I have spent the last week madly working between sun up and sun down, that time of light which is getting shorter by the minute. Fall is here and winter is coming. My goal in this transition time is to find a way to turn my madness into order. Not lose the energy but find some space in the midst of it all. I have a novel to finish and I need the space for that. I have a family to sit and read with, play with, hug and hang with and I need the space for that.
I want to be mindful and heartful and here. I want to hear the prayers that are made out of grass.
I have also spent the last few days trying to fix the BurnFeed feature on our blog so that we all get new posts in our inbox. I think I have fixed it. Let me know!
So for today, I leave you with this poem by one of my heroes, Mary Oliver.
By Mary Oliver
I see or hear
that more or less
that leaves me
like a needle
in the haystack
It was what I was born for—
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world—
to instruct myself
over and over
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant—
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,
the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help
but grow wise
with such teachings
the untrimmable light
of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?
Thursday, October 18, 2012
Whenever I walk into a library, I take a deep breath; all of those words, all of those ideas! All of the stories, all of that information within four walls, under one roof! I just want to let it soak into my pores. I love the dusty paper smell mixed with the sharp scent of ink—one sniff and I’m ready to sit down, open a book and fall into the images conjured up by the words.
People often ask writers where they get their ideas. Well, for starters, nothing beats the library. (No, no, I’m not overlooking the Internet—I know its there, but it’s a totally different experience. You know what I mean.)
First, last Tuesday night Lois Lowry spoke at the San Francisco Main library. Author of over forty books and winner of numerous awards, Lois Lowry, (now in her seventies) has just finished the final book in THE GIVER quartet, answering many of the questions she’s received from readers since her original THE GIVER won the Newbery in 1994. She spoke on a number of topics but what especially interested me was how she got her idea for THE GIVER, a story about a dystopian society that had gained enough technology to create a lifestyle that had no memory of sadness or pain. She told us that all her ideas come from asking the question, “What if?” It was the question she asked after a visit to her elderly father who was slipping into dementia and had lost his most painful memory--that his other daughter, Lois’s sister, had died as a young woman. Lowry first thought that it seemed like a good thing to forget the painful memories in life. She wondered, what if we could offer this to people? What if we could forget all of the sad and painful things that had happened to us? From that questioning came the idea for THE GIVER.
I think all creative endeavors come out of this ‘What if?’ question. What if I paint her face at another angle? What if I add cilantro to the pasta sauce? What if the violins come in on A Minor? What if I have a different character tell this story?
The second author visit was Rita William’s-Garcia at the West Oakland Public Library talking about her multi-prize winning book ONE CRAZY SUMMER, the story of three sisters sent to spend the summer with their estranged mother who is an activist with the Black Panthers in the late 1960’s. Rita spoke to an enraptured room of all ages about where her idea came from—it started with the question, “What would it be like to be a child in this very electric time and place?” It’s another kind of ‘What if?’
I took both of these talks back home with me, like treasures in my pockets. And when I pulled them out to admire them, a little piece of something else fell out with them—a folded piece of paper with ‘dare to fail’ scribbled on it. It’s the unspoken part of ‘What if?’ What if my idea doesn’t work? What if I try and fall on my arse?
The answer to that is simple: you get up and try again because intrinsic in the endeavor, in the desire to create, to the 'what if?' question, has to be the willingness to fail. I think it’s an excellent question to ask ourselves at the start of every day. It's the only way through the door.
Thursday, October 11, 2012
I heard David Shannon speak last weekend. David Shannon of No David! picture book fame. He's a wonderful speaker, an organic storyteller really, and he held my attention—along with every other person's in the room—for the 45 minutes that he spoke. Or perhaps a better way to put it is that he interacted with my attention for that time, because he didn't keep my attention clutched in his hands, still and silent, but instead, he danced with it: asked questions, made eye contact, created call and response moments, made connections…and asked for the same in return.
One thing David said was that he puts his dog Fergus—this cute little white terrier—into every one of his stories. And so he becomes an interactive game for David's readers. Where is Fergus in this story? Is he in the background? Is he a toy? Is he partially hidden? In a very clear and simple way, Fergus has become a recurring image, a through-line for David—from idea to idea, from story to story, from book to book.
Maybe David draws Fergus because a furry dog is fun to create. Or maybe he includes Fergus because he loves him so. And maybe—just maybe—Fergus has become a sort of gauge, a way for David to mark his growth as a writer.
But like I said, David got my attention dancing, and the idea of recurring images is how I dipped and shimmied and spun. I got to thinking about the objects that repeatedly show up in my stories. (Mind you, I am not an illustrator, so I'm not talking about visual objects but objects, instead, drawn with words.) For instance, I write about trees. A lot. And so, in effect, I have a long-standing relationship with trees as story elements.
I had the urge, after listening to David, to go back through my work and search for those tree moments, to place them side by side in chronological order, and to trace the arc of my growth as a writer along their branched arms, from one to the other to the other. We are drawn to the ideas and images and concepts, I believe, that have the most to teach us. Early on we don't know why we are so curious about them, but, still, we are…and so we play with them, repeat them, explore them. Slowly, though, their meaning becomes clearer. Maybe we connect them, for the first time, to a piece of ourselves. They take on a different resonance. They express more. There is something glorious, I think, in appreciating that progression of meaning. Something sacred and intimate and wise.
What images recur in your work? How have they evolved over time? What can they teach you about yourself as a writer and human being in this wide and wonderful world?
Thursday, October 4, 2012
Last week Tam talked about getting out of your usual surroundings to learn something about yourself that you didn’t know or had forgotten. She went on to say that when you take those discoveries back with you, you might find you have changed, perhaps even reincarnated yourself, keeping the important pieces and letting go some of the others.
Her words, as always, rang true.
In fact, I just had such an experience. Last week, I found myself in Spokane, Washington, helping my mother pack up and move over to the coast. I grew up in Spokane, but since our family lake house recently sold, I rented an enchanting little house through airbnb. (A great organization! Check it out if you ever need a home away from home: https://www.airbnb.com )
The tiny house, lovingly transformed from a 384 square foot Washington Water Power substation with a 13 foot ceiling, was furnished with charming antiques and had a courtyard planted with organic berries and vegetables to pick and enjoy. With no Internet access or television, it provided a perfect oasis for me to rest, recharge, center and to get to know myself a little better again. Waking up in the morning and then returning to this one room retreat every evening for a week gently forced me into some new patterns—patterns of simplicity, introspection and a kind of meditative solitude I hadn’t experienced since my days in my little cabin on Orcas Island.
I discovered that I didn’t need to know, moment-to-moment or even hour-to-hour what everyone else was doing or posting. I didn’t need to respond immediately to whatever emails might be in my inbox. I rediscovered that sitting quietly, enjoying a cup of tea, a soft boiled egg and buttered toast or a simple salad and a glass of wine, without conversation, without an open notebook or even a book, was a pleasure and helped me pay attention to the moment, to the smells, the flavors, the temperature of the air, the curl of a leaf in the jug of freshly cut flowers on the table and in paying attention, my thoughts slowed to murmurs instead of the anxious banter that had been circling in there all day.
I rediscovered John Prine among the house collection of CD’s and remembered how much I used to love just sitting and listening to music—how it opens up something in my heart and makes me smile. I even danced by myself around the room, which reminded me that it’s good to be silly sometimes. That such uninhibited freedom can bring joy.
And then when I did finally sit down and open my notebook to write and try to get inside the character in the novel I’ve been working on, I found that not only could I hear my thoughts more clearly, but I could actually slip inside my character's head in a way that I hadn’t been able to do before, perhaps because I was less attached to who I had been and more open to try on another skin.
And now that I’m home, I can feel those discoveries alive in me; I am going to try to be less obsessed with staying constantly Internetedly connected, constantly checking email and searching for unnecessary facts. I am going to try not to feel the need to constantly multi-task. I will try to allow myself more time to sit quietly, to pay attention to what I’m doing. Or not doing. I’m going to try and remind myself to use the Internet as a tool but to not let it become a substitute for real life connecting or experience.
I did, however, just go to iTunes and download some John Prine to dance to when I’m home alone.
Take Good Care,