Your Journal Assignment for Tomorrow Morning

CAM00691“Mightn’t it be a good thing if everyone had to draw a map of his own mind — say, once every five years? With the chief towns marked, and the arterial roads he was constructing from one idea to another, and all the lovely and abandoned by-lanes that he never went down, because the farms they led to were all empty?”

I have been reflecting on this passage from Charles Williams’ The Place of the Lion for a couple of weeks now, and am still not at all sure what he meant by  it. I wonder, though, if most of us, challenged to do so, could draw a map of our own mind.

Asked why we support one political party or another — for instance — we can’t really say why, not beyond the standard prejudices and logical fallacies. I suspect that many people support the Democrats or the Republicans because their parents supported them, and their inherited notions are shored up by a lifetime of watching and reading only news that justifies what we already believe.

This kind of narrow or shallow belief is a terrible dilemma for a writer. A writer, in my humble opinion, needs to be willing to examine her own deepest beliefs and see into them, even through them. She needs to understand that her beliefs are not necessarily “true,” but a kind of lens through which she views the world. She needs to be willing to set her lens aside, and even to pick up another lens now and then. Otherwise she runs the risk of creating one-dimensional characters and  a world that feels less than authentic. I’m not saying the writer has to smash her lens with a hammer or permanently misplace them, just that she can (must) risk imagining from another’s viewpoint.

A long time ago, when one of my frequent teaching duties was a class called Writing the Research Paper, I used to require that students choose for their big, end-of-the-quarter research paper, a topic they were willing to look at from both sides. On their list of sources they had to include written arguments on both sides of the topic, and personal interviews. (We talked at length about how to have a respectful conversation with someone holding an opposite viewpoint.)

My students didn’t always follow my advice, or they did so in the most cursory way — choosing topics such as gun control or abortion (and quarter after quarter producing one-sided papers I grew very, very tired of reading). But when a student did take me seriously, the results were astounding. Often, the student writer found her opinion flipping from one side of the argument to the other. It was life-changing. north america

Charles Williams thought every five years would suffice, but what if for every presidential election season, you had to read all the pros and cons and have respectful conversations with people from your opposite political party, and actually make an accounting of why you think what you think?

What if you had to take a turn arguing the opposite side?

What if you could draw a map of your own mind? What winding staircases would you sketch in? What nearly overgrown paths might you reclaim? What towers would you dismantle?

Would you discover any newly created volcanic islands or a significant shift of continents? Can you say what it is exactly that you believe? Can you explain why you believe it?

 

 

 

What’s Up?

July has been a whirlwind of birthdays, weddings, and family get-togethers. I have not been very faithful about blog posts. I have been writing every morning, in my journal, and I’ve been going through my entire novel a little bit at a time, thinking-thinking-thinking about its structure and what the characters need most and what I want most from it. I’ve been trying to let it be. 

I am looking forward to taking August OFF of prose for poetry — August and maybe September, too.

  • I’m going to attend Peace Arts in Bellingham and take a class on August 3.
  • I’m a featured reader at the Auburn AugustFest celebration of poetry, on August 13.
  • I’ll be doing the August Poetry Postcard send-out again. If you would like me to send you a postcard poem, you can email your address to me (yes, that’s snail mail — an actual uniformed representative of our government will deliver your poem to your mailbox!) at bethany.alchemy@gmail.com.

Just for good measure, I’ll send you my snail mail address, too.

Now, off to the wedding. And here’s a love poem, just to hold my place.

A Blessing for Wedding

BY JANE HIRSHFIELD

Today when persimmons ripen
Today when fox-kits come out of their den into snow
Today when the spotted egg releases its wren song
Today when the maple sets down its red leaves
Today when windows keep their promise to open
Today when fire keeps its promise to warm
Today when someone you love has died
     or someone you never met has died
Today when someone you love has been born
     or someone you will not meet has been born
Today when rain leaps to the waiting of roots in their dryness
Today when starlight bends to the roofs of the hungry and tired
Today when someone sits long inside his last sorrow
Today when someone steps into the heat of her first embrace
Today, let this light bless you
With these friends let it bless you
With snow-scent and lavender bless you
Let the vow of this day keep itself wildly and wholly
Spoken and silent, surprise you inside your ears
Sleeping and waking, unfold itself inside your eyes
Let its fierceness and tenderness hold you
Let its vastness be undisguised in all your days

A Page a Day Is a Book a Year

books booksWhen we started the Writing Lab several years ago, one participant shared her dissertation director’s advice, “A page a day is a book a year.” I’ve repeated this many times, and was pleased to find it attributed by Advice to Writers to  Richard Rhodes.

If you’re afraid you can’t write, the answer is to write. Every sentence you construct adds weight to the balance pan. If you’re afraid of what other people will think of your efforts, don’t show them until you write your way beyond your fear. If writing a book is impossible, write a chapter. If writing a chapter is impossible, write a page. If writing a page is impossible, write a paragraph. If writing a paragraph is impossible, write a sentence. If writing even a sentence is impossible, write a word and teach yourself everything there is to know about that word and then write another, connected word and see where their connection leads. A page a day is a book a year. -RICHARD RHODES

You need not quit your day job in order to write your page-a-day. This is doable. Even in fifteen minutes a day (maybe a little more). It is worth noting, however, that simply writing a page a day will not magically produce a book.

This is a complex meditation — particularly as not every writer wishes to write a book, let alone “a book a year.” One may want to write for reasons too personal for publication. One may wish to write very, very slowly. I am happy to applaud either impulse. But if you  want to write a book, what do you have to do besides write a page a day?

Decide what your book is. It’s basic advice: if you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there? Take some time with this. My friend Shawna twice a year takes a personal retreat and plans for the next stage of her work. Whether or not you can justify getting away, try spending a few hours making notes and planning your book. What is it about? What will you put into it? What will you leave out? Who will read it? Who will you thank on your acknowledgments page? What size will it be?

cropped-cam00264.jpgPush beyond your current habit. If you write longhand (as I do), then you must type up what you write. This is actually rather huge for me — I scribble a lot of poetry and very little of it gets typed up. As I have a goal to compile a new poetry manuscript this year, I seriously need to change this habit.

And there are so many very small habits (those things we take for granted) to tinker with. If you are thoroughly used to sitting in one place while you work (or don’t work), try a different chair. Move your desk from one corner of your office to another. Stand up at your tall kitchen counter (my sister has one of these and I do this when I work at her house). Take your notebook and go out somewhere to work. Shake things up.

Make it “official.” A very long time ago, I learned this from the writer and teacher Lois cropped-cropped-lois-phillips-hudsonHudson. She had a theory that when writers did their work and stored it exclusively in word-processing programs, in computers (no laptops back then, so far as I knew), we were no longer holding our books entire “in our heads.” She considered it to be of absolute necessity that pages be printed out and reread, as pages, and not as screens. “Too bad about the trees!” (This was sincere; she really did care about the trees.) Whether or not she was right (about any of this), I find that printing out the page and putting it in a notebook helps me to conceptualize my project as a book, a complete and important entity. Having a title page is the next obvious step in making a piece of writing feel official. A rough outline (or a more detailed one), even a table of contents, of sorts, can help you steadily move in the direction you need to go.

Don’t just imagine an audience — go in search of one. I have the Writing Lab where I share poetry, but I also have some trusted friends who are always willing to take a look at any on-going project. If you are new to this process of sharing your work, it helps to decide beforehand what sort of feedback you want. If you are at a stage where you’re not at all sure of yourself, ask for praise. You can ask what’s working, what your reader likes so far, what he or she would like to see more of — or anything else. (Just sit there, smiling and nodding. When I’m finished, say “Bravo!”)

Celebrate the small steps. As you know (if you read my blog), I read a lot of books of the Self Help variety. Many of the writers in this genre suggest giving oneself rewards. I always feel…a little paralyzed around this. I tell myself I can go to a movie or buy a new book or get a pedicure, if I’ll just ______________ (fill in the blank). But these things just don’t work. (If I want a book, I generally buy it whether or not I deserve it. Ditto for the others.) But while hanging out with my dog, Pabu, the other day, I realized that he is pabu1motivated by the eeniest, teeniest treats. A half a milk-bone, a really small, heart-shaped training treat, a good rub to his ears. I’m not that different. I want positive reinforcement, a “You go, girl!” A pat on the back. A foil star on the calendar.

If you want to write a book this year, I’m on your side.

By the way (speaking of audience), I will be reading with four other poets this Wednesday evening, 7 p.m. at Third Place Books, Ravenna. (Click on the link to find more information.)

Seeing Differently

Although the Theodore Roetheke-esque title is what first drew me to it, one of my favorite blogs, Loren Webster’s In a Dark Time…the Eye Begins to See, is not about writing, but about photography, often of birds. A recent post, “Logan Visits Gramps,” in which Webster shares his grandson’s turn at the camera, reminded me of my quest to see differently, and so I’m sharing it with you.

logan1

The willingness to see a situation differently is an excellent way to finesse changes in one’s life. When I feel really stymied by a relationship, or upset by something someone or other has said to me, or pissed off by the latest political brouhaha, or (for that matter) stuck in a writing difficulty, when I truly cannot seem to get past that feeling of stuckness, then reminding myself of this little mantra can help. Maybe I can’t see it differently right now, but I can be willing to see it differently.  That’s a start.

 

 

 

A Few More Quotes

cabin dogwoodI had a number of email responses to my last post, in addition to the comments on the blog, so I thought I’d share another passage from this book, which I highly recommend.

The book is Writing as a Way of Healing, by Louise DeSalvo. (I inserted the Amazon link, but this book is widely available and still in print.) Throughout, DeSalvo draws from her studies of other writers, and this book is the source for my “sturdy ladder” quote in my recent blogpost at Writer Unboxed.

This book is an invitation for you to use writing as a way of healing, as a fixer, as a sturdy ladder, as picking and digging, as balm on a wound–or whatever metaphor describes how the process works for you. This book is an invitation to engage with your writing process over time in a way that allows you to discover strength, power, wisdom, depth, energy, creativity, soulfulness, and wholeness, to “cultivate those qualities of heart and spirit that are available to you in this very moment,” as Wayne Muller has phrased it. For, as he’s observed, “your life is not a problem to be solved but a gift to be opened.” 

This book is an invitation for you to use the simple act of writing as a way of reimagining who you are or remembering who you were. To use writing to discover and fulfill your deepest desire. To accept pain, fear, uncertainty, strife. But to find, too, a place of safety, security, serenity, and joyfulness. To claim your voice, to tell your story. And to share the gift of your work with others and, so, enrich and deepen our understanding of the human condition. (9)

 

What Have You Learned?

pabu2Our dog suffers so on the Fourth of July, that it drains all the fun out of fireworks for me. A friend’s post on Facebook, too, made me reflect on how combat veterans with PTSD likely experience this holiday.

I have vivid memories of being a child running with a sparkler over the summer grass on our farm, and I remember, in my twenties, sitting on a lakeshore and watching a display that I have never forgotten (in fact, with a friend who was a Viet Nam veteran), but there’s such a difference between watching an hour-long, beautiful, choreographed display of fireworks, and what goes on each Fourth in my neighborhood, in unincorporated Edmonds. Booms and smoke and flashes for several days, and not just on the holiday itself. Being jolted awake at 1 a.m. by a huge blast last night — by the blast and by the dog going crazy — did not make me feel patriotic.

This morning, a lovely parade in our neighborhood, little kids on their bicycles, a whole menagerie of pets, flags, music; grilled chicken and potato salad this afternoon, watermelon — these are the parts of the holiday that can still make me happy.

Meanwhile, I’m rereading Louise DeSalvo’s amazing book, Writing as a Way of Healingand this morning I came across this advice about integrating our creative work with life itself:

“…we must think about the world, ourselves and others, and the subject of our work. We must relate what we are learning in our work to our lives. We must be willing to use these insights to change our behavior if necessary.” (100)pabu beach

It strikes me that this is all about consciousness. It’s so easy for me to let my journal-writing be a kind of holding at bay of what I’m feeling — which is exhausting — rather than an embrace of what I am feeling. So these are the questions I can begin with , again and and again: What do you know? What have you learned? How has that shaped who you are? Are you letting what you know shape who you are becoming?

Or, to borrow from Nietzche, Do I have the courage to become who I am?