Two Birds on the Land Spring Migration Tour

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Postcard from the Winter Retreat

Mary's Ideal Writing Window
 At our winter 2 Birds Winter Retreat Karen led us in a postcard story exercise. We had done a freewriting, and then gathered some of our ideas from this to distill into a concise idea that could be the seed of a longer piece. We chose an audience, and shared a tiny story.

But before that, I had led a drawing exercise, helping us to imagine our ideal writing space. As I drew, I thought about a little table nestled in an alcove with my office window. My office is in the attic of the English Building, so my view is cradled in the branches of the tree just outside. A squirrel often peeps in as I sit writing. I revisited that scene on the front of my postcard.

Lesson: "Get back to the basics. A pen, A paper. A window. A desk. A question.
For my audience, I chose Karen, so often my partner in writing and other projects. I told her about a lesson I learned as we led the retreat.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Sleeping Beauty, or looking for inspiration in all the wrong places

I hate that agitated feeling. I want to write, I think I should be writing, it is my “writing time”  -- and I haven’t a clue how to get started, or even what to get started on.  I am uninspired.

It feels like: a panic made worse by knowing how it will loop back into itself, tying knots in my gut and making me miserable. There’s nothing to write and I can’t write it anyway!

I go looking for quotes on the internet and find unhelpful stuff like “apply butt to chair.” Unhelpful and frustrating because I’m perfectly aware that it is not my butt or my chair that is the problem.

But what is it exactly?  What is it I think I’m missing? Some feeling of grace given to me – the world trembling and sparkling like lime jello, juicy, sweet, and receptive to my poking fork tines. Wouldn't that be nice? Leonard Bernstein has this to say about inspiration: “Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time.”

Maybe I’m not looking for the wonderful idea to be handed to me on a platter. Maybe it’s something else I want – courage or fearlessness or just for all the things that are crowding in to stand back for a minute so I can breathe freely onto the page. Well, “inspiration” does come from Latin, in+spirare (to breathe in).

Feeling unable to breathe freely makes me wonder if the anxiety is about time. Not having enough time, or wasting the time I do have because I really haven’t made a plan or intention of what to do.
This is hopeless!

And that is really the problem, I think, feeling hopeless.

I can’t write when I feel hopeless.

Hopelessness is like an enchantment, like Sleeping Beauty’s 100 year’s sleep – the entire kingdom made to sleep surrounded by viny, thorny forest growth until the “true love’s kiss” comes along, brought by the brave prince who manages to hack through the tangled vines and branches to get to the lovely, sleeping princess.

No one is going to save me. I am the sleeping beauty and I am the king who wants his daughter married off. I’m also the enchantment and the witch who cast it. I am, in addition, all the princes who fail to get through the viny wall, as well as the one who keeps hacking away until he finds himself at Beauty’s bedside.  I have to wake myself up. I have to write through the drowsy, boring 100 years of enchanted sleep.

I’m not saying that writing is boring. Writing is the process of waking, of being present and aware of the world around me. It doesn’t really take 100 years. It just seems like it.

Some days, inspirational quotes might help, but something that inspires most days won’t catch hold at all when I am in deep enchanted sleep of noninspiration. I need encouragement, I need true love’s kiss, by which I mean, I need my heart to be strummed to remind me what inspiration really is – the breathing in of soul that gives life, awakens and heartens.  Maybe I need a walk in the prairie. Maybe I need to talk to a real human being about real things. Maybe I need to read Anna Karenina or Tess of the D'urbervilles again.

But  today, this quote did speak to me, from Alfred Kazin, who wrote about growing up Jewish in New York City in the twentieth century. : "One writes to make a home for oneself, on paper, in time, in others' minds."

The writing makes its own enchantment, and not just for the writer.

This is where I am right now, at the edge of sleep, stretching into morning and the adventures of the day, yearning to write myself a home on paper.

Monday, July 23, 2012


Inspired by Kim Stafford's description of his small notebooks in The Muses Among Us, I made these. The cover is a 3X5 index card; the pages are one sheet of 8 1/2 X 11 paper folded and cut in particular way.
I sew them on the sewing machine, but you can also staple them. I date the cover, then carry it around with me until it is full. I jot down ideas for writing, but also for art projects.
Driving, I once ordered my sister to pull out my booklet and write: "Make a little backpack with unzippable purse." 

When a booklet is full I put it on my desk, and then glean it for ideas. I'll talk about how this process has changed my writing life at our Two Birds Summer Workshop on August 4th.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Give yourself a challenge!

When I'm feeling dragged down by heat and the press of things that never seem to take form, no matter how good my intentions, I remember this talk by Matt Cutts and his challenge to try something new for 30 days.
Take a look at this video, if you want to make a small, sustainable change in your writing life.

Make a commitment to do one, small, project for a month.  It could be to write a journal entry or a small essay, to send a notecard, letter or email to friend, start a blog, write towards an essay, story or epic novel, maybe something you never really had the time to tackle all at once (who has that kind of  leisure time?).

Matt Cutt's TED talk was the spark for my own project, 31 Haiku. As my 30 day project, I decided to write and post a photo and haiku each day for a month. I started it twice! But this year, I kept to it, and though there's not a haiku for everyday, there are haiku for many days. I've learned about the form, I've taken lots of photos, I've been outside a lot and looking closely at the growing world. And this year, I'm still keeping it up, after 3 months. I'm going for a year of haiku poems and photos, and then...who knows?

There's no end to the ideas and projects you might try. It takes very little time, and builds good habits of writing, observing, sharing and learning,.and ...who knows where it might lead?

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Respect the Muse; Respect Yourself

Mary's much overdue writing prompts are a little movie and a quote. Note that the movie has some vulgar language, but sometimes truth is vulgar. (Also I think it has an ad, and I'm sorry about that.)

"...I was working a lot as an adjunct and afraid that if I lived poem to poem I wouldn't write. I thought I need a project, which is advice I'll give students, even as an exercise to keep writing, because I think if you walk off from the Muse, she'll go visit somebody who's got time for her."

Claudia Emerson

Friday, March 30, 2012

Writing and Wordlessness

It is a great thing to know the season for speech and the season for silence.
--Seneca (5 BC - 65 AD)


Wow! It’s noisy out there!  In addition to machine sounds: cars, trucks, helicopters, sirens, machinery of the everyday life in central Illinois, there are WORDS everywhere. There are voices in the coffeeshop, on the street, in the store, there is the TV news, radio news, the internet. Talk talk talk radio, all the urgent, anxiety-provoking voices. There are billboard signs we read in our heads as if they are spoken to us (or SHOUTED), there are newspapers, flyers, posters, and cereal boxes advertising events, ideas, products. And then there are the internalized voices, and the talking-to-ourselves voices making lists, planning, retelling our stories to ourselves (and others if they will listen). Inner voices, but not necessaily the good, helpful kind. These are the words that get in the way of creativity.


As writers, words are our raw materials Рbut sometimes the words, the trivial drivel, the common and clich̩ words make the world a sloppy and unappetizing alphabet soup Рsomehow the word is too much with us.


To find the words that are fresh, trembling-new, alive,wise and true, it might be better to drop out of the word soup into something Martha Beck calls “wordlessness.” 


Is there a switch inside us to turn off words?


Some ways to drop into wordlessness:

  • Meditation

  • Watching clouds (like you did as a child)

  • Long walk in the spring woods or prairie

  • Any truly sensual experience that can take you out of words and into wordless experience

  • Creating "word clouds"

What is a word cloud and how do you create one?  Take a look at the  Wordle website

Wordle is an online tool/toy for playing with words.  You type or copy in a piece of text and the software turns it into a "word cloud" image. Then you can see your words in a wordless way, look at what words stand out, notice juxtapositions you might not have thought of. You can play with colors, layout and fonts. 


Try it! It could spark a new thought or a new way of looking at your own writing.


Here's a wordle I made from a piece about how spring arrives:


Try making a word cloud from a freewrite and hit  the randomize button a few times for different versions. See what words are thrown into interesting juxtapositions. Make a poem out of something interesting you find there.


Saturday, March 24, 2012


We passed the equinox last week, but here in Central Illinois we feel like we are deep into spring. The year is waxing, and everywhere life is expanding. 

In the forest, tiny microcosms emerge: whole colonies of Dutchman's Breeches, Trout Lily, Mayapple.

Take a look at the lists of words below. Add to the list if you like.

Look outward into the world; look inward into your heart. Ask yourself: "What is growing, expanding, blooming, rising in my life?"

Write about it.