Tuesday, May 30, 2017

RISE AND WRITE!

post by Lynn




What kind of day are you going to have? Does it involve writing? Will you write this morning?

I’m not necessarily talking about a full sit-down session, although those are nice when you can manage them. If not, maybe you could pen a few lines over coffee, or recite a new haiku while you shave or fix your hair.

YEAH, EASY FOR YOU TO SAY

Full disclosure: I am semi-retired and work from home, so I have the luxury of not going off to an office in the morning. Still, I have to make decisions about my mornings, like anybody else.

Me, I journal. Seven days a week, unless I’m traveling, I fix coffee and then slide onto the chaise and start writing my own version of Morning Pages. (For more about the Morning Pages idea, developed by Julia Cameron, click here).

KEEPING GOOD COMPANY IN THE DIM MORNING LIGHT

Lots of writers through the years have worked in the early hours. Edith Wharton, Ray Bradbury, Flannery O’Connor, Kurt Vonnegut, Jack London, Wallace Stegner, Virginia Woolf, to name a few.

Some wrote early by necessity, like Toni Morrison who wrote before her kids got up. Others by preference, like Katherine Anne Porter, who picked mornings for the quiet that this time of day offers. “I don’t want to speak to anyone or see anybody,” she said. “Perfect silence.”

KICK OFF THE CREATIVE PROCESS

I’d like to advocate for writing in the morning, however you can make it work in your life. Try it for a while. Set aside a time slot in the morning to do something related to writing.

Why?

Well, it’s a “prime the pump” thing—(an expression I just came up with. Have you heard it?) It goes way back to the day when people pumped their water from wells. You had to pump the old well handle up and down a few times—sometimes quite a few times—before the water started to flow from the spigot into your bucket.


Here are some morning writing ideas that might help start the flow for you:

  • Start a Writing Prompt list and do a quick free-write in lieu of reading the newspaper or scanning social media. Having the prompt picked and ready to go will save time; 

  • Sing a song to your kid or cat while you fix breakfast, re-writing the lyrics to a favorite tune; 

  • Use refrigerator magnets to write essay titles, random thoughts or even a blush-worthy limerick; 

  • Make like poet Art Elser and post a new haiku on your Facebook page each morning; 

  • In your car, play some inspiring music (without words) and think about what the music is depicting—is it a jazz riff on a busy street scene? A musical depiction of a horse galloping across the prairie? A long, slow massage in b minor? Speak your thoughts into your cell phone’s recording app; 

  • Using your family photo wall as inspiration, write down a re-created conversation with your mom, dad, siblings, or Grandma Ruth; 

  • Walk the dog and mentally scribe what you see/hear/smell: descriptions of the landscape, bird song and alley way garbage. Play with the phrases in your head, then write in your notepad any that stand out. 

I’m sure ya’ll know of some other ways to act writerly in the a.m., right? Please share!

PUMP AWAY

Pump that creative handle first thing in the morning, and you might find that words will trickle throughout your day. Be sure to keep that notepad handy to catch the drips. Occasionally you’ll even get a gush of insight that takes your latest poem, short story, essay or novel to a new level.

TRY AND TRY AGAIN

Maybe you already write in the morning. Excellent! I’ll be thinking of you out there while I’m journaling.

Maybe you keep trying the morning writing thing and life keeps intervening, and sleep is precious, and so on and so forth.

I get it.

But try again. Do it once a week or month or on vacation. Don’t be a perfectionist about it, just add it to your repertoire of writing activities.


If you need more convincing, read this post about The Best Time to Write and Get Ideas, According to Science, which explains why creative writing in the morning is a good idea, and how a routine of writing (at any time of day) is the ticket to productivity.


And while you're at it--have a great morning!



Resource:

Odd Type Writers: From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors, by Celia Blue Johnson

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Writer, the Politician, the Truth

Guest post by David Romtvedt

I’m a writer and have been for over forty years. My job is to explore the human condition—the self, the world we live in, our relationship to the beings with whom we share the world—the plants and animals, the air and water. I try to understand and illuminate with language the inner life—my own and that of other people. To do this I must enter into another person’s psyche. In poetry and fiction this person is an invented being derived from observation, experience, and imagination.

The furniture of writing is the furniture of the world. Or the clothing. As we dress the body so the body dresses the psyche. Am I my body? When my body dies, do I die with it? There’s a scene in the film Little Buddha in which a Tibetan monk tries to explain something of Buddhism to the middle class American father whose son may be a reincarnation of a Tibetan master. The monk fills a cup of tea but rather than offer it to the American or drink it himself, he smashes the cup against the side of a table. Holding the handle and looking around at the shards of clay, he asks the American if the tea is gone. Of course it’s not gone, it’s just not in the cup anymore. Am I like the tea? Is the tea aware of its own existence? Tea is liquid and will evaporate leaving almost nothing behind but a brown stain.

The world is breathtakingly beautiful—the dust in the wind, the smell of that dust when rain falls, the shape and motion of leaves on a tree, the tree, the body language of a person who is physically hurt or angry or bitter, the look in the eyes of one who is longing for something unattainable, water and those insects that can walk on water, snow. Perhaps there is a book waiting to be made of nothing but a list of such details. Notice, the book tells us, what is all around us, everywhere present yet secretive.

While I have worked as a journalist, I rarely set out in my poetry and fiction to comment on current events or to articulate my personal and political values. Of course those values lead me to think in certain ways and are present in what I write. My poems, driven by image and metaphor, often try to reveal what those in power would hide.

I was raised in a working class household. My father left school at grade six and worked his entire life as a laborer doing physically hard and often dangerous jobs. At one point, a semi tractor-trailer hitch broke and the trailer fell on him crushing both his arms. He thought literature that made no money was worthless, money being the measure of worth. He was ashamed of his lack of money, seeing it as evidence that he was dumb. “If you’re so smart,’ he asked me, “why aren’t you rich?”

My mother grew up one of nine children on a dairy farm but after serving in the Women’s Army Corps in World War II attended normal school and became a teacher working with children in grades one to three. She never wanted to be a schoolteacher but saw it as the best escape for a woman born in 1920 into a household with no money.

It’s for my mother and father that I write.

There is a fairy tale we tell ourselves in America—anyone can do or be anything. If we work hard we can attain our goals. If we don’t, we didn’t work hard enough or we lacked the capacity for the thing we wanted to do and be. If these things are true, then the reason the US has never had a woman president is that no woman has ever worked hard enough and been competent enough to gain the office. This is one of the great lies told by people who need to believe that their gain has come only through individual effort and talent. The truth is that the vagaries of birth—money, race, religion, geography—also influence our fate and sometimes we are as lucky as we are talented. Or as unlucky.

While old age is gaining on me, I’m not dead yet, and there are some benefits to having been around the block a few times. A lot of what a younger person might feel is history remains for me current and personal. During the Watergate hearings investigating President Nixon, I was working unloading rough-cut lumber from railroad boxcars at a siding above the Columbia River near Bridal Veil, Oregon. It was exhausting work. And often painful—although we wore heavy leather gloves, shards of wood went through the gloves and into our hands. In the evening I sat pulling splinters out and soaking my hands in disinfectant then coating them with antibiotic cream while watching administration officials on television who were simultaneously explaining to and withholding from Congress what they had done or not done.

I was a recent college graduate with a degree in American Studies—a combination of history, political theory, and literature—and I was watching the American president lie about his administration’s involvement in the burglary of the Democratic National Committee Headquarters. It seemed that the more Nixon resisted telling the truth, the more truth came out. The president had an enemies list and he used the CIA, the FBI, and the IRS against those enemies. He bugged the offices of political opponents and hired people to infiltrate groups peacefully protesting the Vietnam War. The infiltrators were to commit acts of violence so as to damage the peace movement.

President Nixon tape-recorded many of his White House conversations and, after a series of court cases, the US Supreme Court ruled that the president was obliged to release the tapes. On August 9, 1974, seeking to avoid impeachment and conviction, Nixon resigned as president. Less than a month later his former vice-president and then President Gerald Ford pardoned the president.

So part of why I write is to pursue the truth. Maybe that’s inner truth—what it is to be a person. Sometimes, though it’s more social, more political. I don’t plan it but in writing I butt up against social reality. In the novel Zelestina Urza in Outer Space, I imagine the life of a sixteen-year-old Basque girl who in 1902 immigrates to the invented town of Wolf, Wyoming. In Wolf, Zelestina meets a slightly younger orphaned half-Arapaho, half-Shoshone girl. As the two become friends they, the narrator, and the reader discover connections between the oppression of Basques and American Indians.

All this leads me to the Trump presidency, a presidency guided by the absence of guidance, by a quixotic individual and quixotic appointees who say one thing today and the opposite tomorrow. The president governs by bluster and ego. And it turns out he is willing to lie regularly, publicly, and bigly. Of late we have heard him explain the recently passed House of Representatives health care proposal in terms that are the opposite of what the bill actually says.

In his lack of commitment to the truth, the president’s actions and speech endanger our society for, in the absence of a commitment to the truth, citizens cannot know what to believe or how to respond to events. In a small way, this repudiation of the truth threatens literature by threatening the integrity of our individual and collective inner lives.

I feel unsettled speaking about Trump when I meant to speak about writing but I have never before felt so concerned about the possible destructive consequences of a president’s actions. I’m uncertain if I can sit down at my desk and work on a poem or story. For the first time since I was in my twenties, I’ve felt that maybe I made a big mistake being a writer. Maybe I should have gone to law school. A lawyer after all might be able to help us resist some of the inhumane proposals President Trump has made—a 25 billion dollar wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, executive orders that use race, religion, and citizenship to selectively keep people out of the U.S., budget bills with hidden agendas such as abolishing funding for reproductive health care services provided by Planned Parenthood or ending the Meals on Wheels program that serves many older and housebound people, health care reform that would lead to millions more Americans having no health insurance while exempting the U.S. Congress from the effects of the proposed reform. It’s just too much—cavalier cruelty against the poor and less powerful coupled with bold proposals to give ever greater advantage to the rich and powerful.

I guess I could write about it. And if I did, my thoughts on craft would be guided by the situation we’re in. I would try to speak spontaneously and personally as if to a friend and with as much emotional honesty as I could muster.

-----

"I was born in Portland, Oregon but grew up in southern Arizona. It was hot. I received a BA from Reed College and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop then worked with the US Peace Corps and Maison du Qu├ębec in the Congo and Rwanda. Later I worked building a children’s park and playground in Jalapa, Nicaragua, during the war against the U.S.-supported Contras. In Jalapa we were bombed by American jets flown with Honduran markings. After some years doing any job I could find—mostly labor--I began working as a writer, musician, and teacher in the artist in schools programs of Alaska, Washington, Montana, Nevada, and Wyoming where after ten years of work in other states I was thrown out of a school for reading a poem called “Our Distance” that appeared in my book How Many Horses. I've taught as a half time professor at the University of Wyoming for twenty-two years. My most recent books are the novel Zelestina Urza in Outer Space (University of Nevada Center for Basque Studies, 2015) and the poetry collection Dilemmas of the Angels (LSU, 2017). Though I’m disheartened by the politics of the Trump era, I’m grateful to be here."

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

THE BOOK, THE STORY

post by Lynn 


Have you ever had moments when you started to doubt the importance of writing, of story?

I have.

I have had the thought run through my brain that says what I am attempting as a writer is, well, hardly substantial. Hardly life altering.

The last time I had a thought along those lines I coincidentally received a poem via email, from one of the authors who contributed to the Watch My Rising anthology that I edited last year.

That author’s name is Jim Littwin, and he attached the poem to some other comment, during an exchange we were having about the anthology.

Out of the blue, you might say.

Jim wrote the poem about an experience his father had during World War II. His father, John L. Littwin, was a captain in the Army Air Corps. He was shot down on his 53rd mission, and captured by the Nazis in May of 1944.

Here’s the poem, which was originally published in Whetstone, of Barrington, Illinois in 1985:



The Book

“Tell a story, they said.
“Keep our minds off the cold.”

My father didn’t answer.
He was just as cold,
     just as tired.
He could count his bones
     by touching them.

They trudged in snow,
feet wrapped in gunny sacks.

The moon looked like bread.

The Nazis, black helmets
     glinting like hell stars,
clawed the ranks of prisoners
to tear away the wounded
     and the slow.

The wishes of his men
and the rhythm of their walking
     made a book appear
before my father’s eyes.

He saw it floating there.

He began to read,
and men huddled round him
     to be near the story,
the story pulling them.

When my father reached out
and turned his hand
     in the frozen air,
an airman asked
     what he was doing.
“Turning the page,” he said.

And their feet and the cold
     were forgotten,
the guards in black helmets
     forgotten,
and my father read
     till his fingers froze.

With the sudden silence
     and crunch of snow,
     someone asked,
“What’s wrong, Captain?”

“My hands,” he said.
“I can’t turn the page.”

And the airman
     reached out, turning
     his hand in the icy air,
and my father went on reading.

They lost no more
     to the cold that night.
They lost no more
     to the snow.

          Jim Littwin (c) Whetstone, 1985




I read the poem.

I re-read the poem.

The doubts dissolved.

My stories may never matter in the way that John Littwin’s story mattered on that long ago march, but story matters.

Story matters.

Thanks, Jim Littwin, for sharing that story, that poem, with me.

How did you know I needed it?




Jim Littwin’s work has appeared in Story Quarterly (Volumes 5/6 and 10), Whetstone (Volumes 7, 12, 15), Willow ReviewThe National Catholic Reporter (7x), St. Anthony Messenger (4x), Hyphen Magazine, The Daily Herald, Watch My Rising: A Recovery Anthology, Midwest Magazine, and other publications.

He is the recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Award for Fiction, a Whetstone Prize for Poetry, and a Ragdale Foundation Fellowship.

To read another fine poem by Jim Littwin, “The Lost Gospel,” you can get a copy of Watch My Rising: A Recovery Anthology at Powells.com, Amazon.com or from Recover Wyoming.


AND WHILE WE'RE AT IT

Memorial Day is coming up. Time to go lay some wreaths on the family graves at the cemetery in Lusk, Wyoming, including on that of my father, James B. Griffith, Jr., a veteran of World War II.