If you don't know who I am, I'm somebody who makes her living telling stories to the newspaper.
It's a great life. I tell funny stories and silly stories and PG-13 stories, and just when they're all softened up and expecting a good time, I sneak in a serious piece that maybe asks a lot of the reader in terms of forcing him to think about a few things. I write one story a week and get paid by about 40 papers. This is because at some point in my life one nice teacher took me by the hand and taught me how to write.
I also get to give speeches all around, at colleges and libraries and hospitals. The best talks though, are the ones I give at schools. I learn something every time I do this. I have some thank you letters written me after visits to some area schools. "Thank you for coming to talk at our school last week," begins one. "I too am going to be a writer. Do you remember me? I was the one in the pink sweater, the pretty one..."
The difference between life and art is this: Life is all inclusion, tragedy, comedy, farce, all tangled together with messy details and anticlimaxes.
Art isn't like that. It leaves things out, chooses, discerns. It's based on life, but it's life passed through the prism of an individual's mind, heart, spirit if you believe in spirit. According to one story, Leonardo Da Vinci was asked once how he could craft a bird out of a huge hunk of rock. "It's easy, just chip away everything that doesn't look like a bird." Easy to SAY. I mean, what in a chunk of cold white marble looks like the soft feathers of a bird?
But here is what the writer does: the writer picks up one word and sets it down next to another. Picks up one image and sets it down next to another, hoping something will happen.
So if this is a presentation about writing, I should give you some idea how you get ideas and hold on to them. (They do try to scamper off like mice, you know.) This will maybe help show you how to step on their tails long enough so you can catch them.
The first rule: keep a pencil or pen handy at all times. Next, keep paper handy (show it) legal pad, index cards, napkins.
Three hints: find a pen you like. Use paper you like. Have fun with it.
A writer I admire named Brenda Ueland once said that when you're writing you should feel like a happy kindergartner straining beads; absorbed and content and forgetful of time.
Go to a place you like. Put your feet up. Get something to eat and go to bathroom if you have to. In other words, take care of all the things your body might be worried about so it will leave you alone for a while and let you be creative.
Have you ever noticed you have luck in certain places? When you wear a certain shirt? When you use a certain bat? Well, some would say that's superstitious but it isn't really it's just believing it's going to work for you today. Whatever you're trying, it's feeling relaxed and confident that second when you hit the bat and you know before the ball even moves that it's going to connect, it's going to fly...
So go someplace where you are comfortable: certain rooms; certain places outdoors. Do any of you write for fun? poems or stories? Do any of you draw? (for it's the same thing, only using shapes instead of words.)
I go outside to write. If I stayed home not much would happen to me except the usual mom-or-dad-at-home things, the usual sitting-at-your-desk-in-an-office things.
So I go out. Sometimes I try to go REALLY out by leaving my car behind and taking the bus. The best thing of course is to walk.
Once I gave a writing talk to a 6th grade class that had been working on putting together a newspaper. One boy raised his hand. "What makes you think what you have to say is interesting?" he asked.
"Jimmy!" the teacher exclaimed in horror.
But it was a good question. I can tell when it's not interesting if I'm not even interested in it. Try to remember that yourself. The way to write interesting stuff is to be interested IN stuff. There's so much going on around us all the time....
There were two things that showed me what I was meant to do in life - that brought me to this path: The first was teaching and the second was having kids myself.
The teaching I did it seven years I loved it! When I had that first baby, I thought, "Now I'll shape some lives! "And soon the adventures began. And soon I began writing them down. I brought a piece to the local newspaper. "Can you do it every week?" they wanted to know? "Can you eat your dinner every night?" I felt like asking. Because that's what it feels like. That easy. That wonderful.
It is never boring. When my kids say they're bored I think "Aaaarggh! how can that be? Bored? On THIS planet?!"
Just look around: I saw a lady wearing her glasses around her mouth. She looked just like Mr. Potato Head. It was great, she looked so funny. You know how that is, don't you, when you go someplace with your friend and everything seems funny to you, and sometimes the world is so beautiful?!
You see a bumblebee flying upside down - write it down.
You see the leaves on a fall day in the gutter and they look like soggy corn flakes -write it down.
You overhear people talking and they say things in such an original way. I saw two tiny boys feeding bits of their fast-food lunch to some ducks. Said one to the other "Doze eagles! They eat some fwies!" (The "eagles" looked at him as if to say, yeah and we can eat you too if we feel like it.")
One night my kids were getting ready for bed. My daughter Annie, when she was about your age, slept every night of her life in her little brother's room. He was four years old, and feeling mean that night. She often slept under the desk with her dolls Victoria and Scribblehead and Tunafish. (Tunafish was a stuffed bear, Scribblehead a baby doll on whose forehead somebody had colored on in magic marker. As for Victoria, she was a balding chinahead Victorian doll with one eye stuck shut and the other w-i-i-i-de open.)
"I hate your dumb dolls," Annie's baby brother kept saying. And finally, "I hate YOU!" "That's it," Annie said, gathering up her blanket and pillow and leaving the room. "Don't leave me!" cried the child, bursting into tears She came back in, knelt down, put her arms gently around him. "But you hate me, Michael." "I hate you today..." Michael said, "but I'll love you tomorrow!" I wrote it down.
Last week I let the tub run over by mistake. I started to draw a bath and then I forgot and wandered away and began to write. My husband realized it and turned it off. It looked like maybe it was OK - 'til I went downstairs. Water was pouring out of the light fixture. It looked like throwing up in one of those gross-out movies.
HMMMMM, I am thinking now as I describe this to you: I didn't write that down but I should. And I'm sure I will - the minute I leave here. I keep a diary. A good way to remember a thing is to write it down. (Here I read portions of my 6th grade diary.) You guys are not too young to begin diaries of your own.
Of course a story you begin won't necessarily be complete that day. Some will turn out to be only be a few phrases long, like a sketch you begin and never finish. But just because you don't finish it right then doesn't mean you won't come back to it. And when you do it will have all different things in it, from who you are that day to the weather to how you're feeling generally in your life just then.
Let me give you an example: I went to the vet's a month ago to get the cat a rabies shot. I had gone to the skin doctor a week or so before that day and I didn't feel too good about how things went in there. "I have this rash-" I started to say. "Broken blood vessels - age," snapped the doctor without letting me finish. "Well, there are these spots here-" I went on. "Age!" she interrupted. "What about...? My skin is sometimes-" "Age!" she snapped again.
Then she said, "What about this acne here? Would you like some medicine for that" " I don't have acne," I said. "Well what about that pimple?" "Oh THAT pimple. I have THAT pimple... But I don't have, like ACNE...."
So I walked out of there having not gotten treated for the three things I had, and having refused treatment for the one I obviously did have. I sat in my car and started writing down what happened; thought "this goes nowhere"; and put it aside.
Then two weeks later the cat was bitten by another animal. She had an opening in her side like the porthole on a ship.
So I went to the vet's again. The vet shaved the wound; soothed her; medicated her; told me he would keep her overnight. The point was the cat got better treatment than I did. I ended up putting the two stories together and using it as that week's column. And I got a lot of reaction to it. A lot of people found it funny.
So think of everything that happens to you as a brightly colored bit of thread which you will set aside and use some day, like women in the old days used to do with scraps of cloth. What did they make them into? Quilts of course, made up of pieces of their children's clothes, their own wedding dresses, bright scraps of this or that.
You weave a quilt every time you write and the quilt will have in it who you are and the day this happened and the day that happened and the wind in the trees.
And you must not worry about whether or not it will be good. Of course it will be good because it's true and original. One theory of creation says that God created the universe so he could know himself. When he was the only one he couldn't see himself reflected in anyone's eyes; he couldn't get a reaction, in other words. We all need a reaction. Every person that God has made, they say, holds up a little mirror that shows God a new side of himself (or herself!) We reflect not only God but also who we are and all we've thought and seen and been.
It takes courage to take pen in hand and say, "This is how I see the world." I work with the old people at the Senior Center. I teach them a course. It's called Writing from Personal Experience, but we thought up a subtitle: "Who Cares What They Think?"
That's the way to feel: Free and brave and totally yourself, sharing who you are and how you see things in the work that you do. And that work will be your gift to the world all your life.
Hear Terry with Morning Edition host
Carson Cooper on WUSF 89.7, Public Radio in Tampa
(2) Sample Radio Essay:
I have a friend whose cat loves to be held upside down.
"He trusts me," she says, bracing her hand beneath the cat's head as you would with a baby; then slowly lowering him down headfirst and backwards.
Squeak, for his part, not only permits this, but seems to positively relish seeing things this new way: his same tame world, inverted - food dish and litter box on the ceiling, as it were.
I feel a little like Squeak, come this time of year. The world looks different to me, too.
When I was young, I thought of it as a kind of ball we all traversed, starting in winter at the bottom, walking head downward, like South-Polers in a child's cartoon. Then up we'd begin climbing, come January - on up to high summer at the ball's top, where we'd balance briefly, like trained seals. Then fast down the other side, through September, with its boutonnieres of marigold, and October, with its winds and its skies as blue as Glory - all the way down to these: the short clean days of November.
For me back then, November meant faking sick to stay home and watch the polishing of silver and the baking of pies; the getting out of the special old cloth for the table. I have that cloth still, linen hand-hemmed in the 1860s, freckled with tea-colored stains, its worn fabric as thin as November sunlight.
It feels harder now to stay with the moment than it did then; harder not to anticipate all that the next season brings, and thus bypass the gentler charms of this one.
But I for one, am happy to stay in November. Like any month, its brings its own events.
Like what happened just last week to the ginkgo tree outside our house:
I had always heard that ginkgoes keep their leaves longer than most other trees, then shed them all at once. Ours even keeps them green, I'd noticed, long after other leaves had darkened to tones of flame, and maple syrup and Concord grape.
This morning, just after dawn, sunlight the color of Apricot Brandy poured through my window, intermittently dappled by flickering shadows. I heard a steady patter and looked out. It was the ginkgo, seizing the moment.
Excitedly, I called to the others. "I know!" one answered. "It woke me at midnight, when it started!"
Two hours later, the tree was bare, its grey limbs seemingly made of bone; of granite, even. When it will swell again with the green buds is hard to imagine.
They say we're in for a hard winter, and I see no reason to doubt this.
But for now maybe it's enough to take a page from Squeak's book and feel ourselves held in larger Hands than our own; to stretch back our heads and look around in amazement....and trust....and delight.