“Everything you want is just outside of your comfort zone.” Robert Allen
I opened one of my favourite books, and chose a passage at random. It is from Abigail Thomas’ “Thinking About Memoir”, and if you have not read this little book yet–treat yourself. Here is the passage:
“Living is said to be an art, and like any art it must be practiced with diligence (to paraphrase Dr. Johnson) before it can be done with ease. There is nothing we do in our everyday lives that could not be done with greater understanding. Our practice is in every case a two-fold benefit–for ourselves and for the public weal. (good)
Very few learned this while still young. Most of us spent the first half or more of our lives trying to provide for our families and ourselves. It’s only in the later, latter half that the questions come: What must I do, how shall I live, what…
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I have set myself a new goal–a simple one that should be fairly easy to complete. I am going to sum up each of Barbara Abercrombie’s entries in her book, “A Year of Writing Dangerously” – ‘365 Days of Inspiration and Encouragement’ in one sentence (or sometimes two or three). This is my first offering:
1. Switchbacks up the Mountain:
(i) “There’s no way to guarantee a safe, easy journey into words on the page.”
(ii) “Writing has always felt just like that road up, full of dangerous switchbacks.”
2. Sacred Space:
(i) “In the end, whenever and wherever you work, make your writing time and your work place sacred.”
3. The Holy Calling:
(i) “Writing is not a hobby.”
(ii) “Writing is a calling.”
5. Getting Caught
A Student of hers remarked: “Writing is dangerous because you might get caught.” And she quotes Ralph Keyes as saying: “If you’re not scared, you’re not writing.”
I love this book and suggest that you pick it up and get the full picture of her wisdom.
I met Elmore when I had a bookstore in the early 90’s. He was at a book conference and really quite a lovely man………….
Elmore Leonard: 10 Rules
Among all the lists of writing rules and advice, this one ranks high, in my opinion. Simple, yet so important.
- Never open a book with weather.
- Avoid prologues.
- Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
- Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
- Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
- Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
- Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
- Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
- Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
- Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
* Excerpted from the New York Times article, “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle”
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Writing gives me voice
Parses my wilderness
Shatters my loneliness
Written words are audible
They are heard.
thich nhat hanh puts life so in perspective for me. Sometimes I do not appreciate the beauty in everyday tasks—okay, most of the time, I do not appreciate the beauty in everyday tasks—but his thoughts in this poem, found in the book “moments of mindfulness” help me to see these tasks as more than necessary evils.
I do agree with him wholeheartedly about the planting a seed thing, and even the cutting the grass thing, but I will need more convincing on the “washing a dish” thing. Here are his words of wisdom for you to consider:
Planting a seed
washing a dish,
and cutting the grass
are as eternal,
as writing a poem.
I do not understand
how a poem can be better
than a peppermint plant.
Can you embrace the beauty of everyday tasks, or do you need a little “mindfulness” convincing? My only argument with the mindfulness guru is that a poem once written becomes permanent, while a dish, once washed, becomes dirty again, and needs to be washed again, and again, and again.
I find writing more satisfying than tasks that have to be repeated time and time again, but since they are an inevitable part of the human condition, then taking a page out of thich nhat hanh’s book and giving them the same weight as the things I find more “important” is one way of gaining a new perspective. He evaluates the seemingly unimportant as significant. I can get on board with that. It heightens doing trivial chores to a different plane.
The subtitle of the book Writing Poetry to Save Your Life, by Maria Mazziotti Gillan bravely states: “How to Find the Courage To Tell Your Stories”. I could not resist the seemingly audacious promise made on the front cover, and I found the chapters inside the bright yellow and orange book did not disappoint.
Here is an excerpt from Chapter 12 in the author’s voice, which I think encapsulates how she puts theory into practice:
“Often students come into a class believing that poems have to rhyme and that only poems that rhyme are real poems. I want you to think of poetry as a very elastic form. The line between poetry and prose has eroded so that a poem can be one word on a line or ten-word lines or twenty-word lines or it can be blocked out so it looks like a square paragraph. Try not to concentrate on form, but rather on content. Let the poem be what it wants to be…..This advice also applies to personal essays, memoir, or even to English compositions. The first and most important thing is to get the content onto paper.”
I am so on the same page with the author. First of all, I cannot for the life of me write a poem that rhymes that makes any sense. Second, the elasticity of poetry has been my saviour—for even when I write a haiku—I find that sometimes I cannot keep the syllable count to a perfect 17 (there are many forms of haiku—the most familiar being three lines with five syllables in the first, seven in the second and five in the third). And third, I have written many a prose poem, and even tried my hand at one that took the form of a Christmas tree (yes, it was a Christmas tree poem—I am one for the obvious).
Content is king, and as such I agree with Gillan that poetry will find its form. She devotes over half of her book to prompts which inspire that form. Here are just a few to get your creative juices flowing. Some are ideas and some are lines to incorporate into your poem; all of them are prompts:
1. What is it inside that is missing?
2. Use the word “after” or “because” as the first word of the first line and repeat it throughout the poem.
3. Being loud enough to wake the dead….
4. Write about a time you were silent and didn’t want to be.
5. Perfect circles…………
I have to turn out a weekly column for 51 weeks of the year, and quite a few of them have been derived from her prompts—so these little aides-memoiries do not have to apply to poetry exclusively.
Do you believe content is king or do you use another method to get your creative juices flowing?
“Everything we are looking for
is right here
in the present moment.” ~ thich nhat hanh, “moments of mindfulness”
“Writers are pilgrims virtually by default: They travel both figuratively (via the imagination) and literally in search of unanswered questions and higher truths and to recover that which has been lost–a sense of purpose, a renewed sense of what is sacred.” ~ Fred Cross from The Daily Writer
I agree with Cross, and I love the premise of his book which he makes clear in the subtitle: “366 meditations to cultivate a productive and meaningful writing life”.
The above quote is from his June 26th “meditation” in which he urges writers to “approach each writing project as an occasion for pilgrimage, a journey into the sacred heart of your subject.” He says that a pilgrimage is “a journey undertaken for spiritual purposes.”
I have undertaken many a pilgrimage–most of mine in my imagination or through research. But I do have one place that I find particularly sacred and it is a place that when I cannot visit physically, I go to in my mind’s eye. I discovered my sacred place when I was thirteen years old and attended a summer camp. The camp was affiliated with my church which would explain why my sacred place was on those campgrounds.
A short trek through the woods on the property where the camp is located reveals the spot that I go to in my mind when I need to find a place of peace. In a clearing, there is a large wooden cross with rough-hewn wooden benches facing it. An outside cathedral that is awe-inspiring and its silent vigil in the woods is where I make my deepest “spiritual connection”.
Do you have a sacred spot–one where your pilgrimage feels complete?
If “…the essence of writing is rewriting” as William Zinsser claims in his book, “On Writing Well” , then take me to the dentist. I would rather let a dentist do excavation work in my mouth than rewrite, but I know this evil twin to the writing process is necessary.
Zinsser, I suspect does not “suffer fools gladly”. I do, as I consider them to be my cohorts, but nonetheless I like his style—confident, demanding, and dare I say it, entertaining—though don’t tell him that. I think the word entertaining would baffle and horrify him, so I must find some better words: engaging, compelling, even witty describe him more suitably.
In Part 1 of his book, titled “Principles”, he sets out his manifesto. He states that two of the most important qualities his book “will go in search of are humanity and warmth”. In searching for these qualities he is unforgiving, but by being unforgiving he is setting goals for writers who should always be in search of the “Holy Grail” of writing: clarity.
Zinsser found himself on a two person panel at a school in Connecticut for a “day devoted to the arts.” He and a doctor (who had just recently begun to write) were asked several questions about the writing process. The first was “What is it like to be a writer?” The doctor said he came home after an arduous day of surgery and would go straight to his yellow pad and “write his tensions away”. He said the words flowed and it was easy. The same question posed to Zinsser found a very different answer. He said that it was neither easy nor fun and that it was “hard and lonely and the words seldom just flowed.”
The doctor was asked if it was important to rewrite. His response was absolutely not—“let it all hang out”. He felt the sentences should reflect the writer at his most “natural”. Again Zinsser did not quite see things the same way. He stated that “rewriting is the essence of writing” and that professional writers “rewrite their sentences over and over and then rewrite what they have rewritten.”
“What if you are depressed?” the students asked the panelists. Then “go fishing” said the doctor. Zinsser pointed out that if your job is to write every day, then you learn to do it every day, depressed or not.
The last question dealt with symbolism. The doctor said he loved symbols, and weaving them into his works was a joy. Zinsser, in his humble assessment of his attributes said he did not use symbolism if he could help it because he “has an unbroken record of missing the deeper meaning in any story, play or movie, and as for dance and mime” he never had any idea about what was being conveyed.
I love this book—it is riveting. Zinsser is at once clever, uncompromising, intelligent and well, downright entertaining. He sprinkles his hard-nosed advice with wonderful asides, vignettes, and examples, and by the end, you too are convinced that the “essence of writing is in the rewriting” even if it is painful.
Oh, and as for the doctor—he was very interested to find out that writing could be hard. And Zinsser? He is taking up surgery on the side, and I imagine when it gets difficult—he will just go fishing.
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