The ironic focus issue
Malcolm Glass and I met eleventy-leven years ago, when he was teaching creative writing at Austin Peay State University. It was in one of his classes, during a writing exercise, that I first used the town of Jesus Creek in a piece of fiction. Malcolm was already a well-known writer in his field in those days, and his reputation has grown exponentially since then.
He co-directed the Creative Writing Program at Austin Peay State University, and for many years served as an editor of The Cumberland Poetry Review and as co-editor of Zone 3 Literary Journal. He is a Fulbright Scholar, and a recipient of Stetson University’s Distinguished Alumni Award. At Austin Peay State University he was awarded the Distinguished Professor Award and the Richard M. Hawkins Award for Creative Achievement.
A number of his poems have been set to music by contemporary composers, including Jack Williams’s “Four Glass Poems” for orchestra, chorus and soloists; and his play “Sisters” was given a reading at La Mama Playhouse in New York.
Malcolm’s also an art photographer, and his work has been shown in galleries and exhibitions from New York to Los Angeles.
It's my great pleasure to introduce him here, and my great honor to call him a friend.
I have a Scorpio Moon which helps a great deal with focus. If your moon is something else and it seems to be getting in your way, you might try revising your astronomical chart. I don't know if this is possible, but I suspect that somewhere in the billions of apps available you will find something like, “How to Revise Your Chart for a Better Life.”
That bit's facetious. The rest is quite serious:
For spiritual reasons I began to detach from the chaotic world a decade ago. Of course, being retired and living alone helped me.
Our so-called reality is splitting into two worlds, and I chose the peaceful one that some people are manifesting (though most are not consciously aware of their participation in this process).
If I were to pay attention to the other world, the one driven by ego, greed, and an insane obsession with entertainment, I would take on that negativity, and I would feed it and increase it by thinking about it. So, I ignore it.
Since I have been a hermit for many years, I found it easy to detach. My entertainment is listening to music and occasionally (2 or 3 times a month) watching a play or zooming with a few friends to discuss writing and the arts. So I connect every so often with positive people.
I communicate with my handful of friends and family by email and occasional texting.
Everyone knows I don’t talk on the phone, and they have stopped calling. I carry on regular conversations with my four cats and find it relaxing and peaceful.
I pay no attention to the news. What would be the point? I can’t do anything about what’s going on, and it drains the energy I need for doing what gives me joy. And as I said, I would be adding to my negativity and the toxicity of the insane world. I decided I would be as positive as possible and send loving energy to the peaceful world.
A two-year, quiet hiatus as I recovered from spinal reconstruction sped my process, and in the middle of that convalescence, the pandemic appeared and made it even easier. I have always been a loner, so having almost no social life didn’t bother me at all.
In the past several years my life became less cluttered, freer of distractions, and I have been able to make art and write far more than I ever did in the past.
One of the most important discoveries I made while detaching from the world is a better understanding of the reasons millions of people through history have chosen the monastic life.
During one of my visits to Gethsemane, the Trappist Monastery near Bardstown, our group of visitors was passed on the stairway by a monk. Our tour guide, the Abbot, told us it was Father Louis, known to us as Thomas Merton, the well-known theologian and mystic who wrote 50 books in a 27-year period. The Abbot said, “A monk is never told what to do; everyone here is free to live his life as he chooses. However, there is one, rare exception. Father Louis has been given orders to write.”
For sixty-five years, Glass has published work in all genres in many literary journals and magazines, including “Poetry” (Chicago), “Prairie Schooner,” “New Letters,” and “The Sewanee Review.” In November, 2018, Finishing Line Press released his newest collection of poems, "Mirrors, Myths, and Dreams."
Glass is one of the founders of the new literary movement Écriture Cinématographique, writers whose work relies on imagery, metaphor, and the music of language to engage and affect the reader. Following an old adage, they show, rather than tell and explain, preferring instead to imply and suggest.
What I really need, I say to myself every time I fail to write, is a retreat. Solitude. Sanctuary. A place where my only responsibility is to, ya know, write.
And lo! the universe called my bluff.
I spent last weekend at the legendary Settlement School in Hindman, Kentucky. I was there for a writing retreat, the long-dreamed-of respite from the world that would allow me to complete three or four novels as well as the myriad poems and short stories and essays currently in rough draft. (By rough I mean they exist as sentence fragments or sometimes cryptic notes meant to be turned into exquisite literary masterpieces at a later date.)
Every other writer in the place was there for the same reason. Some of us wrote like demons through the pandemic years and then hit a wall when the world re-opened; others wrote nothing during 2020 and 2021, and are feeling the need to get back in the groove. Short version: the only thing we all had in common was the belief that a writing retreat would help us focus and get work done.
I don’t know who first said it, but it is a true statement: The only secret to becoming a successful writer is applying your backside to the chair.
It’s scary to think that focus was a problem for writers even before the internet and cell phones provided us with constant entertainment. There are all sorts of studies you can access that explain the lure of social media. Of course, Googling for those studies is just another way to avoid writing, isn’t it?
But here’s something I learned through yoga study: We each have a limited amount of self discipline. That’s why newbies can’t sit quietly in meditation for ten minutes but experienced meditators are content for sit for hours. It’s the same reason you can adhere strictly to the new diet for a few days and then “lose control” and scarf down everything that doesn’t run away fast enough. You literally used up all your self-discipline.
The good news is that self-discipline can be increased, just like a muscle that grows stronger with use. The bad news is that you have to engage self-discipline in order to build more self-discipline.
Author and behavior analyst Chase Hughes explains in one of his videos a method for building discipline and getting your writing done (or meeting any other goal). It’s easy-ish, and I can explain it here: Get a calendar that shows the full year. Get some stickers—stars, cartoon figures, hearts, whatever. Reward yourself for doing your daily writing by putting a sticker on that date.
Pretty soon you’ll find that what you want more than anything else in the world is to add another sticker to your calendar. You’ll want that so much that you’ll gladly apply seat to chair and write 500 words (or more).
Even though I’d never met any of the other writers at the Hindman retreat, I saw (or assumed) that they were all buckled down and writing. So I wrote every day that I was there, and kept it up after I got home. And now I’m adding stickers to my calendar which makes me happy (they’re goofy stickers) and that makes me want to write again tomorrow so I can get another sticker.
Yes, the universe called my bluff, and I played the ace of bum-in-chair.
And now that I’m back in the World, a little of that Hindman magic still clings to me. I love you all, but I have to go write now. You go write, too. Bye.
THREE GOOD THINGS (according to Deborah)
1. Yoga With Adrienne: Yoga for concentration and mental focus
2. Aldi’s rainforest-friendly coffee and chocolate
3. Chase Hughes--How to set goals for 2022 with brainwashing
Deborah-Zenha Adams is often lost in the woods without a paddle. She is an award-winning author of novels, short fiction, CNF, and poetry; she is also a certified naturalist and a yoga educator, a vegetarian, and a Prius owner. Yes, she’s the living stereotype of a liberal tree-hugger. You’re invited to visit her website to learn more about her work. http://www.deborah-adams.com
JULIE WRAY HERMAN
2022 was supposed to be the year I brought focus to my writing life. Focus, as in a laser-pointed, clearly-seen path to productivity. Yeah, about that...
There are more distractions than ever in my life: moving, dealing still with the losses of 2020 and 2021, the birth of not one but two adorable grandchildren, deciding last month that I needed to learn how to bake a fine loaf of bread (Yes, I am way behind the pandemic baking curve) and then there’s the world at large. That’s a lot to handle. And even though there are people handling far more and far worse than I, it’s not always easy to sit down and keep my mind on the page.
Meditation helps. My mantra these days is, “May I feel safe, be happy, be healthy, and may I be able to keep my mind on what I’m actually supposed to be doing.” It’s a bit wordy for a mantra, but it never hurts to put wishes out there in the hope that they will manifest themselves.
Walking helps too. I have solved MANY a thorny problem (both professional and personal) by taking a well-timed walk. I’ve mixed it up lately, listening to podcasts and talking with friends while walking, but still love my silent treks through the local woods. I come back feeling sharper, like my words will spill out onto the page, instead of yanking them out one by one like recalcitrant teeth. (There is also a middle ground where writing doesn’t hurt and also isn’t in the zone, but forgive me if I have a preference for the rare times when words flow!)
I have been incredibly fortunate to fall in with a couple of writers’ groups who meet on Zoom. It’s not coffeeshop level accountability—it’s not like they can see your screen and call you out (silently or otherwise) for the Solitaire game you’ve got going. But it IS accountability. We chat for a bit, set our writing intentions, then work. One group meets for 50 minutes at 7 am Monday through Friday. Another meets for two hours twice a week and subverts our internal editor by flipping the Pomodoro number. (The usual Pomodoro Method’s 25/5 cycle was too short for any of us to drop into the zone so we work for 52 minutes, chat/stretch for eight.)
Doing things like this frees up our minds to work, knowing that someone will bring us out of that flow in time to make lunch for the kids, or to get to the next thing.
Now, about that next thing…anyone know anything about sourdough starter?
THREE GOOD THINGS +1 (according to Julie)
1. FLOUR WATER SALT YEAST: The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza by Ken Forkish
2. My friend, Yvonne Ventresca, author of PANDEMIC (not that one) has a blog on productive ways for writers. She’s super smart, so check it out.
3. habitica.com A website where you can gamify your goals, providing both avatars and quests fueled by crossing things off your todo list. Can enjoy on your own or find/bring a group. Why not have fun while meeting your goals?
4. Carol is part of a group of poets who post a prompt every Friday. I kind of adore her. This article is filled with humor and made me fall in love with the idea of writing a few poems a week all over again.
Julie is a perpetual student of writing and life. She is currently getting perilously close to graduating from the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults. She is a lapsed Master Gardener and a retired Horse Management judge. She is discovering, now that she has decided that growing up is not a dirty word, that making space for what you love it a good thing. She can be reached through her website at https://juliewherman.com
WRITERS IN CONVERSATION
Julie wrote: Deb, you teach yoga for writers and regular humans. Does yoga give you an ‘in' for being able to focus?
Deb wrote: Wouldn't that be nice? Here's what I tell my students when we're working on meditation: Know that your mind will wander off; everyone's mind wanders. The hard part of meditation is bringing it back to the present moment.
Julie: I get that. Some days meditation is a gift, others its a series of Begin Again. Kind of like writing scenes, right? What I would really like is a l o n g s t r e t c h of uninterrupted time. Can you give me that?
Deb: I'll work on that, but you'll have to meet me half way. Any chance you could maybe sorta stop having a life and just sit in the corner and write? Thought not.
Malcolm: I was unable to write anything this weekend as I had planned. So the focus piece is still in my head. I was busy last week making a April 22 deadline. Then friends came on Saturday to help me with the yard and bonsai trees. Sunday I was exhausted. This week is beginning to look cramped.
Deb: The focus issue. Isn't this ironic?
Malcolm: It is ironic. And doubly ironic because I missed writing about focus because I was focused on other pieces and forgot to put a sticky note on my computer to remind me about focus. The most important thing is for me to focus on posting sticky notes.
Julie: I post notes all over my desk. The problem for me is that I post them and they get layered over with new notes, like lasagna. Oh, here’s one, it says FOCUS piece. Better get on that.
Malcolm: I'm not sure I know the deadline. Please let me know so I can write a sticky note!
Deb wrote: Deadline is, um, tomorrow.
And so, dear reader, it goes. In our next issue of b.read.crumbs, maybe we’ll share the blueprints for a TARDIS, so that you can build your own and create all the time you need to actually write.