Thursday, July 27, 2006

Pearl S. Buck

"The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him... a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create -- so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really alive unless he is creating."

--Pearl S. Buck, novelist, Nobel laureate (1892-1973)

I do believe there is some mysterious inward drive that makes a human being want to create. But I also think that everyone has that drive to some degree. Unfortunately, not everyone has learned how to channel it. I'm thinking specifically of groups who may experience feelings of alienation from society at large: Adolescents, prison inmates, the mentally ill.

Some get so frustrated that they choose destruction rather than creation. And yet, what is destruction, really, but another aspect of creation? It is the act of creating nothing out of something. Given no other outlets, the creative impulse may take this form. Which is why art programs are so valuable in public schools, prisons, mental institutions and even summer camps.

I have witnessed a young child, previously withdrawn and frustrated, find greater motivation to apply himself when he has been given the tools and the freedom of creative expression. I have seen an 85 year-old woman cry tears of joy when a group of people told her that the poetry she has been secretly writing all her life is wonderful. I have seen the surly, rebellious teenager's eyes light up when he realizes that what he has made with his own two hands is good and has meaning.

Passing the creative spark to another human being is a beautiful, magical moment.

It is an act of communion.

And art is not a luxury. It is not expendable, not something we can "do without." Art is an essential part of being human.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006


"We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will."

-Henry David Thoreau, naturalist and author (1817-1862)

This quote was in my inbox today, as part of my A.Word.A.Day email subscription. I like it.

I think I write a lot about loneliness and belonging--not consciously (for the most part) but it's a theme I can recognize after ten years of writing and looking back over my work. I have come to understand that all people are lonely, no matter how surrounded by others, no matter how bustling their lives. Some people are comfortable with this feeling--embrace it even. Others spend a lifetime trying to avoid feeling lonely, seeking action and activity to keep that desperate feeling at bay.

I believe the biggest part of loneliness is the feeling that one is never quite fully understood. But that is part and parcel of the human condition and the best that we can do is to try and understand one another as a way to keep that loneliness ("longing" might be another apt descriptor) at bay.

In her songs, Tracy Chapman writes a lot about loneliness, belonging and longing. I kept a CD of hers handy during the writing of my most recently completed novel as a mood setter because I wanted those same themes expressed throughout my story.

I also write about poverty, a condition that definitely breeds such feelings. But...the more I think about the rich people I know, the more I understand that they are just as lonely, just as filled with longing...

Maybe Thoreau was right. The more we try to escape it or ameliorate it, the more solidly loneliness is with us, universal to the state of being human.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Rescuing the non-Lebanese

Last night my Internet news page showed a picture of an American family trapped in Lebanon holding up signs and passports. It was a very moving picture and I feel for the family. Their ordeal must be terrible and frightening. But as I looked, I couldn't help but think, what about all of the innocent Lebanese civilians who are not able to leave? Are they not trapped, too? Trapped with no embassy to appeal to, no government that can intervene and whisk them away.

Are the Lebanese people surely not as innocent and deserving as all of those non-Lebanese nationals holding up their passorts showing the world that they deserve to leave because they are not from that country? Get me out, they seem to be saying. Take me away. I don't deserve this. This isn't my war.

Well, plenty of Lebanese are feeling those same feelings. And we may not be able to do much from far away, but there is one small and easy thing anyone who is reading this right now can and absolutely should do: sign an Internet petition asking--demanding--that the world recognize that hundreds of innocents--innocents who cannot escape the bombing--are being killed and maimed.

Save the Lebanese Civilians Petition

Monday, July 10, 2006

How to Escape from a Leper Colony

Tiphanie Yanique won the Boston Review's Short Fiction Award with her fabulous story "How to Escape from a Leper Colony" and (lucky) you can read it on-line here.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Interview with Laila Lalami

You can listen to an interview with novelist Laila Lalami at the Wisconsin Public Radio website. If you are pressed for time and want to skip to her portion of the interview (mind you, all the interviews are good and worth listening to) hers begins at about 39:30.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Tackling the Bonus Question

6. When have you felt that you transcended time and space?

Well, there are times when I cultivate such a feeling, and times when it happens without trying. Since the ones that happen on their own are more interesting, I'll mention one of those.

Most recently I think it was when I was in Dominica in February. I was there with my 13 year old daughter, visiting a longtime friend and his wife. They had a new baby who was a little over a month old. She was adorable, and I felt we had an immediate connection. I held her and talked to her and loved on her every chance I had.

Late one night, about a week into the visit, I woke to the sound of someone screaming my name. I knew instantly from the awful despair in the voice that something was wrong with the baby. In the next second, I was upstairs seeing my friend howling with grief over his daughter's limp body, yelling her name over and over. As soon as I touched her, I knew she was not breathing and that life was leaving her body. I said something stupid like, "Give her breath." Then I started to tell him, "Put your mouth over her nose and mouth..." but the first mention had been enough to move him to action and he initiated CPR. With one breath she stirred. With two breaths, she opened her eyes and we started crooning, "Good girl, Amela, good girl. That's right, stay here." We rubbed her limbs which were quite cold and she looked at us with surprise in her eyes. Soon she was alert and nursing at her mother's breast again.

The part that was transcending time and space, though, was how I got upstairs so fast. No one could understand it. His wife, who had run downstairs to get me, was already downstairs when I was upstairs calling, "Where are you?" So, I somehow got out from under my mosquito netting, ran out the door of the room, down the hall, out the front door, left the porch, then took the outside steps two at time (I think) and was inside their apartment before she even had time to call through my window. We must have passed on the stairs, but neither one of us thinks we did. (They weren't wide stairs.) She said to me later, "How did you get up there so fast. Did you fly?" And I wasn't sure. But I do know that I woke instantly from a dead sleep and hit the ground running. (My daughter was in the room with me and she said she was just rubbing her eyes wondering who was yelling when she looked over and saw my empty bed.) Did I fly? Maybe. But somewhere in my brain I knew I was needed immediately and so I arrived just in time.

I've found that I am good at a moment of a crisis. I often take the emergency exit in an airplane because I've learned that when a crisis happens, I'm right there, somehow doing the right thing, without conscious thought. Something overtakes me and it's almost like I'm watching myself act, but not in conscious control of my actions. And the really funny thing is, about an hour after the crisis is over, Mary-the-rock crumbles. I become a bowl of jelly, useless and freaking out with a delayed reaction to the stress of everything.

But at that moment of crisis, I'm your woman.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Mountain Voices

If you like southern short stories (and who doesn't?) stop by Ginger Hamilton Caudill's blog and read about the anthology Mountain Voices, then click on the link to buy the book and benefit West Virginia's hard working authors.