Writing 101: Sacred and Simple

The more I write, the more I am taken with it, the magic of the word. Turn the wrist and your word is a clear brook. Flick, and you have a blade, or a balm. To be able to put out one, two, three words for a title and draw people in; convince them to pause in their hurried steps and step inside, there is a power in that. They pull up a seat, and some linger and chat. Some cry a little; other times they walk out still laughing because it was the room of your childhood they had entered and they remembered. The window to your marriage you’d opened and they know. It was your messy soul they inhabited briefly, experienced from the inside out and they blushed a little. It was their one-minute confessional before they drew the door back out to the light.

There is something religious about writing for me. It calls for devotion, affection, discipline, even bloody sacrifice. And it’s redemptive, every word sacred. If you pile on the descriptors, especially those adjectives and adverbs, you reveal a lack of faith in the rest of your words, either in the potency of language or your own ability to cherry-pick its offerings. Your line must not be vivid enough, else why do you need four modifiers in a breath? Could you find one or two that do the job? I am full of faith. Let’s try this together.

The mountains were draped by black curtains of ominous storm clouds, portentous of trouble over marshy waters.

Sorry this is not sexy. But I am so grateful for the mercy of the missing adverb I want to cry.

For starters, we have the imagery of darkness replaying itself in the draped, black, curtains. Then the picture of something brewing duplicated in ominous, storm, portentous, trouble. As if the two ideas weren’t redundant enough, they are so similar as to feed each other (black and storm, for instance, serving both the gloom and imminence).

Let me illustrate how I see the writing process with a metaphor that is a religion all its own for many. In basketball, the three-pointer is one of the most impressive shots of course, made farthest from the basket. The ball, which we can liken to the word, spurns distance, flying with grace, muscle, surety. Writing is the art of nailing it. The three-pointer holds an interesting success rate of about 35% in the NBA. The best players in America make it only a third of the time.

So an autopsy of our overclouded sentence reveals the problem wasn’t so much a superfluity of adjectives or even of ideas. That was merely the symptom of either an impotence toward a clear purpose or even a deeper mistrust in the authority of the word. I say it was a spiritual death. I usually build from the bone of meaning, combining nouns and verbs that I hope are crisp, to relatable metaphors, rather than slather on the fat and spice from the start. If I can use a noun that’s picturesque or compelling enough, I hold back the adjective (just redemption, which I’d considered embellishing above). And when I want more, I go with the least possible number of modifiers unless I am inflecting other elements of communication. So in measuring my words like a child in wartime over her meal, it isn’t just economy I’m after but also meaning, style, tone, and depth. Conveying all these elements as efficiently as one can is simplicity. I am not saying you can’t describe the morning in three adjectives. Sharon Olds with her many trippy, hypothermic descriptives has had me in knots barely able to get through her pain-saturated poems. But let’s respect this thing we call language. That is the sacred.

Obviously I am talking to people who want to raise the bar on their writing. We have a huge pet aisle here on WordPress and if you mean only to keep up the anecdotes about your dog, you don’t have to hamstring yourself. But if you want to be writing better, be sharper on the page than you were four years ago, don’t give yourself cheap praise. Question your choices and their motives. Whether you’re writing a travel journal, history, fiction, or poetry, ask yourself if every word is necessary because each one is doing its own thing, contributing something fresh to your picture. Fancy dribbling isn’t what scores your game.

If you have a better way – and the shelves are lined with authors who do – by all means have at it. But first, ask any man. A hint of perfume and he leans in. Assault me with it in the elevator, and uh, excuse me. I think I’ll take the stairs. The sin of gluttony abounds in all the arts. There is such a thing as too much salt in your sauce, too much red on the canvas, too much bling with that outfit, too much fills on the drums. Black clouds sat over the mountain.

Oh, but what’s that? You don’t believe me. You think I’m a blogging Grinch who’s out to steal your Christmas or keep you from your ebook sell-out. You think I didn’t catch that adverb in your clutch. Fine. I’ll leave you to your opinion of fine writing. But if you think me a pious know-it-all, at least close the curtains and on your way out, please remember the shoes you should’ve removed. Yes, thank you. In all fairness, no one made you enter my sacred ground.

[Poetry] is for me Eucharistic. You take somebody else’s suffering, their passion into your body and…you’re transformed by it, you’re made more tender, or more human. You’re more alive to your fellow human beings. I could literally read a poem and lift my head from the page and look out and my heart would just be softer. I think it kept me alive for a long time.

~ Mary Karr, 2011 Writers’ Symposium by the Sea

I Hear Voices

First Grade, NYC

First Grade, NYC

I imagine people don’t know what a recluse I am. I socialize at church, at field trips. Stand tall, take initiative, make announcements at our homeschool gatherings. My parents, struggling to piece together a life in a country where they were Other, taught their little girl to write large and speak loudly. That’s me in the school play, mike in hand. (My husband would now like me to lower my voice by 20%.) I’m usually the one to notice inefficient or unjust ways things are done in our different communities and the one to speak up. So I can pull off extrovert and can be sociable because I know it’s rude to sit next to someone for half an hour and say nothing. But all I want, oh all I want is to bolt the door and write. Bury myself in what novelist Dani Shapiro calls the Cave to give attention to the voices in my head, meet myself on the page. Because inside is where so much of my life is.

I remind myself how I would long for love and community if I were to be granted the hermit’s wish (er, I think). We certainly want what is out of reach. I am glaringly not in step with the vogue practice of being present. No, I can’t be fully feeling the current of the moment around my feet when my head is in books, ideas, memory. In my defense: we women are wicked multitaskers.

Speaking of tasks, I asked Husband to scrape the stovetop stains last week. With equanimity he announced that he had just vacuumed and was done for the day. “I’ve done enough,” he said pleasantly. I marveled at the male self-preservation apparatus in action. Granted, that was a lot of carpet. But it was the question corporate executives, business owners, moms, students knot themselves in angst over. When is enough? And he had solved the cosmic conundrum with such ease. Buddha Man just might be able to undo the problem of world peace. I laughed, “Done enough. Imagine mothers saying that. The world would stop.” No skin off his nose, he agreed – feet up, on the couch. I shouldn’t grouse about the responsibilities. It’s a blessing, not a burden, to have places to go, people to see, (aaalll these) things to do. George Eliot debuted at 50, Laura Ingalls Wilder at 65. There are others enjoying their second life publishing in their 70s and 80s. I don’t plan to wait another 30 years to go and to see all that’s in my head but in the meantime I show up where I’m needed. Whether or not I can show up for myself, I will keep writing large and speak to be heard. Poor Husband.

When My Blog Died

EKGgreenI want to file an official complaint as a subscriber to the Holistic Wayfarer for going MIA on us. (Completely forgetting she’s been out week after week with his son while keeping the lessons going.) You need to blog again, be reminded there are good people all over the world. They want to hear from you. When you don’t blog for a while, you crawl into yourself and scowl about the people who are !@#!. You become deeper, happier, and look out when you engage your readers. You should take a few days off school, give T a break, and just BLOG.

~ Mr. Wayfarer last night

Tenny_studio2015C(Gasp. Break??)

Where I’ve been is a good question. The kitchen, trying to keep up with You-Know-Who’s sumo appetite. Foodie is growing before my eyes. We’ve been at the annual appointments I saved for the summer (photo shoot, physical, dental), and there are his classes. I’ve had all four hands in homeschool business – convention and conferences to boot. Also got off to a running start in preparing for the Fall cycle we’ll be entering with our group, working on a music project and gathering material. I remind myself I signed up for this. I’d rather choose my own curriculum than have the schools do it for me.

I believe that child rearing must come with an imperative, must be driven by a sense of longing and even destiny…I’ve witnessed this longing in other people…but I never felt it in myself. Moreover, as I aged, I discovered that I loved my work as a writer more and more, and I didn’t want to give up even an hour of that communion. Like Jinny in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, I felt at times “a thousand capacities” spring up in me, and I wanted to chase them all down and make every last one of them manifest…Katherine Mansfield wrote in one of her youthful diaries, “I want to work!”

I, too, wanted to work. Uninterruptedly. Joyfully.”  ~ E. Gilbert in Committed

So what do you do when you can barely get your hands around both desires? When your whole wonderful life feels like an interruption of the work you want to do and your burden is heavier for the guilt of one who should be more grateful? As long as your child is young (or as long as you homeschool), you let go the notebook with your thousand capacities spilling over its pages and as it falls watch the rain bleed the ink into the ground. You take the hand you’ve emptied and close it over his. And you die just a little. Writing, after all, is only your oxygen.

At the conference last week, we were presented a chart that helped us sort our priorities. At the top was a section for

VITALS, what our life is about. This will depend on your worldview but most of us will fill this box in with relationships (with family, friends, self, God). Below that we had

NECESSITIES, where our time and money go. The things we need to sustain our life and our vitals. Food, shelter, health, education, transportation. They are not what life is about but postmoderners forget this in the grand Pursuit of Things. Below this box were the

ACCESSORIES, our happy upgrades. We need to eat but not at high-end restaurants. We need a car but not a Bentley. We need to work but don’t need to hanker after the position that will take us away from family. Last came the

DISPOSABLES. TV, Facebook, iGadgets. Many of us, especially in America, have turned our priorities over on their heads.

I appreciated the list but am still struggling with a part of it. Where does my writing go? The question at least explains the frustration that’s shadowed me this summer. While I live and work within the relationships that are important to me, writing fulfills me as nothing else can. It balances me, as I feel incomplete apart from it. It is a necessity because it feeds my relationship with my self – not to mention friends around the world. I feel at my best, approaching the summit of who I was meant to be almost like Gilbert’s Alma Whittaker who sets out to put a lifetime’s scientific study on paper, “not merely alive, but outfitted with a mind that was functioning at the uppermost limits of its capacity –  a mind that was seeing everything, and understanding everything, as though watching it all from the highest imaginable ridge. She would awaken, catch her breath, and immediately begin writing again.” ~ The Signature of All Things

But my words have been excised from my list of priorities this season as though they were disposable. (What do you do with that?? You eventually risk sabotaging your delicate sleep and write at two in the morning.) No wonder I’ve felt amputated.

I grew by an average of 1000 followers a month last year. But blog growth right now is a luxury of a thought. All these piles and piles of notes and drafts for posts, the books I’ve wanted to share with you, the personal challenges I’ve needed to process in print. Here I’ve sat before a keyboard that might as well have been calling from across the ocean. My Stats have read like an EKG of someone lost to us forever. Oh, my heart. But we can administer shock to resuscitate hearts, can’t we? When Opinionated Man asked for my keys and offered to run my site if I had to stay away any longer, the thought was enough to zap me out of the grave. statsNEW

 

Calling All Artists, Thinkers, Writers

After going through my posts on the writing process, Kevin commented that I seem to “write with intent rather than for ‘mere’ expression.” A lot of his poetry arose from the fun of it and the wish to express himself in a particular way. He also asked if I always analyze what I read, if I ever read just for the pleasure of it.

Which leads me to ask you: what is art?

First, Kevin’s question on reading. I don’t pick apart to death everything I read – in part for the small matter of time. As for intent, let’s visit some accomplished artists. I would almost kill to be able to ask Michelangelo, “Can art be a whim? An accident?” Did he ever “merely” express? Can art be spontaneous? My right-brain readers are nodding away. Can art be discovery? The Sam Francis exhibit that once ran at the Pasadena Museum of California Art showcases some extraordinary work by a most interesting painter. “Paintings are my thinking,” Francis said. “Not about anything…They perform the unique mathematics of my imagination.” Is there then such a thing as chance in the art of mathematics?

Could we consult the Ancients in their wisdom? To this end, I veer off a bit to share some relevant thoughts on my blogging and the homeschooling that converged two years ago. A few months into the blogging, I came to see that what I’d been drawn to exploring on this blog were truth and beauty. Not long later in a seminar on Classical homeschooling, the speaker elaborated on the model I had chosen for our family; it was in essence about truth, beauty, and goodness. I was floored. We went on to hear a podcast featuring Andrew Kearn of the CiRCE Institute on the goal of education, which brought to light the meaning of the liberal arts. I’ve scaled it down to highlight some parts that bear on this post. Which of these insights resonate with your work?

geo-roundel-flower-13Liberal spawns from the Latin liber [free]. Without these arts, we cannot know the fullest extent of human freedom. The Hebrews and a good many of the Greeks were the only ones in the ancient world who believed truth is knowable. Freedom is intimately related to perception of the truth. Education is learning to see deeply into the truth or essence of whatever is before you – be it spouse or garden. To see beyond the “accident of it,” the things that come and go. The lost tools of truth-seeking are the liberal arts: the art of grammar, dialectic, rhetoric (which make up the Trivium of communication); and arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy (the Quadrivium of calculation).

Harmony

The Greeks looked at how people communicate. What leads the community to truth, to harmony? If a good man or woman speaks effectively, that is the glory of rhetoric. The mind wants harmony. Math is the ability to find this in the universe. If I tell you 2 + 7 = 5, you feel the disturbance in your mind. Astronomy is the study of shapes moving. Planet literally means wanderer. The Greeks discovered that when you examine the movement of the stars, you see patterns. Your mind can be disciplined and ordered to see things you cannot see any other way. Same thing for reading or learning another language. If you can’t do either, there is no way someone can get you there virtually. The way you know a scientific theory is by its beautiful harmony.

This approach to learning took my breath away. And it happened to dovetail this post I had been mulling over two months. What is art? To what extent is achieving harmony or articulating the essence of something the goal in your dance, your sport, your music? What is it about your painting that begs visual utterance? Do you find you’ve been in pursuit of ancient and timeless virtues? Beauty is not necessarily happiness or cheerfulness. There can be great beauty in brokenness and sometimes, it is only among the ruins you find treasure. Years ago I looked regretfully upon some morose paintings by a gifted artist who had grown up in a nudist colony and believed she had a bipolar disorder. Her works were rich and told of a dark psyche. I felt they would reach her promise if her painful confusion were redeemed. I’ve said in The Writing Process, Part 1: Color that the darkness is an easy way in through the door of inspiration. But I now feel great art is more than bleeding all over the page.

Art is a process and need not be a solution or product. But does a story not have a point? A reader quoted for me from My Life and My Life in the Nineties by Lyn Hejinian, “the anticipation of the pleasure of making sense.” In my writing, this expectancy is the wee hours of dark that prelude the stream of dawn, the knowing stillness almost as thrilling as the satisfaction of breaking light on the landscape of my intention. The objective, to get across exactly what I’m seeing. Though a poem sings in metaphor, does it (should it not) sustain a coherence that draws assent from the reader? Is art random? Take the greatest masterpiece we can name, the human body. Illness is simply disharmony. As for the life in the womb, there is articulation. The little body forges ahead in full purpose. Though to elaborate would be another post entirely – indeed I find order, truth, beauty, goodness in our wondrous frame.

I’m thinking aloud for the answers, surveying the fields of virtuosity. Instinct whispers that there is a difference between war and the art of war. There’s straightforward violence. Or the boxer who flails struggling at the level of technique, trying to get the moves just right. But observe the fighter who executes with fluidity the right tactic among all the possibilities in that moment, and be enthralled by elegance. Through my brief time in mixed martial arts, I came to see the brilliance in the problem-solving we call fighting. I now understand the sense and logic of the art. It is geometry – angles, lines, space in motion. Just shift and turn to create the space your opponent wants to deny you and you can make your way out. Fighting is chess. I love the Greek appreciation of AgatasGuitardisciplining and enlarging your mind to possibilities. The thousand drills you hammer into muscle memory are the tools to conceive your art. The unspeakable beauty of ballet is borne of training and toil, from endless run-throughs that demand reflex and mastery. I agree with Miles Davis that more than the sight-reader, the musician is the one who can improvise. But you need to know the grammar of the music to be able to create at levels above, though some who have gone without the training know it by instinct. What I’m getting at is that art comes by merit. The endowment suggests a certain caliber of performance, of craftsmanship.

Which then incites the question whether something can be art at either the elementary or exploratory stage. How about your kids’ fun on construction paper? We don’t hold up the canvas of children’s imagination against the expression of Monet’s, but isn’t there, shouldn’t there be a standard of measure within a given range of age or capability? Here I circle back to my beloved. Standard.

As I set out in my writing and my son’s learning two years ago (as it turned out, upon the same road), I accepted the guidance of the virtues named in the Classical world. As marvelous our fascination with the Minotaur, so we cheer Theseus on and breathe again when he rids Crete of the senseless terror. The living nightmare makes for a great tale but we don’t really want to live in fear and endless night. We hunger for the true, beautiful, and good because for these we were made.

Photo credits in order of appearance
wildersoul.wordpress.com
agatasartcorner.com

The Writing Process: Color

mosaicI noticed something about the colors of the words that streamed from my head when I started blogging two years ago. The spectrum had many light, bright hues. Looking back at the single young woman from this side of time, I was a little startled at the levity in the beloved writing that I had picked up again. Because for much of my life, I wrote from a very dark place.

There is a creative force to the darkness, hence the archetypal artist whose work is an expression of his inner drama. In high school when my writing was a way of repainting and processing grief and anger, I was drawn to poets and writers like Sylvia Plath who spoke out of emptiness and flat despair. As my faith and hope in God grew into my 20s, I recognized a troubling truth. While my work was reflecting more light, an enduring spirit of despondency continued to inspire my art in both poetry and song composition.

And I didn’t mind.

I was tasting the addictiveness of writing under darker influences. The dynamic is fascinating to me. But it was remarkable that after a decade of sporadic writing that had gathered dust, I saw the sun on my words. I don’t think the glad divergence could be distilled down to my faith, which was in many ways stronger in my younger days. Deep faith, in any case, does not leave us immune from crippling self-talk or depression, as many spiritual giants in Christian history have shown. Nor could it be a straight matter of the joy I have experienced with my family through my 30s because life has been imperfect there, too. It is more the rawness, the edginess the Great Potter has abraded and sanded of my spirit. The keen knowledge of my own weaknesses and the awareness that everyone is a work in progress so I can relax and forgive and enjoy my life more was the posture from which I started to blog. I now feel it was a cop-out to depend on the spirit of encumberance to fuel my creativity. Certainly life is a mosaic of the great occasions of surprise, happiness, and pain and it is the helpless business of the artist to paint these colors in his chosen medium. But I no longer gravitate to the dark hues in my storytelling – because I don’t have to. I have found myself enjoying the beauty, redemption, transformation of my art as I discover these very elements in the poetry of life.

I Enjoy Stripping

cake2I don’t like having more than one of anything. Feels wasteful. I mean, one hairbrush will do. My wedding dress and cake had no decorations, no ribbon or flower. Nothing. In my day-to-day, I map out the most efficient route for errands. Lose time and you’ve lost what’s irretrievable. I like to keep on the spare side of things.

It hit me that the way I relate to money and time is how I write. I try to work each word full tilt. I love having guest writers see they can toss two, three hundred words to find the heart of their story. Of the 42 who have come through these doors, virtually all have sworn they have “cut to the bone” and just can’t reach the word limit I set. I plunge my knife, head straight for the marrow, send them the bloody remains. Yes, laughing like Cruella De Vil. My toughest critic, I stripped a short February post of a dozen words last night – and nodded in approval. Cleaner, tighter. I do my best to preserve the unique voice of every contributor, which is why we have had 42 different voices in the repertoire. No one has to or should sound like me. Goodness, not with the literary greats to emulate. But I believe we can apply principles of efficiency no matter what our style. Because we writers and poets love our words so much, we tend to err on the side of overstating and in our earnestness, try too hard. We all know less is more but my guests still scrounge for the anesthesia when they see the knife. Which reminds me. I need to wipe that blade.

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HW, in cahoots with the Mafia

The Floor I Couldn’t Reach

Elmhurst was really a town back then, not too fond of change though the quiet was punctuated by noise you’d expect of a New York city. Depending on who your neighbors were, you got the occasional Mariachi outside your window or the Mexican bass throbbing under your feet. Elmhurst housed people in boxes, brick apartment buildings that stood like giant file cabinets. Our life filed under 1D, then 5H, before we settled into the roomier one-bedroom 3F. To get from one apartment to the next, you got in another box, the elevator. The door opened to hit you with the smell of the last occupants. Cigarette, curry, musky cologne. As a little girl I was afraid of the thin black space I jumped over to step in. I imagined somehow falling into the scary unknown.

It was a recurring dream I had as a kid. I pressed three in the elevator and hit the fifth floor, then watched helplessly as the numbers lit their way down. Past three. The door opened, but I didn’t live on first. I landed everywhere but the place I wanted to get to.

The funny thing is my house three decades later on the other side of the country is ostentatiously rectangular. Nothing to complain about with all the space I ever hoped for. But I wonder if the architecture of my childhood is why I’ve fancied homes with circular form and spiral stairs. Perhaps in such a house I would stop living the unwelcome dream. I long for progress in certain areas of my life. How I hate the offhand, “How are you?” because I’m always struggling, eyeing the place I can’t reach. I have been many things: tired, discouraged, overwhelmed, thankful, disappointed, hopeful. But never unmotivated in the blogging, never uninspired in the writing; it’s just these four walls of time. Writing is a montage of all the arts. It is painting, sculpting, dancing, singing, photographing, weaving – with words, all at once. I fill the empty draft page, my canvas of possibility. Press publish and I watch the numbers climb. I’m not deposited in some dreamer’s purgatory. Ceiling defers to sun and clouds heavy with promise, such air as I’d never tasted. This sky is the floor I could finally reach.

CloudsBlueGrey2