Saturday, March 28, 2015

For the Love of a Letter

I am not a woman of letters, at least not in the formal sense of that phrase, but I am a woman who writes letters, and this past February I signed in with InCoWriMo (International Correspondence Writing Month) to have my own experience of what my husband found so enjoyable the year before.

I am a part of that generation where letter writing was the only means of distance correspondence. Yes, there were phones. I’m not that ancient. But if you had a father that limited the household to 5 minute long distance phone calls, you were and remained basically a letter writer. In truth, the most exciting time of my day at university was mail call, when you went to your mail box to see if anyone had written to you. And nothing felt so treasured at the letter or letters you carried to your dorm to read in delicious solitude.

In fact, Bert and I started our relationship via letter, preceded by
only two short conversations over a weekend when he spoke once in Vancouver. We wrote for 3 ½ years, filling seven journals, particularly exploring the Vietnam War due to its impact on both of us. They were marvelous, honest conversations, for when you are writing in a journal, there is no taking it back or hitting delete. That correspondence blossomed into friendship, then love and ultimately marriage. How’s that for the power of the pen.

In InCoWriMo, I am meeting many interesting people from all over the world. A soul-sister in Massachusetts, a young Israeli lad living on a Moshav, a Rabbi scholar from my birth city, Philadelphia, PA, and a Welshman with a great sense of humor, to mention a few. Yes there are days Bert and I both grimace when the mailman comes. Our stack of unanswered letters waxes and wanes, but when it gets depth to it, we each hope for a day without mail.

Nothing in this digital world, for me, can take the place of letter writing which came back graphically when one woman I write to, a gal of extensive writing talent which generates captivating letters, sprained her thumb and had to type her letters for a while. There was no interesting handwriting, no doodles while thinking, no lovely colors or the artistry of various fountain pen nibs, no afterthoughts running vertically in the margins, no sense of the moment that writer was in, their struggles, their passion, their frustrations. Just black type on white paper. Even if she had chosen to use colored, fancy fonts, it still wouldn't be her spilling out on the page, lining out words that got ahead of her thinking, caret-ing in words that got lost in a flurry of thoughts, adding art to the page in caricatures or pen and ink drawings. Nor is there any way to explain the sense of connection hand written letters engender that typing cannot even touch.

Recently, I found this marvelous book which I bought as a gift for Bert. In all honesty, the gift did have the flavor of buying your father a wagon for his birthday, but… The book is entitled Letters of Note compiled by Shaun Usher. Shared letters such as the ones found in it are like treasured secrets whispered in your ear. Elvis Presley to U.S. President Richard Nixon; Louise Armstrong to Lance Corporal Villec; Ray Bradbury to Brian Sibley; The Connell Family to the Ciulla Family; Kurt Vonnegut to Charles McCarthy. Three hundred and forty of them in all. Here are bits of three of them that gave me pause.

Francis Crick to Michael Crick, his twelve-year-old son at boarding school – March 19, 1953
The letter relates his jubilant news of his co-discovery of the “beautiful” structure of DNA, the most important scientific discovery of modern times accompanied by drawings he made to help his son visualize it. He ends this letter with:
Read this carefully so that you understand it. When you come home, we will show you the model.
Lots of love,

Flannery O’Connor to a Professor of English who wrote and asked her to explain her short story A Good Man is Hard to Find, for which his class was struggling to find an acceptable interpretation – March 28, 1961

O’Connor’s last two paragraphs conclude in this manner:
The meaning of a story should go on expanding for the reader the more he thinks about it, but meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation. If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction. Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it.

My tone is not meant to be obnoxious. I am in a state of shock.
Flannery O’Connor

Richard Feynman, world class physicist and Nobel Prize winner to his wife who is dead – October 17, 1946
The last paragraph and the P.S.:

…I’ll bet you are surprised that I don’t even have a girlfriend (except you, sweetheart) after two years. But you can’t help it, darling, nor can I—I don’t understand it, for I have met many girls and very nice ones and I don’t want to remain alone—but in two or three meetings they all seem ashes. You only are left to me. You are real.

My darling wife, I adore you.
I love my wife. My wife is dead.

P.S. Please excuse my not mailing this—but I don’t know your new address.


Have someone out there you love, you miss, you've left along the way and regret it? Go clean out that dried up old fountain pen, get some paper that can handle ink, and do yourself a great and loving favor. Write a letter.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

First Things First

It was 1994, I think. I was sitting in an audience laughing myself simple as author, Julia Cameron, shared both her life and how she’d come to write The Artist’s Way. The book was a blazing success, and she was most entertaining with the sense of humor only a recovered alcoholic has, having stripped themselves clean of the puffery most people employ to fill out the dents in their persona that denial and non-accountability whacked in there.

I worked through The Artist’s Way back  then as I was just starting to write and my life was in chaos, both of which the book addressed. The activity that Julia stressed in order to tap into our source of creativity and wisdom was what she called Morning Pages – 3 pages (8 ½ x 10) of longhand writing about anything or everything that crosses your mind done the first thing when you get up each morning.  As Julia says,

“They [Morning Pages] appear to have nothing to do with creativity, yet they are the bedrock on which my creative life is built. They are the terra firma of my book The Artist’s Way and the central, life-changing tool that guides and safeguards creative emergence.”

Trust me if you will, Ms. Cameron is not being overly effusive in that statement. The book she recently published is specifically on the topic and is entitled, The Miracle of the Morning Pages , which I heartily suggest you read if anything in this blog strikes a chord. You see this recent book was written 25 years after Ms. Cameron's original experience with Morning Pages, and the power of this practice is now time-tested. Whether you are in the arts or just living a life that has far too many issues unresolved, this simple, doable activity could change your life.

I started the Morning Pages all those years ago, but I didn't realize their power, and somewhere along the way stopped writing them. So this past February, after Bert found Julia’s new book mentioned above, Bert, friend Adrienne and I began this practice anew, and we were all amazed at the results and continue to be.

How do the Morning Pages accomplish what they do? I’m not sure I see it all, but of this I am clear. There is an elemental activity that goes on continuously in all human beings, call it an energy or force that is constantly active. I refer to it, thanks to Don Juan Matus, as our attention. We don't have a choice about whether it is active or not. Where our choice lies is in directing its focus. If we don’t take an active role in directing it, attention generally focuses along the lines of habit – paying heed to old stories, opinions, expectations—our usual habituated look at things. Or worse, it trundles through life like an early morning dog on the run, nosing into all kinds of garbage. 

If we take an active say in where we place our attention, many possibilities open up to us, not the least of which is being present. Another is awareness of our intuitive core, the home of creative instinct. That instinct can serve our artistic endeavors or direct us toward solving issues that are diminishing our lives. By the simple act of putting pen to paper and writing continuously for 3 - 8 ½ X 10 pages whatever comes up or whatever you indicate you want to understand, your attention resides in the present and accesses your creative inner core. Rumi, the Sufi mystic, referred to this aspect of ourselves as The Friend, and you will soon find out why.

Get yourself past the New Agey frame of reference that Julia comes from, if that bothers you, so you can find out for yourself what this amazing practice has to offer. Each day, Morning Pages become the first thing you do because that makes the pages easier to write. Your attention is still close by and hasn't yet gotten caught up in that infernal inner chatter or shot off to La-La Land. Get up, grab your coffee then sit back down and write.

ONE WARNING – The Morning Pages are absolutely private. Do not let anyone read then. It will inhibit you if you think someone might see what you are writing. If you have someone in your space that you fear might not honor your right to privacy, put the journal where it will be safe. You must feel you can write whatever comes to you. That is critical to the success of these pages. You can discuss ideas and insights as you wish, but don’t give anyone access to the journal itself.

I would suggest you read The Miracle of the Morning Pages before you start. Then buy yourself a journal that you like of the proper size and get started. If you hit a morning where nothing is coming, just keep writing something, repeating a question or soliciting the flow to begin, until it does.

For those of you who take me up on this, I would love to hear your comments about your experience. Friend Adrienne, who’s new to all of this, reports her results have astounded her. Help those still fence-sitting by sharing your experience of a week with Morning Pages. We’re all waiting…

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Accidents of Birth

Yesterday, someone reading my recently released novel, Accidents of Birth – A Novel in Two Parts asked me a question readers don’t often ask an author. “How did you write this book? You aren’t Black. You aren’t Southern. So how did you write it? All I could reply to her was, I’m not entirely sure myself. It felt almost like this was a story that wanted to be written, and it had to use whoever was available

How it came to be is a conundrum, but the outcome is a vivid tale told through a quirky, gritty, illiterate yet discerning Black housekeeper who talks to her cart horse, Polly, and God with equal aplomb. Born in 1928 in what remained of a freed-slave enclave called Small Town, Imogene Ware is confronted with a racially charged, politically divisive world. She becomes increasingly embroiled in the consequences of such an environment as she attempts to protect not only her own children, but also one of the children she looks after in the Sutton household.

What adds a twist to this story is what happens the night Miss Imogene’s mother is dying. Mama Curtis alluded at times to a tradition among her people that she felt was what kept them alive through centuries of suffering and injustice—a deathbed behest from mother to daughter. The selected daughter was asked to give her word that she would live loving the world. Miss Imogene was the one who took that vow, and the reader watches this choice frighten her, bewilder her and finally mature her as she fights for the lives of many she loves.

If ever there was a love story, this is it. If ever there was a character you wished lived next door to you or was your best friend, Miss Imogene is it. If ever you wanted an honest, peaceful way to live revealed to you, this book is it. See for yourself.