Guest Post, Eric Maroney: The Limited, Forever Living Thing

Man Reading Torah“Rabbi Meir said, anyone who engages in Torah study for its own sake (‘lishma’) merits many things”


We are always torn apart. Behind the face we present to the world, there is a fracture. Two rudiments in our nature spar: the craving for control, and the dread of disorder. These opposing states, so closely linked, cause us no small misery, but the dynamic is so much a part of our ingrained habit of thinking that we constantly try, though with little success, to smother it with all manner of distractions.

We frequently wake up early in the morning with a crashing, dawn-clarity in the form of the question: What can I do about some awful problem? What we are really asking above and behind this question, is “can this problem be contained or controlled?” And if not – if the problem can’t be mended – how do we live with our sense that by not resolving this difficulty, and by allowing it to stand shamelessly unresolved, life’s great promise of joy will unravel from its spool? Further refined, we can distill the question to its rock hard core: How do I live with pain, grief, anguish?

We have all encountered such moments. But nothing distresses the quest for control more than a crisis of health. The body lurks, waiting; it conceals sickness under skin, tissue and bone. Beneath the veil of our physical stability, a system bubbles toward disorder. My own crock boiled over when I was twenty-nine and diagnosed with cancer. At a time of life when people typically view mortality though a long lens, my death seemed more immediate. I had no resources to deal with the reality of death: therefore my responses were limited. My mind contracted under the idea of death. My notions were hedged by binary postures: fight, win, move on, or fight, lose, die.

Pressed in this vice, I ultimately found it most reassuring to learn to abandon the notion of continued life. This brought a measure of peace. Death is the ultimate negation – a blunt, inescapable fact. Somewhere on a cosmic script, the conclusion is written in indelible ink: you will die. So by embracing death, by laying down at its feet, I let go of the struggle against its oppressive strain. I was still bound to life, to be certain, but only by sheer threads.

In the first few years after surgeries and treatments, I devalued existence. This attitude worked under a certain set of narrow conditions. But as I expanded my horizons after the disease, this stance evolved into a crisis of conscience. How can we live without embracing life? Clinging to death is a poor long term-solution, for even after the cancer was in remission, there was still the fact that I might die at any moment. Death simmers inside of us. My unbending cheapening of life did not solve the problem of death – it merely postponed it. I had driven myself to the verge of an existential cliff. In order to continue to live, I had to change the mental formula that had been useful since I was diagnosed with cancer – because the thin gruel of indifference to life cannot sustain a flea.

If we face suffering, sickness, depression and death, we can turn to something well beyond us: religion. In the years following a great crisis, I turned to Judaism. But my reason for this move, I believe, veers very far from the common expectation. Religion did not provide me comfort. A Jewish life did not offer me hope of a healthy body as a reward for my virtuous actions, or the recompense of an enchanted afterlife beyond a bodily existence marked by pain and suffering; nor did I seek the protection of a powerful and providential deity who could answer my prayers.

On the contrary, Jewish practice catapulted me beyond the bounds of reward and punishment to a real “space” where my deeds are free from the expectation of reward. This is a crucial point: by practicing Judaism, I can relinquish control to the realm of pure Jewish action. In the language of Judaism I perform the mitzvoth, the Jewish religious requirements, not for any payoff, but, as is said in Hebrew lishma, for and in themselves. This perspective has steered my apathy and indifference into more disciplined channels.

I practice Judaism to practice it. This sounds like an echo, but the seeds of this practice produce sturdy foliage. With Jewish ritual practice detached from reward, I can pursue a goal without the restraints of expectation. My mind and heart practice Judaism’s ritual demands with detachment. Detachment, of course, has pejorative implications – a lack of caring, a stance of aloofness – but it can also emancipate; and in a paradoxical turn, the freedom of detachment can transform our indifference into a more vital, lasting form of care. And the practice of lishma, of doing a deed in and for itself, can be exercised everywhere. By living life lishma, the mind is freed from the stark habit of thinking that the two rudiments in our nature spar: the craving for control and the dread of disorder.

In lishma, we transcend the need to control the events of our lives. Order happens, disorder happens – they are states that come and go and we have no control over either. But no matter what happens, we perform our duty and live life. Our imperative to action is action itself. With patience and practice, even life’s gravest challenges and abrupt transformations become shaded in different hues. Events take on the color of the moment, rather than the stain of our anxiety for specious stability. When we are no longer distracted about the issue of control, we are able to free ourselves from the slavery of expectations. And by doing so, we are able to see ourselves in the light of the singular, precious instant.

Guest Blog Post, Vanessa Blakeslee: Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

Vanessa Blakeslee1. Take care of yourself. Much like the announcements before flights regarding the placing of oxygen masks, you can’t expect to render your characters fully if you’re out of shape and eating poorly. Exercise regularly and eat fresh foods. Caffeinate moderately. Get eight hours of sleep every night. To underestimate the power of the subconscious, the breakthroughs that undoubtedly come from the dream-state and walks in the park, is foolish and undermining of the imagination at work. Never mind that your ability to contribute to the literary canon is severely compromised if you’re sick or dead.

2. Become aware of the effects of environment on your process—and change it up if need be. If you can’t settle in at your desk today, try the couch. If the sun is shining during your writing hours and you can’t stand being inside your apartment one more second, find a park bench or an outdoor café. If you’re in public and one-sided phone conversations keep intruding on your characters’ dialogue, seek out someplace quiet. Go wherever you need to be to enter the fictional dream as completely as you can.

3. Write first drafts in longhand whenever possible. My initial drafts almost always turn out truer to my vision when I’m connected to the physical page through a pen or pencil, thus saving time later during revision. I think there might be scientific data to back this up, but regardless, one obvious benefit is that you are much more apt to cross-out and play with alternative phrasing in the margins and between sentences, etc., sometimes literally question what you may be attempting to say on the page. Whereas in word-processing software, you don’t like a phrase, Delete-delete-delete, and not only is it gone forever, but so is your record of what you were aiming for, even if your initial attempts at grasping for an image or line fell short. When you type up the handwritten pages, you’re composing your second draft—added bonus.

4. Keep questioning the stakes of your premise. Often, at the beginning of a new story or before a revision, I’ll write, “Is this a great story of love and death?” across the top. If the answer is no, then consider how you might approach the premise differently to make it more gripping. If it is a novel, trace the narrative backwards to see where you may have gotten off-track, or strayed from the tension. You may be surprised in going over your drafts at how much of what you may have considered essential is in effect tangential.

5. If you’re stuck or between scenes or sections and uncertain where your protagonist goes next, take a short nap. Again, sometimes a quick dip into the subconscious is just the trick for stirring up new ideas/images. Although you’ll have to wait until you get home if you’re at a coffee shop.

6. That said, sometimes you have to just power through. This is tricky advice to give, when to step away (or nap!) and when to power through, and largely instinctive. But powering-through happens for me after I do a good bit of questioning and jotting down of potential ideas in my notebook regarding where the story needs to go next. There follows the sort of heavy feeling of anticipation, excitement, and despair regarding how I am going to accomplish what is to take place—but all that remains is doing it. That’s when it’s time to log out of Facebook, brew a fresh caffeinated favorite, push ahead, and trust.

7. The Internet/Facebook/Twitter/Etc. Figure out your relationship to it. I love nothing more than perusing for articles on strange happenings and the idiosyncrasies of my friends’ lives; as such, I’m a self-proclaimed Facebook addict. I’ve never been a big procrastinator, either, but when I arrive at my desk I tend to scroll the Facebook newsfeed until I have an overwhelming feeling that I’ve been pummeled enough by everyone’s happenings and achievements, and am then happily driven to the page and my inner world. In between scenes or sections and when I take a snack break, I will often log back on. Sometimes I go to coffee shops because although I have a smart phone, I am much less likely to be distracted by the Internet when I have actually driven somewhere and purchased menu items with precious dollars. Only you can figure out how to balance the work/Internet pull.

8. Learn to trust and develop your gut instincts regarding your work, and others’ critique of it. True, you’ll always be too close to it, because you’re the creator. And there will always be some voices ringing out in workshop that are way off for your vision of the story, your aesthetic, etc. But then there will be some who are right on, whose searing feedback or advice matches the quiver in your middle when you hold the draft up before your eyes. Better to have a handful—even one—of these voices in your corner than none. Cherish such readers, yet also keep in mind that someone who may have resonated deeply with a previous project of yours may not have the same relationship with the next one. Have the courage to seek out fresh eyes.

9. Realize the value of your work—because if you don’t value it, why should others? Delegate as many nonessential, non-writing tasks to whatever degree you can—to agents, interns, teenage children/siblings, eager grad students, etc. If you’ve got a $50,000 a year teaching gig, hire a maid service to clean your house once or twice a month so you can invest in those precious days off to write. Figure out which holidays you prefer to celebrate with family and which ones you can skip to attend a writers’ colony, or borrow a friend’s cabin in the woods for a couple of weeks.

10. Meditate on your death every day. This meditation will usually be fleeting and hardly morbid—but certain, yes. You are going to die. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, or six months down the road. Then again, maybe today. All that will be left of your essence in this life will be what you’ve left behind, written down. Is what you have to say essential? If not, how to make it so? Most everything pertaining to the craft of writing can be boiled down to those two questions.

Guest Blog Post, Caroline Knox: On her Poem “Singing in Yoghurt”

Singing in Yoghurt Caroline Knox

Singing in yoghurt – chanter en yaourt
An ignocent pretends to get you through this:
Oh, it’s Pas de lieu Rhône connu
It’s Paddle your own canoe.
Pas de lieu Rhône connu?
No place known in Rhône? WHAT?

“There was a hypoon, and the ship went underboard.”
So I go “Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet.
You need an ignocent.
Yoghurt on the macaroni.
Or macaroni on the yoghurt.

From Flemish, copyright 2013 by Caroline Knox. Reprinted with permission of Wave Books and the author (http://www.wavepoetry.com/products/flemish)

“Singing in Yoghurt” is a short poem about the use of language; it also acts as and sounds like a song. Recently when I read it I got this audience question: How did you put the poem together? The answer is that the five ingredients in the poem are examples of the sort of activity that I try to put into poetry. They all belong together. The poem got written fast. It tries to remind us that we don’t always know just what we’re writing about or singing about, and that this may not be a bad thing. Here are the ingredients.

1. I had been reading a wonderful book, The Secret Life of Words, by Henry Hitchings (New York, 2008, 337). Hitchings describes a global trend and practice of poets and songwriters called singing in yoghurt – chanter en yaourt. Poets compose in their own languages, but they include words from other languages, even though they may not know exactly what the words mean. They don’t care, they like it. It sounds beautiful, cool, sophisticated, original. This seems to me endearing and healthy.

2. A friend of mine was asked to be a museum docent. She did all her homework, but she left some things out and got some facts wrong. She declared herself an ignocent.

3. My middle-school French teacher wrote this on the board:

Pas de lieu Rhône connu

and she made the whole class say it very fast. It sounded stupid and it was – it’s nonsense in French, but it’s just fine in English: Paddle your own canoe!

4. I was driving a carpool of little kids. The girl next to me in the front seat (she had never seen the ocean) was telling me the plot of a Disney movie. She said, “There was a hypoon, and the ship went underboard.” Marvelous girl! Two brand new words – hypoon and underboard – full of drama and fear.

5. Up to here I’ve been praising new, ingenious, and nutty uses of language. I conclude the poem with Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet. The speaker is saying this, but as all typesetters and graphics people know, the phrase is a scumbled piece of written Latin which has come to mean “This is where the content in our text will go, as soon as we get it. Please be patient.” It’s a practical, charming, and generous work custom – I wish all professions could be so thoughtful! And finally, macaroni is combined with yoghurt because macaronic poetry is a form which uses two languages.

Bellevue Literary Review: Prizes in Poetry and Prose Due July 1

Three prizes of $1,000 each and publication in Bellevue Literary Review are given annually to a poet, a fiction writer, and a creative nonfiction writer for works about health, healing, illness, the body, and the mind.

Using the online submission system, submit up to three poems totaling no more than five pages or up to 5,000 words of prose with a $15 entry fee (a $20 entry fee includes a subscription to Bellevue Literary Review) by July 1. See Contest Guidelines

Deadline: July 1, 2012

Website: http://www.blreview.org

E-mail address: stacy@blreview.org

Guest Post, Frances Lefkowitz on Frances Lefkowitz

franceslefkowitzFrances Lefkowitz is the author of To Have Not, named one of five “Best Memoirs of 2010” by SheKnows.com. It’s the story of growing up poor in San Francisco in the ’70s, going to the Ivy League on scholarship, and discovering the downside of upward mobility. Her stories and articles are published in The Sun, Tin House, Blip, Utne Reader, Good Housekeeping, Whole Living, Health, GlimmerTrain Stories,  and more. She has received honorable mention twice for the Pushcart Prize and once for Best American Essays. Frances now lives, and surfs, in Northern California.

 

Frances

Let’s start with the obvious question. How can you call these things essays? They read more like prose poems or flash fiction.

Frances

I let other people decide what they are, where they should be shelved. I’m not trying to cause trouble or blur borders, but right now my writing is coming out in little blocks of text that tell a story and some of those stories are true and some are made up. The two pieces in this issue, “Mine Sounded Like an Earthquake” and “Thorns” are true stories, which, I guess is another way of saying “essay.” And since they’re about me, we could even call them “micro memoir” or “personal essaylettes” or . . . ?

Frances

Do you ever get accused of being a poet?

Frances

Occasionally, but I always deny it. Recently I read at an event with Ishmael Reed; he approached me afterward and asked if he could publish one of my “poems.” I was honored but confused. Part of the reason I don’t think I qualify as a poet is that I know so little about poetic forms, and the old-fashioned nitpicker in me feels that a real poet should be able to write a cinquain or villanelle—or at least be able to recognize them.

Frances

OK, enough about categories. Let’s talk about self-absorption. As the author of a memoir (To Have Not), numerous personal essays, these new micro-memoirs, and now an interview with yourself, how can you defend against this charge?

Frances

For the record, I would like to point out that at least my fiction is not thinly-veiled autobiography. When I make things up, they’re not about me. Otherwise, my defense is that I see myself as a sort of Everywoman. So it’s not that my hobbies or heartbreaks are more interesting or important than anyone else’s. It’s that they are in many ways representative. I never called my book a memoir (here we go again with categories) until the publisher labeled it so. But I still describe it as not so much about me as about my take on the world. I use myself as a guinea pig, to explore how money, say, or lust, or geology, or striving, or other facts of life play out on a person trying to make it in this world.

Frances

Sounds lofty.

Frances

Nah, it’s just telling stories.

Frances

So you don’t set out to write about a social or psychological issue? In “Thorns,” for example, did you start with the idea to write about how love fades, and how the fight against that fading leads some people to extremes?

Frances

Not at all. I don’t start with an idea at all. I start with the urge to tell a story. Sometimes I don’t even start with that much; I just have a voice that’s demanding to speak, and the story unfolds as I let her speak. Later I can switch brains and see a theme or statement, but at the time I’m just following urgency. But the urgency is there precisely because the feeling or situation is universal and compelling, is much larger than myself.

Frances

So, write the story, then see what it’s about.

Frances

I couldn’t have said it better myself.