The Power of Words Conference

If spoken, sung, or written words comprise your creative expression, the TLA Network might interest you: https://www.tlanetwork.org/

Their annual Power of Words conference takes place October 12-14th at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont. The theme is Transformation, Liberation and Celebration Through the Spoken Written, and Sung Word.

The conference, founded in 2003, features workshops in four tracks: narrative medicine, social change, right livelihood (and making a living through the arts), ecological literacy, and engaged spirituality. Check out conference information here.

What Am I Reading?

Lots of books. The one that I am most fascinated by is Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. There are many reasons. The most important one is that Harari is so definite about everything that he writes. The counterargument is something to which he pays very little attention. Engaging counterarguments is a primary weakness in the papers that my students write. I take points off their papers for the absence of same.

It is lovely and wonderful to see that someone has written an entire book in which his very definite-ness – if that is a word – is the most fascinating part of the book. Confidence? Hubris? Knowledge? All of the above? This is a book that I pick up in the morning and read one chapter at a time. It is taking me months to finish because some mornings I don’t read. Some mornings all the details are just too much to entertain so early in the day.

Still Waters by Viveca Sten. There is something about Nordic culture that is so foreign to me, I am attracted to it. Maybe it is the fact that there is so little sun there. That has got to affect the psyche of the people who live there, yeah? I mean, consider how open and happy people are who are born and raised in California.

Okay. I don’t know that for a fact. It is a mythology that I am willing to believe. Just as I am willing to believe – based on the fact that so many of them are in the United States – that Nordic culture is gloomily homogeneous – because there is so little sun.

The setting of Still Waters is an island during the summer – Sandhamm – three bodies so far, all connected. We don’t yet know how. I can’t wait to find out. I am reading this one on Kindle. I am 45% into the book according to my reader. Page 202. There is something about knowing how far into the book that I am which I like. I am not yet half-way through. The police don’t have a clue. Unlike Harari, they are not confident. They are confused, puzzled, and trying to find a way into the next step. Nothing so far.

As the reader, however, it is essential that they find a clue that is compelling or I will not want to finish the book. I mean, really, there are three bodies. By now Christie would have already pointed you toward the perpetrator though you wouldn’t realize it necessarily. This is a book I read when I am waiting for my next appointment. It is taking me weeks to finish it.

Just stumbled across The Anatomist’s Apprentice by Tessa Harris. On audiobook because I am in to multitasking – again. If I had thought about it, I would not have chosen this book because it is so graphic. Autopsies are that way. I once viewed an autopsy when I worked at a hospital. It is not as fascinating as the books make it out to be. It is smelly and so, so sad. The person whose autopsy I witnessed had ascites. Look it up and you will know why I have a particular perception about autopsies.

Harris captures the goriness of an autopsy – the smells, the inhumanity, the detailed slices and scientific curiosities. The forensic scientist wants to know… period.

This takes me back to Harari’s Sapiens. One point he makes toward the end of the book – yes I am almost finished – is that Europeans have ruled the planet because they accepted that they did not know. They were not more powerful – which is the mythology that we live with in the 21st century. Their curiosity is what led them to other lands. According to Harari, maps were filled – monsters, places you didn’t want to be, but not actual lands. At some point, folks started to accept that they did not know what was beyond their beyond and their maps had lots of blank spaces. Europeans wanted to know what was beyond this beyond. So their motto was “let’s go see what’s there. And discover it! And make it our own!”

What made Europeans exceptional was their unparalleled and insatiable ambition to explore and conquer. Although they might have had the ability, the Romans never attempted to conquer India or Scandinavia, the Persians never attempted to conquer Madagascar or Spain, and the Chinese never attempted to conquer Indonesia or Africa. Most Chinese rulers left even nearby Japan to its own devices. There was nothing peculiar about that. The oddity is that early modern Europeans caught a fever that drove them to sail to distant and completely unknown lands full of alien cultures, take one step on to their beaches, and immediately declare, ‘I claim all these territories for my king!’ from “The Marriage of Science and Empire” in Sapiens

Now maybe that is so. Or maybe that is Harari’s “So.” Confidence. You gotta admire it.

When You Have Nothing to Say

(Talking to myself and listening, too – an excerpt)

Say it with a lot of flowery and complexly strung together sentences. Say it with as much mess as you can amass. Massage the blank page with black letters that string along a lot of nonsense until something comes to mind, a compelling download from a voice that is struggling to be heard, a piece of wisdom stuck in your teeth that you – thankfully – never managed to floss away.

When there is nothing to say, say it loud and proud. After all, you are a wise woman with many years of nothing left to say said loud and sometimes proudly and sometimes with the attitude of “If you don’t like it, don’t listen,” or “If you don’t like it, forget it as soon as it is said, but I am, I have, I will.”

Don’t worry about grammar or tone or syntax. Okay, I know you. You can’t not worry about spelling. Somehow with all the things that keep you from expressing yourself – fear of failure, embarrassment, success, longing for more from the ones who listen – the thing that you worry most about is spelling. How mundane.

But mundanity is your stock in trade isn’t it? asks another voice that demands to be heard on this topic. “The Extraordinary Ordinary,” you respond with righteous indignation and not a little bit of astonishment that the being voicing its opinion doesn’t know the difference. After all, isn’t it part of you? Are there really parts of you that just don’t know what is going on though they emerge from the same source?

Channeling these voices is an exhausting process. You feel yourself losing steam just when you thought you had a good clip going and you know you have been hijacked by that lazy … okay not lazy … insecure … please don’t use that word … uncertain (sigh!) young person who never grew up because… well who knows why not. There seems to be some part of me that will always be a child. That has to be okay.…

The Edge of Winter

March 7th and my driveway is filled with snow. Four days ago, we had a nor’easter and I was one of the poor unfortunates on the road as the storm hit Vermont. That morning, snow had been falling as I left Bristol. Precipitation changed from snow to sleet to rain, as I drove north. Nothing was falling on Burlington.

But I wasn’t fooled. I knew that hazardous conditions awaited me on my drive home. Anticipating that the roads I usually take would be slick with snow and ice, I chose to drive down Route 7. It is a major road, I reasoned, and would be plowed. Also, given that the lanes are wide and have shoulders, it would feel like a safer drive. Shelburne/Hinesburg Road, Silver Street, and Bristol Road – roads on my regular route – are narrow, winding, curvy, bounded by ditches; and there are few places to pull over. I prefer sliding into a shoulder or guardrail, pulling into a store parking lot or someone’s driveway, anything that would give me the opportunity to back up and back out instead of getting stuck in a ditch.

As I drove home, precipitation went from nothing to sprinkles of rain, to sleet, to snow. The roads were dry, then wet, then icy, then slick, then just plain scary. I became part of a caterpillar of vehicles creeping along as the storm presented its mighty self. My expectations of road conditions turned out to be accurate, somewhat. Much of Route 7 had been plowed. Yet because the storm was in progress, the road was quickly covered with icy snow. Still, the width of the road gave me confidence that I had a chance should something go wrong.

An illustration of what could have happened played out before me. The driver ahead of me had braked, then stopped. An SUV sat facing east, horizontally, across north- and southbound lanes. I assumed the vehicle had lost traction and slid into oncoming traffic. As we waited, the vehicle backed onto the shoulder on the southbound side. The driver in front of me stopped alongside the vehicle, perhaps asking if the SUV driver needed help, then moved along. As passed, I saw the young man sitting there with a placid look on his face. I imagined that he was content to stop for a while and gather himself together. I know I would have been.

We drove for miles in whiteout conditions. For long stretches as I headed south, I saw the car in front of me, and a white wall beyond. In the northbound lane, a stream of yellow and silver pairs of eyes emerged from the snow-fog. The image reminded me of tired coalminers ascending from the depths. It isn’t a logical analogy, but I can’t shake it. The cars looked exhausted.

The snow danced a relentless and mesmerizing paso doble with the wind. The hypnotic waves shed icy layers onto windshields and windows. I lost track of where I was. I thought I was close to Vergennes, when I hadn’t yet gotten out of Ferrisburg.

At one point I looked up and there was a bright spot in the sky. Clouds had given way, showing a circle of blue, in the distance. For the duration of the drive, I believed that I would round a curve and the sun would be shining and the roads would be clear.

This never happened. The brightness remained far away.

When I got home, I was trembling so badly my shaking fingers could barely pull off my boots. It had taken me 90 minutes to complete a 45-minute drive, but I had made it. I texted my son to tell him that I’d had an icy, treacherous drive home but that I had arrived home without incident. I wanted someone to know that I was alive.

It is the edge of winter. March came in with 40 to 60 degree temperatures, then showed us that nature is in charge and spring is a long way away.

“I hate winter,” some part of me in the left side of my brain spoke up as I was writing this. I get it. I also know that it doesn’t matter how I feel about winter. And anyway, how can you hate a force of nature?

When I really think about it, I realize that it isn’t winter that bothers me. It is what winter signifies. Snow and ice are actually quite lovely when you can look at them without fearing for your life or what you are going to have to do to clear your driveway or deck, or protect your house; or when you don’t have to think about how you are going to survive a usually innocuous drive home.

My street was a snow-clogged path when I finally reached it. No one had plowed. Hours after the storm had stopped, the road remained thick with white. Days after the storm, my driveway remains unplowed and another storm is headed our way.

At the edge of winter, I am planning for next winter. I will find another company to plow my driveway (my current guy is unreliable, probably making more money working for towns).

Maybe I’ll buy a snow blower. Are they heavy, I wonder? Do they cost a lot of money? How much gas do they use?

Should I hire someone to shovel my deck?

Maybe I will move to a warmer climate.

Next winter. It is the edge of winter. The land is covered in white with winter-blackened vegetation peeking up hopefully, anticipating spring. I am thinking of next winter while living on the edge of this one.

Winter is always coming even when it hasn’t yet left.

 

Is Listening the New Reading?

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.

Lessons from the power outage

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.

 

Inner Critic

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.”

Sigh!

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.

Keep writing!

Writing Exercise Storymatic 1

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:
rest area
pet is behaving strangely
employee in a fast food restaurant

Untitled

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

Sustaining an idea over a long piece-an Example

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

Keep writing!

Ruth