While watching snow fall the other day in mid-April in the Sierra Nevada foothills — what some would call a highly unusual occurrence, what I would call part-and-parcel of the new climate in which we live — a few random thoughts about writing, writers and our love of putting feelings, thoughts and observations to words:
1) With the Boston Marathon’s latest running Monday (an event I’m proud to say I have raced three times), I always think of the similarities between running a marathon and writing a book. Both are long processes that we start with tremendous expectation and energy – sometimes, too much energy. How many potentially good books have fizzled out because we put everything we had into them in the beginning, only to burn out? Runners who started their marathons too fast can answer that question. How do runners deal with those middle miles, the 10- through 20-mile marks, after their initial adrenalin wears off and they need to push forward and conserve energy at the same time? Writers can let them know; it’s called the middle chapters.
And finally, how do you tie up the loose ends and conflicts in your narrative, and bring the book to its conclusion? Ask any marathoner who has successfully covered the final 10K of the 26.2-mile race; some even say “the race begins at 20 miles.” I agree: for running and for books. No matter how tired we are, how sick we are of the material, we have to summon our deepest reserves of creativity and energy, focus even more intently, and write or run to that finish line — well.
2) In 1987, when Guns N’ Roses burst onto the national scene as the best American rock band since Aerosmith (and, some would say, better), who would’ve thought that their tall, rangy, rowdy bass player would evolve into a fine, evocative writer? Yep, you’re right: I didn’t raise my hand, either. But sure enough, as G&R takes its long-deserved place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, bass player and ESPN.com columnist Duff McKagan releases his memoir, It’s So Easy … and other lies. If you want to read a hard-hitting memoir about the rock music world and its excesses, actually written by the musician (and written well), grab this book. You will be delightfully surprised. Duff is one of the true success stories in rock music – as in, he successfully navigated some perilous waters to enjoy the life he now experiences with his wife and two daughters. The opening chapter alone is priceless — setting up his daughter’s 13th birthday party — and finding out he’s gone from rock star to “I want you to remain invisible from my friends.”
3) There’s another book we need to read, not only because of its fine, incisive journalistic reporting with a crafty narrative non-fiction writer’s voice, but because of its pressing subject matter: Eaarth, by Bill McKibben. I’ve been reading articles and occasional books by McKibben since he wrote End of Nature in 1989, when I was doing some environment and food-based work for Earth Save. Eaarth is something quite different; it speaks of what has already happened to the planet from global warming and our addiction to fossil fuels, and what is coming. What struck me, through the tremendous writing and journalism, was not that McKibben was sounding the same warning call we’ve heard for years from others — but that the time is at hand. All you have to look at is the month of March: 15,000 high temperature records were set in the U.S. alone. Gas is $4 per gallon. What polar ice caps? I can’t wait to see him at Ananda College, where I teach, on Tuesday morning, and at his appearance with poet Gary Snyder Tuesday night in nearby Nevada City. As writers, we have the power to help create a more sustainable future with our hands, in more ways than one. This is a great and necessary read.
4) The other day, I was talking to my advanced writing class about what really matters in education and in teaching the subject of writing. With so many great books on writing readily available at Whispernet speeds, it’s silly to constantly try to reinvent the wheel of material — though I can give it shot through two writing books of my own and 35 years of in-the-trenches journalistic, writing and editing experience. We hit upon two of my most near-and-dear perspectives on the teaching of writing, and of education at large:
a) The greatest task – and accomplishment – of all teachers is to instill a lifelong love of learning in their students, reinforced and expanded daily; and
b) Any good writing teacher meets the student at their present stage, takes them by the hand, and expands their horizon and possibility — and shows them how to continually take chances that tap the treasure of the truly insightful, innovative and meaningful. However we do it, that is our goal. Nothing less.
5) I’m now wrapping up the novel that’s taken me forever to finish, Voice Lessons, about a rock music legend/legacy from the late 1960s whose reformed band becomes huge once again, in large part because of the protagonist’s daughter, a great young singer. In the midst, his other daughter, a love child lost to him in the early ‘70s, reappears in his life. This has been an incredible experience, as I wove through my characters through two quite separate but equally rich experiences — a fifty-year swath of American music and its deep-seated place in our culture; and what happens when relationships break … and then mend many years later. Will be shipping it off in a few weeks … look for it in 2013.
6) Am getting ready to write a narrative nonfiction piece on the place where I teach college — the heart of California’s Gold Rush Country. What has struck me is that, from where I sit, there are four types of gold in these thar Sierra Nevada foothills: a) the gold that ignited the fever that changed this place, and America, forever (and there’s still plenty in the rivers and quartz veins); b) the inner gold, with some deep spiritual practices informing many residents and communities here; c) the intellectual gold, in this area where many scientists, educators and thinkers live simple, land-based lives; d) the literary gold, brought forth by numerous authors. Really going to have fun with this one.
7) We’re having one of my favorite activities here at the college on May 8: our second literary night. If every elementary, middle and high school would have one or two of these nights per year, in which students read their writing to a receptive audience, then I feel more kids would get into writing. The written word comes alive when you put voice, emotion and presence to it, and nothing does that more than live readings. Four of my students will be using literary night for their oral final; that’s how important I feel it is. We’ll also have other readers from the student body and faculty. More than anything, we’ll celebrate our stories, poems and the beauty of writing itself.
8) A fantastic writing book to pick up, if you want to work on diving deeper into the essence of your stories, characters, subjects and yourself: Ensouling Language, by Stephen Harrod Buhner. What a gem.
9) If you haven’t already joined, welcome yourself into our Word Journeys — Resources for Writers group on Facebook. This is a great group: more than 400 authors, editors, publishers, publicists, agents and educators sharing their love of writing, along with a diverse array of traditional and digital publishing tips. Best part of this group? Since I know just how tough it is to market books, you can post your new releases in the group and give us links to them – as long as you don’t go advertising billboard on us! We’d love to see you there.
10) Finally, a challenge to all of you to literally write the spring: Write about green subjects, growth, expansion, spirit, community, friendship, love … all the subjects that cause mind and heart alike to expand in both depth and perspective. See if you can tap into the energy of the spring and write pieces that resonate with growth, promise and bounty.