“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.



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.



“My Jewish Question, My Father” on Jewish Currents

As I get deeper into the life and experiences of Reenie, the main character in my new novel, Digging to China, I find I am reflecting more and more about my own life and identity. Back in January, 2014, I gave a talk at Temple Beth El in Madison on “The Heroine’s Journey” as part of the Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation’s Everywoman’s Journal Program. Something moved me recently to revisit and expand on some of that material for an article that’s just been published on Blog-Shmog at Jewish Currents.

I do find it so strange and mysterious that I should be exploring “my Jewishness,” whatever that is, in relationship to my writing, but I suppose what we imagine to be our identity is a bit like strata shifting over time. I’m delighted that Jewish Currents decided to share my ruminations with its readers.

I’ve pasted the opening paragraphs to the article below. You can read the full article at Jewish Currents.

Dale and her Dad Fred Frankel at her weddingMy Jewish Question, My Father

Twenty years ago, I was completely unaware of any relationship between my writing and my experience of being Jewish. Ten years ago, I might have felt a vague stirring of the connection, but had no sense of its depth. Now, working on a second novel, I look back at what I didn’t know I knew until after I’d finished my first book and am astonished to discover how much “my Jewishness” influences the way I perceive and interpret the world.

Why should this surprise me? Unlike other contemporary writers of Jewish heritage whose fiction is steeped in historical and fabulist Jewish lore—writers like Nathan Englander, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Nicole Krauss—I’ve never identified myself as a writer concerned with Jewish experience. But then, I had not looked deeply into the question. If I had, I might have realized that who I am as a writer has everything to do with my obsessions, my core concerns, my values and judgments, and these in turn are tinged by my personal and collective Jewish background. Did I really think growing up in a secular Jewish home left no traces?

Jews are often referred to as “people of the book.” The Old Testament is a compilation of teaching stories we tell and retell at ritual times across continents and down millennia. The Bible harnesses mythology, religious teachings, and history to the written word. Its sacredness is the very embodiment of the religion, a totemic object that has united a diasporic people since Moses, but it’s through the oral transmission of stories and story-meaning that the religion lives and breathes. A song sung at Hanukah begins: Who can retell the things that befell us/who can count them?/In every age a hero or sage came to our aid.

Who can retell? Storytellers retell and I am one of them.

Fred Frankel Dale's fatherMy father was a great storyteller, a purveyor of jokes, a student of Torah and Talmud, Maimonides, Justice Brandeis, and a little Sholem Aleichem on the side. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Isaac and Jacob—these were not his cast of characters. My father’s stories involved figures named Yankel, Nutsy Fagin, or Velvela Rabbit. Like the great Biblical figures, his characters encountered nightmares and wild hope, made bad decisions, employed tricks, spoke prophecy and prayed to God. In other words, they were outrageous, endearing, silly, and closer than Eve to my own human heart.

My father’s stories embroidered the fantastical with the practical, and illustrated in equal parts pathos and humor, cunning and stupidity. The rich were clever and took advantage; children were innocent as were animals; the poor schlemiel got what he deserved. These were cautionary tales. Best to keep a sense of humor since absurdity ruled the world.

When I ask myself how did my Jewish upbringing influence what I write . . . [read more]



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



Girls at Risk: The Enigma of Resilience and What I Learn from My Characters

It may not surprise readers of fiction that fiction writers have a very intimate relationship with our characters. We hear their voices waking and sleeping. Their stories live in us, they become family, that is, family we choose. Or perhaps I should say, family that chooses us. When I talk about my characters to a new audience, it’s almost as if I am introducing family members to strangers.

My characters reveal their stories to me, but not all at once and not in any linear way.  And not surprisingly, the complications that arise in their lives echo subjects I’m drawn to. One subject that has concerned me for some time I call “Girls at Risk: The Enigma of Resilience.”

Gala Eluard by Max Ernst 1924One of the threads in my debut novel, The Conditions of Love, is emotional resiliency, what qualities enable us to flourish despite bad beginnings. I didn’t realize I was writing about this subject until after I finished the book. I call these post-publication revelationsWriter’s Hindsight Learning.” It’s what the author doesn’t know she knows while she’s writing the book! What I mean is that when I’m engaged in the discovery aspect of writing, moving the story forward scene by scene and trying to be a good listener to my characters, I’m not in an analytic mode. For me, writing is a process of discovery. The themes pick me. This might sound counter-intuitive, even counter-productive, but it isn’t. It’s about trusting your unconscious mind to lead you where you need to go. That means I don’t outline or write out a plot before I begin. It means risking being in the unknown. It means suffering the woes of creative vulnerability. But I know no other way to get to the deeper layers of a story, to the story INSIDE the story.

In fiction as in life, nothing destabilizes the identity of a young person as profoundly as turmoil in the home. I don’t mean this in any judgmental way. Quite the opposite. As a writer, I’m compelled to examine and speak the truth about the light and darkness inherent in human beings—the guilt, the sorrow, the joy, the indiscretions, the desire for freedom, the desire to survive no matter what.

By destabilizing one’s identity I mean the confused and painful experience of not knowing who one is or where one belongs. It’s the feeling of rupture from the familiar and stable structures of one’s life. These can be existential crises that set us on a journey to find out who we are.  We ask ourselves, “if this and this and this are no longer true in my life, who am I now?”

“You are not going to use me an an excuse again.” James Dean as Jim Stark arguing with his parents (Ann Doran and Jim Backus) in Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
This dilemma—of finding one’s true self against the background of loss and impermanence—is at the core of The Conditions of Love, and now I see it shaping my second novel, a work in progress called Digging to China.

In both my novels, the young protagonists find themselves in home environments that are about to be disrupted. Their mothers are going through big changes. Their fathers are either absent, (Eunice in The Conditions of Love), or about to be left behind (Reenie in Digging to China). In his book, The Child, the psychologist Erich Neumann wrote: “Once we appreciate the positive significance of the child’s total dependency on the primal relationship, we cannot be surprised by the catastrophic effects that ensue when that relationship is disturbed or destroyed.”

1721mandalajungSomething Carl Jung once wrote has always haunted me and in some way has been an impetus for my work.

“What usually has the strongest psychic effect on the child is the life which the parents (and ancestors too, for we are dealing here with the age-old psychological phenomenon of original sin) have not lived.” —Carl Jung, Introduction to The Inner World of Childhood by Frances G. Wickes (1927)

As a writer, I’m very interested in the entangled and entangling relationship between parents and children. In both my novels, the mothers are the major destabilizers in their daughter’s lives, while their fathers are absent and idealized. The unfulfilled desires of the mothers affect their daughters. These desires are either thwarted or encouraged by the decades they live in.

In The Conditions of Love, Eunice’s mother, Mern, has a craving to be a movie star. Hollywood and what it represented in the Fifties is quite different from the Hollywood of today. It’s hard for us to imagine how significant movies were in the Fifties. Movies stars were these gigantic, dazzling national icons. Everyone knew who Marilyn or Bogey was. So, we have a mother who yearns for a richer and more exciting life, and a child who yearns for a normal family.

marilyn monroe handprintsBut I have sympathy for Mern and hope readers will too. Her creativity is stifled. The novel is set in the Fifties before Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, before the birth control pill, and women’s lib. Mern IS over the top, but what can she aspire to? She’s trapped in her single mother, working class life. To be discovered as a starlet was one big dream for a lot of American women at that time. Of course this situation is horrible for her daughter. Indeed, a set up for calamity.

In Digging to China, Reenie’s mother Nate is caught up in the political turbulence of the late Sixties. The novel begins one week after Robert Kennedy’s assassination, in June I968. In the course of the novel, Nate becomes radicalized and an activist for social justice. In Digging To China, specific political events precipitate internal transformation. Reenie becomes caught up in the dissolution of her parents’ marriage, and like Eunice, is launched on a journey of self-discovery.

Here is the opening of Digging to China. Reenie is listening to her parents fight in the room next door. You’ll hear how her imagination serves her in providing a sense of magic and wonder that leads to empowerment as she plots how to escape her distress.

Maplewood, New Jersey

May, 1968

Cages

 

They are at it again in the bedroom next to hers. Slippers thrown across the room, her mother’s scorched voice exploding in disgust. Her father commanding Control yourself, Nathalie. Reenie waits in the void of their aggrieved voices, ear to gap, the silence, and imagines her father smoking by the window, mother tense at the edge of the bed, cigarette butts burning to ash in the big glass ashtray. Her mother is Jewish and unhappy. (No one but Reenie notices this association, what she thinks of as her mother’s Jewish strangeness, the vague smile that twists into anger, the constant argument in her eyes.) Temperamental. Stubborn. Infuriating. Words her father labels her mother to be avoided at all costs, though Reenie is nothing like the brave and beautiful Nathalie. Nothing at all.

 

She should be used to this live rage scattershot in the night, but its randomness (her mother mutely seething at dinner, her father preoccupied but polite, cheerful even) undoes her, the violence chipping away at her confidence. Now she sits up in bed, hands clammy, heart sinking in a sea of blood and plugs her ears, Row row row your boat useless against the parental gale. Wakeful, she can’t not listen: her survival depends on it.

I want my fictional worlds to accurately convey the paradoxes, confusions, and moral dilemmas of human beings. Novels give us the experience of being alive in another person’s skin. How would we know about worlds we could never enter otherwise without our Toni Morrison, our Tim O’Brien, or Khaled Hosseini. Novels are direct avenues to compassion, something our world sorely needs to cultivate these days. And I have to say, writing my characters has taught me so much about risk, survival and resiliency. This is the great mystery of being a writer. We are transformed by what we write.

Varo_Armonia Continue reading…



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



Men respond to The Conditions of Love

young_man_reading_candle_ligh_hiPeople sometimes ask me who I write for. Do I have an ideal reader in mind while I’m writing? The question always surprises me. My focus has always been so much on living with my characters, listening to them, observing them, trying to help them make decisions. Thinking about who I’m presenting them to always struck me as a distraction from where my attention needed to be. Because Eunice was so central to the writing of The Conditions of Love, I suppose I did want women readers to recognize a part of themselves in her, to respond to her as a living, three-dimensional character. And at readings and in letters, I’ve had the delicious pleasure of hearing from many women about how much they identified with Eunice.

But what really surprised and delighted me was that I would hear from so many men. Not that they identify with Eunice, but that they were moved by the story, that they felt they learned something about love from the book. Was I really able to do that? Here are some samplings:
men-who-read-jane-austen

I treasure books where the characters stay with you a long time after you finish the book; and this was definitely one of those books.  The Conditions of Love resonates with the experiences and feelings of real life.  In that regard, I felt that every character in the story was like someone I have personally known in my own life.  It is a book that, after turning the final page, left me with a feeling of being fully and wonderfully satisfied at the finish.—D.F.

 

Eunice is one of the most complete, believable, sympathetic, occasionally annoying characters, I’ve discovered in a long time. . . . I’ve been reading a lot of women writers again and, though this is not a ‘woman’s book,’ whatever that means, it’s the best I’ve read this year along with A.M. Homes, Spiotta, and Oates. –D.W.

 

FW 2010Your story and characters were so original and unusual but somehow in the context of your tale completely believable. . . . You made me think and ponder. You made me want to share your insights with others. At times you made me think about my life and the people who have come and gone but most of all the people who are here and now and how I might use your wisdom to help me heal those relationships which need healing.—R.B.

 

I don’t real as many novels as I should, as I am so often disheartened by the language.  I have underlined so many sentences for their sheer beauty, and the characters are riveting and so multi- dimensional. This is a tour de force.—R.M.

How does reading these make me feel? Surprised does not begin to describe it. I’m so much more than pleased. It’s much like the excitement you feel at the beginning of a new relationship. I feel like the book has achieved so much more than I expected. And I’m gaining a new appreciation of what men are capable of – and perhaps falling a little in love with this new idea of an ideal male reader.

johnny depp on train



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

 

 



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

Bersabea_big



The Five Best Questions To Ask a Writer

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Since May and the publication of the paperback edition of The Conditions of Love, I’ve been on the road visiting bookstores and talking to readers. Book tours are not without stress—Will it rain? Will the fine weather keep people away? Who will show up? Will the book sell?—but no matter how these external circumstances play out, without fail I personally have been touched by every audience, even the reader who told me she threw the book across the room because she was so angry with Mern in her outrageous mother incarnation. I took the reader’s response as a compliment (which it was!) since it means I must have created a believable world in fiction.

I hope to write more about my encounters with readers and the experience of being a private person who assumes a public life, but at the moment I still am on tour, about to head up to the Wisconsin’s Cape Cod , the Door County peninsula for several book events. I expect that once again I’ll be engaged in thought-provoking discussions about TCOL and about the writing life. Just for fun, I came up with this list of the Five Best Questions to Ask a Writer. Every writer will, of course, have different preferences, but here are some of mine.

The Five Best Questions to Ask a Writer 

1. What were the early influences on your writing and how do they manifest in your work?

2. How does writing change the writer?

3. What books have fortified you as a writer?

4. Why is the unconscious mind a writer’s best friend?

5. What are you working on now?

This leads me to wonder if you’ve ever received a surprising answer when you asked a writer a question. I’d love to hear about it.

[This has been such a popular post that I wrote a follow-up to it with “the four questions I’d like to ask myself” in the post “What Do We Really Want to Know About a Writer?]



How I write; love and forgiveness

frostwritingdeskI began to write and publish poetry in my thirties. Soon, the word went out among my family members—Dale’s a poet!—something Robert Frost advised against calling oneself, claiming it to be a rather self-indulgent title. But to my family a poet I was, certified (by an MFA) and published.

My first writing assignment might have been my sister’s second marriage for which I was asked to write a poem. The sorts of poems written for weddings, birthdays, retirements, funerals are referred to as “occasional poems,” that is, composed for specific occasions. My sister requested I write a poem, and a poem I did write, though I cannot now recall a single line, nor how I felt composing it. The poem must have passed the mustard since I’m sure I would have remembered any negative comments, as these seem to have a longer shelf-life than praise. Fast-forward a few decades: the poem and my sister’s second marriage have both vaporized.

The next occasions I must have written poems for were birthdays, my Aunt Ann’s retirement, and maybe a Mother’s Day or two. I disliked having to create on demand but understood how much it meant to others to be the focus of an original piece of writing dedicated solely to them. And so I obliged. My father’s funeral is a blur. He died instantly in a car crash while I was camping with my family at a remote site above Lake Superior accessible only by canoe. The outfitters paddled out to find us, and we made it back in time for the funeral, but my poet-mind seemed gone for good. Of course a year later I was writing poems about my father, poems filled with memories and questions about who he was to me and who he was to himself, poems I couldn’t have written while he was alive.

Wordsworth portrait by Richard Caruthers 1817Which is to say I’m in complete accordance with Wordsworth’s dictum that poetry is “emotion recollected in tranquility.” I’ve never been a writer who cozies up to writing on command. I do know plenty of writers who swear by writing assignments—Wake up at 6 AM for a week and write a poem before you get out of bed—and others who like to goof around with exercises at the back of writing books. And while I certainly see the merit in this and wish I had the inclination, alas, this way of writing is not for me.

But why not, I wonder? Here’s my guess: to generate my enthusiasm, I need to be empathically connected to the material. Empathy and not just interest means I need my heart and my mind engaged. The mind lines things up, makes a list, gets bossy. The heart insists on value. “Hey, why do you care about this stuff anyway? What’s it mean to you?” The mind and heart are a bit like a comedy duo, the mind played by Stan Laurel, the sourpuss realist, arms crossed over his chest, taking account. Sweet, dumb Oliver Hardy’s stan-laurel-oliver-hardy-1the heart—that fool, that big buffoon, ever-loving and always trying to connect.

I’m kidding, of course, stretching the truth (and metaphor) beyond its ken. But let me come back to my original subject—writing on assignment. Sometimes an assignment comes along that provokes heart and mind, and that’s exactly what happened when Justin St. Vincent asked me to write a piece for his terrific eBook,  Love, Live, Forgive.  Justin had gotten my name from The Fetzer Institute, where I had participated in a writer’s retreat on Love and Forgiveness.

justin st vincent author_photo_2014I knew Justin’s assignment was one I could accept with pleasure. I wrote about compassion and healing. My offering includes lines like “Every piece of art is a statement about the human condition, every effort to create, a reflection of our tender, brutal, poignant selves.” And what I’ve discovered reading the other entries is that I am no rare bird in the art world in exploring love and forgiveness and compassion as themes. I’ve been hugely intrigued and inspired by what I’ve read by the other writers, musicians, and visual artists. Their words are insightful, surprising, original, pithy, humorous, wise and absolutely worth reading. There’s a sampling below. Hope you’ll download this free book and dip in soon.

nicol_ragland_bio_picFrom photographer and filmmaker Nicol Ragland:

“My most recent fine art series, ‘Between Two Worlds,’ is meant to subvert separatist thinking by reflecting back the destruction of life amongst the speed of our industrialized society. . . . We live in a culture that perpetuates turning a blind eye away from our fear, our grief, and destruction while in that same place is a tremendous amount of resolution, love, and truth.”

From DJ, producer and photographer Moby:

“To me, the opposite of love isn’t necessarily hate. The opposite of love is judgment, and the opposite of forgiveness is bitterness and resentment.”

Rakha_NaseemFrom author, speaker and storyteller Naseem Rakha, a friend from the Fetzer Institute:

“For me, there is no creative life or noncreative life. There is just life, and each day I create what I can of it.”

From poet Demi Amparan:

“If we can relate to a person’s perspective and differences, it’s then hopefully possible for us to begin the process of love and forgiveness.”

 

 

 



My Interview With Stephanie Bedford for The Capital Times

CapTimes

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Here’s my interview with Stephanie Bedford of The Capital Times appearing just a week before the Wisconsin Book Festival. The timing is perfect.

EVP Coffee

We actually chatted a few months ago at our local EVP coffee house. Being a fiction writer herself, Stephanie and I got into wonderful conversations about fiction, about being a mother and a writer, about being an introverted person who suddenly moves into the public domain.

What I am discovering about this last issue is that I LOVE being with and talking to readers. It’s an intimate act to share a book with someone, an act that is almost like sharing a secret. It creates a bond.

Washington Island Literature Festival
Washington Island Literature Festival

Now that I’m on the road and meeting more readers of TCOL, I’m quite humbled by their astute questions and observations not only about my book, but about life. I shouldn’t be surprised. Don’t books provoke us into thinking about all sorts of things—including our own lives?

If you’d like to read the details of my Cap Times interview, please click here:http://host.madison.com/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/madison-poet-s-debut-novel-is-engaging-unconventional/article_583ab0ee-9c48-57aa-8461-5add81dbfdcd.html