Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

William Stafford’s poetry lightened his life having woven a parachute out of everything broken.

January 25, 2021

My son sent me a link to a quote by William Stafford that Michael Meade had posted on his Instagram. I couldn’t find the source. Perhaps it may have come from a personal correspondence between the two friends.

“I have woven a parachute out of everything broken.” — William Stafford

The Japanese art of kintsugi

The quote and background image remind me of kintsugi or kintsukuroi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pieces of pottery using lacquer mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. The piece becomes stronger and more beautiful than the original because of its unique imperfections.

To me, this serves as a metaphor for overcoming life’s challenges, scars and all, which build character. When I first saw a piece of repaired broken Japanese pottery using this method, it inspired a poem using one of the forms of Japanese poetry—kintsugi tanka.

A poet of peace

William Stafford responded creatively and with integrity to the challenges life sent his way. He remained true to his voice as a conscientious objector, poet of peace, and the innovative way he taught writing.

A realist on the human condition, his poems made us think, as in A Ritual to Read to Each Other, from his poetry collection, Traveling through the Dark, which won the National Book Award in 1963.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

Following the thread

During his early morning writing, Stafford subscribed to the approach of William Blake’s golden string.

“I give you the end of a golden string,
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate
Built in Jerusalem’s wall.”

As any persistent writer will tell you, when they finally “get it right,” there’s a feeling of euphoria, the metaphorical equivalent of entering “Heaven’s gate.”

Stafford was awake to that revelatory moment when each thread of thought presented itself to him. They would lead to unexpected associations and realizations. In the last poem he wrote the day he died, he said: You can’t tell when strange things with meaning will happen.

Speaking of weaving together a parachute from everything broken, this most popular poem by Stafford, and my favorite, talks about holding onto an unseen thread that’s woven throughout all of life’s experiences.

The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

Coincidentally, I came across a quote from the Vedic literature that takes this idea of an uncommon thread and extends it to a cosmic thread.

He who knows the fine-drawn thread of which the creatures that we see are spun, who knows the thread of that same thread—he also knows Brahman, the Ultimate. (Atharva Veda Samhita 10.8.37)

Other favorite poems by William Stafford

I’ve posted some of William Stafford’s poetry and his approach to teaching writing on The Uncarved Blog. A few of those poems that stand out for me are: When I Met My Muse, You and Art, Ask Me, The Way It Is, A Course in Creative Writing, and Rx Creative Writing: Identity.

The last poem he had written the day he died, August 28, 1993, was “Are you Mr. William Stafford?”. It was featured and published posthumously in The Way It Is: New & Selected Poems, by Graywolf Press in 1999, which was how I first discovered it.

Years later I had a realization about that last poem and created this memorial post including insightful quotes into Stafford’s creative process with related links: William Stafford’s last poem now seemed prophetic—an unintended literary epitaph.

When it comes to student-centered teaching, I featured William Stafford and other trailblazers of the writing process in this related blog post: The perils of praise or blame for young writers. New ways to help students find their own voice.

Related posts on this topic

Richard Wagamese bravely entered the cracks in his life to reveal the hidden gold buried within

Leonard Cohen said there’s a crack in everything—how the light gets in. It came thru him & lit up a broken humanity.

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.

Good cartoons teach us a lot if we’re willing to learn and laugh at our little foibles and neuroses

December 15, 2020

Cartoons that make us laugh at ourselves are the funniest and wisest. Here’s one I found that caught me by surprise. As soon as I read the second line of the quote below the image I could not stop laughing. Even now, when I think of it, I chuckle to myself. It says a lot!

It was posted on Narrative Magazine‘s Instagram page. The signature at the bottom suggested Sipress. I searched on Instagram and found David Sipress. He’s another cartoonist published in The New Yorker cartoons. I’d seen his work before and think he is a brilliant commentator on life, pointing out the crazy humor in current affairs.

I’ve posted other cartoons, light and dark, that tickled my funny bone. This one by Gahan Wilson is another unexpectedly funny New Yorker cartoon—what this fortuneteller tells her client. And this other funny one tellingly depicts our obsession with the past and future, ignoring how to be in the present moment!

The cartoon at the top of this post on my favorite romantic movies is where we go to keep learning our life’s lessons. Towards the bottom of that same post I inserted a related New Yorker cartoon by Roz Chast that perfectly reminds me of Bill Murray waking up each morning in the brilliant little film, Ground Hog Day, but with a twist!

An astute and funny one by Alex Gregory shows us what social media can do to us. And the brilliant cartoons and videos in this post deal with cellphone addiction and love in the digital age.

Rick Hotton, creator of the award-winning cartoon Holy Molé, opens our hearts and minds with insightful humor. Speaking of interfacing with reality through computers instead of our own eyes, this cartoon make us laugh realizing there’s more to life when we’re truly present.

If you’re up for non-stop laughter, check out Instagram’s Favorite New Yorker Cartoons of 2020. It’s in The New Yorker’s 2020 in Review culture section of their December 14 issue. They’re very funny and relatable!!!

This one-minute video from CBC Comedy’s 22 Minutes on how to deal with dietary restrictions at Christmas dinner is hilarious because it’s true!

Cartoon wisdom from Karl Stevens appears in this week’s print edition of The New Yorker. It’s all about learning to live in the moment. Turns out Karl has been doing TM for 7 years. Says it’s completely changed his life for the better, helping him focus on living a cleaner life.

WRITING TANKA—Preparing to Write

December 10, 2020

Here’s a little backgrounder on this poem, which I wrote around 20 years ago while on a course at Heavenly Mountain in Boone, North Carolina. The first part was originally just a haiku. It was a fun way to point out the need to increase awareness as a preparation to write. Years later, an idea presented itself extending the metaphor to its logical conclusion. The phrase, taken literally, was an unexpected surprise, along with the irresistible pun. I added them as a hoku, completing the poem, transforming it into a tanka on writing. Enjoy reading “Preparing to Write.”

The Uncarved Blog

PREPARING TO WRITE
a tanka on writing

.

Railroad Crossings Are

Places To Become Aware—

STOP! LOOK! And LISTEN!

.

If you hear a train of thought

You’ll know you’re on the write track!

.

© Ken Chawkin

.

Also see Haiku On The Nature of Haiku.

a writing tanka on writing tanka by ken chawkin

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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…

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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.

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 | Rainer Maria Rilke and Carl Jung on learning how to live with life’s unanswerable questions

Don Henley and Lissie use the same approach to writing songs—don’t force it and wash the dishes!

October 4, 2020

I enjoy listening to songwriters talk about their creative process—how they approach the task of writing a song, the kind of strategies they use.

How Don Henley writes his songs

I recently watched a 92nd Street Y interview posted on YouTube in 2015. American Rock royalty Billy Joel and Eagles drummer and singer-songwriter Don Henley covered a lot of ground in 85 minutes. One of the things Joel asked Henley about was what does he do to get himself into the space where he can write songs.

Don tells Billy how he may hole up in a cabin, or somewhere where he won’t be disturbed, and shuts out all electronic distractions. He also says he doesn’t just sit there and write; he can’t force the words to come. He says he follows the zen-like advice to do a simple task first.

He tells the audience, “I’m dead serious. I’ve written some of my best stuff loading and unloading the dishwasher! Because you’re distracted and yet you’re not. I don’t know how to explain the thing. But I’ve read about the zen masters saying the same thing—if you can just do a menial task instead of sitting there with a pen and paper, in front of you going, (he clenches his fists and grunts).” The embedded video may play from the beginning, but that part of the discussion starts at 57:14.

How Lissie writes her songs

That reminds me of the exact same thing Lissie said in The A-Sides Interview. She discusses how she is learning to balance art with commerce, and spontaneity with structure. Describing her creative process she usually comes up with a melody, sometimes working with other musicians, then later writes the lyrics alone.

When writing lyrics, she’s “careful to not force it” and is always surprised when rhyming phrases pop into her head “when washing the dishes, not focusing hard on the lyrics.” That’s when she’s presented with newer better word choices she hadn’t thought of.

She emphasizes finding a balance: “being spontaneous, yet structured.” The embedded video may play from the beginning, but that part of the interview starts at 4:58.

How Colin Hay writes his songs

Another singer-songwriter I had discovered and recently wrote about is Colin Hay. When it comes to writing songs he says he likes to have as empty a mind as possible and puts himself in a space where he won’t be interrupted. He emphasizes that time is important, to give himself enough time to fail. He describes a scene where he’s all alone for 3 or 4 hours without any distractions, just sitting with his acoustic guitar doing nothing, just idling, coming up with musical ideas.

At other times, a friend may drop by and mention something in passing that will act as a catalyst to what he’s been thinking about. It triggers the melody, and then the words spontaneously come out in one take. In those cases he’ll quickly finish a song in under an hour. That’s how he wrote Waiting for my Real Life to Begin.

He explains all this in a 2011 CNN interview with Brooke Baldwin when she asks him where he was when he wrote that song, then quotes some of the lyrics to him. The embedded video may play from the beginning, but that part of the interview starts at 3:52.

TM, creativity, and the default mode network

Our minds are usually working on a particular problem, consciously and unconsciously. I’ve had the same thing happen to me when I’m writing a poem or a blog post and reach an impasse. I give up, let it go, and, surprisingly, the right solution later presents itself when I least expect it.

Science calls that place in our brains the default mode network (DMN), a.k.a. the imagination network or genius lounge. It’s activated when the mind is daydreaming, not engaged or concentrating on anything, just “idling” as Colin Hay put it. The key is to be easy. Focusing or “forcing it” turns it off.

Interestingly, the DMN is also activated during the effortless practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique as practitioners experience a state of “restful alertness.” Sometimes great ideas may show up during, but more likely after TM, what David Lynch calls, “Catching the Big Fish.” He often tells students, “TM is a boon for the filmmaker.” It facilitates access to one’s inner resources to create and think out of the box.

Jon Bon Jovi says washing dishes brings on hit songs

Addendum: Jon Bon Jovi, who loves doing TM, shared the same experience as Don Henley and Lissie on Monday night’s A Late Show with Stephen Colbert when they discussed the events that influenced his new album, Bon Jovi 2020. He told Colbert how the song Do What You Can came about when he was washing dishes in one of their JBJ Soul Kitchens during the COVID-19 pandemic. Bon Jovi concluded, “Washing dishes brings on hit songs, Stephen.

Related: Lissie @lissiemusic and her connections to Twin Peaks, Fairfield and #TranscendentalMeditation

Colin Hay’s song—I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You—is so relevant during these tough times

September 17, 2020

For anyone who’s gone through a breakup, or the traumatic loss of a loved one during these tough times of COVID-19, forest fires, and other natural catastrophes, this nostalgic song by Colin Hay may move you to tears. That kind of cathartic experience, acknowledging and feeling the loss, may help in the healing of it, relieving some of the grief over time.

I first heard I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You in the Garden State soundtrack. A while back a friend posted it on her Instagram. I listened to several YouTube videos of him singing it, along with other great songs, and funny stories he shares with audiences during his shows.

You can see the lyrics and history of the song here. It was re-released on Transcendental Highway and posted on his YouTube channel. It has a softer, quieter feel to it, especially the ending, compared to these more powerful live performances on Paste, and more recently on eTown. I’ll embed it here, but I recommend hearing all 3 selections.

I discovered that Colin Hay had been part of the world-famous Australian musical phenomenon, Men At Work in the early 80’s. Their first massive hit, Down Under, was heard everywhere for months. Hay was their lead singer, guitarist, and main songwriter. After the band broke up, a few members at a time, and their label dropped him, a downward spiral into addiction followed. His wife left him. He would eventually seek help and attempt to launch his musical career as a solo artist with not much luck.

He moved to LA and became the first musician to play at Largo, a new club frequented by people in the entertainment business. He soon gained a following, was discovered and produced. What helped relaunch his career was when Scrubs star Zach Braff encouraged producer Bill Lawrence to see him perform at the club. Bill’s wife, Christa Miller, had already become a fan earlier on and was always raving about him.

After he heard Colin perform, Bill couldn’t understand why his songs were not more successful. He decided to feature some of them in his popular TV show. Colin is seen performing Overkill in one episode, while Waiting For My Real Life To Begin is sung by the cast in another. That song has been featured in eight different popular television series. The song is also heard early on in the soundtrack to the 2010 film Morning Glory and in the 2014 film soundtrack to Words and Pictures.

Zach asked Colin if he could use one of his songs for a movie he was making. The Garden State film and soundtrack would become a huge hit, which included, “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You”. The CD went platinum, which also put Hay’s music out there in a very big way. The TV show, movie and CD introduced him to a much larger, younger audience. It changed everything for him. He had paid his dues and humbly moved into one of the most stable and rewarding phases of his career. He also married singer Cecilia Noël, who often provides backup vocals at his shows. Noël has also helped with production on Hay’s solo albums.

Colin Hay: Waiting For My Real Life

In 2015, an independent documentary film was made about him, appropriately titled: Colin Hay – Waiting For My Real Life. Here is a comprehensive Summary posted on IMDb, followed by the official trailer. https://www.colinhayfilm.com

‘Colin Hay – Waiting For My Real Life’ is the story of singer-songwriter Colin Hay, former front-man of Men At Work. We follow Hay from his earliest days in Scotland, through his family’s emigration to Australia, to the massive, worldwide success of his band, to the depths of addiction and failure, to a slow climb back up the ladder seeking relevance, artistic freedom and ultimately, transcendence. Featuring interviews with Hugh Jackman, Mick Fleetwood, Sia Furler, Guy Pearce and many others, ‘Colin Hay – Waiting For My Real Life’ is the inspiring story of a true artist.

In the film Hay says, “Creativity is my salvation, and going out on the road.” Performing his music in front of appreciative live audiences feeds his soul. “It’s clean, it’s pure,” he says. “It has to do with connecting with people, you know.” He says he keeps touring because, “It makes me feel useful.” It also gives him a natural high, a healthier kind of addiction.

His artistry has staying power. One musician in the film says his music is intergenerational: his millennial fans don’t remember him from Men At Work, and the boomers don’t know him from Scrubs. American actress Wendie Malick says he’s the best living troubadour today. I agree. Plus, he looks like a man at peace with himself. Colin concludes, “Everybody has to find their place in this expanding universe. This is my place.”

Playing with Ringo Starr

Colin Hay met two Beatles and played with one of them. In 2008 he toured with Ringo Starr & His All Starr Band. Hay performed his classic hit Down Under with the band during a show at the Greek Theatre in LA. Be sure to watch the final 15 seconds where after the show Ringo says to Colin, “I really laid it on you on that song ‘cuz you thought you were doing it all. There’s a solo coming!” He imitates Colin, ‘Okay.'” Colin smiles and says, “I was good though.” Ringo exclaims, “You were great!” He laughs and repeats ‘I was good though’ to one of the musicians next to him. Colin laughs with Ringo who loudly claps his hands twice.

Colin performed on several tours with Ringo and his All Starr Band. Click to see another great performance of Colin Hay singing Down Under with Ringo and a different combination of his All Starr Band, including a flutist, and Sheila E as the other drummer!

Hanging out with Paul McCartney

In addition to being a great guitarist-singer-songwriter, Colin Hay is a very funny storyteller. The most fascinating and hilarious story is meeting his childhood idol, Sir Paul McCartney. He relates occasions when Paul and his then wife Heather came to hear him perform, once just himself, another time with his band. After the concert Paul was backstage at the bar and invited the whole band to join him. He holds court for an hour. Then it’s just Paul and Colin. After an awkward silence, Colin asks him what he’s in LA for, and Paul tells him he’s finishing a record. Colin remarks, “Oh, a bit different from the old days, eh, making a record?” And Paul proceeded to tell him what it was like in the old days. Colin tells the audience: “And I could have stood there all night.”

Paul would pick up John and together they’d finish the new song he played for him as they sat in the upper deck of the bus on the way to the studio. When they arrived, George and Ringo were already there. Paul would show it to them, George would figure out the chords, and Ringo would tap out the rhythm. Then a man in a white lab coat would come in and say, “Right, you’re up lads.” They’d record two songs, break for lunch and a smoke, then record two more, with few takes.

Paul then tells Colin he and Heather would like to come over to Colin’s house for dinner. That part of the story is priceless! The audience loved it, as did I. You will too. It’s the preamble to him singing the title song of his reissued 2001 album, Going Somewhere, which Paul and Heather loved, and added to their rotation of favorite songs. It also contains the bonus track, I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You, which prompted this now ongoing blog post. Enjoy!

How Colin Hay writes his songs

CNN’s Brooke Baldwin interviewed Colin Hay on the occasion of his 11th solo album, Gathering Mercury, which was partly influenced by the death of his father in 2010. The discussion came around to how Colin writes his songs. I found this part of the interview fascinating.

When writing songs he says he likes to have as empty a mind as possible. Time is important to give himself enough time to fail. He describes a scene where he’s all alone for 3 or 4 hours without any distractions just sitting around with his acoustic guitar doing nothing, just idling, coming up with musical ideas.

He uses the image of a revolving door in a hotel lobby. If a bunch of bags are stacked up and it’s chaotic, there’s all this noise and bustle, any idea that comes in would turn around and go out the door. But if it’s quiet, and there’s a nice fountain, it may stick around for him to discover and turn it into a song.

Brooke asks him where he was when he wrote, Waiting for my Real Life to Begin. She quotes a section of the song: “And you say, just be here now. Forget about the past, your mask is wearing thin. Let me throw one more dice, I know that I can win. I’m waiting for my real life to begin.”

He describes how his song-writing buddy and drummer, Tom Mooney, had come over to his house. He asked him how he was doing, and he mumbled that he was waiting for his real life to begin. Tom left to do something else and Colin said it sparked what he had been thinking about. “It opened up a door.” It was the catalyst. The melody came, then the words. He wrote the song in 30-45 minutes.

Colin had moved to California to leave his old life behind in Melbourne, where he drank a lot, hung out with crazy people, thought about the past, and worried about the future. “Very rarely do we be where we are.” Brooke asks him if he does now and he answers that he’s learning. But when he does, “it can be quite profound; it can be life-changing.”

Coming full circle

I’ll leave you with this beautiful song, A Thousand Million Reasons, from Colin Hay’s 2017 solo release Fierce Mercy, his 13th. On the Track-By-Track Colin explains the song is about not letting fear rule your life and how to find meaning in the fact that although we may be alone, we are all alone together.

I found this cool website with a timeline biography, and an alphabetical listing of the lyrics and songs of Colin Hay and Men at Work posted on http://colinhay.com.br.

Related: Don Henley and Lissie use the same approach to writing songs—don’t force it and wash the dishes!

Richard Wagamese bravely entered the cracks in his life to reveal the hidden gold buried within

August 30, 2020

Having seen the Canadian movie Indian Horse based on his book, and enjoyed his journal entries compiled in Embers: One Ojibway’s Meditations, I decided to actually read one of Richard Wagamese’s novels. I started with Medicine Walk and ended with Starlight, the latter an extension of the former to become a two-part story, albeit an unfinished one. His flawed wounded characters seek healing and reconciliation, as he did throughout his life. The image below and his description of a mended broken heart reveal how his courageous talent honored and celebrated these lives, ultimately his own, and why he was beloved as one of Canada’s greatest Indigenous storytellers.

Medicine Walk

Richard Wagamese’s skills as a soulful storyteller and consummate wordsmith grew with each successive novel. I enjoyed reading Medicine Walk. It’s the story of young Frank who reluctantly agrees to help his extremely ill biological father, Eldon, a stranger to him, complete a journey into the wilderness to a special location where he wants to die in the traditional Indian way.

This emotionally charged story is an attempt at a reconciliation between a seemingly irresponsible absent father and his disappointed hurt son. This was something Wagamese had been grappling with throughout his own life, from both perspectives—as a young boy and later as a father to his own sons. It’s why he wrote the book.

Starlight

I also read Starlight, his final, and unfortunately unfinished novel. Only 61 years of age, he died in his sleep before he could complete it. Beautifully written, this profoundly moving story is about the redemptive power of love, mercy, compassion, and the land’s ability to heal.

This is ultimately a tale of recovery from trauma by the power of human connection to the natural world and each other. It’s something Richard wanted to explore through the main character. This last book continues the story of a now older Frank Starlight. The old white man who raised him and taught him everything he knows has died and left him the farm and accompanying wilderness.

The story is filled with beautiful descriptions of Frank’s transcendent experiences in nature. He had also taken up photography as a hobby. During his time alone in nature he was able to come into contact with a pack of wolves. He runs with them from a safe distance. When he fearlessly taps into nature’s silence within, the alpha wolf seems to trust him and doesn’t bolt. They howl at the moon, and Frank captures this intimate scene through the lens of his camera resulting in rare photographs.

But the main part of the novel is about a potential relationship between Frank and a young woman and her daughter who come into his life. Unbeknownst to him they had violently escaped an abusive situation. The injured men involved are tracking her down to seek revenge.

A man of few words, Frank teaches Emmy and Winnie how to connect with the land, its creatures, and ultimately their own inner nature. It strengthens and heals them, enhancing their self-esteem. These scenes are profound, well-written, worth reading and rereading. I scanned those pages and may reproduce some of the content in a future post.

A tension is created between these contrasting situations. But the book stops just before they are about to intersect. A Note on the Ending, indicates how Wagamese was intending to complete the novel. It includes an outline and examples from previously published short stories.

Finding gold in the flaws of his imperfect life

A Publisher’s Note at the end explains how they came by the manuscript. Throughout the process of readying Starlight for publication they were guided by something that Wagamese wrote. It became the reason for this post. I found this image online as an example of what he describes.

I once saw a ceramic heart, fractured but made beautiful again by an artist filling its cracks with gold. The artist offering a celebration of imperfection, of the flawed rendered magnificent by its reclamation. I loved that symbol until I came to understand that it’s not about the filling so much as it’s about being brave enough to enter the cracks in my life so that my gold becomes revealed. I am my celebration then. See, it’s not in our imagined wholeness that we become art; it’s in the celebration of our cracks . . .

This reminds me of two previous posts related to this notion. One was when I discovered this Japanese ceramic technique Richard is referring to known as kintsugi. I included a definition, an image, and a poem, a tanka I wrote about this process as a metaphor for human growth.

The other was about Leonard Cohen and his song, Anthem, where he tells us to: “Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.”

These great Canadian writers had the courage to try to come to terms with their own struggles and the skill to creatively express them in their own unique ways. Experienced aesthetically in the lives of their fans who may have been going through similar life challenges, these hard-earned truths became a validation, bringing beauty and meaning into their lives.

See these related blog posts on Richard Wagamese and Leonard Cohen: Coincidences happened that introduced me to the great Ojibway storyteller Richard Wagamese and Insights from Richard Wagamese’s Meditations and Leonard Cohen said there’s a crack in everything–how the light gets in. It came thru him & lit up a broken humanity.


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