Try 101

Practice — Process — Projects

Month: May, 2013


by mark neely

Thanks to TJ and the TRY101 crew for inviting me aboard this virtual vessel!

I thought I’d introduce myself by taking a stab at one of the most common questions people ask of writers: Why do you write?

The truth, of course, is complicated. I write for a lot of reasons. First, I have always loved reading, and writing seemed like a logical extension of that passion. Most kids who love watching basketball eventually get the urge to shoot the rock themselves. And inspiring thought, feeling, and action in others as my favorite writers have inspired these things in me seems a grand and noble goal—an idea worth building a life around.

I write to please others. Like many people, I started writing partly because my parents and teachers thought I was good at it. I wanted to make them happy.

On a more practical level—if indeed there’s anything more practical than the desire for love and affirmation—I write because my employer requires it. Roughly a third of my job is supposed to be dedicated to writing and publishing. An even larger percentage of my job is teaching writing, and I’d look and feel like a pretty monumental fraud if I weren’t doing the deed myself. Besides, writing regularly is probably a requirement for the competent writing teacher. As someone once said on this very blog, “When we teach ourselves our life’s work, we’re also developing an extremely effective method of teaching others.”

I also like (maybe love) seeing my poems in books and magazines. I love the thrill of the acceptance letter. “You like me, you really like me!” I inwardly shout each time a friendly editor’s email pops up in my inbox. But this kind of pleasure is fleeting, and, like an addict’s drug of choice, it takes more and more to achieve the same effect.

But the purest drug for the writer is something no teacher, parent, editor, or even reader can give you. It’s called flow. And I think it’s the real reason I write.

Flow is psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s term for the intensely focused (but relaxed) state we sometimes enter when engaged in a challenging task. The task is usually one for which we’ve studied/ trained/ practiced.

In sports this is called being in the zone. Unlike writers, professional athletes are lucky enough to have their moments of flow happen in front of thousands of cheering fans, but most will tell you when they do get in the zone the crowd seems to disappear.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, a flow state is most likely to occur when engaging in a challenging task that is a good match for our skills. If you throw a person who’s never cooked before into one of those Iron Chef-type kitchen battles, he or she is not going to have the necessary skills to get in the zone the way an experienced chef might.

When I’m writing well the words come easily, almost without thought. The inner critic who tells me I’m a failure and a hack goes and torments some other poor soul for a while. My inner angel (who knows the poem I’m working on is sure to be accepted by POETRY Magazine and win a Pushcart Prize and gain me mountains of love and admiration) goes out for a beer.

In those rare moments, only the next word or line or sentence matters. As Csikszentmihalyi puts it:

Alienation gives way to involvement, enjoyment replaces boredom, helplessness turns into a feeling of control, and psychic energy works to reinforce the sense of self, instead of being lost in the service of external goals.

Of course, this state of mind is nothing new. The ancient Greeks knew all about it. They called it divine inspiration, the gift of a benevolent muse. “Happy is he whom the muses love; sweet flows speech from his mouth,” said Hesiod, who realized long ago that a poet in this divine attitude “forgets his heaviness and remembers not his sorrows at all.”

It took me a long time to really understand this—and it still takes almost daily reminders to remember—but these moments provide a deeper and more meaningful satisfaction than “professional” achievements like publications and awards ever can. The true joys of the writer always come with the scratch of the pencil or the clicking of the keys under the fingertips.

Once I heard the poet Bruce Smith liken writing to fishing. You have to enjoy sitting in the boat, tying on the lure, throwing out the line, reeling it in, throwing it out again. “If you only enjoy actually catching the fish,” he said, “you aren’t going to like fishing very much.”

Flow is elusive. It doesn’t always come. Writing can be difficult, frustrating, slow-going. Mostly when I’m working I feel like I’m trying to build the Taj Mahal with a box of old Legos and a crusty tube of Elmer’s glue. But every time I sit down there’s always the possibility that I’ll be given the gift of one minute, or ten, or even a blessed hour when the world lifts away, the self disappears, and the sweet speech flows.

Bridging the Beige

by sophiakartsonis

This morning I was lucky enough to have an exchange with the lovely and prolific Julianna Baggott.  She is in the midst of moving and I mentioned that I had recalled pictures on facebook of a fabulous room that she had changed from the formal dining room of its architect’s intention and into something livable in a Baggott/Scott definition of the term. The word that comes to my mind is: vibrancy. They are a family in motion,  from the blog and facebook posts that I see: books written, being written, acting, art being made, laughter, and in some scenes there is a wall of the most saturated indescribable blue in a room  meant to be formal.  Intense. I loved it and said I recalled that post, those photographs and that I hoped the move found her somewhere equally lovely.  Here is her response:

JB: We’re renting a house in downtown amherst, MA — the landlady very kindly sent me my paint choices for interior walls: beige, off-beige, taupe, off-taupe, gray beige and a beige gray.

I’m buying loud curtains and rugs. what can I do?

  • When I lived in Cincinnati, I had a tiny apartment with wood floors and a great balcony that I dearly-loved. I also loved my three cats and worried that they would not be welcome on the neighbor’s half of the balcony. So I had a trellisy partition thing installed. I promptly painted it chartreuse and then put down electric blue astro-turf and a magenta velvet old chair. It was Thanksgiving Day. I was avoiding a blind date with an allegedly sexy Bulgarian physicist and this was my eye-feast for the afternoon. By the next morning, I received a call from the manager of the building. Apparently, the owners (in their eighties) drove by their property and insisted the trellis be repainted. They gave me the option of beige, another beige: taupe or dark brown. I explained to the manager that I would obviously comply and because she is a wild, wonderful, kindred spirit, I added that I have spent my life dealing with The Beiges and would run right over to the hardware store for something with tan or quiet-death in its name (biscuit or bisque) and spray right over my carefully brush-painted masterpiece. I drove back to visit this weekend and if you pass the trellis on the side, you still get a shot of unapologetic chartreuse. That will be you  this summer: the eye-trick of the vibrant that does not go beige even in a beige habitat. (Plus rugs, pillows and the like.)

  • JB:  Love it. will take note!

    (I thought we were going to end with the sexy Bulgarian…)

    No. I went for a WASP at the end of the day. (Beige on the outside, but all kinds of chartreuse inside.)
    It was fun and light chat and I could end there, but the thinking back to those days and the end of the story which is not with a sexy Bulgarian but a sexy German-English extraction who is some days the flip-side of the me-coin and others, the opposition found in the word opposite, made me think more on the subject of a colorful, meaningful life. The brilliant way of living that is so easy for us to find (and sometimes so hard to remember) with one another. The hard days ahead are shared days. Just this past weekend when I walked across a bridge in Cincinnati referred to as The Purple People Bridge.  Memorable, because one darkest summer while in graduate school, that bridge had too silly a name for my Hart Crane fantasies and though I had no true intentions, I did have the right frame of mind. I also remember driving  to the Cincinnati side and walking back and forth across for a kind of solace, a peripatetic meditation. Some days found me joyful at the light on the water, the boats, the general wellness that being near water brings. Other days were made little more than bearable by that bridge. No days had me imagining that same purple bridge with its novelty-song-sounding name would find me so happy, having lived into a happiness I could not have then even begun to imagine where I finally had a published book (soon there will be two!) and not just a long wished-for reliable love but one with with a man who not only drives a hundred miles to help me see a baby gorilla that will feature strongly in my new project, but a man who gave me the book that started the project and has helped shape every part of it along the way.  (Including the part that had us just last month, driving nine hours each way to Madison, Wisconsin to visit primate labs there.)  There is neon in this here beige. There is a bridge and it is full of color even when it’s not. I have learned to mine for the vivid as I’ve learned to actually love those softer neutrals. Exhibit A: to my right, a wall called Mourning Dove. Exhibit B: the guest room wall will be a Copper Clementine. A tangerine going nearly metallic. Exhibit C: This technicolor weekday.

Take what you’ve got and make do

by kathrinewright

Five minutes to read a poem, write a list, look for a form, imagine a character – where she was born, how he wakes, his/her favorite ice cream topping, the memory that pops up when it rains, to open that window, let the air in, just five minutes.

Ten minute to find the groove, flex the muscle, capture the lines that sketch the character to life, to find her a disaster to attach to, to figure out the secret that keeps them doing or keeps them from doing the thing that makes the story.

Five minutes to trace a work back in the OED, to fall in love with the word’s home, to picture it formed in the mouth of that century, to watch it form on the page with other words, to love how it moves.

Ten minutes to research your way through a poem, to figure out the form of a sestina, to take on an ode, to start your way in.

Five minutes to mark up a page, to read it, know the words that don’t belong, to rearrange, reconsider, reapply, remember. The spark that got you going. The one that may no longer matter, now that you’re on this side. But maybe.

Ten minutes. Times two, minus seven, plus eleven, divided by 4. However many that is, it’s something. It’s not zero. Start there


by tjbeitelman

For what it’s worth:

Sometimes — let’s face it: almost always — the Universe is way smarter than the likes of me. (Almost? What kind of fool am I?!)

Sometimes that feels interminable and oppressive. Like, seriously: when will I stop being such a f#$-ing moron? But sometimes it’s the most life-affirming, say-yes-to-the-world thing there could ever be.

Lately (luckily) I can report that I’ve been feeling lots of the latter, less of the former. In particular (if you’re keeping score at home) my transcendent shock and awe has been directed mostly at the following:

  • Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, especially: the introduction, chapter 6, chapters 30-33, chapter 66 and chapter 99. But really all of it. In the order it was put down.
  • Son Volt’s Okemah and the Melody of Riot, especially: “Afterglow 61,” “Jet Pilot,” Medication,” and “World Waits for You.” But really all of it. In the order it was put down.

All of it gives me goosebumps and, if I let it, it’d make me cry those tears you cry when you’re not sure why you’re crying but you feel more alive and honest and in-your-own-skin precisely because you’re crying about this particular thing you don’t know why you’re crying about.

You made this? I want to say. To the makers. But…how?

Don’t worry: you don’t have to like what I like. (Duh.)

But you do have to like what you like.

Really, really like it — no matter what anybody else says — and be dumbfounded/awed by it and thereby let it make you feel (strangely) affirmed in your high opinion of yourself. (There’s so much that can just tear us down, isn’t there?)

Yes. This is your task in this strange world.