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Dec 12, 2014 - How-To, Writer's Life    6 Comments

The Trouble With Ducks

15819055027_363651c437_zRecently, we acquired some ducks. They were a wedding gift. This is how it is if you marry a farmer. You give her a ring. She gives you….ducks. Three ducks to be exact. Three beautiful white and gray Ancona ducks. Actually, she says she is giving me a “lifetime supply of ducks”, since ducks are as tempting as chicken to most predators. I have high hopes for my ducks anyway; that they will live long and happy lives. So far, so good.

Today’s blog may be more parable than post. The ducks came from a place called Duck Dance Farm. Visiting Pat and Andrew, the owners of Duck Dance, was a treat. There were ponds and pens with little houses and baby swimming pools scattered all around the place. Geese honked, ducks quacked, chickens clucked and there seemed to be much general happiness amongst the feathered tribes. Andrew, who seemed to be knowledgeable in all things watery, told me about ponds and ducks and minnows and how all these systems worked together. He said a little food and a lot of water were essential for a waterfowl’s happiness. I thought, “How hard can that be, right?”

Andrew explained that ducks form affinity groups and they do not like to be broken up. This is why, he said, we were getting a one-eyed duck with our little group of three. It was either that or he would have to break up their trio and add a different duck, leaving little One-Eyed Fiona for the pot, I feared. Leigh was more disturbed by our little misfit than I was. After all, it was her wedding present to me. But I have always loved an underdog, or duck in this case, so we packed her in the crate with the rest. Besides, ducks are funny creatures and Fiona was pretty hilarious as she could only swim in circles and had to really crane around to have a look at you. I saw endless hours of entertainment to come.

Leigh had renovated the Frankentractor, which I really thought we were done with once the new henhouse was built. Oh, but our ducks loved it. They trooped in there, nestled into heaps of straw, and stared at us. They didn’t even quack. So began one of the longest stand-offs between human and animal in history. You might be able to see how frustrating this was for me. I immediately made the metaphorical connection between the ducks and my Muse. They sat there like blocked writers in front of a blank page. Zen-like, they remained in a happy state of meditation for days on end. I’ve always worried about meditation and writing. I mean if meditation makes you content with life as it is, what is there to write about? My ducks happily proved the point.

I had given them good, honest, active duck names. The big white girl was the Unsinkable Molly Brown. My gray-tinged girl I called Glenda, Good Witch of North Carolina. And then there was the prettiest of all with her soft gray angel wings, One-Eyed Fiona. I love that Lyle Lovett song. Who knew I would ever have occasion to name anything after it? I talked to them constantly. “Hey Molly. Come on out, Glenda. Fiona, you sweet thang, come swim.” No response. I could tell they were learning their names only by the nodding and soft chuckling that occurred when I called out to them. Nodding back, I felt like Japanese cartoon characters constantly bowing, “Thank you.” “No, thank you.”

We filled up an oval tank from Tractor Supply for their swimming pleasure. (It takes a lot less water area for a duck than one would think.) When they wouldn’t bother to check it out, I put a smaller pail next to it. No dice. Perhaps the sides of their pond were too high, so we built them stone steps, then a ramp, then a larger ramp. Then a ramp with a deck at the top. I bought them special kibble which they ignored. Worried that they would dry out into some kind of shrunken head replicas of ducks, I finally put a chicken watering can in their “house” with them. Warily, they approached and began blowing bubbles into the trough around the bottom. I supposed they were drinking.

The ducks were beginning to make the chickens look smart. Finally, it rained. I remembered the old saying, “It’s great weather for ducks!” Sure enough, they ran out of the house to play in the rain. I mean, they absolutely adored the rain! Of course, it couldn’t last. Soon they were tucking their heads under their wings in the “If I can’t see you, you don’t exist” position. We would be out there for hours encouraging them to get in their “pond.” They’d venture out. If a bird flew overhead, back inside they’d run. If Ada the dog approached, back inside. If the wind banged the chicken house door shut, they flapped and ran. These were incredibly high-strung animals. Leigh worried. Here was my wedding present, refusing to respond to me, refusing to swim or eat,  or do any duck-like things. And then of course, there was Fiona.

One afternoon they approached the smaller pail of water. They motored their bills around it. They ducked their poor dry heads to the bottom of it. Glenda even tried getting in, but it was so small her feet banged the sides and out she came. Progress! They began to eat. Finally, Glenda (leader of the pack) made her way trepidatiously up the ramp. She dipped her head in. She thought about it. She spread her wings in the sun, and then finally, FINALLY she made her leap of faith. Molly followed and they splashed and swam happily around and around. It took Fiona awhile; head cocked to the side, walking around the pond many times, getting depressed and going inside until she, too, spied the ramp and made it into the pond! (Watch video of water frolic below.)

There was a set back one day when the precip froze on the ramp and Molly slid back down to the ground. Another couple of days in the house. Once again, we had to go out and hang out with them until they were brave enough to get back in their tank. If anything at all untoward occurred, they would not go near the pond. These were the biggest chickens ever! Today, I will go out and fill up the pond. And wait. And quack. And call. And spread kibble around. I’ll watch them dip their beaks, walk away, then walk up the ramp to the deck Leigh built. Then they’ll go back down again. Eventually, they will get in the water and clean the mud they’ve created, and which they love, from their lovely little white and gray bodies.

And so everyday, my three little amusing Muses remind me of how hard it is to be an artist or writer; to take the plunge and make that leap of faith. We creatives love to procrastinate. We pray and meditate. We get close to writing, then we run away. We hide from ourselves. We take to the fainting couch should we hear the flutter of our Muses’ wings in close proximity; should we see her shadow pass overhead. We have nothing to quack about. We wait for a rainy day. We require constant reinforcement and admiration, and no criticism or loud noises, please. We keep looking for our affinity group, our safe house.

Given enough dream time, though, and a little personal praise, we will head for the deep end. We really can’t help ourselves. We are drawn to create–well, the way ducks are drawn to water. Persistently, we dive for treasure at the bottom of the pool. Occasionally, we forget ourselves completely and motor around with our muddy pens creating tracks and signs which read, “We are here. We have something to say, and it is this. Life is incredibly mysterious. We love it.”

Unlike Glenda, Molly, and Fiona, though, we must create our own safe space. We must encourage ourselves to swim, and search out our affinity groups. Even if we are the one-eyed Fiona of our coop, we must feel loved and led, even if we must circle and dip and do it ourselves. Once we take that scary step off the ramp and into the dark water, we will set our souls free to soar, no, swim. Whatever. This is self-fulfillment. This is what all that meditation leads to. Motoring around in the mud, looking for answers to the Grand Mystery. That’s what we do. That’s who we are. Now I gotta go feed my ducks.

Oct 9, 2014 - How-To    2 Comments

In One More Day (In memory of Jacob George)


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Autumn arrives. The thick curtain
of green on an eastern hill
opens enough to  allow for light,
even as later and later day breaks the crest.
Overnight, the half moon that horseshoes   
my neighbor’s land turns the color of clay
fired for months in a summer kiln.
All that russet and gold herald winds
so cold we’ll huddle in our houses,
our backs to the blow.
Chickens will crowd the roost, 
their straw nests flattened and bare
bereft of eggs.
Overnight, winter warns of her coming with
tumbling leaves. A north breeze pushes
 jesters from their limbs, fooling us
before the occasional white flake
drifts down from the high hills,
more chilling than anything Halloween.
We glance at the cord of wood, worry…
Today the mountains wear their dancing dresses,
clapping and tapping to the fiddle of fall.
Overnight, the bright cycle begins
before we must lean against winter’s wailing wall,
when gray is easily mistook for gloom.
Overnight, hold tight
to the memory of the redbud’s bloom.
 
 jacob
 Jacob David George  4-12-1982 to 9-17-2014 
 
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Jul 2, 2014 - How-To    Comments Off on Throwing the Block (or Moving a Mountain)

Throwing the Block (or Moving a Mountain)

"...if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from there,' and it will move, and nothing will be impossible to you." Matthew 17:20

“…if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible to you.” Matthew 17:20

I have not forgotten that I was going to write a post about my good friend, artist Jane Voorhees, in a series about four creative friends who inspire my own life and work. Although I have not done the blog post, Jane and I  have decided to do a collaborative work combining sketching and writing, and how the two practices together stretch the imagination and broaden the perspective of the artist. When it’s published, I’ll do the post. Hopefully, because so much of the work is already done, this will be sooner than you think.

I also wanted to write about my friend Malcolm Christian, who runs Caversham Press down in South Africa. But Malcolm is a modest man, not prone to writing emails or long missives on the great work he does turning fine art and empowered artists back into the world to create a better place to live. I’ve decided I need to go down there and interview him myself. It’s a long and expensive flight, so if you feel prone to contribute to this effort, just leave a note in the comments section and I’ll be ever so grateful!

The hard realization that came from this pre-planning posts was that it blocked me like a good fullback from getting to the blogpost at all. I wouldn’t write because I couldn’t write about the things I said I would write. I felt guilty and ashamed that I had so little follow-through. (Guilt and shame, two of the most useless emotions I know, but great blockers.) I knew my artist friends would be disappointed and I felt that I had failed them. The fact of the matter is that whether any of these feelings were true or not didn’t matter. I think both friends would rather me post something than to quit writing my blog completely. As much as I wanted to write about my brother and sister artist, I found that spontaneity was crucial to my posting. For the most part, my blogposts cannot be planned ahead. They must be inspired in the present tense. They are strictly here and now, an act of faith on my part that I will write what needs to be written. I managed to block myself completely by telling you in advance what I was planning to do.

This is not necessarily the case when we create bodies of work that we intend to publish or display. I realize that some think of the blogpost as publishing, but I don’t. This is a dog park for ideas, inspirations and realizations to come together, intermingle, bark at one another and play. When one intends to publish a work of art, then there is the responsibility of reporting to another, having a deadline, following an outline–however you make yourself responsible. But somewhere in the world of creative art, the idea of immediacy plays an important role. While it keeps me responsible to a larger audience, it is also a blank page where I try on ideas, poems, essays…where I can share with you what interests me in the hopes that you, too, will find it interesting.

A previous example of this are the 30-in-30 poems written daily during the month of April. I didn’t have time to plan a poem, and in fact, have taken a lesson from this that many of my best poems are blurted out like a faux pas. I just have to put the pen to paper and write out the feeling that comes to me. Dedication to doing that was the only thing that was needed, and the poems seemed to get better on their own. Like spontaneous combustion, little fires started by rubbing a pen or pencil across paper.

What blocks you, my friend? Discovering that is key to freeing the artist within. How else can we deal with it if we don’t know what it is? You may find several of these little monsters in your repertoire. My advice is to just begin with one. Illustrate him any way you want. Maybe give him a little credit for standing in your way all these years and protecting you from even bigger monsters. Then let that blocker know he’s no longer needed and walk away. Set yourself free by removing, or simply going around, one mountain at a time. Then celebrate your faith, your obstinance. Immediately do something, anything creative; something fresh and different. See if there’s not a new joy in it, an unexpected freedom to take pleasure in your work. It may not happen right away, but have faith, it will.

May 22, 2014 - How-To    2 Comments

Do Not Live in a Small World

Dad and me at Dallas Arboretum in April

Dad and me at Dallas Arboretum in April

While I’ve been away from my blog, I have not stopped writing. Instead of typing onto a computer screen, I found the need to pick up a pen and write on paper for awhile. How simple! How quaint! How freakin’ refreshing that is after working with computers and programs that refuse to acknowledge poetry as a form. Here on WordPress, for instance, one must put the poem in as an “address.”

When the poet picks up a pen, however, s/he can write on darn near anything–a desk top, a body part, a napkin at the coffee shop. I hate to be one of those people who long for the good old days, but I do. I love longhand and doodles and poems that transfer easily to print. But enough whining about all that. This post is about getting the job done, however you have to do it. It’s about the writer/artist who is willing to challenge themselves to work even when there is no particular deadline to meet.

Recently I took on April, National Poetry Month’s, 30 in 30 challenge. There are a lot of poets who either accept or attempt to meet this challenge every year. The poet writes one poem a day for 30 days. That’s it. Sound easy? It’s not. Yes, you can do haiku, but I save haiku for the most stressful days, when I know I can’t squeeze in a longer poem. Besides, haiku done well is just as hard, if not harder for the wordy poet, than a sonnet. I think I only wrote 2 in thirty days, and only one was worth reading.

What can you possibly gain from writing all those poems and putting yourself under that kind of pressure?  All I can tell you is that I learned so much from this one exercise that even under the duress of remodeling a kitchen, VA appointments, a trip to Dallas for my mother’s birthday, and having turned 60 myself a week before the challenge began that every line was worth the effort. I found I can be creative and observant under serious pressure, on days when I feel bad, or when I am out of town or hanging around an airport waiting for the next flight.

I found that there is no lack of material in our everyday lives. We could write a poem or an essay every day if we wanted. A good poem or essay or song or short, short story. In fact, the building blocks of our lives are words, lines, phrases. If we expand them just a little, keep an eye out for the connections, we’ll find imagery, metaphor, and rhythm at our fingertips. It’s all there waiting to be tapped.

I discovered that writing poetry is good for the heart and soul. I knew this, of course, but not in the same way I know it now. As long as I wrote a poem (and some were more like prose poems and rants), I knew I could count on a good night’s sleep. That is a weird side effect I know, but it was true. And for this particular challenge, I had to post each one on face book. Forget the copyright issues. I know who wrote that poem. And it just seemed more important this April to get a few people reading poetry, even if on some days it was not-so-good poetry, than it was to wonder who owned the work. Essentially, I do what I want. I certainly won’t be the first writer thrown in jail for poems they published!

I encourage you to set a deadline for yourself now and then. In can be the 30 in 30, a class, or a self-imposed date by which you will accomplish ___________, fill in the blank. Then tell someone. Make sure somebody holds you to your word. Or tell your friends you will send a copy on such and such a day of the week or month. Get a partner to go along with you. This helped a lot, as other friends on facebook took on the 30 in 30 challenge, too. We read each other’s work, made comments, encouraged one  another to continue. We waited to see what the next subject would be. What style would they use? What form, if any? Would it inspire a poem in us? Yes, a cheerleading squad is extremely helpful.

The following poem was written in April during the challenge. I was sitting with my dad in his church in Dallas, without mom who was not feeling well. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat waiting for the sermon to start, staring at the stained glass exactly as I had as a child. Since this was April 27, I’d been practicing a poem a day for 26 days. They were coming to me more easily and not always in the most convenient places. I felt the urge while studying the bulletin, grabbed the pencil off the visitor’s sign-in sheet and scrawled away. My dad leaned over and whispered, “Are you writing a poem?” I nodded and kept writing. I couldn’t tell whether he approved, but he seemed to think it was my business and let me go about it.

I chose this one to put here on my blog because it seemed typical of how I learned to appreciate my day to day life by writing a poem about it. It is not usual to find me in a Presbyterian Church with my dad, it’s true, but it is what was happening that day. And despite my discomfort with the experience, I found the diamond in the rough all the same. It shines for me. May your days shine for you, too. It helps if you take note of them with your art, no matter what form it takes. To read more of my 30 in 30 poems, simply go to my face book page and click on notes. Most of them are there. A few were swallowed up by the ethernet. But not the ones scrawled on paper.

Do Not Live in a Small World

 
“Do not live in a smaller world than God has given you.”
                                             (quote used by Reverend Ben Dorr)
 
Silver organ pipes rise like prison bars above
blonde wood and brick, cathedral ceiling
braced by dark exposed beams.
An odd cross, shaped like a four-way stop
rises behind the pulpit where the preacher stands.
Dad doesn’t know what to do with his underdressed
daughter at his side instead of his stylish wife.
Swallowed up by Jonah’s whale I sit waiting
to be spit out, thrown back to the Sabbath I believe in;
trees, storm clouds, a fierce breeze.
 
Oh, Pagan believer that we are lucky,
not to be beholden to a Father, but fortunate
enough to be born on a planet that supports us.
The choir sings “Now the Green Blade Rises”
and I think they might be getting close.
The sermon, “Behind Locked Doors”
begs the question, “Why?”
Doubting Thomas, I believe you.
 
Oh H2O, O2, and CO2,
you are my sacred scripture,
the writing on the wall.
I praise your holy chemistry.
 
Amen
 

 

 

Jan 8, 2014 - How-To    2 Comments

Re-Boot

Finally, here is the obligatory New Year’s lecture on writing daily, writing with discipline, getting the work out there, yada, yada, yada, blah, blah, blah. It is but it isn’t. I really just want to share with you what I did this January to try to get myself back in writing mode after moving to a different state. I mean that in both a physical and mental way.

Let’s see, how to keep all this in one paragraph. We moved my parents first, from Little Rock to Dallas. Then we sold our house in Fayetteville, AR. We moved everything we owned including 4 dogs, 4 beehives, and a business to a small rental house outside a small town in the mountains of WNC. We hunted for a new house and finally found the one we could fall in love with. We moved (4 dogs, 6 beehives now, and the business), and are still moving in. Actually, there are two houses on the land, both of which required renovation and repair. We are still in that process. Meanwhile, several family members (in both our families) died or got very ill. A favorite niece got married in Dallas. We both have traveled far, even after the long move here, both in body and mind. Whew! That’s the short version. Perhaps you can imagine the effect this had on my writing.

When I felt I just could not get underneath my writing and push up shoots on my own any longer, I signed up for an online class. I have never done, or even entertained, the idea of doing such a thing. Taking classes at universities is bad enough, at least in my experience. How much more difficult would it be online when they didn’t have to look in your face to say something bad about your writing? But I needed help and I knew it. So I ignored my fears and signed up for “Writer’s Boot Camp” through Creative Nonfiction’s online workshop program. I’m in the first week and trying hard not to be the Type A student who does all the homework as perfectly as possible and takes all day to write 300 words.

Daily I have to remind myself that this is not a test. I paid $250 to take this 6 week course and I get to do it (or not) however I like. This reminder simply keeps me from getting too anal about it all. Already I have written two little essays and the teacher, who I am sure is overwhelmed at the number of students, has not yet commented on mine. This both hurts my feelings and is a great relief. Since I don’t know what she’ll say, I stew about it. She has been nice to the 3 or 4 people whose work she commented on. She seemed helpful and upbeat.

I am a writer and have been practicing hard at it for 20 years now, but one would not think so to see me all aquiver. Really, I act as if my life, my entire writing career, hinges on a few words by a teacher I never even heard of. (I’m sure she would not like me ending my sentences in all these prepositions. Although, how would I know since she has not commented on my writing yet.)

Can you believe this? How worked up I am after 3 days, THREE DAYS, of my online course. Perhaps this was a mistake. Perhaps I’m not ready to write and receive any critique at this particular juncture in my life. Perhaps I needn’t worry as she may never get around to my essays. Maybe she hates them. Maybe she doesn’t even read them. Then why the heck am I doing this?

I am sharing all this with you under the duress of great embarrassment. But I wanted you to know you aren’t alone in your writerly anxiety. Even those of us who have been writing for years and live under the illusion that we are fairly good at it, can freak out when we move outside our comfort zone. This seems to be a time in my life when that has become necessary. I may not have a choice, so I may as well go all the way. Taking a course, online or in a classroom, is a great way to test your own mettle. Writing under the gaze of others, writing under pressure, writing with a deadline, and most of all writing with your true voice and remaining open to suggestions and criticism from others is not for the faint of heart. But it is important for the real writer to attempt once in awhile. I can’t think of any better way to get yourself in shape than to go to bootcamp, do some metaphorical pull-ups, stand before the drill master and take note, help your mates and allow yourself to be helped by them.

Last of all, don’t forget to rebel a bit. Since the prof in this case has written that she will not critique any of your work unless you do 3 out of the 5 300-word exercises per week and the 1000 word essay over the weekend, I felt the need to not write one today. Besides, it was on “breaking a rule” and I have broken all the rules all my life. This would be nothing new. It was a goal of mine as a child, and I have accomplished it. I didn’t know which broken rule to pick, so I broke my own about writing every essay I was given in this class. In order to write this blog for you today.

I expect I will break this rule weekly. And really, I feel better for it already.

 

 

Dec 18, 2013 - How-To    4 Comments

Write Your Way Through the Holidays

"Five Apples" Pastel by Susan Voorhees

Holidays. It’s the time of year when visual artists flourish. All their hard work over the past six months comes to fruition. At last they get their pay off. Creative people who work in kitchens, arrange flowers, craft strange and exotic pieces, pot, or paint will try during this season to make up for the barren winter months to come when tourists are few and their regular patrons are broke. The visual artist has worked and polished all year for this: the art shows and craft tours that are the delight of aficionados everywhere, and the money these people bring in that must last until late spring and early summer when the big spenders return.

It’s a perfect time for an artist’s date and the best way I know to spend money. I hand over my check, credit card or cash with a smile on my face and drink a cup of cider or cocoa with the artist while I observe the studio where the gift I just purchased was made. There are no home made cookies served on a hand made platter at the mall. It’s a great way to spend, and a wonderful way to spend a weekend, especially if you live in the mountains where fine art and folk art can be found a hill or two apart. I believe in supporting artists and I want my dollar to stay as close to home as possible.

Pottery Vase by David Voorhees

For writers, though, the holidays can be a hard time to remain true to ourselves and the work we do. It’s a social time; a family and friend time where festivities and smoozing abound. Like everyone else, we bake and cook and buy and wrap and sing carols or chant or whatever our celebration calls for. The solitude and quiet that a writer requires like oxygen and water become thin and hard to find. We find ourselves in a desert of too much; too much activity, too much fun, too much food and wine and socializing. Our resolve to write falls away and is smashed to bits like a glass ornament shaken loose from the tree of our intentions. Where in the midst of all this clatter and clutter, admidst the pleasure of seeing old friends and family, of eating and drinking too much, do we find the quiet centered place from which we write?

I’m lucky to have someone like Leigh in my life who understands that it’s crucial for me to have private time in order that we may both survive the holidays. Watching as I begin to spin faster and faster out of control, she takes my hand and leads me to my room, places a notebook and pen and cup of coffee in my hand and whispers gently (or not), “Write something. Anything. Please, for both our sakes.” And writers, where will you find more material than a family reunion with crazy Uncle Howard and nosy Aunt Sue unless it’s a drunken party of old friends gossiping and re-telling stories of  past relationships, successes, failures and flub-ups. This, my friends, is fertile ground. Don’t waste it.

So I thought I’d list a few ways you can keep the pen moving across the page during this insane time of year:

Studying Jane Voorhees watercolors at the Voorhees Family Art Show

#1 Do take an artist date and go on one of the many art and craft tours that are available in your area. They are everywhere and I know my blog followers live in some of the best places for these events. Getting out is good for the soul and seeing where and how other artists work is stimulating and inspirational. You don’t have to spend a lot of money. Really, these artists can go a long way on your heartfelt praise. It’s also a good way to get some really fine snacks and beverages.

#2 Hide in your room pretending to sleep late. Say you are wrapping presents or shopping online if pestered by family or friends. Don’t answer the phone or text. You can usually steal an hour or two to yourself in this fashion. They won’t miss you. You won’t miss them. But you will miss having written if you don’t do it, and believe me, sooner or later it will show in how you handle yourself in public. As the old flight attendant saying goes, “Put the oxygen mask on yourself first.”

#3 If you have a roommate, as is often the case in these overcrowded reunion accommodations, leave for a bit. Go find a coffee shop, a cafe, or even a bar where no one you know can follow or simply show up. I have written in bars and cafes on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, even New Year’s Day. You are spending time in a veritable wonderland of writing prompts with all these folks and all their emotions displayed like shiny objects in a shop window. Use them. Write about them. Hide your notebook well when you return to the fray.

#4 Remember, writing is your safe harbor. If ever there was a time that a sensitive writer needs a place to hide away, it’s between Solstice and New Years. Your sanity depends on it. Possibly someone else’s does too. Your Muse doesn’t take time off and she waits for you to show up at the page, Christmas concert or not.  You can’t expect to wake up on New Year’s Day, groggy or hung over, and have those brilliant writing resolutions simply appear. You must write your way toward them. The best ones require thought and refinement on the page.

So don’t worry about being the humbug in the family. Be a happy humbug. Steal that hour or two you need for yourself and write your way through a happy holiday. Or not. Then let me know how that worked out for you.

 

Dec 3, 2013 - How-To    1 Comment

Show and Tell

We’ve all heard the complaints from certain art critics and snobs. (If you can’t do the work yourself, you can always be a critic, right?) Now you think you need to know everything there is to know about what you’re doing before you let anyone experience it. You need to study forms, take classes, practice for years and years before you have the confidence or competence to share your passion, whether it is visual art, poetry, music, acting, or cooking. Remember Mom said, “Never prepare a dish the first time for guests.” I beg to differ.

Simply being human makes us all works in progress. We mustn’t let perfectionism push us back in the closet. Neither the outer critic or the inner one should be allowed to captain our ship or be the master or mistress of our Fate. Critics are a bully bunch and like to tell you when you’re ready and emphasize that you rarely, if ever, are good enough to share your work. Turn your head away from that rude bunch and listen to my voice telling you that the only way to get ready is to do it. Except for the few Emily Dickinsons of the world, (and even she slid a poem or two or ten underneath the door to a publisher once in awhile) we benefit from sharing our works as they are, as we are–in progress.

Sure, when your are finally working on the Great American Novel, you may want to conserve that energy for the next page. It may be time to keep that passion bottled up while you pour it into your book or onto the canvas. Meanwhile, before you have begun those long and sometimes lonely chapters, sharing what you are doing will only improve it. Hosting open mics for over 15 years has proven me right on this particular phenomenon.

This is how the magic works: even without critique; with only the polite but enthusiastic applause of a kind and considerate audience, a door within each of us that was only cracked before, begins to open. The light comes in. That tiny bud of confidence that forced our shaky hands to pick up the pen or pencil, or inspired us to hold the paper in front of our faces and read with stuttering voices in front of a mic for the first time, blooms when it’s attended by those who left their critic at home; those attendees who pat you on the back or hug you and say, “Look at you! Look at YOU! I didn’t know you could do that!”

A collage treasure-box by artist Trudy Harris (Bentonville, Arkansas). Trudy has recently begun sharing her work with a larger audience. This year she won first place in the Arkansas Veteran’s Creative Arts program.

 

This is collaboration of the highest and hardest order–to stand and deliver long before you feel ready. To bare your heart and art before others, to stand naked in the light of whatever self-esteem you may have, to hold out before the world (because it will seem that way) this bit of self you’ve worked on, loved, and worried over like a single mother–this my friends, is what courage looks like. I think this is the greatest collaboration, the one between you and your audience. Whatever your skill level may be, your desire, the pure passion you have for your art, will make you better than you think. This difficult 2 or 5 or 10 minutes of your life will do more to improve and expand the sense of your creative self and help you find your community of peers, than anything else I know. More collaboration will follow and you will get better and better at what you love to do.

So find a place, a group of friends, an open mic, an art show. Pick up your instrument and sing. Show and tell. This is how it begins.

 

Nov 29, 2013 - How-To    1 Comment

Hallelujah


 
hal·le·lu·jah (From the original definition found in American Heritage Dictionary) interj. Used to express praise or joy.
n. 1. An exclamation of “hallelujah.” 2. Music. A composition expressing praise and based on the word “hallelujah.”
[Hebrew halllû-yh, praise Yahweh : halllû, masculine pl. imperative of hilll, to praise; see hll in Semitic roots + yh, Yahweh]
 

Hallelujah (a little known verse in the lyrics) by Leonard Cohen

You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, well, really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
 
These days I walk the winter woods here at Five Apple Farm, also called (by me) Five Acre Farm. Dressed warmly, I love the openness of the land, the stream and bottomland, the rolling lawn leading to an uncut field. Most of all I love the wooded hill behind the house. It seems more blessing than any person should receive in one short life. Hallelujah, though, for its stewardship falling into such capable (Leigh’s) and appreciative hands.
 
The fruits of my labor remain largely invisible to the naked eye, but I believe they are there. The job I feel most comfortable with, and indeed most competent at, is simply loving the land where I stand. The bible says to “pray without ceasing,” but my interpretation is to “praise without ceasing.” I touch the trunks of trees older and wiser than me, and tell them I love them; that I will do all in my power to protect them. Sometimes, I lift up my voice and sing to the woods, the flowing branch, the vast blueness of sky, the sun, these mountains that cradle me. I walk. I write poems and make up songs. Hallelujah. 
 
Within each of us is a hallelujah waiting to be expressed. We find it in whatever our passion, our creative expression may be. Whether it is spoken, sung, or silent–if we are true to our very individual, original, authentic hallelujahs, we do our part to heal our world. Indeed, we will be less than perfect. As Cohen says, and as I can see myself on this winter day with the rhododendron leaves frozen into green fingers, an icy wind shooting the valley, tree branches bare and splintery, what we have to give are often “cold and broken hallelujahs.” This is all the more reason to express them. Practice. Praise without ceasing. 
 
 
Despite our despair at the depletion of a planet which continues to give of herself, there is always beauty to be praised. Something hears us. It’s organic to be creative and creation is organic. This I believe. There is no sorrow that will leave us more bereft: to ignore the hallelujah within us. In our own re-creation of the universe, we reach out our hands, raise our voices and try to make the broken whole again.

Hallelujah.

 

 

Sep 22, 2013 - How-To    3 Comments

First Day of Fall

Sept 22nd and here we are, Leigh and I, back in the WNC mountains for fall. Although we had planned (in our crazy secret heart of hearts) to be happily planted in our new garden of delights in some county not far from this tiny rental in Mitchell Co., it simply took longer than we thought, as these things will. We just knew that we would already be established, moved in, working at our business, planting garlic and scattering the seeds for new poems. Reality can be a hard reminder that Spirit does not have our time constraints and the Earth moves at a pace which is not always in synch with our own. So, on the first day of Autumn Equinox, we’re painting and digging and waiting for workers to come and help prepare our place so we can move in and make more plans.

The most important part of the job is done. Five Apple Farm is found, along with the Jewel Box. I only asked for a guest room and got a guest house! The universe is so generous at times, remembering of course, it both giveth and taketh away. The location, as the crow flies, is actually less than a mile from where we lived when we left NC for Arkansas eight years ago. Out of a four county radius, we landed right back in the S. Toe Valley. I, for one, couldn’t be happier about that.

We are, however, nowhere near moving in. The house, built in the 1960’s with paneled walls, thick carpeting, and harvest gold appliances (that actually work) must be renovated before we can leave the rental to live at Five Apple, which Leigh named for the trees thick with multi-colored fruits grouped at the edge of our property. Besides the creek that cuts through the front part of nearly five acres, my favorite place is the “Indian field.” I call it this because rumor has it, and arrowheads and pottery shards seem to prove it, that the Cherokee camped there during the summer hunting and harvesting months. The spring which they discovered is the same one we will be drinking and bathing from. It all feels so, I don’t know, sacred or magical or holy. We are blessed and we are aware of it. However, as the nights drop down into the 40’s, we are ready to be moved and living at our new place.

As you can imagine, all this renovating and motor-vating back and forth between the rental and the real house leaves little time for motivating you or even me to write, read, or follow through on my real work. Drawing out a bead of paint along a baseboard is not the same as following the golden thread of inspiration, but hard work is good for the soul, and I like touching my home all over. The mind and body are one, after all. I am making this place my home as I sand, clean, and paint it. Yet, I must have one day to devote to my real work, the writing down of all that experience. So today, for the first day of fall, I spent an hour reading poetry and then wrote one of my own to honor the season I love best. I try to mark this especially poignant and haunting time with a piece of writing every year. Perhaps the shortening of the days and the lower slant of light inspires you, too. Don’t ignore that nudge of intuition (as my friend Liz calls it), but allow yourself to find the palette or the page and draw your own conclusions.

First Day of Fall
 
Here in the mountains
there is a true change of seasons, so sharp
and clear in evening light:
trees are cut-outs of themselves and every blade
of grass on the hill or in the field is singular, blood-tipped
inspiring the scarleting of leaves.
The sun breaks like an egg upon the crest
pours light down the ridges
flows into the rivers below,
gilding water reflection-less.
Heavy dew heralds October frosts
soaking canvas sneakers we trade for leather boots.
Waves of hardwoods twitch with first color
knowing how naked they’ll be by November.
Halloween is real here;
not little ghosties with holes cut for eyes, but spirits
who’ve haunted these hills thousands of years
appear as mists, spin through the valleys
rise from the mountains whiter than sheets
losing themselves in the slanting sun
only to reappear at night
touch us with a hint of ice–
this temporary ending
seeming 
such a deadly thing 
to a summer fling.
 

 

 

Aug 22, 2013 - How-To, Writer's Life    1 Comment

The Discovery of Poetry–A Brief Review

Mayes_cover

As I was saying in my last post, times are hard here on the farm for writers, even though when I look over how my time is spent I do see plenty of time for writing. There it is in the morning before the dogs get up and need to go out or be fed. There it is at 4 am and I’m awake while Leigh is sleeping. Here is time in the afternoon while we are awaiting word from the now notorious Big Bank (in the post boom days) to see what kind of irrelevant piece of paper they need next in order to get our house loan. Leigh jokes that the only thing they have not requested from us yet is a DNA sample. We are ready, though, with tongue depressors and coffee stirrers from Starbucks.

Then there’s the time waiting at the VA as I reestablish myself in a new town. There’s no need to go into the horrors of that particular story. However, there is a lot of waiting around that could be put to use writing. I tried this however, and what came out was so terrifying that I was afraid I would scare off patients who were awaiting scheduled procedures. But I did write. It just didn’t seem like publishable material, although most veterans could certainly identify.

So, what may sound like plenty of downtime for writing, is actually spent waiting. Unfortunately, waiting is difficult to translate into writing. It’s the wrong kind of tension, at least for me. However, the time can be used wisely for reading, and even penning out an exercise or two that may come in handy later. There’s really only one thing to do: find or buy a book that will entice me into reading and writing when I can. And THIS means I get to go to a BOOKSTORE!!! An independent one is best, of course. With coffee. My Fayetteville readers will know I’m talking about Nightbird Books on Dickson St. Here in Asheville, although there are actually several independents, Malaprop’s is an experience unparalleled in both book-buying and coffee. Despite my persona non grata status due to a poetic dispute with the owner, I cannot tell a lie. It is simply a delightful place to hang out and experience the rich texture of being surrounded by some of the best books ever written, sip delicious hot brew, and leave with the unusual sensation of money well spent.

I know I need a book that will inspire and direct. I drag my good friend, the former manager of Malaprop’s, with me. She is like Super Bookseller. (This would make a great comic, don’t you think?) If anyone can help me find the book I need, simply by a vague description of what I’m looking for since I’m not sure myself, it’s Jane Voorhees. She’s so fast, we miss some of the fun of perusing. Within ten minutes I am holding the book I need in my hot little hand. All I feel I have time for is poetry– and because poetry is good practice for any other writing I may want to do later–I choose a book on both reading and writing poems. The Discovery of Poetry by Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun, appears to be exactly the book I need. As I do when book-shopping, I thumb through it, read a few pages, and carry it around with me while continuing to look at other books. The heft and weight of it, the paper and print, as well as the poems, are all important in deciding whether or not to purchase. If I never set it down in pursuit of something else, it’s the one I need.

In this very fine book on poetry, Mayes offers access to a variety of poems she has chosen to illustrate the art of poetic device. The exercises are brief and leave the bulk of the work to the readers’ imagination. I find both of these things refreshing. It’s a grown up poet’s book. She expects you to know how to read and appreciate poetry. She uses examples from both past and present day, English-speaking and translated poets. She asks you to do the work yourself. I give full credit to the fact that I am, at this stressful time in life, able to string a line of words together to Frances Mayes and her The Discovery of Poetry. In my case, perhaps, the re-discovery of poetry. For poetry is a form I must discover and uncover and recover time and time again. And each time I am astounded at “what is found there.”

This is what writers do when they are stuck. They look for and buy a book that will, by its flow and fire, move them forward in their work and allow them the room they need to write. The book allows us to roll words around in our mouths and taste them– salty and fiery as cayenne, bitter as a fine home brew and sweet as Leigh’s honey. Good books like Mayes’ can rekindle the tiniest glowing ember and put ink back on the page where it belongs. I recognized the right book for me and here it lies, already bent and creased in all the write places. 

Sometimes even the great beauty of wherever you may live is not enough to make the writer write. Sometimes it takes the hand of an experienced author to help us find our way to the page; to inspire us to look beyond the limitations of our own day-to-day and realize there is an entire world out there waiting for us to discover it. In this case, Frances Mayes leads us into that world, past and present, by her own Discovery of Poetry.

 

—Mendy Knott is a writer, poet and author of the poetry collection A Little Lazarus (Half Acre Press, 2010).

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