Stephen King and Writing by Questions

Writing, like any other art or discipline, takes daily practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats—both living and dead, famous and not—apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week’s inspiration comes from the prolific American author Stephen King.

“You’ve blown up your TV and committed yourself to a thousand words a day, come hell or high water. Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about?”

— Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

The first hurdle to writing is getting your butt in the chair and keeping it there. The second hurdle is getting the pen moving, or your fingers typing. The body only needs training. You only have to employ a few days of treats and punishments to get the hang of sit and stay but to get your mind to show up is like coercing a stray cat to follow you home.

I can get my butt in the chair but lately getting my mind to show up is near impossible. My body is easy to control. My mind, on the other hand, has one of its own. It wanders inside itself and finds plenty to do that isn’t writing at all. It thinks about all the things I should be doing, the dishes, the laundry, that email, that book I wanted to read, that movie I wanted to watch. I get antsy. I get tired. I feel guilty and decide that I don’t want to write. If it happens often enough, I decide I shouldn’t write. I’m obviously not good enough or disciplined enough.

I give up and get up and doing everything but write. I do anything but write. The pen doesn’t move the screen stays blank.

But there has to be a way to coerce the cat, and there has to be a way wrangle a mind and wring the words from it. One bit of advice I’ve come across time and time again is to start with questions. Questions get the wheels turning. Questions interest the mind and make it want to work with you. Questions lure it along the way you wish to go and reveal what it is you are setting out to say to write about.

The first question you should ask yourself is an easy one, what do I want to write about. You don’t have to be specific here. I like to write about humans, and emotions, and the way how we ought to live. Simple.

You can’t begin if you don’t know what you are talking about. What genre are you writing? Is it fact or fiction, persuasive or story telling. Are you going to write a poem? A story? An essay? Who are you writing about? Yourself, a celebrity, a person who doesn’t exist, are they even a person? You have to get these basics down before you can build a shape or structure but those questions aren’t so hard, and you can always change the answers when you please.

So, once you’ve gotten a start, the next step is getting you to the end, another writing hurdle. I’ve found that the best way is to keep asking questions of yourself, and your writing.

Begin with the what and then make a list of whos, hows, and whys to keep you going. You need this list of questions to tease out what you mean to say and how you can go about saying it in the clearest way possible. The list is personal. And after you have one you can copy and tweak it for every piece you write. You can have one for fiction and memoir and maybe one for blog posts and for articles you pitch. You come up with whatever questions you like, or you can steal them from other writers. Here are some of mine:

  1. What do I want people to get out of this?
  2. Who am I speaking to? Who am I speaking for?
  3. Why should they care?
  4. What am I trying to say?
  5. How do I want to make people feel?
  6. What will people learn? About me? Themselves? The world?
  7. What has been forgotten?
  8. What is the truth?
  9. Where does it hurt?
  10. What has helped?
  11. What is missing?
  12. What makes this any different?
  13. Is this boring? What would it look like if it wasn’t?

I don’t always have all the answers, and many of the ones I do have are similar, but the differences are subtle enough that they can help me illuminate what I think and feel and how I can structure my writing to articulate that to my readers. These questions aren’t perfect, and they do not guarantee concise or compelling writing, obviously, but they help get me home even if the path is rocky and winding and I get lost a few times along the way.

The answers can be long or short and often I can write the whole piece by taking my answers, expanding them, rearranging them, and adding a little emotional flair.

I tend to check in more than once while writing a piece. I write my first draft and go over the questions again to see if my convictions have changed and if I need to move n a different direction. I write a second and check in again, and after editing to grammar and structure, I glance over it one more time and ask myself if I’ve said what I needed to say.

Writing this way keeps me focused and on topic and whatever I wanted to say that didn’t fit can become another post or piece, and I can answer the questions all over again from another angle.

Of course, you can come up with your own questions, ones that work for you and the way you write and whatever genre you work in. You are free to borrow my list too, or you can search for other ones from writer’s who know much better than I. Here are a few I’ve found:

“We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing?, Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there you get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”

― Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing

and

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:

  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:

  1. Could I put it more shortly?
  2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

— George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

Some others I am considering:

  1. Why do I need to write this?
  2. Am I ready to share this?
  3. Can I get paid to write this?

Sometimes I have more fun answering these questions than I do in writing the actual piece. And sometimes I get too focused on them and have a hard time moving from a list of facts to writing something with color and emotion. It’s easy to figure out what you mean to say, the hard part is figuring out how you mean to say it. So, when I realize I am only spinning my wheels, doing something that feels like writing but isn’t, I keep in mind the second half of Orwell’s advice:

But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.

I don’t think he was actually endorsing this method, but I think there may be some value in employing it as needed. Whenever you become too strict, too wound up, when the boundaries of all these questions make your mind move in mechanical ways, and your writing loses its humanity it may be time to open your mind and let whatever words float by make their way on to the page, for a while.

You have to give yourself boundaries, but you also have to give yourself time to just write it all out of yourself, no matter how bad or ugly it might be at first. Then, when you have exhausted your ready-made sentences and your mimicry you can go back to your list of facts and find a middle ground.

It’s good to have more than one approach, one structured and one not to keep you from getting bored or lost. The brain needs both, creativity needs both. If you find yourself having trouble finishing your writing, or maybe you have trouble writing when inspiration and motivation are running low, try beginning with questions and go back to them whenever you need a little leading to the end.

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3389Stephen Edwin King was born the second son of Donald and Nellie Ruth Pillsbury King. After his father left them when Stephen was two, he and his older brother, David, were raised by his mother.

Stephen attended the grammar school in Durham and Lisbon Falls High School, graduating in 1966. From his sophomore year at the University of Maine at Orono, he wrote a weekly column for the school newspaper, THE MAINE CAMPUS.

In the fall of 1971, Stephen began teaching English at Hampden Academy, the public high school in Hampden, Maine. Writing in the evenings and on the weekends, he continued to produce short stories and to work on novels.

In 1973, King’s first novel Carrie was accepted by publishing house, Doubleday. King had thrown an early draft of the novel into the trash after becoming discouraged with his progress writing about a teenage girl with psychic powers. His wife retrieved the manuscript and encouraged him to finish it. His advance for Carrie was $2,500; King’s paperback rights later earned $400,000.

King and his family moved to southern Maine because of his mother’s failing health. At this time, he began Salem’s Lot. Soon after Carrie’s release in 1974, King’s mother died of uterine cancer. His Aunt Emrine had read the novel to her before she died.

After his mother’s death, King and his family moved to Boulder, Colorado, where King wrote The Shining. The family returned to western Maine in 1975, where King completed his fourth novel, The Stand.

In all King has published 54 novels, including seven under the pen name Richard Bachman, and six non-fiction books. He has written nearly 200 short stories, most of which have been collected in book collections. Many of his stories are set in his home state of Maine. His books have sold more than 350 million copies, many of which have been adapted into feature films, miniseries, television shows, and comic books.

Seriously, I cannot recommend his memoir On Writing enough.

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Check out my previous quotes from Stephen King.

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Relationships Take Two, and That Includes You

Hello, and happy Monday friends! Yeah, I know, I know, Mondays aren’t exactly happy. Mondays are for being tired, and grouchy, and remembering all the things you don’t like about your life. Mondays are for wanting to crawl back into bed. I know.

But, let’s try something different. Let’s think of Mondays as a chance at a fresh start, a reset of sorts, every single week. Let’s take this opportunity to do it differently. Let’s make the changes we want to see in ourselves and the world, okay?

“It always takes two. For relationships to work, for them to break apart, for them to be fixed.”

— Emily Giffin, Heart of the Matter: A Novel

I’m a terrible friend.

I don’t text back. I don’t answer calls. I don’t send snaps or reply to Facebook comments. I don’t call to check in, and I don’t know what to say when my loved ones are going through hard times, so I say nothing. I’m a terrible friend. But not because I don’t care, but because I’m scared. I’m afraid I have nothing to offer, and I’m sure no one wants to be bothered with me. It’s selfish, even if I tell myself it isn’t and it’s wrong even if I tell myself it isn’t malicious. The truth is I’m not doing the work, and it isn’t fair.

The truth is I’m not doing the work, and it isn’t fair.

I’m lucky to have friends that understand, but lately, I’ve started to feel guilty. I shouldn’t let them pick up the slack just because I’m too afraid to try. We all deserve to have people reach out toward us everyone in a while to remind that they care and that we are too important to lose.

We all want to feel like we matter. We all want to be wanted. We all want the people we love to let us know with their actions not just with their words that we are important, liked, and desired. When our friends call us or send us funny videos to cheer us up, we feel good. When someone we love cooks our favorite dinner, buys us flowers or offers a back rub at the end of a hard day, we feel good. When family, co-workers, and spouses forgive us for our outbursts or let us know it’s okay after having made a mistake, we feel good.

We do deserve those things, but I’ve seen too many people who demand to be loved, understood, appreciated but make no effort to show anyone else the same. They see themselves as worthy of near worship and see humbling themselves and giving of themselves as degrading.

Relationships, whether they are romantic or not, familial or not, new or old, platonic, professional, or passionate, no matter what they are, they all take two people to make them work and grow. If just one gets forgets the boundaries, loses interest, or puts themselves at the center the whole thing fails. I’ve seen it, and lived it time and time again.

This week I celebrate 15 years with my girlfriend, and people are always asking me how we got this far. They want to know the secret, and I tell them it all boils down to seeing another person as worthy of all the same caring and effort you know that you deserve and then setting your pride aside to do it.

Too often we see ourselves as the main character of a story in which everyone around us only serves to move our own plot forward, but the truth is we are also playing the supporting role in everyone else’s story too. In this world, there is no center. We are all connected to one another and we all push and pull one another in all directions all at once.

If enough people decide to take more than they give all connections weaken and the world becomes a place where loneliness, struggling, and suffering becomes unnecessarily prevalent.

 

I’ve watched people let their relationships fall apart saying “Well if so-and-so wanted to talk to me they would” or “If so-and-so wanted to see me they’d make the time”, all the while they never reach out or make the time either. They say these things and never see how much they expect and how little their effort is in return. I’ve watched them condemn others for the exact same ways they are failing too.

I don’t think anyone means to be hurtful. It’s just the society we live in now. There is so much bad advice floating around about how we should treat each other and how to stay together or strengthen our bonds.

Everyone says that people who love you will just come to you. They say that anyone who wants to be a part of your life should have to earn it first. You shouldn’t have to chase anyone, you have already done enough. You shouldn’t have to do anything more. If people want you they will do whatever it takes. You aren’t being mean. You are only protecting yourself, respecting yourself, getting what you deserve.

But all that is only half the story. They never tell you how much you have to give of yourself and they never tell you that you should! We should be vulnerable, giving, and forgiving. We should be doing so much more to earn the love of the people we want in our lives. We should be giving second chances and calling even when we didn’t get a call back and inviting them again even when they didn’t show up last time. We should say good morning even if they didn’t say it back and we should do something nice even though they snapped at us yesterday. We should reach out even if they didn’t reply last time and we should let them know we still want to be friends.

You have to let go of your own needs and just be there for someone else for a while. Not all of the time, but, yes, some of the time. You have to take turns being the center of the universe.

Do it because we are all people and we all make mistakes. Do it because none of us come out of childhood knowing how to have healthy relationships or how to keep those relationships together.

 

Do it because you care and because you know deep down that every relationship takes work from both parties. It requires vulnerability and a willingness to humble yourself. It requires that you occasionally stop thinking about yourself, give up, and give a little more than you might be getting in return. It requires leading by example and making room for our flaws and forgetfulness. If enough of us make compassion, humility, and understanding part of our relationships we can change the narrative and make giving the goal of every relationship rather than receiving.

Do it so that when it’s you not doing enough because you were busy, too stressed out, or too self-centered, the understanding and love will be there when you return.

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Stop Helping So Damn Much

“Our help is usually not very helpful. Our help is often toxic. And help is the sunny side of control. Stop helping so much. Don’t get your help and goodness all over everybody.”

— Anne Lamott

I heard something last week, and I can’t get it out of my head. It was one of those moments when you are told an ugly truth about yourself, one had denied so long you weren’t aware of anymore, one you are embarrassed to find you hadn’t concealed at all as well as you thought. Everyone knows your ugly truth but thought it better not to tell you and to let you go on making a fool of yourself.

That was something like that feeling that I felt in the middle of Anne Lamott’s 2017 Ted Talk, 12 Truths, in which she casually advises us all to stop helping so much. Our help, she says, isn’t as helpful as we think it is and our help is often toxic and nothing but a nicer way of controlling the world around us.

As soon as she said it I knew I was one of those chronic helpers Lamott is talking about. I want to help everyone all the time with everything. The more I love you, the more I want to help you. I tell myself I’m helping, but maybe, probably, I just want to control the people around me.

Looking back I can see that there have been many times when I forced my help on others, even when it wasn’t needed, wanted, or constructive. There were many times when my help may have been toxic and all I was doing was controlling the lives of others. I told myself I was doing the right thing, the best thing, the helpful thing, but I wasn’t.

Helping is a form of manipulation and, here is the real secret, manipulating people is a thing I struggle not to do.

I’m ashamed to have written that line. It feels like admitting a truth I am trying to convince myself is a lie. It’s admitting that I am a bad person. I swear I have the best intentions, but I also have little patience for people learning their own lessons and failing on their own. I know better than them and if only they would do things the way I say they would be better. We would be better. I would be needed, wanted, appreciated, helpful.

I would be good.

And that’s it, I just want to feel like a good person. I want to feel like a better, smarter, and more powerful person. I want to be good enough to be in charge. I want people to look to me when they don’t know what to do. I want to be wanted and respected, and this is the way I have chosen to get that and to live with myself too, by helping.

I feel bad for wanting that, and for some of the actions I have taken to feel it but here’s the thing, at the same time Anne Lamott was placing a mirror in front of me, she was also letting me know that I was not the only one who needed to hear this. I’m not the only one who needs to stop and examine what they were doing. She hadn’t said, “Lisa, you need to stop helping because you are toxic.” She said we all needed to stop helping because we were all too controlling and toxic. We all have a problem with manipulation.

It’s human to want to control the world around us and all the people in it. Being in control is comforting and being needed gives us purpose. But at the same time, we feel bad for wanting those things. We know it’s wrong, and futile, to try to control others. We also know that we have to give people space to live their lives and learn their own lessons. But we want what we want, so, we do what humans are good at, we play a few mental gymnastics, make a few good excuses, and tell ourselves that for this reason or that whatever we’re doing is the right thing to do.

We split ourselves off from what who we want to be and who we really are. We disconnect and deny the distance the two. We can’t see that we are not always good and we are not always doing the right thing.

I can be controlling, and I sometimes nag, and whine, and manipulate people into doing what I want the way I want it done but who doesn’t? Who hasn’t tried to keep people close and safe by making ourselves indispensable? Who hasn’t tried to make sense of the world by forcing our beliefs and our way of life on others? Who hasn’t, out of love and fear, employed less than honorable tactics to “help.”

Being a person is scary. Caring about people is scary. Feeling unimportant and unneeded scary. It is normal to try to keep people safe and close and to control the way they see us, but it isn’t always right. That is a truth that has to be confronted if you want to get better.

So this week, try not helping so much or try helping in ways that don’t put you at the center of the problem. Just listen. Just learn. Try taking a step back and letting people be the solution in their own lives. Let people walk their own paths, and you just focus on walking yours.

It’s why we are all here after all.

P.S. Here is Anne Lamott’s entire beautiful, inspirational, bittersweet Ted Talk:

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Go and Heal Someone Else

“As soon as healing takes place, go out and heal somebody else.”

— Maya Angelou

Humans have a hard time accepting that other people might have an easier way in life than they did, even if the easier way in life is all they ever wished for when they were struggling. What I mean is, if we see some going through what we have but we see them being given the support, patience, and understanding we weren’t, we get angry, and we cry over what we didn’t have and what no one else should have either.

We’re just bitter. We feel we have been wronged and since those wrongs can’t be helped or undone the least we can have is that everybody is wronged in the same ways we were. It feels like some kind of justice or validation of what we went through if at least it is universal and enduring. There is relief in seeing others fight and struggle the same as you. I suppose it makes us feel superior for having survived while others fall behind. It gives us a little bit of power and control over the world and other people we’ve never had.

But it’s wrong, and we know it’s wrong.

What are we all fighting for if it isn’t so other people don’t have to go through what we did?

This week, listen to the ways you talk about what other people should have, what they deserve, and why you think they aren’t as strong or as smart as you if they had it a little easier. Listen to the ways you talk about change and what benefit you think there comes with keeping things the same?

I’ve heard people say we shouldn’t be fighting bullying in school, we shouldn’t have kids wear seat belts, we shouldn’t have therapy, we shouldn’t have later start times for schools, or awards for kids who do their best, why?

The only answer I get is because they didn’t have that when they were young, and they turned out fine so no one should. I always ask if they think they might have turned out better, happier, or more successful if they’d had more support, understanding, and a better sense that they were good enough, smart enough, and strong enough already to do anything they wanted in life. They always answer yes, and they have no answer for why they wouldn’t want that for everyone, even if they didn’t have it themselves.

For the most part, I’m aware of when thoughts like that creep into my head, but I still struggle with believing other people should be able to do everything I can with the same limited resources and assistance I had. I forget that I don’t have a corner on suffering and that I don’t get to decide what other people need or what they can handle. I can be just as hard on other people about their lack of progress as I am on myself for mine. I can forget to have a little understanding, patience, or empathy.

What healing I have done has taken a lot of work. Work that would have been so much easier if I’d had more support and understanding. I want to help others in all the ways I needed help when I was struggling rather than talking trash or thinking trash thoughts about how weak they are or about how much I did with so much less. I want to heal people, not hurt people. I want to teach what I have learned and make the world better for the next person who feels alone and lost. This week, try to do the same.

Of course it isn’t your job to heal anyone, just as it’s no else’s job to heal you either, but we are social creatures, and so much of our lives are wrapped up in other people’s lives, in society, and culture, and community, we all benefit when we build each other up and do our best to meet one another’s needs.

You can’t fix it all, I’m only asking you to do one thing you wish someone would have done for you when you were hurting. Try checking in on people, especially people you haven’t spoken to in a while, or people you think are strong and don’t need it. Try really meaning it when you ask how someone is doing. Encourage others to open up to you. Try opening up to other people and letting them know they are important to you and that they make you feel better. Try actively listening and not just waiting your turn to talk about yourself. Offer advice if it’s asked for. Offer a hug if they want it. Offer some words of validation always.

Heal yourself first. Get what you need, do what you need to, first, always first, but after you have made some progress and stored up some strength yourself, go out and help the rest of the world heal.

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Kahlil Gibran on Weariness and Writing

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes daily practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week’s inspiration comes from the Lebanese-American artist, poet, and writer Kahlil Gibran.

“I want to write more but I cannot. I am a little weary and the silence in my soul is black. I wish I could rest my head on your shoulder.”

— Kahlil Gibran, Beloved Prophet: The Love Letters of Kahlil Gibran and Mary Haskell, and Her Private Journal

These past few weeks something strange happened to me. I have been touching on it and mentioned it in post after post because writing it out feels like the logical way to solve this problem. The problem? I stopped wanting to write.

Writer’s block isn’t something I believed in. I learned from Austin Kleon that a problem of output is almost always a problem of input. If I felt stuck I only needed to get out in the world, in real life and online equally, to search for ideas to steal, to pull apart, to transform into something all my own. For as long as I have been blogging I have never had a shortage of ideas.

No, this was something different. I stopped wanting to try to write.

Writing felt like work. It felt pointless. It felt pointless because there are so many who are better than me. It felt pointless because I don’t know how to be more writer and less blogger—not there is anything wrong with blogger. It felt pointless because I am worthless as a writer. I want to say things, but I have no idea how to say them. Too much is flying around inside my head. I flit from one thought to another, one message to another, one interest to another. It felt pointless because I am so turned around and confused and insecure and scared and lost, and I don’t know how to get out.

I do know. I’ve written about that too. I just have to do the work, but first I have to work out how that looks for me.

In the meantime, I’m acknowledging how hard this is and why. I’m spending a little time letting myself feel what it’s like to try to be a writer. I’m looking at what is working and what isn’t, what sets my soul on fire, what turns it black, and what makes it go silent and keeping track of what I do in response.

I’m marking what I do when I can’t write, and what it is that gets me writing again. So far I’ve only found that rest is important and a sense of safety and support is crucial. Part of the reason I chose this quote specifically is that a shoulder to lay on has been the best help I could find.

Every writer I have read seems to have trouble writing, a revelation that is both comforting and frightening. I feel on more even footing with the greats but even more fearful that this dread, this pain, this fear will never go away. Writing will never be something I can do easily and with pure joy. It will always be this hard. I imagine it will always feel something like drowning, or like pulling teeth, or like healing broken bones. The only difference between the greats and me is that their pain produces better results than mine, for now.

If writing is so taxing for the soul, then all writers must have a home to run to too when they become weary. If they don’t, I imagine they write about that too. Maybe they move from writing poems to expressing themselves in other ways. Home can be found within yourself as well, you know?

As for me,  I have someone who loves and supports me. I am one of the lucky ones. I have a shoulder to lay on, arms to hold me, and ears to hear me whine and rage about my future failures. I have someone who cheers me on when I make progress and who supports me when I fail.

It’s wonderful to have such a home inside of such a person, but all the love, support, and self-reflection will only get me so far. The rest of the way has to be made with hard work and words on paper. I just have to fucking write.

So, I will keep a notebook with me at all times and keep my pockets filled with pens. I’ll have a journal to fill page by page every day and a tiny notebook to take with me wherever I go to jot every passing thought in. I will write on scraps of paper and in the margins of books making conversation with every author I whose work I read.

I will write love letters and thank you notes. I will write to rant and to praise. I will write essays and poems and stories both true and false. I will write what hurts and what feels good. I will write the lie and the truth. I will write what has been forgotten and what has yet to be known. I will spill secrets and expose my darkness to the light. I will write what life is and what it isn’t, what it should be and how we make it there.

I will do what I always set out to do and what I had always done before it occurred to me that writing could be something I do for me, for others, for money, and for recognition. I’ll just write and forget all the rest.

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khalil-gibran-9Kahlil Gibran was born on January 6, 1883, in the town of Bsharri in modern-day Lebanon (then part of Ottoman Mount Lebanon) to Khalil Gibran and Kamila Gibran. As a result of his family’s poverty, Gibran received no formal schooling during his youth in Lebanon. However, priests visited him regularly and taught him about the Bible and the Arabic language.

As a young man, he emigrated with his family to the United States where he studied art and began his literary career, writing in both English and Arabic. In the Arab world, Gibran is regarded as a literary and political rebel. His romantic style was at the heart of a renaissance in modern Arabic literature, especially prose poetry, breaking away from the classical school. In Lebanon, he is still celebrated as a literary hero.

He is chiefly known in the English-speaking world for his 1923 book The Prophet. The book, composed of twenty-six poetic essays, is an early example of inspirational fiction including a series of philosophical essays written in English poetic prose. The book sold well despite a cool critical reception, gaining popularity in the 1930s and again especially in the 1960s counterculture.

Gibran was an accomplished artist, especially in drawing and watercolor, having attended the Académie Julian art school in Paris from 1908 to 1910, pursuing a symbolist and romantic style over the then up-and-coming realism. Gibran held his first art exhibition of his drawings in 1904 in Boston, at Day’s studio. During this exhibition, Gibran met Mary Elizabeth Haskell, a respected headmistress ten years his senior. The two formed an important friendship that lasted the rest of Gibran’s life.

Haskell spent large sums of money to support Gibran, extensively edited all his English writings. Sometimes Gibran dictated his ideas to Haskell while Haskell found the proper words. Haskell’ contribution to his writing, including The Prophet, was such that by today’s standard she would be acknowledged as co-author.

The nature of their romantic relationship remains obscure; while some biographers assert the two were lovers but never married because Haskell’s family objected, other evidence suggests that their relationship never was physically consummated. Gibran and Haskell were engaged briefly, but Gibran called it off. Gibran didn’t intend to marry her while had affairs with other women. Haskell later married another man, but then she continued to support Gibran financially and to use her influence to advance his career.

Gibran died in New York City on April 10, 1931, at the age of 48. The causes were cirrhosis of the liver and tuberculosis due to prolonged serious alcoholism.

He is the third best-selling poet of all time, behind Shakespeare and Lao-Tzu.

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Biographical information via Goodreads and Wikipedia

Featured image via Unsplash

Jorie Graham on Capturing the Past

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes daily practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week I have chosen a quote from the poet Jorie Graham.

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Jorie Graham was born in New York City in 1950, the daughter of a journalist and a sculptor. She was raised in Rome, Italy and educated in French schools. She studied philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris before attending New York University as an undergraduate, where she studied filmmaking. She received an MFA in poetry from the University of Iowa.

Graham is the author of numerous collections of poetry, most recently Sea Change (Ecco, 2008), Never (2002), Swarm (2000), and The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974-1994, which won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

About her work, James Longenbach wrote in the New York Times: “For 30 years Jorie Graham has engaged the whole human contraption — intellectual, global, domestic, apocalyptic — rather than the narrow emotional slice of it most often reserved for poems. She thinks of the poet not as a recorder but as a constructor of experience. Like Rilke or Yeats, she imagines the hermetic poet as a public figure, someone who addresses the most urgent philosophical and political issues of the time simply by writing poems.”

Graham has also edited two anthologies, Earth Took of Earth: 100 Great Poems of the English Language (1996) and The Best American Poetry 1990.

Graham is known for her deep interest in history, language, and perception; the critic Calvin Bedient has noted that she is, “never less than in dialogue with everything. She is the world champion at shot-putting the great questions. It hardly matters what the title is: the subject itself is always ‘the outermost question being asked me by the World today.’ What counts is the hope in the questioning itself, not the answers.” Graham has received numerous honors and awards for her work, including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship and the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

She has taught at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University. She served as a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets from 1997 to 2003.

“There’s no way back believe me.
I’m writing you from there.”

— Jorie Graham, Overlord: Poems

It seems like a sign or an interesting coincidence that I should come across this quote from Graham so soon after finishing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which was concerned very much about returning to the past. When I saw I thought immediately of a scene near the middle of the book, when the narrator, Nick, is talking to Gatsby about his longing to get back Daisy Buchanan, a girl he had to let go some years before, and who he hope to get back.

Gatsby has been throwing one of his famous parties and invited Daisy to attend. She didn’t have a good time nor did she seem to like the company Gatsby is keeping. He’s a bit disappointed at not being able to please her and make her understand what he is trying to do. Nick listens and advises him not to be too hard on Daisy, after all, “you can’t repeat the past.” Gatsby replies:

“Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can! I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before.”

Nick goes on to wonder about Gatsby:

“He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was…”

Of course, Gatsby’s longing to return to the past, to go after Daisy and try to recapture what they had will be his downfall, that is how these kinds of stories go. If he had only moved on, and let her move on to, he might have made a good life for himself. Or if he had discovered writing and found a way back to the past that offered closure and cleansing

The laws of this universe are such that time moves one way and one way only. The past can’t be returned to, but we can express our frustration at being forced to live with no instructions or guarantees and no ability to go back and fix what we got wrong. We can express our heartbreak and our loss and our suffering/. We can even express our wishes and our dreams of what might have been had we turned left instead of right at the fork five years ago. We can’t relive the past but we can sure as shit rewrite it.

It’s strange to think too that everything you read is from the past and everything you write is to the future. I mean, I know that but to consider the past, and the future too, as a physical place that writing is either going to or coming from feels weird.

By the time you are reading this, I will have left my place behind this screen and gone on to finish my day. You may even be reading it days, weeks, maybe a year or two from now. I wonder where I am? I wonder what twists and turns my life has taken in that time. I wonder what wisdom I could send out to myself, or to you from here?

As for the past, I may not be able to speak to my old self, but I can comfort the part of me that is still hurting. I can talk with an old self who feels joy and hope. I can sit with myself as a child and capture a bit of her innocence again, in a way.

This is the loophole, a poor one, but it’s all we have for now. We’ve been gifted with an ability to vividly imagine new worlds, and we have cultivated out knack for language and learned to share those worlds with each other. We found a way to beat time, to loop back, to jump forward, to redo this life or make a new one entirely. We can live on this planet or another, light years from here. We can live in another time. We can travel to heaven or hell. We can see our lost loved ones again and tell them what we never could in life. We can fall in love, give birth, beat our enemies, become the leader, the savior, the hero, the genius, the one that everyone wants to have or wants to be.

We can be Gods.

But only in our heads, and only on paper, and that just has to be enough. Trying to go back never works. It can’t be done. Writing can help though. It can get you through your feelings. You can get them out, you can find closure, you can have what you want, in a way. Writing can be your therapy and your friend. It can help you discover the thing, that part of yourself, that you missed and reclaim it. It can keep you from getting stuck.

We’ve never been able to revisit the past, but somehow we have never gotten over the desire. We’ve never been able to let go of regret, but we found another way with writing. Take advantage of it because there is no other way back.

Trust me, we are all either writing from there, or writing about then, and we should know.

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If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for some existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering + some interesting reads from others. Or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

Biographical information via Joriegraham.com and The Poetry Foundation

Featured image via Unsplash

The Error of Arrogance

Hello, and happy Monday friends! Yeah, I know, I know, Mondays aren’t exactly happy. Mondays are for being tired, and grouchy, and remembering all the things you don’t like about your life. Mondays are for wanting to crawl back into bed. I know.

But, let’s try something different. Let’s think of Mondays as a chance at a fresh start, a reset of sorts, every single week. Let’s take this opportunity to do it differently. Let’s make the changes we want to see in ourselves and the world, okay?

“I am a member of a fragile species, still new to the earth, the youngest creatures of any scale, here only a few moments as evolutionary time is measured, a juvenile species, a child of a species. We are only tentatively set in place, error prone, at risk of fumbling, in real danger at the moment of leaving behind only a thin layer of our fossils, radioactive at that.”

— Lewis Thomas, The Fragile Species

Have you ever heard of the Greek goddess Aidos? She was said to be the daughter of Prometheus and the personification of the feelings of modesty, humility, and shame, reverence, and respect. She was said to be a companion to the goddess Nemesis who punished men guilty of arrogance before the gods.

Together they represent the shame and respect that keep men good, and what can happen when we lose sight of how small and fragile we are. Or, put another way, they represent the “emotion that a rich person might feel in the presence of the impoverished, that wealth was more a matter of luck than merit,” and “righteous indignation aroused by the sight of wicked men receiving undeserved good fortune.”

Humans have accomplished much on this planet. We’ve colonized every continent, invented culture and society, found math and the sciences, conquered nature, and each other, and soon even the distance and emptiness of space between the stars won’t be left untamed. We are the pride of our planet, and of the universe as far as we know. Most of us believe this reality was made for us to rule, many of the rest believe we have earned the right, I say we haven’t earned shit, and nothing here belongs to us.

I say we need a little humility, a little shame for the way we are acting, and a bit of respect for or planet and the life on it. I say we need to remember that we got here purely by luck and we shouldn’t be so damned arrogant. I say it’s time for some righteous anger for those who forget that and act carelessly, putting all our futures in danger.

Humans are what we are because of our big brains, and our thumbs, and the ability to walk upright. Our feelings of empathy and self-awareness, our ability to reason and work together, and our unwavering curiosity have taken us far, but when you put our accomplishment on the scale of time from the beginning of the universe, we are less than a blink of an eye. On the scale of space, we are less than a speck of dust; we are very nearly nothing at all.

Yet, here we are acting like it all belongs to us. Like gods deciding who gets to live and who dies. Gods who cannot give life to the ones we take it from and who cannot fathom a future farther than our own. We are polluting the planet, killing off species who have been here long before the first thing even resembling a man was born. How is this much ego even possible?

There will be a price to pay for our arrogance. There will come a time when we’ll regret being so damn stubborn and stupid. We’re going to wish there had been more respect, reverence, and shame to keep us good. We will wish we had been better. I can see it now, and every move we make in the name of ideals as short-sighted as money or convenience makes me cringe.

Of course, I am speaking of our President, a man who seems to made entirely out of foolish pride and extreme short-sightedness, but I am also talking to people who refuse to see what is happening around them and refuse to listen to reason. The science is conclusive, the rest of the world is leaving us behind, the future is coming and you cannot stop it.

I’m talking about climate change. I’m talking about us thinking that cutting down the trees, dumping chemical into our rivers, throwing plastic into the ocean. I’m talking about hunting for fun and profit. I’m talking about taking land that animals need to live. I’m talking about the blood on our hands, the death we are bringing now and for eons to come.

I am talking about the way we treat our home and the life that fought just as hard right alongside us to get just as far as we have. I am talking to anyone who believes that we have the right to use this planet for our own ends. I am talking to those with no shame and no respect!

Arrogance is a human emotion that comes far too easy and one we have to be ever aware of. We have to fight it to keep from acting stupidly, another human tendency that comes far too easily. We are a species that has learned to imagine the future but only so far as it concerns us personally. We have difficulty holding vast expanses of space or time in our minds, but we have grown in numbers and strength that affects whole planets and eons of time when they act. We literally possess power we do not understand, but instead of stopping for a moment to grasp the impact we have, we stupidly move forward. We double down in the face of facts and warnings and become bolder and more arrogant. No good can come from this.

This week, take a moment to check your own arrogance. I have found the easiest way to do this is to take time every day to look up at the sky, particularly if the stars are visible. Or maybe get out into nature. See some tress, not ones we have planted but old ones that were here before this place had a name. Get out of the city and away from the influence of other humans if you can.

I have found that looking at the sky reminds me how small I am and that finding my way into nature reminds me that this world does not need us to go on turning, growing, and creating. We have only just gotten here and so much happened before us and will happen after we have destroyed ourselves once and for all. We are not gods and this universe does not bend to our will. We are not omnipotent nor omniscient. We have no right or claim to this world.

 

We are small, and dumb. We are barely beginning to be anything at all, but we do have some power, and it would be better to use it for good than for bad. It would be better to stop here, realize our recklessness, and make a change but it has to start within each of us.

It has to begin with letting go of our pride and letting ourselves feel some awe and gratitude and a sense of protection for what we have been given.

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If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering + some interesting reads from others. Or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

Featured image via Unsplash