Once Upon A Time
Wednesday, July 30, 2014
We set sail on the MV Explorer from Southampton, England, on August 23rd. However, I'm leaving the USA on August 8th (that's nine days away!) for a two-week trip to visit family in Israel. From there to England, & then the ship. We return from the Semester at Sea voyage on December 8th, sailing to Port Everglades, Florida. August 8th - December 8th. A long time to be away from home.
July has been a month of Pre's:
1. PRE-paring ... for a four-month voyage. Mentally & emotionally preparing to be a traveler-- ready to meet new people & shift perspective, see the world from different angles, taste new foods, listen to voices speaking other languages, watch the sun rise & set over the ocean, & open oneself to new experiences. I try to be a traveler in my daily life, but sometimes it's a challenge.
Packing is another story, one I haven't tackled yet. Can I manage four months with a single suitcase? I know I'll be happier if I travel light, but ... I want my comfort clothes (my writing hoodie & sweats, etc), & I must pack fancy stuff for the Captain's Dinner & a wedding, & then there are my "things"-- non-clothing items from books to cosmetics. They'll easily fill half the case.
I'll tackle the suitcase(s) this weekend.
2. PRE-writing ... a new novel. Time presses on me from all sides, & all I want to do is plunge into the deep & just write, but for some reason I can't rush this one.
I'm thrashing through a jungle when I discover an ancient palace that bears the same inscription as the modern temple I left behind. How can that be? I lean closer to examine when I hear a sound.
Footsteps outside the clearing. Approaching.
Someone followed me, & oh God, it's not who I thought it would be-- it's -- well, this opens a new door to the story, & now I need to work on this angle.
More planning & plotting, researching, exploring options, contacting experts, reading & taking notes. Slowly, the world & its people are taking shape around me. I'm not trying to be cryptic here, but it's too raw & wild, too much in my imagination, to share. Yet.
But I'm bursting to write & forcing myself to hold back. Soon, I promise myself. I need to make sure the ground beneath my feet is solid because man, I can already tell -- this is going to be one hell of a journey.
3. PRE-tending ... my garden & my mind. Thanks to my friend & writing colleague, Virginia, for that term. Pretending is something I do very well, & if you're reading this blog, I'm sure you do, too. We know how to pretend a world into existence, but this magnificent ability to pretend involves pre-tending, too. I am watering my plants, savoring my garden & the calm of "before." It's not an empty time at all, not simply a waiting. It's another part of life, a "now" that feeds the soul & heart.
So that's where I am now. Getting ready for take off. In a new story. On the sea.
But that's tomorrow. When I'll bring out the suitcase.
Today ... is here now, me & this little dog watching each other at this exact moment. Pre-(I mean, Per--) fect ....
Wednesday, July 23, 2014
If it's a choice between writing & yoga (or writing & anything else), writing will always win out, but they both work on me in similar ways. Yoga stretches my body, & writing stretches my mind, & together they stretch my heart.
One of the reasons my six years of piano lessons fizzled out was because I never learned to look at piano lessons as a practice. Instead, I was bored by repeating the scales, & I was always preparing for a recital or program. It wasn't the road, but the inn at the end of the road. And if there was no inn, it all felts like a dead-end.
Now, I'm a traveler. It's in my blood, & when you are a traveler through & through, you know the journey never ends. The inn is just one stop along the way because the true voyage is within you. The country you are exploring is yourself. The voyage is your life.
There is no end to writing. I finish one book & immediately begin another. With yoga, I master one pose (speaking figuratively!) & immediately try to sink deeper into a pose or hold it a little longer.
Through the years I've come up with a few thoughts about practice. Here are seven that I hope will resonate with you:
1. Find your practice-- the thing that gives meaning & joy to your life. It may take years or you may stumble on it from the beginning. It doesn't matter when you find it or how it finds you. Whenever it is, it's the right time, & it's yours, & you begin at that point.
2. Practice doesn't always make perfect. I know this may sound harsh, but lazy or shoddy practice can lead to unsatisfactory, disappointing results. That's why it's better to take time to learn well from the start, if you can. Study the masters. Read the great writers, attend classes with inspiring teachers, & try to learn good form & the basic foundations of your art/craft/sport.
3. Practice your practice. Over & over. Regularly. Interweave the practice into your daily life until it becomes second nature. There will be monotony, distractions, jobs, responsibilities, etc. Hey, that's life. But return to it when you're ready.
4. Discipline is necessary, but if you are not self-motivated to continue, your practice will drop along the way. Your challenge is to find ways to make it new. Vary your routine. Shake up your practice by giving yourself prompts or assignments. Try a different teacher or class. Write in a coffeeshop or on a park bench if you usually write at home. Write with a partner if you write alone. Join a class if you practice alone. Play at your practice.
5. Focus. The key to a successful practice-- no matter what you're doing-- is being in the moment, concentrating on your goal, on what you hope to accomplish during that session. In yoga, focusing on your breathing becomes so natural you often carry that awareness into your daily life. In writing, you concentrate on the world you're creating. As the always wonderful Anne Lamott says, "You squint at an image that is forming in your mind -- a scene, a locale, a character, whatever -- and you try to quiet your mind so you can hear what that landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind.”
6. Practice may not lead to the "promised" goal: you may not become a yoga master or teacher. Your writing may not get the recognition you wish for or feel you deserve. Somewhere along the road of life, you need to examine who you are, what you need & can't live without, what makes life worthwhile. One step at a time. In the words of author E.L. Doctorow: "Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."
7. Practice, for me, is a mix of passion & control. I stretch words as far as I can, twist them like elastic bands, snap & send them into the air. With yoga I'm much more aware of my limits, but I'm ready to explore & see where it takes me. Another word for practice is curiosity. I hope I never stop being curious.
Listen to Albert: "I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious." -Einstein
Wednesday, July 16, 2014
Every book I write opens doors to different worlds. I begin with what I know, but soon I move into the realm of mystery & explore what I want to know.
In my last book I researched blues guitar, photography, jazz trumpet, city redevelopment, & how to run a restaurant-- among other things. For the new book, I'm beginning with two subjects I've always loved: magic & archaeology. My wanderings in magic will be the subject of another post, but archaeology, this time around, has led me to the history of the Goddess. I am utterly fascinated, blown away, by the richness of Goddess mythology, religions, rituals & history.
The glorious figures & paintings reflect an era of female power so natural & instinctive it shocks us in our supposedly liberated time. Here is the great Goddess of 10,000 Names, Isis, with wings, & surrounded by the emblems & tools of her power.
There are images of her holding & breastfeeding her baby, Horus, that demonstrate a clear path from pagan symbolism to modern-day religions as well as New Age mystical temples & rituals that return us full-circle to where we began.
One of my favorite images is the one at the head of this post, in which Isis transmits the Ankh-- the Key of Life, as well as the Key to spiritual knowledge, & the secret name of God-- to a female queen, Nefertari. I love this image because it shows Isis in one of her many roles: The Magician/Teacher/Mother who imparts secret knowledge to her Disciple/Sister/Daughter/Student. According to ancient Egyptian mythology, Isis was a girl before she became a God. After that transformation, she ruled Egypt with her brother-husband, Osiris. Their love story is one of the most beautiful & tragic in history. And of course it will be part of my book!
This image shows Isis at the height of her powers in Egypt-- before her power & reputation spread to the Greco-Roman Empire & throughout the world, even as far as South America. Before the "civilized" world destroyed her temples, burned her relics & statues, & tortured her followers. By all rights, she should be forgotten today, another goddess swept away by Time & the crusades of modernity.
Yet she is still here-- a formidable presence worldwide. There are many, many Daughters of Isis, many girls in strange lands who look to the Mother rather than the Father for knowledge.
Maybe because in her prime, in Rome, when Isis worship was more popular than Christianity, she welcomed women, prostitutes, slaves, & the poor into her temples. She did not discriminate-- all were welcome.
Maybe because even though one of her names was The Throne, when Osiris was murdered, she went mad with grief & tore through Egypt searching for him, tricking a god, using magic & rage & love to breathe life back into him.
Maybe because during secret rituals, she shared her wisdom with her Daughters, & they, in turn, shared it with their daughters (& sons). As we do.
Mother to Child.
Author to Reader.
Here is the Mystery. Shh. Pass it on.
Friday, July 4, 2014
Guest post by Joyce Hinnefeld. Joyce is a a dear friend, a wonderful writer, & the director of last month's inspiring & amamzing Moravian Writers' Conference-- about which I've written on this blog. Take it away, Joyce!
My husband, twelve-year-old daughter, and I took a fabulous trip last summer, to Greece and Rome. In Greece we spent time in Athens, took day trips to Arachova and Delphi, then spent time on the island of Naxos and took more day trips, to Delos and Mykonos.
And let me tell you, I have got some photos! The iPhone makes it all too easy. But instead of the freshly whitened buildings with blue trim and Byzantine churches and countless cats, instead of the glorious statues of lions and gods and goddesses and the fragments of temples to Apollo, I want to show you this single photo from Greece, which I took outside the archaeological museum on the island of Delos. It’s of a rusted and clearly long-unused pay phone. Years of sun and wind and blowing sand have done their work on it. It’s a different kind of Greek ruin.
Ruth has been my inspiration and guide through the many years of our friendship in all kinds of ways, but maybe most keenly in her deep appreciation of travel--particularly the ways in which travel inspires her writing. Travel inspires my writing too, but I think the form that takes, for me, is different. Instead of imagining ancient worlds, charms and curses, mermaids and sultans and captive girls, I find myself--in the midst of all that beauty and history--looking at the two women (were they sisters? were they as sad as they seemed to me?) serving us breakfast in the hotel in Rome. The young man who sold ice cream and snacks on the small ferry boat, pedaling his bike furiously from the port, carrying a bucket for more ice during our stop on Mykonos. The beautiful French mother, with her two shy pre-teen daughters, at the pool on Naxos. Wondering what they had for breakfast, who was causing them pain or giving them joy, what they remembered fondly, what they wished they’d never done.
I don’t think my preoccupation with the present-day people around me when I travel comes from my being stuck in the present; I’m actually a very nostalgic person. That nostalgia keeps showing up in things I write lately. In fiction, it emerges in the mother-daughter relationships I keep including, with mothers remembering their own younger lives, and sort of understanding their daughters’ lives, but sort of not. That’s me thinking about my own daughter, I suppose. But I think it’s also me missing my own younger self.
In the piece I’m working on now, a mother and her college-age daughter take a trip much like the one we took last summer. Only in this case, they’re going to revisit scenes from a semester, and a follow-up summer, that the mother spent abroad thirty years before. She wants her daughter to consider studying in Rome; the daughter says she isn’t really interested in living in a dorm with other American students and studying that particular form of imperialism. On the island of Delos, while her mother tries to get her interested in the row of massive lion statues, glowing in the midday sun, the daughter snaps photos of a museum card that refers to the Athenians’ “overtly imperialist policy in the Aegean,” then the rusted pay phone. Later she posts both online with the caption, “Layers of human history . . . .”
The young man pedaling his bike away from the port will show up too, as will two middle-aged sisters serving breakfast in the little birreria next to a hotel called the Hotel Cinecittá in Rome (in reality, it was called the Hotel Fellini--but there really was a little birreria where we had breakfast, and it was filled with music stands and posters and books about Italian neo-realist cinema).
For a long time I haven’t wanted to admit how much the fiction I write has to do with me. My life, my preoccupations, my unanswered questions. But of course that’s what I’m doing, even when I try to imagine my way into the life of a sad and lonely Italian woman, or two Greek brothers who grew up on a farm on Naxos, or the American college girl who, one magical summer after a semester abroad in Rome, fell for the older brother.
But sometimes you need to leave home--to travel, observe, and take lots of photos--to recognize those preoccupations, those unanswered questions. And the people who will bring them to life.
Joyce Hinnefeld is the author of two novels, Stranger Here Below and In Hovering Flight, and a collection of short stories, Tell Me Everything and Other Stories. She is the Cohen Chair for English and Literature at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. Learn more about her work at www.joycehinnefeld.com.
Tuesday, July 1, 2014
I am sad to see you go, but you did your job well.
Let me explain. In the novel I just finished, I gave a character a stutter. It wasn't a casual decision. I thought it out deeply, interviewed people, read and researched causes, symptoms and treatments.
I sneaked it in quietly while he was busy failing in love with another character. When he tried to talk to her, he couldn't say her name properly, which set a wrench in the love department. He also found himself breathing and moaning and stumbling over words until my readers protested with marginal comments like, "Not the stutter again!"
Sweet, sensitive guy that he is, he took it all in stride-- the way he'd accepted the abusive father, dead mother, poverty and general pain I'd already saddled him with.
I cut back the stutter on the page, tried ingenious ways to make it sexy, played with sounds and words, and created the most tender scene ever when he finally says her name and stumbles over it. But at that moment he and I reached an impasse. He resented the stutter and let me know by suddenly breaking into long speeches without stumbling over a single letter or syllable.
The character he fell in love with had warned the reader (and me) about him from Day One. Everyone else saw only the sweetness in him, but she noticed the icy glint in his eyes, the steel resolve behind the gentle demeanor.
I yielded and watered down the stutter even more until only hints remained and a few oddly pronounced words.
It became ridiculous.
My readers sighed. "We love him except for the stutter."
Then my agent read the book. "About that stutter ..."
Damn damn damn. I knew it. We had a ferocious talk, my character and me. He did not stutter once. "You gave me enough crosses to bear," he said. "You did your work. I'm who I am, I don't need that stutter."
I reread what I'd written-- page by page, word by word-- and they were right, all of them. It's not the stutter itself that was an issue-- it was that I'd imposed it on him as a sort of cosmetic prop that became unnecessary and distracting. But the work I'd done had paid off. He is a complex character with a rich past and a story to tell. In the end he didn't need the stutter, and neither did the book.
I believe surgery was a success. So R.I.P., dear Stutter. Learning about you made me very sensitive to the issue of stuttering. You were a great help in exploring and developing my character, and I'm sorry you couldn't remain in the final manuscript.
But the shadow-stutter is still there in my character's silences and the curious rhythm of his words. He remembers what it was like to feel a monster hand clamp over his mouth and make every syllable torture until he created his own way of talking-- one in which every word matters.
I hope the reader will sense traces of it too, even if it's not on the page. It's all part of the process of creation-- layer upon layer that make up the foundation of a work of art. The colors and streaks of paint you glimpse in a painting, the scratches & scrawls underlying a finished story ... The part that shows we're human and flawed, always struggling to bring our visions into the light.
The part I love most.