Natalie Goldberg on Writing What Disturbs You

Writing is and always has been my passion, in all forms, whether blogging, poetry, or, my newest endeavor, novel-writing. Like any art, it takes practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you.

Each week I like to take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work. In learning, I like to teach, and in writing, I like to share with you all everything I learn as well as everything I do.

This week I have chosen a quote from the American New Age author and speaker Natalie Goldberg, best known for a series of books which explore writing as Zen practice. A series I am very anxious to read.

natalie-goldberg-403-pxls-largeFrom Goodreads: “Natalie Goldberg lived in Brooklyn until she was six when her family moved out to Farmingdale, Long Island, where her father owned the bar the Aero Tavern.

From a young age, Goldberg was mad for books and reading, and especially loved Carson McCullers’s The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, which she read in ninth grade. She thinks that single book led her eventually to put pen to paper when she was twenty-four years old.

She received a BA in English literature from George Washington University and an MA in humanities from St. John’s University.

Goldberg has painted for as long as she has written, and her paintings can be seen in Living Color: A Writer Paints Her World and Top of My Lungs: Poems and Paintings. They can also be viewed at the Ernesto Mayans Gallery in Sante Fe.

A dedicated teacher, Goldberg has taught writing and literature for the last thirty-five years. She also leads national workshops and retreats, and her schedule can be accessed via her website: nataliegoldberg.com. Her 1986 book Writing Down the Bones sold over a million copies and is considered an influential work on the craft of writing. Her 2013 book, The True Secret of Writing, is a follow-up to that work.

In 2006, she completed with the filmmaker Mary Feidt a one-hour documentary, Tangled Up in Bob, about Bob Dylan’s childhood on the Iron Range in Northern Minnesota. The film can be obtained on Amazon or the website tangledupinbob.com.

Goldberg has been a serious Zen practitioner since 1974 and studied with Katagiri Roshi from 1978 to 1984.”

“Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.”

— Natalie Goldberg

It’s been over two years since I started blogging here, and a few months since I started sending out deeply personal newsletters. In that time I have asked either, “What am I feeling right now?” or “How can I help people?” but lately, I have noticed a tendency to only look to the lighter, more positive aspects of life and not enough at the dirty and unpleasant parts.

I’ve started to—in the newsletter I mentioned earlier, hint, hint—but I struggle with it. I try to here, but it doesn’t feel right. Poetry helps, but in fiction, I find it near impossible.

When I think about writing mean or disturbing things, my mind just stops. I feel blocked. I don’t think it’s that I am incapable of feeling hateful and mean, or that I am incapable of imagining doing mean or cruel things, I think I don’t like for others to see that side of me.

Ever since I was a child, I have been “the nice one.” I have been the one to quell conflict not cause them. I have been the one to point others toward a kinder and more empathetic way. I have been this way in all I have ever done, and I never noticed I had been that way in all that I have written too.

But I am trying to write a book, dammit, and at some point, I need to get to the villains! I am trying, but I just can’t see them the way I do all the good guys. I can’t imagine their motives; I can’t follow the ways they might use people up for their own ends. I can’t imagine all the cruel and disturbing things they might do for power, or money, or self-satisfaction.

I am not a perfect person. I have done bad things, and I have hurt people, but I have always felt a nearly crippling guilt afterward. Being cruel has rarely made me feel better. I have a hard time imagining how people can be “evil” and not want to not be evil. Except, I suppose they don’t realize they are evil. They may think they are good, or they are just crazy, and it makes no difference.

So how I am working through this? The way I always do, with practice and a bit of creativity. I am going to try to write about real events and people who disturb me. I am going to spend time examining their motives, the why, and the methods, the how. I’m going to do a very dangerous thing and try to empathize with people who have done horrible things.

While reading through different sites and blogs filled with writing advice, I keep coming across the same suggestion to treat each character as if they think this story is about them. They each have their own motivations and goals. Something is at stake for them all, and throughout the story, many of them will be forced to make choices as their wants and needs are put at risk.

Just like real people, no one is evil for no reason. There is a reason and if I can learn to understand that I might just learn how to tell a real story, yeah?

***

So yeah, I have a newsletter :)

Featured image via Pexels

Biographical information via Wikipedia and Goodreads

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Writer’s Quote Wednesday // Sylvia Plath

Hello, hello, and welcome to the middle of the week, dear readers. If you are feeling a little run down or if Friday is feeling a bit too far away, I encourage you to check out Writer’s Quote Wednesday, a weekly event hosted by Colleen of Silver Threading and Ronovan of Ronovan Writes.

For my contribution this week, I have chosen a quote from the infamous American poet and novelist, Sylvia Plath.

4379Plath was born on October 27, 1932, in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood. Her mother, Aurelia Schober Plath was a second-generation American of Austrian descent, and her father, Otto Plath, was from Grabow, Germany. Plath’s father was an entomologist and a professor of biology at Boston University who authored a book about bumblebees.

Known primarily for her poetry, Plath also wrote a semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. The book’s protagonist, Esther Greenwood, is a bright, ambitious student at Smith College who begins to experience a mental breakdown while interning for a fashion magazine in New York. The plot parallels Plath’s experience interning at Mademoiselle magazine and subsequent mental breakdown and suicide attempt.

Despite her remarkable artistic, academic, and social success at Smith, Plath suffered from severe depression and underwent a period of psychiatric hospitalization. She graduated from Smith with highest honors in 1955 and went on to Newnham College, Cambridge, in England, on a Fulbright fellowship. Here she met and married the English poet Ted Hughes in 1956. For the following two years, she was an instructor in English at Smith College.

In 1960, shortly after Plath and Hughes returned to England from America, her first collection of poems appeared as The Colossus. She also gave birth to a daughter, Frieda Rebecca. Hughes’ and Plath’s son, Nicholas Farrar, was born in 1962.

Plath took her own life on the morning of February 11, 1963. Leaving out bread and milk, she completely sealed the rooms between herself and her sleeping children with “wet towels and cloths.” Plath then placed her head in the oven while the gas was turned on.

“I needed experience. How could I write about life when I’d never had a love affair or a baby or even seen anybody die?”

— Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

A little while ago I signed up to be matched with an Awl Pal through The Awl‘s newsletter. An Awl Pal is basically a pen pal with whom I would email back and forth getting to know a little about them and telling them little bits about myself. We’ve only written back and forth a few times, but it has been fun to hear about the life of someone who lives in a different place and works a different sort of job than I do.

Recently I asked him why he signed up, and he replied that it sounded Romantic and that he is also just plain nosy. Good answer. He asked me in return and in a moment of “thinking I knew my answer until I wrote it down and realized it was something else entirely” I learned that I did it because I wanted to do something new. I did it because nothing new has happened to me in a very long time, and I am desperate for something new.

I have loved the same girl for 14 years, I have worked the same job for over 10, and I have live in the same city of almost my entire life. A lot has happened in my life, but none of it has been very recent.

I wanted this. I wanted the slow and steady, the “same shit, different day’, and the comfort of knowing what was going to happen in every moment of my life. I have too much anxiety, I am too sensitive and too full of fear, to live in a way that at all feels like chaos. I chose this life, and I still want it too, but lately I have wondered if I might have gone too far to the safe side. There might be a way to add an element of surprise and novelty here and there. Not too much but just a little?

I think I may need some new experiences if I want to be a better observer, thinker, and writer.

I get the feeling my mind has grown dusty and stuffy. I get the feeling ideas are lurking around my mind that need to be shaken up and out. I wonder if a few new experiences might light up some neglected parts of my mind. I wonder if seeing something new, talking to someone new, or even just sitting in a new place to do the same things I always do might connect a concept or two and unlock a little potential in me.

I don’t doubt I could write something good the way that I am now. I just think a little push and pull, and little stimulation, and a little excitement, could motivate me, inspire me, and light a good fire under my ass.

No harm in that, right?

***

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Biographical information via Wikipedia and Goodreads

Featured image via Unsplash

Writer’s Quote Wednesday // Vita Sackville-West

Hello, hello, and welcome to the middle of the week, dear readers. If you are feeling a little run down or if Friday is feeling a little too far away, I encourage you to check out Writer’s Quote Wednesday, a weekly event hosted by Colleen of Silver Threading and Ronovan of Ronovan Writes.

For my contribution this week, I have chosen a quote from the author and poet Vita Sackville-West.

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Victoria Sackville-West was born at Knole House near Sevenoaks, Kent, the only child of Victoria and Lionel Edward Sackville-West, 3rd Baron Sackville, who were cousins. Her mother was the illegitimate daughter of Lionel Sackville-West, 2nd Baron Sackville and a Spanish dancer, Josefa de la Oliva (née Durán y Ortega), known as Pepita. Christened Victoria Mary Sackville-West, the girl was known as “Vita” throughout her life to distinguish her from her mother.

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Vita Sackville-West was a prolific author, poet and memoirist in early 20th-Century Britain who is known not only for her writing, but for her not-so-private, private life. While married to the diplomat Harold Nicolson, she conducted a series of scandalous amorous liaisons with many women, including the brilliant Virginia Woolf. They had an open marriage.

Both Sackville-West and her husband had same-sex relationships. She frequently traveled to Europe in the company of one or the other of her lovers and often dressed as a man to be able to gain access to places where only the couples could go.

Gardening, like writing, was a passion Vita cherished with the certainty of a vocation: she wrote books on the topic and constructed the gardens of the castle of Sissinghurst, one of England’s most beautiful gardens at her home.

She published her first book Poems of East and West in 1917. She followed this with a novel, Heritage, in 1919. A second novel, The Heir, dealt with her feelings about her family. Her next book, Knole and the Sackvilles , covered her family history.

The Edwardians and All Passion Spent are perhaps her best-known novels today. In the latter, the elderly Lady Slane courageously embraces a long suppressed sense of freedom and whimsy after a lifetime of convention.

In 1948 she was appointed a Companion of Honour for her services to literature. She continued to develop her garden at Sissinghurst Castle and for many years wrote a weekly gardening column for The Observer. In 1955 she was awarded the Gold Veitch Medal of the Royal Horticultural Society. In her last decade, she published a further biography, Daughter of France and a final novel, No Signposts in the Sea.

She died of cancer on June 2, 1962.

It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by.

Vita Sackville-West, in a letter to Virginia Woolf

Before I get into what this quote means to me, I want to touch on how awesome it is that Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf had an affair. I am probably the last to know about this but I still think it’s a beautiful thing. I mean,  just read these letters! I’m in love with both of them already. *swoon*

Sorry, I get excited when I learn that famous women were just like me.

As for the quote, it’s one of the truest sentences I have ever read on the subject of writing.

Every day without writing is a day not lived to the fullest. Writing gives the day meaning and purpose. It is a way of stopping time so that you can investigate a moment, a lifetime, and everything in between.

Every day without writing is a day that has gone unnoticed and undocumented. The day has slipped through my hands and is all but forgotten. Without writing, I can’t prove it ever happened. I can’t prove I existed at any other time, form, or mindset other than I do at this moment. Without writing, I have lost time, and time is all I have.

Every day without writing is a day I have not been myself. Sometimes that is good, but sometimes it feels like a sin. To let a day go by without pulling yourself out and letting your mind contemplate all that it sees and feels is to commit a cruelty on yourself and the world. When you write, you tell a truth about yourself and all people. To deprive humanity of it is a disservice to the species.

All artist, if and when they are able, should take hold of every day and squeeze all the truth they can from it. We have a responsibility to document the world inside ourselves and the world without. We have a responsibility to preserve time. We have a responsibility not to let a moment go by unnoticed.

No one writer or artist can do it on their own. All creative people must work together and tirelessly to fill every day with all the days that came before, documenting who we are and what we have done, and will do. Make the time matter. Take a bit of your time and share it with someone else. Share it with the whole world. A book, a painting, these things are the closest we have to time travel and proof of the past.

Fact or fiction, it doesn’t matter. It all happened, and it all comes from, and is about, the human mind and experience.

Write every day if you can. Share it if you can too.

Don’t let time slip by unnoticed and empty.

Fill it up with yourself and then pull from it all that you can.

***

P.S. Apparently Woolf even wrote a whole book based on Vita!

The gender-bending character in Woolf’s Orlando, in fact, was based on Sackville-West, and the entire novel is thought to have been written about the affair — so much so that Sackville-West’s son Nigel Nicolson has described it as “the longest and most charming love-letter in literature.”

Brain Pickings

P.S.S. For LOLs you have to check out The Collected Sexts of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf

***

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Quote via A Woman to Know Tinyletter by Julia Carpenter

Biographical information via Wikipedia and Goodreads

Original image via Unsplash

Writer’s Quote Wednesday // Frida Kahlo

Hello, hello, and welcome to the middle of the week, dear readers. If you are feeling a little run down or if Friday is feeling a little too far away, I encourage you to check out Writer’s Quote Wednesday, a weekly event hosted by Colleen of Silver Threading and Ronovan of Ronovan Writes. For my contribution this week, I have chosen a quote from the Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo.

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Frida-KahloFrida Kahlo was born on July 6, 1907, in her parents’ home, La Casa Azul, in Coyoacán.Kahlo contracted polio at age six, which left her right leg thinner than the left; she disguised this later in life by wearing long skirts or trousers. It has been conjectured that she was born with spina bifida, a congenital condition that could have affected both spinal and leg development.

On September 17, 1925, when Kahlo was 18 years old, she was riding in a bus that collided with a trolley car. She suffered a broken spinal column, a broken collarbone, broken ribs, eleven fractures in her right leg, a crushed and dislocated right foot, and a dislocated shoulder. In addition, an iron handrail pierced her abdomen, compromising her reproductive capacity. The accident left her in a great deal of pain, and she spent three months recovering in a full body cast. She had relapses of extreme pain for the remainder of her life.

After her accident, Kahlo abandoned the study of medicine and began to paint, to occupy herself during her three-month immobilization. Her mother had a special easel made so she could paint in bed, and her father lent her his box of oil paints and some brushes. Self-portraits were a dominant motif then.

Kahlo created at least 140 paintings, along with dozens of drawings and studies. Of her paintings, 55 are self-portraits which often incorporate symbolic portrayals of physical and psychological wounds.

In 1929 Kahlo married the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. He encouraged her artistic endeavors and had a great influence on Kahlo’s painting style. The bisexual Kahlo had affairs with both men and women. For her part, Kahlo was furious when she learned that Rivera had an affair with her younger sister, Cristina. The couple divorced in November 1939, but remarried in December 1940. Their second marriage was as troubled as the first.

Kahlo died on July 13, 1954, soon after turning 47. In his autobiography, Diego Rivera wrote that the day Kahlo died was the most tragic day of his life, and that, too late, he had realized that the most wonderful part of his life had been his love for her.

Although she has long been recognized as an important painter, public awareness of her work has become more widespread since the 1970s. Her “Blue” house in Coyoacán, Mexico City is a museum, donated by Diego Rivera upon his death in 1957.

“I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.”

Frida Kahlo

I don’t remember when I first encountered a Frida Kahlo painting, but it feels like I have always loved her work. I love that she paints herself, and I love that I can feel her pain when I look at her work. At some point I did research who she was. I read her incredible story and I watched the movie made about her life too. I became obsessed and I now count her amoung my greatest heros and influences.

I once described her to someone who had never heard of her, telling him what I loved about her, and his response was: “so you love her for her pain?”. At first, I became defensive. I didn’t love her for her pain, did I? When I thought about it I had to admit I did, but I also realized that it was only half of the story.

I loved her pain, which became an intrinsic part of who she was, but I also loved her for her ability to translate it into something that could be grasped by those around her and for future generations. She learned to paint her pain so that the world could see that she was hurt, and she learned to paint her overcoming of it too. She painted who she was and when we look at her work we can see inside her and inside of all of us.

Frida Kahlo is all of us. She used her pain as a chance to learn a skill, to explore who she was, and to paint hers, and every human’s, condition.

I’m the kind of person who you might call pessimistic at first. I see suffering every where I go. I believe pain and suffering are a few of the only conditions every human shares with every other, regardless of our position in this world. The ability to see past that pain is something every human is capable of as well.

Pain and suffering give each of us a chance to contemplate our choices, our responsibilities, and our reasons for doing everything we do. Pain and suffering give us a chance to take those same questions and apply them to society and all people. Pain and suffering are what help us grow and eventually turn into hope, joy, and accomplishment.

I want to be like Kahlo. I want to take my pain and transform it into something that tells a truth about all of humanity.

I want to tell so beautiful a truth that it transcends race, class, culture, and time.

Happy Birthday Friday Kahlo.

You were such a lovely woman and a great influence on the kind of woman I would like to be one day. I wish I could have known you.

toni_frissell_-_frida_kahlo2c_seated_next_to_an_agave
Toni Frissell [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

the-two-frida
Frida Kahlo, Las Dos Fridas 1939

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If you like this post, consider signing up for my newsletter. It’s a bit of experimental writing from me—more emotional, more private—and some interesting reads from a few other people. Made with lots of love, every week ♥

Biographical information via Wikipedia and Goodreads

Featured image via by martinak15 [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Writer’s Quote Wednesday // Joseph Heller

 

Hello, hello, and welcome to the middle of the week, dear readers. If you are feeling a little run down or if Friday is feeling a little too far away, I encourage you to check out Writer’s Quote Wednesday, a weekly event hosted by Colleen of Silver Threading and Ronovan of Ronovan Writes. My contribution is from the American satirical novelist, Joseph Heller.

Joseph Heller
Author Joseph Heller in his publisher’s office in New York City on October 9, 1974. (AP Photo/ Jerry Mosey)

Joseph Heller was born on May 1, 1923, in Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York, the son of poor Jewish parents from Russia. Even as a child, he loved to write; as a teenager, he wrote a story about the Russian invasion of Finland and sent it to the New York Daily News, which rejected it.

After graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1941, Heller spent the next year working as a blacksmith’s apprentice, a messenger boy, and a filing clerk. In 1942, at age 19, he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps. Two years later he was sent to the Italian Front, where he flew 60 combat missions as a B-25 bombardier.

After the war, Heller studied English at the University of Southern California and NYU on the G.I. Bill. In 1949, he received his M.A. in English from Columbia University. Following his graduation, he spent a year as a Fulbright scholar in St Catherine’s Society at the University of Oxford in England, and, after returning home, he taught composition at Pennsylvania State University for two years. He also taught fiction and dramatic writing at Yale.

He then briefly worked for Time Inc., before taking a job as a copywriter at a small advertising agency, where he worked alongside future novelist Mary Higgins Clark. At home, Heller wrote. He was first published in 1948 when The Atlantic ran one of his short stories. The story nearly won the “Atlantic First”.

He is probably best known for his satirical novel Catch-22. Set during World War II, it mainly follows the life of Captain John Yossarian, a U.S. Army Air Forces B-25 bombardier. The novel looks into the experiences of Yossarian and the other airmen in the camp, who attempt to maintain their sanity while fulfilling their service requirements so that they may return home. The novel has frequently been cited as one of the greatest literary works of the twentieth century.

He died of a heart attack at his home in East Hampton, on Long Island, in December 1999, shortly after the completion of his final novel, Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man.

On hearing of Heller’s death, his friend Kurt Vonnegut said, “Oh, God, how terrible. This is a calamity for American literature.”

I’m not sure that my motivations then for becoming a writer were worthy ones. I wanted to be a writer because I felt I had a gift, and I really wanted to make money and have some kind of status.

Joseph Heller, Rolling Stone Interview: Checking in with Author Joseph Heller

For the past month or so I have been trying very hard to get through Heller’s famous Catch-22. It’s not an easy read for me—a lot of characters and a lot of dialog, a lot of jumping around in the chronology of events, and a lot of military talk I don’t understand—but the author has become a bit of an obsession for me.

The fact that he wrote his books so slowly is interesting and gives me hope in my own endeavors. I also like that he wrote the books that he wanted to write, in the way he wanted to write them, and he was able to find success in doing it. He had a lot of strong political views, and while this book is a hard read for me, I feel it is an important one.

When I read this quote, it stuck with me; I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I just love the honesty of it. To say “Yes, I wanted to write because I enjoy writing but I also do this because I want to know what it is like to succeed and reap the financial and status benefits that come along with it” seems like a very taboo thing for a writer to be saying.

Everything I have read has said that writers should not concern themselves at all with money. That no one should go into this looking for fame. Everything I have read tells me that to do so means certain failure.

Now, I’ve only just started collecting ideas and getting used to the idea of being someone who is “writing a book”. Right now, and for a long while, I’ll be at this stage, the fun stage. The stage where everything is possible. The stage before I have to start thinking about what I can’t do.

For now, I am only dreaming of what it means to be a writer. I am a “newb” and a bit ignorant of what it will take and whether I have it in me to do this. I don’t pretend to know anything about what other writers think, or what our goals should be. I just like the honesty of this quote.

I love to write, and there’s a lot I want to say and a lot I want to make people think and feel. I want to write for all the good, and moral reasons any writer should want to write. But I’m human and as someone who concerns herself with who we all are deep down, where there are no expectations, where there is no good and bad, where there is no shame. Those parts of us that we hate to admit are there because we’re told they are “bad”. I have to be honest with myself and admit that I too dream of status and money.

If I’m honest, part of me wants to be a writer because then I get to say I’m a writer. I daydream about it. I think about the way people will say my name. My girlfriend will tell everyone she meets that she is dating Lisa Blair, the writer. My mom will be so proud of me; and she’ll tell everyone her daughter is Lisa Blair, the writer. People will read my books and tell me how good they are, how much emotion they felt, and how talented I am. Everyone will love me. People will look to me for advice, and they will hold me up as an example of intelligence and hard work.

I don’t like to focus on those reasons for writing but they are real, and they are motivating. I can’t deny that all the work I do is in the hope that that dream will come true, and a lot of the fear I feel is the fear that that dream will never come true. I don’t think it is “bad” to want the money and the fame. I think the reason we have to avoid focusing on it is that both the success and the failure of our work can be paralyzing.

I would guess that all writers have that part of themselves that is looking for money and status. That’s something we are all motivated by every day. We work our day jobs to earn a paycheck. We work hard to impress our bosses in the hopes we’ll get more respect, more responsibility, more power, and more money. It’s a human thing to want, a human thing to hope for, and like all other human things it’s not the wanting that is good or bad, it’s what we do to get what we want that matters.

Heller might have wanted status and money, but he didn’t compromise himself to get it. He focused on the goal and took his time to do it right. He put himself into his work and in reading his book I can tell that this was written the way it was because of who Heller was, not because of what the public may have wanted.

I hope to do the same.

***

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If you’re interested, here’s another quote from Joseph Heller that inspired me.

Oh! and the interview I got this quote from took place initially in 1981. If you have a little time, I highly suggest you read it. It’s an interesting bit of history and Heller’s views on the future of America echo some of our current concerns.

Featured image via Tracy O

Biographical information via Wikipedia and Goodreads

Writer’s Quote Wednesday // James Wright

Hello, hello, and welcome to the middle of the week, dear readers. If you are feeling a little run down or if Friday is feeling a little too far away, I encourage you to check out Writer’s Quote Wednesday, a weekly event hosted by Colleen of Silver Threading and Ronovan of Ronovan Writes. My contribution is from the Australian novelist Peter Carey.

James_Wright_(poet)James Arlington Wright was born on December 13, 1927, in Martins Ferry, Ohio. His father worked for fifty years at a glass factory, and his mother left school at fourteen to work in a laundry; neither attended school beyond the eighth grade.

While in high school in 1943 Wright suffered a nervous breakdown and missed a year of school. When he graduated in 1946, a year late, he joined the Army and was stationed in Japan during the American occupation.

He then attended Kenyon College on the G.I. Bill, and studied under John Crowe Ransom. He graduated cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1952, then married another Martins Ferry native, Liberty Kardules. The two traveled to Austria, where, on a Fulbright Fellowship, Wright studied the works of Theodor Storm and Georg Trakl at the University of Vienna.

He returned to the U.S. and earned master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Washington, studying with Theodore Roethke and Stanley Kunitz. He went on to teach at The University of Minnesota, Macalester College, and New York City’s Hunter College.

His poetry often deals with the disenfranchised, or the American outsider. Wright suffered from depression and bipolar mood disorders and also battled alcoholism his entire life. He experienced several nervous breakdowns, was hospitalized, and was subjected to electroshock therapy.

His dark moods and focus on emotional suffering were part of his life and often the focus of his poetry, although given the emotional turmoil he experienced personally, his poems can be optimistic in expressing a faith in life and human transcendence. In The Branch Will Not Break, the enduring human spirit becomes thematic. Nevertheless, the last line of his poem “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” famously ends, “I have wasted my life.”

Technically, Wright was an innovator, especially in the use of his titles, first lines, and last lines, which he used to great dramatic effect in defense of the lives of the disenfranchised. He is equally well known for his tender depictions of the bleak landscapes of the post-industrial American Midwest. Since his death, Wright has developed a cult following, transforming him into a seminal writer of significant influence. Hundreds of writers gathered annually for decades following his death to pay tribute at the James Wright Poetry Festival held from 1981 through 2007 in Martins Ferry.

His 1972 Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize. In addition to his other awards, Wright received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.

Human beings are unhappily part of nature, perhaps nature become conscious of itself. Oh, how I would love to be a chickadee! But I can’t be a chickadee, all I can be is what I am. I love the natural world and I’m conscious of the pain in it. So I’m a nature poet who writes about human beings in nature. I love Nietzsche, who called man “the sick animal.”

// James Wright, The Art of Poetry No. 19

Sometimes I read something and I know I identify with it, I know I agree with it, and I know that it is saying something I feel deeply, but I can’t articulate exactly why or how I know any of that.

I am fascinated by people. The way I see it, people are a part of nature that doesn’t know it is a part of nature. We live in a strange place between instinct and reasoning. We understand the order and laws of the universe, but we cannot control our emotions and act in unpredictable ways. We are a part of nature that has become lost but can’t ever find our way back. Instead, we have to make our own place and the search for harmony with Earth and the rest of the animal kingdom and in that search, there is a pain.

The specifics of this pain varies from person to person but there are similarities, and those similarities (and what pain is specific to me) is what I want to write about.

There is certain kind of writer we picture when we talk of a “nature writer”. We picture someone like a Henry David Thoreau type, a naturalist who pushes for simple living and natural surroundings, a change from our current course of action. I say that wherever humans are, there is nature also, and whatever we do is natural as well. We are a part of nature, and we take it with us wherever we go and express it in all that we do. To write of the human condition is to write about nature.

So I too am a “nature writer” who writes about the human’s place in the natural world and all the ways we express or forget that and how that gives us joy or causes our suffering.

***

Featured image via Unsplash

Biographical information via Wikipedia and Goodreads

Writers Quote Wednesday // Joseph Heller

Hello, hello, and welcome to the middle of the week, dear readers. If you are feeling a little run down or if Friday is feeling a little too far away, I encourage you to check out Writer’s Quote Wednesday, a weekly event hosted by Colleen of Silver Threading and Ronovan of Ronovan Writes. My contribution is from the  American satirical novelist, Joseph Heller.

Joseph Heller
Author Joseph Heller in his publisher’s office in New York City on October 9, 1974. (AP Photo/ Jerry Mosey)

Joseph Heller was born on May 1, 1923, in Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York, the son of poor Jewish parents from Russia. Even as a child, he loved to write; as a teenager, he wrote a story about the Russian invasion of Finland and sent it to the New York Daily News, which rejected it.

After graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1941, Heller spent the next year working as a blacksmith’s apprentice, a messenger boy, and a filing clerk. In 1942, at age 19, he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps. Two years later he was sent to the Italian Front, where he flew 60 combat missions as a B-25 bombardier.

After the war, Heller studied English at the University of Southern California and NYU on the G.I. Bill. In 1949, he received his M.A. in English from Columbia University. Following his graduation, he spent a year as a Fulbright scholar in St Catherine’s Society in the University of Oxford in England, and, after returning home, he taught composition at Pennsylvania State University for two years. He also taught fiction and dramatic writing at Yale.

He then briefly worked for Time Inc., before taking a job as a copywriter at a small advertising agency, where he worked alongside future novelist Mary Higgins Clark. At home, Heller wrote. He was first published in 1948 when The Atlantic ran one of his short stories. The story nearly won the “Atlantic First”.

He is probably best known for his satirical novel Catch-22. Set during World War II, it mainly follows the life of Captain John Yossarian, a U.S. Army Air Forces B-25 bombardier. The novel looks into the experiences of Yossarian and the other airmen in the camp, who attempt to maintain their sanity while fulfilling their service requirements so that they may return home. The novel has been frequently cited as one of the greatest literary works of the twentieth century.

He died of a heart attack at his home in East Hampton, on Long Island, in December 1999, shortly after the completion of his final novel, Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man.

On hearing of Heller’s death, his friend Kurt Vonnegut said, “Oh, God, how terrible. This is a calamity for American literature.”

I think of writing as private enterprise . . . since so much comes from rumination.

// Joseph Heller, The Art of Fiction No. 51

This morning my girlfriend and I had a talk about her sharing a piece I wrote for a contest on her personal Facebook page. I was totally against it. We went back and forth, her wanting to share with the people in her circle that I had been brave to enter the contest, and good enough to win. I said no because a lot of her “friends” are not close friends and worse than that they don’t understand that:

  1. You can be a writer and not be writing an amazing best-selling novel at the moment. You can be a writer and never be writing that best-selling novel.
  2. There is more to becoming a writer than just sitting down and pulling a book out of your head. It takes time and practice. Very few of us are geniuses you know.
  3. Just because someone writes doesn’t mean they are a good writer, and even if they are a good writer that doesn’t mean they know they are, or feel like they are.
  4. Just because they wrote something and won something doesn’t mean they want to talk about it.

I think any creative person has difficulty talking about what they do with people who don’t do the same thing. They have no idea how it works but somehow they know exactly what you should be doing or where you should be by now in your progress toward fame and riches. They think it’s great what you do but they also talk about it like it’s kind of stupid. Oh, and they want to know everything you are working on and whether or not you can help them do the same.

I hate to rant about it. A lot of this is just pure insecurity and fear. It’s hard telling people that you want to be a writer and then a year from then they are looking at you wondering why you haven’t been published yet. They don’t know that you have no idea how to write a book, you have no idea what kind of writer you want to be, you don’t even know how to punctuate your dialogue correctly! They don’t get that you are going on nothing but a vague idea of a story and a feeling that this is what you want to do.

They think you are failing.

And you think you are too.

And all of this gets into your head and you can’t think or move forward anymore. So you stop talking about it. You blog quietly, you enter contests quietly, you write essays and poems in small print on notecards you carry with you that you hurriedly put away if anyone even looks at them like they want to ask a question. You keep it a secret as if you are ashamed. You keep your creativity away from people who will do nothing but question it and make you doubt yourself. You do it so you can be free to create. But you know you can’t be free forever.

I have to stop keeping it such a secret, I know that. But for me, writing isn’t something I want to talk about all the time. I need privacy and I need to not be influenced by what other people think I should be. There has to be a balance. There has to be a way to keep my process intact and tamper proof while also sharing myself and educating others about where I am going creatively.

Maybe one day I will get it right.

But today I am letting my girlfriend, who is proud of me and wants to share my small success with the world, do so. I have to start somewhere.

***

Featured image via Unsplash.com

Margaret Atwood on Writing Poetry

Margaret Atwood on what it feels like to write poetry.

Hello, hello, and welcome to the middle of the week, dear readers. If you are feeling a little run down or if Friday is feeling a little too far away, I encourage you to check out Writer’s Quote Wednesday, a weekly event hosted by Colleen of Silver Threading and Ronovan of Ronovan Writes. My contribution is from the Canadian poet and novelist Margaret Atwood.

mg_5527Margaret Eleanor Atwood was born on November 18, 1939, in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Because of her father’s work and research in forest entomology, Atwood spent much of her childhood in the backwoods of northern Quebec and traveling back and forth between Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie, and Toronto. She did not attend school full-time until she was eight years old.

Atwood began writing plays and poems at the age of six and realized she wanted to write professionally by the time she was 16.

In 1957, she began studying at Victoria College in the University of Toronto, where she published poems and articles in Acta Victoriana, the college literary journal. She graduated in 1961 with a Bachelor of Arts in English and a minor in philosophy and French.

She is the author of more than thirty-five volumes of poetry, children’s literature, fiction, and non-fiction and is perhaps best known for her novels, which include The Edible Woman, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Blind Assassin, which won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2000.

She has also published fifteen books of poetry. Many of her poems have been inspired by myths and fairy tales, which have been interests of hers from an early age. She has also published four collections of stories and three collections of unclassifiable short prose works.

Atwood is also the inventor, and developer, of the LongPen and associated technologies that facilitate the remote robotic writing of documents.

She is a noted humanist, and, in 1987, she was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association.

INTERVIEWER

How do the activities of writing poetry and writing prose differ for you?

ATWOOD

My theory is that they involve two different areas of the brain, with some overlap. When I am writing fiction, I believe I am much better organized, more methodical—one has to be when writing a novel. Writing poetry is a state of free float.

— Margaret Atwood, The Art of Fiction No. 121

My girlfriend asked me the other day why I don’t write poetry as much anymore. I told her I don’t like it. Then she asked me why I ever wrote it all if I don’t like it. I told her I write it because I like writing poetry. She was understandably confused.

The thing I hate about poetry is also the thing I love about it and Margaret Atwood put into words. Writing poetry is like free floating. You can’t hold on to any one thing. You can’t try too hard to stabilize yourself. You have to let yourself go and move freely from one thought or feeling to the next caring only about what the connections mean.

You have to let yourself slide back and forth along the piece tweaking here and there until you feel your feelings coming through in the words you have strung together. There is no research, there is no grounding topic or prompt, there is only a vast sea of time, and space, and emotion inside of you. You have to let the current take you where it will. You must passively ride the waves and eddies and concentrate only on documenting what you find there.

Sounds easy enough, right?

It would be if it weren’t for the pesky human need for control and the pesky human tendency to second guess everything.

Poetry is hard because you set out wanting to say a certain thing and you end up saying another thing entirely. You think you know how you feel until you start writing and words flow out of you that you didn’t set out to say. See, you want to swim through the sea rather that float. You want to reach a predetermined destination. You know what you want to say and you intend to say it!

Except that is not how poetry works. Poetry is all patience and free float. You can’t force it and you can’t fight it. When I feel like having a little control over what I write I try fiction. I will get a few surprises here and there but through editing, I can rein things in and stay on course. If I want a lot of control I switch to nonfiction. I think I am the type of writer who has to try all three. If I want a lot of control I switch to nonfiction. Where there is research and very strict steps to take. I like to know where I am going every step of the way.

I think I am the type of writer who has to try all three.

I love to swim but it feels damn good to free float too.

***

Check out my weekly-ish newsletter for interesting reads + some of my own existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering, or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

Check out: Margaret Atwood on Existing in Two Places

Featured image via Unsplash

Biographical information via Wikipedia and Goodreads

James Baldwin on What Artists Know

Hello, hello, and welcome to the middle of the week, dear readers. If you are feeling a little run down or if Friday is feeling a little too far away, I encourage you to check out Writer’s Quote Wednesday, a weekly event hosted by Colleen of Silver Threading and Ronovan of Ronovan Writes. My contribution is from the American novelist, poet, and social critic James Baldwin.

10427James Arthur Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, after his mother, Emma Berdis Jones, left his biological father because of his drug abuse and moved to Harlem, New York City. There, she married a preacher, David Baldwin. The family was very poor. His mother reportedly never told him the name of his biological father.

Baldwin spent much time caring for his several younger brothers and sisters. At the age of 10, he was teased and abused by two New York police officers, an instance of racist harassment by the NYPD that he would experience again as a teenager and document in his essays. His adoptive father, whom Baldwin in essays called simply his father, appears to have treated him — by comparison with his siblings — with great harshness.

Baldwin developed a passion for reading at an early age, and demonstrated a gift for writing during his school years. He attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, where he worked on the school’s magazine with future famous photographer Richard Avedon. He published numerous poems, short stories and plays in the magazine.

In 1953, Baldwin’s first and probably best-known novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, was published. His first collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son appeared two years later. He continued to experiment with literary forms throughout his career, publishing poetry and plays as well as the fiction and essays for which he was known. He garnered acclaim for his insights on race, spirituality, and humanity. Other novels included Giovanni’s Room,Another Country and Just Above My Head.

Baldwin’s novels and plays fictionalize fundamental personal questions and dilemmas amid complex social and psychological pressures thwarting the equitable integration of not only blacks, but also of gay and bisexual men, while depicting some internalized obstacles to such individuals’ quests for acceptance. Such dynamics are prominent in Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room, written in 1956 well before gay rights were widely espoused in America.

Having lived in France, he died on December 1, 1987, in Saint-Paul de Vence.

The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t. Statesmen don’t. Priests don’t. Union leaders don’t. Only poets.

// James Baldwin

I got this quote from a beautiful talk Baldwin gave at New York City’s Community Church on creativity and what it costs to be a true artist. I found it on the Brain Pickings blog from a post titled James Baldwin on the Artist’s Struggle for Integrity and How It Illuminates the Universal Experience of What It Means to Be Human, whew! I urge you to listen to it, I have three times now and each time I feel more inspired and motivated.

In part of the talk, Baldwin tells us that most people live in darkness and it is the artists job to bring the to the light. The light is all the that makes us, us. It is the feeling of being encased in flesh and unbound in mind. It is all we easily forget we are and could be. You have to tell the truth of what it means to be a human being. It is an artist’s responsibility to do this and whether or not you asked for it, you must accept.

In a way, it made me think of Spiderman. You know, when Uncle ben told Peter that “with great power came great responsibility”. Peter didn’t ask for his powers, he didn’t ask to be a hero, but he was given the job all the same. All of a sudden his life he would be spent saving people and trying to make the word a better place. It wasn’t at all what he wanted to do. He wouldn’t be thanked, he would more than likely be hated, and he would never be normal again, but none of that mattered. He had to do it.

Artists, writer, poets, musician, we all see the world differently and we have the ability to share our insight. That is a superpower too, and whether we like it or not, whether we asked for it or not whether we even want to or not, we have to do it. We have to do it authentically and we have to do it with money and fame being only secondary goals. We have to do it because we love it. That is the only way to do it right.

We have to because without artists showing people the light we might all be lost to the darkness.

***

Please be sure to check out the post on Brainpickings and listen to the talk below.

Featured image via Christian Gonzalez

Biographical information via Wikipedia, Biography, and Goodreads

Writer’s Quote Wednesday // Peter Carey

Hello, hello, and welcome to the middle of the week, dear readers. If you are feeling a little run down or if Friday is feeling a little too far away, I encourage you to check out Writer’s Quote Wednesday, a weekly event hosted by Colleen of Silver Threading and Ronovan of Ronovan Writes. My contribution is from the Australian novelist Peter Carey.

Photograph by John DoneganPeter Philip Carey was born in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, on May 7th, 1943. He was educated at the local state school until the age of eleven and then became a boarder at Geelong Grammar School. He was a student there between 1954 and 1960.

In 1961, he studied science for a single unsuccessful year at Monash University. It was at university that he met his first wife, Leigh Weetman, who was studying German and philosophy, and who also dropped out. He was then employed by an advertising agency where he began to receive his literary education, meeting Faulkner, Joyce, Kerouac and other writers he had previously been unaware of. He was nineteen.

For the next thirteen years, he wrote fiction at night and weekends, working in many advertising agencies in Melbourne, London, and Sydney. During this time, he read widely, particularly the works of Samuel Beckett, William Faulkner, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, and Gabriel García Márquez, and began writing on his own, receiving his first rejection slip in 1964, the same year he married Weetman. Finally, The Fat Man in History — a short story collection — was published in 1974. This slim book made him an overnight success.

From 1976, Carey worked one week a month for Grey Advertising, then, in 1981 he established a small business where his generous partner required him to work only two afternoons a week. Thus between 1976 and 1990, he was able to pursue literature obsessively. It was during this period that he wrote War Crimes, Bliss, Illywhacker, Oscar, and Lucinda. Illywhacker was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Oscar and Lucinda won it. Uncomfortable with this success he began work on The Tax Inspector.

Carey has won the Miles Franklin Award three times and is frequently named as Australia’s next contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Carey is one of only four writers to have won the Booker Prize twice—the others being J. G. Farrell, J. M. Coetzee and Hilary Mantel.

“When I write I look at what’s lying on the floor of my life”

// Peter Carey, The Art of Fiction No. 188

With writing and blogging, it can feel like you have nothing to say or nothing to share. You look out of the windows of your soul, out into the world, hoping to find something worth turning into an epic. Something other people don’t see, something you see in just the right way. You hope something out there will spark something inside of you and turn you into an overnight success too.

But you can’t see the things no one else has seen and you watch ideas pass you by because you have no idea what the mean. You don’t know how to turn them, shape them, or make them something bigger through words on a screen. So you look to the sky.

You look up and plead with the Gods to give you the spark you need. You want the gift of creativity and of genius. You shake your fist and scream your frustration when no answer comes to you.

The Gods do not care about your plans. They will not give you what you must work harder to find. Writing is hard magic to wield and only the worthy, the ones who know the gift is not given but must be sought after in the right places, will know it’s power.

I will tell you a secret, though. The answer is not outside nor will you find it in the sky. The answer is in you and in all you have felt and been through.

Look among the discarded moments littering the floor of your life. Pick each one up and look it over again. See it with new eyes and with a new heart. Notice every detail. Pick up another moment, one you thought was nothing but trash. Combine it with another, or pull it apart. Shape it, transform it, and make it something new.

There are many ideas around, hundreds walk by you every day, but you must start with your own story.

Look inside yourself and take the things you didn’t think mattered and make them grand.

At least….that’s the way that I would like to do it.