Archive for January, 2008

Practicing love

January 31, 2008

Spent about eight hours at my desk yesterday without moving except to get coffee and sodas. I was doing a final revision on my story Mackerel Sky which I’m going to send off today.

Busy today … a meeting, trip to the post office, a story to edit and lots of calls to make. I hoped to wake up earlier but it’s so easy to sleep in the winter.

I read yesterday about a routine day for the Dalai Lama … he wakes at 3:30 a.m. for prayers, walks every day for 1 1/2 hours, spends several hours reading sacred scriptures and in meditation.

I’ve been working on some of his concepts, especially the idea of being “wisely selfish.” The Dalai Lama says that when you place others above yourself, the result is that you are happier.

The book I’m reading right now, The Essential Dala Lama, contains a chapter on how to develop bodhichitta, which is loosely, good will and love toward others.

There are several ways to think about others to help develop concern for them. He suggests that in the end, compassion should be a rational response and that we should not rely on spontaneous emotion, because that is changing.

Living by rationality … instead of by depending on emotional inspiration for everything … can bring a lot of advantages.

A Very Big Read

January 30, 2008

I can’t remember when I’ve met so many wonderful people as I did last night, when I spoke at the Lenoir-Jones Big Read kick-off reception to introduce this year’s book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston.

We had a good discussion of the book and of Ms. Hurston’s times. I enjoyed the collection of vintage hats on display and which everyone wore. It was a lot of fun and I so appreciate their hospitality. It was a lively look at a golden era, the 1920s and 1930s, the days of flappers and the Harlem Renaissance, and a chance to pay tribute to a brave, noble, writer.

A story and photos from the event appear in today’s Kinston Free Press.

This morning … though I shouldn’t … I am taking several hours to revise a short story, Mackerel Sky, to get it ready to send off tomorrow for a judging. I wasn’t planning to do so, but something said, just get the story revised and put it in the mail. It’s a nice story that may have a chance and keeping it locked up in my office isn’t doing anyone any good.

The story is about a father and daughter who both are in the town where they once lived, when a crisis brings them together. The daughter is very sick and her father can’t understand what’s going on. They’ve been apart for many years and he wants to remember their good times together, but finds he can’t remember much of his life at all, as if he’d been a ghost throughout.

It may fall short, but it is one of my best so far … a starting point in some ways for what’s possible with enough work and thought.

An uncommon voice

January 29, 2008

Last fall I received an invitation to speak in Kinston as part of Lenoir and Jones counties’  Big Read events.

The Big Read invites a community to read a single book together and this year, it was Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston.

Published in 1937, this book and Ms. Hurston are often lumped into the great category of the Harlem Renaissance.

It’s true that the Harlem Renaissance was a great flowering of black talent. There was a freedom of expression in New York and other northern cities that offered blacks, at last, a sense they were part of the world and not just watchers and servants.

That era, roughly during the 1920s and 1930s, also opened the door to black creative voices. Because black culture and writing became fashionable, it attracted the attention of the white intelligentsia and patrons who could promote and fund it.

Enter Ms. Hurston. She left her Florida home at 14 years old, joined a traveling musical troupe and made her way to Baltimore, Md., and then to Howard University in D.C. By 1925 she arrived in New York city.

In New York, she began to flourish and her writings were published. She studied black culture as an anthropology student and won a Guggenheim fellowship to Haiti, where she studied voodoo, or “hoodoo” as it was known then.

She refused to be a “good girl” and write in the expected ways. Instead, Ms. Hurston chose to write about ordinary blacks and their struggles. She did not elevate them above real life, and for that, was criticized. She did not have a social agenda in her writing.

The novel I read, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was difficult to begin because it was written with a heavy dialect, or idiom.

But how grateful I am that I was in some ways forced to go beyond my own comfortable box. Once I became used to the dialect, I had no problem reading it.

Now that I have read it, I much better understand the importance of hearing different voices. Especially for a writer.

Ms. Hurston wrote a slim, poetic novel that for its story and courage, is an American sister to the great Russian epics. Instead of snow, we have rain and mud. Instead of Russian peasants, we have blacks and Jim Crow.

On a Monday

January 28, 2008

My desk is covered with “to-do” piles as this week opens. After the bliss of the holidays — redoing my office, working on the novel again, freedom of thought and time — the month of January brought several big projects and the demands of real life again.

I love the creative feeling that comes when there’s a lull in professional projects, and all these obligations are a little depressing.

At the same time, I understand that too many unstructured hours can easily become stagnation.

Idleness can suck the life out of writing. With too much ease, what urgency is there?

It’s so necessary to keep a balance, and there will always be times of imbalance … when the professional projects take over and I’m working through my weekends … or, times when there are fewer projects and more time for the novel and stories.

On to the week.

AHEAD: Zora Neale Hurston and Their Eyes Were Watching God

Unwelcome delays

January 25, 2008

Yesterday’s post talked about the many ways I fail to say anything meaningful when writing. How does that happen?

When writing articles, one of the hardest choices — some would say THE hardest choice — is knowing how to start the thing.

Do I use a straightforward sentence? Do I use a delayed lead? Do I start with one person’s story?

Not only do I have several options, but there are also the voices of 20 years of editors screaming at me: Don’t back into your lead. Don’t start with a prepositional phrase. Don’t start with quotes. Don’t use passive voice. Get into it quicker. You get the picture.

That’s one of the reasons I believe we hate to write. Not only is it a pretty grueling process, but most people have experienced nothing but criticism and grief for their efforts.

I have a personal saying that goes, Easy to criticize, hard to do.

People love to stand courtside, yammering about how badly the team is playing. Have you every tried to outrun five guys dribbling a ball while the shot clock is ticking and the other team is trying to foul you so hard your nose bleeds?

Back, though, to the point at hand. (I guess it’s no surprise it’s taken me so long to get here.) We find it very difficult to get down to business in writing. I have so many choices I am frozen trying to figure out the best way to open the article. Or, once I get started, I find myself spending paragraph after paragraph in transition, that is, trying to get from one vague point to another.

I’ve found that to get started writing any article, I sit down and start pecking. Usually I find the lead somewhere around the fourth or fifth paragraph. So I just go back to the top and delete until I get to the good stuff. Or, I’ll take all that extended introduction and see if it fits somewhere in the middle of the article, as transition, or as second and third leads.

I have to be very careful to take a hard look at an article, once written, and ask myself, Am I saying anything of value here?

Sometimes that’s a question that’s best left unanswered.

Getting to the point

January 24, 2008

I once heard that the first three movements of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony were just the composer’s effort to get to the point — the fourth movement and chorale.

Thinking of these three great movements as an extended introduction Beethoven couldn’t get beyond gives something to think about.

In writing, I often go all over the place trying to say something. I set things up like a comedian, but never arrive at the punch line. I offer some background, but have no point for it. The background consumes everything I had to say.

What I realize is that the information is not the problem. Rather, it’s the approach. It’s a failure to get to the point.

What is behind this lack of a point? Why do I wander all over the map, saying a lot but avoiding specifics?

I once had an editor who was horrid, rude and intolerable. No matter — he taught me a lot.

He introduced me to the concept of a “nut graph,” which is a paragraph, say three or four paragraphs into the story, in which you sum up what happened, where, and why it mattered.

This simple “nut graph” has kept me grounded through many stories, long and short. At some point, you have to say where you are.

A professor put it this way. He said that in our research papers, we should be like a preacher, “Who tells you what he’s going to say, then says it, then tells you what he said.”

Sometimes, we hear a lot of “blah blah blah.” I think it’s because we’re not getting to the point.

AHEAD: What are we afraid of?

Many voices

January 23, 2008

Another language is another soul, said Charlemagne. What brought me back to French language last spring was not a romantic ideal, but something more profound.

When hearing, reading and speaking French, a part of me can breathe. It’s a part that otherwise stays hidden, cooped up inside, a part I never knew existed, really, until I learned another language.

When I spoke Czech, I also discovered another part of my spirit. The Czech language is very personal and intimate; it changes so frequently that everyone who speaks it conjures up their own inflections, diminutives of nouns, nicknames and ways to express themselves.

My Czech was never very good, but I did manage to communicate with others and once I could, I formed many deeply personal relationships.

French letters

January 22, 2008

At 14 and starting the ninth grade, I found myself in a most unexpected classroom with an extraordinary teacher.

It was French 1 and the teacher was Helen Nicholson. Surrounding us were not the ordinary concrete walls of the other classrooms, bleak and gray. Posted on them instead were posters of French cafes, reproductions of great French art, portraits of writers and watercolor scenes of life in Paris.

For this eastern North Carolina girl, it confirmed my suspicion that there was a world beyond the tobacco fields I grew up with, that there were places with things to do other than go to the mall on Friday nights, that there were elegant, artistic, informed people out there I could meet one day.

I selected French as my language of choice the year before. “What will you do with French,” everyone said to me then and for years to come. “It’s not very practical.”

I didn’t care. I loved it even before I knew what it was. I loved the culture without knowing why.

Throughout the four years of high school, I worked like a horse on my French. I conjugated verbs in each of 16 tenses and modes; I learned vocabulary, spellings, masculine and feminine.

As I wrote in a previous post, I eventually made it to Paris, where I lived and worked for a year, obtaining a master’s degree from the Sorbonne in 19th- and 20th-century French literature and theater.

I have taught French, but when I moved to Prague, Czech Republic, my love of things French disappeared. It seemed so fusty and stilted, so utterly Western and old. I dropped everything French from my life, couldn’t stand to hear it, look at it or think about it, much less speak it.

Then, last April, my husband left for a month to hike the Appalachian Trail. I put in the movie “Bleu,” part of Krystoff Kieslowski’s Colours trilogy, and played it, in French, without subtitles.

My love! It all came back. Since then, I have watched many more French movies, and have order several current French bestsellers. I listen to French audiobooks. Even my iPod is turned to use French menus.

And so I learned a great lesson. As the French, great romantics might say, true love never leaves us.

Nonviolence and change

January 21, 2008

Today the final installment of my audio diary aired, and it reminded me of the two magic days spent in the presence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. His speaking style says so much about him … his sense of warmth, humor and generosity of spirit.

If you haven’t visited yet, click here to go to the section of my Web site about the trip. This link is takes you to the Dalai Lama’s official site, http://www.dalailama.com … no kidding!

One small tenet I’ve found true, and common to many great spiritual leaders, including Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther, the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela … is the concept of nonviolence. It’s a subtle, slow thing, nonviolence, but moral rightness is like gravity, electricity, speed of light … it’s nearly a physical principle, immutable and unchanging.

Some will take issue with calling anything immutable, especially Buddhists, but save that for another post. And my physicist friends will tell me the speed of light may very well change, and gravity certainly does. Oh well!!

Those caveats understood, we can safely say that some ideals are firm and solid for day-to-day living. Moral rightness is one of them. People say it’s hard to be moral and yes, sometimes it is.

A little searching, though, will usually demonstrate the right path. Having the strength to follow it is tougher.

That’s where prayer and meditation come in, and that’s where the real spiritual work lies.

Paris days, Part Three

January 18, 2008

Guest blogger Gene Downs’s post about reading Victor Hugo’s great novel, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, opened a window to my year in Paris.

It’s not something I talk about often. It risks sounding pretentious to say I lived in Paris.

In fact, it was a time of enormous highs and lows — the ecstacy of walking along the Seine in ice and snow at 2 a.m. feeling it was a sparkling dream. Walking past the great mother cathedral, Notre Dame, every day. Drinking coffee at a sidewalk table with friends discussing Karl Marx, Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett and Jesus.

It was also a time when I rarely had enough money. Many days I had only a few centimes in my pocket, the equivalent of pennies. I got frostbite during what was the coldest winter in 100 years, wearing thin vinyl boots I bought at Belk’s in Rocky Mount, N.C.

My little room had ice on the inside of the windows. The showers were freezing, the toilets were “turkish” i.e. standing room only, and my room was in the gables on the seventh floor of an old hotel.

Sometimes I drank too much, was sad too much, thought too much. Other times I was joyful and free in the way only a 23-year old can be.

I worked hard, with about 23 course hours a week, and completed a master’s degree in one semester, with a 50-page thesis, in French, on Marcel Proust’s Combray.

AHEAD: Several years passed. I forgot how to conjugate verbs, not to mention all those masculin and feminine nouns. Alas! Then, in 2007, I discovered the romance again.