Archive for the ‘Li’l Ditties by Famous Scribes’ Category

“The Talent of the Room”

Thursday, August 23rd, 2007

(An abridged essay by cultural columnist Michael Ventura, originally published in LA Weekly May 21-27, 1993.)

This essay in its entirety is powerful, yet it pulls no punches about writing as a lifelong, full-time endeavor. Because my goal with this ezine is to inspire you and not scare or intimidate the dickens out of you, I’ve pared the original 1800+ word essay to less than 500 words. Now the choice to go deeper is yours, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. As always, the bolding below is mine – sort of like an act of public service for the Wild Quills audience.

Writing is something you do alone in a room.

Copy that sentence and put it on your wall because there’s no way to exaggerate or overemphasize this fact. It’s the most important thing to remember if you want to be a writer. Writing is something you do alone in a room.

Before any issues of style, content or form can be addressed, the fundamental questions are: How long can you stay in that room? How many hours a day? How do you behave in that room? How often can you go back to it? How much fear (and, for that matter, how much elation) can you endure by yourself? How many years—how many years—can you remain alone in a room?

…Nobody can teach you how you, in particular, are going to behave when you’re alone for hours a day over long periods of time trying to deal with unknown quantities: what you have to express, what experience your expression draws on, how that experience relates to the solitude necessary for its expression, the form in which it comes out (which is never quite the form you planned on), how that form changes as it progresses, and, most important, who you are—all these are just a few of the unknown quantities that are locked up with you in your room.

…The room, you see, is a dangerous place. Not in itself, but because you’re dangerous. The psyche is dangerous. Because working with words is not like working with color or sound or stone or movement. Color and sound and stone and movement are all around us, they are natural elements, they’ve always been in the universe, and those who work with them are servants of these timeless materials. But words are pure creations of the human psyche. Every single word is full of secrets, full of associations. Every word leads to another and another and another, down and down, through passages of dark and light. Every single word leads, in this way, to the same destination: your soul. Which is, in part, the soul of everyone. Every word has the capacity to start that journey. And once you’re on it, there is no knowing what will happen.

Locking yourself up with such things, letting them stir, using these pure psychic creations as raw material, and deciding, each time, how much or little you’re going to participate in your own act of creation, just what you’ll stake, what are the odds, just how far are you going to go—that’s called being a writer. And you do it alone in a room.

-Michael Ventura, excerpted from his essay, “The Talent of the Room.” Like to read some of Mr. Ventura’s work? You’ll find a great archive of his essays (more than 170 of them!) right here.

Teacher, writer, and Wild Quills charter member Sandy LaRochelle brought this Ventura piece to a Wild Quills meeting. Thanks, Sandy!

“Constantly Risking Absurdity,” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Thursday, May 24th, 2007

lawfer.jpgHere’s a guy who’s earned his poem’s title. He went to college, served as a U.S. Naval Officer during WWII, got a Master’s Degree from Columbia, THEN a doctorate in poetry at the Sorbonne, which led him to the growing lit scene in San Francisco. There he was on the ground floor of the whole Beat movement – ultimately publishing some of the freshmen works of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. By all means, call upon this poem’s energy and bravado whenever you want to laugh in the face of the Dark-Side Dwellers!

Constantly Risking Absurdity
Constantly risking absurdity
and death
whenever he performs
above the heads
of his audience
the poet like an acrobat
climbs on rime
to a high wire of his own making
and balancing on eyebeams
above a sea of faces
paces his way
to the other side of the day
performing entrachats
and sleight-of-foot tricks
and other high theatrics
and all without mistaking
any thing
for what it may not be
For he’s the super realist
who must perforce perceive
taut truth
before the taking of each stance or step
in his supposed advance
toward that still higher perch
where Beauty stands and waits
with gravity
to start her death-defying leap
And he
a little charleychaplin man
who may or may not catch
her fair eternal form
spreadeagled in the empty air
of existence

This poem was brought to my attention by the always risky and unfairly radiant Ann Smith, a teacher with over 30 years experience, a lover of words and passion, and a charter member of The Wild Quills Writers Group! Ann poses the provocative challenge: “What would you do if you could not fail?”

Straight-shooting advice from a “Writer Mystique” survivor – Rainer Maria Rilke

Tuesday, March 13th, 2007

rainermariarilke.jpgIn 1903, renowned German bard Rainer Maria Rilke began a correspondence with a student seeking feedback for his poems. Ultimately, he got something far more valuable – 10 evocative letters from Rilke, spilling the beans on what it REALLY means to be a Writer – which live today as the slim, artful and stirring work, Letters to a Young Poet. Below is the slightly-abridged text of the first letter, with my own subjective bolding.

Dear Sir,

Your letter arrived just a few days ago. I want to thank you for the great confidence you have placed in me. That is all I can do. I cannot discuss your verses; for any attempt at criticism would be foreign to me. Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism: they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings. Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life.

You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you – no one. There is only one thing you should do.

Go into yourself.

Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.

This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?

Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. Then come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose.

Don’t write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary: they are the hardest to work with, and it takes great, fully ripened power to create something individual where good, even glorious, traditions exist in abundance. So rescue yourself from these general themes and write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty – describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember.

If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is not poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attentions to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance.

And if out of this turning-within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. Nor will you try to interest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it.

So, dear Sir, I can’t give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it. Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist. Then take the destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and must find everything in himself and in Nature, to whom his whole life is devoted.

But after this descent into yourself and into your solitude, perhaps you will have to renounce becoming a poet (if, as I have said, one feels one could live without writing, then one shouldn’t write at all). Nevertheless, even then, this self-searching that I ask of you will not have been for nothing. Your life will still find its own paths from there, and that they may be good, rich, and wide is what I wish for you, more than I can say.

What else can I tell you? It seems to me that everything has its proper emphasis; and finally I want to add just one more bit of advice: to keep growing, silently and earnestly, through your whole development; you couldn’t disturb it any more violently than by looking outside and waiting for outside answers to questions that only your innermost feeling, in your quietest hour, can perhaps answer.

Yours very truly,
Rainer Maria Rilke

Amy Tan Gets Frank on Failure

Saturday, December 2nd, 2006

amytan.jpgAn interview excerpt with best-selling novelist Amy Tan (of Joy Luck Club fame) from; June 28, 1996, Sun Valley, Idaho.

In this insightful interview with one of America’s most acclaimed contemporary writers, Ms. Tan addresses a few aspects of failure – and success, for that matter – that might surprise you. For this post’s purposes, we’re jumping into the interview on page 6 of its 7 pages…

Q: Speaking now only of your writing career, what setbacks or detours have you had along the way and how have you dealt with them and learned from them? Self-doubts, fear of failure?

A: I didn’t fear failure. I expected failure. I think I’ve always been somebody, since the deaths of my father and brother, who was afraid to hope. So, I was more prepared for failure and for rejection than for success.

The success took me by surprise and it frightened me. On the day that there was a publication party for my book, I spent the whole day crying. I was scared out of my mind that my life was changing and it was out of my control and I didn’t know why it was happening. I thought it would ruin things, because at that moment in my life I was fairly happy. I was getting along with my mother. My husband and I had been married for a long time, we were happy, we had our first house, we had great friends, we were doing well, we weren’t starving. We had a comfortable living and I thought, “Things are going to get messed up here and I have no control over this.” I could already see how people were treating me differently.

That’s the scary thing. You know, when people say, “How has success changed you?” you have to say, “No. How have people changed toward you as the result of success?” And “How have you dealt with that change in how people have changed toward you?” That’s the most difficult thing.

So I went through a terrible period of feeling that I had lost my privacy, that I had lost a sense of who I was. I was scared by the way people measured everything by numbers: where I was on a list, or how many weeks, or how many books I had sold. By the time it came to the second book, I was so freaked out, I broke out in hives. I couldn’t sleep at night. I broke three teeth grinding my teeth. I had backaches. I had to go to physical therapy. I was a wreck!

I started a second novel seven times and I had to throw them away. You know, 100 pages here, 200 pages there and I’d say, “Is this what they liked in The Joy Luck Club? Is this the style, is this the story? No, I must write something completely different. I must write no Chinese characters to prove that I’m multi-talented.” Or “No, I must write this way in a very erudite way to show I have a way to use big words.” It’s both rebellion and conformity that attack you with success. It took me a long time to get over that, and just finally being able to breathe again and say, “What’s important? Why are you a writer? Why did you write that book in the first place? What did you learn? What did you discover? What was the most rewarding part of that?”

Don’t think of what’s going to happen afterwards. If it’s a failure, will you think what you wrote was a failure, that the whole time was wasted? If it’s a success, will you think the words are more valuable?

That crisis helped me to define what was important for me. It started off with family. It started off with knowing myself, with knowing the things I wanted as a constant in my life: trust, love, kindness, a sense of appreciation, gratitude. I didn’t want to become cynical. I didn’t want to become a suspicious person. Those were the things that helped me decide what I was going to write.

If you’re interested in reading this interview in its entirety, just click here. And by all means, consider bookmarking – “A Museum of Living History.” It’s a robust, fascinating, inspiring site!

A “Dream Theme” Trilogy (to Goad – er, Inspire You Into SHOWING UP)

Sunday, September 3rd, 2006

langston.gifThree short poems by Langston Hughes (1902-1967), Poet, Novelist, Playwright, Dreamer.

Though ALL of these amazing poems are terrific, I especially love love LOVE the last one, Motto. In fact, I pledge to set it to some GarageBand loop and use it as my personal theme music by the end of this year. Can ya dig it?!!!!

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

“Montage of a Dream Deferred”
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

I stay cool, and dig all jive,
That’s the way I stay alive.
My motto, as I live and learn, is
Dig and be dug, in return.

“I Was 37 Years Old at the Time”

Monday, July 3rd, 2006

by Erma Bombeck, prolific and beloved author, wife, mother, and columnist
Originally published August 7, 1976

For years, you’ve watched everyone else do it.

The children who sat on the curb eating their lunches while waiting for their bus.

The husband you put through school who drank coffee standing up and slept with his hand on the alarm.

And you envied them and said, “Maybe next year I’ll go back to school.” And the years went by and this morning you looked into the mirror and said, “You blew it. You’re too old to pick it up and start a new career.”

This column is for you.

Margaret Mitchell won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Gone with the Wind in 1937. She was 37 years old at the time.

Margaret Chase Smith was elected to the Senate for the first time in 1948 at the age of 49.

Ruth Gordon picked up her first Oscar in 1968 for Rosemary’s Baby. She was 72 years old.

Billie Jean King took the battle of women’s worth to a tennis court in Houston’s Astrodome to outplay Bobby Riggs. She was 31 years of age.

Grandma Moses began a painting career at the age of 76.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh followed in the shadow of her husband until she began to question the meaning of existence for individual women. She published her thoughts in Gift From the Sea in 1955, at 49.

Shirley Temple Black was ambassador to Ghana at the age of 47.

Golda Meir in 1969 was elected prime minister of Israel. She had just turned 71.

This summer Barbara Jordan was given official duties as a speaker at the Democratic National Convention. She is 40 years old.

You can tell yourself these people started out as exceptional. You can tell yourself they had influence before they started. You can tell yourself the conditions under which they achieved were different from yours.

Or you can be like a woman I knew who sat at her kitchen window year after year and watched everyone else do it and then said to herself, “It’s my turn.”

I was 37 years old at the time.