What the Leaves Believe

I was going to write about my rekindled love affair with William Butler Yeats, but he will have to wait. Because today all I can think about are the leaves and Lucille Clifton. I have to start by saying I cannot describe the brilliance of the trees today.the leaves today

We’re lucky to live in a small stand of maples on Gleason Lake about fifteen minutes west of downtown Minneapolis.  I enjoy these trees in the spring when the shadowy green of their leaves emerges after the long winter and, of course, in the summer when they reach their deep glory to cover our lane allowing only a few rays of sun, yet it is now in October when they tell the real story. The trees scream out: “See it only gets better because we will soon do it all over again.”

Yesterday in our poetry class, Deborah Keenan brought in this poem by Lucille Clifton:

the lesson of the falling leaves

the leaves believe
such letting go is love
such love is faith
such faith is grace
such grace is god
i agree with the leavesIMG_7612

A few years ago when I was under the spell of Lucille Clifton, I wrote a poem inspired by her. I bring this poem to you because not only did Lucille Clifton lead the way and help me see the leaves and state my credo, but also because the poem shows how what others write can lead us to what we can write. Without Lucille Clifton, I could never have written this poem. I owe her gratitude–and the leaves too for all their lessons. _______________________________________

What the Leaves Believe

After Lucille Clifton

that they will fall
and wither on the ground

that they will have gone to
all that trouble

to make abundance
to make glory

all that trouble every spring
to fill those branches

so full that a bird is lost
in their midst

and then gone
leaving the bare bones

the bare black bones of branches
what the leaves believe

is what I believe

––Vicky Lettmann

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Writing Idea:  What do you have to say about this time of year? about the leaves? Seasons appear in all genres, so if you’re writing memoir, go in your memory bank to fall. Try picking one fall: the fall when you went to junior high, the fall you learned to drive, the fall your father died. Fall on the east coast of North Carolina is not like fall in Minnesota. Give us your fall. Go for ten minutes–just write it out without over-thinking. Smells, colors, sounds, feelings, the light. That kind of thing.

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Next blog, I promise: “My Love Affair with William Butler Yeats” (R rated)

Can Writing Be Taught?

Can writing be taught? This question was recently debated in the “Bookends” section of The New York Times Book Review (8/24/14). Both Rivka Galchen and Zoe Heller agreed that, yes, it can be taught. How well or why the teaching of writing is so debated when we accept that we can teach biology, chemistry, history, ethics, music, painting–these are the issues raised by Galchen and Heller.

Since I am an old English teacher, who spent the better part of her life trying to teach writing, or composition as we sometimes called it, to college freshmen, I do believe that writing can be taught. But over the years, I must say I  struggled with the way it was taught–and I frequently doubted my ability to teach people to write.

The Comp 101 classes, still required in most colleges and universities, grew out of the old rhetorical tradition dating back to Aristotle and Socrates. During the Greek and Roman times, rhetoric was a part of public discourse. How do we convince people to see our side of the argument? It grew into a detailed study of sometimes formulaic methods of argumentation and debate.  A quick check of the definition of the word rhetoric reveals the inherent problem with the rhetorical approach to teaching writing:

1 : the art of speaking or writing effectively
2 : the study or use of the principles and rules of composition
3 a : skill in the effective use of speech b : language that is not honest, sincere, or meaningful

Note that this definition begins with the word art, but ends with the more current association with rhetoric:  “language that is not honest, sincere, or meaningful” as in “cut the rhetoric and get to the issue.” In George Eliot’s Middlemarch, the word appears in this sentence:  “No speech could have been more thoroughly honest in its intention: the frigid rhetoric at the end was as sincere as the bark of a dog, or the cawing of an amorous rook.”  

This passage occurs early in the novel and refers to a long speech in which Dorothea’s pedantic future husband, Mr. Casaubon, has attempted to express his ardor for Dorothea. But his rhetoric is frigid. This is a foreshadowing of Dorothea’s and Casaubon’s disastrous marriage. Mr. Casaubon wants to tell Dorothea how he feels, but his brain has become so tangled up with rhetoric that what comes out, while sounding good, is really a mess. Unfortunately, Dorothea is blinded by her idealized notions of love and her own lofty ambitions.

With the classical, rhetorical approach to writing, people often learn the techniques of effective argumentation as a substitute for truth and honesty and real thinking.  It is much easier to teach the structure of the five-paragraph essay (or theme as it was called by my ninth grade English teacher, Mrs. Murphy) than it is to teach how to write clearly and truthfully with insight and even a dash of creativity.  All you need is an introduction with a thesis statement that includes three points that you must develop in three body paragraphs and finally a conclusion to re-state or summarize the three points. And so can begin the death march to disastrous writing.images

Dorothea, because she is young and wants to be in love, makes Casaubon’s speech mean what she wants it to mean. Mr. Casaubon’s life work is to write the great book, which never gets written. No wonder. He can not be true to himself. How to teach a person like Casaubon to write? There is no easy, fill-in-the-blanks formula. That is why we can keep telling budding writers to read, read, read great writing. But it is deeper than that. Thus the dilemma of teaching writing.

Still I bow down to my English teachers–especially the great ones, who tried their best to help us see the light. How can I ever forget thin, waif-like Miss Walsh, my eleventh grade high school English teacher. Or my ninth grade English teacher, Mrs. Murphy, who was sturdy as a fire plug, and a formidable opponent to those in her classes who could not, or would not, learn all the comma rules or how to diagram sentences. My brother did not have the same high regard as I for dear Mrs. Murphy. “She ruined my ninth grade year,” he said recently. There again the predicament of teaching writing–how not to kill off any love for the written word that might be trying desperately to blossom. I know too many people who hated their English classes and can only remember their red-penciled essays.

That’s why I never used red pens: only blue ones.

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5-paragraph-monster

This image was from a home-school teacher, who teaches the “Five-Paragraph Theme”  as a monster. Truly scary! Oh, well.

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Writing Challenge: What do you have to say about your English or writing teachers?  Go for ten minutes in your writer’s notebook. Can writing be taught?

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In my next blog, I’ll talk about my recent visit to Ireland–and my emotional moment with William Butler Yeats. Also I still want to tell you about the workshop I attended this summer with Rebecca McClanahan and what Rebecca, a master, taught me about writing.

In the meantime, let me hear from you. I always enjoy your comments and e-mail.

 

Time and Hallelujah

Where did the time go? I sometimes ask at the end of a day as I pour myself my inch of brandy and settle into my chair to read another chapter of Middlemarch. (See last blog entry. Yes, I’m only half-way through and the book group meets in less than a week!)

Reading in the Courtyard

Reading in the Courtyard

And then I think of the beautiful day I had last Friday with two of our four granddaughters. First we found a garage sale where we nosed around the left-overs of old computers, shoes, baby clothes, books, CDs, and dirty garden equipment to find treasures: two flowerpots, a spiked-fur cat, and a penguin with sequin-covered flippers who went to lunch with us.  We also visited the library, checked out a million books, and then read them in the library flower garden–followed by a granddaughter gymnastics show of cartwheels and somersaults and backbends.

As I pulled into the garage later that day, I experienced one of those driveway radio moments: Renee Fleming’s rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” I could not move. And as I sat there, time elongated itself. Dissolved. I have plenty of time, I thought. More than enough. Music and a day with your granddaughters can do that.

I’ve started piano lessons here in Minnesota. I stumble along on the piano. Yet every now and then, what I’m doing actually sounds like music. My fingers forget they are attached to my hands and somehow link directly to some other melodious place that is still controlled by time, the beat. I can keep the time and be out of time at the same time. If only for a moment.

But back to Middlemarch, this novel has placed me in another time, the 1820s. George Eliot is writing about this period in England from fifty years later, the 1870s. So I am in three times: the present (my chair), George Eliot’s time (she enters the story to comment and guide us), and the actual time of the novel–when people rode horses and carts to get places, when there were no televisions, computers, and cell phones.

So what I’m trying to say is that time is not something I can find more of or even lose–although it is true that things can become lost in time if not recycled in garage sales.The clock and the calendar are helpful for telling time and making appointments, but not so much for dreaming. Time is the steady beat of my metronome, back and forth, keeping time. Time is the ticktock of my heart. A living beat. That beat is within music and poetry and Middlemarch. Hallelujah–repeated and repeated.

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“The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we only know them when they are gone. ” 
― George Eliot

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Writing Idea/Prompt:  The subject of time–how do we write about such an abstraction? Give it the old one-two (start with this minute) and see what you come up with in ten minutes. Or use George Eliot’s quote and go for ten minutes. Or listen to Renee Fleming or Leonard Cohen, himself, sing “Hallelujah” and see if the lyrics inspire you. (Click here for Leonard’s version of “Hallelujah” with lyrics.) The best version of “Hallelujah” is kd lang’s. Now she really sings it!

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News: After sending out poems last February to over seventy publications, I was pleased that “The Remorse of Herod” was chosen by “Forge” journal. Why this one? Random. Someone was looking for a poem about Herod–maybe? Click here to read it. Also these editors were great to work with, so give them a try.  They adjusted the lines in the print version–which loses the idea of John the Baptist’s head being chopped off, but looks better on the printed page.

Also Redbird Chapbooks (Minneapolis) is going to publish my chapbook, What Can Be Saved: Poems. Yay!

Let me know if you have any publication news. I always enjoy hearing from you!

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Summer and Middlemarch

Here we are nearing the end of July…can it be?  Our California son and his family, who are headed to Ireland for two years, spent this last week with us. We enjoyed many fun days with our four granddaughters, our three adult off-spring and their spouses–plus four dogs! John and I have somehow expanded from a simple pair to a dozen individuals. Going out to eat now together requires a banquet-size table.

Summer twilight on the lake

Summer twilight on the lake

Our soon-to-be Irish family has gone on their way to begin a new adventure. So the house is quiet today and a certain let-down feeling has settled over me as I walk around picking up torn-out pages of coloring books, markers, dog toys, puzzle pieces, and plastic doll dishes. The freezer is full of all the ice cream bars that we didn’t manage to eat, and we have no lettuce. So tonight’s dinner will include an ice cream bar buffet!

Still I have lots to do: preparing for a week-long creative nonfiction workshop with Rebecca McClanahan at St.Olaf College, working on a family memoir, practicing the piano, and reading George Eliot’s novel, Middlemarch. Now this in itself is a huge undertaking–probably only begun because one of my book groups chose it. But it is making me slow down, way down, as I absorb the details of life in the late 1820s in a small English town, called Middlemarch. I don’t remember reading this novel in my college days, so it is pleasure to dive, or sink, into it now and savor the amazing prose of George Eliot.IMG_7027

People just don’t write this way anymore. I’m not sure readers today would have the patience for the slow pace, the complex sentences, the intrusive narrator. Yet readers in 1871 waited anxiously for the next installation of Middlemarch, the way viewers today anticipate a new season of “Orange Is the New Black.”

I’m also reading  Rebecca Mead’s  My Life in Middlemarch, a perfect companion to the novel.  Mead intertwines her own life and personal history with that of George Eliot as well as with the characters and events of the novel. In doing so, she shows how a single book can illuminate our lives. How often do we immerse ourselves in a book, then return to it at different points in our lives, and then reflect on how it shaped our life or the way we see the world? Such is the power of great literature.

Towards the end of her book, Rebecca Mead spends some time hovering over the last sentence of George Eliot’s novel–a sentence that resonates in my life as I tackle the writing I want to do about my family and especially my mother, Ruth.

Here is the final sentence of Middlemarch:

“But the effect of her being [Dorothea’s} on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” 
― George EliotMiddlemarch

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(Non)Writing Idea: So it’s summer–those lazy days (really?) when we have time to read big books and write (or not). Take a few minutes to pause and look out a window. File what you see in your memory bank. Write if you wish–or not. No pressure. Nothing to do. No historic acts. As we faithfully live our hidden lives. As did those before us. It is all so simple.

One more quote from an essay by Eliot: “Love does not say ‘I ought to love’ –it loves. Pity does not say, ‘It is right to be pitiful’–it pities. Justice does not say, ‘I am bound to be just’–it feels justly.” No bright apothegms, George Eliot writes, they leave “little energy for simple emotion”–or for simple living, which summer (with all its comings and goings) is all about.  I hope you’re having a good one!

She loves: Granddaughters at the pool

She loves:
granddaughters at the pool.

 

 

Spell “World” Backwards

Okay, everyone out there. You had better start practicing.  Someday in your distant, or not so distant, future, someone is going to ask you questions like this: “Spell world.”  That’s easy. “Now spell world backwards.” Don’t worry. They are just checking to see if you have dementia.

Can it be that we will live into our nineties only to be asked to spell world backwards? That’s all they want to know?lesleystahl-300x219

On a recent 60 Minutes show, “Living to 90 and Beyond,” Lesley Stahl interviewed Dr. Claudia Kawas and several of the oldest of the old. It seems that Dr. Kawas discovered a gold mine for her study on aging. In 1981, fourteen thousand people in a retirement community south of L. A., once known as Leisure World now as Laguna Woods, filled out extensive health and lifestyle questionnaires. Dr. Kawas was able to find 1,800 of these same folks, now in their nineties, still living in Laguna Woods–a perfect group of nonagenarians to study. Many also agreed to have their brains analyzed after death.

These men and women were gracious and willing to answer Lesley Stahl’s questions, as well as the standard ones for assessing the on-set of dementia. The ones without dementia laughed with her about being old.

There was a certain aren’t-they-cute-and-amazing tone to the episode–as if these people were a group of pandas or some adorable pilgrims sending messages back to those who haven’t reached the land of the old.

Ruth, my mother, in her 90s

Ruth, my mother, in her 90s

I realize that all these studies of the oldest of the old are meant to help us understand the nature of dementia, but the program seemed self-serving and somehow reductive. When complicated individuals are reduced to objects of study, the world turns backwards.

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Nonagenarians’ Lament

” …and pilgrimes were they alle, /That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde.”
–Chaucer

We were children once.
Our mothers took us shopping for spring outfits,
and we showed up at church
dressed in miniature suits,
white shirts with clip-on neckties.
Our sisters wore dotted swiss dresses
and patent shoes with buckles.

We were children who played roller bat
in the street and croquet and kick the can.
The girls liked jacks and jumping rope.
We learned the alphabet and sang it too
and made words from the letters in our soup.

Our hands curved around a pencil,
and we formed A’s and L’s with big looping arcs.
The Palmer method,
remember that?

We were children who fell asleep
hearing our parents laugh at oyster roasts in the yard
and rode home without seatbelts
curled up in the back seat of the old Mercury.

We knew our geography and the capitals
of all the states and the names of rivers too.
We studied chemistry and memorized
the bones in the body.

Ruth, in her 20's

Ruth, in her 20’s

We could recite in Middle English
The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
We sang in the choir.
We fell in love.
We taught school, wired houses,
became lawyers, waited tables.

Now we practice yoga, write,
eat fish and chocolate, shovel snow,
go to concerts, nap,
play the piano, walk,
paint the sunset
and palm trees in oils.

They seem surprised.
They study us.
They ask: Who is the President?
What is today’s date?
They say: Remember three words.
How did you live so long?
What did you eat for breakfast?
Blood pressure?
Did you smoke? Drink wine?
Did you enjoy sex?
If so, for how long?

As if what mattered could be
quantified, replicated,
extended, amended,
comprehended,
once we are suspended.

They study us.
And after we die,
they dissect our brains.

–Vicky Lettmann

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Writing Idea/Jumpstart: What do you have to say about “the oldest of the old”? Or have you heard something in the news, on television, or in a recent conversation that caused the hair on the back of your neck to stand up, or prickle, at least? If so, write it down. It’s good to put some words on paper since I doubt our ideas, stories, bits of insight will show up under the microscope when our brains are dissected.

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Tulips, Books, Gardens, and Dirt

I’m not much of a gardener. Yet when I return to Minnesota and look out at spring trying its best to happen, I want to help things along. The trees are working hard at their new leaves. They make it look so effortless. Mysterious green sprigs are trying to poke through the sodden mulch in our forsaken (for Florida!) flower beds. So maybe that’s why I think: It’s time to do something with dirt.

Good news! My friend Mary and I signed up for a special garden book discussion group with beloved teacher Toni McNaron. I was a student in Toni’s Virginia Woolf classes at the U way back! The group meets once a month at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

How delightful to talk about books and gardens in the glorious surroundings of the Arboretum–where other people create all that color and order! The tulips were absolutely astounding–announcing to the world: “Here we are. We made it through that bad winter. See how strong and bright we are! Can you believe it?”

Tulips at the Arboretum

Tulips at the Arboretum

So as much as I enjoyed the novel we discussed with its focus on Japanese gardens, I must say that it was the real, in-the-moment tulips that live in my mind. Their stunning display of exuberance rather over-whelmed the small brown Japanese garden tucked beside them. Color!

The book under discussion was The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. Now if you’re looking for a carefully written novel about Japanese gardens, Malaya during and following World War II, internment camps, tattooing, communist guerrilla warfare, kamikaze pilots, memory and forgetfulness, all entwined around two amazing love stories, then you will enjoy this novel.

I certainly did. It is one that invites re-reading and lots of time to unravel a challenging, non-linear plot. I read it in three versions: Kindle, audio, and paper, but I most enjoyed the paper where I could flip back and forth and write in the margins.

Sam: "Which shall I read? Both!"

Sam: “Which shall I read? Both!”

For our next meeting, we’re reading Eleanor Perenyi’s Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden, a collection of  seventy-two alphabetized essays full of practical, personal, and witty musings on topics like “Annuals,” “Earthworms,” “Mazes,” “Longevity,” and “Tulips.” This last short essay was one of the first I read after that lovely meeting with the profusion of tulips waiting outside our classroom door.  IMG_2165

After a long section on tulipomania, the origins of the name tulip, and certain tulip disease, Perenyi writes: “Linguistics and unclassifiable diseases aside, tulips are one of the gardener’s joys and I can’t imagine anyone with even a patch of ground not growing them. Unlike most northern gardeners, I’m not much moved by the first crocus, poking its brave little head up among the dead leaves….the tulips are what I wait for.”

So I’m going to search for Perenyi’s tulip reccomendatons in a few on-line gardening catalogs and order striped ones, Darwins, modern Ottomans, Rembrandts (great names) which follow a magical sequence of spring-time blooming. I’m going to dig down deep into the dirt and plant some tulips. Then sit back and hope!

If the tulips don’t appear next spring, at least I will have satisfied my urge to dig in the dirt.

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P. S. If you want to hear a young woman read “Night,” one of the essays in  Green Thoughts, click here. She makes one mistake: the book was first published in 1981. Eleanor Peyenyi, who passed away at age 91, was born in 1918.

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Writing Jumpstart:

Here are a few gardening quotes. If you feel so inspired, take out your writer’s notebook and write about gardens, tulips, dirt, spring–whatever comes to mind.

To garden is to let optimism get the better of judgment.”                                                    — Eleanor Perenyi, Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden

“Then I went out for two hours late in the afternoon and put in a hundred tulips. In itself that would not be a big job, but everywhere I have to clear space for them. . . . I really get to weeding only in the spring and autumn, so I am working through a jungle now. Doing it I feel strenuously happy and at peace. At the end of the afternoon on a gray day, the light is sad and one feels the chill, but the bitter smell of earth is a tonic.”
— May Sarton, 1912-1995, New England poet, author, and feminist
“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”
— Margaret Atwood, Canadian novelist, poet, and environmentalist

 

The Size of My Life

Jane Hirshfield

Jane Hirshfield

Jane Hirshfield’s poem, “My Life Was the Size of My Life,” (The New Yorker, March 10, 2014) begins:

My life was the size of my life
Its rooms were room-sized,
its soul was the size of a soul.
In its background, mitochondria hummed,
above it sun, clouds, snow,
the transit of stars and planets.
various airplanes, a donkey.
It wore socks, shirts, its own ears and nose. . . .

Some days, I look out from my body and forget it is the age it is. I forget the size of my life. That is until days like last Sunday when my five-year-old granddaughter, Lucia, and I were making funny faces at each other on FaceTime. Now FaceTime is great, but unfortunately a tiny square at the bottom of the screen shows you exactly how you look to the other person. So you see yourself talk at the same time you’re trying to focus on what the other person is saying. Very distracting. Lucia is much less critical of her image than I am of mine. I’m thinking: Who is that woman with several chins, lots of wrinkles, and big age spots? Lucia doesn’t care: she is busy looking at her own teeth, eyes, hair–all of which we talk about in great detail!  For a few minutes, my life is the size of a small square on the bottom of an i-Phone. And there, surrounding it, is the beautiful face of Lucia.

Roger Angell

Roger Angell and Andy; Central Park, January, 2014. (Photo by Brigitte Lacombe.)

Roger Angell in his wonderful essay, “This Old Man”(The New Yorker, Feb. 17 & 24, 2014), begins with a detailed description of his body at age 93. “Check me out,” he says. He then describes his arthritic hands, trying to find just the right metaphor to help us see them: “The top two knuckles of my left hand. . . if I pointed that hand at you like a pistol and fired at your nose, the bullet would nail you in the left knee. Arthritis.”

He goes on to catalogue a long list of what it is like to live in his ninety-three-year-old body. Besides the residual effects of arthritis, he writes about shingles, macular degeneration, arterial stints, shaky knees, herniated discs–not to mention the loss of his daughter and wife and many friends. Still he brings us the news that “the pains and insults are bearable” and that at the end of life he still longs for touch and love. “Getting old is the second-biggest surprise of my life, but the first, by a mile, is our unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love. ” Yes, to deep attachment and love. Good that the size of our souls still has room for these–no matter our age.

Mary Junge

Mary Junge (photo by Joey McLeister)

When Carol Roan and I put together our anthology When Last on the Mountain: The View from Writers over Fifty, we were amazed at the stories we heard: so many of us out there writing and writing, about our bodies, our loves, our lives, our past and futures. We’re all on this march together, so hearing news of the terrain ahead is a good thing.

My friend Mary Junge recently sent me a poem she wrote in response to Jane Hirshfield’s poem. Thank you, Mary. (For more of Mary’s poems, click here to visit her website: birdloverpoet.com.)

My Life at Sixty

It looked foreign suddenly, and small, inconsequential.
Yet, it was all too familiar. It was surely mine.
As light as a wisp or shadow, an exhale.
The untied silk scarf that slips to the floor without notice.
I thought of my mother long ago, asking
How I’d spent the gone money. Now it was I who
Wanted an account of the gone dawns and sunsets,
The dreamless and dream-filled nights of slumber,
The days wasted in too much sadness or too much frivolity.
The meals carefully (or carelessly) prepared and eaten,
The love given and received generously (or begrudgingly).
Injuries to the body, kindness given and received—even the days of
Cruel insults I wanted back now.
Was it true? Had I spent it so soon?
I thought of my grandfather,
Illiterate, poor speaking German immigrant farmer,
Who hid his radio in the barn during WWII. After his passing,
The shy list of farm equipment, animals, and all grain on hand.
So I thought of the shy list that will follow my passing:
Quilts, poems, photo books, stories. Somehow I had expected more,
Yet there it was, the small life undeniably mine.

–Mary Junge

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Writing Idea:  How would you size up your life? Take a careful look at yourself at whatever age you are, in whatever place you occupy, in all shapes and sizes, on any given day, from any perspective. “My Life at Seventy-One” or “My Life on an Island” or “My Life as an Ant”  or “My Life on March 21.” Try it in several versions. Try it in prose and/or poetry. Enjoy looking around at your life!

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“It was clear when I left the party/ That although I was over eighty I still had/ A beautiful body. . . .” (“When I Turned a Hundred” by Mark Strand. For an outstanding essay about Mark Strand, see “Mark Strand’s Luminous Nostalgia” by Willard Spiegelman, Kenyon Review, Winter 2014).

I Come From the Sea

Where do you come from? Our origins make all the difference in the stories we tell.

I lived when I was young at the end of a long road, or a road that seemed long to me.

Thus begins Alice Munro’s story, “Dear Life,” the title story from her most recent collection. This autobiographical story and the three others which conclude Dear Life map out the contours of Alice Munro’s origins in rural Ontario where she grew up.

Here are a few responses from writers in the Sanibel workshop who wrote about origins:

I come from the sea...

I come from the sea…

I come from the sea.

Born beside the Atlantic on the west coast of Scotland.
I search for the sea.
Born on January 23rd, in the sign of Aquarius,
I look for the water.
Sand in my shoes a constant.
Pebbles and shells in my pockets, reminders of where I’ve been.

-Brenda Hunt

I come from a tiny state, a big Italian family, and a kitchen with wonderful smells.                                             -Arlene MacDonald

My two sisters and I were born in a small city, Utica, known as the gateway to the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. Seems romantic enough I know, but in truth it was a town cobbled together by Italian immigrants who settled here after building the Erie Canal in the late 1800’s. Yes, the city’s future on the cusp of recession in 1929 probably still looked good to my father and twin brother, Canadians eager to leave behind the prospect of socialized medicine for the greener fields of the U.S.  Not that they were money grubbers–far from it. They were lucky to be able to get through the University of Toronto compliments of their missionary great aunt (another story to tell) who was left a decent sum of money by her lumberman brother killed in a hotel fire on one of his properties.                       -Jill Dillon

I like the way each of these writers launches into story, poem, or memoir with confidence. We are ready to follow these voices anywhere they will take us.

Mahmoud Darwish, often spoken of as the Palestinian national poet, writes of exile and loss and home in his poems.

I Come From There

Marmoud DarwishI come from there and I have memories
Born as mortals are, I have a mother
And a house with many windows,
I have brothers, friends,
And a prison cell with a cold window.
Mine is the wave, snatched by sea-gulls,
I have my own view,
And an extra blade of grass.
Mine is the moon at the far edge of the words,
And the bounty of birds,
And the immortal olive tree.
I walked this land before the swords
Turned its living body into a laden table.
I come from there. I render the sky unto her mother
When the sky weeps for her mother.
And I weep to make myself known
To a returning cloud.
I learnt all the words worthy of the court of blood
So that I could break the rule.
I learnt all the words and broke them up
To make a single word: Homeland…..

In contrast, listen to country singer Alan Jackson tell us of his origins:  “…where I come from it’s cornbread and chicken.” Click here to hear him sing and see the lyrics:  Alan Jackson “Where I Come From.” 

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The prompt we used in the Sanibel workshop is  from Bonni Goldberg’s Room to Write, a book I recommend if you’re looking for “daily invitations to the writing life.”

Today write about your origins. Start with the phrase, “I come from.” Include words and sounds you remember hearing, smells, tastes, and sights. Write about all those things which, had you not known them, would have significantly altered who you are.

You could also adapt this prompt to apply to a fictional character you are creating in a novel or short story. Where do your characters come from and how does that shape their stories?

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“Experience is not what happens to you; it is what you do with what happens to you.” Aldous Huxley

Jumpstart, Anyone?

imgres It’s that time of year again when I begin my Sanibel writing workshop. I’ve been leading this workshop for several years now and call it “Jumpstart Your Writing.” It’s for writers, beginner to advanced, who need a jolt to rev up their writing lives, the way a car needs a jumpstart when the battery is weak. Actually for those of us who write or who aspire to write, the battery is never really dead; it just needs a little juice to get it going again.

 

jump´start`

v. t. 

To start (the engine of a motor vehicle) using a temporary connection to supply electrical power from another vehicle or another source of current; – an emergency procedure used when a vehicle’s own battery has insufficient power to start the vehicle normally.

2.

To provide a speedy start to (an activity) using the assistance of some external impetus; to re-energize (an activity proceeding sluggishly); – accomplished by application of a stimulus not normally used in the activity.

The word can be a noun or a verb, but it is the verb that I like best. I also like the idea that some “external impetus” is needed “to re-energize an activity proceeding sluggishly.” What that external impetus is will vary from writer to writer, but for me, one battery charger is the company of other writers–not just any writers, but writers who believe in “the practice school of writing.” (See Natalie Goldberg’s chapter “Writing as Practice” in Writing Down the Bones.)

For several years now, I’ve been a part of a group of poets. We meet every Monday morning in the home of the gifted poet and teacher, Deborah Keenan. Without her gentle guidance, her selection of wonderful poems and poets and the writing suggestions she nudges out of the poems, as well as the inspiration of  the others in the group, I would have a very low writing battery. Bringing my poems to this group has nourished and enhanced my writing life, which was almost extinguished after the completion of my MFA. (That’s another story.)  I enjoy these opportunities to create and craft my poems. Somehow the ego washes away, and the little bubbles of writing that emerge in my notebooks become poems.

So as we start these next few weeks, here on Sanibel with this group of writers, I hope to re-create a little of the same spirit. We’ll use writing from others as models and inspiration and also create our own envelopes of writing jumpstarts. I’ll be bringing some of what we do to these blogs. So those of you not on Sanibel can take the workshop along with us.

There is always the question: Can writing be taught? Maybe, maybe not, but it can be practiced–the way one practices the piano or yoga.  And through practice in the company of others engaged in a similar practice, it is my hope that the writing becomes better–as the practice itself remains enjoyable and always challenging.

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IMG_6241I like to re-read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones when I start a new workshop. Way back in 1985 or ’86, I took a workshop in Minnesota with Natalie. She had just sent the galleys of Writing Down the Bones back to her publisher. She was, and continues to be, an inspiration. “What are your deep dreams?” she asks in one chapter. This will be the way I’ll start the class on Monday.  “What are your deep dreams?” One of mine was to write a novel. So maybe it is time to go back to it and see what I still have to say. It’s never too late.

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Writing Jumpstart:   What are your deep dreams? Go for ten minutes. What is that spark that ignited your desire to write? Ten more minutes.

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Happiness Floats

Thanks to Naomi Shihab Nye for this lovely poem–and to all of you who follow Turtle House Ink.

I so enjoy your comments and mail.

Best wishes during this holiday season and for the new year…and…

Much Happiness

It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.
With sadness there is something to rub against,
a wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.
But happiness floats.
It doesn’t need you to hold it down.
It doesn’t need anything.
Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing,
and disappears when it wants to.
You are happy either way.
Even the fact that you once lived in a peaceful tree house
and now live over a quarry of noise and dust
cannot make you unhappy.
Everything has a life of its own,
it too could wake up filled with possibilities
of coffee cake and ripe peaches,
and love even the floor which needs to be swept,
the soiled linens and scratched records…..
Since there is no place large enough
to contain so much happiness,
you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you
into everything you touch. You are not responsible.
You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit
for the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it,
and in that way, be known.