Below is an article I wrote for Writer’s Digest last year about moving beyond writer’s block. Enjoy! And feel free to share!
Below is an article I wrote for Writer’s Digest last year about moving beyond writer’s block. Enjoy! And feel free to share!
As host of the recent “Writing, Truth, and Community” event featuring best selling author Cheryl Strayed, I was blessed with the task of introducing Cheryl, who has by now, been introduced in so many fabulous and interesting ways by so many fabulous and interesting luminaries, that I was wondering what little old me could possibly add to the mix? So in my poet-like bewilderment and terror, I couldn’t think of what else to do except what I always do with such surges of emotion. Write a poem! She was so genuinely touched, that she mentioned how when she met Robert Redford, though he kissed her four times, he did NOT write her a poem. My life is now complete, I can die a happy fulfilled man!! The poem is copied below. Enjoy!
Thirteen Ways of Looking at Cheryl Strayed (after Wallace Stevens)
Among twenty snowy mountains
The only thing moving
Was the eye of a woman with a blue backpack
She was of three minds
Like a tree with three branches
Of grief, of hope, of love
The woman whirled in the summer winds
A tiny speck of brilliance in the setting sun
A woman and a mountain are one. A woman
And a mountain, and a grieving heart are one
I don’t know which to prefer, the beauty
of subtle thought, or the beauty of mountain dreams—
the woman weeping, or just after
Charcoal clouds drifted across the tops of the sugar pines,
oh dear future sugar. . .the mountains frowned
her solitude thickening, the trail steepened
Oh good people of the city
why do imagine only golden words?
Do you not see how the blackbirds
nest in her trees, as in yours?
I know of noble songs, of grand ideas,
I know the woman with the blue backpack
is involved in what I know
When the woman took flight
as now a bluebird might, it marked the beginning
of many endings
The sight of the woman
in the blue backpack with her heart full of
birds, full of words,
would make the mountains cry out
She walked the spine of California
on winged feet made of glass
on hammered feet of blood and pulp
the mystery and beauty eclipsing the fear
of an unknown. . .the pain of surrender
The river is flowing
the woman must jump in
It was daytime all night long
from then on, the blackbirds in the night tree were
singing for her, a song abloom with the clarity of love
On June 1, 2013 best-selling author of Wild, Tiny, Beautiful Things, and the novel Torch, Cheryl Strayed came to the Petaluma Sheraton for a day titled “Writing, Truth, & Community”–produced by yours truly and The Owl Press. This was the largest event we have put on and thanks to our volunteers, my assistant–Ali Degolia, and the Sheraton staff, things went very smoothly!! The event consisted of a full day writing workshop, craft talk, reading, and book signing! The feedback has been amazing! Thanks to all who filled out the survey, sent me an email or posted to Facebook! It was an extraordinary day, and Cheryl was charming, insightful, inspiring, funny, and extremely generous with her knowledge and experience.
Cheryl mentioned a number of writing prompts and promised to share them with the group! And so here they are! Enjoy! May you be inspired to be willing to “break your own heart” and go forth to “write like a motherfucker!!”
With gratitude and all best wishes, Albert (& Cheryl)
Writing Prompts from Cheryl Strayed
(The “you” can be you or a fictional character)
Write about a time when you’d dressed inappropriately for the occasion.
Write a few pages in which you obsess over something meaningless.
Write about something/someone being born.
Write about something you can’t deny.
Write about what you have too much of.
Write about when you knew you were in trouble.
Write about something you don’t exactly remember.
What about what you used to know how to do.
Write a long apology.
Write about a secret being revealed.
Write about all the secrets that have been kept from you.
Write about a gift that was not well received.
Write a long thank you letter.
Write about something you are certain of.
Write about having no fun at all.
Write about when you knew something was over (or had begun).
Write about someone you forgot.
Write about a question you wished you’d asked.
Write about something that was too small/too big.
Write about what you’d planned to do.
Write about something that doesn’t get better.
By story I simply mean expressive urge to share your experience through words. Be it a poem, a story story, a memoir, an essay, a screen play, a blog post–do you have something to say, a song to sing through words? Why aren’t you writing it? I’ve found in my own experience and with my clients, a consistent writing discipline is the hardest thing to overcome. Our fear and self doubt coupled with the busyness of contemporary life conspire to keep us from the page. There is a solution. But first you really really need to want to do it. Is that a double affirmative? You almost have to have a nagging obsessive NEED to write. If you are to be successful. And by successful, I mean complete a writing project, be that a collection of poems, short stories, essays, a novel, screen play, whatever–but completed–fully! And edited–professionally! What happens after that is addressed in a future post. For now we want to hit the page. We HAVE to hit the page! Something is burning within us and it must be set free. Otherwise go weed the garden, or do the dishes, or amble on down to the county fair and ride the Ferris wheel (all things I avoid doing so I can write). There’s lots of other stuff to do in this life. For writers, to write is to breathe forth the words of the soul–to mirror out from the depths of your own unique experience. It’s an exploration and adventure, and at times a tough slog through the muck of resistance. It’s partly about habits. Changing the listless bedraggled and avoiding neural networks in your brain, for ones that light up when you have a pen in your hand, or are dangling your fingers above the keyboard like an exquisite pianist. They light up anew with that fantastic new idea for what your main character ate for breakfast, and how she held her fork in that funny way with her left hand as if she were going to pound her fist on the table, while in the other she held a pale yellow pencil she kept sliding through the creases in her strawberry braids. Bing. There they go lighting up again! But don’t wait for them to do so. You must MAKE them BLAZE! Practice damnit! Stop thinking about it, shut up and write already!!
If you can judge a book by its cover, (and yes you can–which doesn’t mean I’m a proponent of prejudice and snap judgements–it simply means EVERY detail of this author’s process was considered and thought about deeply) then you can certainly judge a book by its title–perhaps even more so. A title should be a mini poem, a gateway, a threshold, into the larger themes, metaphors, and plot of your book. The title is a badge your book will wear, a badge you yourself will wear, especially when it comes to memoir.
I would suggest multiple brain dumps, brain storms, collaborative brain trusts–to come up with your title–sit with your favorites for a few weeks. Present your favorites to you closest inner circle and take a poll. Then open it up to your larger community for their thoughts and ideas. Most of all check in with yourself–what resonates most with your true heart’s desire and what you are trying to communicating with the book. Connect with your intuition–you should feel excited, proud, and motivated by your title.
And what about subtitles? I am of two minds. I love the purity of a simple, poetic title. And yet, these days in order to reach readers its very helpful to include a subtitle that speaks to your niche. I chose both. Your title needs to be enigmatically informative but not obscure, catchy but not hokey, original but not overly inscrutable. A great title should propel you the reader into the swelling wave of the book, salt-spraying you with hints of the primary themes and the big why of the book. Given the insane ocean of information we are all swimming it, a good book title has the heard task of leaping out of the sea as a shiny dolphin might, inspiring awe and curiosity and a desire for a second, third, and fourth look. A look that will turn into a stare of wonder and then a surrender to immediate communion with that creature–that creature being the book.
This seems obvious, doesn’t it? But the truth is most of us writers, wannabe and newby writers struggle with the issue of simply putting words to paper—consistently. We can talk a good game, we can hem and haw, and dream, babble, blame, hesitate, masticate, pontificate and spool an endless stream of reasons we didn’t get around to it today. “Work, work, work, I’m just soooo busy at work.” “A family issue came up.” “I’m too tired.” (try that one consistently in your relationship and see how long it lasts)! Sorry, your relationship with writing is only slightly different than your relationship with people! My personal favorite “I’m not feeling it, there’s just nothing there right now.” And on it goes driving us further and further away from our dream of seeing our ideas have a positive influence on other people and the world. Please don’t forget writing is a practice, like walking, or riding a bike. Once you finally surrender and start doing it all the time, it doesn’t feel like a thing you have to practice, it just feels like you are engaging with life. You get good by doing, not by fantasizing. I feel silly repeating what so many have said before me, but maybe I feel I have to since I finally turned a corner in my own writing. I think I must have crossed the 10,000 hour mark. (According to Malcom Gladwell, in order to get proficient at something you have to practice it for 10,000 hours). That’s a lot of hours. I was trying to calculate up all the time I spent writing, editing, and re-writing my recent memoir. Even pushing it, I came up with only about 3,000 hours. That would be 8 hours a day for 365 days. I max out writing at four hours a day four or five days a week. Do the math. Yes it took me four something years. Fortunately I could add in the twelve to fifteen years I have joyfully spent writing poetry. Hard to calculate exactly, but I figure I’m damn close to 10,000 hours. But whose counting, I mean really, we’re in it for the love of process and imaginative discovery or not at all. There’s lot of other things to do with our time as human beings, but I can’t think of anything more rewarding than sharing one’s take on this exquisitely magical, twisted, gorgeously bumbling, wounded, perpetually healing, world—and how I happen to experience it. I simply have fun seeing what I think, and exploring tweaks of language to make it a bit more yummy and compelling for the reader. I’m here to help expand consciousness a hair in the right, positive direction. I write to laugh and to cry and to love-out, and truth-out loud on the page. And besides that I write to write, there need not be a reason, but there definitely need be a consistent practice! So get on it friends, write in the face of fear and resistance and see fear and resistance wither in the presence of your commitment to write!
The most common reply I get from people when I tell them I’ve published a memoir is “aren’t you a bit young to be writing your memoirs?” At which point I have to explain, “no, no, a memoir, singular, I’ve written a memoir. I’m not in my sunset years writing the autobiography of my entire life, known as one’s memoirs (plural).” A memoir covers a section of a life. It could be about the last three weeks of your best friend life, or the ten years it took you to get off prescription pills. My favorite example is Robin Romm’s book “The Mercy Papers: A Memoir of Three Weeks,” which is a beautiful and emotional chronicle of the last weeks of her mother’s life as she watched her die of cancer. The opening description of the hospice nurse is exquisite and one of my favorite book openings, period. It’s hard not to notice how Mary Karr’s memoirs are pretty much broken up into, childhood (The Liar’s Club), adolescence, high school, and early college (Cherry), and young and mid adulthood (Lit). This is not to say one can’t move through time chronologically, or for that matter experimentally, in a memoir. One of the great defining characteristics of contemporary memoir is the unique play of time using flashback, dream sequence, and future projecting–my favorite example being “Boys of my Youth” by Joanne Beard. But what we aren’t doing is chronologically recalling an entire life (I did this, and then I did this, and finally here I am old and wise.) Memoir as a genre has very much come into its own over the past twenty years and is now filled with a vast array of narrative exploration of the true (as true as memory can be) personal account. One of the latest incarnations is the “Immersion Memoir” where people are seeking out interesting, challenging, odd, or even dangerous experiences, completely immersing themselves in them, and then writing about it. “My Year Living as a Buddhist Nun in Burma” or “My Time Working for Minimum Wage in a Slaughterhouse in Iowa,” might be examples. I suppose if “Supersize Me” was a book it could be considered an “Immersion Memoir.” Such books include elements of travelogue, documentary script, and deep investigative journalism. The point being that at it’s best memoir (singular) explores a portion of a life lived in a unique open way, filled with adventurous experiences, transformation, lessons learned, a solid story structure, and prose that shimmers off the page as lusciously as any novel, and as poetically as any great poem.
Who needs a writing coach? How about everybody. Though some people might call them an editor, some of the best editors are really coaches–and many will resist the idea that they need one at all. But who among the most successful writers has not had a mentor, supportive professor, brilliant editor, that was really disguised as a coach? Call them what you may (I prefer coach)–I think of them as a necessary element of any successful writers career. I know I would never have gotten my books completed and published without the support of a writing coach. The best coaches act as advocate, inspiration, guide, motivator, cheerleader, accountability partner, confidante, and ass-kicker. They are there to see you through the grim sticky waves of doubt, the debilitating blocks, the blinding seizures brought on by staring too long at the tundra of the blank page. They help carry you through to success, whatever that might mean for you!
[This is from my Redroom.com blog, that I actually just won a contest for--free admission to the USC Writers' Conference--and I can't go ]
The greatest writers retreat is into your self, into books you love, into the wildness of nature, into the chaos and beauty of your deepest emotions. As for actual retreats, in the late 1990′s I had the blessing of being a campground host at a remote state park called the Sinkyone Wilderness on the Northern California coast. The folks who had been campground hosts, had been so for years, were super-attached to their position, and it was extremely rare to get the gig. I just happened to luck out and my timing was right when a long-time participant had a family emergency and needed someone to fill the spot. March was not a popular time for anyone to be out there, but for a poet and artist haunted by his past and enchanted by his present, it was perfect!
The following excerpt is from my memoir “Beamish Boy,” which includes a chapter from this extraordinary experience that became the ultimate writer’s “retreat” into my self! Enjoy!
Alone in the Sinkyone
I had never ventured north of Sonoma County and was in awe driving west out of Garberville, California as I passed through a sweet little remnant old-growth redwood forest down by the Eel River, then followed the road out toward Shelter Cove, where it got more and more wiggly, meandering up and down through blond hills and densely forested patches of third-growth redwood and Douglas fir. I continued on through a couple of old settlements that have come and gone over the years. They were just clusters of houses with junk cars strewn about and old, rusty signs advertising a stopover for lunch or gas. Whitethorn is one of these places, once teeming with a tan-bark mill at the turn of the century and then for a while at mid-century, inhabited by Beats and hippies. It now appeared mostly abandoned, except for some back-to-the-land holdouts and pot growers hiding out in old school buses and VW campers being reclaimed by blackberry and wild ivy.
At Whitethorn, the road turned to dirt, met up with the headwaters of the Matole River for a while, then split at Four Corners where there used to be a stage stop and an old hotel. I took a slight right to head into the Sinkyone Wilderness, named for the native peoples that roamed this wild land for thousands of years before European settlers showed up in the late 1800s. This is known as the Lost Coast, the one section of Highway 1’s coastal route that stymied the engineers. At the Usal Beach Road, Highway 1 gets diverted inland due to the exquisitely rugged terrain and the fact that this is one of the most seismically active areas of California.
I proceeded nervously down the Needle Rock Road into the heart of the Sinkyone, as the road narrowed to one lane and descended more and more steeply. I couldn’t help but notice that I was at the abrupt end of the continent. The land practically breaks off there, with the Pacific thundering a thousand feet below. The Ranger had told me it might be best to leave my car at Four Corners, as there are frequent mudslides, downed trees, and rockfalls throughout the Winter and early Spring. Down I wound, vultures flying below me through the fog and mist while I kept an eye out for elk who were known to trot lazily across the road.
Out my rolled-down window, I heard a redtail hawk shriek and watched him ride a thermal high above a tiny meadow. Lyle Lovett was on the tapedeck singing “If I had a boat, I’d head out on the ocean, and if I had a pony, I’d ride him on that boat, and we could all together head out on that ocean, me up on my pony on my boat . . .”
It took a good thirty minutes going fifteen miles per hour before I finally arrived at an open meadow a hundred feet or so above the sea, and there in the middle of the meadow sat the Needle Rock House. Once a homestead site, it is now a visitor center with an apartment in the back for a campground host. I was that host for the month of March in 1997 and 1998—two of the most magical months of my life. After my first visit in 1994, I had asked the ranger how to get on the list to volunteer. He said there was a three-year waiting list, but that sometimes people have to back out because of personal emergencies. I put my name down and followed up some months later. Sure enough, one of the longtime volunteers had to take care of an ill relative and gave up her slot for March of 1997. I stayed in the humble little Needle Rock House through the dramatic spring weather, sipping tea, reading books, writing poetry, painting, meditating, and hiking every nook and cranny I could find in thirty days’ time. I used to hike up to Chemise Mountain to watch the sunset, or head out to Bear Harbor to explore the rocks and shells. I’d walk the length of the beach (always negotiating the tides) out to Whale Gulch to birdwatch, whalewatch, or otherwise contemplate the great, infinite magic of existence. A poem from that time reads:
Needle Rock Mountain
from the tongue
ravens spill cobalt cloud
on the sea
The photo self-portrait (the one that ended up in my final show at the Art Institute) epitomizes my experience of being at the Sinkyone. My pale body is caught in a bright shaft of sunlight dancing blurred against the backdrop of a giant charred-black redwood trunk. I appear as an angelic forest sprite, almost lifting off the forest floor, blooming and ascending through a giant bouquet of sword ferns and into light, emerging from the darkness of the world and merging into the light of an eternal, more-awakened self.
When I arrived for my first month-long stay in 1997, the first thing I did was hike down the steep, washed-out bluff to Needle Rock. At the bottom, I was met with the bloated remains of a recently dead elk. The smell was incredible, and I couldn’t help wondering how the animal had wound up there at the base of the cliff. Had it fallen and broken a leg? Had it died of old age? During the month I was there, I visited the carcass almost daily and watched it decay, from distension and bloat to rot and animal scavenge down to the bones and head, which were the only parts left as I packed up in early April to leave.
I was about a week and a half into my stay when the ranger came down one day with the news that I had an important phone call.
It was Etoile. I hadn’t heard from her in years.
“Al, it’s me, Etoile.”
“It’s Etoile, Al, St. Luke’s, remember me? Helloooo!” She said sounding frustrated and serious.
“Holy shit, Etoile, oh my God, how are you?” I said excitedly, with a pang of nostalgia sweeping through my heart.
“I’m okay, but listen . . . I need to tell you. . . I don’t know how to say this, but. . . Raine’s dead.” Silence.
“She died last week in a car wreck in Florida. I thought you’d want to know.”
“Oh my God, I, I, I, I—wow, this is fucked up. What the . . . Jesus . . . I’ve been so out of touch— but I didn’t even know you two were close.”
“Yeah, we became friends when I was in Denver, and then we actually moved back to Connecticut around the same time. I saw her three months ago, before she left for Florida. She got back with an old boyfriend who was doing a lot of drugs, and— I don’t know what exactly happened.”
“I, I, I, I . . .” I couldn’t stop stuttering.
“I know, I’m so sad, Al.” She broke down, which inspired me to burst into tears.
“I’m so sorry, Etoile,” I said, sniffling. “Is there anything I can do from here?” I was at a loss of what else to say.
“Me too,” she said, “me too—I don’t know, maybe you could write to her family, tell them you were a good friend, and tell them what she meant to you.”
I was shocked and devastated, and flooded with reignited guilt. But I set aside all the conflicts and confusion of our past, and did write to Raine’s family with awkward, yet sincere condolences, then went down to the beach and wailed and screamed into the waves.
The ocean didn’t care, my dead elk friend didn’t care, the sky didn’t care, but somehow they all listened, and held me as I lay in the black sand, sobbing. In the days that followed, I made little altars for Raine on the beach. I prayed for her peaceful passage, and I prayed for her forgiveness. I filled my notebooks with a wobbly poetry of grief, regret, death, and rebirth.
We Kiss Ourselves Against This Thorny Mirror
We kiss ourselves against this thorny mirror
face our punctured lips
clean up our deflated kiss against
this thorny mirror begin
again in the name of love . . .
. . . I will beam ecstatic float and drown
and resurface once again against that thorny mirror
upon which we kiss ourselves
release the wounds and embrace the world!
While in the Sinkyone, I kept obsessive notebooks that were not only filled with poems, but also drawings, watercolors, favorite words, journalistic drivel, and various quotes. I had endless amounts of time on my hands. The park was quiet at that time of year, though an occasional local might come by to visit. Otherwise, I just hung out and read, wrote, ate, slept, meditated, and walked or hiked. Thinking back on it now, one day at the Sinkyone was like a month in my current life. A year these days seems to fly by in the span of a single month. Out there in the Sinkyone, each day I was meeting eternity face to face, keeping time by the sun and stars, the shouting waves, and the sound of the singing rain.
The other thing I did a lot of was read. I read five hundred pages of dialogues with the obscure Indian mystic Nisargadatta Maharaj, called I Am That. Twice. I read Lorca’s biography and collected poems forward and backward about twenty-seven times. I read Gertrude Stein until my brain started to burble and seep out my ears, until I would run naked, laughing hysterically, into the meadow, tears of confused joy streaming across my face like frayed silver ribbon. I read Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, lamenting how I had missed the boat on a life of serious Euro-bohemianism. I read books on physics and the origins of the universe, and then a terrific book called An Everyday History of Somewhere, about the history of this most remote stretch of Northern California coastline: the Native Americans, the miners, the loggers, the hippies, and the back-to-the-land pot growers.
All this time of reading, writing, and just being, was heavenly. There was such an intense immediacy to the landscape, and a lack of regular distractions (TV, the computer, socializing, making money). I became emotionally raw and open, clear of mind and filled with an inspired happiness and joy. Around this time, I had begun to ask those great, timeless human questions: Who am I? What is the meaning of life? What is my purpose? These questions enchanted and sometimes haunted me. In a way, I felt as if I was finally living them here in the Sinkyone, in this space of wild simplicity. And yet, like everything, it was temporary. Temporary, with a taste of the eternal.
One evening, I was hiking down Chemise Mountain at sunset when I came around a slight turn in the trail and I found myself on the edge of a steep cliff more than a thousand feet above the ocean. The waves were crashing below with their little foam doilies shifting across the sand and then disappearing—and suddenly facing me, was a huge male elk with a massive rack of antlers. Our eyes met and we stared at each other, frozen in time, suspended in the salt air in a kind of magical embrace, species to species. I don’t know how long we stayed in our embrace, but it was a brilliant sliver of eternity.
At that moment, my heart burst open, and my vision became incredibly clear. The elk finally wandered into the brush and I kept walking, and my surroundings continued to glow—the ocean rushed into my eyes and receded, the redwoods laughed, the clouds breathed in sync with my lungs, the alder leaves shimmered electric green. I started to cry and I didn’t know why, except that I was just overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of this merging experience, by the simple yet profound lack of separation. At that moment, the self I knew as Albert merged into elk and alder, ocean and sky. In that moment, I became awake to the immense presence and infinite beauty of this world, and instantly realized, yes, I am that!