28 March 2010

sacred objects

Yesterday I attended the launch party at St. Johns Booksellers for Dixon Ticonderoga, a new zine issued by Stevan Allred. At the party, some beautiful pieces were read, some fabulous haiku (the one by Harold Johnson was my favorite) and, of course, cake in the shape of a pencil. It was a personal journey for Stevan, and I respect and admire him for the courage it took to take this project through from creative thought to final launch.

Then I zoomed home from St. Johns, picked up my family, and we were privileged to attend the opening of the e-merge 2010 art exhibit at the Bullseye Gallery. Fellow writer and artist Greg Bell had a piece accepted into this prestigious show. All of the pieces were some kind of glass-work, of which I know nothing. My lack of knowledge of process allowed me to view each piece simply for its beauty, delicacy, and astounding visual impact. They were all stunning pieces. I was quite amazed by the iterations of form. Greg's piece was beautiful and, for me, evoked a thoughtful, timeless leap into what could be the origins of the universe.

Pretty heady stuff, the stimulation of words and art. I am moved by what opens up in response. We connect instinctively to those objects around us, even the most mundane items of our daily lives. It is why we buy souvenirs at the London Underground gift shop, keep the pens from the Hilton at the Walt Disney World Resort, save the photos of our last visit to the coast, and still have a cardboard box in the attic full of papers, trinkets and beer bottle caps from when we were in college.

I heard the term "sacred objects" from Stevan and Joanna Rose during a writing session at the Pinewood Table, but the theory is not new. Raymond Carver wrote about it in his essay "On Writing" (Fires, pg 15):

"It's possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things—a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman's earring—with immense, even startling power."

The secret, if that's what it could be called, is that the objects themselves are not what moves us; it is our own human context to which we respond. John Gardner wrote, "Fiction seeks out truth." (The Art of Fiction, pg 79) We respond to those great human truths that are the basis of all of human emotions as they filter down and are applied to our own experiences.

The glass Radio Flyer in the art exhibition touched my memory of the day I came home from the hospital with my second daughter and gifted my oldest, then two and a half years old, with her own red wagon to go along with her new baby sister. My emotional response was emphasized by the fact that both of these daughters stood with me at the gallery, grown now and in their early 20s, beautiful, unique, intelligent and creative. It was a sweeping feeling of joy and pride—deep emotions evoked by this single object of art.

John Gardner goes on (pg 80):

"Restating old truths and adapting them to the age, applying them in ways they were never before applied, stirring up emotion by the inherent power of narrative, visual image, or music, artists crack the door to the morally necessary future. The age-old idea of human dignity comes to apply even to the indigent, even to slaves, even to immigrants, now recently even to women."

(I laugh at this quote every time I read it because of the last phrase—but that is another tangent of thought.)

The objects that recur in my own writing are often simple—coffee cup, ring, candle, rolling pin—or those thrilling one-time discoveries of the unusual or unexpected that then become endowed with the power of the moment—rabbit's foot, found arrowhead, hand-tied marabou jig, or a single 9mm bullet scarred along the cap. What life-changing moments are attached to each of these sacred objects? To clarify the truths connected to those moments is the ongoing challenge.

I write forward with purpose, having worked through Gardner's exercise suggestions to the final one that is the last line of The Art of Fiction:

30. Write a fabulous story using anything you need.


22 March 2010


Lately there is a recurrent theme in my private circles about childhood and those places we came from. Coincidentally, in this month's Smithsonian magazine, Joyce Carol Oates wrote a beautiful piece about her home: Joyce Carol Oates Goes Home Again.

I have made previous reference to my own childhood as nomadic; my father served in the USAF and moved us at least once every year of my life until I was 13 when we landed in southern Idaho. It proved to be the longest stretch of time in my life up to that point in which I lived in one area. I attended both Shelley Jr. and Shelley Sr. High School and graduated in 1983.

Those years were often inglorious for me, but to be fair, they were not without light. Dickens's two cities had nothing on Shelley, Idaho. In the midst of turmoil and what would prove to be far-reaching developments, I also had some solid and joyful moments.

Most of the goodness in my memories comes from the kindness of people in my life: friends, teachers, coaches, piano and guitar instructors, sheepherders and horse handlers. And from the wind-swept, sun-warmed, rolling landscape of the foothills of the Rockies. On a clear day, the pristine tips of the Grand Tetons might peek over the hills to the east. To the west, the snub-nose of a cinder cone was the marker by which I gauged the setting sun's seasonal movement along the horizon. I spent many evenings in the back of my parents' house perched on the top bale of the haystack or up on the metal roof of the horse barn, hoping for the sun to land right in the center of the scooped out crater.

In the best of my dreams now, peace manifests as one of the frequent rides on horseback down the long country roads or across the freshly turned up wheat or potato fields, my gold and white dog, Topper, loping alongside.

Those memories still move me. Continue to inspire. Inform a foundation that sustains my beliefs of family, faith and, perhaps more significantly, love. Much of the character development in my writing reaches back and taps into those times, those people and the dynamics that swirled around my life.

If one writes what one knows, it is inevitable that the extension of place should touch each story. People I know, places and unfortunate ghosts reflect in my characters: Sandra and Howdy, Thad, Maverick and Sebastian, Wilson Taylor, Jack Melvin, Vincent, and the Wildish boys. None of these would exist without the people whose paths my own has crossed and perhaps re-crossed, for better or worse.

I am better for it all.


"I have sometimes sat alone here of an evening, listening, until I have made the echoes out to be the echoes of all the footsteps that are coming by and by into our lives."
~ Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

15 March 2010

3.14: pi day

π = C/d

Pi is an equation I learned somewhere along the mathematical education path long before grumpy old Mr. Collier in 8th Grade pre-algebra. Long before Mr. Mortensen's geometry class at Shelley High School. Its formula is burned into my brain, but in the last 20-ish years that I can think of, I haven't had to use it for anything. At least not directly.

There's all kinds of theory proven and otherwise about right-side and left-side brain activities. Do math-minded people write better novels? Do musicians program better software systems? If I make an amazing huckleberry pie, am I also disposed to write beautiful poetry?

The text for my Art 202: Drawing class at Weber State University was "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain." The book remains one of my favorites to this day. Its theory is to engage the brain with a new perspective that opens up the ability to draw at a deeper state of creativity, even a subconscious level. I recommend it to every writer, poet, artist and math geek.

Because in the end, everything we do is all about perspective and the engagement of thought. Whether we are writing novels, designing bridges, practicing medicine or baking pies.

I baked two pies today. One blackberry and one huckleberry. In celebration of Pi Day.

3.14. Celebrate infinitely.


07 March 2010

writing rules

Elmore Leonard compiled his writing experience and wrote a list of rules for writers. His 2001 article in the NY Times: WRITERS ON WRITING; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle.

Inspired by Leonard's list, The Guardian recently collected writing rules from Diana Athill, Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, Helen Dunmore, Geoff Dyer, Anne Enright, Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, Esther Freud, Neil Gaiman, David Hare, PD James, AL Kennedy, Hilary Mantel, Michael Moorcock, Michael Morpurgo, Andrew Motion, Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Proulx, Philip Pullman, Ian Rankin, Will Self, Helen Simpson, Zadie Smith, Colm Tóibín, Rose Tremain, Sarah Waters, Jeanette Winterson: Ten rules for writing fiction.

I love these. I love how conflicted the lists are. I love "Hooptedoodle." While I can't speak at the celebrity-level success as these authors, I do write. Here's some things I know. Also conflicted.

1. Write every day. I would love to have a special, established, sacred time in which I get to write, but I don't. That is the nature of my current reality. So I write whenever and wherever I can. Even if it is a single line that shakes out of my head while I am going to work and I have to write it on the back of a grocery receipt while driving down the freeway, although not advised due to some of the traffic implications. My writing brain does not stop just because I have to buy a gallon of milk or do a load of laundry. Honor that.

2. Capture those brilliant epiphanies in the moment. No matter what it is. If I wake up in the middle of the night with some amazing turn of phrase, I make myself get up and write it down right then so that I can read it in the morning and usually discard it for the rubbish that it is. Otherwise, it is gone from my head by morning, and I am left with a nostalgic fragment of memory that I had The Perfect Line. The glory of those moments of brilliance is generally "hooptedoodle," but the regret of not writing them down is real, and the process is far more important - it keeps me engaged.

3. Muses are overrated. Vodka was my Muse for a very long time. Although my writing from those vodka-years was mostly drivel, it was necessary. In retrospect, I probably could have written loads of drivel without the vodka, but that is not my reality. After a ten-year dry spell without either vodka or writing, I discovered that writing doesn't need a muse as much as it needs a sustained, consistent, daily practice.

4. Discover what process works for you and then keep doing that. My brain works faster than my fingers and eyes. It always has. They have real names for this now: ADD, OCD, neurosis, etc. I lack a formal diagnosis. But more than 25 years ago, my math teacher sat me down in front of an Apple computer (DOS), instructed me to write, and turned off the screen. When I just need to get what is in my head out, I turn off the screen and type. Or close my eyes. The trick is two-fold: don't stop until it's all out; and for god's sake, keep your fingers on the home keys.

5. Get everything down at least once. I always write more than what ends out in a finished piece. Better to write it all, and then cut the crap. Some of the crap will end up in something else. Some of it, thankfully, will never surface again. It's all part of the process.

6. Every pre-conceived ending always changes. I just expect it now.

7. Read every day. Novels, biographies, non-fiction, articles, blogs, newspapers, magazines, billboards, websites, backs of cereal boxes. I need language in all forms if I ever expect to be able to write it.

8. The greatest source of authentic dialogue is real people. I hang out in coffee shops, markets, business meetings, parties, hallways, city streets - anywhere there are people talking to each other - and listen. Then I write it down. Word for word if I can. I have not found any better published source for teaching real dialogue.

9. All input has value. A renowned national poet laureate evaluated one of my early pieces (from the vodka-muse years) in a university class I was taking at the time, and his written comments included a suggestion that I choose a different art form. After the sting had worn off, I was able to find helpful direction in his comments. If I am unafraid to look at it, both the negative and the positive input, I always learn something. For the record, I took up drawing and am an adequate artist to this day.

10. You can't make up better stuff than real life. For all the hair-brained, elaborate, whimsical, imaginary stories that flit through my head, the best ones for me are about real life. My absolute favorite rejection letter came from an East coast magazine declining my story, "Doing Time in the Real World" that said, "...while the writing was genuine, the material itself seemed unbelievable." The story, later published online by the Noneuclidean Cafe, is based on my several years of employment in the child welfare system as an Outreach worker, and my own early poverty-stricken years as a college student living in a trailer court with two small babies. All the facts are real, even if they are not exactly mine or not factually in order. Among other things, I did find a fly wrapped up in a package of meat, and there was a horribly embarrassing scene at the grocery afterward. Once I did burn my bangs right off with a lighter. And I was miserably grateful for government cheese back in those early years. I don't actually think you can do better than reality when it comes to a good story.

So there they are. Not so much rules, as just my experience.


01 March 2010

we are not so big

A man of great compassion and teaching called Sam Dunlap officiated the ceremony of my wedding more than twelve years ago. And while I cannot quote him exactly, as he offered up prayers to the Four Directions, he said of us humans, "We are so small and weak."

And we are.

12 January 2010. Léogâne, Haiti. Earthquake magnitude 7.0. Currently 230,000 confirmed dead.

27 February 2010. Off the coast near Concepcion, Chile. Earthquake magnitude 8.8 on the Richter scale. Damage is still being assessed.

28 February 2010. 7000 miles away from Chile, in Hilo Bay, Hawaii. The waters of the bay ebbed and flowed in 20-minute cycles to the depth change of about one meter. All the water in the entire bay.

Each of these events has been widely broadcast. Yesterday, I watched a live feed from Hilo on the internet. All Pacific islands were on tsunami alert, as far away as Japan and the Aleutian Islands. The wave did hit, but thankfully caused less damage than was expected.

For all our human accomplishments, the world in which we are but Guest is a big place. We tap into the very smallest fringe of its enormity when we launch rockets into space, erect towering skyscrapers, transmit the Olympic Games from Vancouver, B.C. Canada.

The earth below us shifts in what must be a relatively minute way in the greater Universe, and Haiti crumbles. Chile collapses. All the water in Hilo Bay rises and falls. Over and again.

In keeping with the rules of Universal Paradox, as small as we are, we remain a part of the greater whole. Understanding what that means is reached through the practice of compassion. Meditation. In the extension of service to others.

My wedding ceremony more than twelve years ago was held in a meadow at the foot of Mount Adams. Before our families, friends, and the Universe itself, my husband and I spoke vows of love and commitment to each other and to our children. To All that is Sacred and Greater than Us All.

Because it is an honor, and also a great responsibility, to have the opportunity to carry love with us on our journey through this big universe.


"For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love."
~ Carl Sagan