Monthly Archives: September 2014

the writer of faith

Some time ago a friend who is of my faith said to me, without any sort of prompting, “I’m sorry, but I can’t allow your books in my home.” She did not elaborate. We both knew what she was talking about.

Some of my students who love their religion have asked me how I, as a writer, cope with the expectations of people in a faith community. These young writers have no desire to rebel, and yet in an effort to portray the truth, sometimes fiction offends.

When I am writing, it is between me and God. I don’t allow anything, not my parents or my religious leaders or my children or my neighbor whom I am obligated to love, to interfere with what happens when I am putting pen to paper. I find that every book I write demands that I wander in the wilderness for a time. I’ve needed not to be afraid of deserts. You cannot find the promised story without the desert part.

I have found the structure provided by my definition of morality to be as inspiring as a poet finds the structure of a sonnet. However, I must write honestly and truthfully about characters who do not know or understand my faith. They will not live by or be judged by its precepts. I am telling the truth of that character, that homeless boy, that medieval peasant girl, that prostitute. I believe in truth wherever I find it – in scripture or in the chapel at VCFA or in science or in story. I believe every human being searches for her own truth, and I respect and try my best to record that journey.

It is the first skill of the writer, and the life’s work of the faithful, to learn how to live imaginatively in the body of another being and celebrate the beauty and variety found in human souls.

I read a book some time ago called Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor, who was a devout Catholic. It was hard slogging at times because she is way too brilliant for the ordinary mind. But I found some beautiful quotes that express things I believe to be true.

“When people have told me that because I am Catholic I cannot be an artist, I have had to reply, ruefully, that because I am Catholic I cannot afford to be less than an artist.”

“It is when the individual’s faith is weak, not when it is strong, that he will be afraid of an honest fictional representation of life…”

“If writing is your vocation, then, as a writer, you will seek the will of God first through the laws and limitations of what you are creating; your first concern will be the necessities that present themselves in the work.”

Thank you, Ms. O’Connor.

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A Few Notes From A Recent Walk & A Sleepless Night (Mark Karlins)

Carved into the cliff-face: a man, a stalk of corn, a spiral (perhaps a migration symbol). They are faint now and, especially under the New Mexico sun, hard to see. But they are still there, etched maybe 10,000 years ago.

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Farther up the path: ancient pueblo pottery shards with painted designs brought to the surface by heavy rains several days before.

Last night: I couldn’t sleep and looked out the bedroom window of our new home just southeast of Santa Fe. The crescent moon was yellow and low, the sky rich with stars. With my limited knowledge, I couldn’t name many constellations, but I could see patterns and knew that constellations, with their ancient stories, were there.

.     .     .     .     .

Recently, my wife Mary Lee and I began working on a middle grade novel together. It’s an interesting process and one very different from my usual way of writing. Usually I sit in a room by myself and, at least for the first draft, ramble here and there. My mind stays loose, and sometimes its meanderings and improvisations bring me welcome surprises. Not always, though. There are also dead ends, as well as paths, which, if followed, will lead farther and farther from the core of the piece.

Maybe it’s just that I’m not yet the world’s best collaborator, but I find the collaborative exchange doesn’t have as much spontaneity as the private act of creation. Why, I wonder, do I value spontaneity in writing?

There’s certainly some literary precedent for this:

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“First thought, best thought,” wrote Ginsberg.

And further back: “Poetry is the overflow of powerful emotions,” wrote Wordsworth.  The Romantic Poets burned brightly. They were the mad ones, as Kerouac might put it, the ones, “mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”

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Let’s return to two people sitting in a room collaborating. Sure, as we pass ideas back and forth for particular chapters and for the novel as a whole, a yellow roman candle now and then spiders across the room. More often, our collaboration is a patient work. It is leading us toward what we both hope will be a good and enjoyable novel. Somehow, though, it feels too workmanlike, certainly less than the electric outpourings of a Coleridge or Kerouac.

But is the point the pleasure of such outpourings? Are they necessary for the work to have soul or spirit? Collaboration does have its own merits. Two or more people can spark off of each other. They can draw from different sets of skills and insights, which are brought by the different people involved. If one gets stuck, the other can unstick things. As part of all this, there is also less sense of ownership or ego — the story stands further “out there.” Perhaps what I’m experiencing is that collaboration puts inspiration in a backseat and moves craft to the front.

Collaboration versus individual creation raises other interesting issues, including our concept of who we are as artists. Is the writer a self-created Adam springing to life ex nihilo, an American pioneer pushing ever Westward on his or her own? Or can the artist, the craftsperson, be looked at in another way, as someone involved not so much in self expression as in a communal act, an act of communal understanding and insight?

And if we do, for the moment, say it is a communal act just who are the members of the community? Part of the answer lies in how we view time, how far back our community stretches. In writing about the Native American sense of time, Leslie Marmon Silko writes that time is more like a lake than a train moving from station to station and that in this lake what happened 500 years ago is as present as what happened yesterday. If we apply this to literature, what was written 500 years ago or 2,000 years ago is as present as the latest best seller. Every time we step into a library we experience this. The library is a very noisy place, what with all those voices talking to us or getting ready to talk to us if we’ll only pick up and open their books.

So, while I’ve been thinking about my collaboration with Mary Lee, it turns out that I’ve been collaborating all along, in some way with every book I’ve read.

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The potter who made the pots whose shards the rain offered up to us, or the woman or man who incised a stalk of corn on the cliff wall were involved in an act larger than themselves, an act which joined them to their community and certain beliefs.

.     .     .     .     .

Last night, while sitting in a snazzy Santa Fe restaurant, I mentioned the petroglyph maker to Mary Lee and she asked how I knew it was a single maker and not several. Now that was a good question, and for all sorts of reasons. One is that it laid bare an assumption that I have about art, that is, that it’s the product of an individual. So much for my proclamations above about art and collaboration!

Our conversation about this, and a few other things, lasted through the first and main courses. It was a good conversation. And that, in a way, is what this reading and writing business is all about — a conversation with William Blake; another conversation with the great 19th century children’s writer, George MacDonald; a few words in Amherst with shy Emily Dickinson; and another conversation, perhaps at the Carnegie Deli, with Maurice Sendak. Pass the pickles and mustard, Mr. Sendak.

There are also our fervent hopes for future conversations with our readers, and even the conversations of those readers with other readers. Finally, we can also join much older conversations and collaborations, for example, with the stories I saw in the night sky: the princess Andromeda, Perseus with his mirroring shield and Gorgon’s head, as well as the stories of the stars in other cultures  — African tales of zebras and lions

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and Chinese tales of The Blue Dragon of the East, the White Tiger, The Black Tortoise, and the beautiful Vermillion bird of the South. Now those are stories worth joining and carrying forth to new books and lands.

chinese sky

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Considering the “M,” the “F” and the “A” of the M.F.A.

Teresa - Tamales

I’ve been thinking  about the individual letters of the M.F.A. and what they stand for – and yes, maybe I have too much time on my hands right now, but that’s the kind of thing that pops into my head at unpredictable moments. This particular thought – “What is mastery? What is an art, and what makes it a fine one?” – rose up as a result of some spontaneous cooking lessons I’ve been getting from Teresa, the woman who cleans the garden apartment where my husband and I are staying during our visit to Oaxaca, Mexico. There are lots of cooking schools here – Oaxaca is famous for its food – but I prefer hearing from Teresa, who cooks for her own family and who can earn a little extra money telling me about the family recipes and how to make them. [As I type, I can hear a parade outside – the school-children at the elementary school across the street are marching in celebration of Mexico’s Independence Day tomorrow – they’ve been practicing all week – how to carry the big flag, how to wave the little individual flags, how to march in step, how to look serious and represent their school and country with honor….I hear a tuba and a trumpet….sorry, I have to run and catch that!….]

Okay, back to thoughts about the M and the F and the A. Imagine the scene: Teresa and I are in the middle of a discussion about tamales – this morning she brought a bag full of chiles, fruits, nuts and seeds, along with banana leaves for the tamales de mole negro (specialty of Oaxaca) and corn husks for the more common tamales de raja (green chile strips.) After at least an hour of browning bananas, peanuts, pecans, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, almonds, raisins, three types of dried chiles, cloves, garlic, salt and peppercorns, and after walking up to the local miller to get all of it ground up into a paste, Teresa now has chicken boiling for the filling, and she has me mixing the masa (also ground up from fresh nixtamal earlier that morning.) I am putting some real muscle into the mixing. Preparing masa is not like making hot-cake batter. It takes some oomph – like bread-making, I guess, though I’m no bread-maker, either.

When everything is ready, Teresa takes a few water-soaked corn husks and spreads the masa onto them with the back of a spoon. How easy she makes it look!  “Asi como yo lo hago. Ves? Es facil” (There, like I do it – you see? It’s easy.) With the banana leaves, the mole goes on, the shredded chicken goes on, and Teresa wraps them up. Then the masa and the rajas go onto the corn husks. She does it quickly – this side folded over, these tips down, tucked in, rolled all the way over, there. Nothing to it. Nothing spills out at the edges. The uncooked tamales hold together and look quite pretty, little spicy delights ready to be steamed.

When I try, of course, the corn husks won’t cooperate – it’s as if they know I’m not the boss. They curl up on me and fight me all the way. I add the filling as best I can – then I fold here, I fold there, everything spills out. I open it up and start again, and I feel like a pre-schooler trying to master finger-painting and making quite a mess of it. “Master” – yes, that’s how the word springs to mind. Looking at Teresa, who is watching me patiently, I see a master of the fine art of cooking. In her school, which is just my little kitchen in a vacation rental, I learn by doing. A good way to learn.

“Esta bien, no te preocupes,” she assures me. It’s fine – don’t you worry – “Cada vez, te van a salir mejor.” Each time you do it, they’ll come out better. “Poco poquito” – little by little. I don’t have to learn it all the first time.

Am I stretching to say that the same goes for writing as for tamales? Sure, I’m stretching a little. But the skill – some call it mastery – comes little by little, just as with all skills. Writing a good story is not unlike driving a nail into a shingle or setting tile for a back-splash or playing the ukulele or drawing a nude in a studio class. Or making tamales. You keep trying, you get better, you watch a master, you learn by doing.

Actually, it’s pretty easy to make the leap from tamale-making to writing novels (I love the sound of that – tamales to novels – as if they were foreign countries with a bridge from one to the other.) But what intrigues me is the way we assign the term “fine art” to certain things and not to others. That “F,” and that “A.” Dancing, drawing, sculpting, painting, film-making, design, creative writing, music composition – all programs at the graduate level, all granting “Master” degrees. The faculty says, “Here is what I’ve learned, try this.” They say, “Don’t worry, the skill comes. You learn by doing.” They even say “You have to put some muscle into it. It’s not easy.” Hopefully, they say, “The trick is to give it your own little flavor.”

“Fine” Arts. Does that mean “refined” arts? What about cooking – even cooking at the small kitchen level – is it not a “fine” art? And come to think of it, carpentry and plumbing and tile-setting and cleaning apartments? What makes those not so fine? If it’s about getting your hands dirty, think of a master ceramicist at the wheel.

I find myself wishing once again that the world were organized in a less vertical way, where some activities are at the top of the ladder, honored and respected, and others are dismissed. Those who have heard me rant about verticality vs. horizontality know this is a constant drum I beat. The art of the janitor seems equal to me to the art of the writer. Toolboxes, skills, learning by doing, mastery. Why do we honor activities that take leaps of imagination over those that take muscle? A poem can be musical, intellectual, filled with desire. Masa can be folded, pushed, pulled – a corn husk can be soaked just enough and not soaked too much. Flavor, artistry, desire, rhythm. Seems to me that a Picasso and a great apple pie share the “A” of art. And the “M” of mastery. To be fair, I suppose some CEO’s are masters of what they do – unfortunately, astronomical salaries usually make them look down that vertical ladder and believe themselves to be entitled to the privileges of being “at the top.” If our model changed, if we saw the world horizontally rather than vertically, the ladder could be put aside, and “status,” (that is, the level reached on that ladder) would need re-defining.

So. There I go again. As I age, it gets harder and harder not to end up at the political end of the parade, waving my own little flag – even when all I’m doing is looking at the alphabet and asking what a word means. “M” – mastery. We know it when we see it, whether it’s a tamal or a well-built arbor in the garden or a Matisse on the wall of a museum.  “Art” – I guess the same goes for art, since taste is personal – we know it and we feel it when we see it. Flavor, desire – it’s there somewhere. The greatest mystery, then, of an M.F.A. must be somewhere in that “F”  – the “F” of “Fine.” But I can’t figure it out. Am I’m being disingenuous? Maybe a little. And maybe the 10,000 hours people say it takes to become a master craftsman can’t be applied to the art of housekeeping and cooking. Only I’m betting it can. Next time you’re out and about, take a look around at the people passing by – there are a lot of Masters walking around out there. And there are a lot of Arts. Let’s just broaden what we call Fine.

[Okay, now there is the most horrible music coming from somewhere. I don’t think that musician has mastered his craft yet. He’s quite a few hours short of 10,000. Or, to put it another way, there’s filling coming out of that tamal.]

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Energy management

How do you write?

It’s a question of endless fascination to me.  I’m insatiably curious about how other writers manage to get their stories on the page.

Some writers, it seems, hit on an ideal method early in their careers, and they feel no need to experiment. But I am restless, restless. I keep thinking there must be a better (easier?) way. So, over the years I have experimented with different writing methods across a variety of dimensions. I have tried outlining and not outlining. I have tried writing before breakfast, writing late at night and, on deadline, writing from dawn till way beyond dusk. I have tried blasting through a complete draft without going back; I have tried polishing each chapter as I wrote it; I have tried writing up to the point to where I got stuck and then feeling my way through from the beginning again. I have tried prewriting doodles in notebooks; I have tried keyboard stream-of-consciousness. I have tried writing out of chronological order; writing longhand; writing in coffee shops; writing with friends; writing in a rented space; and writing with a hat pulled down over my eyes (thank you Norma Fox Mazer).

You know, reading that last paragraph, I think I need to adjust my expectations. Am I thinking it ought to be easy? But why should it? Why can’t writing just be hard? And so what if it is?

In any case I am experimenting again—this time with energy management.  I’ve been reading that we’re more productive when, instead of working without a break for hours on end, we divide our time into discrete intervals, oscillating between spurts of intense work and frequent periods of rest.

This idea intrigued me, because I know that some of the time when I’m “working” I’m fuzzing out in front of the screen, or making excuses to do easier things rather than hard ones—looking up some research tidbit online, or making a new pot of coffee, or reading an article about writing, instead of actually, you know, writing. And I have noticed that I tend to do these things when I’m mentally fatigued.

What sold me on trying intervals with writing was what happened when I tried intervals in my morning workout on the stationary bike. I usually go for forty minutes at a certain steady resistance level. My goal is twelve miles, which I reach in most, but not all of my workout sessions. One morning I realized I was not on track to make my twelve miles. Just not gonna happen that morning.  So I thought I might as well try intervals: go really hard for thirty seconds, then go slower for four minutes, then hard for thirty seconds again. And repeat. Thirty seconds didn’t really feel like very long to work hard, but I had permission to dog it for the four minutes, so I did. When I had finished the workout, I was shocked to find that I had gone nearly fourteen miles. So those smaller intervals of greater intensity…really made a difference.

In my writing, I’m experimenting with focused intervals of one hour, forty-five minutes, and twenty-five minutes, with much shorter, timed, periods of brain rest in between. Tom Birdseye told me about the Pomodoro technique, where you go hard for twenty-five minute intervals with five-minute breaks. It’s actually more complicated, but that’s the gist of it. For me, sometimes “brain rest” means unloading the dishwasher or doing Pilates stretches. Sometimes it’s eating breakfast. Sometimes it’s crashing on the couch.

More productive?  The jury’s still out . I’m still tweaking, but so far I’m really liking working with a timer. I feel more energetic and focused while I’m writing. The resting part is nice, too.

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