September 22, 2020

Cultivating the Ordinary Mind

No freezing up here. Artists carve into ice at Frankenmuth Snowfest.

Patricia Ryan Madson’s Improv Wisdom is one of those little gems of a book that’s opened unfortunately after you discover the script that you’ve been taught to follow doesn’t knock ’em dead.She writes of her obedience to painting inside the lines, following the masters, and receiving the rewards from it with a regular paycheck for being an assistant professor, a nice house, and good benefits. Then she’s denied tenure at Denison for “lacking intellectual distinction.” She’s praised for her service. She’s compiled a nice resume in her search for validation. But she’s let go for failing to create her own work. She wasn’t using her own voice and vision. She was validating the work of others but not her own. She vowed to stop doing things simply to impress others and trust her imagination. Two years later Stanford hires her to lead their undergraduate acting program. She confesses that Improv Wisdom required nearly twenty years to write. She showed up every day at her desk to write, said yes, yes, yes, and still needed two decades to finish.

She doesn’t say it but I think I know why she took so long. The voice in her head was still improvising. She sat down to write and that voice said, “You’re on!”

Steven Pressfield writes in Do the Work that if you got a head, you got a voice of Resistance inside you. The Real You must duel the Resistance You.

I have to believe the voice of Resistance has an evil twin who just says, “You’re on.” The public’s watching so be careful about using your real voice. You have an ordinary mind and an ordinary voice so why would anyone want to read what you have to say.

A friend of mine wrote to several infamous prisoners many years ago, hoping they would answer his letters. He wanted to collect the letters. One of the letters he received was from the serial killer John Wayne Gacy. The “Killer Clown” was executed for killing 33 people. Gacy’s letter was unforgettable. He proclaimed his innocence while writing about himself in the third person. His voice, and deranged mind, were very evident in the letter. The Killer Clown wasn’t trying to imitate Hemingway. He was weirdly imitating himself.

Then he showed me another letter from a friend of his that was more fascinating. It was a remarkable story about a business failure that ruined him. The letter writer’s voice was powerful, authentic, and literate. It was one of the most mesmerizing letters that I’ve ever read. I just kept saying that he should write a book or make a movie of his story. My friend said he tried but his book was turned down. Why? I asked. He wrote too fast. A familiar problem. The voice in the letter became anxious to make a good first impression with every word when he sat down to write the story. He didn’t trust using the remarkable voice in his personal letter. Books mean going public with your voice. The fear of public speaking is well known. We’re constantly told how to improve our public speaking. Follow these rules. Imitate the best. The fear of public writing, hidden by going public in someone else’s voice or trying too hard to impress, is hardly ever mentioned or even recognized. Improv Wisdom discusses the fear of public speaking. There’s nothing about public writing, which is really all about thinking for oneself in public. Does the ordinary mind have the right, and confidence, to expose itself in public, or must it imitate the masters, and paint, write, speak, think always between the lines? I think the ten thousand hour rule has as much to do with telling the Voice of Resistance to go soak its head as it does with mastering a craft.

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Mitt Romney Tries to Defeat Dewey

Harry Truman’s defeat of Tom Dewey in the 1948 presidential election denied the small town of Owosso, Michigan a presidential library. In its place is a Tim Horton’s. There’s a Bob Evans for those feeling adventurous. The Ford dealership sends me notices that now is a good time to trade in for a new car. That’s probably about the only change since 1948. Bush 41 took a campaign train ride through the area in the last futile days of his presidency in 1992. His whistle stop campaign tour wasn’t enough to defeat Bill Clinton. Mitt Romney’s biggest opponent, now almost a political slur, is the ghost of Tom Dewey.

Thomas Mallon’s novel Dewey Defeats Truman, published in 1997,  is set in Dewey’s hometown of Owosso. Mallon writes of 1948 Owosso as happy and normal, the quintessential small town America image. Happy and normal could also be used to describe Mitt Romney but the description doesn’t seem to wear as well on him. Mallon’s 1992 American Spectator article Why, O Why, O Why O, Do They Ever Leave Owosso? does note that while Owosso is a good place to raise children, the outside world is gaining influence. Teenage girls are wearing “I love my badass attitude” T-shirts and mom has got on a shirt that says “Cowboys are bad lovers because they think 8 seconds is a good ride.” Take that, Rick Perry.

Owosso in 2012 is pretty much how Mallon described it in 1992, and 1948. The town could use a presidential library to at least compete with the Ford library in Grand Rapids. Mallon was in Owosso that year to cover the annual Curwood Festival for the Owosso writer James Curwood (1878-1927). Curwood wrote 33 books and was popular as Zane Grey. Mallon finds a local critic who asks if Curwood was so good, how come no one in Holly heard of him. Curwood’s books had more success in Hollywood than Holly, Michigan, a competitor of Owosso for being the most normal small town in America.

Marketers and storytellers hate normal and small. No one wants a story about a hero, or a bottle of shampoo, described as normal and small. Romney’s poll numbers went up when Newt attacked him for working at Bain. Newt’s attack ads changed the image of Mitt Romney from a modern day Tom Dewey into a Michael Douglas from the movie Wall Street. The accusations put some swagger into his image.

Every town has its secrets and it’s the duty of the storyteller to find them. Mallon finds clues in Owosso. Sitting at river’s edge near the Curwood estate, Mallon notices graffiti on the wood railing:

A sovereign soul: despised

Creation damned, psychotic,

American dream: demised,

Assassin embryonic,

Through the sniper’s scope I see.

This intruder oligarch,

The “perfect” society,

Pray my bullet finds its mark…

Mallon writes, “Perhaps, after all these years, Owosso will put itself on the map not by sending a President to Washington but by taking one out.”

Excessive normalcy is creepy. But it could make for a great novel after all…

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Opening the Door for the Bluebird, and the Eagle

An open door to the bluebird house

Real art, like real living, wasn’t supposed to be that complicated. Faking it is much harder. You have to remember all the damn rules and words and stick to the script. But the script was written by someone else, not you, and they always leave out something, like the bluebird in your heart. Faking it means that the bluebird in the heart can’t get out.

Maria Popova, one of the curating gems of the Web, has a post about Charles Bukowski’s poem, The Bluebird. There’s a bluebird in the heart. Toughness, cleverness, shyness, alcoholism, and myriad of other reasons and excuses keeps the bluebird buried so no will know the real from the fake. The bluebird will be let out at night, when everyone else is asleep. The pain of keeping the bluebird locked away makes for tears but the tears are also buried deep in the heart with the bluebird.

Charles Bukowski

Mark Twain takes on Fenimore Cooper and some of his biggest literary fans in Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses. According to Twain, Cooper’s biggest offense is that he’s faking it. So are the English professors from Yale and Columbia and elsewhere who are effusive in their praise of Cooper.

“He keeps near to the tune, but it is not the tune. When a person has a poor ear for words the result is a literary flatting and shaping. You perceive what he is intending to say, but you also perceive that he doesn’t say it…. A  work of art? It has no invention, it has no order, system, sequence, or result… it has no thrill, no stir, no sense of reality…a poor ear for words.”

How weird that we have to struggle to find our own voice when it’s right there inside us all along. Marketers, educators, family, friends, enemies, bosses, supporters, and critics, all in their own way, knock the snot out of the bluebird.

No wonder a great artist like Ernest Hemingway escaped to northern Michigan, loving its raw and pure beauty as Mark Twain loved the Mississippi River.

Here’s a picture I received in an email this morning. The email was from a friend of a friend. Since the email has gone viral, at least in our little circle, I suppose it’s okay to show it. The picture has stirred the hearts of all the people who have seen it, fulfilling one of Mark Twain’s rules for art and writing. The picture was taken outside their kitchen window in northern Michigan. Natural beauty is much more awesome than the fake stuff.

a bald eagle in northern Michigan

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Merry Christmas and have a Silent Night, Holy Night

Frankenmuth, Michigan

On Christmas Day in 1914, World War One came to a halt. German and English soldiers emerged from the trenches to bury their dead. They exchanged some gifts, said prayers, and together read aloud the 23rd Psalm. The soldiers returned to the trenches. All remained standing. Then one voice softly went across No Man’s Land. Another soldier joined him, together singing Silent Night. One by one, German and English soldiers started to sing Silent Night.

Walter Cronkite narrated the World War One story of Silent Night with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

That’s the way it was. And that’s the way it can be. Merry Christmas…

Go free through the world

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Flannery O’Connor and the Habit of Being

Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O’Connor’s short story Greenleaf has a scene where Mrs. Greenleaf shrieks “Jesus, stab me in the heart!” and falls to the ground, her legs and arms spread out “as if she were trying to wrap them around the earth.”

Mrs. May, watching this, thinks no matter how far her boys have advanced in society, they came from that…

Here’s a picture from the latest Bronner’s newsletter, the famous CHRISTmas store in Frankenmuth, Michigan, considered to be the Christmas capital of the world:

Such a contrast with this picture in today’s Wall Street Journal on the danger that Christians are experiencing in the Middle East. According to the Journal, 54 Iraqi churches have been destroyed:

Both came from this, the holy spot where Jesus was born in Bethlehem:

The criticism of institutions is that in training and educating us, these institutions also institutionalize our vision, for good and evil. Flannery O’Connor wrote to fill in the “blank world” with structure and meaning. Dying of lupus, disfigured from it, and given last rites, she continued to write to her last breath. A devout Catholic, she had no problem writing lines in Greenleaf such as “Mrs. May winced. She thought the word, Jesus, should be kept inside the church building like other words inside the bedroom. She was a good Christian woman with large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.”

O’Connor’s letters and writings have made her a “one woman academic industry,” according to one of her biographers, Brad Gooch. Hundreds of letters she wrote were collected into the critically acclaimed The Habit of Being. The letters show her authentic being more so than her novels. Jonathan Yardley, the Washington Post critic, wrote this of her when The Habit of Being was published: “If there is, among the other major figures of American literature, one with religious faith as deep and heartfelt as O’Connor’s, that person does not leap to mind; American writers (and other artists) are more likely to be skeptical about religion than committed to it. Yet religion never descended into religiosity with O’Connor, and it certainly did nothing to ameliorate a sharp sense of humor or tart literary opinions.”

She was a product of the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. The writing programs have been criticized for shaping the vision of its students into a heavily structured formula. O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood is criticized for obeying the formula that she learned at Iowa.

But O’Connor’s true self shows in the letters that she wrote in response to almost anyone writing to her. Writing to an agent for the first time, she confesses that she is a slow writer and the novel won’t be finished for another two years. She explains that she sent out the best chapter to a literary magazine and will have to wait for them to reject it and send it back before sending to the agent to consider. She presents herself as a simple, unsophisticated person in her writings, which means her perceptiveness could do a strip search faster than a TSA agent about to go on break.

O’Connor wrote of broken bodies and “eyes that keep on looking.” Christmas decorations in Frankenmuth celebrate peace on earth. Masked gunmen at churches in the Middle East don’t share in the holiday joy. Only a “simple” writer like O’Connor, with penetrating eyes and a broken body, can reconcile the two. She wrote this in one of her letters, explaining the difficulty of writing about grace: “Part of the difficulty of all this is that you write for an audience who doesn’t know what grace is and don’t recognize it when they see it. All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless, brutal, etc.”

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A Christmas Tree Grows in the Heart

A scene from "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." Francie explains the meaning of truth is beauty, beauty is truth

Now that retailers have made Christmas season longer than baseball season, shaking my past has become harder than getting rid of the chewing gum stuck to the bottom of the shoe. The Christmas tree display goes up with the back to school specials. As a consequence, I’m unable to drive around my conscience like I was unable to go around the Christmas tree that had fallen off the car in front of me. I didn’t want to believe it was my fault. The kid’s crying suggested I was to blame for much more in his life than requiring a return trip to a Christmas tree farm. Evidence of Ford tire tracks going over the busted Christmas tree nabbed me as the Grinch who ruined this kid’s Christmas and stole a generation of joy from the family tree.

His mother tied the tree to the trunk of the car and I watched it bounce erratically up and down for a mile or so in busy traffic. Another hard bounce and out it came, the tree bouncing and rolling in front of my car. Then it went under my car a rather nice tree for a modest clapboard house and came out the rear with broken branches and pine needles decorating the road. The little kid began to cry, cars began to honk, and my conscience began to hurt. The tax on real Christmas trees has been delayed. A tax on my conscience is collected by Salvation Army bell ringers.

Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has a poignant scene (among several) where Francis must explain beauty and truth.

“What’s happened to your writing, Francis?” asked Miss Gardner.

“I don’t know.”

“You were one of my best pupils. You wrote so prettily. I enjoyed your compositions. But these last ones…” she flicked at them comtempuously.

“I looked up the spelling and took pains with my penmanship and…”

“I’m referring to your subject matter.”

“You said we could choose our own subjects.”

“But poverty, starvation, and drunkenness are ugly subjects to choose…”

Francis then asks, “What is beauty?”

“I can think of no better definition than Keats: ‘Beauty is truth, truth is beauty.'”

“Francie took her courage into her two hands and said, ‘Those stories are the truth.'”

The real Christmas tree grows in the heart, not at retailers or a Christmas tree farm. It grows or dies every day of the year. It requires the truth to grow. There isn’t a tax on the truth but deceitfulness is its Grinch.

At Christmas time all the letters and cards arrive, putting the best face on everything. No one is fired, flunks a class, falls off the wagon. But the retailers betray the facade. Alongside Christmas tree displays are all the liquor displays. I don’t remember a single sermon from a Christmas Eve service. I remember an alcoholic man slipping in the back pew next to me. I had on a nice suit. His clothing reeking of alcohol and the familiar stale odor of defeat. I had dressed “pretty” for Christmas. He wore the truth. Another Christmas Eve service watching everyone go into the big, historic church with the expensive organ and glancing across the street on the frigid night and seeing a homeless man eating out of a Dumpster.

Thanksgiving is next week. Thanksgiving is when Francie decides that she must become a writer. The teacher asks if anyone in the class wants a tiny five cent pumpkin pie. None of the students raise their hand. The teacher is about to throw the pie in the trash. Francie has never tasted pumpkin pie. She desperately wants it and finally raises her hand.

“I’m glad someone wants it,” said Teacher.

“I don’t want it for myself,” lied Francie proudly. “I know a very poor family I’d like to give it to.”

“Good,” said Teacher. “That’s the real Thanksgiving spirit.”

Francie ate the pie on her way home. On Monday the teacher asks Francie how the poor family enjoyed the pie. Francie embellishes her story with vivid details how the poor family would have died had she not given the girls the pumpkin pie. She knows she’s gone too far with her lie.

“That’s all a big lie,” she confessed. “I ate the pie myself.”

“I know you did.” The teacher tells Francie, “I’ll not punish you for having an imagination.” She’s spared because she told a story of what she believed it should have been. The heart’s always the first to know the truth.

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Great Quotes from Great Leaders

To reach a port, we must sail-

sail, not tie at anchor-

sail, not drift

-Franklin Roosevelt

Watching the news reminds me of this saying…

When in danger or in doubt,

Run in circles, scream and shout.

Great Quotes from Great Leaders


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Elmore Leonard’s Detroit or Alison Krauss & Nashville

In the van’s rear window was the sign “Nashville or Bust.” The van’s driver turned onto I-75 and sped south out of metro Detroit, weaving in and out of traffic gone, gone, gone, like Detroit’s done him wrong. Nashville and Alison Krauss here he comes. Ohio state police and their notorious speed traps weren’t going to slow this guy down from pursuing his dream.

Detroiters can make paper airplanes and throw them to Nashville. Rob Bliss, the producer of the Grand Rapids American Pie lip dub music video, had a 2009 ArtPrize where he dropped 100,000 paper airplanes over Grand Rapids. Detroit is in need of a paper airplane party. Or become a sister city to the town of Bust in France.

100,000 paper airplanes dropped over Grand Rapids

Former Detroiter Jack White of White Stripes was named City Ambassador for Nashville. How many more days can metro Detroiters smile with a frown, knowing in their soul it’s almost over, singing the lyrics to Alison Krauss & Union Station’s  Paper Airplane like the van driver with the “Nashville or Bust” sign must have done, the Motown sun growing cold on his shoulder and love for Detroit dying in the rear view mirror.

Elmore Leonard still writing from Detroit, credit Noah Adams/NPR

Elmore Leonard, Detroit’s great crime writer, won’t move or stop writing crime novels which he had been doing by hand for six decades. From a story on Elmore Leonard by NPR last year.

Elmore Leonard, At Home in Detroit

“On a nice day in Detroit, you might take your kids to Bell Isle, near downtown, to feed the geese. Or, if you’re a crime writer, you might set a scene here. Perhaps, in the icy dark, a murder weapon goes into the Detroit River, or a car blows up on the bridge.

Leonard still remembers when Detroit had 700 murders a year. And any tour of Leonard’s city will stop in front of the police headquarters on Beaubien, at No. 1300. Leonard spent long weeks at the station, and in the bars nearby, listening to the homicide detectives. He recalls sitting in the courtroom at the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice, taking notes about stories that wouldn’t occur to a fiction writer.

‘That house was on fire last time I saw it,” Leonard says, pointing at a red house. ‘That’s the opening scene in Mr. Paradise. Three bodies.’

Three people shot in the head, to be exact, one sectioned by chain saw. The red house from Leonard’s 2002 novel was near a White Castle, close to Tiger Stadium, which a character describes in the book as “that famous old ball park of no use to anybody.”

Pulling up to the curb at that site, Leonard gets a surprise. The stadium was demolished last year; he has fewer words for what remains: ‘Jeez … where … there’s nothing left.'”

Elmore Leonard sticks with what works…

“Every page, from 1961’s Hombre to last year’s Road Dogs, has been handwritten on canary yellow paper. Leonard orders a year’s supply at a time, ’50 pads of 60 pages per pad.’

‘I’ve been using this paper ever since I left the ad agency where they used these pads,” Leonard says. “I like them but I always write in longhand before I put it in the typewriter.'”

Here’s the New York Times on Elmore Leonard’s writing habits in “Leaving Out What will be Skipped“…

“He writes seven days a week in the living room of a nice house in the suburbs here with a No. 5 Pilot Pen on unlined yellow paper. He does not use e-mail or a computer. He types the handwritten pages on an I.B.M. Selectric, which occasionally breaks down from daily exertion.

‘There’s one name in the phonebook who repairs typewriters,’ Mr. Leonard said, adding, ‘he says he can live on $6,000 a year. He lives in a trailer park.'”

And the picture that says where his heart’s at (not Nashville):

Credit: Andrew Sacks for the New York Times

Elmore Leonard will be at the 85th National Cherry Festival in Traverse City on July 2 as part of the National Writers Series. His ten rules for writing fiction (including the first rule never to begin a story with the weather) had the Guardian in the U.K. asking other authors for their rules on writing. Anne Enright, winner of the 2007 Booker Prize for The Gathering, had these ten:

1 The first 12 years are the worst.

2 The way to write a book is to actually write a book. A pen is useful, typing is also good. Keep putting words on the page.

3 Only bad writers think that their work is really good.

4 Description is hard. Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.

5 Write whatever way you like. Fiction is made of words on a page; reality is made of something else. It doesn’t matter how “real” your story is, or how “made up”: what matters is its necessity.

6 Try to be accurate about stuff.

7 Imagine that you are dying. If you had a terminal disease would you ­finish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this 10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book. So change it. Stop arguing with yourself. Change it. See? Easy. And no one had to die.

8 You can also do all that with whiskey.

9 Have fun.

10 Remember, if you sit at your desk for 15 or 20 years, every day, not ­counting weekends, it changes you. It just does. It may not improve your temper, but it fixes something else. It makes you more free.

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E Books Must Come Alive, like McMurphy

The Chronics and Acutes fear the Big Nurse and the fog machine. They complain a lot but in the words of McMurphy, don’t have the guts to walk out, try something different, something that might actually be construed as dangerous, risking AIR RAID sirens going off in their heads. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a great book by Ken Kesey, and a great movie starring Jack Nicholson.

Seth Godin’s Domino Project takes on the future of publishing and considers whether ebooks will be the new art form. Digital books will never entirely replace paper any more than television could knock out radio or the Internet can replace television. Ebooks can flourish by being different, and supplementing the physical books by bringing the story, the artistic vision ALIVE, like McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Make the AIR RAID sirens go off in the reader’s head.

The Big Nurse doesn't like change

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Seth Godin and Radio Litopia

Seth Godin has an interesting interview with Radio Litopia about the future of publishing. His description of  the mood at some of the New York publishers could have described General Motors and many other companies experiencing a radically new marketplace. Human nature is the same in every industry.

At the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting (aka Woodstock for capitalists) Warren Buffet is harsh in his criticism of David Sokol, a Berkshire Hathaway executive accused of insider trading. What does Warren Buffet have to do with Seth Godin’s take on new publishing? Buffet’s favorite book is Benjamin Graham’s classic “The Intelligent Investor.” The revised edition is a good historical lesson, not just a how to for investment advice. The market place continually adds and removes companies from the playing field. What the publishing business is experiencing is not unique at all.

And Buffet is sticking with the Washington Post.

Joe Nocera, in the New York Times, writes that Buffet has always played by his own rules.

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