Reflections on Writing Habits

Today I woke early with the intent of using the quiet morning to write for a few hours, to feel the energy that poet Mary Oliver pours into her work. I wanted to feel productive and virtuous and perky as my roommates  (husband and teenage sons) dragged themselves into the kitchen for breakfast well after sunrise. "Good Morning Everyone! I've written a thousand words!"

I lolled in bed instead, made a cup of coffee, read some of the New York Times on the floor while stretching my back, decided to experiment with a pumpkin-oatmeal waffle recipe, clipped dead stalks from the newly green oregano in the front yard, took my son to school, walked the dog, swam laps for half an hour. Now I am writing this blog as a warm up. It is 10: 30 a.m. Not exactly early, but I do feel perky and potentially productive. I'll work on feeling virtuous later this spring when the sun and I can agree on rising at the same time.

In recent weeks, my loving husband has been sending me excerpts from Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac. Because my husband is familiar with my erratic work habits, the excerpts are usually about successful writers and their work habits. Mystery novelist, Elizabeth George, for instance, keeps the kind of schedule that makes me look like a banana slug:

     She writes five days a week when she's working on the first draft, and when she's on subsequent drafts, she writes seven days a week. She always gets up at 6 a.m., she says, feeds the dog and takes vitamins and works out on an Exercycle for 30 minutes while reading a meditation book, then inspirational book, then a novel. And she lifts weights for 35 minutes while watching The Today Show. She meditates for 10 minutes, sits down at her desk, reads great literature for about 15 minutes — something along the lines of Jane Austen — and writes a paragraph or page or two in a journal. And then she begins to work on the novel she's writing. She keeps a plot outline, and everyday she writes a minimum of five pages, even if she's on the road for book tours or on vacation.

    George said, "The only way to succeed at the writing life is to be able to live according to a schedule that accommodates time to write."

 I am pretty sure this last line is a tautology and therefore (according to my rules) completely invalidates her "exemplary" writing habits.

In her wonderful exploration Sex, Sleep, Eat, Drink, Dream: A Day in the Life of Your Body, author Jennifer Ackerman writes much about the differences between the night owls and the larks (the early risers). "It should be noted here," she writes, "that despite the many proverbs praisng the virtues of the larks (Benjamin Franklin's 'Early to bed, early to rise," 'The early bird gets the worm,' and so on), science suggests that there is no health or monetary advantage to being an early riser, not is it necessarily a sign of mental well-being."

So today, at 10:59, my work day begins. I did wake early. I will work for four solid hours (and for some ragged hours on either side of that). I will write a thousand words, think a thousand thoughts about clouds, and work on a virtue or two. Right now, however, my son has asked me to play a game of Scrabble. I think this is just as good as (maybe better than) watching the Today Show with dumbells.

Mary Oliver on Clouds


All afternoon, sir,
your ambassadors have been turning
into lakes and rivers.
At first they were just clouds, like any other.
Then they swelled and swirled; then they hung very still'
then they broke open. This is, I suppose,
just one of the common miracles,
a transformation, not a vision,
not an answer, not a proof, but I put it
there, close against my heart, where the need is, and its serves

the purpose. I go on, soaked through, my hair
slicked back;
like corn, or wheat, shining and useful.

This is from Mary Oliver's Why I Wake Early, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the Natioanl Book Award. I confess: I did not obtain, or even try to obtain permission to copy this poem. I am not sure what to do about this. I have been buying and reading and loving Mary Oliver's poems for many years. Should I apologize to her for sharing (stealing? borrowing?) her poem on clouds or should I see my blog as free advertising for Mary Oliver who does not need advertising. She packed Seattle's Benaroya Hall last year; she floated on stage--a wisp of a woman in black--and received a very long (almost embarrasingly long) standing ovation--before she had uttered a word. She waited for every exuberant soul in the audience to sit down and then she looked out and up and said, "There certainly are alot of you."

Still, she deserves every penny I have. Perhaps I should put a blank check in the mail and send it to her through her agent or publisher. Somehow, I do not think she would find my money useful in her pursuit of the soul. Instead, I will keep reading her poems every morning and continue to urge everyone to find her poetry--at your local bookstore, at the library, or online. Here is a link to her books on Powells and to Amazon. Googling "Mary Oliver" will yield a bounty of poems and biographical information about this "shining and useful" woman.

Ch'i of Clouds

 I wrote last month about cloud painting and party ideas from the Mustard Seed Garden Catalogue of Painting—the 17th-Century manual of Chinese brush painting.

I was so intrigued by the lessons on painting and life, that I felt compelled to get a copy of the book myself. My local public library did not have this book in their holdings, so I requested a copy through their Interlibrary Loan Service. Less than a week later, a pristine copy of the book arrived from The Community College of Rhode Island in Warwick.

I scanned the Table of Contents for the chapter on clouds, but found no such chapter. The two-page index listed only the names of Chinese master painters and calligraphers. I looked at the photocopied pages on cloud painting that my mother-in-law had mailed me in December. And then I found these two pages in my book at the end of a section called the "Book of Rocks." I found it odd that clouds were considered rocks and even more odd that the two pages my mother-in-law sent me were the only two pages on clouds in the book.

To me, clouds and rocks were nothing alike. One is earthbound, mostly permanent, solid, hard-edged, dark, often linear, jagged, made of minerals and covered with trees; the other is skybound, transient, vaporous, soft-edged, rounded, sometimes linear or stratified, made a water or ice, and were unfettered, untouched, and unadorned by anything but sunlight. But there were the clouds, both the “small-hook” and “large-hook” style of clouds, in the middle of Rocks.

To my Western eyes, the small- and large-hook style clouds look nothing like clouds. They are composed of short wriggling lines that look like, well, worms crawling across the surface of a rippling stream. There was nothing puffy or vertical or cloudy about them. What did look like clouds, however, were the rocks. The first page of the Book of Rocks features five rocks that are the spitting image of five perfect cumulus clouds (left). Five perfect little cumulus humilis floating in space on the white page. There is nothing to ground them—no tuffs of grass, layer of duff, or suggestion of earth. All five of these rock-shaped clouds are darkly shaded on one side to give them depth and dimension. I am pretty sure they are clouds. I look to the text for an explanation.

"In estimating people…” it begins (a beginning that tells me I am not going to get an answer about my cloud-rock debate)… “their quality of spirit (ch’i) is as basic as the way they are formed; and so it is with rocks, which are the framework of the heavens and of earth and also have ch’i. That is the reason rocks are sometimes spoken of as yun ken (roots of the clouds).”

I stop there. Roots of the clouds. I love this idea! What does it even mean? I cannot even picture roots of clouds. Well, actually I can: a flat and treeless landscape scattered with evenly placed boulders as far as the eye can see, scattered cumulus clouds above, lots of very long, slimy tree roots connecting each boulder to a cloud. It is a surreal and hideous image, a literal and very Western scene. Something Frida Kahlo, Hieronymous Bosch, or Salvador Dali might have painted after seeing a kelp forest. I read on.

“Rocks with ch’i are dead rocks, just as bones with the same vivifying spirit are dry, bare bones. How could a cultivated person paint a lifeless rock?”

The “cultivated” persons I know have done some pretty offensive things in their lives, but painting lifeless rocks has not been one of them. Imagine a time when, to be considered cultivated, you had to paint rocks with ch’i. Imagine a time when you would even ask such a question—How could a cultivated person paint a lifeless rock?—and not get ushered into a psychiatrist’s office.

The next passage, written about rocks, applies equally to clouds—despite their very obvious differences.

“One should certainly never paint rocks without ch’i . To depict rocks without ch'i, it must be sought beyond the material and in the intangible. Nothing is more difficult. If the form of the rock is not clear in ones’ heart (-mind) and therefore at one’s finger tips…the picture can never be completely realized. I have, however, at long last learned that this is not so difficult to achieve.”

I make a note to use this in my next inspirational speech to my sons: It is not difficult to achieve something that can never be completely realized. Now for the E-Z method.

“There are not many secret methods in the painting of rocks. If I may sum it up in a phrase: rocks must be alive.”

My skin tingles and I remember a poem by Mary Oliver, about rocks sleeping in her hand. I have a recording of this poem on a CD in my car. I close The Mustard Seed Garden Catalogue of Painting, pack my laptop and some cloud-painting books in my briefcase, and drive downtown. Mary reads to me from the back seat:

Some Things Say the Wise Ones

Some things, say the wise ones, who know everything,
are not living. I say,
You live your life your way and leave me alone.

I have talked with the faint clouds in the sky when they
are afraid of being left behind; I have said Hurry, hurry!
And they have said, Thank you,we are hurrying.

About cows, and starfish, and roses there is no
argument. They die, after all.

But water is a question, so many living things in it,
bt what is it itself, living or not? Oh gleaming
generosity, how can they write you out?

As I think this I am sitting in the sand beside
the harbor. I am holding in my hand
small pieces of granite, pyrite, schist.
Each one, just now, so thoroughly asleep.

I listen to this poem four times on my way to my writing spot overlooking the water, the gleaming generosity. I listen to this poem and wonder who Mary Oliver’s ‘wise ones’ are. Certainly not the authors of the “Book of Rocks.”

I spend the afternoon looking at the water, the rain, the ripples on the puddles, and a book by American artist and illustrator Eric Sloane (1905-1985). Sloane wrote and illustrated some thirty-eight books in his lifetime. Skies and the Artist: How to Draw Clouds and Sunsets (1950) is one his first. As a non-artist, non-meteorologist, it is one of my favorites. He begins this primer for art students with a discussion of cloud anatomy. Except for the line about ice cream, I could have been reading out of the Mustard Seed Catalogue:

“Although clouds appear motionless, they are really slow explosions. Whether single (cumulus puffs) or solid flat layers (stratoform) they puff and boil continually…..therefore don’t make cloud-masses look like melting mounds of ice cream but like living shapes in graceful action. Do think of cloud action first, then think of cloud shape and outline because shape depends on movement.”

“To put grace into a cloud you must realize that it is a living thing, either in the process of building up or of disintegration.”

Sloane, a self-taught painter and illustrator, has not only expressed the ch’i of clouds, but also something of their yin and yang.

What a day! What a good day. What an enlightening cloudy gray day. Thank you painters and poets, cultivated persons, truly wise ones, keepers of life, seekers of ch’i, stewards of grace.

And the next day, in the pouring rain, I went hiking with my husband along a tributary of the Skokomish River in Olympic National Forest. The nimbostratus clouds were thick overhead, but the forest was drenched in the bright greens of moss, fern, hemlock, and cedar. We took a sidetrail, marked "Confluence" and here is what we saw--living things: