Keep Reading, Keep Learning, Keep Growing

Some ideas and observations are worth a revisit. This entry was originally posted about 3 years ago and I find that it has relevance still today. I’ve  changed the title and did a bit of editing but the essence remains:

Perfection is an inaccurate term to use for a human being, I believe. There is a positive force to embody in our lives regardless of the term we apply to it. As I continue to savor random moments alone with How Yoga Works by Geshe Michael Roach, I find myself kind of floating emotionally in a soft cocoon. My head hums a bit, my chest alternates between tightness and the most clear and weightless expanse of breath I can ever remember having. Realizations and fear, regrets and hope all ebb and flow. It’s like having a misty aura pulsing around me. Very spiritual. Very new. Very different from the reactions to the texts I usually read and write about.

A current passage that has insinuated itself into my thoughts contains references to the dilemma of pride. Pride is especially troublesome when it has installed itself within a student and the master or teacher must find a way to refocus it. One of the pending titles for my blogging is Teaching People How to Learn. I still may use it later on, but for the moment it serves as a better example of the trajectory of this post rather than a guide for a separate entry. As the narrator tells us, pride must be hit or beaten with a figurative stick until it becomes “a healthy kind of confidence” ( 135). One holds onto pride jealously but confidence is flexible. It can be shaken, it can be restored, and it does not begrudge change.

Confidence is what many of us lack when we endeavor to write. Pride is what stops us from learning. Those of us that have allowed rejection letters or the disinterest of influential people or difficulty with insecure bosses  to define our worth have allowed a perception to dominate our overall sense of ability and worth. That is not to say that there is a ceiling to learning and that writing is a static medium. The negative must be analyzed closely to find the realities within that collapse of hope or momentum.

This leads me back to teaching people how to learn. I have students who go into throws of anxiety and confrontation when they get a C rather than the expected A (Read: grade earned for simply producing the work). I see them as people with potential to evolve if I can assist them in realizing that earlier grades came at earlier periods in their education. Perhaps the standards were lower as well–let’s be frank about that. Many do not know how to evolve from the platform they have rested upon and refuse to find that there is more work ahead. Their pride is blocking the growth of their knowledge base. I am the wall they hit or the stick that beats the barriers down if I can.

What overcomes the obstacles? Reading of course. The text is life. Each text is a portal into a new perspective on life as it was or is if you see it for its potential rather than only its concrete form. How Yoga Works teaches us that things are not “themselves” or, rather, don’t have an unyielding unchangeable identity. Our engagement with the world creates or molds the nature of what we behold and that nature “itself” is not static. Roach offers us an example when the narrator engages her jailor in a discussion about a bamboo pen on his desk. Is it a pen? To him, yes, but is it only a pen? He comes to realize that it is also  a tiny piece of nourishment: “I mean that impression, that sense of division is so strong . . . I simply never realized that I make the pen itself ; my mind takes the pen a pen, just as the cow’s mind draws the same green stick as something good to eat” (118).

Now, I don’t  believe that our perceptions are an illusion or that people do not create texts, art, or even meals in an unconscious state that only others can give concrete form to as they engage with them. We are not passive vessels nor are our accomplishments eradicated by lack of witnesses or missing accolades. What this text brings to me and what I take from my interaction with it is that we can change our perception so that pain and discomfort do not concretely define an experience. If someone is cruel, the unhappiness is real, but the root cause of our pain may be suppressed or veiled by the surface actions. What is truly cruel in the moment?  The actions or the causes of these?

For a non-spiritual on non-philosophical example, think of the “kick the dog” syndrome. Someone is raked across the coals by his unhappy boss who is looking for someone to abuse because his wife made nasty comments that morning. The employee, feeling victimized and powerless, then spits profanity at someone who accidentally bumps his arm causing hot coffee to burn his hand. The person soundly abused for an honest mistake cuts someone off at a turn feeling the need to assert her authority and presence. The person who narrowly misses hitting that car comes home shaking and, as the dog trips him in his glee at finally having someone to play with, kicks the animal for also being in the way.

These examples and questions are not meant to confuse your sense of order or make you doubt your eyes or heart. Doubt is not the goal. Doubt is real at the moment you feel it, but it should not be a  manipulative tool for preventing the emergence of self-assertion and confidence. The key here is that self assertion must be based in awareness and tempered by acceptance of the changeable nature of what Roach calls “universal powers” and of perception.

The text I am reading is life. What you are reading is life. As it should be? As you agree? Does it matter? We are experiencing the opportunity to learn and grow from the nourishment that is found in the narrative.

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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.

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?

 

 

Ask, and the Answer is Not What You May Expect. Listen, and a Path Opens Up

I listened, earlier, to news about youthful offenders. Missives of sadness. I read now from poems of welcome and belonging. Of comfort and sureness of purpose. Which is more likely to teach me about love and hope? About life and how events unfold and to what purpose? Both.

NPR’s story of the horror of one particular offender’s actions resounded within me. While not identical to my own encounter with another’s cruel and manipulative violation of trust, it answered my desperate question as to how one’s troubling behavior can be overlooked or ignored by others. I was reminded that it is common to find out, after the crime is committed, that the assailant had been exhibiting antisocial behavior already. That their friends and family knew the person was troubled. It’s not personal that no one let you know. It’s not a conspiracy of silence that set you up for trauma. There is basically a pattern of ignorance or passivity that many  participate in expecting that “this behavior” is not a long-term problem or a sign of danger. But if you are dragged into engaging with the seemingly preventable damage, there is a relentless psychological, spiritual, and emotional nagging that adheres to you. It’s like grief after a loved one dies. No amount of comforting or advice can make you skip the stages you must go through and the time it takes to become accustomed to the loss.

I was not comforted that someone else was hurt. By no means. But I was finally brought to face the commonality of many victims’ experience. A sense of community, albeit tragic, came to me. I am not a freak, nor a failure. Just another dupe. No amount of beneficent intentions can prevent bad actions. All one can do is hope to earn the respect and love of others so that you can share all that is good. This trust creates a respite from anything too large to bear alone. There is hope that I can now help myself and others through this unexpected life lesson.

The poetry book, The House of Belonging, now that I think about it, called to me because of my need for gentleness. I have been afraid to let too much gentleness in since my hatred and loathing for another and myself was evoked many months ago. The book has been moved around as I have packed to move. I couldn’t quite part with it but I did not want it near me. It took something as objective as radio journalism to bring me back to face something that is not about being alone and isolated, but a painful part of a greater whole: humanity in all its horrible truths and insatiable lust for healing.

In one morning of routine actions (turning on the radio as I work with the horses) the message of hope I needed found its way to me. All of my prior asking  did not result in satisfaction. But my continued listening did.

You Can’t Write if you Don’t Read–and Listen—and Look!

trees2This may not be news to some of you. It may be a good reminder for those of you who have fallen off the “good writing habits” wagon. There is absolutely nothing that you can read, listen to, or view that can’t become fodder for your own writing topics.

If there is anything that helps writers engage with their innate or practiced talents it is having to create a story based on a visual prompt. A friend recently asked me to collaborate on a book project with him. He had created a series of pictures. He wanted a story to go with them. I happen to have included in my syllabi over the years, assignments that included writing prompts that were solely images. The coursework idea came from an NPR interview in which an author had mentioned that something she witnessed in nature fed her curiosity, leading her to do research, which led her to create a work of autobiographical fiction. First, she looked. She saw. Then she read. Then she wrote. I’ve always loved this exercise and the surprising results in the classroom but did not expect that it would become so influential in my own process. But, here I am writing to you, writing a manuscript, teaching new groups of hopeful writers and reluctant college students. Nothing is wasted when it come to engaging with the world with all of your senses.

What do you see in the picture above? I see a narrowing of focus created by the gradual lowering of the branches. Like a telescope in reverse. My fiction choice would be in the mode of a kind of Alice in Wonderland falling down in to a smaller world of possibilities. My nonfiction choice would be to debate which is more beautiful: Nature left alone or sculpted and planned. Very rough ideas at best, but that is the planning stage, right? These choices make up the adventure and the pain of the writer’s life.

Let’s Weigh in on Fan Fiction

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As I sat with a friend of mine on a recent evening, we started talking about these last posts about the Memoir and the subject turned to other genres that I had not spent time reflecting on. Then she said, “Write about fan fiction!” Hmmm, I don’t really know much about fan fiction actually but I am definitely in favor of any medium that gets writers writing and finding their own voice.

I actually have the button  you see pictured here. I used to work in a comic book store in Baltimore and we had these as promos for an issue of a Wolverine comic. It cracked me up in general but I never really thought about who the fans were and why they were dedicated enough to earn so much ribbing. After all, aren’t fans the only thing that keeps you in business?

When you think about it, we’ve all been inspired (or annoyed) by the authors we read when in school or that we found in our excursions to the library, or Amazon, or the bookstore (remember those?). I just never really thought about the concerted effort so many people have put in to developing entire stories and lives around existing characters. To write a vampire story is not new. To create an entirely new planet is not new. But to write about existing vampires or colonies in other universes is very curious to me. But I do know what it is to feel lost or lonely when a story or trilogy or some such ends. I have often missed some characters and wished they would return somehow. I remember when Anne McCaffrey died. I was faced with the end of her dragon riders. Even if she were not planning to do more with Pern, the possibility was open as long as she was here. Now, even with her son carrying on, it’s still not her. BUT this is where the fans come in right? They keep the legends and the people alive and offer a continuation of the world she created or let this one branch out to the next, much like the originators of Pern did when they arrived on this new planet. Why not stay in touch?

Basically, everyone has a story and it’s important to tell it. Is it for family? I have worked for year for my dear friend Ruth Wolf as she compiled a family history for her many grand and great-grandchildren. Is it for the public? An in-group of other avid fans of particular authors who all feel connected through particular stories? Is it for the love of writing alone and you allow what boils up from inside to guide you?

You are interesting. Whatever you want to write is up to you as long as you hone your craft and never feel that you are done learning and observing. If emulating a stye is what drives you to experiment, great. If writing fan fiction and staying within the existing world that another created rings true with you, great. Are you a Memoirist who shares your experiences for those who could learn from your life or be inspired by it? Great. Maybe your memoirs work for personal as well as professional goals.

It’s all what truly resonates within you and never let anyone tell you your choices are not marketable or timely. You decide what you create and then decide how it will live on. If you reach enough people, maybe your own tales will continue on when you’ve stopped or have moved on. So, write on Fan Boys and Girls!

Memoirists: My Educators

I was so pleased to read the comments and see the “likes” that appeared in response to my last post. I am always trying to stay in learning mode and keep from atrophying intellectually or creatively, so the feedback I get is always of interest and importance.

Through my newfound colleagues in the blogging community, I have learned even more about the Memoir.  I find myself enlightened as to the fact that a Memoir’s value should be gauged by each reader and their preferences or needs rather than by a preconceived idea of who the Memoirist should be or what their “qualifications” are.

Because I focus my blog content on the pursuit of inspiration for writing in general–rather than in one particular genre–and because I frame my work in relation to the principles and patience of yoga, I cannot remain inspired if I don’t investigate my stubbornness or even snobbery about the varied aspects of these disciplines. To look critically at the place the Memoir holds in my academic background is the first thing I needed to do. The Memoir or an Autobiography, in my literature studies, has always been part of a larger pattern of investigation that helped me to understand a particular writer’s process in life and art. The texts brought to me an understanding of their methods and moods as well as their social or historical influences (I’ll not argue theory here). I adore the work of Edith Wharton, but, without reading about her, I don’t feel that I could claim to begin to understand her work and I would be more passive in my engagement of her books. How is it that she so adeptly censures the suffocating world of the New York aristocracy of her time? How does she so aptly understand the poor or extreme choices one makes when in love or in need of status?

But what about non-academic studies? What about the study of the immediate world around me? What are other people doing with their lives right now and what are the events that shaped them or that must have been navigated to survive or thrive? Can’t they be of interest? Can’t they be included in the Humanities? If I am going to be a reliable teacher of writing, I must understand the modern reader and not just my literary predecessors of both fiction and nonfiction. This is where the modern Memoir comes in to play and takes me out of my institutional sense of propriety. This is where I continue to learn: By letting the discussion or debate happen around me and letting the new voices, the current thinkers and writers tell me about their standards. Let’s face it, unless I need to get a grant or need to gain tenure, do I really have to subscribe to one way of approaching my studies? Yes, this is going to be related to yoga but only briefly: There is no one way to practice. There are many ways of learning and progressing. It’s only up to you if you choose one path of study. That is fine. But do know it is a choice and that there are other paths for other people! Maybe a stroll down one will bring you closer to your own goals!