A Visit From the Muse


 

 

1.

One thing that always motivates me is a deadline. Having a calendar of coming events, coming obligations, is a not so gentle reminder that I need to take action. Time moves on, and me doing other things or not paying attention of the business at hand, gets me into trouble.

I’ve wanted to do something different at the monthly community open mic that I’ve helped get started. I do a lot of promotion for it and I always have something to read there.

Being the essayist, the book writer, the poet is a comfortable role. And, reading off the printed page is not threatening. I’m not totally drenched in nervous sweat when I read at a public event.

Many of my friends come, and the event is developing into a nice cultural event for this small town. One of my friends is now the regular emcee, and he does a fine job. Lately, he’s been “suggesting” I do something with my guitar. I play in a community country rock band; we’ve done public performances. And, I played my guitar while my wife sang at a friend’s wedding last year. So, I’ve dipped my toe into the public waters.

This past two weeks, I’ve flipped through several song books, and listened to some of my new favorite CDs, hoping to find that perfect “cover” song to play. If Willie or George or Pete can sing and play something in public, well maybe I can copy that.

I even found one of my first favorite songs, from when I was literally just a babe. “This Old House” was the number one song when I was one year old, and I annoyed my mother to no end playing it again and again on my little kid’s record player.

This week, I learned that Rosemary Clooney sang it in the key of Eb and it now is seen as a Gospel song. But, after a few hours, I realized it just wasn’t working for me. At least not with a deadline of tonight.

The last few days, I’ve felt that the song to be done is a blues song, and I found the rhythm and key that fits. All I needed were lyrics.

An article I read said that songs that work are about things you experience and have feelings about. I kept thinking about it, even when I was stuck in traffic. My home town is going through construction madness this summer. All the tourists plus construction of a new highway intersection, a town plaza and new sidewalks has often brought traffic to a halt.

I went home and sat down with my guitar and a quiet hour on the deck. Just me, my guitar, a pad of paper, and, hopefully, my new song.

I played my chords, got my rhythm, and wrote down a few thoughts about the traffic. Then a few more words, and more guitar strumming. I gave it space, and let the Muse settle in for a visit. More words. I put down the pencil, and found a pen. The pen somehow made it easier to write what came to mind.

Yeah, a lot of words and phrases came to mind, got written down, then crossed out, or new words and phrases stuffed in.

I looked up, taking in the coming sunset, took a break, got a glass of water, and wrote some more. And, edited, rearranged, mulling it all over.

I went to bed, feeling that this thing, this “song” was about there, and had been, well, created.

Overnight, my brain mulled it over again. At 2 a.m., I woke with the first verse fully in my head, and it was good. At 6, I sprung out of bed and wrote another verse, and revised several others, all before coffee. The Muse can be demanding.

Later, out of respect for my wife’s ears after only one cup of coffee and the morning hour, I waited until she went outside to the garden before my song rehearsal. The pen made a few more word changes, and then even editor’s remorse, and some editing was undone.

I relaxed, guitar pick in hand.

“Let the words guide the music,” the Muse whispered. “And relax.”

“Just let it flow.”

I like it. It’s a song. It’s good entertainment, too. Fun. Whimsical. And, a new side of me that I haven’t let too many people see. I haven’t let me see it very often, either. Playing that tonight will be fun, and my friends will be surprised.

Me, too.

2.

The Muse stayed with me, as I brought my guitar into the yogurt shop. I took it out the case, tuned it, and set it up near the microphone. I brought my music stand and put the printed words out there.

Nerves set in, as I waited for folks to gather, and we finished setting up the space. I sucked down a whole bottle of water, my mouth parched by the warm day, or was it nerves? My buddy started us off, and others played their music, read their poems.

It was a comfortable night for everyone, or so I thought. Old friends, reading new works, sharing deep emotions. Just like me.

Soon, it was my turn. And instead of having an essay or poem in my hand, it was my old familiar guitar. I strummed a few chords and off I went.

The song went as planned, and it came out the way I thought it should go. And, I got a nice round of applause at the end.

One friend admired the fact that I’d done something different tonight. We’re both poets, so he asked how writing a song was different.

“Still a poem,” I said, “but one with more dimensions.”

I’ve tried something hard, but it felt good, felt right. For what I wanted to say tonight, it was the way to go, a blues song about my little town, and what was going on affected me, changed me. That’s what a good poem, a good essay, or even a book chapter does, too.

Life is like that, offering challenges, new ways of saying things, getting things out.

 

–Neal Lemery, 7/23/2017

Great Books on Writing and My Writing Principles


Neal Lemery’s List of Suggested Books on Writing Craft and Guiding Principles

 

 

Stephen King, On Writing

 

Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within

 

Lisa Cron, Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentenc

 

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

 

Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity

 

 

 

 

My Guiding Principles

 

  • Write what you know
  • Show, don’t tell
  • Write often, even if it’s the grocery list
  • Carve out a time and space to write and do it regularly. (Make an appointment with yourself.)
  • Carry some paper and a pen everywhere. The Muse strikes unexpectedly.
  • Give words to someone’s story. Give them a voice.
  • If the story is too close, too painful, write it as fiction, or in third person.
  • Writing folders on your computer, on the desktop. Yearly Journal. Subjects. Don’t trash anything. Every writing work is a seed.
  • Read great writing.
  • Do a blog. (self imposed obligation to write, and gets you “out there”)
    • com
    • com
    • (My blog turned into two books)
    • group blog
    • guest blog (post someone else’s writing on your blog)
    • Link to your Facebook page, or blog directly on Facebook
    • Photo blog/Instagram
    • Link to Twitter

 

 

http://neallemery.com

 

In The Writer’s Zone


 

There are dangers in being a writer. The jaws of the Muse’s trap can take form in the laptop by my chair, waiting for me and the Muse to connect.
Often, the Muse doesn’t come. It’s not always my procrastination. But when she does, she’s sneaky. She will wait for me, hoping I’ll be there to catch that poem by its tail and write it backwards, as it slips through my life. That’s what Elizabeth Gilbert thinks. And she’s right.
In that “writing it backwards” before the Muse laughs at you and slips out of the house, that I must pounce and capture the idea before it leaves.
All else stops, and time becomes something else, not anything like clock hands moving around the circle, or even the sunbeam silently moving across the floor, until I suddenly realize its dark outside and maybe I should turn on a light. It’s another world, this writing life.
Yesterday, I decided to boil eggs, so that I would have some hardboiled eggs for my breakfast the next day. We were going out of town, to a hospital for a medical procedure for my wife. I don’t wait well in hospitals anyway, and waiting rooms and I don’t do well together on an empty stomach. We had to be there just after six, and my wife couldn’t have breakfast, or even coffee. So, I needed to be sneaky, and smuggle my breakfast into the waiting room.
I had a writing assignment for a newsletter. I’d been obligated to write a short piece, just three to four hundred words. Something chatty and newsy, about something related to the work I was doing for the group.
“Do something fun, whimsical,” the newsletter editor had told me. “It’ll be easy for you. You write a lot anyway.”
Doesn’t she know there’s always blood involved in this writing thing?
Of course, the idea for it hadn’t arrived in my brain yet, and I was fretting about the deadline in a few days, and not having it done. And, I had to get it done before we were off to the hospital, and the couple of nights in a motel, so that my wife could recover, yet be near the doctor if anything went wrong. Hospital waiting rooms and motel rooms with bandaged limbs and ice bags and rows of pills on nightstands aren’t good writing venues.
All the usual pre-op anxiety wasn’t good for my chatty little writing assignment, and so I procrastinated.
But, when the eggs were done, I WAS going to sit down and write. Maybe something would come.
I put the eggs on to boil.
“No need to set the timer,” I told myself. Once they boiled, I was just going to leave them in the pan for an hour and they’d be nicely hardboiled.
I put the eggs in the pan and turned on the stove.
“I’ll flip open the laptop, and get myself set up to write,” I thought.
“I’ll be right back.”
Ha! That was not to be. As soon as I sat down and got going on the computer, to set up that scary fresh new page on the computer screen, the Muse decided to pay a visit.
“Oh, that’s a great idea,” I thought, and started to write. First a sentence, then another, and the first paragraph shaped up.
On to the second paragraph, and a third. A little editing, a rephrasing, and off I went.
Lost to the world, oblivious of anything around me. I wrote and wrote, and a good first draft of the essay was there, right in front of my eyes.
“”What’s going on with your eggs?,” my wife asked.
“What eggs?” I said.
“Oh, those eggs. Oh, I’ve forgotten them,” I said, hurriedly putting down my laptop.
Reality again.
Most of the water had boiled away. And that was an accomplishment, as I’d put a glass lid on the pot, one of those with the little metal rimmed hole, so just a smidgen of steam can come out. Unless you forget and just let it boil and boil, until that essay is looking good.
It must have boiled for quite a while, as only about a tablespoon of water was left, and the shells looked grayish brown, almost smoky. In another two or three minutes, they would have started smoking.
I wondered what burned hardboiled eggs would be like, how the house would probably be filled with clouds of burned hard boiled eggs. Sulfurous. Nauseating. A stench that would still be noticeable a week later, leaving me to explain to friends and visitors what that stench was, and how it came to be. How I came to ruin a perfectly good pot. How to explain why I can’t seem to even be able to boil some eggs.
And why Bon Appetit or Gourmet magazine won’t be asking me to contribute a story.
I could blame it on the Muse, couldn’t I? Wasn’t it her fault, waiting around until I put the eggs on, and flipped open the laptop, when she struck. Distracting me, leaving me to forget a scant two minutes into my project, that there was a decent essay in the room, and I needed to get it written. Forget the eggs.
And so I did. I moved into another dimension, leaving my wife to come by in the nick of time, and rescue the household from another one of my cooking disasters, one of my projects gone awry.
I’ll blame it on the Muse. It’s all her fault. Even when she shows up.

 

–Neal Lemery June 19, 2017

Making Inquiry


Courage came into my life the other day, and taught me a few lessons.

It is not often that we are given the opportunity to look back in our lives, to take a deep look at a dark time, and reflect on what we have learned, and what we still need to do.

He had asked me for help.

“I’m not sure what to say here,” he said.

The counselor had given him a big assignment, the last challenge he had to complete to finish the treatment program.

He had to write down his thoughts about a terrible time in his childhood, a time that still causes him nightmares. Once this was done, he could move on with his life.

I read the assignment out loud, giving voice to the three pages of questions and the writing assignment that required him to relive the bad times, and maybe make some sense of it.

To do this work, he had to look to a time when life for him was upside down, nonsensical. He knew that now. Time away from all of that had given him some perspective, some maturity, an ability to see all of that for what it was, and understand the why of it all.

The questions shook me to my core. If this was my book, my treatment program, could I be strong enough to answer all of this, to put into words the thoughts I’d had? Could I be objective about the actions I took, way back then, and reflect on what I’d learned, how I had changed?
Or would I run away from that, ignoring these questions, and pretend it had never happened? Often, I see that as the easier path.

“Could you write it down for me?” he asked. “I’ll just talk and you put it into words on the paper.”

I could do that, to be his witness, his scribe.

He was Courage today, and I was his student.

He took a breath and began.

Almost matter of fact, he told his story and answered the questions in order, detached at times, reflecting on a long ago life, seen now from a safe distance. Now, an adult, a graduate of years of treatment and therapy and discussion groups, he spoke with authority. Everything was clear to him. What had happened, what he did was in the past; it was that old way of life, that old way of thinking.

His words flowed, organized, methodical, and I wrote them all down. Sometimes, I’d prompt him with the next question, the next exercise in the book where I wrote.

I looked into his eyes, and saw glimmers of the old pain, the guilt, the shame; tempered now with a blaze of forgiveness and wisdom. The time of judgment and condemnation had long passed, and today, we were moving on. I witnessed his fire, the spirit of a new man, who had grown beyond the old, and was able to make sense of that story, his story — history.

Those questions he had had long ago now were answered. He’s made a new life for himself, orderly, peaceful. He had a purpose now, a direction. It was down on paper, proof that he’d moved on.

The poet Rainer Rilke writes:
“Love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually live your way into the answer.”

My young friend is doing his work, looking at those questions, breathing in the answers, and figuring out who he is, and how to move on.

Our journeys through life are not without challenge, and not without peril. Seeking the truth is not for the meek or the timid.

Were I to be as wise as him, as determined, I, too, could ask my friend to take his pen and write down what I had to say.

Making inquiry is part of our work here as we live our lives, pausing now and then to look inside.

–Neal Lemery
July 10, 2016

Love Tour


by Karen Keltz, author of Sally Jo Survives Sixth Grade, and an award winning poet. Read more about her at Karen Keltz’s website and blog

THE LOVE TOUR

January is a most depressing month, and February follows right on its heels. Here on the coast everything is dripping wet, soggy and marshlike. The prominent color of the sky is some variation of Payne’s gray, from “dark ominous” to “continual dusk” to “shiny steel.”

Lest you think growing things are all dead, though, when you see brown, slime, and mold, I’m here to tell you plenty is going on underneath the leaves, twigs, branches and mulch.

The same is true if you are also a writer. You sit at your desk, uninspired, staring at the rain pouring past your window, pummeling your roof. You rail at the Muse for playing hide and seek. Your story refuses to go forward. And yet, things are also happening there, down in your subconscious, which will begin to make connections.

Even if it’s spitting rain, I suggest you take a hopeful walk around your garden. What you see will rev up your creative brain. Make what I call the Love Tour.

Today, I asked myself, “What can I see that I love?” I started out from the front door, where our porch is decorated with primroses my husband bought at the store, with the joy of their color in mind. We love seeing them every time we go in or out of our home. We didn’t grow them, but I think they count anyway.

–I thought about how others choose to do good deeds with our happiness in mind or how we choose to do the same. The why of that decision-making and subsequent action makes an excellent essay topic Why do the characters in your story do what they do?

Next, I noticed all the nubbins—bulbs arising in either sidewalk bed. Some early daffodils are ready to bloom, but the later bulbs are slowly undressing. Besides daffodils, I saw the arms of narcissus, crocus, snowbells, hyacinth, muscari, tulips and Scilla siberica, all reaching for the light.

–We humans know what is worth reaching for, what really matters in our lives, if we are in touch with our souls. What does your character truly desire or does that change from beginning to end of your story?

Around the corner, two clumps of heather are in bloom. I love the happy pinks. If I clip some stems, they fit perfectly in a teeny blue glass vase and will dry and retain their color for a couple of months on a counter or table.

Some yarrow is greening, promising its work as a bouquet filler and a medicinal in herbal concoctions. The rose campion and foxglove rosettes haven’t frozen and neither has the hollyhock, which means we may have their colorful blooms earlier than usual. I love that!

The rosemary is green and blooming. I squeeze and rub the leaves and smell my hand. Heavenly!

Green ferns are out of the ground. So is the German chamomile. More green.

–There are moments for all of us where right and beautiful things are present to fill our hearts and make us glad to be alive. Often they stand out starkly in the ugliest of times. What are those moments for your characters?

The red-twigged dogwood pops color where there are no blooms. I saw buds on the lilacs, forsythia, flowering quince, and pussy willow. I love seeing their promise!

–What gives your characters hope during their bleakest hours?

Without leaves blocking the view, I noticed the structural elements I put in place last summer, such as the graveled patio space I dug and laid for the red table and chairs, and the paving stone foundation for the red bench. I love that it’s all ready when the time comes. I also made a list of the places that need work and the pruning that needs done as soon as the weather is more forgiving, because right now they are more noticeable.

–Same with writing. You’ve made your storyboard or outline, the structure that keeps a reader turning the page. When you’ve finished filling it with specific details, then you begin anew to prune what doesn’t work and enhance what does.

After my circuit of our house through the flower beds, looking for things I love, I reached my front porch in a much happier frame of mind, grateful for nature and my connection to it.

Something special for my eyes translates by comparison into new story ideas or character motivations, or whatever I need to make my work move forward. I’ve given my brain a treat, and if I’ve paid attention and asked myself the right questions, my brain will reciprocate.

We can’t always get away to sunnier climes, but we can always take ten minutes out of our day to make the Love Tour. I recommend it.

Getting My Book Out to the World


I’m letting it go, letting my book go out in the world, and be born. It is almost time for it to fly.

About ten weeks ago, I decided it was done. I was finished. The book was, dare I say it, complete. It had started out as a blog post, and then more blog posts, an essay, an op ed piece in the local paper. I even set up a folder in my computer and called it “mentoring”.

One day, my wife said that I had so many of these writings, I should make a book out of them.

Me? A book?

Well, yes. I was on my way, I told myself. And, there were very few books I’d found on the subject, and none on what I was saying, and doing with the young men I had been working with, as a judge and as a volunteer at the local youth prison.

And, I do have some things to say; I’m opinionated.

Last spring, we took a trip and I printed off all of my “chapters” at a copy center, and put them in a binder. My task was to do some editing and rewriting, and organize the whole thing into something that people might want to pick up and read. I had the time. Now, I needed to get to work.

That process was slow going, and the Muse would call me to write a new chapter every three or four weeks. And, some chapters fell by the wayside. But, I had something. I had something to say, and what I had written was important. People needed to read it. I needed to get it out there.

Several friends and family members kept up the pressure.

“You need to get that book out, you know,” they would say, asking where I was at on the project.

This fall, I thought it was about ready, as ready as it might ever be. It was time to push it off the cliff and see if it would fly. Mentoring Boys to Men: Climbing Their Own Mountains needed to come to life.

I had been researching self publishing and the whole book industry for a while, and I ended up picking CreateSpace at Amazon for this adventure. They offered all the services I needed: content editing, copy editing, book cover design and copy, marketing copy, interior design, and formatting for e books and print on demand. I’d have my author page and book page on Amazon and readers could easily buy the book. I read all their articles and FAQs, and screwed up my courage to make the contact. A few days later, a nice guy called, and walked me through the process, explaining all the options. What I needed wasn’t cheap, but then, it was time to move ahead and be bold. I had to accept that I couldn’t do all of this by myself; I needed fresh eyes and professional expertise.

My hard work needed to come to fruition. It was time for harvest.

My book deserved the best.

I answered detailed questionnaires, and submitted my manuscript. Soon, an editor was at work on my precious baby, and I was making decisions on book cover designs and polishing up the content of my back cover. “Marketing copy” arrived and I toyed with that, asking some friends to read my draft manuscript and write some reader comments for the back cover.

Wow, my book being seen as a “product”, to be marketed and sold. How to attract readers? This is not the normal worry of the writer, the guy who is off in his corner of the living room, coffee cup in hand, writing in solitude, with only my cat for moral support and commentary for my “morning write”.

But, now I had my own ISBN, the international book identification number, for both an e book and a “trade” paperback. I had my own Library of Congress number, so that book stores and libraries could find it in their catalogs. There was my copyright page, and my own Amazon author number and account. And, when I access my account page, there is that report of books sold this month. Still zeroes, but that will change. There is a place there, to account for all the folks that will buy my book.

The first edit came back, and it was thorough. The changes suggested were good ones, and I felt I had an ally in the writing and book publishing experience. The book was taking shape and becoming better.

And then, the manuscript went off to a second editor, for “copy editing”. I waited nervously, wanting to see how another set of fresh eyes would see my baby.

That editor suggested more changes, more polishing of sentence structure, some clarifications. I found myself checking nuances of editing in the latest edition of the Chicago Manual of Style. It was all good, and made my book even better, more professional. Both editors wrote me nice “editorial letters”, mentioning that they found the book interesting and informative.

The next step was sending the latest, twice edited, manuscript off to the interior design folks. This morning, that product arrived on my computer. My book was now in “book form”, looking like pages in a book, with the font I had selected. There it was, in double columns, with page numbers and chapter headings, my dedication, acknowledgements and author page, just like I had envisioned it.

This was becoming a book.

I hit the “accept” button and back it went to Amazon.
Now, the text and the book cover are going to be combined, and then turned into an actual book, an “author’s copy”, for me to review. My real book will come in the mail, a physical thing I can hold. It will be the last chance for changes, for finding those reclusive typos and other flaws that have escaped my eyes, the eyes of several friends, and two professional editors.

At that point, I say “yes”, and the formatters will wave their magic wands and it will be published. My prospective author and book pages on Amazon will take shape, and I will make decisions on pricing.

People I’ve talked to about my book seem interested and they want to buy it. So, copies will be sold and people will read it. I even talked to a stranger in a restaurant yesterday, who heard me talking about my book with a friend. He seemed interested and wished me well.

Within a month, I think, maybe six weeks, there will be a day when a big Amazon box will arrive on my doorstep, and I will have my book. There will be copies for family, and my friends who have read my manuscript and given me my back cover blurbs, and friends who have been my persistent cheerleaders, urging me to get this out there. And there will be copies for me to sell. I will cry. My wife and I will dance around the house and open some Champagne.

I’ll send out post cards, with the cover design and title of my book, announcing that my baby is out there. Go buy it and read it. Talk about it. Tell your friends. Tell the world. I’ll do my posts on Facebook and Twitter, LinkedIn and Goodreads, like a a good marketer.

Next month, local authors are selling their books at the local Saturday market, and I will sit with them, with my own stack of books to sell, my Sharpie pen to sign them, and my iPad all set up to take credit cards.

And, I will still write. I jumped in to the National Novel Writing Month furor in November, and banged out a first draft of a novel, about a guy in prison, and his life of craziness and penal bureaucracy. I need to dig into that, and rewrite and polish and organize. But, someday, it too will tell me it is ready for the world to see, and I’ll start this process again.