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Believe the Praiser and Dismiss the Praise: Donald Hall’s Advice on Writing

“Rhythm and cadence have little connection to import, but they should carry the reader on a pleasurable journey.”

Believe the Praiser and Dismiss the Praise: Donald Hall’s Advice on Writing

“Be a good steward of your gifts,” the poet Jane Kenyon wrote in what remains the finest advice on the creative life I’ve ever encountered. But what, exactly, are the practicalities of that stewardship?

Incidentally, Kenyon was married to Donald Hall (b. September 20, 1928), another poet of enduring wisdom on writing, who addresses this question in the advice peppered throughout his Essays After Eighty (public library) — the terrific volume that gave us Hall on growing old and our cultural attitude toward the elderly.

Generations after Hemingway extolled the rewards of revision, Hall writes:

The greatest pleasure in writing is rewriting. My early drafts are always wretched.

[…]

Revision takes time, a pleasing long process. Some of these essays took more than eighty drafts, some as few as thirty… Because of multiple drafts I have been accused of self-discipline. Really I am self-indulgent, I cherish revising so much.

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Hall goes on to offer some practical advice on composition and structure:

As I work over clauses and commas, I understand that rhythm and cadence have little connection to import, but they should carry the reader on a pleasurable journey. Sentences can be long, three or more complete clauses dancing together, or two clauses with one leaning on the other, or an added phrase of only a few syllables. Sentences and paragraphs are as various as human beings. I like the effect — see John McPhee — of a paragraph three pages long, glued together by transitions that never sound like transitions.

After a three-page paragraph, maybe a one-line blurt.

Half a century after Jack Kerouac contemplated whether writers are born or made, Hall wastes no time on the unanswerable question of genius and instead considers the “problems in writing one can learn to avoid”:

Almost always, in my poems or essays, the end goes on too long. “In case you don’t get it, this is what I just said.” Cut it out. Let the words flash a conclusion, then get out of the way. Sometimes the writer intrudes — me, myself, and I — between the reader and the page. Don’t begin paragraphs with “I.” For that matter, try not to begin sentences with the personal pronoun. Avoid “me” and “my” when you can. Writing memoir, don’t say, “I remember that in my childhood nothing happened to me.” Say, “In childhood nothing happened.”

In a sentiment that calls to mind Cheryl Strayed’s assertion that “when you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice,” Hall adds:

Avoid the personal pronoun when you can — but not the personal. My first book of poems said “I,” but the word was distant, a stiff and poetic “I.” In my best poems and prose I’ve become steadily more naked, with a nakedness that disguises itself by wearing clothes. A scrupulous passion of style — word choice, syntax, punctuation, order, rhythm, specificity — sets forth not only the writer’s rendering of barns and hollyhocks, but the writer’s feelings and counterfeelings.

But Hall’s finest point of advice deals with the psychology rather than the practicality of the craft — and it applies as much to writing as it does to every field of human endeavor. With an eye to the fine line between gratification and grandiosity, he counsels:

It’s okay to be pleased when an audience loves you, or treats you as deathless, but you must not believe it… It is best to believe the praiser and dismiss the praise.

Complement Essays After Eighty with this evolving collection of celebrated writers’ advice on the craft, including Virginia Woolf on writing and self-doubt, Susan Sontag’s advice to aspiring writers, Ann Patchett on the importance of self-forgiveness, Neil Gaiman’s eight rules of writing, and Grace Paley on the value of not understanding everything.

BP

A Different Kind of Progress: The Poetry and Philosophy of Rilke, Rumi, Mary Oliver, and Tagore, Set to Song

A beautiful musical homage to the eternal dance of life and death.

“Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is,” the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay exclaimed in a letter. “Without music life would be a mistake,” Nietzsche proclaimed in contemplating the singular power of music. Given this aesthetic envy, how befitting and redemptive that some of history’s greatest poetry and philosophy should become the creative seed for beautiful music in singer-songwriter Shannon Hawley’s debut album, A Different Kind of Progress — an exquisite thirteen-song cycle, five years in the making, inspired by the poetry and philosophy of beloved writers like Rainer Maria Rilke, Mary Oliver, Rumi, and Tagore.

“Rainer’s Song (The World You Carry Within You)” is based on Rilke’s timeless clarion call for embracing uncertainty and living the questions — one of the wisest things a human being could live by, which penetrates the psyche all the more deeply as Hawley fuses Rilke’s appeal to the mind with music’s enchantment of the heart, embodying Oliver Sacks’s assertion that “music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation”:

Another track, “Mollusk and Slug Interlude,” was sparked by Rilke’s abiding wisdom on love:

“Kidnapping a tree” is based on a poem of Tagore’s, celebrating trees, those perennial poetic muses:

“How Real” is based on Rumi’s poem “Float, Trust, Enjoy,” found in The Soul of Rumi:

FLOAT, TRUST, ENJOY

Muhammad said no one looks
back and regrets leaving this
world. What’s regretted

is how real we thought it was!
How much we worried about
phenomena and how little

we considered what moves
through form. “Why did I spend
my life denying death? Death

is the key to truth!” When you
hear lamenting like that, say,
not out loud, but
inwardly, “What moved you
then still moves you, the same
energy. But you understand

perfectly now that you are not
essentially a body, tissue, bone,
brain, and muscle. Dissolve

in the clear vision. Instead of
looking down at the six feet of
road immediately

ahead, look up: see both worlds,
the face of the king, the ocean
shaping and carrying

you along. You’ve heard
descriptions of that sea. Now
float, trust, enjoy the motion.”

“Winter’s White Owl” is inspired by Mary Oliver’s poem “White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field,” found in her New and Selected Poems, Volume One — an immensely enlivening perspective on death:

WHITE OWL FLIES INTO AND OUT OF THE FIELD

Coming down out of the freezing sky
with its depths of light,
like an angel, or a Buddha with wings,
it was beautiful, and accurate,
striking the snow and whatever was there
with a force that left the imprint
of the tips of its wings — five feet apart —
and the grabbing thrust of its feet,
and the indentation of what had been running
through the white valleys of the snow —
and then it rose, gracefully,
and flew back to the frozen marshes
to lurk there, like a little lighthouse,
in the blue shadows —
so I thought:
maybe death isn’t darkness, after all,
but so much light wrapping itself around us —
as soft as feathers —
that we are instantly weary of looking, and looking,
and shut our eyes, not without amazement,
and let ourselves be carried,
as through the translucence of mica,
to the river that is without the least dapple or shadow,
that is nothing but light — scalding, aortal light —
in which we are washed and washed
out of our bones.

Complement A Different Kind of Progress, also available on CD Baby, with Jack Kerouac set to song by Patti Smith, E.E. Cummings set to song by Tin Hat, William Blake set to song by The Wraiths, W.B. Yeats set to song by Christine Tobin, Allen Ginsberg’s musical adaptation of Blake, and Natalie Merchant’s songs based on Victorian nursery rhymes.

BP

John Lennon’s Impassioned Letters on the Value of Meditation

“I suggest you try transcendental meditation through which all things are possible.”

John Lennon’s Impassioned Letters on the Value of Meditation

In February of 1968, a year and a half before their final photo shoot, the Beatles traveled to India in order to meet and study with the famous guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who had pioneered Transcendental Meditation. They stayed in Rishikesh — a small village in the foothills of the Himalayas, considered the capital of yoga. Immersed in this peaceful community and nurtured by an intensive daily meditation practice, the Fab Four underwent a creative growth spurt — the weeks at Rishikesh were among their most fertile songwriting and composing periods, producing many of the songs on The White Album and Abbey Road.

This spiritual openness also manifested itself in how the Beatles communed with the world directly. John Lennon (October 9, 1940–December 8, 1980) penned some of his most impassioned letters while at Rishikesh, advocating for the creative and spiritual benefits of meditation. A number of them are included in The John Lennon Letters (public library) — an altogether scrumptious trove of the beloved Beatle’s love letters, memos, and correspondence with friends, fans, and bandmates.

Pattie Boyd Harrison, John Lennon, Mike Love, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, George Harrison, Mia Farrow, Donovan, Paul McCartney, Jane Asher, Cynthia Lennon in Rishikesh
Pattie Boyd Harrison, John Lennon, Mike Love, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, George Harrison, Mia Farrow, Donovan, Paul McCartney, Jane Asher, Cynthia Lennon in Rishikesh

In March of 1968, Lennon received a letter from a fan named Beth, asking for clarification on how Transcendental Meditation fits with the major religious traditions. He responded in a thoughtful and detailed two-page letter, which ends with the words jai guru dev, translated as “I give thanks to the Guru Dev” — a phrase that appears as a refrain in the Lennon classic “Across the Universe.”

johnlennon_letter1

Dear Beth:

Thank you for your letter and your kind thoughts. When you read that we are in India searching for peace, etc, it is not that we need faith in God or Jesus — we have full faith in them; it is only as if you went to stay with Billy Graham for a short time — it just so happens that our guru (teacher) is Indian — and what is more natural for us to come to India — his home. He also holds courses in Europe and America — and we will probably go to some of these as well — to learn — and to be near him.

Transcendental meditation is not opposed to any religion — it is based on the basic truths of all religions — the common denominator. Jesus said: “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you” — and he meant just that — “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” — not in some far distant time — or after death — but now.

Meditation takes the mind down to that level of consciousness which is Absolute Bliss (Heaven) and through constant contact with that state — “the peace that surpasses all understanding” — one gradually becomes established in that state even when one is not meditating. All this gives one actual experience of God — not by detachment or renunciation — when Jesus was fasting etc in the desert 40 days & nights he would have been doing some form of meditation — not just sitting in the sand and praying — although me it will be a true Christian — which I try to be with all sincerity — it does not prevent me from acknowledging Buddha — Mohammed — and all the great men of God. God bless you — jai guru dev.

With love,
John Lennon

A month later, he received a letter from an Indian fan, who described himself as a poor clerk and asked Lennon to send him money for a world trip so that he can discover the “huge treasure” necessary for achieving inner peace. (The history of celebrity is strewn with such requests, ludicrous though they may seem — Mark Twain was one of their earliest targets and fielded them with his characteristic wry wit.) Lennon politely refused the request and recommended that the man instead try transcendental meditation as a gateway to inner peace:

johnlennon_letter2

Dear Mr. Bulla,

Thanks for your letter. If every request like yours was granted — there would be no “huge treasure” as you call it. You say “peace of mind minus all other things on earth is equal to nothing” — this doesn’t make sense. To have peace of mind one would have to have all that one desires — otherwise where is the peace of mind?

Even a “poor” clerk can travel the world — as many people do — including friends of mine some of whom are at this academy now, all equals “poor.” All you need is initiative — If you don’t have this I suggest you try transcendental meditation through which all things are possible.

With love,

John Lennon
Jai guru dev

Complement The John Lennon Letters with Lennon’s illustrated poetry and prose, his handwritten to-do list, his philosophy on music and life, and his animated conversation with Yoko Ono about love, then revisit Jack Kerouac on how to meditate.

BP

The Six Pillars of the Wholehearted Life: Parker Palmer’s Spectacular Naropa University Commencement Address

“Take everything that’s bright and beautiful in you and introduce it to the shadow side of yourself… When you are able to say, ‘I am … my shadow as well as my light,’ the shadow’s power is put in service of the good.”

In 1974, the Tibetan Buddhist teacher and Oxford alumnus Chögyam Trungpa founded Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado — a most unusual and emboldening not-for-profit educational institution named after the eleventh-century Indian Buddhist sage Naropa and intended as a 100-year experiment of combining the best methodologies of Western scholarship with the most timeless tenets of Eastern wisdom, fusing academic and experiential learning with contemplative practice. Under the auspices of its Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, founded by Allen Ginsberg, the university hosted a number of lectures and readings by such luminaries as John Cage, William S. Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac himself, for all of whom Buddhism was a major influence.

In 2015, Naropa University awarded its first-ever honorary degree of Doctor of Contemplative Education to author, educator, and Center for Courage & Renewal founder Parker Palmer — one of the most luminous and hope-giving minds of our time, whose beautiful writings on inner wholeness and the art of letting your soul speak spring from a spirit of embodied poetics. In May of 2015, he took the podium before the university’s graduating class and delivered one of the greatest commencement addresses of all time — a beam of shimmering wisdom illuminating the six pillars of a meaningful human existence, experience-tested and honestly earned in the course of a long life fully lived.

Annotated highlights below — please enjoy.

In his first piece of advice, Palmer calls for living with wholeheartedness, inherent to which — as Seth Godin has memorably argued — is an active surrender to vulnerability. Echoing Donald Barthelme’s exquisite case for the art of not-knowing, he urges:

Be reckless when it comes to affairs of the heart.

[…]

What I really mean … is be passionate, fall madly in love with life. Be passionate about some part of the natural and/or human worlds and take risks on its behalf, no matter how vulnerable they make you. No one ever died saying, “I’m sure glad for the self-centered, self-serving and self-protective life I lived.”

Offer yourself to the world — your energies, your gifts, your visions, your heart — with open-hearted generosity. But understand that when you live that way you will soon learn how little you know and how easy it is to fail.

To grow in love and service, you — I, all of us — must value ignorance as much as knowledge and failure as much as success… Clinging to what you already know and do well is the path to an unlived life. So, cultivate beginner’s mind, walk straight into your not-knowing, and take the risk of failing and falling again and again, then getting up again and again to learn — that’s the path to a life lived large, in service of love, truth, and justice.

Palmer’s second point of counsel speaks to the difficult art of living with opposing truths and channels his longtime advocacy for inner wholeness:

As you integrate ignorance and failure into your knowledge and success, do the same with all the alien parts of yourself. Take everything that’s bright and beautiful in you and introduce it to the shadow side of yourself. Let your altruism meet your egotism, let your generosity meet your greed, let your joy meet your grief. Everyone has a shadow… But when you are able to say, “I am all of the above, my shadow as well as my light,” the shadow’s power is put in service of the good. Wholeness is the goal, but wholeness does not mean perfection, it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of your life.

As a person who … has made three deep dives into depression along the way, I do not speak lightly of this. I simply know that it is true.

As you acknowledge and embrace all that you are, you give yourself a gift that will benefit the rest of us as well. Our world is in desperate need of leaders who live what Socrates called “an examined life.” In critical areas like politics, religion, business, and the mass media, too many leaders refuse to name and claim their shadows because they don’t want to look weak. With shadows that go unexamined and unchecked, they use power heedlessly in ways that harm countless people and undermine public trust in our major institutions.

In his third piece of advice, Palmer calls for extending this courtesy to others and treating their shadowy otherness with the same kindness that we do our own:

As you welcome whatever you find alien within yourself, extend that same welcome to whatever you find alien in the outer world. I don’t know any virtue more important these days than hospitality to the stranger, to those we perceive as “other” than us.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Margaret Mead and James Baldwin’s timeless, immeasurably timely conversation on race and difference, Palmer adds:

The old majority in this society, people who look like me, is on its way out. By 2045 the majority of Americans will be people of color… Many in the old majority fear that fact, and their fear, shamelessly manipulated by too many politicians, is bringing us down. The renewal this nation needs will not come from people who are afraid of otherness in race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.

His fourth piece of advice pierces the heart of something I myself worry about daily as I witness the great tasks of human culture reduced to small-minded lists and unimaginative standards that measure all the wrong metrics of “productivity” and “progress.” Palmer urges:

Take on big jobs worth doing — jobs like the spread of love, peace, and justice. That means refusing to be seduced by our cultural obsession with being effective as measured by short-term results. We all want our work to make a difference — but if we take on the big jobs and our only measure of success is next quarter’s bottom line, we’ll end up disappointed, dropping out, and in despair.

[…]

Our heroes take on impossible jobs and stay with them for the long haul because they live by a standard that trumps effectiveness. The name of that standard, I think, is faithfulness — faithfulness to your gifts, faithfulness to your perception of the needs of the world, and faithfulness to offering your gifts to whatever needs are within your reach.

The tighter we cling to the norm of effectiveness the smaller the tasks we’ll take on, because they are the only ones that get short-term results… Care about being effective, of course, but care even more about being faithful … to your calling, and to the true needs of those entrusted to your care.

You won’t get the big jobs done in your lifetime, but if at the end of the day you can say, “I was faithful,” I think you’ll be okay.

In his fifth point of counsel, Palmer echoes Tolstoy’s letters to Gandhi on why we hurt each other and offers:

Since suffering as well as joy comes with being human, I urge you to remember this: Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.

Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.

Sometimes we aim that violence at ourselves, as in overwork that leads to burnout or worse, or in the many forms of substance abuse; sometimes we aim that violence at other people — racism, sexism, and homophobia often come from people trying to relieve their suffering by claiming superiority over others.

The good news is that suffering can be transformed into something that brings life, not death. It happens every day. I’m 76 years old, I now know many people who’ve suffered the loss of the dearest person in their lives. At first they go into deep grief, certain that their lives will never again be worth living. But then they slowly awaken to the fact that not in spite of their loss, but because of it, they’ve become bigger, more compassionate people, with more capacity of heart to take in other people’s sorrows and joys. These are broken-hearted people, but their hearts have been broken open, rather than broken apart.

So, every day, exercise your heart by taking in life’s little pains and joys — that kind of exercise will make your heart supple, the way a runner makes a muscle supple, so that when it breaks, (and it surely will,) it will break not into a fragment grenade, but into a greater capacity for love.

In his sixth and final piece of wisdom, Palmer quotes the immortal words of Saint Benedict — “daily, keep your death before your eyes” — and, echoing Rilke’s view of mortality, counsels:

If you hold a healthy awareness of your own mortality, your eyes will be opened to the grandeur and glory of life, and that will evoke all of the virtues I’ve named, as well as those I haven’t, such as hope, generosity, and gratitude. If the unexamined life is not worth living, it’s equally true that the unlived life is not worth examining.

He closes, to my great delight, with Diane Ackerman’s exquisite words on the true measure of our liveness.

Palmer delves deeper into these pillars of the wholly lived life in his excellent book Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (public library).

Complement his spiritually invigorating speech with other masterworks of the commencement address genre: Joseph Brodsky’s six rules for winning at the game of life (University of Michigan, 1988), Toni Morrison on the rewards of true adulthood (Wesleyan, 2004), George Saunders on the power of kindness (Syracuse University, 2013), Teresita Fernandez on what it really means to be an artist (Virginia Commonwealth University, 2013), Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life (San Jose State University, 2013), Kurt Vonnegut on boredom, belonging, and our human responsibility (Fredonia College, 1978), Bill Watterson on creative integrity (Kenyon College, 1990), Patti Smith on learning to count on yourself (Pratt University, 2010), and John Waters on creative rebellion (RISD, 2015).

BP

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