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 rationing 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

Poets Are Strange

Poets are strange –
Why can’t they just call the spade
a spade? And what’s a rock but
rock: sandstone, shale from the tiredness
of weather? Coal and limestone, plant
and animal dross

— but nature wastes nothing.

Why do poets look for metaphors under
every rock, the walls that hold the creek, earth
that crumbled, forged resolute, and grew above
my grandmother’s rib, beat hard when she was
widowed with six children on the road

fleeing the Communists
fleeing the Communists
fleeing the Communists

and soldiers who ran out to drag their own
men screaming without their arm
back to the trenches in
too many battles and

and bald children in hospital beds who still
know how to laugh.

Why can’t poets be simple? They see
a crushing burial in heat and time:
marble, quartz, gneiss

— living, burnished beauty.

Poets. They think they can say it
better than
rock.

 

Men and Women: Oh, the Flu

She gargles the fire in her throat (upstairs),
makes lunch (downstairs),
dusts (both floors),
washes the sheets (downstairs),
reviews geography with her son (upstairs),
heats the castor pack (downstairs)
hacks into the waste bin,
does her saline wash (upstairs),
empties the trash bin (downstairs),
gets her boy more blankets (upstairs),
checks the soup (downstairs),
does the dishes,
runs over to the library (outside),
makes bone broth (downstairs)

 

He….well, he…pulls down the covers and does the hard work
of opening his mouth for the nice hot water and pills.

 

PMS: Premeditated Murder Syndrome

Stand back or I’ll shoot. Unless you’ve brought chocolate. No, not that kind. *Godiva takes bullet, falls from blogger’s hand* Lily’s With Stevia. Extra Dark. Or anything fried, like yesterday’s KFC. Can you believe that? No one, nothing made me do it but the insufferable hormones. And why does the world have to choose this week, of all the ones in the month, to be uncooperative? The burrito that took as long as the Second Coming, homeschool boys, my own body withholding sleep. Husband, KEEP AWAY! For the sake of our marriage and grandchildren, your very breath, stay in the master and I will stay out. Some things are just not worth attempting under constraining circumstances. Conversation. Eye contact. Love. Why is the sun so bright, the cherry blossoms so pretty? Why are you all here?? There you go. *Toss* All I have are three bullet-proof vests for the first commenters. The rest were warned. Men are targets because they are men, women for being women. The others because they’re pets sleeping at the feet of computers. I’m going to have a word with you someday, Eve. I bet you didn’t bleed in Eden. That’s why Adam loved you, because he was unfamiliar with PMS. And you thought it was unconditional. Bloody sacrifices came after the Fall so there was no blood in the Garden. Paradise included smooth hormones and you had to have more, sweet-talked your man into taking the apple. You wretched woman, bringing this curse down on us. I’ll show you curs — !@#%^&!^!!!

 

The Tyranny of Feelings

As passionate as I am about things, I’ve only just begun to connect with the spectrum of emotions I had buried all my life under the stoicism.

When you reflect on your day as you turn out the lights, you are in fact revisiting how you felt about it, not what you thought about it. I’m seeing that feelings can be so prevailing they can redefine reality. You got word of a promotion – objectively, great news. But if it fills you with anxiety, that will translate a different news like maybe you’re really not competent enough. What if your spouse has little regard for you? His contempt will redefine what is true within the world you share. The final arbiter of our perception is emotion, not cognition.

Chief Justice Sonia Sotomayor in her early days as District Attorney couldn’t figure out where she’d gone wrong in one case. She replayed her presentation for a mentor who “identified the problem instantly: I was appealing to logic, not morality…since it is painful to most jurors to vote ‘guilty’ and send a human being to jail, you couldn’t simply reason with them to do it; you had to make them feel the necessity…put them in the shoes of the accused or the victim: make them feel the cold blade held against their necks, or the pang of unappreciated devotion that might drive someone to steal from a former employer…It was in effect to see that mastery of the law’s cold abstractions was actually incomplete without an understanding of how they affected individual lives.” My Beloved World

In the case of jurors, it is emotion that forges belief which determines conviction and behavior. Because when Sotomayor was arguing her case, she wasn’t feeding algorithms of reason into a machine for a logical verdict. She was appealing to people, people who were filtering the story through their own past, hopes, and fears as resolutely as they were supposed to aim for impartiality.

Yeonmi Park, who managed a harrowing escape out of North Korea, knows all about the power of feelings:

“In school, we sang a song about Kim Jong Il and how he worked so hard to give our laborers on-the-spot instruction as he traveled around the country, sleeping in his car and eating only small meals of rice balls [a lie]. “Please, please, Dear Leader, take good rest for us!” we sang through our tears. “We are all crying for you.” This worship of the Kims was reinforced in documentaries, movies, and shows broadcast by the single, state-run television station. Whenever the Leaders’ smiling pictures appeared on the screen, stirring sentimental music would build in the background. It made me so emotional every time.

Jang Jin Sung, a famous North Korea defector and former poet laureate who worked in North Korea’s propaganda bureau, calls this phenomenon ’emotional dictatorship’. In North Korea, it’s not enough for the government to control where you go, what you learn, where you work, and what you say. They need to control you through your emotions, making you a slave to the state by destroying your individuality, and your ability to react to situations based on your own experience of the world.” In Order to Live

The government wasn’t satisfied with subjugation of the mind. It wanted the heart because then the leaders had the whole person. And notice that you can create emotion – for someone you haven’t even met and for what is not real. This gives me hope that we can also deconstruct it, not remain enslaved to it.

I’ve always held to an Absolute Truth, ground harder than the sand mound of feelings that can save us from ourselves. But I am seeing that where I’ve lived is really in the place of emotion, not of beliefs or facts. I have found anger much easier to access than sorrow. Anger allows me to borrow strength from the sheer force of it, as delusional as it may be, but what do you do with the sadness of inflicted pain except suffer its vulnerability and sense of helplessness? It just hurts too much. Fear is another big one, and has accounted for a lot of my actions over the years. (I’m such a mess. Why in the world are you following?? Stay with me at your own peril.) Now naming is one thing, freeing oneself of it another. And so to face these darker sides of my psyche, I’ve had to enter their deeper waters. Following memory as far back as it would take me, I’ve relived the traumas of childhood that gave way to resentment and fear. But for the first time, I was led to think about my mother, how indignant, fearful, and powerless she must have felt in the face of her husband’s offenses while pregnant with me – all that despair I felt in the womb, the energy that pieced me together. I don’t like victim talk, but making sense of my context and beginnings has given me greater compassion for myself. I’ve also known that we hold grief and anxiety in our lungs and while I’ve made the connection easily in others, did not see until recently the chronic bronchitis I had as a child in this startling light.

When I was a kid, I didn’t salt my food. I felt guilty for the flavor, had to deny myself the pleasure. That went for the lettuce as well. No dressing. I took the asceticism to a whole other level in my adult years and only the other day recognized that I had actually invited much of the insane suffering in my life. I had to keep suffering because that is what Korean women do. It is how we show love, it is our lot. And our lot is where we are safe. It is all I saw of my mother, that for me to do and be otherwise would be not only criminal (how dare I enjoy life?), but something alien and therefore…scary. Oh, how I LOVED my Bible passages on perseverance in affliction, on the cross I was to carry! Some years back, I took several lessons in the Alexander Technique, a form of mindful movement therapy. The instructor taught me how to lie down. Really lie down. At one point I couldn’t help laughing out loud on the table. The deep, simple rest felt so good. At 30, I didn’t know I could rest like that, had been holding myself up in bed all those years. I now stand on unchartered terrain, a long but sure road where I am giving myself permission to stop hurting and to take my power back. I have died a hundred deaths. Surely that means a resurrection. Pleasure, comfort, (gasp) joy are within sight. At least I enjoy them every time here with you.

I had learned in my own depression how big an emotion can be, how it can be more real than facts. And I have found that that experience has allowed me to experience positive emotion in a more intense and more focused way. The opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality. I think that while I hated being depressed and would hate to be depressed again, I found a way to love my depression. I love it because it has forced me to find and cling to joy. I love it because each day I decide, sometimes gamely and sometimes against the moment’s reason, to cleave to the reasons for living. And that, I think, is a highly privileged rapture. Psychologist Andrew Solomon, PhD.

Greatness: The Art of War

DAWNING
Even in my happy indifference to athletics, I could understand something of the competitor. The Olympian urges his body on toward the moment that will redeem the years and pleasures and normalcy he had laid on the altar of glory. He pursues the unrivaled to best himself. But men who attack one another – invite the blows and blood – and go on to hug after beating the brains out of each other? (Right, it is women who make no sense.) Baffling brutes, I’ve thought.

A year or so after my boy had started in Mixed Martial Arts and I too had learned some moves in self-defense, I was strolling past the octagon at the gym when the sparring in there took on a startling light. Suddenly, what I’d dismissed as irrational violence made every bit of sense and the fluid logic of the moves blew me away in its beauty. So this was the art of war.

WONDER
I became intrigued by men who put themselves in harm’s way not in some noble cause for the greater good but to test themselves. Fascinated with these creatures of discipline – so many of them who I discovered are really nice guys – I went around the last two months asking fighters of all caliber in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, “Why do you fight?” But it was the questions under the question that pressed me. Aren’t you afraid? What do you do with that fear? What makes you spurn that bed of ease and climb the path of great resistance? Are you born different from the rest of us? What is the stuff of warriors – are they born or made – and what inner battles are you fighting?

These questions played in my head during a mesmerizing rerun of the epic fight between Dan Henderson and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in the summer.

A minute and a half into the first round, and blood rains over Shogun’s face. He stays bloody to the end. By the third round, both he and Hendo have drained their reserve. Round Four, they pummel. And Hendo looks at the clock. An eloquent moment: two hundred pounds of muscle and he wonders when he can stop.

The men hang by a thread through the distance, the longest 25 minutes of their lives. It’s not muscle in the last round. Shogun and Hendo find themselves in the mental corner. They have given up their all and for one of them, it won’t be good enough. What follows will ride on mind and will. Shogun gives Hendo a run for his money, but Hendo had done too much damage too fast from the first round not to win in the judges’ eyes. The call remains a technicality for many, fans the world over moved by the warrior spirit of both men.

Soon after, I caught some words from The Korean Zombie on the gym screen, a crash introduction to the relatively new but popular mixed martial artist who earned the moniker from his singular ability to plow through all injuries and blows. Thrilled to his wildest dreams that he was slated to fight UFC Featherweight Champion Jose Aldo, Chan Jung said, “I’m willing to put everything on the line…I would give my life to be fly1champion.” How stupid. How marvelous. Beautiful. I was enthralled. Three years he had chased the chance to take the title from the eight-year undefeated champion. I asked The Zombie in my head: What makes you define years of your life by a moment you hold in your dreams? Where does the confidence even come from, to disagree with the masses that your opponent is superior?

Aldo: “I don’t even see a chance of losing.”
Jung: “I push my opponent to his breaking point.”

FEAR
I had the recent privilege of reaching The Zombie in Seoul, Korea. His agent took the time to translate the interview and afford me a more personal acquaintance with the star. Chan, like some of the other fighters I’ve spoken with, ended up in martial arts after being bullied as a kid. His aunt enrolled him in Hapkido. As to the qualms, he echoes the others, “There is always the fear, but mostly of losing.” Fear of injury becomes a minor concern. After the first blow, they’re good (something I don’t quite get as a woman) – the anticipation over, the adrenaline on. Beyond any anxiety over a black eye, they’re afraid of letting the coaches and themselves down. The goal is to free themselves from the fear of fear. A Brazilian Jiu Jitsu instructor at our gym says he competes to face his fear of vulnerability and stay ahead of his insecurities.

Former UFC champion Vitor Belfort said it simply on TV: “Nothing can distract.” The Korean Zombie doesn’t just dream. He labors in the vanguard of those who sweat, breathe, beat that dream into reality with this laser beam devotion. These guys seem to live on a different plane altogether. I remain mystified. All those months and years and daily dogged minutes of self-denial! Though C.S. Lewis was speaking of spiritual appetite in his observation that we are far too easily pleased, his commentary captures the human spirit. We worship comfort, especially as postmoderners. I am blown away by the single-minded who take no excuses for themselves, repudiate mediocrity, forgive nothing substandard. In this case, fighters put themselves at a place that exposes what they’ve got, what they’ve worked for: they ran the extra mile or they didn’t. The cage door closes and you have two guys hell bent on winning. No one trains to lose. They force each other to their best. The contenders risk it all before a watching world. And the months of toil can all go down in seconds. It hit me (pun intended) that this death grip on commitment resonates with me for the crazy work ethic Koreans have branded themselves by.

cameronTHE GLADIATOR
I had to puzzle out the deepest answer I was seeking in the interviews. The men told me, “I fight because it’s what I love. What I’m good at. The thrill of victory, the arm going up.” But why do you have to punch someone in the face to feel so good?

If man ever did evolve he stopped over 2,000 years ago. I realized MMA is not so new. I am watching the Spartan warrior and the Roman gladiator in their most primal fight for self-preservation. History is battle, the fiercest of physical arguments over land and power. My son has been learning, “Assyria falls to Babylon, Babylon to Persia, Persia falls to Alexander the Great.” The Conquerer has been redefining boundaries – of space and within himself – since ancient times and on he goes. Man’s quest for greatness.

LIVING THE DREAM
The current of the past carries these fighters on to their future. Competitor Phillip Brown is not only chasing his dream but living it. He stays present so that the training is not only a movement toward possibility but joy: “You wake up and realize it’s already tomorrow. You feel really alive. It’s a presence. All your hard work has paid off. All those minutes on the bag, all those tap-outs in practice. Tap-out means I need to get better. Martial arts is the art of bettering oneself. When that cage door shuts, I’m exactly where I wanna be: win, lose, or draw.” How many of us know exactly where we want to be?

THE ROAD AHEAD
Part of my fascination with these contenders stems from the mystery of the Other. They are talented with their body as I can never hope to be. After a year’s sorry attempt in Self-Defense, I discovered I have as much survival instinct as I do coordination. But I’m drawn to the sport for the resonance; I fill with hope and pride in people who seek excellence in their craft, partly for this very pursuit in the roles I have played as mother and as writer. Whether or not I have been successful remains a different matter. But what I’ve asked the competitors were really parenting questions that continue to replay themselves. How much do I push my son to free him – to borrow from Gloria Vanderbilt – to follow his bliss? How do I encourage him to refuse distractions from his purpose? How to reconcile the wisdom of balance with the virtues I prize: stamina, discipline, passion? You lose, sometimes excise, a part of yourself for the greater gain on the hot trail of dreams.

“The tragedy in life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream.”  Benjamin Mays (1894-1984), American minister and educator

Enjoy the Wayfarer in MMA action here – most notably not in her element.

Where Beauty Dare Thrive

His scream punched through the room where I was hiding for my life and sucked me cold out of sleep. It had just turned midnight Saturday and as the dream evaporated, I did not know I would rest again only after dawn. My son had woken – for the umpteenth time – in pain and spit his thick, cloudy cough into the waiting mountain of Kleenex. Tennyson cried, holding the ice pack down on his head, wiping at watery eyes. How much can a kid take? How much could I? Unrelenting 16-hour-shifts nursing him hand and foot and chasing down every possible remedy, days of aborted sleep. I was now battling the flu.

The Money Tree uk.pinterest.com

This thing that’s mowed him down unflinching in the face of the best practitioners and products turned out to be a seasonal pollen allergy. Which is why it stealthily flared all last month as the pollen count here rose, and let up the two days it fell. Spring comes early in Southern California. On the way home with the diagnosis the other day, I decided to grab some plants to filter the air in Tennyson’s room. We picked out a big, tall palm and a cute little guy who made us smile, a Money Tree. Ten minutes later on our driveway, Tennyson was clutching his throat, hands wet with desperate tears. His throat tightened and hurt. I was afraid he would stop breathing. OTC antihistamines didn’t work. Eucalyptus and peppermint oils opened up the passages. As it happens, he was allergic to the plants. How sad is that, being allergic to the Money Tree! And a virus came along to kick him while he was down, sending him flying off a cliff, making sure not to neglect his parents. I didn’t remember my boy being so sick. But reserves are not bottomless. It’s incredible what life asks of us sometimes.

Where’ve I been? I’ve been stressed, if that isn’t obvious. We’re behind in school. Testing for Memory Master lies around the corner. The TV network PBS is also doing a feature on our music school and Tennyson was to be at the drums filming next week. The best laid plans of mice and moms, see them wheel away like chaff in the wind. It will be hard to swallow those events passing us by. The little mister has missed every baseball practice and Saturday’s opening game. We’ve been so disappointed, but the email from the coach touched me deeply.

Hi Diana,
No worries. I hope he is feeling better. His health comes before baseball. We are praying for him.

I wish this man knew the gift he was giving me. I’m sure he inspires kids to love baseball and teamwork, but his humanity and ministry to me meant everything. He’s played professionally, but didn’t forget it was about people, not the game. It takes so little to help someone up. You persevere in hope but how long? And how, in the teeth of it going from bad to worse? Answers can come from the most unexpected places. Some background on this one.

Flowers don’t like me. I can’t seem to coax them to life. I’m sure they sense the Tiger Mom presence, accordingly suffer performance anxiety. Or maybe they become passive aggressive and decide to just wilt. It also doesn’t help that I forget to care for them. And so looking up from the dishes, I was stunned at the sight of the bold blossom on my windowsill. I had given up on the orchid that dropped all its petals some six months ago even though it was said to be only going dormant. How foregone it’d looked, stripped of promise. But here was a triumphant awakening, the white silk so fragile, so strong. My eyes smarted. How…under my watch? In the midst of this despair? The tenacity not only of life, but of beauty. The insistence of hope.

***************

Goodness, is it only March? I can do this. Nine more months and I get to reset and wish myself another happy, hard year.

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