Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Why We Write

"I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking." These are the words of Joan Didion, arguably one of the best essayists to ever put down words. This quote has been repeated many times. But I use it here because it's so true—to some degree—for nearly all of us who write. We write to own our thoughts.


Why do we write? More specifically, why do we bother? It can be laborious work. That too has been repeated so many times in many renditions from many writers. We all know that quote from Hemingway about bleeding at the typewriter. Frankly, that notion—that writing is drudgery—is just not true for most of us Nearly every writer will tell you when things are going well on a story, it is far from painful. It is glorious. Pure pleasure. When it's not going so well is when writing is true work and there's at least a bit of bleeding.

There have been many ideas about what motivates great writers to write. Truman Capote said it was about hearing the "inner music that words make." F. Scott Fitzgerald believed you write not because you "want to say something but because you've got something to say." Each of these suggests a sort of obsession, a visceral need to tell a story.

For me, these comments and all the many that have been shared when I've asked the question, why do you write, are really about creative energy, the energy of life. So, why do I write? To feel fully alive. And that seems to say it all.

I asked several writers in the Chicago area to offer their thoughts—Why do you write? Although there is a similar thread weaving through the answers, they also are as varied as the stories we tell.

Rita Dragonette is the author of The Fourteenth of September, a manuscript she's currently shopping. For Rita writing is about relevance. "Nothing is irrelevant," she writes in one of her blogs posts. "We are the ancestry.com of our times and to continue to move forward there's an imperative to connect the dots..."

Sandra Colbert: "I write because I must. Some questions get answers. Some demons purged. And then there is the laughter."

Barbara Barnett: "I think I write because I have all these stories cluttering my mind. I go to the grocery store, or whatever, and every observation becomes a potential scene or impetus for a new story."

Lou Holly: "I began writing novels several years ago because I had characters that wouldn't leave me alone."

Joyce Pyka: "For therapy...to educate myself and others, to make discoveries about new things, places people and myself."

Kristin Oakley: "Because my characters get pissed off if I don't!"

Sandra Tadic: "I write to purge."

Danielle E. Shipley: "First I wrote for fun. Then I wrote for passion. Now writing has become so much a part of my identity, I wouldn't know who I am without it."

Tricia Wagner: "I write because I feel I have more lives to live than the one I  was born to."

Maria Hansburg: "To keep the voices in my head alive!"

Lee Delarm: "I write for two reasons...it feels good...and...because I feel it's the only way I'm going to have a true legacy behind...even if the books aren't popular."

Iris Orpi: "I write to feel powerful again whenever I feel powerless."

Tamara Gaumond: "It's cathartic. I have stories to tell and I can live vicariously through my characters."

Pat Camalliere: "I've had a book in my hand practically since the day I was born. It was time to move out of the audience and see what it was like on stage."

Cynthia Clampitt: "I love ideas. I love words. And I love more than anything else sharing everything I discover with others."

Tanya Talmadge-Ethridge: "I write for fun, passion, and release."

Mary Ann D'Alto: "I write for the same reason that I breathe; I simply must. There really is no other answer."


Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A Most Memorable Memoir

I have read a wonderful memoir.

I love memoirs. I write them. So, there's that. But I'm not necessarily a fan of memoirs about highly dysfunctional lives, diseases, abuse, overcoming incredible tragedies—the so-called addiction/recovery/messed-up family/Mommy Dearest memoir. There's a place for these stories and they can have great impact. Some are superbly told through brilliant writing. Some have been labeled classics and are studied and dissected in creative nonfiction classes at universities. Still, I'd rather not.


I do love memoirs that go deep, however, deep into self-examination, adventure, escape, and exploration without the unspeakable tragedy underneath. Troubles, yes. Pain, yes. And that's where the book The Point of Vanishing comes in.

This memoir by Howard Axelrod is about his two years in solitude in the woods of Vermont after losing the sight in one of his eyes. It was published two years ago but I'm only getting around to it now. I wish I had read it sooner. I'd have read it twice. Three times.

Yes, there is a life-altering accident at the center of Alexrod's story but it's at a level that relates. This is to say, it is not over-the-top. What happened to the author could happen to any of us. I'm not intending to lessen the severity of Alexrod's injury but his experience could be any of ours. Like a car accident, his accident could occur at any time or anywhere to anyone. However, the injury is not the true thread of the narrative, but rather it is Alexrod's own inner uncertainties. The eye accident only triggers the deeper story and so the book is far more about personal examination—who he is, where he belongs and why.  


Memoirs come in all shapes and sizes, just as tragedies do, just as lives do, just as we do. But no matter the story, in the end, personal narratives have to connect with the lives of the readers in a visceral way. Not all of us experience unthinkable tragedies but all of us at times live the unmanageable life, the unbalanced existence, and any of this can be eloquently examined. Always, however, the story needs to go deeper than the source of the pain.

The Point of Vanishing is not the only memoir that accomplishes this. But it was the one most on my mind today and the one I would recommend for those looking for a memoir that goes beyond the horror of one's personal catastrophe.


Monday, March 20, 2017

Breslin and Berry


Here's what famed New York newspaperman Jimmy Breslin once said...

"Pick up any newspaper in the morning. Count the words in the lead sentence. There will be at least twenty-five in all of them: Guaranteed. The writers just want to tell you how many degrees they have from this college or that university."

  


He was the king of simplicity. Beautiful, succinct, telling words that could cut through you and cut through to the heart of the story. Try this on for size, a column he wrote about the gravedigger for a fallen leader...

"...he hung up the phone, finished breakfast, and left his apartment o he could spend Sunday digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy." 

While every other reporter covered the main story of the funeral for JFK, Breslin stepped away from the pack and wrote the best, truest story of them all. Simple and unforgettable. 

Breslin died at the age of 88. A long life of telling great...simple...stories. 


And on the day before his death, another great left us. Chuck Berry. He was 90.

Here's what John Lennon said about Berry...

"One of the all-time great poets, a rock poet."

And what was Berry's approach? Simplicity. 

Yes, he taught every guitarist how to plant their feet in the middle of rock-n-roll, but his lyrics were groundbreaking. Not in the Dylanesque way, but think about it...before Berry who ever wrote a song about the agony of paying bills? Simple; to the point. 

Runnin' to-and-fro,  hard workin' at the mill
Never fail, in the mail, comes a rotten bill
Too much monkey business
Too much much business for me to be involved in.


Hemingway is always touted as the one to emulate when it comes to simple prose. But truth is, Breslin and Berry may have collectively touched more people with their clean style and observant eyes. Breslin was likely the greatest newspaperman of all time. Berry was likely the greatest rock-n-roller of all time. Both laid foundations. Both told it like it is. Both knew how to touch the Everyman. Both were heart, guts, and soul. 

And they did it with simplicity. 


Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Work in Progress

I can't tell you how many times I have fiddled with the title...

Home. The search for a place under the stars.
Finding Home. One man's search for his place in the world.
The Consequence of Stars. A memoir of the eternal search for home.  

And on and on and on. Variation after variation.

Then there's the structure. Straight memoir? Book of essays? A memoir-in-essays? And there's the preface. Or is it a prologue? What's the difference anyway? And how about a book description? Let's write that now so that I can focus the theme and keep in the boundaries of my plan of attack. I've rewritten it over a dozen times, shifting its center, mining for meaning. And despite all of this work, I'm sure I'll end up doing it again...and again.

When we work on new writing, art, music, something of our own, do we ever really think it's done or is it always a work on progress?

I contend works of art are forever works in progress.

I have a colleague, a very good writer with a well-received new book out, who insists that every word, every sentence, every nuanced thought in her manuscript is exactly how she wanted it. When she reads it now it is complete. It is fined-tuned to the very best she could have made it and she'll apparently never second guess a word of it.

Then there is me.

I consider--as da Vinci did--every work as a work in progress. Well, maybe more clearly, a work that is never truly finished. The quote attributed to Leonardo is "Art is never finished, only abandoned." It's believe he meant that every work can be refined...forever...ad nauseum.


When I am in the creating mode, I tend to let it all flow. But when I'm in the drafting mode, the editing process, I can endlessly tweak. If I go back to a piece of writing every single day after believing I have "finished" it, I will change a word, move a comma, rework a sentence over and over. Making it better? I hope so. But at some point you have to give it up. You have to say, "This is where is stops." You must abandon the work.

Maybe writing, the ideas that fuel the writing, are simply too transient to be pinned down. Maybe writing and any work of art is constantly evolving, like us. One day we do it this way....and another day we feel differently and it influences what we write, how we write it, what we think is good. Maybe this is the same reason some of us give up on the creative process or never start it. Creative work  is too nebulous, too ephemeral.

What do you believe? Is your writing ever really done?



 

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Angels of Solitude

"One of the greatest necessities in America is to discover creative solitude." —Carl Sandburg

I read a newspaper story over the weekend about how artists turn to nature when they are looking for peace, solace, and rejuvenation. The piece was in the Santa Cruz Sentinel. The author was Dan Haifley of the O'Neil Sea Odyssey, essentially a classroom on a catamaran for kids. The youngsters sail the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and get hands-on lessons about ocean life, the living sea, and the environment. Haifley referenced Jack Kerouac's book Big Sur, the autobiographical novel about his time spent at Lawrence Ferlinghetti's California cabin near the sea. It was there that Kerouac struggled with his alcoholism and his unwanted celebrity, and hoped to gain peace from the solitude, the ocean, and the wilderness. 


Nature, Haifley writes, is Kerouac's happiness. Certainly that is the case in the The Dharma Bums, a book about hiking, communing with nature, and Zen Buddhism. And it is true that Kerouac hoped the nature he discovered during his time in Big Sur would heal him. Haifley suggests the more we disconnect from nature the more difficult it is to find solace. I think he's right. But I would argue that nature may not be the sole catalyst here. It's seclusion, the inward gaze that nature so beautifully permits and that is the true healer. 

My continuing plans for a writer shed meet that need.

I love to hike, walk the woods. Although I don't do it enough, I know that it brings me balance. And although I love the trees, the dirt, and the earthy smells, I know that the forest, the ocean, the mountains, and the prairies are only the vehicle for being alone. It is "aloneness" that brings me back to center. 

In the world of Twitter, constant news feeds, cell phones, email, and texting, solitude is the peace that refocuses the soul. The writer shed is that refuge. It's a place to work but also a place to think, to get lost in my own mind, to find my inner woods. 

I suggest it is another of Kerouac's books that sells this idea more strongly. Most of what is written in the first part of Desolation Angels is taken directly from Kerouac's journal when he was a fire lookout at Desolation Peak in the North Cascades of Washington state. He was there for two months in the summer of 1956, much of it alone on the mountain, sometimes for weeks at a time. The book ultimately is a study in human solitude, Kerouac's opportunity to be silent, to think, to write in that remote mountain top. All alone. It was his Walden.

The writer shed is my Walden, my Desolation Peak.

"I came to a point where I needed solitude and just stop the machine of thinking and enjoying what they call living, I just wanted to lie in the grass and look at the clouds." —Jack Kerouac

Here's a piece from the NY Times on hiking to Desolation Peak: Climbing a Peak that Stirred Kerouac.

Below is a short video on the writer shed progress. Almost there.

video






Monday, February 20, 2017

Banged-Up Heart is Full of Heart

"Nothing is better for self-esteem than survival." —Martha Gellhorn, Travels with Myself & Another

A life's significance can be measured in many ways. But for a life to be fully realized, all of those many ways must be considered. One's life and the life one shares with another cannot be assessed or regarded in a single moment, a single space in time or the early excitement or the late reflective years of a relationship. But instead must be evaluated through the lens of its wholeness—the good, the bad, the mundane, the tragic, measured by what comes before it, in the heart of it, on the edges, and after it is lost.



This is the center of Shirley Melis' memoir Banged-Up Heart: Dancing with Love and Loss from Terra Nova Books, a journey through the deaths of those we love and how life can find a way to give us light when the dark appears to be winning the battle. Banged-Up Heart is a heartfelt personal story of finding the love of your life, losing him to the ravages of disease, and steadying oneself enough to accept that life is not what happens to you but how you deal with what happens to you. 

There are moments in this book where the reader will anticipate what is coming. You can feel it in the writing. But suspense is not the narrative's purpose. Instead, Banged-Up Heart is about the particulars, the lovely moments, the hard and sometimes debilitating struggle of a life turned on its head. Melis allows us into her heart with insight and detail, and in simple language allows the reader to know how she feels in a deep and exact way, helping us understand how we might face our own tragedies and the beauty of something new. 

In the chapter entitled "Epiphany," Melis writes of the moment her new relationship shifts from casual to serious. Melis clearly explains this essential moment with grace rather than through an overwrought scene one might view in a gushy Lifetime movie. Instead, the telling here is real. It's honest. 

"Crossing the Potomac back into Virginia, I was overcome by an intense desire not just to be with John but to be married to him. If anything should happen to him, I thought, I would want to be able to speak not as the girlfriend or significant other but as his wife."

In a later scene, Melis reveals her concerns about how a wedding band may not fit over her knuckle and confesses to a friend that the solution is Windex, a subtle metaphor for clearing the sight lines to a new relationship. 

When the book turns more tragic, Melis remains in this mode. Rather than employing overly sentimentalized prose, she writes with conviction and precision, saying much about a loving relationship. 

“I was no longer in denial, but John’s acceptance was more complete than mine. Understanding this, he was firm yet gentle with my faltering grasp on the reality that I would soon lose him.”

Be certain, Banged-Up Heart is not morbid, overly sad, or a book soaked in tragedy. Through all the difficult times in this story, and there are several, Melis carries with her buckets of hope. She's "banged-up" but she is not knocked out. It is not that the book employs a simple formula—girl has tragedy, girl finds a way out, girl has a happy ending. No, there are still unanswered questions here, bows that still must be tied and knotted. But that's exactly what life is, right? Our lives are never neatly presented and neither is the narrative of this book.

Banged-Up Heart is a brave story of navigating love, loss, health care, fate, the fragility of life, aloneness, togetherness, strength, heartbreak, and survival—all relevant and shared elements of our collective lives. Banged-Up Heart works as a memoir not because of its unique story but because—in so many ways—it is universal. It is the story of all of us. 


Friday, February 17, 2017

A Writer's Shed: The Poem

"Writing is an act of faith" —E.B. White

 E.B. White's Boat House

As some of you know, I have been working on completing an outbuilding that will soon be my writer's shed, a simple place to find solace and a place to create. I plan to fill it with solitude and words. Those words began today when I wrote a "flash" poem on what was before me. Not to suggest that something good comes with speed, but in only five minutes these words came to me in a river's flow. 


A Writer's Shed 

My sacred space emerges 
Among the gardens of my home
Among the flowers of a lifetime
Among the seas all alone

Words are never written
Inside the roses one must tend
But are found in heaven's spaces
Alongside the time I must spend

Lost in my heart forever
Pouring out from blood-soaked vines
It is here that I am with the angels
It is here I find the lines

The truth of what I'm thinking
Every solitary shift
These are the discoveries of angels
These are the sincere and lonely gifts

             —David W. Berner 2.17.17