On Writing P2

"Sheltering the Creative Spirit"

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Taos, New Mexico USA




                "A Whirring of Words"
               Barbara Waters

        "Thanks for having that great workshop," said one male participant.  "All of my heroes were there.  Sitting right across the table from me!"

        Mix together four of New Mexico's most special writers and you're bound to have a memorable event.  Rudolfo Anaya, Denise Chavez, Max Evans, and John Nichols gave a clear but inspiring picture of what this job of writing is all about at a historic two-day happening co-sponsored by Southwest Writers Workshop and the Frank Waters Foundation.

        Sixteen writing precepts from the Big Four are listed at the end of this article.  At first some precepts tended towards the facetious, or even the rebellious -- as with Anaya's "There are no rules" -- but he later relented and contributed four or five, including "Be honest in your writing."

        Long John Nichols emphasized his extensive preparatory work, which involves maintaining exhaustive files.  "I get involved with a place at every possible level with total undiscriminating curiosity.  Pay your dues; learn the land."  He further recommended, "Sustain your writing momentum once you get going.  And never quit writing.  Continue writing through all rejections and set-backs.  Any time I publish a book, it surprises the hell out of me since only about one out of six of my manuscripts is accepted."  He called his famous Milagro Beanfield War an "albatross" since he considers it inferior to Elegy for September, for example, which is a "tight, slim, quiet book."  "Always REVISE," he said.  "In the bathtub."

        Vibrant Denise Chavez, best known for her novel Face of an Angel, is herself as dramatic as her writing.  She explained, "When I am writing, I have to get up and walk like my characters, act like them, talk the way they talk"  She thinks that every writer should take a course in drama.  She added, "Travel down the unknown path in your writing; expect the unexpected.  Make yourself available and put yourself in a place where things can happen to you."  Her words reminded me of Frank Waters, who rather impatiently answered the question "How do you write a book?" with the edict "First you have to have something to write ABOUT."  Like him, Denise keeps her writing in progress to herself so as not to dissipate its energy.  She concluded, "Have a PASSION for writing, and for life!"

                                                   Rudolfo Anaya

        Rudolfo Anaya came across as the archetypal graying Wise Man writing directly from the soul, or from the collective unconscious, as with his Bless Me Ultima, instead of researching at length.  "Know yourself," he counseled.  "And develop a sense of what the human condition is about."  He sees the writer as a "dreamcatcher," who takes in everything -- captures the dream -- and offers it to the receptive.  "Writing helps me to return to mythic time, the time of dreams," he has written.  "To recreate from depths of darkness the world of light.  This is the role of the writer, the shaman of words.  To dare to be born with each story into a new awareness."

        Max Evans entertained in his inimitable good-old-boy role, which masks a shrewdly perceptive nature.  Martin Scorsese had just finished directing the film version of Max's story "The Hi Lo Country."  Evans urged new writers to "write like hell" until they get it right.  He himself gets it right in large part by listening and watching until he has vernacular and local color down pat.  And of course he IS local color personified, just as Chavez is a living picture of drama.  Charismatic Max is the only man I know who looks like he's wearing a cowboy hat when he is not.  "Know the ground you're standing on," he said.  "And look inside the mountain."

        The most moving parts of the seminar were the tributes paid by Nichols on Friday evening and by Chavez on Saturday to writer James Sagel, who was to have been the major presenter on Friday, but died.  John, a good reader who speaks Spanish fluently, read poems from Jim's Otra Vez en la Movida and excerpts from some of Sagel's other works.  Chavez shared a tribute, which she first wrote for National Public Radio.  We have included it on this Website under "Friends."  At the end of our seminar a hummingbird whirred insistently outside an open window directly behind the four authors.  We suspected that Jim, enthusiastic as ever about our efforts, still was with us.

Sixteen Writing Precepts from the Big Four

        1.    Know the ground you are standing on (writing about).

        2.    Keep it to yourself (don't dissipate the energy).

        3.    Write at a disciplined time daily.

        4.    Sustain writing momentum.

        5.    REVISE.

        6.    Go for the flow (don't censor yourself until revision time later on).

        7.    Tap the unconscious (look inside the mountain).

        8.    Absorb the landscape until it comes out your fingertips.

        9.    Have the guts to do what it takes.

      10.    Never quit writing.

      11.    Travel down the unknown path; expect the unexpected.

      12.    Develop a sense of what the human condition is about.

      13.    Know yourself intimately.

      14.    Be honest.

      15.    Have a PASSION for writing, and for life.

      16.    There are no rules.


"Precepts & Poetry"
by Barbara Waters
        In retrospect, our "Spirit of Place" writers' workshop was the highlight of FWF activities during its founding year, 1993.  Space was limited us to twenty-five participants so we are sharing with interested others twelve simple and not-so-simple precepts Frank Waters adhered to in his writing.  We have used them ever since in writing workshops.  Here is the list, followed by some detail on four that are not self-explanatory:

            1.    Write with the right creative brain first.  Then edit with the factual                    left brain.
            2.    Keep it to yourself.
            3.    Write from the heart, not the head.
            4.    Discipline yourself to write daily at a given time, and not                    necessarily all day long.
            5.    The psychic well fills itself during the rest of the day.
            6.    Reading helps fill the creative well, along with living.
            7.    Don't compromise; write for yourself and of your life journey.
            8.    Keep it simple.
            9.    Balance action with description.
          10.    Keep your feet on the ground/earth/land.
          11.    Take your time as you switch into the right-brain creative mode   to begin your daily writing.                        
          12.    The universal is preferable as subject of both sentence and       writings rather than the specific, particularly the specific person or author.

        With respect to #4, Frank meant avoid dissipating your creative writing energy in public by talking about work in progress at social functions like cocktail parties.  Don't talk it all out so there is nothing left to put down on paper.

        Isabelle Larrinaga once told me an anecdote about Frank being asked at a gallery opening how his work was going.  "Oh, fine," he replied.  "We've already dug 40 fence-post holes for the new barbed wire fence around my property."

        Regarding #7, of course Frank had to make some compromises with publishers, like the editing out of part of his Los Alamos experience in The Woman at Otowi Crossing.  What he did many years later was revise the book his way.  By that time, too, he partially agreed with his original publisher.

        At #11 we laughed when Frank explained part of his preparatory ritual.  "Sharpen pencils.  By hand.  With a knife."  For him sharpening his editing pencil is like woodcarving.

        Tom Lyon, and later Alex Blackburn, explained #12 by using a typical sentence from Frank's The Man Who Killed the Deer: "So little by little the richness and the wonder and the mystery of life stole in upon him."  Here the ego gives way to the universal.  In contrast, the ego holds sway in a typical sentence from Jack Schaefer's Shane: "He rode into our valley in the summer of '89."

        In a book on his own writing axioms, A.B. Guthrie dismisses the last word in the foregoing list with the pithy advice, "Keep that buttinsky author off the page."

        Here is one flowering from this first workshop experience:

"Taos Mountain Prayer"
                May I be permitted to visit,
                not to exploit, mine or strip?
                Just to visit, venerate, marvel?
                Not to cart away,
                but to make an offering?  May I leave a
                small, round, flat pebble?
                It called to me from a river
                bank along the Rio Grande.
                May I place it here in reverence to your radiant
                loftiness?  On it, I've drawn
                a sun face.  May I ask a blessing for you, Grandfather

                Bless you.

                                    by Frederica Y. Daly


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