Tuesday, May 16, 2017

From Mummies to Aliens: The Power of Language

Alien language in the film Arrival

Coffin of the Lady of the House, Weretwahset, circa 1292–1190 B.C.E. Brooklyn Museum)
I recently visited the Brooklyn Museum and was fascinated by the exhibit, "Gender Transformation in Ancient Egypt." The ancient Egyptians believed in rebirth, and therefore, placed great importance on the rituals of death and burial, including mummification, spells carved on tomb walls and coffins, and the prayers in the Book of the Dead that accompanied the body. 

A curious belief they had was that in order to make rebirth possible for a woman, she had to briefly turn into a man. According to Egyptian belief: the man created the fetus and transferred it to the woman during intercourse. So... a woman alone in her tomb could not conceive the fetus of her reborn self. What do you think they did? Deny women the possibility of an afterlife? Or come up with a creative solution? Like magically transforming a woman's mummy into a man long enough to create a fetus? 

That's exactly what they did. Priests turned a female into a male by the strategic use of male color and language. Red was the color used to represent a man's skin so they painted the woman's skin red -- on her coffin. 

And as a writer, here's what I find most interesting: the "you" in their language had both a masculine and feminine form. On the woman's coffin, and in spells recited by the priest, the woman was addressed with the masculine form of the pronoun, as if to fool the gods that the body buried inside the coffin was a man.

Earlier scholars attributed this to mistakes, but recent research reveals the logic behind the transformation, and the magical power of language to not only affect reality, but to change it. Later, the woman will return to her female identity and be reborn as a woman, but for a brief time, the ancient Egyptians believed that through words she could be transformed into a man long enough to give birth to herself. 

Like everything that explores and demonstrates the power of words, this blows my mind. It reminds me of the film, ARRIVAL, in which a human linguist (Amy Adams) decodes the written language of aliens. Their ink blot language is circular, no beginning or end. As the linguist learns their language, her mind expands to accept their vision of time, and she begins to perceive the world as they do, circular rather than linear. The verb tenses, or concepts of "future" and "past" no longer have any meaning, or at least not the meaning we attribute to them. The film's central idea demonstrates the theory of linguistic relativity -- that the structure of language affects its speakers. Past and future events swirled through the movie in no apparent order -- making it a frustrating experience for some viewers and a very exciting one for others. 

The idea that language shapes our world dates back to the mummies, and long before. Whether or not we believe in the power of words to express our thoughts and beliefs, and even more, to actually shape and determine them -- i.e., to transform gender or to see past and future as a flowing circle rather than a horizontal line -- we can, I think, agree that language teaches us a great deal about who we are, what we fear and desire, our potentials and our limitations. And our responsibility to use language with care.

Words can offer passageways into wondrous realities. Or slam the door in our face. 

As long as we are not chased from our words we have nothing to fear. As long as our utterances keep their sound we have a voice. As long as our words keep their sense we have a soul. 
                                                                                   -- Edmond Jabes

Monday, April 24, 2017

Owning a New Identity, As Writer

My friend and sister writer, Kate Brandes, just published her first novel, The Promise of Pierson Orchard, a powerful, compassionate story that is both relevant and timely. It's my pleasure to turn today's blog post over to her. She has very insightful words to share about what it means to be a "real writer." Take it away, Kate!


If  I had to select one photo of truest self, this would be it.
Working on the very last edits of my novel before it went to press.

A photo of me as a child with the word "thinker " written on the back

At the age of 46, after seven years of working on my novel, it will be published this year :)

I didn’t start writing until I was in my mid-thirties. Before that I worked as an environmental scientist and didn’t think of myself as a creative person.

I found after my first son was born that I wanted to try making something that would reflect my view of the world. I’ve always loved reading fiction and understand the world better through stories.  I’ve also kept journals all my life, used mostly for working out problems or making important decisions. So perhaps it was inevitable that I turned to writing as the creative outlet I found myself searching for.

Even though I had two small children, a full time job, and more volunteer commitments than any sane person should have, I crammed in time to learn how to tell a story on paper. I worked hard, whenever I could. And eventually, after years of rewriting and rewriting, I got a publishing contract for my book.

Part of the job when you have a book coming out is to seek out successful novelists and ask if they’ll do you the favor of reading an early copy of your book and, if they like it, write a short “blurb” you might feature on the cover or inside pages of the final novel.

So last fall, this is what I found myself doing and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I had to ask established writers that I admire, all people I didn’t know well, if at all, if they would read my entire novel and say something about it even though I could offer nothing in return and they were busy with a million other important things. Some said no, but to my surprise several said yes and were gracious and generous. I will always be grateful to them.

I confided to one of these writers how hard it was to reach out to her and ask this favor because, I told her, she was a real writer with commercial success, and I was just pretending to know what I was doing.

She quickly emailed back and told me she had two words of advice for me and they were: Own It.

I’ve thought a lot about her response. She’s right. We should own everything we do. I’ve worked more than a decade on my writing. I do have a newly published book and some short stories. And yet... I still struggled to feel like myself in these new writer shoes.

It’s been an interesting journey from environmental scientist to writer. My entire community of people used to know me only as a scientist.  This includes everyone with whom I went to college and graduate school and everyone I’ve worked with over 20+ years.

But lately, some people only know me as writer. In many ways my long-held identity as a scientist is fading to the background as my investment in my writing self grows. It’s dizzying at times.

But what I’ve found is that with each new experience as a writer, which have been many this year with a first book coming out: readings, signings, teaching my first workshop, and more – I am more a writer everyday. I am owning it because I’m having to live it. That’s the way people grow all the time. I don’t hesitate much anymore to call myself a writer.

Working as the science director at the Nurture Nature Center in Easton, Pennsylvania in 2009

With my kids in 2013

Monday, April 17, 2017

Miracles for Breakfast or How I Learned to Love Poetry

The professor I was secretly in love with gave me the book. I’d never heard of the author, Elizabeth Bishop, and I didn’t like poetry.

“I have an assignment for you,” he said.

“I won’t like it if it’s work,” I warned.

“Keep the book by your bed, and every night read a poem until you find the one that speaks to you. Then read it over and over, dream about it, write it out word by word, sing it, draw it, eat it, drink it… until it’s inside you.”

“Then what?”

“Then read it to me.”

The book was slim with a torn cover. It had belonged to him. On the title page he’d written, “For Ruth,” in his confident black scrawl. I breathed in the pages to see if I smelled his solid, sensual, hard scent. Then I set the book on my windowsill, where it absorbed fresh air and sounds from other windows. Each night I restlessly searched the pages, but
“A Miracle for Breakfast.” found me.

At six o'clock we were waiting for coffee,
waiting for coffee and the charitable crumb
that was going to be served from a certain balcony
--like kings of old, or like a miracle.
It was still dark. One foot of the sun
steadied itself on a long ripple in the river.

Each night I read it like a prayer… a love letter… a note thrust into a crevice in the Wailing Wall. I knew nothing about the poet, nothing about poetry, nothing about form. But I knew about miracles, and I knew how breakfast—coffee, a roll, eating crumbs off my palm, the sun rising over water—could be a miracle. I knew nothing... but I tasted this poem. I tasted the poet.

Winter turned to spring, and each night I kissed the words. My bedtime ritual. No matter how late I came home to my tiny apartment, the last thing I did before sleeping was to read my poem. Sometimes only the first and last stanzas. Sometimes I skipped around. I loved these lines: 

Was the man crazy? What under the sun
was he trying to do, up there on his balcony!  

Was the man crazy? Was I? One night, stunned, I discovered the pattern. Six words were repeated creatively, wildly, in each stanza: coffee, crumb, balcony, sun, river, and miracle. I looked it up: a sestina! I was as awed as if I’d discovered a new country, scaled a mountain peak. 

The pattern made me fall in love with the poet. To be able to do that—to disguise the pattern, to use the same words in different order, and yet to tell a story—that was a miracle. That was art. I cried that night, alone in my bed crammed with books, papers, dreams of stories half-written and travels not yet taken. I cried for Elizabeth Bishop, for the narrator of the poem, for my professor, for myself, for all of us waiting for a miracle for breakfast. 

Months after he’d given me the book, I went to his office and read him the poem. His eyes teared. So did mine. I thanked him but it took me years to understand the power of the gift he’d given me. The gift I try to share whenever I can. 

Years later, I learned the poem, written in the mid-1930s, was about the Depression.
Decades later, I read Billy Collins: “They want to tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it.” And I thanked my professor again for showing me how to fall in love with a poem.  

Last week, I watched Jim Jarmusch’s film, Paterson, about Paterson, a busdriver (played by Adam Driver), who creates poetry out of the miracles of everyday life. Each morning over his breakfast of Cheerios, he ponders the beauty and power of a humble Ohio Bluetip Matchbox and transforms it into the flame of his love for his wife. The poem (written by poet Ron Padgett) begins with these lines: 

We have plenty of matches in our house.
We keep them on hand always.
Currently our favorite brand is Ohio Blue tip . . .

Simple, concrete words. William Carlos Williams, the patron saint of the film, said, “No ideas but in things.” He called poetry, “a necessary guide amid the bewilderments of life.” 

Throughout the day Paterson eavesdrops on conversations, walks his dog, drinks at a neighborhood bar, and jots down his lines. Slowly, we see what it means to live life as an artist: to be here in this world, and simultaneously to be there in the world you’ve created. The artist merges the two. 

Every art teaches us how to see. It takes strands of reality and weaves them into something that makes others see what you see, and in the process helps them to see their own reality, transformed into a poem, a painting, a song, a story. Poetry shows us how to see the miracle in the matchbox. 

We licked up the crumb and swallowed the coffee.
A window across the river caught the sun
as if the miracle were working, on the wrong balcony. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Art of the Writers Residency

                                                Rocaberti Castle
I've been to many writers residencies, and in fact, I'm looking forward to returning in late September to the wonderful Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. A writers residency can offer the priceless gifts of time and space to create, but it definitely helps to know how to prepare for one, and my friend Georgia Clark offers helpful tips below. Take it away, Georgia!

Abby Rodriguez, Georgia & me at Rocaberti

By Georgia Clark

Ruth and I met in a 14th century Spanish castle, a few hours north of Barcelona, on my sixth writers’ residency. I’d never been on a residency before moving from Sydney to New York, and stumbled across my first one (the wonderful Martha’s Vineyard residency) quite by accident. Now, I absolutely love them. Allow me to share my passion with you…

What the hell’s a writer’s residency?
An organized time and space for writers to work. Some are free, some cost money. (The free ones are generally the most competitive). Some include meals, some include one meal, some have a space for you to cook. Some are structured (our Spanish residency included time with a mentor), most are not. Some will be life-changing. All exemplify the adage ‘you get out what you put in’. They exist because writing is hard, community is important, people are generous, and hey—who doesn’t want to spend a few weeks somewhere gorgeous, bashing away in a room of one’s own?

How do I get in?
The application for a residency can be a lot of work (possibly including a writers resume, sample, outline of intended work and references), but once you’ve done one you can pretty much repurpose it for other residencies. Be as human and engaging in your project pitch as possible: explain why the work matters to you and what you’re about, really. Don’t be too formal. The magic of a good residency is about artists who think and feel, not business people who have perfect CVs. Overwhelmed by choice? Narrow it down to ones you can travel easily to, ones friends recommend (and might be a reference for; this helps), ones you can afford.

Find your ideal residency at Res Artis, Poets & Writers, Artist Communities or random Googling.

What do I prepare?
Great question, Georgia. Even though most writers’ residencies are self-directed, it’s a great idea to mentally and physically prepare for them. Decide well in advance what you’ll be working on, and set the bar high for yourself. At my last Martha’s Vineyard residency, I committed to writing the outline for my next novel, which was a big, unwieldy task that would’ve taken me three times at long in my usual, distraction-heavy environment. At the Obras residency in rural Portugal, I made the mistake of assuming I was there to polish what I thought was an almost-completed novel, only to hear back from my editor on Day 1 that is was an “okay” first draft. I wasn’t prepared for that and consequently spent a lot of time crying into large glasses of admittedly excellent port.

Alternatively, you might be on residency to relax and find inspiration: long solo walks, time away from the kids, etc. Again, set some goals for this: maybe you’ll commit to finding three great ideas for your next project.

Tips on having a great residency!
·      Join your fellow writers for at least one meal a day, ideally dinner. It’s a great way to take a break and make real connections. Pair up and take turns cooking meals.
·      Bring sleep aids and exercise gear. You’ll be mentally exhausted but not physically which can make it hard to sleep.
·      Disconnect from the outside world. Set up a vacation email and manage loved ones’ expectations of contact. Once phone call a day is fine, constant texting is not really the point.
·      Don’t worry about anyone else’s work. It can be easy to feel annoyed or jealous at how much or little other writers are doing or have achieved in their careers. Let it go. This is about you.
·      Know that there will be at least one crazy person. Give them a wide berth. Don’t get involved in drama; just enjoying gossiping about.
·      See something special as a group. To make it especially memorable, plan a group outing to see a local landmark/museum/bar. Being a good writer means having a good community.

Have fun! I’ve met wonderful people from all around the world in residencies; they really are one of the most fun parts about being a creative.

Share your tips, stories and advice about residencies in the comments below!

Georgia Clark is the author of THE REGULARS, forthcoming from Emily Bestler Books/Atria in August 2016. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @georgialouclark. Sign up for monthly writing tips at georgiaclark.com

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Packing Heat: Writing the Sex Scene

If you've been struggling with writing scenes of desire, eroticism, and sex, you're not the only one! 

In today's post, my friend, talented writer, Katherine Ramsland, shares her journey into writing the sex scene. Take it away, Katherine!

Many of us who write fiction face decisions about how to portray erotically charged scenes, especially those involving sex. The decisions are fraught with personal issues:

Will my mother read this?

Will readers think this is what I like?

Will anyone but me think this is hot?

Those scenes that succeed for me might say something about me, but they also affirm word choice, delivery, and the ability to pull me into the characters. So, there’s a lot to build before you get to the sex act. Sensuality can be achieved in many ways, and we probably won’t succeed universally, since sex is so personal. But whether sex is important to a plot or just an enticing sideline, we must figure out our approach.

I’ve read novels that start with characters coupling. Because I don’t know them, the scene falls flat. I’ve also read novels where no matter how much the sex partners grind and bounce and beg, the scene lacks energy. This means it lacks credibility. And I want to skip over such scenes.

Unless you’re just writing porn, you need to make readers care. Elizabeth Cratty, who wrote How to Write a Sizzling Sex Scene, says that emotional intensity is the key to making sex scenes pop. This means longing, a sense of connection, and vulnerability. “When you’re writing a sex scene,” she says, “both parties bring to the union their entire histories.”

There are no formulas. Some authors bring characters right up to the moment of unclothing and then cut away. Others are highly graphic. Some use clinical words; others think you should never do that.

Go on any blog that gives advice about how to write a sex scene and then read through the comments. They will range from “thank you, this really helps” to “you’re so wrong. My sex scenes use blah, blah, blah…” I once read a novel in which a specific image had a strong impact. It kept coming back to me as the hottest moment in the book. To my surprise, the author said that if she could do it over, she wouldn’t use that image. So, who really knows?

I’ve seen advice that we should do only what feels comfortable to us. By putting our character in motion, we discover our boundaries. But here’s the thing: I cut my teeth on the multiple drafts of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover, some of which were shockingly crude to a teenage girl. I’ve read the Marquis de Sade books, I wrote a companion to Anne Rice’s erotica, and I’ve written nonfiction about all kinds of BDSM, including the kinky sex of necrophiles. But I still find it difficult to decide how much I want to describe in a sex scene in my fiction.

I can imagine it all, but I find that packing heat into words diminishes the impact. So, am I just not finding the right words or the right ways to string them together?

For me, the kind of embodied emotion that draws characters together is an intensity that keeps growing, with the hint that they will become more. It’s a force that they struggle against but also facilitate in a way that triggers conflicted feelings. Eventually, the craving becomes too strong to block. It’s a raw, commanding force that undermines the characters’ calculations but still gets them to their goals.

My novel, The Ripper Letter, inevitably involves sex, because the core of my supernatural universe is erotic. My protagonist, a female detective named Dianysus, finds a divination device that works best with sexual energy. To get the goods she must work herself up. She creates a fantasy figure, but she still must turn all the dials.

I was going to include a scene here to illustrate what I mean, but it doesn’t work. I could tell you how she slid her fingers down the curve of her side, and how her breath shortened and heartbeat increased as heat flushed through her. Or her first impression of the character with whom she will eventually entangle. But taking these scenes out of context is like deflating a balloon. If you don’t know her, you won’t feel her.

So, I think that a good sex scene is not necessarily about the words. It’s about emotional rhythms that play covertly in the background. We need to figure out how to fuel this while also guiding the overt plot. When Dianysus does have her “entanglement,” it happens at a time, in a place, and for reasons that surprise her, and yet the thrust of energy that propels her has been there all along. That’s what makes it work. (I think.)

How do we accomplish this? Whether we outline or write more spontaneously, I think we must remain alert to multiple layers of emotion. This will arise from our character development, so creating character profiles, with motivations, goals, and flaws, is part of the process. This means focusing on what they desire, how they deal with being thwarted, how this changes them, and how it impacts their momentum.

Writing dynamic sex scenes could be similar to the fluid genius of good improvisation. An NIH-funded f-MRI study on jazz musicians revealed that when they played their extraordinary riffs, the part of the prefrontal cortex that engages self-awareness shut down: the musicians lost their internal censors and moved boldly into the music.

“It’s a remarkable frame of mind,” says Johns Hopkins researcher Charles Limb, “during which, all of a sudden, the musician is generating music that has never been heard, thought, practiced or played before. What comes out is completely spontaneous. What we think is happening is when you’re telling your own musical story, you’re shutting down impulses that might impede the flow of novel ideas.”

Writing a memorable sex scene needs more improv than formula, more exploration of the titillating unknown. Still, we also know that improv experts have generally practiced for many, many hours. They know their instruments and methods so well that they can totally indulge. They can enter what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the state of flow. This is a complete absorption in a given activity that produces a sense of effortless concentration. The moment is exciting and alive, inwardly attuned. We are one with the work.

Becoming good at writing sex scenes might involve such uncensored focus. So, like musicians who know all their notes, it might help to make a list of the sensual and sexual words that appeal to you, and then bathe in them. Immerse. Get so familiar with them that when it’s time to work up some writing improv, you’re already intimately connected to the most useful words. You can choreograph your sex without having to think.

I think I’ll go try that now.

Katherine Ramsland has published 59 books. She teaches forensic psychology, is an expert on serial murder, and has personally explored the Ripper murder sites. www.katherineramsland.com