Letting Images Do the Talking

In Ron Carlson Writes a Story, the novelist and short fiction writer talks about how he looks into his writing to be sure the images are doing the work and the writer is not overriding that work with summarizing phrases:

Outer story, the physical world, is also its own effect, its own reaction, its own comment. Outer story shows us things, and as the outer story grows and gathers, we can begin to see the constellations of our meanings. There is no need to comment on each facet of a scene. The sunset went from yellow to purple in a moment, and Jonathan took a step back, stunned. (Cut stunned.) The sunset went from yellow to purple in a moment, and I thought it was fabulous. (You know what to cut.) I’ve heard people talk about this by quoting Sergeant Friday:  “Just the facts, ma’am.” This is apt, but there’s more for the writer: this frees us from having to interpret. Our mission is to write the physical scene as closely as we can, knowing that our intentions lie just beyond our knowing. Write, don’t think.

In writing memoir, letting images do the talking is just as important as in writing fiction.  You must recreate how you experienced the places, people and situations of your life experiences through the senses. Where you were and what was happening to you originally came in through your ears, nose, tongue, skin, and eyes. That is what the reader needs, too, to experience your world and draw the conclusions you did.

An exercise I give myself is to look into my drafts for sentences where I’ve summarized. Then I write more to see what happens if I open the sentences up to the senses. Instead of saying, “I was always stiff at Grandmother Sarah’s house,” I would work to provide sense information from the outer world:

I always sat in the red overstuffed mohair sofa, my feet never reaching the floor, my attention on the white lace of my fancy Sunday anklets above the patent leather of my Mary Janes. The pudgy fingers of my left hand crumpled and uncrumpled the lace that covered the sofa arm I sat up against. I always noticed the dirt under my fingernails, black as my shoes, against the white of Grandmother’s lace.

As writers, we must learn to rely on the outer world for the images a situation provides, rather than relying on thoughts and summaries. Sure, those will come into our writing, at times, but using them sparingly, as Ron Carlson says, makes them all the more powerful. Remember a place where you were extremely uncomfortable. Take the time to write a paragraph naming what came in through your senses in that place. When you read what you wrote, you should feel that discomfort rising up from the specifics you’ve included. Then your reader will, too.

I Need Practice

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We get better at what we practice.

I’m not a golfer, but I’m pretty sure you have to practice in order to improve your swing.  You have to do so repeatedly in order to develop muscle memory.

In the same way, I have to practice looking, seeing.  I have to practice writing.  I have to practice noticing the connection between what I observe externally and what is going on inside me.

I tend to pick up the same worries I have recently resolved to release and then place them firmly back on my shoulders.   If that is what I practice, I get better at that; I get better at ignoring the things that calm me, wondrous things.  Over and over and over, every day.

What kind of worries can be displaced by wonder?  What worries do I have?

The same ones you have. The same ones as everyone else.

Why practice wonder instead of worry?

Because it’s possible to walk past the following elephant tree and NOT see a dancing woman.

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Because it’s easier to drive past a Harris hawk and not stop to admire her fierceness.

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Because it’s easier to be upset by a mockingbird waking us at 1 a.m. and singing through the rest of the night than to feel blessed by his visit.

Because it’s possible to see the red shoe someone dangled on the spiny branches of a palo verde tree along a sand road and mentally censure it as litter rather than laugh aloud at its ludicrous placement.

palo verde pump

Because it’s easier to stay in bed than to watch the sunrise.

What does letting go of worries have to do with wonder?  For me, everything.

And I need the practice.

Writing Practice:

What do you practice? 

How do you let go of worry?

For quite a few years, Chris Bradley taught English and creative writing to high school students in the Texas hill country. She now has time to travel, garden, ride horses, and mountain bike, but she still misses those discussions with students and continues to be thankful for all the lessons which they taught her.  Chris blogs at www.practicingwonder.com
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Photos by Chris Bradley.

Poetry Lingers

Poetry. Part of my life for as long as I can remember. I see the little girl standing on a kitchen chair drying silver while her big sister does the plates and glasses. Mother, her hands deep in the soapy water squints through her glasses at the book propped behind the soap tray.

At the door on summer evenings

Sat the little Hiawatha;

Heard the whispering of the pine-trees,

Heard the lapping of the waters,

Sounds of music, words of wonder;

“Minne-wawa!” said the Pine-trees,

“Mudway-aushka!” said the water.

We chanted the Longfellow poem until the last pot and pan was safely stowed. I still can chant it, sometimes to the distress of my family. (I know lots more lines than I’ve put here.)

Learning poetry meant learning it by heart in my youth. At school William Ernest Henley’s Invictus—

Out of the night that covers me,

      Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

      For my unconquerable soul.

While at home, besides the stints with the dishes, I learned from my writer-Dad. He set Portia (Merchant of Venus) as a role model for me—a woman with a career! Thanks, Dad! For one summer, almost daily when I made my dinner-time entrance, I’d smack my forehead—“The quality of mercy is not strained, it falleth as the gentle rain. . .” Distressing family with recitation seems to be in my system.

            I gave up the memorizing game, but I’ve never stopped reading poetry; indeed, I’m now reading more than ever. Occasionally, I write some, but we’ll save that endeavor for another day. I’ve always loved women poets, so many of them speak right to my heart. Just now I’m reading Luminous Other by Robin Davidson (watch for a Story Circle Review one of these days.) who, as so many of the women poets do, can take my breathe away. How did she know?

            Women poets spill out of my overfilled books shelves—Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Anne Sexton, Kay Ryan, Muriel Rukeyser, Grace Paley, Marianne Moore, Rita Dove, and the current United States Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey. Of course, there are many, many more but one has always a few favorites. Right at the top of my heap is Maxine Kumin, since the day sometimes in the 1980s that I first read her. She gi

Maxine Kumin

I love this picture of Maxine Kumin reading away. It appeared in a New Yorker interview in 2012. You can read the interview at http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/03/poetry-questions-maxine-kumin.html

ves a wonderful mix of prose and poetry. Her poems focus on family; horses, she named one of her poetry books after Jack; dogs, children and life. She is real and a realist, but never bitter or heavy. Her prose is straightforward. I learned much about poetry, both reading and writing from these essays.

Kumin 2

My Sunday afternoon.

            Last Sunday, her name appeared in a headline in the New York Times. To my dismay, it was an obituary.  After a long and mostly satisfying life and almost equally long marriage (66 years) Maxine Kumin died. I cannot mourn the end of this long life; rather I rejoice that it touched mine and that will not end. (You can read the obituary here http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/08/books/maxine-kumin-pulitzer-winning-poet-dies-at-88.html?_r=0 )

One approach to poetry Maxine Kumin shared with my folks. Memorize. She did herself and when teaching poetry writing, she had her students learn 55 lines a week. That’s a lot. I’m thinking that to honor both Kumin and my parents I can begin (or try to begin) to memorize a few lines a week. But where to begin? More Hiawatha? Then what do I find but an app for my phone.

            This week I’m learning, appropriately, Eternity by William Blake.

He who binds to himself a joy

Does the winged life destroy

He who kisses joy as it flies

Lives in eternity’s sunrise.

Except I’m learning it as “She who binds herself to joy.”

(To learn more about Maxine Kumin and read some of her poems visit the Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/maxine-w-kumin .)

Hyacinth Hope

Hyacinth HopeImages and essay by Janet Grace Riehl 

Hope sits quietly.

So pregnant with potential.

Clearly ready to open fully at any second. 

 –Said a friend who would cringe to be thought a poet

 

Pop (over the phone): “What are you doing?”

Janet: “Watching my hyacinths grow.”

My mother raised flowers galore. If she was going to grow a day lily, why not 500 varieties? While she’s at it, why not map out each color and kind on graph paper and then plant the beds like a Monet painting? Why not stake them as if in an arboretum and then move them around to improve the real life painting? Her only problem was that being equipped with only three children and one husband she was short-staffed

I knew firsthand the price of those glorious garden paintings, and never grew flowers—inside or out. Then, by chance I found that if I kept my garden on a tiny scale I could be an avid gardener too.

I wheeled my cart past hyacinths in the store—blooming and pricey. The wafting scent stayed with me even when I unloaded the groceries in my father’s kitchen.  A field trip was in order to White’s Greenhouse on the other hill. I went to school with Jim. He started his business in 1976, and now its annual revenue exceeds $5 million. Yet, it’s still an unassuming family business. I stepped inside the greenhouse late in the day.

“Do you have hyacinths yet?”

“None blooming.”

“That’s okay. I’d rather grow them from the bulbs.”

She took me over to a cluster of pots with green spears just poking up through the dirt.

“We have pink and blue. What would you like?”

I chose blue and left with three pots—each filled with three plants—all for less than $25. Back at my father’s I soaked them, and left them in the cardboard flat they came in. They rested on my floor of my upstairs bedroom with indirect light so they wouldn’t come on too fast.

1 Hyacinths pushing up

I went back to my place in St. Louis for a few days. When I came back, I saw humps of dirt displaced by the energetic plants bursting upwards. This time when I packed to go back to the city I took them with me in a white oval enamel wash pan I grabbed from our back porch.  Back in my apartment I placed them by my picture window where I could keep a good eye on them.

I’d only known gardening as hard work—without the joy. But in my secret garden I was surprised by joy as I watched the little plants poke through the dirt and grow all the way to blooming. Each morning they amazed me with another upward bound. I put giant paper clips in the pots to measure their progress—like marking a child’s height in pencil on a wall. Over the next weeks more plants poked up their heads. I didn’t have 9 plants. I had 15.

2 hyacynth collage growing

I carried my hyacinths back and forth from my place in the city to Pop’s place in the country and back again and again in the white enamel pan. They proved to be good companions. Amid the blizzards and unusual chill they testified to the humbleness of the life force around us and in us. They proclaimed hope for all that is green, and good, and glorious.

3 hyacinth collage little to bloom

Yesterday I decided to transplant them. I carefully trod down the icy back steps at my father’s around the corner to our potting basement down limestone steps. I ducked through the doorway and squinted in the dim light to locate a bucket of soil and clay pots. The  plastic bag of perlite fell apart in my hands and the white beads piled on the dirt floor. I scooped up what I needed and left the clean-up for a warmer day. As I got deeper into the narrow basement in search of clay pots I found that the spiders had been busy. Along with the pots and dirt I left covered with cobwebs.

I lined the sink with newspaper and set to my task—using less than a model technique. I was definitely out of practice. But, with some gravel for drainage and some dirt and potting soil mixed with perlite, I ended up with 15 plants in 10 pots. Some of the plants came from offshoots of the same bulb; I let these be.

4 hyacinth collage blooming

Then, on to the great give-away: to my niece, one of my father’s caregivers, a friend in the city. And some for me to keep in the white enamel pan on top of the walnut chest my father made so many years ago.

Pop (over the phone): “What are you doing?”

Janet: “My hyacinths bloomed, Daddy. But I’m still watching them grow.”

S-l-o-w living is so good for the soul.

P. S. Check out Chris Bradley’s January post “Surprised by Hope.”  She gave us two writing prompts:

1) What reminds you to be hopeful?

2) Have you been physically comforted by nature?

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Janet Riehl is an artist, writer, storyteller and glad when joy finds her.  You can learn more about her work at Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century. Creating connections through the arts and across cultures.

Surprised by Hope

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A few years ago, when we arrived in Baja California for our winter stay, I was slowly recovering from a pinched nerve in my neck. After several weeks of physical therapy and medication, I was still hurting, and, in addition, I had the remnants of a nasty sinus and respiratory infection, often snorting and blowing and coughing.

On our second day, I decided to attend an informal yoga class which met nearby in order to force my body to relax.

I joined in with the group, a little nervous as to my abilities, but determined to do what was good for me. Ten minutes into the class, the tickle in my throat took over; I coughed continually and could not make myself stop. Self-conscious, wary of disturbing the others, and disappointed, I stepped outside to try to quiet myself, to take control.

I was upset and embarrassed about interrupting the others by my exit, and I sat on a large rock to regain my composure.

And then–as I continued to focus on my negative feelings and on the tension in my neck–a hooded oriole landed in the bougainvillea next to me, brilliant orange amid brilliant fuchsia, turquoise water as background, and suddenly I was pulled into that moment, into awareness of the beauty around me. I heard in my head Emily Dickinson’s line: “Hope is the thing with feathers.”

The rustle of hope incarnate, the gorgeous detail of nature’s landscape, eased the tension in my body, and the tickle in my throat was gone.

Writing Practice:

What reminds you to be hopeful?

Have you been physically comforted by nature?

For quite a few years, Chris Bradley taught English and creative writing to high school students in the Texas hill country. She now has time to travel, garden, ride horses, and mountain bike, but she still misses those discussions with students and continues to be thankful for all the lessons which they taught her.  Chris blogs at www.practicingwonder.com
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Photo by Chris Bradley.

Daddy Care: Chatting about death as we were…

 

Pop playing violin

Photo and Essay by Janet Grace Riehl

Excerpt from “King’s Sake” From “Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary”

By Janet Grace Riehl

For my father, Erwin A. Thompson

The Old King is dying, and he knows it. 

The Old Ways are dying, and he knows it.

 The Old Music is dying, even as he plays it.

***

The only thing he’ll die of is old age.

Or, maybe old age and a broken heart that keeps on breaking.

The Old King is dying. Long live the King!

*****   ****    ****    ****

 Chatting About Death As We Were….

“Grace, shall we put the kettle on?” It’s the night before my 65th birthday and we’re celebrating with a friend nearing 90. After a yummy dinner out, we’re ready to snuggle in front of the fire, eat sweets, and open presents.  Then the call comes. Pop has taken a bad turn. Daniel and I hug Grace good-bye, head for the car, and arrive back at Pop’s in 30 minutes—record time.  I walk in the door, kick off my shoes, drop my coat and purse in an easy chair, and quickly move into his bedroom.  Virginia, a long-time family friend, has come over from the other hill to stay with my father. She’s a nurse, and tells me how my father came near choking to death.

“I’m miserable. I feel like dying. My back hurts so much.” Coming from my father these words have additional force. He’s not a man who likes to admit any kind of weakness.  We plug in the electric massager. I’m trying to do it one-handed while calling my brother when Virginia sensibly takes over. He leans back to rest. I call the Hospice night duty nurse. Fortunately we know the woman on call. Kim has met my father and like many a gal before her has fallen under his charm. It’s hard not to. When he wants to pour it on, it flows like a river. Pop gets on the phone. “Honey, I’m just fine. There’s no need to you to come out. I’d hate to bother you.” Virginia and I roll our eyes; we know this one so well.  Then, because he hasn’t coughed for awhile, she goes home.  It’s just Daniel, Pop, and me.

“What can I do to help?”

“The best thing is for you to get some sleep. This may be a long night, and at least one of us ought to be rested.”

Now it’s just Pop and me. He can’t get comfortable no matter how he tries—as a woman might in hard labor. He lurches from the bed he usually sleeps in to the nearby hospital bed we have at the ready. Then he rocks at the edge of the bed. As he lurches from bed to bed I spot him as if he were jumping on a trampoline. He repeats over and over the refrain: “I’m miserable. I feel like dying. My back hurts so much.”

I settle him on the hospital bed long enough to use the electric massager and knead him with my hands. Eventually he calms, and curls up to sleep.

Upstairs I change from my black velvet sheath into flannel pajamas. When I go back down, I sleep across the room from him. As I listen to his raspy breathing I imagine that it must be something like being with a baby in a nursery. When his breathing evens, I go upstairs to cuddle with Daniel in my bed. At 1 a.m. Daniel says, “I hear your father. He’s up.”

When I get to him, he’s on the toilet. I sit on the bathtub, and we chat about what’s happened. I need to change his clothes, but before I can get the clean set on, he staggers forward. “Don’t worry about that. I just want to get back to bed.” I support him as he walks the three yards before he dives into bed. This is not my father. Despite my father’s difficulty in getting around he has remained graceful and in touch with his body.  I rush forward to straighten him out. He can’t lift his legs. I lift them for him and pivot them onto the bed. I’ve never seen him so weak. I call the hospice nurse back. She’ll be here in 40 minutes.

The quiet darkness is strangely comforting and strengthening. “My mind is clear. I am just having trouble.” There’s a lag time between thought and speaking. Just as he doesn’t have control of his body, he doesn’t have complete control of his language. He scans his body.

“My right foot hurts. I can’t feel my toe.” I rub my hands together like fire sticks so that my warmth can seep into his foot. “Is that better?” It is, but now his hip hurts. I move to the other side of the bed and lift his hip so I can find the tight muscle. “Better?”

Yes, and now his hand hurts. I come back again to clasp his hand.  “I’m here, Pop. I’ve got your hand.”

“And, I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad you do have my hand. You are my lovebird, my 24-hour girl. I love you.” Goodness gracious. My father is old-school. I’ve heard him say, “I love you” maybe 5 times in my life. In our family love is unspoken. If you don’t know you’re loved, then you are some kind of stupid. How could you not know? Still, it’s nice to hear. Is he talking to me or to my late mother, though? No matter, I am here. I’ll take it.

“Just think, Pop, it’s officially my birthday. You and mother had quite a go of it 65 years ago getting me born.”

“Yes, that was a good thing.”

The Hospice nurse arrives around 2:30. I meet her at the door. I’m so glad it’s Kim. She’s warm, matter-of-fact, calm, and totally has Daddy’s number.

“How are you Mr. Thompson? I heard you had a little adventure.”

“Honey, now that you’re here, I’m just fine.”

“Are you feeling pain anywhere?”

“No. How could anyone feel pain with a pretty nurse beside him?”

Kim looks over at me, and we do the eye-roll, shake our heads, and suppress a giggle. She checks his blood pressure, oxygen, heartbeat, and respiration. His hands are grey and waxy, but it looks like he’ll make it yet again. She’s there for over an hour. When he seems stable, she gets up to leave.

“Good-bye, Mr. Thompson. I’m glad you’re feeling better.”

“I need my hug. That’s the best medicine.” He gets a pretty good one. It’s not easy to leave my father. He keeps talking and talking. Finally I say, “Kim, you’re just going to have to go.” I walk her back to the door. He’s still talking when I get back.

“Janet, I hurt so much before. But now it’s like nothing ever happened. Everything’s alright.”

“It’s like a moment of perfect peace. No matter what happens, you’ll be alright.”

“Yes.” He drops off, and begins to snore softly.

At 4 I make my way upstairs for another round of sleep. When I wake at 7 and pad downstairs, he’s still sleeping. I hang out in the other bed until he opens his eyes and gets ready for the bathroom trek. Like last night I support him there and back. He is too weak to raise himself on the handles of the walker. Once again I lift his legs and pivot him back into bed. Later I bring in his morning medicine, and prop him up while he takes it.

“Janet, let me tell you about the good thing that happened last night.”

“Yes, Daddy.”

“I stopped hurting. I felt that everything would be alright.”

“Yes, it was a moment of perfect peace, wasn’t it? Even if you would have died then, you’d have been fine.”

“Yes.”

When he wakes again around 11 he says, “Well, I’ve been lying around here long enough. Time to get up.” And, so he does. I help him dress, and lever himself up to the walker. Like a turtle on drugs he creeps towards his recliner. He makes it! We swing into the morning routine: breakfast, foot soaking, and so on. He stays up until 4.

“Why don’t you go to bed, Daddy?”

“I was just thinking about that.”

I help him get ready for bed, and then read him a bedtime story from one of the Westerns he wrote when we were children. “That’s it for tonight. We’ll take up the story tomorrow night where we left off.”

“Janet, let me tell you about a good thing that happened last night.”

And he does.

To Those Who Write the Words of Their Personal Experience:

by Sheila Bender

It isn’t an easy path to write from personal experience. There are no guarantees that editors will want to publish what we have to say and no guarantees that we will successfully find a way to say it, publication or not. What is guaranteed is that committing words to the page and revising our writing until it successfully makes contact with others changes our lives in unexpected directions.

Writing takes courage and affirmations about writing help us value our personal writing and acquire this courage. After a Writing It Real writers’ conference during which participants shared fresh work and enjoyed time to help one another craft their early starts, I wrote these:

Acknowledging

That we write because we feel the need,

That we write because we want to reflect on the meaning in our experience,

That we write because we want to get something down for others to read after we are gone,

That we write because we are alive and writing makes us more alive,

That we write because it is a form of play,

That we write because it brings us into contact with other writers whose minds and hearts we resonate with,

That we write because it makes us the people we want to be

makes writing a gift we cannot refuse to accept.

Sharing our writing with trusted readers and learning to hear what our writing wants to discover, we not only grow our poems, our essays, and our stories but we grow ourselves, creating a path toward self-actualization.