Tag Archives: writing

Dance of Essence

“Those who live for one another learn that love is the bond of perfect unity.” (Frank Fools Crow)

Note: We have been exploring twelve attributes I see as conducive to recovery from PTSD and other past stress. August contemplates Vision.

I wish I could tell you enough about Vision that you might understand and use it. Probably not, but maybe I can invite you to seek for yourself. Frank Fools Crow was a powerful Lakota Medicine Man, a man whose power to help others came from his Vision and his personal commitment to live that Vision faithfully. We can begin to sense the power of Vision from the stories of others. But our power, yours and mine, can come only from seeking and living our own Vision. Fools Crow also referred to this power as a kind of special knowledge and a form of unselfishness. He was a very wise man.

“If you do at least one good thing for yourself and at least one good thing for someone else every day, you will become a happier person. We are all connected so both of these things are of equal importance. If you do too much for yourself or you do too much for others you will be unhappy. Balance is the key.” (Evan Coats)

Before you go too far looking for other wisdom from Evan, know that his mother’s maiden name is Barnes. Evan is my grandson and this was published today as a Facebook post.

I wonder how he became so wise before his twenty-first birthday.

He asks questions, really hard questions, and he looks for the answers. Sometimes he finds them.

Pain has a way of provoking us to ask questions. Unfortunately, it also has a way of provoking us to turn away from both pain and answers. Ours is the burden of constant choice. That is life.

I wish I could tell you how to cure PTSD. I wish I could tell you how to help someone else cure his or her own PTSD. Nope.

We are never going to cure our pain by reading books or blogs. Nope.

We are never going to cure our pain by listening to people. No way.

We are never going to be healed by medicine. PTSD is not like that.

So, where is the hope?

Each of these things will help us, whatever our pain may be. They are all useful and valuable, but not necessarily essential.

So, what is the essence? What is indispensable in the management of this kind of pain?

My grandson knows. He is teaching us.

You will not be cured by reading books and blogs, but you just might be relieved by writing them. You will not be cured by listening to people, but you just might be relieved by talking to people. You will not be cured by taking medical care, but you just might be relieved by giving some.

It’s a balance thing as Evan said. We have to take care of ourselves AND take care of each other.

Deep down inside, what are the questions you have been afraid to ask? If you dare to ask them, answers will come, and they have the darnedest way of showing up while you are taking care of someone else.

“Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside awakens.” (Carl Jung)

The search for your way to fit into your community and culture, to find your essence, IS the way to do something for yourself and someone else. Vision Quest is the dance to seek that essence.

Happy Tracking!

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Gratitude Untied

Mornings bring the blues and Veterans Day is no exception. I sit here writing about gratitude and feeling sad at the same time. How is this possible?

Note: This blog series investigates twelve attributes I see as conducive to recovery from PTSD (and other past stress) which has become part of our ethos or basic belief system. November investigates gratitude.

“I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.” (Helen Keller)

Strange thing, gratitude, when we feel it at the grace of less fortunate.

When I see my grandchildren born to a daughter conceived after I came home from Vietnam, I am grateful beyond measure for my survival.

Then I remember more than 58,000 names engraved in black granite and over 150,000 wounded comrades. I think of the hurting souls in my combat PTSD group, my friend’s hot flashes from hormone treatment for Agent Orange induced cancer, my brother-in-law and the husband of a friend both also lost to Agent Orange. I remember my Khmer friends and wonder if they survived “The Killing Fields”, and I think of a former student killed in Iraq.

My gratitude slips away like a poorly tied knot…from pulling it too tight, I suppose, from trying to own this gratitude thing.

There are those who belittle gratitude: “Gratitude is a sickness suffered by dogs.” (Joseph Stalin)

Well, I like dogs. I trust them more than I trust people, and I would rather emulate most any dog than a lot of people—people like Edward Gibbon who said, “Revenge is profitable, gratitude is expensive.” He also said, “The courage of a soldier is found to be the cheapest and most common quality of human nature.” Yup, I like dogs better.

Would you believe that scientists actually research gratitude? “Social scientists have found that the fastest way to feel happiness is to practice gratitude.” (Chip Conley)

Practice? So, gratitude is not a thing loved by all, especially arrogant despots. Gratitude is not a thing that can be owned—or a thing at all—but a process I can practice.

Yes, I will have this thing called happiness, and if gratitude is the way, I choose to practice gratitude.

Oh. How do I do that? How does one practice gratitude so that one might become happy?

I am a mess. When I go inside to look at myself, I see messy tracks for which I am not grateful. Still, I must look inside, honestly, to track my feelings. Such a dilemma.

One key is service to others. Yesterday I began writing this blog on Veterans Day, a day when I had no obligations before 6 pm. Today, on the other hand, I must go to work. Service. Today I have the opportunity to be useful, to be relevant.

Not only do I have the opportunity to develop programs to help teachers teach our young people in Yuma, but today I get to serve others in very specific and personal ways. A young Marine veteran is coming to get advice on her academic future, on her major, on her career. I don’t give the advice, but I serve as the connection for her to get to the advisor. That allows me to think about her needs instead of the mess that is me.

Later, today, I get to help a student teacher struggling with academic language in his second tongue so that he may finish his major writing assignment standing between him and his certification. I have the privilege of helping someone, and that is something that not every old veteran has.

I am grateful, again. For this guy, the process of gratitude is finding ways to be helpful to others. Practicing gratitude is searching for ways to serve, tracking opportunities rather than my own mess. May you find your own ways of getting outside yourself so that you may unleash the power of gratitude to lead you to your happiness.

Happy Tracking.

Critical Love

“Honey, do I look fat in these pants?”

There are probably a few thousand wrong ways to answer such a question including, “No Dear.”

My mother used to tell me that I could do anything if I put my mind to it. When I told my dad that I wanted to study molecular science, perhaps around 5th or 6th grade, he said, ‘I don’t know. You can get it, but sometimes it takes you awhile.” Both were right. I was 56 years old when I finally finished my PhD dissertation.

Yesterday, I was observing a future teacher in a practicum placement bravely conducting a Biology lab in a small room with thirty four students. Today, I will observe a student teacher in a Spanish class. It is my job to be critical.

Reminder: This blog series is dedicated to love, the various kinds of love beyond the romantic and erotic that support personal growth and healing, especially the healing of invisible wounds from Combat PTSD.

I live with a critic. She read and critiqued this blog before I posted it. It is hard for her because she was not taught critical love. I was.

Is it safe to criticize in your world? Can we really learn to be critical with love?

One reason I do not enjoy a military retirement pension, today, is that when I was a Wisconsin Army National Guard Captain, I told the Colonel exactly what I thought of his training methods. Combat Veterans are often not loving critics. We are also hypersensitive to criticism, ourselves.

“Do you look fat in those pants? Not as fat as you look out of them.” Okay, this may not be helpful critique.

Pardon the segue, but I used to show and judge dairy cattle. We, in Ideal Holstein 4-H Club, were not allowed to say this cow had a better udder than that one. We had to say what was better about it—perhaps tighter, more symmetrical, with fuller mammary veins.

Similarly, when I participate in critique of friends’ writing in Write on the Edge, it is not appropriate to say what is better or not as good. I need to suggest what seems missing, what may be misleading, or what stopped me in the story. Better yet, I look for examples of completeness, clarity, and movement.

I cannot improve my writing without critique, and I cannot improve my teaching without evaluation and feedback. Sometimes it sings, and sometimes it stings.

Symptoms of Combat Post Traumatic Stress often include severe criticism, perhaps because all situations appear like problems and all problems feel life-threatening. It is not personal. It is a response to feelings of desperate vulnerability.

Symptoms also include unhealthy susceptibility to angry responses to criticism. Any criticism, even a situation that invites critique such as student teaching, defending a dissertation, or publishing a blog, increases a Combat Veteran’s vulnerability. This may trigger the fight/flight physiological reaction of extreme discomfort we call a Dinosaur Dump or Wild Ride.

So what? We can help the Combat Veterans and everybody else with honest criticism tempered with love. We can give reasons for our critique rather than simply passing judgment. We can provide examples and alternatives, and we can include positive critique.

“I like those gray dress pants better, Dear. They highlight your athletic curves.”

Yeah, go with that one.

Does Writing Have to Hurt?

Ernest Hemingway has been quoted: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

A cursory search reveals a number of such references to pain and writing. As a journeyman writer, I have a few thoughts on the subject. I am writing about these thoughts in an attempt to place them in some cognitive structure of my muddled mind.

Many past writers of renown seem to have been troubled souls. I cling to a notion that reflection and introspection lead to trouble, and trouble arouses emotions. Many of these emotions hurt, especially if suppressed. They fester into anger and guilt.

Writing is an art form that allows expression of emotions through words on a page (or screen). Fiction is creative expression of emotion with the pretense of being imaginary. The writing of fiction becomes cathartic as suppressed emotions are vented through a narrative medium of characters and literary devices.

Instead of talking about myself, these other guys have this problem. How do they deal with it? In the labor of writing, I also process my own feelings. At least, that’s my journeyman’s hypothesis.

Readers love emotions. We like to identify with characters and partake in vicarious feelings with the detachment of fiction. We temporarily feel the pain of fear, rage, betrayal, and loss only to look up and close the book. I suppose we feel better, but mostly we feel without getting overwhelmed.

My conclusion is that emotions sell books.

The craft is the creation of art that expresses life so that readers can swim in emotions without drowning. The more realistic a story becomes, the deeper the experience (and the danger of drowning). I suggest that is why some readers prefer cozies and fantasies, lest they realize the story is about them. There is comfort in deniability.

Enough of what my friend calls Seventies Psychobabble. Why must the emotions be painful? The honest answer is, because in my case, I’m just not that funny. And, I am not nearly joyful enough.

Essentially, only pain motivates me to sit at the keyboard and bleed. Comedy is a substitute for the bleeding. If I could write humor, I would.

Joy is an emotion. I can, occasionally write that, but I am not motivated because I am comfortable enjoying my own moment. Then, readers seem to seek out their own cathartic “pleasures” in reading material (and other art forms). Joyful people don’t seem to find a need to read joyful material the way perfect melancholy personalities seek painful reads. Blood sells books.

Keep writing, and enjoy the journey (even though painful). It beats most alternatives.

Why Write What We Do Not Know?

Say, what? How can I write what I don’t know? I always heard the advice, “Write what you know.”

Absolutely. Do write what you know, but if that is all you write, you aren’t going to learn much, and learning is one very important reason for writing.

I came to this conclusion with disarming lack of speed. I have written and graded more essays and term papers than the IRS could count. Okay, that’s hyperbole. The reason I wrote and assigned literary composition was that I believed it was a powerful learning process. I was right, it is.

Even though I believed in the value of writing as a learning tool at a cognitive level, I never grasped it emotionally until last week. My writing group, Write on the Edge (.org) asked me to speak and sign my books, Beyond the Blood Chit. My premise was that writing this novel became a part of my combat PTSD recovery process through learning.

The idea isn’t new. We can find quotes by famous authors referring to writing as an adventure in exploring uncertainty. No, I’m not going to give references, but I would love for you to provide some in comments on this blog.

We can only write what we know. If we try to write what we don’t know, we fail. Is this a paradox?

No.

We begin to write what we know in an effort to explore what we don’t know, and this may be conscious or subconscious. It is a valid inquiry process. We start with the known and use it to illuminate the unknown. Writing is the tool through which we view and learn, or at least flirt with the possibility of learning.

Somewhere during the experience of writing this novel, originally called, “LG”, I recognized that it was about combat PTSD recovery. I admit that this recognition was empowered through a VA recovery program including individual and group counseling. It was also potentiated and developed by personal friends willing to discuss their own experiences and views.  

Like other activities of life, learning is a dance. We learn, use what we learn to inquire, learn more, and continue to inquire, constantly changing our minds. Sometimes we add new knowledge to old. Other times we modify what we believe to accommodate new tenets. Occasionally we reject old, dear, beliefs to acquire new and conflicting ideas. Writing helps us to do all of these.

So, I started writing a story called “LG” about a Vietnam Veteran, like me, who was trapped in some kind of internal dilemma. Blood Chit emerged as an icon for part of that confusion, the perceived duty to serve, help, and even rescue others. My friend’s tattoo of a daggaboy (retired cape buffalo bull) became the symbol for the other part, the longing for escape from this duty to my private water hole of safety. None of this was in my mind when I began writing, and some only emerged well into the rewriting process.

Because of this writing, only because I finished the novel and tried to market it, did I find out what the real story is about. That’s a lot for this old man to learn.

Finally, by agreeing to discuss the writing process with my colleagues, I have come to understand another piece of the mystery. What we learn depends upon our willingness to doubt, wonder, and work the processes of inquiry. It depends upon a commitment to write what we do not know.

Inquiry is not for the feint of faith or those convinced of their own certainty, but for those who want to know more.

For all people with a longing need to know, I personally recommend writing. Enjoy the journey.

How Shall I Start My Story?

Your story must begin with a hook and a promise, but we’ll get to that later. In fact, I advise you to get to the beginning of your story after it has been written. Seriously.

Recently, a friend told me he was having trouble with the beginning of a chapter in his nonfiction work. I told him to start somewhere else. It sounds too simple, doesn’t it? There is no such thing as too simple. That’s like a woman too pretty, a motorcycle too fast, or a vacation too much fun. What does that even mean?

My first lesson in beginnings came my freshman year at UW-Madison. I would watch my roommate sit for what seemed like hours moving everything except his writing hand. He could not begin his English 101 assignment for the week. The paper remained blank. I became rather famous in that little dorm because my mandatory English class was going well while everybody else seemed to struggle (Thank you, Ms. Marshall, my high school senior English teacher).

The beginning is the toughest part. Many years later, while I was teaching Science to high school freshmen, I required them to write. I taught them what Ms. Marshall had taught me: Say what you are going to say, say it, and say what you said. How can you begin telling me what you are going to say if you don’t know? I told them to write the introduction last.

Here’s how I did that. Suppose my daughter came to the classroom door. (I look at one student, then another.) Would you please introduce her to the class? Inevitably, I would get the answer, “I don’t know her.” Good. Now, how are you going to introduce your essay if you don’t know it, yet?

True, for expository writing I always emphasized outlining. If you have a detailed outline with a thesis and conclusion, you might be able to write the introduction—because you already know what you are going to say. Well, if that is how you want to write fiction (a plot-driven story) then work the outline first. Still, I don’t understand how I can know the characters well enough to introduce them in the beginning of the story.

The answer is, write some of the exciting stuff, first. Write the scenes that come to mind, the ones that stoke the fire in your imagination. Get to know your characters at their best and worst. Allow yourself to wonder how they got here or there—and where they might go from here. At this point, I can make a decision about writing a character-driven or plot-driven (or, milieu-based) story. If it is character driven, I need some detailed biographies. If it is plot driven, I must write a detailed plot outline. If it is milieu based, I must flesh out the rules and other details of the context and setting.

Then, I write the story. I finish it. The end is the second most difficult thing to write (unless you are writing something with bedroom scenes of your parents, as historical fiction or creative nonfiction). Now, when I know how the story goes all the way to climax and resolution, I can write the beginning. I can make a promise that I know I will keep because I already have.

The beginning, hopefully the first page if not the first line, includes a hook. Maybe it is a baited hook, something that entices the reader to go on to the next line, paragraph, page, and chapter. I don’t know how to explain this (another blog?). The bait depends upon your audience (and genre). I know enough about fishing to respect the dual importance of presenting the bait and setting the hook.

Here comes the promise. The beginning of your story must be an honest offer of the kind of story you are going to deliver. Language, style, tone, setting, and characters all matter, but the reader must know before the end of the first chapter, and maybe by page three, just what kind of story is offered.

One little confession, here: I don’t look at the beginning first when I evaluate any piece of writing. For a novel, I open a random page to get a feel for the language, characterization, and movement. If I accept these, then I go to page one. I know, I’m eccentric, but it is a habit developed by reading a ton of research papers, professional and amateur. If it is slutty, I put it down. If it is trite or cliché, I put it down. If it is beyond belief, I put it down.

So, write your beginning only when you are proud of your completed story and you will be better equipped to write an honest promise that hooks the reader. If you do that, you just might hook an agent and an editor.

Keep writing, and enjoy the journey.

Science of Joy I: God’s Art

This is the season of anticipation of joy. For the next four weeks, I would like to explore the possibility of abundance and joy as appropriate for our human experience. Even as our hemisphere endures the coming of our darkest hours and the austerity of winter’s demands, we can rely upon the bounty of our harvests just celebrated and prepare for spring. We can celebrate our blessings and rely upon hope.

What does Our Creator teach us about joy through His art of Nature?

Last summer I walked the trails of Florence County land with my new camera. High in the sky above the sugar maples I spotted a raven and decided to experiment with the automatic focus and fast-frame shooting on a setting for motion. To my surprise, I was able to catch the bird in flight with a few shots. Here is one picture blown up several times.

Diving Raven

Only when I looked at the enlarged photos did I realize what this bird was doing. He or she was playing. Ravens are not predators hunting by diving. They do not snatch prey from the air as falcons do. For some reason that sure looks like sheer joy, this probably young bird was flying aerobatics, soaring high and tumbling into a dive, then pulling up, again. We can learn a lot from ravens. Do we still play? Do we live our joy?

Puppies play—and coyotes, foxes, wolves, bears, cougars, otters. When is the last time we enjoyed watching them play?

Deer are curious. Several years ago, I cut many aspen saplings to clear an area, so I dragged them down by the edge of the open stream valley to make a hunting blind. I watched one doe walking across the valley on a trail in front of the blind. She took notice of my work and turned off her course, stepping right over my saplings and into the blind. For several moments, she looked around, smelling, as if to ponder the question about what this thing might be. Are we still curious? Do we wonder? Or, even notice something new?

Enjoyment might be simpler than this. One of the exercises I offered to students in Solar Starship was a quiet sit in Nature. Go to some natural place where you can enjoy peace and solitude. Walk into the area as slowly and quietly as you can. Sit, preferably right on the ground or log for half an hour or more—until time no longer matters. Clear your mind and simply observe God’s art. Walk back from your sit area taking at least twice as long as walking in. Write your reactions, especially how you feel.

Many students did this, and the reports they shared with me confirm that most enjoyed it. If you have never tried such a thing, give yourself a gift this season. If you have experienced this but it has been too long, give yourself a gift. You don’t need wilderness. Even your own back yard may suffice, but I prefer more animals and fewer people to observe. Animals seem to enjoy life more.

Observe the plants, the rocks and water, even the air. Feel a part of it. Be a part of it. Then, come back here and post your comments for others to share. I will give myself a gift and post my comment tomorrow.

Enjoy.