Leading Questions

When I paint, when I write or when I get stuck, I ask a leading question. Where do I go from here?  What would my protagonist do or say in this circumstance? Where does this poem want to go?  Or what color wants to come onto the canvas? Which line or mark can move this piece forward?  What if…I do this or try that? Then what? For it isn’t always flow, but sometimes a stumbling step, then another tripping step and then a fumbling move forward. Even a dreaded mistake can take you to the next level. It’s all part of it…this grand, unpredictable creative process.

As a beginning painter, my desire was often greater than my ability.  What did I do with that?  I continued the questioning.  And sometimes, I took a brush and black paint in frustration and swirled lines across my painting in process. Frequently, to my surprise, something new emerged from which I could move forward.

Basically, you become CONVERSATIONAL with whatever you’re doing–writing or painting. 

Life itself is really about “I wonder what is next?”  Because as much as we think we’re in familiar territory, we don’t know what the next moment might bring.  It is about fully trusting the unfolding creative process.

It also helps to see what you are doing as practice. You cannot know what you don’t know.  Through questioning, you remain open to discovery.  The faces that I drew and painted two years ago laid the platform for the faces that I draw and paint today.  I had to begin somewhere and to be patient with my development as an artist.  I spent time with faces. Today, I actually enjoy the challenge of drawing a three-quarter turned face.  I steeped myself in images of three-quarter turned faces–eyes, noses and lips in that profile position.  I memorized them, traced them, tore them from magazines, drew them, made tons of wonky faces.  And I learned from my mistakes.  I often asked, “What happens if I do this?”  These very words imply trial and error…and successes too.  And, I’m not there yet!inner2 (1)

WRITING PROMPT:
Revisit a work in progress that has been stalled (writing, painting, drawing) and begin a conversation with it.  Ask leading questions and respect the response(s) that you get. Allow the uncertainty and take the faltering steps as you move your work along. Allot yourself a sufficient amount of  time with this and see how leading questions work for you.

 

Writing is a Solo Task…

Typically, you write alone. Occasionally, you might write poetry in a circle.  Or take a creative writing class at the local community college where you do some in-the-classroom writing. Or participate in a writing workshop where you write with others and share ideas. However, writing really is flying solo.  Are all writers introverts?  I think that there is a necessary tendency towards inwardness.  A writer emerges from his or her writing cocoon, goes out into the world, harvests material and then returns to process and create.  I envision the spiral symbol as something I ride.  I go up and out and broaden my experience.  I gather and take in information.  I send it downward and inward for processing and integration. In some way, I have been changed and this is reflected in my writing.

Julia Cameron and others encourage the writer to sit in a cafe, on occasion; to change up the places where you write.  And that’s fine, good and fun.  You’ve added variety and spice to this otherwise solitary journey.  However, writing remains for me a solo task.  I have to then be comfortable with my “aloneness”.  To commit to writing is to accept this.

That said, how do you grow a support team?  There are definitely writer’s groups that you can join.  Or you can form one around the particular genre that is yours.  You can check with your local library or Chamber of Commerce to see what might be available where you live. Are any of these a fit for you? There are online writing forums where a writer might find support and be able to ask questions. If you take an online writing course, a Facebook community often forms around the course and sometimes the participants continue to connect once the course is complete.  For myself, I spend enough time at the computer and think it would be better to belong to a physical group rather than another virtual community.

Also, having a personal support team in place is helpful.  Even if this team isn’t composed of writers, gather around yourself those who appreciate you as a writer–those who foster your commitment to writing and support your creative goals.  I do think it helps if those who make up this intimate circle have a commitment to an art or craft themselves. They are going to have a better understanding of the creative process, of what you experience as a solo writer and the type of support that you need.

WRITING PROMPT:
Take some time to consider how you feel supported (or not) as a writer (or artist) pursuing your craft.  Write about this in your journal. Is there some other way in which you would like to be supported on your writing journey? Write this down.  Do you have any ideas about how you can get the support you need and desire?  Note these also. Consider how you can creatively find ways of getting these needs and desires met.

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Image Detail

In the film, The Bridges of Madison County, Francesca (Meryl Streep) tells Robert (Clint Eastwood), “Robert, please. You don’t understand, no one does. When a woman makes the choice to marry, to have children; in one way her life begins but in another way it stops. You build a life of details…”  The thing about movies is that you see the details when watching a film.  They don’t have to be described.  However, if you’ve ever written a screenplay, you laboriously spell out every single thing from the sounds of a creaky door to “slouching in a front row torn upholstered seat in a moldy smelling theater.” Nothing is assumed…each tiny detail is duly noted.

Telling details actually means DON’T TELL ME, SHOW ME WITH YOUR WORDS!

In his book, Let the Crazy Child Write, author Clive Matson discusses in detail several ways to bring image detail into your writing. It is the details that capture our attention and imagination.  To bring the experience to a reader through our writing, we recapture the details.  It is the details that place the reader where your story occurs and it is the descriptive details that shows the reader who your characters are (along with their dialogue and actions).
Clive Matson gives a few examples of image detail: “The worn green fabric on the end of a diving board, a piece of chewed gum in the boss’s ashtray, the pearly scar on a lover’s neck.”  Recalling a detail, the entire memory returns. How many of you have had that experience with a smell, say cinnamon, which suddenly transports you back to a childhood memory–french toast with cinnamon and butter, a special treat for a Sunday morning breakfast.  Or, remember that song from the past you overheard at the supermarket the other day that returned you to a time and place in your life when you were making out with your first “love”.  When you are writing your story, include that detail; perhaps words from the song as they drift in and out of your experience.

I am going to refer you to Chapter One in Clive Matson’s book, on “Image Detail”.  He explains image detail in a precise, descriptive, engaging and educational way.

WRITING PROMPT:  What is a flashback song for you?  One that when you hear it transports you to another time and place?  Claim the song and a memory that it evokes and write about the whole experience in vivid detail. Paint the picture with words. Who were you then, who were you with, what article of clothing was a favorite?  Were you at the beach in southern California, in a windstorm on the high desert, in the back seat of a car–what kind of car?  Was there a smell that prevailed or a noise that intruded? Imagine your reader and take him/her there using sensory (of the senses) words and make the experience come alive.

Ah, time travel!

 

 

 

 

Free Writing and Then, DO YOUR RESEARCH

Let go on the page, fly free, get it all down, follow the flow.  What fun!

However, ultimately, even if it is a personal experience that you are writing about, you’re going to have to do your research.  There are so many resources out there on virtually everything.  Often, you don’t have to leave your computer desk to gather what you need to flesh out your writing. But then, how boring that can be–spending more time with Mr. Google.

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One summer day, when my daughters were young, I thought we should find out whatever we could about, of all things, Sasquatch.  We lived in San Francisco, the beautiful big city by the bay.  Our chances of encountering a Sasquatch (who prefers deep forested areas far away from humans), were slim. Unless BIG FOOT suddenly craved salty air and the ocean, we weren’t likely to have a personal encounter.

Regardless, for some unrecalled reason, (maybe we had just seen the film Harry and the Hendersons) we began our expedition. We took the BART train to the old San Francisco Public Library on Larkin Street in the Civic Center to research Sasquatch.   Arriving at the library, we were faced with volumes and volumes of books, floors, stairs, elevators, the smell of old books…indescribable.  In those days, we looked through card catalogues and jotted down Dewey Decimal Numbers, book titles, authors and anything with the words Bigfoot or Yeti or Sasquatch.  We gathered and stacked books on a table and leafed through them, finding photos, the stories of personal encounters, descriptions, etc.  Afterwards, we knew a little more about Sasquatch and our city library .

The point being, when you are researching, certainly, you can stay home at your computer desk and discover tons of things.  However, why not find a way to make whatever you are researching into some sort of expedition. Why not? You don’t have time?  We think that, but is it true?

Julia Cameron in her book, The Artist Way, talks about the Artist Date.  The purpose is virtually not to have a plan other than enjoyment and an openness to discovery.  The outcome is that it gives you a break and refreshes your creativity.  It’s best to let Julia explain the Artist Date below.

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While my suggestion for an expedition is more intentional, as you do your research, you can engage an Artist Date openness to delight and the spirit of adventure. Remember, you don’t have to do it all in a day–unless you are on a deadline, I encourage bringing fun and leisure into your expedition.

So no writing prompt today.  Find time to go on a research expedition for something that you are writing (or an Artist Date, or both).

See what there is to discover!

 

Apricots

A few days ago, while selecting apricots from the fruit bin at the local health food store, I had a sudden flashback…nine ragamuffin kids eager for a box of bruised apricots from Uncle Oliver’s garden in Santa Clara–a place of summer sun and outdoor sprinklers. Not for us.  Living in San Francisco, we had summer fog, jackets and scarves and work to be done.

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At some point, childhood becomes a distant landscape.  While there was a dearth of love, there were also heroes.  Sometimes the mind chooses one, a bright spot on the horizon, and hinges there in private gratitude.

On a rare occasion, Uncle Oliver would appear at our front door.  His entry was sunshine walking into the house as he placed a small cardboard box of apricots on the dinette table. Uncle Oliver, a round name, a round face, head thrown back and round-syllabled laughter tossed like a ball into our cluttered living room.  A pleasing sound to our laughter-starved ears.  Did one need permission to laugh so fully, so boldly? Laughing involved his whole face, his whole vibrating body.  Musical.  Tears squeezed out the corners of his laugh-slit eyes.  His laughter affected us, if only for the moment.  A laugh that one could trust and believe in.  His voice was musical too, as if each syllable was a note played on a piano, rising and falling with a quality of comfort like soft flannel, enveloping.

OliverEach apricot radiated a sweetness that came from some foreign land where climates were warm enough to grow apricot trees–Santa Clara? Those apricots, by the time we got to the bottom of the box, were bruised and wormy, but their sweetness and Oliver, himself, are what pervade the memory.

WRITING PROMPT:  As you go about your business today, be open to a flashback moment,  a positive experience that is triggered by something in the present. Describe everything you possibly can about where memory sends you.  Once you’ve written this, go back and introduce some comparisons to enhance your writing.

WRITING TIP:  Notice the comparisons in my piece above…”comparing childhood to a distant landscape, laughter tossed like a ball, comfort like flannel, sunshine walking in the front door”…these are some examples of how to include comparison in your writing.

Be pleased with yourself.

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Hasn’t it all been said?

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Say “hello” to your inner critic. WHY WRITE? HASN’T IT ALL BEEN SAID? AND MANY TIMES OVER? DO WE NEED ANOTHER BOOK? ANOTHER POEM? ANOTHER WRITER? ANOTHER BLAH, BLAH AND BLAH?

Is this a common argument for you not to write. Or is it merely an excuse, avoidance?

This is what I’ve found.  Each one of us has a unique voice, a unique way of saying things. Your writing will connect with the “EARS” that can hear your voice.  I also believe that in these times, it is necessary to think and write outside the box.  As you do your own deep work and write from that place, there is the strong possibility that something new will be revealed to you.

Have you had this experience yourself or witnessed it with your children? Your mother gives you a lecture on, for instance, why you should practice the habit of saving part of your allowance.  You are half-listening while inwardly saying “yeah, yeah, yeah…” Then, your favorite aunt or uncle says the exact same thing but in a slightly different way and you begin tucking away part of your allowance every week.  Alright, maybe that’s not the best example…a child has to rebel against parental authority.

However, the point is, some writers reach us while we dismiss others who might be saying the exact same thing in a different way.

Do throw your voice into the ring of writers if this feels like something that is important to you.  These are not the times to be timid or quiet if you have something you want to say.

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In other words, as said before in a different way, inspiration is everywhere and in everything.  Ideas and images adrift in a universe and you, the writer, snatch the ones for which you feel a passion.  You extract what is of value to you, command the language, wield your wordy power and shape, fondle and create something that might have been said before, but now it’s made new or renewed through your particular voice.

Author and poet, Kwame Alexander recommends that you say “YES” to writing as “…language has the power to alter our perceptions.”  That’s no small thing.

WRITING PROMPT:
What in the whole universe are you writing about today?  Are you being true to your writer’s voice and allowing what wants to come forth to come forth? Is there something else you’d rather be writing?  WRITE YOUR ANSWERS TO THESE QUESTIONS IN YOUR JOURNAL.

CELEBRATE YOUR UNIQUE WRITER’S VOICE.

Playing in the Field of the Daily Mundane (part two)

Years ago, in a creative writing class, the assignment was to write a “copycat poem”. In a nutshell, you borrow another poet’s perceived intention, the basic form and any other prominent features and write your own poem with a theme of your choosing. In the previous blog, I invited you to deeply notice Al Zolynas poem, The Zen of Housework.   If you are able to, you might want to print out a copy of Al’s poem as you begin this next step.

Following is my copycat poem based on Al Zolynas’ poem, The Zen of Housework.  Note that I’ve given Al Zolynas full credit for being the poet who inspired my poem.

That Which Rises
© by Christine O’Brien
–based on an original poem, The Zen of Housework by Al Zolynas

I look down my arms
to where my hands disappear into sticky dough
looking like swamp things
emerging from entangling algae.
My hands tentatively grip a cup of flour,
distribute it evenly over the gooey mess
and work it in.

The earthy alchemy
of flour, water, oil, salt, eggs.
The dough pulling away from my fingers
like shed skin, transmutation.
The dough, now cohesive, resilient,
as my fingers plunge, knead and release,
grappling with life’s challenges.

I set the dough aside to rise,
covering it with a white linen towel,
modest veil to the pregnant belly.
This force of yeast
pushing from within
asserting its musky promise
that all is one.  That one is all.
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The fragrant loaf opens the window
to an eternity of wheat fields.
Golden tassels dusting the sky–
the earth calling down the rains
as I join with this ritual of
crusty, golden loaves
now cooling on wooden racks
on the bare kitchen table.

Ah, aromatic offering–
Set one slice aside
for the goddess.

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I want to emphasize that when reading or sharing your copycat poem publicly, it is respectful to give credit to the original author and his or her poem (as I have done in my copycat poem above).  And it could be a good idea to get firsthand permission if you choose to publish your copycat poem.

Regardless, this is a fine way of practicing and playing with another poet’s style while writing a poem that is distinctly your own.

I invoked the author’s general mood–the sacred within the mundane.  I have the same number of stanzas although my line length and number of lines in each stanza, vary.  I use metaphor and simile as Al Zolynas does throughout his poem. I drift between the hands-on experience of baking bread to the metaphorical meaning for me, sanctifying what is considered commonplace.

Writing Prompt:
I am going to share a simple technique that can be used as a basis for writing a poem, an essay, song lyrics, prose and more.  List-making.
Choose a mundane task that you perform. The task–is it vacuuming, laundry, sweeping, mowing the lawn…you decide. Write the task at the top of a blank page.  Now list any of the steps it takes for you to accomplish this task (break it down into its components)…note the tools you use, where you are, the time of day, the process you follow, whatever it takes for you to accomplish this task, anything at all, however remote that you associate with this task. List them.

Reviewing your list, notice if there are opportunities to make comparisons–similes or metaphors.  Write these comparisons beside your listed items.

Using the mood of Al’s poem, the sacred quality within the mundane task, write your own reflective poem, integrating your comparisons as appropriate.

Put your poem aside for a day.  The next day, reread your poem.  Is there anything else that wants to be expressed?  Added or subtracted?  This is the beginning of crafting a poem.

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Playing in the Field of the Daily Mundane (part one)

A poem by Al Zolynas

The Zen of Housework
I look over my own shoulder
down my arms
to where they disappear under water
into hands inside pink rubber gloves
moiling among dinner dishes.

My hands lift a wine glass,
holding it by the stem and under the bowl.
It breaks the surface
like a chalice
rising from a medieval lake.

Full of the grey wine of domesticity, the glass floats
to the level of my eyes.
Behind it, through the window
above the sink, the sun, among
a ceremony of sparrows and bare branches,
is setting in Western America.

I can see thousands of droplets
of steam–each a tiny spectrum–rising
from my goblet of grey wine.
They sway, changing directions
constantly–like a school of playful fish,
or like the sheer curtain
on the window to another world.

Ah, the grey sacrament of the mundane!

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Al’s poem certainly elevates the mundane task of washing dishes to…a sacrament!  And, it illustrates that anything is fair game for inspiration from which to write your own poetry.  Reading Al’s poem, we become very present with him as he washes the dinner dishes.

When reading a poem, I recommend that you read it at least twice.  And aloud, slowly. The writer has placed line breaks where he feels they are appropriate.  Reading it, let the line breaks support the meaning of the poem.

There is no writing prompt today.  Instead, review Al’s poem giving it your full attention. Some things to notice are the shape of the poem on the page, the number of stanzas, the number of lines in each stanza, line breaks, the opening line , the closing or concluding line, cohesiveness, the punctuation (or lack of), rhyming or not, a rhythmic quality. Notice how the poet uses simile and metaphor and shifts his description from the actual to the metaphorical and back again.  In your estimation, what is the purpose of this poem? Is there anything else that stands out for you? What feeling(s) does it evoke in you?

Have fun playing in the field of the daily mundane!

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Poetry Handles the Big Stuff for Me

Salty Tears
© by Christine O’Brien

“Be brave, stay busy.”
Well-intentioned remedies for a broken heart,
but she’s no longer here for me to see.

Taste of salty tears
as I bake pumpkin cookies.
I’m sure she would do
something like this
if it were me who died.
Like Water for Chocolate
will those who partake
share this terrible grief?
I wonder.
Would it heal something in them?

This crazy, lonely, isolating grief.
Sometimes, it’s hard to breathe
and a falling leaf which softly
brushes my shoulder recalls her.
And then,
there are so many falling leaves…

The uncried tears from my entire life
tumble
until I’m wrung out;
and then there are more.
I search my house for
every tangible thing she gave me
–a scrap of blue velvet,
an old Christmas card,
the wired butterfly earrings
she fashioned for me–
all become more precious.

Any command to be done with this grief
too soon
rings false.

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This is one reason why I love poetry.  It helps me to navigate the tough stuff. Losing a dear friend, suddenly, a few years ago, I went into shock.  How could I make sense of this? How would I traverse this painful chasm?  While well-intentioned others want us to put on a brave front, everything inside says to feel this loss all the way down to the bone. Poetry has helped me with this countless times. Sometimes it is through reading other’s poetry that I find validation and support. Frequently, it is through my own writing that I am rescued.

WRITING PROMPT:
What about you?  As a writer, artist, poet, how do you handle the big stuff?  Do you try to avoid it?  Or do you enter this territory when you are called to? How does your creative process and chosen genre support you in writing or painting your way through loss or change?  Write about this in your journal.

WRITING TIP:
As we learn to process and integrate “the big stuff” of life, we become writers with depth.

Have a peaceful day.

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Betwixt and Between Prose or Poetry

Where Do Poems Come From?
© by Christine O’Brien

Plucked from the heavens
or scavenged from dread–
Swung upon a star
or in the lover’s eyes–
Breathed through
a baby’s first cry
or landed on the moon

Where do poems come from?
The gnarled roots of a
toppled pine–
The ecstatic branches of a
grasping redwood–
Dropped to the earth
in a widow’s tears–
Sprung up from a new flower
hatching the world

Where do poems come from?
Pushed out between my thighs
or sobbed into a pillow–
Creeping through the house
during the longest night–
Inherited from ancestors
too numb to speak
Chanted
in mindless media messages–
Twitching on the cat’s tail
as she leaps towards her prey

Where do poems come from?
Spread-eagled on the ground–
arms outstretched
Faraway places
without dreams–
Under the lamppost
kissing new promise–
In a child’s prayer
to the gods who deliver
a happier life

On the surgeon’s table
when the heart stops cold
Groping in the back seat of a car
and more
Raked embers of pain
Tattered ideas
A fallen meteor
Rotted earth poems
Encrusted pearl poems
Fusing my experience
as I
witness the universe

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Each one of these images can be translated into at least one poem (likely many) or into a story or prose.  Do you agree?

And I do believe that any story can shapeshift into a poem.

This is a game that a writer can play with him/herself.  That is, transitioning between poetry and prose and back again.  Each writing form lends something to the development of a piece that you are working on.

For me, poetry has been a soul-touching expression.  It has engaged my deepest writer’s voice, plugged into my emotions and rendered–a poem. While prose  has been meandering, meaningful, and cathartic for me, poetry got me to the crux of whatever I was trying to express through writing.  Poetry takes me directly to the heart of what I want to say.

WRITING PROMPT:
Dancing Between Poetry & Prose:  Borrow one of the lines from the poem above (or draft your own list of where poems come from) and write a short prose piece. You decide the time limit on this one.  Then, reread what you’ve written.

Walk away for at least 24-hours.
In the next day or two, reread your prose piece.  Extract an emotion from this piece and let this feeling be your guide into writing a poem.  If the poem wants to go another way than initially intended, let it determine its own course.
This exercise is not about producing a polished poem or prose piece.  It’s an exploration in playing with two different types of writing.  Invite in the spirit of play and curiosity.

WRITING TIP:  You can glean words and phrases from your prose to develop your poem and vice versa.  By the way, there is also prose poetry.  (You can google it if you are curious.)

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