Thursday, May 29, 2014

Is Your Partner a Shadow Writer?

From the book Interplay: Finding the Keys to Creativity

“On the singles market, struggling
writers rank somewhere below
ex-cons, carnival ride operators
and male day-care workers.”

            --Bill Burman, playwright

Is Your Partner a Shadow Writer?

Take this quiz to determine if your beloved is joyful or jealous
of your way with words.

First published in Writer’s Digest

Perhaps the most potent idea to come out of Julia Cameron’s
landmark 1992 book, The Artist’s Way, is the notion of the
Shadow Artist, an archetypal figure who tries to compensate
for his own blocked creativity by latching onto an actual
artist and lavishing praise on her.
Oh, I know. You’re thinking, What’s so bad about being
lavished with praise? You might feel differently on that
eventual morning when Shnookums rolls over in bed and
says, “Honey, it’s great that you’re an artist and all, but
when are you going to get a real job?” Because adoration,
left in the sun for too long, has a way of turning to bitter,
coagulating resentment – and you have the nerve to be
living your partner’s dream!
Congratulations – you have just been targeted for a lengthy
campaign of passive-aggressive sabotage from a Shadow Writer.
The obvious thing for a writer to do is to avoid these people
like the lactose intolerant avoid ice cream. But it ain’t easy,
because many of them resemble normal, even likable human
beings. With that in mind, I offer the following quiz. Find
out now: is your partner a shadow writer?

1. When my Hot Potatah goes to a karaoke bar, he likes to…
A.         Have a drink and listen to the singers belt out a few
B.         Have a couple of drinks and try out one of his favorite
C.         Have several drinks and try to get everyone else to sing
oneof his favorite songs.

2. My Pug-Nose Dream has some killer ideas that she’d
like to try out as soon as she…
A.         Gets some vacation time.
B.         Takes a writing class.
C.         Gets Stephen King to drop that nasty restraining order.

3. My Bubbelah says that the best thing about being an author
would be…
A.         Getting to share his ideas with the public.
B.         Improving his ability to express himself.
C.         Getting to wear tweed whenever he wanted!

4. If my Reason for Being and I were playing Scrabble,
and I spelled out “effervescence” over two triple-word
scores for a total of 192 points, she would…
A.         Congratulate me on my linguistic skill.
B.         Jokingly stab herself with an invisible knife.
C.         Douse the board with gasoline, light it on fire, and
toss it over the balcony into the busy intersection below.

5. When my Studmuffin meets a published author, he
likes to…
A.         Ask her about her latest project.
B.         Ask her for advice on writing.
C.         Give her a list of five or six books that she really
ought to read.

6. If I decided to leave writing for a more stable career,
my Pookie would…
A.         Help me to carefully consider my options before
making a decision.
B.         Tell me that whatever I decided was fine by her.
C.         Act elated, then dump me for a poet.

7. My Main Man’s favorite device for developing
ideas is…
A.         Clustering.
B.         Speedwriting.
C.         Searching “writer” on

8. On the night of my book release party, my Huggy Bear
is likely to ask…
A.         Isn’t this exciting?
B.         Are you nervous?
C.         Why is it always about you?

9. When pressed, my Darling Dude would admit that he
puts off writing because…
A.         His parents wanted him to be a doctor.
B.         He has a fear of rejection.
C.         Why bother writing when some big asteroid’s going
to hit the Earth anyway, the only survivors will be
cockroaches, and have you ever seen a cockroach trying
to use a typewriter? It’s pathetic.

10. I knew my Squirrelly Girl was interested in literature
when she...
A.         Asked me what I thought of magical realism.
B.         Mentioned a poetry reading she had attended.
C.         Showed up for our first date in a negligee made
entirely from typewriter ribbons.

11. When I wake up after an all-night deadline writing
session, I know that my Don Juan will…
A.         Make sure there’s a pot of coffee on.
B.         Give me a nice neck rub.
C.         Say, “Sure must be nice, getting to sleep in!”

12. If a friend of ours signed a huge publishing contract,
my Glamour Goddess would…
A.         Send him a handwritten note of congratulations.
B.         Throw a big party with all of our friends.
C.         Disappear into the night; leave me for him without
so much as a typewritter ribbon as a memento.

Scoring: If you answered C on three to four questions, you
and your sweetie might need to have a talk. If you answered
C on five to seven, you might want to seek counseling. If
eight to nine, please send us your sweetie’s name and photo
so we can put him or her on our Writer’s Digest Shadow
Writer Hotline. If 10 or more, we hear Mexico is really nice
this time of year. (If you answered C on Question 9, read
something by William S. Burroughs.)

Photo by MJV  (sculpture by Nina Koepcke)

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Poem: Marcello's Lament

From the book Interplay: Finding the Keys to Creativity


“The story is the ballet.
Otherwise, it would all
just be a bunch of steps.”
      --Karen Gabay, ballerina

Marcello’s Lament

Starving baritone finds the stone on a
black sand beach covered in driftwood

(If I said the wood was white as bones
I would be giving it away.)

He kneels on the sand where the
ocean comes through the rocks
and reaches into the ribs of a burnt-out cello
plowing a pyramid of blackened
chars until he fingers the edges of its
mineral heart and
pulls it into the sun.

(If I said it was as red as Betelgeuse
I would be lying.)

The stone is a jealous stone
it takes away his lovers
takes away his sleep
leaves his pockets thin and sallow

She is Musetta
the woman you cannot have
but if you hold her to your ear she will
sing you bright waltzes and
turn her lollipop eyes at you across the café.

But the song and the glance are not enough,
so Marcello takes the stone and grinds it up,
spreads it across his Sunday salad

(If I said the dressing was
Roquefort I would be saying too much.)

The fragments trunkle their way through his
veins and gather at the aorta,
pressing northward to make his heart skip
on nights when Artemis falls awry and
mountainside lanterns burst like
meteors through the Paris streets.

Years after Mimi’s last breath
he comes back to the sea to bare his
skin to the inkwell sky and
wait for Orion’s belt to burn him down,
leaving a coal as red as Betelgeuse
for the timpani waves to steam away.           

First published in Eclectic Literary Forum

Photo by MJV

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Poem: Renata Tebaldi

From the book Interplay: Finding the Keys to Creativity

Renata Tebaldi

“I’ll go alone and far as the echo
from the churchbell. There, amid
the white snow; there, amid the
clouds of gold – there where the
earth appears as but a recollection.”
            --La Wally

I drive the length of Oregon. The
radio slaps me with a four-word
sentence. I stop at the Shakespeare
festival, trekking the Christmas-lit
streets for a latte, rubbing a jigsaw
piece between my fingers.

This grieving makes no sense.
I don’t know you. Everything
you’ve given me is locked away
on vinyl and aluminum. My loss
is precisely nothing. But once, you
took hold of my tangled hearing and
untied the knots.

Jenny sits at the kitchen table, her
eyes growing wide. You’ve never
heard Tebaldi? She reaches for the
stereo: an impossibly broad soprano
voice, constructed of butter, an aircraft
carrier tracing cadenzas like a speedboat.
She tells me you’re alive, residing in Italy.
This does not seem possible.

I have made no secret of my fixation. My
friends will send condolences, as if I
have lost a favorite aunt. I will read reports
of you at San Marino, breathing your last,
one eye on the hills.

On the night of four words, I scale the
Siskiyous, strangely energized, the
roadsides patching with snow. My head
fills with Catalani, Renata loosing her
dovish triplets as she climbs the white
mountains, untethered.

First published in
Photo by MJV

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Secret Daughter of Apollo

From the book Interplay: Finding the Keys to Creativity
The Secret Daughter of Apollo

In the novel Gabriella’s Voice (Dead End Street, LLC), opera aficionado Bill Harness offers encouragement both personal and financial to a young Seattle soprano, Gabriella Compton. When her new patron begins to demonstrate some unstable behavior, however, Gabriella demands an explanation. 

I took her to Fort Ward, on the south tip of the island, where they have old cannon placements from World War Two, designed to guard the entrance to the Bremerton Shipyards (they were never used).  The cannons are no longer there, just the big concrete placements, with stairs leading down to tiny shelters.  We were walking on the lawn next to them when Gabriella let out one of her involuntary songbursts.  There was something moving in the grass.
“Don’t worry,” I said.  “It’s just a garter snake.  Nothing harmful.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yep.  I used to have one when I was a kid.” I took a big step toward our new friend and he slithered off under a hedge, a four-foot, dark green rope.
“Well,” she said.  “I’m glad you know your reptiles.  Are we almost there? I have to be back for rehearsal at noon.”
“Uh-huh.  Sure.  Over this way.”
I took her down a path curving through tall hedges like an English labyrinth.  Fifty feet on we took a sharp right, passed through a couple of pleasantly grassy waterbanks, then turned left onto a clearing edged in tangles of blackberry vines.  At the end of the clearing was a white wooden belvedere looking out over the dark waters of Rich Passage.
“Ooh!” said Gabriella.  “D’you suppose they’re ripe?”
“They’re a little picked over, but I think you’ll find a few.  Be careful, though.  If they’re not real dark, chances are they’ll be a little...”
“Tart.” I turned to see Gabriella’s lips performing various gymnastics (the uneven parallel bars, the balance beam) trying to drive out the sourness.  She popped in two berries of a riper disposition, and this seemed to balance things out.
I entered the belvedere and sat on its gray, windworn bench, looking up to study the vines winding their way in and out of its roof slats.  Gabriella settled on the grass a few feet outside, a pyramid of ripe berries balanced in her left hand.
“Is this about...  last night?” she asked.  “Because you really don’t have to...”
“No, I think I do need to explain.  You know, at first I took that strange hostility of yours as something resembling normal, everyday jealousy.  But when you brought up the yodeling, I think I understood, because you know the moment those notes came out of my mouth in that ferry shelter, I felt guilty about it.
“I’m sure you’ve figured this out, Rosina, but you and I have sort of a strange friendship – wonderful, but strange, and it seems to be built largely on music.  You have given me so much of it, and I have only talked about it, and, also, I’ve been hesitant to give you any pieces of my past.  So you felt betrayed when I revealed a sort of singing talent to someone else.”
Gabriella pursed her lips together in a satisfied way.  “Exactly,” she said.
“And I got some ‘splainin’ to do.”
“Well.  I’m not really up to yodeling for you just yet, so instead I will give you another piece of my past – a piece that no one on this planet besides yourself will ever receive.  I hope you can see the spirit in which I’m giving it.  God, I sound like a damn lawyer up here.”
Gabriella popped another trio of blackberries in her mouth, turning her tongue to a ripe purple.  “So...  this is part two.”
“Part two.”
“Your mother.”
“My mother.”
She caught the look in my eyes and hesitated.  “This isn’t easy for you, is it, Billy? I mean, you really don’t have to do this.  You can save this for later.  I’m really over what happened last night and...”
“No,” I said.  “I think I need to get a little tougher about things like this.  If I keep saving my little stories up for later I might blow up someday.  Maybe my traumas need to be a little more...  casual.” I looked around for something to do with my hands.  There was a square of latticework at the side of the belvedere, and in the middle of the square was a single red blackberry.  I plucked it and threw it in my mouth.  It was awfully tart, but the snap of it threw me off for a second and gave me a chance to get started.
“I saw an interview once with a soprano who was doing Madama Butterfly, and they asked her what it was like, having to go out and off herself ever other night.  She said, ‘It’s just nice to be considered important enough to die.’
“My mother spent a lot of time dying.  Well that’s a strange way to put it.  But anyway, my father and she had some sort of secret agreement that she wouldn’t sing.  I could never quite understand that.  I loved my mother’s voice; I lived for it.  Especially after I’d heard my grandmother sing, after I understood the connection.  There was nothing more thrilling to me than listening to my mother sing.  And she did sing, agreement or not – there’s no way she could stop it.  Of course she only say during my father’s business trips, so, in a strange way, I looked forward to his absences.  And I began to resent him and his silly rules.
“And what glory, about a week after his departure, when my mother’s voice began to break its way out of the chrysalis and take over the household.  It always took her a few days to warm up, but by the end of that second week she was performing entire scenes for us, acting them out, pouring out that gorgeous lyric soprano like... like.…  I always had a hard time coming up with a description for it, but one time in a college English class I came close, in a poem that I wrote for an assignment.
“I wrote that my mother was one of the secret daughters of Apollo, and one long summer day Apollo had became tired of his work and left his chariot high in the heavens while he went to visit his favorite daughter.  But he didn’t have a gift to bring her, so he caught a meteorite shooting down toward the earth, cracked it in half and hollowed it out to form a goblet.  Then he took a single ray of sunshine and squeezed it in his hands until it came out as pineapple juice and dripped into the goblet.  He offered the goblet to my mother, and after she drank the juice she could feel the light coursing through her body, and she had only to open her mouth to let bits of it back into the sky as sound – courageous, bronze, tropical sound.  I never turned that poem in; I couldn’t bear to let it go.  I turned in something else and got a C.
“She liked death scenes most of all.  Cio-Cio-San.  Violetta.  Mimi.  The slow poisoning of Leonora.  The selfless leap of Gilda into Sparafucile’s knife.  The mournful wasting away of Melisande.  The shocking strangulation of Desdemona.  She’d set up a mattress next to the kitchen table and perform Tosca leaping from the parapet of the Castel Sant’Angelo.

One summer we had one of those above-ground swimming pools, and she would swim off to the Flying Dutchman’s ship, and then ascend to heaven once she reached the other side.  Only it was my mother’s notion that Senta would not ascend to heaven with a bathing suit on, so halfway across the pool she would take it off, and rise from the far side in the nude.  This might have been no big deal, except that old Mr. Shoriff next door was outside mowing his lawn, and nearly had a heart attack.”
Gabriella snickered into her hand, then popped in a few more berries, like a kid eating popcorn at the movies.  She lifted her eyes skyward and smiled.
“She really, really loved it, didn’t she?”
“The opera? Yes.  She was born to it.  And… I grew fond of watching my mother die.
“And after she was done, she taught my brother Bobby and I to yell ‘Brava! Brava! Bravissima!’ and to keep clapping until she could make two or three appearances from behind the living room drapes.  One day she splurged and bought two dozen long-stem roses so we could toss them at her as she made her deep, humble diva bows.  And then, when we had thrown every one, we’d pick them up and do it all over again.  My mother was the greatest of the unknown prima donnas.
“After her performances, she was always so hyped up that she would let us stay up late with her and watch great old black-and-white movies, and she’d bake us cookies: peanut butter cookies, oatmeal cookies, ginger snaps, macaroons, lemon bars – and if she had sung really well, chocolate chip cookies.
“The idea of death, in my impressionable ten-year-old mind, became a fascinating and playful thing, and I grew so fond of it that I would take it to school with me.  I was constantly dreaming up new ways of killing myself.  I would be leaning peacefully against a brick wall when suddenly it would fall on top of me, pinning me to the ground as the remaining bricks fell down one by one, each smashing a different bone as it landed, until I was nothing more than a sheet of pulpy flesh.  Or I would trip and fall backward through a window, but I would come out the other side without scratch, just like a hero in an old-fashioned Western – but then, just as I was celebrating my good luck, dusting off my chaps and preparing to go back in the saloon to rejoin the brawl, one last tiny sliver would slip from the window frame and pierce me, with the greatest possible degree of irony and fatality, right in the jugular.  Or I would be happily playing on the swing when a sudden gale would blow me over, and my neck would land squarely on the leather strap, and then the wind would spin me around until the strap tightened around my neck and strangled me slowly to death.
“And sure, you know little boys, they make up these kind of things all the time.  Watch them play with toy soldiers sometime.  But they don’t sing thrilling arias as they twist in the wind – and being neither strong of voice nor compositionally attuned, my melodies were not arias so much as rough-cut cascades of whines and moans and shouting.  I was sent home several times with a note from the principal suggesting I seek some sort of counseling.  And my father would look at my mother in that accusing way, because little boys don’t start singing death scenes all by themselves, of course, and that would usually be enough to send my mother into one of her days-long funks.
“Her depressions were generally triggered by conflicts like these – many times just by the guilt she would feel when my father returned from his trips, whether he knew about her singing or not.  She was pretty much an invalid during these times, confined to her bed, barely uttering a word or moving a muscle, eating only when it was forced upon her, and completely devoid of any capacity for joy or hope.”
Gabriella’s eyes were open and bare to me now, so intent I could not quite stand it.  I drifted off over the water, scanning the green stripe of Point Glover, and sought out a single spot of blue in the overcast, cut out in the shape of Indiana.  I aimed my words directly into it.
“My father had been gone a week.  My mother had worked past humming to trilling and I knew I was due for a meal of her tangy Italian diction any day, so I walked quickly home from school.  It was spring.  I remember, a little drizzle falling in the sunlight, golden showers, and the asphalt giving off that delicious smell it gets when it’s warm and wet.  I’ve always wondered what it is that causes that.  But anyway, when I got home, the front door was open, and my mother was nowhere in sight.  I went to the kitchen, where I found a BLT – my favorite sandwich – waiting for me on the counter, next to a glass of chocolate milk.  Bobby was asleep in the family room, which was sealed off with one of those contraptions that look like little tennis nets.  I stepped over it with my milk and my BLT and settled in front of the television to watch some cartoons.
“It was only about fifteen minutes later, during a few seconds of dead air between commercials, that I heard the low rumbling sound coming from the garage.  I ventured on out there, switched on the garage light and discovered my mother behind the wheel of our station wagon.  Her head was tilted back against the seat, and she looked like she was asleep.  I knocked on the door, but she didn’t answer.  Then I tried all of the door handles, but they were all locked.
“I slid around to the back to check the rear door, and there I found the strangest thing… a black rubber hose taped to the exhaust pipe, and stretching up through a crack at the top of the rear driver’s side window.  The window opening was taped closed, sealing off the inside of the car.
“Only then did I recognize the set-up from an old movie that my mother and Bobby and I had watched after one of her performances.  So that’s what Mom is up to, I thought.  She’s playing another game with us.
“I went to the porch in front of the kitchen door and sat there watching her, but I thought it was strange that she wasn’t singing this time, and she wasn’t making those big ballet gestures with her arms.  Still, I thought, maybe this time she would die first, and then sing, and then I would laugh at her little joke and clap and yell ‘Brava! Brava!’ and then we’d go inside and she’d make cookies for us.  And I would playfully scold her for trying to trick me like that, for dying first and then singing.
“But I waited another twenty minutes and my mother still didn’t move.  Not only that, but the fumes had begun to seep out of the car and into the garage, and I was starting to feel nauseous.  I went to the big garage door and turned the handle, but could only manage to push it halfway open.  The fumes cleared out a little, though, and I could breathe better.  I went back to the porch and resumed my waiting.
“A few minutes later the door lifted up the rest of the way, and there was old Mr. Shoriff, with a curious look on his face.  He was about to ask me something when he saw my mother in the car, spotted the rubber hose in the exhaust pipe and said a bunch of crackly-sounding words that I’d never heard before.  He went to the window and ripped out the hose, then ran around the car, trying all the door handles.  I tried to tell him it was okay, that my mother and I were just playing a little game, but he wouldn’t listen.  Instead he shoved me away, grabbed a baseball bat from the shelf and started smashing all the windows.  The glass fell to the floor of the garage in thousands of little diamonds, and smoke curled out from the top of the interior.  Mr.  Shoriff managed to unlock the passenger-side door and reach over my mother to turn off the ignition, then he held a hand to my mother’s neck.  He whispered some more of those crackly words and slipped back out the door, standing there with his hands on his knees, gasping for breath and repeating the words, ‘Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God.’ His face was very red, and he was coughing from the smoke.
“It was all a great show for me, of course, all the flying glass and the smoke, and then the flashing lights of the police cars and the fire engines, and all the adults of the neighborhood walking around talking in hushed, excited tones.  And I kept waiting for my mom to wake up and start singing, and then the neighbors would laugh and applaud and throw flowers at her feet.
“They took me to my grandma’s house, where I was carried upstairs and tucked into bed, even though it was hours before my bedtime.  And I stayed up past midnight, anyway, because I heard all those people downstairs, and they were all singing to each other, only it wasn’t my mom’s kind of singing, and it wasn’t my grandma’s big butterfly voice – it was my kind of singing, the kind I would make up for my death scenes at school.  And I was terribly excited, because I didn’t know there were so many people who sang exactly like me.”

You can’t tell a story like that without working yourself into something of a daze, and once I regained my bearings I realized the sky-blue memory of Indiana had closed back up, the sky had grown dark, and it was raining, bringing up the smell of the grass along the clearing and tapping out hundreds of little beats on the roof of the belvedere.
I turned and found Gabriella kneeling on the grass, frozen in place, the rain turning her hair into wet ropes.  Her hand was clenched in a tight fist, and streaks of blackberry juice ran out between her fingers.
I found myself in a clear and calm kind of shock, and was unable to react normally when Gabriella came to me.  She put both arms around the statue and kissed his marble brow, then buried her face in his hair and kept crying.

Photo by MJV

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Poem: The Train to Unattainia

 “You don’t have to understand everything you see. Look for something you can relate to. It’s just taking you on a journey to places you haven’t been before. That’s the important part.”
            --Margaret Wingrove, choreographer

The Train to Unattainia
I inhabit the space inside the wall
after the flip of the switch but before                              
the dark of the bulb
I am a ruthless cowboy semicolon
forever inserting myself into conversations
riding the hum of the intermission
crowd like a sailor, tying silk scarves around
their slow-nodding heads and

the rise of the curtain my only ticket in.

The only breath I take (breathe)
comes on the twentieth mile (breathe)
of a thousand-mile drive
when I know that turning around is no longer an option
sunshine blowing through the vents like
powdered sugar

I go to the land where nothing can be had
running down a long hard ribbon of willful disconnect
a palpable lack of direction.

The needle winds its way in and out of the continental fabric
pulling me along to Cheyenne, Wyoming
where my siren, Improvisia
stands upright on a green sidewalk

In one hand she holds a book of songs
in the other a bucket of blue paint
dips the one in the other till the
color bleeds out the notes

She hands it to me with an Andalusian smile and says
Here, it’s the one you asked for
Open it up and
sing, baby, sing

First published in di-verse-city
Austin, TexasWinner, Second Prize, Austin International Poetry Festival 

Photo by MJV

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Meeting of the Minds

From the book Interplay: Finding the Keys to Creativity

Meeting of the Minds

Get your bossy, literal-minded left brain in touch with its more creative counterpart.

First published in Writer’s Digest

When I was a teen, I asked my mother if I could clip a rose from her garden to give to a date. “Sure,” she said. “In fact, the more roses you clip, the more the plant produces.”

I’ve carried this metaphor around ever since, and thought of it recently when I noticed something about my paintings. Rather than “sapping” my creative juices, my afternoons at the canvas actually increased the energy and vividness of subsequent writing sessions. I began to wonder if there was something going on in my brain that would account for this cross-pollenation – and if this was something that other writers could use to invigorate their creative powers. The answer is a resounding yes, and it has everything to do with being in your right mind – at the right time.

Hemispheric Diplomacy

In the 1970s, neuroscientist Roger Sperry conducted studies on epileptics who had undergone “split-brain” operations – a severing of the corpus callosum, the bundle of nerve fibers that connects the two hemispheres of the cerebral cortex. The studies revealed remarkable differences in the ways that the two hemispheres process the world. The left operates in a linear fashion, piecing things together in a logical, sequential assembly of parts; it also contains the mind’s center for language skills (both written and spoken) and calculation. The right hemisphere operates through images, concepts and patterns; it possesses a much higher capacity for ambiguity and complexity, as well as a special aptitude for spatial relationships.
Sperry’s conclusions found an immediate place in popular culture; people began calling themselves “right-brainers” and “left-brainers” in the same way that one would say “Virgo” or “Republican.” Artists tend to jump on the right-brain bandwagon, which – especially for writers – can be an egregious misnomer (remember those left-brain language skills?).
In her 2004 book, An Alchemy of Mind, science-poet Diane Ackerman writes, “Mind isn’t a tug-of-war with the left brain on one side and the right brain on the other, but a collaboration, an open exchange.”
Thus, the secret for the creative writer is not to lean inordinately on one hemisphere or the other, but to manipulate the lively conversation going on between the hemispheres, through the corpus callosum.
In her 1983 book, Writing the Natural Way, Dr. Gabriele Rico brought Sperry’s findings to the field of creative writing through the practice of “clustering.” The writer develops an idea by writing a “nucleus” word, circling it, then quickly writing associated words around it, circling them, and drawing lines that connect back to the nucleus. The neat mental trick that this resultant spiderweb performs is to take words – generally under the purview of the left brain – and turn them into a piece of visual art, which taps into the pattern-seeking abilities of the right brain. And that is where innovation comes from.
“It is the right brain that processes all novel stimuli,” says Rico. “Whereas the left brain simply tunes it out. Any idea or exciting thought about character or plot has got to come through the right brain, because the left brain only recognizes what it has already learned.”
The biggest obstacle in the creative process comes from the left brain, which, with its flair for logic and its ceaseless yakking, is well-equipped to be bossy and overbearing. In a wacky family sitcom we’ll call Meet the Brainers, little Roger Right Brainer is a shy but imaginative daydreamer type, filled with ideas. Anytime he tries to express one of them, however, his literal-minded big sister, Lucy Left Brainer, says, “Oh, that’s just stupid,” or “What have you been smoking?”
The secret of clustering is to get Lucy to just shut up for a second and listen to Roger’s idea. The thing is, however, you’re going to need Lucy eventually, because at a terribly exciting moment that Rico calls the “trial-web shift,” you will identify the pattern contained within that cluster and need to call up those left-brain language skills in order to pin it down on paper.
“Risking an analogy,” writes Rico, “I might say that your (right) mind attends to the melody of life, whereas your (left) mind attends to the notes that compose the melody. And here is the key to natural writing: The melodies must come first.”

Child’s Play

“It takes a long time to become young again.”

Most creators know that a child-like sense of play is an essential element of the artistic process, but many may not be aware of the very real scientific basis for this idea. In early childhood, the corpus callosum is non-functioning, allowing the two hemispheres to develop independently. This great plasticity of mind allows infants to gobble up the world around them in large chunks, and to make associations in a highly imaginative, playful right-brain fashion. It also allows them to inhale language like little linguistic geniuses.

The hemispheres begin to specialize at age five, when most children have mastered speech. The corpus callosum achieves full function between the ages of nine and 12, and the left brain takes over with a vengeance. Suddenly that kid who used to draw purple grass and blue suns turns into a literal-minded peer conformist. The pattern is reinforced by an educational system with a decided left-brain bias (the best creative minds tend to score a rather pedestrian 120 to 130 on the IQ test), and a lot of people just get stuck there.
Like me. For 20 years, I gave up on visual art, because I couldn’t “draw” – that is, take an object from real life and reproduce it on paper. One night, I found myself at a restaurant with paper tablecloths and crayons, and began to draw random lines that intersected like roads on a map. When I began to see the outlines of faces, I applied eyes, noses and mouths, and suddenly I had a place setting of fantastical creatures from some sneaky, playful menagerie in my brain. Five years later, they’ve made their way onto large acrylic paintings, hanging on the walls of a coffeehouse in Tacoma. Naturally, they draw comparisons to Picasso, who seems to represent the playful, child-like artist in all of us.

Striking a Balance

So. Have I found the answer to my original question? Almost. In his 2001 book, Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot, neuropsychiatrist Richard Restak, M.D. posits the notion that the most effective brain is the one that achieves the best balance between the hemispheres. Consider your own writing sessions. Isn’t it much easier to focus while listening to instrumental music? That’s because song lyrics tap into the same left-brain language center you’re trying to use for your novel or poem, and jam up the works.
“As a practical application of your new knowledge of cerebral geography,” Restak writes, “look for ways of combating mental fatigue by switching to activities that use different parts of the brain.”
You probably do this already. When you’re writing, and you’re feeling tired, don’t you look up from the page and gaze at some distant object? You’re not just resting your eyes, you’re resting your left brain, by switching over to the right brain for a brief study of pattern and color. If you perform the same action when you’re searching for your next line, or looking for just the right word, you may be using that lamp or painting or barista (or the silver sedan I’ve been staring at for 20 seconds now) as a catalyst for your conceptual right-brain idea factory.
If you’re paying attention, you may now be experiencing a “trial-web shift.” (Feel free to say “Aha!” or “Eureka!”) If an author uses pattern play and visual imagery to find that next line, could he not use a couple hours of painting as a way of “priming the pump” for a writing session? Dr. Rico?
“Absolutely,” says Dr. Rico. “And people who don’t spend any time in the spatial realm of images will never get to prime the pump.”
Reinforcing this image-idea connection is the way that so many authors receive major plot-turns as mental Polaroids. Rico cites a recent interview with author Joan Didion, who says that she begins her novels with nothing more than a single visual image. The final scene of my own work-in-progress also arrived in this package – a freeze-frame of two former lovers meeting unexpectedly on a dance floor. How did they get there? What happens next? My left and right brains will just have to grapple with each other until we figure that out.
All of which brings us to softball (no, really). My best writing sessions of all come after my Wednesday slow-pitch league, when I adjourn to a café across the street and write my little head off. Which now makes perfect sense. Not only does a softball game flood your brain with oxygen, it’s an hour-long bonanza of pattern assessment and spatial study (consider the complex judgements involved in chasing down a fly ball, or striking a round ball with a round stick). Then, after writing, I decompress by playing pinball – yet another study of pattern, motion and space. As it turns out, my Wednesdays nights are a veritable, er, tennis match of left- and right-brain activities.

The Mind 2.0

Frankly, everything you’ve read on these pages is highly simplified; the brain is too marvelous and complex to contain in this modest article. But I hope I’ve given you a few ways for your brain to know itself. Perhaps the most important lesson of all is to know that your brain is an organism that is designed to redesign itself. If you’re feeling stuck, you don’t have to stay that way.
An astounding example of this comes from one of our experts, Diane Ackerman. Ackerman’s partner, Paul West, author of some 45 non-fiction books, suffered a stroke three years ago that left him aphasic – unable to speak, write, understand or even process language.
“But his creativity remained intact,” says Ackerman, “to be expressed in words, despite his loss of the language areas.” After “a colossal daily effort on his part, and mine, to recruit other areas of the brain for language use… he’s written an aphasic memoir (due out next year), short stories, a novel, and he’s midway through a second novel.”

Getting Into Your Right Mind

Whether you use them to develop a specific idea, or just to shake up the ol’ corpus callosum, the following are great games of “fetch” for your conceptualizing right brain.

The Classic Rico Cluster
Write a word. Circle it. Write an associated word nearby. Circle that word, and draw a line back to the original word. Keep going, building up a spiderweb of word-associations, until you see a pattern. When the “trial-web shift” hits, you’ll be dying to write it into an essay, story or poem.

Cagean Chance Operations
To achieve true randomness, stated composer-philosopher John Cage, ya gotta have a plan. Pick out your favorite book, go to every tenth page and write down the first full word on that page. Study your list of random words and see if any patterns come out. Nothing doing? Pick out your favorite and use it to start a cluster.

The Vaughnean Doodle
Draw a series of random lines that intersect like roads on a map (don’t think too much). When they begin to assume shapes, throw in some universal facial elements: eyes, mouth, ears, nose. Now study the creature you’ve created and write down who he is, what he’s been doing, how he’s feeling – or just use him as the main character in a story.

The Amazing Technicolor Dreambook
Keep a notepad and pen on your nightstand. Immediately upon waking, write down anything you can remember from your dreams. None of it has to make sense – this is just your right brain’s way of processing the day’s memories.

A Note: I was fortunate enough to work as a student assistant in the English Department at San Jose State when Dr. Gabriele Rico was teaching there, enjoying the success of her 1983 best-seller, Writing the Natural Way. Dr. Rico died of cancer in early 2013, and the world is a lot less interesting for her departure.

Photo by MJV