots of time in Olympia–will be at Fusion to meet with anyone who shows up for the class (just in case). And she’ll offer some chakra work, for free!

O Wines

o winesAfter my recent post about not believing that “there are no accidents,” I had a number of readers email and scold me. Of course there are no accidents!, they insisted.

Okay, okay. I know what you mean, and in a way I agree with you. Although I don’t believe God sends us hardship to build our character, or that when bad things happen we should just accept them as fate, I do think that it’s our job to pay attention, and that when we pay attention, we can make something out of whatever happens to us.

I used to quote a statistic to my students about how we are bombarded with information  — something like 11 million bits of data available in every moment — and how writing can help us to narrow down that onslaught and pay attention to a more deliberate fraction of it. Most of the time, we don’t pay attention. We check our phones or daydream. I guess one could say that these (phones, daydreams) are data, too, but the point is, a lot of life escapes us because we are not letting it in. There’s a little exercise in a book I have: write down 5 smells you notice around you; 4 things on the floor or the ground; 3 things you see out the window or in your view; 5 qualities you notice in any other person in the room; a texture; 4 colors. What can you notice if you are awake to your life, right now? Could you make a poem out of it?

Well, to get to the point of this post. So the other night when my cousin texted me and said, “You’re on TV!” and when I watched the 10:00 edition of Evening Magazine (see the link) and saw this very old graduation picture (it appears for about 1 second) included in a story about O Wines, I had to think about what I would do with the information.

One thing I can do is order some wine. And for another, I can share the story with you.

So very cool to see my old friend Stacy on this path. What are you paying attention to today? As Mary Oliver asks, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Bird’s Thumb

Towhee_0049The new issue of Bird’s Thumb is now available — and includes my poem, “Spotted Towhee.”

This is especially timely as my poem is about my brother, and today is my brother’s last day at work — he is retiring and moving back back home, to a house on the farm where we grew up. Happy retirement, Eric!

Scroll down to see the announcement of the Elegy reading tomorrow at Edmonds Bookshop.

 

Reading this coming Saturday!

edmonds bookshop***********************************************************
The Edmonds Book Shop
Invites you to an Afternoon of Poetry
Saturday, February 6 at Noon

Poets and Poetry on Elegy:
Remembering, Healing, Celebrating, Honoring

featuring local poets
John Wright, Holly Hughes, Bethany Reid, and Priscilla Long.

Edmonds Book Shop
111 5th Ave South
Edmonds, WA  98020
425-775-2789
For directions and a map, please check the website:
http://www.edmondsbookshop.com/