Category: My Muse

On Becoming A Writer

“A beach comber has no idea what to look for the first day he steps onto the sand.”

“No one believes a comet is limning the heavens before ink is splashed.”

“The ponies have been let free to run.”

“A muscle exercised must first depart from atrophy.”

“If you can avoid writing to do something else, then do that.  If you can’t stop yourself from writing, then be a writer.”

All of these images sift through my mind as I think about what it means to “Become A Writer”.  So many books on the craft, all faithfully read and underlined.  Pages dog-eared, notes scribbled into my Moleskine journal.  So many master authors read, re-read, considered.  Thoughts about how many writers actually wear a cravat, or a beret, or talismanic jewelry, when they are at their folio.  Producing work.

Never have I had the luxury of this bemused pursuit of a craft.  I love my career’s history and the provision we enjoyed as a result.  (Read about my first career here and here) Now, though, I am able to, gently and persistently, remind myself that I am a ‘creative’ and that my day spent in writing and reading is, indeed, ‘mission-worthy’.  This free feeling is what I dreamed of and hoped for.  I recently spent an entire day at a conference of writers – the opening speaker referred to us as “an amazing group of creatives”.  My first anointing as such.

I’ve gotten to open an entire new set of maps to my world.  A fresh update to the topographical charts of a new mountain range.  Like when you say, ‘we should go there sometime’.  About the Grand Canyon, or either of the coastal Disney’s (how do you choose between a LAND and a WORLD?), or even those glaciers that are inaccessible on a casual drive-by but are an indelible set of images and memories once you finally get there.  From what I hear, we should get to those glaciers sooner rather than later.  So, too, these new vistas I glimpse on the skirt of my horizon.

Each day now, starting this November (the 2nd, because the 1st was a day of substitute teaching, bill-paying, and conversation with a warrior friend of mine), I have sat at one of my keyboards (ok, there are only two, but one of them is mobile – which means I can go sit in a field and imagine the journey across the Great Plains) and taken the time to write for several hours each day.  In part encouraged by the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing in a Month – or something like that), it has been a joy to get out this new muscle of mine.  I don’t promise anything better than drivel, but it feels GOOD.  It feels satisfying to clack away and have a new story to show for the day.

Have you ever had to prime a pump or start a gravity fed hose?  Our backyard water feature (too small to call a pond, too large to be a bucket) has a pump that occasionally gets clogged with leaves.  I have never had to suck on the outflow end to re-start the pump, but I have had to clonk the pump against the side or on a stone to get it to start moving water.  Hemingway’s best work produced in a rummy haze? Perhaps that was the liquid needed to prime the pump.

This very writing of mine is much like that pump.  It (I) have finally started moving water (ideas) and it looks like the mucky leaves, dead bugs, and seeds are starting to clear.

What runs now is fresh, clear water.  Excuse me while I go sample it.

The Language of Ravens

This essay stems from an earlier trip to Ghost Ranch, New Mexico; a place I have long loved and enjoyed.  Feel free to visit them –

I heard from the earth – it said this:

“What are you doing for me?”

I am in New Mexico, at my favorite spot I’ve ever known – Ghost Ranch.  My muse resides here.  God pulls me here so I can hear that muse.  The connection to the Spirit is strong and clear, like I feel nowhere else.

Here is what I mean by a clear connection.  Did you ever live in a place where shortwave radio was the only option for listening?  We spent two years in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, and we greatly enjoyed the Voice of America broadcasts every morning.  Imagine spinning the dial on an analog shortwave radio band.  Our shortwave had 6 bands to select from.  It had a dial that slowly spun through frequencies, and a switch that selected the range of frequencies.  Imagine you have spun the dial through 5 bands.  Only a few times did you hear a muted, static-filled voice chattering away in a staccato foreign language.  Upon trying to fine tune that channel, the signal faded or maybe only the hissing got louder.

On the last band, already  midway through and despairing of contact, you reach a crystal-clear, loud, english-speaking voice that is talking about exactly what is on your heart at that moment.  The topic is not important; the coincidence of FINDING a voice saying what you NEED is the important part.  When I set foot on the Ranch, after the details of camper setup, dinner arrangements, and logistics are all completed, that connection (like a radio station) tunes in.  I really don’t have to do anything other than walk, sit, listen, look around.  It may sound far too dramatic, but I say to you that the Ranch is a thin place in the fabric between God and the world.  I am not the first to say this:

  • Belden C. Lane, in writing about the Protestant Reformers, says, “Nature’s untamed beauty awakens in my own Reformed heart an atavistic need to praise, to shout back glory.  I sense this in… the desert terrain of Ghost Ranch, in New Mexico, where Georgia O’Keeffe touched a primeval mystery in the land…  These are thin places, where dread and wonder converge in an apprehension of the holy.”
  • Mindie Burgoyne, who leads tours to Ireland’s mystical sites, defines a “thin place” as “where the veil between this world and the eternal world is thin.”
  • “Truth abides in thin places; naked, raw, hard to face truth.  Yet the comfort, safety, and strength to face that truth also abides there.  Thin places captivate our imagination, yet diminish our existence.  We become very small, yet we gain connection and become part of something larger than we can perceive.  They human spirit is awakened and will grow if the mind and body will allow it”  Mindie Burgoyne.

The elusive Muse who inspires me to write, who clears my mind of chaff so I can SEE what to write, and who grants me the authority to BE the storyteller, resides there.  Our reunion is a thing of joy.  I feel a calming in me (I DO have things to say still… I DO have more to share) when my travels take me there.  Once I walked along the sandstone cliffs and heard (even, perhaps, understood) the ravens calling – ‘do you remember? do you remember where we came from?’  Their “we” meant all of us.  It reminded me of the thrush in “The Hobbit” when they got close to the back door of Smaug’s lair.  It communicated with the dwarves and Bilbo, trying to tell them the secret to opening the door.  OUR way of speaking had moved on, but they remember the days when we all spoke together.  

I have come to understand that the times that God speaks to a person may be few and far between.  It behooves me (you, too?) to hear Him well, heed His words, and burn my calories in consonance with that message.  I remember a time on a youth retreat where God found us.  We stood with 15 or 20 youth in a cold moonlight.  Simply praying and feeling His spirit.  Tristyn shouted, “I love you God!”  We all felt a little warmer after that (and I believe a deep connection remains between all who stood there that night).  Of course, God never “finds” us; it is US who must shut up long enough to rediscover Him.  I know that.

The writing seminar I attended at Ghost Ranch taught me things about how to form stories and how to tell stories.  The most important thing it taught me was that I was allowed to claim my space in the center of the room as the storyteller.  To a boy from a small town in Nebraska (which, in my head, I will always be), that sounds awfully egotistical.  The truth is that each of us gets a chance to tell our story, and only I (and you, too?) can tell my (your) story the way it needs to be told.  Movies, novels, biographies, histories – all told by the ‘teller of tales’, the ‘raconteur’, the ‘court jester’.  And during the good ones we hang on every word.

My answer to the earth is this: “I am trying.  That is all I can do.  Every day I get up and try again.  I do not know what the finished product is, will be, or looks like, but I am trying.”

Find for yourself, then, that thin place.  Hear what there is to hear.  And try.

After all, when we sit together, as at a campfire, in a place of safety yet surrounded by wild, we are comforted by friendship.  Tell your story; we’ve got plenty of time.

Great Experiment of Retirement

What I did not realize about high school biology and chemistry is this: All of life can be a lab assignment.  Change one variable at a time and see how it affects the outcome.


But… still.  After you have finished thinking back to high school; drosophila fruit flies in a capped bottle (right?), making peanut brittle the day before Christmas break (but not realizing it because the recipe is written in lab experiment form), the cute girl you never shared a Bunsen burner with (not a euphemism).  Remember how some of the class was the “control” group? They were tasked with performing the experiment exactly as described.  The “test” group did the experiment with only one thing done differently – a change to the amount of a particular chemical added, or a solution’s “molar strength” changed, or the heat applied was different.

All that to help you understand my ‘Great Experiment of Retirement’. I knew I was ready to quit controlling airplanes for a living.  I knew I had a bunch of plans for my free time.  I knew that none of them were ‘world-changers’ (unless you count ‘people pursuing their passions’ as part of a cosmic ledger system where that effort counts as a positive).  Here are a few of the things I was so hungry to pursue (with a brief description of my progress to date):

  1.  Learn to play the guitar better than my 5 chord library and 1 song repertoire.  My GOAL is to be able to play long enough to enjoy a fresh campfire burned into coals, playing and singing (Beatles, John Denver, Kansas, Hotel California, etc) all the while.  I have purchased a really cool classical guitar plus an awesome case, so when I carry it around, I look great.  Almost as good as Antonio Banderas in that movie about Mexico where his guitar case has a gun in it. I have subscribed to a YouTube channel of guitar teaching – actually learned one song about a month ago; don’t think I remember it anymore.
  2. Re-write my children’s story, Plinka, prepare and submit it for publication.  My GOAL is to have that on the shelves of Watermark Bookstores (a local place) with advertising that says “local author” and “next episode in store by Christmas!”.  I have attended a meeting of the Kansas Writer’s Association where I got some GREAT editing ideas from two professionals in the business.  I joined the SCBWI (Society of Book Writer’s and Illustrators) which is a huge group with lots of resources.  I have not even started on the editing of my picture book series.
  3. Begin writing, with no holds barred, whatever novel comes into my mind on any given day.  My GOAL is to bring a fresh cup of coffee to the computer, sit down, tune out EVERYthing, and type, in a blur, until my imagination is wrung out like an old sponge. I have, indeed, started a novel with a working title of Toxic Dust.  It is gonna be epic; but at this point it is less than 2000 words of reality.  I have not sat down with that attitude for at least 3 weeks, and have ONLY sat down with that attitude 2-3 times in the 94 days I have been retired. 
  4. Write a blog post nearly every day.  I have three.  One is of my time working as a controller at Oshkosh, so won’t have new entries ever (maybe turn this into a book, though?).  This is a second one.  The third is about the laying hens we keep in the backyard for eggs and companionship.  There is always some droll instance that I can describe while making a connection to some part of life.  My GOAL is 5-7 blog entries a week; almost one a day among the two active blogs. Although my “farewell to ATC” post was my most-ever-read, I have only written maybe 2 posts since then.
  5. Take long bicycle rides on the country roads both near and far.  I have two really high quality bicycles which are a pleasure to ride.  My GOAL is to get in shape, lose the 30 pounds I don’t really need as earthquake insurance, and get fit while enjoying nature.  I have ridden some, and have ridden a few races (which are merely rides for me; I don’t compete for podium spots because I am not nearly fast enough).  Haven’t lost a pound, though.  I quit measuring. I do ride my bike on errands some; it’s kinda fun and retro- and ‘planet-saving’.
  6. Watch ALL of “Kitchen Nightmares” and “Bar Rescue”.  I used to love to watch this stuff at work on a break; we’d all talk about the food (good or bad), and the gross glop they ALWAYS found in a not-very-clean kitchen.  I got bored with these shows within 2 weeks.  Same themes, same screaming, same solutions, same results (70% of the businesses closed anyway).
  7. Read every book in my “to-read” pile.  I am constantly adding books to my list to check out or borrow ( I don’t buy books very often, unless I am sure I will be reading it again.  I have most of the Arkady Renko series of Martin Cruz Smith, for instance, because those are fascinating every time I read them).  My GOAL is to whittle this pile down to make room for more. I have not reduced the number of books in my pile, but I have changed a LOT of the titles.  I have probably ready 2 dozen books since I retired.  I love, now, that I can sit and read an entire book right then if it catches my thrall.  Errands can, and have, waited. 

There are more, but I think that list is enough for you to get the idea of my master plan.

What I am still surprised at, and the reason I write this, is that it is NOT as easy as it looks to become a successful player and writer and rider and watcher and reader.  I expected to have a LOT of time at my disposal, and I do.  I expected to have the freedom to CHOOSE what I want to do each day, and I do.

What I did NOT expect is that I would pick the easy things so often.  [Insert inspirational speech here]

How I look at it TODAY is that I have done 94 experiments so far… AND I get to keep experimenting to find the right combination of variables.  I haven’t wasted my time; it’s just all still new information that I get to process.  To be honest, safety goggles are over-rated.  Especially with a classical guitar.

Enjoy your experiment today – make sure you record it somehow.  You almost always have to show your work.

A jeweler’s hammer

“One line of a poem, the poet said – only one line, but thank God for that one line – drops from the ceiling.  Thornton Wilder cited this unnamed writer of sonnets: one line of a sonnet falls from the ceiling, and you tap in the others around it with a jeweller’s hammer.”

This from Annie Dillard, in her essay, “The Writing Life”.

I puzzle at how to start, or, more accurately, RE-start my writing life.  I realize, after listening to her speak to me in her essay, that MY inspiring phrases may indeed be like the poet that moved Thornton Wilder who in turn moved Annie Dillard.  Who am I to question the pedigree of this bounty?

Many years ago, in another phase of my life, I filled several pages of a journal with snapshots, vignettes, thoughts, glimpses of stories that I needed to flesh out with words.  I know that book is around here somewhere, but it’s surely dusty.  I’ll bet the spine will creak when I open it to find my store of treasures.

I’ll go take a look.