“Is anyone else having trouble focusing?” I’ve talked with a few people these past weeks and months who’ve had difficulty with their writing. “I sat in front of my computer for three hours and only wrote one sentence,” someone noted on an online writing forum I follow. “Same,” another chimed in.
I’ve been stymied by an article on wilderness and literature that I signed up a contract to write over a year ago. Anything, everything, seems more important than writing. A fly landing on the curtain rod. The hum of the air conditioner. The dishes stacked up in the sink. That old trunk I’ve been meaning to clean out for the last ten years. The easy chair on my front porch. Maybe I’ll sit there and read for a while. I plop down and my eyes close instantly.
My front porch writing space in Oak Park, IL
As the days pass, the article feels further and further away. I swallowed my shame and loathing and wrote repeated messages to the editors—people I admire—requesting extensions. More than once I’ve struggled with dark moods that left me disoriented and paralyzed. When that happened, I broke my work down into small segments, baby steps:
1. Mapped it
I first did a long free write without looking at notes or books. It helped me take stock of what I know and don’t know, helped me find a voice. Then I mapped it out using a Mind Node software’s free trial.
2. Gathered all materials
Everything in one folder, previous writing and notes along with articles I’ve annotated.
3. Made a sloppy outline and forgave myself
I used OmniOutliner, which lets me move things around easily. I didn’t care too much about the hierarchy. I was mostly interested in grouping ideas and quotations.
4. Edited and edited and edited
In between many naps and online shopping for things I didn’t buy. This took about a week. I also cleaned up the footnotes.
5. I’ll read it over a few more times aloud before I send it in
What small, incremental steps are keeping you moving forward in your writing and work?
Friday, June 12, Petra Kuppers and I kicked off our first event in the Practices of Hope Reading Series. I was a little nervous about it, being the technical guru without really knowing what I was doing. Petra, consummate moderator and host, took us on a real journey. The night began with the poet and Anishinaabemowin language teacher Margaret Noodin reading her poem in both Anishinaabemowin and English. We ended with Jennifer Sinor’s thoughts on how “speculative,” commonly used to describe science fiction, is a tool for nonfiction writers, too.
Megan Kaminski and L. Ann Wheeler’s piece from our Practices of Hope issue of About Place Journal reads:
“The practice of divination has been and continues to be used by cultures throughout the world to help people navigate difficult futures. The Prairie Divination Deck turns to the plants and animals of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem as a source for knowledge and inspiration as to how to live in the world (and to re-align thinking towards kinship and sustainability). How might thinking with plants and animals allow us a different lens through which to see our present world and histories–and help to imagine futures?”
The divination deck manifests local knowledge in wonderful ways.
Collaboration, Community, & Local Knowledge
After I hiked the East Coast Trail in Newfoundland several years ago, I landed in St. John’s, and there, at their wonderful museum The Rooms, I stumbled upon (in that serendipitous way one does) Pam Hall’s An Encyclopedia of Local Knowledge, a collaborative art-science-local knowledge book and art exhibit about the people from the north coast of Newfoundland.
1) Twine and rope, both important for these fishing people. A lot of her knowledge sources knew about twine and rope and nets – and these were also metaphors for stories—the thread—so this one is on splicing.
2) But there were also important local and more “objective” or scientific collaborations. In one, local knowledge experts collaborated with Department of Fisheries and Ocean about fish species, marine mammals, historic sites, waterfowl, and ecological reserves. LEK is Local Knowledge Experts and FEK is Fisheries Ecological Knowledge.
3) In another display, a local woman, Elva Spence, kept intricate track of the weather for forty years morning, and afternoon. Her records are now part of Environment Canada.
4) Many are quirky and intimate, like “What Fred Cave knows about Vamps,” a certain kind of sock. The same idea of weaving stories runs through Fred Cave’s unravelling, making, and remaking. But his is also very practical, handed down, a way to keep the feet dry in the mud, rain, and snow, and to make some money.
“[My project] is a view of knowledge that, while respectful of disciplinary traditions, calls urgently for the abandonment of binaries, whether based on philosophical foundations or economic ones. It calls also for more trans-disciplinary dialogues, partnerships, and research initiatives and for inclusive and experimental forms of collective decision-making about our communities, environments, and ecosystems.”
The goals of local knowledge is to expand how we think about what knowledge is and who is invited to participate in its production. Like Hall, I believe that new forms, means, or modes for making, moving, and representing knowledge are urgently needed for us to forge knew, hopeful, energizing, and playful ways of being together for the future.
Predictions, telling the future, fortunes, art, randomness and synchronicity (of drawing a card or finding a book), magic, local knowledge, who has power to know what. These are inherent in the Prairie Divination Deck and the Encyclopedia of Local Knowledge.
What kind of local knowledge do you have? Will you share?
When you walk into the wilderness, you’re supposed to collect things. You should notice plants and even pluck a few for your journal. You should jot down the names of trees. Should write your observations of the blue jay and the black bear. Should chronicle your trail stories of getting lost, choosing a campsite, and appreciating grand vistas.
I knew all this in 2004, when I walked into the Selway-Bitterroot and Frank Church wilderness for the first time. But the area held two things against me. 1) This was where my great-grandfather and my grandfather came in the late nineteenth-century. And what they left behind was a dark past I didn’t want to confront. 2) This area was now the largest wilderness area in the lower 48, and, for that reason, important to American identity and political policy, a geographical and socio-political giant I couldn’t grasp.
So instead of exploring those more difficult private and public issues by collecting memories, plants, and political polemics, I started collecting fire. Whenever I went out in the woods with friends, family, or students, I snapped photos of flames, eye white or buttery yellow, and coals, meaty red or cloud gray.
I consider myself a collector of fire. What happens around a fire during a backpacking trip–intimacy with earth and other people. A campsite has no spirit until it has fire. Once I watched my sister-in-law braid my daughter’s hair in dozens of strands around a fire while camped in the bosom of a Canadian glacier. Once I spent a week with fire fighters in the backcountry and sat on the sleeping bag of a dark-eyed smoke jumper during a heavy rainstorm, listening to him talk about fire in Alaska. Fire is irony. It purifies and destroys. It is heat, it is passion, it is ashes, it is ruin. To stay alive, it consumes itself.
Unlike memories and plants, fire, like snow, is impossible to collect.
Moments of Snow
Nothing but silent snow falling, snow not making a sound, like a hand that writes to cover everything up. Snow falls right on the window, falls white on the piers, it lies down a moment, then disappears to another world–and you miss it a lot.
from “Snowflakes” by Jiri Orten, July 1940 Translated by Lyn Coffin and Leda Pugh
Supporting women’s writing with these newly released books–
Amy Klein, The Trying Game. I recommend Klein’s book, whether you’re going through fertility treatment or not. Especially in the midst of a pandemic, this book will give you comfort and joy. Klein’s ability to explain medical knowledge, not to mention her curious and unflinching look at the interface between her raw emotions and her medicalized body, is just the medicine we need right now. As her book makes clear, in times of medical emergency, we are all trying our best, even as the crisis is trying us. I adored her prose—funny, ironic, energetic, well-researched. She is one of those writers with perfect pacing, perfect pitch, who delivers information with such punch and verve. The parts where she narrates her own story are the best, for example the part when her doctor tells her, after yet another miscarriage, to “keep trying.” (Her response is perfect!) Twenty-five years ago, I did a stint with a fertility doctor. It was three years after my daughter was born, and–nothing. Nothing happened and I gave up. I had the vague knowledge that fertility was a mystery, and now, after reading Klein’s book, I can see what I was up against back then, which I found endlessly fascinating.
Jenn Hollmeyer, Orders of Protection. Hollmeyer’s book is amazing! What caught my eye is that the book won the prestigious Katherine Anne Porter prize. The stories are brief but they pack in tons of feeling and significance. All of the characters are looking for some kind of protection—how do they go about that? What do they find? One of my favorites is the “The Ice River History Museum, Formerly Saint Catherine’s Convent”—which has such stunning and evocative lines as: “The docent gestured to a headless mannequin modeling a faded habit.” I mean—this is an image out of a dream, dripping with symbolism but also thoroughly concrete in its place in the story. I won’t give away the end of this story, but it is beautiful and startling, as all of them are. This is my kind of book. Highly recommend.
Madeline Dyer, This Vicious Way. As a teacher of creative writing and literature, I’m always looking for suggestions from my students, especially the categories of science fiction, fantasy, and thrillers—not usually my genre. With their promptings, I read Madeline Dyer’s This Vicious Way, and was blown away by the character development. At first I thought I wouldn’t understand the dystopian world, since this is Book Two in a series, and it makes use of the world Dyer built in an earlier series. Happily that wasn’t the case. Far from it. The world of epic struggle between the Untamed Ones and the Enhanced Ones is crystal clear; never once did I lose sight of the main character, Inga. I was hooked from the moment I was introduced to her in the first chapter swimming in an ocean as a young child, and in subsequent chapters when she’s grown and forced to become an assassin, to kill in gruesome ways. She struggles to turn the tables, to assassinate the assassins and reunite with her family (with plenty of heart-wrenching plot twists along the way). What I liked best about the book is how it toggles between past and present, how it even peers into Inga’s dreams and nightmares, which gave me an ever-evolving sense of Inga’s history and her motives. I empathized with her completely. I plan to include this in my syllabus next time I teach the prose fiction class.
Erin Khar, Strung Out. I loved this book. Khar is a companionable narrator, a voice I wanted to spend time with as she navigates the highs and lows of addiction, trauma, need, family, friendship, and parenthood. She’s searingly honest about deep-down parts of herself–she weaves moments of brutal loneliness with those of beautiful tenderness. I happened to read Strung Out during the current pandemic, so it’s no surprise that I was struck by her account of 9/11, the moment when she realizes her father may have been in one of the twin towers. I could relate especially to how she describes the “shock” and “paralysis” she feels during that event even as she goes about her routine tasks – a 12-step meeting and dinner with friends. What I loved about the book overall is how Khar delves into complex issues with an engaging, page-turning narrative style.
Rebecca Winn. One Hundred Daffodils. First, I want to say that this is a book I love holding in my hands. It’s opulantly produced, with a rich, creamy cover, the kind of book I like snuggling up with on my couch, in bed, outside on the porch (now that the weather is nice), and even in the car. It’s filled with beauty–both physically in the author’s garden and spiritually in her internal transformations–even amidst scenes of shattering and uncertainty. The book is a reminder that we can find hope right where you are, that small acts of attention bring peace.
Laura Zam, The Pleasure Plan. Every sentence in this book radiates goodwill, hope, and courage, even when she’s writing about dark topics. This crossover book (memoir, nonfiction, and self-help) moves forward at a lovely pace while it also flashes seamlessly back in time just when the reader needs backstory or insight. To get a sense of her wonderfully crisp and forthright prose, take a look at this passage where she talks about a moment when she reflected on men she’d dated. She felt as if she was “a monstrous creature, in the reptilian family, with cold skin and blood.” Hence, her journey toward self-discovery, intimate love, and sexual healing. I appreciated how Laura confronts her childhood abuse amidst her search for love. The story of meeting her husband (from her New York Times “Modern Love” column) is retold in the book, and it is just as tender and lovely as ever. She goes on to chronicle her recovery, her visits to gynecologists, psychologists, erotic healing practitioners, hypnotists, and other off-beat therapies with humor and a beautiful tenacity, one that also leads to self-awareness. I read this book over two days and I’m sure I’ll return to it again. Pure pleasure! (Please visit Laura Zam’s website where you’ll see all the other incredible activities this woman does.)
5-24-2020|Comments Off on What Are You Reading? My Top Picks This Month
Gathered Triteleia grandiflora, Larkspur, and Siberian peashrub on our long walk in the Palouse hills. When I got home, I crushed the petals to make watercolor, and tried to paint a camas on handmade paper. Camas is the plant I was looking for but never found. But making plant-dyes made me feel so grounded and yet buoyed by their lovely fragrances as I smashed them and then streaked the paper.
You can do this, too, with just about any plant or vegetable, making it as simple or complex as you’d like. Follow these links for more: Compost and Cava and Atlas Obscura.
My dear friend Petra Kuppers and I are leading a “Practices of Hope” workshop this month, co-creating with others around the country via Zoom. Erasure, silence, absence was one of our practices this week.
If you’re looking for a way to create in a relaxing, non-stressful way, where you’re removing rather than generating and yet generating just the same, give this activity a try. It’s an apt way to work during these days of restrictions.
The poetry of erasure reveals that even though so much is being taken away, what remains can be even more meaningful, or meaningful in a different way.
News articles are so dreary these days, but often journalists home in on gloriously sensual and concrete details, like the feel of copper, stainless steel, and take out food bags.
During the virus lockdown, Myron and I have been taking long walks in the Palouse hills near Moscow, Idaho. But even then, I’m restless, find myself wanting to make things, to turn the moments into something more touchable and stable and–though impossible–contained. Yesterday I took with me some rubbing paper and amber wax. I thought I might rub pieces of sidewalk or rocks. Instead I started documenting the trees along Pine Cone Road. I was at this for hours, running hands down the bark, pressed the paper against the tree trunk, so intimately, creating patterns. Trees share so much with us human beings – they have limbs and skin and little portals shaped like eyes. I only made images of the species I knew because right now it feels good to be able to name things.
You can do this! All you need is a piece of paper, a pencil or crayon, and a tree. And if you can’t identify the species, all the better. Get to know it without naming it.
Yesterday the man on a ladder outside my window teetered as he made little touch-ups to the paint along the eaves and softies. Two stories up, I sat at my desk writing, or, trying to write, and the man made the hardness of the writing melt into waves. A sensation buzzed from the space just above my head to the cranium itself and flowed down my head to my shoulders, my neck, shivers and tingles whirling up and down and I relaxed into the thought, the words, the sentences. I couldn’t see the man’s face. Only his shoes. But I could hear him. Some call this feeling ASMR. I’ve experienced it since I was a child. A feeling of being highly aware and totally relaxed at the same time. Being simultaneously awake and away, present and in some far off place. But like inspiration, like insight, it comes at unexpected times, by surprise, suddenly. It can’t be planned, can’t be brought on by YouTube videos of women whispering or men shining shoes. Can’t be forced. I could hear the man scraping methodically in the beautiful, careful rhythm that I’ve heard the times I’ve watched my craftsman father and brothers making shelves, fixing plumbing. When the awaken comes, it seems like a glimpse from another world.
I said this mood can’t be forced. But it can be cultivated, and I think everyone do it, find that highly aware relaxed, almost hypnagogic, creative space by paying attention to the beauty of delicate, deliberate sounds.
ASMR is linked to synesthesia, which I also experience. It has also been described as a kind of mindfulness. That’s the positive side. It’s also correlated with neuroticism and disagreeableness. Both of which I also own.
I’m aware of the way the fuzzy feeling has been mocked or used or analyzed in media and peer-reviewed journals. I’ve been keeping track.
For example, Billie Eilish. I’ve never heard her music, have never wanted to. I recently read she is incorporating ASMR into her songs. I wonder if it’s forced.
What would your list of mindfulness sounds look like?
Here are some of mine:
1. someone washing windows (obviously), painting a fence, or setting a table
2. someone speaking English with an accent different from mine, but speaking very slowly
3. someone shelving library books
4. a flight attendant going through pre-flight safety procedures
5. a cat watching a bug crawl up a wall
12-22-2019|Comments Off on How To Razor Sharpen Awareness with Everyday Sounds
The Darkness Conference in Longyearbyen, Svalbard. I don’t know if I could ever get used to 24-hours of sun below the horizon, but maybe someday I will get the chance. At first I thought it was calming, soothing, not to be confronted with light and its pressure to get things done. But then I realized I just wanted to crawl into bed, found myself drooping and wilting, curling into hibernation position as soon as I opened the door to my hotel room. After five days, I was feeling suffocated by the dark. It was a shroud, like forest fire smoke every August, that I couldn’t shake off.
There were plenty of bright spots, though. One being the dogsled into the polar night. One being the bakery on Main Street. One being the ideas and interesting discussions during the panels. One being the aquamarine lights that danced outside my window all day and night. One being visiting Polar Permaculture Solutions and getting to plant herbs in bright purple dome.
We were at 79 degrees north in a three-masted ship called the Antigua sailing up the west coast of Svalbard. Thirty artists, people from all over the world, whose art took different forms. Painters, sculptors, photographers, those working in performance, installation, and mixed media, hand paper makers and writers, like me. Everyone was clicking a camera, jotting down a line, sketching something. The tools of art were never still.
And then someone said, “I think we need some quiet.” Seven of us piled into the rubber zodiac and set off on a meditation tour. The engine purred quietly as we moved through the ice, the only sound the chunks knocking against one another in a hollow fullness that felt like the center of our own souls. We were there to observe, we knew implicitly, to be with the water and the glacier and the sky and the air, to be apart from the incessant documenting. It was the last place, we had been told that morning, where there would be a lot of floating ice in the meltwater next to a glacier. It was a last chance to document, be we seven wanted it to be something less–a moment and that was all. Not a moment we were taking note of, not one we were narrating as we were living it.
I had brought my book of Buddha’s teahings. I opened it gently to a random page and read: “To think that there is one absolute truth, and all other views are inferior, the monks call a fetter.” I pondered the idea as I floated, the seawind on my cheek, my hands curled into my mittens. The ice was moving and crackling, the sun glowed on the water, setting it on fire, blazing between each individual chunk. The Arctic was melting, we could see it, but we couldn’t see how fast. We didn’t know what was normal melting and what was extreme, but we could feel something changing in those moments in the meditation raft.
To think that there is one absolute truth, and all other views are inferior, the monks call a fetter.
Last weekend Myron and I went kayaking on the Baraboo River in Wisconsin, which we’d never heard about before, but found by typing “kayaking” and “Wisconsin” into Google. I highly recommend the Baraboo River Rentals, run by a couple of enthusiastic and interesting college students and their grandparents. At first I couldn’t understand why we were driving all the way from Chicago to Wisconsin for this four-hour kayak trip when we could have gone downtown and rented from that place at the mouth of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan, but when we got on the water and it was so calm and quiet–we didn’t meet another soul for hours–I understood that getting into the stillness can dramatically change the experience of being home in the city.
A couple of things stayed with me. The blue heron that kept flying ahead of us, perching on a rock or tree, and then moving on when we caught up, but it almost seemed as if he was waiting for us, looking out for us somehow. And the driver of the shuttle bus who took us to and from the put-in spot. He was in the midst of a master’s degree in rehabilitation studies, he told us, meaning he was looking into alternative ways to help people with depression and people with PTSD, soldiers and victims of anything from rape, to child abuse, to police brutality, cope in ways that dramatically improved the their lives. It seemed so miraculous that a twenty-two year old would devote his life to something like that–flying ahead, perching on a rock or tree, looking out for us somehow.
Today–a writing day, a revision of my book about the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. I’ve been working on this story for fifteen years and I finally think I know what it’s about. On long writing days I move venues every few hours, from dining room to study to family room to coffee shop. Today’s gorgeous weather and my 100-year-old grape made the perfect office.
I’ve been rereading Faulkner–The Sound and the Fury–and some Thomas Bernhard–The Loser. A study in contrasts! Faulkner is stingy with his reader (or that’s how I felt last night as I read in bed), and Bernhard generous, or maybe effusive is a better word, which is how he’s able to unravel something as ineffable as the death of someone you don’t know well:
So many in his circle had already died, he said, so many relatives, friends, acquaintances, none of these deaths ever shocked him, but Glenn’s death dealt him a deadly blow, he pronounced deadly with extraordinary precision. We don’t have to be with a person in order to feel bound to him as to no other, he said. Glenn’s death had hit him very hard, he said, I thought while standing in the inn. Although one could have predicted this death more certainly than any other, that goes without saying, so he said. Nonetheless we still can’t grasp it, we can’t comprehend, can’t grasp it.
Yesterday I pulled six sheets with embedded kelp I collected from the beach where William Blake lived for three years, from 1800 to 1803, on England’s south coast. I’m planning to make a tunnel book using his image of Newton, whose design–particularly the lichen and moss–resembles the kelp.
Rough draft of a block from my project called “Slime.” Kozo, abaca, embedded with seaweed I collected from Watchet, England, and lines from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner printed on regular typing paper.
Today I pulled some mitsumata sheets, which are drying downstairs in my Oak Park house. Mitsumata is a fiber used in Japanese paper making. The species is also called edgeworthia chrysantha after the 19th-century British writer Maria Edgeworth, whose brother was a botanist and worked for the East India Company. I embedded bits of gorgeous seaweed and kelp I’d collected on the beach at Felpham, a few yards from where William Blake lived and worked for three years. I adore Blake but I never could get very far with Edgeworth.
This article on marine algae has a couple of fascinating ideas: oxygen comes from slime; kelp is not a single plant but a group individuals; there are 7,000 species of algae, and they produce 330 billion tons of oxygen per year.