Dreams and Our Need for Empathy and Imagination

Atomic Skull by Jim Leedy for Empathy post

 

Sometimes a book we’ve had for years falls off the shelf at just the right moment. I read James Hillman’s book, A Terrible Love of War, in 2004 when it was first published as a response to 9/11. In this, his 28th book, Hillman sought to examine the archetypal roots of our “madness for battle,” the “myths, philosophy, and theology of war’s deepest mind.” He was moved to write it because of what he found missing in other books about war. He rejected, for instance, Susan Sontag’s concluding assertion in Regarding the Pain of Others:

“We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand. Can’t imagine. That’s what every soldier, every journalist and aid worker and independent observer who has put in time under fire and had the luck to elude the death that struck down others nearby stubbornly feels. And they are right.”

“She is wrong,” Hillman counters, “If we want war’s horror to be abated so that life may go on, it is necessary to understand and imagine.”

In an interview years after he was secretary of defense, Robert McNamara stated that the catastrophe of the war in Vietnam over which he presided pointed to “a failure of imagination.” Years later, comparing our unpreparedness for the attack on Pearl Harbor with that on the Twin Towers, National Security Agency director Michael Hayden famously said, “perhaps it was more a failure of imagination this time than last.”

For both men, a failure of imagination implies a failure to apprehend a reality that is present but hidden or incomprehensible, which is to say, that we do not apprehend we cannot comprehend. In order to understand and respond to something, we must first be able to see it.

Muriel Rukeyser in 1945 by Imogen Cunningham -- for Empathy postMuriel Rukeyser came to a similar conclusion in 1949. In The Life of Poetry, she writes: “We are a people tending toward democracy at the level of hope; on another level, the economy of the nation, the empire of business within the republic, both include in their basic premise the concept of perpetual warfare. It is the history of the idea of war that is beneath our other histories…But around and under and above it…is the history of possibility.”

It is this sense of hidden possibility, of renewed inspiration that now urgently calls for my attention. A failure of imagination implies a failure of empathy, our ability to stand in another’s shoes. Empathy and imagination seem to many the weak sisters of rigorous rational thinking, and yet, might they be an avenue to creative change? This strikes me as critical for us now as individuals and as a society. Can a Clinton voter imagine the anxieties of a Trump voter? Can a Trump voter imagine the fears of a Muslim?

We live at a time of enormous turmoil and transition, a time when re-apprehending and re-comprehending how we view the world is crucial, and re-examining the governing modes of how we make meaning timely.

Nobel portrait of Albert Einstein -- for Empathy postEinstein said we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. He also said the true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination. We often forget that each of us has our own ready source of imagination in our production of dreams. Each of us possesses a variety of marvelous, fantastic, even weird images and scenarios remembered from our nightly vision. Here, in our own production studios, we might discover creative insights that have the potential for personal and cultural transformation.

Listen to Einstein describe a dream he had as a teen:

“I was sledding with my friends at night. I started to slide down the hill but my sled started going faster and faster. I was going so fast that I realized I was approaching the speed of light. I looked up at that point and I saw the stars. They were being refracted into colors I had never seen before. I was filled with a sense of awe. I understood in some way that I was looking at the most important meaning in my life.”

Later in life, Einstein reflected, “I knew I had to understand that dream and you could say, and I would say, that my entire scientific career has been a meditation on my dream.” This dream led to him figuring out the mathematics of relativity theory.

Freud and Jung have argued that our dream images are not random and without meaning; with scrutiny, we can find that they contain a secret language of symbolic representation. These representations are both individual and personal, arising out of our unique experiences, but connected, especially in Jung’s interpretation, to a collective unconscious.

Structurally, dreams unfold as series of sights, sounds, and feelings that do not necessarily make logical sense. The interpretation of dreams relies upon their metaphoric and associative logic, the juxtaposition of unlikely or unrelated elements that can evoke surprising meanings. This is how many poems “work.” Take these lines from “Blue Mountain,” a poem by Roberta Hill Whiteman.

“Crickets whir a rough sun into haze.”

And “I sweep and sweep the broken days to echoes.”

To parse these lines would be to destroy their music and cadence and beauty, but we get what she means! To quote Rukeyser again: “A poem is not its words or its images, any more than a symphony is its notes or a river its drops of water…” The work a poem does, she writes, is to transfer human energy, “and I think human energy may be defined as consciousness, the capacity to make change in existing conditions.”

Poetry and dreams originate in that part of our psyche involved in our archetypal roots and mythic imagination. Einstein is only one example of how the geniuses of science and industry – and artists – respond to the world and its problems with the force of their imaginations, by “thinking outside the box.”

André Breton in 1924 -- for Empathy postThis is the route of mystery and surprise, of new conjunctions and startling awarenesses. As André Breton wrote in his Surrealist Manifesto, “I believe in the future resolution of these two states – outwardly so contradictory – which are dream and reality, into a sort of absolute reality, a surreality…”

Freud and the Surrealist artists he inspired looked for ways to expose the deeper substratum of psyche by freeing oneself of the ego’s conscious control. The use of drugs helped, as did alcohol. Automatic or spontaneous writing, collage, assembling unlikely elements into a painting freed artists from the constraints of tradition and conventional imagery. These methods of accessing the unconscious continue to be popular today. Writing workshops, workshops on trauma and addiction often use uncensored journal writing as a means to reach into dissociated aspects of self.

Becoming conscious is a lifelong task. Our dreams beg to be brought into the daylight world, to be honored, to be understood. And perhaps one of us will find within our dreams the insight or idea that might generate the transformation in empathy and imagination that James Hillman seeks – and which would benefit all of us.



“Waves of Inspiration” Writers’ Conference

WavesWaves of Inspiration is a writers’ conference dedicated to exploring multiple sources of inspiration for writers.

It features four different tracks – spirituality, nature, theater, and art — as well as 15 different presenters.

The Conference lasts for four days and includes sessions on poetry, faith, inter-disciplinary creativity boosts, the enriching aspects of restriction, and more. Extra-curricular options include trolley rides, fish boils, and a trip to Peninsula Players.

I’ll be conducting three workshops; When Paintings Speak: Art, Empathy, and Creating Characters, Complex vs Flat Characters: Digging Deeper into the Human Soul, and, lastly, on a trolley ride to Woodwork Gallery I’ll discuss using visual art as a writing prompt, and with a tour of the gallery to follow.

Remember, I’m only one of 15 presenters, so there will obviously be lots to do and discover.

Plus, it’s in Door County in the summertime and all Conference events (except the field trips!) take place at the Landmark Resort in Egg Harbor.

Sounds pretty much perfect, doesn’t it?

I hope to see you there!

Please Note: The $295 early bird registration fee does not include accommodations at the Landmark Resort, although a group rate is available through the Conference. Be sure to check the registration form carefully to make sure you’ve signed up for all the extras and field trips you want.



Earth, Sky, Star, Moon: Bringing Nature Inside Yourself

Buddha with stones at foot of the Great Red Pine. For Nature blog post.

 

I’m here in the North Woods of Wisconsin at our cabin on Deer Lake. It’s mid-June. The pine and spruce are as we left them last winter, stalwartly evergreen. The phoebe has returned to her nest under the eaves; the snappers are hatching; at night the thousand stars offer their cool ardent light. Sound good?

“Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience,” says Ralph Waldo Emerson, suggesting that we would all benefit if we could align ourselves with nature’s rhythms. Isn’t this something we already know but disregard, our lives entwined and structured by a digital clockwork that takes no notice of the rising and setting of the sun? It’s too early in our embrace of digital technology to diagnose its effects and benefits, but our conversations betray what we already know: stress and anxiety lead the descriptors.

One of our greatest thinkers, researcher and biologist E. O. Wilson, writes, “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.” I must have intuitively known this when I moved into our cabin to complete my first novel, The Conditions of Love. Every writer has days of frustration, days of fear and despair, when words won’t come and some unknown interference blocks thought and inspiration.

Deer Lake at sunrise, as seen from the Great Red Pine. For Nature blog post.On those days, I would walk to the Great Red Pine by the lake, place a stone at its base and ask for guidance. The breeze off the water lulled my mind, the pounding of the waves induced a kind of trance that released me from what had been hindering me. I was now able to dip into wiser insights. No one told me to perform these rituals. They occurred spontaneously as though all along I had sensed my need for a more profound attunement to the natural world. To come back to myself, nature was telling me, I first had to disentangle myself from a web of troubling thoughts and open my senses to something larger.

We have these longings—to be soothed, to be at peace, to inhabit our deepest selves. At the same time, we want to feel at home in the world, connected to earth and sky. Mostly we ignore these instinctual needs. Force of habit, the imperatives of productivity overwrite them. At what cost do we forsake them?

On the website for the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality & Healing, I find this:

“Research reveals that environments can increase or reduce our stress, which in turn impacts our bodies. What you are seeing, hearing, experiencing at any moment is changing not only your mood, but how your nervous, endocrine, and immune systems are working…Being in nature, or even viewing scenes of nature, reduces anger, fear and stress and induces pleasant feelings.”

Even if one does not have the good fortune to own a cabin in the woods, the point here is one of values and attitude. This is what Albert Camus might have been alluding to when he wrote, “In the midst of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.” To internalize and have at one’s command an inner state of the natural world is just the ticket.

Henri Matisse put it another way, “There are always flowers for those who want to see them.”

Deer Lake at sunset. For Nature blog post.



Four Principles of Survival My Characters Taught Me

The gate at Auschwitz -- for Survival post
The gate at Auschwitz (“Work Sets You Free”)

 

As many of you know, I was recently honored to receive an invitation from Psychology Today to join their impressive roster of bloggers. I’ll be cross-posting here what I blog there, so regular visitors here won’t miss anything. But if you have any comments on my blogs that you think the Psychology Today community would appreciate, do stop by and share your thoughts. Here’s the link. Below is the entry I posted there on April 17, 2016.

A story has haunted me from the moment I read it. It haunts me still. It’s a true story set in a death camp: March 1945, and the German forces are on the run. An inmate tells a young psychiatrist he has had an auspicious dream: a voice promises to answer any question the man asks. The man wants to know when the camp will be liberated. The voice gives him a specific date, March 30.

Dr. Viktor Frankl -- for Survival post
Dr. Viktor Frankl

The night before the prophesied liberation no Allied armies appear, and the man falls ill. The next day he is delirious, and the following day the man dies of a disease his body has resisted throughout his years of imprisonment. In Man’s Search for Meaning, the book in which this story appears, Viktor Frankl writes: “Those who know how close the connection is between the state of mind of a man—his courage and hope, or lack of them—and the state of immunity of his body will understand that the sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect.” Speaking of his comrade, Frankl explains, “His faith in the future and his will to live had become paralyzed and his body fell victim to illness…”

Even as a youngster I knew that terrible things happened to people. I yearned to know how these people survived. This was at a time when Hollywoodized battles from World War II played nightly on the TV, the days of “duck and cover” and Sputnik. Paranoia was in the air.

Nothing would have alerted an outsider to my unconscious data-gathering, (well, maybe the perpetual furrow between my brows), but I was like a lot of kids who seem normal, (that shudder-inducing word that conjures its opposite, abnormal). I can’t say how young I was when I began taking notes on the subtle and not-so-subtle variants of suffering. Decades would pass before I realized that this is the proclivity of the novelist, observer and recorder of human miseries.

I create characters. My characters have a will and destiny of their own. They come from me, but are not me. They are separate entities that dwell in a less egocentric part of my psyche. As such, they often surprise me with their wisdom.

Martin Buber -- for Survival post
Martin Buber

And so, unbeknownst to me while I was writing it, The Conditions of Love, my debut novel, has at its thematic core my childhood inquiry about resilience. How do we survive the afflictions that besiege us? Martin Buber wrote: “The world is not comprehensible, but it is embraceable.” The word embraceable, with its fleshy emotive overtones, reveals something about Buber’s philosophical stance. For him, all life was encounter, a meeting between I and Thou. “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware,” he wrote, and I would add, “all journeys offer secret lessons and meaning to be mined after the journey is complete.” This seems to me the heart of hope. Self-awareness requires hindsight, but hope is forward-looking.

Through what I call a writer’s hindsight learning—what the writer doesn’t know she knows while she’s writing the book—I’ve distilled four principles derived from the characters in The Conditions of Love, each of whom has a talent for surviving.

  1. Keep your heart open.

Bitterness has a tangy sweetness, as does resentment and revenge. They shine brightly with allure but their pleasures are brief. Keeping one’s heart open sounds treacly, but it’s a kick-ass practice that requires rigorous faith in what is unseen and rich with possibility.

  1. Recognize the absurd in your situation.

Even under monstrous circumstances, or dreadful circumstances when mind, body and spirit have begun to wither and love has gone to hell, humor may rise up to break through the armor of fear or despair. In its bleakest, blackest form, humor can be a life-saving way of acting out.

  3Confide in a friend: animal, mineral, vegetable.

We need the Other. We need some one or some thing to listen and bear witness. We’re pack animals and suffer more in isolation.

  1. Trust your creative instincts.

I love that Mern, the mother in my first novel, a single working-class woman raising a daughter in the Fifties, kept herself sane (well, sort of sane), by constantly changing her hairstyle and looks to mimic famous movies stars. Maybe our most outrageous instincts offer the most original boost to our resilience.

Whether we are storytellers or not, the things that obsess, fascinate, and concern us deserve our attention. They are, I believe, clues to our deepest longings that wish to become known. The sorrowful story of the camp prisoner who succumbed to typhus when his dream of liberation proved false could be our story if we lose hope. Hope is the jewel in the crown.



What Do We Really Want To Know About a Writer?

Six Tuscan Poets for What Do We Really Want to Know About a Writer?

Who would have guessed—certainly not me—that the most popular blog post I’ve written so far would be the July 24, 2014 post called “The Five Best Questions To Ask a Writer.” I have to wonder—besides MFA writing students, bookstore owners, and media interviewers—what audience accounts for all those clicks?

In the sixteenth century, an Italian artist and historian Giorgio Vasari wrote an unprecedented book, an encyclopedia really, called The Lives of the Most Exceptional Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, from Cimabue to Our Times, comprised of more than a hundred biographies of famous artists.Bloom & Genius for What Do We Really Want to Know About a Writer? Four centuries later, the irrepressible scholar and critic Harold Bloom created the 800-page compendium Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds. During the intervening centuries there have been thousands of biographies written about artists and writers. The general public seems ever more curious about the lives and minds of our creative folk. The question is why?

Wallace and Lipsky for What Do We Really Want to Know About a WriterI recently saw the 2014 movie The End of the Tour based on David Lipsky’s book, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, an account of his riveting experience as a journalist spending five days interviewing David Foster Wallace for Rolling Stone during Wallace’s 1996 book tour for Infinite Jest.

What struck me after seeing the film, aside from the fine acting of Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg, and the evocative cinematography of Wallace’s lair and the blunt horizontals of the Midwestern landscape, was that there were almost no scenes of Wallace actually writing, no real glimpses of his mucking around with language and story-telling. What we get instead is personality writ large on the screen—Wallace’s amiable, introverted, giant genius and Lipsky’s mish-mash of little brother adoration and envy.

Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel for What Do We Really Want to Know About a Writer

Of course I’m simplifying a more nuanced plot, but this is my question: as a culture do we relish a voyeuristic intimacy with our artists more than with their created works? (Imagine how the reclusive Dostoevsky, Dickinson, or Proust would have felt about this.) Is the current fascination with writers’ lives akin to another era’s curiosity about the lives of saints? How are writers important to our culture? Are their lives exemplary in ways worth studying? Or prophetic in some way? Do we want to know how they got to be who they are? Do we inquire because we really want to ask ourselves, “Could I become a writer too?”

These questions interest me even though I am one of them—a writer by profession and temperament. Writing is a lonely business, and I have to admit I find great satisfaction in reading this passage from Orlando by one of our true writing geniuses, Virginia Woolf:

Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished;Virginia Woolf in What Do We Really Want to Know About a Writer acted his people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.

I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to ask myself if I were interviewing Dale M. Kushner, author. Self-inquiry is an essential aspect of being a writer since self-knowledge is the basis of empathy and understanding others.

Here are my questions:

  1. Are there any early experiences that encouraged you to become a writer and a story-teller?
    Yes. See my previous blog post, “My Jewish Question, My Father.”
  2. Were books accessible to you as a child? Were you encouraged to read? What were your favorite books?
    Yes and Yes. I liked to read in private in my bed or in a corner in the library. I did not like to read at school, especially if I had to read out loud to a class. My favorite books as a child were a book of Chinese fairy tales, Little Women and The Diary of Anne Frank.
  3. Are there aspects of craft that engage you more than others?
    I love language. I love the sensual quality of words. I make sense out of the world through images and the percussive rhythms and           resonances of words. I can feel a satisfyingly written sentence vibrate in my body. It takes me forever to write a novel because I might     spend hours searching for le mot juste.
  4. What props are most necessary for you to write?
    My lightbox in the winter. A bag of raw almonds. My tartan plaid flannel bathrobe. And Maisie, my Golden Retriever pup.

Readers of my “Five Best Questions To Ask a Writer” post may notice that these are slightly different than those listed there. So now you have nine.

Watch Charlie Rose’s 1997 interview with David Foster Wallace



Treating Patients or Creating Characters? Making the Choice

Zurich-Switzerland-948x362

 

A number of years ago I took myself to a small town in Switzerland outside Zurich where Carl Jung founded his training institute for Analytical Psychology. I was exploring the notion of becoming a Jungian analyst and had signed up for a summer intensive training program as a litmus test for a career change. My mother had been calling me her psychiatrist for years, a title I would gladly have shucked if there had been anyone else for the job. I was a dutiful daughter, a patient listener whose sympathetic clucks my mother enthusiastically interpreted as “Poor you.”

By the time I arrived in Küsnacht, I’d earned an MFA in Poetry, had numerous publications in prestigious literary journals and was enjoying teaching writing workshops. It seemed enough. More than enough. My children were still at home, and I could hardly keep up with myself as it was. And yet… something else was calling.

Something else was calling.

Jung himself would have been interested in my choice of words. “Call” from the Old Norse Kalla, meaning “to summon loudly.” What was calling me and to which calling was I being called? The motivation to study depth psychology was nothing as jolting as an angel (or devil) sitting on my shoulder directing me to change my life. It was something more akin to a still small voice that, had I not been listening, might have been drummed out by the cacophony of the daily round.

simone-weil-1200Something else was calling. Actually it was nudging me, poking into my dreams. I didn’t know what IT was, but I was paying attention. Just about this time, I had begun to write persona poems, that is, poems in the voice of a speaker who is not the poet, dramatic monologues really, and mine were in the voice of famous women—Simone Weil, Mary Magdalene, Marilyn Monroe. I see now that I was beginning to need a larger canvas than poetry to tell the stories I wanted to tell. I was evolving from a poet to a storyteller, and soon a writer of fiction, but none of this was clear to me when I stood on the steps of the Jung Insititut at Hornweg 28 on the Zurichsee.

Something was calling. Most of us know the feeling—the nameless, faceless prompting that niggles our mind and causes us to flail in our sleep. It’s the road we fear we might not take to an unknowable future.

In my case, the impulse turned out to be writerly, leading me away from crafting lyric poems toward writing a novel. I needed to understand better those paradoxes and conundrums of the human soul that are the basis of good fiction. Therapists and fiction writers share a lot in common: our charge is to observe and empathize with our clients/characters, to listen to their stories and help them discover new ones, to excavate the strata of their experience and bear witness to their motivations, their secrets, their unspoken desires. To do this with grace and objectivity, we need to know our own biases and personality ticks.

My “aha” moment, when I realized becoming an analyst was not for me, occurred while chatting with a fellow trainee. The day was postcard perfect—grazing sheep and gardens of Old-World roses scattered among the colorful medieval houses of Küsnacht, the Alps outlined against an enameled blue sky. My friend and I were discussing “transference,” the phenomenon in which a patient’s unconscious feelings are projected, “transferred” onto the analyst/therapist. (Say you resent your father and have never been able express it, but hey, it’s easy to cuss out your analyst.) Much of the healing in analysis, I was learning, got accomplished through transference whereby the analyst remains a mirror for the analysand to see his own feelings. Bad behavior on the part of the cussee was never to be taken personally by the analyst.

The “Paul/Laura” episodes of HBO’s In Treatment dramatized transference

I remembering thinking on that perfect afternoon in Switzerland: Do I really want to be so intimate with the anger and grief of others? Was my skin thick enough? All day I would be listening to stories and trying not to absorb the emotions behind them. These would not be invented stories either, but narrative tales bound to the real world and woven out of real suffering. Though I knew myself to be the best of empathizers, I didn’t know if I had the emotional stamina for the job.

I realized I wanted to explore the stories in my own psyche that were not bound to time and fact. The writer and analyst/therapist share a preoccupation with narrative and a love of mucking around in the unconscious where personality incubates and where the inexpressible is born into metaphor and image, but the desire to create art is vastly different from the intention of analysis. If I were going to explore inner worlds, it would be my own inner world, and by extension, the inner worlds of my characters, a much more selfish and self-serving goal than that of a becoming an analyst.

Embedded in the art of writing is the art of listening, true listening without the ego’s ready assertions, those automatic habits and defenses that define our public selves. This is listening the way I imagine a horse “listens” to the shifting musculature of its rider. I was just beginning to sense that I housed characters who wanted me to listen to them in just this manner, whose stories I needed to uncover and disclose.

800px-Jung-InstitutI knew that if I decided to continue with analytic training, the experience would profoundly transform me, and that I would have to make a choice between becoming an analyst and writing, between treating patients and creating characters. I wouldn’t be able to sustain both.

I listened to fabulous lectures for two summers at the C.G. Jung Institut, but I did not stay to get my diploma. Instead, I opened myself to a new way of looking at the world, its shadows and archetypes, the likes of which would surface in my debut novel, The Conditions of Love.

And here’s an afterthought: the something else that calls us can manifest in cunning ways. Both summers I attended the Institut I was called away before the program finished, once for a family celebration and once for a sudden death in the family. Was the fact that I was called home early both times a coincidence or something more? How to interpret the interruptions? I would have to dig into Jung’s explanation of synchronicity and its relationship to fate to understand.



Anne Frank and My Birth as a Writer

Anne Frank at her deskI first read Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl when I was about nine years old. As you may remember, Anne received her diary as a gift for her thirteenth birthday and she used it to chronicle her life, thoughts, and feelings for two traumatic years, from June 12, 1942 until August 1, 1944 while she and her family hid from the Nazis in several rooms concealed behind a bookcase in a building in Amsterdam.

At the time I was fascinated by what’s now called Holocaust literature and remember also reading John Hersey’s novel The Wall about the Warsaw Ghetto. I grew up in postwar New Jersey and in our house World War II was never discussed, though Roosevelt and Churchill were considered saints. Yes, Jews have saints! It might have been the whispery conversations in the kitchen among the women that piqued my curiosity about the unsaid. Undoubtedly, some of those whispered phrases contained the words Auschwitz and Treblinka.

"Kitty," Anne Frank's original diaryBut it wasn’t Anne’s description of the terror of the Nazi occupation of Holland that intrigued me. Rather, it was that she, like myself, had undisclosed feelings—about her mother, her father, her sister, about Peter van Pels, the young man whose family was in hiding in the Annex with the Franks. It was Anne’s private voicings of her feelings, so similar to mine at the time, that captivated me.

Reading Anne Frank, with whom I identified as a young, sensitive, intelligent Jewish girl, gave me the idea that I could also find words and a place to express myself. I loved the confidential tone with which she addressed her Kitty, the name she called her diary. Anne wrote in her diary: I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.

From my perspective, this statement describes the ideal relationship between a writer and her work: truth-telling in the form of an interior monologue. Only later, when I was in high school, did I begin to keep my own diary, never once imagining that I would become a professional author. Almost two decades after that, I returned to school to earn a Master’s in Fine Arts in Creative Writing, but I trace the seeds of my career to that first intimate relationship with Anne’s voice.

As we all know, Anne was not a survivor, but through her words she has survived and changed us.

Pages from the original diaryPost-script: sometime over the years my original copy of The Diary disappeared. In the foreword to the edition I now own, The Definitive Edition, the translator writes that Anne had hoped to someday publish her diary. In 1944, a member of the Dutch government in exile had announced on the radio that after the war he hoped to publish eyewitness accounts of the German occupation. Anne heard this broadcast and planned, after the war, to publish a book based on her diary. So she began to keep two diaries, her original one and an edited version.

This passage has special meaning for me as a writer. Eunice, my protagonist in The Conditions of Love, also keeps a diary. Like her, I believe our words matter. I believe our suffering matters. I believe that out of the raw material of our lives we form art and create beauty. As Eunice’s downstairs neighbor and confidant Mr. Tabachnik says, “From the terrible the beautiful comes.”

Title page of first Dutch edition of The Diary of a Young Girl



How We Understand the World: Taking Sides on the Brain


MCEscher-DrawingHandsWhen I was first married, my husband and I used to joke that together we had a complete brain. He was the scientist, a man of logical and rational thinking, and I was the artist, habitual dweller in the land of reverie, seeker of mysteries and mysticism. We identified ourselves in this neatly dualist way, and neuroscience (was the discipline even called that then?) seemed to reflect our conclusions.

This was at a time just before Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (1979) became a massive bestseller. That book popularized the idea that our brains were divided into right and left hemispheres and that each half was responsible for different, opposite functions.

The right hemisphere was thought to be responsible for intuitive, impressionistic, dreamy, “feminine” functions while the left hemisphere was thought to be the more rational, here-and-now, “masculine” side of the brain.

right-brain-left-brainEven back then, I was aware my husband and I understood the world differently: we perceived and evaluated situations differently, used different models to solve problems, and arrived at different conclusions and solutions. He liked facts and proof; I liked suppositions and questioned accepted knowledge. Cause and effect offered him clear answers. Cause and effect bored me. I liked to spin off possibilities. He liked B to always follow A. I liked to see what would happen if D followed A and B disappeared completely. The majority of people we knew shared my husband’s preferences (and this, I think, is true for most of the West). As you can imagine, some of our worst arguments resulted from the differences in our supposed hard wiring and apprehension of truth.

Writers have a special interest in how minds work. As a child, my own mind seemed at odds with my classmates. Friendship wasn’t the problem: I was highly social and well liked, but I often found it difficult to express myself in the classroom. Words were slippery and never quite adequate to what I had to say. Not all people who end up being creative writers fit the description of a highly fluent, highly verbal young wordsmith. Some of us were mute observers, unnoticed by English teachers or others who might have encouraged us toward expression. This isn’t the usual backstory for a writer, which is in part why I’m telling it—in case there are others reading this who recognize themselves here.

Language itself could be problematic. Like many writers, I was a voracious reader, but reading out loud in a reading group was agony. The letters disappeared in front of my eyes. Trying to translate the images I saw in my head into words, sentences, thoughts, was a confusion all its own. This tendency toward inwardness and understanding the world through a flow of images was surely the first evidence of my nascent poet self—the little girl who saw/felt/understood more than her years and was desperate to find words for it—but how could she/I have known that then?

robert blyHow could I have known that decades later, Robert Bly would write a book praising intuitive, associative thought. Leaping Poetry gave birth to a new idiom in American poetry that later developed into The Deep Image School, a reaction to the Modernist aesthetic of highly crafted, rational poetry inspired by T.S. Eliot and company. Bly translated and popularized previously unheard of poets like Neruda, Lorca, and Transtromer, writers who believed the unconscious mind was a source of great energy for writers. He suggested that linked or associated images embodied irrational knowledge and wisdom our conscious minds could not otherwise access. Much like my own associative mind, his proposed juxtaposition of incongruous images (this is essentially what metaphor is) generated a poetry of startling insights. Try to unpack a poem by Neruda or Vallejo and they go dry and lifeless. (Really, don’t try to explain any poem. Just let it sing to you.) Poems resist paraphrasing, and especially in associatively imagined poems, the linear requirements of grammar are absolved. We are in holy territory, in the presence of shamanic chants.

Okay, I know. The truth is: any creative endeavor requires the use of our complete brain, the parts that order reality as well as the regions of emotion, memory, ancestral wisdom. The ubiquitous yin/yang symbol above every yoga store conveys this opposition and interdependence that comprise the whole. The circle (brain) contains the opposites.

iain mcgilchrist1As it turns out, the neat old models of left brain/right brain weren’t quite accurate. According to more recent science the two brain hemispheres have differences but don’t function as independently of each other as previously thought. They differ in size and shape and in the number of neurons and neural size. They differ in their sensitivity to hormones and pharmaceutical agents and other ways as well, but the most significant difference lies in the type of attention they give the world. The hemispheres house different sets of values and priorities.As he describes in The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Iain McGilchrist, a research psychiatrist, believes that over time “there has been a relentless growth of self-consciousness (left brain) and a shift away from a reliance on right brain values (interconnectedness).”

david grossman readingEmpathy might well be another word for interconnectedness. Empathy is the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes, and an essential ingredient in creating fiction. In Writing in the Dark, David Grossman writes: “I write. I feel the many possibilities that exist in any human situation.” He speaks about the necessity of writers to examine each character from many points of view. “The role an author plays for his characters: with all his might, with all his talent and empathy, he must exist in their space… He must be completely attentive to all their needs, both the spiritual and the corporeal. He must devote himself to them. Body and soul.” Here, finally, is where art and science meet, where feeling and thinking are not oppositional ways of understanding and judging our universe, but systolic and diastolic complementary ways of knowing.



Writer’s Block: Nine Helpful Tips to Get Going Again

Blank paper with pen

 

I’ve recently had the privilege of teaching several writing workshops and working with a number of talented writers. Since I have never actually taken a fiction workshop, I’m always putting my workshops together out of issues I’ve faced and cures for writing ailments that have worked for me. The thing about writing, about any art form, is that what we create reflects our individuality—our interests, our passions, hopes and fears. Could anyone but Hemingway have written For Whom the Bell Tolls? Could anyone but Toni Morrison have written Beloved? I always marvel at the many different ways artists can be creative. Even in one workshop there can be quite a range of temperaments and styles.

HemingwayAnd though the way out of our writing dilemmas will be unique to our own processes and inclinations, often on a trial and error basis, there are certain general techniques that can benefit most of us. Here are nine of my favorite ways to get unstuck. Please feel free to dip in and also add yours to my list.

 

Nine Helpful Things I’ve Learned About Writing

  1. Wherever you start, it’s the right place. Really! Don’t fret. Trust your instincts and keep moving forward. When you finish a draft, you can then assess the need for changes.
  2. Write using every part of yourself: brain, mind, guts, heart. Write from your wholeness and not just your intellect. You are not just a head with feet attached.
  3. Every day, all day, observe. Watch what catches your attention—is it the magnolia tree in the park or the brown dog under it? The girl with the Yoyo or the couple scrapping behind the bushes? Attention follows interest and what interests you will be a key to what makes your writing powerful.
  4. toni by mikeAsk questions—to yourself, to your characters, to the work itself. A character may be quite willing to tell you why he’s acting bratty, or why she isn’t talking to her mother. The project may be happy to reveal its covert stories! Have something handy to write down the answers and be prepared to be surprised.
  5. Understand that all your drafts have been necessary and not a waste of time. Just as mountain climbers can’t ascend from Base One to Base Four without going through Bases Two and Three, so each draft must be written to bring you closer to your final vision. The goal is to write a great book, not a fast one.
  6. Try breaking up your writing time with meditative walks whether you’re in the city or country, and carry a Dictaphone.
  7. Read widely and avidly. Share your thoughts about what you’ve read with others.
  8. Don’t stay wedded to a predetermined outcome. Trust yourself and the material and the integrity of the project.
  9. Send out your hopes and dreams to the universe. How can it hurt?

Annie Dillard had it right when she said:

annie-dillard



Five Remedies for Writer’s Envy

Envy by Giotto 1306A close friend you cherish, a relative, your partner—someone you love and care about—wins the award, gets the job or the raise you thought was in your pocket; charms the socks off the guy you’ve adored from afar, sails for a month-long vacation—attains exactly the goodies you’ve secretly coveted.

Because you do care about the lucky person, you share in the happiness of their good fortune. Well, mostly. Your smiley face congratulations is hearty enough, but isn’t it sometimes tainted by a tightening in your gut, a cold gust sweeping your heart?

If you’re like me, you’re horrified and ashamed that your joy for the other isn’t unconditional, but what a relief to realize envy is part of human nature across continents and down the eons. What child hasn’t made loathsome comparisons between self and other, smoldered with envy, felt envy gulp down their confidence? What child hasn’t suffered the humiliating experience of feeling less than, having less than, wanting more? Who of us hasn’t worried we’re flawed or sinful (see the Bible for brutal stories of envious sibling rivalry), felt cheated when the goodies were doled out?

Most of us identify with the innocent, blameless characters in stories. I am not—the evil stepsister, the vengeful queen, the brother who rats on his brother and steals his inheritance—those archetypal figures we know so well as moral disasters. Aren’t we more inclined to identify with the all-good, too-good Cinderella, express sympathy for the pure and virtuous Snow White? It’s true that today’s heroines have become sassier, edgier, more complicated, but still their strength and fury, like those of their male counterparts, are usually directed toward admirably heroic undertakings.

Frans de Waal narrates a video of his experiment in which two capuchin monkeys are paid unequally.

But whether we admit it or not, we all experience envy. “There is not a passion so strongly rooted in the human heart as envy,” wrote the Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Ain’t it the truth! But it’s just so dang painful to admit that cruelty and betrayal lurk within. I would never have the courage to look at envy so directly, let alone write about it, if I had not come to recognize its universal nature and to understand that denying envy only reinforces its snarky, trickster, debilitating aspects.

Even if we ignore them, the disliked, disowned envious parts of ourselves don’t go away, they simply get projected onto the Other, often in the form of blame. So, along with the personal suffering envy causes, it might well be responsible for most wars and murders on the planet.

meg_jo_beth_and_amy_by_jessie_willcox_smith_wood_wall_art-r023ecc7054f848968dfe9c28135f6c21_z2skx_512A new realm of Envy Hell opened up to me after I became a published writer. Google “Writer’s Envy” and a whole host of links appear. This is no surprise since we artists have our eye on immortality, and fame is a very small ship onto which many hope to sail. I do find it ironic that while envy is the engine that drives many works of literature—think Agamemnon taking Briseis from Achilles and Achilles sulking in his tent for three years; Iago envying Othello or Edmund Edgar in King Lear; or Amy March’s envy of Jo in Little Women. Authors are forever weaving plots around envy; we are mighty resistant to ‘fessing up about our own.

As a commercially published writer, I have certainly felt both the discomfort of being envied and the equally painful experience of being the envier. To be the envied one causes its own set of difficulties. By definition, the envied receives the projected anger and resentment of the envier whose attacks maybe come across as confusingly passive aggressiveness or as blatant sabotage. Envy is a master at wearing costumes: the gratuitous smile, the devious offers to help. The storybook witches of our childhood abide in our adult imagination. Can’t we still feel the uncanny thrill, the fear and delicious trepidation of being invited by a kindly old lady into the gingerbread house? Envy seems to put us to a test: first we need to recognize and acknowledge its existence, then we are asked to decide how to be in relationship to it. (Run away; hide our face; attack with a weapon; cajole; outwit; succumb; reform. The possibilities are many.)

Dore Pur_12_arachneMyths and fairy tales tell us the gods can be jealous, even ruinous. These stories work well as cautionary tales to warn us not only of the gods that strike from above, but depict representations of the archetypal forces in the human psyche and ask us to consider how envy motivates us from within. For her hubris at claiming to be a better weaver than Athena, Arachne is turned into a spider. We know what happened to Icarus when he, attempting to fly like the gods, flew too near to the sun.

Three thousand years ago, the Buddha recognized envy as one of the root causes of suffering and suggested to his students that they develop genuine happiness for the success of others—mudita in Pali—one of the four brahma-viharas, practices that cultivate our highest human virtues. Mudita or vicarious joy encourages us to develop the opposite of a scarcity mentality that supposes there is only so much happiness to go around. Scarcity mentality is in part responsible for envy since the envier feels the other’s good fortune diminishes the possibility of her own.

May I be happy

May you be happy

May we be at peace

These are simple, elegant phrases I use when I become conscious of envy’s presence. Practicing these cleansing loving-kindness phrases has a quality of restorative justice, whereby I remember that envy, being a universal trait, is yet one more oddball way I am connected to the human race.

Other remedies?

  1. Laugh at oneself! Just plain sit down in a chair and think of the absurdity of assuming life is fair. Fairness was conceived by mankind. The nature of Nature is something altogether other.
  2. Recognize envy is universal condition. You are not being singled out. Every wisdom tradition includes instructions about envy. Educate yourself.
  3. Especially if you are a writer dealing with writer’s envy. It soothes the soul to read writers you love.
  4. Devise a ritual or ceremony to deal with envy. Invest a stone with your uncomfortable feelings and bury it. Light a candle and recite a wish. Draw a picture of envy or the feelings it arises, then burn the drawing and scatter the ashes. Using your creative energies in this way ignites and inspires the good muses to hang around.
  5. Talk to a trusted friend about envy. Find out you are not alone.

Extermination_of_Evil_Sendan_Kendatsuba_700x268

 



Mother’s Day 2015: Struggling with Being a Mother and a Writer

As Mother’s Day 2015 approaches, I feel called to write about a subject I’ve lived intimately, a subject I’ve explored in The Conditions of Love and is now shaping my new novel Digging To China—the conflict many women feel between their creative and domestic selves.

Mother. Writer. Are these dueling destinies? How much do the roles oppose? Do the separate roles fracture our identities? How permeable or dense is the membrane between them? Mother. Writer. Where can we find the energy, the juju, the concentration, the tremendous love, care, and devotion needed in equal measures in both domains? Do you know what I’m talking about? I think you do!

Here’s what I can tell you about my own experience: I struggled. And I still struggle with finding a balance between putting myself into my written work and into relationships.

I love these two poems for their recognition of the split between the “milk-giver” and “the moon-ridden girl.”50s

Night Feeding
Muriel Rukeyser

In Mind
Denise Levertov

Even before I took up writing professionally, I was jolted awake by the voices of certain poets, women poets who were shoving open the windows of their houses and shouting in wrath and fury, despair and righteousness, about their lives.

The essay that I read and reread dozens of times, that spoke to me so directly I was astonished anyone could know so much about my life was Adrienne Rich’s When We Dead Awaken: Writing As Re-Vision. Her words startled me into recognition of my own guilt, my own confusion and isolation.

Rich in ColorShe writes:

 …I was also determined to prove that as a woman poet I could also have what was then defined as a “full” woman’s life, I plunged in my early twenties into marriage and had three children before I was thirty…I went on trying to write: my second book and first child appeared in the same month…If there were doubts, if there were periods of null depression or active despairing, these could only mean that I was ungrateful, insatiable, perhaps a monster…about the time my third child was born, I felt that I had either to consider myself a failed woman and a failed poet, or to try to find some synthesis by which to understand what was happening to me.

To feel oneself a monster…to suffer this in silence…to be at odds with one’s deepest desires…and to be isolated in one’s suffering—do these conditions still exist for women writers who are raising families (and male writers who are the primary caregivers in their homes)?

KaliThe truth is, the very attributes that contribute to a rich, deep, profound, and thrilling creative life are antithetical to sustaining a stable home. Writing, at least as I know it, thrives on the chaotic and unpredictable shifts and flashes of the imagination; it demands devotion, loyalty, ruthlessness in the face of despair, enormous amounts of energy and attention—all of which might otherwise be directed toward one’s beloveds.

Rich says:

But to write poetry or fiction, or even to think well…a certain freedom of mind is needed—freedom to press on; to enter the currents of your thoughts like a glider pilot, knowing that your motion can be sustained, that the buoyancy of your attention will not suddenly be snatched away… To be maternally with small children all day in the old way, to be with a man in the old way of marriage, requires a holding-back, a putting-aside of that imaginative activity and demands instead a kind of conservatism…

Your attention suddenly snatched away. Split loyalties. The soccer game, the swim team, the poem, the essay: they all shouted at once, a confused and confusing cacophony that sent me hurrying in ten different directions.

But like Rich, I felt rise up in me an unquenchable desire to speak the truth about things unsaid and unspoken. I housed a hunger I hadn’t let myself feel until I heard the words of other women writers describing, most desperately, their hunger to have a voice. This is what we can do for each other: mirror, echo, witness, model.

creation-of-the-birdsOver time, I’ve come to adopt a different perspective, one that expands the view of what we are doing when we continue to embrace the warring imperatives of our souls—what the Jungians call holding the tension of the opposites. By creating a literal home we build a place to contain and house all our parts. This place/space holds our love, our security, grounds and shelters us against storms and unpredictable weather—I mean the turbulence inherent in a creative life. We need our homes just as our homes need us; we need a place where the offspring of our imaginations can grow and thrive.

Terry Tempest Williams writes with great eloquence about women’s voices and women’s silences in her poignant memoir, When Women Were Birds, an ode to her mother who died of cancer at 54. Her mother had bequeathed the author her journals—all of them blank inside. Williams writes:

She left me her “Cartographies of Silence.” I will never know her story. I will never know what she was trying to tell me by telling me nothing. But I can imagine.

terry tempest williams book coverAfter reading When Women Were Birds, it struck me that I did not know my own daughters’ experiences of what it was like growing up with a mother who also happened to be a writer. So I asked them each if they would write a few words for this blog.

Jennifer:

  1. I recall falling asleep to the click, click, click….. zing… of the typewriter in the room next door.  There was something rhythmic and reassuring about it.
  2. I grew up with poetry infused into everyday life in a way that most don’t.  It was not uncommon to have you recite a poem (not necessarily yours; often not) in what seemed like random moments.  Before meals… at gatherings…   And to this day, I think I’ve picked up this propensity.  I’m often quoting/reciting poems or openings to books… quotes… at random moments.  I reference you whenever I do this with new people.  I just say “I grew up in a house with a writer.”
  3. Honestly… there were books everywhere in our house.  Before the bookshelves were built in the living room and sunroom, there were piles of books everywhere.
  4. You have this incredible and unique capacity to offer exactly the right “text” to someone (including me) at precisely the right moment.  Did then, still do.
  5. I have poetry books you gave me as a kid (kid versions) that I still have poems memorized from (e.g., “Who has seen the wind…” or “Jenny kissed me when we met…”)
  6. You seemed to struggle then (and still do) with trying to find a balance between being in your writing space and in normal everyday space.  When we were growing up, your writing space seemed to be more around the margins of your life with us (after hours… when we were at school). Now it is pretty central. But I think there is still the tension of how to immerse and be present with your writing and not disappear forever.  Not that you’d want to. . . but it seems the structure of when to go in and then pull out was more defined by us and your wanting to be present with us.

Dale & Young Daughters canoeing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northeastern Minnesota

Jessica: Growing up with a mom as a writer certainly set me aside from my friends. I was encouraged to learn the language of colors and moods, not of apple pie and golf. My friends did not make the acquaintance of Mary Oliver, Robert Frost, or the man at the mic bravely sharing his work at a poetry reading on campus. A world unheard of by my friends was at my fingertips. Beyond poems and prose was the way I was encouraged to view the world: ripe, aging, new, dying, tragic, humorous, raw… full of suffering and hidden miracles. I would not trade my upbringing, second daughter of an amazing writer, artist, and poet. I am lucky to have learned and lived (and still do!) the language and veil of creativity from the best, my mom.

My daughters have been kind. Hugely supportive, always. I was, at times, a “space cadet,” a distracted mom, cranky and preoccupied, sometimes gone for weeks at a time to write, but I’ve always been haunted by what Jung said: that our children live out our unlived lives. And so, isn’t it better to live our passions honestly and not drop the burden of unfulfilled desires onto our kids? We never do know when we are launched on creative projects that compel and enthrall us—raising children, writing a novel—how smooth or bumpy the road will be. But follow it we must. And if we are lucky, as I have been, our children will also reap the rewards.

Dale & Adult Daughters at Luna Loon Lodge, Conover, Wisconsin

 

 



Embracing Vulnerability

Hic Sunt Dracones. Terra Incognita.

Vulnerability. Dr. Brenė Brown, a researcher and popular TED-talker who writes about shame and vulnerability, defines the V-word as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.” I concur with her definition and also her conclusion that embracing vulnerability is crucial to living a passionate, creative life.

Vulnerability is a word writers toss around a lot, mostly in relation to how exposed they feel to the judgment of others: readers, critics, editors, publishers, agents. The whims of the marketplace, the fancies or fantasies of the book-buying public.

Less often do writers talk, at least publicly, about the vulnerability of putting oneself at risk in front of the blank page (or canvas or stage), where the risk of failure stares back with nothingness on its face, fueling what is sometimes called writer’s block or just plain frigin’ being stuck: the project has fizzled, your muses fled to wherever muses go to loiter and complain.

vulnerableBut I want to talk about another kind of vulnerability necessary to embrace if we want to engage our creative selves. It’s the part of us that gets shut-down early in our lives by parents, teachers, a world that repeatedly encourages us to play it safe.

But within us, I believe, is a self-part that shuns limitations and prescriptions and wishes to cast off the constraints of convention, class, ethnicity, religion or gender. This is the rule-breaker part (even if the rules are ones we set up for ourselves) that seeks to take us to an “edge” inside ourselves, a border that marks an entrance into unknown territory—our very own terra incognita. 

Think here of those ancient maps that marked such boundaries, the edges of the known world where serpents and dragons lurked.

And yes, scarily, this is exactly the domain a writer needs to explore, beyond the known, the certain and predictable, though lets face it, predictable is definitely a more comfortable place to hang out. Anne Lamott recommends writers “write toward vulnerability,” a phrase that sounds counter-intuitive, but isn’t. We spend weeks on an outline for our next novel. The outline gives us a sense of security and purpose, but on another level it feels confining. Dare we tear it up and proceed without it? Dare we trust instinct over intellect? Dare we trust our own individual, unique way? You bet!

Karl K 2In his essay on America for the New York Times Magazine, the Norwegian author Karl Knausgaard remarks that for a country that prides itself on individualism, we have a strong preference for conformity. (See our chain hotels, our ubiquitous Taco Bells and Arbys, our Gap and Pottery Barn-filled shopping malls.) Unlike so many other places on the globe, we Americans do not tolerate our eccentrics or eccentricity itself very well. Isn’t part of the American expectation that one can go to any country in the world and find a safely familiar Holiday Inn and nearby McDonalds? We are not, I’m afraid, so fond of Difference.

The carry over for a writer in the corporatization of all things American is the pressure to write the next Harry Potter series, the next Fifty Shades of Grey. The next American Sniper. The next novel about a.) Vampires b.) Terrorism c.) Post Traumatic Stress.

Not that there aren’t worthy and necessary stories to be told about these subjects, only that what might be determining their telling is more the lure of the marketplace than anything else. We like new ideas if they fit with our old ideas, and we especially like new ideas that reinforce what we already believe, that is, old ideas dressed up in new clothes.

Mc-McIlvoyIt takes enormous courage to embrace vulnerability as a strategic and crucial aspect of our creative selves. The poet Rilke asks us to “live the questions.” Carl Jung suggested the project of individuation is to “live ourselves.” All creation begins in chaos, begins in the formless void where all possibilities live. For those of you reading this who are writers or creators of any stripe, the risk is to follow our hunches and explore our instincts without any assurance for success. My friend, the writer Kevin McIlvoy, calls this state ‘blessed insanity,” and how right he is! Isn’t it true that what frightens us most about taking a risk isn’t our failure in the eyes of others, but the fear that we have failed to risk living our desires?



On Writing, Climbing, and Resilience

http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-female-climber-rapelling-off-cliff-image28558900A number of years ago, I did something I thought I’d never do: I scaled a forty-foot inflatable climbing tower, jumped into a net, and was belayed down to earth. How did this happen? I was with my daughters, one of whom was on the Outward Bound team that had set up the towers on a cross-country bike tour to raise awareness for girls Outward Bound expeditions. We were in Chicago’s Waveland Park, and I was standing around watching teen girls grab the rubber handholds and scramble up the towers like monkeys.

A curious thing happened. As I observed these limber young women, I suddenly felt my own body get juiced. Inside my head a voice was prompting me to go for it. You can do this, Dale. Never before had I been propelled to take this kind of physical risk. And heights? I don’t even like to look down from high-rise windows! Then how to explain what came next? I turned to my astonished husband and said I am doing this! (Spoiler: climbing that tower was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done, and it sure helped to have a squadron of my daughters’ friends yelling, “Dale rocks!”)

Anatomy of an Angel Damien Hirst IMG_7213Every angel is terrifying. I find myself quoting this line from Rilke’s Second Duino Elegy often because it clarifies so many situations. It seems that when we come face to face with the magnitude of who we are and the vast possibilities inherent in our lives, we often retreat in fear. But that breezy summer day I latched my harness and donned a helmet, I wasn’t thinking about angels, symbolic or otherwise. I was focused on which footholds to place my feet and how far to extend my arms. I wasn’t looking up at the clouds or down at the ground. Earth and sky had dissolved. What existed was my heartbeat, the burn in my calves, my breath in gulps.

After the climb, my daughter Jessica, who with her partner, Troy Gosz, now runs an amazing non-profit program called FLYY* which serves youth-at-risk through wilderness programs, explained that the towers are used as educational tools to teach confidence and climbing skills, but also provide a concrete, physical metaphor for how we face life’s challenges.

Climbers who try to race to the top of the towers often handle their fears the same way, rushing through difficult situations to get them over with as quickly as possible. Other climbers start slowly and cautiously, but speed up at the end gaining confidence as they go, while yet others begin energetically and poop out at the end because they haven’t paced themselves and have run out of steam. That’s what happened to me. A few feet from the summit, my strength failed. Arms and legs splayed against a swaying rubber cylinder, for several long minutes I could move neither up or down and so hugged that blasted tower with everything in me and prayed I wouldn’t fall off.

http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-rock-climbing-image24416860During the pause, something shifted. My mind refocused, veering away from fear toward the shouts of encouragement from below. Excuse the cliché but soon onward and upward I went, one step up at a time, until, voila! miraculously I’d made it, panting but victorious. At that moment, I couldn’t have guessed how frequently I’d return to my climbing experience as a touchstone when I’ve needed to unfreeze from fear. Here I’m thinking of Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous aphorism: You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

Writing a novel is more like scaling Mt. Everest than climbing a rubber tower: bravery, resilience, and unshakable determination are required. How many times did I despair that I would never finish The Conditions of Love, or if I did, never sell it. How often did my self-confidence flag? Doubt is one of the Five Hindrances to enlightenment in Buddhist thought and I can see why: doubt is a contagion of the mind that infects the creative spirit, an energetic equivalent of a mind on strike. While writing my novel, when self-doubt buckled my knees, I’d pull my climbing achievement out of my back pocket and remind myself that without practice and a strong inclination to vertigo, I’d climbed a forty-foot tower. I had done the thing I thought I couldn’t do. I could also write a book.

doubt6aI don’t mean to sound Pollyannaish. I don’t believe we can do anything we set our minds to. Accepting one’s limitations seems paramount to maturity. But… but…especially when it comes to creative work, for most of us discouragement, doubt, and stasis plague the process. But – what if that’s not a bad thing? What if, when we feel stuck, we think of it as a pause rather than an end stop, a reminder to see how far we’ve come? What if we take some deep breaths, push away the demons and attune to the encouraging voices? Hand over hand, foothold after foothold, ever so slowly if need be, we climb to the summit.

Afterclimb

*FLYY is a community-based non-profit that offers wilderness expeditions, intensive parent/guardian skills and support groups, and ongoing community-based aftercare for teens and families. FLYY serves as a catalyst and resource for youth and families to transform their outlook, their capacities, and their contributions to others. For more information, you can visit their website at www.flyyexpeditions.org.



Dinner with friends

Dinner settings for Sappho Woolf_600x315

 

Writers are often asked where they get their ideas, and that’s a good damn question. As far as I can tell, memory, imagination, dreams, bits of history, overheard conversations, observations, and popular culture combine in unpredictable ways to fuel a story. The past is always awake telling us where we’ve been and what we’ve known. The future alights in reverie or dreams, at the blurred edges of our vision, offering glimpses of what might be possible. Imagination bundles up rag-tags of this and that and pushes them into consciousness where a whole new thing takes form. None of this is analyzed by the writer, certainly not this writer: when the muse arrives with a full suitcase, I welcome her like a queen.

But here’s my latest answer to that perennial question of where a writer’s ideas come from — they come from the brilliant minds of others! On that note, when recently asked by a friend what writers I’d invite to a dinner party, the following list popped into my head. And what a list! Can you imagine what a vibrant, eclectic, and profound conversation might ensue?

sapphoSappho
Jane Goodall
Virginia Woolf
Lalleshwari
Muriel Spark
Marie-Louise von Franz
Toni Morrison

All women — at least this time around.
Two poets. Three novelists. One primatologist/anthropologist. One Jungian archetypal psychologist.
One Greek. Two Brits. One Scot. One Kashmiri. One Swiss. One American.

It would take pages and pages to adequately praise the work of each of these brilliant women, but one thing they have in common is their uncommon courage as writers and thinkers. Each has changed the way I see and think about the world, each has astonishing stories to tell.

LalleshwariThe fourteenth-century mystic poet Lalleshwari, also known as Lal Ded, lived at a time when Shaivism, Sufism, Buddhism, and Hinduism were alive and entwined in a rich amalgam of religions merging in Asia. I’m told that though she was ridiculed and taunted, Lalla, lit by divine inspiration, danced naked through the Kashmiri valley singing her ecstatic poems. Here is her voice, translated by Coleman Barks.

I didn’t trust it for a moment,
but I drank it anyway,
the wine of my own poetry.

It gave me the daring to take hold
of the darkness and tear it down
and cut it into little pieces.

Jane Goodall. I reach for one of her books when I need to remind myself to honor my instincts and rekindle my sense of wonder. When doubt (something I’m examining a lot these days) blunts my energy for taking a step forward, I reach for Jane — a role model for me of a writer who has documented the courage and passion necessary for her work.

jane-goodall-615Among other esteemed achievements, Jane Goodall is credited with changing how scientists study animals in their natural habitats. In 1960, without any formal training or advanced education, she left England to study wild chimpanzees at the Gombe project in Tanzania under the tutelage of the famous anthropologist, Louis Leakey. In her own words, she was then “a naïve young English girl,” but one who’d always held a fascination with wild life. Now, decades and many books later, she’s an international treasure. Here’s one of my favorite passages from her book Through a Window.

There are many windows through which we can look out into the world, searching for meaning. There are those opened up by science, their panes polished by a succession of brilliant, penetrating minds. Through these we can see ever further, ever more clearly, into areas that once lay beyond human knowledge. Gazing through such a window I have, over the years, learned much about chimpanzee behavior and their place in the nature of things. And this in turn, has helped us to understand a little better some aspects of human behavior, our own place in nature.

But there are other windows; windows that have been unshuttered by the logic of philosophers; windows through which the mystics seek their visions of truth; windows from which the leaders of the great religions have peered as they search for purpose not only in the wondrous beauty of the world, but also in its darkness and ugliness. Most of us, when we ponder on the mystery of our existence, peer through but one of these windows onto the world. And even that one is often misted over by the breath of our finite humanity. We clear a tiny peephole and stare through. No wonder we are confused by the tiny fraction of a whole that we see. It is, after all, like trying to comprehend the panorama of the desert or the sea through a rolled-up newspaper.

Marie Louis von Franz with JungMarie-Louise von Franz is probably the least recognizable name on my list. Like her mentor and colleague, the depth psychologist Carl Jung, Ms. Von Franz can be credited with helping modern thinkers understand the psychological and symbolic dimension of fairy tales. At my imaginary dinner party, Marie-Louise turns first to Sappho and then to Toni Morrison and asks each their favorite fairy tale. Are you a Cinderella? Rapunzel? A bewitched crow? she might inquire. Can you imagine the lively conversation that would follow? Most of us are driven by the unconscious myths we carry about ourselves, and these motifs, these archetypes (the orphan, the seducer, the wise old man) with which we identify shape our lives. Think about it! What fairy tales haunt your mind?

Space prevents me from quoting more than two writers who’ve inspired me to speak the truth and given me faith in my own process. But to circle back to my specific choices, I see now that these invited guests share certain qualities that in turn reflect my own biases and interests. They are observers, rebels, pioneers, seekers, original thinkers, and I think also, each is in her own way, sassy and determined.

May you too find nourishment in their books, and may you too be awakened to new wonders. Here’s a place to start.

Sappho                                Sappho: a new translation Mary Barnard
Jane Goodall                        Through A Window
Virginia Woolf                       Moments of Being
Lalla                                    Naked Song, translated by Coleman Barks
Toni Morrison                       Beloved
Marie-Louis von Franz           Shadow and Evil in Fairytales
Muriel Spark                         The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Woolf Morrison Spark_600x428



Chaos in the Beginning

6 PersimmonsSitting down to write today, I have a thought: art begins in chaos. I like the high-tone sound of this, but the word chaos brings about a near panic. My leg has started to jiggle, and I’m squirmy in my chair. Chaos—that’s heavy-duty, man!

To settle my agitation, I’ll make some distinctions. Chaos at the beginning of a project differs from chaos erupting in the middle, when you’re halfway through and have to make a ninety-degree swerve: your story isn’t working, your character goes flat. Chaos in the beginning is something else—the first and crucial stage of creation, and just about every creation myth I’ve ever read, from the Bible to Greek myths to native folk tales, confirms this is so. Chaos precedes order.

Out of symbolic darkness Heaven, Earth and all her creatures emerge. The darkness is teeming with possibilities. This is the space where everything exists as formless potential, a void of fullness not emptiness.

Mandelbulb FractalFor me as a writer, it’s a thrilling, scary place, the edge of what my logical mind knows and what my immediate senses perceive. In writing a novel, I’m creating a world that has never existed before, and I have to be very patient with myself and with the process, even if it takes years to complete a final draft. And it will! No doubt it will.

Every time I sit down to write I have to find a way to be at peace with the unpredictability inherent in the creative process and the necessary slowness involved in creation, while also staying fueled by rabid anticipation and a compulsion to discover a new fictional world.

(With fingers crossed) I’m happy to say I’m past the chaos stage in writing novel two. In fact, I’m deliriously happy to be in love with a set of new characters, moving forward chapter by chapter, hunch by hunch.

i_ching_hexagram_3_chunThe third hexagram in the I Ching—Chun—is called Difficulty at the Beginning. I love that the Chinese sages understood that deep work of persevering in the face of hardships. The image of Chun is a blade of grass pushing up through the earth, hence difficulty at the beginning. It implies that the first meeting of Heaven and Earth arouses chaos, thunder and rain, but the chaos clears. Eventually the thunderstorm passes and there is ease again.

Difficulty at the Beginning was not written with writers in mind. It states a universal truth and gives advice on how to proceed. Which is probably why I’m writing about it today. Because don’t we all need faith in our capacity to experience all that crosses our path, and don’t we all need some outside voice reminding us not to give up?

To those of you reading this blog, especially non-writers, is this making sense to you?

George Frederic WattsHere’s another way to look at it: think of a blank movie screen. Start with one scene. Add a second, then a third. The first cut of a movie may contain two thousand frames, but to find the story worth telling, two thousand frames have to be pared down to two hundred And then reordered.

So, too, with a novel. On the first go-round, I’m figuring out how and where the story begins and ends, where it takes place—Wisconsin, California, medieval Poland, inside a dream? Does the book cover a day, a year, decades, centuries, or generations? I’m discovering my characters, listening very attentively as they reveal the stories coiled inside their stories, and like any good therapist, I listen with special attention to what my characters are hiding from themselves.

My task is to weave aspects of time, setting, character, and plot into a coherent whole. Moment to moment I make decisions based on logic, intuition, and some mixture of craft and imagination also acknowledging everything may change in a subsequent draft.

Always, I try to show up in my studio with an open mind and a receptive heart.

Hexagram three—Chun—explains that difficulty in the beginning promises supreme success through persevering. In life, as in art, the horse and wagon can become unhitched and difficulties pile up. What better advice for a writer than to recognize that hindrances occur during times of growth. “Difficulties arise from the very profusion of all that is struggling to attain form.”Metamorphosis Cover

When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself changed into a monstrous cockroach in his bed.

I have to wonder what other first lines floated around in Kafka’s head before he set down this iconic one from his novella, The Metamorphosis. How many possible first lines had he written and tossed aside? This one must have struck him with such truth and clarity that he dismissed all others. Teeming with possibility. We can’t know what we have inside if we are stopped dead-on by the confusion at the beginning.

 



Starting with an Image

Trees 5. Troncs noueux (1938) detailI’ve been haunted by an image of a forest.  There’s a bare tree, lots of dead leaves.  A man’s shoe. A child’s shoe. The feeling-tone is ominous. I suspect what the images relate to, but I don’t know the story. Yet.

And that’s how I write. A compelling image obsesses me. I’ll see a scene, or a character will appear before I understand who he is or why he’s buying ten cans of Chef Boyardee! And then I’m launched on a process of discovery—with joy and trepidation. I’m like a bloodhound sniffing out the story, literally sensing my way into plot lines, eyes, ears, and intuition geared up to answer these questions: What’s going on here? How do I take this image and expand it into narrative that unfolds into its best possible form?

El EncuentroI’m also acting as translator working from the visual into language. Seeing where I’m going with the image. My training as a poet has everything to do with how I write fiction, but then I came to poetry before prose because I saw things rather than heard stories. Part of the task of any writer is hold the intention of creating something glorious, something valuable, and accepting the hard work it will require. Keeping the love of the project alive and palpable despite the struggle to give it form. The writer is on an adventure and has entered the zone of the unknown, which is where original art hangs out.

Cultivating stillness is essential. It invites the magic. Art and magic are one kind of sister!  When I’m engrossed in a project, I enter an energy field where wild can things happen, like the proverbial book that falls off the shelf just when you need it. 1 Energía cósmicaOr, a new character shows up in a dream and tells you her heartbreaking story. Insights drop into your consciousness from odd places—bits of conversation overheard at the market, NPR stories—I’ve had to pull off the road when listening to Iraqi war veterans speak of their experiences, my mind/heart brimming with their graphic tales.

Wild things happen when you welcome the muse: synchronicities, a receptivity and shared sensitivity with others.

The spiritual side of this is that you can’t will the magic, the story, or the novel into being, though sincere attention and hopefulness attract the little iron filings of images and insights to your magnetic pull. roethkeOf course, you need to have the craft in place.  It’s a self-educational process. As Theodore Roethke wrote in “The Waking,” “I learn by going where I have to go.”

So you need to know the tools of your craft and to be able use them skillfully: dialogue, narrative summary, description, backstory. But even though storytelling is a more or less linear process, we writers spend a lot of time hanging out in our associative minds, in dream time, in the emotional limbic brain. We’re conjuring characters who display complicated and complex behavior, and we, their creators, have to know, understand, and embody on the page their complexity. And we hope to put this all together in a seamless way so the reader doesn’t notice the author’s presence. Writing a novel is world-making, in which we, the writers, welcome readers into the timeless worlds we devise.

0000 remedios varo crecion de la aves