Despite its obvious downsides, 2016 had some good moments, too. I made a list of them on New Year’s Day and was surprised to note so many highlights. The exercise filled me with gratitude and appreciation for great friendships, abundant love, a healthy family, robust community, interesting work, modest successes, and many material comforts. It was a good frame of mind to receive the words that will guide me in 2017.
This year, a friend helped me to consult Tarot cards. I am new to this method; it offers a view that is simultaneously retrospective, introspective and speculative. It’s like hiking up a long hill with a sweeping vista on the other side. Each card is a picture story, and together they form a linked story that twists and turns, confirming what is known and revealing what is hidden. It’s like hiking up a long hill with a sweeping vista on the other side.
I enjoy the mix of intuition and rationality involved in reading the cards and interpreting them. As part of a skeptical culture that dismisses the language of symbols, a suspension of disbelief is necessary. And the payoff for such trust is insight, surprise, and a fair bit of having one’s complacency shaken up. Continue reading →
On the DVD of the 2000 film, “Requiem for a Dream,” the great actress Ellen Burstyn has a conversation with the book’s author (and co-screenwriter) Hubert Selby Jr. He wrote the novel in the 1970s. It’s an unflinching dive into the hell of addiction, rendered with timeless pathos by filmmaker Darren Aronofsky. Selby tells Ms. Burstyn that he works consciously to get out of the way:
“The ego has to go. I don’t have the right to put me, the ego, between the people in the story and the reader. They should have an interrelationship and experience each other. Because, if you really want to teach, you have to do it emotionally. The intellect can get a whole bunch of information, but it doesn’t turn it into wisdom. And it’s wisdom that we need if we’re going to save our souls and this bloody thing! We need wisdom.”
He also tells her that it took him a year to write one twenty-page story, and after he was done, he went to bed for about two weeks. For him, this is what it took to go beyond telling a story, to put the reader through an emotional experience. Continue reading →
“Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.” ~ Miles Davis
I know I’m a rank novice when it comes to stillness and listening to the small voice within. I’ve been experimenting long enough that I am familiar with what works for me, whether it’s journaling or yoga or piano or walking in the woods or even mundane activities done with mindfulness. Yet it’s all too easy to be pulled away, to sink back into the muck of the modern world around me, with its incessant noise and technology and blather, its crises and escapism.
This is all an easy excuse, of course. I’ve been away from this blog too much lately, and I’m out of sorts. One of my ways of cultivating the timeless and nourishing energies of creation is to write, to polish a bit and release the results into the world. With regular practice, this becomes second nature. I can count on something pouring forth or trickling in, depending on the quality of my attention. When I allow myself to go completely off the rails, I lose that flow and close up. It becomes a chore to receive gifts that were once freely offered. This toggling back and forth can be exhausting. Continue reading →
Tomorrow we will debut a new feature on the blog, called “Ask Edith.” I don’t think Edith would mind if I told you I was a bit skeptical when she first approached me. Sure, she’s credentialed* to give advice, but during each of our seven coffee meetings to kick around this idea, I detected an edge. Also, she had given me four references, but one never returned my calls, one was ambivalent, and two were unable—or unwilling— to speak to her qualifications (her kindergarten teacher and a distant cousin).
You would be justified in wondering why, then, I chose to give her this platform. The reason is simple. We live in uncertain, alienating, divisive, and confusing times. People have questions and Edith has answers. The emails with these questions have been piling up in my inbox. It doesn’t take much imagination to recognize that Edith was “sent” to me via some unknowable universal force of attraction. Who am I to stand in the way of that? Continue reading →
We always have the choice to choose joy and love over resentment and misery. I’ve had two great reminders of this recently. Michel Martin’s editorial on NPR makes the case for rejoicing rather than lamenting opportunities for activism. And Liz Gilbert, in Big Magic, echoes with her challenge to the cult of anguish that hangs over creativity. Martin asks why so many people who offer themselves up for leadership these days do it with an air of “Why me?” Then she holds up the example of inventors:
“When do you ever hear people say, ‘Why didn’t somebody else invent the airplane, the smart phone, solar panels, the tea infuser, for heaven’s sake, so I didn’t have to?’ We even have commercials featuring the tiny garages and attics where supposedly this inventing took place. We understand that discovery is a joy that can feel like a physical sensation.”
Under the tyranny of the Old Story of Separation, “No pain, no gain” is infused into everything we value most. War metaphors may be the currency of our culture, but I wonder if our allegiance to struggle and competitiveness is thinning what could be a much-needed flood of creativity into more of a trickle. Martin again: Continue reading →
In her mesmerizing TED talk, neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor tells the story of having a stroke in her mid-40s. She points out that, biologically speaking, we are not thinking beings who feel. We are feeling beings who think. Great intelligence resides in the space of our heart and when we nurture that with breath and awareness, our resilience and creativity in crisis increases dramatically.
This innate wisdom and gift of connection to our fellow beings is lost in the rush to analysis brought on by recent crises and instability around the world. We channel our inner Jack Ryan when we resort to habitual ways of relating to the crisis, to each other, and to any possible courses of action that occur to us. Still, in modern western culture, reason and analysis are revered above all. Anyone who suggests a more feeling response is ridiculed as soft or complicit. Continue reading →
I self-medicate by making art. When I mentioned this recently to an artist friend, she responded that making art stresses her out. Her work isn’t up to her standards. And isn’t that the game we are all playing? My Muse inspires me, drives me to create. I try my best with the materials and skills at hand to give material form to that inner stirring, to share that non-material vision / impression / idea. Its only chance of being seen, of touching others, is to emerge through my hands into the light of day.
And it never—and I do mean never, ever—comes out the way it shimmers in my imagination. On rare occasions, it may surprise me with being far better. Or delight me in some unexpected way. It’s like doing Improv with myself: I make a move on the paper; I catch myself off guard; I respond with “yes-and,” and make my next move. Eventually, a scene evolves. Continue reading →
“Acknowledging that the first draft is the equivalent of a sculptor going down to the quarry to buy a big slab of marble, or a mason buying a skid of bricks and 100 pounds of mortar is a very difficult thing to do.” ~ Shawn Coyne
It takes longer to write a novel than to design and build a good-sized building. Something like a church might take three or four years, start to finish. Apartments or a university classroom building maybe two-and-a-half. A house is more like a novella in size, but can take just as long, depending on complexity and how decisive or demanding the client is. A kitchen addition is a short story. It can be done in eight or ten months, give or take.
What is the use of writing a book? A building shelters thousands of people for decades, if not generations. It touches lives. It affects people. Even a bad building—say, a Target or a WalMart—serves a useful purpose. The literary equivalent might be a Nicholas Sparks novel, which is maybe why you see racks of them at stores like that. A few great buildings rise above, delighting us with their artfulness and lasting for hundreds of years. These are lovingly restored from time to time, and contain deep cultural, social and political histories. Continue reading →
“Don’t forget to let it do its work on you.” These words were spoken by a retreat leader in response to my telling him I was eager to get back to work on my novel after the inspiring experiences of the week. It was a beautiful piece of advice, one that I knew immediately to be true on many levels. I was reminded of it again yesterday, reading Steven Pressfield’s blog post on how he healed his self-doubt by working for two years on a book about Alexander the Great, arguably the most confident man in history, one who knew and embraced his destiny even as a child.
Pressfield’s advice on overcoming Resistance in his book The War of Art, fueled me through my novel’s first draft, so I tend to listen to him. His point in yesterday’s post is that the muse gave him the Alexander the Great assignment for his own good, and that all art is a soul contract. What that says to me is: don’t question the inspiration too analytically, just answer the call, put in your best work, and let it do its work on you. Continue reading →
There’s an axiom that all successful people know, from artists to entrepreneurs to winning coaches: never let yourself be daunted by the scale of your ambition or the audaciousness of a goal. Instead, do what you can do today, as well as you can do it. And do the same tomorrow, and the next day. Think as little as possible—or never—about the actual goal. Championships aren’t won by obsessing over the championship game. They are won by focusing on being the best individual on the best team in every moment of every game.
I need to remind myself of this today, heading into the fourth-plus year of working on my novel. Looking over what I’ve got, what has already been thrown away, and how far I still have to go (which actually seems farther than when I started, if that makes any sense), it’s too easy to become intimidated by the undertaking. I’m finally understanding a little of what Don Quixote must have felt, and why that story has such universal appeal. Fortunately, I have Rilke with me this morning, whispering in my ear. Continue reading →