on art, democracy, & dangerous play

There are a few artists and thought leaders I follow and read regularly a few times a week. No matter how busy my days or how disconnected I may be feeling from my creativity, there are a select few people I turn to again and again to ground me and at the same time who expand my view of the world and my place in it as a creative.

One of these artists is Maria Popova, author of the incredible treasure trove which is Brain Pickings. The amount of sheer love in the form of magnitude of work she does to curate her collection of posts on everything from art to philosophy, from poetry to astronomy, from activism to mysticism, is astonishing. And such an incredible gift.

Most recently I’ve been taken by this piece in particular in which she explores the writings of Iris Murdoch, why art is essential for democracy, and the ways in which art makes us “not only human but humane.”

“The sensuous nature of art is involved here, the fact that it is concerned with visual and auditory sensations and bodily sensations. If nothing sensuous is present no art is present. This fact alone makes it quite different from “theoretical” activities… Art is close dangerous play with unconscious forces. We enjoy art, even simple art, because it disturbs us in deep often incomprehensible ways; and this is one reason why it is good for us when it is good and bad for us when it is bad.” — Iris Murdoch

It is no secret in my country, in the USA, democracy and freedom upon freedom is under attack. It is dizzying and maddening to say the very least. These are radical — sometimes, often even, inexplicably complicated and complex times — and one of the things that pains and concerns me the most is the attack on the truth. The eroding of our ability to engage in intelligent, respectful and respectable discourse as a humane society.

As a nation, as a world, as a global network of artists, writers, creatives, connected ever faster and with more and more urgency, we are losing touch with the essentials for growth, nourishment, deep thought, deep commitment to our soul’s purpose of truth-telling, no matter how painful or uncomfortable that may be.

I call myself a writer. Maybe you do, too, or maybe you don’t. But either way, we are all contributors to language, we are all users and shapers of words and ideas, how we use them to build up or destroy, to honor our common dignity or to pick away at it.

So not just this week, but these days in general, when facts seem harder and harder to pin down and the very use of language seems to be broken, splintered, desecrated, dismissed, and left for dead, I cling to the strength and wisdom of artists and thought leaders like Maria Popova and her work. She is an anchor, a pillar, a lighthouse.

We need art because we need to stay in touch with our own humanity.  To remain humane, to remain close to compassion, understanding, knowledge, humility and grace we must all be concerned with how we use language. What we say, how we say it, why we say what we say, who we say it to, all of these things matter each and everyday. We are all speakers. We are all writers. Writing this world we live in, speaking our way one word at a time toward a more brilliant or more cruel existence.

“Any society contains propaganda, but it is important to distinguish this from art and to preserve the purity and independence of the practice of art. A good society contains many different artists doing many different things. A bad society coerces artists because it knows that they can reveal all kinds of truths.” — Iris Murdoch

Until next time, I wish you a beautiful week ahead.

With much love & gratitude,

Allison Marie

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what my mother’s death taught me about life

This is a strange time of year for me. This week will mark twelve years since my mother passed away after a crushing battle with inflammatory breast cancer. She went so quietly, so, so quietly like the falling of the tiniest, slightest, softest feather nestling itself inside the green twilight blades of grass that spread out across our rolling backyard. Into the sun, setting as it was, slowly slowly that terrible, mysterious, awful, brutal, cruel, punishing, impossible day.  So quietly we could scarcely believe it. So quietly we could barely breathe.

I don’t know what death is, someday I will. Someday you will. And life is ever a stranger after the death of someone you love with the deep cells of your own body.  When you reach into the earth to bury the one whose flesh is your flesh, from whose bones came your bones, your hair, your pale skin, your skychild blue crystal eyes, the shape of your wrists and hands and legs and shoulders and the dimple in your chin. Part of your soul goes into the ground, into the cyclic ether, into the beyond, into the beyond to stay close and never ever leave your momma creature behind.

And so with her passing through to someplace you cannot follow, you become a new question.  How to live? Is there a way? Is there a secret? You are a collection of atoms always listening. You become yourself once removed.  You become yourself walking forward and backward at the same time, always somewhere suspended in a sliver of the universe you cannot reach or understand. But you feel it. You will always feel it in the back of your throat when you least expect it, holding onto the same tears you cried that day. The day she slipped into the air of that midsummer night, left us in the smeared heat of orange sunlight fading into black.

Those tears, they are of a certain water. The water shared by the ocean a mother is for her daughter: womb. arms. heart. blood. fear. comfort. mystery.

So I must admit I’m short on any kind of answers this week. I have no hold on anything, everything this week is fluid and about to change at any moment and for the rest of eternity. This week is an annual lesson in grief, living, healing, questioning, and letting go. I have no grasp on anything.  But when do we ever, really?

In a way, living through the death of a parent is like inheriting a whispering breeze which never ceases to blow across your mind, your days, your nights: live your life, live your life, live your life while you are in it.

And so I leave you with this poem by Mary Oliver, beloved poet that she is. It speaks to me, in a way, as some kind of creative answer to all the questions we ask ourselves, especially in times of heightened emotion, pain in particular: Now what must I do? You do not have to be good. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

Maybe that is all any of us are here to do, for as long as we are blessed enough to do it.

WILD GEESE
by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clear blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Until next time, I send you so much love and affection,

Allison Marie

Receive weekly creative inspiration by clicking here to sign up to my mailing list, and I’ll catch you on Mondays.  ❤

forget about passion (& follow this instead)

As I sit down to write this, it is pouring sweet earthy summer rain outside my writing room window. The sky is wild and electric with sharp slams of thunder and jagged streaks of lightning. This weather, this darkened gray stormy weather, is my absolute favorite. Which can only mean we are off to a splendid week ahead. 🙂

I came across so many treasures in the past week. Each made me think more broadly about how culture affects our creative minds, look at my writing in interesting new ways, and challenged my assumptions about what art does for the artist as well as the observer. Here are my top three finds…

1. This article by Megan Abbott about Sylvia Plath and female rage. This is a topic that fascinates me. In countless ways, our culture perpetuates the outrageous idea that women are not supposed to feel anger, let alone express it.  Abbott references Sylvia Plath’s final collection of poems written just before her tragic suicide, Ariel. The poetry in this book burns, it spits, it bites, it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end.  In her signature cool, measured, sinister manner, Plath confronts and disarms at once.

“What mattered was that I—this well-behaved, compliant young woman—was writing from deeper, darker places, reservoirs of anger and frustration I’d always denied were there.” — Megan Abbott from her article in The Millions, A Mad Woman on Fire: On Sylvia Plath & Female Rage

2. Austin Kleon wrote a thoroughly interesting article Ideas in Cars, Honking, in which he introduces Brian Eno’s ideas about the balance one needs in creativity between surrender and control. He likens the concept to surfing, in the sense that one needs to have the skills (control) to perform the act of surfing, but also— and just as importantly— needs to know when to let go of control and surrender to the rhythm of the waves, to roll with their natural movement. Eno argues that in much of our art we have become too obsessed with control, and we need to focus more on surrender.

“Control and surrender have to be kept in balance. That’s what surfers do – take control of the situation, then be carried, then take control. In the last few thousand years, we’ve become incredibly adept technically. We’ve treasured the controlling part of ourselves and neglected the surrendering part.”
Eno considers all his recent art to be a rebuttal to this attitude. “I want to rethink surrender as an active verb,” he says. “It’s not just you being escapist; it’s an active choice. I’m not saying we’ve got to stop being such controlling beings. I’m not saying we’ve got to be back-to-the-earth hippies. I’m saying something more complex.”

3. This may just be my favorite interview with Liz Gilbert ever.  Here she speaks with the brilliant Krista Tippett in On Being, about forgetting passion, and choosing curiosity over fear instead.

“And it’s a little bit like — gosh, I mean, even the word, “passion,”
has this sort of sexual connotation that you’re — I’m much more interested in intimacy and in growing a relationship, than everything has to be setting your head on fire. And curiosity is an impulse that just taps you on the shoulder very lightly, and invites you to turn your head a quarter of an inch and look a little closer at something that has intrigued you. And it may not set your head on fire; it may not change your life; it may not change the world; it may not even line up with previous things that you’ve done or been interested in. It may seem very random and make no sense. And I think the reason people end up not following their curiosity is because they’re waiting for a bigger sign, and your curiosities, sometimes, are so mild and so strange and so, almost, nothing — it’s a little trail of breadcrumbs that you can overlook if you’re looking up at the mountaintop, waiting for Moses to come down and give you a sign from God.”

And so there you have it, my friend. A little snapshot of the artists and ideas that have kept me going this week. Until next time, I wish you an inspired week ahead, and thunder and lightning and coffee and books and charm.

With so much love and gratitude,

Allison Marie

Receive weekly creative goodies like these by clicking here to sign up to my mailing list, and I’ll catch you on Mondays. 🙂

“At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then — and only then — it is handed to you.” – Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Want killer writing? STOP doing this.

It’s okay, I do it, too.  Even the most seasoned writers admit that they have to remind themselves over and over at the beginning of any writing project or piece how to start fresh. Each time we sit down to write is a new beginning and this is at once frightening and freeing. But the one thing we must stop doing if we want writing that is real, vulnerable, dangerous, true, meaningful and pulsing with delicious energy is being so damn polite.

Now then, I’m not suggesting you march out into the village square (village square?) and start screaming obscenities at innocent women and children, but what I am saying is we need to follow the forthcoming advice to the letter if we want to get anywhere worth going in our writing. In the brilliant and timeless treasure titled Writing Down the Bones, author Natalie Goldberg shares the secret to “burning through to first thoughts” which are “the place where energy is unobstructed by social politeness or the internal censor, to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel.”

The idea is that what lives on the surface of our manic minds are actually third and fourth thoughts, the things we layer on top of our true thoughts and feelings in order to make them more polite or socially acceptable. But the good writing—the beautifully dangerous, cutting edge, electric writing—comes from first thoughts. The thoughts that live closest to the bone.

So this week I’m challenging myself to follow these 6 rules from Writing Down the Bones for getting at my juiciest stuff. Are you up for it, too?  Cool, here we go:

This is the kind of writing I believe we need to get back to in our regular practice. The first thoughts, the ego-less raw truth of what we think and feel. My suspicion is that there is one thing that keeps us from really delving in and that is that we are terrified that whatever we put down, we are forever. That if we write something that scares us because it is so real then we cannot recover and move on from it.

But as Ms. Goldberg would also have us remember: we are not the poem. 

“There is no permanent truth you can corner in a poem that will satisfy you forever. Don’t identify too strongly with your work. Stay fluid behind those black-and-white words. They are not you. They were a great moment going through you. A moment you were awake enough to write down and capture.”

In that same vein, I love it when a lesson comes full circle and you start to see signs of its truth around you almost everywhere. As I was contemplating this idea of burning past being so polite in censoring my own first thoughts and feelings, and the worry I seemed to have that if I wrote it down I had to be it forever, I came across this same biting truth explained by the fiery Janne Robinson. (Click on the photo below to read her entire invigorating piece.)

I adore the liberation in her first line, “A poem is a moment.”

So this week as you are writing and creating I hope you will give yourself the freedom to keep moving the pen across the page to get to the real stuff, the truth inside. To stop fighting what is within you and instead accept it, curl into it, become one with it.

And then, when the moment is gone, to just as gracefully and impolitely, move on.

Until next time, I’m sending you so much love & inspiration,

Allison Marie

Receive weekly creative goodies like these by clicking here to sign up to my mailing list, and I’ll catch you on Mondays. 🙂

 

on finding your flow & not holding back

As a creative, poet, and voracious reader, I read hundreds of poems every week. I came upon one a few days ago that stood out because it spoke so brilliantly about how we create our own containers, but we do not belong to them. Here is the poem by Alice Walker titled When You See Water.

When you see water in a stream
you say: oh, this is stream
water;
When you see water in the river
you say: oh, this is water
of the river;
When you see ocean
water
you say: This is the ocean’s
water!
But actually water is always
only itself
and does not belong
to any of these containers
though it creates them.
And so it is with you.

What I am thinking about this week is: how am I holding myself back in my creativity by boxing myself in? How do I need to more often remember that I am the water, not what contains it?  In so many ways over the years, I have told myself some version of: “No, you cannot write about that.” or “No, that is for other writers to say, but not you. you are not ready / capable / good enough / wise enough / clever enough / etc. to write about those things.”

I had decided I was a certain kind of container who could, therefore, only contain certain things. I was a river, so I could only write about river. What I did not realize was that I am the water, and my water was ready to be ocean. It wasn’t about defining myself, it was about flowing where I naturally needed to go.

If something is true for you, and it burns inside to be created, written about, painted about, sung about, then that is your water, that is your life and it will flow in its own way as long as you do not judge it or try in some (ill-fitting, unbecoming, overburdensome) way to define it by some arbitrary parameters you yourself impose upon it.

Our job as artists is not to become so worried about how to contain a work, or restrain it, or fit-it-in to what we think the rest of the world will accept or is ready for. Our job as artists is to be one with our own personal creative flow.

And when we are oceans we will be ocean. and when we are rivers we will be river. and when we are rain we will be rain. and so it is.

Until next time, I’m sending you so much love & go-with-your-flow inspiration,

Allison Marie

If you are afraid to write it,
that’s a good sign.
I suppose you know you’re
writing the
truth when you’re terrified.

—Yrsa Daley-Ward, bone.

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I’ve just finished reading The Terrible by Yrsa Daley-Ward. A lyrical memoir about going under, losing yourself, & finding your voice. Yrsa’s ability to pierce the veil & get straight to the heart, to place her hands on the pulse of a thing, is astounding. You will come away stronger because she is vulnerable but never once flinches. An outstanding, haunting, gutting, redeeming read.

From The Terrible by Yrsa Daley-Ward.

terrible things

all of the most beautiful
and terrible things

i have done

i have done
for love.

and the madman
is mad for love

and the ones you love
are mad for love

and the ones you hate
are mad for love

and the only thing
that keeps us one

is madness & we call
madness love.

and the world begins
to destroy itself.

just like you do.
just like you burn the

bed you sleep in.
just like the bed

and the fire
and your hands

are dangerous.
for love.

mad world

mad world
cruel as it is
beautiful.

how to bend  &
not break;
how to love

like coming apart
doesn’t mind
the pain.

god, whatever she is

there is a spirit which moves within me.
dwells inside me, as me.
i may be standing in the center of a room,
crowded or alone,

and i am suddenly overcome
with the sensation of being spoken to
words without words
as they touch like the passing bend

of an invisible wing.
a movement of a love
so deep the veins respond
quietly, joyfully, reverently.

i can only imagine that god,
whatever she is,
this is the way
of her enchanting echo

a vibration
ever ancient and eternal.
like pale summer evenings
extend their burning fingers

through trees.

5 secrets to good writing (& a good life)

I must admit I am rather s l o w l y returning to reality after spending a full glorious week relaxing by the sea.  But as we were making our way home over the weekend, I got to thinking about life and writing, and how many lessons I have learned through my writing practice that have also been lessons I apply to living a good life. To be an artist is a special way of being, I have always believed that to be true, and the more closely we explore our creativity, the more life secrets we discover.

With that in mind, I thought I would share the top five ways writing has awakened me to a fuller, happier, more expressive life:

1. Writing has taught me the intimate, critical skill of listening. When we think of writing, we tend to think about a person who has things to say, and while that is of course true, it is equally true that in order to be able to say something worthwhile, you have to spend a great deal of time listening first. Listening to yourself, to your inner voice. Listening for the poem within so you can understand its message before you know how to craft her lines. Listening to the world happening around you, listening to other people. Listening to nature with your whole being. Listening by reading the works of fellow creatives. Listening longer and more attentively than most other people do is a beautiful way to cultivate a writing practice and a life rich in meaning.

2. First drafts are a lot like beginning anything that scares or intimidates you. The only way to break through the paralyzing perfectionism is to just keep writing through the mess to get to the gold. As Anne Lamott so brilliantly puts it: “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.” Don’t judge— just write. Beginning is the hardest part. You don’t have to know everything before you start, just start anywhere. Move. Decide. Jump in.

3. Both pain and pleasure can be wellsprings of creativity. Always approach them both with love and respect, and pay attention to how they manifest within you. This is how empathy is nurtured, and all writing, all art, all connection, all life, can only benefit from an increase in deeply empathetic humans.

4. Cherish the elders. There are people who have come before you and paved the way for you. Learn about them. Be grateful and humble in their presence. Spend time with them regularly because to listen and learn from their achievements, disappointments, triumphs, struggles, stories and traditions is a sacred gift. Their contributions are holy ground. There are certain secrets to life that will always be true. Learn what is timeless and honor it.

5. Good writing has its own rhythm and pace, so does a good, authentic life. Every writer, every artist, has her own unique voice and style. When I first started out writing, I was sort of taking bits of those I admired and imitating them, trying their styles on for size. Eventually though, I discovered my own flow and rhythm that felt like “home” and I found my own voice by becoming more accepting of my own limitations and talents. All of which is simply to say: Find your groove and let it guide you. You are already wiser than you think.

Also? Coffee. Even if everything else falls to dust, coffee is really the secret to the good writing and the good, good life. 🙂

Until next time, I’m sending you so much love & gratitude eternal,

Allison Marie

Receive weekly creative goodies like these by clicking here to sign up to my mailing list, and I’ll catch you on Mondays. 🙂

the poetry of women

i want to be surrounded by
the poetry of strong beautiful women.
the ones who took the lifebeatings and buried them deep—
wept suns and moons and planets,
the river water of the ages, oceanic tides of grief
salted earth
beneath their precious bruised
fingers—
only to have them grow roots
and bloom again in the buzzing heat of morning.
the fragrance of tragedy
written into hope.