ALL THINGS LITERARY. ALL THINGS NATURAL.

A blog for those who desire a more creative relationship with the natural world.

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Saturday, December 28, 2013

Spinning Gold from Straw: The Magical and Transforming Roots of Creativity

In the deep recesses beyond what we can see or touch, in the world where the Great Mystery dwells and where our greatest works of art germinate, are the intertwining roots of MIND, BODY and SPIRIT.  Our literature, our music, our paintings, our sculptures, our architecture, our textiles - all these expressions spring from the creative synergism between mind, body and spirit.

How do we transform our creative visions into artistic expressions? How does the intellect imagine form, and then breathe life into it, animating it, imbuing it with spirit?  What magic ingredient gives one story the deep resonance of soul, while another lies limply on the page?

To embody is to make manifest, to bring forth - whether on the page, on the stage, on the screen, in clay, or marble, or paper, with raw earth or molten glass, whether tempering steel or spinning gold.  In the classic Grimm's fairytale Rumpelstiltskin, it was the magic words of an old song that turned the spinning-wheel and spun gold out of straw.  In Romeo and Juliet, metaphor was the magic Shakespeare used to first manifest Juliet on the page.

File:Romeo and juliet brown.jpg
O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright! 
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope's ear; 
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!

In this 1870 oil painting, Ford Madox Brown vibrantly depicts Romeo and Juliet in the famous balcony scene.  In living color, we see Romeo's lips reaching to kiss Juliet's neck, we see her arm embrace him, we see the fluid movement of her night shawl, the whiteness of her bosom.  These star-crossed lovers become more than figments of our imagination.  Our eyes behold them.  Shakespeare's vision is made manifest through the tactile imagery of the physical world.

This bronze funeral urn sculpted by artist Roxanne Swentzell, embodies both the physical and the spiritual.  The figurine embraces the ashen remains of the body of a loved one, at the same time symbolically clinging to that which cannot be contained - the spirit.  When my mother died in my arms a few years ago, I clung to the vessel that had housed her spirit and felt her slip away - not her body, which had been slowly withering away for months, but her spirit.  

"What man experiences most fully emotionally," wrote Wyoming poet laureate Peggy Simson Curry, "knows intuitively but cannot explain away intellectually, is embodied in the world of symbolism."

Emotions. Intuition. Symbolism.  The mysterious workings of an artistic mind determined to make meaning from life experience.

Twenty-four hours before my mother's death, John Gritts and I were in New York City for the American Indian College Fund's Flame of Hope Gala, where Iraqi POW Jessica Lynch and the family of Lori Piestewa were guests of honor, along with four of the remaining Navajo Code Talkers from WWII.  Lori, of the Hopi Tribe, was the first Native American woman to die in combat for the United States Military.  John and I spent the day at Central Park with Lori's mother and father, who were now raising her two children Brandon and Carla.  Little Carla grew tired of walking, so I lifted her up and as I wrapped my arms around her, I thought of Lori, no longer alive to hold her child.

The next day, back in Colorado, I held my own frail mother in my arms and thought of Carla and Lori, and of the circular love between mother and child.  I felt Lori's spirit reaching out to my mother and felt the invisible union of mind, body and spirit.  Someday, I thought, I will write a story about this, and then it will all make sense. 

May the Spirit of Creativity bless you in the New Year, and may the artistic visions that you bring forth help reveal at least an inkling of the Great Mystery.  I wish for you all things bright and beautiful.

NOTE: "It is said that Picasso could paint a yellow spot and turn it into the sun.  Our lives are worthy of such transformation...." From "Writing Life" by Page Lambert (published by the Peaks, Plateaus & Canyons Association in Sojourns: Journal. Memory. Land.) Contact Page to receive a complimentary PDF of the rest of the article.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

What We Carry: Tools of the Trade, OR Jennifer Egan, please meet Trail Dog Christine Byl

Photo by Gabe Travis
Christine Byl lives on a few acres of tundra north of Denali National Park.  By the time she wrote Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods (referred to in Publisher’s Weekly as a “beautiful memoir of muscle and metal”) she’d been a trail dog for sixteen years – building, maintaining, repairing and designing backwoods trail.  Her MFA in fiction is from the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Christine didn't grow up using her muscles though, unless you count brain work.  She was more of a Thoreau groupie.  "I didn't think much about what the body could do."  
Photo by Terry Boyd

Now, sinewy Byl states flat-out, “Tools make the woman. Once you learn the tools and develop the eye, once you discern your limits and strengths, trail work can be brute simple.  Dig trench.  Move log.  Roll rock.  Swing axe.  Yet, like any craft, it’s as complex as you ask it to be…”
 
Byl loves to kick ass, and she loves “binging” on Jennifer Egan novels.

Jennifer Egan, Pulitzer prize-winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad, doesn’t have an MFA.  She’ll be the first to tell you that the writing group she’s belonged to for twenty years has proven more valuable than any MFA. 

Photo by David Shankbone
She writes fiction by hand in illegible handwriting.  Then she does pages and pages of typed analysis.  And then she starts the next draft all over again, by hand.

Hand tools.  Pens and paper.  Shovels and chainsaws.  On the opening page of Dirt Work, Christina Byl lists what the typical trail dog carries when setting out each morning, from how much water (2 quarts to 1 gallon), to what kinds of gloves (2 pairs, 1 leather, 1 fleece); to the tools they carry (axe, Pulaski, shovel, chainsaw, clinometer). 

When Byl heads into the woods to do trail dog work, backpack fully loaded, she also carries ATTITUDE and EXPECTATIONS.  

Attitude: Don’t quit, complain, lag, or brag.  Pretend nothing hurts. 

Expectations: Fix it; bust ass; do it fast; know it all; or learn it quick.

Christine Byl and Jennifer Egan have never met but I think they’d like each other, despite the fact that Egan lives in Brooklyn and Byl lives in Alaska – worlds and cultures apart. 

When revising, Egan advises: “If anything can be cut, it should be cut.  The point of good literature is to accomplish everything it needs to accomplish in the least amount of time and space.”

Fix it.  Bust ass.  Do it fast.  Know it all.  Learn it quick. 

“I write very blindly, my first drafts,” Egan told the audience at a recent Lighthouse Writers Denver event.  “It’s the time of possibilities.  I can’t seem to do that with my conscious brain.  When revising, think of everything as a place setting on a table.  Does it have a use?”

Same with any tool Byl carries into the woods.  It damn well better have a use.  "And don't mistake a digging bar for a rock bar," Byl warns.

Egan's writing community is one of her most valuable tools, and sometimes she brings "stuff" to them early on because she just wants to know, "Is it ALIVE?"

Photo by Skip Martin
I would guess that's part of what enticed Christine into the woods early on - the sense of aliveness one finds working outdoors that can't be found anywhere else.  "The romance of a hard day's work," Byl writes, "is like any romance, as dependent on who's doing the loving as it is on what is loved."

In Alaska, Christine has learned to love hard work and hard living.

"Autumn in Denali beguiles me every year, when the world on fire reinvents shade, palette, tone... Reddened willows, lichen's green glow... I am an existentialist at heart and I love fall in part for its contemplative underpinnings, the way it makes me notice the concrete world (everything's dying) and think about the abstract one (everything dies)."

Photo by Christine Byl
"When trees and brush go aflame right before leaves and blooms pale at winter, I also wonder: will I have even minutes as full of purpose as these plants do, when my hue is tinted by the tasks of my hands?"

That last bit of prose gives you a taste of the gritty, honest beauty of Byl's writing, and her world.  "Is it alive?" Egan asks of her writing.  "Am I alive?" I imagine Byl asks of herself.  What purpose brings me here, to this moment, to this place, to this life?  

NOTE:  If you're going to AWP in Seattle this winter, don't miss Christine's panels on Friday. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Ocean Tales & Mysteries of the Heart: Ozeki, Dybek and Jules Verne


I am thinking about oceans.  Fathoms deep. Wide as the sky.  Unknowable.  Watery gateways to the deepest mysteries.  I am thinking of pirates and fishermen and tsunamis and sixteen-year-old Japanese girls.  I am thinking of Captain Phillips and Captain Flint and of young Naoko Yasutani and her great grandmother Jiko, the hundred-year-old Buddhist nun.  

I am thinking of floods and earthquakes and the men of Loyalty Island, of moral choices and immoral acts, of diaries that float across oceans to faraway beaches, of the women who find them.  I am thinking of the men who draw their livelihoods from the nets of hard times, betraying their sons with each ocean journey that leaves empty seats at the kitchen table.  I am thinking of my own father and mother.

So powerful are the stories that harbor these images that I no longer care which of them is factual.  I only care that they are true.

When fiction mimics life, and life mimics fiction, and the lines between what is factual and what is make-believe blur, when we turn the last page of a good book and don’t ask ourselves,“Did this really happen?” but warn ourselves instead, “Close this book and you will forever lose your tenuous grasp on a  profound and untouchable truth.”  That’s when we understand that the truth dwells in many waters, and we know it not by what is factual, but by what is felt.

A few nights ago, we went to see Tom Hanks’ starring portrayal on the big screen of Captain Phillips.  According to an article in The New York Post, the movie is less fact than Hollywood fiction.   According to the real Captain Phillips and a USA Today article, it’s a pretty good reenactment of what happened when his cargo ship was accosted by a group of desperate pirates off the Somalia coast.  The truth lies somewhere in between.

 
I don’t want to know if the diary that Ruth Ozeki discovered in the flotsam that washed up on the shore of the small island off the coast of British Columbia where she lived, really belonged to a sixteen-year-old Japanese girl who died in the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011, or even if the diary actually existed.  The novel, A Tale for the Time Being (shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize,) lives inside of me now.  And that’s the honest truth.

For young Cal, whose father fished the Bering Sea in the Pacific Northwest for king crab, it was the stories of Robert Louis Stevenson that washed ashore on Loyalty Island each time his father returned from the sea—Treasure Island and the characters who lived inside the book, like Blind Pew and Black Dog.  “Years ago,” Cal’s father would begin to read to him, “When Captain Flint was still a good man…”  

It was no coincidence that novelist Nick Dybek chose the landscape of Loyalty Island as the place where his characters would be in dual with choices between betrayal and loyalty.  And no coincidence that Dybek received an Iowa Writers Workshop Maytag Fellowship, Michener-Copernicus Award, and a Granta New Voices Award, for he writes eloquently in his debut novel about the choices between good and evil that we all must make.


Usually, it is not the facts of a situation that guide us, but the things inside our hearts we know to be true.  “My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect,” wrote D.H. Lawrence.  “We can go wrong in our minds. But what our blood feels and believes and says, is always true. The intellect is only a bit and a bridle.”

My father once gave my son a copy of Jules Verne’s Classic Science Fiction.  I remember being irritated by the inappropriate gift. “Why, I wondered, “is my seventy-five-year-old father giving my nine-year-old son a 511-page book?” But when I read the inscription, To Matt, with love, from Grandpa Loren, suddenly the gift made sense.   

Only a few more years of gift-giving stretched before my father. If, in ten years, his grandson was ready to dive twenty thousand leagues beneath the sea, it would be a grandfather's words wishing him bon voyage. 


The gift had come from my father’s heart, a heart that—as it turned out—would go on beating for only six more years, not ten.  How had my father known?  The facts recorded on his medical charts during his annual doctor’s visits stated that his heart was strong.  And so it was, just not in the ways a stethoscope could measure. 

I am still thinking about oceans.  About visiting Japan when I was a teenage girl, like Naoko in Ruth Ozeki's brilliant novel, A Tale for the Time Being, about the last (and only) time that my family sailed across the Pacific Ocean, how my mother looked up at the Golden Gate Bridge as we sailed into San Francisco, how my father wrapped his arm around her.  What truth did she see?  Where would the mysteries of the heart lead her? Where would they lead our family?

NOTES:  Read essay "Confessions of a Zen Novelist" by Ruth Ozeki in Buddhadarma.  Read New York Times review of A Tale for the Time Being.  Read about When Captain Flint was Still a Good Man in Oprah's Fall Reading.