The Power of the (Famous) Muses

Until I was asked to write a blog on famous muses, I really never gave the idea much thought. I’ve always used my surroundings or circumstances to rev up my creative juices. But it didn’t take me long to recall those who held my hand as I began my love affair with the written word, as well as the ones who paved the way for me on this journey of self-exploration. Or, my life as a writer.

Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, is the first author whose words challenged me to break free of the excuses and “take it bird by bird.” In her book, she speaks about her older brother who procrastinated on a book report about birds which was now due the following day. The task ahead of him appeared insurmountable when Lamott’s father “sat down beside him, put his arm around [her] brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

Currently, I’m in a season where my writing revolves around blogs and articles. I haven’t sat down and written my novel just yet. So for me, I’m taking it blog by blog. And I’m also avidly following guidance from another one of my muses: Stephen King. In his book On Writing, he reminds writers to read a lot and write a lot. I tend to go in spurts — right now I’ve been reading a lot. My muse was recently rediscovered in between the pages of Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain and Blake Crouch’s Snowbound. Consequently, I’m feeling one step closer to sitting down and tackling the writing a lot part of King’s advice.

Another writer, Lee Gutkind, ASU professor and managing editor of Creative Nonfiction magazine, also incites me to explore life’s next adventure. In his essay, “The Five Rs of Creative Nonfiction,” he encourages writers to seize our sense of wonder by immersion, or the “real life” aspect of the writing experience. The four remaining Rs include reflection, research, read (this cannot be stressed enough!) and “writing.” Simple but sage counsel.

With his sardonic, humble wit, David Sedaris inspires me with his edgier pieces, touching on off-the-wall topics that both entertain and challenge. My daughter and I once waited six hours in line to meet the man in person and receive an autographed copy of his book Squirrel Meets Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary. He did not disappoint; neither did the book.

But I’ve also discovered that even the underdogs may rise up among the famous. One such muse of mine is a close friend incarcerated for the next few years. He tutors other inmates in math, takes college courses while serving his sentence and studies the craft of memoir writing late into the evening hours. And then he pounds out his daily observations on a typewriter, the kind with ribbons, platen and correction tape. He motivates me as he devours book after book, doing what each of the successful writers who have gone before us have done and continue to do.

I read because I love it. I write because I cannot help it. So I grab onto the shirt tails of those who make it look easy and hope a little of their spunk (and a whole lot of talent) rubs off on me. They are the ones who have paved the way and carved a niche in the literary world. The guiding spirit(s) for my truth.

Do you have a famous — or not so famous — muse that inspires?

Esalen: A Place for Exploration

Intern Guest Post: Esalen: A Place for Exploration

Earlier this millennium, I learned from my friend Stan about the Esalen Institute a remote 27 acre retreat on the Big Sur coastline between Monterey and San Luis Obispo, California. Digging, I learned that Esalen was founded in 1962 as “an alternative educational center devoted to the exploration of what Aldous Huxley called the ‘human potential’—the world of unrealized human capacities that lies beyond the imagination.” I was intrigued. So in the summer of 2004, I made my first journey to Esalen.

I arrived at Esalen with my friend Stan after driving the better part of a day from Orange County, departing from civilization at San Luis Obispo and another 90 miles of the 2-lane Pacific Coast Highway, California 1. Arriving, I was taken by the striking beauty of the place. After checking in at the lodge, we found our simple but very comfortable accommodations. After a brief exploration of the grounds, we headed to dinner at the lodge. Esalen’s meals are served camp style and the food is excellent. Meat, dairy, vegetarian, vegan, and raw foods are served at every meal and produce is picked daily from Esalen’s five-acre organic farm.

Stan and I had enrolled in a five-day workshop led by Steven Harper, an eco-psychologist, wilderness guide, author, and artist. At 8:30 p.m. on arrival day, we had our first session, an orientation to the week’s activities and brief explanation of the goals of the workshop. Harper’s work focuses on wild nature as a vehicle for awakening. For the remainder of the week, he took us for practiced meditative walks through four diverse natural areas in Big Sur’s Ventana Wilderness—a deeply satisfying, introspective experience. After 20 or so years in business, I so needed to reconnect with nature and Steve’s workshop was the ideal medium.

Since that first workshop, I have returned to Esalen four more times and each experience has brought new perspectives and opportunities for inward exploration. For instance, a workshop with cultural anthropologist Dr. Angeles Arrien, The Four-Fold Way: Walking the Paths of the Warrior, Teacher, Healer utilized Shamanic dreaming techniques and practice that allowed me to reconnect with long forgotten experiences in overcoming personal and professional challenges today.

Another time I came with my wife and young children for a week-long session with Rick Jarrow that helped me change course in my career, providing the impetus for me to return to school. Esalen has a children’s program for seminarians through its Gazebo Park School Early Childhood Program and babysitters are available during evening sessions.

In addition to the workshops, Esalen is known for its Arts Center, distinct Massage style, movement and activity programs, and mineral Hot Springs. Esalen produces two catalogs per year covering 500 workshops on diverse topics including writing and visual arts. Here are a couple of examples of courses from the July – December, 2012 catalog:

Writing the Wild led by Marisa Handler, author of Loyal to the Sky, which won a 2008 Nautilus Gold Award for world-changing books. Her essays, journalism, fiction, and poetry have appeared in numerous publications, and she teaches creative writing at Stanford and the California Institute for Integral Studies.

Framing Nature: Photography as Meditation and Mirror led by Andy Abrahams Wilson, an award-winning filmmaker and photographer. Recent projects include the Academy Award semifinalist Under Our Skin and the PBS broadcast The Grove. His focus is using the camera to create a bridge between ourselves and our environment.

Generally, depending on my level of stress it takes up to two days to melt into the Esalen experience. It is for this reason that I recommend at least a five-day workshop, ideally seven-days with a five-day and a three-day workshop.

“Submission Bombers” Organize to Bomb Editors

Submission Bombers, a new group founded by Weave editor Laura Davis, has organized a bunch of writers who all feel marginalized in some way, encouraging them all to submit to the same market at once. The idea of Submission Bombers is to give editors what they claim they do not get: submissions from “the marginalized.”

Read more on Davis’ blog. 

Guest Post: The Secret to Getting Started


I love being a writer.  What I can’t stand is the paperwork. ~ Peter De Vries

If we all felt the way De Vries purports, the world would sorely lack reading material. I believe the great Mark Twain offers a solution to the daunting task we often ascribe to writing and the reason we procrastinate, telling ourselves we’ll do it as soon as we’ve finished X, Y or Z. According to Twain, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”

While Twain’s quote easily applies to myriad goals or projects, I firmly believe his advice also works well when it comes to the writing process as a whole.

I’ve found that for me, it helps to take a good look at the big picture and then put into practice what Twain suggests: break down the seemingly insurmountable goal into doable steps. But even more importantly, each stage must be easily attainable, or I will hesitate to begin the first one.

The following is a model for accomplishing Twain’s solution.

Step #1: Planning

  • Make time to come up with the gist of your story. This may occur through daydreaming, brainstorming or writing organically for a pre-determined length of time, and can take place anywhere you do your best thinking: working out, meditating, hiking or lounging on your chaise.

Step #2: Writing

  • Commit to write a minimum number of words a week. This requires you to put pen (or pencil) to paper, fingers to keyboard, voice to recorder — anything to get a word count somewhere other than the gray matter inside your right brain.
  • Set aside the required number of hours per day, preferably uninterrupted. Accomplish this by removing distractions; i.e., log out of Facebook, instant messaging, Google, Dr. Phil — whatever keeps you from the first part of this step. If you’re the type who’s inspired by a little Beethoven or Pit Bull, by all means turn up the volume on your iPod. Along these lines, don’t underestimate the power of your muse; keep it forefront in your mind (stay tuned for a future post on this concept). The short of it: if an ocean view is what you need to write, then plaster your surroundings with the sights, sounds and smells of a tropical paradise. And if you can bring the real thing to life, all the better.

Step #3: Editing/rewriting

  • Read drafts one at a time, making notes/edits as you go. Try to read your words with new, fresh eyes. Pretend you’re picking the piece up for the first time and gauge your reaction as if you’ve never seen it before. Be critical.
  • Schedule a day or a week to rewrite. This is where a lot of us lose steam. But it’s important to consider this just another part of your “job” as a writer. Take what you’ve edited in the first part of this step and get it done. If you don’t, someone else will.

These manageable steps can be adapted to any writing assignment, such as articles, short stories and blogs. It simply takes an idea and a commitment to see it through.

What is your secret to getting started?

The Blogging Survival Guide: 10 Helpful Hints and Tips

Blogging isn’t as easy as it looks. If you’ve ever tried blogging, you know what I’m talking about. The immediacy and candidness of an internet platform can be both a blessing and a curse. To help you navigate the world of blogging, we’ve compiled a list of 10 blogging tips and tricks from some of our favorite blogging guides, Blogging For Dummies (Susannah Gardner) and Blogging Heroes (Michael A. Banks).

1. Just write anything. This isn’t to say that you should start pouring your heart out for all of the Internet to see, but the best way to overcome writer’s block is just to start writing. Getting something, anything, written down is better than staring at a blank screen and a blinking cursor, even if you think what you’ve written is absolute rubbish. What you write doesn’t have to be good (at least not right away). That’s why they call it a draft.

2. When you’re on a roll, don’t stop. I’ll have some great days where I feel I could write 10,000 words on every subject, and there are other days when I feel I would have difficulty writing my name. Understanding that I have that flexibility to think and creatively write ahead of time gives me a little wiggle room for those days when I am feeling compositionally-challenged. When creativity strikes, keep writing. You can always stockpile posts for another day.

3. Interact with other bloggers. The blogosphere is a great place to create new friends, talk about the things you love, and become inspired. Do you love grilled cheese? Well, there’s probably a blog about that. Commenting on other blogs can not only increase traffic to your blog, but can also lead to some interesting topics. Just don’t forget to be polite. No one likes an Internet troll.

4. Be authentic. Without passion and authenticity, your blog is going to fall flat. Write about something that interests you. Ask yourself if it is something you would want to read, because if you wouldn’t want to read it, neither will your audience.

5. Know your audience. There has been some debate as to whether or not analytic tools are an invasion of privacy. Even here at Superstition Review, we try to keep our readers updated with our latest stats through Google Analytics. Analytic tools do not store personal information. They do, however, allow bloggers to take a closer look at who is frequenting the site, what they’re looking at, how long they linger, and where they’re coming from. These tools are vital in understanding who you’re writing for. With this information, you can tailor your post to better meet the interests of your readership, and scrap ideas that aren’t working.

6. Don’t be afraid to fail. Your blog probably won’t become an overnight success. The best part about blogging is that you can experiment to see what works and what doesn’t. As blogger Scott McNulty advised, “It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s the same as everything else: If you work hard and stick to it, eventually you’ll grow your audience. Of course, if you are interested as I am in a particular subject, you’ll just do it for the love of the subject, and success will usually follow.”

7. Grow a thick skin. Not everyone is going to agree with everything you say and that is okay. What you write, what you think, and what you say will be under constant criticism. Because the Internet is a fairly anonymous platform, commenters will say things that they would never openly say to your face. It is important that you not take these comments personally. Be polite and never go on the defensive. Acknowledge their views and try to take a neutral ground. The chances that you’re going to convince someone they’re wrong is slim to none.

8. Post consistently. Once you build your readership, it is important that you keep them coming back. If you leave your blog dormant for a month or even a few weeks, interest is going to wane quickly. There are thousands of blogs that have been abandoned by their bloggers (can’t you hear their lonely sobbing?). If you don’t post consistently, your readers will think your blog is one of them. Try to make a schedule for yourself. Set goals and stick to them.

9. Cite your sources. Stealing ideas and images is just as bad as running out of Best Buy with a cart of electronics you didn’t pay for. It is okay to draw from other sources as long as you give them credit where it is due.

10. Have fun. Blogging can be a great learning opportunity and a lot of fun. It has opened doors for a lot of people over the past decade and has given voices to writers from every walk of life. Don’t let it overwhelm you.

I highly recommend you check out Blogging Heroes and Blogging For Dummies for more tips and tricks. Their guides have been invaluable to me and a wonderful resource to fall back on when I’m in need of some advice.

4+1 Conference on Literary Translation

I was given the opportunity to attend a 4+1 traduire/übersetzen/tradurre/translatar in Vevey, Switzerland this past March. When I chose Switzerland as the destination for my study abroad program, I thought I knew a thing or two about the country; I knew I would be housed in the French-speaking region, and that the other region was German-speaking. I knew that my favorite French author, Rousseau, was actually born in Geneva.

I was surprised, however, to find out just how much I didn’t know about the world of Swiss literature and writing. For instance, I had no idea that Switzerland has four official languages and that any Swiss author publishes in one language typically has his or her texts translated into the three languages. Many organizations strongly promote this translation of native authors, and, for that purpose, the 4+1 conference was created. The 4+1 conference is held annually and organized by the Swiss Foundation for the Pro Helvetia culture, along with other organizations of similar interests. This year’s conference was dedicated to the English language – promoting both the translation of texts from English and translation of native authors’ work into English.

Discussion was led by prominent British writers Jonathan Coe and Jon Steele with the help of their translators. Well-known Swiss writers publishing in Italian, German, Romansh, French, and in the Swiss-German dialect and notable American translator, John Taylor, were also present. While, in most cases, translators tend to work outside of the spotlight (their names sometimes don’t even appear on the book jacket) a translated work is just as much the translator’s as it is the author’s.

“More than a translation, the work I do is rewrite another version,” translator Donal McLaughlin said at one keynote. Taylor and McLaughlin shared some of the poems they were in the process of translating—work by Clo Duri Bezzola, Pierre Chapuis, and many more. They discussed the obstacles they faced when translating and the rewarding feeling that came from finding the nearly right word that almost has the same nuance as the original—and how in this way a translated poem becomes a version of the original.

One of the most interesting discussions flouted the French title “L’anglais n’existe pas!” or for those of us who don’t speak French, “English doesn’t exist!” Surprisingly,  the amount of people who spoke English as a second language far surpassed the amount of native English speakers. The debate touched on the validity and plausibility of English as a universal, global language.

Interestingly, questions were often asked in French and then answered in English. Within the same panel, the speakers often would converse in  three or four different  languages to each other and to the audience at any given moment. As technology makes our world feel smaller, the possibilities for growth and community within the literary world becomes greater and greater. We have unlimited access to stories from all over the world, and readers who can read our work from every corner of the globe.

 

Advice from Wingbeats Co-Editor, Scott Wiggerman

Wingbeats, photo courtesy of Dos Gatos Press.

If writing better poetry is on your list of New Year’s resolutions, then you’ll want to take a look into Scott Wiggerman and David Meischen’s new book, Wingbeats. Wiggerman and Meischen, an SR contributor from Issue 7, have compiled the wisdom and advice of 58 poets in order to create exercises that showcase the poetry writing process.

As a poet and former Poetry Columnist for the Texas Writer, Scott Wiggerman is no stranger to the world of  poetry. He has conducted a number of workshops for the WLT Poetry Study Group and his work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Wiggerman found he kept returning to poetry staples, like The Practice of Poetry (edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell), for reference, but what he really needed was something new that applied the same variety of techniques. Wiggerman writes that he was looking for something that “combined exercises and essays by poets who actually teach, both academics and non-academics, this time.  Since it didn’t seem to be forthcoming from anywhere, I asked my partner about creating and publishing such a book. I foolishly thought it would be a project that I could handle alone, but David came on board as co-editor almost immediately, thank goodness!”

From the simplest activities to the more involved tasks, Wingbeats provides aspiring poets with exercises along with real poems that show what these look like in action. “We wanted to create a book that poets would actually use, and I wanted a book that would work well for poets both in MFA programs and those, like myself and several of our Wingbeats contributors, who learn the craft of poetry on their own or through the occasional workshop,” wrote Wiggerman.

Wiggerman and Meischen’s new book not only covers standard poetic techniques, but also new strategies for revision, collaboration, and inspiration. If you’re looking for some hands-on experience in writing poetry, Wingbeats is a great resource.

Wiggerman also recommends that aspiring poets seek out workshops and writing groups for guidance: “The absolute best way to learn how to write is to write–and many books or MFA programs can ‘teach’ you this. But it takes feedback as well, and for this, one needs someone to share his or her work with. Of course, it also helps tremendously to read poetry. One of the adages of writing is to ‘show, don’t tell,’ and while Wingbeats does tell, it also shows through poem after poem. It’s the way I like to teach my workshops, letting poems speak for themselves by showing how they’re done.”

You can learn more about Wingbeats on the Dos Gatos Press website or on their new  Facebook page.