On Enchantment and My Writing

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Enchantment. I hope the word sends a thrill up your spine! When was the last time your conversation turned to enchantment? Who talks about enchantment these days? That may be one of the reasons it interests me. As a writer, I’m interested in what isn’t being said in the public sphere—the unsaid and the unspoken.

The German philosopher Wittgenstein explored the subject of enchantment. WittgensteinAccording to him, enchantment transports us beyond our finite selves. To be enchanted, he wrote, was “to show the fly the way out of the bottle.” To show the fly the way out of the bottle! The French poet Paul Eluard said, “There is another world, but it is in this one.” I agree. Enchantment is with us here, now.

And yet we seem so attracted to enchantment’s opposites—cynicism, irony, mistrust—qualities that show up in lots of contemporary fictional characters who reflect our twenty-first century discouraged and disenchanted point of view. Enchantment, instead, would have us stand in the place of wonder and consider ourselves apprentices in the mystery of Being.

I’ll share a recent discovery—the role enchantment has played in my writing—paul-eluardand how the enchanted state in a writer, in this case me, seeps into the work itself. Another way of saying this is that what’s in the psyche of the writer shows up transmuted on the page. Transmuted is key because sometimes only the slightest aroma of the original idea is evident in the final written form. Think of it this way: The rapture expressed in Mozart’s The Magic Flute is directly related to the rapture Mozart presumably felt while composing it. If Mozart was filled with rapture, rapture will be in his music.

marc chagall die zauberflote_fullsizeThere’s plenty of enchantment going on in my novel The Conditions of Love. (Check out Mr. Tabachnik’s relationship to opera, or Eunice and Rose’s relationship to the natural world, or Mern’s intoxication with Hollywood.) I myself was in an enchanted state while writing a lot of the book, but I also admit that my characters, in turn, enchanted me. This is the moment when I might explain that the novel’s origins began when I started to hear voices, but that’s another story for another time.

This writer has experienced her most enchanted states at our cabin in the north woods where much of The Conditions of Love was written. You might say that in solitude and stillness, my apprehension of and connection to the invisible world ripened. The wind spoke to me, the pines spoke to me, the sun-diamonds on the lake and the slap of water against the shore worked their magic. At other times while writing the novel, I took myself to foreign towns where I’d rent a bungalow and sit myself down to write. Enchantment can occur at any time, but it does seem to appreciate an escape from the familiar.

We don’t talk much about enchantment, but most of us have experienced it and still get glimpses. For example, music shares an ancient relationship to enchantment. Think: hymns, chants, rattles and drums. On a more modern note, I recently read that melody and rhythm trigger the same dopamine system in the brain that rewards food and sex. Absolutely! Who didn’t think that whirling dervishes and ecstatic dancers of every stripe were having more fun than the rest of us!  It appears neuroscience has finally caught up with what the sages always knew.

There’s so much violence and terror in the world today. whirling dervishes of istanbul“You name it, the world is aflame,” said Gary Samore, a former national-security aide in the Obama Administration, to New York Times reporter Peter Baker. I wonder where we can find an antidote to the dread and doom? Where can we look for relief? Couldn’t an engagement with enchantment, that is, to stand in wonder at what does exist, open worlds of possibility and present a wedge of light in the darkness?

Here’s a very brief list of fiction writers who play with enchantment in their work. Poets need their own list.

Suggested reading:

Lewis Carroll: The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland

Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities

Steven Millhauser: Little Kingdoms; The Knife Thrower and Other Stories

Louise Erdrich: The Plague of Doves

Tea Olbrecht: The Tiger’s Wife

anything by Jorge Luis Borges or Edgar Allan Poe

anything by Angela Carter

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The sweet glow keeps Georgia on my mind: when a cheesehead reads in the Peach State

Inman b and b yardHave you ever felt unaccountably drawn to a city, country, or continent you’ve never visited before? Have you ever journeyed to a foreign, unfamiliar place and yet felt perfectly at home? I’m just back from a mini-book tour of Georgia and wondering about these questions. This is one of the very great things about being a published and public author: not only do I get to meet readers and future readers, something I love to do, but I’m traveling to parts of this country I might not have gotten to visit otherwise—New Paltz and Woodstock, New York (Yes, THAT Woodstock!); Nashville, Tennessee; Athens, Georgia to name a few.

Georgia charmed me. What a flirt! Even with her dirty face and smeared lipstick, she was all soul. My plane touched down in the dusky Atlanta twilight, and after an endless, color-deprived Wisconsin winter, the first thing I noticed was the glorious lushness of the landscape. Every shrub and sapling seemed to be flowering, and the scents intoxicated. Ancient willows and huge old oaks sashaying in the wind were the trees in the childhood fairy tales books I wished to inhabit. I might be romanticizing here, but it was hard not to fall in love with Georgia.

Georgia seduces you with her melancholic, regal and faded glory. Avidrdng-Janna Dresden Alice and Bruce kent silverWe know she lost the Civil War to us damn Yankees; we know internally she still carries herself like a queen and we can’t forget that once she ruled like a queen, but now Georgia is everywhere diverse, a stew of the peoples, and diversity—of ethnicities, genders, ages, and incomes—certainly gives a place soul. Maybe losing a war and burying a way of life along with the dead makes for a kind of graciousness and humility wrought out of sorrow we Midwesterners can’t quite know.

This is all speculation on my part, of course, but when I think of Georgia now I see the South of Alice Walker and Carson McCullers, the grand and not-so-grand houses with their commodious porches where the elders rocked and waved howdy to their neighbors. Those porches still exist as do the friendly and welcoming howdy-dos.

Friendliness was in the atmosphere from the moment we checked in near midnight at the Athens Marriott Courtyard. The jovial desk clerk was not only unfazed by our late arrival, she proudly gave us details to AthFest, Athens’ yearly music festival and street fair occurring that weekend. With a hug, she sent us to bed.

John Olive at AvidguyI’m a hugger (including a tree-hugger!) and a hand-holder and have been known to give near strangers an affectionate kiss, so I fit right in with the local custom of appreciative smooches and cheek-pecks. Hmmm—how to say this? Are Southerners more erotically (as in Eros) connected than the rest of us?

I’m also happy to report friendliness took the form of genuine enthusiasm for The Conditions of Love, a novel set in the Wisconsin that has nothing Southern about it. Janet Geddis, (owner), and Rachel Watkins, (events coordinator and local politco), and staff at Athens popular Indie bookstore Avid Bookshop (with help from new writer friend Sara Baker, and Janna Dresden and Ron Cervero), did a fabulous job of pulling in an enthusiastic group who might have otherwise skipped off to hear a band at AthFest. Those of you who know me know how much I love to talk about books, writing, and the creative process with audiences, and the folks who showed up at Avid’s were both wonderfully attentive and great question-askers. One question that I’m often asked, and was asked in Athens, is what motivated me to write fiction after studying to write poetry. The answer is definitely a blog-post in the making!

bob the duck at Inman b and b crIn Atlanta, I stayed at the historic Inman Park B & B and was hosted by the ever-hilarious Eleanor and her heartthrob, Bob the Duck. (No kidding!) Inman Park is the place to go if you’re interested in historic mansions. Right around the corner from my B & B was Windcrofte, the spectacular mansion once owned by the Woodruff family of Coca-Cola fame.

My friend from VCFA graduate school days, Liza Nelson, brought out the crowd at A Cappella Books. I’d promised event coordinator, Courtney Conroy, I’d bring genuine Wisconsin cheese curds (the brilliant idea of my local PR maestro, Danielle Dresden) to lure an audience. Who would have guessed that the humble and unsophisticated cheese curd is exotica to Southerners? dalecourtney conroy acappella crCharis Books in Atlanta, one of the oldest feminist bookstores in the country, where I signed a few copies of The Conditions of Love, also rolled out the welcome mat in style.

Merci and gracias to all including Marti, owner and chef of Marti’s at Midday in Athens, closed for lunch the day we arrived at her door. Nonetheless, the ebullient Marti ushered us in, showed us around, then after a firm embrace sent us to chow down at another local wonder, The Grit.

I conclude that I must return to Georgia to further explore its memorable juju of hospitality, warmth, and soulfulness. Does a place reflect our inner world? Can we find out more about ourselves by investigating certain places? I think so. A great deal of our identity is tied to place, but we are so much more than our hometown selves. In the past, I haven’t been a reader of travel memoirs. Now I may become one. Book suggestions?



Five motivational techniques that worked for me — my interview on the Writer’s Relief blog

Writers Relief_400x400When I was first starting out as a poet, I discovered Writer’s Relief. Ronnie Smith, the founder, was exquisitely aware of how writers often work very hard on something and then procrastinate in sending the piece out for publication. What she and her staff formed was an agency that did all the dirty work for writers. Writer’s Relief is now celebrating its tenth year, and if you check on their website you’ll see what a fantastic boon for writers it has become including great free advice on their blog, video tutorials, and a free publishing toolkit. They stay loyal to their clients. They were kind enough to do a shoutout on their Tumblr blog when The Conditions of Love was first published last year.

RonnieSmithPhotoSMALLThe WR blog currently features a Q&A with me about the process of writing. I always wonder when I do these interviews if anyone reading them will actually find them helpful. I try to offer tips I’ve actually find useful, and ones you won’t find in most writing advice columns. Here’s one I doubt you’ll find in any book or blog on writing:

PrintHave a sangha, the Buddhist word for a place of refuge. Cultivate a group of friends who love and support you and who understand the challenges of your writing life. Make sure you can belly laugh with them too. A good minute of belly laughing does wonders for the creative spark.

I have found that “recharging” with friends has often been critical to staying healthy and sane. And there are four more suggestions I hope will provide comfort and support to a writer somewhere. One fun aspect to this interview: Writer’s Relief is giving away a free copy of TCOL to one lucky reader who comments or asks me a question on the blog before June 11. Check it out and let me know what you think. You could be the winner.



What my new friend Susanna Daniel said on Writers Read about TCOL

Susanna Daniel 320x432I just met the wonderful Susanna Daniel several weeks ago and am completely humbled and delighted by the great things she’s saying about The Conditions of Love.  I haven’t had a chance to read her just released second novel, Sea Creatures, but when I do I’m sure you’ll hear from me about it.

Susanna kindly included The Conditions of Love among the books she cited on Marshall Zeringue’s delightful Writers Read blog:

I’ve just finished Dale M. Kushner’s broad and impressive debut novel, The Conditions of Love, and I’m stunned – stunned – that I’m not hearing about it every time I pick up a newspaper or open a browser. It’s a classic, sweeping story of a girl’s life and the relationships that define her, from birth to old age – exquisitely detailed, finely paced, deliciously ambitious.