Thursday, June 21, 2007

Writing, Reed-ing, and a List of the Week

When my eighth grade English teacher, Mrs. Riederer, asked us to keep a journal, she changed my life. To each of us she passed out a super-sized version of those black marbled composition books you get at the drug store, and she said we could write about anything, any time, without worrying about spelling mistakes, criticisms from her, grammar corrections, or anything like that. How liberating!

Along with the journals she handed out a page or two of suggested topics and questions, single-spaced, a few of which are reproduced at the bottom of this blog. Although she asked us to write in the journal only about once a week or so, it wasn't long before I found I just had to write in it almost every day. It became almost a meditative practice, like a liturgy of the hours, a physical act making incarnate the process I was going through, of becoming the person I was to become. I found that this daily writing, poured onto the page, was doing its work within, carving out the shape of my mind and filling in cracks and crevices, sculpting my intellect and my character day by day. Writing made me notice and pay attention - to my own life, my world, my own formation in that context.

When I look back on the entries now, I am profoundly embarrassed by my florid style as a thirteen-year old, and probably the best writing advice for me would have been what the father in A River Runs Through It said: "Half as long." But in a way having time and space in which to express myself without worrying about rules, style, or perfection gave me the freedom to cultivate greater mental agility, a better eye, a more versatile voice. Writing and thought are intimately connected and feed one another. I am convinced that cognitive (and, often, spiritual) development can be greatly enriched when people use writing as a tool for learning. Teachers should use it more.

Of course, I also believe in discipline and rigor in the writing process. Playing has its place, but exercise, revision, and just plain work are crucial. That terse comment from A River Runs Through It is still good advice for me today (no, the irony of this post's length is not lost on me!), along with Zinsser's incomparable work, On Writing Well, which is perhaps the best writer's guide I know. Among writers' reflections on the writing process, though, my favorites are Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird and Julia Cameron's The Right to Write. The latter contains so many inspiring, beautifully articulated passages about why we can and should embrace "the writing life."

"Daily writing," she reflects on p.150, "writing simply for the sake of writing, is like keeping a pot of soup on the back of the stove; it is always there, always ready to be tasted, always ready to be added to, always nourishing, savory, life-sustaining. Like soup, your daily writing doesn't have to be fancy. A few simple ingredients are enough."

Among my favorite lines, though, are these from pp. 50-51: "Valuing our the act of paying active witness to ourselves and to our world. Such witness is an act of dignity, an act that recognizes that life is essentially a sacred transaction of which we know only the shadow, not the shape...Writing is an act of self-cherishing."

I was crushed when a good friend of mine during residency heard me start a sentence with the words, "As a writer, I..." and said cynically, "Oh, you're not a writer," as if to say, you're not a "real" writer. Obviously I'm still preoccupied with this question of artistic validity. I was hurt not because the casual remark "put me in my place" - I don't think he intended that - but rather because I felt he was assaulting my self-concept. I realized that writing wasn't just an activity for me but something like an internal organ - a very real part of me. I wanted "being a writer" to be, not what I am, but who I am.

I have not danced ballet or modern dance seriously in years, but I still feel I can truthfully start a sentence with, "As a dancer, I..." Even if I never dance again, I think, I will still think of myself as a dancer. It's in my soul. Writing's in there too, and now, I think, being a musician. They're intertwined. Perhaps music is what started it all; music inside me has emerged as dance or as writing because those have been the instruments I've had so far (ok, piano too). I'm hoping I'll eventually find another path for this inner music, with my trusty little oboe.


A quote from Ralph Vaughan Williams about one of his works (4th Symphony, I think): "I don't know if I like it, by it's what I mean." What a great guide for creativity - to aim not necessarily for like-ability, but rather for genuine self-expression!


I went music shopping today. I bought a portable music stand and some staff paper so I could work on arranging a piano accompaniment for the Raymonda adagio. I got the same momentary pleasure I get when I go to the store to get writing supplies or at Christmas when I wrap presents for people (one of the happiest activities I can think of). I had so much fun.

Practicing is getting more multilayered. There's so much to work on! Long tones, scales, interval etudes, dynamics (which are at this point still so reed-dependent for me), breath support, the Bach and the Morricone, the smaller works I'm trying to learn (Simple Gifts and other churchy things). I can get through all of Gabriel's Oboe now, ever since Kyoko clued me into the left octave key (like, DUH!), so now I want to push past just "getting through" the notes and actually start to make some MUSIC. The Bach's gonna be a while.


Top 15 List of the Week (after today's O.R. conversation)(tweaked up from 10):

Attractive Leading Men in Movies Old and New

15. Viggo Mortensen in The Return of the King.
14. Bill Pullman as the president in Independence Day and the adorable brother in While You Were Sleeping.
13. Johnny Depp in Chocolat.
12. Anthony Andrews in the jail cell scene in The Scarlet Pimpernel.
11. Hugo Weaving as Elrond in The Lord of the Rings. Jeff Chandler as Cochise in Broken Arrow. Same type of concerned-father/warrior/ruler character.
10. Half the cast of King Arthur (e.g. Clive Owen / Ioan Gruffud) was eye-candy. The other half...wasn't exactly, but still enjoyable to watch.
9. Gary Sinise in anything in which his character isn't evil.
8. Antonio Banderas in The Legend of Zorro. Or in Take the Lead - whew!
7. Orlando Bloom in Kingdom of Heaven, more for the character he played than anything else.
6. Oded Fehr in The Mummy and The Mummy Returns
5. Yul Brynner in Anastasia. White shirt and guitar - 'nough said.
4. Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke.
3. Hugh Jackman in pretty much anything.
2. Daniel Craig in Casino Royale.
1. Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday. Drool, drool, drool.

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