Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Mendy's blog has moved!

You don't want to miss the latest post (on New Year's resolutions for writers...) and other creativity posts to come! Please check out the blog's new home at www.hillpoet.com.

And why not go ahead and sign up to get the posts by email from the new blog? You can do that here: http://bit.ly/tRE342

(Remember to check your inbox after you subscribe for the 'verify' link that must be clicked to make it work...)

Happy 2012 and see you over at hillpoet.com ~ Mendy

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Writing Dilemma #4: Digging Through the Blues

There's nothing like the post holiday blues to really stifle the creative in us. All of a sudden, we're looking at the end of one year (giving ourselves a hard time for all we DIDN'T do as opposed to what we DID) and the beginning of a new year which, let's face it, looks an awful lot like a blank page.

I know I allow mood to influence my daily writing. Especially after the all-too-common holiday overindulgence when I'm sated as an ancient Roman on a barcalounger. I get depressed with my own lack of self-control and laziness, and won't write. I feel useless and then set about proving it by continuing to do nothing about it.

Here, during the longest nights of the year, in the dark hours before dawn, hide the biggest diamonds. You won't know this until you look; until you dig deep and dig when it's hardest. Go ahead and let the darkness in. Pull it around you like a cloak. Hide beneath the hood of it, pen in hand. Then dig.

Last night I dreamed I was trying to get into the Air Force pilot's program. In order to do this, everyone had to pass a series of tests, one of which included being wrapped tightly in some mummy-like material and locked in a steel box for an undesignated period of time. I'm not sure what they were testing--your ability to remain with the plane at the bottom of the ocean like a good captain perhaps?

Like any sane person, I kept putting the test off while completing all the other requirements. Claustrophobic as hell, I just couldn't bring myself to submit. So I went to the little group garden spot where we each were allowed to keep a small plot that belonged exclusively to us. (Are you picking up on the death inferences?) Mine, however, was at the end of a row and was consistently being run over by the maintenance man on his riding mower. My little garden was all short and stubby, pitiful as the ones we tried to work under the heat dome here in Arkansas this past summer. From a distance the green looked beaten up and barren.

Sorrowfully, I dropped to my knees to see if there was something I could do to help it. To my great surprise, I discovered green beans growing. Digging in, I found onions, beets, even carrots under the black soil. Soon I had a small basketful of the jeweled fruits of my labor in hand. Happiness and pride swelled within me, and I was even able to track down the murderous mower and get him to agree to quit chopping my crop. I never returned to the scary test. It's only purpose seems to have been to propel me towards my garden.

Don't get all caught up in analyzing this dream, my Jungian and psychologist friends. For all you know, I'm making this up. Simply accept the point I'm trying to illustrate: Don't give up on your art just because you got the "morning after" depressed and sads. Even if you have to, metaphorically or otherwise, get down on your knees and dig among the fear and despair that pass for our gardens of joy and fulfillment at times. Remember this: the roots of the Blues were buried in dirt just like this. Somewhere in there may lie the perfect words that will feed your soul and bolster the hearts and minds of others, too.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Writing Dilemmas #3: Holidays/Holidaze

Allow me to address the holiday dilemma while square in the midst of the most difficult one for almost any artist--Christmas. Whether you celebrate Hanukkah, Solstice, or nothing at all, Christmas will invade your life like the Roman empire invaded Europe. Or Europeans invaded the Americas. Whatever, you get the picture. No matter your beliefs or practices, Christmas (as long as it has been celebrated) has overwhelmed every creative that ever lived. Go ahead. Try to ignore it. Well-meaning friends and family simply won't allow it. They want YOU there for the holidays, not the book you intend to publish in the coming year. Your presence, if not your presents, is required.

My personal policy is to simply give into it. I enjoy colored lights, wrapped packages, buying gifts, lively parties with friends, seeing my folks, the smell of evergreen, and writing and receiving cards. I try to make as much of it about writing as I possibly can. I assign myself a seasonal poem or story to write and put it out there at an open mic, in a blog post, or send it off to some magazine or journal, usually too late for them to get it published in time. No matter. I wrote it.

I give gifts to my writer and artist friends that hopefully will inspire them in their craft--things to write with or on. Magical rattles that bring the muse running. Calendars to help them keep up with their crazy, non-traditional lives. Gift cards to independent bookstores or coffee shops where they can take an artist date and a break from the insanity of doing too much in so little time. Magazine subscriptions that encourage creativity or offer writing prompts are good. I write an annual letter with my partner, Leigh, and send it in personal cards to friends and relations everywhere. (This is actually a great tool for reminding yourself just how much you DID do in the last year.)

Then I let all these things count. I AM creating. I AM writing. Perhaps everything I write during those two weeks can't be used in the memoir or short story I hope to publish in 2012. That letter to the friend I haven't seen in 20 years may not have anything to do with the screenplay I've been busting my ass on for the past 10 months. But I can't fight all this holiday spirit, and I don't want to depress myself by arguing with my reflection, "Oh, you should be doing this or you should be doing that." It's tiring and wasteful of whatever energy I happen to have left.

Maybe you can run away to Paris or the Keys or Hawaii for Christmas. I've always thought I might ignore the holiday if I were somewhere far away and could just write, write, write. But since I've never done it, I don't know if it's true or not. Besides, if I were to try a trip like that, I'd go to South Africa where it's summer and thoroughly confuse myself. Personally, I find it easier to give in and enjoy. I received a comment recently that said, "But what about making memories?" Well, here's your chance. But make sure you stay sober enough to remember the occasion or else you really are wasting your time.

It's true that there are times to simply be present in the moment. I envision my writer self, though, with a little tiny observer, an elfin reporter, sitting there on my shoulder like the proverbial angel/devil decider, and taking in all that is occurring even as I am as "with" the people I love as I possibly can be. I don't know if I learned to do this while policing, or if it is simply in the creative's repertoire and only needs practice to work. When I was a cop, I did a lot of counseling and talking and de-escalating trying to keep people, especially upset family members, out of jail. Especially at Christmas. At the same time, however, the little recorder was up there noticing everything--the grimace or unseen gesture made behind the wife's back. The uncle who suddenly disappeared into the back room. This enabled me to act safely and to write a great report should an arrest prove necessary.

I realize this post is slightly all over the place. But remember, I'm in the midst of the holiday dilemma myself and have lowered my standards. My advice is for you to do the same. Do what suits you; what feels most comfortable. Enjoy yourself--that's at the top of the list. Don't feel guilty if you don't finish the book by Christmas Eve. The new year is only a week or so away. You've got all of 2012 to complete that final draft. Count the writing you do manage. Throw in a haiku or poem to stay in shape. Attend a poetry reading or a play. Read a book about your craft. Open your heart to the love and the confusion and even the contention that a holiday like this always brings with it. Jot down some notes, and let your little angel/devil reporter do the rest.

See, I got this post written. Now I'll wish you, faithful readers and writers, some happy holidays of your own. May peace, poetry, art, and laughter fill your lives in the coming year. Maintain your sense of humor--you're going to need it in this election year. And remember, you can stand up nearly anyone and be forgiven, but never ignore your Muse. She, too, requires the gift of your presence.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Writing Little Miracles

When I travel and when I write, I notice that little miracles tend to occur along the way. That longed-for phrase finally pops into my head to fit the sentence perfectly. The metaphor I've been chasing like a loose rooster suddenly stops so I can swoop it up and put it in the pot to stew.

When I travel, invariably someone, often a stranger, performs an act so kind that I can barely believe it. I can only hope that I am that person for someone else once in awhile. These things I call "little miracles." They happen all the time; everyday, I'm sure. But we have to be paying attention in order to catch them before they fly past. And (this is the hard part) we have to show a little faith in the basic goodness of life (even in these "mortal coils" we call our fellow beings) in order to catch the miracles at work.

Leigh and I were five hours into our Atlanta vacation where we were headed to hear our favorite band, Roxie Watson, play when the first "little miracle" occurred. We got away from Fayetteville later than we intended (of course), so by the time we reached Russellville, AR we were already hungry. Well, I happen to know that the best hamburgers in Arkansas happen to be in Russellville, so we pulled off at exit 81, and turned into CJ's Butcher Boy Burgers.

Now, I'm not kidding about these burgers, y'all. (This post may not be as appetizing to you vegetarians, but it's still worth reading.) The beef is ground and weighed into 1/3 lb size balls, then hand-flattened into patties and grilled in the best old fashioned way. The hamburger, onions, tomatoes, lettuce and potatoes for french fries are visible right there in the front case. The menu is small: Hamburgers or cheeseburgers, french fries, sodas, and 3 kinds of milk shake--chocolate, strawberry, vanilla. To me, a small menu can only mean one thing; they make the best whatever it is they are advertising.

Anyway, Leigh had never eaten there and we loved our first road repast. We knew that every place we stopped would not be nearly as good, so we ate heartily. Then we headed out, changing drivers in the parking lot, and took off towards Memphis. We had been cheered by the decorations of the old-fashioned hamburger joint with its red booths, juke box, and shiny chrome fixtures. The staff was friendly and efficient even though they were busy, as always. I made Leigh wait while I took a few pictures to document our first cool oasis on a long, dry interstate.

On the other side of Memphis, we stopped for gas and drinks. I reached in my comfortable traveling sweatpants pocket to pay, only to find that my favorite money clip--a gift from two of my best friends--was missing, along with the $90 in cash it clasped. You know that sickening, sinking feeling where the hearts seems to drop down into the belly like you swallowed it accidentally? That's the feeling I had. More than the ninety bucks (hard enough to come by in this economy), I'd lost one of my most prized possessions, the mother of pearl money clip given to me as a birthday present from Lenny and Jane. Very unhappy moment.

I tried to recall, as we do, every place we had stopped. I stop a lot, so this took a minute. Besides CJ's, we had stopped at a gas station and a rest area bathroom. Part of me wanted to give up; to just say okay, these things happen. I could tell Leigh agreed, although she said nothing except to express her sorrow at my loss. But that money clip kept calling my name, and there was something about CJ's, too. If I lost the money there, then somehow, some way, they might still have the clip for me. It was worth a try.

I called information and got CJ's number. Meanwhile, I was not acting like the sweet traveling companion that Leigh had started out with. I felt sick at heart over this (when you think about the state of the world) small loss, but luckily my companion is a hospice nurse and understands loss, both large and small. I could tell she thought my call would most likely be futile, but she said nothing as I made it.

"CJ's, Lisa speaking."

"Hello, my name is Mendy Knott, and I ate at your diner at about 12:30 this afternoon. While I was there, I lost a money clip containing $90. I don't suppose it was turned in, or one of your employees found it."

"Hold on a sec, hon."

She half covers the receiver and hollers, "Did anybody turn in a money clip with $90 in it today?"

I hear a muffled, "Yeah. Ask 'em what the clip looks like."

Lisa says to me, "Can you describe the clip?" I wonder how many other people left $90 in a money clip there that day, but you never know.

"It's abalone-looking; a mother of pearl finish on one side."

"Yeah, hon, we got it."

"You do? You actually have it?"

"Some guy found it in the parking lot and brought it in here."

"I'll be gone a week to Atlanta. Will you keep it for me?"

"Sure, no problem. We'll put it in the safe with your name on it. You just stop by here on your way back through and we'll get it for you."

"Thank you. Thank you so much. You just made my holiday."

"No problem."

Sure enough, seven days later, we were back at CJ's and Lisa, the manager, washed her hands from the burger she was mixing, and retrieved my money clip and money. Most of our trip was delightful in every way. Of course, there are always a few bumps in the road. But this incident stands out in my mind as one of the finest memories I brought back with me. Something so unexpected; something as beautiful as the true meaning of Christmas started out to be. Something about hope and faith and like I said, miracles.

In the great scheme of things, this tale may be small to everyone but me. Getting that money clip, and even the cash back, felt like a big deal. It deepened something like faith in me, when it's so easy to give up on humanity these days. I mean, we rarely hear the good stories, right? That's one reason I'm writing this one. And so you won't miss the best hamburger in Arkansas when you whizz by Russellville. Make sure you stop at CJ's, exit 81. And be sure to say "Hey!" to Lisa for me.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Writing Dilemmas #2 Traveling

I'm writing this post in a hurry because I am in the midst of writing dilemma #2 myself. I am suppose to be packing, doing some last minute snack shopping (who can eat that stuff offered on the road), cleaning up for the house sitter, and in general, getting ready to go on a trip. Yet, I'm determined to get a post written before I leave.

I am a traveler by nature. I love going, especially if it means seeing new places, seeing old friends, or visiting family. You wouldn't consider me a world traveler simply because I don't have the financial resources for that sort of jet-setting. Still, every chance to go someplace new offers a different perspective, whether it be your own, a stranger's, or a family member's. Every new experience is worth writing about.

Lunch in Holly Spring, MS can offer as much inspiration as Paris, France. Well, that may be a stretch, but not much of one. So much depends on one's state of mind, open heart, and willingness to be present wherever you are. And you have to carry that notebook, that ipad, that laptop in your luggage. Then you have to use it. Taking notes as you roll or fly along is a viable option to writing long treatises. Jot down what you hear at the table next to you at the diner or the fine restaurant. Then compare your notes. Great characters are born from simple eavesdropping.

You have to stay somewhere, so there will be time in the motel room at the end or beginning of each day to capture some of the most memorable moments of your trip. Time is of the essence; I don't care if you're 15 or 75. We never know how long we have here on this wildly spinning planet and the time we take to jot down our memories are always worth it. I sometimes think that if I were to have a bed-bound illness, reading over the memories I've captured on the trips I've taken will be a great joy. I consider memories and the words they inspire sacred. Let's face it, a lot of the world's great works are based on memories. Consider the New Testament, written long after Jesus was gone from the earth. That's just an example, so don't get nervous, readers of other or no religious persuasions.

I'll be taking my laptop and my notebooks and pens. I keep a notepad small enough to fit in my backpack so it can go anywhere with me. I take a larger journal for those lazy mornings with coffee in the Hampton Inn. The laptop can go to the bookstore or coffee shop in the town square with me.

When traveling alone, I'm famous for pulling off the road at a nice little roadside or state park and writing about what is found there. Just ask my friends and family, who are at the other end of the road usually waiting dinner on me. Leigh has learned not to wait. We always eat popcorn and apples when I get home from a trip.

If I'm traveling with someone, I utilize the power of collaboration. Challenge each other to write a song, tell stories, share metaphors and images. Driving through south Arkansas with my parents recently, they told me stories about their childhoods that the passing scenery inspired: my dad's job as a teen working on a cookie delivery truck and staying in a small hotel in Magnolia, AR, which is still there. My mom's long walk from her house to the small town of Rosston--a 4 mile round trip because her mom needed something from the store. She was eight years old and it was a huge adventure to be out on her own. They are in their 80's now and these memories are precious indeed.

My friend Katey Schultz (pictured above with her car, the Claw) may be the best example of the writing traveler. She has been at it for nearly two years, and her writing gets better and better. Through her, I am able to visit places I won't see in this lifetime. That is a special gift. You give it to others when you share what you've written while you're away--the best souvenir is taking others to places they won't see without you.

Next time you hit the road, don't forget your writing tools. They are every bit as important as your camera and your underwear. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then paint yours with words. When you're a writer, traveling is no excuse for not writing. In fact, it's a good reason to keep that pen moving. And don't forget to send a few postcards!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Writing Dilemmas #1

Dilemmas plague artists and writers. When to work. Where to work. How to work the work into busy schedules. There's just no end of things to keep us from doing what we both want and don't want to do most.

I thought I'd bring up a few of the most problematic issues over the next several weeks, get a little feedback on how you deal with yours, and let you know the various ways I resolve my own. I have to incorporate several tricks since surprising myself with something new is often effective.

I love living life to the fullest; that is, actively participating as much as possible in whatever is going on. I also love to write about life, which is an often solitary and sedentary activity. This would be what I would call a major dilemma; one not easily resolved. Writing every day is the goal. How can I accomplish this goal and still be the extroverted mesomorph I long to be?

There's a long answer and a short answer to this problem. We'll stick with the short answer because, actually, this basic problem covers the whole series. The main answer for me, on any given day, is write first. So what if it will be 107 degrees later in the day and the only time to garden is 7 am. Then I must get up at 5 am and write first if I want to go to the garden.

If it's snowing and what I really want to do is build up the fire, stick in a movie and lay on the sofa and watch it snow, I have to write first. If this means I can't get out of bed until I've written, then allow me to claim my place in a long line of famous reclining writers including Mark Twain, Truman Capote, and poet William Stafford who wrote reclining on a sofa at 4:30 am. Prop up the pillows, protect the comforter from the coffee and ink, and begin.

If company is coming and you haven't cleaned the house, remember that candles and party lights can hide a multitude of dust bunnies and other dirt. Perfection in homemaking is highly overrated. (Leigh is fainting as she reads this). And remember, Mrs. Smith makes a darn good berry cobbler. Just dump a little vanilla ice cream on top. Because, no matter if Michelle Obama is coming for dinner, you have to write first.

So you put something really clever on face book and you need to see who responded; how many likes you got? You know you have a ton of unanswered email and if you don't do it now, you'll have even more in an hour. Don't touch that internet interloper until you have written first. You'll be sorry. In fact, your mind may even trick you into believing that it counts as writing. It doesn't. Write first.

So there's my simple and only answer to the number one dilemma--when will I fit it in? Always, always write first. And so should you.

Friday, November 04, 2011


A poet, even in the best of circumstances, rarely sees the kind of success that a novelist or screenwriter, or even a journalist does. The first thing people say to you when you tell them you're a poet is, "Don't quit your day job." Actually, that's good advice for any writer these days, at least until you get that first big break.

However, so many of us let this bit of information keep us from writing at all, much less writing a poem. I'm not going to spend a lot of time on why we should write poetry today. I'm going to tell you a very short story (for me) and then include a poem and a picture and that will be your post for this week.

When I lived in WNC in a little town called Saluda near Asheville, there was a beautiful place I loved to visit both on my own and when friends came to visit. It was located at the base of Pacolet Falls, just outside that tiny town. The location was secret, and I felt lucky that locals trusted me enough to tell me how to get there. I had to be persistent and be willing to walk downhill going, and uphill all the way back. At least for me, the reverse is preferable and easier.

A year or so after moving into Asheville proper, I wanted to write a fall poem. I try to write a poem every fall, as it is my favorite season. Here in NW Arkansas, we have had a delightfully long one this year and I have spent so much time outside after the dreadfully hot summer, that I haven't gotten to my fall poem yet, but I will. It's a commitment. I owe it to that kind of beauty.

One fall, feeling rather melancholy, and wanting to write an autumn poem, I struggled and struggled to get just the right feeling, find the right words. The poem rhymed, which I hadn't counted on, but they do as they will when I write them. Sometimes they rhyme, sometimes they don't, sometimes they do and they don't. I give my poetry a lot of space in which to express itself.

This particular poem, "Leaving" became famous. I never expected that. In fact, I laughingly call it my funeral poem because several people (including my own mom!) requested I read it at their or a friend's or parent's funeral or memorial service. Ministers asked permission to read it at the death of a parishioner or congregation member.

Finally, Leigh published it in the first of her hospice booklets, "A Different Season." This was our first booklet and we have sold thousands and thousands of copies--dare I say a hundred thousand or more--over the past 4 years. Few living poets know that so many people have seen (not all read it I'm sure) or had the opportunity to experience one of their poems; to have it so appreciated.

I am lucky. More than that though, and this is my point to you, when you put those words down from an open heart, whether you are a renowned poet or a beginner, you never know where they may end up or whose life you may touch. One thing is for sure, they will be inscribed on your heart forever. Enjoy the beauty of this lovely, sometimes lonely, but ultimately wonderful season. You can even write a poem to honor it.


Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Matthew 6.28-29

On a hill above Saluda beside Pacolet Falls I lay

gazing though a screen of birch at the remnants of the day.

Not a breath, not a whisper stirred the air when,

like a camera changing focus, my stare shifted

caught the falling leaves that drifted onto clothing

slowly sifted, then gifted me, a weary warrior

with feathers for my hair.

Suddenly, I must know how each leaf fell

and how they felt about their circling descent

from heaven down to hell.

Surely after all that time so close to sky

the ground must seem an alien and far-off place to die.

No breeze shook them from their tenacious holds.

That same thin strength that held them

throughout a summer’s storms seemed gone.

But wait... there goes one on fiery wings of gold!

Why, they’re leaping from their limbs,

they’re not just letting go!

They’re taking turns and laughing,

they seem tickled by the sun,

as if today was a leaf parade and they’re falling just for fun.

Bright red, burnt orange, soft yellow–

all dressed in Sunday finery

as they loose their perches fearlessly

for the first and last time flying

whirling, twirling, spinning ‘round,

singing Hallelujahs until they gently kiss the ground.

I want to learn to leave my life as gracefully as they.

May my certain passing from this place

come to me this way--

Let me leap into forever like a well thought out adventure

leave rejoicing in the splendor of a brilliant autumn day.

Mendy Knott from the book A Little Lazarus published by Half Acre Press 2010

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Writing Empathetically

As writers, we are never going to be spared feelings. If we have a duty, perhaps it is that we observe the world's joy and sorrow, healing and great pain while keeping our hearts open as well as our other five senses. Once we have truly felt it, we use our gifts to interpret and express the feelings in words or art so that others may access it. Not everyone can express what they feel; not easily anyway. And it may not be easy for the writer or artist, either, but it's our job. I take this job seriously.

Think about how it feels when you are down and out, experiencing loss or sadness, or even a great joy (like falling in love) and you hear a song on the radio, or come across a poem or story that speaks to the very thing that at that moment is turning your world upside down. Doesn't that make you feel heard? Don't you, all of a sudden, feel accompanied? You know, then, that you are one of many others who has felt the way you feel now. It's human. Someone out there knows what we are going through and has been willing to share it so that we will feel celebrated if joyful, accompanied if alone.

And there you have it, my poets and writers, my sister and brother creatives, your raison d'etre, as it were. You can't achieve your purpose of expression and self-expression, however, unless you are willing to "go there." We must be ready to "feel for others" what they may be unwilling, or even incapable of, feeling for themselves. Did I say that this is not an easy job?

You may have noticed already that this level of vulnerability mixed with the more objective powers of observation needed to write well and to capture the emotions of a landscape as well as a funeral, are difficult talents to cultivate and balance. Writing empathetically requires both boundaries and a willingness to make our boundaries permeable so that emotions and observations can flow back and forth through the creative membrane. That is the courage of the artist.

So I wrote a poem to try and capture another's loss. Try this at home. All you have to do is to think about your own experiences, and the feelings will rise to the surface like magic.

On the Occasion of Your Loss

"I'm sorry for your loss."
It's a line you hear over and over
when you watch cop shows. The detectives,
suspicious, observant, always seem to mean,
"What did you do to them?
We know you didn't like them.
We know he was an asshole, and hurt you
a hundred different ways."
But what if he wasn't, and really,
she only hurt you a couple of ways that were,
it's true, hard with sharp edges, but nothing
compared to this...this...
"gone missing."

I am sorry for your loss
but can't bring myself to say a line
so eaten with suspicion, like a mop
the mice used for making homes,
and now the cottony top, though soft, can help no one.
Look, here is a box
of soups, a bar of soap,
some kleenex, some Bunny Grahams
for the kids.
There's still a lot of room in there,
but I ran out of ideas for how to help
this awful hurt–your heart all mouse-gnawed
and useless for loving–
the thing it was made to do;
its purpose half-destroyed.
I want to tell you how it grows back,
alive and beating,
whole, working,
able to do its job again.
But you won't believe me. Not now.
And who can blame you?

I wish I knew you better.
Maybe that's not the truth,
not right now anyway.
Because there's a bruise
darkening the first 2 ribs
below my own heart
from the battering you've taken
and I stutter when I try to say,
"I'm sorry for your loss."

Mendy Knott Oct. 2011

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Who Were You at Halloween?

Most every child has a favorite character they long to imitate at Halloween. I believe these characters are telling. They say something about who we will become; about the characters and traits that we admire enough to covet, even for a night. Perhaps we don't care to know these things about ourselves, but remembering is a river we can follow to self-knowledge. In this way we are at least able to change what we don't like, and capitalize on what we do.

I was a hobo. Every year, same thing. My longing for life on the rails and adventure through poverty never changed. I've outgrown this fantasy partly because my body can't quite handle sleeping beneath the stars under an old woolen army blanket, leaping from moving trains, or walking the ties for days homeless and hungry. Sure, a large part of my desire was pure fantasy. These men (and a few women) lived incredibly hard and short lives. But they had adventures and they saw the country in a way few of us will ever see it.

In my mind, and from the safety of my elementary school yard, I would spend days creating my character. This was all good practice for the writing years. I dreamed of sleeping in rocking freight cars, cooking my coffee in a tin can over an open fire, hobnobbing with other hobos and sharing what we had. Back in the '50's and early '60's there were plenty of my idols still living the life. It hadn't been long since Woody Guthrie was writing his songs from the open doors of a train car, legs dangling above the rails.

On Halloween afternoon, I would rush home and begin putting together my costume. Although my outfit required a bit of drag, Mom didn't seem to mind. It was cheap. It was easy. We had everything but the corncob pipe in a closet somewhere, and pipes were easy enough to come by at Woolworth's. A rope around my waist served as the belt that would hold up a pair of my brother's britches. I'd pick out one of Dad's plaid flannel shirts and slide my feet into a pair of his old oxfords padded with a few pair of socks to keep them on my feet. One of PaPaw's old felt hats crushed down around my ears, and I was ready. All I needed was make-up and accessories.

I'd choose a long crooked stick from the oak outside, stuff a red bandana full of newspapers to make it look nice and fat, and if I was lucky, there'd be a pair of old winter gloves I could cut the fingers out of. Momma would dot my face with eyeliner, smear it around my cheeks and chin as black stubble, and there I'd be: staring back from the mirror with my bright eyes, the hobo I longed to be the entire rest of the year.

Momma could hurriedly move from me to the Frankenstein and fairy princesses my brother and sisters longed to be. I was done and outside, shuffling around in my large shoes, smelling leaf smoke on the air as the neighbors raked and burned, and waiting for dark. But already, I was fulfilled. In my costume, I was a hobo. I rode the rails. I drank my coffee hot and black from a tin cup. I read the secret language of hobos inscribed on barns and doorposts at every stop--who would give and who would not and who would barely let you live. Nothing was ever as good as it was in my mind. After all, I was sent trick-or-treating, not down to the train yards.

In the next couple of weeks, remember what you loved to look like as a child at Halloween. Who was your favorite character? Think about what it meant to become this creature, this character for a night filled with ghosts and goblins and all the candy you could eat. Remember, write it down, and learn a little something more about yourself. If it scares you just a bit, so much the better.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Creating Mojo: The Chant as Poetic Form

I haven't taken a poll and I can't prove it, but I believe that many, if not most, creatives are spiritual people. They are certainly as superstitious as baseball players. Just ask yourself if you have a ritual involved when getting ready to write. A lot of you may not even notice.

"Okay, instrumental music on low volume; lamp with mardi gras beads hanging from it lit; glass of wine or cup of coffee in place; tiny carved jade Alaskan storytellers my sister gave me standing on window ledge above computer; candle burning. Ready, set, go!"

It's funny, but something about having your mojo on helps when it's time to get down to the work of creating. Whatever rituals we perform...whatever words we repeat...whatever time of day our hearts or spirits are most open...that is when the moment is ripe and the Muse beckons us to the creative chapel. Refuse her at your peril. She wants us to keep our dates, and hates being stood up. This is easy enough to find out for yourself.

Perhaps a chant to help us get started...Now this sounds like something the Muse would really like. An enticement, so to speak, to bring her close. Start loud and lower your voice to a whisper. Force her to draw near to hear the final words, and make them worth the effort. Not all our hoodoo has to be visual, is all I'm saying. We could try writing and reading, or chanting it.

A chant is a poem of no fixed form, intended for reading aloud, with certain words or phrases meant to be repeated over and over. This form is prehistoric, folks, so something about it must work, right? The rhythm of the repetition forms a musical beat. Blues songs, slave songs, prison work songs all draw on this ancient form. The chant was revived in the 1960's by poets like Anne Waldman and Diane Wakoski.

To write a chant, it helps to come up with a good, musical line you want to repeat; that's the key to the poem. What next? Well, remember that the chant form has an openness and spontaneity you won't find in a sonnet, so go crazy. Stir in some magic. Get spiritual, then physical. Whirl and twirl around your creative space. Chant in that crazy Muse--she loves being courted and called. Besides, it's fun, and fun opens us to creativity. Once she gets there, open the door, invite her in, make her sit close, very close.

Thinking About John Lennon's "Let It Be," I Call Marie

Sunny Sundays mean, for some, to go to church or pray or run
while I invite my Muse, Marie, to write with me and have some fun.
Come on Marie, I call on thee; for thee and me and we alone
will set creative spirits free.

In a funk with chores to do, I don't want to play with you
or anyone. I won't create, allow for fun.
Come on Marie, I call on thee; for thee and me and we alone
will set my sullen spirit free.

There's Tom, then Mom, then Honey Lee
all waiting for replies from me, but I really hate the phone
it eats my writing time, my poems.
Oh, sweet Marie, I'm begging thee; for thee and me and we alone
refuse all calls; write poetry...

...for thee and me and we alone,
come close Marie, sit down with me.

Try this at home, and remember, chants started out pagan and stayed long. By the time you finish chanting, you'll be quite content to sit and write quietly.