The Beauty of Community

The Community Story group just saw the May deadline for the latest prompt arrive and there were some great contributions to work with. The online presence was not as strong as hoped, but we know this will grow with time. We realized that sometimes people are reluctant to step in on something as traditionally sacrosanct as someone else’s story – incomplete or otherwise. It may take time for the online community to realize that this is their story too. In the mean time, the local gathering here in Flemington brainstormed some incredible storylines and will be taking the next 2 weeks to compare and contrast the possible trajectory and resolution of the narrative.

I found myself out of  my element last Friday as most everyone in the meeting leaned towards a kind of sci-fi or dystopian plotline. That is just not my forte. But that is the beauty of community writing. There is no one voice and there is no guarantee that you can stay in your comfort zone or allow yourself to stagnate. As these posts almost inevitably tie in to mindfulness and openness, you’ll not be surprised to read that once I accepted my feelings of insecurity and ineptitude in the face of a completely unexpected thematic focus and much more experienced writers of this kind of tale, a full page’s worth of text just flowed out of me in a matter of moments. What a thrill.

Another important gift that comes with openness and welcoming the muse or inspiration is that a kind of energy swells internally and warms you physically as well as emotionally. Breathing can become smoother and freer if you pay attention  the flow of your thoughts and even crave challenges. All things become fluid. Your talents and skills can only wither in the  vice that is avoidance and doubt.

It’s going to be a long two weeks waiting for our next gathering.

 

 

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Are You a Magnolia or a Milkweed?

Last spring, my yoga instructor, Allison Levine, was talking about the glorious blooms on the Magnolia tree outside her window. While the other trees and plants were taking their time waking up, this tree was already in the throws of spring exultation. This observation led to discussions of our own identities and inclinations. After a while we were trying to figure out what plant represented a different rhythm in the cycle of growth.  A mid-to-end-of-season species, Milkweed popped into my head. Now, it is not a fall plant like many crops, but it is a late summer bloom and one that brings fresh sweetness to the thick air of late July and August.

Some writers are Magnolias. They have these intense bursts of energy and crank out work speedily.  Others ruminate for periods of time and gradually produce their blossoms. I am definitely a Milkweed. I like the gradual progression of time to bring me into focus (or bloom). If I burst onto the scene ahead of the rest, I feel exposed and awkward. Perhaps I’m not a trend setter or a mover and shaker so much as a thoughtful observer. I’m my own breed (or species) but not a follower for certain. It’s important to identify which one you are so that no writing guides, blogs (ahem), or courses influence you to put your writing habits on the wrong timeline. However, I do recommend setting some kind of  goal and timeline. Otherwise you become like Camus’ character, Joseph Grand, in The Plague who perpetually rewrites the opening line of his novel, and never progresses beyond. This is not just a lack of deadline pressure for him, but a lack of connection to what he wants to express. Still, procrastination tends to reflect a lack of direction.  But what timeline and what goal you wish to meet needs to be something you know inside feels right. Your goals should fit like a soft pair of slippers that you look forward to settling in to. Some may think they are homely and need changing, while others like their coziness and envy your ability to relax into them.

Returning to the Magnolia/Milkweed analogy, I was just finishing Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Overall I like his work and I do think that his output has a nice rhythm, Not too much too fast, but we are not left waiting interminable months or years before he resurfaces. I think he is a Milkweed. I may be wrong. But even his voice caresses and his reading of his works smoothly flows forward without dynamic intensity. It is subtle and powerful. Just like the blooms and the fragrance of the Milkweed. I recently thought of him  when my friend’s 6 year old very primly informed me of the substantial size of her family’s flat screen TV. She was suffering through watching my standard television that I see no need to replace as long as it still does its job. She helpfully suggested that I give mine to someone so I could have a nice TV like hers. In that moment,  I realized that I am also disturbed by large flat screens in the home. It’s the void they represent. Think about it. You have a large black hole on your wall or on a cabinet. A large black nothing sitting passively but expectantly for you to activate it, much like the “varmints” in Gaiman’s book, tearing bits of the world away so that there is nothing but a kind of old fashioned TV static where life used to be. These large black square holes are much like the emptiness that these creatures, the hunger birds, inflict on the world until someone stops them. Do I want to eradicate a large space in my room? Absorb light instead of welcome it?

Not sure how all of the above connects together and to my theme of mind/body/spirit and the writing life? Teaching and learning? Well, my understanding of the many objects that surround and influence us and our relationship to them has matured as I continue to follow the path of awareness that regular reading and listening opens before me. Lacking the ability to truly observe and understand the inanimate world we create around us prevents our ability to describe and communicate it without images. Without the mindful community of yoga practitioners sharing their observations and inspirations with me, these thoughts would not have been initiated nor would they have taken root. It is not ourselves alone that bring forth our work. It is engagement with the world that fertilizes our imaginations and allows our ideas to germinate and grow into the particular plant, bush, or tree that is our writing selves. We cannot even become a Magnolia or a Milkweed without the entire process, the changing of the seasons and the insect and animal life  shall we say, that enables the entity to grow at all, much less healthily and to fulfill its role in a larger cycle. Random discussion among a discourse community, reading a talented and enigmatic author’s work, listening to a child’s reasoning, sitting with a seemingly irrational or unfounded discomfort with an appliance, writing and experimenting with your work and output—these all create a kind of compost to fertilize your talent and instigate growth patterns.

I am a Milkweed. I would not change this if I were offered the opportunity. I like the pom pom balls of blooms.  A gathering rather than a single bud. The memory of the beautiful spring Lilac’s scent is resurrected in late summer by this plant allowing the admirer to participate in two seasons at once.  I like the Monarch butterflies that rely on me (my students and readers) and enhance the setting with their fluttering contributions. I am ubiquitous. I reside in a world of small clusters of writers and practitioners rather than towering alone. Most importantly, I like to see the seeds of my work spread tangibly out into the world. I rely on the impetus of the wind to assist me (translation: openness to the universe’s rhythms). Be a Magnolia proudly if that is your style. Be the harbinger of beauty and renewed life and be exciting and bold. But don’t ignore the simple Milkweed in your literary horticulture. Look forward to its arrival.

It All Depends on How You Read It

Reading is the necessary rehearsal or preparation for the act and art of writing. But so is listening. Really, have you ever just had to put a book down and give up on it? Even some of the greatest authors just make it hard to sit still and pay attention for long. And by “long” I don’t mean the “short attention span theater” type that has a million devices dinging and buzzing all around, but the avid reader who looks forward to the quiet moments alone with a book. The first author I think of when I admit great admiration of, but little patience, for is Salman Rushdie, one of the most wondrous minds of our time. How he can write so extensively about so many disparate character types and subjects, not to mention locations and cultures, is beyond my comprehension. How do I know he is so wonderful if I just admitted that his verbosity makes me squirm? I LISTEN to him.

Audio books are not a new phenomenon nor are they hard to find, but did you ever really consider that the medium through which the story is delivered can affect the enjoyment factor and even affect comprehension? Of course it can. Professional storytellers are professionals for the very reason that they are able to deliver a tale through the expert command of language, inflection, diction, pace, and tone. Now, these vocal skills are enhanced by body language. Take away the body language, and you have only the one tool left to catch the audience. The voice.

I adore listening to Rushdie read his books. I can listen to him for the hours it takes to complete a novel and even look forward to a re-listen. I believe that his ability to capture the reader lies in the fact that he is the only one who has the personal connection to the text to deliver it as it should be with all the inflections, ironies, pain, and even objective distance that a reader must provide the listener. This is not to say that only the author can engage a listening reader, but the voice artist must seem to fully immerse himself in the telling.

Neil Gaiman is another author whom I cannot help but be captivated by when he reads. I don’t think I could listen to anyone else read his works though. He has such a wonderful and highly individual speaking voice that I’m definitely prejudiced in favor of his voice being the only one for my ears. I will also add that I can sit with Gaiman’s texts easily. He does not factor into the “can only listen to or I’m out” category.

The first time I actually listened to Rushdie, he was read by one of my favorite actors Art Malik whom I remember best for playing Hari Kumar in Masterpiece Theatre’s production of The Jewel in the Crown, in, gads, 1984 (I’m feeling old right now). It might have been that I was inclined to enjoy the text hearing that lovely voice of Malik’s, but I don’t think he would have lasted if he was not sincere in his verbal interpretation of the text as a whole. Once I listened to Rushdie read some of his other works though, I decided it was Rushdie or no one.

Perhaps it is simply that I can picture Malik, or Rushdie, or Gaiman as I hear them. Perhaps the visual aspect of storytelling does come in to play here as well. I envision them performing. That is something to consider. Regardless, while I’ve covered the easy part—listening to famous authors—let’s think about how to find new authors in the same way. With the little time that I have to read or re-read even the texts that I have to spend time with for my work, I find it hard to get to the pile of those I am interested in for pure enjoyment. And how do I find new works to add to my list of “must reads”? I LISTEN to these new voices. I make the time to go to readings and observe the writer deliver her work. Even truncated tales or works in progress are worth the time spent if the author can draw you in and make you want him to finish the work soon or deliver a signed copy into your hands before the night is through.

My recent personal literary resolution is to find as many local authors as I can and familiarize myself with their works. I say “personal” because my work as a professor (adjunct assistant, read “broke but happy”) and tutor does not always allow me to be as exclusive in my choices. A couple of weeks ago, I found a flier on the counter in my husband’s gallery in Flemington, NJ (small plug: Kissimmee River Pottery; www.riverpots.com). It announced that the SOMI Fine Art Gallery, just down the sidewalk from our studio, was to host an evening of readings by David Galef, Mia Siegert, and Cassia Rainne (aka Keisha Thorpe). This announcement came just in time. As my yoga instructors always remind me, when events or experiences are ready for you and you ready for them, they will become available. Well, we were ready for each other. I’d been dying to learn again. I spend so much time teaching writing and being isolated with my own projects that I begin to miss the thrill of being guided by someone and of sharing ideas. I try to encourage my students to find themselves in even the least desired or interesting assignments they must complete. At the least, I tell them, you don’t have to love writing, but you must be able to respect your own language and ideas to present them clearly and fully. That goes for fiction and nonfiction. All well and good, but where is my guru and guide these days? It’s good that I never feel competitive with other writers. I feel inspired by the gifted ones, hopeful for the weakest or beginners of the group. The point is finding the right group and, on this particular night, the right group came to me.

*Galef is a prolific author and is currently professor of English and director of the creative writing program at Montclair State University. I picked up a copy of his latest book of short stories My Date with Neanderthal Woman after he read to us about a kleptomaniac as described to us by her loving husband. It was amusing, enthralling, bizarre, and poignant. As now go through my notes from the night, scribbled on the back of the flier for the readings, I remember something very interesting about this couple, the kleptomaniac and the CPA. Well, I’ll start with the fact that the husband is a CPA. Order vs. chaos and unpredictability? Too obvious? I feel it to be more amusing than predictable. While Galef lists off the strange behaviors of this wife and her obsession, which happens to spiral inwards and affect her husband’s own belongings, he refers at times to Plato. This switch from mundane weirdness to cerebral ruminations did not isolate those who had not taken Philosophy 101 or one of The Great Courses on DVD. His references guided us to an understanding of the characters and Galef himself, rather than weeding us out and making us feel embarrassed. I feel that a great read should of course contain believable events and that the historical, literary, philosophical references, etc., must be accurate. But must it necessarily require extensive research for the reader and audience to understand all references? No. Galef helps us out knowing we might need it and without holding a grudge.

It was freeing to hear him acknowledge that the works in My Date with Neanderthal Woman have no particular connecting thread. What a relief to know that not all writing must be so perfectly definable. Let it flow.

Wow. Yes, I am partial to the short story form, but with so many volumes of work competing for my attention, listening to Galef put me over the edge and into ownership of his text. I found him in it as he read. Galef enjoyed the text as much as we loved giving him our attention.

Mia Siegert graduated with an MFA from Goddard College and has been teaching fiction courses at Southern New Hampshire University as well as various locations in Hunterdon Co., New Jersey. Her bio notes that she has been published by Word Riot, Capboard House, and soon, by Robocup Press. We were treated to an excerpt from a YA novel in progress that, from what we experienced, will most probably be a must read for both the YA crowd and adults who appreciate a mature and believable approaches to adolescent and teenage  perspectives on family and personal development.

Siegert also shared a brief passage from a novel she is in the process of developing based on real-life events in the “A” circuit equestrian world. Honestly, when I heard “horse” I thought, “oh, not another person trying to pass whinnies and rolling eyes off as knowledge of horses.” But, as it turns out, she has worked under the tutelage of George Morris, the top of the heap in the Hunter/Jumper world for those who have not travelled that route. While I was too faint of heart to work with the fierce Morris myself, I did train with a number of his students and colleagues. Siegert is the real deal. She knows the A circuit. She knows the scandals too and I can’t wait to see what she makes of them. I hope in some aspects, only the names have been changed. The stories need to be told, but not for the sake of the “gotcha” factor but for the sake of the people now entering the business and the horses still in the field. Awareness can only lead to better practices. Siegert is not obligated to hold the torch for change though. I would not be averse to her own interpretation for her own reasons. After all, her work is fiction and at this she is no slouch.

Cassia Rainne is also a graduate of Goddard College with an MFAW. Like me, she is an adjunct professor but also an academic advisor. I was astounded to find that she also acts, directs, and produces. I can understand why she was a radio host for a number of years. Her soft but clear and direct voice holds your attention during both her readings and her casual discussion. I love that the end of her bio tells us that in what I assume is her minimal spare time she can be found “standing in tree pose focusing on what’s next.” Wow, as a yoga enthusiast myself, I completely get that. The balance and focus it takes to stay in proper tree pose is much like the focus and attention that one needs to stay on the creative path. Many distractions want to pull us off our delicately balanced stance and our own doubts or competing desires can prevent that foot from even lifting off the floor to begin with.

What can I say about her work? What I remember most pointedly is the mood she created. She had us all in a trance as her warm voice told us of a woman simply preparing eggs. But the eggs were not the point so much as what memories and musings their presence triggered. I am probably not doing her story justice, but what I can say is that I’m dying to hear it again and more of it. Her style is a mix of observation and intentionally limited explanation. We are both voyeurs and confidents as we stand in the room with the character and listen to her history while watching her every move. We are with her, yet her privacy does not seem violated by our presence. The delivery here is all in the rhythm of the words and their patterns of logic.

Now, none of this is to say that I would not have wanted to read any of these authors’ works if I had not heard them first. A bad book is a bad book as far as I’m concerned, but quality work is illuminated by empathetic reading, no matter how brief the encounter. This experience brought to this intimate gathering 3 worthwhile pens and voices.

Here are some memorable statements and sound ideas from the authors given during the Q & A session and so graciously in casual conversation afterward (as I recall and decipher from my notes):

Galef: When asked how much of the author must be expected to seep into a narrative, Galef stated simply but strongly that “the self is inescapable.” I take this to mean that a work must not necessarily at any point be autobiographical, but one must not expect to disappear entirely, nor desire to. What you learn often becomes what your characters know, don’t you think?

Rainne: When I asked her what ignites the idea for a story, she discussed not needing to plan or brainstorm so much as letting a moment of inspiration or even a simple object like an egg take her on a path. She lets the moment be “the moment.”

Siegert: “I don’t want to write about me,” she smiled and said. Siegert does not argue that our own selves and experiences may very well feed our creations. After all, her forthcoming novel about the world of A-circuit horse shows is inspired by real life. She does share with us that one of her most challenging assignments was to write from a boy’s perspective or someone she could not readily form just by reaching inside for like a kind of Eve’s rib.

For more on these wonderful writers:

Cassia Rainne: contact purpleshamrockmedia@gmail.com or visit Purple Shamrock’s Facebook page

Mia Siegert: http://www.miasiegert.com or contact siegert.mia@gmail.com

David Galef: http://www.davidgalef.com

*I had unfortunately conflated two of David’s stories when I wrote this blog. The CPA and his kleptomaniac wife can be found in “Petty Larceny” while  “More Than a Platonic Relationship” is the tale that, as the title reflects, contains the references to Plato. David was very gracious in his correction and I am pleased to be able to make good on my mistake.

 

The Community Story: Globally Written Narratives

Please Note: There are apparently technical issues at WordPress right now because I can’t seem to edit my post for spacing and unwanted bold font in some places. Please excuse the occasional layout glitch.

I have been remiss in posting these days. Not for lack of ideas. In fact, there are a number of hand-written notes next to me. I think the more the pile grows, the more I buck at the “have to” of the posting. Spontaneity works better for me. Probably a lot of people. It’s not a dislike of deadlines or assignments though. I just should not let the pile build up. Important things fall to the bottom and newer things to avoid layer and layer themselves.

Do I think blogging is a burden? No. I love this medium and I love to read other people’s work when I sign in. Again, it’s the procrastination that makes what could be an inspiring and fulfilling practice seem mountainous and cumbersome.

So, what does this all mean? How does the above work with this post’s title? It fits perfectly actually. For the many who do not know what it is, The Community Story was first an idea that I had to offer writing prompts for short stories (later to become larger works if appropriate and in different genres) and let other people work together to complete the story. No one person should complete the tale (although one of the contributing posts was so perfectly formed by one of my friends that I can only see minor edits and leaving it as is). My goal is to have many people contribute to, discuss, and edit the story up until the deadline I set. Then, I do the final edits and post the story with the proper acknowledgements to all contributors. The Community Story holds the copyright, but all contributors can of course refer to the story they contributed to as co-editor or co-writer since the proof of participation is online. I take no profit and charge no fees, unless a time comes that it  becomes a large enough online publication that I need to charge for expenses.

The Community Story has a Facebook page and a group, but until I find a better collaborative medium for everyone to work on, the page will have to do. I’m working with a Web designer to create a page on my website for this purpose. Any IT advice?

Below is the inaugural prompt I offered via Facebook and some of the responses:

Here is the prompt for the first community short story. All members have until September 1 to contribute and discuss the project. Remember, no one should complete the whole story. Contribute a number of paragraphs, or even just a sentence. The is no right or wrong, just what you see as the next stage of the tale:

As I opened my car door, my legs felt the draft of early autumn whisk in. I knew I should not have worn such light slacks, but I just could not let go of summer yet. Stepping lightly out into the dusk of early evening, I felt the gravel of the driveway crunch under my shoes adding to the reminders of the changing seasons. Soon, it would be dried, dead leaves and then ice and snow crackling under my weight.

A lovely contribution from Mairead M.:

I sighed longingly for the long summer months drenched in heat, light, and sun lotion. However, there was too much to do to linger on these thoughts for long.

The absolutely hilarious digression of focus from Bill J. and John V.:

Bill J.: I pause to inhale the moment. Geese are honking their way to their retirement communities in the south. As they shrink towards the horizon I hear the gravel crunching under my feet again. But wait! I’m standing still. Oh my God! I forgot to set the parking brake!
John V.: I can’t believe I did it again! What is it about this place that gets me so fuddled that I can’t remember to set the brake! This is the third time this has happened to me here and I’m still paying for the new fender that is currently folding into itself as the car bounces off the stone wall at the edge of the drive.
Bill J.: How am I going to tell Mikey that my car backed over his pet turtle? It darted out behind the car just before it bounced off that stone retaining wall. God, I hope the car stops before it gets to the highway. i don’t know why it would, it didn’t stop the last time. At least none of the nuns in the bus had children.
Wow, I still laugh out loud reading that exchange between those two. Great comedic minds. Of course other prompts follow more sedate or folkloric paths. It all depends on the mood I’m in when I create the prompt and the people who choose to participate.
If you would like to become a part of this go to: http://www.facebook.com/TheCommunityStory
I’ll be periodically posting commentary related to The Community Story on its own WordPress Blog: http://thecommunitystory.wordpress.com/
Please NOTE: