What is the Value of the Written Word: Part II

images-8Part I was the response to the literal question. When we make a living writing and editing, we have to put an objective, concrete value on our words in order to survive and thrive. But that should be just a necessary evil. Today, we will visit the figurative or philosophical aspect of the query. So, business aside, what about the value of words gauged by other means? Do they have a measurable effect on us and our quality of life just as a paycheck related to these words might?

Words themselves are priceless and enduring. The carefully chosen ones produce life-changing insight, poetry, beauty, and enlightenment. The wrong ones may cause personal harm and wreak havoc on our souls, create unnecessary confusion, or set off  a chain of miscommunication and permanent damage. So, there is power in how we use our language, but so many people don’t consider this. Nor do they consider that learning how to structure our verbal interactions is of vital importance.

College students taking required composition classes most often treat their writing assignments as a burden and as something to be gotten past. They don’t realize the power they have when they wield their language artfully and strategically. There is grace in touching someone with words of significance. This is part of the overall struggle we in the humanities have when fighting to maintain respect and funding for Liberal Studies.

The “value” in communicating clearly is immeasurable. If you are still stuck on the financial side of “value,” then understand that poorly written missives don’t even get you onto the ladder of success, much less up any rungs. You’d better hope you are so brilliant otherwise and that you will be in so much demand that you can afford a personal assistant to mask your failings in this arena.

The real value, I think, is in what your words will do for others as well as for yourself.

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What’s YOUR Story?

I think of my friend Malynda who used to go up to people and say, in her Texas drawl,  “What’s yer story?” RealRembrandt, Old Man with a Beard (left) and self-portrait (right) hidden underneathly, this would be her greeting. Those are the first words she ever spoke to me and I was dumbfounded at first. But her face was inquisitive and she really wanted an answer. I observed her do this many times over the years and she nearly always ended up getting the “story.” Sometimes the tale was of the present. Other times it was a yarn about how the person came to be standing there answering. But we all answered because someone was present, interested, and ready to listen.

I recalled her bold and genuine query the other day as I thought about writing in general and memoir in particular. Really, what is your story? What makes you “you” at this moment and how did you get to this place where we are interacting? What brought you to this screen? This blog? Why are you asking yourself to offer a real part of yourself to strangers? Why am I? Come to think of it, memoir is not the only writing form that suits this question.

What path led you to fiction or fact? I think it is much more than wanting to share or explore versions of reality. I think those of us in Malynda’s presence responded rather than recoiled because she wanted our story. Her attention told us that we we might be interesting. That our general outline might be much more textured and rich once revealed and explored. What we thought we covered up or lost still showed through and is considered to be a hidden treasure by some. She was actually making us ponder our motives, incentives, and resultant existence as openly as she.

So, you may think you are fully aware of why you are a memoirist or a short story writer or a poet, etc. But if Malynda bore down on you today as you passed on the sidewalk or sat on a bench, what would your answer be? What’s YOUR story? And who will you honor with it?

 

 

Credit Your Predecessors BUT Develop Your Own Voice

There is no failure in starting your writing career under the influence of your favorite writers and trying to reproduce their style. Emulating their voice is part of your own experimentation with and initiation into the world of the art of writing. It’s good to have an ideal that guides you and keeps you working; but, always remember that it is pretty much impossible to recreate someone else’s prose faithfully no matter how diligent you are. And, really, do you want to? Aren’t you really trying to use this exercise as a way to develop your own path and your own place?

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I think of the excellent reproductions of paintings that always have some tell-tale change in brush stroke or color tone that eventually reveals the forgery. The copy is acknowledged for the likeness but not the talent. I wouldn’t mind a future reviewer acknowledging my influences, but that is where I would like it to stop. And since we are not discussing con games so much as aspirations and inspiration, you should only be concerned with achieving a level of competence and confidence to make your effort worthwhile. You don’t want to be an anonymous copy or, worse, a ridiculed imitator, but an authority in your own right only giving credit to your predecessors rather than being shadowed by them.

I want to stand on my own and become PART of the group. The process of learning from our teachers should create a goal of no longer needing them anymore.

Now, if you do some research, you can find examples of how different writing styles yield very different images of the same scene. Some of the best examples come from translations. There is never a dearth of discussion among translators and scholars as to how one should approach the translation of another’s work. Do you reproduce word-for-word as close as possible? Do you reproduce the essence of the meaning using the best vocabulary choices available to you in the language that this text will be translated into? Which of these two choices will do the the author’s work the most credit? I think of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, the modern Irish poet who writes solely in the Irish language. Poets and authors such as Paul Muldoon and Medbh McGuckian have done her work justice in their renditions. I’ve not read reviews of the many translations of her work into other languages, but as for the English versions, she seems to approve. Ultimately, the translator must be working in the original authors’ interests, but choice of wording and style is subjective. Some will like the translation, some won’t.

Emulation is not translation of course, but you will want to make similar decisions. Do you borrow the ideas and the essence of the tales or do you reject these and find your own words to create similar worlds? Some will like your choices, some will not. As long as you can stand by those choices and explain readily and easily why your work’s final presentation is as it stands, you can feel confident in your work. If you are still not so sure as to what your voice will be or how much you wish to remove yourself from your predecessors, keep drafting, practicing, sharing, and editing. You’ll find your way.

Here is an exercise that I give to my literature students to help them understand what is it like to create some of the works they are reading:

We choose one of the authors we have read, and I have them write about two paragraphs on a topic in the writer’s voice. So, in one of my classes, we had read Charles G. Finney’s The Circus of Dr. Lao, a text from the 1930s that fits in the genre of Speculative Fiction (pre-sci fi or fantasy terminology). This story is dominated by references to myth and philosophy all in relation to the development of identity and perception. I asked them simply to describe “A Snowy Day” using Finney’s voice. The results were spectacular and very different. We all started with the same sources, and created very different worlds.

This is what I hope that emulation of and influence from an author can do for you: Help you create your own “snowy day.”

We Are All Movers of Obstacles

Meditation does not guarantee peace. It is very much the job of the mind to encroach upon our precious moments and deposit obligations, regrets, great plans, and worry any moment there is a chance of quiet or calm, and our consciousness often acquiesces to these distractions because they are so incredibly strong and very important to us. After all, they design and direct our goals and create a structure for our behavior.

imagesThese obstructions, like many others, are possible to move aside given that you have the right fulcrum. There is no certainty of the existence of a chant or theory that will be the catalyst for your “aha” moment, but, what is certain, is that you can create it for yourself. You are the foundation of your quieted mind.

I came to agree with this ideology—as I often do come to understandings or even questions—as I lay upon my yoga mat after an especially vigorous class. On this day, the outside world and its cares were rather easily forgotten. Like many of us, I do have a tendency to let shopping lists or big ideas flow around when I should be savoring my down time. The darkness was let in and welcomed and the familiar horizontal streaks of insistent daylight played in front of my lids. As I let go, images and lights flashed around incoherently. As they gelled, I had a vision that each of my fellow practitioners was sitting upon her mat in the form of Ganesha and each had a flame over her head. The room was not fully formed, so the background was a general haze of pale yellowish light. I was mesmerized and fascinated and happy and still disengaged from interpretation or analysis. As the voice of my teacher, Alison Levine, gently enticed us back to the moment, I held on to the feeling of wonder.

When I discussed this with Allison, neither of us really knew what to think of this. Obviously we knew it was Ganesha and I have a fondness for that deity, but that did not help me understand why he was manifested as a student and topped with the tongue of a flame as you’d see in relation to the Holy Ghost in Christian scriptures. I was raised Catholic so it’s possible some of the love and beauty from these teachings aligned with this deity, and being blessed with the Holy Spirit is much like being filled with the confidence of the Mover of Obstacles. But Ganesha is related to wisdom and intellect–a guide for those who prefer more active engagement with spirituality. I see the Holy Spirit related to surrender rather than action.

Interestingly, Ganesha is also associated with writers and a writer must remove any obstruction that impedes the creative or analytical process. Inspiration is really not an outside force, but an inner movement motivated by openness to possibilities. Upon reflection I felt a sense of surety that I was identifying each student present as their own mover of obstacles if not in life, in practice on the mat. We were all capable of embodying the idea of challenge and the flame was a reiteration of being infused with this potential.

This idea of possibilities in yoga crosses in to my teaching and writing often. The end is not always what I am concerned with , but the process and what coming to the mat, computer, or notepad may ignite. Your initial intention may very well be moved aside to make room for more or different experiences and output.

As you know, there is much out there on how to remove negative mantras from our thinking patterns, and the term “mindfulness” is becoming a mainstream catch phrase. But do we always find a personal connection to these pieces of advice or terms? And what about those who are interfered with by outside forces rather than internal and who may not have the spiritual resources, yet, to circumvent or fully remove these human or financial trees from the path? I find that when people say “get rid of excuses” or some such maxim, there is insight lacking in their statement. Excuses are formed of matter that bad experiences (perceived or real), low energy (spiritual or physical), and poor self esteem merge to create. An excuse is a symbol of much deeper concerns, not a generic barrier used to casually avoid change. BUT, once the platform for the excuse is restructured or razed, the practiced rationalization is no longer so dear or poignant to the person’s personal rhetoric. The obstacle has been removed or reworked and a new story can be written.

What is your obstacle? Is it a tangible object or a thought that impedes your forward momentum? As a practitioner, do you find any particular impediment to your practice or your quiet mind?

 

All Experience is Relevant to All of Our Creativity

No experience is ever a waste. If you make an effort to understand your behavior in the context of the cause-and-effect pattern of our world, you can see, in your own time, how you come to react to events physically, emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically. Never one to blame the victim or settle for this unfocused “everything happens for a reason” catchphrase, I do hold to the idea that we make very specific choices that lead to the encounter in question. No, you did not give yourself cancer, or “ask” to be victimized in a robbery, or shunned by people who disagree with you. But you chose to go to the doctor and get a diagnoses. You chose to exercise your right to walk outside alone  or voice your opinion. Within these actions, someone or some people made their choices.

Your job is to dissect the experience and figure out what to take away from the moment. Be thankful you got the diagnoses when you did. You could make the plans that save you or keep you in control of your care. Be mindful that you have the right to function unmolested and the perpetrator is at fault. Even If you have voiced opinions and viewpoints with respect and compassion, frankness and certitude, couldn’t someone still potentially have an issue with them? The presentation may be well done but not everyone has the ability to receive the content with measured, objective analysis. If you were rude or inappropriate, well . . .

OK, you ask, where does this fit into your overall theme of writing? Nope, it’s not just recording the events or remembering the emotions for your characters that may be placed in this scenario. This is for your personal as well as professional well being. How do stories come to you? How do job contacts come to you? How do you filter the world around you so that experiences can be treasured as affirmation of your strengths and value? Not indignation and proof of being “right,” but proof of being here as you. And how do these realizations undergo a kind of transformation into text.

These acknowledgments affect your tone and your choice of subject matter. You reject or accept your responses to and feelings about the world when you write. My own longing for a sense of relevance and worth today has pushed my ego into the fore and pushed me to reach out here, now. If I were not disappointed in having opened myself to public rudeness because I was trusting and assumed that someone I did not know would have integrity (see my post Kindness in Writing), I would not be admonishing you to be mindful and careful about your writing self. Ultimately, since there was nothing illegal or permanently damning in my recent  experience that might require overt confrontation and action, it became a platform for reflection and this post is my catharsis. My choice to filter the experience in a healthy way.

I wish all experiences could be so easily resolved and that I had the wisdom and fortitude to regularly forgive others their unkindness, folly, and unprofessional acts, and myself my own wrong choices and mistakes. But, that is why we call yoga a practice and our writing will need revisions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s Your Word Count? It May Reflect Your Style.

I just recently wrote about Colum Mcann and how his recent New Yorker article triggered my creative juices and awakened my curiosity about the world in general and the writing world in particular. As I watched an interview with David Brooks–one of my favorite essayists–on Q&A tonight, I was again charged up to get back to my keyboard and push myself out of my best intentions and actually write. One of the things he said reinvigorated my sense of belonging and self acceptance in the world of writing. Actually there were many points he made. The first was that he confirmed that writing is terrible and hard. It’s work, people. Unforgiving moody, vacillating in submission to your will, erratic, and glorious. Like some drugs. And, like coming down, you cannot be left with the illusion of greatness for long. In some moments, you come out of your reverie and find that the world is the same as you left it and the magnificence of your dreamy outpourings is full of holes and generalizations. Except in this case there is produced something concrete to review and something that maybe able to affect the future.

Brooks also stated that every writer has his word limit. Not the exact statement but I can’t remember the specifics. His point was that we have in us a natural comfort or effectiveness with specific lengths. The essence was that a writer may very well shine in a particular word count as well as genre. Eureka for me!!!!! I like my blogs. I like the short story. I’m not a verbose person much less writer. I am more comfortable working on small, separate blogs that may be related thematically and may be potentially turned into something larger or on short fictions that pinpoint a moment so profound to the characters that it is larger than those before or after.

Of course, Brooks was not saying that short works are ok to stick with if you just always run out of ideas or just don’t have much to say. A good writer has something to say and an impression to make, so let’s not cheat and say that Brooks said we don’t have to try or should be a person who simply stops writing at a number reached. Create something worth reading. It’s ALL hard if you do it right.

I prefer straight to the point, compartmentalized pieces of communication. With time and practice, I may become a more prolific writer of longer works. For now, these blasts of sharing buoy my spirit and energize me.

But what kind of writer are you? What is your comfortable word count? And is this per idea, subject, or writing session? Brooks admitted to having a time limit that he cannot pass without producing mediocre work. I think we owe it to ourselves to note our own boundaries and use them for a kind of framework in which to perfect our skills. Don’t fight it, count it.

What is Your Story?

I just finished reading a brief essay by Colum McCann in an issue of the New Yorker. In it he describes his father’s influence on his own writing career. I often wonder what the back story is of many of my idols and if they mirror my own or move to shame my excuses for neglecting my own work.

It would be so easy to pass off my “experiments in limitation” as someone else’s fault. My father’s for instance. But, then, what about all those people who suffered more than I who have created such brilliance from the ash of cruelty and neglect?

Ultimately, the only truth in creative output or excellence in any form is the internal desire to either compete or simply create. Some Of us are crushed under our familial burdens and some are lifted up. Some are given open doors and paved roads, some must batter at the beams and endure ravaged soles.

I am loathe to admit that it is us alone at decides if we follow our desires and interests. With so many examples of success met in so many personal scenarios I must continue to evaluate what it is that I want and how much I am willing to do for the end result.

This is what I must also teach my students and my son. You may take on a challenge or you may love lithe idea of a job or hobby, but do you want to live the hardships along with the elation that comes with sticking to the plan–the requirements of success? It’s OK to say no. It just means that you have other paths to follow, and, perhaps, those paths are paved with the gold you didn’t know you had inside.