What to write about

What to write about

Here’s a post from a blog I wrote at the end of the year for Nimrod Journal. It’s my attempt to answer the question most of us who write hear so often: what do you write about? How do you find your ideas? You can read it here.

In the meantime, are you writing? Do you write? Keep a journal? What do you write about? And how do you decide?

happiness, journals, projects, et al. ~

happiness, journals, projects, et al. ~

I made a commitment more than a year ago — 89 weeks, but who’s counting? — to keep a daily journal. Morning pages, as Julia Cameron calls them in several of her books, most recently It’s Never Too Late To Begin Again. Verrry quickly they became daily pages, and then more like weekly pages. Nothing like a move halfway across the country to upend your routines!

But I’ve kept up, in a too-desultory-but-still-trying way, the habit. Because it’s good for me. Not only as a writer (obviously), but as a person trying to make sense of an increasingly complicated world. This next year, however, I’m trading in my. beautiful pink leather-bound journal for a hardbound best-seller: 52 Lists for Happiness. There are several listing journals out, but this one drew my attention: who doesn’t want to be happier??

I know happiness requires practice. One of the perks of aging, and being a  Buddhist is that you realise you can create happiness. A big part of it, research shows, is gratitude. Acknowledging the happiness we already have. As someone who spent a LOT of her life where water didn’t run hot (or sometimes at all!), where there wasn’t reliable heat or air, where mod cons, as the British call modern conveniences, were often completely missing, I never forget how nice it to have hot water, dishwashers, dryers.I’m grateful for holidays w/ family, for farmer’s markets, for cats & tea & chocolate & fresh flowers, too.  I’m also enormously grateful for my 2nd generation: my 2 wonderful sons, my amazing daughter-in-law, my nieces & nephews. And of course what would my life be w/out the grandsons we moved to be closer to?? AND my funny, loving, slightly crazy, & enormously loving sisters! Not to mention my far better half — my best beloved.

So this seems a logical extension of writing I already do in small gratitude journals I’ve been filling for a few years now. This new year, however, I thought I’d use my found spare time (nothing like having almost no local friends to free up hours!!) to reflect in a structured fashion. Hence the happiness journal. Good way to augment Buddhist practice, too, right? Live in the now of my happiness?

There are other new projects I’ll be starting, sharing here as the year unfolds. Most of them involve a kind of journaling, coincidentally (or not, for a writer!). There’s some research to enable me to do a lengthy poetry project, some spiritual meditation focused on visual cues, some gardening. I’m teaching a class, and figuring out another one for next fall. Each will require exploring, brainstormiong, something I do best while writing. To paraphrase Forster, how do I know what I think until I see what I write?

What new projects are you planning for the new year?  Nothing as elaborate as ‘resolutions’; just what you hope to explore! Want to share…?

poetry = happiness

poetry = happiness

Here’s a repost of a blog I wrote for the wonderful, totally amazing literary journal Nimrod, at the University of Tulsa. I feel very lucky to be associated with it. And this is a subject close to my writer’s heart: do you have to suffer to be a writer?

 

 

 

Buddhism, poetry, and the breath ~

Buddhism, poetry, and the breath ~

If you don’t like poetry, this probably isn’t going to interest you. Unless, that is, you do like Buddhism. Or education. Or writing. Fair warning, right?

Because it’s a kind of once-upon-a-time story, of sorts. See, when you have an advanced degree, folks often ask you: what was your thesis/ dissertation/ publication/ whatever about? And I always want to say — breathing. In a manner of speaking — and not all of it metaphor — it was.

Poetry is about pause & effect. The poet leads the reader through the lines of the poem, using line breaks, white space, punctuation (if so inclined — a number of amazing poets are eschewing punctuation altogether, these days), and other strategies to focus attention here, and elide attention there. Words at the beginning & end of lines take on more prominence. Rhyme (internal or end-of-line), consonance, assonance, alliteration — all are ways to slow readers down, or drive them forward relentlessly.

In poetry, we talk about the breath pause: that place the reader naturally (or through skilful direction) stops to draw breath, when reading aloud. And here’s an interesting aside: poetry should — at least initially — be read aloud. Or at the very least, subvocalised. In fact, the readers of poetry whom I know ALL subvocalise and/or read aloud poems they’re working on. After all: poetry is a kind of music. It has rhythm (metre), and the same pauses for breath that a chorale arrangment does.

Buddhism, too, is about the breath. We focus on the breath as we meditate. When my brain is overrun with the day’s minutiæ, I turn to the comfort of noticing my breath: in out in out… And soon the day falls away, and I’m quieted. During the day, if the same thing happens (or grief, or physical pain, or anger red&white), I exhale deeply. Slowly. Then pause — like a line break. Then inhale, slooowly. Then pause again. Another line break. Not to mention that the air we inhale/ exhale is us. Our very essence — the infinitesimal molecules from our inmost bodies — floats on the oxygen-depleted air leaving us. We share each other’s breath quite literally.

So my dissertation — which was a look at my own work, which (surprise!) grows from the fertile soil of Southeast Asia & the Southeast Asian Buddhism I knew as a child — looked at how these two perspectives on the breath intersect. Become words, then lines, then poetry. Hopefully shared.

if you’re not bored out of your socks, you can see where I was going when I said I mostly want to say my diss was on breathing. Here’s another reason: to me, poetry is (almost) as necessary as breathing properly. Sure I can ‘breathe.’ We need no class in what sustains us moment to moment. And yet… To breathe ‘properly’ is to draw in from the gut, pull through the diaphragm, fill the lungs and almost the entire upper body. The shoulders relax, rise & drop. Exhaling is then a long, slow, reversal of the process. None of the quick, in-your-head pants we do when stressed! Far more respectful of the worlds each breath contains, right?

Poetry is like that. Like waiting for tea to brew. Like watching the sky darken slowly towards nightfall. Like a long inhale that calms & energises. Both a luxury and a necessity. I recommend you revisit it.

One year later: journaling & daily pages ~

One year later: journaling & daily pages ~

It’s been more than a year since I began doing daily pages. Julia Cameron, whose idea they were originally, calls them ‘morning pages.’ I’m not so good at doing them either in the a.m. or daily, so I figured feeling guilty about only one of these — not both! — was the better part of valour.

It’s actually been almost 60 weeks! I put the number of weeks in the page header, as well as the date. And then I write. No agenda, no prompt, just write two pages (Cameron says do 3 — I don’t). Ideally, every day. And good things begin to happen.

So the other day, I found this story on Medium, about the author (Benjamin Foley)’s engagement with keeping a journal. I don’t call my daily pages a ‘journal,’ as I actually have one of those. And I don’t usually do gratitude lists in it, as I also have a gratitude journal. But I do make time for gratitude practice, in a recycled-tire covered small journal my younger son gave me (thanks, Noah!). And I’ve been doing that for several years now (more than 4…?)

I also have a ‘real’ journal, as noted, what an artist friend calls an ‘artist’s journal.’ Mine is not so much artistic as mixed media: there is collage (printed emails, cutout pictures, ephemera like ticket stubs), coloured calendars, drawings (bad ones!), and more. I stapled in all the plant tags of what we planted in the front garden, for Instance, so I have a record.

I rarely revisit my journal(s) — & almost never my daily pages — which I’ve been keeping for decades. Sometimes, I thumb through one when it’s full, thinking about the changes of the past X months. It’s a constant, of course — such a cliche!

Today I pasted in copies of the renderings my beloved made of a new patio we’ll put in this summer, in a new backyard, behind a new home, in a new town. That’s another change: moving to a college ‘town’ of fewer than 20,000 non-student residents after living in a metroplex of about a million. HUGE change.

My daily pages record all this & more. The birds on the feeders (new ones here, as well as familiar favorites); what funny thing my elder grandson said. The fact that my younger grandson smiled at me (he’s definitely an old soul, at not quite 2 months!). My sister’s visit yesterday, w/ her bff, driving in from 2 hours south.

It’s good Buddhist practice, actually: note what happens, remark it, then move on. If you haven’t tried it, maybe begin gently, w/ ‘weekly’ pages. It’s worth the minor effort. Buy a small journal that appeals to you, & do a couple of pages every couple of days or weekly. One of the easiest forms of meditation I know. Honest.

View story at Medium.com