I am not an expert on Prince. I do not own the purple disk of Purple Rain; I cannot sing every word of every B side. I have not analyzed the Purple One’s sexuality (except to rejoice that there was clearly enough of it for everyone) and have no insight into how or why he died. But last night at 4 a.m. in a club in Brooklyn, swaying to the final track in a five hour tribute set played by a D.J. who sang and cried and played air guitar the whole time, I was one of the grateful ones. Grateful for a man who stood in his truth and gave us permission to see our own.
I am not the first (not even in the top hundred) to observe that the power of Prince is that he showed us we could be and feel and want and do things that we didn’t know were possible, and that we could be bigger and more beautiful, more entirely ourselves, while doing it. It is a profound gift, but isn’t that what art is all about? The artist offers a vision of the world that comes from deep within, and the audience experiences themselves anew through that vision.
So what do Prince and my atypical clubbing have to do with writing? Nothing, really. But as a faculty member of the MFA in Creative Writing at Goddard College, my colleagues and I have been thinking about art, impact and transcendence, and so we have introduced a new slogan to try to capture who we are: Right for you. Write for the World. And in a moment when so many of us are re-experiencing the power of artistic connection in its sudden absence, it strikes me that it’s a lot like the way Prince chose to create.
Right for you. You decide why you come to Goddard, what you want to study, what you want to achieve, how you want to grow, and what you will walk away with. You know what you need (surely Prince said that), and Goddard is all about helping you get it. It’s more than creating your own study plan, picking your own books to read; it’s about letting the voice and stylistic choices of your project be your own. Goddard writers don’t graduate with a certain signature sound because we would rather play our own (thousands of) instruments. It worked for Prince, who said he refused his first record deal at age 15 because he could not produce himself. His highest trending quote on the Internet at the moment? A reminder that no one else can dictate who you are.
As writers, your uniqueness is also your power. Your experiences, your vision, your urgency, your empathy all combine to create a story that only you can bring to life. And that’s a very good thing when you consider that about one million books are published in the US alone every year. The story of you (which is, beneath all the layers, what even our most commercial or seemingly objective stories are) will attract others who didn’t know there was anyone else out there who shared their thoughts, imagination and experiences. Being true to yourself means resonating more precisely and deeply with your audience. Right for you translates into right for them.
Write for the World. We can spend years on our books, plays, movies, poetry collections. Whether a passionate essay on climate change or a young adult sci-fi thriller, we want to excite, entertain, motivate, and break as many hearts as possible. So writing for the world means finding your audience, and having the craft and skill to reach out and touch them in precisely the way you imagine, even if no one has ever done it that way, or some people aren’t into trench coats and underwear (though really, who wouldn’t be?).
Write for the World also suggests social consciousness: a responsibility to freedom, culture, equality, environment… Goddard’s mission is a radical one: one of human-centered, creative growth that comes out of, reflects, and responds to culture. Many students come to Goddard because of their interest in social justice and their personal politics, and for them, “write for the world’’ is a clarion call. “I am your conscious. I am love,” Prince sang. Shouldn’t the word be conscience, some might ask, defaulting to that moral assumption of right and wrong? But writing to protect and preserve and celebrate the world requires conscious awareness; as my son would say, “being woke.” Which is something else you can get at Goddard, but only if it’s right for you.
From April 3-9th, I will be leading a retreat on the Big Island called Pele’s Fire. (For those of you in Hawaii, and therefore on Hawaiian time, if you are interested in joining us for one day only, we have an Aloha Friday intensive that you can still register for here. As we planned this, one of our participants, Heather Leah Huddleston, asked us some questions, which I share with you now. I hope all you writers find some inspiration!
“…for me, the word ‘core’ feels like I am in partnership with my work…” ~ Elena Georgiou
Pele’s Fire was birthed from the very core—hearts, minds, passions, and desires—of three women: Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, Elena Georgiou and Bhanu Kapil. Joined by Black Belt Nia instructor Susan Tate, who will incorporate daily creative movement classes, including Nia, these mentors make Pele’s Fire the retreat to access, to transmute, to move and write from the core of the body, from the very core of our planet.
One may think: Why Hawaii? Why movement? Why writing? Here’s what the leaders of Pele’s Fire have to say about the importance of accessing your words (and your work) from the core of who you are….
HLH: What is at the core of the offering?
REIKO: The writers are at the core. We have designed the retreat to feed, nurture and inspire them in every possible way. Feeling stuck and need some exercises and brainstorming? Check. Want a small group to read your work, and a one-on-one conversation that dives into the problems, possibilities and strengths of your manuscript? We got you. Want to dance all day, or not at all? Your choice. Looking for a community to immerse yourself in, or intense quiet where you can write the day away? You can have that too. And more.
My point, though, is that everyone writes differently, learns differently; each one of us is coming from a different place, with different needs. So what we are offering is an open hand and a refuge. It’s an approach I learned from Hedgebrook, the retreat for women writers on Whidbey Island. They call it “radical hospitality.” And it is rooted in the belief that every writer’s voice is important, that we are the authors of change. At Pele’s Fire, our “core” is to nurture the writer, nurture the voice, nurture the change.
HLH: Why Hawaii?
REIKO: Hawaii is my home. I was born there and grew up with the rhythms in my blood. I think each of us is imprinted by the sounds and smells, the air, the land and seacape of the place where we were born—so perhaps I am biased—but, for me, there is an energy in Hawaii that offers great peace and inspiration. I wanted to help open a door—not to the touristy “pina coladas on the beach” Hawaii, but to the vital energy of a land that is literally regenerating itself, and to the aloha spirit that I feel our troubled world could use a whole lot more of.
“In the stillness of retreat, we can hear our part, our ability to change the melody, rather than trying to jump in and follow a prescribed lyric. What we write—or do not write—contributes to the symphony that is our culture, our humanity, our future.” ~ Rahna Reiko Rizzuto
HLH: Place definitely has spirit. The earth is always humming. When we connect to the body and the words, that hum is what moves us. What happens when we get stuck—either physically or in the work? Do you think moving one will automatically free the other?
BHANU: The word that comes to mind is from Lauren Berlant: “receptivity.” How can we receive that “hum” up through our legs, into the middle of us? Retreat settings are always, in my experience, about someone—the person who dreamed/built the retreat center, I suppose—having been very thoughtful about the site, and the energy of site. Kalani feels like this kind of place to me. There is something already there that we can connect to. What does it mean to connect with the energy of land that has a strong indigenous history? I know that I am very conscious of this in Himalayan spaces, and so want to make anything I am saying about the earth—a part of the earth I am not from—a way of honoring the invitation to be there at all. This is my precursor, you could say, to receiving the hum. What are the ethics of receiving or opening to earth energy, in a part of the earth—the planet—where we don’t have cultural connections? I live in the Western U.S., and so—walking in the Rockies and the foothills, the places where the surge of the High Plains meets the energy of the mountains—I know this, too. These are immigrant questions, perhaps. I know that part of Kalani’s mission is a deep honoring of native community and local economy, and so I feel that I am stepping into a space that is thoughtful about this. And then, having stepped over the boundary? Into Kalani? My dream is that a rigid way of being might be: interrupted. To see what happens when we begin to move. I know this from my home life—walking, yoga, pilgrimage—and trust that the same thing will happen when we are there, amplified by community, by the ones we are with and the integral “hum” of this incredibly powerful landscape. How might vibration and movement dissolve blocks to writing, but also—open: new corridors and pathways: through the strata: of our imaginations?!! What will it take to break through? Break through, that is, to our capacity to “grieve and dream.” Here I am quoting a former Goddard College student, Sayra Pinto, who I met when she was a student in the MFA program that Elena, Reiko and I teach in in another part of life. Sayra Pinto: “Our ancestors need us to grieve for them, but they need us to dream for them, too. One or the other is not enough. We need to grieve and dream at the same time.” This is what comes to mind when I think of the part of this question that is about freedom. To be free enough: to feel. To feel these things—the grieving and dreaming—in our very cells. Then to write from this cellular: place. This part of us—that reorganizes itself—and is oxygenated, you could say—by movement practices. To open. And thus to receive: the hum.
HLH: Why did you decide to incorporate movement into a writing retreat? How will getting into the body help to get into the body of work?
REIKO: Nia is a movement practice that supports many things: joy, health and balance among them. It is both completely free, inclusive and nonjudgmental, and also quite scientific. Susan Tate, our Nia guide, is the author of four books herself, and has a lot of experience with tapping one’s creative potential through Nia and movement. Dancing with her is joyful and liberating! She’s ideally suited to help us connect the body and mind, and she’ll be leading daily Nia and other offering according to whatever feels right for the writers and the day.
As for why, I think sometimes we writers get too lost in our heads. Carpal tunnel, hunched shoulders, a stiff neck—physical ailments are one type of consequence, but our writing itself can lose its power when we rely on intellect and our mind’s eye. Last year, in Ruth Ozeki’s meditation class at Goddard College, she reminded us how grounding into our bodies and connecting with sensation and emotion can help create surprising and resonant images on the page. Then there is the need for writers to locate trauma and truth in our bodies in order to connect to some of our more difficult stories with authenticity.
But there is the flip side too: not starting with the mind, but with the body. In Nia, there is a concept called “dancing through life.” It’s a way of experiencing everything as dance: laundry, eating, work, and writing. Giving the physical body its space to express, move and align often brings epiphanies into the body of work instinctively and with ease.
“Because this is a setting that is also about healing and movement in another way, I would hope that participants have an opportunity…to discharge or dislodge any blocks to writing, to the creative process or practice as it stands.” ~ Bhanu Kapil
HLH: What can one learn about the body from writing the word?
ELENA: Everything that we write begins from the body, and so I believe it is the body that teaches us to find the words—the image appears in the mind, the pen is taken up by the hand, the keyboard is pressed. All this bodily action to record what the eye has observed and the heart has felt is put to work by what and how we write. But when we talk about the body, we must also talk about the soul because it is the soul that has secreted the body, and we have to pay our respects to the soul for having a body at all. So to answer your question: What can one learn about the body from writing the word? One of the things we can learn is that movement—typing, spinning, writing, leaping—is prayer.
HLH: Music is at the core of Nia, can you speak to the music of writing—what moves it—and also what does the stillness or silence offer the practice?
REIKO: To me writing is voice, and our novels, memoir, poetry, essays are our song. Increasingly, I have been thinking about how important that is in our world: both that we join in and sing melody lines that others have started, so they know they are not alone, and also that we sing into the gaps, because there are so many gaps, so many stories that have been silenced and that need to be heard.
In the stillness of retreat, we can hear our part, our ability to change the melody, rather than trying to jump in and follow a prescribed lyric. What we write or do not write contributes to the symphony that is our culture, our humanity, our future.
On a practical level, the notion of writing as song helps me think in terms of emotion and intention when I am writing. What do I need to say? What needs to be preserved, shared, released? What is that irresistible melody running through my head? It’s beneficial to the process of writing too: bass lines, minor keys, canons, leitmotifs—these help me think about subtext, and structural metaphor, crises and momentum, all very practical tools in the transformation of life into art.
HLH: Can you speak to the volcano, the living core of the earth near the retreat center? It seems to be a place where the earth opens up, like a wound on the body. What happens when we get to the core of our work? And how can we access it?
ELENA: Writers carry their own volcanoes beneath their skin. We each have at least one. We know it’s there. We know it will erupt at some point. In fact, many pray for this eruption to happen frequently. I suppose I can speak to the volcano, but that is not the usual relationship—usually the volcano speaks to me. It often erupts while I’m driving, which is obviously dangerous—trying to drive with lava running over your thighs has proven hazardous on more than one occasion, so I’ve learned to pull over and whip out the paper and pen to put out the fire. Over the years, I’ve learned that the lava that erupts from my core is something to be revered. Not feared. Yes, we can call it a wound—so many have e.g. “we write from the wound” (Jeanette Winterson)—I’m not arguing against this; I’m just saying that, for me, the word “core” feels like I’m in partnership with my work, rather than being led by something called a “wound.” I’m not saying I want to be in charge; I’m just saying I’m a little less injured and a little more intact. When we get to the core of our work, we get to feel whole, even if that feeling is often fleeting. To access the core, we need to sit down and pick up a pen, a pencil, a computer…but sometimes to access our core, the thing to pick up is a book. And read.
HLH: Ultimately, what are you hoping participants take home with them from the retreat?
BHANU: Writing that has moved through a depth or charge process. That something in the work that was not moving, that was somehow dormant: has released a new energy into the text. I want, for each person who attends the retreat, a glimpse of that. But perhaps the glimpse is also a vision. Of what the work could really be. Because this is a setting that is also about healing and movement in another way, I would hope that participants have an opportunity—through the Nia offering (which I am very excited about as someone who is new to Nia this year, or the yoga, or walking itself)—to discharge or dislodge any blocks to writing, to the creative process or practice as it stands. Is it possible to take home the knowledge we have at the end of a pilgrimage? I remember feeling this at the end of a pilgrimage I made in the Himalayas last fall, a pilgrimage that was also about writing. I felt as if I had to command myself to remember! And, indeed, upon my return to the U.S., part of what happened was the work of sustaining and recollecting what felt so clear when I was: in that other place. So, I hope that participants leave with a different time in their bodies, the time of writing, and resources, you could say, for how to unfold that—other kind of time—when they get home. I hope the participants return with full self and an active sense of possibility and joy.
“What can one learn about the body from writing the word? One of the things we can learn is that movement—typing, spinning, writing, leaping—is prayer.” ~ Elena Georgiou
Guest blogger and Pele’s Fire participant, Heather Leah Huddleston believes in the power of stories, that they are all nestled deep inside each person just waiting to be unleashed. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College, and is also a certified yoga teacher and Nia white belt. When she’s not writing her own stories, or guiding others to theirs, you can find her staring intently, listening deeply to the rhythm of life, bending and stretching on a yoga mat, dancing through life barefooted, listening to music (mostly heavy metal), or cuddling a furry friend, all in the name of the wonder-filled world of story.
Back in February, I was interviewed by The MFA Project, a tumblr created by Rebecca Wallwork as “an experiment in creating one’s own MFA education via a dream team of teachers without the price tag of a degree. In other words, an MFA that is complete fiction.” Rebecca asked me four questions. Here is my first answer. For the rest, you know what to do!
What advice would you offer to writers and poets who aren’t part of an MFA program but are trying to grow and learn in their craft?
Read. Read what you love; read what you’ve never heard of; read with stickies on your side table, a notebook in your lap and questions in your mind. You can learn everything from books, and once you buy them, they are your teachers. No tuition necessary.
I do teach in an MFA program, and bear with me; I need to tell you about it to contextualize my advice. Goddard College created the first low-residency program; ours is the model all the others have copied, and it was conceived as a hybrid solution: writers could come to campus at the beginning of every semester for a week of residency, and then go back to their lives at home and write with the support of a mentor.
In a way, it’s the anti-MFA, but with a community and a teacher thrown in. The writer is working at home alone, on track to finish a full manuscript in two years, and while she is writing, she is also reading at least 45 books and using those books to learn to see how the author writes, the choices the author makes, and their effect on the reader. So when I am advising students – here’s some free MFA advice – I tell them to ask their questions to their reading lists: How do I speed up this dialogue, jump from scene to scene, end my chapters, order my chapters, develop my mystery, describe a room, show and tell at the same time, place my turning points and climaxes? Whatever your question, you can pick up a book and see how that author answered it. Maybe that person’s solution works for you, maybe not, but if you are a writer you will have shelves full of books and a well-used library card, so consult another one.
I love the Goddard program. That’s why I teach there. And if you are on the fence about an MFA and you have the resources, I highly recommend it (in fact I will get on the telephone with you to talk about it.) But I will tell you: I don’t have an MFA…
I’m a self-taught writer, and I learned exactly this way. When I was writing my first novel, I picked up books I loved and mapped them out. How many chapters? (Seriously.) What is the trajectory for this character, and what’s going down for the other one? I identified the turning points, looked for the places where I was surprised and traced the clues backward so I could see how the author placed them. And because I taught myself, those are lessons I will never forget.
What else did I say? Visit The MFA Project by clicking here.
HOME AS HEART, AND HEARTH: STORIES AND IDEAS was a discussion on what exactly makes a home—how it’s built, how it’s found, and how it’s sustained – which was created and nurtured by BETH KEPHART, this year’s Beltran Teaching Award winner. On March 1, 6 PM, at the Kelly Writers House, on the University of Pennsylvania campus, Beth led us (that would be, according to the official blurb, “beloved Young Adult novelist A.S. KING, New York Times contributing writer and Young Adult novelist MARGO RABB, and National Book Circle Critics Finalist RAHNA REIKO RIZZUTO”) in a conversation about home and writing. It was an amazing evening, which Beth extended in time and community by creating a commemorative volume of “home”-inspired work made by guests, Penn students, alumni and faculty, as well as a wonderful audio presentation of the work, which can be found here. It’s 100% worth your 15 minutes of time, and will leave you inspired and refreshed. I invite you to listen.
Ruth Ozeki is a critically-acclaimed filmmaker and novelist, and a Zen Buddhist priest. Her first two novels, the Kiriyama Prize winner My Year of Meats and American Book Award winner All Over Creation, have been translated into eleven languages and published in fourteen countries, and her documentary and dramatic independent films, including Halving the Bones, have been shown on PBS and at the Sundance Film Festival. I had been waiting for a decade for Ruth’s next book and was thrilled to be able to interview her about her just-released novel, A Tale for the Time Being. Here, Ruth talks about being a writer (and a thinker) in the world first, and how that writer and her preoccupations end up on the page.
In A Tale for the Time Being, you have created a fast-paced and deeply moving story that is also an impressive balancing act: the novel weaves together a Japanese school girl, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, the Japanese kamikazes of World War II, and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch…among other things. Novels about issues are hardly new for you; you took on the meat industry in My Year of Meats and genetically engineered produce in All Over Creation. Do you think of yourself as an activist? How do you thread your concern with environmental and political issues into your work?
Ruth Ozeki: I always start with the voice and the character, and the issues are secondary…no, tertiary…actually, I don’t think about the issues at all, and I’m always surprised when others do. When I wrote My Year of Meats, I remember going into my first marketing meeting and Viking team was really happy because there were so many issues in the book that would generate marketing angles, and I was like…huh? Issues? What issues? I didn’t get it.
To me, the so-called issues are just things that I’m interested in, or thinking about, when I’m writing, which then find their way into the books. I look at writing as a vehicle for working out questions or problems. Writing fiction is my way of thinking. It’s very concrete. What do I think about the meat industry? What do I think about commercially sponsored media? What do I think about genetically modified crops? How do I feel about the bully culture we live in, about suicide bombers, about the 2011 tsunami and meltdown at Fukushima?
The novel provides the excuse and the container for researching and investigating these questions, but this is going on in the background. In the foreground is the character, or characters. Usually I will “hear” them, first. A young girl, who announces herself, “Hi. My name is Nao, and I’m a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you.” And then I work from there.
Writing a novel is a way of acting out, on the page, a series of very concrete what if? propositions. What if a TV producer found herself in an ethically compromised position on a feedlot? What if a group of environmental activists decided to make a potato farmer in Idaho a poster child for their cause? What if a diary washed up on my shoreline?
So I’m not an activist. I am not trying to convince anyone to believe anything or to think in certain ways or, god forbid, to teach anyone anything. What do I know? I’m just sharing the way I think about things.
It’s been close to a decade since your last novel was published. Tell me about the vision and re-envisioning process that went into this book.
Ruth Ozeki: I can date Nao’s voice back to the fall of 2006. That’s when I first heard her, and that’s when I wrote down those first lines. But I can also trace a lot of what wound up in the book to earlier times. I’d been haunted by the diaries of the Japanese kamikaze pilots ever since I first started reading them in 2001. And, too, my interest in human-computer interface design started back in 2005, when I was the Katzenstein Artist-in-Residence at MIT.
This novel emerged very slowly. I knew from the first that one of the protagonists was a young girl, Nao, who is writing a diary. I knew that Nao was speaking across time and that she needed a reader. My first impulse was to put myself in the novel, but then I rejected this idea because it felt too self-conscious, metafictional and annoyingly PoMo, so I set about auditioning other readers for Nao. I went through four or five Readers, each one worse than the next. Some were female, most were male, one was some kind of amorphous, ageless, unformed smear of a character, neither male nor female, who lived in a library.
By end of 2010, I finished a draft I was reasonably happy with, or if not happy, at least I felt I’d gone as far as I could go by myself. I submitted it to my agent and we were getting ready to submit it to my editor when, in March of 2011, the earthquake hit Japan, followed by the tsunami and the meltdown at Fukushima. Day after day I watched this disaster unfold. It was absolutely terrifying and heartbreaking. Over night, everything had changed. Japan had changed. The world was no longer the same, and a byproduct of this seismic upheaval was that the novel I’d written was now utterly irrelevant. So I withdrew it.
That May, I went back to work. The novel is told as a kind of dialogue, with two interleaved voices, Nao and the Reader. I realized that Nao’s voice was still fine. The problem was the Reader I’d written. So I unzipped the manuscript, threw away that Reader and stepped into the role myself, as the character of Ruth. What had felt gratuitous and self-conscious five years earlier, now felt necessary. Stepping into the role myself and responding to it seemed to be the only way of acknowledging the magnitude of the disaster, and once I did this, the writing came very very quickly. I started in May and finished in November.
In the novel, the character of Ruth has writer’s block. She is struggling and failing to write a memoir. She is worried about her mind, that she might be losing it. Is any of this true to life?
Ruth Ozeki: Yes, this part of the book is quite true to life. I’d been trying to write this novel for many years and failing, for all the reasons I’ve already mentioned. At the same time, I thought it might be interesting to write a memoir about taking care of my mother, and about the ways that caretaking had encouraged my spiritual practice and my decision to ordain as a Zen priest.
My mother had Alzheimer’s. For over a decade, I’d been watching the slow deterioration of her mind. I became very conscious of the way the disease works and worried that something similar was happening to me. I was having a terrible time focusing, and there were times when I was afraid I was losing my mind.
You know what it feels like when your arm falls asleep and you try to make a fist but you can’t? That’s how my mind often felt: like a hand that can’t grip. My journals from that time are filled with adjectives like foggy, scattered, distracted, vague, fuzzy, fractured, fragmented. I thought about getting genetic testing, but if I had Alzheimer’s, did I really want to know? Maybe it was menopause, or ADD, or just garden-variety grief and depression.
The loss of mental focus was affecting my writing. I’d write a couple hundred pages and become overwhelmed. I thought I’d lost the capacity to hold complex fictional worlds in my mind. I was pretty sure I’d never finish another novel.
But then, luckily, I went on a writing retreat, where I had limited access to the Internet, and I realized that there was nothing wrong with my mind that three weeks offline and long unscheduled days of writing wouldn’t fix. This was in 2009. I was able to go back to the novel, penetrate the material, and find my way through.
You and I met throughHedgebrook(a writing retreat for women off the coast of Seattle and the hub of a growing community of “visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come.”). Tell me about what retreat – and community – mean to you as a writer.
Ruth Ozeki: Yes, Hedgebrook was my salvation! I’m pretty sure I would not have finished A Tale for the Time Being had it not been for the serendipitous retreat at Hedgebrook. I’ve never been anyplace where I’ve felt so utterly supported as a writer, and this was part of what helped me find my way back to writing novels. So I think Hedgebrook is a miracle, and the community of writers I’ve found there has been miraculous, too. It’s like in bike racing, when you’re cycling in a pack with other riders. When I’m at Hedgebrook, I feel like I’m drafting the energy and momentum of the other writers. Of course, the writing work itself has to be done alone, but the company of other writers reduces the resistance and pulls you along.
I often teach master classes there, but I also had the great fortune to be invited to attend one given by Karen Joy Fowler. She is an astonishing writer and teacher, and if you ever get a chance to take a class with her, you should. This was in May of 2011, after the earthquake and tsunami, after I’d unzipped my manuscript and thrown half of it away. Karen helped me find the courage I needed to begin again. I will always be grateful to her for that.
You are ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest and Buddhist philosophy plays a big role in A Tale for the Time Being. How has becoming a priest influenced your writing? How are your roles as writer and priest related?
Ruth Ozeki: This question is complicated and also very simple. The simple answer is that the two, writer and priest, are the same. I am just one person, just one time being, so how could there be a difference?
My interest in Buddhist philosophy is overtly apparent in A Tale for the Time Being, but I can see the beginning of this inquiry in my first two novels, My Year of Meats and All Over Creation, which are very concerned with the interconnected nature of our lives in the world.
Zen practice has changed the way I write and has helped me continue writing. Part of my struggle was that I’d reached a point as a novelist where I could no longer trust my voice in the world. I felt like my writer’s voice had become wobbly, unreliable and untrustworthy. I suppose it was a crisis of faith. Zen practice provided a philosophical and ethical ground, a trustworthy foundation, for my writing practice. Or to put it another way, it helped me grow a backbone.
So I would say that my Zen practice and my writing practice are the same, but of course, in practical terms, the roles of writer and priest are very different. For one thing, I do not wear Zen robes when I write. I wear a black turtleneck sweater and a pair of overalls. And I sit at a desk in front of a computer, rather than on a cushion in front of a blank wall. And when thoughts arise, I write them down rather than letting them go.
A Tale for the Time Being will be released on March 12th. Ruth will be reading in New York at the NYU Bookstore on March 12th at 6:00 pm and again on April 1 at 7:00 pm at Book Court in Brooklyn. In between she will be reading in sixteen cities, maybe in a bookstore near you! To find her, stop by her website, ozekiland.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the U.S. response, kicked off a chain of events – including the internment and the atomic bombings – that still reverberate today.
What do we know? President Roosevelt called Pearl Harbor an “unprovoked and dastardly attack” by a nation we were at peace with. Months after declaring war, Roosevelt deemed it “militarily necessary” to give the Secretary of War the power to control large segments of the country, and strip people of their citizenship, liberty and property (via Executive Order 9066), which resulted in the imprisonment of 120,000 American citizens and their Japanese immigrant parents. Three and a half years later, President Truman dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, calling the bomb “marvelous,” and “the greatest achievement of organized science in history.” He threatened the complete and rapid obliteration of Japan and promised “a new era” of atomic energy.
What if it was also common knowledge that before Pearl Harbor the US had imposed economic sanctions on Japan, frozen Japanese assets, and broken the Japanese diplomatic code? That two weeks before the attack, the Secretary of War (him again) wrote in his diary of efforts “to maneuver the Japanese into firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves”? Would we still believe that acts of war have no provocation?
History, as we have famously been reminded, is written by the victors, and alternate narratives are too often dismissed as conspiracy theories or beside-the-facts. My point in this history lesson is that we do know much more than the safe, comfortable sound bites that we choose to hang onto. We have actual images, diaries, records, declassified documents that prove that reality is more complicated that we allow it to be.
How does a writer “break the silence” when the facts are readily available, just ignored?
For me, this infamous anniversary is a reminder of how we choose not to hear, not to see, not to know, and most of all, not to learn from our mistakes. It is not a lack of information that hampers us, but a plethora that paralyzes us. As a result, we tend to come up with simplistic responses, and, at the same time, throw up our hands in despair at the complexity of the situation. We block each other out, refuse to listen; we let ourselves be led away from common ground. Silence, rhetoric, despair – all different ways to come up with the same response: nothing.
To police brutality. Gun violence. Racism. Environmental degradation and climate change. Redlining, redistricting, resegregating, restricting the vote. Limiting access to women’s reproductive healthcare. Closing our borders to refugees. The list goes on and on.
What do we do, as writers?
I don’t know. Do you?
At the Goddard MFAW residency in January, Douglas A. Martin and I are going to be initiating a discussion on resistance. We’ll see where it goes: What do we resist? How can we resist? How do we as writers take the information we have and shape an understanding? How do we change the narrative once and for all?
In the comments below, I invite you to share a “silence” that we know. Maybe if we each focus on just one, we can begin to understand the narratives that are spun to confuse and obfuscate; the falsehoods and tangents that encourage complacence. We can find ways to “interfere” rather than become “accomplices”:
“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.” (Elie Wiesel)
I’ve been thinking a lot about being a writer in this world. Not about the need to raise our diverse voices, or to break down the barriers that keep too many of us silent; not about the role of writers to expand our collective understanding of what it means to be human. I’ve been thinking about the opposite: about how our current culture is strangling art, and how we are letting it.
You’ve been reading, surely, about authors’ declining income, about our paltry sales figures (even for prize winners). You’ve quite likely read suggestions on the Internet for “making a living” as a writer. But when money “makes” our very lives; when money is the measure of our worth, we are living in Opposite Land. And in Opposite Land, where art equals product, equals sales, equals giving some ill-defined readership what “they” are presumed to want, it can sometimes feel impossible to begin to get words onto a page.
How do we write in this climate of efficiency, productivity and bestseller lists? One way is to embrace opposition, and contradiction, in our writing spaces. If you are looking for a new approach, or some inspiration to energize your writing in a corporate world, here are a few suggestions:
Don’t write: At least, don’t start with the blank page on your computer screen. You’ll find yourself counting pages, or words, and disparaging the quality of your delicate first draft. Instead, grab a journal, and start writing by hand. Try out voices, descriptions; rough out a scene. Cross out, draw arrows, and keep going; messiness can be very freeing. Jot down notes and ideas for later. Record your questions without stopping for the answers. If you brainstorm your way into a dead end, let it be. Your brain is pondering the problem in the background; the answer might sneak up on you in time! You are building pressure in that journal, and when it is bursting with ideas, your blank computer screen will be irresistible. Don’t forget: your journal is waiting for you whenever you want to come back to play.
Don’t edit: Once you are writing, let it flow. If one path peters out, jump to something that feels urgent. Be prepared to be surprised, and to follow those surprises, but try to resist the urge to go back to fix what you have. If the writing is going well, it will keep shifting and changing. You won’t know what each element of the story is supposed to do until you get to the end of the first draft. Revising, and especially polishing, parts of your manuscript too early can be detrimental because you run the risk of making something read so well that it’s hard to see that you are supposed to cut it, or move it, or reassign it to a different character. If that urge to revise is coming from the need to have a product and pages to show for your time: resist!
Don’t isolate yourself: You know the atmosphere you write best in; maybe it’s a wild, quiet garden, or a room with no windows, or a crowded café. But regardless of what you need to do to empty yourself out onto the page, don’t forget to fill yourself back up. Populate your life with books, movies, music, other people; get outside. Exercise your ability to recognize patterns and see how your concerns echo other people’s stories, and the world around you. Plugging yourself into your community will give you energy, and remind you that your writing is meaningful to others.
Don’t focus on success: Which is, of course, what I have been saying all along. With each book I have written (and I am playing with my fourth), I have had to teach myself how to write all over again. The judgment and expectation that come from having or wanting success are the best ingredients for writer’s block. Creativity requires a beginner’s mind, and a willingness to fail, combined with the courage – stubbornness even – to keep learning and playing and trying something new. In our product-driven world, writing, and living, are both processes. Trust the process, and the product will come.
Want more? I am excited to announce a new week-long writing retreat called Pele’s Fire: Write to the Core on the Big Island of Hawaii next April. Pele’s Fire is a perfect place to embrace your contradiction, get your creativity flowing, find community, and get some targeted feedback on your manuscript. There will also be plenty of opportunities for movement, including yoga and a special series of integrated Nia classes, and a trip to the nearby (currently active) volcano. Take a look at pelesfire.com, but hurry! Admission is rolling, and closes December 31st, or when full.
We’ve all been there: stuck. The pages seem flat; we don’t know what comes next. And what’s worse, writing is a lonely business, so there’s no team, or department, not even any customers to get ideas from. Before a lack of inspiration becomes full-blown writers block, and even after it does, how can we get out of our own way and back to writing? Here are three tips that work for me:
Try on a new voice: If you are a writer, you have books on your shelves. Probably a full library’s worth, but definitely at least a few that you love. These will be books that have transported you to new worlds again and again. Authors you trust. Pick up your favorite. Ask yourself, “If fill-in-the-blank-author was writing my book, how would she go about it?” And then – on a blank sheet of paper, with your favorite pen – try rewriting your story, chapter, poem, opening scene, in the same way as the book that you have in your hands does.
Don’t worry. I’m not telling you to steal someone else’s ideas, nor am I saying your voice and ideas aren’t good enough. But in mimicking someone else’s opening incident, or point of view, or attention to description, or pacing, you will see your own choices and habits more clearly. And something new might – no, it will – occur to you. Even if you don’t “use” those pages (and you probably won’t), a new point of view will give you a glimpse of something in your story that you hadn’t noticed before, much like walking into a different room in your house will.
Try on a new move: And speaking of walking, when you are stuck in your head, don’t forget you have a body. Take a walk, do some yoga, dance…whatever your favorite activity is, take the time to quiet that editing, worrying voice in your head, relax, and let your subconscious rise to the surface. Although it seems counterintuitive, our best ideas and realizations often come when we are not busy thinking.
More than that, using your body can remind you that all of your characters, and your readers, have five senses. Giving yourself a chance to focus on sensation can help more than just your descriptions. You might tap into your characters’ motivations, and get some insight into where their dangerous impulses or unexpected kindnesses come from.
Try on a new space: If the dishes in the kitchen sink are beckoning you out of your office, or the couple at the next table is disrupting the vibe in the café, try a new space. This could be as simple as an hour of writing in the park under a tree. Being in nature can remind you of the many layers of experience (those senses again) you have to call on. Blocking out time to go on retreat is another way to call your muse.
I am a latecomer to writing retreats. My first one, several years ago, was at Hedgebrook, an amazing space for women writers on Whidbey Island in Washington. What I have found is that a good retreat will give you quiet space to write and community; inspiration and new vantage points from which to enter your work. Permission is key: making the choice to set aside time and a place to write (especially if you take several days and have to travel to do so) can shift the energy around your project and help you enter it. This is how it works for me: when I am on retreat and unplugged from my usual world, I find that I can do so much more because I have nothing else to do, which liberates me to try anything. To play. And the friendships that began at writing retreats have often followed me home.
It’s 94 degrees in Brooklyn, and I am writing in a pair of blue cashmere fingerless gloves. They are a gift from a dear friend – crafted from recycled goodness, and sent from Canada. They are also a shared talisman that connects me to my tribe: a group of women who inspire me, recognize me, support me, and challenge me. Women writers.
We found each other in retreat. At Hedgebrook, an oasis for women writers on Whidbey Island, famous for its radical hospitality. Hedgebrook is the only retreat I have ever been to, though, as I write this, I am poised to announce a new, week-long retreat in Hawaii that will combine three of the ingredients that Hedgebrook uses to create magic: place, space and community. It’s hard to imagine that, once, I was a writer who thought, because I have my own office at home and time to write, a retreat wouldn’t offer me anything I didn’t already have.
So how wrong was I?
Place first. A retreat is surely always beautiful. A setting that makes you want to breathe in deep, go for walks, listen to the birds (or frogs, owls, or the rain on the leaves). A place that awakens your senses, that reminds you to be in your body and use it when you write. Where you find a new rhythm that allows you to feel your too-familiar ones, which is to say to see yourself and your work with new eyes. A great retreat will also encourage you to stay inside and get lost in the other realm you created. To be in both worlds at the same time.
Let’s talk about that getting lost, because that is key too: more than no cell phones; an abundance of delicious food you didn’t have to prepare; no one asking you where the scissors are or if we are out of toilet paper (and jeez, it was just a simple question!). Quiet time at a retreat means that there is nothing else to do for quite a while. You’ve given yourself the gift of time, you’ve likely traveled far, and what I have found for myself is: the space that opens up for me changes my relationship to my work. Whereas at home I am much more likely to be thinking about product – how much have I accomplished? Can I fix this? Is it finished? And if it isn’t, can’t I wash the dishes instead? – when I am in retreat, I am able to look beneath the surface of the work and break it open, because, why not? I have the time. I can always go back to my earlier draft. The quiet writing time of a retreat, for me, has been a time when I can play, explore, take a risk, step off the path. And I have been able to tap into the heart of something, unseen, shifting, necessary. Something that, honestly, when I was home, even in the quiet of my own lovely writing room, I didn’t know was there.
The final piece, which Goddard MFA faculty member and colleague Nicky Morris pointed to in a recent blog post, is community. Other writers. It’s a little counterintuitive that one would be going off into the woods to have conversations, but other writers – peers, mentors, students – are the source of the true gifts of retreat: inspiration and encouragement that continue long after you leave. They are the ones who – on that day when you decided to take a risk and rewrite your manuscript in the first person plural – serendipitously have the perfect story, “We,” and four other book recommendations that find their way magically into your email inbox. Or, on a long walk with a new friend, you might confide your current struggle – that you are writing your third book, say, and yet with every one it seems like you have to teach yourself to write all over again – and you find out that she has exactly the same experience, and she’s on book number eight. If your retreat also includes workshops, the support you get from your community will be more directly focused on your creations, rather than the writing life: a prompt to try, a comment about an aspect of your work that is really haunting, or a suggestion for finding a way to rethink something that isn’t working. Maybe you will be the student who finds a flash of inspiration from the first writing prompt and ignores everything else in the workshop because you are lost in your own world, writing. Maybe you will be the one who reads a brand new piece at the final evening open mike and brings everyone to tears. Maybe you will leave with a journal full of new ideas, beginnings, and go-to exercises for when you are home and stuck.
I know you will leave with life-long friends. I have, every time. From my last retreat, which began with Vortext, I gained a new sisterhood, as well as great enthusiasm for the writers who attended, some of whom (and I know this because I worked with them, heard them read, ate with them) you will be reading someday. I also left with a pair of red fingerless gloves (my winter pair!) handknit by one of the writers who attended. I have other gifts and talismans too – from homemade jelly to a carved ivory mermaid, crystal balls, a book, a four leaf clover, a pencil so elegant I am afraid to write with it, plastic earrings that (I kid you not) say “Compost Queen,” a ginger lollipop (no, I ate that); the list, as already crazy-long as it is, goes on. These gifts are evidence of the magic that happens in retreat, and reminders that we are in this together; they are my motivation to help create another space for writers in the world. Even now that I am home again, I know I am not alone. They – you – are out there too