Friday, February 29, 2008

Glories of Memoir Writing

Last weekend in LAT book review section, Susan Salter Reynolds reviewed three books in short paragraphs, each stimulating my brain in different ways around the theme of memoirs. The first review was of Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away. From her book, the reviewer selected this line, “Writing is the act of reaching across the abyss of isolation to share and reflect.” Goldberg is not talking to me about where I am, but instead inspiring me to try to go where she is.

In the next section the review of Sven Birkerts’ book, The Art of Time in Memoir, shows him excoriating the navel-gazing of memoirists. He apparently feels that only the reflective insight, revealing “what Henry James called ‘the figure in the carpet’”, sets memoir above talk show chatter. I hate to be harangued and probably will not read this book, but Reynolds’ image from James is memorable and will stick in my mind. It’s so easy to walk over a carpet, even for years, without seeing the pattern. But if you describe the room for someone else, you look more carefully and it jumps out into view. How many times I’ve seen the pattern of what happened to me only when writing about it for the second or third time!

The final review was of Julia Cameron’s The Writing Diet. I wish that review matched my experience! It said creativity, as well as falling in love, takes the appetite for food away. Not so for everyone, more’s the pity.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Cold Rain in California

My students from Portland feel happy and at home right now; we’re having a bout of cold rain. It brings back a time when I came out to California for a meeting at Asilomar, in Pacific Grove, near Monterey. The meeting was held in April. It was snowy back East, and all of us going to the meeting were envisioning sunny California. Today the bicycle race, The Tour of California, just raced down the coast from Seaside (Monterey) through Big Sur to San Luis Obispo. It’s some of the most beautiful coastline in the world on a sunny day. But they had the same storm we’re having, and many riders got hypothermia and had to quit the stage race today. Not sunny California after all, sullen gray-green water, curling with dirty white foam, streaming headwinds, cold water. I wonder how rain has affected each of us, how it has shaped our feelings about West Coast living. Do you revel in it because we have so little weather? Do you hate it and get hypothermia of the spirit?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Looking at Rocks for Inspiration

We have wonderful rocks in California, and they’re more visible than in other parts of the country, particularly in the desert. I remember watching students climb a huge rounded rock at Joshua Tree National Park. The rock was the size of a two story building. It looked smooth from afar, but up close it was covered with irregularities, bumps, depressions, crumbly places, and crystal outcroppings. The students held onto and to stepped on these irregularities as they scrambled to the top. I remember how the seven students looked on top of that rock. Viewing them from some 100 feet away, it was hard to imagine that they’d climbed rather than being dropped from a helicopter MASH-style. It seems to me that the rock is a symbol of writing. It looks like a miracle, but if you begin the task, the close-up is much easier than the distant view. One sentence at a time, one step at a time. Exceptions and irregularities provide openings to progress. The story comes alive and the climber rises to the top.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The perfection of eggs

I haven’t bought eggs for over a year, but I bought some this morning. I took one out of the container and looked at it. The shape was so round, so smooth. The surface was delicate, white, not the least bit irregular. There’s not much we encounter in the natural world that’s as perfectly shaped as an egg. I recall reading a story about Michelangelo’s egg. A girl interested in art was trying to reproduce a feat she claimed Michelangelo could do; drawing an egg perfectly without lifting the pencil. It’s surprisingly hard, I remember trying a number of times during the month after I read the story. Think about perfection: where in your life do you encounter it?