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.

Following My Own Advice

It has been several weeks, perhaps even months, and I have abandoned the practice of writing 500 words most days of the week. Weeks have gone by when I’ve not written anything. It is as though I feel that nothing I say matters.

I feel that nothing I say matters.

I have nothing to say that I think matters.

Matters to whom? I am writing for myself. Yes, even to myself, what I say doesn’t matter.

I have not written because I believe I should be writing something profound and worthy of publishing and I have nothing like that to say to anyone, not even myself.

Now, if a student were to say those words to me, I would offer words of encouragement and when those didn’t work I would say, “It doesn’t have to be good. It just has to be done.”

This advice is great when there is someone to hold the writer accountable – a partner, coach, teacher, someone who cares that you honor the gift that you have.

This advice works even better when the writer can hold herself accountable. After all, ultimately, a writer writes, even when no one else knows she is writing.

In the past few weeks, I have not been able to hold myself accountable.

I have not attended writing group in months. The snowy, frigid weather and work commitments made that group seem less important to me than it has in the past.

Is that true? Or am I just making excuses?

In truth, many people attend the group who haven’t written a thing. We hold each other as writers in a different way, I suppose. Though prompts are offered, we are not compelled to produce anything that emerges from them. It is a safe place to offer our poems and fiction and personal narratives. It is not a writing workshop in the “work chop” tradition; this is why I like the group.

Still, I am left with this lapse: I have not written, nor have I attended writing group, nor have I …

I have been in a shame spiral, which is a good way to procrastinate.

So this past week, I followed my own advice and began writing again and not worrying about how good it is, just holding myself accountable to showing up on the page.

One day at a time.

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.

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

Habits

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.

Joy in Creativity?

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?
 

 

Getting Started

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:

Plot generator:
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.

And

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:
Ape

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?

Blissful Solitude and Wonderful Company

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.