Sunday, June 22, 2014

What Book Most Influenced You?

What book holds the most influence on you?

I have never had any trouble answering this. Why, it's Walden by Henry David Thoreau. But I’ve taken this occasion of asking myself here why it’ is so. Why is Thoreau's Walden the book with the largest impact on my life and my writing? There are certainly others, and I’ve done two literary biographies on authors Kenneth Patchen and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and a film on poet James Wright. But it’s Walden: Life in the Woods that wins out for this working-class kid from a noisy steel mill town in the Ohio Valley. (The woods was always over the hills of the town, and streams ran to the river.)

Now, no one would conclude that I write like Thoreau, though many of his themes on nature and society carry over into my work. And I don’t really write like Patchen or Ferlinghetti or Wright either, though I may have tried at times. So I ask myself when and how did this influence first occurr.
I came to Thoreau first in a survey course in American literature at Muskingum College. Ralph Church was the teacher who opened up literature for me, and I fell in love with each period of writing, moving from the brave Puritan writers and the American neo-classical authors, on through to the Romanticists, Realists and Naturalists, then into the Modern and Contemporary movements. I swung on that pendulum of visions and found brother and sisterhood in almost all. Thoreau, following Emerson, was read in excerpts from Walden and of course “Civil Disobedience.” And that led to my buying the full Walden as one of my first book purchases not required for any course or withdrawn from the library. I read it from cover to cover, highlighting sections and writing tiny notes in the margins and on note cards (another first purchase). I was reading on my own and loving it, for I was a late discovered English and education major (I had started in math, but the abstract nature of Calculus turned me around). Literature was about life, something I could feel and sense like food and breath, and there was real beauty and sincerity. Thoreau took me there exploring the life of squirrels and chipmunks as well as neighbors; there was advice on building methods, planting, and passing trains.
Now as I think back, there was also an Intro to Philosophy course I was taking at the time from a young professor Stanly Elkins. And in this course, and perhaps some in Intro to Sociology , I met up with the theory of World View. Alfred North Whitehead was given credit for formulating and propagating this concept at the time. And it matched so well with what Henry David Thoreau was doing in his remarkable book. We all had our vision of the world and life values based on our own experience and learning. Here I was, a working-class kid in a liberal arts (Presbyterian) college, feeling as though I was being told to forget my past to fit into a middle class, professional world, and here was rebel Thoreau not buying any of it. In fact, he was valuing his past and his present and defying social standards and orthodoxy in favor of his own emerging world view. I stood at the threshold, and Thoreau took my hand and pulled me through. I’ve never looked back. Rather than giving me a sense of alienation from the world, Walden gave me self-reliance and showed me that there are many varied ways of seeing and being in the world and that I could respect alternative visions and allow myself to belong.
As to the writing influence of that great book, I recognize that I can’t do those long thought rambles like Thoreau, but his beautiful and mindful prose did open me to a generative way of thinking and feeling and listening—to a voice inside myself and in the world. He gave me what he himself was seeking: “Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men's lives.”
I’ll close this personal ramble with a quote from another Thoreau brother, essayist E. B. White who says of Walden, “Every man, I think, reads one book in his life, and this is mine.” He goes so far as to make this heartfelt recommendation: “If our colleges and universities were alert, they would present a cheap pocket edition of the book to every senior upon graduating, along with his sheepskin, or instead of it. Even if some senior were to take it literally and start felling trees, there could be worse mishaps: the axe is older than the Dictaphone [Read internet or Facebook here] and it is just as well for a young man to see what kind of chips he leaves before listening to the sound of his own voice” (“Walden—1954” by E. B. White.)
Thoreau caps it this way, "How vain it is to sit down to write if you have not stood up to live."

Monday, June 09, 2014

The Art of Listening--Fining Our Intention

“Listening to the story of the present moment invites us to understand the story of all moments.” -Christina Feldman


Let’s look at our intention when we sit down to write, because this intention remains the basis of all writing. It not only shapes the writing that we do but is its underlying message. Isn’t this true of all that we do? The plants we help grow, the talk we share with each other, the act of sharing? What is it we serve with our meal besides the basic food if it’s not our care in preparation and presenting? It’s in the taste.
For the writing I seek to do and share I ask for a bare and wholehearted attention. And I’ve learned over the years to back off from self motivation and manipulation and open more to the moment through deep listening. The same is true of deep meditation. A quieting and opening bring us there, a letting go of preconceived thought and control. “Write what you know” becomes “Write and what you know will come.” And so, releasing control and learning to trust have much to do with it. How you learn to do this has as much to do with your personal development as it does with finding strong models in others. What is it I feel in a great work of art or writing but this beauty and clarity of intention speaking through to me?  In the end, I believe we develop this mindfulness through practicing it.
Buddhist teacher Christina Feldman suggests that building this mindfulness to the present is concerned with “embracing and understanding the entirety of each moment.” Now I will admit that getting the “entirety” of the moment is challenging. So is hitting a homerun, or giving birth, raising a child, or saying the right thing to someone who is suffering…but it comes from letting go of thought to find the ground of being. When I sit outside in meditation and open to the all of the moment, I find myself drawn at first to details, framing images as though for a camera, focusing on use of the senses. I have to see this in myself and let it go. Then I can open to the deeper movement in things. The trees moving gently in wind talk to me. I am the trees. I am the wordless wind. The moment comes to us as a blessing, it’s all around us.
The highest praise for my own work is that it seems true, that the reader feels the sincerity of life singing through. And when I hear this, I want to deny self praise because I know that the writing was not something I made but a gift of the moment and the simple act of being fully present.


Monday, June 02, 2014

The Art of Letting Go

My son is a photographer, a quiet guy who watches and listens. In stillness he takes things in, holds them close, then lets them go. With a camera in hand he captures a moment in the stillness of an image held and framed and then released into the world. It’s the quality of attention that speaks below the surface, the ability to be present in the moment. As day moves softly toward night, and birds take wing then glide through air to land again on branch or grass, as leaves turn day by day to fall in autumn sun, so this sure change of life is captured and released for all in the photograph of color and light, the eyes and heart open.

As Buddhist teacher Christina Feldman explains it, “The eyes open the heart, and the heart opens the eyes.” We see new with a compassion that doesn’t grasp. Hold and release. Hold and release. That’s the secret of good writing and a full life. She speaks of this act as a kind of bow we make first to ourselves and then to others and the world.

Poet Mary Oliver captures this process in her “In Blackwater Woods” poem:

 “to live in this world
you must be able
to do three things

to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,

to let it go”
 Photo by Brian Smith


And so the poem, the photograph, the painting is born out of a mindful and compassionate attention in an act of communion with the world. I do believe that is what we feel in all great art, and it's as natural as our breath.


[Christina Feldman is the author of The Buddhist Path to Simplicity. Mary Oliver's many books of poems can be found on Amazon. ]

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

7 Tips for Writing Short Stories

(New Blog logo courtesy of Allen Frost)

Having written many stories and having coached other writers with their short fiction as editor, teacher, and workshop partner, I’ve come up with some strategies I’d like to share. I’ll call this “7 Tips on Writing Short Stories.”
[Like all writing advice, it may or may not work for you. I hope it helps you find your own method.]

  • You don’t have to write what you already know. Write, and what you know will come to you. It will evolve through your act of story-telling. Move towards understanding.
  • Allow relationships and realizations to emerge from the showing in scenes and dialogue. Note that telling or explaining is often deadly in fiction. Particularly look at what you’ve just shown. Ask do I need to tell what’s already there in the story?
  • Make the act of telling of interest…a story in itself and the voice that’s telling it. My mother-in-law was the great storyteller in our family, and she would move about the kitchen, raise and lower her voice, confront you. Try to put this into words. The story telling is its own story.
  • Everything that happens in your story should be proof of everything else. (Story logic is stronger than life logic or illogic.) You must make even your villains believable.
  • If you get stuck for an ending, re-read what has come before. There is not a good story or poem without a strong ending.
  • A character  can grow in a story, but they should not change. His or her motivation must be consistent…reasonable. And, of course, they should not change without apparent motivation.
  • See if the beginning and ending cannot be dropped or tightened. That (and needless explaining) are the chief places to tighten and sharpen.
  •  I hope some of this makes sense for you and your writing.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Bias against Print-on-Demand

POD or Print-on-Demand is a relatively new delivery system for printing books.
Here's what Wikipedia has: "Print on demand (POD) is a printing technology and business process in which copies of a book (or other document) are not printed until an order has been received, allowing books to be printed singly, or in small quantities. While build to order has been an established business model in many other industries, "print on demand" developed only after digital printing began, because it was not economical to print single copies using traditional printing technology such as letterpress and offset printing."
It is not a publishing system, though its use has somewhat revolutionized publishing, and a wide range of publishers, big and small, now use it. Clearly it has allowed many more books to be published by individuals, small presses, university presses, and large publishers. The bias that I detect has come from organizations that feel overrun with titles...i.e. libraries, bookstores, reviewers, and some writing contests. The bias, though unsound, allows these groups to reject consideration solely on the basis of the printing method and not the content of a book. "We can't consider any book that is done print-on-demand," is heard by authors and publishers. It makes no sense, and with its increased use as an efficient and economical way of publishing for all types of publishers, one hopes that this bias will fade away.
As the director of a small press (160 books and 28 years of publishing) I can testify that POD has allowed us to publish more and better books. Where we once had to seek grants and overprint copies on speculation with offset printing then store them, we now control the production and the quantities of copies printed. We have thus more than doubled the number of solid and deserving books that we do each year.
I suppose this bias is rooted in another prejudice against self-published books. "Everyone is doing it," critics lament. Though one can list some of the great authors and books done as self-published--starting perhaps with Whitman's Leaves of Grass, and including William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore among others--this appears to mean little. My lament is more that too many books are done without an editor or a proofreader. And there are certainly vanity publishers who profit from the naivete of striving authors. They typically charge for everything to do with the book...listing, advertising, even storage. I disdain this. But don't slander the technology because it's abused by some.
My point here is that each book deserves a consideration on the basis of its content and form. If after several pages, the style stumbles, the content wavers, and the typos mount up to a wall, then, yes, reject it as not ready or qualified. But don't throw up a road block and blindly reject good writing because the publishers have developed improved methods of doing their work, the delivery of books to the world.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Building Strength as Writers

 

So much of what can say about writing one could also say about life. Being authentic is the key, and yet as young writers (whatever our age) we try so hard to be other than ourselves. We see and admire other writers and want to leap into their shoes, and they just don't fit. Better to go barefoot into the world. Before I stretch this metaphor any further, I'll admit my own weaknesses here. And maybe this is just part of developing as persons and writers/artists. A poet I much admired is William Carlos Williams, the good doctor who created his own forms by spreading his words on the page like painted speech. (E.E. Cummings is another). I admire both of them as persons as well as writers. And yet, try as I might, I could not get inside their voice, let alone their shoes. I memorized their poems; I even typed their poems out so I could get the feel for it. When I tried to write like them, I stumbled, I reached, I fell. Yet, I believe I learned a great deal by doing so.

I suppose I did this as a person as well, emulating my father, great teachers, friends with character...Christ, Buddha, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. Like doing physical exercises where we stretch to develop strength, I would find myself within this growth process. I can't do all of those yoga positions; I can only lift so much weight; my biking is limited to neighborhoods now, but in doing what I can, I find myself. Reading is stretching as well, and reading the best gives me new growth and strength. In the end, I find myself there, and I share myself in my writing. It's part of our growth and our gift.