Riding That Train

Writers write, preaches teacher Larry Donner (portrayed by comedian Billy Crystal) in Throw Momma From the Train. Most of us do, in one way or another. I set aside every Tuesday and Wednesday to hammer out blog posts, though if I felt inspired on a Sunday, Monday or Thursday, I certainly follow that muse. It turns out for Larry, however, that he is struck with writer’s block, blamed on his ex-wife who becomes a best-selling author by revealing issues that plagued their marriage. This blow to his ego is understandably crippling, but he can’t seem to pull free from the paralysis of cynicism and self pity. Not until he reclaims his passion for living does he discover a renewed vigor, spurred on by his mischievous student Owen (played by Danny de Vito).

Though annoyed throughout the film by it, Larry desperately needs Owen’s zany Trickster energy to spark his creative buzz, though it certainly takes awhile for him to recognize this. He hobbles along as though mortally wounded, offering half-hearted advice to his students and clearly suffering the daily grind of living. Even when he allots time each day for inspiration, the fact eludes him that he is sacrificing not only his pride, but spontaneity and gusto for life, itself. His raison d-etre for so long has been demonizing his ex, and it’s sapping all his vital energy. Owen provides a catalyst to snap Larry out of it by hatching a plot to kill his own mother (played brilliantly by the character actor Anne Ramsey) for her venomous son-bashing. Owen’s idea is after all serious, making it more diabolical than Larry’s ongoing fantasy of killing his ex-wife. Intrigued, Larry agrees to Owen’s harebrained scheme to swap murders, Owen killing Larry’s ex and Larry killing Owen’s momma. (Owen hatches this idea by watching and re-watching an old Hitchcock classic.

What unravels is the stuff of a well-woven humorous plot, and this unlikely friendship establishes the fertile ground in which Larry finds himself thriving – reenergized, reinvigorated and, finally, writing, once again. Like his former wife, Larry winds up succeeding after writing about felt experience – his convoluted journey with Owen. And the surprise is that Owen, in his own inimitable fashion, reaps a fortune by writing a children’s book about the same adventures from a wholly unique perspective!

Every week I wonder if I have two more posts inside of me. And then I get out on my bike and, working up a sweat, survey ideas and concepts as they shape, snap and sizzle in my mind. My eyes drink in nature and fellow creatures and a virtual lifetime of experience and pondering percolates up and into my frontal lobe where I am able to begin crafting these observations into story lines. If I don’t allow fear or negativity to creep into that creative space, I am ever rewarded with a plethora of viewpoints from which to glean offerings.

Factual as well as fantastical creativity feeds from the stuff of which life is made. Unlike Larry, I have never experienced blockages to doing what I love – only that which I deem distasteful brings about that kind of resistance. Feeling stifled is a terrible thing. I often ponder the meaning of words, and inspiration is one of them: to breathe is to inspire. Maybe that’s why I find physical movement helpful in dislodging nuggets from my sluggish brain. That and the knowledge that we can never really run out of ideas. Repeating themes run like veins throughout history. Yet nobody can convey a story quite like you or me. It’s our voice that is unique in the telling.

image: Bela Johnson - forest floor, Pololu Valley, HI

Writing and The Inner Critic

There’s no such thing as perfect writing, just like there’s no such thing as perfect despair.

~ Haruki Murakami

I am a self proclaimed perfectionist, though I have spent the better part of my life trying to dismantle the harmful aspects of this particular trait. After all, it’s not something I cultivated, it’s how I came into the world. And so you can well imagine how challenging it is to simply capture ideas and experiences and release them into locution without the Censor’s head over my shoulder nodding or tsk-ing, depending.

origin of image unknown

I remember a creative course at Vermont College some years back – where we were required to actively engage expression in an artists’ journal. In fact I came across this little black book just the other day. It was shocking to note just how tight my words and images were compared to the present, how inauthentic in their dance with caution. And it was refreshing too, recognizing how far I’ve come with regards to loosening up in order to reveal more of myself to the reader. I still remember my dear professor, a genuinely supportive woman who proclaimed us all artists, whether we believed it or not. I did not, at least in the realm of the written word.

I knew I was an artist from early on, as I’ve always been able to depict a likeness in pastel. Considering writing as art was intimidating, for it touched on my vulnerability as a wordsmith. I had never taken a writing course, ever – I was too afraid of being criticized for a necessary and enjoyable endeavor. There was serious and there was pleasurable, and never the two should meet! Happily fear itself had never prevented me from writing – which I have done consistently throughout my life. (Let it be noted I wrote mostly poetry, allowing me to hide neatly behind metaphor as a child disappears behind the shaggy trunk of an old hemlock.) Meanwhile this teacher encouraged a free-flow of ideas and images, whether clipped from magazines or culled from our own heads. I didn’t fully grasp the deconstruction process until much later, witnessed through years of journaling in pencil with many erasures and careful rewording.

Thankfully my journals of today are messy – scribbled and replete with crossed-out mots and margin notes. I have finally allowed myself to record ideas as they flow from my mind, (mostly) minus the Censor.  I’ll admit though, and I know I’m not the only one, that when I post on WordPress and hit that “Publish” button, errors I hadn’t seen before pop up like caddis flies hatching on a still pond. Suddenly I’m “Updating,” hoping nobody picks out the adjective I’ve used twice in the same small paragraph. I guess perfectionism can never truly be eradicated, for it does retain favorable aspects. I still strive to produce a body of words that flows nicely and musically onto paper, delighting the reader not only with intriguing ideas but with the beauty of our splendiferous English language. It, and you, dear reader deserve no less.

image: flyfishingfromscratch.com

The Blessed Community

Some writers suffer from a dearth of ideas. I on the other hand struggle with too much information. Ideas flash into my head from every imaginable angle and source, and it’s the harnessing of these wild impulses, the clarification of their messages, that I am obliged to convey with as much respectful accuracy as possible. I don’t think there is any shortage of inspiration in Creation, and those of us lucky enough to present an open conduit for its expression are blessed. Sharing in this WordPress community, I count myself among the most fortunate.

I greatly admire the storyteller – that ancient purveyor of oral history that some convey with seeming facility and aplomb. Old Jules is a classic spinner of tales and our world is richer for the telling. Harper Faulkner makes me laugh and at times cringe with vivid recollection as he rockets from intimacy to the Bible, from childhood to a man’s cherished perspective. Priya weaves colorful dioramas from faraway India – in her words I smell the streets; feel the heartbeat of the people. VivianLea is a sister under the skin – she does not fear the depths nor does she shirk from expressing the most tender of feelings. Cecilia’s stories and images from the prairie are delightful and perpetually provide an earthy satisfaction – grounding and elevating me at the same time. This Little Lark can pick up a dragging jaw and set it back in its socket. Ronnie lends lighthearted perspective to the everyday and Nissi feels like a good friend who lets us glimpse the heart and soul of the feminine. Michael shares his own motivational messages and is always generous in praise of others. I am sure there are many out there who deserve merit and mention that I haven’t yet discovered.

When inspiration showers its sparks, the most difficult challenge is in translating impulses and feelings into words. Einstein had his mathmatic symbols, Rembrandt his brush. I too have attempted to paint, but holding a brush distances me from the oeuvre. I have had some success with pastels because I can get my hands into them; likewise sculpture has provided me with satisfactory results. But these are definitive expressions: I can portray your face with reasonable accuracy. A horse is a horse, of course. Of course. What I most admire are those who can visually transmit the amorphous into brilliant colors, forms and shapes that provide recognition yet defy description. My daughters Amanda and Alison are brilliant artists, and I don’t think I’ve overstated a case because I’m their mother. Others I have shared in several of my posts.

The closest writing can come to universal truth is perhaps in poetry. Although I have written many poems throughout the course of my existence, metaphor can tend toward the obscure. If the heavens are awash in archetypes and symbols, writers are indeed etymologists, linguistic interpreters of the unseen. In the end I am happy to be a wordsmith, recognizing words as the last medium of expression along the helix of universal truth. The human brain is a marvel to behold in its ability to transmit and translate and spew out something intelligible. I am eternally grateful for this WordPress community, the support of my fellow bloggers, and those of you who take the time to subscribe to and follow the ramblings of a mind struggling to make sense of it all.

 

image: Anne C. Brink

On Critical Thinking

Sensitivity to criticism is something that has been with me since I was small. And it’s not important that it came from overly critical parents unless I have internalized their censure as my own inner voice of authority. To blame something on anyone is to give them lasting power over me for as long as I grant them that right, and I no longer choose to do this. Yet and still, that inner voice proves a powerful judge, condemning me if I don’t match my own exacting standards. It can be exhausting.

Returning to college sixteen years ago as an adult proved to be the best catalyst for inner growth and change in recent memory.  Had I subjected myself to the kind of constructive criticism important to academics at eighteen or nineteen, it would have met with unconscious resistance. As an older adult, my greater powers of reflection allowed me to slowly absorb the importance of critiquing while not taking it as personally as I otherwise might. Exposing my innermost vulnerability through writing proved to be the most challenging, and it was the written word that was under scrutiny. I had not shown my creative writing to anyone but my mother when I was perhaps ten or twelve, and her response to a particularly poignant poem I had written about the Vietnam war caused her to boldly question my sanity. This shut the door on that kind of sharing for many years. I never stopped writing – nobody could have robbed me of that outlet – but I no longer considered it worthy for others to appraise.

Vermont College has a unique degree program for adult learners called the ADP – a fully accredited program that, to my mind, is the future of education. Having students of all ages meet in groups, choosing their own advisors and the advisors accepting them in turn allows sharing not normally experienced in traditional lecture halls. Professors learn from students learning from one another and advisors, both on staff as well as in an adjunct capacity. The intensity is ramped up due to the two-week residencies every six months on campus. Then students return home to read a book a week, interface with jobs and home life, and hammer out both academic as well as reflective essays and critical papers. The variety of feedback is enormous, given advisors change twice a year for four years, or however long one participates in the program. And that is after the choice is made – during those two weeks on campus, one encounters many advisors, both as lecturers as well as in encounter groups with existing and prospective students.

While at VC, I interacted with both male and female advisors, most of them my elders. Their voices could not have been more diverse. Their criticisms came from trained academic minds, but also from human beings with their own quirks and foibles. As a teen, I would have worshipped these scholars. As an adult, I questioned them in my mind as I simultaneously cultivated respect for their advice and critiquing skills. The critical thinking I developed as a result of going through the program allowed me to internalize a wiser discerning voice without feeling as though it was imposed upon me by another.

Before VC and concurrent with learning the ropes of motherhood and a professional life, criticism leveled at me caused me to shrink back from, rather than grow into uniquely expressing who and what I was. Now I am able to listen to criticism when it comes and, in between the occasional knee-jerk of taking things too personally, I find I am more able to render the raw material of another’s appraisal into something useful; skimming the valuable part off the top where I can benefit from its innate wisdom. I no longer grant it the power to determine my truth – rather I let it inform my direction.

 

one of my many journals

it’s only words …

All my life, I’ve struggled with the spoken word. Anytime I engage in conversation, I’ve got a litany of words streaming through my head, Matrix-like, and I must sort through them in order to ensure what I’m about to say lends proper weight, meaning, gravitas. And it’s funny, because I’ve discovered most folks don’t care if I do, but I can’t alter who I am at whim. Meanwhile, I cringe as others begin drifting away, looking furtively from side to side as though they want to be anywhere but inside of this suddenly-far-too-complex interaction.

While “making conversation” might be easy for some, consider the bane of a thesaurus-like brain. But if you really can’t or don’t want to stretch your imagination too far just now, simply consider the paradox that is the English language. (This should  be easy for those of you for whom English is your second language.) Although I have passing knowledge of French and Spanish, I am no expert. But I’d like to believe there are languages out there that make it easier to say what one means and thus to mean what one says. In my opinion, ours can be a facile tongue only if we do not seek to use it too creatively.

Take for instance the greeting, How are you? Really, and I’ve found this to be disappointing but true, most folks don’t want to know how I am. Instead they simply desire the briefest of intercourse, they want mirrored back to them that all is well in their world. Thus and so I have discovered that the proper answer is simply Great! or Fine! or Fabulous! or if I haven’t the stomach for it, I can always get away with a simple Okay. (period. or dot-dot-dot.) More than the most cursory reply seems to hold little interest, and I can’t bear the dismissive looks anyway. The word pleasantries does not really fit and yet its meaning does: inconsequential banter. Though I don’t find it pleasant in the least, do forgive my honesty. I find it banal and shallow. Judgments, I know, which you’ll discover more about in just a minute, if you’re still with me.

Consider the word discriminate. I do not discriminate based on color, gender, sexual proclivity or religious viewpoint. But I do discriminate when it comes to the quality of an interaction. If I didn’t, I’d ramble on to a street-dwelling drug addict about my future plans for education or my mother’s bad knees. If I did not discriminate, I might find myself in a dangerous situation. Or I might choose eggs when I really wish I would have eaten the chicken instead. (Extrapolate from that statement what you will, and you will begin to understand how my suffering mind works.) All this before I open my mouth.

Now let’s take the word judgment. While I strive not to judge others based on the above non-discriminatory qualities, if I do not judge anything about them or about myself, if I fail to have opinions about human behavior or in regards  to various life situations, I’d never be able to write. Anything. At all. It’s simply the way I’m wired.

The Matrix

 

Lost that creative spark?

It doesn’t matter what we do for a living or what we feel we are accomplishing in life. From time to time, most of us find ourselves asking the question, Is this all there is? We don’t have to be artists to feel creatively blocked, yet how can we reclaim a sense of creativity when we least feel able? It may begin with something as simple as breathing.

Consider the word in-spiration, meaning both something that stimulates us to create as well as the drawing in of breath. In it, we discover a catalyst for reclaiming the imaginative spark we feel we have lost. When we are stressed, some of us actually hold our breath. We begin to feel less energized, less animated. We lack direction. We may slip into depression. What underlies this lassitude may be a form of soul sickness, and no one describes this better than Shaun McNiff in his book Art Heals, “Art does not profess to rid the world of suffering and wounds. It does something with them, realizing that the soul is truly lost when afflictions cannot be put to use.”

Yet what meaning has art to one who feels no creative pull? How can we reawaken that sense of wonder we all felt as children, the feeling that everything from a cloud to a cooking utensil is potent with magic? Julia Cameron’s The Artists Way offers, “For those of us who have become artistically anorectic yearning to be creative and refusing to feed that hunger in ourselves so that we become more and more focused on our deprivation, a little authentic luxury can go a long way.” She then goes on to define luxury as having nothing to do with “penthouse views, designer clothes, zippy foreign sports cars or first-class travel.” She speaks instead of the luxury of time “with friends, time with family, above all … time with [ourselves] with no agendas of preternatural accomplishment.”

Let’s try giving ourselves time to truly be self indulgent rather than time spent checking out watching television or staying busy doing routine tasks. Begin with the breath, letting come what may and being with whatever arises. Chances are, if we are attached to attaining peace, chaos will ensue. This may appear as disordered thoughts, maybe even a loud noise outside. Distractions can be a function of the Trickster, an archetypal energy which emerges when we become too rooted in a singular way of thinking or being; wanting what we want and not welcoming what is. Trickster provides the chaos needed to get us unstuck. McNiff says if we welcome chaos, welcome our fears and resistance and stay with what ensues; if we stick with the process and listen to our breath and body as opposed to the rambling mind, we will move into our creative being, once again. “Stuck,” he offers, “is being somewhere other than where you are.”

If we can work with how we flow best rather than to try and fit ourselves into some kind of creative mold, expression comes more freely. Some of us need the discipline of setting aside daily time to create. Most art, music or writing teachers encourage and even demand we do this. Writers write, preaches writing teacher Larry Donner, portrayed by comedian Billy Crystal in Throw Mama From the Train. And most of us do. Yet Larry himself remains stuck with writer’s block until he reclaims his passion for life, spurred on by student Owen, played by Danny de Vito. Larry needs Owen’s zany Trickster energy to spark his creative buzz.

Regular time set aside for inspiration does not mean we sacrifice spontaneity and the joy of living. In fact, creativity feeds from the stuff our lives are made of! If we deny or suppress engagement with life, we eventually reach an impasse which can go on indefinitely. We may even become sick, laconic or depressed. The longer the need to create goes unsatisfied, the further away from our essential nature we wander until the return demands a healing journey of sorts. In this case, a system such as Cameron’s twelve-week program to reclaim our creativity may be helpful. Yet we can always simply return to the breath.

Setting aside time each day to sit with ourselves and breathe can help move what is stuck. Others of us work best when staying mindful of our internal process, attuning to cues and attending to our needs and desires. Inner attentiveness helps us follow our muse no matter what must be laid aside at the time she arrives. Walks or contemplation in nature may not only grant us a sudden burst of inspiration but greater peace of mind.

When we go with the flow, our lives unfold moment-to-moment. In Garry Ross’ movie Pleasantville, David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) are all too aware of the messy complications of modern society. David sits in front of the television, watching reruns of Pleasantville, a spoof on such ‘sixties shows as Ozzie and Harriet. Jennifer is a self-described “slut.” A t.v. repairman (Don Knotts) suddenly appears onscreen, giving them a magic remote control. When they find themselves transformed into Pleasantville’s black and white world as Bud and Mary Sue, their ingenuity reveals its limits and ultimately transforms not only these two but all that surrounds them. At first, Jennifer thinks that it is simply passion that converts the two-toned characters into color. Eventually though, she realizes that this new dimension of life is imbued with something more subtle and meaningful. When the characters begin to honestly reflect on feelings and longings, when they begin to challenge the status quo and create life with heart; when they begin to live soulfully, their world becomes awash with brilliant color. Creativity, lived through them, changes their whole world.

Everyday places, people and things become food for artistic expression if we observe them openly and with care. Yet if we do not allocate regular reflective time for ourselves, if we fill the hours with the demands of others and/or anything but our own creative endeavors, we starve the artist within. Let’s not get caught in the inner dialogue which reinforces I am not an artist. I am not creative. Nature is constantly reinventing herself, and we exemplify the human aspect of that natural world. We are all artists. No matter how we express what is unique to us, whether it be a small flair to setting the table, the unique colors we choose when we dress ourselves for the day, or creating art for its own sake, we can make a statement that impresses originality in the corner of the universe we call home.

Artists are not always healed people, but they can teach us how to engage the transformative aspects of emotional upheaval rather than experience the madness that occurs when imagination turns against itself. ~ Shaun McNiff

 

image: thewatchers.adorraeli.com

FALLOW

My handwriting is atrocious at best. That sprung, I have always written (save for the academic) in longhand. Only recently have I become lazy in over-using a keyboard out of habit. This has resulted in a stilted proclivity not to write much of anything at all. Easy to blame abandonment by the muse, especially in the face of life fraught with its share of challenges.

What invitation is declined when technology supplants flow from cosmos to graphite – how does the intermittent caress of a hound’s cheek or shifting positions from supine to seated alter the creative process? Or is it the time of day – brilliant sunshine on my shoulders would only cloud an LCD screen … Does the soft glow of my bedside lamp casting golden upon the simple lined page grant more poetic license than a heated box merely prompting brain to punch keys (and what gets omitted)?

How do sunlight, wind through a panax hedge, two lazy dogs by my side and the urge to pause and reflect (thus gazing out toward the sea or sweeping expansive emerald fields dotted with cattle) – how does the lone frigate bird circling overhead or the distant drone of tires on asphalt, the mellow tone of windchimes or the shiver of a summer breeze contribute to a fecund flowing of words onto paper?

Yet and thus – begins the day.

A poet’s heart

So you want to be a poet? Perhaps to entice a lover with sweet words spun as amber honey from lips yearning to articulate what is sensed, deep within … Maybe you pine for those bygone days of youth when it seemed facile to dream carefully crafted words onto onion skin purchased at the stationer’s, pungent with smells of ink and hardwood and all that lovely linen paper …

Perhaps that trip alone invoked a writer’s sensibilities – small reminisces often waft from the olfactory senses, imprinting themselves onto folds of the cortex, registering pleasure which then might express itself freely from the feeling center of the human heart …

Like new textbooks or the smell of library stacks, we ache to summon that which has gone missing when laptop replaces pencil and page, where thumbing through the tissue pages of Roget’s is supplanted by the virtual thesaurus …

The armor we don in order to interface with a world gone mad will have to be shed if we truly seek the beloved within – we must doff layer after layer of superficial skin until, more naked than the newly born, one stands starkly before the mirror of the self, trembling with vulnerability.

It is only from this place of utter defenselessness that we are guileless enough to summon and heed the muse, without whom we are hapless poets indeed. Thus take care in the asking, for once down the rabbit hole, the journey will most assuredly commence, consummating in what we cannot know nor would wish to control – consuming all and restoring us to ourselves, renewed.

image: eastsidepatch.com