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”.

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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.

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Fortune and Men’s Eyes

Because You Have ToSo I’m striding toward the grocery store the other day when, a few paces from its front entrance, smack on the public walkway, I come upon an elderly man seated on a folding chair snugged up to a card table.

The table bears a tall stack of books, and a few pens.

As I pass, he stage-murmurs to me just under his breath, the way (in coarse cartoons) sellers of illegal goods say “Psst!”—briefly flashing their visible stashes in the interior pockets of their opened coats:

“Want to buy a book I wrote?” murmured the man.

I glanced, and saw that the book appeared to be a children’s book. I will make up a title for it here (since the actual book is listed online): The Messy Mongoose.

Embarrassed and momentarily undone, I shook my head quickly and hurried past—as if this poor old fellow made a sight too shocking to bear.

Afterward, I felt terrible for hastening past. Even though I didn’t want the book, maybe I should have bought one just to ease the old man’s life, his conviction, his need.

At the same time, of course, I was abashed to the roots of my hair, thinking: isn’t this the bottom-line of it!

            Isn’t this, in effect, what authors do! Or maybe rather, isn’t this simply a radically basic form of what we find we must do—what we find ourselves, much of the time, in the midst of doing?

I remember reading at a local book festival years ago, after which I went to hear others read. I watched an older gentleman, who’d written a book of local history, preface his reading with the remark that he often felt, at these gatherings, like a contender at an “elderberry jam” contest at a state fair.

“Buy my jam,” he quipped, in the persona of one contestant. “No, buy mine,” he added, in the voice of an imagined, competitive other.

When I told my husband about encountering the old fellow selling his Messy Mongoose, he smiled wryly.

“Now there’s a story for you!”

He was urging me to make a short story, sparked by that vision.

But I had no heart to make a story from the poignant image of the earnest old man, selling and signing his own books—except to tell it here, softly, this way. It was and is, finally, too close to home.

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.

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The Writer’s Apprentice

AftersightKyle is one of my oldest friends. I’ve known him since kindergarten. My earliest memory of Kyle is the day in third grade when he dressed up as George Washington on the last day of school. His earliest memory of me goes all the way back to kindergarten when, during story time as we were all sitting in a circle on the floor, I leaned to the side and nonchalantly vomited, then leaned back and continued listening, as if perhaps no one might notice.

Kyle and I truly became friends in the sixth grade. Like me, he wrote stories, but his stories took the form of little handmade comics. It wasn’t until junior high school that he started writing short stories and not until high school that he tried to get them published.

All my early impressions of what it was like to be a writer came from Kyle. First was what I learned when Kyle passed his stories around to friends. In second period one friend would say, “I hated the part where the parrot started smoking cigarettes and telling jokes.” Kyle would say, “Got it. Note to self: Remove part with cigarette-smoking parrot.”

Then later at lunch someone else would say, “Great story, Kyle. Loved the part with the parrot telling jokes!” This kind of contradiction would drive Kyle crazy. The lesson: Some people are going to like your stuff and some people aren’t. In the end, you must choose to keep what you think is best.

Watching Kyle send letters to magazine editors who published short fiction was also an education. I learned about the Writers’ Market Guide, what a SASE was, the proper protocol for submitting one’s work. Kyle was the first person I’d heard of making a collage of his rejection letters and pasting it on the wall.

My observations of Kyle’s efforts led me to a singular conclusion: Getting published is hard.

I wonder now how my own journey as a writer would have been different if I didn’t have that early impression. I know writers, more than one, who didn’t seem to know this when they got into writing and who met with almost immediate success.

Wait a minute, I’d think when this happened. Don’t you know how hard it is to get published?

If our beliefs do create our reality, or as Author Magazine’s tag line puts it, if we truly are the author of our own lives, wouldn’t a belief in easy success serve us better?

I’ve had the chance to interview many successful authors for Author Magazine and when I do I invariably try to determine how their mindset helped them manifest their success. Though articulated in different ways, what I’ve discovered is the concept of being in alignment with one’s success.  In other words, if you are visualizing where you want to be but in your mind you’re saying, “I suck. My writing stinks. I’m not good enough.” Or in my case, “This is really, really hard,” then that is more than likely what you are going to manifest.

To create success, the idea goes, all parts of you must be in alignment: heart, head, body, soul. Let go of the beliefs that aren’t serving you.  If thoughts are indeed energy, what thoughts are we putting out into the universe?

Kyle eventually did sell one of his stories.  “Cuji,” which began as a spoof on Stephen King’s Cujo, was a tale about a demonically possessed Mickey Mouse balloon who was adopted by a boy during a family trip it Disneyland. Cuji, the balloon, eliminated the family members one by one in his effort to unite with Satan, who had incarnated into the physical form of a Beagle. Kyle was paid $7.35 for his efforts, though I don’t think he ever cashed the check. The check made a far better wall-hanging than that tapestry of rejections.

Mastering Astral ProjectionBrian Mercer is the author of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-Day Guide to Out-of-body Experience (Llewellyn, 2004) and the Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). A board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, he is the webmaster of and occasional contributor to Author Magazine. When he’s not working as a programmer analyst or exploring alternate dimensions out of body, he can be found writing novels. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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