Welcome Reminders from “The Writer’s Life.” Thank You, Annie

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Writing 471px-Mary_Pickford-desk public domain

I’m finding it harder to blog these days, harder to paint, to play piano, to clean house, to do most anything but write, rewrite, and write again.

And yet, despite this, I’m trying to keep the blogging going at least. The painting is on holiday until I start an acrylic and oil class this summer. But the piano, the poor piano! I feel guilty each time I walk by. She so wants to play.

And the house. Well, let’s not talk about the house.

I’m explaining more than complaining. I set this rigorous writing schedule myself. A “scaffolding” Annie Dillard calls it. A “blurred and powerful pattern.” It is all that.

Here is her full quote:

What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being: it is a life boat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.

She also writes about the writer’s precarious relationship to a work in process which I’ve found to be quite true:

I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend. During visiting hours, I enter its room with dread and sympathy for its many disorders. I hold its hand and hope it will get better.

This tender relationship can change in a twinkling. If you skip a visit or two, a work in progress will turn on you.

A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight . . . . As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room.

Another quote relating writing and dying strikes at the heart of the writer’s task:

Write as if you were dying . . . write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. What would you begin writing if you knew you should die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?

Push it. Examine all things intensely and relentlessly. Probe and search each object in a piece of art. Do not leave it, do not course over it, as if it were understood, but instead follow it down until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and strength.

Who but an artist fierce to know—not fierce to seem to know—would suppose that a live image possessed a secret? The artist is willing to give all his or her strength and life to probing with blunt instruments those same secrets no one can describe in any way but with those instruments’ faint tracks.

One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.

I read the above quote daily as a reminder: Push, pull, probe, go deeper, page by page. Leave nothing unturned. Don’t do what’s easy. Do what’s hard.

And finally, another reminder when the writing seems so slow and never-ending:

You are writing a book. . . . you do not hurry and do not rest. You climb steadily, doing your job in the dark. When you reach the end, there is nothing more to climb. The sun hits you; the bright wideness surprises you; you had forgotten there was an end.

“Do not hurry and do not rest.” Yes. Got it.

“There is an end.” Thank God!

Photo credit: Mary Pickford, public domain.

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Letters From Beyond the Grave on Memorial Day

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While neither of these poems have anything in particular to do with remembering those who have given their lives to defend our freedoms, they are reminders that death is not an ending but another beginning. So my heartfelt prayer for them is that they fell into the arms of that great Mothering and are being nurtured and renewed there.

Farewell Letter to My Son

She wrote me a letter
after her death
and I remember
a kind of happy light
falling on the envelope
as I sat by the rose tree
on her old bench
at the back door,
so surprised by its arrival
wondering what she would say,
looking up before I could open it
and laughing to myself
in silent expectation.

Dear son, it is time
for me to leave you.
I am afraid that the words
you are used to hearing
are no longer mine to give,
they are gone and mingled
back in the world
where it is no longer
in my power
to be their first
original author
not their last loving bearer.
You can hear
motherly
words of affection now
only from your own mouth
and only
when you speak them
to those
who stand
motherless
before you.

As for me I must forsake
adulthood
and be bound gladly
to a new childhood.
You must understand
this apprenticeship
demands of me
an elemental innocence
from everything
I ever held in my hands.
I know your generous soul
is well able to let me go
you will in the end
be happy to know
my God was true
and I find myself
after loving you all so long,
in the wide,
infinite mercy
of being mothered myself.

P.S. All your intuitions are true.

By David Whyte

To Leave One’s Own Name Behind

Of course, it is strange to inhabit the earth no longer,
to give up customs one barely had time to learn,
not to see roses and other promising Things
in terms of a human future; no longer to be
what one was in infinitely anxious hands; to leave
even one’s own first name behind, forgetting it
as easily as a child abandons a broken toy.
Strange to no longer desire one’s desires. Strange
to see meanings that clung together once, floating away
in every direction. And being dead is hard work
and full of retrieval before one can gradually feel
a trace of eternity. – Though the living are wrong to believe
in the too-sharp distinctions which they themselves have created.
Angels (they say) don’t know whether it is the living
they are moving among, or the dead. The eternal torrent
whirls all ages along in it, through both realms
forever, and their voices are drowned out in its thunderous roar

By Rainer Maria Rilke
from Duino Elegies, The first Elegy
translation by Stephen Mitchell

I found both of these poems and the photo by Edward Steichen on Beauty We Love, a wonderful source of inspiration I turn to often.

A Lovely Sip of Sorrento, Italy

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With summer around the corner I’ve been looking at all the photos I never shared from last year when I was in Europe with my cousins. Sorrento was one of my favorite places and I wish we had had more time to spend there.

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We arrived by ferry from the island of Capri which lies just off the Amalfi Coast in Italy. Sorrento is set upon a high, sheer bluff. We walked along the beachfront and the took an elevator in the cliff wall to the top, where we could look down on the boats and sunbathers.

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At the top of the elevator was a lovely plaza with old and new art, and a beautiful 14th century monastery which hosts events, such as this tribute to Sophia Loren.

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A short walk away is the famous Piazzo Tasso, lines with restaurants and shops, and with a view looking down at the winding road leading to the old port.

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A short block away, was a lush, sunken garden with the ruins of an old saw mill.

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A lovely lunch at a sidewalk cafe and a quick bus tour around the city rounded out our visit. Then we headed back to the waterfront to catch our ferry. I wish we could have explored more. Next time!

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Astonished, Opened at Last

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Stormy blue sunset in Morro Bay, California, United States.

Photo by Beth Sargent

Fallen in Love

by David Whyte

That day I saw beneath dark clouds
the passing light over the water
and I heard the voice of the world speak out,
I knew then, as I had before
life is no passing memory of what has been
nor the remaining pages in a great book
waiting to be read.

It is the opening of eyes long closed.
It is the vision of far off things
seen for the silence they hold.
It is the heart after years
of secret conversing
speaking out loud in the clear air.

It is Moses in the desert
fallen to his knees before the lit bush.
It is the man throwing away his shoes
as if to enter heaven
and finding himself astonished,
opened at last,
fallen in love with solid ground.

Art that Mirrors the Inner Essence

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Joyce Tenneson

I found this photo on the cover of Sun Magazine some years ago and fell in love with it. It’s from a book by Joyce Tennyson called Light Warriors, with photographs of 21 women from all over the world. The author writes in her introduction:

I was drawn to photograph the people in these pages because I saw something in them, an inner power or radiance that resonated with my unconscious. . . . By trying to reveal their essence, I want to celebrate the beauty and complexity of what it means to be a spiritual warrior–to offer oneself to the world authentically, to flex the courage muscles, to share what it means to be human.

The woman in this photo is Dasha, from Russia. She told Tennyson about a reoccurring dream in which a bird flew out of her heart. Tennyson had similar dreams herself. She tried to photograph the doves flapping their wings around her heart, but didn’t like the way it looked. Then unexpectedly the birds landed on Dasha’s shoulders and she was able to get one shot before they flew away.

Dasha says of herself: “I don’t know who I am, I’m just trying to figure it out. But for me, being a woman is about bringing warmth, beauty, and love from inside you to the those around you. In the United States, people don’t speak about the soul and the heart the way they do in my country. But they are always talking about the past now in Russia. There is sweetness and sadness and nostalgia all mixed together.”

This photograph, for me, beautifully expresses that warmth, beauty, and love inside her. I also see the courage, and vulnerability. I see her—the way she’s dressed and holds herself, the direct gaze, the doves—as an acolyte or priestess in training. Each photo in the book reveals some feminine archetype or psyche.

Tennyson did not pose the women. Instead she encouraged them to express themselves by providing “a safe place for them to be open, to let down their external shields, and to expose an essence or kernel of their being that is normally secret or hidden.” By doing this they were “holding up a mirror to the viewer’s own inner experiences.”

I was so taken with this photograph I saved it for many years, not knowing why. Perhaps because it did mirror some felt experience. But once I started painting I knew I would have to try to capture her in my artwork.

Recently I had an opportunity to do that for an art class project. While I always imagined doing so in soft pastel, I created the piece below in acrylic, not my best medium. Still I like the way it came out. The woman in my painting bears only a mild resemblance to the lovely Dasha, but for me she does capture the spirit of what I see in her and find so inspirational.

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Tennyson writes: “For me photography is a kind of visual diary–it allows me to probe emotions and inner realities that by their nature are invisible but are powerfully present in all of us nonetheless.”

I think that’s what I’m trying to do with my own artwork, my writing as well as my painting, and what I’m drawn to in other’s work.

Maybe we all are holding up mirrors to each other.

 

The Fabulous Island of Capri on the Amalfi Coast

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We spent several days on the fabled Island of Capri during our 30-day whirlwind trip to Europe last summer. It lies along Italy’s gorgeous Amalfi Coast, which I wrote about not too long ago. While fantastically beautiful, Capri seemed a little too polished and glitzy for my taste. Especially when compared with the old world charm of the city of Sorrento, which we visited by ferry while in Capri. I’ll be writing about that next.

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We start here with a few photos of the main harbor of Capri and then work our way up the narrow winding streets toward our hotel at the very top, with spectacular views looking down.

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Later we took a boat tour around the island, cruising through the landmark arches and stopping at the famous Blue Grotto, a playground for Roman emperors in times past.. The waters all around the island were fantastic shades of blue against the limestone cliffs.

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Here we are lining up to get into the Blue Grotto. Small skiffs would come out to the tour boats and take small groups of 4 or 5 through. We were all prepared to get out for a swim inside, but the trip through was just too fast and  crowded. While eerily beautiful inside, I felt like I was on a conveyor belt with all the boats moving so quickly in and out of the grotto with their passengers.

 

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One last wave goodbye to this fabled island with all its natural beauty, its fabulous riches, and its ancient history. Onward to Sorrento!

What Makes this Photo So Fascinating?

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Vivian Maier (1926-2009)

What makes a photograph great? What draws us to look again and again? What is it we see that fascinates us so?

These are the kinds of questions that haunt me, because they speak to the human condition, what makes us human, what inspires us and sets us on fire. Why we are drawn to some things, why do they whisper to us in a way that makes us feel that as if we could only ferret this out we will have drawn aside some mysterious veil that hides the secrets of our soul from us.

I want to get to the bottom of these things, to understand what excites me and why–in art, in music, in literature, in the simple objects that I find in my house that give me such pleasure when I look at them, take them in.

Where does this pleasure come from? Why am I drawn to look deep inside this mirror?

The photograph above by Vivian Maier fascinates me. Her story is fascinating as well. Maier is considered one of the finest photographers of our age, yet she was unknown in her lifetime. Her photographs of city life, thousands of them, were found after her death, as negatives, never developed, never printed. Yet it’s not her story that draws me to this photo. It stands by itself as an object of art, a moment forever stilled in time for our rapt attention.

I suppose what first captures the eye is the stunning beauty of the woman, like an Aphrodite of old captured in stone. We are drawn toward beautiful things, no matter what their nature: a woman, a man, a child, a sunset, a spectacular cathedral.

But there is so much more to this photo that captures and holds our gaze, that makes it exciting and evocative and a pleasure to look at, than the mere beauty of the woman’s face. There’s also the expression on her face, the sideways glance, the downward gaze, the dark arching eyebrows and melancholy mouth. Those eyes. There’s a mysterious Mona Lisa appeal that makes us look with wonder at her: who is she, what is she thinking, where is she going? We have some clues, and these too comprise in part what makes this photo so fascinating.

Behind her is an imposing edifice slightly out of focus, a courthouse I’m guessing, with steps leading down to the street, as if she has just vacated that space.  The strong central column leads directly to her, the soft pale gray stone in direct contrast with her shining dark hair. While the sharper, horizontal lines of the near stairs behind her also point provocatively toward her. She is caught at the apex of their meeting.

Surrounding her (almost like a parenthesis to enhance her significance) are the elderly women moving past and leaning toward her with their bent backs and grey heads. They too are slightly out of focus. Passersby in motion contrasting with her stark startling stillness.

Below her is a streak of white, slantwise and mysterious, a ghostly blur. It appears she is standing in the middle of the street, or perhaps on the curb, and the photographer is viewing her from the open window of a passing vehicle. That blur, that streak of passing time across her breast, of swift motion, contrasts sharply with her stillness and the sharp, clean details that freeze her in time: The pearl necklace and earring; the wings of her wide collar framing her face; the sharp, delicate sculpture of her collar bones; the dark hollow of her throat and gentle curve of her jaw; the feathering of the dark eyelash silhouetted against the white stone behind her.

She is a study of stillness against the motion that surrounds her, and without that surrounding motion, without all those revealing contrasts and details, she would not appear so alluring, nor would this photograph be so fascinating. Without all the lines leading toward her, framing her, setting her apart from all else; without her face being set like a polished diamond within the gray softness surrounding her; without that stunning stillness caught within a blur of motion, like a second in time frozen for all eternity, this photograph would lose its fascination. For me at least.

There’s poetry in this photograph, rhythm, rhyme, music. It speaks profoundly on the eternal nature of beauty and its fragility within a timescape that erases the very thing it  evolves. Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn, Shelley’s Hymn to Beauty speak no more eloquently to that theme than this single image does.

There’s tenderness here, love, compassion, heartbreak and pathos, as well as a beauty beyond knowing, beyond time. Something we feel deeply and speaks movingly to what it means to be human shrouded in so much mystery. And that’s what I find so fascinating. How a single image, flashed on the fly, can capture all that.

The Insatiable Eye – Sontag on Photography

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Photographic Artist and Photogravure Printmaker Sally Mann in 1974.

Photograph by Sally Mann, Self portrait

In her book of essays On Photography, Susan Sontag speaks of the “insatiability of the photographing eye” in our image-obsessed society, and how it shapes how we see ourselves and the world around us.

While she wrote these essays in the 1970’s before the arrival of the digital camera, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the cell phone selfie, most of her observations ring true. Perhaps even truer than when she was writing, nearly forty years ago.

By Sally Mann

Photography as Social Rite, and an Elegiac Art

Perhaps closest to home for those of us who practice photography as amateurs, capturing images to share with family and friends on social media and elsewhere, are these observations. While offered as a critique of this practice, or at least a peeling back of its happier connotations, they provide food for thought.

[P]hotography is not practiced by most people as an art. It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.

Through photographs, each family constructs a portrait-chronicle of it self–a portable kit of images that bears witness to its connectedness.

{P]hotographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal.

Those ghostly traces, photographs, supply the token presence of the dispersed relatives.

[P]hotographs actively promote nostalgia. Photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art. Most subjects photographed are, just by virtue of being photographed, touched by pathos.

All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.

Garry Winogrand (1928 - 1984)

By Gary Winogrand

Photography as Acquisition, and Voyeuristic

This acquisitive and voyeuristic relationship to the world that incessant photography promotes is one I identify with and struggle against. I believe that these travel-trophies we bring home from our trips have positive as well as the negative consequences, as I wrote about in my last post. But I think we are well-advised to be aware of the addictive dangers of photography to ourselves and others and the world at large.

Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.

To collect photographs is to collect the world.

To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge–and, therefore, like power.

Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.

Taking photographs has set up a chronic voyeuristic relation to the world which levels the meaning of all events.

The omnipresence of cameras persuasively suggests that time consists of interesting events, events worth photographing.

As way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it–by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir. Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs.

[C]ameras are fantasy-machines whose use is addictive.

Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted.

Vivian Maier (1926-2009)

By Vivian Maier

Photography as a Mystery, a Grammar, and an Ethics of Seeing

This last subject is the one that interests me the most about photography, and about any art form, whether in its making or in the response of the viewer. Yet Sontag spends less time developing this topic, at least so far in my reading. Even so, her observations are acute and intriguing, and invite us to delve deeper.

Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as modern

A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence. Like a fire in a room, photographs . . . are incitements to reverie. The sense of the unattainable that can be evoked by photographs feeds directly into the erotic feelings of those for whom desirability is enhanced by distance.

The camera’s rendering of reality must always hide more than it discloses.

[It] confers on each moment the character of a mystery. Any photograph has multiple meaning; indeed, to see something in the form of a photograph is to encounter a potential object of fascination. 

Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy.

In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing. . . .

There is a peculiar heroism abroad in the world since the invention of cameras: the heroism of vision.

Photographic seeing meant an aptitude for discovering beauty in what everybody sees but neglects as too ordinary. Photographers were supposed to do more than just see the world as it is . . . ; they were to create interest, by new visual decisions.

[Cameras] changed seeing itself, by fostering the idea of seeing for seeing’s sake.

Клуб Foto.ru

By Henri Cartier-Bresson

Click here for more photographs by famous photagraphers.

Life through a Lens, What We Gain & Lose, Redux

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How much of our lives do we view through a narrow lens, whether through the lens of a camera, our own limited viewpoint, or the stories we tell about ourselves and each other?

When we walk through life with a perpetual camera around our necks, we are tempted to see everything through that narrow focus, framing everything we see–the city streets, the sunsets and landscapes, the people we pass, the objects that come into view. As we frame what we see and take photos, it helps us to notice things we may have overlooked otherwise, and to see these things in a new light. It intensifies our ability to discover the extraordinary in the ordinary, and allows us to capture and preserve those visions.

But it also breaks the whole into parts, raw experience into the photo-worthy and not-so-much.  We experience things not as a participant, but an observer, a spectator or voyeur at worst, a curator of the significant at best.

Isle du Pins cropped1When we were sailing around the world, I wish I had done more of that capturing and preserving. There were no digital cameras then, and film was expensive and hard to store in a hot, damp climates. So now I have only a handful of photos from hikes through the enchanted valleys of the Marquesas. Three or four of our stay in legendary Bora Bora, a dozen from our three months in Samoa. Now I wish we had dozens more photos of each place to view and remember.

On the other hand, by the time my first grandchild was born we had a digital camera.  Because I saw him so seldom, when I was with him I photographed him almost continuously, following him everywhere and capturing every sweet smile, every cute incident, every new thing he did.

Until I stood back one day and realized that by indulging the urge to “frame” everything for posterity, I was missing out on now, on just being with him–soaking up his presence, our time together–in the moment, raw and unfiltered.

IMG_0429Now though, I do not regret all those photos I took. For I am able to relive those moments with greater clarity and in more detail that I might have been able to do so without them.

It’s all a balancing act, I guess.

As writers we do that too—viewing the world and our experiences through a mental lens, framing things for posterity, seeing images, events, interactions, as fodder for our stories. We couldn’t write without doing that, consciously, or unconsciously.

Public domainSand-Between-Toes_Woman-Feet__59016-150x150But we have to know when to see things through the writer’s mind, as observer, spectator, curator, and when to put away that lens and become a participant in the raw experience that evolves around us. To “step barefoot into reality” as the poet Wallace Stevens once evoked.

It’s harder than we might imagine, to put away all the filters through which we experience life, and just “be” it. Life itself. Unfiltered.

NOTE: I wrote this post six years ago, but it shows, even then, my keen interest in photography, and even more in how we capture and reflect experience, limit and distort it. As you know, I’m researching a new novel with photography and the creative endeavor at its core, and the reading I’m doing meshes quite nicely with what I wrote here. So I thought I’d share this, my own take on this subject, before sharing what I’ve gathered from others. 

On a Quick Walk to the Mailbox

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After so much rain this year on the central coast of California, the hillsides around our home are green and lush. The wildflowers are beginning to pop out in our neighborhood and the cherry trees are in full bloom.  Here are just a few quick photos from a recent walk to our mailbox.

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