Cultivating mindful presence: the artist’s task.

Featured Image -- 1685It is impossible not to love the words and insightful wisdom of American poet, Mary Oliver. I have just read a lovely essay by her on Vox Populi and feel compelled to share it.

In my own experience, cultivating a mindful presence is so critical to being able to fully and freely access my own creativity, and I’ve made it an essential part of my Buddhist mindfulness practice. A task to be done. A commitment. A promise to myself.

It is a promise I try to keep–though imperfectly, since that’s the way of things for me–because I have found when I manage to live completely submerged in the mindful moment, wholly present, that is when I find deepest resonance with Spirit, am open to the eternity of consciousness.

When I remember to, I can allow myself to be in that spaciousness, to just be, open to what arises and falls. Sometimes a flood of in-sight-full images clear my clouded vision. Sometimes a torrent of words comes streaming through my mind and I cannot write quickly enough.

And it is good.

And now, the essay reblogged from Vox Populi:

Mary Oliver: The Artist’s Task

It is a silver morning like any other. I am at my desk. Then the phone rings, or someone raps at the door. I am deep in the machinery of my wits. Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door. And the thought which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone. Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.  Continue reading

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Gutsy, insightful words from a wise woman: Ursula K. Le Guin

In her acceptance speech at the National Book Awards a few days ago, when she was honored for her life’s work, science-fiction author, Ursula K. Le Guin, demonstrated once again her ability to view the world as a visionary, this time turning her perceptual acuity to the evolving world of authors, publishers, and booksellers.

I have no doubt her powerful words rang loudly in the scholastic halls of fine arts programs, rattled the shelves of bookstores everywhere, and embraced the weary shoulders of writers working endless hours on their creations. Hopefully they also struck lightening in the minds of those who put profit over art and seek to diminish the value of writers and their work.

If you missed her short but oh-so-sweet speech, hear it below:

Ms. Le Guin is one of those rare, intuitive individuals who sees not only between the current linesin this case, Amazon and those publishers who devalue authors’ work and challenge libraries’ worthbut far beyond to pages on which the literary world’s story is yet to be written. Not only did Ms. Le Guin boldly call out capitalism’s corruption of art, but she voiced a prescient warning that should be heeded if the value of American literaturenot just to writers and readers but to our culture’s healthis not to be denigrated or lost.

It has been gratifying to see her words recognized and repeated. We owe her a boatload of gratitude, but now need to take up the cause lest it be forgotten or is defeated by apathy due to assuming “others” are doing the job.

In Ms. Le Guin’s words:

“I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom.  Poets, visionaries, the realists of a larger reality.”

To my literary colleagues: We are writers, and our written words can be powerful actions to push against the forces she warns of. Everyone, let your voices be heard!

Check your calendar! Martta Karol to read short stories!

Announcement: Martta Karol reading short stories.I’m so excited to be one of the writers starting off this season’s Oregon Writers Colony author reading series at Rain or Shine Coffeehouse. The free event is this Thursday evening, October 1st, starting at 7 PM. Address: 5941 S.E. Division, at 60th, in Portland. Everyone is invited!

I will be reading three “light literary” short stories: Irresistible, Waitin’ for Normal, and Loose Papers. Meant to be entertaining as well as convey a message about the importance of reserving quick assumptions or judgement and appreciating people for who they really are, the stories are written to make readers, and listeners, not only smile but chuckle, chuckle, chuckle–a tone far less serious than my novel-in-progress and much of my other writing. All three stories have a surprise twist at the end, and I can’t wait to see the listeners’ responses.

Reading as well, I’m delighted to say, is novelist Kate Dyer-Seeley, author of Scene of the Climb, the first in her Pacific Northwest Mystery series in which a twenty-something female heroine finds more than she bargained for–murder, anyone?–mixing intrigue and outdoor adventure, all set right here in the Portland region. I can’t wait to hear her read from her novel, and hope she brings lots of books to sign!

View of Rockaway Beach on the beautiful Oregon coast.The OWC is one of the Pacific Northwest’s most respected writers’ organizations, serving the literary community in Oregon and nearby Southwest Washington in multiple ways, from reading events to networking forums, workshops to annual conferences, and more. I have found membership highly rewarding, not only because of all the programs I’ve participated in, but because the community is full of really great people. One of these days I want to head out to Rockaway Beach to enjoy OWC’s charming writers’ retreat cabin on the Pacific. It sounds like a fabulous place to write!

Standards be damned?

Write. Rewrite. When not writing or rewriting, read.                          I know of no shortcuts.                                                                                                                          — Larry L. King


When I first put pen to paper (or fingertips to keypad) and began filling the pages of my novel, the process was exhilarating. When I shared my initial draft with family and friends and they applauded my writing, I was encouraged. But as I said in my first post on this blog, I soon discovered there was more to this business of writing fiction than I had first imagined. It’s true; I could have believed the flattery I received was sufficient, patted myself on the back, and jumped on the self-publishing train so as to quickly launch my book and pin on a shiny badge of authorship, but I’ve never been inclined to proudly wear something I haven’t yet fully earned. I knew I had dues to pay before I could really call myself a novelist. A writer, yes, but still only aspiring to be the author of a debut novel I could be proud of. And so I’ve learned to write, and rewrite, and rewrite again.

Hemingway-first-draft-is-shit-quote. Hemingway didn’t mince words. Indeed, I do agree, and let me add: Shit don’t shine! And, you know, it might even stink a bit when fresh, making it especially important to clean up any boo-boos and polish things up well.

There are no shortcuts to becoming a successful, published author. One must learn the craft of writing, and then practice, practice, practice.

I take the craft of writing seriously, with pleasure, and with no small measure of patience. I think most writers feel the sameor at least they say they doand I have no doubt they mean it, but I have noticed that in the sometimes heady rush to be a published author, patienceeven the patience necessary to first learn the basic mechanics of writing, let alone refine the art of good storytelling—is often lacking.


Secure writers don’t sell first drafts. They patiently rewrite until the script is as director-ready, as actor-ready as possible. Unfinished work invites tampering, while polished, mature work seals its integrity.

                                                          ― Robert McKee, Story


The truth is, in this digital age, anyone can publish a novel, even if the language is jibberish. Being able to write is no longer requisite to publishing, nor will filling pages with content that is pure nonsense stop a literary imposter from producing a book. For better or for worse, in the world of self-publishing, the traditional gatekeepersprofessional agents, editors, and publishing housescan go home, and the relative pros and cons of their doing so depend on your perspective.
Continue reading

The joy of writing

Image

Old-peasant-woman-with-laptop.

A picture really is worth a thousand words. Maybe more. What’s that? You don’t think she’s a writer? Remember: everyone has a story. She could be reading someone else’s story, but I prefer to believe she’s inspired, recalling her own adventures or telling tall tales.

What is meant by mainstream fiction?

Stacks of colorful books displayed on a table.In several recent posts I described the essential characteristics which differentiate popular or commercial “genre” fiction and “literary” fiction. Floating somewhat porously between these two types of fiction is another over-arching category called “mainstream” or “general” fiction, sometimes also referred to as “literary light.” Combining elements of both genre and literary fiction, these novels have the potential to attract broad audiences. The best are exceptionally good stories of substance that are written really well.

In writing mainstream fiction, some but not all genre conventions and rules can be broken. Like commercial genre books, these novels must have a strong “hook” to draw readers in, but in addition to a compelling plot, well-developed characterization is important. What characters say and do isn’t enough; readers of mainstream fiction also want to know something about what motivates the characters’ behavior. Continue reading

What is literary fiction?

Books on table with flowers, wine bottle and glassIn previous posts I discussed what is meant by the literary classification described as “popular genre” fiction as well as provided a descriptive list of genre and sub-genre types. There are two other over-arching labels applied to literature: “literary” fiction, the subject of this post, and “mainstream” fiction, also known as “general” or “literary light.”

So just what is “literary” fiction? Many refer to literary novels and short stories as “serious” fiction. Everything about literary novels seems a little larger or a step up: big ideas and underlying themes that transcend plot; complex, in-depth characterization; prose that is both technically excellent and beautiful; writing that may reflect innovative craftsmanship and experimentation; longer length; and premium printing and presentation quality. Unlike the writers of genre novels, literary fiction writers are not required to follow particular conventions or rules, but their works must reflect such common characteristics and high standards. Continue reading

A list of fiction categories, genres and sub-genres

Jumble of colorful letters on black background.

A novel is a novel is a novel . . . Think so? In my previous post I defined “genre fiction” and began to differentiate between “popular” or “commercial” genre novels and those classified as “mainstream” or “literary” fiction (the subject of my next post). I also discussed the usefulness of such a system of classification. Believe it or not, more than one hundred fiction categories have been identified. Take a look at the long list below and see what you think.  Continue reading

What is genre fiction?

romance-genre-book-cover-with-sexy-coupleWe’ve all seen the covers. They beckon, they tease, and excite. And they are easily recognizable, prompting recollection and motivating interest. By repeatedly displaying subtle variations of highly evocative imagery–knives dripping blood or lawyers in court, lovers in passionate embrace or men with glistening muscular physiques gripping machine guns, quaint cottages and country scenes or couples walking hand-in-hand, as well as specific author’s branding through repetitive formatting and fonts–the covers of “genre” novels signal familiarity and broadcast that readers’ expectations will be satisfied. Their titles, too, speak boldy and unambiguously of the novels’ plots and characters, leaving little doubt in potential readers’ minds about what the books are about.

Genre fiction, also labeled “popular” or “commercial,” has strong mass-market appeal that is centered in a variety of common themes that match readership followings. These are the books up front and face-forward on big, commercial bookstores’ shelves, the “pocket” paperbacks in airport book racks, the books featured for casual and genre browsers on amazon.com and powells.com, wherever the high demand for them is met. They are easy reads and the best are always entertaining page-turners.

If you are a writer, you probably know these novels are easier to write than “literary” fiction, and in many instances are turned out in multiples per year. Popular genre fiction tends to be formulaic: the length not too long and the prose not too wordy or poetic; the plot primary, straightforward, action-driven and fast-paced; and the characterization subordinate to the plot, which unfolds through what the characters do and say. The writing is clear and accessible and the story conventions followed tend to be specific to each genre category or sub-genre. In commercial fiction, these categories most commonly include romance, mystery, thriller, action-adventure, horror, gothic, historical, western, and writing for juveniles or young adults, but there are many more sub-categories–more than one hundred in all! (My next post includes a long list of genres and sub-genres.) If this degree of categorization isn’t confusing enough, many of these genres play mix-and-match, sometimes crossing the once inviolable boundaries between popular genre, “mainstream” and “literary” fiction (described in depth in an upcoming post), and there is often disagreement about the assignment of the representative labels or whether or not some sub-genres should exist at all.

This leads me to my next topics: “mainstream” and “literary” fiction.

For many of us, writing might just be the surest route to heaven . . .

These inspiring quotes speak for themselves. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do, and will come back to savor them again and again.

Many thanks to WritingForYourWealth.com for compiling and presenting them so beautifully.

Read more about me and why I write, or check out my novel-in-progress, The Flying Girl.

Writing The Flying Girl: the process

Toddler working at a laptopI’ll be honest. When I embarked on my novel-writing project—working title, The Flying Girl—I thought it would be a cinch. I knew the story I wanted to tell; I had good writing skills; and I certainly had the desire—no, the passion―to drive the story forward. Little did I know, there is a lot more to good storytelling than knowing the basics of authorship or even an inspired plot. A novelist―or any storyteller, fiction or non-fiction―must first work at cooking that plot so that future readers will taste one tempting morsel at a time, each one succulent, savory and just satisfying enough to leave him or her wanting more. Then, even when the recipe is clear and complete, the writer has to perfect its execution. Ah, yes, a noble task, and one that seems manageable until one’s muse is battered by concepts previously unheard of: protagonists and antagonists, conflict, points of view, tension arcs, flow, denouement, and so on, and on, and on. Enter, the learning process–and to think I thought once I’d conceptualized a good story and developed some interesting characters I’d have nothing more to do than check my grammar, syntax, and punctuation!


“Write every day, line by line, page by page, hour by hour. Do this despite fear. For above all else, beyond imagination and skill, what the world asks of you is courage, courage to risk rejection, ridicule and failure. As you follow the quest for stories told with meaning and beauty, study thoughtfully but write boldly. Then, like the hero of the fable, your dance will dazzle the world.” 

                                                                    –Robert McKeeStory


Well, I’m now working on a later draft of The Flying Girl, and I’m sure it will need revision and polishing, too. At least I know I’m in good company, among the best, in fact; while there are plenty of good, fun-to-read novels created in months, not years–especially “genre” thrillers, mysteries, romance and other “formula” fiction–there are also writers working on “mainstream” and “literary” fiction projects which often take several or more years, sometimes many years, to complete. Sighhhhh. I feel better.

If you’re wondering what these fiction labels mean, check out my posts on genre, mainstream, and literary fiction–distinctions that aren’t always clear, and, I think, are sometimes taken too seriously. After all, what’s important to you as a reader? A good read! Personally, I thoroughly enjoy being entertained by a fast-paced mystery or a sexy romance, just as I love being enthralled by a psychological thriller, moved by a heart-wrenching tragedy or subtly transformed by a nuanced yet profound tale of ordinary people. And undeniably, there’s nothing like the magic of beautifully written prose to tantalize my literary taste buds! And you? What kind of novels do you like to read? I’d love to hear who your favorite authors are.