Tuesday, August 20, 2013

My Writing Brain: Behind the Scenes


I was half listening to NPR while cleaning up the kitchen when I heard a singer-songwriter named Valerie June refer to “receiving a song.” The interviewer asked if it came to her in her own voice. She responded that songs come in many different voices. Warming to the subject, she added that she hears songs in her head all the time and tries to write them down. “If you just write every one down, you get to the good one.”

I was fascinated because my brain is often writing something if I have not otherwise engaged it. When I am meditating and trying to focus on my breath, my most common stray thought is something being written. Although my typical message to my brain is “Let go,” I sometimes find myself saying,“Stop writing.” I often have to use those words when I am trying to go to sleep and my brain is composing something new or reworking a sentence to get it right. If I tried to capture every bit of writing my brain does without my conscious motivation, I’m afraid the dirty dishes would pile up, my walks would include many stops to make notes, and getting to sleep would be a chore.

The author John Ehle once pulled a notebook from a shirt pocket to write down something my husband Bill had said and what it triggered in John’s mind. He chuckled the whole time and said all writers carry little notebooks. My nephew-in-law Joel Garreau, also a writer of considerable repute, advised me to have a notepad by the bed to capture writing thoughts in the night. “You won’t remember them in the morning,” he cautioned.

When I am walking with Nigel and see an unusual cloud formation or a deer peeking out from behind a Fraser fir, my brain starts writing a description and sometimes  a little story. I try to remember the idea until I get home and can write it down. Similarly, at night when I have said my usual thanks that I have a good bed and can go to sleep, I don’t want to rouse, stop the CPAP machine, unhook the mask, turn on the light, dash off some words in a notebook, and then reverse those actions to go back to sleep. Instead I issue my preemptory command hoping to silence that soft voice relentlessly dictating. Once in a while I give in and turn on the light so I can scribble a particularly intriguing sentence or thought.

When I’m involved in a specific piece of writing, the off-duty work of my brain might recast a sentence or paragraph that has been problematic or just won’t flow. If it sounds pretty good to my suddenly attentive mind, then I do interrupt the sweeping or the ironing or the nap and write it down as fast as I can so I get it all. Another thing I don't ignore is a new idea for an essay that will often come as an opening sentence. I know I’ll regret it if I don’t jot down this fuse that when given my full attention will ignite an explosion of ideas.

 I find that anything transmitted to my brain from my five senses can become grist for the mill of my grinding neurons. One thing I can’t do is sit myself down and think up a topic to write about. The ideas usually come unbidden, but I can discern what sensory trigger spawned them.

My writing process is separate from the idea formation that my brain does without my direction. If I go to the computer to write a first draft, it will often be a tiring session as I lay out and develop the text, and then start revisions. If the seminal thought did not come to me in a full-throated voice, I will choose first to do a “free write” by hand. I sit with my journal and record the thought delivered to my consciousness from my deeper brain. I will then write whatever comes into my hand for fifteen minutes. When the timer goes off, there is usually something on the page that I can work with. I then begin transforming the first creative blush into a crafted piece of writing that I deem worthy of sharing.

Now for those who think literally, I want to assure you that I know my subconscious writing brain and my active working brain are one and the same. However I’m trying to describe the way I experience these different modes. The first—which can be annoying— is when I’m the audience for a creative process I don’t summon or direct. The second is when I grab hold of one of those ideas, images, or insights and run with it.

The part that brings me the greatest joy is when I feel that I am in a dialog with the brain cells that work around the clock. I stare at a sentence that doesn’t sing and from nowhere comes a new melodic iteration of the same idea. If it is a post for this blog, I send it to Polly, my sharp copyeditor, who finds the typos my old eyes don’t see, and makes sure attributions and facts are correct. If her brain comes up with a better idea about the flow of a particular sentence or paragraph, she’ll write a comment such as “Try reading this aloud” or “Perhaps recast this sentence” or “Consider reversing the order of these two words.” Her hints or questions give me a nudge, and I take it from there.

The sensory trigger for this exploration of my writing brain came from Valerie June “receiving” songs in many different voices. I recognized a creative process similar to my own. Later that day during a nap, my writing brain wakened me, and this time I got up to write a note of my own.  A few days later, I sat at the computer and lit the fuse.

Next post: 09/03/2013

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Obama's Remarks About Trayvon Spoke to Me


Never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins. I learned that as a child, perhaps in Girl Scouts (where we studied what was then called Indian lore) or Sunday School. I remember wondering how I could walk even a few steps in some grown-up’s shoes. Of course eventually I understood what it meant and in fact, in a gender-neutral form, it became part of my worldview. I tried to understand people who were different by nature or had challenging personalities by learning more about their daily life and history.

When I heard President Obama’s remarks about Trayvon Martin during the July 19 press briefing, I began to think about my life and whether I had ever had any remotely similar experiences to walking in the moccasins of a black man. Suddenly I remembered a time in Istanbul in 1978. My husband Bill and I arrived at night following a grueling twenty-hour ride in a bus full of smokers. We easily found our modest hotel recommended in Frommer’s “Five Dollars a Day” guide, but the electricity was out, and we had to make do with a small flashlight and candles. The next day Bill was quite sick, probably a result of the food we had eaten at rest stops on the trip. He was running a fever and had beaten a path to the candle-lit bathroom all night. Our sightseeing plans were obviously on hold, and I decided to go to the central market and buy produce we could peel or scrub and eat in our room. We had a well-supplied medical kit with remedies we had learned to use in Guatemala, and I felt it was safe to leave him.

The concierge looked askance when I asked about buses, but gave me the needed information and pointed out the stop in front of the hotel. My trip was simple. It was a fifteen-minute bus ride and then a short walk to the market. I went first to the fruit and vegetable stalls. Then I found some freshly baked bread, local cheese, and a bottle of water. Everything fit in the expandable string bag we had bought in Paris where we first encountered them.

From the time I stepped out of the hotel until I returned an hour and a half later, I was aware of men and boys watching and sometimes following me. A few made lewd gestures and called out words that I didn’t understand although their meaning was clear. Twice a man deliberately brushed against me. I attempted to imagine myself in armor and walked tall, strong, and purposively. There were other Europeans or Americans in the market but I realized that there were no other women alone. Everywhere I looked I saw either married couples or groups of women, some with a young man in their midst. I shopped as quickly as I could and headed back to the hotel, stopping in a restaurant to buy a container of hot cooked rice. I was happy to see a policeman in front of a bank on the corner where I waited for the bus. For the next twenty-four hours, I stayed in the hotel room and read or wrote postcards to send home. Finally we ventured out together to the famous Pudding Shop where Bill relished a bowl of rice pudding.

Two days later we visited with Turkish friends of Bill’s brother. They gave us a quick course in the mores of our host country and told me that some men would assume any woman out on the street alone was a prostitute or at least unworthy of respect. I’m quite sure I looked like a tourist but obviously that was no protection. It’s a small comparison to Obama’s story of being followed; nevertheless I had experienced feelings of fear, anger, and even shame that I can still recapture.

When I was seventeen, I had a few dates with a handsome African-American teenager named Michael. We had met at an interracial family fellowship group I attended weekly with my parents. One Saturday Michael and I went into Philadelphia for a similar event for high school students and on the way back to the train station (a mile-long walk), we sat down on a park bench to rest a few minutes. Almost immediately a policeman walked up to us and looked directly at me, ignoring Michael, and said, “Are you all right? Do you need help?” I told him I was fine and we were on our way to the Reading Terminal. We immediately got up, and the cop followed us for a block or two. I apologized to my friend who shrugged and said that it happens all the time.

I had another memory that had saddened me even at the time it happened. It was in 1985 when I was the interim director of a paralegal program in Miami for undocumented workers. My assistant warned me to keep my rental car locked with the windows up when I was driving around town. She explained that often a man would rush up to your car at a stoplight, quickly clean the windshield, and then ask for money. If you rolled the window down (I was told) he might grab a visible purse, or even attempt to hijack your car. Apparently these men were mainly homeless Vietnam vets—white, black, and brown. Indeed I saw the window-washing happening several times to other female drivers. Sometimes I forgot the precaution, and then I would be the person Obama described who pushed the button to lock the doors with an audible kerplunk when I saw any man near the intersection as I slowed for a red light. More than once I saw a pained look on the face of an African-American male who was merely crossing the street.

Trying to recreate the mile in the moccasins by reading or talking to people—asking them to tell us their stories and listening with our hearts—hones our empathy and invites our compassion for those who suffer from thoughtless profiling, not just from the police. We also need to be willing to share our own stories and to examine our knee-jerk judgments.

Further debate about the laws and circumstances around Trayvon Martin’s death will be the job of attorneys, legislators, and advocacy organizations. Someday I hope there will be changes as a result. But I believe in the near term we can increase the empathy quotient in our communities if each of us makes an effort to walk vicariously in the shoes of people whose lives we know little or nothing about.

In this blog I’ve tried to let my readers walk in my SAS Free Time size nines and get a little feel for my life in these final decades. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I did know that’s what my stories are about. I feel certain there must be people writing for the Internet about the  miles they’ve walked wearing hoodies. I am grateful that President Obama set the example by linking his life experience thirty-five years ago with Trayvon’s short life. I hope many others from all backgrounds and ages will start sharing their stories, as we strive for greater acceptance and compassion for all.

Next post: 08/20/2013