The Ups & Downs of Giving My Brain a Home

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We each have a unique brain, but my lately my own brain has been acting particularly unique. On Tuesday, as I was heading for work, I started thinking about what I would write in the next blog. When I got to the train, I dug around in my coat for a file card and wrote 24 lines in very tiny handwriting to capture my ideas before class. I do realize that a lot of you young whippersnappers, especially those born after the bicentennial, probably would have tippy-tappy typed yourself a text or email, but you would, I argue, be losing out. The e-world does not have the serendipity of the material world (Oooh, now there is an epigraph. Everyone: go write me a poem with this as its heart’s kernel! Report back.) It is hard to accidentally come across something you have put into the ether as I did yesterday when I found the file card my cat had knocked off the dresser, a file card scribbled last year when I was at a bookstore, remembered the book and the line in it and copied it down, knowing I would eventually use it to write something (which I had done a few years earlier when I first read the book, but I lost that particular note). Serendipity on top of serendipity.

Anyway, my brain. So as I was entering the building where I teach, looking at my notes, I suddenly started singing in my head:

Chicken scratch blogpost, I don’t care!

Chicken scratch blogpost, I don’t care!

Chicken scratch blogpost, I don’t CAAAAAAAARE!

My master’s gone away!

Sigh. But there is also an upside to hosting my particular brain. On Monday afternoon, just as I was waking up from a nap, I could see, as if typed on the inside of my skull, the line, “As children we come to experiences bone to bone, with no kind skin to muffle the uproar.”

I know, right? Amazing!

I immediately knew that it was the beginning of a poem, at first I thought the poem about Troy but as I sat up and scrambled to get to the computer to write it down, I realized that instead it would enable me to write about the origin of the character I would argue is the Best Damn Villain Ever in popular culture, Xena’s nemesis Callisto, portrayed by the very talented Hudson Leick, who apparently now teaches yoga. That seems a trifle ironic, given that Callisto is a very likeable psychotic mass-murdering fiend. I even saw a short, 4 minute, YouTube video that explains with clips from the shows, just why Leick’s Callisto is the Best Villain Ever (so it is not just my opinion, huh!).

This is why, despite all my protests that There Is No Muse, GRRR!, I can absolutely understand why the ancients would make up the idea of the muse. Even I, after briefly minoring in psychology in college, have a hard time giving my own mind credit for such an unlikely phenomenon as the perfect gift of a perfect line after a damn fine nap. It is easier to give somebody else credit, whether that’s nine generous Greek chicks or God. The Greeks are the ones who handed us down the idea of hubris, the dangerous self-pride or arrogance that offends the gods. For writers, inspiration is a precarious thing, as illustrated by all the blogs on WordPress alone that focus on writers block. Even for me, the instinct is to be cautiously humble…

Yoga Lessons for the Working Poet #1

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Today, I am taking this as the opportunity to talk more about yoga, my latest obsession/Important Excitement. As I think I have said before, I have always believed that the other arts–visual, musical, physical and spiritual–have much to teach the working writer, and in particular the working poet. I sing a lot (often at the top of my lungs) although I am a poor musician, and I have been a martial artist for more than half my life now, so I am always noticing how these practices apply to my practice of writing. Doing yoga now for almost eight months has brought similar insights.

It’s funny. I have several women friends who each have two brothers, the one they get along well with, who is always named, and the one they don’t, who is always called “my brother” or “my other brother,” even if the first is not named. Similarly, my gym has several yoga instructors, most of them very good, one who is a drill sargeant, and Erica Magro, who I consider My Yoga Teacher. Because what I learn from her isn’t just about turning my body into a pretzel or seeing how long I can hold a particular pose; it’s about learning a new way to live.

I think writing is like that. There are lessons to be learned from the constant, daily practice of writing. Some of those lessons are similar to the lessons I learn in yoga. Erica often says, “Get there how you get there. If it doesn’t feel right, back off.” This is not the sort of thing we get taught in our hypercompetitive culture, and it is a lesson I frequently need to pass on to the writers I work with, especially the scientists and engineers at MIT, who didn’t get to the top of their profession by going easy on themselves, and sometimes find themselves tied up in figurative knots because of it when it comes to their writing.

This may sound like a contradiction to the things I say about discipline and not waiting for a muse before you get down to the work that is writing. It isn’t really. The word discipline doesn’t inherently mean being hard on yourself. It is more akin to the word disciple, and means teaching and learning. So for me, self-discipline involves learning how I do things, what is the best environment for me, the best medium for getting my ideas on paper, and then taking advantage of my strengths. And it means, when I hit a wall in whatever I am working on, I back off for a while. I do something else. Let the back of my brain mull over the problem while I use the front for other things. Then, when I go back to my wall, I am more apt to see possible doors and windows or tunnels or even ramrods.

And when I see how useful this practice of backing off and returning is in my writing, when I have proof that it works, I am much more likely to bring it to the rest of my life. And I live with a little less stress as a result.