Sparked by Words

Posts tagged ‘wonder’

3-Day Quote Challenge #2

My dear friend, Sarah, brilliant innovator over at Art Expedition

tagged me to participate in the

3-Day Quote Challenge

Thank you, Sarah, for thinking me worthy of this honor and hoping I have inspiring quotes to share.

For my second entry in the Quote Challenge, I want to highlight two of my favorite lines from writers. This was much harder than it might seem because both the quotes I’ve chosen are meaningful to me, yet so are a thousand others. Narrowing down to two quotes I could expand upon within the context of my own trials at writing made me search, think, choose, and do it all over again for the whole week before making my final choices. It’s why I wanted to put off completing this task to once a week for three weeks in a row rather than the three days in a row the challenge requests.

To begin, I chose Julian Barnes’ line from The Sense of an Ending, which describes the job of an astute observer.

“What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”

I encourage you to read Barnes’ book because it’s an opus on how consciously we might live, especially if we realized before setting out in arrogant confidence that we know everything when we don’t get it whatsoever. Barnes manages to write in only 163 pages how much we squander of our life when seeing nothing important.

As an individual line, Barnes’ charges me to choose with discretion the parts of each story I write. Elimination is as essential as inclusion, and knowing which small gesture will illuminate a moment to carry the reader through is key. It’s also something I often miss on first draft. Second draft. Third. If I don’t get it by the fourth draft, I begin to suspect I can’t write, and this haunts me. I know I’m a decent writer, but a brilliant one? Not likely. I fumble.

In one exquisite line, Julian Barnes captured the golden moment of his story. I was touched so deeply by this line that it’s stayed with me since I read the book. It continues to imbue me with the effort to identify what is imperative – then to tell that story.

Mary Oliver is one of my favorite poets. Her poetry kneels down and picks up clods of earth, not packed in a cup, but sifting through her fingers. She doesn’t write in curlicues meant to distract. Rather she searches for the visceral essence of life and pulls out the heart still beating. Then makes us look – smell – breathe – feel. We understand.

I’ve always believed poetry must be read aloud in order to internalize it. Oliver’s poetry crawls into my bones, waits quietly, whispers to me. She speaks in dulcet tones. From her poem, Evidence, this is what she says:

“Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.”

Story should pry open our eyes and twist moments till, like a mobius strip, we trace the inevitable connection. If we want to read only the recorded facts, that’s a history or science book, not a work of poetry. Or fiction. The unimaginable drifts in, exposes sinews of flesh and flecks of silver, and reveals the thorns of truth through the shimmer in the water. What Oliver shows us is the wonder of life, life everywhere, innocently finding its flock and its children and its season. Not to be best or first or most, just to be.

We are taught in school to make an assessment, take note of all the details, write down names and dates, and be accurate in descriptions. But nowhere do we measure the movement of things once there, now absent but not wholly gone. I get caught up in the illusion of accuracy, minding my dates and maps, but they aren’t the important parts of story. Anyone can write technical notes.

It’s catching the remnant of energy that matters.

Julian Barnes and Mary Oliver suggest the kind of writing I want to effect. To share the memory more dimensional than history, the parcel of earth more life affirming than its problems. I want readers to grasp what I hold when my hand is empty, what I see when my eyes are closed.

In those tiny pulses of what is no longer there is something worth telling in a story.

 

 

Image courtesy Pixabay

 

 

 

 

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Daydream, Writer

I wonder what you remember of being a kid in school. What was the most common remark you heard from your teachers? It might have been anything of the myriad activities that engage young children at the perimeter of studies. Don’t write on the desk. Stop running in the hall. Sit up straight. Throw out your gum. Turn to the right page. Stop talking to Sally (Henry, Willis, Coralee.) Sharpen your pencil before class. That’s not a word we use in school. We heard all those comments directed at kids who needed reminding about the purpose of school: practicing times tables, practicing spelling words, practicing cursive writing, practicing reading, practicing memorizing. School instruction was not interesting so much as required. School instruction was not creative at all. It was practice for something else.

None of those comments were directed at me, however. I heard another order – often – from every teacher through the elementary grades. “Sharon, stop daydreaming.” Because there I’d be, my head turned toward the huge windows along the back wall, staring out at the gray and yellow skies, the bare limbs of the trees, the steeple of the church across the street. Caught daydreaming again about all the possibilities of life outside our classroom, wondering what it would be like if. My teachers thought I was wasting time but I was imagining a different world. I turned back to the current lesson though not for long. I’d be daydreaming again before the end of the day.

I recently read Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli. The first chapter was about Albert Einstein and the fact that he spent a year doing nothing but daydreaming. Einstein’s daydreams led him to conceptualize some of the most revolutionary ideas about the nature of physics and the role of light, energy, and matter in the origin of the universe. After that daydream year he had a creative explosion that resulted in him writing four important papers that identified the connective nature of just about everything in the cosmos. Eventually he won the Noble Prize.

Everyone should daydream. Children should daydream, inventors should daydream, lovers, the aged, politicians, priests, and travelers should daydream. It isn’t enough to do the ordinary and expected, to take notes and photos, to make lists and plans. We writers should daydream. Inside the daydream is the inception of wonder, the place where everything begins.

Writers need a break from ordinary routine. We put too much emphasis into the strategy we think should result in brilliant writing. It’s like buying the most expensive computer system, adding an outstanding writing program, lining up research files, and then drawing a creative blank. The novel doesn’t emerge.  Great story writing doesn’t come from elaborate equipment. It comes from slow and careful observation about the world, thinking about the human experience until the artist has insight about life.

Once we start to write, we should not try to write well. We should just write. Let the words flow and don’t worry about whether or not it’s good. That’s not for us to judge anyway – that’s for readers to judge. And maybe what we should be doing is not writing at all for a while but continue the daydream until writing organically enters our stage.

Everybody knows Einstein did poorly in school, that he appeared to do nothing for a while. But it isn’t true that he didn’t do anything – he observed, he thought, he let ideas flourish in his brain. He wondered. That year of daydreaming was the catalyst for the extraordinary and continuing bursts of brilliance that allowed him to cultivate his curiosity and resulted in the synthesis of his ideas. That led him to develop one of the pillars of modern physics, the theory of relativity.

Maybe we don’t have everything yet.  Maybe we need time spent looking around the world, observing, thinking, wondering, the way Einstein spent that year looking at the universe. Because if we don’t find the world enchanting – the way the clouds gather around the moon, the way we can talk to a stranger who doesn’t speak our language, the way the horizon stretches to infinity yet never really exists at all – we might as well stick with writing shopping lists.

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 This article was adapted from a letter sent to a friend.

Photograph of Albert Einstein courtesy of Pixabay.com

 

W is for Wonder

 

Child_in_lake

I’m a child when I write. I find splendor in the world and I wonder how it all works. As long as I wonder about everything, my mind is open to exploring everything about which I know very little, and that’s a great deal. Languages I can’t understand, cultures unfamiliar, history I never learned, rituals fascinating to observe, food strange to eat. Why, I ask, do mines drive men deep into the bowels of the earth? What conditions, I want to know, force children to beg amidst bounty? Humans are adventurers, pioneering flight across the continents, thrusting rockets into outer space, boarding ships to journey across oceans, climbing into wagons to roll over uncharted land. Why journey into danger? Four billion years of unrecorded history, a few thousand years of written chronicles, national policies misunderstood, cultural secrets misinterpreted, continents harboring mysteries my generation will never uncover. I’m guided by the scientists, prophets, inventors, philosophers, tinkerers, activists, and statesmen who have intuited and interpreted the condition of the world and still left plenty for me to discover.

Did Shakespeare know it all, or Confucius? What about Moses who spoke directly with God? Did Albert Einstein or Marie Curie, Martin Luther King or Cesar Chavez, Susan B. Anthony or Mohandas Gandhi? Or Sappho whose poetry is mostly lost but not her influence, or Maya Angelou whose poetry remains as well as her legacy? Does Stephen Hawking have all the answers? What about Toni Morrison or Bill Gates?  All the wisdom and experience of these great people, writers, scientists, ministers, poets, political leaders, philosophers, and yet they know only fractional slivers about the universe. There is more to learn.

All these things and more make me wonder how much I don’t know. How hollow I am, pretentious, assuming. But I’m willing to explore, to find out, because I can’t write if I don’t know my subject. Welcome to wonder. Investigate the world you don’t know. Then can you write with a voice of authenticity. Even fiction writers must know something first.

Consider the back pages of many of the great books where the writers leave off the fiction and reveal some of their sources. Michael Chabon visited Alaska to see for himself the state where he imagined The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Chabon researched dozens of non-fiction books, including the history of comic art, to write The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Geraldine Brooks did the same to write The People of the Book. Brooks studied, wearing white gloves and closely supervised, the very rare Sarajevo Haggadah before writing People.  Anthony Doerr traveled to St. Malo, France, the setting for All the Light We Cannot See, to walk its walled city, and learned about radio transmissions and Braille for the book that won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Jodi Picoult lists pages of resources she’s plumbed, including her interviews with people with careers in medicine and law, as well as books and articles concerning her subjects for every one of her many books. Shaun Ellis is a real life wolf expert whose experiences informed Picoult’s book Lone Wolf. For Change of Heart, she referred to almost a dozen books about Gnostic gospels, the death penalty, and heart transplants.

Barbara Kingsolver lists more than two dozen books in the bibliography she compiled while researching The Poisonwood Bible, the book about the Congo/Zaire and the Evangelical American family that moves to its dark jungle to convert its natives. Lisa See researched the hidden culture of nu shu, the secret writing of women, and visited China as background for Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Amy Tan also went to China to explore her mother’s first, abandoned family before she wrote The Joy Luck Club. Kim Stanley Robinson studied the translated works of Galileo to write his historical fiction, Galileo’s Dream. In order to understand Ann Eliza Young, wife of Brigham Young and subject of David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife, he read her memoirs and lectures, as well as the work of many others who wrote about her and about Mormon doctrine and early history.

Alice Hoffman wrote in her notes for The Dovekeepers:

 

I was initially inspired by my first visit to Masada, a spiritual experience so intense and moving, I felt as though the lives that had been led there two thousand years earlier were utterly fresh and relevant…In that great silence, standing inside the mystery that is the past, surrounded by the sorrow of the many deaths that occurred there, I also felt surrounded by life and by the stories of the women who had been there. In that moment, The Dovekeepers came to life as well.

 

All these writers were enchanted by something and wondered about it enough to learn so they could then write about what they’d discovered and convey their sense of enchantment to readers. Can I recoil from wonder and yet write anything approaching the achievements of the masters? My writing is only a poor mimicry of theirs, but that doesn’t stop me from asking the questions, identifying plausible answers, and writing what I’ve discovered. Like great art, it is our fascination with the world, even when we are disappointed with its direction or outcome, that moves us to create – poetry, painting, music, drama, comedy, dance, song, inventions, ideas, and books. Great ideas are born of great wonderment.

As Sappho wrote in one of the few salvaged fragments of her lyric work:

 

So must we learn in a world made as this one

Man can never attain his greatest desire.

 

Sappho was right. I won’t get close. Doesn’t stop me from trying. I wonder. I am the child who writes.

 

Image: child in lake, public domain, commons.wikimedia.org