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QUINTESSENCE

Habits of Creative Practice 4

Moonshell, Ukee Aquarium
Solitude, says the moon shell. Every person, especially every woman, should be alone sometime during the year, some part of each week, and each day... The world totally does not understand, in either man or woman, the need to be alone... Actually these are among the most important times in one's life - when one is alone. Certain springs are tapped only when we are alone. The artist knows he must be alone to create; the writer, to work out his thoughts; the musician, to compose; the saint, to pray. But women need solitude in order to find again the true essence of themselves: that firm strand which will be the indispensable center of a whole web of human relationships. She must find that inner stillness which Charles Morgan describes as "the stilling of the soul within the activities of the mind and body so that it might be still as the axis of a revolving wheel is still."
- Anne Morrow Lindberg, "Gift from the Sea"

Anne Morrow Lindberg's comments about the importance of solitude are as true today, if not more so, as when she first penned "Gifts from the Sea" in 1955. The benefits of solitude for the human soul are undeniable in this contemporary era of continuous technological hum. We are linked-in, online, accessible, and checking in more frequently with the world and our demanding lives than ever before possible. "Unplugging" has come to mean "taking a break" from the world. Dropping off-line into silence, stillness, the present moment.

Something inside each of us craves stillness. Humans sail away, climb high peaks, retreat to the woods, take vows of silence, try any of "fifty ways to leave" their troubles as the song goes. Burnt out, we experiment with an endless odyssey of solitudes - we understand why Forrest Gump laced up his shoes and took to the road. We crave a space where we can be alone with ourselves: in solitude is fundamental renewal. Clarity. That said, how difficult finding the time!

I began running in middle school as a way of escaping the chaos of teenage life, in particular the break-up of my parents' marriage. Needing frequent interludes of silence to decompress adult life, I continue the habit. Heading out on a run late at night, early in the morning, regardless of weather. I am that "lone wolf" - alone with my thoughts as the miles fly by. For you it might be the yoga mat, cycling, kneading bread, a garden, hiking, laps in the pool, a whittler's knife, a crochet hook, paint by numbers, meditation. Your solitude may be creative or the farthest thing from it. It's quality is self-care.

The benefits for the writer of frequent passages into solitude are enormous. Not only as Lindberg says to work out our thoughts, but more importantly to recharge the inner well from which all creativity arises. Creative effort is enduring, exhausting, and ineffably demanding. It cannot be done on the fly, or with half-attention or "between takes," or while multitasking. Creative work begins in collected focus, drawing from inner resources, contemplation and imagination. These fuel cells evaporate in the presence of anxiety, distraction, fatigue or preoccupation. Frequent solitude is the way to nurture and protect our creative energies.

Easier said than done. Too often we fret that setting aside "alone time" means we are "wasting time": pressuring ourselves with the belief bigger more important tasks await. Too often we allow ourselves to be convinced the demands of others take precedence not just now, but always. Often we are too uncomfortable with ourselves in stillness to give stillness a chance to speak, to settle into it. We expect a product at the end of such arduous self-imposed breaks; dismissing solitude if we do not then produce a book, an idea, new thinking. We must instead give solitude it's due: recognize stillness as a sacred time, solace of the self. What comes of our solitude is whatever we most need; even if that be unmeasurable, intangible, anything but concrete. What we require will rise from deep within if given the space. In stillness we are primed for lifting what lies within without. Excavation, reflection, sifting, construction, release. Solitude, to borrow from Anne Morrow Lindberg's insightful prose, nurtures "the firm strand that will be the indispensable center." The cornerstone.

An important step toward both good living and good creative practice might be to find that one place or activity or combination of things that allows us to access our inner axis of stillness. Beginning with a modest goal, we can dedicate whatever small amount of time is available to our fledgling practice of solitude. Steal time if we must. The benefits of solitude, of inner stillness, will infuse every other moment of life and work with inspiration: inspire, to breathe.

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Habits of Creative Practice 3

The Rothko Chapel, Houston, Texas
Character gives us qualities, but it is in actions - what we do - that we are happy or the reverse... All human happiness and misery take the form of action.
- The Poetics, Aristotle

Technique is...any selection, structure, or distortion, any form or rhythm imposed upon the world of action; by means of which, it should be added, our apprehension of the world of action is enriched or renewed. In this sense, everything is technique which is not the lump of experience itself, and one cannot say that a writer has no technique, for being a writer, he cannot. We can speak of good technique and bad technique, or adequate and inadequate, of technique which serves the novel's purpose, or disserves.
- Technique as Discovery, Mark Schorer

So you, my writing friend, have your idea. You know the thing that you want to put down in print, the idea that keeps you up at night. Now what? The twin foundations of the book are character and plot. Construction of the book depends on technique. Do you know the architecture you have in mind? Do you possess the skills you require for the task?

I don't think enough can be said for the developmental power of reading and observation for writers. Reading well, and deeply, is the writer's avenue into effective technique: finding elements of craft that serve storytelling in unique ways. Reading the works of others is the best way to understand the subtle relationship between story and structure. What do you shade in, and what do you leave out for the reader to intuit? Many times the best experience as a reader is one in which the writer has deliberately opened the door to speculation and contemplation. Created a dialog that leaves a slice of mystery in our hands, as readers, to interpret and define the tale in accordance with our own intellect or experience. Often the hardest aspect of good novel technique is refraining from overselling an idea because the anxious writer is obsessed the reader not miss his or her point. If the writer's technique is solid, the foundation of the story will be sufficiently grounded. There will be no doubt in the reader's mind what the architecture of the novel represents. But it is the unexpected, the views from within the story, that are born from thoughtful construction of plot and character. That is the pleasure of good writing.

Observation and deep reading nourish character development, roots and histories gathered from random information from the world - including the writer's own interior landscape. Snippets of overheard conversation spark a story theme, bits of history polarize characters, human privacies and anonymous dramas suggest tone and detail. We find our characters and establish their authenticity from what is reflected around us. A writer needs to both study the world and study storytelling to build a book readers will relate to in the privacy of their minds and come to own in uniquely personal ways. We love a book because it resonates for us, not because it was a technical marvel or an example of perfect history. We fall in love with a story because it shares our own secret perception or questions the world in a meaningful way. Writers come to these truths by marrying observation and techniques of revelation and contradiction.

A creative practice that works well for me begins with an initial immersion in the world around me. I leave my study and drop in on life. Grocery aisles, vacation beaches, airports, bank lines. What are people wearing, reading, eating, arguing about? This period of observing and notation allows me to connect with the landscape of humanity in all its richness and humor, its pathos and chaos. The story I want to tell begins to form. The characters step on stage. And then I begin to read widely around the topic of my idea. Are there plays on this idea, previous classics, new authors, essays, paintings, music? By immersing myself in the subject, I learn what I need to know and see ways in which employing different techniques filters the story. Perhaps I find I love the first person style of telling this kind of story best. Or maybe it comes together as an ensemble of voices. Reading helps me understand what has been said as well as what has been left out. Reading offers inspiration and exposure to new ways of craft. Writers are continually inventing the medium in new and innovative ways. Borrowing from what works is a strong beginning.

At this very moment I am immersed in reading. I have the idea for my new novel and I've been out in the world gathering details and notes. I'm reading to find my way into that first paragraph, tilling the soil to lay down that first line. This dance of idea and framing is expressed by this lovely passage from John Fowles in his work "Notes on an Unfinished Novel"-

The novel I am writing at the moment [provisionally entitled THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN]...started four or five months ago with a visual image. A woman stands at the end of a deserted quay and stares out to sea. That was all. This image rose in my mind one morning when I was still half-asleep...

These mythopoeic "stills" (they seem always to be static) float into my mind very often. I ignore them, since that is the best way of finding whether their early are the door into a new world.

So i ignored the image; but it recurred. Imperceptibly it stopped coming. I began deliberately to recall it and to try to analyze it and hypothesize it. it was obviously mysterious. It was vaguely romantic. It also seemed, perhaps because of the latter quality, not to belong to us today. The woman obstinately refused to stare out of the window of an airport lounge; it had to be this ancient quay - as I happen to live near one, so near I can see it from the bottom of my garden, it soon became a specific ancient quay. The woman had no face, no particular degree of sexuality. But she was Victorian; and since I always saw her in the same static long shot, with her back turned, she represented a reproach to the Victorian age. An outcast. I didn't know her crime, but I wished to protect her. That is, I began to fall in love with her.


And so story is born.


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What is Beautiful, Revisited

The Matisse Window, Mainz, Germany
The date is perfect in symmetry and resonance - 02/14/2014 - Valentine's Day. Doesn't the day express itself uniquely? Long ago my loved ones and I bailed on commercial expressions of the holiday, but we do celebrate the ancient Roman's message of love. Confections are baked, wine toasted at a candlelit dinner table, a handmade poem or card...

As my children have grown and moved on through college, and then to medical and graduate schools, I find the process of mailing them my "I Love You" conjures both joy and an echo of the poignant. How well I remember the sticky-glue hearts that came home from grade school, the heart cake that caved in the middle under the weight of a ton of chocolate frosting - the snow bear's story and "Amanda the Rocket Girl" scribbled in crooked handwriting. These days I write them simple notes and stick in a cafe gift card or bookstore gift certificate. And off it goes, my love in the mail. Catching each remembrance, they call, blowing back a kiss. I like to think that if I have been able to teach my children anything well, it is how to love.

So however you celebrate St. Valentine's Day, enjoy the love. I am re-posting an older essay below - the poem by Billy Collins reminds me of the day my beloved wrote me the rare and remarkable poem. Enjoy:
To all you Romantics...
Hold on to this one, friends. Let this poem resonate, listen. Close your eyes.
"A dark voice can curl around the concepts on love, beauty, and foolishness..."


NIGHTCLUB
by Billy Collins

You are so beautiful and I am a fool
to be in love with you
is a theme that keeps coming up
in songs and poems.
There seems to be no room for variation.
I have never heard anyone sing
I am so beautiful
and you are a fool to be in love with me,
even though this notion has surely
crossed the minds of women and men alike.
You are so beautiful, too bad you are a fool
is another one you don't hear.
Or, you are a fool to consider me beautiful.
That one you will never hear, guaranteed.

For no particular reason this afternoon
I am listening to Johnny Hartman
whose dark voice can curl around
the concepts on love, beauty, and foolishness
like no one else's can.
It feels like smoke curling up from a cigarette
someone left burning on a baby grand piano
around three o'clock in the morning;
smoke that billows up into the bright lights
while out there in the darkness
some of the beautiful fools have gathered
around little tables to listen,
some with their eyes closed,
others leaning forward into the music
as if it were holding them up,
or twirling the loose ice in a glass,
slipping by degrees into a rhythmic dream.

Yes, there is all this foolish beauty,
borne beyond midnight,
that has no desire to go home,
especially now when everyone in the room
is watching the large man with the tenor sax
that hangs from his neck like a golden fish.
He moves forward to the edge of the stage
and hands the instrument down to me
and nods that I should play.
So I put the mouthpiece to my lips
and blow into it with all my living breath.
We are all so foolish,
my long bebop solo begins by saying,
so damn foolish
we have become beautiful without even knowing it.
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Encircle the World

Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.
-Albert Einstein

We've all watched children at play. Their imaginations appear to have no limits. Effortlessly they employ an intuitive knowledge learned in the making, adding to their own hands-on experience of the processes and principles required for the construction of sand castles, Lego planets, Barbie fashion design, refrigerator-box tree houses. Off they go on adventures from the future, the past, and far far away. In and out of history and story-telling and artistic expression. Block towers wobble over, derby cars fly. Children build what they can imagine.

Yet I have also often seen children on their way home from school: heads down, backpacks heavy, crushed under an education system designed around memorization and bypassing the development of creativity skills. Society wants engineers, developers, scientists. But do we really want a generation reared in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) -based learning curriculums without the complementary mental development to support their use in imaginative and forward-thinking ways? If when we are young we develop knowledge but forgo imagination, our world is only half what it might be. I've heard it said the solution is simple: we've only to put the "A" in STEM. The arts. Add the arts and we get STEAM: minds that are creative and inventive and with a tool kit to make something of those fabulous out-of-the-box ideas. Full speed ahead.

In the meantime, the brother and sister in front of me down the beach are building what I assume is a sand castle and standard moat. Their hands and buckets are busy scooping and shaping towers and bridges. When I bent over to admire their efforts on my walk and asked about their castle, I was solemnly corrected. They were constructing, they told me, interrupting each other with a fountain of details, a fiery sand-world Dinotopia. All those seashells and funny shapes on the cliffs (not towers) were dangerous creatures roaming the planet, battling for the sea. I'm glad I know now. I handed them a broken whelk, and it instantly became a triceratops rising from the surf.

Knowledge is power, but imagination takes us to the stars.

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