Something Wonderful

A Goodly Life

Robert Louis Stevenson

To be honest, to be kind—to earn a little and to

Spend a little a little less, to make, upon the

Whole, a family happier for his presence—

To keep a few friends.

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Conrad Counsels

Today, December 3, is Joseph Conrad’s birthday—he was born in 1857. Who can forget the mysterious, tangled web that Heart of Darkness wove? Some pithy words to inspire and engage us:

“Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality.”

“It is not the clear-sighted who rule the world. Great achievements are accomplished in a blessed, warm fog.”

“Any work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line,”

“I don’t like work…but I like what is in work—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others—which no other man can ever know.”

“Woe to the man whose heart has not learned while young to hope, to love—and to put its trust in life.”

“There is nothing more enticing, disenchanting, and enslaving than the sea.”

“A word carries far, very far, deals destruction through time as bullets go flying through space.”

“An artist is a man of action, whether he creates a personality, invents an expedient, or finds the issue of a complicated situation.”

“Only in men’s imagination does every truth find an effective and undeniable existence. Imagination, not invention, is the supreme master of art as of life.”

“He who wants to persuade should put his trust not in the right argument, but in the right world. The power of sounds has always been greater than the power of sense.”

“Action is consolatory. It is the enemy of thought and the friend of flattering illusions.”

“Facing it, always facing it, that’s the way to get through. Face it.”

And now, emboldened and inspirited, let’s all write on!

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Alluring Landscapes

“There’s a tendency to fear descriptive passages, as if they were unnecessary ornaments that inevitable slow the ‘action,’ notes Ursula K. Le Guin in her wonderful guide, Steering the Craft. And yet, she notes, a skillful writer can convey a landscape, character details, and daily life in a so lively a way that they become the action, the “onward movement of the story.” Le Guin goes on to explore this concept:

“In well-written, serious thrillers, such as John le Carre’s The Tailor of Panama, information about their setting, about politics, and so on, is in the same way integral to the story. Good mysteries are good at conveying information, too, from Dorothy Sayer’s classic Murder Must Advertise and The Nine Tailors on. In a fantasy such as Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings a whole world is created and explained, effortlessly and joyously, through a wealth of vivid, concrete detail, as the savory moves ceaselessly forward….

“Science fiction…specializes in getting an immense amount of information to function as part of the narrative.…Stephen J. Gould is a master at embedding complex scientific information and theory in strong narrative essays.”

What a wonderful challenge Ursula poses for us here: To bring our descriptive passages to life by making them part of the action of our stories rather than separating action and description. As she suggests here, one of the best ways to begin improving our craft on this front is to look at the work of master storytellers and see how they seamlessly integrate description into their tales in ways that advance action.

For me, Wuthering Heights springs to mind. Who can forget Emily Bronte’s riveting descriptions of the moors and the way the bleak landscape itself seems to seep into her characters and become part of who they are and what they do. Alluring landscapes—wonderful territory for writing dangerously, don’t you think? Write on!

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Making Sense

“We do not write to be understood. We write in order to understand.” C.S. Lewis

What wisdom there is in these words! While many of us do, in fact, write to be understood—to share who we are and what we know—in the end, all good writing is a voyage of discovery. One of the greatest gifts writing gives us—and our readers—is the gift of getting to the heart of things, of understanding.

When you think about it, writing is more than just explaining or describing. As Dinty Moore says so well in “The Mindful Writer,“

“To write requires learning, discovering, examining, interrogating. Writing is the process of putting down words, then stepping back, considering those words, trying to understand them.

“What have you written? What does it say? What does it fail to say? Do you even agree with what you have written?”

So often, our writing surprises us, doesn’t it? Once we set something down on paper, we see that it’s not set in stone. It may be true or not true. It may be only half true and need to be added to. Writing is above all else, an act of discovery:

We discover that our first idea needs changing or fine-tuning.

We discover that our characters are not who we think they are.

We discover that an idea doesn’t really reflect where we are now.

We discover that there’s much more to say and understand.

Wonderful isn’t it? To think that our words take us to hidden and exciting places in our own minds? That they free us to explore and grow and change—and to share what we’ve learned with readers?

In the end, I think writing dangerously is more expansive than our friend C.S. Lewis suggests. I believe that often we write to be understood and to understand. How about you? Write on!

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Inviting Inspiration

Amateurs look for inspiration. The rest of us get up and go to work.”
Chuck Close

Chuck is a highly respected painter and photographer. I have his statement tacked up on the wall in my office, because it really grabbed me when I first came across it. And over and over again, recently, I’ve been reminded of how true this is based on the experience and comments of accomplished artists in a range of fields. 

A biography of Stephen Sondheim by Meryle Secrest, for example, highlighted one of his professor’s beliefs in this way: “Instead of waiting for inspiration, Barrow taught that music is a matter of craft and technique like, as it turns out, all art, and the fact that art is work and not inspiration, that invention comes with craft.”

Mmmm…there are definitely some ideas worth pondering here. The good news is that we don’t need to sit around waiting to be inspired, we simply need to get to work: to bend our time and energies to developing our craft and technique. The bad news: art is work. It requires discipline, effort, sacrifice, and a consistent investment of intention and attention. At first glance, this seems to strip away some of the mystery of the artistic process, doesn’t it? And yet, we have that redeeming thought: “invention comes with craft.” 

Craft is the open sesame: it’s the door to invention and inspiration. In order to find and mine invention, there’s one path we have to follow: we have to sharpen our writing skills, hone our craft. And that means focused, consistent practice. 

For some writers, that means devoting an intense few hours every day to their writing and then leaving their desk and letting their unconscious mind kick in. For many others, it means taking a businesslike approach to their calling. 

Oscar Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim’s mentor, has written some of the most beloved lyrics in musical theater: songs as inventive and moving as any around. He achieved his success and his lighthearted touch by treating writing like any other demanding job. He worked from 8:30 to 4:30, with a lunch break. Sometimes it took him being at his desk day after day for three weeks to come up with a single song with a hatful of words. Ah, but what words! While we can’t know how often inspiration struck Oscar, here’s one thing we know for sure. When it came, he was likely to be found at his desk, ready to grab it.

Whatever mode of working we adopt, it’s commitment that counts. Let’s put in the time required, on the page and off it, to master our craft. Write on!

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”Sunny Side”

As we launch into the final stretch of the year, why not begin it with an upbeat attitude? Tried-and-true advice to set us on the right path:

Creed for Optimists by Christian D. Larsen

Be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind.

Talk health, happiness, and prosperity to every person you meet.

Make all your friends feel there is something special in them.

Look at the sunny side of everything.

Think only of the best, work only for the best, and expect only the best.

Be as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about your own.

Forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future.

Give everyone a smile.

Spend so much time improving yourself that you have no time left to criticize others.

Be too big for worry and too noble for anger.

Be strong. Be enthusiastic. Work only for the best. Forget past mistakes. Wonderful advice as we all write on!

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Happy Thanksgiving!

As we launch our holiday weekend, may your life be filled with joy and gratitude, now and always! This sweet poem comes to us via Rose Blessing, a poetry lover and cherished member of my Poetry Appreciation Group. Blessings to all!

Thanksgiving for Two

Marjorie Saiser

adults we call our children will not be arriving
with their children in tow for Thanksgiving.
We must make our feast ourselves,

slice our half-ham, indulge, fill our plates,
potatoes and green beans
carried to our table near the window.

We are the feast, plenty of years,
arguments. I’m thinking the whole bundle of it
rolls out like a white tablecloth. We wanted

to be good company for one another.
Little did we know that first picnic
how this would go. Your hair was thick,

mine long and easy; we climbed a bluff
to look over a storybook plain. We chose
our spot as high as we could, to see

the river and the checkerboard fields.
What we didn’t see was this day, in
our pajamas if we want to,

wrinkled hands strong, wine
in juice glasses, toasting
whatever’s next,

the decades of side-by-side,
our great good luck.

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Journey Joys

“One might think that the monetary value of an invention constitutes its reward to the man who loves his work. But, speaking for myself, I can honestly say this is not so….I continue to find my greatest pleasure, and so my reward, in the work that precedes what the world calls success.” Thomas Edison

Wise words from a world-class inventor—someone who loved his work and knew the value of it in his life. There’s so much truth to mine here for us as writers and creatives!

So often, we focus relentlessly on our goal—on getting where we believe we want to go that we forget the joys of the journey. Let’s consider just a few of these writing rewards:

Joys of the journey: We are free to create whole worlds and to reimagine what exists— to remake it into something fresh and new.

Joys of the journey: During the act of creation, there’s no one else involved. We have only to please ourselves and enjoy ourselves. While we may want to share what we’ve created, most of the time, in the early days, we are flying solo. And the lighter you travel, the farther you go.

Joys of the journey: We need only the simplest of tools to fashion our creations: enthusiasm, ingenuity, perseverance—and pen and paper or our computer. We can work anywhere and whenever we want.

Joys of the journey: In a world that feeds on distraction, we choose to focus, to screen out the noise and confusion, and to listen with our inner ear. “Everything begins in silence,” a wise writing coach once told me. What a comfort to choose calm over chaos!

These are some of the joys of the journey I treasure. How about you? What are the rewards on the writing path that mean the most to you? I’d love to hear and share them as we all write on!

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Opportunity Awaits

When Nathaniel Hawthorne was a young man just starting his career, he was fired from his government job at the local custom house. He returned home in despair. His wife listened sympathetically to his tale of looming tragedy, then lit the fire, put pen and ink on the table, gave him a comforting hug, and said, “Now you will be able to write your novel.” Nathaniel pulled himself from the Slough of Despair and penned The Scarlet Letter.

As many of us know the Chinese word for “crisis” is composed of two picture-characters — one meaning “danger” and the other meaning “opportunity.” On the day, so many years ago, when Nathaniel sat down and found the strength to write despite his his fears, he found an opportunity in his crisis. And we can, too.

As writers, like Nathaniel, we face many dangers in our work and our lives. Circumstances may be threatening or uncongenial to our work. We may face the danger of doubt. The hydra-headed danger of confusion may rouse itself and make us feel lost in a tangle of words or revising. Or we may face the danger of rejection.

Yet, within each of these dangers, an opportunity wait. If our circumstances don’t favor us, we can change them or use them as a form of friction to push us forward. If we doubt ourselves, we can fight through it and come out stronger. If we feel confused and keep going, we may find a fruitful detour or byway or even a whole new direction. And if we face rejection, we can use it to improve and grow.

So, like our friend Nathaniel, when crisis hits, let’s give ourselves a brief moment of despair, and then let’s pull out pen and paper, or fire up our computer, and use the danger we face to write dangerously. And when we take this step, we, too, will find our own opportunity awaits us. Write on!

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Something Wonderful

The Mist and All
Dixie Willson

I like the fall,
I like the mist and all,
I like the night owl’s
Lonely call —
And wailing sound
Of wind around.

I like the gray
November day,
And bare, dead boughs
That coldly sway
Against my pane.
I like the rain.

I like to sit
And laugh at it —
And tend
My cozy fire a bit.
I like the fall —
The mist and all–

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