Friday, March 31, 2006

He said, She said

I asked for and received permission to post the following e-mail I received from a man I met when I taught workshops at Esalen in Big Sur, CA. His name is John. We stay in contact mainly through the Yahoo site that The Sun Magazine set up for attendees and group leaders of the Sun workshops at Esalen to keep contact with each other. I was happily surprised to find a personal e-mail from John after I posted my first entry on Eugene O'Neill.

I'm posting this for two reasons:

1) I think John really expresses well what kind of writer O'Neill was.
2) Another person e-mailed me to say she has always felt that O'Neill spoke to her in a profound way, that his family in Long Day's Journey into Night represents her dysfunctional family. But she didn't want to say so on the blog; I'm not sure why. I think John's e-mail will inspire her.

Dear Theresa:

I caught some of the documentary, but missed the first half. I ate, slept and drank O’Neill when I was in the Navy: read all his plays and read whatever biographical info that was around back in the 60’s. Having read A Long Day’s Journey into Night several times (and I need to reread it again!) I am always amazed at how well he depicted my dysfunctional family as well!

O’Neill would be a classic example of one who has been to the Dark Side and back. He clearly knew the Shadow and the Shadow knew him! As Edmund suggests from the bow sprint, “…As it is I will always be a stranger who never feels at home, who does not really want and is not really wanted, who can never belong, who must always be a little in love with death.” O’Neill was a long distance ocean swimmer and purportedly once confided in another that his secret wish was to chase the moon beam out across the ocean and get so far out that he could never get back!

Confessional #2

Artist: Anonymous

I received two more postcards today for my Postcard Confessional project. I'll post one today and the other very soon.

This one is so wonderfully ambiguous that it can take you anywhere. It reminds me of a recurring dream I have of being chased by aliens that are trying to kill me. Just a couple of nights ago, I had this dream again. The aliens were human, or human-like. First they attacked my city with bombs. Then the ground troops came in. They invaded my house. I had just had a baby, a beautiful little thing, so tiny, with rosy skin and lots of black hair. I wrapped the baby in one of those flannel crib blankets, a white one. I tried to hide my baby in my bedroom, my inner sanctum. I tried to keep it safe. In my dream, my bedroom was a dark place, in the center of the house, without windows. What a precious little bundle. The aliens tried to abduct my baby, and they also tried to kill it.

I am remembering now how Eugene O'Neill sealed Long Day's Journey into Night in an envelope and said the play was not to be performed during his lifetime. The play was so personal to him, I believe, so painful, that he didn't want "strangers" crushing it, killing it with critique and endless interpretations. He was hiding his "baby," perhaps, keeping it safe.

Then the dream shifted, and the aliens were snakes. I was being chased by hundreds of snakes.

I mentioned this dream recently on my Esalen Yahoo discussion board. I explained that, although the dream was terrifying, I think it has to do with my creative life. The aliens were trying to abduct and kill my child (my creative work) or perhaps the aliens are critics who would kill my ideas before they are fully formed. The baby in my dream was so lovely, but so vulnerable. I ached at seeing it being handled so roughly by "strangers."

Snakes are important symbols of transformation. Like I told the Esalen group, I fear change, but I crave transformation. It's hard to shed your skin and become reborn. It's hard to die and be reborn again. Now I think of Paula's blog: "I'm Paula. I write. I laugh loud. I have died twice, but was born three times; this is my best life."

I don't know how many times I have died to one thing and awakened to another.

But back to our postcard: we can't stay in our comfort zone when we've made contact with something from beyond, can we? After we've had an encounter.

Please send your postcards to:

Theresa Williams
Dept. of English
Bowling Green State University
Bowling Green, OH 43403

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

More thoughts on O'Neill

Yes, I am on another one of my tangents. Now, it is Eugene O'Neill. In my last entry, I shared the speech by Edmund in Long Day's Journey into Night. It is a beautiful speech about momentary connection, momentary belonging.

Tonight, I was watching Boston Legal, one of my few TV indulgences other than PBS. In the episode I watched tonight, Alan Shore, one of the lawyers in the firm, develops a devastating psychological condition causing him to mix up his words occasionally and speak in a kind of "gibberish." Shore says this condition is devastating to him because he has always felt disconnected from the world, and words are all he has. If he loses his ability with language, he fears he will be completely alone.

Which brings me back to O'Neill. In the PBS documentary, the portrait that emerges of O'Neill is that he was a very lonely child and very lonely adult. He felt as though he did not belong anywhere. He was an unwanted child. His mother had lost Edmund to measles and felt she didn't deserve to have another child. She also blamed Eugene for her drug addiction. So all O'Neill had was books. His books were his company, his friends, his sense of belonging. Language was his way to belong, to communicate. He had to write! O'Neill wrote all his plays out in pencil. I think now about the documentary again, how he fought the tremor in his hands by writing smaller and smaller until he was cramming a thousand or more words on a single page. His wife had to use a magnifying glass to read it in order to type it for him.

As a result of his lonely existence, O'Neill plumbed the depths of his pain in an effort to understand himself. He was willing to go into the darkest parts of his psyche in order to do this.

Lately, I have been studying the Gospel according to Thomas. One passage in this Gospel says: "Jesus said: When you give rise to that which is within you, what you have will save you. If you do not give rise to it, what you do not have will destroy you."

In other words, what is inside of us is the supernatural light of creation. If it shines, it gives us life. If it doesn't shine, our world is darkness. O'Neill knew the darkness well. He tried to run from it by drinking. He lived a self-destructive lifestyle that nearly killed him. When he was well, he felt as though he had been raised from the dead.

In the Thomas Gospel also: "Jesus said: One who knows everything else but who does not know himself knows nothing."

So salvation rests within us. O'Neill, I think, found a kind of salvation once he'd finished Long Day's Journey into Night. It is indeed hard to dive that deep, that far, into what frightens you most. But if we don't know ourselves, we don't have access to our own light. If we access our own light, perhaps we will also illuminate the world. Jesus seems to be saying that if we substitute knowledge in general for self-knowledge, we are misguided.

Sometimes I worry that in writing about my own life, I write a lesser kind of story. Deep down, I know this isn't true. As long as I'm not self-indulgent, as long as I connect my pain to something greater than myself, I'm telling a story for the ages.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Something Greater

I just watched a documentary on PBS about Eugene O'Neill. The documentary was directed by Ric Burns (Ken Burns' brother), whose work I've admired for years, especially his documentary The Way West. It's been a long time since I've thought about O'Neill's work. I watched The Iceman Cometh about a year ago. And I do remember that as a child I watched Long Day's Journey into Night on television and was struck by the power of it. My blogging friends will recognize a certain pattern in my youthful reading and movie-watching habits. From an early age I was drawn to dark tragedies and adult themes.

Watching the documentary tonight, I saw a particularly handsome actor (Robert Sean Leonard) speaking the words of Edmund from Long Day's Journey into Night and suddenly remembered that I'd once copied this speech into one of my school notebooks. I don't remember how old I was, but I must have been in junior high. Edmund is the character who is the voice of Eugene O'Neill, and Edmund is the real name of O'Neill's dead baby brother. So O'Neill purposely chose to speak though "a ghost."

Today, I gave a taped interview with a student. I was trying to explain to her how I've come to feel that writing takes me to a sacred space. Edmund's words, below, describe how he felt when he was near the sea. It's the same way I feel when I write, when the writing is happening as it should:

EDMUND: ... I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me, the masts with every sail white in the moonlight, towering high above me. I became drunk with the beauty and the singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself--actually lost my life. I was set free. I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky. I belonged without, past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself. To God if you want to put it that way. ... And several other times in my life, when I was swimming far out, or lying alone on the beach, I have had the same experience. Became the sun, the hot sand, green seaweed anchored to a rock, swaying in the tide. Like a saint's vision of beatitude. Like the veil of things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand. For a second you see--and seeing the secret, are the secret. For a second there is meaning. Then the hand lets the veil fall and you are alone, lost in the fog again, and you stumble on toward nowhere, for no good reason. It was a great mistake my being born a man, I would have been much more successful as a seagull or a fish. As it is I will always be a stranger who never feels at home, who does not really want and is not really wanted, who can never belong, who must always be a little in love with death.

Sunday, March 26, 2006


I thought it was time for an overview of collages. It feels so good to be making images again. I love seeing them in one place like this. It makes me want to make more.

Negative Capability

My Collage: Little Deer: 03-26-06, based on Frida Kahlo's Little Deer (1946)

This collage is based on one of my favorite Kahlo paintings, Little Deer. It's done on the back of a postcard bearing the image of Kahlo's work.

One of the most difficult concepts for me to understand has been Keats's "Negative Capability." Keats explained like this:

"...several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason..."

I suppose another way of saying it is that the artist somehow resolves a paradox. For the artist, there can be no either/or, no preaching, no foregone conclusions. At some point, or points, during the writing two apparent opposites combine to create something completely new.

I think Frida's Little Deer is an example Negative Capability. She portrays a deer wounded by several arrows. Paradoxically, the wounded artist achieves transcendence by painting a portrait of her earthly pain.

In my collage, the woman's presence is set against a cross. The cross is in itself a union of opposites. The vertical bar represents ascent into the heavens, the horizontal bar, the earth. You can actually trace the transitions in human history from earth gods to sky gods by seeing where the horizontal bar is placed on the crosses of the worshippers. In the earth religions, the horizontal bar is closer to earth. The Hammer of Thor has the cross piece all the way at the top. Thor was, or course, a sky god.

The woman in my collage, Little Deer: 03-26-06 bares her heart. Her heart, a halved plum with its seed in tact, has both wings and roots. She must resolve the paradox of her existence: her spirit (wings) and her body (roots).

I find that my best writing comes out of a deep respect for mystery, comes during those moments when I'm capable, as Keats said, "of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."

Sometimes, during conversations, Allen will throw his hands up into the air and proclaim, "But that doesn't make any sense!"


Saturday, March 25, 2006

Do You Like Flowers?

My Collage: Flowers, based on Frida Kahlo's My Nurse and I. (I wanted to focus on the nurturing, regenerative, and spiritual power of flowers.)

This is the time of year when people starting thinking about flowers. And who doesn't like flowers?

Yet I wasn't born with an appreciation for flowers. Or maybe it's that I grew up in the South, where flowers are almost perpetual. My mother loved flowers and grew them in profusion. Maybe I was spoiled by too many.

Whatever the reason, I was neutral about flowers for a long, long time.

In art school, for instance, I couldn't understand why anybody would want to paint flowers. I was not interested in Van Gogh's sunflowers in the least. O'Keefe's flowers? I didn't understand what the fuss was about.

The first time I can remember caring about flowers was after the birth of our third son. I knew he would be my last, and I felt sad about that. Each time I had loved the feeling of being pregnant and loved the act of giving birth. Allen knew this. He brought me a dozen red roses while I was in the hospital. It was the first flower bouquet he'd ever given me. I took them home and nurtured them almost as much as I did the baby. Watching them die made me unbearably sad. For a long time, I thought I'd loved the flowers only because of the association between them and my husband and son. So therefore that incident in itself didn't translate into a lifelong love of flowers.

When I first started developing a love of mythology, I began to realize how important flowers are as symbols. In so many fairytales and myths, flowers are symbolic of the soul. I think I started to appreciate them more as I saw how important they have been to storytellers through the ages.

I can't say there was one day or one incident I can point to, but one day I realized I'd fallen in love with flowers. Maybe it's the long, dark, cold winters in Ohio. Seeing flowers coming up through the still-frozen ground in the spring means something now. And in the summer, when I watch the bees tumbling in the pollen, I get an unbearable lump in my throat: it is so beautiful to watch, so erotic. In those moments, I can't help but think of O'Keefe's flowers, and I also know what she must have seen in her flowers, the ones she painted. Now, when I look at Van Gogh's works, I understand his passion for the hearty sunflowers.

When did it happen? When did looking into the trembling throat of a flower begin to fill me with such unbearable joy and pain?

I say pain, but it is a beautiful pain.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006



I am excited.

I received my first postcard on 3/20/06.

A couple of entries ago, I invited any and all readers of this blog to send me a postcard which confesses a "secret." I also invited readers on my Yahoo Esalen group to do the same. This project of mine is based on Post Secret. However, my project is different. The secret need not be your own. The secret on your post card could even be entirely fictional. The only requirement is that the secret should be "true" in some way that matters to you.

Isn't this postcard excellent? The artist's image is pasted over the top of a postcard of the Grand Canyon. The description on the address-side of the card mentions "Years of the Colorado River's erosive power." When I saw that, I thought perhaps this was a subtle message, a way to suggest that the artist feels eroded by time and by some powerful force outside the artist's control.

The idea of being "stuck" is an important one for storytellers. As Joseph Campbell has pointed out, in fairytales, we often encounter a hero who is stuck, unable to move into the next phase of her or his life. Thumbelina is stuck in maidenhood until the ugly toad steals her from her mother's watch and takes her down, down, down into the muck of life. For Persephone, it is the same. Like Little Red Riding Hood, Persephone strays from her regular life long enough to pick flowers. Persephone is snatched away by Hades and becomes Queen of the underworld. Little Red encounters the wolf, gets swallowed by him, and then is reborn, quite literally, in fact, when ejected from of the wolf's belly.

In modern storytelling, the character is often stuck. The character then makes a choice to change her or his life. Or something happens to make the character have to make a choice. In academic circles, we call this second kind of story "the bear at the door." You simply can't remain stuck when the bear is clawing at your door about to break it down. You have to do SOMETHING.

I hope that more people will send me one or more postcards. You can send the postcards to:

Theresa Williams
Department of English
Bowling Green State University
Bowling Green, OH 43403

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

If You Are a Woman

If you're a woman and you're 50+ years old, please consider submitting some of your writing to a magazine called Releasing times. It's a fairly new magazine published in Centerville, Ohio. I have recently spoken with the editor, and she says she is actively seeking writing.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Postcard Confessional

I just want to share this site: Post Secret with the hopes that many of you will experiment with doing cards yourself. If it would help you to send the cards to someone, you can send them to the address on the site or to me via my university address: Dept. of English, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, OH 43403.

The cards change each week on the site, so it's worth going back from time to time. I heard about this Postcard Confessional on TV. Vicky says she heard about it on NPR. The cards are artistically engaging as well as thought provoking. Please stop by there and take a look. I am very inspired by them. I was so tempted to copy and paste one of the cards into this entry, but that wouldn't be right. They aren't my cards to share.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

From Where You Dream

My Collage: From Where You Dream. Based on Gauguin's Vairumati (1897)

I can hardly believe it's been so long since I've posted. The last two weeks leading up to midterm were hectic. Also, I've felt in myself a real need to sit still and let a lot of my ideas go through a composting. I've been trying to hold onto that part of myself that makes stories, and this means not letting too many obligations pile on top of me and suffocate that source. I've tried to keep the streets and lanes and rivers to that source clear and clean of debris. Because once I get out of school for the summer, I want to hit the ground running: I want to write, write, write.

I've been continuing to do my collages, which I find very helpful. The imagery in the collages is like dream imagery. Doing the collages and then meditating on them afterwards keeps me close to my creative source.

Since I've been blogging, I've talked about two of my favorite books about writing, If You Want To Write, by Brenda Ueland and On Being A Novelist, by John Gardner. I'd like to now add another book to my list of great books about writing: From Where You Dream, by Robert Olen Butler. This book was recently recommended to me by my friend, Paula.

There are so many books about writing. You have to be careful. When you're first starting out and trying to find yourself as a writer, the tendency is to blame yourself for your failure to connect with these books. I know I have blamed myself, calling myself "dense" or, worse, losing heart and thinking I must not be a writer after all, since I apparently wasn't "getting it." What I've come to realize is that there are methods that work for some and not for others. Butler's methods seem to bring together a lot of the ideas I've been struggling toward since I've been blogging.

When Paula first e-mailed me and told me about Butler's book, I hesitated. Did I really want to invite another book about writing into my life? Was this how I needed to spend my time, really? Reading a book about writing when what I should be doing is writing? I'm glad I gave in to my curiosity and got the book. The thesis of the book is that stories come from the same place as dreams. You have to go into your unconscious. Instead of "brainstorming" ideas for stories, Butler says we should be "dreamstorming."

Before you embark on a big project, like a novel, he suggests going into your writing space every day for several weeks and "dreamstorming" onto notecards, one sensory impression per card. He stresses that you have to do this every day. It hit me as I was reading Butler's book, that this is an exercise that may prove extremely useful to me. As so many of you know, I want to do a book about my Ohio River Journey I took last year. Sometimes I feel so overwhelmed by it all--and afraid I'm not up to the task. I feel as James Agee did when he was trying to write Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Like Agee, I have such respect and awe for the subject matter that I'm afraid I won't do it justice.

The notecard method will be a way for me to tackle the material in small enough doses that I won't feel like I'm drowning; I won't feel overwhelmed by the material. If I start today (which I already have; I've done four notecards) and if I do notecards every day, then by the time school is out, I should have 200 or more notecards, which I can then lay out and sort. Butler swears by the method and says it is a way to deepen themes and find motifs. I believe him.

Of course, I've already done 200 or so notecards based on factual sources. I can mix and match all the notecards together to create a coherent narrative later.

There are many other things in the Butler book that I'm finding useful. I don't think all his methods will work for me, but, like Paula, I feel a deep affinity for most of what he says. I feel a camaraderie with his thoughts on story-telling, and the book is having much the same effect that Ueland's If You Want To Write had on me years ago. I feel energized and filled and ready to embark on difficult projects! Ueland is great for beginners and for periodic renewal. I think Butler is taking me to the "next level." He has effectively synthesized so many of my own thoughts into a very readable and powerful text.

Thank you, Paula for recommending this book to me.

Oh, and thank you, Paula and all who stopped by Paula's blog to wish me well and offer congratulations about the OAC grant, and yell, "Surprise!" That meant a lot to me.



About Me

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Northwest Ohio, United States
"I was no better than dust, yet you cannot replace me. . . Take the soft dust in your hand--does it stir: does it sing? Has it lips and a heart? Does it open its eyes to the sun? Does it run, does it dream, does it burn with a secret, or tremble In terror of death? Or ache with tremendous decisions?. . ." --Conrad Aiken


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Fave Painting: Eden

Fave Painting:  Eden

Fave Painting: The Three Ages of Man and Death

Fave Painting:  The Three Ages of Man and Death
by Albrecht Dürer

From the First Chapter

The Secret of Hurricanes : That article in the Waterville Scout said it was Shake- spearean, all that fatalism that guides the Kennedys' lives. The likelihood of untimely death. Recently, another one died in his prime, John-John in an airplane. Not long before that, Bobby's boy. While playing football at high speeds on snow skis. Those Kennedys take some crazy chances. I prefer my own easy ways. Which isn't to say my life hasn't been Shake-spearean. By the time I was sixteen, my life was like the darkened stage at the end of Hamlet or Macbeth. All littered with corpses and treachery.

My Original Artwork: Triptych

My Original Artwork:  Triptych



Little Deer

Little Deer



Looking Forward, Looking Back

Looking Forward, Looking Back