Just Listen

A few weeks ago, I attended a weekend workshop. It had nothing to do with writing; it was about soul growth and reincarnation for those of us ‘woo’ types who believe in that sort of thing. In spite of the focus, writing was never far from my mind. That’s partly because I’m writing a book with a past life theme, but also because of a comment made by the facilitator.

“Imagination is real,” he said. “It’s a form of communication if only we’ll listen.”

We tend to think of imagination as pretend. His point was the opposite: imagination might be intangible and immeasurable, but it is as real as love, which also happens to be intangible and immeasurable. Imagination, he added, is communication from the soul . . . from spirit . . . from God . . . from the Source . . . whatever and however you describe it. I wondered if he was describing the muse?

Not every writer believes in a muse though many do, and Ray Bradbury was one of them. “I’m not in control of my muse,” he once said. “My muse does all the work.”

Steven Pressfield who wrote The War of Art believes in the muse too. “When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us,” he wrote. “The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.”

On the other side of the equation, a number of successful and prolific writers find the notion of a muse or any sort of communication absolutely ridiculous. Jodi Picoult, a favorite writer of mine, is one of them. Picoult believes writing is total grunt work; it’s not about the muse. Nora Roberts says every time she hears writers talk about the muse, she ‘wants to bitch-slap them.’ Stephen King says writing is a job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. “It isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about,” King says.

Maybe not. But there’s no denying that for writers and other creative types our imagination bears a great deal of responsibility for the work we do.

The night before I sat down to write this blog, I saw Paul Simon interviewed on Stephen Colbert. He was talking about the inspiration for his song ‘Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After the War.’ Apparently, he was at Joan Baez’s house doing some collaborative work when Joan had to take a phone call. Restless or bored (or maybe a bit of both), he pulled a book off her shelf and began skimming it. He came across a picture of a man and a woman with a dog. Below the photograph was the caption ‘Rene and Georgette Magritte with their dog after the war.’

He began to think . . . to daydream . . . to weave a story out of the image. Communication, by definition, is a form of sending or receiving information. In that moment, Paul Simon was receiving something intangible that fed his imagination . . . and he listened.

In the end, I guess it doesn’t really matter whether you think imagination is real or pretend. All that really matters is listening to it. Listening and doing the work.

Writers and Their Pets

Today is National Pet Day. Writers love their pets as much as anyone else.

For years Dean Koontz resisted bringing a dog into his life, though they appeared frequently in his books. Eventually he agreed to adopt Trixie, a retired golden retriever service dog. Koontzwent on to publish a book about Trixie (A Big Little Life) and much love and many dogs later, Koontz continues to be devoted to the breed. His current golden is Elsa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Diana Gabaldon is also a dog lover. Her Twitter feed occasionally features pictures of a pug (a grand pug if the comments are to be believed) or one of her dachshunds. For a time, Gabaldon was an ambassador for Bianca Associacao, a Portuguese shelter that rescues and rehomes 600 dogs and cats annually.

 

 

 

 

Lately Stephen King is a slave to his corgi, Molly.

Cats are also beloved by writers. Hemingway adored them, and at one point while living in Cuba his house was home to over fifty of them.

I had a cat once, for about a decade. Juna was a stray who adopted us, and even though I’m allergic I couldn’t say no. She used to wake me up every morning by delicately licking my eyelids. It did nothing for my allergies but it was good for my soul.

 

 

 

 

Then there was our beagle, Sugar. She was named by our daughter, and appropriately so. Sugar used to delight in ferreting out any sweet treats left by the kids in their backpacks when they came home from school.

 

 

 

 

Before we had kids, we had our rescue Pekingese pups, Clementine and Winston. The latter was named for Winston Churchill and the former was named for his wife (and, yes, there is a visual similarity; google Clementine Churchill)

 

 

 

 

Today we share our lives with Team Sheltie.

They keep us walking and laughing and enjoying life. Happy National Pet day to your beloved companions!

And the Final Question

What are the three things that trigger your creativity? That was the final question posed by Susan Wiggs at her writing workshop a few weeks ago.

Of all the questions she asked, that one was by far the easiest for me to answer. In fact, so many things trigger my creativity I found it hard to keep it to only three. But when I really stopped to think about it, a number of my creative triggers fall into the same category.

Nature.

I didn’t see the connection initially. Only later when I read my list did I realize how much inspiration I get from being outside. These were the creative triggers I noted down that fell into the same category: walking on the beach; hiking through the park; cycling into the country; planting, digging and playing in my garden. All of those things give my thinking brain a rest and let my creative side come alive.

Travel feeds my creativity too. Circumstances have been such over the last few years that most of my travel has been the armchair variety, but you’d be surprised by how much inspiration you can get from watching a great travel documentary, visiting an ethnic restaurant or reading travel literature.

That brings me to my final creative trigger: books. In my world, reading is not only a source of information but it’s also something I do for pleasure, for escape, for relaxation and for the sheer joy of it. A good book (and, yes, even a bad book) fires my imagination and fuels my creativity long after I’ve read the last page.

What fuels your creativity?

 

The Essentials

Last week’s blog about writing gurus was sparked by a Susan Wiggs talk I attended a few weeks ago. As I mentioned in that post, Wiggs had some questions for the audience. Question one revolved around our writing gurus. Her second question was this: What are your three essential writing tools?

I don’t need much. In fact, it would be pretty accurate to say all I need is either a notebook and a pen or some kind of word processor. That’s it. I’m a minimalist at heart. Less is more in my world.

Given the choice, however, I do like a nice pen. Black ink over blue, a rollerball over a ball point and it needs to feel good in my hand. I can’t quantify that; it either fits well or it doesn’t. It’s like pants. Some look great on the rack but you never really know whether they’ll work until you try them on.

I also like a notebook with pockets. Once I get rolling on a book I tend to make notes or collect pictures, bits of trivia, anything that might contribute something, however small, to the work in progress. Having a single place to keep everything saves me searching through piles of stuff later on.

Last but not least (and the hardest to come by) is quiet. I love quiet for first drafts especially. I’m not one of those writers who produces well in a coffee shop. I don’t want people peering over my shoulder, talking to friends, playing music. I like to create in isolation. Unfortunately, Team Sheltie doesn’t do quiet all that often. Neither does the band that moved in next door. They practise a lot. A LOT. During the day. When I like to write. If they don’t stop soon, I may be adding another essential to this list: a pair of headphones.

What essential tools do you need for your creative work, writing or otherwise?

A Guru . . . Say What?

A good workshop makes you think. Last weekend, I spent the day listening to Susan Wiggs talk about her life as a traditionally published author of commercial fiction. Wiggs is an engaging speaker. With three decades of writing experience under her belt, she had plenty of anecdotes to share. And she posed three questions to us.

Question one: who are your writing gurus?

Say, what?

Now, to be fair, the word guru threw me. It doesn’t always conjure up positive imagery. I either think of Jim Jones, the cult leader who inspired people to mass suicide at Jonestown, Guyana, or I go in the other direction, to Buddha, who inspires in the opposite way. Whether they’re positive or negative, people follow gurus. Those followers adhere to the guru’s beliefs. They stop thinking for themselves.

That wasn’t what Susan had in mind and I knew it, but I had trouble getting past it. By the end of the day, I still hadn’t come up with anyone I could name as a writing guru. When I got home, I pulled up the definition of guru. 1. A religious teacher or spiritual guide. 2. A teacher and intellectual guide. 3. A person with knowledge or expertise.

And so I continued to think. Many writers are experts in their field. I’m lucky enough to call some of them friends. Maybe that’s why they didn’t fit. They were more friend than guru. I looked at the books on my keeper shelf. A few names stood out, but none of those names resonated as gurus either.

For me, a guru needs to inspire on both a professional and personal level. A guru should be someone I’d want to share a meal with. Someone whose fundamental values I not only respect but would be happy to emulate. I’d want any guru of mine to be big-hearted and warm. Forgiving and empathetic. Fierce and thought-provoking. And given Susan’s criteria they had to be writers.

I mulled for several days. Finally, three names came to mind.

Anne Lamott. Author of Bird by Bird and Help, Thanks, Wow, Lamott is an American novelist and non-fiction writer as well as a political activist, public speaker and writing teacher. Why Lamott? She’s honest. She’s real. She’s humble. And she’s not afraid to use the ‘G’ word. Her belief in God, her spirituality, is a cornerstone of her writing. She’s wildly funny, incredibly down-to-earth and hugely knowledgeable about all things writing. She’d probably make some self-deprecating crack about being considered a guru, but she is one to me. If you haven’t seen it, check out her Ted talk on writing and life: https://www.ted.com/talks/anne_lamott_12_truths_i_learned_from_life_and_writing

Jane Yolen. Winner of the Caldecott Medal, two Nebula Awards and many others, Yolen has written over 300 fantasy, science fiction and children’s books. She’s also a poet, a writing teacher and a book reviewer. Why Yolen? Like Lamott, she too is honest, and real, and humble. As well as sharing her writing with the world, she shares her life on social media. Here’s a recent Yolen tweet: This see-saw day – a rejection of a mss., a sale to Turkey. An old friend dies suddenly. Two younger friends get good news from doctors. Life. She is not all sunshine and flowers. She knows the light coexists with the dark, and she’s not afraid to point it out. Her Facebook author page is filled with tips for writers, personal anecdotes (she shares both acceptances and rejections; yes, she still gets rejections), general encouragement and a healthy dose of political activism.

Jann Arden. Okay, so she’s known primarily as an award-winning singer but Arden is also a writer. Her prose voice is as gifted and as uniquely identifiable as her singing voice. Titles to look for include If I Knew, Don’t You Think I’d Tell You or her memoir Falling Backwards. Like Yolen and Lamott, Arden is also refreshingly honest (some would say too honest; if you’ve been to her concerts you’ll know what I mean), grounded in reality and humble. She’s living a creative life at the same time as she’s supporting her mother and watching her slide slowly into the fog of Alzheimer’s. She knows plenty about living with challenges, about struggling to get where you want to go, and she seems to get that fame is best used as a tool and not used to define a life.

It took me a little while but I found three writers I would be happy to call my gurus. All three of these women have plenty to say about living a creative life. That alone is enough to make them stand out. But it’s the spin they put on that creative life that seals the deal for me. You rarely see Lamott, Yolen or Arden pushing product . . . talking sales . . . hyping someone else’s work in an obvious ‘I’ll do yours and you do mine’ kind of way. Yes, they promote, and, yes, they talk about sales, tours, new books or new albums. But they do it in such a way that it’s only part of a well-rounded life. They stay real. They stay honest. They stay humble.

As all good gurus should.