Category Archives: Inspirational

This category is to help inspire the writer to greater heights in his or her own work; it’s meant to make writing more interesting and fun; and it’s to highlight the benefits of having a writer’s life.

No Life but in Things

Because You Have To            Two lines from two famous poets come back to me whenever I think about the life of objects in writing.

One is the brilliant, beloved Richard Wilbur’s Love calls us to the things of this world, from the poem of the same title, a gorgeous meditation on the difficult (but desirable) balance between concerns of the physical and the spiritual in the human heart. The other, from the equally brilliant, beloved William Carlos Williams, is the phrase No ideas but in things, which was, as I understand it, a kind of rebuking manifesto to other poets of his time (quoting online analysis here), urging “simplicity of language” and the “precise placing of each visual element [as] an argument for clear sight in poetry, stripped of conventional symbolism.”

Those two lines re-awaken me, by dint of their beauty, simplicity, and joy, to the artistic fertility of objects, places, weather—all the physical incarnations of life on earth, including the inanimate—in writing. The way written things can embody what a writer strives to convey, relieves that writer of the deadening effort to spell it out conventionally; to tell instead of show.

This is why I exhort myself, in the raw hours of making new work, to pay ravenous attention to the physical world of my stories, to rove my  imagination’s eye around the street or room, and (like a Ouija board’s token) see where it alights—more accurately, what it alights upon. Curtains, walls, chairs, paintings, photos, trinkets, laundry, beds, food, flooring, light through windowglass—a wealth manifests before the mind’s eye’s slow-panning camera.

The writer’s job is to transcribe what she sees as fast and capably as she can.

Somehow in the very mundane-ness of those objects, qualities, and surroundings, dwells a kind of gold: what playwrights sometimes call the reflector, or (more simply and usually) concrete details. They help the story tell itself. Their effects carry the story into the reader’s body—because the reader’s body recognizes the things of this world, and gladly (in Sven Birkerts’ words) “bustles about” furnishing its vision of the story with those items. And once inside, like a Trojan horse emptying itself of secret soldiers, the inanimate thing releases its cargo of emotion: sadness, jubilation, bewilderment. A writer learns to trust her instinct to deeply (if selectively) involve the life of objects in her storytelling. Magically, she is made larger for it, right along with the reader.

Because You Have ToJoan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Lifejust nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.

Site: http://www.joanfrank.org/

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Take Three Titles and Call Me in the Morning

Because You Have To           Feeling lost and lonely? Need to laugh? Get hold of some Nora Ephron, David Sedaris, or Dave Barry. (Or Kingsley Amis, whose Lucky Jim surely remains one of the funniest novels  ever written.) Crave soothing? Read some E. B. White, or a book that tracks the painting of a portrait. (Man With a Blue Scarf, Martin Gayford.) Need a bracing draught of coziness-with-pitiless-psychological-acuity? Curl up with a pile of Jane Austen or Henry James—or for literary smack-pow insight, the essays of James Wood. Want the equivalent of a shot of absinthe? Wild Sargasso Sea. Seek American characters who’ll intrigue and compel, yet feel familiar? Grab some Elizabeth Strout, starting with Olive Kitteridge. Jonesing for a candy assortment, where you can skip around and pounce on all the dark truffles? Best American Short Stories. And please don’t forget the immeasurable power of childhood or young adult favorites for any malady— including that of the aimless need to reconnect with life, history, adventure: The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Out of Africa; The Great Gatsby; Swiss Family Robinson, Charlotte’s Web.

            (This list, of course, scrolls infinitely on. My own pulse quickens with literary lust, just thinking about certain titles I long to revisit for no other reason than that I love them foolishly.)

            My dearest friend and I fantasize about creating a newspaper column premised upon exactly this transaction: books as medicine; indeed, as some of the best, most effective medicine ever. The suffering citizen would write to us, describing her or his symptoms. And we wise people-of-the-book would advise that person, in a column functioning like a friendly forum—other citizens could scan it for helpful advice. (My friend teaches now, but she sold books professionally for some time, and still practices this prescriptive therapy.)

Artists and writers, naturally, are not only not exempt from the folds of the ailing: often we may be found slumped at their front lines, wearied and wounded from the good fight, pining for inspiration, for courage, for galvanizing vision and energy. Look no further, fellow pilgrim, than your local library’s or bookstore’s shelves—then follow your heart’s divining rod for the exactly the right antidote. What’s most splendid about this whole exchange is the vastness of the range of brilliant remedies. In fact I’m about to walk right now to my own local library, where three wonderful titles await me.

Nothing feels better.

Because You Have ToJoan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Lifejust nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.

Site: http://www.joanfrank.org/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/joan.frank.9?fref=ts

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Totem Animals

The NSA FilesMy totem animal, at the moment, is the hawk, but I can feel eagle pressing forward lately. Totem animals come and go dependent on whether we feed them or not, whether we recognize them around, and what we need at the time. I’ve often had snake as a totem animal, and owl, and even dragon, which occasionally starts out as snake. Don’t ask why, because I’m not sure I could tell you. I’ve also had coyote come to me when needed. And raccoon.

 

While growing up in the woods, I remember my first totem animal being deer: a quiet urging toward new experiences. Over the years, deer has gone on to others. I often think children have deer as a totem animal. Deer are often gentle and shy in a very important way. My dad possessed bear for many years, but also had groundhog and squirrel when he needed them. The rest of my family don’t speak of these things, but I could often see a totem animal around them when we were together…in the ways they expressed themselves.

 

A good friend of mine has worked with snapping turtle for years. He’s a great, quiet man until you piss him off, then it’s full force and head first! Knowing this about him makes it easy to be around him. And that’s what I propose, is that we recognize our own totem animal whenever we can. Feel free to call on them when needed. You want a raise at work? Call on cougar: be stealth, but focused, and don’t be afraid to pounce when the time is right.

 

There are books about totem animals, but one of the most efficient ways to learn about them is to read about their habits and habitats. Read about whether they mate for life or not, whether they hibernate or save for the winter. Notice how they treat their young, and what they eat – definitely what they eat, because having a totem animal show up in your life might mean you need to change your diet.

 

The idea of totem animals works for me. It allows me to focus on where life is helping me. I recommend everyone try to notice such things. It may help you become more aware.

Ten Months In WonderlandTerry Persun writes in many genres, including historical fiction, mainstream, literary, and science fiction/fantasy. He is a Pushcart nominee. His latest poetry collection is “And Now This”. His novels, “Wolf’s Rite” and “Cathedral of Dreams” were ForeWord magazine Book of the Year finalists in the science fiction category, and his novel “Sweet Song” won a Silver IPPY Award. His latest science fiction space opera is, “Hear No Evil”, his latest fantasy is “Doublesight”, his latest mainstream/literary novel is “Ten Months in Wonderland”.

Site: http://www.TerryPersun.wix.com/terrypersun

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On Ghosts in the Machine

Bone RiverI’ve been rediscovering something I’ve always known, though it’s been brought home to me a bit more recently, and that is that the things you don’t write are often as important as the things you do.

I don’t mean this in the classic way: that stories are made stronger when you choose exactly the right words and take out the dross. Of course that’s true. What I’m talking about is the way research informs a work, and how the thorough knowledge of a place, or a character, or a thing, has a resonance even when you’ve never written the words to begin with. Ghosts in the machine, if you will.

There is a phenomenon that happens when you get a place or subject firmly in your head, when you know it inside and out. Even if you don’t write it down, that knowledge somehow gets on the page. It gets into the words you choose and the things you describe, even if you don’t realize it. It imparts layers and richness. It’s in your subconscious, and as bitchy as she can be, that subconscious is constantly working. Knowledge is a ghost, and one that stays, hovering over every plotline, characterization and description. It even gets into dialogue and style. This is why, no matter what you’re writing, you should understand the very bones of the subject you’re writing about. Even if you choose not to write every detail of how a blacksmith makes a horseshoe, you as a writer must know them. The ghost of that knowledge informs the way you describe him; the way he moves, the things he says, the essence of who he is.

I have often said that even if you’re writing contemporary fiction, it’s important to research your setting back to its founding. Why? Because places are what they are because of the people who chose to live there.  New York City’s rationalist Dutch heritage still informs it. The difference between LA and Boston is profound—LA was predominantly a transient population in its early days, men who only wanted to make money and move on. Boston was founded by religious mandate—it was to be a shining city on a hill for believers in a Christian God. These cities are what they are because of their pasts. The ghosts never leave.

This is what happens when you research too.  The things you learn stay in your head and color every choice you make. These ghosts in the machine give your work depth, and that is why it’s important to feed them from the start—they are the truth and the essence of everything you write, even if they aren’t on the page.

Bone RiverMegan Chance is the critically acclaimed, award-winning author of several novels. The Best Reviews has said she writes “Fascinating historical fiction.” Her books have been chosen for the Borders Original Voices program and IndiBound’s Booksense. A former television news photographer with a BA from Western Washington University, Megan Chance lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two daughters. Find her at: http://www.MeganChance.com.

Site: http://www.meganchance.com/

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Getting Lost

The NSA FilesI like to prepare before I go on a trip, because I like to be on time. It’s a respect thing. I respect other people’s time as much as my own. But that’s not the only reason. I don’t like to get nervous or worry about arriving. I don’t want to be in a hurry, so I prepare so that I can arrive early in most cases. But that’s not the only reason either. Ultimately, I like to read. If I’m early, then I have a few minutes to wait, and I can read during that time.

 

I know dental and doctor offices make you wait, and I’m still there early. Not because I think they’ll change their ways, but because I get to read that much longer. And so, after all these years, I find that I actually like to read in waiting rooms. Recently, I read while my daughter was at the dentist’s office. It was wonderful. Reading isn’t just a pastime for me, of course. As a writer, reading is also study, and I can study anywhere. I love learning new things, which includes how to get a reader excited, angry, upset, sad, or euphoric.

 

Having said all that, I don’t mind getting lost, either – but only when I have nowhere particular to be or if I have plenty of time between appointments. Then, getting lost only means that I get off the beaten track. I see things I wouldn’t normally see, and often experience things I wouldn’t normally experience. A friend and mentor of mine, Robert Moss, says that when your plans are changed, listen closely, because that’s when the universe is speaking.

 

Living in this way is satisfying to me. I get to explore, be on time, and learn throughout my days. I’ve always loved learning, so this has been a great life for my.

Ten Months In WonderlandTerry Persun writes in many genres, including historical fiction, mainstream, literary, and science fiction/fantasy. He is a Pushcart nominee. His latest poetry collection is “And Now This”. His novels, “Wolf’s Rite” and “Cathedral of Dreams” were ForeWord magazine Book of the Year finalists in the science fiction category, and his novel “Sweet Song” won a Silver IPPY Award. His latest science fiction space opera is, “Hear No Evil”, his latest fantasy is “Doublesight”, his latest mainstream/literary novel is “Ten Months in Wonderland”.

Site: http://www.TerryPersun.wix.com/terrypersun

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Creative Limbo

Trust Your Life            I look forward to bringing forth a new idea, making it real, capturing it on the page. But starting, I’m still often gripped by panic. Finally I discovered why: it’s the feeling of unknowing.

Whether I’ve scribbled a bunch of notes in a frenzy of inspiration, or actually made an outline, that same itchy, unsteady, slightly nauseous feeling overtakes me. Not exactly illness or a full-blown block, it’s more of a nervous disquiet I can only describe as “creative limbo.” No matter how many pieces I’ve started and completed, it returns. In self-defense, I began exploring works on creativity and anxiety and found answers that made sense in, of all things, “chaos theory.”

 

Chaos theory has been developed and applied in mathematics, physics, economics, engineering, psychology, philosophy, biology, management, and leadership, among other disciplines. The gist is that, as scientists have observed, elements of “wild disorder” appear within otherwise orderly systems. Conversely (or similarly), within apparently disorderly systems, elements appear of “unexpected order” (James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science, 2008, pp. 56, 173).

Those wildly disorderly elements can dismayingly appear in our writing. We may proudly clutch a neat, symmetrical, comprehensive (we think) outline we’ve just created, an intricate but integrated map of subplots, or a ranked list of crucial points. As we get deeper into the work, though, paths and possibilities start multiplying like runaway cells, way beyond our plan. Random but related thoughts, questions, bits of essential information, and gorgeously apt phrases balloon in our heads and swirl in unruly combinations, paralyzing.

No wonder I feel immobilized and dizzy. But this state is necessary to creativeness, as many have acknowledged. The great early twentieth-century mathematician Jules Henri Poincaré knew that the answers we crave “never happen except after some days of voluntary effort . . . where the way taken seems totally astray.” He recognizes that such efforts haven’t been wasted: “they have set agoing the unconscious machine, and without them it would not have moved and would have produced nothing” (“Mathematical Creation,” http://khuntersscience.blogspot.com/ 2012/09/ an-essay-on-mathematical-creation-by.html).

But to live in the “totally astray” limbo is not easy. We demand the answers now; just add water for instant solution. How to allow that limbo?

To tolerate creative limbo, especially in relation to chaos theory, we need to go to another concept, that of “open systems.”  An open system, applicable to science, technology, education, management, social sciences . . . and humans, constantly interacts with its environment, exchanging information, energy, materials. As writers, we are intensified, refined, and attuned open systems. We’re not only constantly interacting with but also observing, studying, analyzing, and recording our environments.

Leadership expert, management consultant, and visionary Margaret Wheatley explains that open systems maintain a state of non-equilibrium, keeping the system off balance so that it can change and grow. They participate in an active exchange with their world, using what is there for their own renewal (Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World, 2006, p. 78).

Don’t we do this, chaotic-like, all the time? We think a piece is finished and something hits us in the shower. We overhear a snip of conversation and know it’s perfect for our heroine’s sister. Someone passing on the street gets our attention, and we tear open our laptop to record that gait, twitching mouth, or stormy frown.

When scientists began to look at the ways systems grow and develop,

they found that a system, whether chemical or human, deals with stimuli or foreign substances that don’t fit by trying to subdue them. We can be tempted to the same in our writing projects: when those disturbing observations and ideas intrude, we often try to shut them down with all sorts of avoidance tricks.

If instead we allow those swarming thoughts their natural course, an unexpected thing happens. As Wheatley describes, “if the disturbance survives those first attempts at suppression and remains lodged within the system, an iterative process begins” (p. 96). When this process of repetition that seems to go nowhere continues, the system—miraculously—gradually finds its solutions.

A startling and beautiful illustration of chaos to resolution that parallels our writing experience can be seen in an illustration, the “Three-Winged Bird,” created to trace the journey of a system in chaos (see Erich Jantsch, The Self-Organizing Universe, 2008). A simple nonlinear equation was entered into a computer and plotted as a point in three-dimensional computer space. As the equation went through millions of repetitions, lines representing it appeared on the computer screen, seemingly random and meaningless. Eventually, though, the system’s form became visible, like the “bird” below. (reproduced in Wheatley, p.79)

Artwork            The three-winged bird, that looks almost visionary art, embodies a basic principle of chaos theory. What appears as disorder in our usual, limited, daily perspective is only order in the making. Within the chaotic circumstances reside the very seeds and prototype of wholeness. There is no chaos.

So, in our writing (and lives) the apparently chaotic is often indispensable. Much as we wish our works to spring forth faultless and neatly packaged, they rarely are. We get an idea, and suddenly the ending pops into our minds. Or we hear a riveting first line, as if dictated, but have no idea what should follow.

As we recognize the principles of chaos and the open system that is ourselves, we will more easily tolerate the often unsettling process. In our iterative drafts, we discover what should be set down, what should be winnowed. Our questions come to be answered, our pieces fit, our doubts are assuaged. When we open to and allow our creative limbo, the disturbing elements always swirl into order and produce our writing, our three-winged bird.

Trust Your LifeAuthor, editor, writing coach, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 300 pieces in print and online venues, including Writer’s Digest, The Writer, Women on Writing, Funds for Writers, Children’s Book Insider, Transformation Magazine, and Unity Magazine. A story appears in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Just Us Girls (2013). With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, for over 28 years Noelle has assisted doctoral candidates to complete their dissertations (finally). Based on her practice, she is completing a handbook for doctoral students to aid them practically, psychologically, and spiritually. In her 2011 book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books), Noelle draws on examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach their lifelong yearnings. Her webinar about the book is on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95EeqllONIQ&feature=youtu.be  Website: www.trustyourlifenow.com.

Site: http://trustyourlifenow.com/

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The “H” Word

Because You Have ToI made the foolish mistake of wondering aloud one evening, to a deeply and complicatedly gifted writing friend and mentor, whether her grown son was happy.

 

She looked up at me from her dinner with an expression like that of someone who’d just been waked from a long, profound sleep.

 

“What is—happy?” she asked, in genuine confusion.

 

Instantly I apologized, knowing I’d stepped in it.

 

You don’t talk to writers about Happy. You don’t assume anything in connection with writers (or maybe artists in any medium) about a simple term for an ideal that nobody knows how to describe, let alone inhabit.

 

But privately, of course, we pursue it—one way or another, whatever we conceive it to be. Even if we’re masochists (which it’s certainly arguable that most writers may be), we pursue the painful art-making because that’s what makes us happy. Right?

 

Well, um, pretty much. Yeah.

 

Because unless you have “a burning desire to do it” as opposed to merely “a wish to do it,” as the venerated author Paul Auster advises young people (in a recent, brief video for the online Poets & Writers), “Don’t be a writer.”

 

“It’s a terrible life,” he continues calmly. “There’s nothing in it but povery, obscurity, and solitude. But if you have a taste for those things . . . .”

 

Just saying.

 

Meantime, what makes me happy? Here’s the list. Exercise. Sleep. Eating and drinking. Music. Reading and always, always, writing. Riding a bicycle. Laughter, by whatever means I can induce laughter, with beloveds.

 

That’s about it. Not necessarily in the above order.

 

In fairness, I should preface with a few precious First World basics: living without pain, with enough to eat, in relative safety. Sleeping warm and dry.

 

I’m thinking of pasting the above list in some location where I can see it many times per day, whether I think I want to see it or not. Because too often I lose track of its essence: the startling given of miraculous life. We’re all so cavalier, so sophisticated, so sure of its infinite supply—until it starts to sputter. Then the bargaining begins, and the terror and the grief—what you might term the Death of Ivan Ilych stuff—unless (I’m guessing) we’ve strived all our years to keep ourselves as electrifyingly awake and aware of the miracle, as we may be capable of doing.

 

Writing and reading help. Thank the stars.

Because You Have ToJoan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Lifejust nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.

Site: http://www.joanfrank.org/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/joan.frank.9?fref=ts

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