Saturday, April 29, 2006

Nick Drake

Photo: Nick Drake

I've started a new blog called "Reflective Teaching." It's mainly for myself, so I didn't enable it to accept comments. I want to keep track of my thoughts about teaching for at least two semesters. We'll see where it goes from there. Once in a while, I will share some of the entries from "Reflective Teaching" on this blog. The purpose of the "Reflective Teaching" blog is to help me work out some of my feelings about how my teaching and my creative life are related. Below is the first entry:

The great and mighty go their way unchecked. All the hope left in the world is in the people of no account-- Ursula K.LeGuin

This is my first entry in this Reflective Teaching blog. The blog is inspired by several discussion sessions I attended at Bowling Green State University. I attended the sessions because for a long time my creative life and my teaching life felt like separate things. I told the group that if I wasn't able to resolve this, I would have to quit teaching.

The group was sympathetic. And simply through the act of expressing my dilemma out loud, I began to feel better. I began to think I might be able to find a solution to my feelings of being stilted and at an intellectual and spiritual dead end.

I've been teaching since 1985, a little more than twenty years. I know people do get burned out from teaching, but I believe it doesn't have to be this way. Shouldn't teaching energize us? Energize our creative lives?

It is Saturday, and the last day of class for Spring Semester 2006 was yesterday. I'm listening Nick Drake CDs. A few weeks ago, a young man in my Native American Literature class gave me a CD he burned for me. It has some of his favorite music on it: including "River Man" by Nick Drake.

Listening to "River Man" for the first time, I could understand why my student was so attracted to Drake's music. When I looked up information on Nick Drake, an artist I'd never heard of, I saw his music described as being "Autumnal." Although Nick Drake was young when he made his albums and young when he died, he did, indeed, have an Autumnal spirit. Drake was wise; his music sloughs off the garish leaves and becomes something simple and stark. Drake lived his life deep inside his spirit.

Now, listening to Nick Drake on my stereo, I think of my student leaving class late Thursday afternoon past, wearing the same dark pair of sunglasses as when he'd given his reading in front the class just days before. My student had read his own haunting prose about his struggles with clinical depression, which Nick Drake also had.

I was out in the hallway because the students were finishing up a test and then doing the end of term course evaluations. We stood there, my student and I, saying our good-byes. I thanked him for sharing his music with me and told him I'd ordered Nick Drake CDs and looked forward to receiving them.

My student said, "An English Professor shared Nick Drake with me. It makes me feel good that I can complete the circle by passing Drake on to somebody new." His eyes were hidden by the glasses, which disappointed me, because I enjoy seeing his thoughtful eyes, but I understood. He'd been keeping late nights studying, doing his final projects, and perhaps struggling with his inner demons, too. He told me he was "Beat," and his eyes must have shown it.

Throughout the semester, as we were discussing the literature, this student would laugh quietly and nod his head: he obviously identified strongly with the themes in the pieces we read, especially the theme of the struggle for survival.

Listening to Nick Drake now, I identify with his acceptance of the ephemeral condition of our lives:

Fame is but a fruit tree
So very unsound.
It can never flourish
'til its stock is in the ground ...
Life is but a memory
Happened long ago
Theatre full of sadness
For a long forgotten show
Seems so easy
just to let it go on by
'til you stop and wonder
Why you never wondered why
Safe in the womb
Of an everlasting night
You find the darkness can
Give the brightest light...

The lines, You find the darkness can / Give the brightest light remind me of what Viktor Frankl said of survival and the Holocaust experience: What is to give light must endure burning.

When I think of my student standing there in his sunglasses in that darkened hallway of University Hall on the campus of Bowling Green State university, I think of Frankl, of burning. My student is a survivor; he is burning to survive.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Giving Credit to the Muse

Beyond the Pale. Artist, Anthony Weir.

For the longest time, I had trouble understanding the concept of a muse. I thought about it as something a little bit ridiculous, too romantic for me. I pictured a love-sick poet soaking his writing page with tears, pining for his lover.

Then one day it hit me: a muse is anything or anyone that drives you to create. I think my muse is constantly changing, and my muses are writers of the past. James Wright, Truman Capote, James Dickey, Edith Wharton, James Agee, and so on. And you have to give credit to the muse, because nobody writes in a vacuum. Nobody goes it alone. And if you don't give credit to your muse, your work dries up.

I'm reminded of a Native American Trickster Tale:

Coyote was hungry and cold. He wrapped himself in a blanket and went to talk to Stone, who had magical powers. "Stone," he said. "I am starving to death. If you help me, I will give you my blanket." Coyote placed his blanket across Stone.

As Coyote walked home, he saw a deer and he killed it with his first arrow. "Oh boy," Coyote said. "That was lucky." Then he thought of Stone and was thankful.

A few moments later, Coyote began to feel very cold. "Stones do not need a blanket," Coyote said to himself. "And anyway, I killed the deer myself. Stone had nothing to do with it."

Coyote returned to Stone and took his blanket. But when he returned to his camp, he saw the deer had turned to dust. Only magic could have done such a thing to the deer.

Coyote thought about it. Then he said to himself, "I know where I made my mistake." Coyote held his blanket tightly around himself, shivering from the cold and weak from hunger. He thought, "I should have eaten the deer first, THEN took my blanket away from Stone."

Coyote went back on his promise. He lost his connection to what is right. And he failed to give proper thanks to the magical source that helped to nourish him. As a result, his nourishment turned to dust.

I think it would be the same for me if I failed to properly acknowledge my muses.

Today in my Native American Literature class, the students were doing presentations. Their presentations took many forms. One by one, the presenters came before the class, sat in a chair, and shared part of themselves and what the literature had taught them. One student had written a song. She played her guitar and sang. Her arm flew out and then came back with great force to pluck the strings. She closed her eyes and her voice was strong and sweet.

Another student put on dark glasses and read parts of a journal he had started during the semester. The entries were fragmented and painful for him to read. They were based on a fall he had experienced, a fall into the void of clinical depression. Because the literature we read this semester is a literature of survival, he had identified strongly with it. The literature had helped to draw out his dark thoughts, like the chewing tobacco my Daddy used to put on my bee stings used to draw out the poison.

Another student read his own poems. Another had painted a picture for the first time in many years. She smiled shyly and claimed she had no talent and wasn't "creative in any way." Another, a philosophy major, talked of how his classes had converged this semester to bring him to a new state of consciousness.

It was a beautiful experience, but I don't take credit for any of this. The authors we studied were the students' muses.

And they gave proper thanks. Yes they did.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Something Found

Today, I received an e-mail from a stranger who happened upon something I'd written in my old AOL Journal. Below is her note and also a copy of the original post. It is a rare and beautiful thing when a stranger reads and comments on your words. Have any of you experienced this? If so please share it with me:

Dear Ms. Williams,
I am writing to you after coming across a piece of your writing entitled "The One Thing I Would Most Like You to Know About Me" several weeks ago. My first reaction after reading it was almost disbelief. I thought I was reading an essay about me and I was so stunned I had to read it several times over. It seems you have captured everything I was thinking about but was able to put it in writing and provide an explanation, a resolution and for that I would like to thank you.

For the past year or two my life has been nothing less than confusing and a mindless journey towards something in the dark. After much reflection I believe I have found a somewhat clear path to travel upon, but at least I know I have an idea of where I'm going, so again, thank you for being a catalyst to this.

Now to my actual intention and reasoning for writing you today. I was so inspired by and connected to this essay I have decided to get something for myself that will always remind me of my own bitterness and also a reminder of what I am working towards.

Next Thursday I plan on getting a tattoo of the Chinese characters for 'bitter' and 'sweet'. Again, I must say thank you for providing the inspiration. I truly believe that tattoos have the power to heal and guide and that this one will be no different. I am still not quite sure why I feel the need to inform you of all of this. I suppose it might provide further closure and assurance of what I have discovered within myself from your work.

Have a wonderful Easter weekend!

Best Regards,

[She signed her name, but I will protect her anonymity]

The One Thing I Would Most Like You to Know About Me

I want you to know that I am bitter.

Does this seem like a negative thing to admit?

It's an observation that's related to a painting I recently became acquainted with, "The Vinegar Tasters."

In "The Vinegar Tasters," three men stand around a vat of vinegar. Each man has just tasted the vinegar and is having a reaction to it.

Vinegar, by the way, comes from a French word, vinaigre, meaning sour wine and has been used since ancient times. The Chinese saw great medicinal qualities in vinegar and called it the essence of life.

One man in the painting looks sour. He represents Confucius, who looked to tradition for meaning and order. Another man looks bitter. He represents Buddha. He represents me: I am bitter.

To Buddha, life is bitter. Life is full of attachments and desires that lead to suffering. Life is a revolving wheel of pain, which can be escaped by achieving Nirvana.

This sounds awful, I know. We all want to be happy. But bear with me, now.

For a long time, I tried to avoid my feelings of suffering. So I buried myself in intellectual pursuits. I set a series goals for myself, most of which I achieved.

These are some of the goals I set for myself: I will get this degree, I will get this award, I will get into this program, I will get this grade, I will be inducted into this society, I will be the best in the class, I will win this contest.

Many of my pursuits were in the arts. I studied studio art and creative writing. But I'm pretty sure that neither my art nor my writing really spoke to people. It certainly didn't speak to me. I was a scholarship girl.

A scholarship girl is a student who works hard and does all the "right" things, but doesn't know why she is doing them. She takes good notes, writes good papers, learns techniques, and even creates mildly exceptional works of art. And her teachers love her. She loves them, too. She lives for their applause.

I use "girl" instead of woman because in so many ways I wasn't fully grown.

The whole time, I was pretending I wasn't suffering. I was suffering, but I had pushed down my hurt. The details of my hurt aren't important. The hurt and the reasons for it are common enough, universal. All of us have hurt in the ways I was hurting. In a nutshell, I hurt because I had never learned to deal with loss or longing or grief. I hurt because I didn't know who I was. Tobias Wolff described my condition in his memoir, This Boy's Life. He said, "Because I did not know who

I was, any image of myself, no matter how grotesque, had power over me." Images of yourself aren't necessarily grotesque as in "ugly." A beautiful image of yourself, such as a scholarship girl, can feel grotesque if it doesn't feel true.

Inside, I was bitter, like Buddha is bitter in the picture. Outwardly, I smiled a lot.

The one thing I would most like you to know about me is that I was bitter then. And I want you to know that I'm bitter now. I'm no longer a scholarship girl (Although there are still many ways in which I'm not fully grown.)

The difference between the person I was then and the person I am now is that I'm learning to embrace my suffering, as one embraces a child. I'm not running away from my suffering by trying to find happiness in outside accomplishments or pursuits. I'm learning to cherish my suffering as one cherishes a child. Because out of my suffering comes my art.

The thing I want you to know about me is that I don't believe that this kind of bitterness is a bad thing. The Chinese character for suffering is "bitter," and Buddha said suffering is holy. It is holy because points us toward liberation. I think the Christ story teaches us the same thing. When Thomas touched Christ's wounds, Thomas looked deeply into those wounds, the wounds representing all suffering. Indeed, to look at any wound takes courage.

Now, when I write. I look deeply into my suffering, and it is sometimes a terrible place to go, but there's a liberation that happens afterwards. With that liberation comes a new energy. That energy feels a lot like joy.

I want you to know: I am bitter and that is okay.

A few years ago, I ran across a poem by Stephen Crane:

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of if. I said:
"Is it good, friend?"
"It is bitter-bitter," he answered;
"But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart."

I remember my own heart beating fast as I read this poem. The hairs went up on the back of neck and on my arms. Something about the poem felt very true. But for a long time I couldn't get past the negative connotations of "bestial" and "bitter."

Now, I see that the creature is bestial in the way we all are. We are animals, after all, beasts. We live according to the same natural laws as beasts. We have to kill to eat, and we have to eat to live. We are mad to couple, mad to survive.

The beast is bitter in the same way that I am bitter, I realize now. The beast is eating its bitter heart because that's where its suffering lives.

When I write, I'm a lot like the creature in Crane's poem, I think. When I write, I am naked and bestial. I am eating my bitter, bitter heart.

Which brings me to my final point:

Who is the third man in the painting of the "Vinegar Tasters"?

He is Lao-Tse. He is smiling. He has learned that life, even as painful as it sometimes is, is sweet.

Do I want someday to be the smiling one?

You bet.

I don't know what it will mean for my writing. But, yes, I want to be like him, like Lao-Tse.

I want you to know that I'm working on it.

Friday, April 14, 2006


Nick Nolte stars as Father Harlan, in Northfork. Here, he bears witness to young Irwin's death.

Northfork is a magical film about the death of a town and the death of young Irwin, an angel, according to Father Harlan.

Today in my Native American Literature class, we read aloud two essays by Native-American Linda Hogan, from her book of essays called Dwellings. One essay, "Stories of Water" is about the creative and destructive force of water and how humbling it is to be in the presence of such power.

Reflecting on the class later, as I'm prone to do, I remembered Northfork. The film is named for the town, which is to be flooded, lost to technological progress. As the town nears extinction, so does an orphan boy, named Irwin, who, as he slips toward death, has the most precious dreams.

At the end of the film, Father Harlan expresses his sorrow and his acceptance of life's pain. As Hogan speaks of being humbled by earth's power, Father Harlan speaks of being humbled in the presence of death. The impending death of the town, the death of Irwin. Water will cover all. There's something truly Biblical about the story. Nolte's voice is strong and quiet. It cracks with age, but he doesn't sound old. He's saintlike, but also profoundly human. He sounds almost timeless.

Northfork and Dwellings are both works to transport the soul.

Father Harlan: "And in that journey of dying, you see many things. But all of the issues I had are past, because I was to be a witness, a helper. And that is the thing I think is important about death, is the ability for us to be witnesses, not only for a person coming in, but of going out. And that is what we have here–we’ve lost our time, it’s gone. But maybe there is a birth someplace else. Maybe there is a blessing from that experience. I’m no longer afraid of death; but it’s a lesson that has taken me sixty years to learn."

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

To Feel Alive

Artist: William Blake.

Capote, to his editor, Robert Linscott, in 1947:

"I am working on the book and it is really my love and today I wrote two pages and oh Bob I do want it to be a beautiful book because it seems important to me that people try to write beautifully, now more than ever because the world is so crazy and only art is sane and it has been proven time after time that after the ruins of a civilization are cleared away all that remains are the poems, the paintings, the sculpture, the books."

Why is it that I so rarely show this kind of enthusiasm in my blog about writing? Why do I so often over-organize my thoughts and over-analyze the writing process?

I think I'm afraid people will think I'm a "flake" if I show too much enthusiasm.

Yet I don't think Capote is a flake when he writes, "...and oh, ... I do want it to be a beautiful book ... only art is sane." Nor was Dickey a flake when he described being so overtaken by the beauty of the writing process that he fell down to his knees in the middle of the street, felled by the power of that feeling.

I watched a documentary on PBS tonight, on Independent Lens. It was about John Trudell, a Native American activist, poet, and songwriter, whose wife and children died when their house was burned as a result of political unrest on the reservation, violence instigated by the US Government. You may know him from the movies. Trudell was in Thunderheart, and other films.

But, for Trudell, it isn't about being a "star." At the end of the documentary, he says something to the effect that he feels the purpose of his life is share his poems and his stories. He knows he is only one man and he isn't singlehandedly going to change the system.

He just wants to be a part of the exchange of information, of thought. He does this through writing because writing gives him a sense of of what it is to be alive. I think this was so for William Blake. He was animated through his art.

That is what I want, too, to feel alive by creating.

Sunday, April 09, 2006


Photo: Truman Capote, 1924-1984.

I finally got to see Capote. Allen and I rented it and watched it on Saturday, along with Good Night and Good Luck and Broken Flowers.

After the movies, I did a bit of Internet research on the films and ran across Capote's burial site. This is a great site where you can find the graves of many of your favorite authors. I enjoy this site, although my family finds it morbid.

All night, after I'd gone to bed, the three movies swirled in my dreams, mixing with personal experiences. I can't say they were bad dreams, but very strange. I think the three movies together touched on many anxieties I have, both public and private.

Broken Flowers makes me think about how I have always feared coming to the end of my life and thinking that my life has had no meaning.

Good Night and Good Luck makes me think about inhumanity in the world, how politics and inhumanity become synonymous.

Capote certainly brings to the fore many thoughts about writing, why we do it, what the consequences of writing are. I believe so far in my blogs, I've only addressed the positive consequences of writing. Capote suggests there are places our writing can take us that are dangerous to our inner well-being. I have always thought there is a boundary in us, that, once crossed, destines us to be wanderers in our own lives, lost. Perhaps Truman Capote crossed that line.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Come to the Dark Side!

There's a dark side to each and every soul. We wish we were Obi-Wan Kenobi, and for the most part we are, but there's a little Darth Vader in all of us. Thing is, this ain't no either-or proposition. We're talking about dialectics, the good and the bad merging into us. You can run but you can't hide. My experience? Face the darkness. Stare it down. Own it. It's brother Nietzsche said, being human is a complicated gig. So give that ol' dark night of the soul a hug. Howl the eternal yes! --Chris in the Morning, Northern Exposure

I've been writing so much about the dark side lately, I thought it'd be great to include one of my all-time favorite quotes here. This was actually my first post ever on my old AOL Journal.

I swear, I can't read this quote without smiling. It just makes me feel good!

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Treasure Trove

There is something dark in me, something among all my thoughts, something that I cannot measure with thoughts, a life that can’t be expressed in words and which is none the less my life…
Robert Musil, The Confusions of Young Torless

Kafka once wrote in one of his diaries: "The beginning of every story is ridiculous at first." I've always loved that because through the years it has encouraged me to start each new story without embarrassment or apology.

Once we finish the story, what then?

This has been on my mind the last two days. I have written a lot in my blogs about how stories come from a dark place in myself, a secret, hidden place which Jung called the unconscious. To use the title of one of my favorite poems by Adrienne Rich, it is like "Diving into the Wreck."

Often, though, this diving doesn't yield what I had hoped. Very often, I'm disappointed by what I write and have to acknowledge that the writing is nothing like what I'd envisioned. Recently, I came across a quote about this kind of disappointment:

“As soon as we put something into words, we devalue it in a strange way. We think we have plunged into the depths of the abyss, and then when we return to the surface the drop of water on our pale fingertips no longer resembles the sea from which it comes. We delude ourselves that we have discovered a wonderful treasure, and when we return to the light of the day we find that we have brought back only false stones and shards of glass; and yet the treasure goes on glimmering in the dark, unaltered.” (Maeterlinck, The Treasure of Homer.)

So my question would be, how do we keep from deluding ourselves? How do we even know whether we've brought up treasure and not just shards of glass?



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