haiku for the day: daily art

Often successful writers are hit with The Question. You know the one. You’ve probably been asked it a few times yourself. Where do you get your ideas?

Depending on my mood, sometimes I say Jesus, and sometimes I say the Wicked Witch of the West. Most of the time I am just as clueless as the person asking the question. 

Mostly the process is as mysterious to we writers as it is to the questioner. My best answer is to look and listen. But that’s not really helpful to the questioner. That’s why we’ve come up with this Muse. How she’ll take a two-by-four and whack us a good one across the side of the head.

I am serious about the listening and the looking. The thing is that we have to respond when we hear something or observe something that does hit us across the side of the head. I once heard Neil Young say that when he gets an idea he has to drop everything and go and work on it. The only time he doesn’t is if there is a family situation. He didn’t say this but I am sure he is afraid of what might happen if he didn’t respond. And usually it’s a most inconvenient time. Like I’m in the shower.

an empty bus bench
underneath a late night moon
an Edward Hopper

Near 500 words: The man in the glass booth

“Say what?” the man in the booth asked the woman. The mic he speaks into muffles his voice and the words come out garbled.

“Say what?” she asked. The words from her end come out garbled. It’s not the best of mics.

Neither heard everything the other said. Isn’t that like life these days? How much do we hear from another person? Before you know it, we’ve jumped to all sorts of conclusions. If this example of two strangers throwing their words at each other proves anything, it proves maybe we are losing our hearing. Unlike our ancestors.

Our ancestors heard everything. They had to. It was pure survival. But isn’t listening required for a good relationship. We get to the point with our partner that we think we already know what they will say. We’ve heard the pattern of the conversation from their end for so long that it has embedded into our brain. No wonder we have gone to texting.

Perhaps this is what hell is like. We approach someone there and we ask a question. Our voice is so muffled that the other person can’t understand us. “Say what?” they say.

“Say what?” we respond, thinking if we could only text. Our fingers are going crazy, making the motions of texting. Maybe. Maybe not.

If we could only listen. If we would only listen. Unfortunately there is so much noise going on in our brain. If haiku has taught me anything, it’s taught me this. How little I listen.

Oh, sure. I hear. My hearing ain’t that bad.

So what happens to the woman and the man in the ticket booth behind the glass at the train station? Or at the gas station?

The woman, instead of getting angry, stops and thinks, then she slows down her words and gives them voice. She smiles and says, “When’s the next drawing?”

The man behind the glass gets it. “At eleven tonight.”

She slips him a five-dollar bill. “One quick pick.”

Finally, he understands. The two of them have adjusted the tone of their voices to the mic and to the listener. He prints her a ticket and slides it through the window with her change.

She smiles, turns and walks away, putting the ticket to her dreams into her pocket.

A man, in his thirties, comes to the booth, asks when the next drawing will be.

“Say what?” the man behind the glass asks.

Thirty shakes his head and walks off. He’ll go elsewhere, perhaps to one of those vending machines for lottery tickets.

For the Birds

 

A couple sits on a balcony overlooking New York City. They are eating their breakfast. A pigeon is on the balcony’s ledge looking at the couple. The couple are looking at the pigeon.

Carla, the bird, says, “Okay, guys. Here’s your agenda for today.”

“Joe, I can’t believe we are taking orders from a bird.”

“Jill, this bird has made me a fortune. Before Carla here, I was bankrupt. Carla comes into my life and within weeks I am rolling in dough.”

“Okay, guys. Here’s the plan.”

“I don’t know, Joe. Seems real stupid to me. Don’t you know your own mind?”

“Of course, I know my own mind.”

“Hey, guys. Listen up.”

“Joe, it don’t seem like you do.”

“Jill, I can make my own decisions. It’s just that Carla does a much better job. She doesn’t let things get in the way.”

“Guys, you want me to leave. I’ll do it, you know.”

“Jill, you got to quit doubting my decisions.”

Carla up and flaps away.

“And my decision is to follow Carla. By the way, have you seen Carla this morning?”

In Praise of Prompts

What is a prompt? It is a trigger to get the subconscious boogying. Prompts come in all sorts and varieties. For the creative person, they can be very useful.

Food, that piece of broccoli lying on your plate, may remind you of a teacher you remember fondly. He was a wonderful teacher. You haven’t seen him for years and you’re wondering what happened to him. He had a kind face, an interesting face. He was a vegetarian with a fondness for broccoli. You haven’t thought of that man in twenty years. Over the next few days your mind keeps returning to that stalk of broccoli, how similar it was to your teacher’s face. Your mind just won’t let go of that teacher. Then it hits you. You decide to paint a portrait of that face. And you are off on a new adventure, rediscovering the face that lunched on a thousand stalks of broccoli. The painting you finally complete may be of the teacher as a husband or father, as an old man or a young man. That trigger, of broccoli, made you explore the many facets of that man’s life.

One day you are leaving school and you see a penny dropped onto the concrete. You reach down and pick it up. For some reason, you accidentally drop it again. It makes a sound. An interesting sound that causes you to go hmmmm. You drop it again and there’s that sound. You bounce that penny against the brick wall next to you. The sound is different. Pretty soon you are dropping all sorts of change onto the concrete and the dirt or against the brick wall. You are listening, listening hard. This activity is becoming all consuming. You spend hour after hour dropping things, not just change, but pots and pans, wallets and knives. You are falling in love with the sounds. Before you know it, you sit at the piano, trying to reproduce those sounds. Within a short period of time, you have a completed piece of music. All because of one little penny you found in the parking lot.

You are a scientist and you have been working on a problem for twenty years. It’s had you stumped. You are at a party and someone hands you a glass of wine. You accidentally drop a crumb into the wine. You start to drink the wine. You go to sip the wine. You notice that crumb staring back at you. Hmmm. You sit the glass onto the table, then you drop another crumb into the wine. They are close together. Looks like those two crumbs like each other. Looks like they may even want to date. You take your finger and stir the wine. Now they are across the glass from each other. You stir again. Now it looks like they are near, but not so near that they are waltzing. Again and again you stir the wine, fascinated by those crumbs in that glass of wine. You go to the lab the next morning and reproduce the experience from the night before. Bells and whistles go off inside your head. It’s the answer to your twenty-year quest thanks to that prompt of a crumb in a glass of wine.

You observe a grasshopper on a leaf. You watch him for a few minutes. He leaps to another leaf. He spends a few minutes there and you shoo him off. He is not a quitter. He goes to another leaf, and then another, and then another. It’s a dance and you are the choreographer. It hits you what a perfect dance nature can present. You start observing squirrels scampering in their quest for nuts. You watch your cat jump high in the air, your dog go catch. Before you know it, you have choreographed a complete new dance all because of that grasshopper.

Prompts, triggers can be very useful to a writer. They help the subconscious come up with new lines of poetry, new dialogue, new characters. Say you have a heavy case of writer’s block. You’ve been trying for months to shake it off. It just won’t quit. You set your writing aside. You are just not going to try anymore. You turn on a piece of Beethoven’s music. Perhaps “Fur Elise” or “The Emperor’s Concerto”. You sit there totally absorbed in the wonder of that music. Or you find yourself looking through some old postcards from the early part of the twentieth century, or you are reading a novel you have read at least thirty times. One line jumps out at you and knocks your subconscious on its rump. Suddenly you are writing, not just for a few minutes but for hours.

Sometimes when I don’t know where to begin a chapter or a blog or a story, I pull out a book of photographs. I start looking deeply at one of them, letting my mind explore that time and that place. There are other times I will be watching a movie and I get the answer to a problem that I had been trying to solve in a story. Or I read a line of prose, like this one from A Moveable Feast: “And then there was the bad weather.” It starts me on a whole new journey with a character or a story, detouring me from what I thought might be the plot. It may start me me off on a new story or a new poem.

We are lucky. Writers have so many choices when it comes to prompts. It may be a woman in a restaurant, a man in a nursing home, a blanket with a strange pattern, the cover of a book, a stack of dirty laundry, a neighbor’s cat, the words from a dream, a postcard. You name it. Anything can prompt our subconscious with inspiration.

So be brave and trust. You never know where that subconscious of yours will lead.

What is your favorite kind of prompt?