Leaf of the Tree

Finding the Divine in the Details


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Writerly hospitality from author Linda Tiernan Kepner

I am honored to be a guest this week at the blog of author and librarian Linda Tiernan Kepner:

In her writing, Phyllis treats the most amazing people as simple, understandable human beings. But it takes a lot of work to create that illusion

The Munich Girl is a case in point. This is a work of fiction, but it is not entirely fiction. The war-trophy exists. Eva Braun, the ordinary girl from Munich, Germany, was indeed Hitler’s mistress.  She never did join the Nazi Party, had Jewish friends, and was credited at the Nuremberg Trials with saving 35,000 Allied lives.

Yet she stayed out of the limelight for sixteen years before her lover publicly acknowledged their relationship.  He only married her at the time he was throwing in the towel, as if that marriage emphasized his defeat.”

Linda Tiernan Kepner: Phyllis, what are you working on, currently?

I’m alternating between two projects. One is what I’d call spiritual memoir, based on my experience with writing my novel The Munich Girl and some of the nearly inexplicable synchronicities that it brought. The other is historical fiction set in 19th-century New England.

LTP: When you look back … what works are you proudest of?

PER:

I’m truly thankful for every book I’ve been able to publish.

The newest book, just released, is my first for children — Jamila Does Not Want A Bat In Her House. It reinforces for me the importance of never giving up, as it first took shape 19 years ago

The book that has absorbed the most of my time, both during the writing process and since publication, is The Munich Girl. I’d never have imagined writing a novel in which Hitler’s wife was a character. 

Yet as someone whose earliest life experience unfolded in Germany, I had always known I’d eventually want to explore what the experience of WWII had meant for everyday Germans, especially because for so very long, they didn’t talk about it — felt they weren’t “allowed” to.

Find my full interview with Linda at:

http://www.lindatkepner.com/guest-page.html

 

 


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Setting a course for Soul-sized expression

photoAs I celebrate another year in The Munich Girl’s life, and my own, I’m pondering the power of expression in the world, the double-edged qualities of speech, the timeless gifts of questions and listening, and the potential of art to convey the wholeness of our experience.

I’m revisiting the path along which the novel led me, hoping to mine some reflective memoir. As I do, I’m inspired by words like the following ones from writers with soul-sized perspectives.

“Writing about one’s own or another’s life poses serious challenges. A writer trying to represent his life in a book engages himself in ongoing negotiations about what information to include and what to withhold, what he believes is true and what he wants readers to think is true,” says Helena Hjalmarsson. Meme1959335_758163877584949_5796047359521828465_n

“The need for synthesis – coherence, connections between past and present – is a constant struggle … ” Hjalmarsson notes. “Often, the sense of life as a logical, purposeful unfolding becomes more important to the autobiographer than objective truth. Also vital to writers of autobiographies is the drive to make their work relevant and accessible to their readership – as well as a desire for connection, a social and spiritual need to ‘reincarnate,’ to have their hard-won perspective exist outside themselves.”

Jhumpa Lahiri writes, “It was not in my nature to be an assertive person. I was used to looking to others for guidance, for influence, sometimes for the most basic cues of life.

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Painting: Judy Wright

“And yet writing stories is one of the most assertive things a person can do. Fiction is an act of willfulness, a deliberate effort to reconceive, to rearrange, to reconstitute nothing short of reality itself. Even among the most reluctant and doubtful of writers, this willfulness must emerge. Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, ‘Listen to me.’ ” Lahiri cuts right to the core, in this.

Elizabeth Sims recently shared timely words about this process in a blog post called “A Real Writer’s Duty”:

“These days when extraordinary, historic events occur, everybody becomes a writer. Social media enables all of us to spew impassioned opinions—joy, outrage, elation, despair—if we want to. And so many do. And free speech is great.  the soul ajar_congdon2

“But a real writer of either fiction or nonfiction takes a much longer and deeper view of human affairs and human nature than most people.” (How I love this. Indeed, I live for it.)

“A real writer is more curious than defensive,” she continues. “A real writer explores. A real writer is ready to be surprised. A real writer never panics. A real writer knows the world is in the work.”

Find Elizabeth’s Zestful Writing Blog here:

http://esimsauthor.blogspot.com/2016/11/a-real-writers-duty.html

 

 

 


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Restoring breadth and depth

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Photo: David Campbell

I’m at that (re)writing and editing stage where everything is closing toward the end in a work I’ve lived with — that has lived with me — for lots of years. The simultaneous presence of joy and fear can be nearly overwhelming, some days.

This has reconnected me with the power of my relationship with my thoughts — the very narration of my days. And revisiting an insightful article by writer Steve Almond reminds me of what’s missing in much of writing these days: an effective narrator. It strikes me that I need one personally, just as much as my writing does.

In the cultural shifts of the last decades that turned many into viewers rather than readers, “we’ve lost our grip on the essential virtues embodied by a narrator: the capacity to make sense of the world, both around and inside us”, Almond writes. Narrators serve the role of portraying big things, conceptually: how individual fates collide with history. More than just awakening readers’ sympathies, they help enlarge their moral imagination as “they offer a sweeping depiction of the world that helps us clarify our role in it”, he says. The perspective that narration offers helps us make meaning of a story, and of our lives, and also find a sense of place for ourselves in the scheme of things.

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Photo: Kathy Gilman

In times whose only constant seems to be constant change, we need narrative more than ever, even as it’s fast disappearing. While publishing gets downright pedantic that writers “show, don’t tell”, a well-developed narrative and its vital contribution to a story, like nutrition in a diet, becomes endangered through ignorance and oversight.

Narrative is as essential in human life as purpose is. It’s the one thing that, when time is shrinking, spinning, rushing past us with ever-increasing speed, points faithfully to what is timeless. We don’t need it to spoon-feed us, naturally. But we do need its signposts.   

Almond notes that media has created increasingly passive audiences, able to absorb and react, but not to imagine. That’s a pretty low (survival-based) level of human experience. And, accordingly, the focus of a lot of current writing is on the instinctual aspects of human beings — survival or perpetuation of the species (chase scenes and preoccupation with the sexual, often voyeuristically so).

Author Nathan Rutstein predicted this more than 25 years ago. He had worked in television and other media and authored many books when he made the observation that human society was increasingly losing sight (literally, as if not seeing it) of the higher possibilities and qualities in human potential as it grew more fascinated with and gripped by materialism, both in media and in the rest of what was called culture.

Diedenbergen_signsAlmond’s article describes the approach of most media as that of “minimizing sustained attention”, which results in a flitting, easily distracted behavior that doesn’t ever engage with any depth – becomes incapable of doing so, perhaps. That’s almost the exact opposite of what a novel (or painting or play) was designed to require and invite. Or a spiritual, contemplated life. 

Reading, unlike scanning and surfing, requires involvement and commitment, both from writer and reader. The narrator, and a story’s narration, is what facilitates this, helps create a book’s world, then lends it meaning. Many books now feel as much like packaged entertainment as most commercial television, and as unsatisfying and lacking in nourishment for our inner life. Much in publishing seems to train attention on mechanics, a shock-value, attention-getting and contrived writing style and manipulative repetition of “tropes”. A  cookie-cutter approach to more of the same. So much more of the same. Preoccupation with the lower nature, particularly if a series might be wrested from it. In order to have more of the same. Where is the room for discovery, depth, mystery? Soul?

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Photo: David Campbell

Almond describes how although some current works reach for these, “still work heroically to make sense of the world”, they find themselves “on the margins of a popular culture dominated by glittering fantasies of violence and fame. On a grand scale, we’ve traded perspective for immediacy, depth for speed, emotion for sensation, the panoramic vision of a narrator for a series of bright beckoning keyholes,” he says.

We’ve bartered away the riches of our indwelling higher nature, what brings meaning and depth to life, for the indulgence and absorption of our instinctual one. In a way, that is the only aspect of human being that seems to get the attention and focus now, perhaps with a thin veneer of the intellectual applied over it, or emotion that’s dealt with mainly in sentimentality, hyper-dramatization or other superficiality.

Narrative, and the meaning it serves, can restore the breadth and depth of human experience and bring it back home whole. Ennobled. True expression, in any form, and always, in its highest one, is incomplete without it.

Find Steve Almond’s excellent article at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/13/magazine/once-upon-a-time-there-was-a-person-who-said-once-upon-a-time.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0



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Writing = Rewriting

Writer VL Towler recently shared a post at her blog that both humbles and instructs the writer I try to be in the world.

Her own dedication to her work inspires me very much, and her observations here summarize a great deal about the reality that all writing is rewriting.

Ms. Towler’s novel, Severed, is scheduled for release this year.

Five Lessons My Editor Taught Me About Writing (and Why My Life Is Not Wasted Waiting So Long to Learn Them)

by VL Towler

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Join Night Owl Reviews’ Find Your Next Great Read Scavenger Hunt in June to discover great new books and authors, and maybe win an Amazon Gift Card: https://www.nightowlreviews.com/v5/Blog/Articles/Find-Your-Next-Great-Read-Scavenger-Hunt-June-2015

I set out to write my soon-to-be published novel over 13 years ago when I moved to New England after my mother’s second husband passed away.  With no income to speak of, and no friends, I aimed to write a novel after my foray into screen and television writing in California (where I grew up)  foundered.  Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had a great career in movies, television, and even an off Broadway play–just none of it is attributed to me, although my fingerprints are everywhere, even on television series that you are watching today.

But the Play button must be pushed. Life goes on.

Read the post at: http://vltowler.blogspot.com/2015/05/five-lessons-my-editor-taught-me-about.html


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The brave journey of becoming

Gleanings about art and life, found here and there:

Wassily-Kandinsky-Painting-022A book, once it is printed and published, becomes individual. It is by its publication as decisively severed from its author as in parturition a child is cut off from its parent. The book ‘means’ thereafter, perforce — both grammatically and actually — whatever meaning this or that reader gets out of it.

~ James Branch Cabell

Make beauty and vulnerability your allies in your brave journey of becoming.

~ Craig Paterson Wassily-Kandinsky-Painting-029

Though I cannot predict what I shall be able to do, I hope to make a few sketches with perhaps something human in them …

 ~ The Letters of Vincent van Gogh – 4 September 1880

… art is a power that should be aimed at developing the soul. If art does not do this job, the abyss that separates us from God is left without a bridge. …

The artist must be blind to distinctions between ‘recognized’ and ‘unrecognized’ conventions of form, deaf to the transitory teaching and demands of his particular age. He must watch only the trend of the inner need, and hearken to its words alone.       ~ Wassily Kandinsky

Artwork by Wassily Kandinsky


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Creativity’s invitation to reunion

My deepest thanks to Ruthz SB, creator of delightful literature for the souls of children, and the child in all of us. Your review of Snow Fence Road captures the essence of why my writing heart kept it company until it came full circle as the book’s story:

a very pure intuitive love is beautiful and emotional.” SFR4ab79a8a-8a51-4e54-b19c-bc0bbaeca160_zpsc2bd263b

“Our heart knows what our mind has forgotten,”  Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee has written of the beauty of this subtle and powerful mystery. “It knows the sacred that is within all that exists, and through a depth of feeling we can once again experience this connection, this belonging.”

I suppose that every work of writing I accompany to its ending, whether nonfiction or novel, will have this theme at its heart.

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Photo: D. Kirkup Designs / https://www.etsy.com/shop/DKirkupDesigns

As spring’s atmosphere of renewal finally reaches New England, I’m returning to Maine, where the book’s settings will surround me.

The days will also lead inward, as all creating hours need to do. The mere act of withdrawing in order to be present for creative process will draw me nearer to discoveries I can’t possibly predict (or try to control) but that I know from repeated experience will arrive. They’ll not only help bring a growing story into being, but reunite me, mysteriously, with my own depths.

“It is a strange and wonderful fact to be here, walking around in a body, to have a whole world within you and a world at your fingertips outside you,” John O’Donohue observes. “It is an immense privilege, and it is incredible that humans manage to forget the miracle of being here. Rilke said, ‘Being here is so much,’ and it is uncanny how social reality can deaden and numb us so that the mystical wonder of our lives goes totally unnoticed. We are here. We are wildly and dangerously free.” IMG_6021

Ponderings that will travel with me:

How does creativity require faith in the way that spiritual life does?

How does creativity hone my abilities as a participant on the path of life?

How does creativity help me adjust as information or circumstances change?

How does creativity act as a remedy for mental tests?

How does engaging with creative process help me learn more about my truest self?

Find more about Snow Fence Road at: http://www.amazon.com/Snow-Fence-Road-Phyllis-Edgerly/dp/1934912549/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1372083362&sr=8-2&keywords=Snow+Fence+Road+Phyllis+Ring


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Awake to life, alive in the moment

It’s my privilege to share a thoughtful writer friend’s guest post.

Karen K. Mason ponders how a writer is often moved toward “placing the particular against the larger backdrop”. This can lead to a kind of being alive in the moment that “makes it possible to be aware of other dimensions of the reality I’m inhabiting”.

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Photo: Saffron Moser

Alive in the Moment

by Karen K. Mason

To write, for me, is the opportunity to reflect and ruminate – and be surprised by my own spontaneous emotion if some forgotten memory should surface in the process of writing.

Of course, a lot of writing I do is like the journalistic news article, a straight presentation of what happened to whom. The challenge is then to get the story “straight”. This kind of writing or reporting requires me to concentrate on information. It’s good mental exercise that disciplines my craft and develops skills in the areas of critical thinking and communication. But when the writing task is to share my views confidently with a wider audience, the process of wrestling with a complex issue means that, as I look for the piece of the issue that speaks to me, the current topic invariably gets set against another place or time. I end up placing the particular against the larger backdrop, usually societal, that forces me to think and feel outside a knee-jerk response.

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Image: Lauren Chuslo-Shur

This second more exploratory kind of work is where spontaneous associations with the past leads to insight and personal learning, where being alive in the moment makes it possible to be aware of other dimensions of the reality I’m inhabiting.

If my senses are awake to the moment, being alive in the moment adds fuel to the writing process. As my craft has developed writing nonfiction essays and poetry, I’ve discovered sensory memory kicks in to recreate a scene, remind me of my feelings, provide graphic detail, give a name to the thing needing a name or at least clarify it.

No matter how lifeless a topic may first appear, as in “minimum age for a driver’s license”, the details I need to build a case, tell a story, explain a situation come from my personal archive of sensory detail, from testimony and first-person accounts. Sometimes I relive the moment, actually experience it again. More often my thinking process leads to a reconstruction, which helps me analyze the work at hand. To the extent that my senses were awake to the whole moment at the time, the moment recreates itself.

10347543_846302745461694_8266923788768021570_nThinking about the prompt, “minimum age for a driver’s license”, and apart from listing reasons for an argument pro or con, can I even access that period of my life? I remembered that I failed the road test, which led to this:

Once again I’m 16, being driven home by my mother from the Department of Motor Vehicles. The silence is awkward because normally Mom would be talking, but I sit quietly crying. I must retake the road-test portion of the exam. My future slips further into the distance because I don’t know if I’ll pass the test the next time. This bit opened a window for me onto a particular place and time in my life when days seemed like years.

I attribute my aptitude for life in the moment to family culture and spiritual practice. My family immigrated to America in the 1840s but our roots are in Norway, and family traditions and culture are still closely tied to that country. I’m fifth generation. My family identifies less closely with ancestors these days than in years past, but my approach to life is a die that was cast before I was 10. I had already begun to look at life through the eyes of the immigrant, thanks to the stories I heard from relatives. 

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Photo: David Campbell / http://gbctours.com

When I was 25, I discovered first-hand what it means to be the foreigner. My husband’s work took us to live for years in Switzerland and later Luxembourg. We moved house many times. Moving often was a reality for my birth family, too. Each time in a new locale I noticed the many ways my otherness rubbed up against the manners of the local population, a habit that as an adult became intentional, building on my natural inclination to live in the moment.

With counter-culture shock upon returning to the US, I began to look for details in place and in people that makes something “American” or “Swiss” – looked for “thing-ness”. The practice of being awake to life for reasons of learning something new enhanced my effort to be “in” a place but not “of” it, which is a spiritual discipline.

It seems to me that what values people display transcend place and time even as they are seen in the moment. So, the spiritual practice helps me perceive the other in a context outside of the physical one we inhabit. This mode of thinking adds another dimension to being alive and leads to being alive to the intangibles that exist in the moment, a kind of out-of-body experience. These are discoveries I’ve made as a writer by developing craft. 337Mason_KarenHeadshot

Karen Mason was born and raised in Illinois and spent nearly 20 years in Europe as a result of her husband’s job transfers. She is a teacher by profession, an inevitable choice given her fascination with the contents of the family bookshelf before she could even read.

She started writing stories as soon as she was able to write a sentence and turned seriously to poetry in college. Karen has taught writing in Illinois, Geneva and online from Luxembourg. She now lives in New Hampshire.

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Karen Mason’s chapbook of poetry, Not From Around Here, was published by Finishing Line Press.

Find the book at: https://finishinglinepress.com/product_info.php?products_id=1638.