Wednesday, January 28, 2015

No Fast Food Lane for Soul

“Hurry ruins saints as well as artists.”  ~ Thomas Merton

Real art cannot merely reflect the outer world; it must depict some part of the artist’s inner world, otherwise the work lacks depth or heart impact. 

“Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and the inner life will result in his personal vision of the world.”  ~ Edward Hopper

Heart of the Artist

Say you’re having guests over to your home for dinner – not just any guests – special guests. Would you dream of driving through Mickey D’s takeout for happy meals?

You’d sit down and take the time to plan and prepare a proper feast and serve your very best. So writers, think of your readers as special guests who are entering the heart of your inner world.

As Karen Blixen, author of Babette’s Feast and Other Anecdotes of Destiny puts it: 
“Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist:
Give me a chance to do my best. “ 

Speaking of Babette’s Feast, while the work is classified as a short story or novella, there is no shortage of meaning to be found in Blixen’s masterpiece: a powerful and poignant tale about sacrifice, communion, repentance, epiphany, and transformation.

I’ve heard it said that the protagonist, Babette Hersant, is an archetype of Christ, for she so readily sacrifices all that she has for those she is serving, and feeds not only their bodies, but their souls (as all artists/writers must do).

Discovery of Meaning

Not that Blixen, or any writer, consciously sets out to weave in layers of meaning, but if the work comes from a deeper place within, and isn’t just manufactured in the cerebral realm, it will likely contain multiple layers of meaning.

Take, for instance, Stephen King’s novella, “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” from his story collection, Different Seasons. Within that one story runs concurrent themes: light overcomes darkness; perseverance against all odds; loyalty and friendship; bold defiance of evil…

Finding beauty in the midst of hell; hope springs eternal (which is the subtitle), and the list could go on. Therein lies the difference between mediocrity and art. If the work nourishes the reader’s soul, it has served its purpose.

And if you are to serve your purpose as artist (or saint), take your time. Let the work have space to incubate and fully develop, as a child matures in the womb. As a garden produces ripe fruit in its time.

Having begun with the words of Merton, I’ll end there too. “People are in a hurry to magnify themselves by imitating what is popular – and too lazy to think of anything better.”

What lies within you?

What are your top three most inspiring stories or films, the ones that held the most transformative power for you? Take a moment to ponder why these stories moved you.

Then, choose just one of these (your # 1), and explain why it stirred or awakened you. Whatever you see there is only a mirror of what is already within you, waiting to be unveiled in some shape or form. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Harvest Moon

 I’m participating in the Writing Contest: Overcoming Writer’s Doubt held by Positive Writer

As I was pondering this contest, I was overwhelmed with the number of things I could say on the subject. A mountain of thoughts surfaced, obscuring clarity.  And so I waited until some clear shape rose above the peaks. Finally the full moon emerged.

Like the moon, I went through at least four phases as a writer, each one with elements of doubt.

The New Moon

I’ve known I wanted to be a writer since 3rd grade, when I copied an entire book verbatim, turned it in to my teacher and said, “Look what I wrote!” Her response: “You wrote this?”

And I was like, can’t you tell that’s my handwriting? You ought to recognize it by now as many times as you’ve made me write, “I must not talk in school.”

Back then I yearned to say something, but didn’t have anything of my own to say. I had little or no light to reflect, like the new moon.

The Waxing Moon

But over time more light emerges.  The lunar sliver begins to reveal itself.  This is the phase where I began to develop my own thoughts little by little, and so I spent a good bit of time licking stamps and sending my work out into the universe.  With every rejection, doubt increased. But with every acceptance, doubt diminished.   

One day I received an invitation to speak at an upcoming conference called Women Writers: Making the Difference, sponsored by the NC Literary and Historical Association.  I was a sliver of crescent among a sky of full moons shining in all their glory.

 Maya Angelou, keynoter, owned the auditorium when she stood to speak.  A hush fell over the place as she captured us with her story. She was a bright harvest moon.

It was a defining moment for me, seeing that glow and recognizing something of myself in her.  Realizing that we writers, if true to our call, will overcome our doubts and surmount our obstacles, somehow or another.

First Quarter

During first quarter, ½ of the moon is visible for half the evening, then goes down, leaving the sky dark.

After my literary writing stint, I teamed up with my musician husband and went into the songwriting business. We wrote, recorded, hit the road, and performed our music wherever doors were open.

One September we were called to minister at Aqueduct Conference Center with the Ragamuffin himself, Brennan Manning. That’s when I heard the clear call to go within and find what compelled me to write. 

“Then one day, just like that” (to quote Forest Gump), I told our agent I needed a break.  I needed space. I needed solitude and quiet. That’s when he and his wife left the house (almost in a huff), never to return. And my songwriting career came to a grinding halt. Just like that. 

The Waxing Gibbous (contemplative phase)  

I never doubted the call to write. Whoever sits down and writes is a writer, good, bad, or ugly. Poor or rich. Unknown, little known, or well known.  But the writers who truly have something to say are those who have heeded Rilke’s advice:  

  “You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now…There is only one single way. Go into yourself… and see what compels you to write.”

It’s one thing to have something to say. It’s quite another to have to say something. It was in the contemplative phase – which became more than a phase; it became a lifestyle – that I began overcoming writerly doubts in earnest because I was finally asking myself the important questions:

“What is it that you must write? What were you called to write? What were you born to write?”

The Full Moon

Writer’s doubt faded like a pair of old jeans when I stopped comparing myself with writers who’d “made it…”  Because what did true success mean anyway?  I had to redefine what success meant and what it didn’t mean.  It didn’t mean that I should write for the market. It didn’t mean that I should emulate the voices of others who’d made it. It didn’t mean I’d ever make a fortune.  

What it did mean is that I told my particular truth, just as those I admired most had done.  And though I never compared myself with Maya Angelou or Brennan Manning or Frank McCourt, I came to realize from reading their words that we’ve all stumbled in the dark and fallen flat on our faces.

They were successful only because their themes were universal, even if their stories were unique. They never told me the moon was shining, but I could clearly see “the glint of light on broken glass” - in the context of broken vessels.      
We’re all familiar with pain and rejection, disappointment and despair, and sometimes abject poverty.  We’ve all suffered and bled and died a thousand little deaths. And lived to tell about it.  So that others could feel and share in our grief and joy, could laugh and cry with us and feel less alone in this world.   

What about you? Who helped you overcome your writer doubts?  

Monday, July 22, 2013

Forgive or Die

As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison. ~ Nelson Mandela

Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die. ~ Anne Lamott

To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you. ~ Lewis B. Smedes

In the bible it says you have to forgive seventy times seven. I want you to know, I’m keeping a chart.  ~Hillary Rodham Clinton 

Okay, so you get the picture. Forgiveness. That’s what I’m talking about.  Because unforgiveness is a burden too big to bear.  Ask Corrie Ten Boom.  Ask Coretta Scott King, who said that hate injures the hater more than the hated. 

Sue Monk Kidd stated, “People in general would rather die than forgive. It’s THAT hard. If God said in plain language, ‘I’m giving you a choice: forgive or die,’ a lot of people would go ahead and order their coffin.”

How it’s done   

Deanne told me a story about her estranged father, how he’d never paid her any mind, never remembered her birthday, never gave her Christmas gifts or the time of day.     
“I decided that I’d have to be the one who reached out to him, and if he never reciprocated, so be it. I began sending him cards on his birthday and calling during the holidays, and just checking in every so often. I’m okay with the one-sided relationship because at least I know I’ve done my part.”

She told me her story exactly when I needed to hear it most.  When someone I deeply loved had wounded me so much that I was losing sleep.  And so I took her lead and began reaching out to that person. Then I wrote the whole painful story as fiction. That’s what you do when you have to “tell the truth but tell it slant.” 

Your turn

Now I want to hear from you.  Tell me about your experience with forgiveness – or the lack thereof should that be the case.  Throw off the albatross and move on. Release it on paper now. That’s how the healing begins. 

It doesn’t have to be major league drama. Nothing is too petty. Maybe you remember when your sister chopped off your favorite doll’s beautiful hair. Or your brother swiped your pack of Juicy Fruit gum and chewed every last stick.

Or maybe it IS high drama.  Maybe your wicked stepmother stole your inheritance from you and left you penniless and homeless. Maybe your neighbor hated your barking border collie, so he turned him out of the pen while you were gone to the store one day and Falstaff has never been seen again. 

And don’t forget to forgive yourself for that stupid thing you did.   If only you hadn’t taken the shotgun and blown the skylight to smithereens when your husband didn’t get around to repairing the leak…

If only you hadn’t told your dear friend that her new job as a census worker wasn’t exactly the most respected position in the world…

Write your story in any POV you like, as prose or poetry, fiction or nonfiction. It matters not.  Go!  

Monday, November 5, 2012

A Lonely Place Apart

“My real writing is the stuff I do that takes my deepest energy, that requires me to slide into that space where everything else falls away.  I picture the space where I do my real writing as a quiet forest glen where there is sound but nothing I need to attend to, nothing that calls forth my intervention. It is serene, secluded, and I am alone there.”  ~ Andrea Cumbo

From what I’m hearing, other writers are struggling to juggle their blogging with their ‘real’ writing. Unknown Jim says his writing has been misplaced and it’s time for things to change.

His aim is to focus on fiction instead of spending so much time on social networking. He says, “It’s time to write what you REALLY want to write about…It might mean blogging less to just blog better…or writing an ebook, poem, or short story…”   

Or memoirs and magazine articles, which I must return to front burners and bring to full steam once again. This is why I’m taking a blogging sabbatical for the next several weeks - although I do hope to drop by and visit my friends on occasion. 

In an earlier post, The Music Within, I quoted Brian Doyle’s reasons for writing. These words bear repeating here, mainly to remind myself of why I write.

“Because like all human beings I have an innate drive to leave something shapely and permanent behind me, some marker or passage through the woods…I’d like to leave several books behind me so that someday my children will open and read them and think maybe the old man had a fastball for awhile there.” 

In Utterances of an Overcrowded Mind, Paul Dorset says that 97% of writers don’t finish their book. I’m in the 3% who have finished one, but little good that did since I placed it in a closet and forgot about it long ago. But that’s not the one demanding my attention right now anyway. It’s the memoirs I want my children to read. 

What about you?  How are you expending your writing energy, and do you also feel the need to redirect your focus? Is blogging your chief venue, or do you have other WIP that need attention like some of us?  

Monday, October 15, 2012

Preaching to the Choir

You’ve heard it said that any writer worth his weight in gold should avoid clichés like the plague. I hope I’m not preaching to the choir here but, if I am, at least we’re on the same page.

If I had a penny for every cliché I’ve read or used I’d be filthy rich. So would William Metz, who once said, “What’s a young writer to do? Perhaps he can’t recognize the clichés because they are so much a part of his daily language. He is, to be sure, between the devil and the deep blue sea… he must learn to nip in the bud the trite phrase, the overused word.”  

The funniest article I’ve read on the subject is Richard Bang’s “Avoid Clichés like the Plague,” where he confesses to being guilty as sin of having committed the worst literary crimes known to man when he authored travel brochures and used such phrases as “come to know the exotic flora, fauna, and people…” He even called the Blue Nile “The Mount Everest of Rivers.”

OMG, that article just cracked me up!  His advice is this: “If you absolutely can’t resist writing ‘lush’ before ‘forest,’ or ‘hearty’ before ‘breakfast,’ or ‘cascading’ before ‘waterfall,’ keep practicing until you can resist.”

On passé sayings… does anybody remember being up the creek without a paddle…that today is the first day of the rest of your life…that it takes one to know one…that if you build the field they’ll come…that spring is God’s way of saying ‘hello’…

Have you ever known someone whose ass was grass...who fell out of the ugly tree and hit all the branches on the way down…whose dog didn’t hunt…who made like a banana and split… who wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed (or pencil in the box)? 

On to current lingo… it is what it is…at the end of the day… shoot for the moon; even if you miss you’ll be among the stars…an aha moment…a light bulb moment…too much on my plate… on steroids… my bad…do what you love and the money will follow…the only constant is change…speak of the devil…

Today I’m totally happy to announce a free-for-all cliché day. In the comments leave your favorites, old or new.  While. You. Have. The. Chance. - btw, memes and idioms are fair game too. Whatever. And have more fun than a barrel of monkeys!   

Monday, October 1, 2012


Today my students and I are writing on the word ‘ostracize.’ I’ll go first.

I’ve always had a heart for the outcasts, the underdogs, the ugly ducklings. When I was growing up there was a boy in our church named Harold, a loner who was tall and lanky as Ichabod Crane. His face was so pockmarked that the other kids said it had more holes than a golf course.

One day I saw him sitting at the end of a pew all by himself and wondered if I should go sit beside him… but I didn’t really want to go that far, I mean, what would people think?

So I came up with another plan to inform him that someone knew he existed. I pulled a stick of Spearmint Gum from my prized pack, marched straight down the aisle to where he sat, and held it out to him. How embarrassing when he shook his head ‘no,’ he didn’t want it.  

Fast forward 10 years to the school pariah at ENCSD where I taught P.E. Cassie was so obese that all the other children made fun of her. She waddled when she walked and was clumsy and inept at sports and most everything else she attempted. 

No one gave her the time of day. Whenever we played competitive games like kick ball or held relay races, none of the team captains chose her. She was left standing alone while all the others stood together on their individual teams, gearing up for the fun.   

And so I made Cassie my official pet and assigned her the role of captain so she’d get to choose team members instead of being automatically swept to the sideline. When we lined up to go back inside the building I placed her in front of the others and said, “Follow Cassie, the leader.”

This psychology actually works. Children are not oblivious to the treatment others receive, and they tend to follow suit when another is well esteemed. When they were with me on the playground the other kids began showing respect for Cassie, and eventually stopped poking fun and ridiculing her altogether.


Then there was the Christian blog group that ostracized me because, apparently, only pontificating was tolerable, and if you didn’t preach to the choir they didn’t want you. Their motto seemed to be, “You tell me what I know and I’ll tell you what you know.”     

When have you encountered ostracism?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Of Hobbit Holes and Cafés

It’s a dangerous business going out your front door.  
~ J.R.R. Tolkien

I wonder if J.K. Rowling read Natalie Goldberg’s advice on writing back in the day. It’s a possibility, given the fact that she wrote the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on napkins in Nicholson’s café – now called Black Medicine Coffee Shop.  Just imagine how renowned the place has become after Rowling put them on the map, gregarious folk flocking there to sip their magic potion while leaning over paper and pen. 

Goldberg urges her readers to sit in a café with handy-dandy notebook and give their hands free reign.  She suggests meeting with a friend for a “writing date” - a concept contrary to the stereotype of the lonely, anguished writer. 

My friend Katie tried her hand at writing in public places for awhile. Every day she’d go to McDonald’s for coffee and her morning pages.  She has enough poems from that stint to publish a collection called Breakfast at McDonald’s. Here’s one. 

Every Morning, Angela

cases the room at McDonald’s,
makes trips to the counter
for a napkin, more coffee, more sugar.

Her eyes check to see if any eyes
will meet hers. If any will allow her
to join them for breakfast,
will succumb to her customary ploy,
“I need a friend.”

Some face that gargoyle face, allow
her to eat with them, then later complain
of their conflict – having their space invaded,
their pity for her, their guilt
at the thought of refusing…

What would Jesus do? they wonder.

One who would not bow to Angela’s craft
said simply, “Even Jesus needed a place apart,”
excusing the stone in her own heart. 

Can you concentrate on writing in a crowded space?  I’ve tried and it doesn’t work for me. I get too distracted by Angelas.  I need a lonely place apart.  Like Bilbo Baggins I’m a creature of habit who doesn’t like to be disturbed. No racket or fuss in solitude.  

What about you? Have you taken Natalie’s advice and ventured out of your hobbit hole to capture adventure? Do you go about with a journalist’s eye, looking for detail outside your imagination?  Me, I’ll take the vicarious adventure any old day.   

Where is your ideal spot to write?  Does your best writing require privacy?
Or do you cheerfully come out of your hobbit hole every now and then? 

Linking with Seedlings in Stone

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