One of us lives on the east coast. One of us lives on the west.

One of us lives in a rural community. One of us lives in a city.

Both of us wander. Both of us witness. Both of us write.

This is a record of what we find.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Landscape of Silence And Words

Marie Howe, one of my favorite poets, is the current New York State Poet Laureate. The following is reposted after hearing her wonderful interview with Terry Gross on NPR two years ago.

A few days ago, my husband and I were driving across the Golden Gate Bridge. The fog shrouded city faded away behind us as we headed into sunlight filtered through the marine layer at the far end of the bridge. Fresh Air was on the radio; Terry Gross interviewing the poet, Marie Howe, whose poem, What The Living Do, has just been included in the new Penguin Anthology of American Poetry. 

As we passed the wildly scrubby hills of The Headlands, I was riveted and moved by the passion and compassion in Marie Howe’s voice as she discussed her life work. She spoke about how every poem holds the unsayable inside of it, that silence that cannot be put into words because it is too complicated, too complex.

I thought about how we writers love words, how we’re always looking for that magic word that encapsulates the precise concept that we can feel but not say. And how we are endlessly disappointed because it’s basically impossible.

But ever once in a while, we find that word we’re looking for. It happened a few days ago, when a new word popped up on my iPad screen—a daily gift from Dictionary dot com: anoesis; a state of mind consisting of pure sensation or emotion without cognitive content. It was like a magic word, one I had been searching for, for a very long time. A word that described the very essence of the experience of the unsayable.

And then, the bonus: the example given was a quote from Will Self’s (what a great name, btw!) On Psychogeography. Psychogeography? What does that mean? It turns out to be a word coined by the French Situationists in the 1950s to describe the resurrected, time-honored Parisian tradition of flaneur. Wandering and observing. Psychogeography; now that’s a word I need, because it’s something I do everyday.

Digging around on the internet, I found a 2007 interview on World Hum, where Will Self compared writing (something else I do everyday) to psychogeography, saying that they both are low start, bare bone activities. All you have to do is go out and do it.

Thinking about the relationship between writing and walking, between struggling to find a way to say the unsayable and the experience of psychogeography, brought to mind an excerpt from A.M. Klein’s epic poem, Portrait of the Poet as Landscape (another wonderfully evocative phrase):  

Then he will remember his travels over that body—
the torso verb, the beautiful face of the noun,   
and all those shaped and warm auxiliaries!   
A first love it was, the recognition of his own.   
Dear limbs adverbial, complexion of adjective,   
dimple and dip of conjugation!

Wow. What a landscape. It takes my breath away.

But back to Fresh Air.

As we pulled off the freeway into Corte Madera, with Mt. Tamalpias reigning peacefully over the community, Marie Howe read one of her poems, My Dead Friends, that talks about the practice she has of asking her dead friends—those who had already passed through ‘the frightening gate’—for their help in making decisions. “They always answer whatever leads to joy, to more life and less worry.”

We parked the car and I just sat there a few moments with that thought. And then in the silence that followed, I experienced an enormous sense of wordless joy, rightness and well being. A moment of anoesis. 

Thank you Marie Howe.

You can click here to listen to Fresh Air and Terry Gross's October 19th, 2011 interview with Marie Howe  


Friday, October 18, 2013

Repost of: A Tree Last Year, the Same Tree Yesterday and that Very Same Tree Today

Sharry and I are in the process of changing up our blog. Stay tuned. In the meantime we have decided to repost some of our favorite posts. Not all the time. But sometimes, when the day or the season or the moment calls for it.

Today (or technically yesterday, yikes!) is one of those days.  I am at the end of a big-push revision of a novel. I am also deep in thought about ritual. My October 11, 2012 post about David Shannon speaks to both.

*      *      *      *       *

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.

Who knows. 

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 10, 2013

The Landscape of A First Draft

Saul Steinberg, Autogeography, 1966

I’m in the beginning stages of starting a new novel and am at once excited and frankly, terrified. Excited by the potential for discovery. And terrified by the possibility of failure that I know, from experience, leads to feeling hopelessly lost. Wandering in the wilderness.

I wish I had a map.

As a plot challenged writer, I have been trying to force myself to think ahead, to plan, and to outline. But making an outline before you write a draft is like making a map of a place you’ve never been. I’m back to thinking that the first draft has to be an expedition, a voyage into unknown territory. Figuring out the paths and sights, the flora, fauna, the people you think you might meet before you get there just doesn’t make sense. It would be like a cartographer making a map of a place he’s never been before he sets out to explore.

In his astonishingly wise book, Maps of The Imagination: The Writer As Cartographer, Peter Turchi says, “If we attempt to map the world of a story before we explore it we are likely either to (a) prematurely limit our exploration, so as to reduce the amount of material we need to consider, or (b) explore at length but, recognizing the impossibility of taking note of everything, and having no sound basis for choosing what to include, arbitrarily omit entire realms of information.”

19th Century map of a woman's heart.

Venturing into the unknown is always a scary proposition. But as Bill Cosby once said, you have to decide you want it more than you’re afraid of it. In other words, if you ever want to go someplace new, do something you haven’t done before, the desire to discover has to outweigh the fear.

It is tempting for many writers (myself included) to stay close to a known path by repeating what we know, doing what we feel comfortable and competent doing. Imitating what has worked in the past is often (although not always) a safe bet. But if we give in to that safe route, we are depriving ourselves of discovering anything new. Of growing both as writers and as human beings.

We do look to other writers and other pieces of successful writing for clues, travel tips, you could call them. But again, if we give in to following a map someone else has made, we will not discover much that is new.

Edinburg Scotland Map 1947
Artist: Kerry Lee
If I want to continue on with the travel analogy, comparing the voyage into a new story with taking a trip, then I guess we could consider the different ways to travel, the benefits and the drawbacks. Going someplace foreign on a guided tour has its merits, although you’re unlikely to discover much that hasn’t already been well documented. Going on your own with a map someone else has made is a bit more adventuresome and you might wander off road now and then, meet some interesting people, see things that you personally haven’t seen before but others probably have. (If there’s a map, you can bet that others have traveled the road before you)

Map by Julia McKenzie Art
But if you strike out into the wild, into uncharted territory, you will have to be your own guide, follow your instincts. You might get eaten by a monster. Or perhaps you’ll find treasure. Even if someone has gone down the same path before you, you will see it through your own eyes without already expecting what might be there. Once you’ve gone out and come back, (if you do come back…) THEN you can make a map.

In the words of Voltaire, “Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.”

What about you? Are you a mapper? Or an explorer?

Take Good Care,


Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Landscape of Reading

A few years ago I read Frank Cottrell Boyce's The Unforgotten Coat, which I loved. Honestly, its one of the most magical and real books I have ever read. But what I found out---and what I loved even more---was that the book started life as a "free gift to the charity The Reader Organisation."

Okay, so then I had to look up this organization.

And then I fell madly in love.

The Reader Organisation is, as they say in their tag-line, bringing about a reading revolution.  What's there not to love about that, right?!  Their vision is that everyone  has access to literature and that personal responses to books are shared freely in reading communities in all areas of life.  So cool.  But this is not just a group of want-to-do-good-ers wishful thinking.  They've got some incredible programs up and running. Their shared reading project, Get Into Reading, is the foundation of their organization. It uses a model they have pioneered that brings people together for weekly read aloud reading groups. People read to one another. They listen to one another. Their thoughts and experiences are also shared and connections are made---with themselves and with one another.  The Reader Organisation has brought this model into prisons, libraries, schools, assisted living residences and other similar, structured environments.

Literature-based intervention works. They cite many studies and research that support the reality of the benefits of communal reading. It improves literacy.  It improves memory. It fosters mental health. its boosts self-esteem. It connects people. The list goes on and on.

Boyce visits Year 6 pupils at St. Benedict's in Netherton
When Boyce was asked if he would write a story to be part of The Reader Organisation's Our Read Initiative in 2011, he waived his commission and wholeheartedly jumped at the offer: "The whole point of writing for me is to share the stories that are in my head. And nothing makes me happier than hearing that a parent has shared one of my books with their children, or their friends or their work-mates. So the opportunity The Reader Organisation has given me here to share an idea with my whole city---and my whole city with the whole world---is the biggest thrill ride I can possibly imagine."

 You know, when I imagine the Landscape of Reading I see a room with a comfy chair, a soft light, maybe the steam from a mug of tea, and one person entwined with a book. But now, imagine a different landscape... a room with a long table, chairs with cushions, pillows on the floor, and kids in every corner, one to a book, two to a book, together...the possibilities are vast.

Happy Reading.