Thursday, December 27, 2007

A Walk to Clear

Take a walk.

I've read this piece of advice for writers from many different experts, and I can attest that, at least in my experience, it is wonderfully sound counsel.

Again and again I find that when I am stuck or scared or bored or all three in my writing, or in my life in general, the very best thing I can do is walk, alone and without haste or great intention. I don't have any idea why it works. But it does. Somehow. It seems to make space, beyond my tight efforts. Often even when I'm walking an idea comes for how to solve a problem in the poem, or suddenly I know what I really wanted to say, or I am aware of an image that comes from deeper than my thoughts and is truer, too.

The wonderful poet Robert Frost took a lot of walks, and that is immediately obvious in his poetry. Here are some links to some of those poems.

If you are an artist, (and you are), let this be my Christmas gift to you... permission, even urging, to take a walk. Meandering and solitary, restful and awake... I believe then this will be the seedlings for your gift to the rest of us.

Oh, and here's an assignment, for those who may have that secret wish (Valerie). Take the walk and then write a poem or mini-essay based on your observations and meditations.

Frost has obviously provided us with many extraordinary examples of this practice, but here's mine (one I wrote for the writer's group almost two years ago).

-After the Long Rain-
The air was threaded with fog
and the blades and the leaves lined
with drops solemn as pewter.
The river was slate-colored and moving
fast and high and in so many swirling currents
that it looked like skeins of cord,
all knotted and pulling, flung between the gray-green banks.
And above the water, just above the surface,
were the swallows--with their arrowed wings and streaming tails.
There were hundreds, maybe thousands of them,
all along the rivers’ bends and turns.
They were swooping, in and out, out and in,
darting, reeling, spinning between and among each other,
as if they were a thousand bright-black shuttles,
weaving a silver cloth
of light and air and water
on the loom of this new day.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Marvin's Room

I can almost be sure that anyone reading this blog will already know about Imprint Theater Company's current production of Marvin's Room, by Scott McPherson, but I didn't want to miss the opportunity to encourage us all to attend a performance and allow our hearts and souls to be met and stirred.

Performances are November 2nd, 3rd, 4th and November 9th, 10th, 11th and November 16th and 18th at Oak Hills Church.

There's also a wonderful opportunity on the Saturday night performances to stay afterwards for a discussion time with the cast and artistic director.

Here's a link to Imprint's website for ticket and show information.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

C.S. Lewis Book Club

Almost immediately after posting about C.S. Lewis' novel, Till We Have Faces, I learned of a new book club centered around the writings of Lewis.

The group, led by Erik and Selena Grendahl, will meet in the Library at Oak Hills Church at 11 AM every other Sunday, beginning Sept. 30. I'm quite certain attending Oak Hills is not a requisite for participating.

Although I can't attend the meetings, this sounds like a great opportunity for stimulating reading, thought and conversation of the best and most delightful variety.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Till We Have Faces

I recently reread C.S. Lewis' novel, Till We Have Faces. This has long been my favorite Lewis-work (and that is truly saying something). Every time I read it I'm struck by the incredible skill and insight he had to have to draw the main character of this novel and tell her story. This time, I was more aware than ever of how this story is the story of a spiritual formation.

I'm going to talk about the novel's plot and characters below... so, if you are the type who believes a story is spoiled if you know what happens, don't read on!

The novel is a retelling of the classic Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche. (Which if I understand the story of the God of Love and the Human Soul.......)

In the myth, Psyche (one of three sisters) is a girl so beautiful and lovely that the goddess Venus is jealous of her. For this reason, her father is forced to sacrifice her on a mountain. There Venus' son, Cupid, takes her as his bride, and keeps her in a secret castle. They live in total bliss, with only one strange caveat--she is forbidden to look upon his face. In the myth, the two sisters come to visit Pscyhe, and they become so jealous of her castle and her life that they convince her she really must see her husband's face. So, foolishly, Psyche lights a lamp the next night. The ravishing beauty of her lover is revealed, but a drop of lamp oil awakes him, and Psyche is forced into a long and perilous exile.

C.S. Lewis retells this story from the point of view of the oldest sister, an ugly but earnest girl named Orual. His greatest departure from the original is to make Psyche's castle invisible to Orual, which changes the entire story. For now Orual's dilemma and the choices she makes become much more ambivalent and fraught, and much more like our own dilemmas and choices.
And her story sounds very much like our own stories.

The book is her telling of her own story. The first two thirds are her first version, and in it she rails against the misery and the lovelessness and loneliness she has felt after the loss of her beloved sister, Psyche. She shakes her fist at the gods and argues her case against them. But in the second version, her story changes. She says she must write this second book because "I know so much more than I did about the woman who wrote it."

Let this be a warning to anyone who sets to write honestly:

"What began the change was the very writing itself. Let no one lightly set about such a work. Memory, once waked, will play the tyrant. I found I must set down...passions and thoughts of my own which I had clean forgotten. The past which I wrote down was not the past that I thought I had (all these years) been remembering.".....

Throughout this second version, she comes to terms with who she really is and what has truly motivated her choices and created her life. The awareness, the consciousness is incredibly painful (especially for any honest reader). As I read it, I feel like I'm walking through the story of my own spiritual formation, although I haven't gotten that far in understanding and faith.

For one example, she comes to such a profound understanding about the demanding, soul-sucking possessivenes that she had called love... I can imagine this is what it would be like for me to truly lose some of my own strongest attachments. She says:

"when the craving went [for a certain man she had been obsessed with] nearly all that I called myself went with it. It was as if my whole soul had been one tooth and now that tooth was drawn. I was a gap."

There are many other incredible passages in the book. I was floored again and again, and my dream is to have a discussion group on this book someday. But the absolute best lines for me are the ones from which the title is taken.

All her adult life, the ugly Orual has been veiled. This has protected her and given her a kind of mysterious strength, for others' fear her and cannot know her. She also veils and walls off her true self. She veils herself in her work and busy-ness. But everything changes when she finally makes her complaint to the gods and actually hears what she's been saying all her life.

She says hearing her own complaint was all the answer she needed from the gods. "To have heard myself making it was to be answered. Lightly men talk of saying what they mean."

"When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you'll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?"

This is an incredible question. One I could ponder and pray over for a long time. But the wonderful news is that Orual and Psyche's stories end (like our own stories shall) with something far better than sheer justice and truth.

I hope some of you will read it for yourselves. And I'd love to know if and how Orual's story resonates with you.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Fear and Wonder

This weekend Pastor David Holcomb preached about "Wonder." He made the marvelous point that the opposite of wonder is boredom. He said that our cultural norm is boredom and its offspring-- mindless entertainment. And he suggested these are symptoms of practical atheism and materialism, and a soul that is asleep.

To the extent that I have moved from boredom to wonder (and this movement has only been a tiny start, and some days far less of a start than others), I have recognized boredom being replaced by a new feeling I haven't made peace with--a feeling of near paralyzing fear.

I'm not the only one. Again and again, when I talk to people about making art, or writing, or just daring to really come alive (and thus live in wonder), they speak to me about fears. But this is not only in my little corner of the world; when I read about making art or about facing the soul, the same words also come up over and over: "anxiousness, fear, anxiety, dread."

I hear many explanations for this creeping anxiety and fear: our profound insecurities, a fear of being misunderstood, fear of judgements from ourselves and from others, fear of releasing emotions long buried, fear of not being "Christian enough," fear of wasting our time, even fear of our own pride if we acheive some status through our art.

I can relate to every one of these fears and more. They plague me. They oppress me. And I think they are each worth exploring--in conversations, in books, and on this blog. But as I listened to Dave's sermon, I had a different thought.

It was a little idea....and my fear is it's a crazy idea...completely off-base...but let me just explore it with you. My thought was, "Of course we're afraid. Fear is the most natural response for souls on the cusp of wonder."

Think about it. Every time someone in the Bible encounters a forceful taste of the wonder of God's Kingdom...a visit by angels, a miracle of Jesus, a vision of God's glory... the immediate, uncontrolled, unmeditated response is terror.

I think this is because in a moment of wonder comes the recognition that the universe is not what I thought it was. It's bigger---more beautiful, more terrible, more real, more alive, more wild than I will ever comprehend, and certainly beyond anything I can ever hope to control. And so my life is not what I thought. All that I based my life on, subconciously and consciously, has shifted. It's an earthquake, of sorts.

So, here's my little idea:

We all feel this profound insecurity about making art. But behind this insecurity, perhaps, is our very self's fear of loss of control. It's our fear of wonder. For to dare to make art is to dare to move into the world of wonder---to marvel at the largeness of our own souls, to marvel at the truth and beauty gleaming and flaming around us in every person and every blade of glass.

And if we move in that direction, we will have to give up all those ideas of security and insecurity completely. They will become meaningless and thus useless to us. Did we think we acheived our own security by hiding? By pretending we were in control? By imagining that we could manage others' feelings and thoughts and opinions about us?

The judgements we fear from others...their strongest praise, their greatest condemnation....these too will be just as meaningless. For what can we do but agree with Jesus' words to the rich, young ruler:"Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone."

The fears of facing our shame or pride (which are two sides of the same fallacy--that our actions will guarantee we merit condemnation or praise) will also become irrelevant. This life, this world and our place in it is not our story--it is too wonderful for us.

The threat of our emotions overwhelming us is very real. But, isn't that a fear of facing the large, unknown reality of ourselves and God's wonderous work in creating us?

Isn't the world starting to quake under our feet? We won't have feelings or words or images or music strong enough to describe this terrifyingly beautiful and strong and alive universe we've been made a part of. How can we not fear this seismic disruption?

But then there's something more. Isn't there? This is what I have not yet been able to experience in any fullness that satisfies me. But again and again I think about those words, "Don't be afraid. Don't be afraid. It is I."

Because if what our observations and feelings suggest is true... if what our art reveals is true... if what those moments of wonder demand is true... and we're not in control, and our attempts to acheive an externally judged "good" are meaningless, and if this universe is so much much more than the physical and the human systems set in place, then.... just beyond the fear is hope.

For I believe this is the longing and deepest desire of every artist (whether or not we are conscious of it)-- the hunger to BE in the presence of the One who is Wonderful beyond all our hungers, and all our fears.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Writing with William Stafford

A few entries back, I introduced a poem by William Stafford. He has greatly influenced me--not only through his beautifully unique and strong poetry, but also through his philosophy of writing, which was full of generosity and wonder. I think he has an extremely insightful understanding of our spiritual nature and how we can become more open to God's voice. I'd like to tell you a little about him here, with some quotes taken from his book, Crossing Unmarked Snow. The highlights are (obviously) mine. You can read more of his wonderful poetry at

Stafford was born in 1914 in Hutchinson, Kansas. He attended the University of Kansas, and took active part in the early struggles of what would later be the Civil Rights movement. He was drafted in 1940, and served as a conscientious objector throughout the war (in work camps in Illinois, Arkansas and California). During this time, Stafford began a life-long discipline of rising very early to write for several hours every morning, and he wrote many poems during this time. He said everyone can be free around four in the morning.

He often talked about his writing process, which he claimed to value above any one poem he produced. He said that in those early writing sessions, his practice was to write whatever occurred to him, whatever located him.

As one interviewer put it, his writing process was one of “extreme receptivity,” which Stafford said acted as “a defense against being stampeded by the current, intentional engagement with what other people think is important. It’s very subjective, but it is the kind of subjectivity that makes you available for what is (making) a valid, actual, individual impression on a human being: yourself. I’m afraid that getting published has often pushed me toward trying to repeat what has succeeded, and I don’t want to do that. I want to stay as trusting and innocent as I was when I first started to write…”

A hunger to be “lost” often comes up in his poems. He spoke about that desire to be lost in his writing process: “…if you’re lost enough, then the experience of now is your guide to what comes next. None of us knows what comes the next second. We manage to survive in our lives by staying inside the bubble of our assumed self-sufficiency. That’s nice, cozy—but as a writer, as a thinker, as maybe a mediator, I have a sense of being in a set of circumstances that’s much more wilderness than most people assume.”

After the war, he continued his education and began teaching, finally setting at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon in 1956. He didn’t believe in overtly complimenting or criticizing students’ writings. He preferred to tell them where he “was with them,” and where he hadn't been able to follow them. He wanted the goal to be locating the self, not writing for praise.

I feel trapped in a society, and in a school system, that persuades individuals that all their activities are goal-oriented towards some goal that doesn’t have anything to do with how they feel. In the arts it has to do with how you feel. So trust what occurs to you. And you’ve just got to do that. If somebody else doesn’t like it that way, you can make it the way they like it if you want to, but it won’t be art.”

He was stubbornly non-elitist in his ideas of education and writing, and claimed not to be overly concerned with the quality of any of his own poems.

What is quality? It depends on where you stand, whether you feel you’re limited or not. I feel I’m limited. I feel other people are limited. This idea, whatever standard American writers have reached is estimable and other standards are not, is a relative matter. In a way, I could say I’m not that ambitious, but another way I could put it is I’m a lot more ambitious than that. I don’t want to reach the standard that American poetry has reached. Nothing less than everything, that’s what I would like to find by keeping going. The idea that you could cut back a little bit and thus be esteemed is not as important to me as if you could keep on being headlong, you might get beyond being esteemed. I’d like that. So maybe I’m more ambitious. God has got bigger plans than the standards of American poetry, no matter what those standards are.”

I’m suspicious of the ability of any fallible human being to erect some kind of standard and say, this is it. The realm of possibility is more glorious than that--…the closing in on some kind of hierarchy is a function of the limitedness of the judges more than it is the quality of the work….”

“For me writing is invading that area of “what am I missing?” rather than “Does this reach a standard?” You live your life by the feeling of satisfaction a day at a time. Those who try to say, well, at least, no matter how grim this makes you feel to do this drudgery writing …. at least you have your accomplishment in the end. I don’t feel that way at all. I feel the other way around. At least you have pleasant days. You have good feelings about your life. As far as what I’ve accomplished, I don’t know.”

Stafford's first volume of poetry was published in 1960, and his second volume, Traveling Through the Dark received the National Book Award in 1962. He wrote poems steadily the rest of his life. He died in 1993.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Favorite Poem of Mine

This is one of my favorite poems, by William Stafford. My own attempts at a reflection follow.

Saint Matthew and All

Lorene--we thought she'd come home. But
it got late, and then days. Now
it has been years. Why shouldn't she,
if she wanted? I would: something comes
along, a sunny day, you start walking:
you meet a person who says, "Follow me,"
and things lead on.

Usually, it wouldn't happen, but sometimes
the neighbors notice your car is gone, the
patch of oil in the driveway, and it fades.
They forget.

In the Bible it happened--fishermen, Levites.
They just went away and kept going. Thomas,
away off in India, never came back.

But Lorene--it was a stranger maybe, and he
said, "Your life, I need it." And nobody else did.

The first time I read this poem, I re-read it and re-read it. I consumed these words. I thought I'd never encountered a poem like this before. It was so simple. The language so straightforward and unadorned. It almost wasn't a poem. There was something subversive about it, I thought. But of course, it is very lyrical, and there is a beautiful, if subtle, use of sound.

Nevertheless, the borderline subversive, mysterious, almost dangerous quality remains. Stafford is telling the story of a small community and one woman who isn't there any more. She's gone. We thought she'd come back, but there's only a faded patch of oil in the driveway. Who couldn't be a bit disturbed by the unexpected, by the disruption of order like that.

And at the same time, Stafford is so generous, without judgment. "Why shouldn't she, if she wanted. I would...."

But when he compares her leaving to the decision of the disciples of Jesus to follow him.... I started to feel for the first time the depth of how disruptive and disturbing this could be to a community, even how disturbing this was to those staid and rigid parts of me.

Finally those last lines, "It was a stranger maybe, and he said, 'Your life, I need it,' and nobody else did," have communicated more to me about the transcendent freedom of each life than any other words I have ever encountered. I feel sure that although Stafford might not know the implications of what he wrote, he knew that a life was freer and more glorious than any other witness can recognize. And when I read those lines, I knew that too, and I knew that Jesus knew that truth even better. I felt a little part of me come alive and say, 'Yes,' I too have a true life, beyond any "role," in any community, and this is the life that Jesus is asking for.

I'm still amazed that a few plain spoken lines about an absent, "unimportant" woman in a small town can bring that kind of transforming power, but I witness that they can. I think that is subversive, and I long for more of that dangerous power.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Spiritual Formation and Making Art

I've grown a lot more self-conscious about this blog and its place on the church web site, especially since the church's creative writers group is currently out of commission. A little tune from Sesame Street often comes into my head: "One of these blogs is not like the of these blogs just doesn't belong..."

Ultimately, the blog may not belong on this site. But I have deeply appreciated how the church has taken some rather unconventional steps to embrace and encourage the arts, including creative writing. I know there are many beautiful reasons for this, including a core belief that God delights in the creativity and self-expression of his children. I also think the church believes that the making of art is another path, another spiritual discipline that God often uses in the formation of our souls.

I thought a lot about how creative writing can lead us a bit towards the Kingdom of God while I was preparing to teach in the Arts Camp this summer. I'd like to share some of those thoughts here.

Usually, I hate to articulate the purposes and usefulness of a thing. This is simply because of some badly formed areas in me that tend to be rather uninterested in things that are "good for me," or come with some other kind of claim. Also, I feel like I barely have a grasp on what spiritual formation means, and so trying to say anything meaningful on this topic just seems riduculously presumptive. Please read what I say with this in mind. Most of all, I believe we write or make any other art because we want to. I also believe we pray because we want to. And we love others for the same reason. But I might be wrong about all that. Anyway, like I said, this blog might not belong. But here are my fairly rough thoughts. They are all quite related, and may be restating one another again and again. Do you have anything to add (or subtract)?

1) Creative Writing (and other art making) puts us in touch with our Self. I have most learned this from the poet William Stafford, and I intend to write more about him later. But I think this is a major gift of art making. I am tending toward a belief that real art is only made by free selves. Not for any secondary purpose but to express a self. It is a place to acknowledge the fact of our existence as a self that God has chosen for his universe of existence.

2) It also puts us in touch with the moment, with the Now. That's where poetry and other art comes from. And this is also, I've been told, where God meets us.

3) As we make art, we become more attentive to the world God has made, to ourselves, to others, and hopefully, through all of this attentiveness, to the eternal God himself. I think we start with how we see the world and this moment around us. That is enough work to last me for the rest of my life, I believe.

4) Making art allows us to live in wonder. When we let ourselves be surprised, astonished, delighted or appalled by the real, I think perhaps we let ourselves get a little closer to listening to God. (maybe I'm wrong).

5) I have found that for all of the reasons I've listed above, and more, making art has drawn me into a deeper connection with other people. I can see more of the beauty of their stories and of their selves. Writing has become another way for me to attend to others, which is one small way to love.

6) Perhaps I could say that making art also makes me a little more discerning about what is true and what is beautiful and lovely.

I think there must be other ways that making art and creative writing in particular can be a gracious tool in our spiritual formation. Do you have anything to add?

I also suppose that there are some pitfalls, some sins and blindspots that art making could encourage. Maybe I'll think about that and do another blog.

Regardless, it would be a pleasure to hear from any other artists about what you have discovered about the intersection of art and spiritual formation.

---Jenny Jiang

Sunday, June 24, 2007

A Gesture Toward Sanity

Here's a quote from today's Writer's Almanac, by poet Stephen Dunn. It surely resonated with me. What about you?

Dunn said:

I think one of my early motivations for writing was that other people's versions of experience didn't gel with my own. It was a gesture toward sanity to try to get the world right for myself.
I've since learned that if you get it right for yourself, it often has resonance for others."

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Father's Day

Of all the gifts my dad has given me (a short list: straw forts with tunnels and hidden entrances, almost any pet I could name--excepting snakes, a college education, orthidontal work, and that vacation to see the wild Assateague ponies when I was 11), the best one is a love for poetry.

I remember snuggling beside him as he read from a thin and tattered volume of One Hundred and One Famous Poems, copyright 1958. Most of the poems were from the era of the Civil War and World War I. There were oval, tinotype-like portaits of each somber poet next to their poem. I was very little, and I had no idea what it meant to have a "rendevous with Death at some disputed barricade..." (Alan Seeger), but I reveled in the cadences, and in my father's own relishing of each word.

He is from one of the last generations who were forced to memorize poetry for school. I guess he never forgot the poems he memorized. Nor will I. One of them was "Thanatopsis" by William Cullen Bryant. In my memory, he recited the last stanza of this poem almost every night of my childhood. And so tonight I can hear his voice, with his slight lisp, savoring every syllable.

So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, soothed and sustained
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

Perhaps a little dark, but that's my dad. And I love him. And I haven't thanked him nearly enough for the treasure he planted in my soul.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Surprise Endings

So, with our assignment this month to write a poem or story with an ironic twist or surprise ending, I've been doing a lot of thinking about endings, and I've been realizing just how important those last lines are. They often make or break a poem or story. A wonderful ending doesn't have to be purposefully clever and surprising. In fact, that device, if not used with a sort of gentle light touch, often can feel like a sort of cheap trick. But I'm inclined to believe that an ending that perfectly, and yes, even surprisingly, transforms a poem or a story into something that lifts me up out of the dim room of myself is one of life's most sublime pleasures.

More than once I have literally cried out with sheer joy upon reading a perfect ending. Kay Ryan's poem "Things Shouldn't Be So Hard," and a recent reading of Alice Munro's story "Friend of My Youth," both showered me with such uncontainable delight.

I'd like to point you to one of the most delightful and perfect and even surprising endings in modern poetry. The poem is "A Blessing" by James Wright. Read it now, and let me know your reaction.

I don't know enough about writing to say for sure, but my best guess is that the way to write endings like this is to let them surprise you, the writer first. At least this is one way to guard against cheap tricks. Just start writing, as Flannery O'Connor, and Raymond Carver, and Alice Munro and many other masters claimed to do, and see where you end up. If you allow yourself to be surprised, the reader will be as well.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Whatcha Reading?

Writers are first readers. We are most trained by our reading. And most of us are pretty compulsive readers. I know when I read something that excites me, I am so moved, my emotions and love are almost overwhelming. And I want to share what I've experienced. And I want to be a part of it through my own writing.

So, what are you reading? Would you share? What's on your nightstand? What keeps you up late long after you should be asleep.

Right now I'm reading: Annie Dillard's A Pilgrim At Tinker Creek for the first time. C.S. Lewis' book of poetry (did you know he wrote poetry, at that it was published?!), and I'm rereading a collected book of some of Alice Munro's short stories, which are absolutely amazing to me.

I find the voices of Dillard and Munro both are strong and vibrant, full of a kind of clarified vision and love and grace that I long for in my own life. They deeply impact me and resonate with me. I am inspired in the purest and truest sense.

And when I read Lewis' poems, I feel as if I'm reading the most beautiful and honest words from a dear, dear, beloved uncle of mine (because I've read all his other stuff). He's an uncle I've heard expounding and telling stories at the Sunday dinner table for years, but in his poetry he is singing, and praying, and it's just a delight.

What about you? What's got you turning pages right now?

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Thoughts from a mother to other mother artists (and fathers....and other nurturers)

My return to creative writing coincided (not coincidentally, I believe) with the beginning of my life as mother. Among other things, this means that all my creative work, like everyone else's I know, has to fit around my life. Of course, it's a struggle. A toddler doesn't understand the meaning of "A room of her own." Babies catch colds, they have sleepless nights, cranky days. They need. My family (and many others) need me, the physical me, a lot more than they need my writing. And yet, I believe I need to, I would even say I am called to write. I believe that it is an act of faith and gratitude and perhaps even service. And I believe that learning to live with the tension of these different needs and demands and desires, and learning to trust God with those things and with what I cannot do and with what I must do is one of the most important tasks in my writing.

Right around the time I started writing, I read a little essay by Alicia Ostriker called, "A Wild Surmise: Motherhood and Poetry." Ostriker had encountered feminists who argued a woman diminished her life and her value as an artist if she had children. In this essay, Ostriker makes a strong argument against this lie. I was very inspired by what she wrote, so I'd like to quote it here. I will comment though, that I think men, as well as women who don't have children, can also learn from what she's written, to the extent that she challenges us to look at the whole of life, the actual life we have--a life with family and work and bodies and relationships--as valid, important (and I would argue) even sacred subject matter for any writer.

The quote follows. I'd love to hear your comments. I know she will say things that irritate some people, so.... it would be fun to talk about our reactions.

"... For women as artists, the most obvious truth is that the decision to have children is irrevocable. Having made it you are stuck with it forever; existence is never the same afterward, when you have put yourself, as de Beauvoir correctly says, in the service of the species. You no longer belong to yourself. Your time, energy, body, spirit, and freedom are drained. You do not, however, lack what W. B. Yeats prayed for: an interesting life. In practical terms, you may ask yourself, 'How can I ever write when I am involved with this child?' This is a real and desperate question. But can you imagine Petrarch, Dante, Keats, bemoaning their lot---'God, I'm so involved with this woman, how can I write?'

"The advantage of motherhood for a woman artist is that it puts her in immediate and inescapable contract with the sources of life, death, beauty, growth, corruption. If she is a theoretician it teaches her things she could not learn otherwise; if she is a moralist it engages her in serious and useful work; if she is a romantic it constitutes an adventure which cannot be duplicated by any other, and which is guaranteed to supply her with experiences of utter joy and utter misery; if she is a classicist it will nicely illustrate the vanity of human wishes. If the woman artist has been trained to believe that the activities of motherhood are trivial, tangential to the main issues of life, irrelevant to the great themes of literature, she should untrain herself. The training is misogynist, it protects and perpetuates systems of thought and feeling which prefer violence and death to love and birth, and it is a lie.

"....The writer who is a mother should, I think, record everything she can...and remind herself that there is a subject of incalculably vast significance to humanity, about which virtually nothing is known because writers have not been mothers. 'We think back through our mothers, if we are women,' declares Woolf, but through whom can those who are themselves mothers, when they want to know what this endeavor in their lives means, do their thinking? We should all be looking at each other with a wild surmise, it seems to me, because we all need data, we need information, not only of the sort provided by doctors, psychologists, sociologists examining a phenomenon from the outside, but the sort provided by poets, novelists, artists, from within. As our knowledge begins to accumulate, we can imagine what it would signify to all women, and men, to live in a culture where child-birth and mothering occupied the kind of position that sex and romantic love have occupied in literature and art for the last five hundred years, or the kind of position that warfare has occupied since literature began."

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Giving Up On Good

Our assignment this month was to write a story, poem or essay with a surprise ending or an ironic twist...a la O'Henry. To be honest, my initial reaction to that assignment hasn't changed much.... I'm still at a sort of low level panic. How in the world am I going to pull this one off? Where do I even begin? And even more fundamentally, why even begin when I don't have a hope of succeeding?

Now, while I'm not experienced with surprise plot twists, I do have quite a lot of experience with that feeling of numbing, freezing self-doubt.

The particulars vary but the tune is the same: I want to do something good. I can't see how I can write a good poem, or a good story, or a good essay. I probably will fail. I don't know how to do it. So, why even start?

You might think this is all about insecurity and a lack of confidence. But I'm not sure. I think the basic problem is one of beliefs. Beliefs that are flawed.

Let me list what I think are some of those beliefs that keep writers from writing, and then let's examine them together. I'd LOVE your help on this problem, so, please comment.

First, I believe that if I am a real writer, I should know how to produce good writing. I should be in control of the process, and I should be able to control the quality of the product. There's also the belief that only the finished product is important. And that only high quality literature is worth writing. I want to examine these beliefs with you in reverse order.

If it's not literature, it's not worth writing.

I think this is the most fundamental of these beliefs. If it's not "good" writing, then I really probably shouldn't waste my time. But this belief begs the question: what is "good art" anyway? Who do I let decide for me what is worth doing? Whom have I chosen as my editor or critic to decide whether my thoughts are worth granting a voice to?

Of course, I can recognize that there are great writers, but I think it's important to get over the idea that my writing is worthless if it doesn't match theirs. Gerard Manly Hopkins or Emily Dickinson (as two examples) are amazingly gifted poets, and in a comparison, my writing doesn't do too well. But I think a little closer inspection reveals that no one, including God, expects me to be Hopkins or Dickinson. They did that well enough. My goal is not to be a "great writer" (or a great anything), but rather, to be myself (more specifically as a Christian, to be myself redeemed in Christ), and to use my abilities and gifts and cultural context and personality to tell the stories and write the poems that I need to write, and that perhaps, in some cases, my community needs to read.

Only the finished product is important

Almost any artist will tell you that something happens in the process of creating that is even more wonderful than a succesful product, or at least the process is so linked as to be irreducible from the product. As I recognize this, the need to know I will have a great poem at the end of a week or a month of writing becomes a little less strangling.

Don't get me wrong, I still want to write poems and stories that I and others appreciate as good reading, but, more and more I don't feel the need for any particular poem I'm working on to be successful. What I need is to write.

I should be in control of the process and the product
We've all heard that good writing doesn't happen in the first drafts. But I've found that even when I accept the rough draft is going to be rough, I still try to demand some assurance that I'll be able to get to "good" by at least draft three, or five, or ten. But this anxiety and need for control usually prevents me from really "going for" it in the first few drafts. I keep trying to know what I'm saying, what I "mean," trying to guess how it will be received by readers who can pronounce it "good." If I stay in that space, I can write something that people generally like. I know the tricks to the writing that follows the rules. But that's not the writing that keeps me writing. That's not the writing that reminds me I'm alive. And that's not the writing that ultimately really excites the thoughtful reader, either.

To get to the writing I care about, I have to say every single time I begin that this time I might very well fail miserably. In fact, I probably will. And then I tell myself, "just have fun, just go for it."

All that matters is that I write, and that I write holding nothing back, without any thought of whether it will turn out well, or whether it will ever have any chance of being understood or appreciated by another soul.

This poem or story will not necessarily be good literature, but this poem or story-- if I am faithful in the writing, in the listening, in the truth-telling, in my work--will take me on a journey. The journey might be two drafts or eighty-two drafts long, and it might result in a "masterpiece" (although that hasn't happened yet), or a rather complicated, rambling journal entry, but "good" or not, it will always be worth the time and attention I have given it.

And so, I come to this "surprise ending" assignment with the same unknowns about the product. Right now all I have is a vague memory of some funny family stories that had little twists to them. I don't know how to write them down, but I'm going to start writing. I don't know if I will let anyone else read what I've written. But I'm very much looking forward to beginning. I'm looking forward to the "playing," and to the journey.

This is where I've come, even through the writing of this blog, but I'd like to hear from you. What are some of the beliefs that prevent you from writing or producing art?


Saturday, April 14, 2007

Snail Mail Art

Today's Bee has an article about Julia O'Connor, Sacramento's poet laureate. Her most recent project, called "Mail Art," encouraged area residents to write poetry and make art on postcards, and then send them through the mail. An exhibit of these postcards is now on display in Sacramento at La Raza Galeria Posada, 1022-1024 22nd St. through the first week of May.

I've heard her read, and she's a fascinating person. I'm sure the exhibit would be worth checking out. Actually, I and an artist friend made one of those postcards (a year ago). But, I doubt we are one of the 400 (out of 912) that made the cut. We'll have to see.

Here's the link.
Thanks to Ginger Irvine for this information!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Bedlam's Bard-- In Praise of Praising

April 11 is the birthday of Christopher Smart, a "religious" poet (according to Writer's Almanac) born in Shipbourne, Kent, England (1722).

This month we're reading a small fragment of one of his two major works of poetry--written while he was involunatarily committed to St. Luke's Hospital for Lunatics (in Bethnal Green) for his "religious mania," which caused him to pray obsessively and in public.

The fragment about his cat Jeoffry is from "Jubilate Agno," (1763) a very long and unfinished poem in which he attempts to give thanks for absolutely everything. He starts this fragment, "For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry. For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him."

He then goes on to do just consider Jeoffry in the context of how he serves the Living God. What follows is an absolutely delightful poem that has raised me out of many a sour or self-absorbed funk. I will link it here

Here are just a few of the lines I love:

"For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life."


"For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction, if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he's a good Cat."


"For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion." and .....

I could go on and on but what I'd really love is for you to read it and love it too, and then tell me which are your favorite lines.

I'd also like to note a couple other fascinating things about Smart and this poem in particular.

1) His delight in the world, and his all-out, nothing-held-back stance of praise. This awes and motivates me at my core. He has invested his whole being into the extent that his work is to sing about a cat, and his reward is the lunatic asylum.

2) The courageous and vulnerable individual. Smart the man, the poet, the artist is wonderfully alive and visible in his writing about Jeoffry. We see his individuality in the observations he sees and in the playful and earnest way he describes the cat.

3) The community. This might be less visible. Surely he didn't fit into society, and he was undoubtedly suffering. But we can see his community in the form that he chose for his poem. His poetry is obviously informed by the Psalms, he displays his affinity for the Psalms writers and the church, although he expresses himself so radically as an individual that he doesn't fit easily in the church. Despite the struggles Smart had and my compassion for those struggles, I have to say I love how he comprehended at a deep level and then appropriated the form of the psalm for his own purpose.

We are all writing in a certain time and place. As I struggle to find the form for my writing, I find every poem I write is very directly influenced by the poems I read and the poets and thinkers I talk to. I hope I can be more influenced by Smart and other praisers like him.

Let me suggest you try to "consider"something...a cat, a dog, a child, a flower, a playground, a meal, a party, a rainstorm, a bird, an ocean, a friend....and note everything you possibly can about that very specific "servant of the living God."

Perhaps you will surprise yourself and end up finding how you too are a mixture of "gravity and waggery."

If you would like to read more of Jubilate Agno (and it's very, very long!) here's a link: Don't try to print it unless you got lotsa time and paper, cause it's LONG. (By the way, it wasn't published until 1939.. that's almost 200 years after it was written.)

Happy Christopher Smart Day!


Monday, April 9, 2007

Writer's Conference

For anyone with an interest in writing poetry, the Sacramento Poetry Center in downtown Sac is a tremendous resource. Check it out at

I attend a weekly workshop--Tuesday nights. Every Monday evening they have poetry readings. They also have a monthly publication Poetry Now. And on April 20-21, the center is holding a writer's conference.

Here is the information I have on the conference.

All events take place at 1719 25th St. in Sacramento. There will be a reading and reception Friday night, April 20th beginning at 7 PM, featuring Heather Hutcheson, Andy Jones, Danny Romero, & Brad Henderson. Saturday, April 21, from 8:30 AM to 4 PM will be a series of workshops with Andy Jones, Brad Henderson, Gail Entrekin, Camille Norton, Heather Hutcheson, Tim Kahl, Sac City Ethnic Theatre Workshop, Danny Romero, and Angela Dee Alforque. See your April “Poetry Now’ for more details. The fees are $25 for SPC members and $35 for non-members. Make checks payable to SPC and mail to SPC Writers’ Conference, 1719 25th St., Sacramento, CA 95814. An entry form is printed in your April “Poetry Now.” The day will close with a participant group reading and celebration.

I probably will not be able to attend, but I'm working my angles right now. I have found this to be a great group of people and a tremendous resource and community, and I highly endorse them! Let me know if you are thinking of going or if you go.


Sunday, April 8, 2007

The Whiskered Muse

This month the assigned reading for our Creative Writers' Group (which meets this Saturday, 4/14 in the library at Oak Hills Church) was a mini-anthology compiled by this blogger and made up entirely of poems about cats and dogs.

Since handing out the poems, I've come to realize that almost every poet has written at least one poem about their pets. They are a very handy muse. And I'm feeling quite bereft that I haven't one. Now I tell my husband, "I need a dog for my writing."

I like to know as much as I can about the writers I read. I guess it helps me put their creative work in context. So, here is a quick biography on most of the poets we read this month. Almost all this information is taken entirely from "The Writer's Almanac," which I mentioned in my last blog entry.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, "To Flush, My Dog." "Browning was born March 6 in Durham, England (1806). She fell off a horse as a child, and as a result was an invalid for much of her life. She was doted upon by her father until she was 40 years old, at which time she fell in love with the poet Robert Browning, and secretly married him. Her father never allowed her back into his house, and returned her letters unopened. Her intensely happy 15 years of marriage ended when she died in Browning's arms, in Florence, when she was 55." (W.A.)

"Choosing A Dog" is by William Stafford, who was born January 17, 1914 in Hutchinson, Kansas. He was a Christian who was involved in the early years of what later became the Civil Rights movement and then, as a registered conscientious objector during W.W.II worked at a number of alternative service camps across the country. He had a discipline of writing every morning, and some of his best poems were written during the years of the war. He taught at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon and was one of the country's most respected and prolific poets. The novelist James Dickey said he was a 'born poet,' and that "poetry was the easiest way for him to communicate."

"Dog" is by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, born March 24 in Yonkers, New York (1919). "He wrote A Coney Island of the Mind (1958), the best-selling book of poetry in the country during the sixties and seventies. He also started the only bookstore in the United States ever to become a stop on a tour-bus route -- San Francisco's City Lights Bookstore. He spent World War Two in the U.S. Navy, took part in the Normandy invasion, and arrived in Nagasaki six weeks after the atomic bomb was dropped; he said that was when he became a pacifist. He got a Ph.D. at the Sorbonne on the G.I Bill, then went to San Francisco, where he met the poet Kenneth Rexroth, and started a venture to publish small, inexpensive volumes of poetry. The fourth volume in the series was a long poem by Allen Ginsberg called Howl. A Customs agent seized the book and arrested Ferlinghetti, and he became the focus of one of the biggest obscenity trials in the country. The book was ruled not obscene, a landmark victory for freedom of speech. Ferlinghetti is one of the few poets in the United States who has never held a job at a university, never received government funding, and never won a Pulitzer. He said: 'Like a bowl of roses, a poem should not have to be explained.'" (WA)

Elizabeth Coatsworth wrote that very cunning poem, "On a Night of Snow." If you haven't read it, you should. There's an Elizabeth Coatsworth mentioned in the Writer's Almanac, but that Elizabeth is only referred to as a children's book author, so, I'm not sure if it's the same lady. However, one thing I have observed is that the name Elizabeth appears to be well suited to the writing personae. I would like to tell my parents, "You should have named me Elizabeth, for my writing."

"Sister Cat" is by Frances Mayes. She also wrote that very popular novel, Under the Tuscan Sun, which got made into a movie I haven't seen. So I suppose her cat is eating some delicious Italian pesce for dinner tonight. She's also a professor of creative writing at San Francisco State U.

Christopher Smart wrote the poem fragment about his cat, Jeoffrey. His birthday is April 11, and that's this Wednesday. So, I'm going to post something extra special just for him soon. I think I will launch an all-out crusade to make his birthday another holiday, similar to those for St. Valentines and St. Patrick. I will probably do this with all the enthusiasm and vigor of an earnest slacker.

If you don't have a copy of the poems, let me know and I'll email them to you. How 'bout you read them and tell us which is your favorite and why. Also, let them teach you how to write a poem or a story or just a quick personal essay about a pet you've known. And then, come Saturday and share what you've written with us.

Happy Writing and Happy Easter--


Sunday, April 1, 2007

Spring and Baseball and Poetry

National Public Radio--only one of my addictions--has had a few poetry features I want to share.

On Saturday, March 31, there was a story about baseball haikus. The interviewed poet said baseball is perfectly matched to the haiku form, and they read a few delightful baseball haikus.
Here's a link:

And this weekend's "A Prairie Home Companion," was the annual spring poetry contest, with lots of poems about spring by poets like us.... Here's a link to the lyrics: . My favs are "For Millicent and Giovanni, who are going to need a bed" and "Bribe."

If you have time, give them a read or listen, and then...why not write your own spring poem or baseball haiku and post it here?

Also, Garrison Kellior, the host of A Prairie Home Companion, has a daily radio feature called "The Writer's Almanac" on which he reads a poem each day. You can access it online or have it delivered (in a newsletter format) to your email box daily (for free).

Here's a link: To subscribe to the newsletter, go to the upper right corner.

And here's my attempt at a baseball haiku. This is to commemorate many poetic (soft)ball games of my childhood played in our front yard:

The cherry tree is
second base. The dog runs off
with the ball again.


Saturday, March 17, 2007

Dangerous and Irrestible

I'll admit it--I was scared. When it was first suggested that I write and maintain a blog about creative writing, I was more than a little intimidated. I've only just begun writing again after many years of silence. I'm too much of a beginner to pose as an expert, I reasoned. But more than this, I didn't like the idea of all my words, my writing, myself, out there, exposed. It is the "World Wide Web" after all. But then I thought about what it has meant for me to start finding my voice after all these years of denying I was a writer. And I felt again the passion I have for others to discover their own writing voices, their own creative selves. I decided to take a risk and see if perhaps this is the next small step in my journey as a writer, a journey I would love to share with you.

I have found writing to be like walking along a craigy shoreline. One moment I'm giddy with joy and the next shaking with insecurity. There's something amazingly powerful about the act of putting thoughts and feelings into words. Writing (or any other art form) allows us to discover ourselves. And it teaches us a way to live in wonder. But it's scary. For the words go forward, lining up one after another, strung into sentences, telling any reader who comes along that this is how I see the world, and this is how I feel, and this is what I know. And there's a risk. The reader may say, "You're wrong. The world is nothing like that. Your feelings are strange. Your knowledge is incorrect or dangerous." Or perhaps even more terrifying, the reader may simply say, "You're just not good enough."

Sometimes this risk feels immobilizing. (Like when I'm trying to write my first blog post!) But I keep walking this rocky path, compelled by the hope of another view of the crashing waves. (Like the discovery that I might, possibly, like this blogging business.)

I think many of you know what I'm talking about. You feel the same urge--this drive to make a story, or a poem, or a letter or an essay--to find some way to tell how the world is for you. And you also feel those same reservations--the insecurities about revealing yourself, the fears about what might be uncovered.

If what I've said resonates with you, if you have even a small and hidden longing to write or (as I like to say) "to try writing," I want to urge you to listen to that little longing. It is important. It has something to tell you. Our longings have something to teach us. And I have not found many teachers more powerful than this longing to create, to write, to find a voice that tells who I am.

Now if I have your interest, let me make two suggestions, beginner to beginner:

1) Start writing. Write every day. Write bad stuff. Write self-absorbed poems about your toenails. Write about letters to your pets. Write silly stories for your kids. Write grocery lists for your great, great, great, great grandchildren. Write to let yourself slowly believe that you are, indeed, a writer.Here's a suggested"assignment": Write about a time you took a risk. Tell the story so that others can sense the fear, force your words to tell how you really felt, what you truly experienced.

2) Join a community of writers. We have a writing group that meets at Oak Hills one Saturday night a month, from 8:30-10:30 p.m. Our next meeting is April 14, and we'd love for you to join us.I also hope this blog can also as an extension of that community. I hope that in this space we can encourage each other to find a way through fear to our own voices, to our own craigy shorelines. To that end, I imagine us hashing through all manner of things related to creative writing. I'd really like this to be a conversation with you --about what drives you and what stymies you, what inspires, what stops you cold in your tracks. I want to talk with you about great writings and great writers we want to learn from. I want to write with you. So please, don't be afraid to WRITE back.

So here I am. Ready to click "publish" on this first post. Pretty scared and insecure, but also, excited to imagine I might find others who will walk with me on this dangerous but irrestible journey.