Sparked by Words

Archive for the ‘writer’s life’ Category

An Arrow Shot Blind

I miss the mark because I don’t understand what the target should be. How can I land a bull’s eye when I have no idea what to aim for? All I’m doing is shooting an arrow to the place hidden from my sight.

Yet it’s my shadow hiding the mark. If I move, if I change, if I soften my heart, if I open my eyes, maybe I will see. Then I might aim well enough.

It will be in your reflection I will know if I’ve triumphed. Your smile, your glow, your pulse. Your gifting hands, your willowed spine.

My cleansed sinew. My renewed spirit.

What glory then for the medal I no longer need to win.

 

 

Just a thought 60

 

Painting Archers by Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. This photographic reproduction is considered to be in the public domain in the United States.

 

 

 

 

 

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Spilled Water

 

A few ounces of water barely fill a glass

Transparent, silent, static at the bottom

Topple the cup, and water flows everywhere

The surge of ounces conveyed quick as a tide

Saturating the books on the shelf, soaking their pages

A clumsy accident we say, and maybe that’s true

 

Grab the nearest cloth and press dry each book

Yet the pages between covers remain damp

They’ll dry in an hour or three, curling like waves

Each sheet bearing a permanent water stain

Dusk gray or dove wing brown as pages shrivel

The rippled intaglio of having been doused

 

We harbor truth within our heart’s deepest coves

It slumbers quiet as a secret tucked in a locket

While hate flows from our tongue, lashing blindly

A snake hissing danger at the edge of reeds

Sorry is a sibilant word, sliding soft from our mouths

Like fire, water burns and leaves a riven scar

 

Just a thought 58

 

 

Image of glass of spilled water courtesy Max Pixel,  CCO Public Domain

 

 

Most of All

Most of all, I

quiet to hear my sons’ laughter but snub the marching band

tongue spicy sweet cinnamon though disdain rare truffles

climb to sight the far sunset  and turn away from the road

yearn to listen to the poet but don’t hear any king

lean to smell the hyacinth though not costly perfume

reach to kiss my lover’s hand but ignore the silken gown

chant the trope of psalms but refute the tyrant’s rant

kneel to drink clear water but am not sated with Champagne

stretch to grasp my toes far longer than to hold a torch

pray for my grandchildren’s health rather than myself a longer life

seek my worth as a seashell more than all the gold in the world

 

Just a thought 55

 

Photo of seashell courtesy Pixabay

 

 

 

 

The Broken Brain, the Healing Heart

My mother suffered with Alzheimer’s for the last years of her life. She lived in a residence with hundreds of other folks who had memory loss. One was a wonderful man I’ll call Ben. Ben had been an artist before he became ill with Alzheimer’s. An intelligent, talented man who worked in various media, he pursued art as a passionate avocation all his life. He continued to create beautiful watercolor paintings all the years he lived at the residence.

As an art teacher for many decades, I explained to my students that creating art was an experience of Head, Hand, Heart – our class motto.  The Head is what we know or see of our world, the Hand is the education about color, composition, and holding a paintbrush.

The Heart is the most important element. This is where a master artist transports the viewer beyond the canvas or marble into his vision, where his creative impact lifts an ordinary entity into something luminous. Who doesn’t stand with their mouth open at the sight of Michelangelo’s Pieta, of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Oriental Poppies? The allure of the intuited essence of life emanating from these masterpieces resonates with viewers. We hold our breath for a moment of sacred transcendence.

Who doesn’t stand with their mouth open at the sight of a toddler’s first drawing of a person, a wobbly roundish shape with eyes and mouth, arms and legs sticking out from the face like misplaced star rays because the body is missing. It isn’t that the body is actually missing, but what’s most striking about people to the youngest child are the very features she’s drawn. She’s skipped the unessential – the corpus – and gotten right to the crux of what informs her world – a face with its multitude of expressions, the limbs with their ability to move. Her Head and Hand are still learning but her Heart is in full mastery of its skills. We hold our breath for a moment of sacred transcendence.

You must understand this in order to grasp the following story about an artist betrayed by mental infirmities.

My mom and I frequently participated in the art programs, where we often worked beside Ben. I especially enjoyed watching him paint as every move was deliberate. He contemplated each stroke, color, and detail. I wondered if he’d worked with such thoughtful resolve even before he became ill with Alzheimer’s, or if the disease imposed a handicap that was a new challenge to his creative outlet. Maybe when younger and healthier, he’d painted quickly, though I suspect a precise focus had always informed his art.

As Ben’s physical health declined and the Alzheimer’s tortured his brain, painting became more arduous for him. He had a harder time concentrating and sometimes couldn’t make a decision about what color to use or what area to paint next. Even choosing a brush and lifting his hand demanded attention his brain didn’t willingly allow. Each move became an exercise in willpower over limitation.

His very last painting was of Monument Valley, the iconic desert in Utah. He used a photo as a reference and started with realistic images of the familiar tall buttes and the flat topped mesas in burnished shades of gold, orange, and brown. Over the weeks, as he became more ill and confused, the layered sandstone structures mutated into city skyscrapers with windows, doorways, and rooftops. Even his colors changed to ruby, emerald, and sapphire. The painting looked like two disparate images randomly assembled: a sublime southwest desert vista on the left, a garish and frenetic eastern megalopolis on the right.

Ben died only a few days after he’d completed the painting. His family disliked it and nearly didn’t take it with them. I explained how Ben had struggled to interpret the desert photo and finally decided he was looking at modern city skyscrapers. Advanced Alzheimer’s made a mockery of the man but the artist fought back with his will to create. They realized that the painting was less an anomaly of artistic expression and more a visual demonstration of how the brain declines but also re-imagines the corporeal world. With tears dampening their cheeks, they took home the painting that graphically displayed Ben’s deteriorated brain, knowing his Heart had been intact until the end.

We hold our breath for a moment of sacred transcendence.

 

Monument Valley photo courtesy of Pixabay

My thanks to Peggy Bright of Australia who writes Where to next? blog, for the memory and inspiration for this article.

 

 

 

 

 

Sailor

A story isn’t a steel railroad track transporting the reader from Chapter One to The End, but an ocean with currents in constant movement below the surface. Readers sail on words that drift according to the force of the currents, not the lapping surface tension.

So do we writers adjust the sails of our ships to write the story of the essential journey lodged in the bowels of our hearts, the one hidden below the waves. The rudder thrusts through the sea of scenes, the keel maintains an upright status of the plot, the sun glints off the crests of conflicts, the words flow over and under the characters. Sometimes the boats capsize and sometimes they save us from the storm.

I am not a sailor but I’ve learned to command the ocean.

Still I know metaphors can only take you so far. There must be a story to the story or you drown in a sea of words.

 

 

Just a thought 54

 

Painting: Through Sea and Air, 1910, by Charles Napier Henry courtesy Wikimedia Commons

 

Make it Short, I Got a Plane to Catch

 

The contemporary reader has a short attention span and we writers need to respect that. We need to write toward their preferences because they’re the folks who buy our books. How to shorten chapters, reduce paragraphs, decrease word count, and still write a book with intriguing premise, significant character development, and exciting plot remains a challenge. It’s a desirable goal achieved by being attentive to what you need to keep and what you can toss into the maw of the paper shredder.

We all know the basics – excise the wussy words – nice, that, very, tiny, big, thing, just – vacuous words freeloading on your manuscript. Loosen the formal voice only spoken by professors: I would have liked to inquire of you if I might be permitted to invite you for a repast tomorrow evening at the exceptional restaurant on Snob Hill Avenue. Crap, no one talks like that. Just let dude take dudette to dinner.

Slice and dice repeated words: They walked to the store, then they walked back to the apartment where they walked down the hall and walked into their unit. All that walking around, but nothing of any import happening in the story. Delete the entire sentence. Maybe start the story over.

One of my problems is running every idea straight into the ground by twisting and turning it to see every visible facet. If I can find one way to express an idea, relate an action, divulge a motivation, (see what I mean?) I can probably find another six, so why not put all of them into my story? Well, I can give you six reasons right there. If one solid sentence will do, one is likely enough. Move on, tell the story already.

My most favorite first sentence is from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. The first time I read it I was eight, too young to understand the book. But I loved the first sentence so much that I memorized it: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…It goes on for another ninety-six wondrously evocative and poetic words, well worth the effort to memorize. It’s always presented intact, one paragraph in one sentence that establishes the spirit of lives lived as polar opposites in London and Paris in the moment before the French Revolution.

One hundred twenty words is long for a sentence, whether first, last, or somewhere between. It’s not recommended as most writers can’t convey such mastery, and most of us would end up with a tangled run on sentence of no merit. Imagine then my surprise when I spotted the sentence in a newer edition of the book, and found the iconic opener divided not only into four sentences but also four paragraphs. Blasphemous cutting and pasting of an author long dead and unable to advocate for his literary propriety. I can hear Dickens sob.

(Of course we all know that Dickens made little attempt at brevity as he was paid by the word for his serialized stories that first appeared in a local newspaper. But that’s another story altogether.)

But something clever had been done in the travesty: an editor,  knowing of course that the work is in public domain and thus not liable for lawsuit, realized that breaking the long first sentence into four more easily accessible ones might attract the attention of readers who struggle with reading. Yet those readers might find themselves devouring Dickens’ book with less struggle in the reading trenches.

The lesson? Try it for your own stories, as I have. I’m not Dickens, neither are you. Drop the pretext of portraying a great author and figure out how to get your story across without bashing your readers’ noggins. Maybe chopping a really long sentence or paragraph into appetizer-sized tidbits will make your work more appealing. The concept may still endure in the shorter takes. It might garner more readers. As my wise mama would say, “It can’t hurt.”

Today’s readers are a quirky bunch of disloyal patrons. Out of college, most don’t ever read a novel again – the disappointing numbers are out there in the Internet. I’m not shooting arrows at them because I realize we’ve all got lots to do, some of them better than trudging through fifty ways to say, “I’m leaving you, love, got better offers down the road.”

We can wail and bemoan the footloose audience or accept that so few people count reading a book a delightful personal favorite habit to occupy free time, and instead find a way to attract a potential reader by making it easy on her eyes and brain. Yeah, we can all do that, and most of the time it will improve our stories at the same time. You know the metaphor, “kill two birds with one stone.” Gather rocks.

Think of the lady at the airport, waiting to catch her plane. Two hours in the airport lounge, max, then another two or five on the plane, catching up on business and emails, with maybe a half hour to devote to reading a book. How can we writers best gather our ideas and present them for that half hour attention span? Sometimes all it takes is kicking out the useless words, tightening those remaining, then breaking the whole shebang into short reading bites. Suitable for reading between perusing emails and gobbling the free pretzel lunch. Try it – it can’t hurt.

 

Riding a Flying Carpet, 1880 painting by Viktor Vasnetsov

 

The Minefield of Alzheimer’s

No one steps into the world of Alzheimer’s with aplomb and grace, knowing just what to do. We lurch into the minefield of a war without possibility of victory or truce, pleading for an advocate to help us avoid stepping on bombs. Then we find that only surrender is possible, only blood on the sleeve. Yet on the battlefield of this disease there is a way to dismantle the bombs.

 

We who are the family of those who suffer try to placate and offer solace, but we are also victims. There is no manual with step by step procedures. Yes, there is information, and you should avail yourself of all you can find. But it is likely to show a huge blank in just the area where you need advice, because the person we love is not a perfectly fitting cube in a bin.

 

If we are very, very lucky, one person steps up and says, “Let me help you find a safe way forward.” I had the comfort of that person’s presence, someone who showed me strategies for dealing with behaviors I didn’t understand and a parent I didn’t recognize, one who didn’t recognize me. Now I strive to be that person for others. I am no expert, not a professional in the field, but am good at directing. If you have questions, ask, please. I can show you the way.

 

You will still sob and raise your fists, you still won’t sleep at night. But you will bring joy to the person you love and sometimes you will both laugh. It will be those moments you live for.

The end is tragically assured but the journey is everything.

 

 

Just a thought 53

 

 

Image of aged woman courtesy Max Pixel

Image of aged man courtesy of Pixabay