The importance of wasting time

The other day, while searching for ideas to jumpstart my writer’s brain, I decided to haul out from my file cabinet the library of journals fat with notes from lectures I attended as a Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate student. I thumbed through each page, scanning for a word, a phrase, anything that made my heart skip a beat. Aha, after several minutes, it finally happened, the one sentence I needed most to see, to hear, to touch, to taste: “The importance of wasting time.”I let out a long, calming breath, comforted by this affirmation: it’s okay to be idle.

Creative people do take time off from their projects to engage in completely different activities. Maybe a writer takes time to paint or doodle, to play music, to learn a new skill, or to take a nap – imagine that, taking a nap during the day. Such idleness allows time for “incubation,” says Connie May Fowler and Patrick Madden, prolific writers, authors, and VCFA faculty members. This incubation period works best when we first identity the problem with our manuscript, then step away from it, throw all the worrying over it in the trash – and live our lives. (Take that nap.)

Think of the incubation period as a time for “cooking your book,” Connie and Patrick say. Of course, to leave your book, or project, “cooking,” requires trust – trusting that you’ll eventually be served a heaping plate of creativity while you watch for the water to come to a boil, or the edges of your project to turn a sugary golden brown. But if you’re open to the process, if you are curious and interested in every cobwebbed moment, awake and responsive to every random swirl of a leaf, every sigh of a passing stranger, every intentional touch of a hand on the curve of your back, the creativity will come.

 

Yet it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top. ~ Virginia Woolf

 

 

 

Read More

Writing Prompts

writing prompts

I recently attended a memoir writing retreat at La Finca in Vieques, Puerto Rico, where eleven of us gathered in the Caribbean breeze each morning to discuss work submitted by two separate participants. But before we plunged into the nitty-gritty of structure, voice, character development, and so on, we warmed up our brains each morning by spending fifteen minutes responding to a writing prompt provided by Elizabeth Cohen, award winning writer, poet, memoirist, journalist, steadfast writing mentor, and Assistant Professor of English at SUNY Plattsburgh.

I like writing prompts, timed prompts; they drive me to write fast, to keep the pen moving, to not fret over whatever it is I’m writing about. Prompts force me to let it all out, to express what I otherwise would second-guess expressing. One of my favorite prompts Elizabeth offered us came from a Mary Oliver poem, “The Summer Day.” In the poem she says, “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.” The prompt: “What is a prayer?”

Maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention to what Elizabeth asked us to respond to, because I heard her say this: “What does it mean to pray.” But, hey, that’s the beauty of prompts; they leave room for choice. So here’s what I wrote:

To be still and quiet is to pray. To walk barefoot in the grass, and feel each blade between the toes. To close your eyes against the day’s glare and turn inside yourself and breath out any knots and tangles. To breath in the memory of being carefree, of doing water angels and skipping stones on a midnight lake. To pray is to sing, to write, to call forward that which makes you still, still enough to listen to the sounds you cannot hear. It’s to hold close to you the heartbeat of what matters most to you. To pray is to remember that you are not alone, and that candy breezes have the capacity to carry you closer and closer toward the inside of you, deep into the uterine center of you. To pray is to imagine, to feel, to hold a butterfly in the palm of our hand.

I’d love to hear from others what it means to you to pray. (or if you’re good at paying attention, “What is a prayer?”) What other mind-limbering prompts do you have to share?

Read More

Music and Memory

music_and_memory

While researching the effects of music on memory for an article I recently wrote for my local newspaper, I had the opportunity to speak with a participant of an adult day program in the area. Like most of the other participants, he has Alzheimer’s. When speaking with him, he shared with me his life-long passion for classical music, and invited me to listen to one of his favorite albums that he just happened to have with him at the program that day. He slipped it onto the 1940’s turntable situated in the center of the homelike furnished room, then lowered the needle onto the record. He started humming to the piano solo, snapping his fingers, sweeping his arms through the air, performing a music conductor’s dance.

The music did something for him, to him. Perhaps you know what that feels like. When you hear a specific song from your past, what happens? You can’t help but time-travel in your mind, linking that song to a long-ago, meaningful event, like the day you got married, or your high school senior prom, or the one, and only, time you sang Karaoke. Research indicates that listening to music activates regions in the brain responsible for motor activity, emotions,  creativity, and autobiographical memories. Listening to music is particularly beneficial to those suffering from memory loss, whether it’s from a traumatic brain injury, dementia, or Alzheimer’s.  Music calms ceaseless brain static, helping one to focus on the present and recall  long-term memories.

Dan Cohen, a social worker who founded the non-profit Music and Memory, recognizes the benefits of music, particularly for those suffering from memory loss. His wish to be able to listen to his favorite 60’s music if he were living in a nursing home was the driving force behind his idea to bring iPods, or other digital music technology into elder care facilities, with the  goal of delivering personalized music to the residents, thereby improving quality of life. The miracle-like effects of Music and Memory are evident in the documentary “Alive Inside.” The film features a nursing home resident wearing an iPod, listening to his favorite Cab Calloway songs. Within seconds of hearing the first song, he re-awakens, the music stirring him from his sedate, nearly unresponsive state. His eyes snap fully open, his voice singing in a clear vibrato, as if someone just reset his memory’s circuit breaker.

When I told my husband and two of his adult daughter’s, Rachel and Hannah, about Music and Memory during a recent family gathering we decided to make a list of our favorite songs to share with one another. We each took turns playing them on our iPhones, and, as we did, something remarkable happened: a flash-flood of melodic memories. “Hobo’s Lullaby!” Hannah called out. “Remember, Rachel, Dad used to play it all the time.” Then it was Rachel’s turn: “I learned this Fleetwood Mac song on my guitar. When was that, like ten years ago?” When I played “Cat’s in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin, I felt as if I was back in high school again, singing out loud with my friends, “And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon, little boy blue and the man in the moon …”

Which songs jump start your time-travel engine? Where do those songs take you?

 

 

 

Read More

“Failure breeds success”

failure_breeds_success

Do you ever berate yourself for failing, tell yourself that you should quite while you’re ahead? Has your writing been rejected by literary journals, magazines, and newspapers time and again ? If you’re a writer, you know what I’m talking about. Yes, we get rejected, a lot. Failure is inevitable. It’s inevitable for painters, dancers, musicians, for all creators. Writer, author, and inspirational speaker, Elizabeth Gilbert, failed – for six years she “failed at getting published.” She received rejection letters in the mail, every day.

Are you wondering where I’m going with this failure thread? Keep reading. As Elizabeth says in her Ted Talk, “Success, failure, and the drive to keep creating,” failure breeds success.”

How so? Elizabeth’s story is the answer:

Nearly a decade ago, when readers from all over devoured her memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, she became an instant success. But with that success, she says, came the hard part: “How in the world I was ever going to write a book again that would ever please anybody.”

You may not be a writer, but does this sentiment sound familiar? You’ve succeeded at something: maybe a record label has finally recognized your music. Or you’ve been accepted into an artist colony after applying countless times. Now that you’ve made it, you ask yourself, What’s next? This isn’t enough. I need to do more. I need to keep pleasing my partner, my parents, my grandparents, my children, my pet goldfish.

So, even if we succeeded, we feel like we’ve failed, because we burden ourselves with having to do better and better, all the time, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But if we believe we can’t keep succeeding, we may seriously consider giving up, which is what Elizabeth considered after publishing her memoir. It’s all in the mind, really. That we can all agree upon, right? We see things in black and white, good or bad. Success equals good; failure equals bad. (Whoever came up with “good” and “bad” should be … Well, I’ll leave it at that.) Of course, the unending praise bestowed on us when we succeed boosts our egos, until we realize that we need to do more, do better, that this, whatever it is, is not enough. Similarly, the lack of recognition when we fail buries our confidence. Either way, when it comes to good versus bad, Elizabeth cautions us: “There’s a real equal danger in both cases of getting lost out there in the hinterlands of the psyche.”

To stop ourselves from second-guessing ourselves, we need to find a way to forge ahead, to fire-up our inspiration. For Elizabeth, she found that inspiration from past life lessons: the constant rejections she received in the mail each day. Rather than quitting though, she found her way back: “I’m going home,” she says. Not home in the literal sense; home in the artistic sense. Writing was, is, her home. Because writing is what she loves, she returns to it again and again. She went back home after the book she wrote in follow-up to Eat, Pray, Love failed. And she keeps going home.

But how do we find our way back home? Here’s a hint from Elizabeth: “Your home is whatever in this world you love more than you love yourself.”

 

Read More