Searchlights & Signal Flares


Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

What's your vision of writer's heaven? (10/15/02)



Featured writer: Rodney Lewis Merrill



Contributors this month:
Betty Winslow
Christina Boden
Elizabeth Hannon
Fraeda Dubin
Guy Biederman
Jennie Orvino
Jonette Stabbert
Kevin W. Grossman
Michele Anna Jordan
Rodney Lewis Merrill
Rosemary Manchester
Susan Bono


BUCK BY BUCK

by Rodney Lewis Merrill

I had a dream that I died and was given the choice of going to heaven or hell. Always the wise shopper, I negotiated a visit to each place before deciding. In the fiery pit, I saw writers chained to their desks, row upon row, as far as the eye could see. As they worked, the writers were arbitrarily whipped and ridiculed.

"I've already seen the Midwest," I explained. "Let's move on to heaven."

Much to my surprise, I found writers chained to their desks in heaven too, row upon row, as far as the eye could see. As they worked, these writers were capriciously whipped and ridiculed just as I had seen in hell.

"Oh my god!" I wailed. "It's two-party politics all over again. There is no real difference between heaven and hell!"

"Of course there is!" an unseen voice boomed. "Here, your work gets published."

Well, I guess that's right. That is the fundamental difference.

I wrote a poem to Anne Lamott on this very subject. In bird by bird, an otherwise wonderful book on writing, Anne Lamott insists that writers put way too much emphasis on getting published. They somehow imagine that their lives will completely changed once they're a published writer. Not so, she says.

You'll still be fat if you were fat the day before you were published. And most people will still think that you use "writer" as a euphemism for "unemployed." People will still ask what you've written, then mutter "Sorry, never heard of it." Reviewers attempting to build a reputation will say your work stinks worse than dog farts. So, if you're not happy with yourself before publication, says Lamott, you won't be happy with yourself after.

You have to forget about writing for publication, she says, and start writing as a gift to others. The preparation of the gift then becomes the most important part.

Okay. It's a lovely sentiment. It has heuristic merit. And it probably does help your attitude toward rejection letters. I imagine, though, that the salience of such sentiments increase dramatically once you've got a few highly successful books and the key to the publishing house under your belt. (Only the rich can muse, with assurance, that money isn't everything.) So, I wrote the following poem right after reading Lamott's thoughts on being published.

To Anne Lamott on the Unimportance of Being Published
A guru to the hearth fire,
A bishop without a see,
A painter for the blind,
is a writer not in print.

So, in writers' heaven, good work gets published. That's not enough, though. In writer's heaven, wrestlers and football players, boxers and racecar drivers must compete one and all with writers for a 20 million dollar contract and breakfast cereal endorsements - and the writers win more often than not.

Rodney Lewis Merrill mutters to himself in Astoria, Oregon, and occasionally writes something worthwhile. He can be reached at rlmerril@charter.net

Betty Winslow



Kathryn Lindskoog put it better than I could if I wrote for weeks:

"Good books have made my life good. Through books I learn the wonder of the ordinary. And I walk next to all kinds of people, sharing their thoughts and experiences.

But no book can really be complete in this life; it has to end where the author's time and understanding end. There is always something left unsaid. I look forward to the life to come, as the unending last chapter of all the good books I have ever read."

That says it all.



MY VISION OF WRITER'S HEAVEN

  by Christina Boden

My cocoon, golden, brightly shining, rests along a green, wooded footpath. Rays of sunshine infiltrate lush woodland, piercing its space with strands of soft light. A stage of air illumined with fancy, I breathe it in, allowing its descent to the core of my being.

My dainty muse, she is over there, tossing me glowing shimmers of fairy dust from her perch. On an oak branch she sits swinging her teensy legs, back and forth. Watching me, she waits to launch more of her sparkles.

A gossamer silver bubble floats down through sunbeams to my brilliant cocoon, capturing my pages, enveloping them deep in its center. When ready, I propel it forward to awaiting masses.

Cheering, applauding, eager crowds reach for the floating bubble with arms wide open. Pleased, they embrace it to discover its exquisite gifts.

My golden cocoon glows brighter with each gentle visit from the silken bubble. The muse, from her post across the path, tosses her sparkles with increasing alacrity. She smiles, giggles, enjoying her role in the play.

Christina Boden, Ph.D., Nottingham, MD

ChristinaBoden@yahoo.com


WRITER'S HEAVEN

  by Elizabeth Hannon

Growing up Catholic girl in Catholic school, heaven was sketched as a geographic location, a layer of celestial strata, the point at the end of Sister Josephine's marker where good girls may, if they remain good, retire after years of testing. The marker would then lower, tapping the board for effect as the good nun warned of those who remain in limbo, the stain of original sin never washed from their soul at the baptismal fount.

This childhood lecture continues its long drone of logic, listing on the mind's blackboard all the ways I fail, especially as a writer. In my search for Writer's Heaven I hover as a hummingbird in search of the nectar I taste while scratching out a poem with my pen. Similarly, in Writer's Limbo there is only one true desire, to transcend limitation.

My small girl self may still sketch such a scenario but my forty-something woman half has control of the keyboard and she is here to say Writer's Heaven is a bottleneck on 101 just before Novato on a day when, after years of hand wringing, I am headed for an interview with a poet I admire about the MFA program she chairs. I never make this appointment. A flash fire consumes wheat shriveled white by the searing summer sun. I turn down the worry and settle into the story.

A helicopter wings in ala' dragonfly swinging a bucket holding water magic. Flat-bellied planes scud across treetops into the sudsy smoke, drop a sandbox of chemicals to choke the blaze, stall for a second to tally their score than disappear. From the plastic face of the radio a Tuvan throat singer is rolling thunder in his throat, working with forces on the unseen side of life to calm, to cleanse, to heal. I feel a cooling shadow cast by a semi-truck inching forward to the right of me. I turn my head to see the words De Pere, Wisconsin written on its cream colored door. De Pere, Wisconsin, my hometown! I wonder for a half beat if the Tuvan artist is at the wheel, or a lost love, perhaps someone who remembers my father fielding his forklift to the end of the dock. I want to catch the driver's eye tell him, "I'm Bucky's girl, his youngest. Tomorrow is his birthday. He died three years ago." But the angle isn't right; I sit too low to the ground.

I haven't written much for months but I think about it every single day. I guess I've been in limbo. But during that stalled hour yesterday I walked the meadow in Writer's Heaven, tasting, feeling, smelling, seeing, hearing myself make some connection between this and that; me and the driver of the big rig, me and the poet in San Francisco, me and my father, me and the fire and especially me and the shaman who came to America at a time when we're all waiting to see what rises from the ashes.

Elizabeth Hannon, Santa Rosa, Ca.

lizardo_99@yahoo.com


Fraeda Dubin



Have you heard this one? Believe it's from an essay by Nadine Gordimer in which she says, the ideal relationship for a writer is with a he/she who lives five miles away, is very busy with his/her own interests, and is available for in-person contact once or twice a week.

Fraeda Dubin, Mendocino, CA


Guy Biederman



Writer Heaven you say? Is that like Rock and Roll Heaven where they must have a helluva band? I imagine Raymond Carver, and my beloved friend Gina Berriault, and maybe Papa, as well, all playing their literary pianos like concert pianists, the night filled with their tap-tap-tapping, with a cafe just around the corner, rents low, and the coffee always good.

Guy Biederman, Sebastopol, CA

Jennie Orvino



House-sitting for a week on the Mendocino Coast, I could not see or hear the neighbors, the telephone's number was not my number. Rooms lined floor to ceiling with books I'd like to read; a great sound system with CDs, cassette tapes and albums (of old jazz, rock, blues). Plenty of provisions, no need to use my car. In the 2nd floor bedroom: a high-backed rocker, a futon couch for naps, a bed topped with cozy down duvet; in the kitchen: stoneware, butcher block and sharp knives. A good start on Writer's Heaven.

The tools I'd wish for: a box each of blue and black Pilot G2 click gel pens for journaling and free-writes; a laptop for translating the day's notes into mistress-pieces while sitting at the picnic table on the ocean-view deck. And yes, if heaven recycles, a laser printer and reams of paper. Add a two-mile, oxygen-to-the-brain daily walk along redwood, oak, and blackberry-lined dirt road, or a windy run on the beach.

Except for scooping Puss 'n Boots from the can for a hungry cat, no meal prep obligations, just eating in response to my body's natural rhythms. Same for sleep. Up all time night with a novel if I liked, no alarms in the morning. So many free hours that even when I used up every distraction, I still had plenty of time left to scribble. Finally, I'd add a visit every third day from writer friends I loved, who would dine with me and then critique my work in a most honest and conscientious manner. And because this is my heaven, I would not be required to reciprocate, but only to receive with an open heart.

Jennie Orvino's website is www.soundofpoetry.com and her email address is jennieo@sonic.net. When not romancing the Muse, she is out promoting her new spoken word CD, "Make Love Not War," a collaboration with Bay Area musicians. Hear sample tracks at www.cdbaby.com/orvino

I'VE FOUND HEAVEN

  by Jonette Stabbert

I recall sprawling on a couch on the porch of our vacation villa in St. Lucia, a big house at the top of a high precipice overlooking the bay, with a picture-postcard view nearly unobstructed in every direction. The sunsets and sunrises outdid Technicolor films. Furious rainstorms swept the island every night, but were gone by morning. As soon as I woke up, I would head for the porch and start writing. Near to sensory overload, I'd inhale the damp morning scents of tropical foliage, ocean spray and my breakfast tray of freshly cut fruit, while tiny bright hummingbirds zoomed among the yellow and purple Bougainvillea.

Words poured from my pen and covered pages. Within days they overflowed the covers of my notebook and engulfed a second and then a third. At home, I only write at the computer and my hand tires if I scribble notes, yet on vacation, I never felt a strain. It was so peaceful. There was nothing to interfere with writing whatever I wanted - no editors with article deadlines, no advertising agencies with copywriting assignments - I could write whatever and whenever I pleased. It was heaven.

Another year, we went to Scotland. The winds brought four seasons in the space of a few hours. We dressed in layers. Sheep grazed everywhere. It was peaceful and green and there were no people. Dark clouds moved in suddenly and rain drenched us. Snow followed and froze me, even in my winter windbreaker, rain pants and thermal gloves. Soon the skies cleared again and the sun blazed in a vast expanse of cloudless cerulean blue. Pleasant green fields, white sheep and surrounding tall mountains made me quickly forget nature's outburst. I stripped to bare arms and legs and was baked by the sun. Some hours later, the weather sequence would repeat. We waited for a sunny spell. Like the old Scottish song, my partner took the high road and I took the low road. While he explored the hills, I followed a path to a distant lighthouse. It was at the end of a long arm of land, with the sea to my right and left and far ahead. I was alone - I encountered no humans or animals. I wrote for hours, only stopping to look for whales and failing to see any. The quiet was absolute, as though the world had stopped. It was heaven.

Circumstances have prevented me having a vacation for several years. I spend most my time writing in a windowless room smaller than some people's walk-in closets. I'm not a complete hermit. I teach writing workshops. My dog takes me for walks, so that I get fresh air and exercise. My two cats are aspiring writers who keep me company in my workroom, typing their own cryptic messages on the keyboard at every opportunity. So long as I can write, it's a wonderful life. It's heaven.

Jonette Stabbert,Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Jonette is an editor at www.flashquake.org and can be reached at jstabbert@attglobal.net


A WRITER'S HEAVEN

  by Kevin W. Grossman

Kevin sits on the edge of the bed holding a Bible coloring book, watching the fog drift along the cliffs. A flock of pelicans float by in the shape of a V, their wings cutting through the milky haze.

"Kevin, what are you doing?" his wife says, rolling over in bed.

"It's a place where the sun shines one day, and then it rains the next," he says.

"What? What are you talking about? Come back to bed-please."

She reaches over and strokes his lower back. He shivers.

"Did you sleep at all?" he says.

"No-not really. Only a couple of hours, maybe."

"I haven't slept at all."

She sits up and presses herself against his back. Her face is wet from crying.

"You need to sleep some," she says. "The funeral's at eleven."

He looks down and flips through the coloring book. He stops on a page with a connect-the-dots picture of Christ hanging on the cross, colored with blue crayon inside and outside of the lines.

"It's a place where putting the words together is as easy as connecting the dots in this coloring book."

She puts her arms around him, holding him tight. Tears roll down his back. It's warm, like a summer rain.

"That was his favorite book," she says.

"I know."

"Why? Why is this happening?"

"I don't know."

She sits up on the bed next to him and takes his hand. A drop of blood falls to the floor.

"Oh my God, Kevin, you're bleeding. What happened?"

He opens up his hand and looks at his palm. A two-inch cut runs across the middle.

"I broke a wine glass last night. I'm sorry."

"We have to clean that out and wrap it up, before it gets infected."

"It's okay-it's not that deep."

She closes up his palm, holding his hand in both of hers. She rests her head on his shoulders.

"I miss him, Kevin."

"I know."

Kevin pulls his hand away and rises from the bed. He turns and kisses her on the forehead.

"Where are you going?"

"To write."

"Now? But why?"

"Because I have to answer your question."

"But why now?"

"Because I have to."

Kevin W. Grossman ,Santa Cruz, CA

kwg_gdp@pacbell.net


Michele Anna Jordan



I've been to writer's heaven, so to speak, during a stay at Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs, New York. There were, indeed, heavenly things: the snow (the blizzard of '93 arrived a day after I did); the sense of history (Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes had stayed in my rooms, and Poe had written a first draft of The Raven pacing in the woods near one of Yaddo's lakes); thelunch box provided daily so we didn't have to interrupt our work.

But there were distractions at Yaddo, as you would expect in any community of humans. The same petty dramas-competitiveness, illicit affairs, the inevitable pecking order, power struggles, political battles- unfolded there as they do in real life. And so when I think of writer's heaven, it's not Yaddo, as much as I love it. Rather, I imagine it thusly: An iMac and a Powerbook, two long-haired cats, an inexhaustible supply of tea, a phone that never rings, an agent who adores me, an editor who inspires me, a Muse who showers me with attention, a lover who is rarely around but gives no cause to worry, and someone who pays the bills. If these are not to be had simultaneously, any combination helps.


Another vision:

Shortly before dawn, the front door creaks opens slowly. Didn't I lock it? the writer wonders as she shakes off a shroud of dreams.

Footsteps in the hall grow louder.

Her adrenaline spikes, her head breaking through waves of sleep that try to pull her under. But the bed is warm, the pillows soft. She sinks back down.

Two men, clad in black with ski masks covering their faces, pull her from bed and drag her to a small study illuminated by soft morning light.

"Write," one commands as he pulls a handgun from his waist. The other man has disappeared. She starts to speak. He pushes the gun between her shoulder blades.

"I SAID WRITE, BITCH. GOT IT?"

The second man returns and slams down a cup of tea next to the ruby iMac. She takes a sip and starts to type. The first man sits in a corner chair, slowly fingering the gun's barrel. Whenever she pauses for more than a few seconds, he lowers the barrel until it points directly at her.

Hours pass, the only sounds the tapping of keys and the occasional trill of a mockingbird. The second man keeps her cup filled, and occasionally brings in buttered toast. In the afternoon, there's a white peach, peeled and sliced into wedges. She types as she savors each slice.


At dusk, the first man slips the gun back into his waistband and removes his ski mask The second man opens a bottle of pinot noir and fills three glasses. The writer cooks dinner.


As she drifts to sleep that night, she thinks, "I wonder what they'll be
tomorrow . . ."


Months later, when her accountant questions the rather large amount she
claims for "professional services", she has a hard time explaining.

Michele Anna Jordan has a tangerine iMac, a black G-3 Powerbook, two long-haired cats, Poe and Rosemary, and plenty of tea. See a list of her many awards and publications at: www.toyonbooks.com/Michele.html

BUCK BY BUCK

  by Rodney Lewis Merrill

I had a dream that I died and was given the choice of going to heaven or hell. Always the wise shopper, I negotiated a visit to each place before deciding. In the fiery pit, I saw writers chained to their desks, row upon row, as far as the eye could see. As they worked, the writers were arbitrarily whipped and ridiculed.

"I've already seen the Midwest," I explained. "Let's move on to heaven."

Much to my surprise, I found writers chained to their desks in heaven too, row upon row, as far as the eye could see. As they worked, these writers were capriciously whipped and ridiculed just as I had seen in hell.

"Oh my god!" I wailed. "It's two-party politics all over again. There is no real difference between heaven and hell!"

"Of course there is!" an unseen voice boomed. "Here, your work gets published."

Well, I guess that's right. That is the fundamental difference.

I wrote a poem to Anne Lamott on this very subject. In bird by bird, an otherwise wonderful book on writing, Anne Lamott insists that writers put way too much emphasis on getting published. They somehow imagine that their lives will completely changed once they're a published writer. Not so, she says.

You'll still be fat if you were fat the day before you were published. And most people will still think that you use "writer" as a euphemism for "unemployed." People will still ask what you've written, then mutter "Sorry, never heard of it." Reviewers attempting to build a reputation will say your work stinks worse than dog farts. So, if you're not happy with yourself before publication, says Lamott, you won't be happy with yourself after.

You have to forget about writing for publication, she says, and start writing as a gift to others. The preparation of the gift then becomes the most important part.

Okay. It's a lovely sentiment. It has heuristic merit. And it probably does help your attitude toward rejection letters. I imagine, though, that the salience of such sentiments increase dramatically once you've got a few highly successful books and the key to the publishing house under your belt. (Only the rich can muse, with assurance, that money isn't everything.) So, I wrote the following poem right after reading Lamott's thoughts on being published.

To Anne Lamott on the Unimportance of Being Published
A guru to the hearth fire,
A bishop without a see,
A painter for the blind,
is a writer not in print.

So, in writers' heaven, good work gets published. That's not enough, though. In writer's heaven, wrestlers and football players, boxers and racecar drivers must compete one and all with writers for a 20 million dollar contract and breakfast cereal endorsements - and the writers win more often than not.

Rodney Lewis Merrill mutters to himself in Astoria, Oregon, and occasionally writes something worthwhile. He can be reached at rlmerril@charter.net

WRITER'S HEAVEN

  by Rosemary Manchester

"Would you mind if I massage your shoulders? " the angel asked.

"That would be wonderful," I murmured. I pointed to the screen. "Is that a simile or a metaphor?"

"A simile, but I would suggest a metaphor instead. You have a simile in the preceding paragraph." I could feel the tension ebbing away from my neck and shoulders as the angel kneaded the muscles.

"I can't think who wrote The Decline and Fall of Practically Everything," I said.

"That was Will Cuppy," the angel said. Angels know everything. "He's a great favorite with us, so entertaining. I could arrange for you to meet him, if you'd like."

"Can you do that?" I asked. "I didn't realize we mortals could meet the dead."

"It's not often done, but for you, I could arrange it. I know you would enjoy each other," the angel said, looking over my shoulder. "I don't think you want an apostrophe in 'its' when you use it that way."

"Thanks," I said. "And could you bring me a cup of tea?"

"Of course. You like it with lemon, don't you?"

"Please. Tell me again why it is that angels have no gender."

The angel smiled a heavenly smile and I understood everything.

Rosemary Manchester, Sebastopol, CA

SUSAN'S HEAVEN

  by Susan Bono

In writer's heaven, you always keep a cool head. Even your brain feels fresh and moist and snappy-all synapses firing at maximum efficiency in a juicy vitamin-enriched cranial combustion chamber.

A cool head and warm feet. In writer's heaven, a person can sit for hours in light clothing, bare toes wiggling happily, free from irritating heat, chill or draft. If one chooses to work outside, the sun is always mellow and the shade refreshing. There is always clean patio furniture, a towel and mineral water waiting when you return from your swim in the sea.

In this cradling warmth, undoubtedly Mediterranean, the nights fall soft and rich-perfect for staying up late and writing furiously-only metaphorically lathered in sweat. The moon is always a perfect crescent over the scattered lights in the harbor. And when it's finally time to turn off the lamps and slip between smooth, clean sheets, the other half of the bed is either occupied or blissfully vacant, depending on your mood.

The mood is good in writer's heaven. You never find yourself suspecting that someone, anyone, could say it better. You never have to proceed with the suspicion that you've already written a brilliant passage that would fit perfectly into this paragraph, if only you could remember where you put it. No hemming and hawing. No leaky pens or computer crashes. Here, conflicts are only in the plot line. Invisible hands leave neat piles of folded laundry and thoughtfully prepared meals on the simple oak table, where company joins you for brief, interesting intervals to eat and talk about The Work.

The Work is hard, and often daunting, but out in the cheerful, interesting village, the townsfolk are invariably solicitous. Your latest book, after all, is still selling briskly. Clerks and passersby recognize you from your picture on the dust jacket-a flattering portrait that emphasizes your soulful eyes and fierce convictions. All the reviews have been good (except for one, but everyone knows her last three books tanked), and from glimpses of your face in store windows and restaurant mirrors, you can see that project an air of satisfaction and deep, unshakeable peace. After all, you're on your way to the post office to pick up your fan mail and your next royalty check. You're already at work on the next project, and the deadline is just a comfortable reach away.

Susan Bono has found herself another kind of heaven as editor of Tiny Lights.

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono

Columnists:

Christine Falcone, David Samuel Johnson, Betty Rodgers

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer whose work appears in newspapers, anthologies and the Internet. She has published Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essay, since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at tiny-lights.com. From 2000ó2005 she helped coordinate the Writer's Sampler series for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Her short essays and columns have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Her most recent credits include Passager Magazine, Red Hills Review, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KRCB radio's Word by Word.

Christine Falcone has been writing most of her life. Her work has appeared in print and online, and it has aired on public television and public radio. One of her writing goals for 2008 is to find an agent for her recently completed first novel, "This Is What I Know," which was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans. She is currently in a new writing space, painted purple for inspiration, busily at work on another novel -- this one having to do with the nature of violence.

David Samuel Johnson was reared on a mountain in Arkansas. He lived the bohemian lifestyle in the Ozarks as a hillbilly vagabond, traversing the mountainside shirtless and most of the time shoeless, exploring the sensuality of the aromatic, organic-rich soil of the forest floor or the harsh poetry of greenbriers twined around a devilís-walking-stick. As a kid he wanted to be a writer and own a snake farm when he grew up. His Mama knew she couldn't dissuade him from either goal. When he brought a poisonous copperhead snake home in his pocket, she bought him a book about snakes so heíd know which ones he could bring home and which ones to leave behind. When he wrote his first poem to a girl in kindergarten, she showed him how to use a dictionary so he could spell the word "beautiful." David's goal of a snake farm and the love of his mountain have manifested into a PhD in ecology. Davidís dream of writing has evolved from his first poem in kindergarten to essays in newspapers to interview articles in magazines and columns in this journal. He is living a beautiful dream, some of which you can glimpse below.

David the Writer

David the Scientist

Betty Rodgers and her husband, Ken, live and watch birds in Boise, Idaho. A transplant among transplants, she has chosen to learn the local landscape through the lens of her Pentax K10D. Her writing career began at an early age when she wrote plays and coerced her boy cousins to perform them. She has enjoyed a life-long affair with journalism, writing for the Sacramento Bee, the Cloudcroft Mountain Monthly, the Sebastopol Times and News, and the Boise Weekly. Born in Steinbeck Country, she has also lived in Maine and New Mexico. Betty publishes a bi-monthly online newsletter for Idaho writers, a labor of love inspired by Terry Ehret. In 2006, she published A Mano, a book of poetry by the late Vince Pedroia.

Thanks to all who participated this month. It's good to know you're out there! We're looking forward to hearing from you and those you inspired sometime soon! Check this column each month to see what's new. Return to Searchlights & Signal Flares menu for future topics and guidelines.

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