Write Like a Champ

rocky 2

You may wonder why I haven’t posted a blog in over a month. Well, dear Reader, I was wondering the same damn thing, so here we are. I’ve been screwing around with that book, the one mentioned in my previous post more than a month ago.

The truth of it is that the first draft, which I thought kicked my ass plenty, was just the start of it. The second draft is harder because I have to keep the good stuff, get rid of the bad stuff and add new stuff to fill in the gaps. I’ve decided that the wish to be a writer is like having a mental illness; you don’t choose it, it manifests at inconvenient times and never shows itself when you need it to.

I decided that the stages of writing a novel really do follow the Rocky franchise, and I’m about to tell you how.

During the first draft, I was slumming. I hadn’t written in a while, and when I did I sent stuff to small-time gilt edged literary journals with a pay entry for competitions. I don’t write for the love of it alone, it’s more like a driving madness. Suddenly, perhaps it’s in a turn of phrase I overheard at the Olive Garden or the galactic shock of Michael Jackson’s death, but I have an opening line for something more substantial than a haiku. I think I’ve got a shot at a best selling title and I sincerely want to go the distance.

That’s the heart of the first draft – I want to finish it. I (pretend like I’m gonna) wake up early or stay up (really) late but I attend to it with the same care that Rocky drank those gross raw eggs. Going ten rounds with Apollo Creed is not unlike how I felt when the first draft was finally done. I felt kinda punchy but I made it.

The synopsis of Rocky II is that Rocky and Apollo fight again, then become friends. This is the stage where I went back and read my book like a regular reader from start to finish. Sure I made notes, but I didn’t make many changes. I noticed discrepancies and added commas where necessary. There were secrets kept from me in the first draft that are apparent to me now as I read thru. Characters developed during the writing and I can see them more clearly. I did get lazy in writing discipline while I let the manuscript rest, so I had to go back into training so I could make it another ten rounds. Training includes deep breathing, reading good writing and turning Netflix off. It also helps to write everyday, even if its long-hand

In Rocky III the tables are turned. The Stallion is now in the position Creed held in Rocky I. Clubber Lang is thirsty like Balboa was back in the day. After I made friends with my novel during the re-write I started to feel like I could be a real writer, one with a career and not just a notebook in my purse and a desperate look in my eye. I felt over-confident from my many triumphant wins during the read through, like witticisms I forgot I wrote or off the charts shenanigans that are brilliant. Rocky III takes me down a few notches, when the notes I made during the reading have to be instituted. This is the cutting room floor, y’all. The re-write beat me down. This is where I am now. I pity the fool!

Rocky IV is perhaps my favorite. Though I’ve seen this installment more than the others, I am far from its equivalent in my writing career. This is where I imagine dealing with the publishing industry. The cold, hard tundra of business and negotiations on behalf of something that could’ve taken eight or so years to write. I can clearly see the tiny Balboa looking up at that giant blond Russian played by Dolph Lundgren. That is how I feel about this stage of my career. When the agents and editors say, “I must break you” I mustn’t let them.

Rocky V is the one I pretend didn’t get made. This is the equivalent of what should end up on the cutting room floor; where the files of bad ideas, false starts and sketchy backstories I might think of resurrecting later for a sequel land. I suggest skipping this stage, and this movie, and go straight to Rocky Balboa.

This installment of the Rocky franchise came later. I saw Balboa in the theater with my grandmother. When Rocky I came out in 1976 I wasn’t born yet. Rocky Balboa shows a much older Rocky back on the old block. He owns a restaurant now, he’s a mostly happy widow with a jerky hitch in his step like he could walk into a hay-maker on his way out of the kitchen. We can still see The Italian Stallion in this old guy, we know he’s in there. Writers have that same stalwart psyche; it’s part of who we are, and if properly provoked we’ll come directly out of retirement swinging wildly. This is where I admit that I’ve considered giving it up, the angst and uncertainty of a writing life is so not glamorous, but sometimes you’ve just got to show ’em what you’re made of.

Creed, the most recent installment had me like….. hold on, I need a minute.

Apollo’s son shows up on Rocky’s door hoping the champ will train him. Rocky is old, y’all, they didn’t even try to make him look good, but he still has that slow brown eyed sincerity. And of course he trains the kid, and this is the stage of writing known as mentorship.

Let me tell you something, right now you don’t want me as your writing mentor. I haven’t done anything but self-published content on a blog I bought and, also, hammer out a few first drafts in typical genres. I also fill notebooks with beautiful handwriting that is as easy to read as classical Sanskrit.

My mentors are Stephen King, who wrote the manual for us would-be authors, On Writing, and Natalie Goldberg because she is so damn consistent about writing for a writer is as necessary as coffee and peanut-butter. It’s part of our well-being. I should add that I’ve never actually met these people, so if you see Stephen King and tell him, “Oh, I read a blog post written by your protege, it was wonderful.” He’ll have no idea what you’re talking about and I’ll probably get a cease and desist order in the mail.

When I’m feeling really lost about the business side of writing I go look at websites for authors I admire. I also read books that create for me what I aspire to give my Readers. Currently Drums of Autumn performs this task for me, but so has The Mists of Avalon, Clan of the Cave Bear and Ann Rice’s The Wolf Gift.

When Apollo’s son went into the ring Rocky was right there by his side, just like Micky was there for him. That’s what a trainer is supposed to do and that’s how mentors work. The thing with Writing is that it’s a job in which the fighter must be in their own corner, which is sometimes the hardest part of the craft. Certainly we have friends who support us, a mentor we rely on, a Teacher we trust. But in the midnight hour, they’re all asleep! Writing is a solitary career, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s a worthy one, like anything you put your heart into.

rocky

 

 

 

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Jaded Primitive

I am doing a Mary Oliver sadhana (practice). I totally made it up, but I like it. I like Mary Oliver.

I remember being in class with Laura at Dragonfly Yoga Studies, where I did my 200 hour yoga teacher training. I was one of my first few classes with her in late October before the January training began. Class was hard and intense and I believed that if ever there was a human who could help me become an effective yoga teacher, it was Laura.

I felt insulated and regimented in the hour and fifteen minute class, in which she played no music or tried much of anything fancy, just deep and real instruction. I learned to lean into the discipline of the practice and found satiation there, even with the open wound I carried around with me, my heart still tender from a loss.

She read a poem as we went into savasana, which Mukunda Stiles calls relaxation and absorption pose. Typically known as corpse pose, I stretched out on my back and felt the heaviness of my body rest into the Earth. I felt wrung out from the practice, but also lustrous on the inside like I had been polished in some important way.

The poem she read, In Blackwater Woods, tore through me like a million tiny stallions breaking free of their pens. I had never heard of Mary Oliver before that poem cut channels to my heart from the hard rock shaped by life….

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment…

I felt myself crumbling a little bit when she enchanted the poem over us. Then she began to chant some mantra I had never heard in my years of self-study. It rang through the room and burst through my eyes. She walked around smearing essential oil on our heads like a priestess anointing initiates.

…Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.

I remember the feeling of her fingers, coated with lavender essential oil, pass through the tracks of my tears. I needed this poem and the poet, too, who took me to the edge of lying down and allowed me to bow deeply to my heart.

It is six years later and I have learned that Mary Oliver is one of the unofficial poets of the yoga community. New teachers come along, fresh like I was when Laura held me in her voice, and are smitten by the imagery of this artist’s work. I began to feel like a cliche, at once moved by something that is old hat to the disenfranchised. I watch new teachers make the same discoveries and wonder how I didn’t see myself, silly and new, falling in love. I sometimes feel the rigormortis of cynicism stiffen my mind that rested so easily in corpse pose those years ago.

The Mary Oliver practice is one I devised to brighten my practice of writing and mindfulness. Her work is one of the mysteries, nature and something primitive the mind isn’t advanced enough to understand. Her poetry silences thoughts not unlike Rumi or Ramprasad, but different.

Since my perspective of teaching yoga has changed in the last few months and so has my perception of my other work, like writing. I finished a longer work of fiction which I am allowing to “rest” as Stephen King suggests in his book “On Writing”. Six weeks is the minimum length of time one should step away from the story before attacking it for the second draft.

I’d just gotten my legs back under me to finish this book, which has absolutely nothing to do with yoga, by the way. I’d hate to lose momentum, especially since it’s so damn hard to gain through the discouragement and loneliness of writing.

The Mary Oliver practice consists of writing a poem a day for 40 days. The poem is inspired by something I encounter that lends itself to a feeling, memory or insight. When you see the moon, dear reader, what do you see in your inner landscape, illuminated? When the band of merry raccoons dance around the pool, who are you reminded of? Make a poem out of this.

A poem a day doesn’t sound like a lot, but try it. It is an art of discipline and creativity which are the ingredients necessary for gaining and maintaining momentum, both of which are necessary for spiritual practice as well as artistic endeavors.

If you would like to practice with me I would love to see some of your work – post your poetry in the comments if you’d like to share. If poetry, observation and writing practice bordering on Zen aren’t your thing, you might like to participate in NaNoWriMo with me this year… but more on that later.

In Blackwater Woods

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

–Mary Oliver (American Primitive, 1983)

What I Am Reading

Stephen King strongly urges aspiring authors to read as voraciously as they write. Granted, as an aspiring author, I admit being prone to fits of despair around the whole topic of it and wallowing not in productivity but in procrastination. What a waste of talent, I know.

I used to read a lot more than I do now. There are shiny distractions, interactions and general malaise that keeps me from a few of my favorite things. But, because Stephen King has done something I have yet to do, parlay story-telling into an art and career, I figure his advice ought to be heeded. And I’ll tell you something; the man is right – writing comes a little easier if you’re reading good writing.

I travel to Atlanta fairly often. I occupy myself on the drive by paying attention to the road, drinking coffee, listening to Michael Jackson and talking on the phone. Stephen King, in his book On Writing, offers that listening to audio books is the same as reading, if one is reading to be a better writer.

I went to the library (yes, there are still such a thing as those). I took To Kill a Mockingbird and something else I cannot remember to the counter for checkout. I hand over my little library card. It is declined.

I am not kidding.

I feel like I’m standing at the grocery store with a six pack of Miller Lite and a box of Magnums without the money to pay for them, so snarling and dismissive is the expression smeared across the face of this young librarian dressed in mute tones.

“Madam, you are mistaken.” I say. I hand over my card again, certain there are funds left on it.

“You are no longer a residence of this county. We need proof of your address.” She holds my driver’s license between us, proof of my unworthiness. She’d asked to see my license so as to renew my library card, I couldn’t have known I was walking into a trap.

“The devil with you!” I bellow at the quiet library desk where no one pays me the slightest bit of attention.

“I’ll just take these…” she says, sliding my selections across the counter with a sly smile that ejects me from the library of my hometown of nearly twenty years. I watch Harper Lee disappear behind a stack of Harlequin Romances meant for the friends of the library book sale.

I stew and fume and bemoan my lot in life. I do not want to visit the library on the other side of the bridge where I now live. It feels so inner city and downtown and large. The other side of the bridge has always felt like its own country, in the very least a different state.

I drive over the bridge. I drive around the looming, dark civic center and I skirt the edge of the cool part of town. I slide beneath a warm streetlight and park on the rain shiny curb, which feels dangerous and wild. I go into the downtown library. There is a massive marble staircase and a little grand piano.

This place is not unlike the library of my home, not the one from which I was just ejected but the town in Alabama where I grew up. This library is sprawling and wrought iron and new. It feels like the majesty of Scarlet’s mansion, Tara, before the Civil War. There is the smell of books and the long distant fragrance of coffee someone brought in at lunch. Now it is after dark and I am leaving for Atlanta in two days. I don’t have the luxury of admiring everything, I am there for a book on tape – er, CD.

Perhaps the coolest part of this venture, other than that Charlie Brown is on my library card, is that my library card is issued to Prana Devi. On this night, with my new library privileges in a facility far beyond the grandeur and selections of that place from which I was previously excluded most coldly, I check out The Isle of the Sequinned Love Nun by Christopher Moore.

I listen to this book all the way to Atlanta and back again. It is awesome. The narrator is funny and has a voice for each character, even the ladies. I think perhaps the narrator is a little bit crazy and wonder what he looks like. Probably very handsome, if crazy is any indicator.

I find when I get back from my trip my writing impulses start firing. I begin keeping a notebook in the console of my car again, to make notations during stop lights and in parking places. I have ideas and more than anything else, renewed interest.

The next book on tape I check out is The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman. I find myself staying in my car extra, sitting in the driveway to get to the end of each chapter. There are three narrators for three different main characters and each is wonderful. I find myself wondering what it might take to be a narrator for books like these.

The third book I borrow is The Secret Magdelene by Ki Longfellow. This is the most remarkable book by far, and I am grateful to be able to listen and not to have to read because there are words and names I wouldn’t know how to pronounce by sight, phonics or no.

And then the CD starts skipping. This is not a book that you can miss a few words in. In fact, this is a book written in such poetic language I had to pause in my listening to make sure my heart’s beat hadn’t become too quiet for the listening.

I took the scratched CDs back to the library and checked out the book instead. I’d heard enough to know how the main characters names are pronounced, anyway. Finally, even while holding this book on my lap, I ordered my very own copy so I could sleep with it on the covers at night and leave hearts and stars in the margins in sky blue ink.

This is my companion for my stay-cation, this book and my cats. For the next two days I don’t plan on leaving my house unless its nice out and I take my mat outside for some poolside yoga. There is a slim possibility I will go for a walk between chapters, writing or reading, I am not sure.

My Thursday classes have substitute teachers who will probably play better music than I do, anyway. I will be home reading.