"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" ~ Mary Oliver

Tag: writing

criticism . . .

a well stone in Gloucester, MA. - in the book, a wellstone is a talisman about relationships, past and present

a well stone in Gloucester, MA. – in the book, a wellstone is a talisman about relationships, past and present

Criticism is sometimes hard to take but it can be invaluable. Depends though on how we react to it. I asked some acquaintances to read the beta-version of my book, “Uncommon Hours” this summer. Maybe it was who I asked to read it in the first place that was the problem. I didn’t know what their reaction would be and I purposely picked people with backgrounds different from my own. I received reactions from two of them last week and was surprised in a way that I had not expected.

Each of the heroines in the book represents a female dilemma in our culture; self-doubt and blame, insecurity, being unhappy even when one has what she’s always wanted; feeling “unlucky” in life, etc. “Uncommon Hours” is about enabling women to reach out for happiness from within rather than succumbing to hopelessness or waiting for someone else to do it for them.Fortunately, there were other reader reactions that were zmore positive: “I felt like I was in the room with Jessie.” and “you have to keep going because I know other women who would love it too!” So there’s been a gamut of reactions to something that I made up and put down on paper . . . which is what writing is to me.

There’s so much noise around what w-r-i-t-i-n-g means these days (b.s. about ‘craft,’ rituals to get one to write, workshops, agents, buzz,)  that it’s hard to just settle down and recognize that it’s solely up to me as the writer to convey to the reader what I’d like them to understand. Plus, it’s really easy to give up on making that happen when you’re tired of going through the manuscript any longer and feeling impatient if/when the reader doesn’t “get it” the way I had hoped they would.

Yesterday, one of my most loyal readers came over and went through her comments with me: there were fewer grammatical/typo corrections than I had feared. And she only had one place where the paragraphs might have been reorganized. Most importantly, she liked the book. In fact, she liked it a lot. I thought about what we might have in common for that to happen: we both have leanings towards New Age stuff: the Tarot, horoscopes and destiny (which neither of the criticizers above mentioned, much to my surprise.) She also really understood the metamorphosis that the heroine, Jessie, went through in the plot to enable herself to be happy, released from her self-imposed bugaboos at long last.


botanical engraving by Maria Sibylla Merian (1711) . . .

botanical engraving by Maria Sibylla Merian (1711) . .

All this feedback has caused me to reflect about the old adage, “if a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, does it still make a sound?” meaning that if you create something but don’t put it out there for other human beings to take it and react to it from their own experience and perspective, (even if they don’t “get” what you were trying to do or don’t even care if they don’t get it,) does it ultimately matter? And my answer is “yes.” The tree conundrum presumes that it’s man’s hearing that counts, not the tree in the forest in the context of Mother Nature. Whether a human is within earshot is irrelevant, it seems to me. BUT, I also feel that it’s important to put our work out there even if some or a lot of people might not react to it in the way that we intended.

Having gotten through my initial defensiveness in reading the negative feedback and wanting to put the book away in a drawer, I’ve instead begun thinking that it’s my job to make the book shine so that the reader has to get it and not the other way around (arrogantly waiting for readers to get it because I wrote it and if they don’t, then “tough.”)

Huge, right?

So, now I’m going to go back and see what alterations I might make to the book so that more readers will understand what I’m up to than the way that it stands now. Taking responsibility for these improvements has directly been a result of reading this article in the New York Times today about how another writer responds to reviews.

Here’s a link to an interview of  how that writer reacts to reviews. Edifying in the part about whether she’s done the very best she could do to impact the reader in the way the writer intended.

gift . . .

DSC_0819With all the flotsam and jetsam that floats by each day, it is heartening to read a book that engages, entertains and edifies one’s view on life, all at the same time. Such is “The Signature of All Things” by Elizabeth Gilbert. As you might recall, she became famous for her memoir, “Eat, Pray, Love” which sold 10 million copies, was made into a movie starring Julia Roberts and which has made her rich enough to begin rebuilding (including buying houses for friends) a small town in New Jersey where she lives with a husband whom she married to ensure he could stay in the U.S.A. on a green card. You might think that would be enough to handle in the past few years, along with setting up a shop of imported wares like Buddhas and other Asian things that her husband manages.

But no, apparently, that’s not been enough to occupy her time/life. With the publication of “The Signature of All Things,” Elizabeth Gilbert reveals that she has been busy researching 18th and 19th century botanical history, including the commerce of ocean trade between the West and obscure locations yielding up medicinal plants and potions that ebbed and flowed with plagues, fevers, malaria and other illnesses that could not be treated otherwise than with exotic potions and herbs. She has constructed a tale (that’s the only word for it) of a family, and especially a heroine named Alma Whittaker who is not pretty but is very intelligent, feisty and hard-working who perseveres through a life of disappointments and wishes that go unfulfilled in unwinsome ways. That this story is told in a narrative fashion (“telling” rather than “showing” through dialogue) is a huge relief because stories matter and I’m so glad to be able to simply read for pleasure without having to deal with all the annoying current artificial fads in writing/publishing.

That being said, another bonus in the writing is that for me, at least, the narrator’s voice sounds awfully familiar to that of Jane Austen. In fact, I enjoyed reading this book much more than some Jane Austen’s novels because the humor and wit come easy, comes often and is awe-inspiring in its light touch. So, it even kind of out-Austens Jane, but seems so effortless that it’s not a contest, just fun.

To be honest, I read a lot and am one of those readers who, unless engaged and interested, do not suffer books (or fools) gladly. This is the first book in a long time that I marveled at while laughing out loud. I also appreciated the more sobering discussions about the relationships of all things, (never mind the signature as explained in the novel,) and the spirited attitude of the heroine. I can’t wait to read it again, more slowly this time, and savor the writing of someone who has already won the writing lottery with “Eat, Pray, Love,” a book that I wanted to throw across the room numerous times except for the “Pray” section. Now, against some odds, she has succeeded in writing literature. No wonder Elizabeth Gilbert is smiling in the photos that accompany the book. She’s done what many of us want to accomplish in our lives: to be original in our creativity, to persevere until it is finished and to be published. I wish I had come up with something like this. But it’s more than enough pleasure for me just to hold this volume in my hands and to know I can read it more than once and enjoy it more fully after an astonishing first time through. What a gift!

“art” . . .

butterflyToday, I asked the memoir workshop leader for advice on improving my writing. He said, “You are fine. But you have to be more intimate.  Even if it’s not in your culture’s mindset!” Then I looked up the meaning of “intimate” on line and it said “to be personal, private.”

This is interesting advice. Especially since I’ve been told many times that I am too direct, hitting the marrow in the bone as it applies to others. Perhaps I am not exposing my own bone marrow enough when I’m writing. And that it might be culturally Asian to avoid revealing one’s emotional depths except INDIRECTLY. I didn’t think I was that Chinese after spending most of my life in this country. But maybe that’s what I learned last week at the workshop: that describing pain indirectly doesn’t hack it.

I wonder if being in a deeper place, describing more detail and feeling to the reader would make my writing more intimate? If that is a prerequisite for “good writing,” or “making writing into art” then I’m not sure that I want to do that.

So, my question then is, what is art? And why does writing have to be art to make a difference? Here’s a definition of art on Wikipedia:

Art can connote a sense of trained ability or mastery of a medium. Art can also simply refer to the developed and efficient use of a language to convey meaning with immediacy and or depth. Art is an act of expressing feelings, thoughts, and observations.

The operative words are “with immediacy and or depth.” That’s where a more intimate look might enter in, I think. More detail, slower pace, not just skirting the pain.

clearing . . .

looking up at the sky . . .

I don’t know about you but I don’t have enough storage space here to create as much order as I would like. Or maybe I just have too much stuff! Sometimes I imagine in my mind’s eye a meadow of sweet grass where a circle is mown in the middle and blankets are spread out so I can lie on them and look at the clouds in the sky, moving along in balloon animal shapes or some such.

In the midst of these ruminations as I sort through books on the shelves are the seeds of ideas to write something cohesive and on its own (in addition to the little essays on this blog.) I have a feeling inside that this inchoate form is still moving around in pieces and when it reaches a critical mass, I will sit down and the whole thing will just come out, similar to the now mythic description of Jack Kerouac typing his manifesto, “On the Road” on a never ending manuscript inserted into his manual typewriter. Where do we pick up these kinds of idealistic fantasies about writing?

On the shelves are writing books: writer memoirs, how-tos, lectures, guides, self-help, whatever. None of them do what’s really needed, which is to motivate me to just sit down and write “it.”

In the meantime, my goal today is to clean out the boxes in the room with the orchid plants on the shelf and to put away the winter bedding on top of the shelves in the bedroom. Mundane accomplishments to be sure, but at least visually noticeable progress, unlike the glacial creative process going on inside myself.