Wednesday, 23 April 2014

My Book of the Year Last Year - The True Secret of Writing

     As I have been very slow to get caught up in any book reviews, despite reading some very wonderful books this winter, I thought I would write about my book of the year for last year:  


Natalie Goldberg's The True Secret of Writing

Some history first:  I am a writer.  I write stories,  have completed one full draft of a fantasy novel now hidden away in a drawer, and a lot of poetry.  I am always looking for books on writing, on finding time to write, and how to open up more to the writing I want to do.  I have read Natalie's Goldberg's writing books since the very first one came out twenty years ago, Writing Down the Bones.  I loved that book. It taught me to pay attention to details, especially when writing characters, and setting.  Writing could be done anywhere.  And that there is always time to write, somewhere, in your life, even if it 20 minutes in a cafe somewhere.

When I saw  The True Secret of Writing, I picked it up out of curiosity, since I had found some of her other books following Writing down the Bones were along the same themes found in that one.  Not that they aren't good, but that I had already come across those ideas before.  To my surprise, when I opened The True Secret of Writing, I was immediately captured.  I bought it, and read it through July, dipping into it every evening or so. 

It has changed everything for me.

Her secret she has found is simple:  Sit.  Walk slowly.  Write.

It is a case of the right book at the right time for me.  Last spring, I knew I had to quiet down, stop moving, just sit and rest, though I didn't know how to.  I knew I wanted more silence in my life, in a big way.  Too much drama, conflict, too much getting away from my past, all were taking a toll on me.  And I realized that I like my life now. I am happy.  So why did I need silence, crave it so much?  Why did I not feel fully present in my life, and how could I?   And what did this have to do with my writing?

Into these beginning questions I already had asked myself, this book fell and rang into me and through me.  It's still ringing.  It is changing everything in how I approach and do things, in my life.  All from a perspective of greater calm ( I hope).  Possibly just a better perspective on things, which is calming too.

Natalie suggests sitting for 5 or 10 minutes at first, and then increasing it to 20.  You just sit there, and every time your mind goes somewhere, bring it back to here, now.  Breathe.  And it is amazing.  It is bringing me into now, the present, which is where I want to be.  Thoughts are powerful, and they can pull me off track, into imagining/planning the future, rewriting the past (or wishing I could), recreating conversations and dramas, trying to pay attention to everything in my children's lives, at work, with my is innumerable the number of claims on me, and become all the ways I distract myself from being here, now.  I distract myself from looking around me, and taking in what I see and hear and feel.  This is exactly what I have needed to do, part of what my craving for silence was about.  It's not that the world around me is too noisy (thought with cell phones, the internet, tv, etc, it is noisy), it's that I wasn't quiet within myself.  Natalie's book showed me how to do just this:  quiet down.  Sit still. 

And then, the walking slowly has been a revelation for me. I have always been trying to hurry, walk faster because I'm already a slow walker, hurry here, try to get my heart beat up and burn more calories on my walks, hurry hurry hurry.  Walking slow is hard!  I have to slow down, to my own pace.  It is amazing what I see, hear, when I look around me as I walk, then.  I love it.  I find I do end up going a little faster, but at a comfortable pace that doesn't stress me at all, and is a good workout that is comfortable for my knees. Most of all, I take in more of the world around me, the shape of the trees, the light in the sky, the water, the sounds of the birds.  I am present, and I have time for it.

Natalie has been a Zen student for most of her life, and teaches writing groups through the philosophy of Zen.  It is an interesting idea, and she explains how she runs her writing retreats, what happens during them, some of the outcomes for people involved.  They all want to be writers.  She wrote this book to bring her Zen writing classroom out into the world, so even if we can't go to her workshops or retreats, we can still teach ourselves how to silence our minds, how to sit still, how to walk slowly, and then go to our writing.  She has taken her 20 years of running workshops and writing retreats and distilled her wisdom into this book.

This book has been working on me all year.  I remind myself almost daily to walk slowly.  I try to sit every day, though I have been resisting it lately.  I love the peace sitting brings.   I have learned that taking the time to sit quietly, means I somehow have more time in my day.  I feel like time is slower, that there is time for all I want to do. Maybe I am slowing things down so I can see what is important to me, and making sure I do them, or pay attention to them if it involves other people.  I'm trying to, anyway!  I can't see yet if it affecting the quality of my writing, though I suspect it is and I will see it more clearly when I look back. 

It is a book that I recommend to anyone who wants to write, whether it is journal writing, memoir, biography, history, fiction, whatever you want to write, there will be something in here for you.   There is no magic that will make you a writer, just sitting down and writing, putting pen to paper.  This book will help you to sit down, and with your mind calmer, hear those writing thoughts and ideas more clearly and write them down. 

For me, it is also helping me to calm my life down, so that it is becoming still and quiet, like a deep pool.  I want to be more present in my life, with my family, with my friends, in everything I do.  For me, this book has been the way into moving deeper into my life.  And for that I have been so thankful every day since last summer.

So that leads me to my question of the week for you, dear reader: Have you ever read a book that seemed to open up something in you, or led you to where you wanted to go? 

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

New Books!!!

       At long last our winter is wearing away.  We have had several days above zero, and the snow was melting, melting away.....though we are due for some snow/sleet/freezing rain over night and tomorrow again.  The only way I've gotten through these last two weeks is by hunkering down and waiting out winter.     In case you think I am exaggerating, this is the picture of our park near my house, taken yesterday while out for my walk:
The river is slowly coming free of ice, though the shore line is still all iced up, as you can see in the distance behind the trees - that's the beach and river, still snow covered.  There are crocuses out, though that and some songbirds are the only real signs spring is coming. 

   I discovered one day a few weeks ago  while looking through a shelf, that I had a gift certificate from a local independent bookstore, Perfect Books, from Christmas that I hadn't used yet!  So I decided, in true book-lover fashion, that it was time to cheer myself up and use it.  My husband, who gave me the certificate, was shocked that I hadn't used it yet.  I had to remind him that for two months I didn't leave the house unless it was for work, we had so many viruses and illnesses and winter cold blahs - and if I am honest here, I was learning how to hibernate.  So I wasn't resenting being at home, I was learning how to slow down for winter time.

Tonight, after a lovely hour wandering the shelves, I bought three books using the gift certificate:  2123 by Kim Stanley Robinson, Wild Rice Dreams by Vera Wabegijig, and The Old Ways by Robert MacFarlane.  Two weeks ago on a rare date night with my husband, I had bought the other three books included in the picture below:  The Reckoning by Jane Casey, Dying in the Wool by Frances Brady, and Written in Red by Anne Bishop.   Unpictured is a book I forgot to include in the picture:  Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World by Claire Harman.


It was so lovely to be in Perfect Books  (link to their online site, in case you are curious) again.  I hadn't been in since before Christmas.  I really did hibernate all winter.  It is surprising how much I hid away, and how much I did enjoy it. I got plenty of reading done, not that you would know by my lack of book reviews here.  They will come!!  I am exited about my new books, and happy to be able to get out for walks again.  I love walking, and I especially love walking in nature.  Of all the books I  bought today, I am especially delighted by The Old Ways by Robert MacFarlane.  I never dreamed I would find the book over here, and I've already peeked and loved it. 

     Sprinkled in the pages of The Old Ways are some of the thoughts of other walkers who were also creative writers, thinkers, artists.  History and quotes from books that talk about subject or history in the landscape that MacFarlane is wondering about, so this is like a long travelogue, a conversation we are having with (a very learned conversation!) him while he is out walking. 

 I have often thought and felt to myself that the best way, and the only way to really know a place, is to walk it, many times, over and from all sides, and in all light.  Slowly a place, the river, the houses, the trees, the light, reveals the spirit of the place that I am living in at that time.  I am forced to slow down, to breathe it in, to feel it with all my senses, and become part of it. MacFarlane writes about what he sees while walking these ancient pathways in the UK, with this kind of idea in mind, "the ideas and journeys which inspire and inhabit our imaginations" (from the quote on the back of the book).

 I also find that walking frees me up so that I often find lines of my poems coming to me, or thoughts I want to follow and think about. Sometimes I find myself looking at the landscape of Ottawa and wondering what it was like when it was all covered with huge pine trees, and only the Algonquin and Odawa peoples coming to mingle in the trading parties in the summer at their camps.  How wild this must have been then!  Somewhere underneath all the politics that goes with being a capital city, far below that artificial level, lies the spirit of the wilderness and the river that rushes by.
 MacFarlane decides to walk the old ways, the hidden roads and paths of the UK, and this book is how the landscape he saw moved him and showed him what our ancestors knew about walking the old ways.  It looks like a beautiful book and I look forward to getting to know the ancient paths of England through his eyes and imagination.

See?  Books really do cheer me up.