Jul 30

The Pleasures of Collaboration

“The weather forecast had called for showers this morning, but thankfully, was  wrong, so Zann and I seized the moment to take advantage of this sunbreak amidst days of rain, buckets of it, cats and dogs.  Right now the sand is warm under my bare toes and a light breeze provides just enough cooling to sit comfortably, soaking up the sun like a turtle.”                        June 24, 2012

Dear Friends,
One of the great pleasures of writing The Pen & the Bell was collaborating with Brenda.  Since we finished P & B, I’ve embarked on another collaboration with an artist in Indianola, my friend Zann. I can’t remember now how I met Zann, but likely it was on the Indianola beach.  I’d head down to the beach with my journal for my morning walk and was always delighted to see Zann heading up the beach with her sketchbook, pants rolled up, a floppy sun hat in summer, bundled in fleece in winter. We’d walk & talk, and sometimes write & sketch or paint together.

I’m not sure when it occurred to us—I think it was Zann’s idea—that we could make our morning walks more intentional, not leave it up to chance; this way, we might share our beach reflections with others and reflect on our creative process, too.

Now we meet at the beach one morning each month with our sketchbooks & journals tucked under our arms.  We walk together out to the point, then settle onto a weathered beach log and sit in silence for 20 minutes, maybe more. We pick up our pen/brush when we’re ready, writing/sketching for another 30 minutes. Next, we share what we’ve each created, marveling at how frequently we each tune into the same thing: the roiling cumulonimbus clouds overhead, the great blue heron that tiptoes up to fish in the shallows. As we compare, we each make a few notes on what we noticed and how we chose to depict it: today, Zann’s painting of the sky is filled with swirling charcoal lines, while my words describe:

“Every type of cloud in the sky—a cloud chart full—from wispy cirrus to the billowing cumulonimbus hovering over Bainbridge Island.  I bet it’s raining there. A tapestry of clouds over Seattle, but blue sky overhead. Not much wind, but enough to keep the sailboats tacking back and forth across the rippled blue sea.”

Last time we met, we each confessed to feeling envy for the other’s art—and what it can do—that ours cannot.   You can show a progression of time, Zann points out, after I read my account.   But you can show the energy of the clouds billowing upward, I counter.   How many writers have said they write because they can’t paint? After our last exchange, Zann gave me some cool watercolor pencils to try out, so I won’t have any excuses.

We invite you to experience the pleasure of collaboration. You, too, can enjoy the synergy of two creative minds in dialogue with each other.  A good resource for this is Twyla Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life.  You can incorporate meditation, or just meet to write/paint and share your efforts with each other, then reflect on the creative process.  How are they similar? How are they different?  What do you learn about your own creative process from this? We hope you’ll post some of your reflections here!

Or write about a time in childhood when collaboration came easily, when you could dive into imaginary worlds with a friend and create for hours on end. Is there a way to regain some of that playfulness in your adult life?

Wishing you the fruits of all your collaborations,

Jul 23

Rain, Rain, Go Away?

Dear Friends,

It’s raining. This is not an unusual sentence to hear in the Pacific Northwest, but we’re  near the end of July, and it’s raining as if it were spring: a cold, hard rain that won’t let up. I reluctantly turn on my gas fireplace and huddle near it with my dog Abbe and glumly look out the rain-streaked windows.

I’m in a sour mood, and the rain gives me an excuse to be even more cranky. Where’s our summer? It’s not fair! I want it to be different!

And then I remember something: I really like the rain. I like the way it helps me narrow down the possibilities for the day. I like the way it tells me: You can stay inside and write! You can make soup! You can read!

I don’t have to worry about the newly planted bamboo. I don’t have to drag the heavy hose around the yard and water all my pots of delicate pansies and violas. The tomato plants are deep green; the lettuces that I thought were done suddenly spring to new life. The deck is washed clean.

I’m still a little cranky–I won’t pretend this minor revelation changed everything about the day. But I did relax a little bit. I picked up the book I’ve been reading: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, and I was able to fall again into this world of weird miracles: where a mother’s cells outlive her a thousand times over. The writing in this book is superb—a compelling combination of research, biography, and story. It’s a book that took a lot of patience and faith to write, many years of searching out an elusive truth.

I’d like to cultivate such patience in myself and in my writing. I’d like to remember that not everything has to happen in an instant, though this world appears to be so instantaneous. I’d like to follow the example of the rain and the plants that receive it with such equanimity.

For just 15 minutes today, write about something you think you dislike, and find something to like about it. Or tell us about something you’ve been reading lately that tells you something about yourself or your writing life.

Wishing you a patient and slow week,



Jul 16

To Prune or Not to Prune?

painting by Basil Ede, 1931

Dear friends,

I spent an afternoon last week pulling all the beautiful but pernicious weeds that had taken over my yard:  forget-me-nots,  buttercups, and the insidious morning glory vines.  Pulling weeds is satisfying work after so many hours at my desk, and I take pleasure in trundling them back to the yard waste pile in our rusty wheelbarrow.  Next, I go after the dandelions, their leaves too tough now for salads, their yellow heads threatening to go to seed.

Then it’s time to take stock, to see what else we might reclaim from encroaching wildness.  Here’s where it gets hard:  everything else now requires pruning, cutting back, like the lilac that was a gift when I first moved in almost 30 years ago.  Oh no, don’t prune it, I’d protest each spring, just let it grow wild.  That was my refrain in those days—just let it grow and see what happens—not wanting to domesticate my landscape too much, wanting to keep its on-the-edge-of-wildness feeling. I encouraged foxglove to re-seed, let the columbine spread, the wisteria run wild on the arbor, only discouraging it from heading up the roof.

Now I see the price I’ve paid for my “live and let live” philosophy—the yard is too full:  the quince shades the vegetable beds, the clematis is an unruly mess, the honeysuckle blocks sunlight from the French doors to my writing studio. They all need cutting back, if not taking out altogether. Meanwhile, my husband John has been patiently waiting for me to see the light, clipping a few overhanging branches when I’m not looking. I’m grateful for his patience and regret that I held out as long as I did. Clearly, something—many plants, in fact—have to go.

And go they do.  How freeing it feels to cut back the honeysuckle to let in more light, even if I’m “taming” its wild nature.  How much sense it makes to create space for light, for more life, for space for its own sake.

For 15 minutes, write a  piece about what’s blooming in your garden right now and/or what you could take out.  Or: Reflect on how your inner landscape might also be pruned—what thoughts get in the way of feeling content?   

Happy summer and happy pruning,




Jul 08

Web Round-Up: The Value of Silence

Dear Friends,

Time for my semi-regular round up of what’s been coming through my computer screen these days. There’s so much of it, it’s hard to keep track! A little ironic, I know, that all these snippets of wisdom about the writing life and the contemplative life are now delivered via the medium that can so easily distract us from those lives. I surrender to the irony….

First up, Anna Wood, over at thenervousbreakdown, has much to tell us about the nature of silence:

Silence is radical. When sustained, it has an effect on your perception comparable to that of any number of chemicals with which you might seek change. Your vision transforms, to start with; you suddenly find yourself absorbing what’s on the periphery, massive amounts of once-invisible data assailing your pupils. When you’re not preparing your next remark, your hearing capacity expands, too: the changing rhythms of the wind; the muted thud of a teardrop hitting the wooden floor; your neighbor’s beating heart. And taste, and smell, they’re amplified and shifted, as well—a cup of tea sipped without the surrounding dialogue …is a more intricate cup of tea. Silence gives you the opportunity to know any number of an object’s facets that typically disappear behind the verbal screens we erect constantly, unthinkingly, between our selves and our environments.

Silence can be hard to come by, can’t it? Especially when we think we’re “too busy” for silence. Here’s an article from the NY Times on “The Busy Trap”:

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day. …..Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done. “Idle dreaming is often of the essence of what we do,” wrote Thomas Pynchon in his essay on sloth. Archimedes’ “Eureka” in the bath, Newton’s apple, Jekyll & Hyde and the benzene ring: history is full of stories of inspirations that come in idle moments and dreams. 

And this, from Kaspa, at Writing Our Way Home, as she takes a moment to pause in the busyness of moving:

I am enjoying this pause between moments of chaos. The silhouettes of leaves cast onto other leaves as the desk lamp shines though the plant next to me. The dark cat purring at my feet. Even the warmth of the light on the textured wallpaper we inherited from the last inhabitants.

This is all the stuff of life. I was going to write something about my hectic work schedule. How I had to take on an extra shift at my part time job and how little time I had to write to you all, what with seeing clients and running Buddhist services and unpacking boxes… It all seems less important in this Sunday evening pause.

Today I heard our friend Esther Morgan reading from her collection Grace at the Ledbury poetry festival. One of the themes of that collection is ‘whilst life is happening elsewhere’ – that sense that we are waiting for our lives to start. Waiting for something.

But this is it. We have to start from where we are right now – with all the chaos as well as the beauty. Learn to be with the plastic dust sheeting on the floor, and the too loud fireworks, in the same way as the flowering sage in the garden, and the splayed leaves of the young courgette plants. This is the stuff of life.

This is the stuff of life.
I find that when I struggle the most, it’s when I want that “stuff” to be different than what it is: quieter, louder, more beautiful, easier, whatever. I’m writing this to you out on my back deck, after I’ve spent the morning in a typical struggle that led to surrender. I’m much quieter now.

Today, contemplate your own “stuff of life”: what can you hold more close, and what can you let go?

Wishing you a peaceful week ahead,