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.

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

Monday, February 13, 2017

Writer Shed Porn; Not Really

"Building this shed was the most relaxing, de-stressing thing I’ve done in ages." —Alastair Humphreys, Microadventures: Local Discoveries for Great Escapes

I stumbled across a book recently about finding that quiet place to work. Despite it's provocative name, Cabin Porn is about settling into the deep need or longing for a place of your own. Not a home, necessarily. But a space, a retreat for inspiration, art. The book is about a collaboration of handbuilt cabins. Rough and tumble, yet beautiful in their simplicity. The blog of writer and adventurer, Alastair Humphreys turned me on to Cabin Porn through his blog posts and all of it reminded me of my own project, at least in spirit.

"Fill a space in a beautiful way." —Georgia O'Keeffe

Some of you know I've been working on my own "cabin." It's not a cabin but a writer's shed, to be more specific. It's not rough and tumble; it's a bit less woodsy. But it's purpose is the same in many ways. And the process is moving forward.

This past weekend I began the inside barn wood interior. It's slow work, yes, but rewarding. Although I want to finish, I'm trying not to hurry, trying to stay in the moment, savoring the work—the measuring, the sawing, the pounding of finishing nails. My father worked with his hands, a carpenter by trade. With every plank of wood that is attached to the studs, I think about him. I can see him with a pencil behind ear, wearing his stained painter's pants, and his old golf cap. He too, I'm certain, would be attempting to take it slow, to feel each and every step.

"Space is the breath of air." —Frank Lloyd Wright

I've had to remind myself of how to use a miter box, how to trim around the window, to measure so that flaws—and there will be some—are hidden. How will the barn wood walls fix against the floor? I had to auger a small hole in the back of the shed and another in the nearby garage so that an electrical line can be snaked inside. Light will be needed. A portable heater must be powered. A fan will be essential.

The desk will be placed at the window. I already know this. But that's all I have determined so far. Certainly a small book shelf or two. A chair, other than for the desk, designed for reading. I can see it now. I can feel it. I drafted the final edits of Any Road Will Take You There at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando a few years ago and part of Night Radio was drafted in the attic office at the Hemingway Birthplace Home in Oak Park, Illinois. I have been so fortunate to have these places and so honored. But the shed, my shed, gives me new, more extraordinary visions.

Strangely, the shed makes me think about remote places, faraway and lost to time. I did a little research and found Tristan de Cunha may be the most remote inhabited archipelago in the world. It sits more than 1700 miles from the nearest island in South Africa. My shed is some 100 feet from the back door of the house, even closer to the garage, but yet somehow it is already feeling remote, secluded. Like a world of one's own.

The weather has been unseasonably mild in the Midwest this winter and I am grateful for the early start on the shed. In March it could all come together.

Writer shed porn? Maybe. A remote place of my own? Certainly.

"True solace is finding none, which is to say, it is everywhere." —Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces

Friday, February 10, 2017

Write a Great Valentine's Day Love Note

"Love gives all its reasons, as if they were terms for peace." —Jonathan Wells, Love's Body 

Even the most seasoned writers can get stuck in the mud when it comes to putting the right words together for a love note. Not a letter. That can be pages and pages and you have opportunities of time and space to work through what is in your heart. I'm talking about a note...a few simple words...a brief but powerful statement about your love for someone. Notes like this are perfect for Valentine's Day. So how do you make it the best it can be?


Okay, not really steal. But borrow. Some of the greatest writers and poets have crafted incredible words of love that have lasted for decades, even centuries. They have stood up to the test of time. So, why reinvent the wheel? Certainly I'm not suggesting you take credit for these loving and poignant words. I'm only saying this: Why not let the words of the masters do the work?

Here are several of what I would argue are the best words of love from literature. Use any of these in your love note and you'll win the day.

"You and I, it's as though we have been taught to kiss in heaven and sent down to earth together, to see if we know what we were taught." —Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago 

"Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same." —Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights

"Each time you happen to me over again." —Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence

"The way her body existed only where he touched her. The rest of her was smoke." —Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things. 

"You are my heart, my life, my one and only thought." —Arthur Conan Doyle, The White Company
"I've never had a moment's doubt. I love you. I believe in you completely. You are my dearest one. My reason for life." —Ian McEwan, Atonement 

"The curves of her lips rewrite history."—Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

"I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly and then all at once." —John Green, The Fault in Our Stars 

What are your favorite lines of love from literature? 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Write Your Writer's Mission Statement

"The only thing I was fit for was to be a writer, and this notion rested solely on my suspicion that I would never be fit for real work, and that writing didn’t require any." —Russell Baker

What are your values as a writer? What are your writer goals? Not necessarily your "business" or "career" goals, but your "writer" goals? Think about it like this: Why do you write?

Some of us write because we must. Others write because that's the only thing we really know how to do well. Some write for reflection. Some write purely for money. Others write because storytelling is in the blood. Instinctively, you know why you write. You know it in your heart. But putting it down on paper makes it...well...official. 

I read a blog not long ago, one of those "five things you can do to make your writing time better" posts.  Mostly I abhor those kinds of articles. They are usually silly and written mainly to get eyes on the page. Rarely is there serious value in them. But the last suggestion on this particular blog entry was on what the author called a writer's mission statement. 

If you've been in the business world more than two minutes, you know about mission statements. Companies craft statements that best describe the organization's goals and values. Many times, the statement appears hollow. But what if the company truly meant what it said? What if the mission statement honestly played out in real life; what if the company or organization did what it promised or what it believed in? 

Now consider your writing. Can you write a three-to-five sentence mission statement on why you write? Be honest. Be true. Consider the personal value of this artistic endeavor. Keep the statement in your wallet. Tack it on the wall above your desk. Make it your screensaver. 

Here is just a part of the mission statement for Poets & Writers magazine: 

Poets & Writers’ work is rooted in the belief that literature is vital to sustaining a vibrant culture. We focus on nurturing literature’s source: creative writers. 

Pretty simple. To the point. Clear.

So, how do you turn a mission statement into your own?

Three things:
1. Write in first person.
2. Keep in brief.  
3. Be authentic. 

It must be your statement and only yours. First person helps this process. Brevity is the soul of wit, right? Brief keeps it manageable and memorable. And tell it like it is. Be honest with yourself. This is the only way the statement will ring true to the one that 

Columbia College Chicago, where I teach, has a page on its Career Center website that can help you start the process. Consider this rough template:
As a (writer, novelist, essayist, copywriter), I (what you want to do, hope to do, what you are doing). I [explain what makes you special about what you do]. I [say what you believe, include your values, training] and [end with how you will contribute positively to your artistic work.)  

Joanne Phillips, a writer of commercial women's fiction, has her mission statement on her website. And it's a good one:

I write stories to entertain and offer a temporary escape into another life. I create interesting characters who may linger with the reader long after she’s finished the story. I write about characters who learn to examine their lives – their motivations, their hopes and fears – and find the courage to change. I write about the important stuff, but with a light touch. I write about the four Ls: life, love, loss and lies – including the lies we tell ourselves. And yes, I want to change the world. A little tiny bit of it, anyway.

It can be messy. It can be incomplete. But writing a mission statement can help focus you, bring you back to the core of why you write, or motivate you on a singular project you just haven't been able to complete. 

Try writing your mission statement. And if you want to share, I would love for you to offer your ideas right here.