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Writing and the Dark Months

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each. “ Henry David Thoreau

Today is the Winter Solstice. The shortest day of the year. A time when the sun

appears at the lowest point in the sky and seems not to move for several days before

and after the Solstice. Following the Winter Solstice, the days grow longer and the nights shorter.

Ancient Mother Earth, “our oldest ancestor, “ now rests. At the harvest and All

Hallow’s Eve, she has born new life to sustain life. Now, at the Solstice, she is

renewing, and dreaming and, "if we mirror her cycles, it is time for us to quiet our

lives and dedicate some time for our renewal, for reverie."(Jean Forest in Inner

Tapestry, 2003) This is the perfect time for writers to go inward. To renew the

Deep Voice and to dig down and harvest the words we have longed to share.

As Joan Borysenko says, in Pocketful of Miracles, “The Seasonal rhythms correlate

with our own body rhythms…. Our dream life and inner life grow more insistent in

the winter darkness…. The old year is put to bed, one’s business is finished, and the

harvest of spiritual maturity is reaped as wisdom and forgiveness.”

Exercise:

Sit back, and give into the darkness of the season.

Light a candle and study its glow. When you feel transformed, begin a piece, without

forethought or plan. Write like you talk, as Method Writing would call it. Write for

ten minutes without stopping. As you write, hear the darkness and quiet around

you. Take it in. Put it into words.

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Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

from Dream Work by Mary Oliver

published by Atlantic Monthly Press

© Mary Oliver

The sound of wild geese squawking and barking wakes me these days. Depending on my mood and the time of day, I am raised up or saddened by the sound that signals their departure. Autumn. Fall. Falling back. The loss of daylight hours. It’s the only time of the year when I feel a sense of wistfulness, an acute awareness of the passage of time. And it seems to be the central theme of every poem written about autumn. Yet, I don’t want to stay with this feeling. I prefer Mary Oliver’s response to the wild geese. “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination.”

Exercise: Spend a moment outside taking in the autumn air, listening to the sounds of the world around you. While outside, read aloud Mary Oliver’s poem and listen to the repetition of the sounds that begin with “meanwhile” and roll on and on. Jack Grapes calls this voice the “To Be Read and Sung” voice. “The voice Greek and Roman orators....the voice of the Old Testament and the Deep South; the voice that speaks to the multitudes, a voice that is meant to rouse and inspire.” Write your own prose poem about autumn using the repetition and rhythm in the Mary Oliver poem. Speak to the Multitudes. Offer your imagination to the world!!

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Cultivate your garden

Maine Lupines - Patricia Shea

When I go into the garden with a spade, and dig a bed, I feel such an exhilaration and health that I discover that I have been defrauding myself all this time in letting others do for me what I should have done with my own hands. Ralph Waldo Emerson (“Man the Reformer,” a lecture read before the Mechanics Apprentices’ Library Association, Boston, January 25, 1841.)

This morning, I walked out into the newly planted garden at our newly rehabbed house in Rockport, Maine, and paused, spying a squirrel, yawing mouth full of nut, who was going from plant to plant in search of the perfect home for his chestnut. Ahh, I thought he’s squirreling away something, creating a stash for the winter. Pulled into the squirrel’s world, I abandoned, for a moment, my concerns about the falling-apart world around us: hoards of starving people; over-population; ice caps melting; polar bears dying; environmental disasters; wildly gyrating stock markets; massive unemployment; the NBA lockout; the Greeks! The national debt! Ruthless dictators! A polarized society; a deadlocked Congress! Is it a function of age that I am more concerned--my sense of mortality causing me to ponder the world I will leave behind? Rather than going inside and saying the Metta Prayer 21 times (I’d done that already), I stayed my attention on the squirrel and my garden. How soothing it was to be among the flowers; to inhale their fragrance; to wonder at the bees; to observe the ways of the squirrels. As I quieted my mind, the last line of Candide floated

into my consciousness and (after silently offering thanks to my parents for my excellent liberal arts education), I smiled. Voltaire, speaking as Candide, whispered, “We must cultivate our garden.” Or, let’s abandon the cares of the world and turn our attention to what is before us. The final words of wisdom, the final line of the book, from a man who has seen many continents, much calamity and gnashing of teeth, has found and lost love, friends, gold, and returned home to buy a farm, live in community and begin a pastoral existence.

How like writing this is – cultivating our own words, sowing each word in a line on a page, shutting out, for a moment, the cares of the world. And how much more satisfying this farming of words is than paying attention to the world’s woes. Many authors have been gardeners. May Sarton, the American poet and novelist who lived in New England in her youth, as well as in her final years, says, “Gardening gives me back a sense of proportion about everything.” And Walt Whitman, “Give me odorous at sunrise a garden of beautiful flowers where I can walk undisturbed.” Listen to how poetic Nathaniel Hawthorne sounds when talking about his garden at the The Old Manse, his residence on the banks of the Concord River, “ I used to visit and revisit it a dozen times a day, and stand in deep contemplation over my vegetable progeny with a love that nobody could share or conceive of who had never taken part in the process of creation. It was one of the most bewitching sights in the world to observe a hill of beans thrusting aside the soil, or a row of early peas just peeping forth sufficiently to trace a line of delicate green.” I think of the expression “It’s nothing but a hill of beans” and marvel how a writer can change an ordinary bean into a line of poetry.

So, writers, I propose you cultivate your gardens, whatever form that might take.

Exercise: Choose five verbs, five nouns, five adjectives, five adverbs* from the

world of gardening, and create a short poem out of them.

Here’s a possible list:

Verbs: Cultivate, water, plant, nourish, turn over, mulch, splash, sprinkle, feed,

dig, hybridize, fertilize, focus, place, sow.

Nouns: Perennial, squash, seed, root, stem, juniper, sunflower, sweet pea, earth,

soil, clay, rosemary.

Adjectives: Ochre, sweet, fragrant, lavender, spicy, woodsy, buttery, orchid-pink,

juicy, crisp, wild.

Adverbs: Mindfully, carefully, artfully, gingerly, sequentially, playfully, seasonally,

gently, deeply, naturally.

*I know I usually rant and rave about the use of adverbs, but they have their

place and it’s fun to sprinkle them sparingly among the rows of words. (Yes, and

that sentence has two adverbs!!)

Patricia Shea

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LOST

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you

Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here.

And you must treat it as a powerful stranger.

Must ask permission to know and be known.

The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,

I have made this place around you.

If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.

No two trees are the same to Raven.

No two branches are the same to Wren.

If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,

You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows

Where you are. You must let it find you.

David Wagoner, copyright 1976

Path through the trees   Patricia Shea

To me, this poem is about artistic process, whether writing, acting, sculpting, or painting. To get in touch with our deep artist’s voice, we must stand still and open ourselves to receive. “Stand still…The forest knows where you are. You must let it find you.” As terrifying as it may seem, we must be willing to allow ourselves to lose control and get out of the way. The creative process is mysterious, and, if we’re not careful our grown-up inhibitions will block our genius. Pablo Picasso said, “When I was a child, I could paint like a master, and I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to paint like a child.”

Before you begin your work, create a sacred space around you. Whether it’s throwing salt over your shoulder, as Shakespeare did, or praying to Homer, as Stephen Pressfield does (see

The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield

), acknowledge, consciously, that you are beginning the task. In other words, ask permission to know and be known. By our words; by our characters; by our story. And then let the forest - the work - find us.

Exercise. Sit still, at your computer, or with your notebook open in front of you. Complete your ritual: ring the bell, light the candle, toss salt over your shoulder, put your Red Sox hat on your head. Shift into a state of hyper-awareness. Ask for the visitation of the powerful stranger. Empty your mind. Let the words find you.

And, check out

Chris Guillebeau’s Manifesto

for writers.

It should get your blood boiling!

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Pass I on.

I will not die an unlived life.

I will not live in fear

of falling or catching fire.

I choose to inhabit my days,

to allow my living to open me,

to make me less afraid,

more accessible,

to loosen my heart

until it becomes a wing,

a torch, a promise.

I choose to risk my significance,

to live so that which came to me as seed

goes to the next as blossom,

and that which came to me as blossom,

goes on as fruit.

Dawna Markova

In her book,

I Will Not Die An Unlived Life

, Dawna Markova talks about reclaiming our passion. For me, this is a direct message to the writer in us. We get discouraged; we become self-critical; and, often, we give up writing. Throw down the pen, close the computer. Why did I ever think I could be a writer? Yet as Martha Graham says to Agnes de Mille, “There is a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action.” And, she goes on to say “This expression is unique. And if you block it…the world will not have it.”

Think about that. Your point of view of the world, your “optique” as the French would say, is yours alone. Artists offer their vision to the world humbly and without question. As Graham says, “It is not your business to determine how good it is. Nor how valuable it is. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”

Dawna Markova has another way of saying this. She breaks down the word passion into three syllables: Pass I On. I read this to mean that we, as writers, as artists, must Pass I On – that is pass on what is ours alone, our own unique expression. Humbly. As a gift. Without question. Yes, we must keep working at our craft and getting better and better at what we do. Study, learn, work, repeat, rewrite, work. And, then without ego concerns of “will they like it, am I good enough” we put the work out into the world. The rest, as friends of mine would say, is up to God.

The adage in Hollywood, where I worked for years, is “nobody knows anything.” That is none of us knows what will be a hit; what will cause people to line up and pay money for a movie or a book or a work of art.

So, make a commitment to do your best work, offer it to the world, Pass I On, celebrate the completion, and, since there is no reason to worry about its reception, move on to find your next expression.

Writing Exercise:

Let’s explore the dark side. Set the clock for ten minutes and answer the following 

question: Why do I not deserve to be a recognized as an artist? You will see that 

eventually you will run out of bad things to say about yourself. At that moment, set 

your clock for ten minutes and write out your fantasies – make them as grand and 

specific as possible – regarding the success of your work. Sit back with a cup of tea/ 

coffee/vodka (depending on the time of day) and review your work.

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