Saturday, March 20, 2010

When Was the Last Time You Told Your Story?

The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.
~ Muriel Rukeyser

Only connect.
~ E.M. Forster

Those were exceptional times, the darkest of ages, in a land where "once upon a time" was a forbidden phrase and fact the only legal tender.
~ The MoonQuest

It's said that Native American medicine men ask three questions of the sick:
• When was the last time you sang?
• When was the last time you danced?
• When was the last time you told your story?

We're all natural storytellers, sharing our stories every time we communicate with someone -- whether it's a casual water-cooler chat or deep conversations with a close friend.

Dr. Anne Foerst, a professor of theology and computer science at St. Bonaventure University and author of God in the Machine: What Robots Teach Us About Humanity and God, has suggested that rather than calling ourselves homo sapiens ("wise man"), we should call ourselves homo narrandus ("storytelling man").

That's because storytelling is innate, possibly predating spoken language itself. It's easy to imagine that after our caveman ancestors returned to the communal fire from a day's hunting and gathering, they gestured, grunted and mimed their adventures to their fellow primitives. One way or another, we've been telling stories ever since.

Too often, though, our stories are censored...sometimes, even from ourselves. Too often, we live safe and small, reigning in our passions, opening only to the least risky experiences, sharing only the most superficial aspects of our lives.

We've been conditioned to be afraid of opening our hearts and expressing our depth. We've been taught to be shallow and clever. We've learned to equate vulnerability with unacceptable risk.

Yet the only way to touch others deeply is to allow ourselves to be touched deeply. And the only way to tell the stories that change lives, including our own, is through the kinds of leaps of faith that open us to judgment, mockery and ridicule...those same leaps of faith that open us to profound connection and transformation, to the ever-present magic and miracle that wait only for us to notice them and welcome them into our lives.

My novel, The MoonQuest, is the story of a society where storytelling has been banned, storytellers have been banished and all vision and creativity have been extinguished.

It's also my story.

I don't know why, when or how my storytelling was silenced. All I know is that I was dead inside until The MoonQuest's story began to tell itself through me. As its main characters found their voices, I found mine. As they shared their darkness, I shared mine. Only then did I realize that The MoonQuest's story of creative awakening was also mine and that it was a story I had to free into the world.

From that story came other stories. From that opening came other openings. From that healing came other healings.

As I write in the epigraph to The Voice of the Muse: Answering the Call to Write, writing is "truly a tool of wizards, witches and sorcerers." It’s through the alchemy of our stories, lived authentically and shared truthfully, that all worlds change, beginning with our own.

• When was the last time you sang?
• When was the last time you danced?
• When was the last time you told
your story?

Whether it was last night or last year, it's time to do it again -- to deepen the experience, for yourself and all those fortunate enough to share in it.

• Need helping awakening, accessing, developing or deepening your stories? Consider these workshops and coaching groups -- in New Mexico and beyond.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Muse & You with Mark David Gerson (#9): Radio About Writing, Creativity & Life

Episode Nine: Thursday, March 18, 1pm ET

(click here to listen live or to the archived version any time after the show airs)

• Ask the Writing Coach (your questions for me about writing and creativity)
• Feature interview with singer/songwriter Teri Wilder.

If you have Sprint Mobile, Teri Wilder is already a familiar voice when you check your phone messages. She's the sound of Sprint voice mail. But if that's the only place you know her from, you're in for a surprise on The Muse & You #9. Because Teri's also an accomplished singer/songwriter whose music has inspired congregants in New Thought churches all over the U.S for more than a decade.

As I'm not a Spint customer (sorry, Teri), I first heard about Teri when a mutual Facebook friend insisted that we connect. Once we did, I discovered an even more significant connection: my friend Rev. Carla McClellan, who interviews me most months on her Spiritual Coaching radio show, is one of Teri's best friends. But it wasn't until I heard Teri perform her own songs at Albuquerque's Unity Spiritual Center that I knew I wanted her on this show as my first songwriter guest.

Each thought is new, each word is new / Every sound you thing you’ve ever heard is new / The sky is new, the earth is new / Every instant brings another birth of you
~ Forever New, Teri Wilder

A warm, vibrant voice coupled with uplifting, heart-centered lyrics have made Teri Wilder a favorite with many New Thought congregations. As Rev. Chris Michaels of the Kansas City Center for Spiritual Living put it, "Teri Wilder sings with her whole body, spirit and soul. She can change your life with a song."

In this episode of The Muse & You, Teri may change your life with her songs. She'll share what inspires her, how she writes and how she got started. We'll also play some selections from Magical Moment, the latest of her three CDs, and maybe from the others, too. But there's more to Teri's creative life than her music, as inspiring as it is. We'll hear how she's expanded the reach of her lyrics by including them in a line of greeting cards. And we'll hear about some of her non-writing pursuits, including acting, comedy and jewelry-making.

I am the change that there must be / The road to peace begins with me / It starts with love — it starts with me / I am the change I want to see.
~ The Change, Teri Wilder (inspired by the words of Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi)

As usual during the first segment of The Muse & You, I'll offer some writing tips and inspiration and take your questions about writing and the creative process and about me and my books, The Voice of the Muse: Answering the Call to Write and The MoonQuest: A True Fantasy. Teri will be on right after that.

Please tune in, and bring your questions -- for me and for Teri!

There are three ways to ask questions of my and my guests or to post comments:
• Post your questions in the show's chat room (free Blog Talk Radio account required)
• Post your questions directly to me on Twitter (@markdavidgerson)
• Post your questions directly to me on on my Facebook wall

The Muse & You with Mark David Gerson, is all about writing and creativity, and it's for writers and readers alike -- an opportunity to listen to writers and creators of all sorts talk about how and why they create and, of course, about what they create. It's also an opportunity for you to ask your questions -- of me during the first segment of the show, when I offer writing tips and inspiration, and of my guests during the interview portion.

Listen to The Muse & You with Mark David Gerson on the third Thursday of every month at 1pm ET (10am PT). April guest: TBA. May guest: author Lev Raphael.

The Muse & You Show Archive
If you miss any live broadcast, you can listen to the archived episode, which is available immediately after each show on the show's web page. You can also download any show directly into your computer for later listening.

#8 ~ Feb 18 ~ Penny Sansevieri, author of Red Hot Internet Publicity
#7 ~ Jan 21 ~ Cristina M.R. Norcross, author of Unsung Love Songs

#6 ~ Dec 17 -- Karen Walker author of Following the Whispers

#5 ~ Nov 19 -- Dan Stone author of The Rest of Our Lives

#4 ~ Oct 15 -- Kristin Bair O'Keeffe author of Thirsty

#3 ~ Sept 17 - Joanne Chilton and Jeanne Ripley co-authors of Wings to Fly

#2 ~ Aug 20 -- Jared Lopatin, author of Rising Sign

#1 ~ July 29Julie Isaac, founder of Twitter's #writechat, and Malcom Campbell, author of
The Sun Singer and Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Maya Angelou: The Call to Write

"There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you."
~ Maya Angelou

What stories are you carrying inside you that are yearning to be freed onto the page?

What stories are you carrying inside that, once freed onto the page, will also free you?

Whatever they are, write one of them. Now.

Write your story, and feel the healing freedom that all creative acts inspire.

Answer your call to write.


Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Writer's Life: Seven Things Writing Professors Never Tell You

A Guest Post by Lev Raphael

While author Lev Raphael had the good fortune in college to have an inspiring writing professor, neither she nor any other writing profs he took classes with later on talked to him about the writing life itself.

"I studied other writers and I studied my craft," he says, "but career was terra incognita, and what I discovered has often come as a surprise." Here’s a partial list of what he's learned, since over three decades after publishing his first short story, he says, "I’m still learning about the life I chose."

(Lev will by my featured guest on May's Muse & You Radio Show.)

1) Writing puts miles on you

As a kid, I wanted to write, as opposed to be a writer, but when I did imagine my future work life, I saw myself at work in a very serene large study with green velvet sofas facing each other in front of a fireplace, walls lined with leather-bound books, and a desk in a bay window overlooking the Hudson River. My visions were solitary, except when I imagined being interviewed in that serene, solid room. But since publishing my first book twenty years ago, I've been all over the country many dozens of times and traveled abroad to places I never dreamed of: Oxford University, Israel, The Jewish Museum in Vienna -- all to speak about my work.

Luckily for me, I'm an extrovert, took theater classes in college, and taught for many years, so being in front of an audience is second nature. Otherwise, I think the public side of my career would have been too draining. That was only the foundation, however, since I had to learn to do something most writers don't understand is vital: make the work I do in private a public entertainment.

After twenty years of touring and several international tours, although the glamour and excitement have worn somewhat thin, there’s enough there that I can still enjoy myself thoroughly engaging in the performance side of being a writer. And I still get revved up

2) Agents aren't super heroes or magicians.

I’ve known many people who feel that securing an agent, or switching to a different agent, is all they need to find fame, fortune, and glory. Well, as hard as it is to get an agent, and as indispensible as they may be for placing your work with a major publisher, having one doesn’t guarantee anything.

My first agent, in a time before email, never answered a phone call or letter, never sent me rejections for my novel, and I later found out that her lack of contact was due to over-involvement with her most famous client.

My second agent sent my mystery to editors who didn't like mysteries and before we could talk about that, she left the business. My third agent was so slow editors would ask "Is he dead?" My fourth agent was charming, but didn't move my career forward in the slightest. My fifth agent got bounced from her agency. My sixth agent moved to Japan. My current agent took my newest book to New York just as the bottom fell out of the stock market and publishing, too. I think you could safely say I have odd Agent Karma.

3) Being a writer takes more patience than writing does, and you have far less control.

Five years passed between the publication of my first and second stories. Five years of endless rejections. Some days, two to three manila envelopes would slide out of the mailbox in my apartment building's lobby into my hand when I opened it up. I’d won a prize for my first short story, which appeared in Redbook -- how could I have hit a dead end so quickly? Surely some other editor somewhere would feel the same way about my stories?

I’m stubborn, so I kept going, but with a diminishing sense of mission and hope. I reached such a low point that I was prepared to abandon writing as a career and seek another life path. For a while in the early 1980s I contemplated rabbinical school or training as a psychologist. I didn't get far with either venture. What happened? A poem by Joseph Brodsky -- “Aeneas and Dido” -- says it best: “But, as we know, precisely at the moment / when our despair is deepest, fresh winds stir.” A story I wrote in less than forty-eight hours, in almost a repetition of what led to my first publication, was accepted and the drought was over. That first dry spell was the longest, but it wasn’t the last, and they don’t get any easier to cope with.

4) You’d be surprised where your name or work might show up.

Back in the early '80s, I had two unexpected publications. A literary magazine in Ohio answered my submission of a prose poem with five copies of the magazine including my piece. Not that long after, a Jewish newspaper printed my short story without having told me it was accepted, and this bothered another editor who had already accepted it (though she ran the story a year later). A friend said, "Lev, head down to the bookstore and start checking magazines, who knows where else you were published without knowing it!”

I would go on to see my work quoted, referenced, written about in conference papers, academic articles and books. My first appearances in The New York Times weren't when a book of mine was reviewed, but surprisingly when my name was mentioned in an article about other Jewish authors, and then later when a review of mine from the Detroit Free Press was quoted in big print on the back page of the Arts Section.

5) No, I mean really surprised.

In the late 1980s I started combining research on the emotion of shame with my love for the writing of Edith Wharton and published some articles about her lesser known books like The Touchstone. A Wharton scholar to whom I'd sent some of my articles used my ideas about this novella in her next book without crediting me, and when I phoned her to mention it, she said, "We must have been working along the same lines." I reminded her she'd read my articles and enjoyed them, suggested her publisher put an errata slip in the book. She said, “But that would look like plagiarism!”

I grew up reverencing The New Yorker before I could even read more than its cartoons in issues lying around in the doctor's office. While I've never been reviewed there, or had any work accepted there, I have gotten in sideways, so to speak. A photo of one of my readings wound up in an ad supplement a few years ago, which was unexpected fun. Not so amusing: Daniel Mendelsohn recently echoed my unique linkage of Oprah, William Dean Howells, and a faked Holocaust memoir -- without mentioning my name. See page five of his review here.

6) Fans share more than you would imagine.

A book is such an intimate exchange between author and reader that fans may tell you very personal details of their lives, their histories. It's an honor to be the recipient of such revelations. I’ve met many readers who shared stories about their own problematic Jewish upbringing, which has made me feel my work gave them a voice, or at least catharsis. While touring with my book Winter Eyes, in which survivors of the Holocaust abandon their Jewishness when they come to America and hide their past from their son, I kept meeting people who told me even more dramatic stories of discovering they were Jewish. And then more recently on tour in Germany, listening to Germans tell me privately, and with great pain, about Nazis in their family made me find myself glad to be the son of Holocaust survivors because I didn't have to deal with their kind of legacy. My own had always seemed a burden, but by comparison, it seemed far lighter.

7) Not writing can be as wonderful as writing.

It’s only in recent years that I found myself truly enjoying time off between books. Previously I’d never felt so alive as when I was writing, thinking about writing, or even just revising something I’d been working on. But having sold my literary papers to Michigan State University, I feel my legacy for the future is secured, and the pressure to publish is off. I didn’t work on any new book at all in 2009. I’ve been living what a friend half-mockingly called “The Countess Tolstoy Life” when she was briefly unemployed, a life of relative leisure. Reading without being in a rush. Building a fire in the winter. Listening to music. Sitting in the hot tub. Cooking. Going to the gym. Having lunch with friends. Taking the dogs for a walk. Getting massage therapy. Watching a movie. Napping.

I’ve spent so many years turning the world into words, feeling not just bound by a project but surrounded by it, that it's a profound and pleasing release to not be experiencing the intense level of concentration mixed with abstraction that governs my life when I'm in the middle of a book. I’ll be doing another book tour this spring in the U.S. and one in Germany in the fall, so I don’t expect to be working on a new book in 2010 either. Time off. There’s music in those words.

In one of my favorite Henry James stories, “The Middle Years,” a writer sums up his life and the life of many artists: “We work in the dark–we do what we can–we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

It’s good, for a time, to not feel that driven.

Lev Raphael grew up in New York but got over it and has lived half his life in Michigan where he found his partner of 24 years, and a certain small fame. He escaped academia in 1988 to write full-time and has never looked back.

The author of 19 books in many genres, and hundreds of reviews, stories and articles, he’s seen his work discussed in journals, books, conference papers, and assigned in college and university classrooms. Which means he’s become homework. Who knew?

Lev’s books have been translated into close to a dozen languages, some of which he can’t identify, and he’s done hundreds of readings and talks across the U.S. and Canada, and in France, England, Scotland, Austria, Germany and Israel. His memoir My Germany was published in April 2009 by the University of Wisconsin Press.

Lev has reviewed for the Washington Post, Boston Review, NPR, the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, Jerusalem Report and the Detroit Free Press, where he had a mystery column for almost a decade. He also hosted his own public radio book show where he interviewed Salman Rushdie, Erica Jong, and Julian Barnes among many other authors. Whatever the genre, he's always looked for books with a memorable voice and a compelling story to tell. Lev writes a monthly column for as well as reviewing for WKAR 90.5 Fm in East Lansing, MI.

You can learn more about Lev and his work on his web site, which also contains contact information.

Lev thanks editor and memoirist Mike Steinberg for the discussion that led to conceiving this essay.