Remembering Madeleine L’Engle

Today, 100-years-ago, Madeleine L’Engle was born

I wanted to take some time to recognize this date, because I feel indebted to L’Engle for her great impact on my life as a writer. My earliest brush with her corpus of work came in fourth grade, when I read A Wrinkle in Time. Her eloquently told tale of tesseracts and space travel sparked my imagination and filled me with wonder. It wasn’t long until I had finished the whole Wrinkle series.

As I aged, I grew to enjoy some of her more obscure works, such as her book of poetry, The Ordering of Love, and her meditations on writing entitled Walking on Water. Madeleine L’Engle opened for me the floodgates of imagination.

She was a mystic and a Christ-follower. She delved deep into science-fiction, fantasy, and philosophy and managed to craft something cohesive and compelling. Ever eschewing the “Children’s Author” label, she spun yarns in the image and literary-caliber of George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis,

If you’ve never had the good fortune of reading L’Engle’s books, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy today!

Errant Thoughts

My muse didn’t stop by my house today. She couldn’t work up the motivation, because her muse didn’t visit her. Turns out, my whole creative process is predicated on one muse inspiring another muse inspiring another muse, and now my lack of creative output makes sense.

Still, I have a responsibility to put some ink on the page, irrespective of quality. Because, as it were–

They do not serve who stand and wait, if those who stand could’ve served.

Mindfulness Meditation for Prewriting

“He said when things were really going well, we should be sure to notice it.”
-Kurt Vonnegut

Lately, I’ve been on a mindfulness meditation kick.

A simple 10-15-minute morning practice has refocused and grounded me, combating depression, alleviating anxiety, and allowing me to live in the moment. I’m absolutely sold on its manifest usefulness.

But in addition to its improvement to my mental health, I’ve found that it’s a powerful tool to wield for artists. In fact, I’d venture to say, it may even be our most powerful prewriting exercise.

Hear me out.

How many times have you sat down with your notebook or word-processor and instantaneously became distracted by the worries of the day?

How will a certain bill get paid? My lower back aches. I wonder if I remembered to lock my car door? That comment my boss made earlier in the day—what did he mean by that?

This inner chatter is what some mindfulness meditation experts call “monkey mind:” a constant dialogue in which your brain seeks to analyze and fix problems that don’t truly have the potential to be fixed, currently. To use a computer analogy, our brain has a few “windows” open in the background, and it’s constantly trying to work out problems subconsciously for you.

It’s no surprise that this invasive chatter fills our thoughts when we sit down to write. Today, people are so preoccupied throughout each minute that we rarely have time to sit quietly with ourselves. If the 30-minute block of time that you’ve scheduled for writing is your only alone time in your day, it’s likely that your brain will utilize it to attempt to solve those nagging problems that crop up throughout the day. It happens for the same reason that your brain keeps you up at night when you try to sleep: your brain wants to tie up all the little loose ends, bringing closure to the problems you encountered throughout your day.

The problem is that it’s easier to sit and worry for 30 minutes than it is to write. Soon enough, your timer goes off and you’re more frazzled than when you sat down. What’s worse: you’re still staring at a blank white page.

So how does mindfulness meditation help this problem?

If you want to write from a blank slate, you’ll need to quiet down your brain so you can focus on the task at hand. Meditation grounds your mind. It helps you to see your thoughts as transient ideas passing through your consciousness, and helps you to dissociate your thoughts from your consciousness itself.

We’ve bored our neural pathways deep. We need a blunt instrument to till the ground of our consciousness—to weed the garden of the passé, banal ideas. Only once we’ve weeded our consciousness can we begin to sow new thoughts and words.

I challenge you with this simple task: try mindfulness meditation for 10-15-minutes prior to writing. I think you’ll be astounded by the results.

Poetry as Translation; Translation as Poetry

Charles Baudelaire, Sei Shonagon, Dante Alighieri, Sunthorn Phu, Pablo Neruda…each of these names belong to an extraordinary poet whose reputation has stood the test of time. Each of the five poets mentioned wrote in a different language, none of which were English. How is it that their poetry can have such a profound effect on me–a native English speaker–who has never been fluent in another language?

The question, in short, is this: what makes a poem universal?

There are the obvious answers, of course. A poem that’s universal has to speak to an aspect of the human condition. The message has to transcend its particular era and geographic location in order to speak more broadly to a wide audience. 

 
The essence of the poem can’t be lost in translation.
 
I never truly understood the painstaking labor that goes into poetry translation until I took a class on Asian poetry in grad school. So much of the poetry we studied seemed at odds with the way the Western mind tends to approach literature. As such, the translators who worked to bring poetry to life for English readers found themselves tasked with an extremely difficult job. 
 
Our poetry professor, a skilled translator and poet himself, challenged us to try out various techniques to tease the meaning out of a poem in a different tongue than our own. These included the following:
 
1.)  Work out of “trots.” 
 
In translation work, trots are a literal word-for-word translation of a poem. Because the syntax in languages varies wildly, trots alone fall short of a satisfactory translation of a poem. They can, however, be used as a tool in tandem with the other items on this list to understand the meaning of a poem.
 
2.) Listen to the sonic structure of the poem.
 
Our professor challenged us to listen to someone read a poem in a foreign language on their own. By listening to the cadence and lilt of the words, we can often pick up on the prosody of the poem that we would otherwise miss. Does the poem have long, sing-song-y lines or are there short, staccato sentences? Is repetition used to make a pleasing, cyclical structure? Perhaps the sound of the poem doesn’t accentuate it at all. All these questions can help you to better understand the poem in its original language.
 
3.) Look at the poem in its original language on a physical page.
 
Is the poem sprawling with long lines that flow, one to the next? Or does the poem appear sparse on the page, with a minimalist approach? How is blank space used? Where are the line breaks, and what are the importance of them? Since some languages are read right to left, or top-to-bottom, it helps to have a basic knowledge of the language in which the original is written.
 
By combining these three techniques, you can approximate a decent understanding of what a poem means. But because a poem always means more than one thing, it’s easy for any one translation to fall short. In any case, these exercises can help you gain a greater appreciation for translated works as a reader. 
 
As a writer, experimenting with translation can vastly improve your own writing, and help combat writer’s block. Charles Bernstein, the famous Language Poet, encourages writers to try out “homophonic translation,” in which they listen to a poem in another language and write English equivalents, as if the words were cognates. (I.E. “blanc” from French would “translate” to “blank” in English.) This can be a fun writing prompt in and of itself.
 
If you are able to read and write in a different language, give poetry translation a try. If not, perhaps try transcribing one piece of writing into a different form or medium, (i.e. light verse poet Wendy Cope made limericks out of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”.) 
 
By experimenting with translation, one can begin to understand, both as a reader and a writer, what makes a poem universal.

Talking Shop: Tone and Voice

(“Talking Shop” is an ongoing series on the craft of creative writing.)

I’ve talked a little about David Shields’ seminal book Reality Hunger in a past post. Today I want to respond to another quotation from that same book. Here’s a statement quoted in his chapter about flash fiction:

“Even as they’re exploring extremely serious and complex material, short-short writers frequently use a certain mock modesty to give the work a tossed-off tone and disarm the reader. The reader thinks he’s reading a diary entry, when in fact it’s a lyric essay or prose poem.”

Shields goes on to cite examples, one of which being “Morning News” by Jerome Stern

Although I certainly agree with Shields that this “mock modesty” is common in flash fiction, I’m unsure that it’s fair to say that microfiction utilizes this technique across the board.

This does, however, bring up the topic of tone in flash fiction. As writers, we have to ensure we don’t confuse our tone with our literary voice. One of the best ways to ensure we don’t confuse the two is by having a proper definition of each term.

Tone is the writer’s attitude toward his subject, his audience or himself. One can have a sarcastic tone. One can be flippant or somber or self-reflecting or abrasive. All of these are examples of a writer’s tone in a particular piece.

Literary voice, on the other hand, is the distinctive style a writer has. Hemingway was known for his concise style. It made him have a distinct voice. Douglas Adams is known for his humorous approach to science fiction. F. Scott Fitzgerald is known for his flowery prose.

So how can we confuse tone and literary voice? Well, left unchecked, our stories can all share the same tone, and run the risk of becoming formulaic. For example, I love using irony in my microfictions. But If I’m not careful, I will use it in all my stories, and pretty soon they’ll all read in a very predictable manner.

Have you ever enjoyed the first track of an album, only to find that each subsequent song sounded exactly the same? As writers, we have to ensure we vary our tone from piece to piece while maintaining our distinct voice.

How do you find this at play in your writing? Do you gravitate toward a certain tone in your work? If so, how do you avoid falling into a rut? What makes your literary voice distinctly you?

Talking Shop: Overcoming Writer’s Block

(“Talking Shop” is an ongoing series on the craft of creative writing.)

No ailment vexes wordsmiths across the globe like writer’s block. At one point or another, it haunts the steps of all who dare to pick up the pen and scribble down their thoughts.

If I could prescribe one antidote to the scourge that is writer’s block, it’d probably be this: Read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield and call me in the morning.

The War of Art (titled, of course, as a play on Sun Tzu’s The Art of War) is a call to arms for artists everywhere, imploring them to utilize self-discipline to overcome the self-sabotage that so many creative-types fall victim to.

It’s no coincidence that the book utilizes a lot of war imagery. Pressfield is a former Marine who draws on that selfsame level of tenacity and grit to win his creative battles.

In Pressfield’s book, he suggests that we label all of our self-defeating behaviors and thought-patterns as “Resistance.” This Resistance keeps us from fulfilling our ambitions, whether they include finishing a novel, beginning an oil-painting, or opening a self-made business.

Pressfield suggests we re-purpose our “Resistance” and self-doubt as a sort of compass.

If there’s a creative pursuit that we feel disinclined to start, Pressfield argues, that’s precisely the project we should dive headfirst into. In such a way, we can overcome obstacles in creating art.

Others advocate a less militant approach to overcoming writer’s block. In her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes, “Stop treating your creativity like it’s a tired, old, unhappy marriage (a grind, a drag) and start regarding it with the fresh eyes of a passionate lover.”

The implication here is that artists should steal away, sneaking in a few minutes when they can. They should look at their creative processes with an ever-changing, new perspective. This approach brings to mind experimenting, squeezing in a time for writing whenever possible, and embracing the spontaneity of the creative process. In some ways, it almost seems diametrically opposed to  Pressfield’s approach.

Still, I don’t think either perspective is wrong.

Simply put, each writer must come up with their own method for overcoming creative obstacles. For some, that means a well-regimented routine. For others, it means writing when you can. Which rings most true for you? Or do you subscribe to a different method entirely?

Talking Shop: Minimalism and Flash Fiction

(“Talking Shop” is an ongoing series on the craft of creative writing.)

Minimalism has turned our society upside down.

Apple products have left consumers spellbound by their simplicity. Room decor has become increasingly elegant. Web designers succeed or fail, depending on how effortless their websites are to navigate.

What might be less obvious, however, are the ways in which minimalism has infiltrated our art.

For instance, sparse instrumentation and simple words created the smash hit “Say Something (I’m Giving Up On You)” by A Great Big World.

I believe that a similar frame of mind dominates some of the best flash fiction.

An old writing maxim is “Show, don’t tell.” In other words, rather than describing a character as “a nervous type,” show these traits by what the character does: give him a nervous tic, make him ring his hands, give his speech a stammer, let him pace the room, etc.

The same applies to flash fiction, but sometimes the most revealing aspects of a character or a plot lie in what isn’t revealed.

Consider, for example, the poem “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” by Randall Jarrell:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Though it isn’t microfiction, this piece of writing perfectly illustrates how writing can be made more luminous by what is left out. The narrator didn’t give you the gruesome details of the how the ball turret gunner died. Instead he turned your stomach by simply stating: “When I died, they washed me out of the turret with a hose.”

In the New York Times article “Hearing the Notes That Aren’t Played,” David Mamet writes,

How much can one remove and still have the composition be intelligible? This understanding, or its lack, divides those who can write from those who can really write. Checkhov removed the plot. Pinter, elaborating, removed the history, the narration; Beckett, the characterization. We hear it anyway. Omission is a form of creation.

This idea that “omission is a form of creation” seems to me at the crux of many great pieces of writing. What are some examples you have found of this principle at work? Do you know any great flash fiction that utilizes this technique? Let’s talk in the comments below!

God has no Taste

I’d like to take this week to recall a gem from a Rich Mullins concert. The entirety of the performance can be dug up online, but I’ve transcribed the following excerpt because it particularly speaks to my condition:

I remember reading a thing that Picasso once said. I like to read what famous artists have to say because I’m barely able to look at their paintings without going into a coma trying to figure out what it’s about. But he said this one thing that I really did like. He said, “Good taste is the enemy of great art.” Which I think is very, very true. Good taste has all to do with being cultured and being refined and if art has to do with anything, it has to do with being human. And one of the reasons I love the Bible is because the humans in the Bible are not very refined. They’re pretty goofy if you want to know the whole truth about it.

I remember when I was a kid and people would always say—you know, because I was one of those typical depressed adolescent types. I wrote poetry and stuff. That’s how morose I was as a kid. People would go around saying, “Oh, cheer up, man. Because God loves you.” And I’d say “Big deal. God loves everybody. That don’t make me special. That just proves God ain’t got no taste.”

And I don’t think he does. Thank God.

‘Cause God takes the junk out of our lives and He makes the greatest art in the world out of it. If He was cultured, if He was as civilized as most Christian people wish He was, He would be useless to Christianity. But God is a wild man. And I hope that in the course of your life, you encounter Him. But let me warn you: you need to hang on for dear life. Or let go for dear life, maybe, is better.

How Niche Should we Write?

Recently, I took up sketching comic-book style illustrations.

I don’t have an iota of talent in terms of drawing, but I picked up Jason Brubaker’s “Cognitive Drawing” and have been plodding through it ever since. I enjoy the challenge of taking on a new artistic medium. Perhaps by expanding my horizons a little bit, my primary creative outlet (writing) will somehow improve by osmosis.

Besides, engaging in creative pursuits is never fully wasted, right?

This artistic diversion has led me to wonder: how beneficial is it to specialize in the arts? Does pursuing a multitude of styles of writing, for instance, make you better at your primary discipline? Or is there a law of diminishing returns, because you’re not focusing your talents solely on the artwork that’s in your wheelhouse?

There are plenty of fantastic artists on both sides of the spectrum, of course. Leonardo Da Vinci, the quintessential “renaissance man” was astounding in nearly every academic discipline he pursued. Conversely, Thomas Pynchon hasn’t strayed far from what he excels at: writing complex post-modern prose.

My grandfather is a talented oil painter. As a child, he noted my proclivity to dabble in multiple mediums. He remarked on several occasions that I’d eventually “have to choose one” if I wanted to be truly great.

Even in sub-sets of the arts, I wonder how true this is.

During my college years, I worked toward a journalism degree. As such, I wrote almost exclusively narrative pieces, creative nonfiction, and other journalistic types of stories. During my post-graduate studies, I picked up an affinity for flash fiction and prose poetry. Did my creative non-fiction suffer as a result? I doubt it.  One could make the case that I would’ve further developed my journalistic skills if I’d applied myself to that style of writing, instead.

I’d rather not pigeon-hole myself. The last thing I want is to end up with an impossibly esoteric niche of writing. Who wants to be known as the world’s greatest neo-formalist poet who focuses on sparrow migration imagery?

What about you? Do you delve into various arts with reckless abandon, or mostly stick to one discipline?