Friday, December 28, 2012

Why I Write

Last week’s Reading Challenge was a recommendation to read Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. It included the brief quotation that follows:

“ . . . The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

Within Dillard’s wisdom and challenge is the reason that I write, why I am compelled to write. I fear losing what I have learned, and I do not clearly understand what I have learned unless I write it.

When I open my safe, I recover fragments, snippets, and threads, then stitch them together into a lovely quilt and wrap myself in its warmth. On another day, I pull out all the stitches and reinvent the pattern, looking at the whole anew. In these ways, I glean truth, but not necessarily the truth. It’s just my truth, but with it, I touch the infinite.

What is your truth? The one that lies beneath the stories you tell to others and the ones you tell to yourself?

Reading Challenge:

A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers is about truth and lies, about the lies we tell ourselves and the truths that others see. It’s a 2012 National Book award winner for fiction. Don’t miss it.

Writing Challenge:

Write a universal truth that weaves together one age after another, one nation to another, as seen in literature. (Hint: Treachery breeds savagery.)

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): Apostrophes to Indicate Possession

With 2013 just days away, now is a good time to review the correct use of the apostrophe when wishing one another a Happy New Year’s Eve. The evening prior to New Year’s Day belongs to the new year so an apostrophe plus S is appropriate. The first day of 2013 belongs to the new year so an apostrophe plus S is again appropriate.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Finding Passion

During an afternoon walk for the old dog and my old joints, I stood on the hillside waiting for the dog to sniff and track the myriad scents that only she can detect. Down the hill, a raucous bird cried and continued its call as it flew up the hillside, closing in on my location. When it crested a rocky rise where I stood, it paused to take stock of me from high above, and I saw it was a woodpecker with a bright bandana-red topknot and well-delineated body in black and white.

Seeing that I could do him no harm, he resumed his ascent, pausing to inspect several trees in a zig-zag sequence, darting to and fro, up and back. Not finding the insect he sought, he flew higher and farther from me until I lost him in the trees. I continued to follow his song as he circled back to my level once again before disappearing into silence.

Seeing him up close, so near, so lovely put me in mind of The Big Year, a little-seen film but one I enjoyed immensely because I love birds, their delicate features, so slight, yet masters of all they survey. I love their variety and their music as well. The film put me in mind of barn swallows that built three nests each season on the front porch of our last home. I wondered if the new owners will be hostile to their company. I hope not.

I then thought again of The Big Year and what moves people. The character portrayed by Owen Wilson was an obsessive. Nothing else mattered to him except seeing the greatest number of bird species in a season. He lost loving wives to his passion and celebrated holidays by inviting the wait staff to join him at table.

Steve Martin’s and Jack Black’s characters, on the other hand, enjoyed a wider circle of friends and loves that deepen because their passion for the birds is but one component of a meaningful life. They know that loving and being loved is the true passion in life. They take nothing for granted--not the birds, not family, not love.

Writers too may be obsessive. They may be recluses and hermits who write one great novel, then struggle to re-enter the world or find a path to another great novel. They may also be men and women of passion who marry, raise children, and praise their grandchildren. The Internet is full of such blogs, full of fine people who are grateful for a forum as they watch, listen, sniff out stories, taste exotic locales, and feel the presence of others near and far.

Which sort of writer are you? The introspective recluse, the obsessive, or the one who lives, learns and then writes.

Reading Challenge:

Read Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. If you’re tempted not to read this one, consider these words from it:

“ . . . The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

Dillard seems to say that writing could be considered an altruistic act, one as necessary to a full life as is breathing.

Writing Challenge:

In as few words as reasonable for you, explain why you write.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

Just a word about those apostrophes indicating possession. I used two correctly in the sentence above: Steve Martin’s and Jack Black’s characters, on the other hand, enjoy a wider circle of friends… .Each actor’s name needed an apostrophe plus S because the characters portrayed were two distinct characters.

On the other hand, if the item possessed is not distinct or unique to two or more people and things, then only one apostrophe plus S will suffice; e.g., Mother and Father’s after-dinner rules included age-appropriate clean-up chores for each of us.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Seeing through the Eyes of Others

Six months ago, we met our first grandchild, a beautiful girl. This week, I've been caring for her, learning to see the world through her eyes and help her on her way. These hours with her reminded me of the first days of her life and an essay I wrote for, originally posted in May 2012. The essay appears below.
She loves to rest her head upon the chest of her family. Beating hearts comfort her; the steady movement of breathing reassures her.

She loves to pull her head up in order to see the face of the person who holds her. When she lies in our arms and Sleep looses its hold upon her, she studies the faces above her, evaluating them, perhaps memorizing them. She has not yet found a face that fails to fascinate.

She also studies the colors and shapes in her world, the light and shadow. She sees and learns: red stripes upon her nursery wall mesmerize; shades of orange against ocean blue around her play pad fascinate; her mommy’s original photographs captivate.

At her first photo session, when she was but eleven days old, she held her own head up so long that staff asked, “How old is she?” With this confirmation from outsiders, we believe she is as strong as we suspected and a step or two ahead of her peers.

She trusts the arms that reach for her and has not felt insecure or frightened yet. I only hope that she will always believe she is a good judge of character. More important, I hope she will always trust her instincts so that she may avoid people whose intentions are not good.

She protests new experiences as well she might, but having tested the newness, she reflects and relaxes. Her first shampoo was fraught with cries and complaints. Her second, in her mommy's, was tranquil. She enjoyed having her head gently massaged.

She dwells in love.

Her parents are nervous. They fret and hover.

Grandparents, having passed beyond the nervous state with their own children, simply enjoy this greatest wonder of this world, oft repeated, never dull, always personal, inspirational, and humbling.
As you imagine characters that rest in the arms of Trust and Love, reflect upon the infants you have known and loved. They will inform and inspire you.
Reading Challenge:

Read Watership Down by Richard Adams. Not only will you find a tale as grand as Tolkien's, you will find characters as diverse and appealing as all great novels provide.

Writing Challenge:

Capture the essentials of someone you love dearly. What sights, sounds, and scents call this person to mind for you? Be specific, but write freely, without regard for form or continuity. Revision always follows creation.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

In the second paragraph of the essay quoted above, the word sleep begins with a capital letter. There's no rule that requires me to use a capital letter there, but in that sentence, sleep is a metaphorical figure, one that tightens and loosens the bonds of sleep. In order to make that metaphor more apparent, I elected to capitalize the word as if Sleep were a god--as it seems to be on those nights when sleep eludes me.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Here and Now Is Beauty Sufficient

For those of you who read this blog, you know I’ve moved from plains to hills. I traded in my urban hat before picking up one more suited for rural regions, but not without considerable trepidation.

Each early morning in the city, I had little more than the distance between my bed and the back door to traverse in order to herd my dog out the door. I could then reverse my route and fall back into bed or greet the day with a cup of robust, bitter coffee while admiring the spunky roses that bloom at least nine months each year. I watched birds follow the geometry of rooflines to perch and call each other awake. In the distance, behind the birds, I often heard a train whistle sound the alarm as it passed through busy intersections. Somewhere a siren cried, motorcycles whined, and car tires on pavement grew closer, louder before fading farther and farther as their drivers rushed to jobs, schools, and gyms.

Inside, NPR informed me all day long, sometimes speaking to no one in particular because I could be found at the far end of the house, watching some recorded program or tuning in to Chris Hayes, Melissa Harris-Perry, or Rachel Maddow. Like a sponge, I soaked up information, made connections, thought, and bathed in the noise.

Now my days are quiet. What brings me from my bed is the sound of my old dog rising and shaking her body into life. Her tags rattle against her collar, making a kind of metallica music. I know that song and hurry to dress in order to walk her one-half mile, round-trip, to her favorite place. The only sounds are her toenails upon asphalt and my footfalls; these are not loud enough to mask a rush of wind through pine needles, a sound so like a car motor in the distance that I turn to look, to be sure we don’t need to step off onto uneven ground, into what’s left of a bluff pushed back to make way for man to claim his spot along the shore.

This morning, as we approached the oak leaves, chat, and red cedar beds that the dog finds easy on her paws, I heard a soft rustle, then silence. I thought of something small, hoping a rabbit and not a skunk might appear from behind a row of thick bushes. Instead, from just beyond a rocky outcropping walked three large white-tailed deer. They moved like ballerinas, with grace, en pointe. Their weight on the rocks barely disturbed the morning’s hush. An owl let them know they had nothing to fear.

From my high vantage point, I could see a mist against the land. It stood like Hadrian’s wall between warmer ground and chilly waters. Stephen King might have imagined something sinister in that mist; instead I saw a downy blanket and felt the cold burrowing between the fibers of my gloves, sneaking between my collar and my skin, settling along my shoulders.

A large fish broke the surface far below. The soft sounds of splashing water followed after concentric circles had spread upon the surface. A duck broke from its nest and squawked upon the water; some other bird, a gull perhaps, rudely intruded upon the peaceful day. High in the hills, the clever crows awoke. Smoke twisted and rose from a distant chimney. I turned homeward to brew bitter coffee and feed the old dog.

Reading Challenge:

Read Annie Dillard. Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek won the Pulitzer for its masterful observations about nature and life.

Writing Challenge:

Wherever you dwell, take an early morning walk, concentrating on at least three senses: sight, sound, and texture. Then write about your walk. Revise and edit to recreate the sense.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): Farther and Further

I’ve explained the difference between farther and further once before in this blog so you’d think I’d be confident, but I still jump over to Google and check my usage before posting. I haven’t written the wrong word in . . . well, I can’t remember choosing the wrong word, but I worry and doubt myself so I check.

Suffice it to say that I hope to walk farther each day with my old dog so that I may further my writing life. Walking farther is walking an actual physical distance beyond the distance I walked yesterday, but walking to further my writing life is abstract, figurative. Just how far I may extend my writing life by walking isn’t measurable so further is the right word.

Monday, December 3, 2012

D. Robert Pease's Latest Noah Zarc Release

Last year, on December 2 and 9, I used Noah Zarc by D. Robert Pease to explain coming-of-age stories and to report an interview with author Pease. I hope you'll turn back to those after taking a look at Pease's latest release, Noah Zarc: Cataclysm.

As you might guess from the titles, the second book again features Noah, an early teen, still very much a work in progress. He is occasionally willful, always daring, and definitely in the service of doing the right thing; he's just not always clear about what is right and what is wrong, or more accurately, he sometimes lets his notion of what is right overshadow the wrongs in his actions.

Like Luke Skywalker, Noah has some father issues. Noah's biological father is no saint; in fact, he's a trickster, manipulator, inventor, and genius who pursues his own interests ahead of his family's or the universe's. He also uses robotics and nano-technology to great advantage.

The book is a fine read for young adults and adults who remain young in spite of Time's toll. Don't miss the first or the second. They are both good reads.

Reading Challenge:

Buy and read Noah Zarc: Cataclysm.