It can’t already be November! It’s the month of my favorite celebration. Thanksgiving — our celebration of family. Oh, yay! Yay! It’s TURKEY MONTH — speaking of which, we have wild turkeys who want to try to sit on our wood fence only to discover they’re way too clumsy and clumpy and so they teeter to off within moments. But at least they try.
Trying is about all I — or we — can ask of imagination on some days and so, especially because this is National Novel Writing month and so many are climbing on board with the goal to write pages everyday, I thought it fitting to give you some writing starters to help you stay on this writing fence:
If you’re a fan of Julia Cameron’s, and even if you’re not, you’ve heard of The Artist’s Way and writing three pages a day.
Go sit in a pile of leaves under a tree with a notebook. If you’re not in the mood to write, try tracing some of the leaves into your journal. Write down the colors you see, smells you smell. Dig down with your fingers into the leaves. Were they damp? Dry? Did they crumble in your hand? Write about all the sensory elements.
Bake something –anything — write down the details from coring an apple for pie to stirring extra chocolate, or maybe a bit of expresso, into your brownies. Then write about the same experience from a different character’s perspective. Who enjoyed baking more? Why? (If you want, you can send me leftovers!)
Turn off the television, computer and phone for a day and write about the silence. Do you feel connected or disconneted? Is there a character lurking in that silence trying to get your to tell his or her story?
Finally, make it a goal — today, tomorrow, everyday — to write before you get sucked into the busy-ness of routine.
Now go to it!
Over the past few years, Myra shared that generous spirit with many, regaling us all with tales of her life as the publicist for the first queen of rock and roll. When I began work on Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing, I phoned Myra, whose number I had gotten through my editor. I explained that I was writing a young adult biography of the famous rocker and asked if I could interview Myra about her years working for Janis. I expected Myra to give me a few brief anecdotes and that would be it. But she was excited by the idea of sharing her friend’s life and music with a new generation, and willingly gave me hours of her time. What began as a series of formal interviews soon became a friendship. Myra told such vivid stories of Janis, her voice adding italics to moments of drama or hilarity, that I felt I was witnessing these times alongside her. Myra adored Janis, and spoke of her brilliant intellect, her keen business acumen, her wit and, of course, her talent.
Myra was a brilliant woman, too, knowledgeable about history and music, especially classical and jazz. She sometimes wished she’d had a husband and children, but never wanted a do-over in her career as a publicist, or in her friendship with Janis. Still, she always wished she could have prevented the tragedy that ended Janis’s life; she often wondered if there was something she could have done to change that story’s end.
Myra was a true friend to Janis, patient with her excesses but willing to call her on her occasional “phoniness” and constant drug use. It seemed she tried harder than anyone to save Janis. After she died, Myra shared her broken heart with the world in her critically-acclaimed biography, Buried Alive, an insightful portrait of Janis that was unflinchingly honest about the inner demons and bad influences that destroyed her, while also celebrating her as a woman far ahead of her time.
Myra was ahead of her time, too. Working in the male-dominated world of rock when it wasn’t any easier for women to be backstage (unless they were groupies), than it was to be center stage.
Myra’s strength and heart shone through in our unusual telephone/e-mail friendship. Her first bout with cancer had left Myra with nerve damage, so she typed with just two fingers. We talked at length about whether voice recognition software might help – she said she couldn’t be bothered training it to understand her New York accent – which was classic by the way.
This past summer I made plans to visit Myra at the end of October. I imagined proudly handing her a copy of my finished book, inscribed to the friend I’d come to adore. But that visit would never come to pass. By September, Myra grew weaker, and our calls grew shorter. We realized we might never meet face-to-face. When we talked in mid-September, Myra knew she wasn’t going to beat the beast called cancer.
She told me that she really hoped she’d be around when I showed up in October but, she warned, “I might be dead by then.” Then she laughed as if she was kidding. I suspect she feared any talk like this would sound like complaining, and Myra couldn’t abide complaint. Later, she emailed and said she was half-joking; she said she’d look forward to our visit. Unfortunately, the death joke wasn’t even half a joke. The next time I called, Myra’s breathing was so labored we could talk only as long as it took for her to tell me she was returning to the hospital. Late last week was the last time I heard her voice.
She died in the midst of friends with Janis playing in the background, singing Myra out of this life and into the next. I hope Janis was there smiling and laughing that trademark cackle as she waited in the wings for Myra. I imagine the heavens grew raucous with their shared banter.
It seems odd that I never saw Myra’s face except in photos, because I felt I knew her so well. I never held onto her hand or hugged her, but we were friends. I was honored to be her friend. I have no doubt that there are countless others who can say the same, because Myra was so interested in life. She so loved people. And we loved her in return.
Hey Mrs’ Crebbin’s class — I forgot I had my camera while you were there. But I took Mrs. Crebbin’s photo after you’d already left. This is your shout out!
I promised a shout out to all you Hamilton Milwaukee High School creative writers and so here you go. It was good to meet you and talk about education and writing. As I said in class, Education can save your life; writing can save your soul!
Hamilton-Milwaukee was the last stop of a two week book talk about all thing Janis Joplin. I began my talk at the amazing Museum of the Gulf Coast in Port Arthur Texas where I met some of the women in the church choir with Janis and her phy ed teacher. I also met young fans who rushed into the talk directly from the practice field after their softball game, a few girl scouts, a young rocker who told me he’d just seen BB King in concert and Janis friends and fans who liked the idea that Janis was my hero and my cautionary tale.
Here, I’m signing a copy of Janis Joplin Rise Up Singing for some Girl Scouts at the Museum of the Gulf Coast. Take a look at the amazing screened image of Janis in the background. It’s a new addition to the Janis exhibit. While touring the museum I learned that a ton of stellar musicians including ZZ Topp were from this area.
From Port Arthur, I headed up to Austin and spoke at the Texas Book Festival where I was amazed to see an audience so large that the fire marshal closed the door and refused people entry. Sorry folks, I’ll come and talk again if I’m invited back!
I headed home to teach and then, last night (Wed., October 20), I turned book talk duties over to three activists who use their writing to promote their passions at Mount Mary College’s author series: Writers Writing about Empowerment. Kelly Parks Snider, co-director of Project Girl talked about the curriculum and workshops she offers to help educate teens about media manipulation; Philip Sutton Chard talked about the healing nature of the environment and read from his newest book —
and Amanda Angel talked about how she came to write and edit Silent Embrace, a collection of essays intended to talk about birth parents and open adoption.
They were a stunning and impassioned panel of writers who spoke from the heart about their work.
Today, I got to speak from my heart about how writing (or visual art, or whatever impassions you) can save our souls because it connects us to ourselves, our friends, our community and our world. It can give us meaning and it can help others find meaning in their own lives. I suggested to the Hamilton students that we can find our stories in a simple object, a news event, or moment in time and, as we write, we can figure out a character’s life. Often we learn something about ourselves and our world in the act of writing.
So, now it’s time to take a break from chatting all of you up. I need to hunker down and write myself!