Writing Naked

It's the only job in town.


Channeling Virginia Woolf

I’m building myself a writer’s room. Currently I’m squashing all the contents of my head, a laptop, reading lamp, and a child’s artwork circa 2001 onto an old desk that’s barely 18 x 24 inches. It’s no wonder I’m struggling to produce.
Writing desk

Camping out in my dad’s house (we are in-between houses, as my husband decides what to do with his just-inherited childhood home), where my daughters toddled and watched Little Mermaid over and over, has brought back more than memories. The courage to redesign, I find, is borne out of the need for a big, wide workspace.

After repainting the loft bedroom’s sloped ceilings (they were wood-stained), it became the brightest spot in the house. It was the nursery. Reclaiming it as a place to think and string words together, it’s only fitting to still call it that.

White Eaves

The Nursery will have one long writing desk against this wall. I imagine bookshelves on there too. One east-facing window is all it takes to flood the place with light.
My wall

Even after we move (it’s imminent, that’s just how my life is) I plan to spend a few days out of the week here.

Where do you go to make stuff? May I have a peek?

The Most Intriguing Phrase of the Day

Brain in a jar.
Suspended in space without any context. So I should just write as I go? In the way artists doodle in spurts and spells wherever they go? A mental attachment, obedience to the call of the empty journal page, whether or not you are carrying the journal with you (and this has happened, on mad dashes out the door). Grab the fragments and set them down.
Process: Grab them for the texture they offer, that single, telling detail that caught your attention in the first place.
So as they day progresses I get all these disjointed thoughts and illuminations. The odd flicker of memory, disjointed: dancing in a loose circle like the only girl in the bar. But then they are interrupted by a task, an oh-I-forgot-I-need-to-do-this moment, or an impromptu look at Facebook that drags out until lunch. If I were to document this (in a string of events, thoughts, phrases, stolen dialogue), scatter them across the page and then drawing and colouring around them, maybe this is the shape the narrative must take.
Snippets tied together related by no other facet other than they all happened on the same day.
Brain in a jar, on the page, with words and pictures.

But how do you know?

From The Well Written Woman

Notebook Lust

Notebook lust.

Of several notebooks I have (in drawers, in my suitcase, in my large shopping tote) there is one that travels with me. Inside are train tickets, boarding passes, luggage tags, receipts, a piece of celluloid from a Miyazaki film, a dried oak leaf from North Carolina, another leaf of unknown species from a tree in Chicago. I’ve had this notebook since 2008.

There are other things caught in the pages, like this “erasure poem”.

What’s in your notebook?

Author Blog Challenge #10: Critique Groups

Have you participated in a critique group? If so, how did it work out for you? 

The process of critique is built into my writing classes. So yes, I’ve participated in a “critique group” and believe that feedback from other writers is essential to a writer’s growth. But first, a story. The question came up at breakfast time today, whether one has to be “mad” in order to create.

It’s said that the artist Vincent Van Gogh sold none of his paintings during his lifetime. Except for the encouragement and support he received from his long-suffering brother Theo, Vincent was frustrated a lot, and his paintings undervalued. He could not not paint though. During one point he painted sunflowers every day and nothing else, in the hopes of claiming the sunflower as “his”. It does sound a little bit crazy, doesn’t it?

A few months ago at a gallery I came face to face with Starry Night Over The Rhone and started to cry. Maybe Vincent found release when he took a few steps back from this canvas, after tossing a heap of hope and wonder (at gas light, a new-fangled thing of the day) into his “colors”. I stepped back, found a bench to sit on and cried, so moved for this man because so few listened or loved him well enough. (I hate when no one listens, or sees what you see. Talking to people should never feel like flapping your arms at them from inside a sound-proof room.)

It’s not the first time a Van Gogh made me cry. His self-portrait at the Art Institute in Chicago, and another of his works in the British Museum made me cry. So much longing and urgency in the brush strokes that each of them seemed to say, “please look at this and tell me you hear what it’s saying.”

Vincent van Gogh: Starry Night Over the Rhone ...

Vincent van Gogh: Starry Night Over the Rhone Arles, September 1888 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The creating of the art should be its own reward, but what happens when it’s not enough? My only feedback has been from the paying customer – sponsors, publishers, and editors who decide what’s “good”. The only trouble is the outside world judges on the basis of conformity and marketability. So what’s the end game? Conversation is just part of the end game.

We can’t all be brilliant and startling from the get-go, but that’s why critiques are so crucial to an artist’s growth. That’s why artist communities are so important. As artists, writers, sculptors, illustrators, any poet or creator – we have a responsibility to support one another. Critiques are most effective when they clear out the muck that surrounds and impedes our attempts to create. Attack the muck, not the one trying to get out of it. Try to find, underneath all the throat-clearing, what the writer wants to say. Recognize that the writer does have something to say.

I’ve had encouragement but I need stronger medicine now. This comes from other writers, especially those who have been evaluated and critiqued themselves, and gone on to wider audiences. Surviving that process – the more grueling the better, in my opinion – pushes out a clarity of voice and language manipulated with such dexterity that it startles. The end game is to salvage a bit of Van Gogh, and produce a spot of brilliance; to leave even one sensitive recipient sobbing on a bench in a gallery, saying again and again: I see, I hear, I understand.

Author Blog Challenge #5: Who Is Your Favorite Literary Character?

Until I was 14 years old, the Midwest was home. Then came displacement, when I went to live in a third world country for five years. Since then I’ve been wandering – literally and existentially. Mine is the trope of the lost child, hovering between worlds trying to find home.

The child Miranda in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest is one of my favorite literary characters. I share with her an upbringing so verging on the familiar that I weep inside (for pure joy) at the recognition.

When the play begins Miranda is about 15, exiled on an island and unaware of her identity. Inhabitants of the island include her father Prospero, a sorcerer and usurped royal, and a beast called Caliban. In Act I, Prospero asks Miranda if she remembers her childhood, but her memories are fragments so faint that she might as well have dreamed her castle home, the ladies-in-waiting. Then Miranda falls into an enchanted sleep so her father can consult with spirits, plot his revenge, and reclaim his kingdom.

For years Miranda’s entire existence floats between a kind of dreamworld and wakefuless. It’s an imposed reality built out of spells and her father’s stories (which in my view are interchangeable), but she is far from gullible. Miranda is strong, inquisitive, optimistic, and kind; and wins the heart of a handsome prince.

Emma Hamilton as Miranda

Emma Hamilton as Miranda (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shakespeare leaves the ending open, so let’s say Miranda left the island with Prospero, married her prince and lived her royal life. Having known no home but exile, spoken to no one but her father and his creature Caliban, how did Miranda handle the transition from paradise to her home-not-home Milan? Was she ever homesick, especially when she struggled with customs and a role she found strange? Did she stay put, or long to recreate her childhood of solitude and exile?

Miranda was Shakespeare’s dream child: pure and perfectly formed, independent of outside influence. In early interpretations of the play, Shakespeare is the magician, and Miranda is Art personified.

In the Latin, the name Miranda suggests wonder. It needs to be a constant state of being for anyone who writes. But Miranda’s story can also be one of wandering, and the obligations that come with the gift of being from somewhere else.

Scavenger (a cento*)

Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Spinner of litanies, list-maker:
I am a soul smuggler (je suis un passeur d’ames)
What poetry demands is worse
The strange hours we keep to see them:
An indecipherable cause
To blanch the fire and clot the cloud
It’s not only light that falls
Something terribly nimble-fingered
Catches on innocence and soon dismantles that.


*a poem made of lines or passages from the works of other poets. In other words, trying to write a poem with training wheels on.
Sources, by line: 1. Gerard Manley Hopkins, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame; 2. Alfred Yuson, Night Loves; 3. Marc Michiels; 4. Linda Gregg, A Mountain Facing A Mountain; 5. William Carlos Williams, January Morning; 6. Wallace Stevens, 13 Ways Of Looking At A Blackbird; 7. Kevin Goodan, To Crave What The Light Does Crave; 8. Pablo Neruda, Ode To A Beautiful Nude; 9. Jorie Graham, San Sepolcro; 10. Jack Gilbert, The History Of Men

Of Penguins, Dreamcatchers, and Dark Coffee

Seattle, 2007

Between 2004-2008 I escaped writing to study and practice photography. I traveled with my camera to Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore, and Hong Kong; and around the US, in Texas, Washington, California, and my home state of Illinois.

I spent the last few days revisiting photos from that time, my “travel photographer” phase. Now and again I’ll be posting some sentimental favorites here. Maybe you’ll find something you like, an image that might connect on a meaningful level with something you’re working on.

Here’s one of my images as it appeared in One Thousand Shipwrecked Penguins, an arresting collection of flash fiction by extraordinary writer Marcus Speh.

To my Twitter friend Marcus, the encouragement has been like a slow-release capsule of very effective medicine. I’m grateful for your patience.

gogyohka #2

The erhu player

Sits on the corner

In his sequined cap

Music like wind

Outside Starbucks


©Poetry by Scribblerbean. All rights reserved.

Gogyohka from a Hebrew psalm

Be the poet

Who sings of glory

Live what you write

From sunrise

To moonset

©Poetry by Scribblerbean. All rights reserved.

Hamlet’s Portable Notebook

This review, of William Powers’ book Hamlet’s Blackberry caught my eye – no, actually, the book title did. The writer, a journalist with a Harvard degree in literature and history, explores the past for tips on disconnecting and reclaiming privacy. Plato had to contend with technological breakthroughs in the ancient world, as one reviewer says, as did the people of Gutenberg’s day.

I never thought to use the word “technology” in the same sentence as “Plato”, but the thought of Hamlet tapping away on a Blackberry is just too delicious. There wouldn’t be much of a story if he had been overly connected with the outside world.

But I did remember a scene early in the play where Hamlet talks about writing something down in a tablet. So I looked it up, and I learned about the world’s first erasable device, Renaissance style.

How radical this must have been, the idea of text that was not permanent. How did the role of memory change, then? What about now? Do we have less reliance today on our memories because we can save files? And what does it mean that we can assign importance in degrees of being, with the trivial and forgettable forever gone whenever we hit delete?

The Notebook Thing

I just spent the last hour rummaging through the house for a notebook. Now mind you, I had just this afternoon received three new notebooks. Gorgeous things they were too – loot-bag freebies that my husband brought home from an industry event.

But just as I was to start another class and another term today, my fingers began to itch with the need to write. This particular class is a writing class and our first assignment was to find three essential tools:

a. a writer’s notebook to carry around everywhere
b. time to write
c. space to write (this is a physical as well as mental thing. Writers will know what I mean.)

My occasional writing space.

Being slightly obsessive about the order of things, I could not write another word (I held phrases flying around my head at bay: don’t you dare move, stay right where you are) until I had found just the right notebook. Like Goldilocks’ search for the right bed, it had to feel just right. Lay flat a certain way. The pages cool and smooth but not slippery; the lines not too narrow. The ones I had test-driven these past few days were not welcoming at all: the pages I tried were stiff and would not open to me.

Two of the ones my husband brought home were much too pretty to write in. One had a cover in cobalt blue, the texture like the aerodynamic parts of a scientifically engineered running shoe. Very cool. The other was a slender book with blank pages, bound up in black cloth. There was no way I could be myself writing in either, almost as if the act of writing would become an act of performance. So I put those away for another time and another purpose.

I was beginning to see that the right writer’s journal finds the writer; and not the other way around. I rummaged some more – I am a notebook-hoarder and was sure I had just the right one hidden somewhere.

And there it was, on its spine, crammed between my husband’s desk lamp and a long carton of Marlboro’s. It was a journal I received as a birthday present from my cousins, the dedication on the inside cover interspersed with hand-drawn hearts and wishes for “laughter”, “flavors”, “dance” and “travel.” It conferred a future of anticipation and discovery, and a guaranteed helping of quiet moments.

This one. This is The One. Covered in schoolbook-regulation plastic, it was nothing like the other lined journals. In this journal, some pages allowed for calendar entries; other pages were blank; and others had snapshots of Tokyo (a favorite city of mine and the gift-giving cousins). No order to it really. Just what I needed.

It seemed to know exactly how my writing process goes. Everything I jot down is writing fodder: a diary entry outlining plans for the week or month – like drinks with a friend or a long-awaited trip; a quotation I come across, a to-do list, scraps of conversation overheard when I sit in a café; phrases that hit me, fully formed, while I’m showering or running or about to fall asleep. This hodge-podge journal, part photo scrapbook part planner part notebook, is (at this moment in my writer’s journey) just the kind of receptacle I need for the most important thing a writer must do: just get the words down.

And then of course comes the craft part of a writer’s work: shaping, editing, and drafting and redrafting. But the first thing, after showing up in your writing space, is to just get the words down.

This is the most crucial part of one’s writing practice, because as all writers know, just getting started is the hardest thing to do.

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