Sunday, June 28, 2009

My Favorite Things

I've been reading Thich Nhat Hanh's The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching, a book that fell into my hands when a friend was disposing of yet someone else's books. Guess I was meant to read it. So far what intrigues me is that the chapter I read this morning--on the patio with coffee and the dog and quiet all around--was about recognizing what makes us happy. This came within an hour of my flapping shut the journal with the thought, this bores me. I had nothing to say worth saying. Not a happy response from a woman who has a dog, a cup of coffee, and a patio with clematis and tomato blossoms, peppers, strawberries, and lemon cucumbers sprouting. And, who did not have to plant any of these wonders, because her talented daughter does the gardening. Now that right there, those growing things, ought to be enough. But add the old-soul eyes of Duncan the Dog, the dog, and the list grows. Then the blond grandson, who just got his orange belt in karate and pitched out three batters this summer, at ten years old, who can read faster than a speeding bullet, who actually wears his glasses, well, need I say more?

Yes, of course I can say more, for sure: Frank Gregg's music, Billy Collins's poems, the little yellow roses in a pot on the windowsill in front of me, my desk and laptop, the lovely red box where I stash miscellaneous desktop stuff, the blue sky through the window, my healthy fingers on the keyboard, my black shoes and my new sneakers. The classical music pouring out of the radio, an orchid plant on the bookcase, the bookcase and its contents. You get the idea. Boredom is an act of inattention. In a few minutes I'll go brush my teeth and be glad to have them. Later today I'll go to friends and share a barbecue. Who cannot appreciate a Sunday afternoon on the porch with live music, good conversation and guacamole?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Writing Prompts

We know that anything can be a prompt--form, sound, feeling, deadline pressure--but which ones work? I believe it differs for each of us. Usually, I respond to a phrase that has a halo of possibility around it. It might be a couple of words: "300 page widget" or "speaking in earnest." Or it might be a visual image: our choir director sitting with her aching foot propped up on a hymnal. Rarely a prompt comes when I'm hunting it like a snark in a Lewis Carroll episode. (And, by the way, snark is not in my big dictionary, though snarky is, from snore or snort. See how words lure me from my intentions?) The prompt I used this morning came from my friend Bill, "imaginary visitors." I imagine Thomas Hardy on my front porch, amazed at suburbia. How I'll pull it off, I have yet to know, because a prompt is just a little jolt of electrical energy to the brain, a battery to start the engine, but not a predictor of where the vehicle will finally come to a stop.

Once prompted, I have to follow the leads that free association provides. In each brain, those associations will be unique. No one else has the exact experience with Thomas Hardy that I have. This is not to say that mine are better or worse than yours. But I have to make a dozen decisions as I compose--oh, there's a nice sound combination, here's a gnarly line break, there's an image that engages me, but oops! I mixed metaphors in that spot. All of this and more happens almost simultaneously if I let it. But the instant I strain for effect, imagining the reader or listener, whether that be my writing partner Larry, or a gang of poets at our local readings, I lose the trail and have to chase my mind back into that thicket of composition, reminding myself that I will revise, that the prompt may lead to a place I've never been. And that's fun. Was it Robert Louis Stevenson who said a book is "a frigate to take me lands away"? A writing prompt is a ticket to Terra Incognita, to the future, to the Thomas Hardy past. One of these days I'll start a prompt file, but for now I must answer the door and hear what the man from Dorset has to say.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Writing Retreats

Last weekend Duncan the Dog and I drove south and west to the old mining town of Silver Cliff. Well, I drove, and he navigated. From the back seat. We had our own food and personal stuff, my journal and a good read (Rolling Thunder by Doug Boyd). Everything else we would need was waiting for us at Bloomsbury West, a vibrant blue and yellow cottage with a fenced yard and a couple of wonderful reading chairs. No television or wi-fi. There is a radio, which I chose to ignore, and there is cell phone service, but I turned the phone off. We took walks in this mountain valley at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo peaks, admired the highly individual houses, chatted a bit with the neighbors, and ignored any suggestion that the world is round, small, and troubled. I read all of Boyd's book and Frank McCourt's Teacher Man, which I found on the generous book shelf in the cottage. I sat in the shade and admired the spring plantings in the many-colored pots that ring the house. Hawks and crows and anonymous small birds provided an almost constant air show.

Oh, yes, I also wrote a section of a book I've been playing with. That's the ostensible reason for going to the place. Writerly seclusion. How about a more realistic description: the time to do nothing I didn't want to do. I ate when and what I wanted, slept when I was sleepy, and nibbled in some of the books, devoured others. I went "downtown" to adjacent Westcliff for lunch, looked into some of the shops--little or nothing there smacks of big business--and bought an interesting stone to take home and a lovely necklace made from a mineral I had not seen before. When we left the cottage on Sunday morning, I took Route 69 toward home and marveled every hundred yards at the open fields, still green and full of new calves, a pair of stunning paint horses, then the drama of bare wild rock and the attention grabbing road that slithers through the land near the Arkansas River. I had a moment of envy over the number of rafters spilling down the river. But mostly, I felt happy to be going home after a restful and somewhat productive weekend. 

I've been to communal retreats, made friends with other writers, listened closely to the leaders of workshops and seminars, focused on the readings, and written like a mad woman, forcing each moment at the retreat to yield WORK. Not so at Bloomsbury. No one drives me to write anything. Even my critical self backs off and I really do relax. So when you look at the ads in writers' magazines for retreats that ask for your work in advance to see if you are worthy, or charge you a hefty sum for the privilege of being there, think hard about the word retreat: "the act of withdrawing." (American Heritage). Retreats that actually ask you to engage might be better called Advances. Not the same thing at all.