Where I live, up in the mountains, I usually find that when I’m driving along the highway I’ll pass a loooong coal train snaking next to the road. It’s a line of ugliness because each coal hopper is usually tagged by aerosol vandals, creating a monotonous frieze of contorted letters.
Aerosol mural painters are a huge step up in terms of art and beauty. In the upper mountain town of Katoomba, some of these artists were invited to create murals along an alleyway. Their work turned a forgotten passageway into a colourful art walk. Katoomba also has other large art pieces on the external walls of buildings, bringing colour to its main street.
A friend sent this photo of a street mural in Charlotte, North Carolina.
I’d love to see more public places where visual art is combined with poetry. To have poems infiltrate public spaces—shaking us awake, reminding us that there’s more to life than the humdrum of shopping, picking up library books, looking for a parking space.
The verse in the photo is by Robert Creeley. He was the first poet I heard reading his own work out loud. As an English major at uni, I was immersed in American and British poetry from Anglo-Saxon times to the 19th century. I also bought slim volumes of contemporary poets. But I’d never had the opportunity to hear a poet reading their own material to a live audience.
So when I saw a flyer on campus advertising a public reading by Creeley, I went to see what it was about.
When he came out on stage, looking quite ordinary, I was a little disappointed. He didn’t look like a poet, I remember thinking.
There was no discussion, no interview. He simply adjusted his microphone and began reading. And it was wonderful.
Later, part-way through one poem, he broke off. He explained that he hadn’t read it ‘correctly’, and he started again, a few lines back. He must have felt he’d nailed it that time because he continued to the end.
Why do I remember Creeley’s mistake? His action—stopping, correcting—identified that he emotionally owned that poem. And that its precision, its rightness, was important. To him obviously, but in some flattering way, to us his listeners, people he’d most likely never see again.
That experience of being in an audience that was being read to left me shaken and stirred, and I began reading more poetry and writing some myself.
Even now I enjoy the poem a day app, although I wish it included voice as well as text. I don’t like every poem I read, but The best ones show me a new, different perspective, at least for a few minutes.
When I recently came across a book titled Conscious Writing, I was intrigued to know what that meant.
Its author, Julia McCutchen, founded the International Assoc. of Conscious & Creative Writers (IACCW) to help writers who are interested in spiritual and personal development. Her book combines mindfulness exercises and visualisation as part of writing.
Much of the book isn’t relevant to my writing interests. But I was taken with her views about how to begin a major writing project, such as a book.
- Even if we have a great idea for a book, we may lack confidence about how to develop it. As well, our infamous inner critic can get revved up, to the point that we may despair, thinking I’m not good enough . . . I can’t write . . . I’m not a real writer.
It is this lack of confidence that makes it hard for writers to
- keep track of their aims
- develop their ideas
- establish an appropriate voice
McCutchen suggests that writers undertake two preparatory steps before embarking on a major writing project:
- Start a regular meditation practice
- Assess topic, aim, and readers.
She believes that establishing an ongoing meditation practice leads to calmness and clarity. Developing these positive qualities can help us counter the fears and confusions we often face when we write. With practice, we may even quash our inner critic.
The authors of some how-to books on writing assume that their readers have already settled on theri topic and approach. The books focus on helping these writers develop and improve their material and writing style.
McCutchen believes writers benefit when they undertake a preliminary step, which involves responding to two questions—Why and Who.
Why have I decided to write about this topic?
Why am I passionate about it? What message do I want to convey? What do I want to share with my readers—and why? What’s motivating me to share?
Who am I writing for?
What are my readers’ interests and needs? What kind of experience do I want them to have from reading my ideas, insights, and stories? What kind of link or relationship would I like to make with them through my book?
What’s the value of considering these two questions? Whatever we write, it’s impossible to engage every reader. So why not focus, identifying our ideal or most probable readers?
Answering the two questions can help us plan a writing project that focuses on–
- the readers who are likely to be attracted to and appreciate our ideas
- the kind of relationship we want with them.
How we answer these two questions provides direction, which can help us as we choose and develop content, structure and message.
McCutchen encourages writers to keep a record of their what and who responses. Some people list them, others use mind-mapping. Having a physical record enables writers to keep evaluating their initial responses. Some may find they can hone their original responses and get a clearer sense of their intent and readership.
Are you old enough to remember receiving personal letters that the postman/mailman delivered to your home?
PROMPT: Jot down memories or ideas, from the time before email, Facebook, mobile phones, etc. A time when letters were the main method of communication. When letters—lost, found, received, not answered—could change a life.
In the pre-computer times, a plot for a novel or story sometimes centred around a letter. In Thomas Hardy’s classic novel, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, the male lead, Angel, loves Tess and wants to marry her. She writes a letter to him, confessing a past affair, and slips it under his door. The next morning, when he is as affectionate as ever, she believes he’s forgiven her. She later discovers that when she shoved her letter under the door, it went under the carpet, and Angel had NOT read it. Tragedy follows.
Today, I received two Christmas cards in the mail. I have one US cousin who sends a beautiful handmade card for my birthday and anniversary. Another relative annually sends an account of her year—written in iambic couplets (!).
My elderly aunt is the only relative who still sends me handwritten letters. I briefly imagine myself doing the same, but know I never will.
A friend’s adult children complained that her emails were ‘too long to read’. So she now provides short, snappy and frequent Facebook comments. I would find that frustrating. I don’t write people often, but when I do, I engage, choosing particular experiences and ideas based on the interests of person I’m writing to.
Christmas postcard date unknown, c. 1900. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The short message is not a new development. I have my grandmother’s postcard albums from the early 1900s. In those days, people enjoyed saving postcards sent to them–often a photo of a faraway location, sometimes a joke picture.
The messages on the backs of the old postcards I have were written in pencil. I guess people didn’t take quill pen and inkwell with them when they traveled. And many senders simply signed their name, providing no message. Perhaps it was enough in those days to share a visual joke or faraway scene, rather than give a personal account of ones’ strip.
Letter-writing paraphernalia is vanishing. I still have some sets of stationery, plus beautiful cards, fountain pens, and different colours of ink, in bottles. All are untouched, as dated as the Model T Ford.
What about the demise of the aerogramme? When I moved to Australia, my mother used the one-page, lightweight aerogramme to convey news. Harper, the small Kansas town where she and Dad lived, had 1800 citizens and a two-block main street. Still, she found a surprising number of developments and dramas to write about. She advised me about the wheat harvest, church and town doings, her China painting, their backyard garden, plus square dance club, fishing trips with my dad’s sister and brother-in-law, duck hunting in fall, and sightseeing trips.
I learned how crucial letter writing was when I was in my first teen crush, with the boy living at the other end of Kansas. I spent time, too much, selecting just the right stationery and ink colour when corresponding. Sometimes I made my own envelopes, using picture pages from Life magazine. I impatiently checked our mailbox each day for a letter. When I received his letter, I took it to school and re-read it during geometry class. (Note to younger self: in terms of preparing for university, spending time learning maths is better than a short adolescent romance.)
The biggest issue was finding a safe place to hide the letters from my nosy older brother. One day he snatched the latest missive and locked himself in the bathroom, threatening to read it. I yelled back, rattled the doorknob, and started kicking the door–and my foot went through a thin panel on the door. For some reason, my parents blamed me!
A few years later, my brother was in Vietnam, where he wrote to my parents and to me. I still have his letters. Some day, I tell myself, I’ll read them. Perhaps they will be healing, helping me understand his life, how two Purple Hearts led to the PTSD that dogged his life, and his inability or lack of interest in keeping in touch.
In my loft storage, I still have a few old letters from various boyfriends dating from high school and college days. Reading them now gives me an insight into my young self, what interested me, worried me, made me happy.
In those days, I never imagined a time when getting mail would not be exciting. But now my letterbox holds mainly bills and flyers. It serves as the occasional dropoff place for a book or gift of produce from a neighbour. And because it’s mostly empty , it’s become the perfect home for a big, but harmless, huntsman spider.
Wikipedia has a long list of fake memoirs from around the world. Three major hoaxes I remember here in Australia:
MUTANT MESSAGE FROM DOWN UNDER.
In this 1990 book, American author Marlo Morgan claimed to have gone on a spiritual pilgrimage with an Aboriginal group in the Outback. After protests by Aboriginal people, and then a court case, the book was re-issued as fiction (at least in Australia).
When it became popular, I was guest-teaching in a Midwestern college in the USA. My students, who said they loved the book, were very disappointed when I told them about the court’s ruling.
THE HAND THAT SIGNED THE PAPER. In 1993, a novel by Helen Demidenko won several of Australia’s most prestigious awards. She claimed that her book was based on real events experienced by her Ukrainian relatives during the Holocaust.
Later the truth emerged. Her ‘true life’ was made up. And she was not Ukrainian. And her surname was not Demidenko, but Danville.
FORBIDDEN LOVE (AKA HONOUR LOST). This book, published in 2003, was written by Norma Khouri, a Jordanian-born American living then in Australia. Her memoir covered a period in Jordan when she helped a female friend, who fell in love with someone the family would not accept. Things went wrong, and the friend became a victim of a family honour killing.
Later, it was found that during the period covered in the memoir, Khouri was actually living in Chicago, not Jordan.
The Guardian recently ran an intervew with one of my favourite writers, Marilynne Robinson. The question and answer that I found most illuminating suggests why we write.
Q: The trilogy made up by Gilead, Home and Lila has had immense success. But what has it meant for you?
There’s a way in which, nonfiction or fiction, you learn your own mind, you find out what matters to you, what the questions are for you . . . .
And with fiction, you can put the problem out in front of yourself in a three-dimensional way, and work through it, and that’s very, very interesting.
Why do I like her response?
It’s usual for writers to focus on their readers, real or imagined. But it’s worth remembering that through our writing, we also have the opportunity to learn something about ourselves.
We generally know this when we write nonfiction, especially when our topic clearly links to our personal experiences and beliefs.
But what about fiction? Reflecting on some of my work, I realise fiction also provides a way to know and understand myself. I discover personal insights from the choices I make in telling a story—its setting, the issues that drive the story, and the characters I develop, especially in terms of how they act and why.
Does your fiction help you understand ‘what matters to you, what the questions are for you?
I had planned an industrious day working on my current writing project. The morning went well. Now the whole afternoon stretched ahead, empty of other commitments or tasks.
Then the phone rang. It was the King Poo people letting me know they would arrive later to drop off my order of worm-castings, a natural fertiliser I use to get my garden ready for summer. I stopped work to wait for them, and after they left returned to my desk. But getting back into the writing flow proved impossible.
I remembered a guest post on WritingCompanion, from Kelly, who wrote about the advantage of giving your brain time to compost ideas. Mental composting is not the same as procrastinating. The latter takes us AWAY from our writing. Composting is more like a creative, focused pause, which can lead to new ideas and enrich our writing. It reminds us that sometimes there’s an advantage in NOT writing, in holding off rather than pushing on no matter what.
I realised that I was tired, depleted of ideas. To keep on writing would be a mistake. I shut down the computer, with the plan of letting my subconscious work on my topic. When I returned to my desk, perhaps this mental composting would bring forth new ideas and insights.