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QUINTESSENCE

Retreat

If ever I should wish for a retreat, whither I might steal from the world and its distractions, and dream quietly away the remnant of a troubled life, I know of none more promising than this little valley.
- Washington Irving, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."

As a corollary of the recent musings on intention, focus, and inspiration of recent weeks, I'd like to address the importance of, as Virginia Woolf famously put it - "A room of one's own." Space we can call our own. Devoid of any purpose beyond dedication to thought, to creativity. The poet Mary Oliver built herself a cabin of rough timber in her beloved woods, the painter Jackson Pollock emptied a barn behind his cottage to which he retired day after day contemplating his canvas. The coffee shop belongs to none, or the anonymity of one. Yes, entire books have been devoted to artists and writer's huts, islands, desks, lofts, libraries. We seem to instinctively recognize that the creation of art is a mysterious, and quite possibly, fundamentally sacred process. The artist's space, room or studio, may stand as an invitation to fill the interior void with vivid imaginings: a naked place for the experimental, a safe space for the difficult and inscrutable preliminary constructions, a protected space for the focus and uninterrupted work itself. A space for inspiration and angst; private witness to the artistic process, in success as well as failure.

I happen to feel that all of us, artistically engaged or not, deserve, in fact require, a place of our own. A private, intimate, personal retreat from the global grid (and the eWorld), in which we make friends again with our unique inner hopes and ambitions, our creative energies, our inmost dream of a life well-lived. Do you have such a place? If yes, what icons of your life have you placed within? Shells from distant beaches, paintings that invite you to puzzle shape and color, favorite books or music, a copy of a long ago print? A catcher's mitt, a broken bell? These are the things that inspire us. Georgia O'Keefe laid animal skulls and wind-scraped rocks on her window sills, stark shapes that brought her subject, nature, into her working studio. I have black and white photography that fools with the shapes of objects in imaginative ways, a playful glass zebra, a basket of fossils and bones that remind me of both durability and impermanence.

Spend time in your space today, even if you claim just a corner by the cookbooks or the work table by the tool chest. Remind yourself of your deeper resources...that spring within that flows without bidding, full and pure and worthy. Retreat into your namelessness, your spirit, the part of you that meets life on a different plane. And there, let what comes up in your heart and mind find an expression somewhere in your day. The importance of personal retreat is space and permission to imagine; it is also the element of recharge. Pull back to re-engage. Take time apart to then rejoin, with passion, the whirlwind of life. Find something you love and place that object in a space that speaks to you. Listen to the story.
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Blank Page

As a Zen monk once expressed it, great satisfaction lies as close as our next aware breath. Deep writers, when they can get out of their own way and achieve right silence, right intention, right relationship, and right effort, know that great satisfaction lies as close as the nearest slip of blank paper. Who would not want to experience a grave, ecstatic unlocking of the spirit of the word? Who would not want to write deeply?

We all want this. But much is required of us if we hope to craft true, beautiful things and get them to market. We are required to wrestle with our psychological demons. We are required to alter our self-talk so that we focus on our ideas and not on our frailties. We are required to intend to write, or else nothing will incubate. We are required to relate to our work and, when the time comes, relate to marketplace players. We are required to love our work and also to evaluate it.

- From "Deep Writing," by Eric Maisel

I find myself thinking about the collusion of fundamental requirements in the writer's work: silence, intention, effort. These are the conditions under which, like alchemists of old, we attempt to transform our vaguest of intentions into meaning, and if very good or inspired - art. Once the writer's work is complete in its transition from idea to page, the effort of editing begins: seeing the whole - answering the self-imposed question, "What is it I have made?" We shave away at sentence tags and shiny adjectives, attuned to exposing the theme, shaping the writing to our highest craft. Post editing, the writer's work shifts to the mandates of the publishing world and the marketing of his or her efforts. Here stand the pillars of framing, condensed summary, and successful leverage - placing work in fertile publishing soil and tending that process. (And it is a process, from manuscript to book signing!) Writing is both creation and production, and both phases are arduous, with aesthetic importance.

I have discovered personally that the first two phases, creation and editing, generally matter most to the writer. Deep inner engagement and the accomplishment of personal commitment drive meaningful writing. The third phase, marketing, matters significantly to the publishing world and the satisfied reader. All elements of the theme-to-book cycle require our best efforts. But the first two tasks are done largely in solitary, disciplined intention by the writer alone, while marketing a manuscript toward success as a book draws in the supportive talents of a crackerjack professional publishing team. Moving from solitude to committee can be nerve-wracking and yet nurturing, offering the writer expertise as well as a shared vision: each step a part of the tripod that stands a book in the marketplace and hopefully into the hands of a reader. At any given moment, regardless of where the writer is in the cycle - creating or selling - the intention in the genesis of the work must stay protected in the writer's heart. Writing begins with an insight, and that insight forms the core of everything to follow. Eric Maisel reminds us of this truth. Write deeply. Unlock the spirit of the word.
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World Book Night

BIBLIOPHILIA
Some like the aroma of kitchens
Others, the bouquet of fine wine.
I like the look and smell of a book
As I lovingly finger its spine.
I long to uncover its secrets
I just want to take it to bed
Most delicious of treats,
To slip into its sheets
Head down, pages spread.

- Tony Lupton

World Book Night, a British experiment in giving away royalty-free new books to strangers, is coming to the US - let's get on board! Check out their website at www.WorldBookNight.org (click on the blue icon above for a direct link) for more information on this world book giveaway program. Volunteers to give away books needed! Here’s some background provided by Authors Guild.

"On every first Thursday in March since 1998, the UK has celebrated World Book Day by giving several million British schoolchildren £1 tokens they can use to purchase any book at a bookseller. UK publishers produce special £1 World Book Day editions of select books, and booksellers, schools, and libraries host hundreds of author visits, story times, and dress parties to celebrate the day. By all accounts, World Book Day has become quite successful in bringing books to children and families to bookstores.

A couple years ago, Jamie Byng, managing director of British publisher Canongate, had the thought that the festivities shouldn’t be limited to schoolchildren, that adults who rarely read books could also use some encouragement. He founded World Book Night, an event in which volunteers, including book authors, would give away one million special-edition paperbacks to strangers at train stations, hospitals, prisons and other sites. Margaret Atwood, Alan Bennett, John Le Carré, and Philip Pullman, and other authors kicked off the first World Book Night last year by reading from their favorite books to thousands of people gathered in Trafalgar Square on a chilly March evening.

British media covered World Book Night extensively, and, defying the expectations of some, the publishers and authors of the books given away fared well: book sales rose substantially for nearly all the 25 titles that were handed out.

On April 23rd, World Book Night comes to the US, with much of the publishing industry behind the effort, including major publishers, Ingram, the American Booksellers Association, Barnes & Noble, and the American Library Association. A committee of booksellers and librarians selected the 30 books that are being printed in special World Book Night editions."

THE BOOKS 2012
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian
Sherman Alexie

Wintergirls
Laurie Halse Anderson

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Maya Angelou

Friday Night Lights
H.G. Bissinger

Kindred
Octavia Butler

Ender's Game
Orson Scott Card

Little Bee
Chris Cleave

The Hunger Games
Suzanne Collins

Blood Work
Michael Connelly

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Junot Diaz

Because of Winn Dixie
Kate DiCamillo

Zeitoun
Dave Eggers

Peace Like a River
Leif Enger

A Reliable Wife
Robert Goolrick

Q is for Quarry
Sue Grafton

The Kite Runner
Khaled Hosseini

A Prayer for Owen Meany
John Irving

The Stand
Stephen King

The Poisonwood Bible
Barbara Kingsolver

The History of Love
Nicole Krauss

The Namesake
Jhumpa Lahiri

The Things They Carried
Tim O'Brien

Bel Canto
Ann Patchett

My Sister's Keeper
Jodi Picoult

Housekeeping
Marilynne Robinson

Lovely Bones
Alice Sebold

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Rebecca Skloot

Just Kids
Patti Smith

The Glass Castle
Jeannette Walls

The Book Thief
Markus Zusak

In my humble opinion the list for 2012 represents a diverse and honorable collection of work any reader might peruse in modern literary and pop culture writing. These are books, whether through original content, adaptation to film, or standard of craft, have deeply impacted contemporary thinking. Happy reading!
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Snow Day

If you think this is a big snow storm, you're right.
- my son, manning the snowblower for third time that afternoon

Nature is an amazing leveler: all our industrious and self-generated activities come to a standstill in the midst of a snow cloud of enormous proportions swirling over our heads. Six inches in as many hours, on top of yesterday's and ahead of tomorrow. And this is nothing compared to the dump of white blowing across the dormant wheat fields of the Palouse...

Winter has a way of putting the world on pause. Travel becomes challenging. We man the snow shovels, check candles. Power goes out, silencing our smart phones, e-readers and iPads; the work force trickles home sliding down the roads, the kids wake to a day off school. All caution and worry aside, I love these days. It was perfectly silent when I awoke this morning, the quiet of a thick blanket of snow. Hours later the neighbors were out blowing snow, kids shrieking in the streets with sleds...a chance to say hello and how are you. A great moment for catching up with ourselves - from sleep to those power-off activities like reading and letter writing. The letter carrier trundled by, chains chunking the snow around his wheel wells as he waved cheerily. Yes, not even snow stops the US Postal Service.

I plan spending my day beside a cozy fire, baking bread and making soup, reading a favorite book. Thank you, nature, for a snow day.
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Character

Madame X, John Sargent
A portrait is a picture with a little something wrong about the mouth...
-John Singer Sargent

I set to work this morning at my writing desk, fleshing out a mental sketch of a character observed at a classical guitar concert last night. As I toyed with the subtleties of character revealed both in the actions and inward reflection of others, I thought about the quote above credited to the prolific portraitist John Singer Sargent, a man who made his fortune studying the revealing detail. I am fascinated by Singer's infamous "Madame X," who gazes away from us from her height on the wall at the Met with such poise, with her delicate composure and dangerous smile - that little something in the averted glance, the lift of her upper lip at the innermost corner. What is she thinking, and how is it we know, strangers centuries later observing her likeness, that this, this mysterious smile, is her signature gesture? "Madame X" - Madame Pierre Gautreau - the anonymous beauty with a secret.

My character from the evening's concert was far more tame I suppose - an older man with a distinguished head of silver hair, sitting alone, holding himself militarily upright for the entire two hour performance. Not stiffly, but very still. As if all his focus were gathered in the act of listening. A glass of red wine rested on the table to the left of his elbow. More formally attired than most in attendance, he wore a parchment-colored cashmere turtleneck and dark, elegant blazer. His face, broad and deeply lined, reminded me of the countenance of a field hound, impassive as he listened. What is his story, I wondered. Widower? Perhaps alone just this night, sole afficinado of the classical guitar amongst his intimates? I could only guess, as like Singer's "Madame X," his remarkable composure invited speculation and deflected exposure. His story sealed behind the quiet pleasure in his eyes.

A character is an invitation to a story. Great characters people our surroundings with silhouettes of legends and ballads of heroics and woe. I love that the portrait, the artistic effort to capture the human spirit within a look, is most genuine in the errant detail. That little bit of something that stands apart as imperfect, unique, original. What I will remember of my character in the audience last night is the image of his pale, perfectly folded hands resting on the table. This little detail suggests the composure reflected in his genial expression mirrors the tranquility of his soul; that my elderly gentleman is perfectly folded from within to without, a spirit in order. Then again, maybe he is a former priest, trained in stillness. Or a military man, retired from the wars, holding his thoughts and pleasures to himself. A professor perhaps? A surgeon? An experienced birdwatcher, quiet in his observance. I shall never know...which is what makes the portrait a fascination. His story is in his hands.
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An Age of Earnest Endeavor

SHADOW
The sun finally goes down like the end
of the Russian novel, and the blinding darkness
over the continent makes me realize

how tired I am of reading and writing,
tired of watching all the dull, horse-drawn sentences
as they plough through fields of paper,

tired of being dragged on a leash of words
by an author I can never look up and see,
tired of examining the exposed spines of books,

I want to be far from the shores of language,
a boat without passengers, lost at sea,
no correspondence, no thesaurus,

not even a name painted across the bow.
Nothing but silence, the kind that falls
whenever I walk outside with a notebook
and a passing cloud darkens my page.

-Billy Collins

I think the theme of my work life is shifting as technology redefines the book. The e-reader eats away the physical spine and pages of the print and bound book. My world, where colorful books I have read rest on shelves like old conversations with dear friends, and books I have yet to read beckon like exotic adventures, is disappearing from the landscape. My daughter has an e-reader. There she is, curled up on the sofa with her little light: she loves the versimilitude of the device to a book as it rests in her hand, I mourn the actual book. I mourn the vanishing art of cover design, the history of fonts, techniques of paper making, and the good old heft of a hardback in your hand. She loves the portability: the invisible space of her new library of digital stories. Easy to store, to move, to delete, to add. Her virtual bookshelf is perfectly fungible with her modern portable life.

Collin's poem stirs something in my heart, touching on the weariness of the weight of words to a writer and the struggle to produce something good we carry in our thoughts. How diligently, and often with great futility, we try to do something meaningful and artistic with simple elements of language and imagery. Now the word itself has become a digital flicker. I am slipping into the anachronism of my own time. The publishing world, books themselves, even the content of what people prefer to read reflects the digital impermanence of the 21st Century. I believe the day has come - as Steve Martin's wonderful novel so effectively skewers art history in "An Object of Beauty" - where the world of literature will widen between the mockery and irony of a new generation's self-dismissal spiked by love of effervescent pop celebrity, and the difficult stillness of old masters, of work that stands alone within the unreproachable dust of an age of earnest endeavor. The masterpiece of thirty seconds versus the masterpiece of an age.

Evidence of the declining half-life of literature lies in the rankings of contemporary New York Time's Bestseller lists: fiction has atrophied, dominated by genre, and nonfiction bounces between the caustic tell-all and cheerleading self-help. The occasional historical biography of weight and merit rises to our attention, and I think this may well be the last of great intellectual writing, destined for a liberal arts curriculum. The future belongs to the paragraph summary on the internet.

So many readers are choosing to read only the classics. What was said that is worth reading, I have been told, lies firmly in the past. I'm not sure I agree all that is modern is without soul or content - after all, the case is clearly made that yesterday's masters were in their own time outlaws of change - but what does seem to have shifted is the passion within the revolution to make something of worth. Jackson Pollack's drip paintings mark a concentrated push to reinvent the brush stroke, not a flip toss toward cheaply consumable "moments" of art. Melville's Moby Dick consumed a lifetime. Margaret Mitchell put human story in the events of civil war. I hope I am wrong about the shift in literature from content to disposable consumability. I already miss books.
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The Way Is Grace

Cliffs and Sails at Pourville, Monet
You can have the other words - chance, luck, coincidence, serendipity. I'll take grace. I don't know what it is exactly, but I'll take it.
- Mary Oliver

Sailors on the open seas often speak of unforseen lulls in the winds - those strong and blustery trade winds that ply boats horizon to horizon. I think of these times of stalled momentum as empty spaces. Empty of grace. Surges of achievement - the momentous leaps we take bounding through the world as though running hurdles - seem able to depart from our lives with the break of a heartbeat. What happened? the confused self asks. One minute we're on target, blazing down the road...next second, sidelined in the broken trees. Grace unfurls the flag with each shift of intention, each correction in course, every moment we struggle. Grace departs in the wake of uncertainty and mistake; grace arrives with purpose and intent.

One I love is stalled in seas of lostness. Misfortune shredded his sails in a tearing howl and like Ulysses, his ship drifts in uncertain waters. He rows forward through the gloom, awaiting the passing of the shrouds of clouds. And as do most of us, he puts in a steady effort to find course again...and yet each effort is met with a kind of hand of destiny, pushing back. Wait, wait, is the whisper. Wait on what? Perhaps, it occurs to me, we wait on grace. On the intervention of whatever that thing may be that is not just chance or luck, more than coincidence or serendipity. We wait on the sudden lift of filled sails, the miracle of known whereabouts. A new course set by an unseen hand and clouds disperse, the bright light fills our eyes. Wait within. Wait patiently. Wait still. Listen. But wait. Grace arrives when it is no longer expected. Grace rings true. Grace answers the unanswered question.

Mary Oliver, the poet, wryly observed, "Nobody ever says of a painter he has lost his way. It is said of writers. But when one is talking about a painter one says, 'He is finding his way.'" Is this not true of all? We are finding the way, our way. With grace.
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Filaments

A NOISELESS PATIENT SPIDER
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launched forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the sphere to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

- Walt Whitman

Let's speak of making things happen. That old-fashioned determination to take a flame of inspiration, a theory, and produce a bonfire of invention. A translucent palace engineered of pillars of imagination and arches of intent. In my world, this bonfire is the creation of books, both fiction and nonfiction. And the personal and universal chameleon-like qualities of poetry.

Creative work is frequently viewed skeptically, with genuine puzzlement. Exhibit A: I had a funny, hilariously disconcerting experience at a recent Christmas gathering of successful, affluent physicians. The kind of skilled, hard-working folk with lake homes and annual sojourns to Europe. I was introduced to a wizened, elderly doctor in a stolid tweed jacket gingerly holding between three fingers a wine glass of worthy good red.
"Meet Glenda, she's a fiction author."
The man pursed his lips in reflexive surprise. He then fixed me with one eye under a thrush of white eyebrow. "Fiction?"
"Yes," I said. "And the occasional nonfiction, if reality becomes the more interesting."
"So you make things up?" The question fell flat, his point clarified.
"I do. I make things up."

That was it. There was nothing more to say. Simply put, I was someone whose worth in the world was summed up by the declarative observation You make things up. I laughed, I couldn't help it. The comment was so fulsomely dismissive: I was someone who had nothing better to offer the world than daydreaming. Days later, that comment nudged me to think deeply about the value of creativity - to me. It might not matter to the good doctor, or the heart surgeon who asked me point blank if "Writers made any money" (Yacht money, he implied. Film options, I assured him.), but to me, the creative process is courageous. I admire artists, builders of all kinds, for the inventive genius born of an intersection of inspiration, the guided hand, patience and technique, and the occasional beautiful accident.

Ask yourself this, What creates lust in the eye of the beholder, the need to own, to read, to look and look and look again? Why does the collector collect and the artist faithfully chisel The David from a centuries old block of marble? That intangible original intimate element expressed by the human soul. As Whitman observes, we are the driven patient creature willing to launch filaments of effort "ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing." Building bridges, finding an anchor. Crafting the meaningful. A man or woman forms an object of understanding from the turbulent unknown, spins from imagination a theory of the "vacant vast surrounding." A construction of meaning, of beauty, dream partnered into existence by a restless spirit. We make things up.
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The Humble Ordinary


PIED BEAUTY
Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

- Gerard Manley Hopkins

I love this poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins, written in 1918. It is full of openness, an awareness that drinks the world in just as it is. Nature inspires awe. Not merely the grand and majestic aspects of the natural world, but its humble and ordinary character. In exposing the world as it is, "counter, original, spare, strange," the poet exposes us to the beauty of what is real and worn. Glory is not in the impossible or the astonishing so much as it is found in the amazing mundane.

Today, a wonderful day for those of us palindrome fans {01-02-2012}, I find myself paying attention to the world of speckled trout and finches wings as I plough through the obligatory year end sort and toss in my office, a ritual that sets the table for the fresh work of the new year. What needs to go, what gets carried over, what is iconic of my own history? Here in my hand is a museum card - a photograph of a Ruth Bernhard nude - a small beauty of light and shadow framed by my own hand. There in the inbox, found on a bluff hike with McDuff, is a turkey feather, bent, striped and flecked. And beside the writing books, a bit of molten copper wire fused into glass by a lightning strike on a telephone pole bursting into flames on my 43rd birthday. Yet to be dusted is the glass zebra, all curves of sass-infused muscle. In the shredder, the business of bills and commerce.

It's important for me to note the ordinary. To appreciate the most simple of tasks and objects. They are objects of astonishment, that they exist at all. As the poet observed, our world is a dazzle with form, the sparkle of life, nature whose beauty is past change. We dwell within the inexpressibly precious.
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