Friday, November 16, 2018

The School of the Medusa

The French writer Hélène Cixous explores relationships among language, psychoanalysis, subjectivity, and politics in The Laugh of the Medusa and defines the three steps up the ladder of writing that Terry Tempest Williams used to prompt us to write on our retreat.  

Step One: The School of the Dead.  Write it deep.  The natural world constantly remakes itself.  Don’t look away from the dying of the old.  Put your hand on the bark of an old tree. What comes through?  Death is a powerful teacher, but you can’t stay with it too long or it will eat you.   

The mystery of life is a descension.  When you think you have reached the deepest place, you are compelled to go even further. 

Step Two: The School of Dreams.  Write it strange.  Your writing doesn’t have to make sense.  Dreams hold the medicine and the spiritual power.  You must reach the place where you are unmoored before you can ascend.  Our night mind is always at work. Trust it with problems in your writing.  Your night mind has the psychic power.  After writing it strange in the dawn's early light, you can write it real.  

The School of Roots. Write it real.  The facts of who you are, not just your name and occupation, but who you are at the ground of your being, the specificity of that grounding, is where your reader feels the most secure.  Tell it straight with all the details, the reader will hold it in their body.  Take it down deep to the School of the Dead and the School of Dreams and sit with the emotional landscape.  The roots are what hold the tree of life.  Write it so real that if you cut open the words, they will bleed.

Stories are the umbilical cord between past, present and future.  When a story is told it becomes community because telling a story is a communal action meant to be shared and retold.  Someone else’s story becomes a part of you, the place of their past becomes a part of your present, and so on.  Have a dinner party and tell the stories from the school of the dead, the school of dreams and the school of roots.  Then do it again.  

Rejection Inspiration

When Terry Tempest Williams wrote the first draft of Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place and sent it to her editor, she received this powerful rejection reply, “Although we greatly admire what you attempted to do, we feel it fails on every level.”  She felt like throwing herself and her manuscript into the Great Salt Lake.  Her friend told her not to bother. They’d both just float.   My three rejections seem mild in comparison.  In sum they said the premise is engaging but the pace is too slow and I'm trying to do too much.

Terry summoned the energy to write back to the editor explaining why the story was so important and why she was the person to write it.  The editor wrote back.  “Should you desire to continue, begin on page 496.”  She had written 500 pages.  She began again when she realized the editor was right.  She had the story, but she did not have the soul of it.  After another year’s writing she was halfway there, to finding the soul.   

She gave me the inspiration to begin again to work on the editorial advice for my screen play, to tighten up the pace of the dialogue, and omit most of the descriptive passages and extraneous plot elements until I find the soul of my story.  This will take time and effort, but now I feel it might be worth it.  I have the energy to stop floating now. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Tears of Paradise attended a retreat this weekend given by Terry Tempest Williams author of Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place.  Seventy-five writers gathered to find "refuge in change and solace in uncertainty in difficult times where the violence of hurricanes, floods and fires are the norm."  This is what the retreat brochure promised.  

However, none of us could have known when we signed up that the deadliest wildfire in California history would be blazing away too close for comfort.  Massive clouds of smoke poisoned the atmosphere for miles, including the air above San Rafael where the retreat center is located.  The smell of smoke lingered in our hair and our clothes throughout the weekend.  

As I write this reflection two days later the smell of smoke is still in the air, search teams have identified the remains of 42 bodies and are heading back to locate and identify many more in the rubble that once was Paradise.  The fire has already consumed 125,000 acres including 7,600 homes and buildings.  All of nature is on high alert and birds and creatures even far enough away to be out of danger are chattering in a frightened pitch.  

Terry is a writer-in-residence at Harvard Divinity School who puts into brilliant lyric prose her ethical stance toward climate change that threatens to devastate the global environment and extinguish the existence of many species including our own.  As a chaplain in a trauma center I thought my retreat would be a respite from the sorrow and tragedy in my daily work, but I soon realized this is not what God had in store.  We sat in concentric circles and listened to each other's stories from the school of the dead, the school of dreams and the school of roots.  We wrote in the light and we wrote in the darkness.  We gave each other the courage to be honest, to tell it real and write it strange if that is how it is.  

Writer after writer pulled up stories of abuse, sickness, shame, sorrow, frustration and fear.  We listened with a critical consciousness, with sensitivity, compassion and deep respect for each others labor.  I was able to unravel some tangled strands of multiple tragedies I have born witness to in my daily work and feel relieved of burdens carried so long I didn't know they were there.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Giant Web

This next story comes from the prompt on my retreat to think of our earliest encounter with nature and to write about whatever comes to mind first.  She asked us to think why this story, why now, and what is in the medicine bag it has for us. This is the story that came to me.

We lived in the center of a small town in New Hampshire and we had a big back yard that seemed the size of a whole planet when I was a child.  I know now it was only about five acres, but it seemed huge then.  Our house was built in the Georgian style in the early late 1700s and operated as an inn in colonial times.  Behind it was a three-story barn and a large green lawn with a mature oak tree.  In the back yard we had a grapevine, an apple orchard and a vegetable garden.  Behind the garden was a small hill covered with a mix of timothy, clover and alfalfa.  The field was behind that and a high hill covered with dense forest.

When I was 4 or 5 years old, I was playing outdoors with my friend Cindy.  It was late summer, and the field had not been plowed so the grass was very high, taller than me.  Cindy and I wanted to go play in the forest, but as soon as we got through the tall grass, the underbrush and prickly branches of the forest made us turn back.  On the way back, we got separated.  Cindy was nowhere to be seen and the grass was too high for me to see where she might have gone.  I began pushing down the tall grass with my hands to move forward and suddenly I found myself inside a giant spider web with dozens of spiders in it.  There was a whole colony of spiders nearly as big as my hand.  There was no way out.  I screamed and pushed through the web and ran as fast as I could through the tall grass in the field, over the hill, past the garden, the orchard, the grapevines and the barn to the lawn next to the house.  When I reached the house, I stopped running and screaming and brushed myself off from head to toe.  Cindy finally caught up with me a while later and asked what the matter was. I told her the spiders were going to get us. She laughed at me and asked if I thought they were chasing us.  Well, no I realized.  They can't do that.  Cindy was older than me.  I must have looked very silly to her.  

Thinking about why this story came to me, why now and what was in its medicine bag, I had this insight.  All of my life I've had a condition that is a kind of agoraphobia, but it is not a fear of crowds or open spaces, not a fear of social embarrassment, although who doesn't have that sometimes?  I have always been afraid of being surrounded and not being able to find my way out.  As a result when I am in a crowd I always sit in a place where I can see everyone around me and can get out quickly if I want.  Even on the retreat I realized I was sitting on the edge outside the circle.  I used to wonder if something happened to me to cause this discomfort.  I tried many times to think of an occasion when I was surrounded by people that made me afraid.  Nothing ever occurred to me.  In the medicine bag of this story I discovered what caused me to have this condition and how to cure it.  I have a fear of being caught in a giant web and not a fear of being surrounded by people.  Now that I know that I am letting myself back into the web of life a little more.