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The Intersection of Literature & Free Expression  

The motto that symbolizes freedom of written expression

The motto that symbolizes freedom of written expression

Whenever I travel to San Francisco, one of my favorite cities in the world, I make sure to pay homage to the roots of my craft near the intersection of Columbus & Grant, where North Beach and Chinatown intersect.

It is a simple little tour, really: just three places. The first, City Lights Books, is a wonderful patchwork of angles, stories, perches, step-ups, cellars and basements loaded with books you may not find anywhere else. It is also home base to celebrated poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who spent the 1950s writing poetry collections, turning a half-dozen unknown writers into the famed San Francisco Renaissance crew (or West Coast Beats), and taking on the U.S. Supreme Court when they censored his publication of Henry Miller.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the maestro of poetry and City Lights

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the maestro of poetry and City Lights

Now 95, Ferlinghetti is a hawk of a man, tall, imposing and imperious when crossed. He and my old friend, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder, still read together once every October. Every time we write a page, article or book with anything we want to say, and then publish it, we’re reminded of who won that landmark censorship battle that culminated in 1961. It wasn’t the Supreme Court.

City Lights is my favorite bookstore, the bookstore that City Lightssparks me every time I walk through its doors. Now 60 years old, it is what an independent bookstore is all about — distinct character and personality, books carefully chosen by a well-read staff, a sanctuary of the written word, and the hub of a great writing community and movement. It is the best store to buy Beat literature in the world. Its selection of poetry, novels and literature reflects an open-minded, story-crafting, intelligence-promoting approach that is, well, the only approach that should ever matter in a society.

My favorite City Lights moment came in 2001. I walked into the store with Marty Balin, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame lead singer (and founder) of Jefferson Airplane, as well as Jefferson Starship. During their San Francisco concerts in the wild 1960s, bands used to ask poets to open their shows — celebrations of light, spoken word, dancing and music. Ferlinghetti was the Airplane’s designated poet on several occasions. As we walked inside, there was Ferlinghetti, perched in the checkout area. Marty and Ferlinghetti hadn’t seen each other in twenty years. Immediately, I felt like the luckiest fly on the wall as they caught up and discussed music, literature, and reminisced about those early concerts at Longshoreman’s Hall, the Matrix and The (original) Fillmore.

If the walls of Vesuvio's could talk, who would ever leave?

If the walls of Vesuvio’s could talk, who would ever leave?

Across the street from City Lights is Vesuvio’s, the colorful two-story pub that served as Jack Kerouac’s watering hole during his trips to San Francisco. Hemingway had Sloppy Joe’s in Key West, Henry James had the White House Tavern in New York City, and Kerouac had Vesuvio’s. He percolated large parts of On The Road, The Dharma Bums and other novels while sitting inside. Now, the place is lined with classic photos from the Beat generation, along with posters of Mae West, Janis Joplin, and other adornments that were part of the bar Kerouac knew. It looked like a few patrons and bottles of ancient booze on the shelves had never left, too.

The patron saint of Kerouac Way, which splits City Lights & Vesuvio's and leads to Chinatown.

The patron saint of Kerouac Way, which splits City Lights & Vesuvio’s and leads to Chinatown.

After that, we took our haul of books a hundred yards to Vital Tea Leaf, located in the middle of Chinatown. (Gotta love the way ethnic neighborhoods run into each other in San Francisco, so effortlessly, without fences or borders.) Our old friend, the 83-year-old proprietor with a sailor’s tongue and a sage’s wisdom, greeted us with hugs at the door. We then spent the next 90 minutes tasting teas made of nectar and gold (so it seemed), and listening to him mix insightful history and preparation tips with playful poking at customers as they walked inside. I find Chinese tea opens up the creative pores in a way that makes verse and prose pour from mind, body and soul; it is always my chosen drink when writing. So, I loaded up with pu’erh, milk oolong, cloud mist and lapsang souchong (the smoky tea), heard our host’s stories about each (cloud mist grows at 8,000 feet, for example), and headed off to write a few of my own.

To me, Columbus & Grant is not only the junction of ancient and modern literature, or the crossroads of shih and Beat writing and poetry. It is also the shining beacon that reminds me of two endangered species — the independent bookstore and freedom of written expression. As we move into National Poetry Month, we’re reminded of the treasures men and women have written for thousands of years. And the inalienable right and freedom to do so. That’s worth honoring in the best way possible — by writing.Kerouac sign




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The Craft of Writing: 10 Easy Practices

To order The Write Time: 366 Exercises to Fulfill Your Daily Writing Life
To order Writes of Life: Using Personal Experiences in Everything You Write
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How do you build a writing practice? How do you maintain it? How do you thrive from it?

The daily practice of writing sounds like the easiest thing in the world to develop. But it’s not. We sit down with an idea and motivation, and you write… right? If only it were that easy for the vast majority of us. What many learn, fast, is that the open-ended act of writing is like running wild in a field. If we don’t create some structure to measure and pace ourselves, we will burn out and topple to the ground long before a book, essay, article or other project is complete.

Over the years, I have found 10 approaches that combine to form a solid way to write consistently and productively. Since I am presenting these as part of a workshop Thursday night at the Crittenden County (KY) Library Writing Workshop Series, I thought I would try to stir up some office rearranging, journal writing and brainstorming with you today! These aspects of the craft of writing work for writers of all levels and genres, and are designed to support the writing practice for both the short- and long-term.

1) SETTING: A Writing Environment that works for you
Does your writing office, room or nook work for you? Do you have enough plants, pictures, inspirational sayings, natural light, furnishings and other adornments? Are your key reference books nearby—a dictionary, thesaurus, style manual, maybe a Writer’s Market? Any background music? Do your desk or table and chair work for you? Create an environment that feeds and inspires you.

2) PRACTICING: Turn Your Journal into an idea goldmine
All working writers should keep two journals, or at least be of two minds about their journal: one to recount experiences, feelings and observations of the day; the other to experiment with writing techniques and approaches, perhaps even different genres, and generate ideas. I always tell workshop participants that the journal is the working writer’s “chemistry lab.” It’s also a potential goldmine of ideas.

3) RESEARCHING: Learn It, Note It, Know It, Master It – in your own words
This is key to the writing craft. Research your subject so thoroughly that you can masterfully write about it in your own words. Research different points of view, different perspectives. Read books. Interview experts or knowledgeable people. When you take notes, jot down how this piece of research could work into your narrative, character or subject. Think “applicability” when researching.

4) PREPARING: Your Game Plan
How are you going to write your book, travelogue, essay, story or series of journal entries? After writing freely for awhile, it’s time to create a plan that fulfills your objective of finishing. Which hours work best for you to write? Can you write every day or every other day? How much to write each day? Create an outline or chapter summary that you follow until it’s finished — then pull out the next outline or summary. Break down your work into day-sized pieces.

5) PROCEEDING: Daily writing schedules that leave you eager to continue the next day, and not burned out
Create a daily writing schedule that works for your level of concentration and energy. Some people can write six hours of new material daily; others can only last two or three hours. Set a schedule that is write for you. Take the outline or chapter summary mentioned above, and finish each day at a place where you can’t wait to resume the next day. Author-artist Henry Miller called this “finishing hot.”

6) MAINTAINING: How to maintain Writer’s Mind 24/7 and, thus, momentum when working on particular books or projects
This is my favorite part of the writing process. When I write a book, my mind immerses into that world and subject 24/7. The world seems sharper; my senses are more acute. There is so much you can do with the 18 to 20 hours not spent writing the new material. Edit your past day’s work. Turn post-writing walks or exercise into different workouts, turning over plot or subject matter in your mind. Jot notes in your journal — and work them out with mind-mapping or other brainstorming techniques. Observe the world around you for material you can write. Watch your dreams to see what they might present.

7) TRUSTING: Trust your intuitive writer’s mind to get down the best material every day
Trust is crucial for all writers. We must fully trust what our deeper minds and hearts, and our intuitive faculties, present us as we write. We must also trust ourselves to get everything down and not keep editing and censoring—especially when in a writing session. Most importantly, let your intuitive mind help put your stories together, feed them, and conduct your characters’ “conversations”. This is when great writing happens. It’s like skiing down a hill and resisting all “controlling mind” warnings to slow down—knowing that the faster you go (within reason), the more control you truly have … and the more complete your experience. It’s all about trust.

8) DEVELOPING: Spin off and develop new ideas while continuing to work on your main project
This step intermingles with Step 6. When I’m writing a book, I put notebooks and note pads all over my home and office. I also tape a sheet of quadrille (small-squared) paper next to my keyboard. Every time an idea pops up for another piece of writing, whether a poem or new book idea, I write it down as an image, note or sentence. At most, I’ll scribble down a paragraph or two. Then back to the project at hand. By allowing yourself those few seconds to honor the ideas, you will always have new writing material for that next project — and you will enjoy a steady stream of ideas, thanks to the law of reciprocity: you reap what you sow. Entertain and jot down all ideas — then sow them later.

Another tip: find blogs in your subject matter, and write guest blogs to illustrate specific areas. Besides keeping you on task, you’ll also be building your all-important writer’s platform in case you want to sell your work — or are selling into an audience different than the one that has read your works in the past.

9) FEEDING: Keeping your mind and body open, energized and flexible
Many writers forget about taking care of themselves. They’re going to dig in, grind it out, throw their sleep patterns asunder, eat atrociously, and fight the ultimate battle to write that book. Writing is more of a marathon than a sprint; pacing and nourishment are vital. But there’s more. When working on a project, feed your mind by cross-reading in different genres, visiting art or sculpture galleries or museums, listening to music that expands and enlivens you, taking long walks, bike rides or runs, cooking new dishes, engaging in rich conversations, going to poetry readings or concerts, and writing letters.

10) FINISHING: Steps to finish — every time
Every year, many thousands of young boys enter Boy Scouts. Most think they will become Eagle Scouts—the highest honor. Less than 2% get there. I would guess that book writing carries the same percentage—2% of all manuscripts are written to completion. The key to finishing is to keep you and your writing fresh, turn each day into bite-sized pieces, and be consistent and disciplined. And be ready to get ultra-focused when you near the end. Write every day that you can. Expand that word “can” into more and more days. Follow the steps listed above. Start by finishing what you set out to do that day. Then string your days together until finished. When you finish the first draft, let it sit for a few days, then proceed to revise and edit it. Give yourself mini-breaks, often. Perhaps most importantly, don’t be too attached to your manuscript. There is a time for it to be done, a time the child becomes an adult and moves out (hopefully!). Finish it, and move on to your next work.

REMEMBER: The Write Time Writing Contest is now underway! $500 in cash prizes, plus publishing opportunities. Deadline is April 15. Check the Word Journeys Website – or the January 22 entry of this blog – for complete details.

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The Big Read: Visiting Places Where Great Works Were Written

To buy The Write Time: 366 Exercises to Fulfill Your Writing Life

While scanning through Facebook this morning, I noticed an interesting post on the wall of one of my old elementary and high school classmates:

The Big Read: Robinson Jeffers and the Ecologies of Poetry.

The description: “The Deer Lay Down Their Bones:” Poems by and in the spirit of Robinson Jeffers. California poets will read Jeffers’ poetry and their own responses. Led by Suzanne Lummis of the Los Angeles Poetry Festival and featuring Charles Harper Webb, Cecilia Woloch, actress Dale Raoul (True Blood) read the poetry of Robinson Jeffers, and special guest poet Jamie Asae FitzGerald. Presented by the Historical Society of Southern California.

While the Big (Group) Read happened last week (more on the installation at the end of this blog), it brought back wonderful memories of reading authors’ works in their exact settings. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I used to assist Central California poet-professor Ingrid Reti in leading literary excursions to Big Sur – where Robinson Jeffers wrote his most commanding nature and ecology poems. We would stop along the wild, majestic coastline in a tour bus, and take turns reading from the works of Big Sur pioneer-authors while also discussing their relationship to the rugged land. We would stop at locations that either inspired or served as the settings for pieces of writing. We’d also make the obligatory stops to the Henry Miller Library and Nepenthe.

The eclectic cast of Big Sur authors included the literary and artistic powerhouse Henry Miller, Lillian Bos Ross, Jaime de Angulo, Jeffers, and John Steinbeck, who wrote several of his books while lodged in a clifftop cabin that still exists in Lucia. One of our staples was Miller’s great book Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch, which contains priceless descriptions of walking down from Partington Ridge to the pools at Slate Hot Springs – now the mineral baths of the Esalen Institute. A few years later, I wrote a magazine cover story that interwove these Big Sur literary adventures with the experiences of a heart alive with new love. One day, I’ll retype it and lodge it on my website.

This experience began a new passion for me: Reading works in the locations where they were written. When I read a Robert Frost poem while sitting in the snow in Franconia Notch, NH, every word and image springs to (frosty) life. When I sit on the point at Sirmione, Italy, and read the open-hearted works of Roman poet Catullus while perched in the ruins of his football field-sized villa atop Lake Garda, I can feel how the lake gave his tortured soul solace. While standing in my garden, or writing in the woods behind my house, I am immediately called to any combination of essays, poems and phrases by Kentucky’s great literary treasure, Wendell Berry. I can’t even count how many times I’ve gone up the San Juan Ridge in the Sierra foothills to seclude and meditate at the Ananda Meditation Retreat, then walked across the manzanita-lined road to read the poems of Gary Snyder while sitting next to Kitkitdizze – the great poet/essayist’s home for the past 40 years. Travel down the Grand Canal in Venice, and a potpourri of authors and their works spring to mind – and give further depth and insight into the experience. Hit the beaches of Venice, CA, and it’s easy for me to fall into the lyrical rhythms of two of my favorite musician-poets, Jim Morrison of the Doors and Exene Cervenka of the great L.A. punk/rockabilly band X.

While so much of writing is what we create and shape in our minds, place and setting are an equally large part of the picture. As both working writers and readers, we can draw great wisdom and technique as writers by reading works in their root locations. First, it gives us direct insight into what the author observed in that moment. We can only speculate as to why he or she chose certain words or phrases, but that speculation is certainly enhanced by training our eyes and senses on the same or similar subjects. Furthermore, we can grasp a sense of what created meaning in the author’s life. If Robinson Jeffers wrote countless great poems of nature and ecology while sitting amongst the redwoods, cliffs and raw beaches of Big Sur, then clearly, Big Sur fed his heart, soul and mind. Any time an author spends any length of time in one place, a relationship with that place is formed. Their writing will reflect the relationship with the landscape, ecology, history and people of that locale.

As writers, we can learn how to weave ourselves into our essays, or our characters into their settings, by simply taking literary excursions – and writing about our perceptions, observations and feelings, then creating a new work that integrates place. Visit the home of a noted local author. Go to a place where a favorite author or poet composed a work. Walk the same steps your favorite travel writer took. Sit down, become very quiet, and soak in the energy the author felt and conveyed.

By the way … The Big Read: Robinson Jeffers and the Ecologies of Poetry will remain installed at the Occidental College Library in Southern California through November 7. Hope to see you there!

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