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Life’s sentences (11/28/2004)
By Janet Lewis Burns

"The pen is the tongue of the mind." - Miguel Cervantes, "Don Quixote"

Bookkeeping's dull routine is so noisy I can't hear myself think. Duties of office work, with its cruel glitches, put creativity on hold. An image swirls between patterns of numbers, its rhythm edging away. When I finally get back to my creative corner at home, the overworked mind clouds my thoughts, and traps the next line.

It's obsessive behavior! Table settings must include paper and pen at my place. Reading has become less than sheer enjoyment. It's tedious! Everything worth reading must be a learning experience. I wonder, is this condition curable?

Wabi sabi tendencies are apparent, as I recall my moody, lonely poet's mode, when I wore Johnny Cash black, sipped ginseng tea from painted tea cups, and walked around in a self-induced funk, lamenting the pain of the world in my writing. I frequented places like the Acoustic Cafe, waiting to be "discovered," in atmospheres of raw, knotty wood, crystals, burning incense, and retro furnishings.

Essayist, poet and critic Dana Giola, from "Can Poetry Matter?" writes, "Unlike prose, which can be read silently with full enjoyment, poetry demands to be recited, heard, even memorized for its true appreciation. Shaping the words in one's mouth is as much a part of the pleasure as hearing the sound in the air."

Okay, that's all she wrote, I'm done for. I don't hope to tolerate the stress my often timid personality would be asked to endure reading my own stuff. A withdrawn presence at some small anonymous gathering, poetry readings don't welcome my sort of wimpy disillusionment.

At any age, the push and pull of creative word play and imagery, I believe becomes a life's sentence for a "writer at heart." I read once that it's foolish to "save" some of your good stuff for future use. With a healthy imagination there will be more and more to come. Use it now!

Author and book review columnist, Californian Ann Lamott, in her 1994 national bestseller "Bird by Bird," relates an excellent story depicting an escape mechanism from becoming overwhelmed.

When her older brother was ten, he attempted to prepare a school assignment, a report on birds, the night before it was due. Left to the last minute, his project seemed to be too stressful. The teary-eyed boy was surrounded by a multitude of reference books. Lamott goes on, "Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird."

That is a tale that is apt to stay with a creative person, like an intangible talisman, carried not in a hip pocket, but rather in the mind's "Get it done!" section.

Essayists, poets, and lyrical composers can be somewhat strange and eccentric compared to the rest of the population. (Guilty as charged.) Another stimulating read is Diane Ackerman's 1990 bestseller "A Natural History of the Senses," in which she tattles on strange habits of writers. Dame Edith Sitwell used to lie in an open coffin for awhile before she would begin her day's writing.

Poe supposedly wrote with his cat sitting on his shoulder. (I thought it was a raven!) "John Clare used to go out looking for the horizon, and one day in insanity thought he found it," Ackerman reveals.

Oliver Wendell Holmes said it: "A mind that is stretched to a new idea never returns to its original dimension." At times a writer may seem to go off the deep end. Who's to say what is sane, what is truth, what is revelation, and what is poetry?

Since I recall it from my youth, I believe the word "Zeitgeist" is German. It designates "the spirit of the times," moralistically and intellectually. Dana Gioia points out that for the arts there is truly a Zeitgeist, "at moments of decisive change, when they move together with amazing synchronization."

A life's sentence can be the mantra that stirs creative juices. Mine is borrowed from my mentor. "...But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep." - Robert Frost

May "Zeitgeist" guide us through the bad times. Goodnight. 


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