Mar 27, 2012 - How-To, Writer's Life    3 Comments

Rejection–Ouch!

Why bother, you may well ask, risking rejection when you have a perfectly good place to read your work to an appreciative audience every month? Isn’t that enough for most writers? In a word, “No.” If you want a larger audience than the one you have at home; if you long to see your work in someone else’s book or literary journal; if you want a publisher for a large body of work (say a memoir, novel or book of poetry), you must send the work out. And if you send the work out, then you must be ready to have your work rejected.

Recently, I worked long and hard on a policing essay (see the earlier post) for a literary journal honoring law enforcement. Since I was personally invited to submit, and because I happened to fit the criteria as a former cop, I felt sure that my acceptance was a given. Really, I had every confidence that my essay would be accepted. However, the answer turned out to be a no-go. I was caught off guard. I felt and still feel that the piece was well done. I thought it fit the parameters as outlined in the submission guidelines. I revised and had others read and make suggestions, many of which I followed. Where did I go wrong?

Certainly, this is not my first rejection. As a working writer, I’ve opened many a letter beginning, “We’re sorry, but your work doesn’t fit our needs at this time…la, la, la.” No matter how many rejections I receive, after all this time, the words still sting. As you sit quietly weeping and gnashing your teeth, you must also be prepared to hear those old familiar words, often from those who love you best, “You can’t take it personally.” But you can and you will. Your loved ones aren’t putting their hearts and souls on the line. Too often they’re unfamiliar with this sort of rejection, avoiding it whenever possible. It’s you who have taken the chance, the risk, that can lead to a temporarily broken heart, bitter frustration with yourself and the offending publication, and a hard loss of self-confidence. All these feelings are okay to have. They are a natural and, unfortunately, reoccurring phenomena for the real writer.

Short of pulling our hair out or beating our heads against a brick wall, how do we deal with rejection? Give yourself a time limit. Do not pull your hair out, which, if you are my age, may already be thinning. Do not bash your precious brain into anything which may shorten your already fallible memory. Crying is allowed. Cursing loudly is fine. Jumping up and down and punching the air is good for the body and soul. Just don’t waste a lot of time with all this.

I have a rule at my house. I get an hour to be as dramatic as I like. I take it whether my partner likes it or not. They can go work in the yard if it bothers them. If you are not used to rejection, you may need a little longer than an hour. Do try to get over it in a day or two. The old “get back up on the horse and ride” trick is true in this case. Call your writing friends for encouragement and consolation. Let them tell you that you didn’t want to be published in any old “Poetry” magazine anyway. Go ahead and feel your feelings. Don’t, however, let negativity stand in the way of getting back to work in a day or two.

Realize that your piece may well need some work or revision. More likely though, your piece really wasn’t right for what the editor wanted and it simply needs to find its proper home. I have always said that there is a lover for everyone in the world, if only they don’t give up trying to find their match. I feel the same way about writing. There is a place for your essay, your poem, your short story. Believing your work will find its home the first time you send it out is like thinking you will win the lottery the first time you buy a ticket. Surely this has happened to somebody sometime, but has it actually happened to anyone you know? Or anyone you ever even heard of? That’s my point.

Rejections builds our confidence muscle like resistance training builds biceps, triceps and abs. The callous on your thumb and first finger come from using that pen daily; from writing your little heart out and not quitting. This is metaphorical if you use a typewriter or a computer. Persistence is the key to getting published–ask any published author. You must dig deep for the courage to overcome that hour of sadness and self-pity and find another place to send your work. This is the only way to find your match–keep looking. Never quit. Write, revise, put it in the mail. Only this will help heal rejection. At least until the next time. Then you simply begin again.

Remember, all your favorite writers have been rejected; most of them many, many times. If they had given up, you wouldn’t be reading that Pulitzer prize winner today.

 

 

Mar 8, 2012 - Writer's Life    1 Comment

Writing with Roxie

Yes, this is another post about collaboration. I know, I know, many of you like to fly solo and your creative juices seem to flow only when you’re alone. But even those of you who write novels on a mountaintop must have an editor, an agent, a publisher, a place to sell your book and someone to set up a reading for you. No author is an island, no matter how much a loner they may be when writing the original script.

Even Leigh and I, two of the most independent minds I know, will often collaborate when it comes to songwriting. I believe we should probably give the Atlanta “alterna-grass” band, Roxie Watson, the credit for inspiring Leigh Wilkerson to take time out from gardening to write a song now and then. She loves music; especially old time, blue grass, blues, and the original country that is difficult to find anywhere. So writing with a member of the Roxie band proved natural for both of us. We just love the kind of music they love to play.

When my good and gifted friend, Lenny Lasater, one of the founders of Roxie Watson, comes to call a couple of times a year, we sit around with her bass guitar, pens and paper and lots of laughter and scrawl some lines until we have a song we hope the rest of the band will like. Sometimes we write lyrics here at home and send them along to Lenny and see what she does with them.

Here is how our process usually works: Leigh is walking around her garden or driving in the car and is struck by a line that she thinks would be good in a song. This is called a “hook.” This is the most important line of the song, of course. She pretty much thinks her work is done, then, and I am left writing verses and choruses that suit the hook. Well, someone has to do the rest, and I don’t mind. We send the lyrics to Lenny, who usually adds or subtracts a little, finds a tune and tries it out on the band. Then the band adds their magic through the strings of their many musical instruments and talented voices, and voila, a song is born!

The sheer wonder of making a song with folks when you live over 600 miles distant is part of the joy of collaboration. Their success is our success. When they celebrate a good song, we celebrate, too. Every concert they play is music to our ears. This is the main reason I believe in collaborating with our creativity. It brings us together over the miles. It unites our world into something joyful and has naught to do with war or politics. Collaboration is one of the reasons I say creativity can save us.

Following this post, you’ll see the lyrics we wrote for Lenny for her birthday one year. It is now the second song on their new CD, Of Milestones and Moonpies. We love the driving beat Lenny invented with her bass guitar. That dirty harmonica playing in the background takes you to an old roadhouse off a dirt road in the deep South back when the music just happened spontaneously and, yes, in collaboration with whoever showed up to play. Go to their site and purchase their CD or download some of the music. It leaves you feeling alive deep down in your roots. No kidding.

And later, after you’ve listened to what collaboration can do, get together with a few of your friends and make something happen: a play, a song, a documentary. The fun is in the process. Working out the knots and tangles teaches us how to get along with each other in a world that seems intent on ruling out compromise as a way of accomplishing a common goal. Collaboration teaches us that the outcome is more important than the individual ego and, believe me, that is a lesson we can all use.

Honey, What We Gonna Do Now?   (commonly referred to as “the recession song”)
It’s too cold to plant and too wet to plough
Credit man came and took away the cow
We’re down to three chickens and one skinny sow
Honey, what we gonna do now?
Honey, what we gonna do now?
Suppose’ to be Spring but there’s snow on the ground
I guess I could hunt but the dog’s at the pound
I’d get a job but there ain’t none around
Honey, what we gonna do now?
Honey, what we gonna do now?
Baby we’ll lay in the hammock and I’ll pick out a song
You can throw out a line, fish all day long
Won’t mix up the when with why or the how
That’s what we gotta do now
Honey, that’s what we’re gonna do now!
We can’t make the payments, won’t make the rent
Can’t pay the taxes to the government
Just can’t figure where the money all went
Honey, what we gonna do now?
Honey, what we gonna do now?
It’s too early to dance, sun ain’t gone down
The landlord’s coming, lord, he’s wearing a frown
I’d try to run, but the car’s broke down
Honey, what we gonna do now?
Honey, what we gonna do now?
Baby, we’ll lay in the hammock and I’ll pick out a song
we can call up some friends from the neighbor’s phone
Won’t mix up the when with the why or the how
We’ll have us more fun than the law will allow
That’s what we gotta do now
Lawd, that’s what we gonna do now!
That’s what we ‘re gonna do now…
That’s what we’re gonna do now.
©2012

 

—Mendy Knott is a writer, poet and author of the poetry collection A Little Lazarus (Half Acre Press, 2010). To order your copy of A Little Lazarus directly from the author, please click here. Or, if cookbooks are more your style, get a copy of Mendy’s family cookbook Across the Arklatex at www.twopoets.us.

 

 

Mar 1, 2012 - Writer's Life    6 Comments

Creating “Dig In!”

Leigh in Larrapin Garden

Three local gardening angels have created a sensational weekend for all those who love food, gardening, or all things green. This is an example of using one’s creativity to inspire and enlighten while at the same time bringing together community in order to make the world a better place to live. Does that seem like a lot of praise? Am I overdoing it? I can only ask you to find out for yourselves by visiting the website Dig In! and attending this weekend’s movies, classes and seed swap.

Leigh Wilkerson is the founding gardener, but she could not have grown this project without the help of sister farmgirls Cheri LaRue and Charity Lewis. These three have used every aspect of creativity in order to make this event a success. They have written. They have been interviewed by the paper and on the radio. They have sketched logos, and they have drawn on the knowledge and wisdom of their own learning experience, as well as those of every gardener and beekeeper whose books they’ve read over the years.

Cheri of Green Fork Farm

“Dig In!” is, in the tradition of most great creative projects, an act of love. These three have set out to share a love for the land, a passion for gardening and farming, a need to share what they have learned with their community, and a desire to create a better NW Arkansas by trying to “keep it local.” I don’t mean to advertise, but if you want to see what the collaborative efforts of creative minds can do, then come to “Dig In!” this weekend and enjoy yourselves as you learn. What better way is there to get an education? First, though, read the following poem. Then, after you’ve attended the conference, I challenge you to write a poem or an essay, or hey, go plant a garden yourself!

Charity (shown serious, on left) mentoring new beekeeper Leigh

Gardening Angel
 
She grasps a fistful of soil and squeezes.
Is it too damp or crumbling with fertility?
Should she weed, plant or allow it to lay untouched just one more day?
Finally, her mud-stained gardening gloves
furrow, scoop and shape the earth to rows and hillocks,
fingertip a tiny fertile valley black with year old compost.
She always overseeds.
It’s her generous nature.
She plots small jungles full of fruit:
beets, greens, onions, taters, tomatoes, carrots, squash, okra, beans,
mmmm…melons.
My gardening angel isn’t heaven-oriented but grounded.
She is made of earth like Eve,
only she hails from Alabama
instead of that oh-so-easy garden, Eden.
Soon we will be Arkansas
as we feed on vegetables and minerals that in seven years
will remake us from Appalachia into Ozark.
She is saving me from fast food disaster, fending off microwaves
frozen dinners and all the devils who mass produce meats.
My gardening angel does a lot of this alone
with a hoe, a pick axe and a shovel.
She’s my here and now PRN,
practical nurse, gardening friend.
I glimpse her wings now and then
where they beat the weathered ankles
of her caked and battered boots.
At moments I forget her halo, then catch her unawares
praying in the garden, sunlight scattering the dark silk hair
feathering her smiling face in spring or summer breeze.
Her bright white hands are doves which wing
among the leaves of a tiny apple tree.
Sometimes she simply stands and oversees her queendom
this little plot of Earth that’s been given to her care.
The love with which she oversees her subjects
would stir my jealousy but for the fact
they’re mostly plants and chickens, worms and bees.
The kitchen counter top becomes a crowded altar
with baskets piled with veggies, berries, eggs.
She assembles an old juicer, rinses (oh, so tenderly–
think Mary with Jesus’ feet) every earthy body
free of soil, trims and chops then feeds them
to the whirring blades.
No one said garden angeling was easy.
She thinks of all my achings,
knows this miracle will help me.
Soon she’ll lift the chalice of her labors,
red as Beaujolais or Pinot Noir,
rich soil smell captured in the blood
tasting of the Mother’s heart,
sweetened with an apple sweet and tart.
Wholly, I will drink it down
feel the energy run through me
renew me
make me one again with rock and plant, water, soil;
with bird and bug and worm
breeze, rain, shade, sun–
part of me now, part of me!
So faithfully my gardening angel
reminds me gently in her healing way
that Earth is Paradise
and every day spent gardening
a blessed Eternity.

 

Mendy Knott
Feb 21, 2012 - How-To    1 Comment

Inspiration–A Quick Breath of Fresh Air

Merriam-Webster defines inspiration as “the act or power of moving the intellect or emotions.” That’s the short version from the paperback on my desk. My commitment to write today is my inspiration for this post, even though I am preparing for a weeklong trip that culminates in a wedding. As some of you may guess, church weddings and country clubs are a stretch beyond my comfort zone. This is what I call a risk adventure of the major kind which involves nice clothes and good manners, many of which I have lost over time. However, I know it will be inspiring, as Webster defines it, and as I define it, too.

Webster’s definitions of both “inspire” and “inspiration” employ the words inhale, animate, excite and spiritual. The question for many creative people is how do we get inspired in a world as materially-focused as this one? The answer comes through our own inspiration, the breaths we take that lead to our exhalation of the animating spirit. Our job is to move those who involve themselves in our art to feel, perhaps even to speak or act, differently. How hard it is for us to assume the responsibility to inspire others! But to whom shall we leave it otherwise? Will we leave it up to our politicians and economists, the bankers and realtors to inspire the people? The short answer is: only if they all become poets and painters!

It’s not easy to find inspiration in a world rife with need and greed. Yet, that deep breath, the inspiration you’re looking for is as close as your front door. It’s rolled into your yoga mat or sitting squarely on the floor where you meditate. It can be an open window through which the breeze blows across our bed or how we hear the peepers as we drift off to sleep at night. The smell of coffee stimulates my imagination as much as the caffeine stimulates me. We don’t need much if we are paying attention.

I’ve lived in both the city and the country during my short 58 years of life, and I have found inspiration in both places. True, I’m a country kind of kid by nature, but I understand the allure and intensity of city living. It’s hard to think of more intensity than working as a cop in Atlanta, GA. Now I like my little AR home and farmlette, three acres outside the city limits of Fayetteville where we can watch the hawks mate and hunt right outside our office window. This is what inspires me now. I would also be inspired by a trip to Paris (France or Arkansas for that matter). It’s paying attention to the breath, the moment, the next cool thing that happens that will inspire.

If we are alive, then we must inhale. That next breath is an absolute necessity. Americans are a people spoiled by entertainment. We want to sit back and let it unfold in front of us, requiring no more action or risk than pushing back in the barcalounger and hoping it won’t tip over. Now, I love my retirement chair (thanks Liz Lester) as much as the next person come the end of a long, hard day on the farm or in the office. But I rise from bed early, opening myself to inspiration as quickly as I can, for the pen and blank page await me.

I go for that last walk of the evening knowing that something will happen, whether I’m by myself or deep in a discussion with Leigh. An observation, on my part or hers, will put my thoughts to flight or give me philosophical food to chew like the cows with their cud in the field next door. Inspiration is everywhere. It comes in the quiet of prayer and it rides on a siren’s wail. It hides beneath the next rock we turn up in the garden and it’s as obvious as the little dog that lies at our feet. Inspiration is as natural as breathing and as unnatural as noticing that breath. Attention is needed. Both God and good writing are in the details.

We have to be willing. Cheri Huber’s book Willingness is the Key is a great way to learn more about the power of being willing; to take risks, take a walk, or go to a wedding in what to me will feel like a foreign country. It requires us to go outside our comfort zone, breathing and open, just ready for something wild and unexpected to happen. If we leap, the net of all possibilities will catch us up in a virtual web of inspiration. Take some deep breaths, faithful readers, and go forth into this wild, wonderful, completely undependable world. Risk the unexpected happening to you, not just to others. I promise, inspiration waits for you right around the next turn in your path. Take a quick breath of fresh air and allow yourself to step towards it.

Feb 13, 2012 - How-To    5 Comments

Poems from the Heart

("Heart in Hand" by astrangegirl/Flickr)

The same time every year, the same thing happens. Valentine’s Day arrives and many of us have not noticed, or have remembered and  forgotten, or have spurned it altogether for its bloody roots. As far as I can tell, loads of holidays have bloody roots, so that’s no reason not to celebrate–especially love. Come on, love is a feeling we don’t celebrate nearly enough. All kinds of love, not just the romantic sort.

Of course, Valentine’s is traditionally known as a sweetheart’s day. But love is love and come in all shapes and sizes, covered in skin, fur or feathers; arrives like a cherub from the womb and departs as a wizened old granny or gramps or crone or crazy uncle. Think of all the love they’ve seen if they’ve lived with an open heart; how much they have given and received.

That is what this post is all about. I want us to celebrate love and show our respect and gratitude for those who love us. I try to write a Valentine’s poem every year. I haven’t missed many since I took up the writer’s life around 20 years ago. Some of those poems are good and some are not. The quality never mattered to the recipient. The heart it took to write it did.

Let me just say that if you want to have a really good time on Valentine’s Day, write the lady a poem. Not that all you women shouldn’t write a poem, as well. You should. It’s just that I have often thought about leading a workshop for guys on how to write a Valentine’s poem. Your sweetheart will swoon and cover you with kisses and she will keep your poem forever in a safe place and read it again and again. I can just about guarantee this.

The truth is that in this particular case, the poem doesn’t have to be great, okay? What matters is that you open your heart, thank them for all they have given you, don’t mention the things you wish they’d given you, and be as romantic as your usually rational, logical mind will allow. Try it and see what happens. It doesn’t have to rhyme, but it’s fine if it does. Alright, this year you don’t even have to give it to anyone if you chicken out. Just write the darn thing. Go that far. Put your big boy or girl boots on and try your hand and heart at a real valentine instead of one from those terrible writers at Hallmark. You don’t know who wrote those words.

This year my valentine is for you, faithful readers; as well as for my sweetheart, friends and loved ones. I covered a lot of ground because I had a lot of people to say I love you to. I actually sent several of these out with little heart stickers all over them, sealed in these shiny purple envelopes (remember, presentation IS important) with cool stamps. Sending the valentine through the mail makes for bonus points. But I ran out of materials before I covered everyone. So I’m hoping you will accept this post as your Valentine from my heart to yours. You know who you are. Happy Valentine’s Day.

Valentine

If you are receiving this poem
it means you own a part of my heart
not that my heart is all divided up like an anatomical drawing
auricles and ventricles, arteries and veins
that sort of thing.
You don’t fit in a box like dress shoes in a closet
or even an oval of pearls laid out on blue velvet.
What I mean is you have your own room
in the home of my heart.
Didn’t Jesus say, “In my Father’s house there are many rooms”?
My heart is a mansion even though I myself
live in a long little house
like a European train station,
a short stop on the journey that is my life.
Leigh says my heart is as big as a Texas sky
(how I love her for that)
and there you all fly
birds, broad-winged and soaring
on the currents of my affection.
This Valentine’s I wanted to say it
then send it
because we never, ever say it
show it
write it down enough
even though it is so true
that you, you, and you
are special to me
have moved me
steered my life in a new direction
taught me to fish from both sides of the boat
talked philosophy or fed me
in a thousand different ways when I was hungry
visited with me when I was ill
clothed me with gifts new or from Goodwill.
At some point you sang
or wrote or taught me a song
said, “Here, have this book”
shared a bit of your art
which I have cherished and kept
like a Valentine
in that particular part of my heart you own
and knowing because of you
I will never be alone–
I had to say I love you.

—by Mendy Knott

Feb 3, 2012 - Writer's Life    2 Comments

Write When You Get a Break

 

The literary journal, “Rattle,” is doing a special tribute to law enforcement in their summer issue 2012. Cops stick together, and cops who are poets are a rare breed indeed. The first week in January I received a letter from a sister poet cop who asked me to submit some of my work for this issue. I did. It wasn’t that easy, of course. Having just published A Little Lazarus, I had used a couple of my best cop poems. The submitted work needed to be previously unpublished, so I got busy and wrote something new. As if simply making a short deadline wasn’t challenge enough, I decided to write an essay. I’m working on writing creative non-fiction and this seemed the perfect opportunity to try my hand at a cop piece. Woe is me. I mean that in the best way.

I’ve spent January writing and revising an essay that had a Feb. 1 deadline. I knew nothing about the issue until quite late in the day. Plus, I had a friend coming to visit the third week in January, so I had to make time to do both. Thank goodness my visitor, Jane, is a visual artist and was totally supportive of the two hours we spent on art every day, her sketching and painting while I wrote. These are the kind of friends you need. When you find them, treat them with great honor and respect. Feed them lots of good things and take them on adventures when you aren’t working on your art. You’ll want to keep them around for life.

When an author or editor who knows you, or has heard of you through a mutual acquaintance, invites you personally to submit to their journal, you do it. Don’t ask questions. Do your research. Check out the publication if you aren’t familiar, read the submission guidelines, and get busy. Believe me, direct invitations to submit are rare.

Writing about my policing years is tricky emotional territory. No doubt it’s really good for me, and all my friends, too. Instead of having to listen to my stories for the umpteenth time, I can simply send them a copy of the essay and they can read it (or not) at their leisure. War stories are like fishing tales and can get boring to all but the one telling the story, or other cops, veterans or fishermen. VFW’s and cop bars serve an important function in this regard.

Normal people try not to bore others with this sort of thing, possibly because they have not been shot at or nearly killed in the everyday performance of their jobs. They will find some other way to bore us. But believe me, weird things happen to everyone and I think folks should write about their weirdnesses. It’s great exercise for our memories.

It was easy to write when I began because I love a blank page and a first draft. But, those revisions were killer. I have one of the world’s toughest editors. My partner’s editorial nickname is “Cut-Cut.” She will literally slice your essay to ribbons. It will be a thousand words shorter when she hands it back. Whole paragraphs will have changed places. Some will simply have ceased to exist.

She tells me these are simply suggestions, but they are strong suggestions. The hard part is that she is almost always right. That leaves a ton more work to do. She’s the best editor I know for long work. I use a lot of words. After years of practice, we have learned to do this without divorcing. She is heartless and knows that I will curse and stomp around and argue, then consider her edits, and cut away. I need someone like her to review my work. I love words, lots of words. She would cut these blogs to pieces, but I consider this sacred space and don’t ask her to edit. Perhaps you are thinking I should. Forget it. My first word was “mine” and I have to have some place where I can do exactly as I please.

I’m grateful to Leigh for the time and effort she puts into editing my work. She is the best. She loves structure, order, putting together puzzles. I am the chaos kid. So, as you can see, you need at least two (more if you can get them–like my writing group) readers and they should be different. One should be your “believing mirror,” like Jane (see Julia Cameron for more on this topic). The other should be your toughest critic, who also is willing to let you do what you want with the raggedy little pieces she hands back to you. Between Leigh, Jane and my Hens’ Teeth, I am a lucky writer to have so many great readers.

The main gist of my post today, although I have strayed, is to get the work out there once you’ve been invited to do so. However you do it, with or without help, an invitation to submit is a message from the universe. Someone likes your work enough to ask for it. Please accommodate them. You won’t be sorry and neither will they. Allow your sense of accomplishment to come after you made the deadline. Don’t wait to celebrate until you know if they are accepting it. You did your part and writing, after all, is the most important part of what you do.

Jan 16, 2012 - How-To    2 Comments

Writing Dilemma #6: Daily Journals–yes, no, yes, no, yes, no, yes…

Keeping a journal is one way we make friends with our writing. It can take the edge off our perfectionism when we do sit down to work on a piece that requires thoughtfulness and craft. For me, it’s right-brain practice for left-brain work. Done with a loose hand and a free mind, keeping a journal teaches us to write without editors putting in their 2 cents every few seconds. You can rant, rave, rhyme, remember without fear of outside criticism.

A journal should be a map of your inward journey. It’s not a high school diary that simply records everything you did yesterday or are going to do today. I suggest writing in your journal the same way Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way advises keeping what she calls “morning pages.” Pick any subject at all, then dive in and dive deep. Write for 20 minutes without lifting your hand from the page, without stopping to think about how you actually felt or what really happened. Let your heart and your hand lead the way. This is not record-keeping. It’s creative writing. Your life is that of a creative person. It’s crazy, unpredictable, hilarious, heartbreaking, beautiful, ugly, and risky and it’s worth writing how you feel about this.

Keeping a journal also keeps me sane(r). I put on the page what I would rather not do or say in public. If I can just get to the page before I open my big mouth or send that friggin’ email I wish I could get back one minute later. That’s why I try to have a notebook close at hand at all times. Losing my journal is not an option. What I write there is my business. If I’m putting it on the page, I’m not throwing it in someone’s face. At my house, we are two writers living together. The rule is: If you sneak a read, you deserve what you get. We can’t go crying to one another. As far as I know, neither of us has ever risked it. If so, we kept our mouths shut, as agreed.

So many poems, essays, and ideas come from the pages of my daily writing. Quite often, my best work begins on a typical Tuesday morning when I’m doing nothing more than chatting with my confidant and friend, my personal journal. Of course, there’s plenty of trash there, too. Yet, if I write 20 pages of proof that I am indeed mentally and emotionally challenged, then I may come up with one idea that transfers into an award-winning screenplay like “Men Only.” Almost all the poems in my book, “A Little Lazarus” began in my journal.

When I recognize something is happening in my writing that is more than just the daily la-la-la, I star it. I take a highlighter to it. I fold down the page. I don’t want to forget where it is. When I’m ready, I move it to the computer where editing can begin; where right brain meets left brain and, hopefully, shake lobes.

The excuse I hear most often is, “But what I write is so negative.” The page isn’t negative. The pen isn’t negative. It’s we, ourselves, who are negative, and in order to change that, there is no faster way than to complain to the page over and over and over until you are sick of it and create the needed change. Otherwise, whether you write about it or not, it will remain stuck in your craw. Visible or invisible, your attitude, positive or negative, will affect your life.

Pay a therapist $100 an hour to get your relief, but even that won’t work if you don’t practice at home. And be forwarned, a lot of shrinks are now using writing as a way of getting down to the bone more quickly. Pen and paper are cheap. The advice you get will be your own. It won’t yawn in your face and it can’t leave you either. Besides, somewhere in all that angst lies a creative answer.

So, go ahead and try it. Give it a month anyway. Write 20 minutes a day as fast as you can. Don’t stop to think or get the chronology right. Oh, don’t even tell me, “I could be exercising.” Look, if you can’t move a pen across a page for 20 minutes a day, you can forget about a regular exercise program. Just set a timer and go. See what happens. I’m no math major, but if I figured this out correctly, you’ll spend a total of 10 hours in one month at 20 minutes a day writing. That leaves you 710 hours to do everything else. I know you can squeeze it in. Surely you deserve an unconditional friend.

 

Jan 9, 2012 - How-To    1 Comment

Writing Dilemma # 5: Taking Down(Dream)time

For  Blue, taking downtime – time to nap, relax, ponder, stare into space – comes naturally. Unfortunately, we are notoriously known as a nation of workaholics. Our eyes remain fixed on the prize of a premium wage with benefits. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with making money. I could certainly stand to make a little  more. But I refuse to trade the work my heart calls me to do, which revolves around writing and the creative life, for good health insurance and a big paycheck. Not that I could actually find a job offering these in today’s economy, so I might as well celebrate the choices I’ve already made.

I’m sure my faithful readers know there are few wealthy poets in the world. Go back through history and you will discover poets, playwrights, novelists, painters, and musicians who lived on the edge of poverty; often buried in obscurity and resurrected into riches long after death. Think Dickens, Van Gogh, Edgar Allen Poe, Mozart. So, if you weren’t born with a silver spoon in your mouth or married into money, then you must create a lifestyle simple enough that even a poet can afford it.

We can’t let our physical circumstances discourage us as artists. We are busily setting examples for the rest of the world. And in order to perform at our highest level, we must have time to dream. Empty space must exist before it can be filled with answers, ideas, genius. My partner and I have discovered a way to make money at home, inventing our own business, which itself was a result of time Leigh spent thinking and pondering ideas. Her job as a hospice nurse presents her with driving time that, when the radio or IPod is turned off, can be used for unstructured thinking and the birthing of great ideas.

While Blue takes up two beds in order to make his long body comfortable, you can see that he’s not just sleeping away the hours here. Some of the time, at least, he’s awake and daydreaming, perhaps about the dinner he would like to have or that snappy little treat at bedtime. We, as driven creatives and artists, must take Blue’s example to heart. Information and experience are forever flying furiously in our faces in this modern, increasingly connected world. We need time to process it, find our own connections and metaphors, the imagery that suffocates soundbytes and brings all that abstraction to life on the page.

For all I know, Blue is busily writing his memoirs while he lies there soaking up the heat. They may not be interesting to us as most of the chapters will be about lying around and doing nothing all day until dinner. To dogs the world over, however, the book will be a bestseller. Every 4-legged will be instantly jealous and wish they lived in a household with 2 moms.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going…out to the hammock or the reclining lawn chair. Stretch out on a sofa in front of the wood stove. Recline. Sit beneath a shade tree and listen to the birds. Stare at the blank blue page of sky. Remember, all creation starts in the dark. You may hear answers whispered in the wind through the leaves. A dream can form during that nap next to the fire which might confirm the path you need to follow, the perfect allusion or image needed to move the work forward.

For these reasons, or for none at all, Americans need to relax. Take a siesta. Slow down. Dream. Notice I did not say do this in front of an active screen. No smart phone, no laptop, no TV or Kindle to replace the images that are waiting to form on the blank page of your mind. As my friend, writer/composer Billy Jonas says in his wonderful song, God Is In, ” Don’t just do something. Sit there.”

Getting somewhere by pushing harder and harder towards one’s stated goals is an illusion. We are all headed in the same direction, after all, and do we really want to be the first ones to reach The End? Ten out of ten hospice nurses agree that no patient has ever wished they’d spent more time at the office. Even those of us who love our work need time away from it. Truly, it’s part of the process.

So, please, my eager creatives, don’t forget your down(dream)time. It’s crucial to your work, your well-being, and ultimately to the quality of the love and life you experience while you’re here. You don’t have to take my word for it, just ask Blue.

 

Jan 3, 2012 - How-To    3 Comments

Writing Resolutions

The new year has begun. Three days in, and a lot of you are already saying to yourselves, “Well this is going badly. I haven’t written anything of worth yet. I didn’t even scrawl out my resolutions.” On the other hand, my lovely Type A readers have written dozens of lists, know exactly what they will do every single day, and are busily reading over it. Despair washes over them as they realize there is no way in the world they will ever be able to accomplish these feats akin to climbing Mt. Everest, swimming the English Channel, and running a marathon all in one year. They can’t write a word now.

Oh, the New Year can be hell on writers and artists. We expect so much from ourselves. First of all, we need to quit capitalizing new year. Yes, it’s new, at least by the calendar, but really it is simply another turn of the great wheel, or the next page. I would quote Janis Joplin again when talking about tomorrow.  She said, “Hell, it’s all the same f-ing day.” I tend to agree with her, coming from perhaps a more positive place. It’s one life and it lasts only so long. The cycle is endless and it really is all a mayfly day when you get right down to it. The question is, what will you do with it?

Once again, we have written (because we’re writers) an arm’s length-long list of resolutions when what we really need is a sticky note that will fit in the front of our notebook or journal; take up a tiny spot on the bathroom mirror. A small reminder we can read daily so we don’t forget what we’re up to, or up against, as the case may be. This year, Leigh (my sensible Virgo) helped me with my mile-long list by making two simple statements that she wanted to live by in 2012. I asked her permission to print them because they shortened my writing time considerably, and I think they may help you keep it simple, too.

Leigh said her markers on the playing field of life would be two question/statements she could refer to daily: 1) “Have I moved the ball forward?”  This would pertain to one’s large goals in work, relationship, writing, community, personal development, both physical and spiritual. The second statement of purpose pertains to 2) “mindful maintenance.” Was I fully present when I washed those dishes, wrote in my journal, took that walk, swept the floor? Did I allow myself to be part of what I was doing instead of just doing it, grumpily at that? Meditation, prayer, journaling, housework, feeding the chickens or the children, cooking for yourself–these all fall under the category of mindful maintenance.

You can’t beat these statements for simplicity, so I quickly made them my own. Did I move the ball forward today? This blog post is proof that I did. I feel sure even those of you who are not football fans understand the metaphor. And the fact that every single yard counts towards a first down, eventually leading to the Score! You can’t get there without the incremental runs. Sometimes your daily moves will look like a “Hail Mary” pass. Other days they’ll be measured in inches. All are an effort toward achieving the long term goal. Sometimes those six inches are much harder to push for than the exciting, hard run kick-off return. You did it! Now, jump up and down and thrust a fist in the air. High five yourself.

As an Aries, I will add another to my two goals of moving the ball forward and mindful maintenance and that is: 3) one simple act of pure pleasure. Do one thing for yourself daily that brings you personal joy, for no other reason than it brings you personal joy. A cup of tea while you watch the birds feed. A slow, contemplative walk, not for exercise, but for ecstasy. A short nap in your favorite chair. Reading a poem or two. A good laugh with a friend on the phone. Life should not be, according to this minor guru, only about what purpose we serve, or achieving goals. We are here for the celebration, too. Joy is an end in itself.

So go…move the ball forward even a little today. Do some mindful maintenance of your home, body, soul. Don’t forget to experience a little (or a lot) of joy along the way. Be grateful for your great, good fortune. And have yourself a happy and productive new year.

Dec 28, 2011 - How-To    1 Comment

Writing Dilemma Number 4: Digging Through the Blues

There’s nothing like the post holiday blues to really stifle the creative in us. All of a sudden, we’re looking at the end of one year (giving ourselves a hard time for all we DIDN’T do as opposed to what we DID) and the beginning of a new year which, let’s face it, looks an awful lot like a blank page.

I know I allow mood to influence my daily writing. Especially after the all-too-common holiday overindulgence when I’m sated as an ancient Roman on a barcalounger. I get depressed with my own lack of self-control and laziness, and won’t write. I feel useless and then set about proving it by continuing to do nothing about it.

Here, during the longest nights of the year, in the dark hours before dawn, hide the biggest diamonds. You won’t know this until you look; until you dig deep and dig when it’s hardest. Go ahead and let the darkness in. Pull it around you like a cloak. Hide beneath the hood of it, pen in hand. Then dig.

Last night I dreamed I was trying to get into the Air Force pilot’s program. In order to do this, everyone had to pass a series of tests, one of which included being wrapped tightly in some mummy-like material and locked in a steel box for an undesignated period of time. I’m not sure what they were testing–your ability to remain with the plane at the bottom of the ocean like a good captain perhaps?

Like any sane person, I kept putting the test off while completing all the other requirements. Claustrophobic as hell, I just couldn’t bring myself to submit. So I went to the little group garden spot where we each were allowed to keep a small plot that belonged exclusively to us. (Are you picking up on the death inferences?) Mine, however, was at the end of a row and was consistently being run over by the maintenance man on his riding mower. My little garden was all short and stubby, pitiful as the ones we tried to work under the heat dome here in Arkansas this past summer. From a distance the green looked beaten up and barren.

Sorrowfully, I dropped to my knees to see if there was something I could do to help it. To my great surprise, I discovered green beans growing. Digging in, I found onions, beets, even carrots under the black soil. Soon I had a small basketful of the jeweled fruits of my labor in hand. Happiness and pride swelled within me, and I was even able to track down the murderous mower and get him to agree to quit chopping my crop. I never returned to the scary test. It’s only purpose seems to have been to propel me towards my garden.

Don’t get all caught up in analyzing this dream, my Jungian and psychologist friends. For all you know, I’m making this up. Simply accept the point I’m trying to illustrate: Don’t give up on your art just because you got the “morning after” depressed and sads. Even if you have to, metaphorically or otherwise, get down on your knees and dig among the fear and despair that pass for our gardens of joy and fulfillment at times. Remember this: the roots of the Blues were buried in dirt just like this. Somewhere in there may lie the perfect words that will feed your soul and bolster the hearts and minds of others, too.

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