Goldberg’s Quiet Highway

A copy of Natalie Goldberg’s memoir, Long Quiet Highway, is on top of my current stack of books and it will stay there, I suspect, for quite a while. I don’t know how long it’s been since I first read it, but this copy now has many, many underlined passages and marginal notes. I did not want it to end. If you’re not familiar with the book, a quick look: Natalie was a “nerdy” child. She did not write her first poem until she was in her twenties, and discovered by experimentation a writing process that works for her and probably thousands of others. The poet who organized our free writing group in Denver, calls it Goldbergian, a name almost longer than the “rules.” The #1 rule is to accept whatever prompt is offered, set a timer and write non-stop till the bell rings or the phone buzzes, whatever signals that time is up. That’s really the only rule. She suggests keeping a list of topics at the back of the notebook, just to get a kick start when you need it.

What inspired me the most, though, is Natalie’s repeated references to writing just to write, not to publish, not to create new and startling prose or poetry. Just write. And in the process, meet yourself on the page. So I’m practicing by letting go of my old process. For years I have followed Julia Cameron’s morning pages plan, three pages every morning. It has worked pretty well. But three pages is an artificial limit. Today when I went on to page five (my current journal is small), I felt a twinge of guilt. This was too indulgent, I had chores to do, this blog to write, a list of emails to deal with. But I kept writing, just for the pleasure of seeing words appear. And of course, to see what I had to say.

The 3Cs of Writing

I obsess about writing, even about when, where and on what I write. I feel anxious if I leave home without the tools to write at the drop of a thought. For me this means a portable journal–stitched or bound so I don’t lose pages–a fast pen/pencil and a place to sit. I write on my lap. I do keep a few of my oft-touted index cards in my purse, a back-up for those moments when I don’t want to drag the journal into view, like in church. Yes, I take notes and jot ideas or images in church. Shhh–don’t tell Reverend Lydia.

What intrigues me is how often I alter my basic formula. Lately, I’ve been using pencil instead of pen and keeping my list of books read or to read in the back of the journal. Now I write only on the left-hand page, leaving the right for lists, addresses, or quotes! I love quotes from other writers and often use that spare page for these delicious word bonbons. And the secret delight–I fill a journal faster this way and can start a new one. I welcome a new journal like clean sheets or a full tank of gas.

My journal

My Journal

If you don’t already have a good journal process, get one. And consider these three elements: Keep it close, cheap and comfortable. If it’s not portable, you won’t have it when you need it, so keep it close. If it’s too fancy or expensive, you’ll restrict what you do with it, maybe ration how much you write, so keep it cheap. I stock up when the ones I like go on sale. And by all means, keep it comfortable. Pay attention to your posture, your hands, your eyes. If you leave a writing session with a crooked spine, a pain in the neck and cramped fingers, something needs to change. That’s one reason I now use the left page–reaching to the right page puts a slight stress on my shoulder and after a while I feel it.

None of this is terribly exciting or new, but it’s advice I hear myself giving over and over to people who don’t yet write regularly. A daily journal is like a sketch book, piano exercises, or the morning jog of an athlete. Writing is not so much inspiration as dedication and practice. The journal works for us as the barre does for the dancer. So, as the song says, “I hope you’ll dance.”

Martyrs and Worms

A poem for you, recently part of the Boulder Valley UU Fellowship poetry service:

 

MARTYRS AND WORMS

Worms don’t volunteer

to be flooded from home,

to feed the hungry robin.

 

No cathedral rises in honor of worms,

no beatification of night crawlers.

Saint Worm slays no dragons,

writes no treatise on the meaning

of wriggling toward the divine. No one

reports visions of Mary with a worm.

 

I avoid stepping on worms

stranded on the sidewalk,

not that I care enough

or I’d lift the worm to safety

in the grass, smuggle it away

from the reach of hard, quick beaks.

 

I’m tempted to shrug: a worm’s a worm

for all I know. But I don’t know.

Squiggles drying in the sun are

as mysterious as questions of good

and evil, plague, hunger and mayhem.

Worm or human, the wheel turns,

grinds and lets go.

Shuffle the Word Deck

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What are the odds of playing the exact same game of Solitaire twice? Given 52 cards, it’s beyond my wimpy powers of calculation. I play Solitaire a lot. It’s my go-to avoidance trick but this morning I was noodling around with it and it struck me that as much as I play, the random deal always seems fresh. Hmm, given the number of words in my vocabulary, my random deal of language must be way out there. So, do this:

Get a deck of cards, preferably one you don’t plan to use in Texas Hold’em because you will definitely mark these cards. With pen or black marker (Because cards are slick the words may blur, so experiment with the jokers, which you won’t need.) build a word deck, 26 black nouns and 26 red verbs. Shuffle them and deal out seven like the base row for Solitaire. Now make something of that hand. Cheap entertainment and good exercise for your imagination. Finding new connections among random words is creative. Go play, write. This is one card game you can’t lose.

RMFW Conference

This weekend Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers held their 30th Conference at the Westin Hotel in Westminster, CO, a sold-out event—400 writers in the same place at the same time. The word tribe echoed through the conference rooms, but we were more like a host, an army, a hoard, bent on lending and bending ears and picking brains for the secrets to great writing. William Kent Krueger, award-winning mystery and suspense author was there was there. Mark Coker, CEO of Smashwords, was there. I was there. My head is still there, maybe in one of those brown leather chairs in the lobby, maybe under a skinny writing table in a conference room.

If you have not yet been to a major writers’ conference, take note:

  • First, you pay. Paying ahead usually gets you a discount. Special add-on sessions will add on to the total. Budget for travel, hotels, etc. At least some of the meals will be included in the registration fee.
  • Traveling, rooming, planning with a friend is fun, but don’t cling to that friend. Mingle, meet new people. This weekend we were encouraged to invite ourselves into conversations and clutches of people. Agree to meet your friends for lunch or at the wine bar, but don’t forget the value of networking.
  • Take plenty of business cards that say clearly that you are a writer/author. Cards fly around like snowflakes.
  • Wring out all the juice: hear every note of the dirge and ode that is writing advice. Sleeping in and hanging out at the wine bar is not the best use of your time. Yes, you’ll get tired. But this is part of your job as a writer. Just do it.
  • Go ahead and fill the conference tote bag with free swag, but remember that you have to carry it around. Unless you choose the tiny candy bars and eat them. I guess you’re still carrying them, just not in the tote bag.
  • Study the program ahead and accept that you cannot hear every speaker. You’ll regret some that you did not hear; you’ll regret some that you do hear. We had the option of buying audio tapes of those we missed or wanted to hear again.
  • Plan to buy books, not because you need them, but because they are delicious and often discounted. Authors are present to sign them. Then again, you’ll be carrying them around. I waited to buy near the end of the conference for that reason.
  • Ration you energy. The stimulation is enormous—400 people in the hallways, jockeying for seats in popular sessions, talking, talking and talking. If you can, find a quiet spot whenever the schedule allows. Use the restrooms every chance you get, especially at odd times when they are less crowded.

Some of the advice I heard at RMFW confirmed things I knew, some of it added to what I knew, and some of it scared me, e.g. I don’t have a book series and that’s a big money issue. I don’t know that I’ll ever want to write a series. But as Kent Krueger said in his closing speech, we write because we love it. Our first job is to write good stories, poems, memoirs and essays. Given the weekend with the tribe, I’m more than ready to get back to that job and use some of the tips I gathered in those conference sessions.

Flawed Landscape

In each of the books listed at the bottom of this post, a poet serves as our witness to the world in ways that conventional news does not, cannot. The list is far from inclusive, but each book is especially meaningful to me. Most timely this summer is Sharif S. Elmusa’s Flawed Landscape: Poems 1987-2008. Now an American citizen, he was born in Palestine and brings us news that only he can. We need to know that he could “go around,/like an ancient Chinese poet,/ watching moons and donkeys.” And that he has trouble going around freely because “Gaza is a cage.” And that he wants “to cross borders/unseen/like salmon/like contaminated wind” (from “Moons and Donkeys”). Here is a real person in a real life seeing his birth country torn apart.

We won’t get such a complex, first person point of view as this from the news agencies, and yet, we need to hear his experience in his words. And to thank poets who brings us news, not only of battles and beheadings, but of daily life lived in a war zone, whether it’s Iraq or Appalachia. Auden said that “poetry makes nothing happen.” But I stand with William Carlos Williams who said in “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower”: “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.”

When Sharif read his poems in a bookstore in Maine, he seeded into the world a truth we sorely need. Poetry is an enzyme in the body politic, a vital stimulant and we could die miserably for lack of it.

Elmusa reads at Gulf of Maine Books, August 2014Elmusa reads at Gulf of Maine Books, August 2014

Brian Turner, Here, Bullet

Jack Hirschman, Front Lines

Martin Espada, ed., Poetry Like Bread: Poets of the Political Imagination from Curbstone Press

Betsy Sholl, Otherwise Unseeable

David Mason, Ludlow

 

Hope & Serendipity

Last week I wrote about the commercial context in which we hear awful news about Palestine, ebola, and now again about ISIS, the news worse each day. Hope, however, keeps strange company.

On Monday I headed for the local library. Turns out it’s closed on Mondays. Hungry for books, I drove into Brunswick, Maine, to Gulf of Maine Books, where I overheard the owner, Gary Lawless, say that there would be a poetry reading in the store that afternoon. I bought a grand anthology, Poetry Like Bread, edited by Martin Espada, perfect for my interest in poetry of witness and I went back in time for the reading.

The featured poet was Sharif Elmusa, born and raised in Palestine, now a part-year resident of Maine. He read mostly gentle poems about his childhood in a place now ruptured by violence. (His book, Flawed Landscape, sold out and I have to wait until next week to review it.) What an amazing line of causality, bright as neon–closed library, bookstore, Palestinian poet–suggesting order in a world of chaos, hope despite the death and destruction in the Middle East. If I see a movie with a happy ending or read a novel in which the hero survives atrocities and hatred,  or I hear poems like Elmusa’s and hope for peace, kindness, equality, and justice, not revenge. I don’t know what to do because I don’t have an active role in world affairs.

For many years my role was to help people survive the effects of mental illness. Eventually, I took Lao Tzu’s advice: “Do your work; then step back.” I worked hard until fatigue and stress signaled time to step back. Still I fret and dither over my job in a whole word gone mad, a madness born not of neurological defect but of greed and deadly dogma. Maybe my job now is to pour hope into the world, to be generous and open minded, to witness suffering and to speak out. Multiplied by millions such attentive hope might save us.