Do You Have a Writer’s Heart?

heartbrken writers

“A writer’s heart, a poet’s heart, an artist’s heart, a musician’s heart is always breaking. It is through that broken window that we see the world…”― Alice Walker

Author, Alice Walker changed the way I see my animals in life, especially my cats in her groundbreaking book, The Temple of My Familiar. That was back in 1989 when we were all enamored with polyester and pleather and she was weaving magic with words and pulling us into subjects that would change how we see the world. The Temple of My Familiar was an ambitious and multi-narrative novel containing the over-leaved stories of Arveyda, a musician in search of his past; Carlotta, his Latin American wife who lived in exile from hers; Suwelo, a black professor of American History who realizes that his generation of men had failed women; Fanny, his ex-wife about to meet her father for the first time; and Lissie, a vibrant creature with a thousand pasts. And, her quote lingers with me still.

norman rush

Mark Nepo, author of The Exquisite Risk writes about the same thing. About how the heart is the most critical part of writing. “Very quickly, when the heart is broken open, we are exhausted of our differences. We don’t try so hard to keep up needless boundaries and are forced to realize we are all the same, and this allows us to touch and be touched more directly. Things we thought that mattered don’t. I know once my heart is opened, I can find the courage to lean into the place where I am broken, to lean into that opening, letting life rush in and touch me there, even though that place is incredibly tender. I’ve discovered over time that the rush of life into the tender place where we are broken is the beginning of resilience.” It is also the beginning of an exceptional writer.

And it is just this relentless courage to write from our broken places that makes a writer stand out from the crowded writer’s circle. Those books, articles, poems and memoirs that stop you in your tracks and make you want to read one sentence, one page over and over again are not always about the writers talent to craft words. It is usually that they have taken a candle and allowed themselves to go deep into their own stories, feel their wounds, compile their learning and relive the pain. The very definition of courage for an artist.  They illuminate all of their own truth right there on the page for everyone to read. To write from these places assures the writer that they are listening to the most powerful muse: Themselves. This level of honesty and raw writing is a challenge for many writers. But without it, we skim over life on the page, we water down truth to something that mirrors our culture at a superficial level and do not allow for the mystery of our own lives and our broken hearts to lead the way for us as writers. When we can, each of us will feel the palpable difference in what words we craft, the depth of the stories we chose to tell and we find that once the plunge into the crack of our own hearts has occurred, we become the bravest writers possible.

sylvia plath

 

 

 

The End of Books?

books on the street

The End of Books
By ROBERT COOVER, NYTimes, 1992

“In the real world nowadays, that is to say, in the world of video transmissions, cellular phones, fax machines, computer networks, and in particular out in the humming digitalized precincts of avant-garde computer hackers, cyberpunks and hyperspace freaks, you will often hear it said that the print medium is a doomed and outdated technology, a mere curiosity of bygone days destined soon to be consigned forever to those dusty unattended museums we now call libraries. Indeed, the very proliferation of books and other print-based media, so prevalent in this forest-harvesting, paper-wasting age, is held to be a sign of its feverish moribundity, the last futile gasp of a once vital form before it finally passes away forever, dead as God.

Which would mean of course that the novel, too, as we know it, has come to its end. Not that those announcing its demise are grieving. For all its passing charm, the traditional novel, which took center stage at the same time that industrial mercantile democracies arose — and which Hegel called “the epic of the middle-class world” — is perceived by its would-be executioners as the virulent carrier of the patriarchal, colonial, canonical, proprietary, hierarchical and authoritarian values of a past that is no longer with us.” Published in the New York Times 1992

You might think that this article above was written recently but look again. The debate over books becoming obsolete began when my daughters were seven years old and the computer had just become a household option.

Now, 23 years after this article was written by Mr. Coover, much of what he says is true, but what is even truer is that the function of the book, the memoir, the novel and the poetry collection has been given new delivery systems and in small sound bites to fit our changing brains and lifestyles. As with the web series which is rapidly replacing the movie, texting that is replacing most of our oral tradition (like calling and having a long chat with your mother on Mother’s Day), E-Cards replacing that Hallmark cry your eyes card with a personal signature from your loved one, who may have taken the time to compose a poem or say something personal, now we let technology speak for us.
There is something very specific about a physical book and the story it contains. Books are like a treasure chest full of secrets as you move  from one page to another and even the font can be a thing of beauty. A book is something that is irreplaceable. There is a bit of magic in perusing Barnes and Nobel, even if most of the books are geared to romantically starved women and coming of age teens who cannot get enough vampire literature. The dimensionality of a physical book, the texture, the smell of the pages, the graphics, turning pages until the book slumps down on your chest before the night light is out, is brain food that technology cannot replace. Brain Food!

Much like writing with a pen or pencil verses typing on a computer, our brain needs proprioceptive input to fully function and to retain what we are reading or writing. Sensory data is necessary for our imaginative centers of the brain to light up. When we type on a computer there is minimal sensory data and we can simply zone out and skim life. As a result, our attention span withers and is not only shortened but so is retention and general interest: enter the need for the “soundbite. With texting, three-min videos, web series, and even Kindle, being fully engaged in writing or reading a book or story is reduced significantly.

Another perfect example is the sand box.  Or should I say the absence of the proverbial sand box.  It used to be that the sand box was a canvas for the imagination.  Tunnels and towns, wet-scaped mountains, Tonka Trucks and little plastic figures made stories unfold and engaged the body the mind and the spirit.  Building and creating was the mission of the sand box.  Now we have video games.  Enough said.

A story is interactive, and a book should be a relationship you are having for several hundred pages. When did you last have a 500 page barn burner and not even get out of your Jammies or comb your hair all day? Please don’t say Fifty Shades of Grey!

The advent of the television series in the 1950’s, whether it was a half hour sitcom or a one hour crime drama like Dragnet is how we have become accustomed to a story one a piece at a time. Most of the time we are cooking, eating or texting all the while the story is unfolding on the TV. What we miss, what we are not giving ourselves by sitting with a real book, a well written and imaginative story, is priceless. But more than that it is essential for health. No longer indulging in the pricelessness of reading a book, finding that perfect story at the bookstore, and savoring our own imagination is part of why there is so much illness in our country. We fail to take downtime, to focus our creative energy, the have sensory input by writing with a pen or by turning pages. We fail to really read with our whole being and allow our imagination to take us into…the depths of ourselves.

We have replaced this essential relationship between reader and author with a hurried technological life that in fact may be more efficient and more can in fact get done in a day but we have traded a kind of neuro-stimulation of our brains, our eye hand connection, our imagination and creative centers for….expediency.
That is a costly trade since our body depends on all the brain firing that goes on when we are fully engaged. Not only fully engaged with ourselves, our book, our writing project, our characters but with each other and not our phones or Xbox. It is time to rethink how in fact technology is dumbing us down and freezing our brain from our own limitless passion and imagination.

The Story Of My Life

“One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar.”

Helen Keller, The Story of My Life

This was a frequent phrase around my home growing up: “Holy Moly, story of my life”. If I got a collections letter in the mail, or I hear that a great guy has a secret wife, that my brand new shiny car needs a transmission or that in fact I really didn’t win the lottery after all…” story of my life”.   A handy phrase to describe something quite familiar. But what’s in a phrase?

We each have one story that repeats itself over and over again throughout our lifetime. It is like we got handed a script upon leaving heaven and incarnating that acts like a blueprint for our lives.  I promise you, one central ever-present and every changing “story of our lives”. The casts of characters change but they fundamentally play the same role in our lives, year after year. Every new love, new boss or new dog is just like a mother, brother, father, betrayer, helper, teacher and is the best of ourselves or the worst of ourselves. The place, the reasons, the motives, the fears, and the outcomes seem to remain similar as well.

So, if you were to just pluck out of the sky a scenario that you recognize as so familiar that it is a “repeat story” in your life, what would it be? Would the themes be endless hope, deep despair, betrayal, running away, lost love and fighting for what is right, or would it be, men leave, women love you but die, or maybe the all too often, am I good enough, can I prove myself, or that there is never enough money or time or money or love or money or food, nourishment or support?  Could you be in Groundhog Day like Bill Murray where over or over again you love the wrong person, you lose everything you have and need to start again, you never feel smart enough or have enough, or ultimately are loved enough? Does the white knight turn into the villain or are you the one who rescues and heals the world? We all have one story.  The trick is identifying what the story is.

If we take the time to identify this story, which repeats itself over and over again for our learning and growth, then we have abundant power to change the story, but not before we look it square in the eye and say “Yes” this is MY story. For most authors who are seized with a story line and write until the days are a blur and who forget to eat or take a shower, most likely the book or story being written is a mirror of the writer’s psyche.  The soul gets wind that there is a supreme opportunity to work out some kinks in life if only the writer would hop too it and let it rip, fantasy or no fantasy.

Most writers have to cop to the fact that writing is therapy. Writing is sanity. Expiation. Transformation and atonement. Most writers on a good and honest day will say that the story they think is pure fantasy is really from their own life, their own fear, their own desire to be a hero or heroine and to rewrite what went so wrong, so long ago. It is a powerful moment when you can write a fictitious character that is not you in reality, so that this character can do all the things that you only wish to have done or said or experienced in your life. Why else do we write?

And when we can fess up that our own story is driving the bus, we can not only heal our lives but we can write a story that touches the collective nerve. That is what makes a bestseller.

In the end….the story will write you.