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Japanese culture: poetic aesthetics, artistry, and martial arts, inspired me to write haiku and tanka

January 9, 2021

Discovering and writing haiku and tanka

Many years ago, at a local bookstore I used to frequent, I came across a profound little poem on a poster with a beautiful image from nature. The name of the poet, Kiyo, appeared under the poem. It may have been the first type of Japanese poetry I’d ever read, in English translation of course. I had discovered haiku—a 3-line poem of 5-7-5 syllables respectively. I had written it down and recently found it. Here it is.

Softly unfolding,
Beauty awakens each heart
to wonder … to life.

I’d never heard of Kiyo. Did a search and found Ungo Kiyo (1582–1659), a Japanese Rinzai Zen master and poet. Couldn’t find any more poetry, just a quote on enlightenment in an antique book of calligraphy.

Even though we can’t adequately translate haiku into English due to the syntactical differences of a pictorial language, an important aspect of it was explained to me by a Japanese TM teacher I had met on an international course. Haiku was part of his educational upbringing. They usually have a seasonal reference. To be effective, the first 2 lines describe something in nature, but the 3rd line brings in another element that causes the mind to skip a beat, have an ‘aha’ moment of realization.

Kiyo’s beautiful short poem inspired me to start writing haiku and then tanka, a 2-stanza poem combining haiku with 2 lines of 7 syllables each. The second part would continue the theme of the first part, but give it a slightly new angle. In olden times, the Japanese court poets used to compete with each other in rounds of tanka called renga, linked verses.

I wrote my first haiku after a walk-and-talk about relationships with a lady friend. I noticed a furry caterpillar crawling on the ground. It became the metaphor for a poem on commitment and spiritual transformation.

Transformed

Caterpillars spin
increments of commitment;
Butterflies fly free!

I wrote many haiku and tanka over the years. I even wrote Haiku on The Nature of Haiku, which was very meta. These first 4 haiku—Defined, Discovered, Transformed, Translated—were among the 13 Ways to Write Haiku: A Poet’s Dozen, published in The Dryland Fish, An Anthology of Contemporary Iowa Poets.

Five Haiku, selected from The Dryland Fish; Cold Wet Night, a tanka; and Poetry—The Art of the Voice, a poem; were published in This Enduring Gift—A Flowering of Fairfield Poetry. The University of Iowa’s “Iowa Writes” program also published Five Haiku on The Daily Palette.

Defined

3 lines, 2 spaces,
17 feet to walk thru;
then,   the unending

Discovered

a poem unfolds
as words take their place in line
this one’s a haiku

Translated
(Inspired by Gareth Jones–Roberts’ painting “Egrets in Morning Light”)

on the edge of space
two egrets in morning light
woken from a dream

I recently came across a poem I had written a while ago, but never posted it. A photograph of cranes flying in a snowstorm inspired this Japanese Haiku.

Red-crowned cranes in Akan National Park, Hokkaido, Japan. Photograph by Vincent Munier. Click on image to enlarge it.

Three Japanese cranes
Soar above trees in snowstorm
Grace under pressure

Tanka on the Japanese art of kintsugi

I discovered other aspects of Japanese culture, which inspired tanka poems. Click on the titles below for more information and images.

The first is about kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold or silver lacquer thereby making it appear more beautiful than the original. Robert Yellin had tweeted an image of a repaired bowl to show this art, which is how I discovered it.

kintsugi tanka

kintsukuroi
turning obstacles into
opportunities

life’s lessons build character
what was broken is now whole

The Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs selected Robert to introduce Japanese craftsmen to the world in a special documentary, Takumi: Japan’s artisan tradition. Because of his expertise, Robert became a cultural ambassador. His film inspired people from all over the world to visit the country, and helped boost Japanese tourism.

How Robert ended up in Japan is revealed in the documentary film, Jerry’s Last Mission, about his father, Jerry Yellin, who was the last WWII fighter pilot, an author, and proponent of TM for veterans with PTSD.

Tanka on the Japanese martial art of Aikido

On a visit to see my son in California, I wrote this tanka after watching his Aikido teacher demonstrate how to defend oneself from attack. She stood in one spot and effortlessly deflected the repeated charges from her students. It was mesmerizing! It took me a while to process what I had seen before writing the poem. I had emailed it to my son to read to her on her birthday. A volunteer at the dojo found the poem and posted it with a photo of a leaning tree as a screensaver on the office computer. It’s beautiful. Click the title and scroll down to see it.

My Son’s Sensei

Rooted to the ground
She repels her attackers
Flowing, not moving.

In storms, trees bear great burdens
Bending, not breaking.

Two tree tanka

Speaking of trees, this tanka is from the perspective of a willow tree. Click the title to see a photo of a special one, and links to audio clips of me reading the poem on different media platforms.

Willow Tree
An Overflowing Fountain of Green

Willow Tree Whispers
People say … Weeping Willow
But I’m not crying

Just bowing down … to the Earth
Kissing the ground … with my leaves

Another tree tanka resulted when I saw the willow that inspired the previous poem, and the honey locust next to it, intertwined on top! They were on each side of the entrance to the place I was living in at the time.

Friendship

Trees like to hold hands
Bending branches to link leaves
They forge deep friendships

Swaying with the wind—they dance
Under the moonlight—romance

A two-haiku relationship poem

When it comes to a committed relationship, this two-haiku poem turned out to be prophetically true.

COMMITTED

when the tide rolls in
bows of boats bump each other
tethered to the dock

with our ups and downs
we remain tied together
solid as a rock

© Ken Chawkin

See more haiku and tanka archived on The Uncarved Blog.

Suggested Reading

Jane Hirshfield’s 29-page essay about the life and poetry of Matsuo Bashō—recognized as a master of concise, compelling Japanese haiku—is worth reading. The Heart of Haiku was named “Best Kindle Single of 2011.” It was the first Kindle I ever bought, and described it in a post, Haiku on The Heart of Haiku, with links to interviews and more.

Author and translator Harold Stewart‘s essay On Haiku and Haiga in A Net of Fireflies: Japanese Haiku and Haiku Paintings, was very edifying.

This classic was recommended to me: Unknown Craftsman by Soetsu Yanagi. I see it’s been updated and illustrated by Bernard Leach and Soetsu Yanagi: The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty.

Although not Japanese, Creativity and Taoism: A Study of Chinese Philosophy, Art, and Poetry by Chang Chung-yuan was also worth reading. A 2nd Edition is now available. I reference the Taoist concept of the uncarved block explaining How The Uncarved Blog got its name.

Fairfield, Iowa is one of the 25 coolest towns in America to visit in 2021 writes @MatadorNetwork

January 4, 2021

December 29, 2020 The Matador Team published a list of The 25 coolest towns in America to visit in 2021. Here is their opening paragraph.

2020 has been like a giant magnifying glass for our country, our cities, and ourselves. The devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to reevaluate our priorities and examine what it is about travel that makes us all love it so much — and miss it when that privilege is taken away from us. It’s not the perks of an airport lounge or the Instagram likes you get on a vacation selfie. It’s the people and the places where we can connect with each other — be it with our travel companions or complete strangers.

To read the rest of the introduction and discover these towns click here. Matador Network ranked our town of Fairfield, Iowa as number 3!

3. Fairfield, Iowa

Population: 10,216

Photo: Paul Delisle / Fairfield Convention and Visitors Bureau

Half Sedona vibes, half Asheville vibes, Fairfield, Iowa, is a hard-to-describe kind of place. For starters, out of cornfields and swaths of soybeans pops up the world’s largest training center for the Transcendental Meditation technique. Start-ups and small tech companies dot the 10,000-person town. The first Carnegie library outside of Pennsylvania stands two blocks from a vegetarian restaurant and a synagogue. You cannot categorize the Midwest, hard as the powers that be may try, and you certainly cannot categorize Fairfield.

The Maharishi International University — which explains the whole meditation bit — started drawing eclectic crowds here in the ‘70s; they traded Santa Barbara, California, for somewhere out of the way, even by Iowans’ standards, and the town’s eclectic fate was sealed. The crowds they drew, though, became the permanent kind; tourism isn’t a huge driver here, as showcased by the hotel offerings. That is, you may find yourself setting up shop at the Quality Inn. For now, at least. At this rate (it’s one of the fastest-growing spots in the state), the boutique hotels and retro lodges will come.

Don’t let that set your expectations, though. Today you have a bustling village that drools over both Casey’s pizza and Istanbul Grill; that designs its storefronts for sustainability (here’s to you, Chickadee); that grew a tech scene called “Silicorn Valley”; that alights with funky coffeehouses, art galleries, and cideries (cheers to Jefferson County Ciderworks); and that throws one hell of a First Friday. Realistically, there is not a quintessential Fairfield experience — the thing to do here is simply to shatter your own presuppositions. And then meditate on it.

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A few of the many media outlets that have visited Fairfield over the years to feature or rank us in their top lists are: US News and World Report, BuzzFeed, The Smithsonian, The Des Moines Register, The Iowan, William Shatner’s TV show Moving America Forward, and even Oprah, who brought her film crew to feature us in her Next Chapter on OWN.

Good Medicine Haiku: Take quality time for yourself as this crazy year comes to a close

December 28, 2020

December 29, 2020, my son Nathanael emailed to say he was planning to go offline and take some downtime to close out this crazy year. I sent him this haiku, and he replied: GOOD MEDICINE. I used it as the title.

Good Medicine Haiku

Trust inner feelings
Let go; settle in silence
Honor your essence

© Ken Chawkin

So if you’re wanting to forget 2020 ever happened and are looking to refresh for 2021, think of this Good Medicine Haiku as a prescription to take a much-needed, guilt-free time-out. Try a digital diet, meditate, go within—take quality time for yourself. We owe it to ourselves. Peace out.

Wishing you a Happy Holidays, regardless of dietary restrictions! Enjoy the gift of laughter.

December 25, 2020

Laughter is the best gift we can give each other during these stressful times. A friend sent out several humorous videos with holiday wishes. One, to me, was the funniest. It reminded me of earlier times around the family dinner table. Maybe not as extreme, but that’s where the humor lies, by making us laugh at ourselves through exaggeration.

Here’s the hilarious short video CBC Comedy posted from 22 Minutes: How to deal with dietary restrictions at Christmas dinner. Catering Christmas dinner to everyone’s diet can be a difficult task these days. Luckily, there are some easy solutions.

Enjoy your holidays, with or without family. Hopefully, next year will be a better one for us all. For more laughs, see: Good cartoons teach us a lot if we’re willing to learn and laugh at our little foibles and neuroses.

Being in Nature—a gift from a tree

December 6, 2020

We often hear about the the benefits of being in nature. I remembered an experience I had with a tree when I went for a winter walk with a friend on the University Endowment Lands in Vancouver during the mid-1990s. I’ve now updated that blog post with what had happened and how a poem came to be written around 25 years ago. The post contains links to other poems written about trees, and advice from Mary Oliver.

The Uncarved Blog

We often hear about the the benefits of being in nature. I remembered an experience I had with a tree when I went for a winter walk with a friend on the University Endowment Lands in Vancouver during the mid-1990s.

I stopped in front of a particular tree to admire its intricate bark structure up close. I felt a ray of loving attention come from the tree into my heart-mind with these words: “the realness of natural things, the nearness of you.” It was an unexpected intimate experience and I quickly wrote the words down for further exploration. The next morning, I rewrote them as a two-line stanza, and then sequential stanzas naturally unfolded sharing its wisdom. It was as if I had been given a creative seed and it sprouted into a poem.

This gift from the tree was much appreciated. The experience reiterated what Mary Oliver described in…

View original post 321 more words

William Stafford prescribed creative writing to find your own voice and reveal your inner light

November 30, 2020

One of the first books of poetry I ever bought for myself was You Must Revise Your Life by William Stafford. It was part of The University of Michigan Press series of Poets on Poetry. His poems, essays and interviews on writing, teaching, and performing were a revelation!

I was discovering the writing process at the time and how to facilitate it, and found Stafford’s poems and his thoughts on the teaching of writing poetry to be very relevant. Here are a few that caught my attention: When I Met My Muse, You and Art, Ask Me, and A Course in Creative Writing.

I reread his poem, Rx Creative Writing: Identity, and decided to include it.

Rx Creative Writing: Identity
By William Stafford

You take this pill, a new world
springs out of whatever sea
most drowned the old one,
arrives like light.

Then that bone light belongs
inside of things. You touch
or hear so much yourself
there is no dark.

Nothing left but what Aquinas
counted: he—touched, luminous—
bowed over sacred worlds, each one
conceived, then really there—

Not just hard things: down on
a duck as real as steel.
You know so sure there burns
a central vividness.

It tells you;
all you do is tell about it.

This poem was also later included in The Way It Is, New & Selected Poems. The last poem he wrote the day he would die introduces the book. You can read it in this blog post: William Stafford’s last poem now seemed prophetic—an unintended literary epitaph.

There is a quote on the back cover of You Must Revise Your Life taken from an earlier compilation of his, Writing the Australian Crawl: Views on the Writer’s Vocation. It epitomizes Stafford’s approach to writing.

A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.

As part of their Poets on Poetry series, The University of Michigan Press published four books of Stafford’s collections of prose and poetry on the writing profession, the poetics of a new generation. Writing the Australian Crawl was the first, followed by You Must Revise Your Life. The third and fourth volumes, published posthumously, were: Crossing Unmarked Snow: Further Views on the Writer’s Vocation and The Answers Are Inside the Mountains: Meditations on the Writing Life.

I also very much enjoyed reading the biography written by his son Kim, Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford. The lines from his most profound and favorite poem, The Way It Is, were used as chapter headings. I’ve posted more of his poems on The Uncarved Blog.

Stafford and other trailblazers of the writing process are mentioned in this related blog post: The perils of praise or blame for young writers. New ways to help students find their own voice.

I was naturally influenced by what I was reading and experiencing at the time. Some of my first inspired attempts were very meta, commentaries on Writing—a poem on the writing process, and Sometimes Poetry Happens: a poem about the mystery of creativity.

New York poet laureate Mary Howe’s experience captured in her poem, Annunciation, and her conversations with On Being’s Krista Tippett and The Millions’ Alex Dueben, reveal a profound understanding of how poetry vividly comes to and through us.

Entrepreneur @SigurdVedal and #TM teacher Lakos Antal discuss how to build a better life

November 15, 2020

Doug Rexford sent me a link to an interview on The Sigurd Vedal Show. Sigurd Verdal is an American-Norwegian tech entrepreneur, successful multi-business owner, investor, and CEO of Vedal Media Group. Sigurd invited his TM teacher, Lakos Antal, on his show for a lively discussion on how to build a better life with Transcendental Meditation. The names of the host and his guest were unfamiliar to me, but as soon as I saw and heard the TM teacher speak, I recognized him as Tony.

Sigurd Vedal interviews Tony Antal: How to build a better life with Transcendental Meditation.

I had met Tony, as we knew him, and his friend Peter, around 20 years ago on an international TM course for men in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. They were friendly young TM teachers from Hungary who had worked on international projects. Coincidentally, years later, Peter had become a student here at MIU, married a fellow student, had a son, and is now completing his doctoral thesis on a TM research study.

Tony had learned TM in high school when he was 15. Within 3 weeks he noticed it gave him added energy and clarity of mind. He was a straight ‘A’ student and was expected to follow his family’s tradition of becoming a medical doctor. During his first year of medical school Tony would come to realize that the medical profession only dealt with treating diseases, not preventing them.

Becoming a TM teacher instead of a doctor

After a year of medical college Tony felt it really wasn’t what he wanted to do with his life and followed his heart’s desire instead to become a TM teacher. Turns out it was the right decision for him. One of the things he did was give Introductory talks to medical students. Many of them started as they needed something to help them deal with the stressful challenges of their chosen profession.

Interestingly, Stritch School of Medicine, affiliated with Loyola University Chicago, was the first to make TM available as an elective course. It’s been part of the medical curriculum for four years now. See The first Transcendental Meditation elective course offered at a major US medical school. Two years ago the Catholic Health Association of the United States published an excellent report on the program in Catholic Health World: Medical students learn meditation to counter stress, promote physician wellness.

Tony told Sigrud that when he was a student in Budapest, meditation was a foreign concept. Today, millions of people of all ages and backgrounds around the world have learned to meditate, including famous celebrities who praise the benefits of TM. With hundreds of scientific studies verifying its efficacy, TM is part of wellness programs and recommended by doctors to patients with high blood pressure and other stress-related diseases. TM has been shown to help veterans suffering from PTSD.

I emailed some questions to Tony and he said he taught TM to Sigurd in August. Since Sigrud has business ties to Hungary, the interview took place in his Budapest apartment. They had both tested negative for COVID before they got together. Sigurd shared how TM has helped him to maintain a more even perspective in stressful situations, and that he is now able to fall asleep without the aid of sleeping pills.

Sigrud asked Tony some practical questions prompting him to go into more detail, which he did by sketching his ideas out on paper. They also edited in graphs and animated sequences illustrating Tony’s points, as well as video footage of people meditating in different situations.

Meeting with the president of Hungary

One story Sigrud really wanted Tony to share was his interaction with TM founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at the end of his TM Teacher Training Course. Based on Tony’s answer to a particular question, Maharishi suggested that he contact the president of his homeland, Hungary, with a solution to his governmental problems. Maharishi even gave Tony a message to relay to the president on his behalf! How such an improbable meeting could occur, and how the president would respond to the presentation and Maharishi’s personal message were beyond Tony.

Listen to how it all unfolded, halfway through their conversation. It reveals a fascinating insight into the workings of leadership and collective consciousness—the highlight of this discussion for me. Tony told me that the story about the president made him realize that the government is really just an innocent mirror of the collective consciousness of the nation, as Maharishi had taught us. He explained the mechanics of this concept to Sigurd in the podcast video.

Jerry’s Last Mission was not just in WW2; he later helped bring peace to today’s troubled veterans

November 11, 2020

This week, Nov 9-13, 2020, is ‘Jerry Fest’, a 5-Day free, Sneak-Peak Screening and Virtual Celebration of Veteran’s Day, honoring the life of Jerry Yellin with the release of a new documentary film, ‘Jerry’s Last Mission’.

Here is a press release that was sent out announcing this week’s activities: Ed Cunningham Announces David Lynch Foundation and Regnery History to Host ‘Jerry Fest’. 5-Day Virtual Festival Celebration of Veteran’s Day and WW2 Fighter Pilot will include free screenings of the Feature Documentary ‘Jerry’s Last Mission’ and Q&A sessions with the filmmakers.

The two virtual Q&A sessions take place on Veteran’s Day, Wednesday, Nov. 11 at 8 pm ET hosted by Regnery Publishing, and on Thursday, Nov. 12 at 8 pm ET hosted by the David Lynch Foundation. Both will include Yellin’s family, producers Ed Cunningham and Melissa Hibbard, and director Louisa Merino. Check the film’s website for zoom links. 

The film’s website is www.jerryslastmission.com and the social media addresses are facebook.com/jerryslastmission, @jerrys_last_mission_film on Instagram and @jerrylastmiss1 on Twitter. The film’s distribution rights are represented by Scott Kaplan of Domino Content (www.dominocontent.com).

The NJArts wrote a great article about the film in time for Veteran’s Day: War and inner peace: Moving documentary ‘Jerry’s Last Mission’ available for free viewing. [PDF] Here’s the film’s trailer.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, a young Jerry Yellin signed up to become a fighter pilot. He flew P-51 missions over Iwo Jima, including the last official bombing raid of the war over Japan. He was the only one left in his squadron to survive. He returned home a hero, but suffered for decades from what is now known as PTSD. Thanks to his wife, Helene, Jerry learned the Transcendental Meditation (TM) technique, which transformed his life.

Decades later, when Jerry heard about the high rate of suicides among today’s veterans, he inspired the David Lynch Foundation to start Operation Warrior Wellness, which provided scholarships for veterans and their families to learn Transcendental Meditation.

So Jerry’s last mission was not only at the end of WW2, but also decades later during the latter part of his life, when he made it possible for American veterans of foreign wars to heal their PTSD by learning TM.

Last year The Fairfield Ledger published this 2-page cover story: Jerry Yellin laid to rest with full military honors. See more stories on this blog.

Just found another great report on the film, this one by News 12 The Bronx: Hate turns to love: ‘Jerry’s Last Mission’ tells the story of WWII veteran coping with horrors of war. The story of a World War II fighter pilot from New Jersey who flew the last combat mission over Japan is now the subject of a new documentary film – “Jerry’s Last Mission.”

I cropped a photo of Merino and Yellin from this excellent TV news story.

Director Louisa Merino and Jerry Yellin

Additional news coverage

In addition to the NJArts and Bronx News 12 reports, these new articles came out: Baristanet: Limited Pre-Screening of ‘Jerry’s Last Mission’ Will Honor New Jersey WWII Veteran, and this comprehensive article by Claire Barrett, who interviewed Louisa Merino and Michael and Steven Yellin for The Army Times, Observation Post: ‘Jerry’s Last Mission’: How WWII’s last combat pilot became a lifelong testament of the human spirit. Steven Yellin was also interviewed by KTVO-TV3’s Beth Waldon: New film helps Fairfield man understand father’s fighter pilot experiences in WWII. Click the title to see a video of the full report with the news anchor’s introduction and conclusion to Beth’s report embedded here.

This article, with photos from Michael Yellin, came out November 24, 2020: Montclairian’s father, Jerry Yellin, a WWII hero.

What is Poetry, where does it come from, and how does it enter into us?

November 11, 2020

I posted many wonderful poems under this blog’s Poetry category. Also saved comments about poetry written by poets throughout the ages. These three made an impression on me years ago that I’ll share with you.

Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882–1927): The Music of Life, Poetry (pg. 327)

The one who reads poetry, the one who enjoys poetry, and the one who writes poetry must know that poetry is something that does not belong to this earth: it belongs to heaven, in whatever form one shows one’s appreciation and love for poetry, one really shows one’s appreciation and love for the spirit of beauty.

Yang Wan–li (1127–1206) Sung dynasty poet: What is Poetry?

Now, what is poetry? If you say it is simply a matter of words, I will say a good poet gets rid of words. If you say it is simply a matter of meaning, I will say a good poet gets rid of meaning. “But,” you ask, “without words and without meaning, where is the poetry?” To this I reply, “Get rid of words and get rid of meaning, and still there is poetry.”

Wei T’ai (5th Century BC) Chinese Song Dynasty poet and scholar

Poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling. It should be precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling, for as soon as the mind responds and connects with the thing the feeling shows in the words; this is how poetry enters deeply into us.

Poems on Poetry

Here are links to a few meta-poems I’ve written over the years about the sometimes mysterious creative process of writing poetry and its influence on an audience: Writing; Sometimes Poetry Happens; Poetry—The Art of the Voice; a seven-haiku poem, Coalescing Poetry: Creating a Universe; and Haiku on The Nature of Haiku. This Teapot Poem came about as a result of putting Wei T’ai’s advice into practice.

Also see this post: Writers on Writing–What Writing Means To Writers.

Sue Monk Kidd on empathy and the purpose and power of literature to enter the common heart

November 10, 2020

It’s sometimes serendipitous how one thing can lead to another while surfing the internet. I came across this tweet by Alicia Keys about her recent conversation with Sue Monk Kidd. They were discussing each other’s books. Alicia had just published, More Myself, and Sue, The Book of Longings. A previous book, The Secret Life of Bees, was made into a movie (2008). Alicia posted the podcast on her YouTube channel AliciaKeys.lnk.to/AKSMK.

Sue Monk Kidd is a novelist, essayist, and best-selling author. She has received wide acclaim for her books on feminine spirituality and theology. Her inspiring lectures explore the intersection of writing, creativity, and soul. I wanted to know more about this author and found an intriguing title to a talk she gave in Saint Paul at a Westminster Town Hall Forum. The live talk, Sue Monk Kidd: Life is a Story, was sponsored by SPNN on February 11, 2014.

Sue Monk Kidd (SMK) gave a profound talk about how she became a writer later in life, what the act of writing means to her, and how it can be used to shine a light on injustices, particularly with issues of women and race, giving readers a window into the lives of her female characters. Her spirituality is connected to justice and compassion. For her, one of the important purposes of literature is to enhance empathy, allowing readers to enter what Emerson called “the common heart.”

She mentions her favorite authors and books, and had stenciled some of their quotes on her walls, which informed her life and work as a writer. I transcribed some of her many inspiring comments from the talk. The hyperlinked phrases will take you to those segments in the video.

creativity and the writing life

Introducing the idea of creativity and the role of writing in her life, SMK says, “Well, creativity, I think, is essentially a spiritual experience, at least it is for me. I think it is a conversation that one has between one’s self and one’s soul. It’s not always a good conversation, but it is some kind of conversation.”

She then references the poet Rilke from Letters to a Young Poet, where he tells a young man who’s written him for advice: “So, dear Sir, I can’t give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to, the question of whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it.”

moments of being…a silence beneath my words

She reiterates this notion. “I think there’s a realm inside us. We could call it the inner life, or the interior life, or the life of the soul or something else. Merton often referred to it as the true self. And I think my 30-year old self was trying to start up a conversation with this place. What I suppose I have in mind here is a kind of contemplative experience. It’s very easy to lose touch with this part of ourselves, especially in our contemporary culture. I think we often feel, at least I do, besieged by life.

I think the world seduces us with an artificial sense of urgency sometimes. But the soul doesn’t move at the same pace as the world. The creative life doesn’t, at least mine doesn’t. I think it has a completely different slower pace about it.

So contemplative moments, I think, moments of being, help us, help me cultivate this life I’m talking about. I often say to myself that there must be a silence beneath my words. If there is not a deep silence beneath my words, then my words are probably empty.

the real power of literature

When asked what does she hope readers would take away from her work, she references what the female protagonists go through in her books. “My hope I suppose, if I had to articulate that, would be that readers would have a felt experience of what it’s like to be an enslaved person in the 19th century; or a white woman without any rights, with shockingly few rights; or what it’s like to be a 14-year old girl looking for home and belonging; or a woman adrift in the middle of her marriage; or a 50-year old woman trying to find the 3rd act. What does it feel like?”

“And I’m talking of course about empathy, which is taking an other’s experience and making it one’s own. I think that is perhaps the most mysterious transaction in the human soul. And I think it’s the real power of literature.”

empathy…the common heart…an intrinsic unity with all of humanity

While in college SMK studied Ralph Waldo Emerson, which is where she learned about his concept of “the common heart.”

He described it as a place inside every human where we share an intrinsic unity with all of humanity. Now this idea has remained with me all of these years. I have never forgotten it. And as a novelist I have to believe in this place. And as a person I believe in this place.”

“So I began by saying that, for me, creativity is a conversation with one’s soul. And I think in that sense maybe writing has been my longest prayer. But I also think, that in this sense that readers go to the common heart, that they can find their way into the common heart, a portal through a book, that reading becomes their prayer too.”

distractions…contemplative rhythm…conscious loitering…listening

The most difficult part of writing for her is the solitude—the paradoxical need for it and the isolation that it brings. She describes her process. “I find that, I have to find, particularly when I’m writing, ‘a contemplative rhythm’. I like to refer to it as ‘conscious loitering’. Because loitering is really a good thing in a lot of ways. It’s just to, to be, without any purpose other than being within oneself. And this centers me; it grounds me. It allows me most of all, the time and place to have this conversation that I need to have with this deeper part of myself, or to go to that deeper part of myself and to listen.”

She tries to avoid social media. “I think listening is so important. I don’t know how to do that with all of this, you know, Twitter and Facebook, and all of this that is going on. It’s kind of a whirlwind, and I think our attention span is shrinking dramatically with it. And I’m about the long form. So it’s attention, actually, I think for many writers, and it is for me. And I kinda go back and forth in these worlds and try to navigate both of them and sometimes do both of them poorly.”

In a previous post, famous songwriters have said a similar thing about the need to be alone undisturbed where the mind can idle (loiter). Ideas come along, get fiddled with, and inspire lyrics turning them into songs.

fundamental to writing is the courage to find and believe in your self

When asked what advice she would give to a young writer just getting started, she shared what she had written her daughter in a card the night before they would drive her to college. “Be true to yourself. Have the courage to be true to yourself, and stand by yourself. It was as simple as that. And maybe that is really the key.”

“You know writing, as I said, is an act of courage. It’s about having something to say and the ability to say it. But the real thing is about the courage to say it at all. And it has to do with some sense of truth in one’s self, and finding that truth, and being willing to have an authentic conversation with it.”

“So I think I would say that, believe in yourself, but first of all find the self you want to stand by, and then believe in that self, because that’s fundamental to writing.”

related blog posts on writing

Writers on Writing–What Writing Means To Writers | Elizabeth Gilbert—Some Thoughts On Writing | Words of Wisdom on Writing from Literary Lights | Burghild Nina Holzer inspires us to write and discover who we are and what we have to say | John O’Donohue’s 4 short lines say it all for poets | The perils of praise or blame for young writers. New ways to help students find their own voice | Letters to a Young Poet Quotes by Rainer Maria Rilke


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