Something Wonderful

As we begin this holiday weekend, a lovely reminder of simple joys:

These I’ve Loved

These I’ve loved since I was little:
Wood to build with or to whittle,
Wind in the grass and falling rain,
First leaves along an April lane,
Yellow flowers, cloudy weather,
River-bottom smell, old leather,
Fields newly plowed, young corn in rows,
Back-country roads and cawing crows,
Stone walls with stiles going over,
Daisies, Queen Anne’s Lace, and clover,
Night tunes of crickets, frog songs, too,
Starched cotton cloth, the color blue,
Bells that ring from white church steeple,
Friendly dogs and friendly people.

Elizabeth-Ellen Long

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Twelfth Night

“A great while ago the world begun,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain;
But that’s all one, our play is done,
And we’ll strive to please you every day.” Exit

When I learned that Melissa Toomey, a talented young actress with a love of classical theatre, was launching the “Montclair Shakespeare Series,” — professionally acted staged readings — I couldn’t wait to see first show. What a delight! A simple stage, a talented theatrical troupe, a gifted musician, and an enthusiastic audience — all the ingredients for a joyful, spirited evening. And Twelfth Night — what an inspired choice!

To hear one of Shakespeare’s plays spoken “trippingly on the tongue” by a talented theatrical troupe is to appreciate not only how fresh and alive the Bard’s language is, but how truly witty and winsome a trickster he remains. A staged reading is a wonderful way to experience a play because it focuses the audience’s attention on language and rhythm. Add an evocative gesture here and a bit of slap stick there and you have a rich, satisfying theatrical experience. Costumes and a stage set almost seem unnecessary distractions.

As Melissa said in opening the show, in Shakespeare’s day, people said they were going to “hear” a play, not “see” it. Listening to gifted performers speak their lines from Twelfth Night and really hearing its songs made me realize what a melancholy counterpoint they are to the playful plot and the verbal pyrotechnics of the main characters.

A staged reading also highlights the lavish attention Shakespeare showered on his subplots and secondary characters, all of whom have lines that would make the angels laugh and other playwrights weep. There are no throwaway lines, no characters who receive short shrift. Every word crackles and sparks. Everyone has moments in the sun. Everyone has a chance to shine and strut their skill. No wonder minor roles in Shakespeare are so coveted — who wouldn’t want to play a character like Sir Toby Belch or Sir Andrew Aguecheek?

All this made me wonder whether the visual images we’re constantly bombarded with via TV and films have somehow muted our ability to grasp agile wordplay. And it made me marvel anew at the Bard’s timeless song of the soul. Bravo, Melissa — play on! And inspired and emboldened, let’s all write on!

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Productivity Boosters

Albert Einstein is believed to have invented the theory of relativity while riding his bicycle. Evidence is mounting that taking breaks from mental activity boosts productivity and creativity. The reverse is also true: Skipping breaks can create fatigue and stress.

Mental concentration is similar to a muscle, observes, John P. Trougakos, an assistant management professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough. It becomes fatigued after sustained use and needs a rest to recover, much as a weight lifter needs rest before doing a second round of reps.

“Short and frequent intervals of study” — that’s the advice one of my high-school teachers gave us about studying. It turns out, she was right. Working intensely, even for 15-minute periods punctuated by breaks can be more productive than sitting long hours at a desk. Breaks also encourage flashes of inspiration. Here are a few brain-boosting break ideas that you can easily work into your day:

Listen to a guided meditation for 10 or 15 minutes. There are tapes and CDs that promote relaxation and mental refreshment — and reduce muscle tension. Just put on a pair of headsets and you’re off.

Close your eyes and take 10 deep breaths. Walk away from your desk. Find a quiet place, where you can sit, close your eyes, smile to yourself and take a few deep breaths. Imagine tension, stress and anxiety leaving your body as you breathe out, and peacefulness, positivity and relaxation filling your mind with every breath.

Eat an apple. In the middle of a busy day, when you feel rushed, take a few minutes to eat an apple (or another favorite fruit). Just do it very slowly. Notice the flavor, the texture, the freshness. After a few minutes you’ll feel much calmer and less stressed.

Energize yourself with H2O. Drink a full glass of water, then splash some water on your face: warm to relax or cold to wake up and make yourself more alert.

Do something artistic. Write a short, funny poem. Draw a picture or doodle. Take a few photos of your surroundings. Let your creative side shine!

Get moving: Leave your cell phone behind and head outside for a brisk walk. Shake off stress and fatigue. Walk even faster, raising your heartbeat and letting both your mind and body relax and recharge.

A relaxed mind is a creative mind: Just remember this and write on!

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Muddled Middle

“Everything I’ve written …has seemed to me, at one point or another, something I probably ought to abandon. Even the best things I’ve written have seemed to me at some point to be very unlikely to be worth the effort I had already put into them. But I know I have to push through….For me, it’s more important to keep the discipline of finishing things than to be assured at every moment that it’s worth doing.”
Tobias Wolff, author of This Boy’s Life

“Everything can look like a failure in the middle.”
Rosabeth Moss Kanter

How True! When starting a new writing project, it’s natural to feel hopeful and excited — after all, anything is possible. And When a project is finally completed, we often feel a sense of satisfaction and well, completion. But in between, there’s what Tim Brown, the CEO of the creative think tank IDEO calls , “…a negative emotional valley labeled ‘insight.” This is a very tough place to be, because we often feel that we’ve lost our way and are floundering.

Many writers and other creatives become so downhearted when they hit this phase of a project, that they give up. But brown notes that it can be easier to survive and push through this phase if we realize that failure in the middle of a project is a natural, predictable part of the creative process and should be expected

In her wonderful guide, The Art of Slow Writing, Louise DeSalvo, the author of seventeen books, has an entire chapter called “Failure in the Middle” in which she highlights the authors I’ve quoted here. In it, she also shares her own experience with this stage: “For me, too, the toughest part of the writing process comes in the middle. Middle. Muddle. That’s how it’s always been, although I forget from one book to the next. I start a book, excited. I go to the desk eagerly, write page after page, scene after scene. I don’t yet know what the book is about, but at the beginning, I don’t need to . At this stage, anything goes.”

As Louise describes it, for her this excitement can sustain her through a draft and even revising. “But then, there’s that moment when we realize that a mass of pages, no matter how good they are, no matter how good they might become, don’t constitute a book. A book is different in kind, not in degree, from a mass of pages. This is the dreaded middle.” Even though we feel like a failure, at this point, adds Louise, “it’s a necessary stage that no creative person can avoid.”

The only way out of the middle — and this is the tough part — is to write through it. So, it you’re in the middle of something and feeling muddled, just keep going! For more help, see my posts, “Fall-apart Stage” and “Sloe Writing,” — and be sure to check out Louise DeSalvo’s great guide, The Art of Slow Writing. And then, wherever you are, just sit down — and write on!

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“Unfinished Chapters”

Whenever I see an opportunity for getting into print that I feel might be of interest to my KWD community, I’m always happy to pass it on. Just recently, on the wonderful site, Where Writers Win, I came across an intriguing contest inviting writers to submit their work for possible inclusion in a paperback anthology called, Unfinished Chapters. According to the contest description, the anthology “will feature the best original essays by writers across the country and around the world” in the following categories:

Disappearing Acts: This category is about guesses and speculations, dogged pursuits of the truth, acceptance of the loss, and moving on.

Too Late for Goodbye: This category is about all the words you wished you had said and the unfinished business of apologizing for some of those conversations you now regret.

I Do” It Over: This category is all about what you’d do differently to make things work the second time around, including orchestrating the timeframe to meet earlier or later than you actually did.

The Wonder Years: This category is about the classmates who either got away or moved away and left you to wonder how they turned out.

Ships That Pass: This category is about random conversations that held your attention for their duration but were not meant by Fate – or either participant – to go any further.

The anthology is slated for publication in the Fall of 2015. Authors of the top three entries submitted will receive $200, $100 and $75. Essays must be a minimum of 1,200 words and a maximum of 2,000 words, and can be humorous, serious, nostalgic or wistfully introspective. Each contributor whose essay is selected for publication will have his/her bio included in the credits section and receive a free copy. Contest deadline: July 1, 2015. The authors selected will be notified by September 1, 2015.

If you’d like to enter, submit an email to the editor at authorhamlett@cs.com with the subject line: “I Have An Unfinished Chapter.” The body of your email should include:

Your Name
Contact Information
Your Chosen Category
The Proposed Title of Your Essay.

If you have an essay you’ve written or have been meaning to write, or even a chapter in a memoir that seems to fit the anthology’s themes, why not consider it? For full details on submitting, visit: unfinishedchaptersanthology.wordpress.com — and write on!

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Something Wonderful

A lovely, tenderhearted blossom:

For winter’s rains and ruins are over,
And all the season of snows and sins;
The days dividing lover and lover,
The light that loses, the night that wins;
And time remembered is grief forgotten,
And frosts are slain and flowers begotten,
And in green underwood and cover
Blossom by blossom the spring begins.

Algernon Charles Swinburne
Atalanta in Calydon

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Looking, Seeing

A gifted dharma teacher I know recently made an eye-opening comment about the difference between “looking” and “seeing.” Here’s how I’d describe the two: When we “look” at something, we take it in with intention and focus, often screening out the other things around it. In this sense, then “looking” is limiting — we restrict the sensory data we pick up in a self-selecting way. Sometimes this leads us to see only the familiar and the expected. When we “see,” however, we are not so constrained. Our eyes and mind are fully opened — we are more alive to everything around us and we scan and take in our environment more expansively.

What a promising concept for us and our work! As writers and creatives, it’s important that we have the ability to focus, to concentrate fully and screen out extraneous information during certain phases of our writing. But it seems equally important than we have periods of total receptivity, when we open our minds, eyes, and hearts to everything around us. During these phases, our artistic antennae are up and we are in a hyper-absorptive state. We are taking in sensations, slender threads of ideas, the world we live and move and breathe in, with all its glory and confusion. Who knows what frail reed might turn into a song that we can sing? What flotsam and jetsam might float to the shore of our mind and find a home in a story of ours at some point in time?

Just today, while walking a very familiar route to the running track I trot around two days I week, I gave myself a little mission: Instead of looking, I wanted to be seeing — to take more in than I usually would.

What did this little experiment yield? By seeing, I noticed two bushes, glorious with flowers, that I hadn’t seen before. I saw all the colors of a tulip, ablush with pink, and yellow, and pale green. I saw a morning glory, one among many, but had to stop and marvel at its stripes of red and white, so precisely alternated. It made me think of a gay red-and-white striped umbrella turned upside down to catch the rain like a cup.

I saw a lovely house with a wonderful façade that I had never noticed before, because I usually focus on the cheerful white picket fence that spans the part of the sidewalk where I stroll by. I noticed a gorgeous bowed window in another house and then saw that just above it was a smaller scale window of precisely the same design — one mimicking the other to create a very pleasing sense of harmony. And then, the jackpot! As I was walking home, seeing as I strolled, I spied a small plastic bottle — like one of those miniature liquor bottles you find get on a place. It was empty of liquor but rich with label drama.

The label was orange. Etched in black was the word “Fireball”and below it, in tiny letters, “Cinnamon Whiskey” — what a creative mix! The logo was even better: A little red sprite breathing flames with his hair on fire jumping up and down. Cinnamon Whiskey. Mmmm: What about inventing a fiery brand of mead for my historical fantasy? Intriguing. I’m going to save that little bottle to remind me of the benefits of “seeing” vs. “looking.”

How about you? Why not expand your artistic horizons by shifting from “looking” to “seeing? Who knows what you might discover? Write on!

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