Writing Practice – 2/25/2019

A walk in the woods…

Footsteps crunch on brittle lanes. Pebbles scatter before the toe of my boot, startling and chasing away small creatures of 4 legs or no legs, the brown-and-green-and-yellow of a garter snake just barely registering in my mind before it disappears again into the underbrush. I hear chickadees calling, twit-tweet, twit-tweet, echoed falsely by jays, robins, maybe even a crow or a raven. I walk in my ignorance, knowing names of things, but not essences. I can hear bird songs, identifying that they are different, but I am no ornithologist. I cannot, with any certainty at all tell you which is the robin and which is the cardinal’s song. I can recognize their picture, but everything else is a false front. I know nothing for real; all I list on these walks is impostering.

I cannot tell you the difference between granite, quartz, shale, limestone, other than that they will be found in different layers, exposed as the winding streams have cut mercilessly into their hillsides over the last ten million years. Which must mean, then, that those same hillsides are far older than that, right? Which came first, ended up at the bottom of that pile, and will be exposed last: limestone or igneous rocks? See, I cannot even be sure I have the right kinds and thin categories. I have many facts within my head, but little use of them.

I cannot tell you, again, with any kind of certainty, whether you are looking at an aspen, a maple, or a boxwood cedar. I think I could reasonably tell you which is a birch, and maybe an oak; yet to distinguish an apple tree form a box elder would take much more expertise than I can bring.

It’s not that that I am ignorant. I care. I do. When I am in that environment, active, embedded, I listen to my guides and gurus, I understand what they say, I nod along when they explain how the leaves of this species are identified by the thick veining pattern on the underside of their leaves. I pay close attention as she points out the differences in this bark from that. I strain my hearing and indicate, with a subtle nod, that yes, I do hear the differences between the twoot-twoot-twoot of the whippoorwill and the tip-tip-toop-tip of the nuthatch. I concentrate, hard and expressively, on every word that helps me to differentiate the bluebells from the lady slippers growing beside the path. I am a good student, the best, and I ask insightful, meaningful questions, ones that inspire my guide, impress them with my ability to make connections between fauna and flora, that show I am not only paying attention, but that I care, and I will continue to care in the future, and that perhaps they have convinced another disciple, they have converted another recruit, they have a future bird-watcher or tree-hugger or trail-sustainer in their midst, and all their effort has not gone to waste, that I will come alongside them, and will come along behind them, and I will pick up their convservationist bent, and I will continue their work after they are gone, and I will pass that love and passion on to another and another, and another, and these great resources, these great forests, these trees and trails and pine-needle-strewn meadows, they will never disappear, they will always be with us, they will always remind us of our responsibility to care, to husband, to shepherd the world around us, as our responsibility and our privilege for the privilege of living the blessed life we do.

I will let them believe this, for I am a good person, and, then, I will finish my tour, I will walk out of the woods, I will knock the dust off my boots at the edge of the parking lot, and with that dust will fall my intention, my memory, my insightfulness, my burden to carry on their passion, their love of nature, their desire to see this world thrive for generations, centuries, millennia to come, and I will return to my life, my world, retaining nothing more of my experience than a few more names to add to the list of near-meaningless facts accumulating within my mind.

Writing Practice – 2/18/2019

Describe this man…

This man is confident. He smiles as if he knows he is better than you. He holds his hands together in front of him as if he is pointing at you, to say, “You should be intimidated by me, and because of how handsome I am.”

Yes, he is handsome. His hair is flopped over slightly on his head, short, straight, medium-trimmed. It is not close-cropped, but not hanging past his ears, either. This is a look which has been carefully cultivated. HIs cheek bones stand out from the flush of his cheeks just slightly. His ears fall back tight against his head. They don’t stick out, which would give him an idiotic, imbecilic look.

His shoulder, inside his suit, are proportionate, straight level across, not sloping, not stooped. He holds himself this way and we recognize his power, his alpha qualities. We see in his body that strength of authority. Yet his necktie is slightly askew; slightly off at the little crook beneath his neck. Does this imply he’s a bit lax at times? Or just that he wants to appear “approachable”? Like, “Hey, I’m not really a bad guy, you can talk to me. I promise I’ll listen.”

His eyes, half-closed, suggests a smirk with his lips. These tell me he thinks about me; he wants me to come over and gather round, to hear his tale he is about to tell. He wants to hold this audience in rapt attention for five minutes, ten, fifteen, as the crowd at the cocktail party gradually swells, noting the attention and coming to find out what all the fuss is about. And he knows, too, that his story is thrilling, enthralling, so he continues to speak, to add details, wild and exorbitant that bring his audience even more delight, and as new people glom onto the back, they whisper to one another what’s happening, and they hear similarly whispered responses recapping the tale of adventure so far, how he and his wife were driving one night and picked up a hitchhiker, who turned out to be a billionaire, and they ended up at the billionaire’s home, and now he’s telling how there were thirty people in the pool, all in various states of nakedness, “Oh my, can you imagine, I never,” and he’s got this story down, he’s completely mesmerizing thirty or so guests in this new dinner party, he’s the center of attention, and soon he realizes that he’s pushed the limits of credibility to their furthest ends, any more and even he won’t believe it could have gone like that, and so, with a flourish, with a large loft of his glass to toast the room, he winds up the story with a wild “And, so, my friends, to adventure!” And all their cheers resound through the night, and they all drink toast, Cheers!, and then gradually, and suddenly, and middlingly, they distribute, they disperse themselves back out to rejoin the party, [illegible] a man, this strong, confident, Alpha male, remaining behind with his date, slipping an arm around her waist and pulling her a little tighter, sips and finishes his drink, places the glass on a table behind himself, and leaves, to bask in the gazes of the experience, having once more justified, validated, ensconced himself at the top of the social totem pole once more.

Writing Practice 12/15/2018

Presence vs. Presents

Presents: pretty, shiny, fancy, makes you feel special the first few moments.

Presence – close, comfort, intimacy. Make help encourage you to feel more special for a longer time; Presence lasts. Presents break.

Presents, when done right, are a great thing. Too many times these days, though, presents are a pale attempt to replace presence. And this is a tired critique. Many people have made the same. They say that we are becoming disconnected, losing touch, ignoring presence.

Yes, that is true. But, too, we have become lazy in our presents-giving. We are attempting to find shortcuts to telling people that we care much about them, that we care enough about them to consider their sensibilities, their sensitivities, the things they would enjoy. A gift card is cheap. So is cash. Even a gift card or a cash gift of a thousand dollars is cheap. Because it says you didn’t put any effort into deciding what to get me. It says you bought me my own job. You took a look, and said, “Eh, fuck it, I’m tired of thinking of that asshole. He can do the work for me. Here…” and you shove a stack of bills at me, make me go pick out my own gift. Far from being “the perfect gift!” I find gift cards to be imbecilic, juvenile, and irrational. They counteract the spirit of giving. They ruin presents. if you’re going to give me a “present” of a gift card, please do us both a favor and DON’T.

Instead, give me presence. Come over some afternoon when I didn’t expect it. Bring a six-pack of beer, or a pizza. Tell your friend to take my kids to the mall for an hour, and we’ll just sit and talk. Or make love. Or just watch television. Because we’ll be doing something, together, which is presence, and it would mean much more than generic Presents which are nothing more than abdication in disguise.

Writing Practice 12/12/2018

From Reddit/r/WritingPrompts:

You are a murderer who coats your victims’ bodies in cement and plays them off as realistic human sculptures. One of your “works” just got into a museum…

I’m nervous, I guess. Is that what this is? This feeling of lightness, of electricity in my stomach? The doors will open soon, and then dozens of people will get to see my true skill for the first time. I can’t believe how long it’s taken. Ten years after art school, and, finally, my first gallery show! I’m gonna throw up, maybe. Or it’s just nerves. I can’t tell.

I can see them out there, through the glass doors, congregating. Family, friends, a few old college acquaintances who saw the notice on Facebook or Insta. You know, despite all the hard work, I’m glad it’s taken this long to get here. I wouldn’t be so good an artist as I am today without that development of patience, of skill, of practicing my craft, that took this long. And for that, I’m grateful.

Okay…

Here we go… Doors opening!

The curator welcomes everyone. All of us in this new exhibit, the three artists being displayed here for the first time, are waiting to mingle with our new fans (or those we hope may become fans, at least). Over there is Mindi, who makes sculptures out of discarded books. She re-pulps them and makes them back into tree shapes. And there is Kyle, he’s a visual artist, digital medium, and his things look like kaleidoscopes constantly moving and changing on the half-dozen screens behind him.

I only have the one – Study of Human Figure, Realistic, No. 47. It has been a slog. Personally, I thought I was hitting my stride about No. 30, but it still took a lot more effort to get my name out there in the last three years. No. 47 was quite the willing subject / muse / model. He came for dinner and stayed, perfectly still, just as I needed him to be.

I hear a muttering at my shoulder and turn to find two women discussing No. 47.

“He’s a bit pudgy, don’t you think?” Says one.

“It’s supposed to be realistic,” says the other. “All men look like that these days.”

“I suppose,” says the first, with a resigned sigh and a sip of her win from a plastic cup. “They sure don’t make them like they used to.”

“I wonder how he got such detail with cement,” says the second. It’s obvious they don’t recognize that I could answer their questions, being only two feet away from them. Perhaps the curator should have made some introductions. I make a mental note to remind him for the next opening.

By now, my nerves have dissipated. Men and women have expressed interest in No. 47, have given amateurish critiques of my style and technique, have demonstrated their willingness to be the foppish boors they pretend not to be, and have demonstrated also their incredible pretentiousness they don’t care to hide.

Forty minutes into the show I hear a soft, feminine voice at my elbow. “Excuse me, are you the artist?”

I turn to find a slight woman, mid-thirties, holding the program in one hand, cupping her elbow with the other. She smiles, and I smile back.

“Of course,” I say, and extend my hand. “Bradley, nice to meet you.”

“Anna,” she replies, unholding her elbow to shake. “Pleased.” She turns to admire No. 47 once more. “Impressive. You have quite the grasp of reality.”

I blush. The compliment seems rather sincere coming from her. “Thank you. I admit, though, sometimes my models are not very willing subjects.”

She turns once again and faces me.

“Do you ever seek out new models?”

And now it is my turn to feel empowered. “I do,” I say, and pull out a business card. “I think you’d be perfect. Have you ever considered posing?” She smiles, and tucks the card into her pocket.

”Not me,” she says, and gives me a sly, knowing look. “Perhaps my mother in law would be willing. Shall I tell her to come at eight tomorrow?”

I understand completely. “Seven,” I say. “And have her bring a bottle of wine.” It is now my turn to smile as she winks and turns away. Perhaps, I think, I have found No. 48 much more easily than usual.

Writing Practice – 10/7/2018

Poem a Day Volume 2, p 383 (Dec 16)

Fly envious Time, till thou run out thy race,

Call on the lazy leaden-stepping hours,

Whose speed is but the heavy plummet’s pace;

Run thy own trail, travel thine own path.

Send to the heavens the shout of a many-breasted warrior strong with the ichor of battle. Let forth a barbaric yawp to shake the hills and rattle the cedars. Share not your victory with those who would have nothing to do with the battle but everything to do with sharing the spoils. For why should their reticence be rewarded, and your valor diminished? Why shall your light hide, as if a reflection upon the surface of the moon, instead of shining bring from the sun’s rays?

Strive, then, brothers in this long struggle, and let it be know that you shall no longer rest in humility as a result of the things you have fought for, sweated for, bled for. But these days shall see a resurgence of your manifest adulation. The righteous praise well-deserved flowing from all of the crowd’s lips to over and above and through you. For it is never enough for just one to shower adulation and praise (except that she be the one, yet that remains a different tale for a different time). It is not enough for a single voice, no matter how powerful or authoritative, to say “well done.”

Nay, it is only for the recognition of the crowd that the warrior strives. He seeks not his own glory, but does so to honor his fallen brothers, to eke out, to draw out from those who remained behind, their praise, their worship, their respect, their fear.

For, if they did not fear the powerful, if they did not respect them at least a little, and in practice a bit more than that, if they did not recognize the hidden, camouflaged power waiting within the army’s arms, if they did not acknowledge the real authority beneath the breastplate, if they did not offer a genuine kudos to their true betters, they know that in a few moments, with a turn of a whim or at the insolence of an unruly youth, they, too, might find themselves a new enemy of those who wield the true power. For true power comes not from robe or treaty or birthright. True power comes from a willingness to fight, to truly fight, not simply argue, to fight and take power, to risk one’s own life in the pursuit. That is power. That is authority. And that deserves respect.

Writing Practice – 9/5/2018

Heart & Soul, p 201

“While most young men dream of becoming a professional athlete, Herschel Turner dreamed of becoming an artist.”

He would read books on Matisse and Magritte. He practiced cubism, sculpture, and 3-dimensional art. He painted wide swaths of canvas with daring colors, red and blue and green and orange, sometimes merging them into a dun-colored masterpiece that seemed almost indistinguishable from those hanging in the Guggenheim.

Herschel painted, sculpted, or cast into bronze by instinct. He’d seen all the others and determined to do it better, more simply, more provocatively, than they had. Just why anyone ever actually bough his shit was still remained a mystery to him. He even tried to throw them off with obsequious artist’s statements like

“This piece transcends the boundaries of language and meaning, reaching beyond context into meta-context and sub-comprehension. It is as if my feline inner nature were awakened by the transcendence of participation in the birth of this piece, and the reality has been shattered by its convergence into the conscious plane. Really, it is a sight to behold, one of the Nine Wonders of the Modern World, alongside Barack Obama, the gyroscope, and the theory of the electroweak force. Humanity is worse off for its participation in such drivel.”

And yet he was called a revolutionary. A genius. A man out of his own time. For us, as art critics, we could not see the value in what he’d been doing. But maybe that was because we were too close to the subject, to steeped in mythology and folklore of what had gone before to truly be able to step back and accept it for what it was, art, ART, art that moved people. That challenged them, that made their hearts melt or yearn or burn, and so they had to have his pieces, critical analysis be damned. I wish we could have seen IT. I wish we could have opened our minds, our eyes, just once, to see with that naive, childlike vision, to take in something just as it was, just as it made us feel, not what we thought it meant or with an eye to judge how well the execution outpaced the idea of the thing. OH, to be simple once more. To have that bland, blank stare of childhood, when you can simply like something, and you don’t have to have a reason. I miss those days.

Writing Advice

A friend (M) asked me for advice for said friend’s child (R) who has shown interest in and talent for writing. So here’s what I came up with. I offer this to you as either inspiration, a wet blanket on your enthusiasm, or however you want to take it.

***

So my thoughts for R. (or you, or the teacher, or whoever else wants to know about writing) are this (in general order, but do a lot of them all at the same time):

1) To write well, you need to read. A lot. And a lot of different things. R. should be reading at least a book a week, maybe 2 or 3. She doesn’t have that much going on that she can’t also be reading a lot. So find a few authors she likes and read a bunch by those. And then find some things that she starts and thinks, “I absolutely hate this”, then finish it and asks yourself, “why did I not like it?”

2) Write. A lot. Get a notebook. Write at least 10 minutes a day. Here are some topics to start writing about, if you can’t think of some:

I feel…

I smell…

I remember…

I want to go to…

I used to be…

One time, when I walked outside, I saw…

I wish…

Yesterday I dreamed…

When you fill a notebook, read it back through, once. Then put it on the shelf. Start another one. When you finish that one, read it through, then put it on the shelf. Keep going until you have 10 notebooks. Then keep going again. Sometimes, set a timer for an hour and don’t stop writing until it goes off. If you get stuck, keep moving with “Okay, now I’m stuck and I don’t know what to write. So I’ll just write what I hear. I hear…”

3) Did I mention reading a lot? Yeah, keep doing that.

4) If she’s going to be blogging, I recommend you (M) be the blog owner and she work with you to publish stuff. That way you’ll have access to comment moderation. I use WordPress, because it’s free (if you want, I think I pay something like $99 a year to have a domain that doesn’t include “.wordpress” in it). I’m sure there are a hundred blogging sites, you can find something that works for you.

5) At first, set a schedule for blogging. Like, “one post every Monday and then one every Thursday or Friday”. That way, one of the things  she wrote on Friday – Sunday can be selected for Monday, and one of the things from Monday – Thursday can be selected for Thursday or Friday. This will get her into a rhythm of writing, but it will also remove the pressure to create additional pieces just to post. Don’t worry if it isn’t great. Blogging isn’t meant to be perfect.

6) Read. A lot. Not just books. Have her read the New York Times from front to back one day. Go to the library and read an article from each of Cat Fancy, Guns & Ammo, Cosmopolitan, Ebony, and Science. Mix these up, read different titles each month. She won’t understand some, some you might have to chaperone or totally block, but just get her reading a variety of stuff, not just Nancy Drew or Wimpy Kid all the time.

7) Write more.

8) Read more.

9) Have her write a story. Make sure it has a beginning (something was like _____), a middle (then this problem arose_______), and an ending (and this is how the people solved the problem__________). Read it, give your honest feedback. Have her friends read it. have them give their honest feedback. Put it aside. Have her write 5 more stories. Read them, giving your honest feedback. Have her choose one of these to revise. Have her friends read the revised story. Have her revise it again. Put it aside.

10) Invite her to write letters to 10 authors. These could be people who have articles in the newspaper, or book authors, or magazine article authors. See if she gets any response.

11) Keep writing. Keep blog posting. Keep revising. Keep writing stories. Once she’s written 20 stories (each with a beginning, middle, and end), have her submit one to a magazine. Have her be honest about herself, her credentials, and be realistic. Expect rejection. Aim for 100 rejections. Once a story is rejected, find another place to submit and send it in. It might take 5 years to write enough stories to get 100 rejections, and some stories may have 20 rejections while others only have 1 or 2. That just means you’re honing your craft all the time.

12) Keep reading. Keep writing. Write for yourself (R), not for anyone else. If you like it, that’s important. If you like it and you’re authentic (which means it’s real, not just “what you think your audience wants”), that’s enough. Nobody else may ever like it. That’s fine, if you’re writing for yourself. Because ultimately only you need to be satisfied with it. And, strangely enough, if you are satisfied with it, eventually you will find an outlet for it.

13) Sometime you’ll want to, in your writing practice, start with “I write because…” You should attack this topic a couple of times a year. I still do, because I still don’t have a definitive answer for why I write. Mostly it’s because I love the feel of creation. I love to be surprised at what my mind comes up with when my pen is scratching across the paper. Some of it is the desire to impact people. Very little of my writing that I really enjoy is because I’m going to get paid for it or because it’s going to make me famous. Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, they write because they can’t not write, not for any other reason. They would still be writing if they weren’t making the same money from it. The money is a bonus because the things they wrote are authentic for them, and, as above, since it’s authentic, it resonates with others too.

14) Read. Read the classics. Frankenstein. Dracula. The Swiss Family Robinson. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Read the classics of tomorrow:  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. The Hobbitt. 1984. The Prophet (Gibran). When you finish reading something like this, take one or more of your writing practice sessions to critique these stories. What worked for you? What was confusing? What was unexpected? What was too bland? How would you have made it better?

15) Create your own rules. These are suggestions. Read them. Read Strunk & White. Read Anne Lamott. Read Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. Read the AP Manual. Create your own writing rules. Follow them. Break them. Make new ones. Follow those. Break those. Make new ones again.

16) Be yourself. Write the stories you want to read. Write the essays you want to read. Write the poems you want to read. Write the plays you want to see performed. Write the songs you want to hear. If you can do that, you’ve won.

— SJ