Essentially Yours

We begin learning by imitation.  This is necessary for survival in the world into which we are born.  Then, comes the differentiation…the recognition that you are neither your mother nor your primary caregiver.  Waving your hands in front of your face, you begin to realize that these are your hands and under your control.  The very beginning of individuation!

In writing and art, you might begin by imitating, copying techniques, practicing methods, mixing colors as directed, learning the language, advancing your use of tools and studying your genre of choice, etc.

As you further your education, what is bursting to emerge is that which is essentially yours.  How do you weave together all that you’ve learned and then, in which direction are you going to take it? Many artists speak about style.  Some artists fear being copied.  Other artists are flattered at being imitated. Every artist wants to receive credit for their creations.

I do think that there is within each one of us is that which is essentially your own. When you are in the copycat stage, there is an awareness that this is only the springboard that is going to take you to your very own style.  Style can be seen as the way in which you uniquely put the various constructive components of your chosen art together.  There is  a certain something that emanates from your writing or art that comes to be seen as your style.  At first, perhaps, you yourself can’t see it because it is so basic to you. I’ve found that others often recognize my style of  painting before I do!

In your daily life, there is a way you go about things. From the way you greet the day, to the foods on your shelf, to the arrangement of furniture in your home or how you dress.  I doubt that any two individuals do any of these exactly the same. Through experimentation, daring and trust–whether writing, sculpting or painting, –you are going to find a way to express that which is essentially yours.

WRITING PROMPT:  How do you perceive your writing or painting to be essentially yours?  What do others notice when they read your poetry or prose?  What do others point out when they look at your art?

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Now…and Then

“10,000 flowers in spring
the moon in autumn
a cool breeze in summer
snow in winter–
If your mind is not clouded
by unncecssary things
this is the best season of your life.”
by Wu-Men (Chinese poet)

Isn’t that a secret we’d like to have an answer to–how to stay present within this moment and not drift off into the past, future, fear, worry, conjecture, etc?  At least more of the time. Being present to one’s daily life experience is desirable.

However, when we write (or paint or create art), we move in all directions, don’t we? There is very little that is linear about the creative process, especially in the initial stages.  That said, I begin with an intention.  Even if I seem to veer off course.  For me, setting a creative intention rouses personal process. The goal then is to stay present with my process as I write or paint–wherever it might take me (even when it changes course from my original creative intention).

Year ago, I began reading a translation of the French author, Marcel Proust’s classic, Remembrance of Things Past, otherwise known as In Search of Lost Time.  At that time, I found that reading the first volume (one of seven) was both laborious and tedious.  My mind stumbled over the slow revelation and wanted to skip ahead to get to the story behind the array of descriptive words.

Today, I realize that one of the author’s intentions was to explore memory itself and take the reader on a journey through his process around resurrecting his memories.  He considered both voluntary memory and involuntary memory.  An often recounted episode from his book is the memory evoked when tasting a madeleine cake dipped in tea!

“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. … Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.”
— Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

WRITING PROMPT:
Invoking a memory is considered a voluntary memory as you have chosen to retrieve a memory from the past and write about it. Proust compares voluntary memory to involuntary memory–which has a visceral quality to it and can therefore be expressed as a vivid and direct experience with greater impact for the writer and the reader.
Have you had this experience…something in the moment triggers an old memory and brings it fully into the present…so much so that all of your senses are awakened around that memory?  Have you written it down?

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In the movie Ratatouille, at the end, the food critic is sampling the chef’s ratatouille dish and is transported back to his childhood and the savory comfort food that his mother served him.  He is personally comforted by the memory as his tastebuds approve of the dish.

(Click on the play arrow and then click on “YouTube” on the bottom right corner and you will go directly to this clip.)

Letter Writing–When was the last time…

letterforbackdrop

you wrote someone a letter?

When my ex-husband was in the Coast Guard, I wrote him letters.  These letters (I have some of them) were comparable to keeping a diary except that they had a recipient. Rereading them, I notice how I chronicled my daily experience. Was that where this first began, the need to put my life on paper? I wonder. When I moved far from my childhood home, I wrote my parents & siblings letters.  (I have some of these.)

Then there are the letters I’ve received over the years–sometimes notes scribbled in greeting cards–like opening a gift from someone dear to me.  Often, long and laboring letters whereby the author wants to be known to me in some way. Perhaps he or she shares a bit of philosophy, a challenge, a dream, a story, a goal or a memory.

One of my brothers lives off the grid some of the time.  He hasn’t set up a voice mailbox on his phone.  I can’t leave him telephone messages!  He doesn’t have email or do texting. What is my recourse?  Sitting down and writing him a letter (sometimes a postcard). Letter-writing maintains this connection that I value.

It’s so easy to slip someone a text or an email.  There is something quite different about intentionally sitting down at a table or desk and writing a letter. Paper, pen, ink and you. There is a drift your thoughts take as you contemplate the one who is going to receive this letter.  What do you want to say to them? What is, perhaps, going to be preserved on paper?

By the way, we’ve seen whole biographical books created from someone’s found letters. Or we’ve read excerpts from handwritten letters that are descriptive or used to substantiate a claim made by the author. Do you personally see any value in letter writing?  Is it a lost art?

WRITING PROMPT:
Is there someone in this wide world that you’d like to write a letter to?–do it today.

WRITING TIP:
Letter writing, at least now and then, keeps your writing flow going.  Writing letters can only enhance any other writing you do.

A Few Craftsperson’s Tools

As writers, our initial task is to get something down on paper, uncensored.  If we want to make a piece “public”, or refine it for our own satisfaction, then the process of crafting begins.

I often think of crafting as sculptors have described:  setting the sculpture free from the marble.  So it is with writing.  We have extraneous words, not the precise word, unclear thoughts, a lack of cohesiveness.  In refining his or her work, the writer employs some basic editing tools in order to set his or her piece free of what is superfluous.

  • Have nearby: a dictionary, a synonym finder and a rhyming dictionary (if you are rhyming poetry)
  • Look for imprecise words…ask yourself if there is a better word.  When you find the precise word, you typically have an economy of words.
  • Notice if the words you’ve chosen are interesting and varied.
  • Have you used figurative language effectively?
  • Look within the structure of a sentence and ask yourself “Can I say this better?”
  • Read your piece over paragraph by paragraph or verse by verse.  Within each paragraph or verse, look for unnecessary repetition.
  • Remember the beginning, middle and end segments of a paragraph.  Is the paragraph cohesive unto itself?
  • Does one paragraph or verse flow into the next?
  • Have you said what you want to say?
  • Is there a conclusion?
  • Get in the habit of giving your poem or prose piece a title.

These are  a few crafting tools that you can employ, one at a time. This list is by no means a comprehensive one.

WRITING TIP:
This type of crafting is a word-by-word, line-by-line, paragraph-by-paragraph, page-by-page process. Don’t attempt this when you are tired.

NOTE:  There are downloadable editing programs that you can find online though I haven’t personally tried any of them.
Ultimately, if you are publishing, hire a professional editor for refined and expert editing. They have their very specific tools and aren’t emotionally attached to what you have written.

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Poetry as “The Message in the Bottle”

Edward Hirsch referenced poetry as “a message in a bottle” to be found and opened at some future date by an anonymous reader.

When I paint a piece or write a poem, what or who do I have in mind?  What am I tuned into?  It varies.  Sometimes, as with this painting of the polar bear, I followed an intuitive flow that started with marks on a canvas. From these marks, three disco dancers emerged and quickly shape-shifted into three polar bears at the North Pole; then to a single polar bear with the Aurora Borealis as a backdrop.  Finally there was this solitary polar bear in a meadow.  The journey of this piece wasn’t decided by me ahead of time; what it wanted to become was disclosed as I stayed with the process.

What is the message of this painting?polar2

One cold and snowy winter’s night, I felt that existential loneliness.  I looked at my polar bear painting on the wall & I wondered what it felt like to wander, a solitude, across the melting ice floes of the North Pole.  What would it feel like to have your habitat disappearing beneath your feet?  What would it be like to be made for this icy world and to witness your world dissolving?  As the ice floes are melting, does this then predicate that the polar bear becomes extinct or does he metamorphose in some way to accommodate this once familiar, now changing world?

And so I wrote this sonnet to the polar bear, for myself in my loneliness and for the unknown finder of the message in the bottle.

Lonely
© by Christine O’Brien

It’s cold and I’m alone again at night.
The stars so far away, no comfort there.
Is the polar bear aware of its plight?
Ice floes are melting, does anyone care?

Across the tundra the northern lights dance:
radiant colors blast the starry sky.
If we change our ways, would he have a chance?
“Global warming; couldn’t be helped,” we sigh.

We’re safe in our cozy habitats, home.
The borders of our lives within these walls.
The far arctic circle, his place to roam
outside of our range, his frozen cry falls.

What’s it to us, a whole species demise?
Could it have gone better if we’d been wise?

For Your Contemplation:
I’ve talked about following your passion when writing poetry, prose or creating art. Sometimes, a fleeting feeling seems to govern your life. How do you respond to this? When feeling lonely or sad or some other uncomfortable feeling, I desire to be done with it as soon as possible.  I don’t want to dwell there.  Yet, I’ve learned to allow it the time it takes.  The truth is that we all feel lonely, sad or in grief at times.  To allow it is the courageous response…to create from it is to engage the common human thread of loneliness that each one of us experiences.  Your deep transitory feelings can be expressed through poetry, prose, painting & other creative venues.  You cannot decide who is going to pick up your bottled message on some lonely beach.  You can only hope that when they do, they find what is inside personally useful, portent, potent and perhaps powerful enough to induce change for the good of all.

Is Poetry Accessible?

Some years ago, I encountered the poet/author, Gerald Stern. In this video clip, Stern recites two poems.  Each one evokes a very different feeling for me, the listener.  The first poem relates an event in the poet’s life and his response to it.  When briefly introducing his second poem, Stern states that it is “a more formal poem.  It almost rhymes.”

In my first two listenings, I didn’t understand all of the nuances of the second poem although it gave me goosebumps.  It touched something inside of me that does understand. Do you sometimes get the telltale goosebumps when reading certain poetry? That is your body’s involuntary response, a type of recognition.

No one can really tell you what you should get from a poem, painting or other work of art. When studying a painting in an art gallery, each viewer has his/her own “takeaway”. While there are ways to evaluate a work of art or a poem, it is not always necessary to deconstruct one. It feels right to me to sense my way into a painting or a poem…especially one that grabs me in an emotional or visceral way.

As a poet, there could be the tendency to want to analyze a poem you particularly like.  However, that can come later, after you’ve had your initial response and savored the essence of the poem. Listening to Stern read his poetry at least four times, I was struck by the way that he “occupies his poem” when reading it.

PROMPT:
What are your feelings after listening to each of the poems that Gerald Stern read?  Quiet yourself and listen a second time, a third time or more. Did you find his poetry accessible or relatable to your life in some way? Listening to poetry is an art in and of itself. Giving poetry your full attention, receptivity, is a good practice. You don’t need to comment or have a rebuttal ready.  If you are reading poetry in a circle, unless it is an agreed upon critiquing circle, your best response upon hearing a poem is to say “thank you.”

 

Autumn Harvest

appleCycles and seasons come and go.  We are deeply connected to nature’s rhythms whether or not we give them conscious attention.  No matter where you live or what your age, you have an experience of Autumn.  In the northern hemisphere, we have entered the Autumn of the year while the southern hemisphere is in the flush of Spring.  As writers, we are aware of the metaphorical aspect of any season.

For yourself, consider what the harvest time means to you personally.  Living in the mountains, I’ve come to know the harvest intimately.  The land I live on has old fruit trees.  The first trees to fruit in early summer are the cherry trees.  These are followed by the pear trees.  Finally, in September and October, the apple trees are ready to be gleaned. If the apple crop is hefty, you will find me in the yard picking apples or in the kitchen processing them.  Frequently, there is an abundance of fruit to be shared with friends.

I often hear this comment from young and old alike, “How fast time is going!” Has it always been this way?

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Thomas Cleary translated a book of verses written by Wen-siang, a lone refugee, Buddhist poet, pacifist and feminist who lived in the 13th century during the time of the Genghis Khan Mongol raids.  The book is titled Sleepless Nights…Verses for the Wakeful.  I’ve excerpted the following poem:

My Sixtieth Year
by Wen-Siang (translated by Thomas Cleary)

Already sixty,
so much I’ve been through.
Wealth and rank
are like floating clouds;
changing and disappearing,
unworthy of regard.

My body’s like a pine

on a winter ridge,
standing alone
through the cold.

My mind is like the water

in an ancient well,
thoroughly unruffled
all the way to the depths.

My path
is the ancient way,
especially hard
in the present day.
Not easily discerned
are right and wrong;
I sigh and sigh,
sigh and sigh.

WRITING PROMPT:
Wen Siang uses simile in the first three verses (the bolded lines) to illustrate his state of being in his sixtieth year; it seems that he is taking stock.  In the fourth verse, he makes the direct comparison (metaphor) in the line “My path is the ancient way.” I invite you to use Wen-siang’s poem as a copycat poem.  That is borrow the form and supply your own content.  You can begin your poem with your current age.  For each verse, alternate the leading lines…”My body’s like…My mind is like…and My path is…”

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Whatever the season, whichever hemisphere, savor your time on planet earth.

Personally, I Ponder Personification

I mean, does a tree really desire to have human qualities attributed to it?  Then, does a tree even have desire?  Can’t a tree stand alone, sovereign, without humans endowing it with our virtues, vices, qualities or behaviors?

Maybe not!  Maybe writers and poets use personification as a means to comprehend what is termed “other”.  By comparing something to ourselves, perhaps we think we have an understanding of what it is or isn’t.

According to poet and writer, Mary Oliver, “Personification is the term used when one gives a physical characteristic or innate quality of animation to something that is inanimate…”  She gives an example from poet, James Wright–

“I bowed my head, and heard the sea far off
Washing its hands.”

A second definition for personification is from poet and writer, Frances Mayes:  “An emotion or something inhuman, such as a mountain or love or a tree, is given human qualities.”

A few more examples:

  • from Stephen Spender, “…whispers of wind in the listening sky…”
  • from William Sharp, “…the sleeping sea…” OR “…And in the soft ear of Spring, light voices sing.”
  • from creative soul and nature sprite, Opal Whiteley, “I danced on a log…as the wind does play the harps in the forest.”

WRITING PROMPT:  Choose something in nature with which you feel a connection.  Animate it with human qualities. Use poetry or prose, whatever makes you feel more at ease.  Does this type of comparison come easy to you?

cropped-castlelake11.jpg(photo of Castle Lake by Christine O’Brien)

“The sky smiled at its reflection in the lake.”

Meteors? I Meant Metaphors

Creativity is a powerful engine.  Its desire is to propel your writing or artful pursuit forward.  Creativity is like an early summer strawberry–you crave its sweetness.

Within this brief paragraph are three examples of creative writing tools:

Creativity is a powerful engine                Metaphor

Its desire                                                  Personification

Like an early summer strawberry            Simile

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In the previous blog, I introduced simile. Today’s blog is about metaphor which is described as a direct comparison (without the words like, as or as if). I think of simile as having a sort of buffer as it makes the comparison. Whereas metaphor is direct.  It doesn’t hem and haw.  It tells it as it sees it.

With simile, My lover’s eyes are blue like the sky.  Change this to a metaphor and My lover’s eyes are the blue sky. Do you get a sense of the difference with this comparison?  In the first comparison, the simile, I am comparing only the color.  In the direct comparison using metaphor–his blue eyes and the blue sky are one and the same! I can get lost in this vastness.

lover's eyes

Poet and author, Edward Hirsch believes that “there is a radical difference (or should be) between saying that A is the same as B and saying that A is like B.”  He says that “Metaphor works by condensation and compression.”

For me, metaphor is bold! It makes daring statements! Ones that I probably won’t question because they come across with such authority.

WRITING PROMPT:
If you don’t feel you have a grasp of metaphor, you can certainly google it to get more examples. That said, look at the similes you wrote the other day based upon a feeling. Consider what those similes would sound like if you dropped the words like, as or as if. Do they work as metaphors?  Try it out. Could you write bolder comparisons to make your metaphors even stronger?  Go for it.

 

 

Smile…It’s Simile Time

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We’ve talked about image detail, right?  It is supported by well-chosen adjectives…ones that have sensory appeal.  Image detail, character description and action in a story are also enhanced through the effective use of simile and/or metaphor.  Let’s begin with simile.

Simile is an effective creative writing tool falling under the general heading of Figurative Language or Imagery.  According to author/poet, Frances Mayes, from her book The Discovery of Poetry, “A figurative image establishes connections between things we normally would not associate.”  It is “an explicit equation…using the words like, as, as if” to make comparisons. For example, we’ve all heard the similes “hungry as a horse,” or “timid as a mouse.” These are similes and they are also clichés. Clichés are oft-repeated, overused similes. You want to avoid clichés. Inventing original and effective similes is a fun art.

WRITING PROMPT:
What is a predominant feeling for you today?  If nothing comes to mind, borrow one from your experience…like being in love, or feeling angry or happy, tired or weepy.

Practice writing at least half a page of original similes emanating from your feeling. If your feeling is anger–“she was as angry as a disturbed hornet’s nest”. If the feeling is love, “she was in love like a bear with her fist in a honey pot.” Don’t forget to include the words like or as or as if in your simile.

Work with only one feeling…and that way you can get fully into the swing of both your feeling and writing your similes.  One day, I was feeling very angry and I wrote a full page of similes expressing what my anger felt like.  By the time I got to the bottom of the page, I was laughing.  I felt very clever having come up with so many original similes and I shifted the energy of anger in a creative way.

See what happens for you as you try this one out.
Have fun!