Writing and the 6 a.m. brain

Southern California dawn; credit: Jessie Eastland  

Every writer has a different time of day that works for creative writing.

As I retool my novel and prepare to cast it back into the marketplace, I realize why working early in the morning has been the best choice for me.

As the day progresses, bad things happen to my brain.

My thoughts become too logical, too careful, too focused on making everything precise and accurate.

Accuracy isn't always at the heart of the best creative writing. In the early morning, while this critical side is still groggy, my creative side has a chance to work unhindered … at least for a little while.

Here's a small example of what I mean. Something written in the afternoon:

I lost my footing and fell down the steps into the cellar.

… and the same thing rewritten at 6 a.m.:

I stumbled down the stairs.

You're probably thinking, "Huh?"  It might not be a big revelation to anyone else, but it is to me.

The first version is too overwritten, especially for the place where it occurs in my story. What I needed was something much briefer, but I just couldn't see it. My brain was too concerned about prepositions, about specific locations, and too smitten with the idea of losing one's footing instead of a simpler expression. Most people stumble. Or fall. (I don't think anyone's lost their footing since 1875.)

The simpler version arrived the next day … in the morning.

A.L. Kennedy has written frequently about the daily challenges to writing well, and a column of hers that's my favorite is called "The chaos of writing." It appeared a few years ago in The Guardian. Lovely stuff, my friends.

Early morning's my best time, what's yours? Or does it matter?

In endings are beginnings


The Call of the Siren was silent in the past several weeks as my mom's health turned and we lost her -- just as 2013 locked its doors and turned out the lights.

When a loss is coming, we prepare for the worst -- for the pain and sorrow. We rarely think about silver linings. That's why, aside from grief and shock, I was surprised to find myself living the circularity of myth in her last days and in the days after.

I'm talking about the kind of circularity represented by the Phoenix, or that Lisa Ohlen Harris describes at the end of her book The Fifth Season: A Daughter-in-Law's Memoir of Caregiving (Texas Tech University Press). Of her mother-in-law Jeanne, Harris writes:

I miss Jeanne. I do. We've started a new life in a beautiful place because Jeanne died and released me from caregiving. Now instead of learning side effects to medications, I am memorizing the names of the trees and mountain ranges and the April flowers springing up in my garden.

I've just pulled off my gloves and am brushing damp soil from the knees of my jeans when I hear geese. I tilt my head up and raise a hand to shield myself from the rain as I peer into the sky and see the flock overhead, winging and honking and flying free to their summer home.

Her ending pulled me like a magnet, and I wanted to share the last grafs about renewal with you, my friends, even though I have nothing else to say.

It just feels good to feel the keypads under my fingers.

For more of Ohlen Harris' ruminations, visit her blog here.

Happiness for $10.99

The Happy Islands; photo credit: Thien Zie Yung What’s the definition of happiness? Driving home from Vegas this weekend, I realized that Sin City thinks it has some answers to that question. You start seeing them when you’re still miles out from the Strip, weaving through the desert on Interstate 15. One billboard says,

Gourmet meal  $10.99

with a picture of a lobster tail spilling out of its shell. Like it's on steroids. There’s more meat on display on another one:

Treasures Gentlemen’s Club & Steakhouse

Two kinds of meat, actually. The litany of signs is endless. Like the desert.

Happiness, Vegas-style, boils down to sex, money, and, as another sign declares, “sinful food, heavenly views.”

But novelist David Malouf is thinking about something else in The Happy Life: The Search for Contentment in the Modern World (Pantheon) published earlier this year. On our trip I took along this slender but considerable book — don’t let its mere 112 pages fool you —  to one of the most (in)famous desert cities in the world.

Oh, I wasn’t trying to be some cool master ironist; I wasn’t planning on sitting in my room reading Malouf while the rest of Vegas played. I just admire Malouf’s novel Conversations at Curlow Creek, about a good talk before a good hanging, and I wanted to see what he was about in the new book. Besides, its short length seemed just right for when I wasn’t driving.

As all those billboards were sliding by and the Vegas skyline came into view, I couldn't help thinking of what Malouf says about our contemporary notion of “the good life”:

The good life as we understand it today does not raise the question of how we have lived, of moral qualities or usefulness or harm; we no longer use the phrase in that way. The good life as we understand it has to do with what we call lifestyle, with living it up in a world that offers us gifts or goodies free for the taking.

But if that isn’t happiness, then what is?

Malouf doesn’t provide a single, definitive answer — that seems impossible. Besides, as a novelist, he’s more comfortable with evoking questions and leaving readers to form their own conclusions.

He marshals a glittering assortment of figures — among them Thomas Jefferson, Plato, Montaigne, Ovid, Rubens, Rembrandt, Dostoevsky, on and on — who have offered their understanding of what “the good life” and “happiness” are. Personally, I appreciate the view of 16th century author/diplomat Henry Wotton. Of Wotton Malouf writes:

The happy life for Wotton was the life that made full use of the gifts a man had been given, that fulfilled its promise, first in action, then in days and nights of rest; life had been good to him, but he had also served it well in return....He had done what he could for the world and done no man harm.

imagesDo no harm. How many of us can say that we’ve accomplished this and made full use of our gifts?

Malouf’s provocative, searching book ends on a note that addresses technology and its ill effects on the world. The fact that technology connects us and makes us aware of the entire world separates us from the world view of the medieval peasant by a million miles. His world extended maybe as far as an hour’s walk to a market or town. That was the portion of the world he worried about — unless, of course, invading armies were spotted on the horizon.

His sense of fulfillment was more limited, and also more controllable; technology today reminds us how so much is beyond our control. Malouf puts it much better:

It isn’t a question of whether our mind can accommodate itself to new ways of seeing, to new technologies and realities that are abstract or virtual — clearly it can — but whether emotionally, psychologically, we can feel at home in a world whose dimensions so largely exceed, both in terms of the infinitely great and the infinitely small, what our bodies can keep in view...

And what do we do when that infinite view becomes too overwhelming to think about?

Well, at times like those, nothing probably makes more sense than a $10.99 lobster tail. Then the medieval peasant in us takes over and our mouths start to water. Suddenly, the world's manageable again. We're happy--temporarily. (Man, those billboard designers are philosophical geniuses.)

The zen of sleep: new in bookstores

Zzzzzzzzz: Joseph Emet applies Buddhist principles where we need them the most. Every day, we're at war. The mind has plans, the body has different plans. The time when we're most aware of this war is when we climb in bed at night.

Buddhist practices are applied to just about everything in a flood of new books--and is that a good thing? I'm not always sure. I worry that too many Zen-is-the-answer books will dilute the beautiful appeal of Buddhism.

On the other hand, one book that I do recommend, in spite of its self-helpish-sounding title, is "Buddha's Book of Sleep: Sleep Better in Seven Weeks with Mindfulness Meditation" by Joseph Emet (Tarcher/Penguin). This is a book we'd all benefit from reading (and it's short -- about 142 pages).

In case you don't agree, start keeping a tally of TV commercials for Ambien, Tylenol PM, etc. That might change your mind.

Emet's focus is simple. He offers breathing exercises and meditation techniques; he also provides some insights (but never lectures) about the human condition. Take, for example, the following:

"The mindfulness mantra 'Be here now' is as appropriate as a practice theme at night as it is during the daytime. It is our thoughts that keep us awake. When we are in the past or in the future, we are in our thoughts. When we are here now, we are in our senses."

So, the point is "to be in the now" when you shut your eyes -- not review the day's events or worry about a big presentation tomorrow.

"The mind is constantly taking over from the five senses. That's how we end up being mentally somewhere else. The mind is like the bully in the playground: evolution gave us this bully. Our large and powerful brain has many advantages, but it also has a downside. The bully body checks the five senses, it takes over, and before we know it, we are in the past regretting something, or reliving some experience that happened five years ago. We might also be in the future imagining things, worrying about what might happen, or daydreaming about a pleasant possibility."

I've never thought of my mind as "the bully" before, have you?

Emet's book isn't an intensive exploration of Buddhist practices: If you want something more rigorous, you should go elsewhere. On the other hand, he's trained with Thich Nhat Hanh in France and is the founder of a mindfulness center in Canada. Very respectable.

That's why I suggest his book as  -- ah, forgive me for this pun -- ideal reading for your bedside table.

Namaste, beloved friends.