When the Muse Comes

Clio by Pierre Mignard

“When the Muse comes She doesn’t tell you to write; / She says get up for a minute, I’ve something to show you, stand here.” –Michael Goldman

In a previous post I commented on my struggle to read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The Blackstone Audio edition of Pilgrim, narrated by Tavia Gilbert, transformed my struggle into an epiphany.

As difficult as Pilgrim is to read, I am thrilled I found a way to access it. The book’s content is not interesting to me; but, Dillard’s writing style is poetic. The sound of her words, her detailed descriptions, and the exuberance of her feelings are breathtaking. The Muse had something to show Annie. And Annie shows us what she saw from where the Muse told her to stand.

“Show, don’t tell,” writers are told. “Use the words you have to paint pictures.” Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is about seeing; and, Dillard shows us what it means not only to see but to be “present” in the moment. Dillard writes to the bottom of every scene she describes. That’s probably why Pilgrim won the Pulitzer Prize.

I wonder what the Muse wants to show me. She comes and often I catch only a glimpse. Maybe I don’t stand in the right spot.

I’ve felt I was led by the Muse; but, nothing of the depth Dillard describes. I know you can’t just sit and wait for the Muse to tell you where to stand. You have to write. A lot. The Muse can only tell you where to stand if you show up.

I’ve begun writing many times waiting for the Muse. Until I read the lines of Michael Goldman’s poem, I thought writing was taking dictation from the Muse. Goldman turns that idea on its head.

“Stand here,” says the Muse. “What do you see?”

The Muse is not going to tell me what she expects me to see. She’s showing me what is there to see. It is up to me to find the words to describe what I see.

I’ve written enough to know the difference between showing and telling. I can spot it in my writing and I am quick to point it out to fellow writers in critique groups.

We tend to write the way we speak and end up telling because so much of every day speech is telling. We say or show little of the affect of our experiences.

“I’ve something to show you, stand here.” Often what I am shown is a metaphor. When that happens I pay attention. It has happened several times.

Sometimes I resist following the Muse. I’m involved in another project and don’t want to be distracted. I make note of it what the Muse shows me; but, I don’t always get around to writing about it. Ignoring the Muse’s inspiration leaves me spinning my creative wheels as I stubbornly pursue my own agenda.

The Muse is patient and continues to show up with images, scenes, and metaphors. She doesn’t care what you do with them. As long as you show up, the Muse will show up, too.

“Stand here,” says the Muse. My eye catches an object, a metaphor. I don’t take dictation because I have to get what the object means on my own. The Muse’s job is to suggest where to stand to see the scene to its best advantage.

The line from Michael Goldman’s poem handed me a paradigm shift. Reading Dillard’s book has more than served its purpose.

A simple declarative sentence. “Stand here,” says the Muse. See the universe unfold before your eyes.

“Catch it if you can,” says Annie Dillard.

Blogging a Life

I began journaling 30 years ago. To give my journal a focus, I created an imaginary alter ego to whom I bared my soul. I began blogging seven years ago without knowing to whom I was writing or why. I wrote whatever came to mind and posted it.

I don’t promote a product or a service. I don’t tell or show anyone how to write or how to blog. I observe and comment. What I observe triggers memories. I write about the memories. Often I write about doubt or I pose a question: Why is this situation the way it is?” Before I know it, I’ve written several lines or even pages. The doubt is dispelled and the situation is clarified.

I write with a pen on lined spiral notebook pages. I thought blogging would change my writing process. I tried composing at the computer keyboard but found it a distraction. I am constantly correcting, editing,  and revising. When I write by hand, the words spill on to the page. Later, I transcribe what I’ve written and revise and edit. At times I keep only a small portion of what I wrote to use for a blog post. Other times I find enough for two, three, or four posts. Writing surprises me.

Writing is therapy. Writing is positive addiction. Writing is spiritual practice. My life would be dark without the light writing shines into its corners and dark areas. In Pat Schneider’s words, “writing is how the light gets in.”

Blogging enlarges my life. Through blogging, I engage with others who share my interests, positive attitudes, and gratitude for all life gives me. I was pleased to learn that blogging about my life makes me a “lifestyle” blogger. I have a focus.

Building a Web Site, Creating a Blog, & Gratitude

My online life began in late 2006. The rationale behind an online existence was to create a space to share aspects of my life with family and friends through writing supplemented with photographs.

With the help of a professional web designer, I built a web site. The web site design was beautiful and functioned exactly as I wanted.

My blogging career began with derwerffblogg, a wordpress.com hosted blog linked to my web site. I chose “people, places, ideas, and events that enrich my life” as the blog’s tag line. I have covered a lot of ground since my first blog post on September 9, 2007.

Maintaining the web site became more work than I wanted. With the development of web technology and content management systems, I discovered a blog was what I wanted.

After five years, I abandoned the web site and moved derwerffblogg from wordpress.com to a self-hosted site using the WordPress platform. That has worked well and I am pleased with my decision.

I’ve gone through dry spells in which I haven’t posted for months. I’ve traveled and kept up the blog on a regular basis. I survived the April 2013 A to Z Blog Challenge.

At present, I am launched on a personal blog challenge, a response to my desire to honor a commitment to write regularly. A blogging buddy with whom I “bookend” keeps me accountable.

The more I reflect on what enriches my life, the more I find I have to be grateful for. So, my blog is both a place for reflection and for gratitude.

As part of my daily writing, I make a gratitude list. Certain things I list daily. Other days, a thought may occur that reminds me I am grateful for one more thing. I add it to my gratitude list.

Focusing on gratitude opens space in my life for more good and more reasons for gratitude; and, gratitude eases stress.

One morning last week I received an email from a friend who follows my blog. “More fine words on your recent ‘blogg,’” she wrote. “I look forward to these little luminaries as they shine into my inbox.”

“Luminaries” that shine into anyone’s inbox are a source of deep gratitude and all the reason I need to continue blogging.

Reading (Part 3)

How I Read

I love to hold a book. I love the weight of a book and the texture of the pages as I turn them. Depending on where and how it’s been stored, a book can have a unique smell.

A comfortable chair, a good reading light, a lovely cup of tea, and a good book is my idea of heaven. And of course, reading in bed. What luxury.

There was a time when I refused to imagine piling up in bed with an electronic device of any kind instead of a book. I’ve had a Kindle for two years and I love it. Kindle offers the best of both worlds. I can read, I can listen, and I can listen and read.

The wonders of modern technology have made many books available free (and, so does the public library, don’t forget). The Kindle or Kindle-like devices are more convenient.

Kindle eBooks don’t have all of the “bells and whistles” of the eBooks I enjoyed in the college library where I worked. Those eBooks are, in my opinion, the ultimate research tool. They offer full text searching across the text of the entire book. Most Kindle eBooks lack indexing. Pages can be bookmarked, text can be highlighted and saved. With the library’s eBooks, saved notes can be downloaded in a variety of formats.

Project Gutenberg was the first provider of free electronic books, or eBooks. I can often find out of print books that have been digitized and made available in a variety of electronic formats. Project Gutenberg offers over 45,000 free eBooks and access to more than 100,000 titles through its partners and affiliates.

Audiobooks books have been around for a long time; but, technology has made them more accessible. I first became interested in audiobooks when I commuted two hours each way once a week while working on a Ph.D. Audiobooks were a pleasant diversion from the demands of a graduate study reading list.

For nearly 10 years I lived 150 miles from everywhere, I had plenty of time in my car to listen to audiobooks. I listened to audiobooks when I walked my dog as I did five times a day for 30-45 minutes at a time. I listened to many books I would not have read otherwise.

Book, eBook, or audiobook, their purpose is to inform and to enrich our lives.

Reading (Part 2)

 What I Read

“Have you read…?” is a question I ask often. If the answer is “No,” I say something I liked about the book. “It’s a beautiful story. I thought how much you would enjoy it.”

I don’t mind being asked “Have you read…?” when the question is asked out of curiosity. What I don’t like is the person who pulls a pained facial expression when I say “No.” It is as if there is something congenitally haywire or morally defective in me.

“You haven’t read it?” they will gasp. “Oh, you must,” indicating I’m in danger of some dire consequence for not reading a book they consider essential.

Then there is the person who assumes I’ve read what they’ve read. “You’ve read…, of course.”

“No,” I haven’t,” I say. Again, the pained expression.

“You have to read it.”

I tried to read it. I didn’t like the author’s style; or, it didn’t appeal to me; or, maybe later. James Michener is a good example.

I became aware of Michener with the publication of Hawaii in 1959. It seemed everyone I knew was reading or had read the book. And everyone I knew thought I should read it. I didn’t. And, I did not see the movie. It was the same with Centennial 15 years later. I began reading Centennial but could not get past the dinosaurs rutting in the primordial ooze. I’m not completely intolerant of Michener. I enjoyed The Source.

My resistance to Michener is the same as my resistance to any fad. I refuse to be pressured into following the crowd. I’m making a statement about who I am. No thank you, that doesn’t interest me.

My primary reading interest is U.S. history and biography. Catherine Drinker Bowen’s Miracle at Philadelphia, Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton and Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin are at the top of my list along with anything written by David McCullough.

I have a fondness for nineteenth century English fiction. Eliot’s Middlemarch is a particular favorite. I love Jane Austen and I’ve read most of Dickens. I made a brief foray into 19th century Russian novels, though “brief” is a word not typically applied to 19th century Russian novels. On finishing Anna Karenina, I realized I cared nothing for any character in the story. As a novel, The Brothers Karamozov is an excellent story with strong character development. Two 19th century Russian novels, however, were enough.

Annie’ Dillard’s Pulitzer Prize winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek hung around my “must read” list for several years before I decided its time had come. Dillard’s writing is skillful, pondering topics with dense, lush description. The book tired me out after 40 pages. Dillard’s pondering is, well, ponderous.

My reaction to Dillard is a different reaction than the reaction I had to Michener. I want to read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek; but, it is inaccessible. Has this frustration happened to you? How did you deal with it?

Reading (Part 1)

Why I Read

Mark Twain observed that “the [one] who does not read has no advantage over the [one] who cannot read. Reading is important.

For writers, reading is essential. “If you don’t have time to read,” says Stephen King, “you don’t have the time—or the tools—to write.” In a recent blog post, writer Delia Latham lists 10 reasons why writers should read.

Reading is fundamental to who I am. I read for knowledge. I read for awareness of the world in which I live. I read because I love to read. As a writer, I read for all of the reasons Latham enumerates.

Without reading I am a shell, a body without a soul. Incredible journeys and adventures to faraway worlds shared with larger than life characters feed my creative spirit. Their absence would leave my life barren.

As a librarian, books are my life. Freedom to read anything I want is magical. My interests are wide-ranging. I love the serendipity of browsing through library stacks and the shelves of used book stores. Examining a used book, I like to imagine what it would say about its owners and its journey to a used book store. I’ve acquired many books from used book stores and friends of the library book sales. Some I read and keep. Others I read and pass on.

At the same time reading is fundamental to my creative life, it is fundamental to my professional life. I am a prospector in search of light. I am a miner of wisdom. Writing exposes the brilliant facets of enlightenment. Books are forms of intellectual prospecting and mining. A library is a tool used to extract the raw materials of learning.

My career and my search for inner wisdom have taught me that being the steward of the record of human knowledge is a sacred task. Lux mentis. Lux orbis. The light of the mind is the light of the world. And, reading is the key.

The Water Man Never Knocks

The water from our well smelled like rotten eggs and tasted terrible. We bought bottled water for drinking and cooking.

Bottled water was delivered once a week in five gallon glass bottles that we put on a ceramic water crock dispenser. In 1968, two five gallon bottles cost a little over two dollars a week.

Starving college students surviving on the G.I. Bill and part-time jobs, we didn’t always have cash to pay the water man.

Thursdays were water delivery days. I was at home one Thursday morning when I heard a truck coming up our gravel road. I looked out the window and saw the water delivery truck. We were four weeks behind in our payment and I had no money.

I have to hide. I started out the door to hide in the shop next to the garage. Wait. If I dart out the door, he’ll see me. I turned in circles trying to figure out what to do. I know! I’ll hide in the closet. What am I thinking? That’s so obvious. He’ll know I’m there. I’ll hide in the bath tub behind the shower curtain.

I got behind the shower curtain as I heard the screen door open and the water man walk into the kitchen. The first bottle hit the floor. The empty bottle was removed from the water cooler. Water from the new bottle glugged into the cooler. Silence. What is he doing?

The water man walked into the bathroom! My heart stopped. I gasped and struggled to hold my breath. He unzipped his trousers. Splash. Flush. Zip. He walked out of the bathroom. I continued to hold my breath.

Footsteps. The screen door slammed. My heart pounded. I gasped for air. Gravel crunched under the truck’s tires as the water man drove away.

He had no idea of the terror he created for me. Or, of the terror I might have created for him.

Working the Shot

In photography, composition is everything. Good composition means an identifiable subject and background, balance, point of view, and simplicity. It takes time to frame a shot that meets my criteria for good composition. Sometimes I have good results and sometimes not so good.

Sometimes I am surprised. I used to be surprised. When I shot film, I had to wait for the film to be processed before I could see the results. With digital photography there are no surprises because it is possible to see your shot as soon as it’s taken.

It is incorrect to say there are no surprises with digital photography. I am an amateur photographer and I am constantly surprised; but, as far as composition goes, I minimize the element of surprise.

Salisbury Cathedral

I shot this photograph of Salisbury Cathedral with a 35mm point and shoot. The result was a surprise even though much effort went into the photograph’s composition.

In April 1996, I was in England with a tour group I hosted. Having visited Salisbury Cathedral several times, I did not go inside for the cathedral tour. There was construction underway and I wasn’t interested in seeing the clutter. Instead, I left the group and walked out into the cathedral close.

It was a gray day that threatened rain. I wandered to the east end of the cathedral and up a couple of steps through a rock wall to the level of the road.

Turning around to face the cathedral, I was struck again by its majesty. Salisbury Cathedral supports the tallest cathedral spire in England. Along the road side of the rock wall I’d crossed there was a bed of daffodils in bloom. I framed a shot in my mind. I wanted the height of the cathedral with the daffodils at its base. The arch of the barren tree balanced the composition.

I looked through the camera’s view finder trying to capture the view I had in mind. Nothing worked. I got down on my knees and still could not compose the shot I wanted.

I noticed an empty parking space against the wall. I knelt in the parking space and tried once more to frame the shot. I couldn’t get the daffodils and the spire’s height. I got as low as I could. Still unable to get my shot, I lay down in the parking space and framed the shot again. Everything I wanted was in the frame. I snapped the shutter.

When the photos were processed, I was pleased with the result. I had worked the shot and got my photograph.

I had the photograph enlarged and framed. It hangs in my studio to remind me that good composition is not only subject and background, balance, point of view, and simplicity, it is also work.

Little Lord Fauntleroy

My grandmother gave me a copy of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy.It was a sunny May afternoon in Sacramento several days before my tenth birthday. Gramma could never wait for the actual day. If she had a gift to give, she had to give it. We were on the front porch of her house on 4th Avenue. She sat in a rocking chair and I sat on a stool in front of her. “Here’s your birthday present,” she said, holding out the package toward me.

I opened the gift wrapped package and found the most striking book I’d ever seen. Through the clear plastic dust jacket I could see the stunning color plate on the cover. The Charles Scribner’s edition has beautiful color illustrations and pen and ink drawings by Reginald Birch.

I always have a reason for choosing a book to give as a gift. I wonder what my grandmother’s reason was for giving me Little Lord Fauntleroy.

Gramma was born in 1877. Fauntleroy was first published in 1886. She may have read the book as a young girl and wanted to share the story with me. Maybe she gave me the book because of similarities between Cedric (Fauntleroy) and me. Both of us lost a parent at a young age.

As an adult, the gift of a book from my grandmother is a curiosity. I don’t recall books in Gramma’s house. Newspapers and magazines are the extent of the reading she did. The thought of my grandmother going into a bookstore to shop for a book is even more curious.

How did she get to the bookstore? Gramma didn’t drive and depended on public transportation. My aunt may have taken her. Or, maybe she asked my aunt to buy the book for her.

I imagine my grandmother going downtown on the bus to Levinson’s Books. I know it was Levinson’s because there is a Levinson’s sticker inside the back cover of the book.

“I’m looking for a book for my grandson. He’s going to be 10 years old.”

The clerk may have asked questions to help him or her form a suggestion. “Does he play sports or do outdoor activities?”

“He’s not that kind,” I can hear Gramma say. “He’s quiet. He’s kind to old people. He’s just a nice boy.”

Whatever their conversation, I received a beautiful gift that I still have.

The book is worn and worse for wear. Years ago, I loaned it to a younger cousin who treated it badly. I was glad to have it back even in its battered state.

On the other hand, I loaned Fauntleroy to Miss Evers, a sixth grade teacher at my school, who read it to her class. Her thank you note is clipped inside the cover.

I haven’t read Fauntleroy since I was in junior high school. Once in a while he winks at me from his place on the shelf. I take him down and turn slowly through the pages to enjoy the drawings and time with Gramma.

Midnight in Paris

In Woody Allen’s film, Midnight in Paris, Gil has a fantasy about being transported back in time to Paris in the 1920s. Call me Gil. My Paris fantasy began with reading Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast in 1965.

NPR’s “All Things Considered” was my favorite news program when I was on sabbatical at the University of Southern California in 1981-82.  I listened to it evenings driving home from the campus.

One evening there was an interview with a woman who had written a book about her parents and their life in Paris. The parents, the products of wealthy families, were disillusioned with life in the U.S. in the 20s and made a decision to move with their three children to Paris.

The author described growing up around her parents’ friends who included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Pablo Picasso, to name only a few. The story captured my interest. I wanted to purchase the book immediately; but, because I was driving, I was unable to write down either the author’s name or the title of the book. By the time I got home, I had forgotten both. For a librarian with excellent reference skills, that shouldn’t be a problem, I thought.

I spent the next twelve years—on and off—searching for that book. One evening in 1994, I turned on the television. The program that came on was A&E’s Biography featuring the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I stopped to watch before changing the channel. A woman was talking about her relationship to F. Scott Fitzgerald. The woman, Honoria Murphy Donnelly, daughter of Sara and Gerald Murphy, was the author of Sara and Gerald: The Villa America and Beyond. The book I had been searching for twelve years. At last I was able to acquire a copy even though it was then out of print. I read the book which I enjoyed thoroughly.

Everybody was So Young, Amanda Vail’s biography of Sara and Gerald Murphy, fueled my fascination with the Murphy’s and the expatriate American artists who lived in Paris in the 20s and 30s.

In Appetite for Life, Noel Riley Fitch’s biography of Julia Child, I learned that Paul Child lived in Paris in the 20s and was tangentially connected to that group. Later, Julia and he met Gerald and Sara in Paris.

My friend John and I went to see Midnight in Paris. I “got” it immediately. The story is my Paris fantasy. After the movie, I told John about my fascination with Paris in the 20s and the search for the Murphys.

“My mother’s uncle was Henry, “Mike,” Strater,” John said. “He was a painter who lived in Paris in the 20s and he was a friend of Hemingway’s. He painted his portrait.”

When I got home, I researched Henry Strater. Strater did two portraits of Hemingway. One of the portraits was used as the cover art for the dust jacket of Carlos Baker’s Hemingway: A Life Story.

“Six degrees of separation!” I shouted into the phone when John answered. “Through you, I am connected to people I have been fascinated with for 45 years. I am experiencing Midnight in Paris!”