Category Archives: Writing

Priorities… I’m moving on, getting to less

Priority: n. something meriting attention before competing alternatives

365 Words Beginning with P is winding down. Not because of a paucity of peachy P-words – indeed the peerless pantheon of P words is scarcely pricked.

My purpose – nay, my priority – was to prod my procrastinating pea-brain into a practice of producing pontifications on a daily basis until I had proffered at least 365 of them, thus proving to myself that I could write regularly.  This is #377. Who knew vocabulary could be so much fun!

(To those whose interest in 365pwords was more literary than political, I apologize for all the Palin posts last fall. It’s not my fault her name began with P.  I thank god she’s not our vice-president — pity those poor people in Alaska.)

What I’m saying is my priorities have shifted and I must move on. Literally. To a much smaller home, with much less stuff.

But I’ve caught blogging fever, and my new blog, Getting to Less, is shaping up nicely.  If you’re at all interested in getting to less in your own life, or you just want to keep me company on the journey, please please c’mon over.  And bring your own downsizing tips and (mis) adventures.

Pitching your possessions has got to be more fun than pulling your own teeth, right?

I’ll be back here occasionally when a P-word just screams to be written about. Meanwhile, join me over at Getting to Less.

Praise for Anne Lamott

Praise: n. an expression of approval; commendation.

Yesterday I picked up Anne Lamott’s latest book, Grace (Eventually).These impoverished days I usually borrow my reading material from the library. Anne Lamott I buy. And once again I’m just enthralled.

Back in 1985 (?) she spoke at the first writer’s conference I ever attended. Using tales from her own writing life (and very messy personal life) she simultaneously inspired and convulsed us with laughter. I remember thinking, “Wow, if someone with this many hang-ups and problems can crank out books, what’s keeping me?”

Although she has written five novels, her true métier is the personal essay. I would KILL to be as inspiring, evocative and funny as Annie Lamott.

So far she’s produced three best-selling collections of personal essays: Traveling Mercies, Plan B, and this latest one.The subject matter evolves but doesn’t change: she weaves together her experiences as a (former) drunk, as a sober person, as an imperfect single mom, as a loving but jealous friend, as a dutiful and rebellious daughter, as an insecure writer, and as a born-again Christian who is simultaneously a flaming liberal feminist who curses and hates George Bush even more than I do.

One moment the reader is horrified: “she did what?”, the next all teary, and then you’re laughing your head off. Most of her tales have a gentle moral lesson lurking behind the breezy writing style, and yet this non-Christian reader is pulled in rather than repelled. For someone as devout as she clearly is, she has no qualms about being wicked and totally irreverent.

She also wrote one of my all-time favorite books about writing: Bird by Bird (1995). We learn that her style, which seems so effortless, is not. Here’s a piece of excellent advice:

For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.

[Amen sister! And how about really really shitty second third and fourth drafts?]

The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out, and let it romp all over the place…you let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come though and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?” you let her….

She goes on to describe the battle she has with her internal editors:

The critics would be sitting on my shoulders, commenting like cartoon characters. They’d pretend to snore, or roll their eyes at my overwrought descriptions… For the rest of the day I’d obsess about getting creamed by a car before I could write a decent second draft. I’d worry that people would read what I’d written and believe that the accident had really been a suicide, that I had panicked because my talent was waning and my mind was shot…

What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head. First there’s the vinegar-lipped Reader Lady, who says primly, “Well, that’s not very interesting, is it?.. and there are your parents, agonizing over your lack of loyalty and discretion, and there’s William Burroughs dozing off or shooting up because he finds you as bold and articulate as a houseplant, and so on…

She suggests a process where you imagine shrinking each of these complainers to the size of a mouse and dropping them one by one into a jar with a lid on it to have at each other.

A writer friend of mine suggests opening the jar and shooting them all in the head. But I think he’s a little angry, and I’m sure nothing like this would ever occur to you.

No. Of course not.

Practice, practice, practice: the theory of 10,000 hours

Practice: v. to do or perform often, customarily, or habitually;  to perform or work at repeatedly so as to become proficient; to train by repeated exercises

You know the story:

The tourist in Manhattan asks for directions: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”

Helpful local: “Practice, practice, practice.”

I have resisted practicing since I was a kid – starting with violin at age 7,  piano at 10, and as an adult – meditation, yoga, writing, you name it.

Resistance is a child’s tactic against a pushy parent though. How many decades does it take to outgrow this worthless ploy?

By now I know full well that whenever I do something repeatedly my performance soars. But that doesn’t make it any easier to knuckle down.

Stephen King wrote about his own writing habit in his 1999 book On Writing.  He poo-poos writing workshops and says in a nutshell, if you want to become a better writer, write a LOT.  (He also says to read a lot, but that’s another topic).

He writes several hours a day. Every day. Including Christmas and the Fourth of July. And he’s got more than 30 bestsellers to show for it.

Daniel Levitin in This is Your Brain on Music talks about the theory of 10,000 hours:

… ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert — in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is the equivalent to roughly three hours per day, or twenty hours per week, of practice over ten years. Of course, this doesn’t address why some people don’t seem to get anywhere when they practice, and why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others. But no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.

Three hours a day (20 hours a week) for ten years. Or for the crash course, 40 hours a week for five years.

Alrighty then. At least I’ve gotten started.  Thank god there are at least 10,000 p-words. Check back with me in about twenty years.

A Prompt to Perusers: proffer your comments, please…

Prompt: n. something that reminds or incites to action

Peruse: v. to browse, to look over casually; to read carefully

Proffer: v.t.  to offer up or present for acceptance

Dear Perusers, Passersby, Lurkers and Regular Readers,

WordPress has a clever way of keeping track of how many folks visit a blog, which posts they looked at, which terms they used to find the blog or post, and which links intrigued them enough to link through.

So I know you’re out there. I know you stop by.

Some of you are friends and family, but most of you are total strangers. A couple of those who started as strangers comment often enough that I now think of them as real friends, and that feels really good.

I started “365 Words that Begin with P” to trick myself into a regular writing practice.  (The posts listed here will explain why “P”, etc.) I said that I didn’t care if folks read or commented on what I wrote because that wasn’t the point.

But evidently I lied. I do care.

Since April 6, 2008 I’ve written 292 posts, a number that astounds me (and yet hundreds of great P-words still remain untouched!). I’m having lots of fun.

Now I’d like to hear what’s on YOUR mind. Your favorite P-words and why. Your problems with practice productivity priorities people politics passion perseverence parenting pickles poodles or parsnips.

I have my own favorite posts, but they’re not reflected in in the WordPress stats, which are driven by what people are searching for or being linked to from a popular blog.  Mention a political controversy (all things Palin) or a celebrity (Randy Pausch and Paul Newman – both Unitarians who died recently) and I get LOTS of hits. Mention something of interest to ME (prunes, packrats, plethora) and maybe a hundred take a peek. Though who knew that a hundred people a month would want to read Patron – about the older men in top hats lurking/leering just offstage in the paintings of Degas and Fourain  (students googling “Degas” in preparation for a paper?).

So… in the new year, indulge me by commenting every now and then. I promise I’ll comment back. Let’s have more of a conversation!

Poem: “Purpose of time” by X.J. Kennedy

Poetry/picture interlude for a miserable winter day.

cotoneaster

Cotoneaster’s last leaves and berries on my fence (12/4/08).

The Purpose of Time is to Prevent Everything from Happening at Once
by X.J. Kennedy, from The Lords of Misrule.

Suppose your life a folded telescope
Durationless, collapsed in just a flash
As from your mother’s womb you, bawling, drop
Into a nursing home. Suppose you crash
Your car, your marriage—toddler laying waste
A field of daisies, schoolkid, zit-faced teen
With lover zipping up your pants in haste
Hearing your parents’ tread downstairs—all one.

Einstein was right. That would be too intense.
You need a chance to preen, to give a dull
Recital before an indifferent audience
Equally slow in jeering you and clapping.
Time takes its time unraveling. But, still,
You’ll wonder when your life ends: Huh? What happened?

Progeny Pride: my son the blogging designer

Progeny: n. children, descendants, offspring

Pride:  n. the quality or state of being proud, holding in high esteem.

My son just put up his second essay at Huffington Post (in the Style section) and he’s a damn fine writer, that boy is. Better than I was at his age, thatsa fo’ sure.  So much talent in one package… but then, the other ingredient he has in spades is perseverance (perennial favorite issue for me – just check the tag cloud for samples).

His first post was about how the recession could provide new opportunities for connection. His topic today is slow living… from slow food to slow blogging to slow sex.

As a person without a partner, I can’t speak much about slow sex these days. But I will be looking into slow blogging – one of these days.

Slow blogging theory says that if it’s worth saying, it’s worth taking the time to say it well – to think it through, to explore the nooks and crannies of the question. It says:

Slow Blogging is a willingness to remain silent amid the daily outrages and ecstasies that fill nothing more than single moments in time, switching between banality, crushing heartbreak and end-of-the-world psychotic glee in the mere space between headlines. The thing you wished you said in the moment last week can be said next month, or next year, and you’ll only look all the smarter.

Dang it.  (Conservatively) 75% of my posts would probably have been better left unwritten.

But quality was never my goal. The purpose of this blog was to create a daily writing practice – quantity – to crank out words in the hopes that with practice, quality would be more frequent.

There’s an old Yiddish story about a tailor who was a shoddy workman, but cheap. When customers would complain about a jacket he’d just made, he’d say, “Never mind the quality, feel the width.” (Later it was the title of a 1970s British sitcom.)

This is my 280th post since I started in April.   Feel the width!


Prometheus, Epimetheus and Pandora: a tale for dark times

I loved spending the night at Karen Dickovics’ house back in 3rd grade because her dad was a great storyteller. The Greek myths were his specialty.  He’d turn out the lights and spin the fantastic tales of the gods and goddesses up on Mt. Olympus. Better than any soap opera.

I much prefer this creation story to the one about Adam & Eve:

In the earliest days, it is said that the Gods fought constantly.Their fights raged not only on Mt Olympus but all over the earth, which they had turned into a barren wasteland.

Zeus, who was the king of the Gods, thought it was time to do better by Earth and give her some living creatures. He called in two especially creative gods, the brothers, Prometheus and Epimetheus. He said, “OK guys – get down there, find yourselves a nice muddy river bank and use that clay to make some creatures… Oh and while you’re at it, give them some of these…” and he handed them a generous collection of talents and skills and tools – which they were to give to their new earthly creations.

So the two brothers went down from the gods’ home on Mt. Olympus to the Earth. They found themselves a river with excellent clay banks and set about their work. Epimetheus quickly slapped together all kinds of animals – some tiny, some huge, some with feathers, some with scales, some with long necks, some with strong legs.

Prometheus worked much more slowly and carefully because he was modeling men … in the shape of the gods. Because Epimetheus finished his job before Prometheus did, he was first to dip into the bag of gifts Zeus had sent for their creations. Wouldn’t you know, he gave his animals all the best gifts in the bag. Some of the animals got the gift of speed so they could run really fast. He gave others the gift of flying thru the air, some the gift of breathing and swimming underwater. He also gave many of them thick coats to keep them warm in winter.

Prometheus was left with little to give the men he’d made. He felt really bad because they couldn’t run as fast as the animals, nor could they smell or see as well. Worst of all, they were so naked they were freeezing.

He went back to Zeus and asked him if at the least he might be able to share the gods’ sacred fire with his shivering creations. But Zeus said, “No way Jose. Or whatever your name is. If your people get fire they’ll become too powerful.”

Because Prometheus couldn’t bear to see his people suffering, he decided to steal fire, even though he knew he’d get hell from Zeus when he found out.

He went up to Mt. Olympus and while the gods were sleeping, he took a glowing ember from the sacred hearth. He hid it in a hollow fennel stalk, which he pretended was a walking stick and carefully snuck down to earth with it.

The men of earth were so happy – at last they could be warm. They could have light after the sun went down and they could make tools. Instead of ripping at raw meat they could eat barbecued shish-kabob.

Zeus was furious when he first saw the fires on earth – furious with Prometheus and furious with the men below. They already looked like smaller versions of the gods – he didn’t want them to have god-like powers too!

To punish Prometheus Zeus had him chained him to a huge rock way off in the high and lonely Caucasus Mountains for hundreds of years.  But that is a story for another day.

With Prometheus out of the way, Zeus turned his attention to punishing the happy-go-lucky men of the earth.

You remember Epimetheus, Prometheus’s brother? Well, he was now living on earth among men. (I forgot to say that up to now there were no women on earth.)  So Zeus had a beautiful young woman named Pandora created out of clay and brought her down to keep Epimetheus company.

Epimetheus was ecstatic. Life was finally perfect, as far as he was concerned. And for awhile the couple was ever so happy with their perfect life.

But as Zeus had anticipated, Pandora soon got bored with a life in which everything was perfect.

The next time Epimetheus came up for a visit to Mt. Olympus Zeus gave him a gift to bring Pandora. It was a beautiful chest. Perfect for a coffee table; cheaper than Ikea. “Give this to Pandora with my love,”  Zeus said, “but tell her that under NO circumstances should she open the lid.”

Of course, Pandora LOVED the box, and promised Epimetheus never ever to open it. However, she couldn’t help but notice that Zeus had not put a lock on it…  Hmmm. Maybe someday when Epi was out with the guys??

Indeed one day Epimetheus went off to drink mead with his buddies, leaving Pandora alone with the box. And of course we know what she did as soon as Epimetheus was out of sight.

She opened the box.

The instant she lifted the lid, Zeus’s revenge was complete. All the miseries of this human life flew out – all manner of poxes and plagues, pain and poverty, anger and hate, jealousy and sadness.

Pandora was horrified and tried to shut the lid but it was too late. The afflictions were off and gone to the four corners of the Earth and there was no getting them back.  She finally got the lid back down and just sat on the box in abject misery, wondering what to do.

It was then she heard a whimper and a scratching from inside the box, and a voice pleading “Let me out!!”

At this point, she thought, what did one more affliction matter?? So she opened the lid again and lucky for us all, out flew HOPE.

Today, as we face a really dark time in the world, may hope keep us going.

Plumber without portfolio: Joe “types without a clue”

Plumber: n. a person who installs and fixes toilets, and should have stuck to his day job

Portfolio: n. a selection of a person’s work (papers, artwork) compiled over a period of time and used for assessing performance or progress

Joe the Plumber (an unattractive adjunct to the McCain campaign second only in repugnancy to Sarah Palin) has written a book. Or typed it. (Or had someone else type it for him…).

Timothy Egan wrote a hilarious and angry commentary on it, “Typing without a Clue,” in yesterday’s NY Times. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but here are a couple of tidbits:

The unlicensed pipe fitter known as Joe the Plumber is out with a book this month, just as the last seconds on his 15 minutes are slipping away. I have a question for Joe: Do you want me to fix your leaky toilet?

I didn’t think so. And I don’t want you writing books. Not when too many good novelists remain unpublished. Not when too many extraordinary histories remain unread. Not when too many riveting memoirs are kicked back at authors after 10 years of toil. Not when voices in Iran, North Korea or China struggle to get past a censor’s gate.

Joe, a k a Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, was no good as a citizen, having failed to pay his full share of taxes, no good as a plumber, not being fully credentialed, and not even any good as a faux American icon. Who could forget poor John McCain at his most befuddled, calling out for his working-class surrogate on a day when Joe stiffed him.

With a résumé full of failure, he now thinks he can join the profession of Mark Twain, George Orwell and Joan Didion.

Joe is evidently not in line to be the 100th monkey.

Egan goes on to bemoan the hard life of real writers and the sorry state of the publishing industry.

The idea that someone who stumbled into a sound bite can be published, and charge $24.95 for said words, makes so many real writers think the world is unfair.

On the other hand, plumbing is a career path that never goes out of fashion. “After the deluge,” says my ex-, who has plumbing skills, “they’ll still need plumbers.”

Pressure to perform and produce

Pressure: the act of pressing or pushing; urgent claim or demand; a constraining influence upon the mind or will; a burdensome, distressing or weighty condition.

Perform: v. to begin and carry through to completion; to fulfill a promise or obligation; to carry on, function.

Produce: v. to bring forth; to create by mental or physical effort

The weather is lovely today – a clear fall morning, vine maples turning, mists rising from Salmon Creek where I walked with a friend, crystal air.I want to sit in the garden with a good book.

I said I’d write every day in my blog.

I don’t want to write today.
I definitely don’t want to write about politics.
I don’t even want to write about other matters.
I don’t want to do my laundry.
I don’t want to make the phone calls on my list.
I don’t want to clean up the kitchen or go to the grocery store.

My puritan head says MUST. KEEP. COMMITMENTS.
MUST. KEEP. PRODUCING

My pagan heart says not today.

It sure is hard to give myself permission to be a slacker.

Public speaking prowess: a liability for Obama??

Prowess: superior skill or ability

“I listened to part of his acceptance speech, but I don’t much care for him;
he speaks too well.”

That’s what one of my relatives said today of Obama’s speech. And she’s a Democrat.

He speaks too well.

What has America come to, that it’s a bad thing when someone as thoughtful and articulate as Obama “speaks too well”?   Have we become that cynical?

Many politicians can deliver an effective speech – even if they have shit for brains – IF they’ve got skillful speech-writers crafting their words.

But Obama is that rare bird who actually writes his own speeches.
You simply cannot write a speech like that without having a well-educated, orderly, creative AND rational mind. His powerful delivery is a plus…
but the ideas came first.

The man can actually think!

America desperately needs a leader with a well-educated, orderly, creative and rational mind – one who doesn’t depend on speech-writers to get the message right.

The job of President requires a person who thinks and expresses himself clearly.  We’ve had eight years of monumentally muddled thinking and garbled speaking.  McCain is another shoot-from-the-hip quipper, with a loose grip on his facts and his memory.

OH PLEASE, NO MORE!