Enjoy my recently-published piece: Ways of Seeing, Ruth Farmer: Points of light eclipse gloom
Audible.com’s slogan is “Listening is the new reading.” On the face of it, this is very clever, until you really delve into it. How can listening be the new reading when they are different actions? But a company’s slogan is not presented for deconstruction, is it? It is intended to capture attention.
Several years ago, I experienced three versions of Winter’s Bone: the movie, the audiobook, and the novel, in that order. I watched the movie because I liked the description of it: a teenaged girl goes on a quest to find her father and save her family (okay, I made that up, but that is the gist).
Through the movie, I learned about a part of the United States that I had not even thought about: the Ozarks. I was so intrigued by the story that I listened to the audiobook because that was the format available to me at the library. I wanted to know how closely aligned the book and the movie were (very). Then I read the book because I just wanted to experience the story with my eyes.
(I do have to say that I did not care for the narrator of the audiobook. Her performance was just a tad too flat.)
When I read Winter’s Bone, I marveled at the genius of Woodrell’s writing. There was not one spare word in the entire novel (It is 208 pages). I haven’t read anything that spare and marvelous since Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories.
The three versions of Winter’s Bone were compelling. Each was rich in its own way, but also very different experiences.
Listening and reading are valuable and serve overlapping purposes in that they are forms of communication. But so are dance and music. Music is never going to be the new dance, nor will dance become the new music. They are artistic expressions that hit us in different parts of our souls and our hearts.
I enjoy audiobooks. They appeal to my multitasking personality. I suspect that others enjoy them for the same reason. You can drive and listen. You can cook, clean, dance, paint, and listen. You cannot, however, drive and read or cook, clean, dance and paint while reading, without risking mishaps.
Also, there is the visual aspect of reading that is not present when listening to a book. I just finished listening to Anne of Green Gables (Don’t ask). What I enjoyed most about the experience was Kate Burton’s narration. What a performance! I found myself laughingly immersed in Burton’s depictions of the loquacious orphan and her taciturn foster father.
I skimmed through the novel, and I can readily say that I would have lost patience reading the lengthy paragraphs (brilliant though they were) filled with Anne’s breathless, interminable monologues. The visual alone exhausted me. If I had not listened to the novel, I would never have experienced the full story. Reading Anne of Green Gables and listening to it being read were not the same.
Audible.com’s slogan is clever. Still, listening is not the new reading. Listening is listening. Reading is reading. Audiences can appreciate, and welcome, multiple representations of a work of art. We don’t need to be seduced into thinking that one replaces the other.
From 1:11am Monday, October 30th through 11:35 am November 2nd, my generator provided my house with electricity. A massive wind storm devastated many areas of Vermont, knocking out power to tens of thousands of homes.
Having a generator allowed me to cook (which I did), and even watch TV if I wanted (I didn’t). As the generator hummed along, I got work done. Then my internet service and landline went out. Though I could text and make calls using my cell phone, this was too much for me. Ninety percent of my work is done online. Once that was impossible, I tried to work offline. Then I began to obsess about when internet service would return.
I packed my bags and drove to town. Thank goodness, our local library – Lawrence Memorial – was fully functioning and open. Sitting with others seeking internet, solace, and company, I calmed down and focused on bringing “normality” to my day by working.
Still, I couldn’t help but listen to conversations among folks who came by to drop off books or seek something to read. Some had electricity and others didn’t. The outages were widespread and seemed random.
At home when I wasn’t feeling frustrated and helpless, I felt grateful that I’d invested in a generator. It had been a huge expense I hadn’t planned on but I’d already experienced a lengthy power outage and didn’t want to go through days without electricity again. More importantly, I was grateful that I’d had the money to make the purchase.
The outage reminded me of how fragile our connections are. Electricity is needed for most of the work that we do. When it is not available, we can become totally cut off from essential activities and each other.
I learned that I have the capacity to accept what is happening without feeling like a victim. I periodically contacted Green Mountain Power and Green Mountain Access for updates, making sure that I spoke with someone, and I asked them lots of questions. It took all my restraint not to resort to sarcasm and anger as I tried to glean why our area still had no power. Customer service representatives were helpful without promising anything, and they were very polite. Eventually, I put myself in their shoes: Probably hundreds of unhappy customers were calling them, many of them angry. How difficult their jobs must have been during this time.
And when I felt really low, I texted or phoned a neighbor or friend to see how they were doing. I let them know they could shower or cook at my home should they want to do so. After all, I wasn’t the only person being inconvenienced.
Ultimately, the outage helped me to practice gratitude, patience, compassion, and kindness. It helped me to realize that I am rarely as alone and helpless as I think I am. Looked at from that perspective, it wasn’t that bad.
Sometimes you simply run into things that you need to read at this moment, you know? Today, I needed to gain some insight into my inner critic. Now, I’m sure you have your own inner critic, so you have an idea who I’m talking about. My inner critic is the voice that tells me that I have to write perfectly or I’m simply not good enough to call myself a writer.
The inner critic is vague about what “perfectly” means. Therefore, she sees flaws in everything I produce. Her message seems to be: “Whatever you write, it will never be good enough for anyone else to read but me. And I think everything you write sucks.”
In his blog post Facing the inner critic, Seth Godin writes:
[The inner critic is] living right next to our soft spot, the (very) sore place where we store our shame, our insufficiency, our fraudulent nature. And he knows all about it, and pokes us there again and again.
Godin provided a link to Steve Chapman’s Tedx Talk titled This talk isn’t very good. Dancing with my inner critic. Chapman offers creative approaches to those inevitable encounters with that inevitable presence. Check it out.
Both Godin and Chapman suggest that we stop resisting the inner critic. This gives her more power than is warranted. Look her in the eye, see her for what she is, and keep creating.
So as I was writing today, I listened to my inner critic’s voice just long enough to realize that I did need to change a phrase or a word to make a paragraph clearer, to let my intention emerge.
Creativity is much more fluid when the inner critic is present but not in charge.
A friend gave me a Storymatic@, which I use occasionally when I need writing prompts. One day I pulled cards with these phrases and wrote a story:
pet is behaving strangely
employee in a fast food restaurant
Rory hated working at McDonald’s. well, truth be told he hated working around food. Period. The smells alone made him wish he were made of plastic with no need of sustenance.
Was that possible, he wondered? What if GI Joe or Ken or American Girl Doll came to life, not as a human but as a live plastic person. He liked the idea.
When he was growing up his sisters used to get into trouble with Mama because they fed their baby dolls milk. Within a few days of course the dolls began to stink as the milk soured. But they played with them until Mama made them toss the dolls away. They begged and whined for more dolls and promised to never do it again. Even fed them water for weeks before the lure of milk beckoned again. Mama stopped buying them dolls with holes in their mouths.
Or was he misremembering this? Maybe they just got tired of dolls once they realized they couldn’t be fed real food. That was more likely.
He wondered what it would be like to be plastic and not need any sustenance. He wondered what it would be like then lost interest when the cat, a large yellow female walked into the front door of the restaurant. It walked as though it belonged there. In fact, it looked around in such a way that Rory would not have been surprised if it had taken a seat next to the couple who were coo-cooing at a baby sitting in the restaurant-provided high chair.
The cat stared at the couple with a look that was intense, even for a cat. Rorry had seen lots of odd things. You do when you work in a restaurant located in a rest area. People are not always at their best: hungry, tired, lost, pissed off with everyone. Occasionally, there are folks who are excited at the freedom of a drive with a stopover at a rest area with clean bathrooms, and restaurants.
The only stray animals Rory ever saw were rodents, birds, and the occasional raccoon. Now that he thought about it, he’d never seen a cat at the rest area.
“Maybe it’s looking for a job,” a bemused voice said behind Rory. He jumped. Valerie, the manager had quietly joined him in looking at the cat visitor.
The cat, still standing on all fours in a commanding way, looked at Rory and Valerie and meowed loudly.
Well we have got plenty for her to do with all these rats running around, Rory said, just a bit too loudly. The couple had stopped cooing and Rory’s pronouncement had filled the silence. Valerie poked him hard with her elbow.
Ow! He yelped.
The couple looked at them and began hurriedly packing up their things. The mother clasped the baby desperately to her chest, looking around as though a horde of rodents was closing in on her.
The cat watched all this for a bit with disdain only a feline can muster. Then with a twitch of her tail, she headed straight for the kitchen.
You’re hired! Valerie shouted at the cat, as she disappeared around the corner. The two friends burst out laughing
Ta-Nehesi Coates’s piece in the Atlantic is an example of writing that starts with a provocative premise and does much to support it. He does a fine job sustaining an argument over a very long piece. This is an excerpt from his new book, We Were Eight Years in Power. His book Between the World and Me is also one of those exemplars if you are interested in writing about provocative issues, such as race: The First White President
Which habits support your writing?
One of mine:
Writing in the morning, whether or not I feel like it, at least 500 words. If, like me, you have other employment, you don’t have the luxury of spending hours upon hours developing your prose or poetry. It doesn’t take long to write 500 words. Most mornings, I go beyond my self-imposed goal, and that is inspiring in and of itself.
Sometimes the piece is a brilliant spark. Sometimes it’s dreck. It doesn’t have to be brilliant. It just has to be done.
I subscribe to a couple of – okay, several – blogs.
Seth Godin’s is my favorite because he writes pithy pieces containing useful ideas. I don’t always agree with him, but I always read what he has to say.
In “You’ve arrived,” Seth writes:
There’s no division between the painful going and the joyous arriving. If we let it, the going can be the joyful part.
It turns out that arrival isn’t the point, it can’t be, because we spend all our time on the journey.
I take this to mean that going and arriving are so intimately connected, there is no point in trying to separate them. The journey is the point.
Where are you going in your writing or other creative expressions? Do you receive joy from the process? Or is joy suspended in anticipation of the product to come?
I am exploring these questions this evening.
What about you? Do you take joy in your creativity?
A writing group member found a website that offers a fun way to generate writing:
writingexercises.co.uk. Its purpose is “to help you get started with creative writing and break through writing blocks.”
Each page on the site is devoted to a different exercise including random first lines, random dialogues, a plot generator, and a character generator.
This morning, I clicked on:
Your main character is a man in his early forties, who can be quite lively. The story begins in an abandoned warehouse. A witness to a crime disappears suddenly. It’s a story about forgiveness. Your character has some questions to answer.
What if? Scenario:
If you had no money to feed your children, how would you go about getting food?
I couldn’t resist the Town Name Generator. When I clicked the button, I got:
Then I noticed that there was a dropdown menu and I chose Bridge.
Apebridge isn’t an “English-sounding town name,” as promised, but it certainly has plot possibilities.
Prompts and exercises provide a low-stakes approach to delving into your thoughts. They can help you relax into your writing.
Our writing group has generated prompts by choosing from a bowl filled with words written on ticket stubs, using paint sample cards, and finding lines by calling out page and line numbers from whatever book is at hand.
I’ve written some fun and insightful essays that emerged from these random inspirations. Others in the group have used the prompts to create moving poetry or surprising scenes in a novel.
What helps you get your writing going?
I treated myself to a six-day, self-designed writing retreat at the Metta Earth Institute, A Center for Contemplative Ecology. The Institute, located in Lincoln VT, is a working farm and they also offer programs in a vast range of areas: yoga and meditation, ecological leadership, beekeeping, to name a few. The co-directors, Gillian Kapteyn Comstock and Russell Comstock, and a team of young people exemplify engaged practice, meaningful work, and loving stewardship of the land.
This isn’t the typical retreat for a writer, at least not as I have experienced them or heard of from other writers. A writing retreat can be filled with distractions, starting with schedules that dictate when you have downtime or time to write.
During my retreat, I experienced blissful solitude, as well as wonderful company. Prior to arriving at Metta, I planned a list of daily activities, which included reading, writing, revising, and exercise. I also meditated, took photos, and even sketched.
My room was perfect for my needs: a sunny space with exquisite views of the garden and the mountains, shelves of books, a table to work from, and a comfortable bed. During breaks, I walked on a quiet road or in the woods. I practiced tai chi outdoors or visited the chickens, sheep, and cows.
Meals were delicious and expertly prepared by the team and co-directors (At least 80% of the food served is produced on the farm).
The idyllic setting bolstered my creativity and helped me to write and revise several essays and poems. I am so glad that I discovered this serene and inspiring place. I recommend Metta Earth Institute for anyone seeking a quiet place for an individual or small group retreat. There are rooms in the main building, and there are yurts and tents nestled in the woods. Check out their website at https://www.mettaearth.org/
If it is possible for you, plan a retreat during which you focus on your writing and other creative pursuits. Like me, I am sure you will return home refreshed, rejuvenated, and recommitted to writing, joyfully.