Thursday, July 17, 2008

And In Conclusion... (Wrapping up Coaxing the Muse)

This is the seventh - and FINAL - post in a series about Coaxing the Muse (see previous six posts).

As Lance Larson concluded his talk, he said:

He feels he has merely scratched the surface of the topic. “Last time I checked, which was this morning, taking pen in hand remains a messy, recalcitrant, but invigorating process that resists my attempts to explain it.”

Each of these principles he's covered can easily be applied to other circumstances:

  • Read (immerse yourself in the literature of the field)
  • Write Daily (takes us to the heart of nearly any discipline)
  • Let Writing Lead You (have faith in process of creative process) (Note from me: as I was finding the painting for the last post, I came across a quote that fits so well with this -

"Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things." Edgar Degas)

  • Revising (revisit and improve early efforts, take advantage of perspective of others)
  • Falling in Love with the World and Taking Notes (help cultivate powers of observation otherwise left dormant)
  • Insights (garnered from other disciplines will help you see more clearly through your own lens)

Gordon Lish, an editor, had this strategy: He read until he hit a bad line in the submission. If that was on the first line, sorry, you had your chance. If he got to the second page of your ten-page story, you had an excellent chance of being published. He said: “I see the notion of talent as quite irrelevant. I see, instead, that perseverance, application, industry, will, will, will, desire, desire, desire.”

That's it! I hope it has inspired some of you to write more, or use his points in whatever interest you're pursuing. And, while it's been a terrific talk to listen to and integrate into my life, I'm ready to move on to other books/topics. How about you? Come with me?

By Immersion (Pt. 6 of Coaxing the Muse)

This is the sixth post in a series about Coaxing the Muse (see previous five posts).

6. Immerse yourself in other disciplines

Let other ways of seeing inflect your own vision.

He - the speaker, Lance Larson - is drawn to visual arts. Whenever they go places, they go to museums – his wife’s an artist. She provides a second, and more insightful set of eyes for his projects. They help each other. She helps him know when he’s created a "literary still-life" – not just devoid of life, but dead on the table.

He’s written some poems in response to some pieces of art, where the poem is about what he sees in the picture.

NEXT: A wrap up of his talk, putting it all together.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Fall In Love...Again (Pt. 5 of Coaxing the Muse)

This is the fifth post in a series about Coaxing the Muse (see previous four posts).

Principle 5 of Writing: Fall in love with the world, and take notes.

Most writers have an innate curiosity about surroundings, they are alive to what’s around them.

Look at Charles Darwin’s journal: As a young student studying at Cambridge, he got caught up in the national mania for collecting and cataloging beetles. The prize was not money or metals or real estate in the Lake District, but credit for discovering a rare six-legged species.

Darwin writes: One day, I’m tearing off some old bark; I saw two rare beetles and seized one in each hand. Then I saw a third, a new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one, which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas, it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue, so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one.

Lance Larson (the speaker) is not advocating a new form of protein, or that we snack on forest foragers, but to help us become alive to what’s around us.

But don’t just observe, take notes. Don’t trust your brain to hold onto things. Most writers carry around of notepad or stack of 3x5s. Old receipts, blank checks, margins of textbooks will also work in a pinch.

His family knows what it means when he reaches for a piece of paper as they’re together – something they said will be recorded for possible future use. His son said: “You be Jesus, and I’ll be the tiger, keeping the wolves away.” That one has made it into an essay, a poem, countless class discussions, and now, this forum. Came when he was four, from the car seat in the back seat of their car.

Why are close observations so important? They are clues, magical breadcrumbs into or out of the woods. Writer who seems small will often see larger connections.

On a trip to John Keats house, in London, his kids (who didn’t understand the significance of the occasion) were busy doing sit-ups on the rug. Instead of writing a “high-minded” poem about the Keats house, he wrote about them doing sit-ups in the Keats house. (It was a great poem “Sit-ups, with Mr. Johnny Keats”) It was detailed and specific, about that period in John Keats life compared to him holding his daughter’s feet while she did sit-ups on the rug.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde (Coaxing the Muse - Pt. 4)

This is the fourth post in a series about Coaxing the Muse (see previous three posts).

Principle 4 of Writing: Revise yourself into eloquence.

This works in tandem with principle 3, though it might not seem that way initially.

Revise ruthlessly.

We are each Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde stuffed in one body: The not-knowing, unpredictable Mr. Hyde, who invents wildly, versus the more measured, logical Dr. Jeykll, who shapes and edits the mess. Writers must find a balance - A tolerant stand-offishness that acknowledges begrudgingly the other’s necessity. If you indulge either side, end up with dreck. Avoid dreck by keeping the balance.

Most of us need someone to look over our shoulder at times and register an opinion. (Editor, writer’s group, etc. Not someone who loves everything you write.)

Throw out any bad lines, or revise them till they are compelling.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Follow the Leader (Coaxing the Muse - Pt. 3)

This is the third post in a series about Coaxing the Muse (see previous two posts).

Third Principle of Writing: Let the Writing Lead You.

In his seminal essay titled “Not Knowing”, Donald Barthelme argues:

“The not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention....”

The best writers are constantly trying to discover what they didn’t know they knew. As more than one writer has put it, “how do I know my thoughts on a subject until I’ve read what I’ve written?”

Most writers I admire do their best writing when they ask a question they can’t answer, at least at first. Djuna Barnes said “The unknown room is always larger than the known.”

Victor Hugo said: Any poem has at least two subjects: The triggering subject (what causes the writer to compose), and the discovered subject (that which reveals itself only in the writing – serendipitous, intuitive, organic. If we dutifully stick with our first impulse, we will say more and more predictable things, and thus lead the reader into slumberland. By contrast, if we allow ourselves to drift a little, and pay attention to the music of the piece, we’ll make discoveries we hadn’t dreamed of otherwise.

Flannery O’Connor “Good Country People” about a conniving door-to-door Bible salesman and a potential customer, Hulga. At a critical moment in the story, the Bible salesman steals Hulga’s artificial leg. Ironically, this theft humbles Hulga and helps prepare her for God’s grace at the end of the story.

O’Connor explains that she had no idea the salesman would steal the leg until 10 or 12 lines beforehand. Because O’Connor was surprised, her readers feel that surprise on the page.

Allow the story or poem to lead you. Write to figure things out. The awkward and uncooked lets him see what’s on his mind.

William Stafford, about writer’s block: I just look out my window and something almost always comes. And if it doesn’t, I just lower my standards.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Avoid Binging (Coaxing The Muse - Pt. 2)

Part 2 from Coaxing the Muse: Thoughts on the Creative Process

a talk given by Lance Larson, May 22, 2007.

Strategy 2: Write everyday. And if not every day, as regularly as possible. One can find accomplished writers who are “binge writers” – those who write in “fits and bursts,” but they are rare. In his experience, the most successful writers have consistent work habits.

Picasso said, “I don’t know if inspiration exists, but when it comes, it usually finds me working.”

He shared with us the writing schedule of several famous writers – exactly 2000 words before lunch, 8 hours a day, 3 hours a morning, 90 minutes…. The Facility Center on BYU campus encourages 15 minutes a day. More time is encouraged, but 15 minutes will do. That's 75 minutes a week.

He’s found 4 benefits to writing every day:

1) he ends up spending more time writing – he estimates 2 – 3 times as much as before.

2) he spends more quality time, particularly if it is first thing in the morning.

Goethe said, “Use the day before the day. Early morning hours have gold in their mouth.”

3) he stays engaged in a project, more alive to its potential.

“Skip one day, I know it. Skip two days, the work knows it. Skip three, the reader knows it.” (Anon.)

4) he relishes writing time more than ever. It seems like a gift, not an obligation. Like “an ax to the frozen sea within" me (Kafka)

Everyday, he writes from fifteen minutes to an hour and a half. Anything more than that is pure gravy. He still feels a bit embarrassingly inefficient – one who starts eleven poems, finishes 3-4, publishes 2. As Samuel Beckett said: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Tomorrow, Strategy Three!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Musing (Coaxing The Muse - Pt. 1)

I've been thinking a lot about writing lately - In fact, really since last October, when I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo. That primed the pump, so to speak. In January, I started doing some freelance writing for companies over the Internet. Though it isn't that great of writing, and it is low-paying, it is a foot-in-the-door, a "paying my dues" sort of experience. But I'd love to be doing more of it - I'd love to have it pay enough to be a living wage someday. So, I've been doing much more writing lately, and reconnecting with a root choice of "potential occupation" of being an author. (Another root choice would be to be a Librarian, but some of that interest was because I love books and wasn't sure I would be good enough as a writer.)

I was delighted to find on KBYU-TV a speaker that really caught my interest -- Lance Larson, who is a very well-acclaimed (published and awarded) author/poet/essayist. He teaches for BYU (as of the date of this talk, May 22, 2007) in the English department, and has even taught in London at BYU's Study Abroad, teaching English Literature and Creative Nonfiction. Wow. This guy is amazing.

So, his talk was titled "Coaxing the Muse: Thoughts on the Creative Process". Even the title gets me excited! Last night I thought "Ok, I'll listen to it as I fall asleep - if isn't that engaging, I won't bother to go back and finish watching it. (It is on the DVR. Waiting for me to watch again. :-) I love DVR!)

His talk is available online for those who want to listen to it or watch it themselves. If you are patient, over the course of the next few days I'll take you through his whole talk, highlighting the numerous wonderful parts. That will give you some time between (daily) posts to digest and implement his ideas.
Coaxing the Muse: Thoughts on the Creative Process

He begins by telling some of the methods that have been used in the past to tap into "hidden reservoirs of creativity" - from the ancient Greeks who would ask one of the 9 Muses to sing them a song of wisdom, to a phrenologist who would read the bumps on your head to profile your personality, to visiting with Sigmund Freud for two years on his couch.

Lance Larson has several "strategies to help us harness this power we only dimly understand." He wanted to talk about creativity for all areas of life, all interests, but realized that was way too big and broad of a topic. Instead, he decided to talk just about writing creativity. Though he says he still feels in over his head, even with a more limited topic. He quoted T.S. Eliot: If you're not in over your head, how do you know how tall you are? (I like that quote a lot! It has so many applications in life...)

Today, I'll write about his first strategy.

"The first principle of creativity I stress in the classroom, is very simple: Read. If this sounds too simplistic, then let's dress it up: Immerse yourself in the discipline and gorgeous chaos of words."
He told a story about a student who brought him several poems he'd written, and was waiting for him (the professor) to read them and praise him on them. Trouble was, they were really bad. Terribly bad. And he struggles with how to respond. He asked the young man whose poetry inspired him, who kept him up at night, reading. The young man said, "No one. I don't read poetry. I don't want anyone's style rubbing off on me."

Lance Larson says:

"If we don't consciously seek the best model, we unwittingly put ourselves at the mercy of the worst."

And "Sir Philip Sidney's advice, "Fool, look in thy heart and write" works pretty well if you've internalized the English canon and taken in a healthy sampling of the world's literature in translation. It works less well if you limit yourself to what pop culture drops into your lap. Sing-songy nursery rhymes in Kindergarten, faked emotion trapped in greeting cards, advertising jingles for fast food, and the saccharine cooings that leak into our brains when we turn on our car radios. Each writer is a capacious storage tank, containing a lifetime of reading and experience. If this is true, how can we expect refreshing elixirs to pour forth from our spigots if we have filled ourselves with stale pool water and artificial sweetener?

We can change this. My advice - to the young man then, and to would-be writers now -
Devour books - eclectically, intelligently, voraciously.

He says - Listen to what others have said about reading:
  • Nobel prize novelist Sabella - a Jewish writer - "Good writers are good readers, moved to emulation". (Love that quote too!)
  • Giorgos Seferis - a Greek Poet - "Don't ask me who's influenced me. The lion is made up of the lambs he's digested and I've been reading all my life." (Wow.)
  • Daryl Spencer: "Listen, if you're not reading 3 stories a day, you're not in the game."

For his class, the students sign a contract. In it, they agree to read 700 pages beyond regular class reading. It must be literary, not assigned in another class, and previously unread. (Sounds like fun to me!)

Strategy two tomorrow. Stay tuned!