Sunday, March 22, 2009

Dragons at my Desk

Writing groups often jump start participants with prompts. Here’s a response I wrote a few years back to the prompt “dramatize what gets in the way of your writing.”
At least it fills the “dramatic” bill…hope you enjoy it.

Why, when I sit at my desk to write, do other tasks suddenly flood my mind with their seeming importance? Why didn’t I notice the drooping plant before I sat down? It’s a rare quiet day, a great opportunity and yet I recognize the familiar approach of the dragon of distraction. Dragons can be fought…“Today is the only day I’ve got,” I cry, as I wave my pen in the air.

I push the telephone and its temptation to the farthest edge of my desk and straighten an empty page. It was Saint Augustine who said, “God has promised forgiveness to your repentance; but He has not promised tomorrow to your procrastination.”
For uncounted moments I hear nothing but the steady scratching of my pen.

But small dragons come quietly and wait for their advantage. One perched rather near asks seemingly innocuous questions about the unpolished and incomplete state of my novel. It’s true; my manuscript is nothing more than a very rough draft. In the increasing heat of this critic’s breath, I grow weary but I know dragons can be fought. I remember a quip from Jane Smiley, her words glitter like a small shining shield. “Every first draft is perfect because all a first draft has to do is exist…”

With another of my dragons, if not vanquished, at least thwarted for the moment, I rustle my pile of unbound leaves, feeling content with the sheer number of pages, with their simple existence. They are safe from the flaming mouth that would have set them afire. My story exists, that’s enough for now. Polishing and completion will come. Why I’ve even got a little heat of my own. I feel content. The mountain of memory within me has heated and rumbled with creative tension and flowed forth like lava sending the dragons reeling back from the molten river’s flow.

But later, when I return to walk through the cooled written landscape, when the lava is but rock and ash, I find what seemed like the weight of tons inexplicably light and airy. It is but pumice dispersed over a bewildering terrain. I see how small and inconsequential the lumps that I am strong enough to pick up at any one time appear in the grand scheme. I myself can barely define a path through the landscape of my manuscript. I again grow aware of the heavy thumping that heralds the return of dragons.

“You’ve probably missed the point,” says a small sharp-tongued dragon.

“Or lost sight of the larger picture,” says another, circling about the cooling valley of my manuscript. “And what will it matter, anyway?”

I look down at my small hands and realize what sharp stuff it is that I am handling, how it can tear at my flesh, and suddenly it seems very inadvisable to go on, barefoot as I am. Perhaps the heat of my creativity has produced nothing but dust and rubble. I know, as Andrew Jackson advised, I shouldn’t take counsel from my fear.

But I retreat from the pen. I pick up a book, For Writer’s Only by Sophy Burnham, an annotated compilation of the angst, struggles and advice of many authors. I read John’s Hersey’s comment, “To be a writer is to throw away a good deal...” Hey, if that’s the criteria, I’m well on my way. And as I laugh at myself, the struggle is over for a while; what kind of self-respecting dragon would want to hang around and pick on a writer like me? ~~~~~

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Jazz of Bailouts

I try to keep up in current events, I really do. But sometimes reading the economic news tires me out. My husband attempted to rouse me from my accidental nap on the couch asking me what “heuristic” might mean in the sentence, “Jazz improvisation is a heuristic process.”
“The dictionary is on my desk.”
“But can you just remind me what heuristic means? Do you know?" he asked very nicely.
“Um, figure it out,” I said, throwing the paper to the floor.
“You're right,” he said, already in the dictionary, “heuristic implies figuring it out, or exploratory problem solving.”
“Ah," I said.
Sounds more like current economic theories than music to my ears. America is exploring what will happen if we borrow to spend our way back to financial solvency. Will it work? No body knows. It's heuristic heroics in action.

Heuristics, the word and the theories are worth study. It comes from the Greek to discover and is akin to the Old Irish for "I have found," and gives us the word "eureka," which Archimedes is said to have exclaimed when he discovered a method for determining the purity of gold. In the 1849 California Gold Rush miners often cried out “Eureka” when they found gold. A quaint town in northern California carries Eureka as its name today.

Gold mining brings us right back to speculation and it is speculation that a heuristic process uses to serve as a guide in the investigation or solution of a problem. The goal, of course, is to learn through a series of subsequent discoveries or findings. Hang onto to this premise about serial learning, it's important.

In Computer Science, heuristic can refer to using a problem-solving technique in which the most appropriate solution of several, found by alternative methods, is selected at successive stages of a program for use in the next step of the program.
Heuristic is also likened to a rule of thumb. It's a simplification or educated guess that reduces or limits the search for solutions in domains that are difficult and poorly understood. "Difficult, poorly understood," we are in the right key and scale for the economic woes.

Heuristic also implies providing aid in the solution of a problem with aid that is otherwise unjustified or incapable of justification. How do you say "bingo" in Jazz lingo?

The antonym is algorithmic; a commonsense rule (or set of rules) intended to increase the probability of solving some problem.

So our government efforts to solve the economic meltdown in America seem to fit a definition frenetically heuristic. Unlike algorithms, heuristics do not guarantee optimal, or even feasible solutions and are often used with no theoretical guarantee. Doesn't that define the economic solutions we've seen thus far fairly well?

I hope the powers that be will at least wait to observe some actual intended consequences of the $700 billion TARP and the $825 Billion Stimulus, before deciding we should borrow anymore from the future. If the first exploratory efforts don't work, how would that indicate we should print or borrow more money? And shouldn't we have voice? Maybe you'll send your elected representatives a jazzy note of your harmonic discord soon.

Plein Air ~ for Harriet ~

He was late again. What was she going to do with these feelings? What would it be like to not censor myself at all, she wondered as she plucked up a soft camel hair brush off his watercolor table. She imagined how he’d scream if he saw her using it to flit the thin patina of dust off the quiet black telephone. She watched the motes drift in the golden shaft of sun pouring through the skylight. What if his myriad rebuffs, hidden in shadows and turnings, were spotlighted like one of his young voluptuous models? What if she announced them each as duly noted? Was she willing to pay the price?

There was no changing the rules he lives by, that was clear. All she’d said last week was, “ I’m concerned about our relationship.” She only wanted to open up avenues, not make the going more awkward. But within moments everything had crashed and there’d been wreckage in the streets of communion and long after the initial commotion it seemed like horns were blowing and no matter what color the lights strung above the intersection, she could get nowhere.

“If you were more secure you wouldn't even come up with these ideas,” he said. “I don’t want to hear it. An artist must be free.”

And what must an artist’s wife be, she wondered? For days afterward she had been determined to be pleasant and stay in the moment, as he loved to say. But this afternoon, watching the clock mark hours he’d promised to her, she wanted the thoughts and feelings that rumbled disconnected within her to plug into her life. She wanted the surges of power that arced though her mind to light a path for her. She wanted the parts connected to the whole.

She heard his car turn in. She looked at the thin gold watch on her wrist and the way the sun lit the yellow hair on her trim tan arm. It was almost two o’clock and he’d asked her to meet him at noon.

He came in whistling, holding out a canvas. He brought the smell of a wild field and the oils of the drying pigments with him. Unbidden she felt a rush of tenderness for him; he really had been painting.

“I tried calling you but my cell wouldn’t work. Lookie here. The light was so fantastic in the canyon as the noon sun penetrated the forest. I had to capture it. Do you like it?” He held it out at the just the right angle for her to see what he had painted. Light streamed like liquid though a fragile canopy and tenderly lit the creek in Rocky Canyon.

Color by color, stroke by stroke, it was all of a piece. There’s no point in talking about us today, she thought. He’s so pleased with himself. He’ll accuse me of making a scene. “It’s beautiful,’ she said, barely able to trust her voice. “You really capture it. Your work gets better and better.”

He smiled. “You think so?”

“So what do you want to do now?” she asked, wondering if he could hear the little edges of her words as they caught on her throat.

“Why I must clean up. And then I’m hungry,” he said. “I’m quite hungry. You know how a day of plein air piques my appetite.”

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Are you Writing a Book for Me?

I love to read. I read to meet other persons whose struggles and visions and response to life give strength to the day. I read to meet friends in the pages of other times and places. I read to travel where my feet may not go in this lifetime.

I long for stories that I could unabashedly hand to my daughters and say, read this, it will help you on your journey.

I read stories and look for the tangle of threads that is about to become smooth and woven, stories that shimmer with transcendence and penetrate the day’s complexities in all their shadings.

I look for books that I could gladly hand to my husband; stories that know that man and woman do share interior realities and that the trail home usually does involve a Hansel and a Gretel, bread and stones.

I love to find stories that have explored beyond the magnetic polarities, which don’t paint human faces on the enemy and yet, foible by folly reveal how we trip and fell ourselves.

And sometimes I ask myself what keeps me from writing such a story myself? Is the part of me that doesn't yet write busy learning or busy unlearning? There’s the knowledge of how truly little one knows, and the caution for the world doesn’t need more stories unless love increases. Like Hippocrates oath of old, I must first do no harm.

What I haven’t written sometimes feels larger and harder than the tender vessels in which it needs to be, in the very blood of my life, decanted.

But maybe you’re writing a book for me.