Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Writer's Block - NOT!

I hate the phrase, “WRITER'S BLOCK”. It’s a sure-fire buzz-kill. I run into plenty of rough patches, but I’d never do a fool thing like pronounce myself a victim of “WRITER'S BLOCK” - I’m far too susceptible to suggestion. Most of my “rough patches” usually come in one of two varieties: Shy Toddler Syndrome or Wad-o-String.

Shy Toddler Syndrome has to do with elusive inspiration, and is a lot like your best friend’s irresistible three-year old. The more you want to grab that cutie and smooch up those sweet punkin cheeks, the quicker that kid will disappear behind Mama’s legs and hold tight. The more you coax, the tighter the grasp. The only solution is to ignore that cutie entirely. Get completely absorbed in something else. Go to the trunk of kid toys you keep in the corner and start pulling out stuff. Play-Doh, Lincoln Logs, bubble-blowing lawnmower - doesn’t really matter what you pick out, but it matters very much that you actually get into it, really play in earnest. Kids are natural born Fake-N-It Detectors. One whiff that you’re trying to manipulate them and you can forget it. Crayons and markers are always a good choice. Forget the coloring books, though – they cramp the artistic style. Just plain drawing paper is good– the bigger, the better. After a few minutes, that cutie will sidle on up to see why the heck you aren’t paying attention to them anymore. Just keep on drawing. After another minute or two, without saying a word, push a blank piece of paper and some crayons towards your target, but get right back to your own masterpiece. Very soon, Cutie-Pie will start jabbering a little bit and before you know it, that kid will be up in your lap, demanding to point out the meaning of every scrawl and squiggle she made when you weren’t paying any attention.

It works just as well for skittish writing inspiration. When you get frustrated because nothing’s coming, just leave it the hell alone. Get up and do something interesting. Go see a foreign flick. Go peruse your favorite junk store. Make a painting. But really immerse yourself in it. Like toddlers, inspiration can smell bullshit a mile away. If you really commit to the thing, it will begin to loosen up the creative wheels, and soon you’ll be standing in the back of the Salvation Army Thrift Store holding an old gourd, remembering how Grandpa used to always keep a gourd dipper for getting a cool drink of water, and how nicely that detail would work in that scene you’re writing about the old fellers that sit and visit all day on the porch at Alley Grocery.

I think I’ll save Wad-O-String for another day. Happy Writing.

Springboard du Jour: “In the long unfurling of his life, from tight-wound kid hustler in a wool suit riding the train out of Cheyenne to geriatric limper in this spooled out year, Mero had kicked down thoughts of the place where he began, …” from The Half-Skinned Steer, a story in Close Range Wyoming Stories, by Annie Proulx

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Take a Flying Leap

A springboard is anything that propels you into writing; free writing, journal entry, rough draft of a new poem – any old form your inspiration takes. Lots of books on writing have great lists of prompts to get you going. A Writer’s Book of Days by Judy Reeves or Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg are two that come to mind. I’m partial to diving off from a great line I’ve run across in a poem or novel. When a turn of phrase arrests me in some way, I jot it down in a little notebook I keep near my desk. Whenever I’m ready to free write, I flip open my notebook and pick the first thing that strikes me – then fling myself into the abyss.

I’ll be adding a daily (or nearly) springboard above for your consideration, and I invite you to take a flying leap.

Springboard du Jour: "I am lonely, lonely. I was born to be lonely, I am best so!" from Danse Russe by William Carlos Williams

Cormac McCarthy

Just finished reading All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy and I’m wrung out. I am a certain dolt for not having taken up McCarthy’s work sooner. His writing is as muscular as the unbroken horses that throb through the story, setting a pace that will stagger you. McCarthy’s vision is one of terrible beauty, impossible to turn away from. There are turns of phrase so pure; they’ll set you to weep.

As a writer, this book left me praying for the wisdom to be still enough to hear the truth, and the guts to write it as fiercely as McCarthy has done.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Surfing the Net Doesn't Have to be a Complete Waste of Time

Here's a new easy way to raise money for your favorite cause. Just start using Yahoo! powered as your search engine and they'll donate a penny to your favorite cause every time you do a search.
Here's the web site —
I'm donating to PHAMALY - Physically Handicapped Actoras and Musical Artists League every time I surf the net.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

My Oak Tree
a drawing by S.H. Johnson

Writers Write

Making time to write can seem impossible. I get it. I have a fulltime job, I teach, I have a ten year old that takes piano lessons, is in the band, Girl Scouts, PeaceJam Juniors, etc… etc… I really do get it. Still, I can’t believe how many “writers” I meet who don’t actually write. They are chock full of great ideas for stories, they just never seem to get around to putting them on paper. Oh, maybe they will write once a week while they are taking my class. They want to write. They plan to write. And they plan to do it as soon as they have more time. Some day.

Here’s the thing: You will never have more time. You will always have too much on your plate. You will never have the luxury of holing up in a clay and wattle cabin in the Appalachians, overlooking a scenic vista, warming your brilliant writerly hands by a crackling fire.

If you want to write, you will do it sitting on the toilet with kids banging on the door, demanding to know what you are doing in there. The cotton ball earplugs are located in the bathroom – that’s a plus.

If you want to write, you’ll put your kids to bed and ply your husband with extra cake and beer, so he gets all full and sleepy and nods off halfway through the late show. Then you’ll tiptoe into your room, shake off the weary, and put one word after another.

Of course that means you have to give up the Sex and the City reruns you only get to watch when he’s asleep. You’ve probably seen ‘em all six times anyway.

My challenge to those of you who want to write: Promise yourself you will carve out a little time every day. Start small, say, 10 minutes a day. But do it. I promise, once you have made the commitment to make even a little bit of time every day to honor the craft of writing, you will be pleasantly surprised how life will begin to open up and accommodate you. You will be amazed at how much writing you can get done by wedging in a little time here and there - half an hour before everyone else gets up, 45 minutes in the wee hours of the night, fifteen minutes in the dentist office while you are waiting for the drugs to kick in. By drugs, I mean Novocain.

Now, if you are this very minute whining to yourself about how hard it going to be to find 10 minutes every day, maybe writing really isn’t your thing. Perhaps you don’t really like writing, after all. It’s O.K. Really. It’s not for everyone. If it’s not really for you, save yourself the headache and get back to Carrie & Mr. Big, with my blessings.

But, if you think you really DO want to write and not just think about writing, start right this minute. Stop surfing the web and start putting words on paper. 10 minutes. Go!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas - to Me!

I try to journal a little bit every morning – process yesterday’s news, get interesting snippets of dreams down, kvetch a little. Over the last year or so, I have spent a few minutes most mornings adding a list of things I am grateful for. I find that if I am very still, put my full attention on my good fortune, my day is always the better for it. I have greater patience for disgruntled fellow creatures, razor-thin bank balances and knots in string. Life looks brighter and decidedly more peaceful through the lens of gratitude. Here are a few items from my morning list:

-My daughter is a wonder. Lovely. Clever. Funny. Creative. Generous. Kind.
-For Christmas, my husband, a gifted artist, gave me prints of two of his amazing pencil drawings.
-I love the work I do, and I’m grateful if it makes a difference in the lives of the kids I work with.
-I have an abundance of fascinating friends.
-Santa remembered to get treats for my dogs’ Christmas stockings this year.
-Poetry gives me a buzz.

I’m rich! I’m rich!

See what I mean? I urge you to try it out for yourself for a week or two. I bet you’ll feel like you’ve given yourself a little gift each day – the gift of gratitude.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Sometimes, Abundance is Just a Matter of Taking Notice

I grew up in the Southern Appalachians where my father’s family has lived for generations. They were masters of making do with little or nothing. From quilting to toy making, canning to music making, these people lived artfully and joyfully – and none more so than my father. A stonemason by trade and musician at heart, my father instilled in us a sense of abundance- even in the face of what most would consider to be a meager existence. He filled our house with a love of music and had an eye for beauty. He found great pleasure in small things – and was quick to share his wonder and gratitude. He marveled at the intelligence of honeybees and his children, at how many different shades of green you could find in one garden, the beauty of a freshly sliced beet. He showed us how to whisper a doodlebug out of its dusty hole and how to talk to a news bee. From the porch alone, he could point out a dozen reasons to be thankful: hickory nuts, chinquapins, blackberries, black cherries, gooseberries, persimmons, poke salat, scuppernongs, muscadines, raspberries, elderberries, wild scallions – all gifts for the taking –all you had to do was notice and enjoy. He taught me to appreciate tinkering, puttering or just sitting quietly to watch trees dance in the wind. He taught me that, if you look for the best in people, people will show you the best in themselves, and that to be without money does not mean to be poor of spirit. These many years later, even from my home in the suburbs, I am continually reminded to notice the abundance that surrounds all of us. And I am delighted to find that the reminder comes most often from those we usually assume have nothing at all. In my poem The Gleaner, I salute those who, like my father, value the beauty of trees dancing in the wind.

The Gleaner

Brought forth from a long line of stalwarts
steeped in the pride of knowing how to make do
(with naught or less than)
possessing a steeled jaw, nose well suited -and used to –
holding firm and long to the proverbial grindstone
brow and long-angled back pitched ever forward in hearty plow fashion
he scratches through the supposed detritus of his neighbor’s lives
a perpetual infusion of wondrous and revealing artifacts
discarded in a steady stream and strewn
along the suburban curb

From amongst the reeking remains of
vacuum-packed family occasions, he gleans
conjuring baubles, novels, cord, glass blocks,
lamps, just today, a ladder
(made sturdy with the help of a crossbar found in a neighboring can)
three yards of snowflake cotton print folded
together with a hand embroidered tablecloth and six napkins
a can of hominy – still under warranty


“Ah, yes.” the footstool he’s been awaiting

“All things come…”

burrow-packed back
bent and straining over quick feet
eyes darting,
he hums along home