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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