“I Write Because” by Kathi Straubing

And so it began, that voice that nudges me to pick up pen and paper and write. It became relentless—that voice that demands time and space. And so I began.

I write because—because—?

“Why? Why do you write?” The voice would not let go!

I don’t know. I write because—because I have to!

I write because I have to!

I write because I want to understand life, my life and yours.

I write because I need to know my purpose and how dreams take wing and fly.

I write because I want to know where I came from and where I’m going.

I write because I want to know what lies beneath and what lies around and through and above. And is there a heaven? Filled with light?

I write because I feel the grass under my bare feet and, well, why is it soft and green? And why does the tree grow tall and straight?

I write because the bird’s song astonishes me. And I want to know how does a bird know how to choose a mate? And how to build a nest? And when is it time to fly away? And how does it know where the cat lurks?

I write because I want to know where God is and what God is. God is everywhere, in everything—or so they say, and how is that possible?

I write because I want to hear the voice of Spirit. Because I want to know its touch. Because Spirit must be one with poems and prayers and blessings. Oh yes! And in kind words spoken gently.

I write because I want to make sense of confusion, of madness. The world does seem maddening, chaotic some days—when simplicity would be so easy. Or not.

I write because words can be so quiet, and life can be so loud. And why are people afraid to touch or be touched? Why is everyone running so fast?

I write because I want to know why fear is so easy, and love can be so hard, since that’s what we want the most—love.

I write because I want to know how we ask for what we need. Why that scares us so! Knowing that you might say, “No!” because you may not understand my need.

I write because I want to know why it is so difficult to lay down judgment and criticism and just breathe for a minute or two—together.

I write because I want to untangle the knots of unknowing, of misguidance, and reweave the yarns into a tapestry of hope.

I write because I want to know, because I need to know. Don’t you? Because I have so many questions and, regrettably, so few answers. And because life is so damned short and what does it all mean anyway?

I write because I need to know that it is okay to be afraid sometimes, to not know the answer, let alone the right question.

I write because I want to meet my hunger, my thirst for life and love, for joy and beauty, and to begin to satisfy them.

I write because I believe—because I believe, that somewhere out there God is listening—that someone, somewhere feels my words, my longing—to be.

I write. I write because I have to! Because it is like breathing air. And so, I write.

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Kathi Straubing, the guest author for this post, has been a participant in my “Joy of Writing” class here on Sanibel these past six weeks. Kathi read this piece during our final class, and I asked her if she would be willing to share it on this blog. Thanks, Kathi.

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Writing Idea:  Using Kathi’s writing for inspiration, how would you answer the question: “Why do I write?” Or take one line from her writing and use it as a prompt for a ten-minute free writing to explore a story from your own life. For example, write about a time you tried to “untangle the knots of unknowing” or why “fear is so easy and love can be so hard.” These big, universal questions are often the ones that hover around and above our writing and bring us to the page.

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“Why do I write? It’s not that I want people to think I am smart, or even that I am a good writer. I write because I want to end my loneliness.” Jonathan Safran Foer

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”  Flannery O’Connor

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Sachiko: A Story of Hope and Peace

I recently had a conversation with Caren Stelson, the author of Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story (Carolrhoda Books, 2016). We had just learned that her book was on the longlist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. “I’m flabbergasted,” said Caren when I offered my congratulations. “This is so affirming.”

We met in a Minneapolis suburb at a Panera restaurant amid the big box stores of Home Depot and Costco, a place far away from Nagasaki and Sachiko Yasui. Yet as Caren and I talked, the incredible story of Sachiko began to come alive for me. It was almost as if Sachiko herself were the third person at our small table.

Sachiko, who is now 78, was six years old on August 9, 1945, the day the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. Because she was a child on that day, she wants children everywhere to know her story. “I think it must be very hard for you to feel what happened because you are so very young,” she said to the children of a sixth grade class, “but I’ll try to speak about how strong you can be as a human being when you encounter difficulties in the future.”

Sachiko’s story is told in short chapters that cover fifty years of her life from the day of the bombing, when she went out to play with friends, to the 50th anniversary of the bombing when, at age 56, she was invited to speak to a sixth grade class about her experience as a hibakusha (“explosion-affected people”). Between Sachiko’s chapters are interspersed sections of supplemental material about such topics as the history of World War II, the bombing of Japan, and the long-term effects of radiation.

The writing is straightforward, never preachy, with quick, punchy sentences appropriate to the reading level of young people, yet not condescending, as readers of all levels can appreciate the concrete details that bring the story to life. Camphor trees, cicadas, and Sachiko’s grandmother’s green bowl found in the ruins of their home work as recurring motifs and metaphors to illuminate connections to nature, the past, and re-birth. They also serve as touchstones for the reader to navigate through a fifty-year time span.

The arc of this story takes readers on a journey from great sorrow and massive tragedy to incredible hope and the wish for peace. The story is personal and yet universal as Sachiko, who was inspired not only by her parents, but also by Helen Keller, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, comes to find forgiveness and the courage to tell others about the power of healing. Her talk on the 50th anniversary of the bombing was the beginning of many years of telling her story and advocating for peace. “What happened to me must never happen to you,” she said.

As Sachiko stood before the children on that day, she was reminded of her three brothers and sister. Toshi died the day of the bombing; her brothers Aki and Ichiro, who suffered from extensive radiation injuries, died shortly thereafter; and her sister, Misa, some years later from leukemia. Sachiko herself battled thyroid cancer that took her voice until she fought to regain it. Both her mother and father were gone. She alone had survived.

“This is an important day to talk about peace,” she said. “I hope to give you something to move your heart, to make you think of our peace for the future by telling you about the real misery that happened in the past. To make it happen, I have to share my heart . . . with you.” And so she told the children her story. It began the way this book opens with a six-year-old girl who was hungry because of the long war, who waited for the family hen to lay an egg, and then went out to play with her friends. Above them, the children heard the sound of a B-29. At 11:02 when the bomb exploded, they were just half a mile from the hypocenter. Her world was demolished. “Roaring winds ripped the bark off the camphor trees and split their trunks . . . .Dust erased the lines of the earth. Day turned to night.”

Sochiko lay under the rubble until her uncle found her and pulled her out. That evening the family buried her four friends. Sachiko’s little brother, Toshi, who was killed by a sharp stick to his head, was dead in her mother’s arms. He also was buried near the four friends.

During our conversation, I learned that Caren was inspired to write about Sachiko after hearing her speak at a Minneapolis ceremony to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We talked about Caren’s five trips to Nagasaki to interview Sachiko and her extensive research (evident by the notes and bibliography in the back of the book). Sachiko came to find her own voice because of what she learned from Helen Keller, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King—and her father, who said to her, “This is the only world we live in, Sachiko. Never say evil words; otherwise, we’ll not see peace. Hate only produces hate.”

It has been a long time since I’ve been so moved by a story. The book, although written for young people, helped me to better understand a war I was born into. I would have been about the same age as Sachiko’s little brother, Toshi, when the atomic bombs exploded on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

When we began our conversation, Caren said she had learned how much we don’t know or remember about that horrible day and how the national narrative we are told is not the only one to examine. “We have to be careful,” she said, “about the way we read our history because there is much controversy over the dropping of the bombs. It is relevant today. We must choose our leaders carefully.” By focusing on the story of one person, Sachiko, a habakusha who was shunned, Caren said she could explore how a child of war finds her way to peace.

“How does one get there?” she said. “How can this help our young people? I had to find the layers. What was happening in her life, the world, the war? I had to explore all the ways one person came to tell this story.” She paused and continued, “I don’t want this to be an apocalyptic story. I want it to be about a child, a story of hope. ”

One of my questions for Caren  related to the name of this blog, “The Joy of Writing.”   “Since I call my blog “The Joy of Writing,” what have been the joys (or not) of writing this book?” I wondered. Our time together ran out before we could talk about my question, but later Caren sent me this note:

It was a pleasure to meet you this afternoon to talk about SACHIKO. I never really answered your question about the joy of writing SACHIKO. The real joy of writing SACHIKO is connecting with others in friendship. I thoroughly enJOYed being with you this afternoon.

Then she added:

I forgot to say—now we have a child’s voice rising up through the three darkest holes of World War II. We have Germany’s Anne Frank and her diary. We have Hiroshima’s Sadako and her thousand paper cranes. And now we have Nagasaki’s Sachiko and her story. I feel in my bones if Anne Frank and Sadako had been allowed to grow to adulthood, they would have become wise peacemakers, like Sachiko, sharing love and hope with the world.

Thank you, Caren Stelson, for bringing Sachiko’s story, this beautiful book of forgiveness and peace, to us.

Sachiko Yasui and Caren Stelson at their first meeting. Nagasaki, 2010

Sachiko Yasui and Caren Stelson at their first meeting. Nagasaki, 2010

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Writing Idea:  No matter what your writing project, try doing research or interviews to connect your story or subject to a larger historical perspective. Another idea: how would you write the story of a difficult time in your life (or another person’s life) for a child you know?

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“When you grow up, remember to tell my story.”  Sachiko Yasui

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches

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A Hand Drawing a Hand: Writing about Writing

Today I decided to re-start my writing life. I told my friend, Mary, that I was going to commit to writing three hours a day for at least three days a week. “I’m going to get up early—6:00 am—and write.”

Yesterday I procrastinated all day and had the kitchen spotless. Then I removed a two-year-old coffee stain on the white shag rug under my writing chair. I also removed a macaroon that was stuck on the bottom of my sandals from the trip to Paris. Hmmm, I thought, you were a Paris macaroon, and now you are cement on the bottom of my shoe.

The whole day went by, and finally around 3:00 p.m. I made it up to my office, a place I had not visited all summer.

There on my desk were several piles of writing projects: poems, short stories, my collection of family stories and personal essays. So this is my problem, I thought, I try to work in too many genres. I even had a new novel percolating in the back of my head.

Writing Project Piles

Writing Project Piles

What about that other novel? I said to myself. The one you started years ago.

Well, maybe, I can fuse my idea for the new novel into the old one, I thought. So there emerged another writing problem: I’m always trying to figure out a way to work the old stuff into the new stuff.

Take the essays, for example. Years ago, I wrote a piece entitled “Long Distance to North Carolina.” I keep thinking that story, which could be considered a fusion of fiction and nonfiction, needed to make it into the world. So I revised it and used it as the title piece in a collection of nonfiction pieces that I worked on last summer.

When I presented this collection in the Madeline Island workshop Mary and I attended, the writer leading the group raised some good questions. “You need to know who your audience is,” she said. “If you’re writing these for family and friends—they will be interested in your work regardless, and you needn’t work so hard to gain their attention.”

That stopped me right there. Although I’d like my family and friends to be interested in my writing, they don’t seem to care all that much. Except, of course, Mary—who is a writer herself. I’m not blaming them. Mostly my family is busy living their own lives. And my friends? When we get together, it’s to enjoy each other’s company. My writing seems like a minor topic.

“If you’re hoping for a wider audience,” the workshop writer told me, “your work in revision will be bridging these personal narratives to universal truths or questions.”  True, who wouldn’t want a larger audience? Yet since I have neither an agent nor a publisher waiting in the wings, I see my larger audience as a misty cloud in some distant future.

Mary and I spent the rest of our spare time at the workshop laughing and trying to find our “universal truths.” I don’t mean to make light of this. I know exactly what the writer meant. I enjoyed writing those pieces; they meant something to me. But would anyone else care about them?

The workshop leader also questioned the fact that my writing is often also about writing. Just as I’m doing in this piece (the one you are reading), I write about writing in several of the pieces within that collection. “There’s little in your (sweet) moments writing with friends that hooks me,” she commented.

So here I am still sitting at my desk. Well, at least I’m at my desk. I’m writing about writing. It is like that Escher drawing of the artist’s hand drawing the artist’s hand. Is this a closed loop that no one else can enter? I don’t know, but it seems the best I can do today.

M. C. Escher, January 1948

M. C. Escher, January 1948

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Writing Talk: How is your writing life today? I call this blog “The Joy of Writing.” So why does writing seem not so joyful at times? Why do we avoid it? Where does the joy come from?

My mother was an artist. She seemed happy with the small pond of other artists in her community, with entering her work in local exhibitions, with taking part in art fairs. Is this where we writers can find our joy too?  Onward!

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Ray Bradbury, on curiosity and stimulating work, in his fantastic 2001 speech at The Sixth Annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea:

I want your loves to be multiple. I don’t want you to be a snob about anything. Anything you love, you do it. It’s got to be with a great sense of fun. Writing is not a serious business. It’s a joy and a celebration. You should be having fun with it. Ignore the authors who say ‘Oh, my God, what word? Oh, Jesus Christ…,’ you know. Now, to hell with that. It’s not work. If it’s work, stop and do something else.  (I’ve checked this quote several times. I’m not sure if Bradbury said “word” or “work” in the quote, but both work!  -V.)

 

 

For the Love of Books

Sometimes I think that my love of books and reading can be a way to avoid writing. It’s so much easier to pick up a book and disappear into another world than it is to pick up my pen and create another world.

Every Sunday, The New York Times Book Review publishes a feature entitled “By the Book” where notable authors and other important people are asked several questions about their current reading. I enjoy the wide variety of answers to questions like “What books are on your nightstand right now?” and “What’s the last great book you read?” Sometimes I wonder how these authors find the time to read so widely and keep up their amazing writing lives at the same time. Maybe they don’t belong to three book groups!

I have to thank these book groups and my writer friends for inspiring me to read books I might not otherwise have chosen. There are also the books for upcoming trips (Hemingway’s A Movable Feast) and books by writers whose workshops I’ll be attending (Kate Moses’s Wintering), not to mention books written by friends (Marge Barrett’s Called: The Making and Unmaking of a Nun). I can hardly keep up.

The books stacked beside me today have given me so much pleasure this summer. As much I love each of them, I’m going to try to put them back on the shelf and concentrate on writing—as soon as I return from my next trip, that is!IMG_0623

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A sampling of my favorites from this summer’s reading:

The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan

Wonderful exploration of four plants (tulip, apple, marijuana, potato) chosen by the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum garden book group led by Toni McNaron, one of my favorite teachers.

 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

This novel led to one of the liveliest discussions about a book I’ve had in long time. Tears and cheers for chimps!

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Oh, the wonders of reading Jane Austen! This novel gave me so many ideas for the work I need to do on the novel that I’m taking out of the drawer. “Yes, I am going to do that,” she says to herself.

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

Somewhere along the line I missed reading this classic, which took my breath away. An amazing work of art.

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

Fun to see what a writer like Anne Tyler does with the original “vinegar girl,” Katherina, in Shakespeare’s The Taming of Shrew.

Called: The Making and Unmaking of a Nun by Marge Barrett

Hats off to my friend, Marge Barrett, for her lovely memoir! So proud of you, my friend. You inspire me to sit down and write!

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In the I-love-to-hear-from-you department: How does your reading affect your writing life? What are you reading this summer?

If (like me) your writing has suffered this summer for whatever reason, try writing three pages a day for the next week in your writer’s notebook. Record your day, your doings, the way the moonlight looks on a July night, your garden as it becomes robust or not, the storm that left you without power for two days, your trip (real or imaginary) to Paris. Three pages and stop. That is enough.

In these stressful times, I hope each of you finds a few hours each week to nurture a rich, creative life—as you seek solace and joy in both your reading and your writing.

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For a taste of Stegner’s profoundly moving prose, here is his narrator Lyman Ward at the end of Angle of Repose:

” ‘What do you mean, ‘Angle of Repose?’ she [Lyman’s estranged wife] asked me [Lyman Ward] when I dreamed we were talking about Grandmother’s life, and I said it was the angle at which a man or woman finally lies down. I suppose it is; and yet it was not that I hoped to find when I began to pry around in Grandmother’s life. I thought when I began, and still think, that there was another angle in all those years when she was growing old and older and very old, and Grandfather was matching her year for year, a separate line that did not intersect with hers. They were vertical people, they lived by pride, and it is only by the ocular illusion of perspective that they can be said to have met. But he had not been dead two months when she lay down and died too, and that may indicate that at that absolute vanishing point they did intersect. They had intersected for years, for more than he himself would ever admit.”

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Also the words on my cup (in the photo):

“Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.”    (unknown)

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Never Too Late

This week I’m re-posting a recent blog entry by my fellow writer and editor, Carol Roan, from her site, The Stage Fright Whisperer. Carol and I collaborated on the creation of  When Last on the Mountain: The View from Writers over 50. Her essay, part of a series she is doing on creativity, is inspirational for me because, like the anthology, it celebrates the life and work of older writers. Some of us have just been so busy living our lives that we haven’t always had the time to write and publish our stories. Yet it’s never too late–as the life of Smith Hagaman reveals.People-are-capable

The Creative Experience Has No Age Limits

by Carol Roan

Smith Hagaman died last week. Unless you’re from North Carolina, or are one of the too few people who have read his books, the name will mean nothing to you. But Smith is an inspiration to me.

He began to write at the age of 86. He had a story in his head, and he decided, “If not now, when?” He was a reader; but, other than a letter-to-the-editor or two, he had never written. He knew nothing about the craft of writing, only that he wanted to tell a story. He sat down and wrote for six months. He said later that if he had worried about how he was writing, he would have given up.

But then he took the crucial next step: He learned the craft. He went to workshops and readings; he joined a critique group and a marketing group. He hired an editor. Me, as it turned out. And what a joy he was to work with. “Why?” That was always his question. When he understood why his first scene didn’t work and what the reader would expect from a first scene, he rewrote it in a week.

And he researched the details. He had been involved in a plane crash during World War II, so he already knew what that felt like. But if his fictional crash occurred in the Arctic Circle, what would the survivors find to eat? He consulted the foremost expert on the flora and fauna of that region. I had a problem with the scene in which an Irish priest comforts a dying Jewish man. Smith consulted a rabbi and found a prayer that I didn’t know existed, even though I’d sung in synagogues and been fascinated by Hebraic rituals for more than 30 years.

Smith ended up with more than a good adventure story. Because he asked “why?” throughout his life, each of his characters is on some sort of quest. One of them—the Irish prist—questions his own faith. The laws of physics, engineering and mechanical problems, and an underlying spirituality all come into play. And he manages to engage the reader with the most unsympathetic character imaginable . . .Ah, I don’t want to give away the ending.

When Smith asked if I would write a blurb for the book and sent me the galleys, I truly could not put it down until 4:00 a.m. For a good read, do get hold of Off the Chart by Smith Hagaman.

A wannabe writer at 86, Smith published two books and was at work on a third when he died.

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About Carol: 

With graduate degrees in vocal performance from Indiana University and in business from Columbia University, Carol Roan has sung in the television premiere of a Ned Rorem opera and testified about esoteric gold trades before the CFTC. Her writing career began with the publication of her first nonfiction book at the age of 62. She has since authored two other nonfiction books and co-edited three anthologies, including When Last on the Mountain: The View from Writers over 50.

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For Writers or Aspiring Writers:

If you’ve been meaning to pick up a pen and write, well, pick up a pen and write–one memory, one letter, one observation from the day, one story. Today. It’s not too late to start or to start again. Just set aside ten minutes and write without judging yourself or what you write. Then try it again tomorrow–and the next. I’ll be doing that too. So you’re not alone.

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“Those who pass by us, do not go alone, and do not leave us alone; they leave a bit of themselves, and take a little of us.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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Unblocking: Cleaning the Office

At the end of the summer, I finally cleaned out my Minneapolis office. I must have removed dozens of trash bags of books, paper, and office detritus. To make the decision of what to keep and what to toss, I picked up and looked at what seemed like thousands of pieces of paper that I had saved for reasons clear to me in some distant past, but fuzzy now.

There were notes from college classes and papers I wrote years ago, letters from my mother (every single one), copies of the syllabi of classes I taught, stories I started and never finished, unrevised stories with comments from readers, stacks of journals and diaries, drafts and research notes for a novel. I found finished stories (never published) that I barely remember writing as well as poems and essays in various stages of development. Other drawers and cabinets were filled with old photos, greeting cards from friends and family, our Christmas letters, manuals and discs for obsolete computers, mysterious cords and wires for lost electronic devices, staplers, labelers, notepads, and lots of fountain pens with dried ink.

 Paper and more paper

Paper and more paper

Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up helped a little as I weeded through all this. Tossing old staplers and computer discs and even books I would never read again was easy, but that poem I wrote in 1967 when I was living and teaching in western Pennsylvania, not so. “Do I love this piece of paper? Does it give me joy?” I asked myself trying to apply Marie Kondo’s simple logic. No, but I can’t let go of the moment it captured–the words that recorded a very specific time in my life.

All those words–what was I trying to say? Why did I hold on to them? Why can’t I let them go? Surely no one else would ever care to read the stuff, not even my own family,  but why was it so valuable to me?

I learned that many of my obsessions are still my obsessions. Reading through all those writings was like looking at a giant quilt of one’s past and seeing repeating patterns, colors, textures, that all seemed to fit together.

One of the essays I ran across was an annotation on writer’s block I wrote over twenty years ago. I don’t know why I thought I had writer’s block when I was creating so many pages full of words, but this strain of resistance within me around writing was something I worried about then and even now–a pattern that repeats itself in the quilt of my writing life.

Quilt/Guilt? Some of my fear of letting go of all those words was also about channeling those finished and unfinished pieces into  publication. I was that person who loved to write, but still the voices of others and the ones in my own head, said, “Publish. Publish.” Wasn’t there a reason for my desire to write and a place in the world for those words to land? If I were a real writer wouldn’t I also be diligent about submitting work and delight in publishing?

In that short essay on writer’s block buried in a forgotten file, I refer to two books and one story. The first is Eugene Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery (U.S. publication,1953). While the focus of Herrigel’s book appears to be archery, the other key words in the title are zen and art. Herrigel, a German philosopher, writes about the ten years he spent training with a Zen Master in the art of archery. Substitute archery for writing and the message of the book (while not always perfectly clear to the my Western mind) helps me to understand why I thought my problem was as simple as “writer’s block.”

The second book I wrote about in my writer’s block essay was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones (1987). Natalie Goldberg studied with Dainin Katagiri Roshi at the Minnesota Zen Center from 1978 to 1984. “Why do you come to sit meditation?” Roshi asked her. “Why don’t you make writing your practice? If you go deep into your writing, it will take you every place.” In her book, Natalie relates her Zen practice to writing. “There is a Zen saying,” she tells us, “‘Talk when you talk, walk when you walk, and die when you die.’ Write when you write. Stop battling yourself with guilt, accusations, and strong-arm threats.” Stop resisting, I would say now, many years later. Stop resisting. Be myself.

The short story I wrote about in the long-ago essay was Bernard Malamud’s famous story, “Angel Levine.” I love Malamud and this story about the tailor Manischevitz who finds it impossible to believe that a black man who says he is a Jew and is found in Bella’s Cabaret in Harlem could be an angel. You have to read the story to get the full context, but near the end, Malamud writes:

 Tears blinded the tailor’s eyes. Was ever a man so tired?

Should he say that he believed a half-drunk Negro was an angel?

The silence slowly petrified.

Manischevitz was recalling scenes of his youth as his mind whirred: believe, do not, yes, no, yes, no. The pointer pointed to yes, to between yes and no, to no, no it was yes. He sighed. It moved but one still had to make a choice.

‘I think you are an angel from God.’ He said it in a broken voice, thinking, if you said it it was said. If you believed it you must say it. If you believed, you believed.

So yes, I have a lot of words. I have lots of paper. Is Levine really an angel? Or has Manischevitz been duped? Or all my words special and magical? No. Why some more than others?  Which ones to keep? Which to toss? How to tell?  What to believe? The pointer moves from one to another. Am I glad I didn’t throw this old essay away? Yes.

 

The Quest for the Question

My friend, Mary, and I recently took part in a writing retreat at the Madeline Island School of the Arts in northern Wisconsin. We’re both working on book length projects and needed time away to focus.

Madeline Island School for the Arts

Madeline Island School of the Arts

“Write about your dark side,” says Mary one night. We are trying quick writing jumpstarts to make our way into the difficult work.

Earlier that day I said I was going to write about my dark side; and indeed, I had taken a stab at it. Now we laugh.

My dark side seems funny for some reason.

One  morning, the leader of the retreat, Elizabeth Andrew, asked us to frame the central question for our lives. She talked about how this central question will inform our memoir work. It will be the heartbeat.

Tonight, with a stricken look on her face, Mary says, “I don’t have a central question!” And we laugh again.

Mary and I are a little lost in the quagmire of finding our central question.

Elizabeth also asked us to think of a central image in our work.

“I don’t have a central image either!” Mary says.

That morning, Elizabeth suggested we dialogue with this central image. “Like Vicky’s telephone poles,” she said. The first day of class I had talked about how my memoir, Long Distance to North Carolina (tentative title), might use the metaphor of telephone poles and lines stretching across the country from Minnesota to North Carolina.

I glowed like a model student—the teacher’s pet—I had a central image!

And I set off writing a dialogue with telephone poles.

Mary’s face was puzzled. I could see her across the room. A little frown on her forehead.

Later as we sit in our cozy apartment, the same frown comes across her forehead as we talk about the day. “I don’t have a central image. Or a central question,” she says.

“We’re poets, “ I say, “Maybe we don’t think this way.” But now we’re trying to step out of our poet minds and write memoir. Maybe we have to go about it—this book creation—in a different way. We can try anyway.

But back to the workshop and the leader’s comments: she was saying, “Write out three central questions in your life. Then choose the one that stands out.” She listed three questions from her own writing as an example. It seemed easy.

I sat there like a lost sheep. My central question? All I could think of was “What will we have for dinner?” It is certainly the one most asked in my house these days. John to me: “What’s for dinner?” Me: Blank look. “Dinner?”

Finally I did jot down three central questions. But even now I have to look back in my notebook to see what they are—that’s how central they must be!

Here is what I wrote:

What does it mean to be here a short time?
What (where) is here?
What am I longing for?

The last one intrigues me because I love to listen to Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, and especially Leonard Cohen late at night—and go to some funky place—like I’m sixteen again or thirty-two. Am I this age, in a rather old body, still living in the romance of a much younger version of myself? Okay. Move on.

So I chose the first one: What does it mean to be here a short time? The short-time question brings to mind the theme of mortality and immortality, a theme rooted in my spiritual life as well. Life and death. Life after death. Birth and death. In the body and out of the body. Longing for another place and time. Pleasing decay. All big questions to infuse my writing. But what happened to my central impetus to write about my mother and her life? She was here such a short time–even though she lived to be almost 96.

Maybe what I have to say is bigger than her life or mine. Yet I can’t get to the bigger questions without being mired in the details–or enriched by the specific moments we live, even in this moment as I struggle to see beyond myself.

Maybe I’m getting closer–or larger.

Now for my second question: what or where is here? And where or who is she?

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Writing Idea: If you’re working on a book-length project (or even a shorter one), what is your central question? Central image? Try a quick free-writing about what you see as possible questions. Even if you draw a blank, write some of the questions you circle around in your work. Or question why you don’t have questions! What about the images that keep coming back again and again as you write? Is there one question or image that stands out above the others?

Thanks to Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew, the leader of our June retreat at Madeline Island School of the Arts not only for this writing idea, but also for an amazing, inspirational week.

Our Group

Our Group                 June 2015

 

 

Confessions of a Workshop Junkie

In a few days, I’m taking the boat to Key West to attend “How the Light Gets In: Literature of the Spirit,” the 2015 Key West Literary Seminar. I’m looking forward to sitting at the feet of some great writers, a privilege no matter what my age. There is so much to learn about writing, our world, and the life of the spirit from reading and hanging out with writers, so I’ll settle back in the red velvet seats of the San Carlos Center on Duval Street and listen to Coleman Barks, Billy Collins, Mark Doty, Patricia Hampl, Jane Hirshfield, Marie Howe, Pico Iyer, Wally Lamb, Barry Lopez, Robert Richardson, Marilynne Robinson, and Steve Stern.kw_beach

“Our hope,” writes program co-chair Pico Iyer about the 2015 seminar, “is to talk about essentials—what lasts and what is at the heart of us—through poetry, essay, fiction, and even silence; to push words as far as they can go and then to respect what remains when they give out.”

These Key West seminars are immensely popular and sell out right away. In fact, the 2016 seminar (“Shorts: Stories, Essays, and Other Briefs”) is already sold out with a waiting list. So I’m must not be the only one who enjoys the literary treat of listening to writers, who have worked hard at their craft.

Following the seminar, my friend Mary and I will participate in Jane Hirshfield’s poetry workshop. Jane is a rock star in the poetry world and someone whose work I have admired for a long time, so again I’m so happy to have this opportunity to stretch my poetry wings in new directions, as I get to know Jane.

Rebecca McClanahan

Rebecca McClanahan

Last summer, Mary and I signed up for Rebecca McClanahan’s literary nonfiction workshop offered by Hamline University on the St. Olaf College campus in Northfield, Minnesota. Again what a pleasure to absorb what Rebecca had to say and to try my hand at many of her writing challenges.

Besides my poetry, I’m attempting to write a family memoir. “Now why I can’t I just sit at my desk and write the dang thing,” I ask myself. “Why am I always going off to hang out with these other writers in workshops?”

My mother was a good role model for me in this department. She continued to study art and learn from other artists right into her nineties. It kept her going. Art was her passion. So I’ve made writing mine. These other writers inspire me and give me great pleasure. They send me back to my desk with new ideas and with writing that I would never have done without them.

As I prepare to teach my own workshops here on Sanibel in late January, I hope that I can bring some of the same inspiration that these writers have given to me. We’re all great writers, each in our own way. The words we put upon the paper express our deepest desires, our unique histories and experiences, our longings, our loves and our losses. They record a moment in time that comes along only once.

Our words connect us to each other—the famous and the not-so-famous—we’re in this game together. So onward to the next workshop!

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Writing Challenge: One of Rebecca McClanahan’s writing challenges for those of us writing nonfiction is to “create a self on the page.” She says, “Part of what draws a reader into a nonfiction work–in particular a memoir or personal essay–is the sense that a flesh-and-blood character stands behind the words. Use the first person “I” to introduce and describe the person behind the words. To do this, you’ll need to acquire enough distance so that you can present yourself as a character on the page.”

Give this a spin to get yourself into your 2015 writing chair.You can refer to yourself as “he” or “she” and describe yourself as if you were a character in a story. A good experiment in humility–not a bad way to start the year.

P. S. See my earlier post, “The Size of My Life,” for a wonderful poem, “My Life at Sixty,” by Mary Junge, in which she creates “a self on the page.”

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I hope 2015 yields much good writing for you! Or I should say just “writing”—don’t worry about the “good” part. Put some words on paper—and feel good about that. Or take a class; attend a workshop. Try sitting at the feet of those writers who have honed their craft and gained some recognition in the process. Remember they got there from time spent at their desks, laying words on paper, like bricks in a wall. It’s never too late. Forget the fame part. Listen. Learn. And write. That’s my intention.

Happy New Year!

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“Our task as writers is not only to pay attention to our world but also to use the materials of the world in extraordinary ways. To do this, we must uncover the subtle design, the “figure in the carpet” that is woven into even the most everyday events. Often we must proceed without knowing what form the work will finally take. We write our way into the question, into the mystery. Writing begets more writing; meaning grows on the page.”   Rebecca McClanahan  (from her website).

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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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“And Have No Fear”

In my last blog, I wrote about using prompts or ten-minute jumpstarts to fire up our writing. Yet are we just filling notebooks with exercises? What can come of these jottings?images-2

In a Paris Review interview, Amy Hempel talked about an assignment (prompt) from her teacher, Gordon Lish. She said:

The assignment was to write our worst secret, the thing we would never live down, the thing that, as Gordon put it, dismantles your own sense of yourself. And everybody knew instantly what that thing, for them, was.

And what was her worst secret? “I failed my best friend when she was dying,” she said. It became the subject of the first story she ever wrote, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” one of the most anthologized stories of all time.

Darin Strauss’s memoir Half a Life: A Memoir (winner of The National Book Critics Circle Award, 2011) was built around telling his worst secret. In the first sentence, he writes: “Half my life ago, I killed a girl.”

One day in his last year of high school when he was driving his father’s Oldsmobile, a girl on a bike swerved in front of the car. He was unable to avoid hitting her, and she died. The girl was a fellow classmate, Celine Zilkes. Strauss buried the secret for years, not telling anyone. Until the birth of his own twins, when he says he felt “with new force that I’d never be able to feel it all—never truly comprehend just how awful the Zilkes’ loss must have been. I wrote merely as a way to take hold of my thoughts about this.” (See his interview with Colum McCann.)

Here are two writers who have written successful artistic accounts of “worst secrets”: one fiction, one nonfiction. Which genre do we choose to explore a secret? Fiction, nonfiction, poetry? In his workshop at the 2013 Sanibel Writers Conference, Strauss (who writes mostly fiction) told us that he chose nonfiction for Half a Life because he wanted to get the facts right. It was his answer to the news articles that reported the accident. Amy Hempel chose fiction for her elliptical, poetic story, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.” Lucille Clifton wrote poems such as “the lost baby poem.” So . . .

Let us go forth, the tellers of tales, and seize whatever prey the heart long for, and have no fear. Everything exists, everything is true, and the earth is only a little dust under our feet.                                  ― W.B. Yeats

And have no fear. After all, to begin we need only a pen and notebook and ten minutes.

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For other writers who have written about “worst secrets,”  see work by Susan Cheever, Jeannette WallsKathryn Harrison,Pat Conroy, Sharon Olds, and Nora Ephron (who kept her own impending death a secret while planning her Exit.) Also Nabokov’s Lolita,Sophocles’ Oedipus, and St. Augustine’s Confessions come to mind. In the current issue of The Paris Review (“The Art of Nonfiction No. 5”), the French writer Emmanuel Carrére discusses (among other things) his telling of secrets in My Life as a Russian Novel. 

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Writing Jumpstart: Use Gordon Lish’s assignment above. Or write about why you could never tell your worst secret. Or find the humor in a secret–and write that story or poem (maybe like Billy Collins does in “Forgetfulness” or “Writing in the Afterlife“–not exactly about secrets but about where “assignments” might take us.) Or invent a secret for a character in your novel or story. There must be lots of power in that word “secret.” Give it whirl for ten minutes. And another ten. That’s something about secrets that might keep you going for longer.