High art vs. Low art:

A recent blog post by literary agent Rachelle Gardner got me thinking about finding purpose as writers. Not in a higher-power sense, but in a more pragmatic way. Are we out there to sell, writing with a strong commercial bent? Or are we telling our heart’s truth—even if that means we reach a smaller group of people? Do we want to make a living from our writing, or are we content to reach a smaller group of people but perhaps take a more literary bent? As Gardner points out in a related post, the books that win prizes don’t always become bestsellers. The books that are bestsellers sometimes don’t get the best reviews.

I’m not sure I believe in this dichotomy and, to be fair, neither, it seems, does Gardner. We can find a middle ground, writing for market and still trying to unravel the mysteries of the human condition. I do believe that is possible. The books we love tell us something about ourselves. There are many writers whose works are testaments to the fact that writing popular novels doesn’t mean letting go of the search for deeper meaning.

So how do we find the line? What’s the difference between Milan Kundera and Sherrilyn Kenyon? Aren’t they both telling us something about ourselves? Don’t they both move us? I enjoy the works of both and consider them good—no, make that really good—writers. Who wouldn’t cry while reading about Karenin’s smile in The Unbearable Lightness of Being? (I dare you to try.) Who isn’t moved by the healing power of love that is such a strong motif in Kenyon’s novels?

I often dream of writing those “high-art vs. low-art” categories on a board. Where does J.R.R. Tolkien go? Ursula K. Le Guin? Do they belong next to reality shows like Rock of Love or Jersey Shore? Have they “earned” a place next to Pablo Neruda and Albert Camus? At the end of this imaginary exercise, I envision myself drawing a big ‘X’ over the entire thing. I believe this is best done with chalk in a rough, wide movement to achieve the most dramatic effect. One must always be dramatic when asking such questions. 😉

It’s the work of scholars—and perhaps humanity as a whole—to ask and ponder questions about art and society. All sides have merit and value. You don’t have to love Twilight, but I think it’s still worth scholarly study; it’s still worth talking about. It’s still worth pondering why we love the books we do and what that says about us as individuals and cultures.

So, as writers, do we have to choose? Who out there is torn between writing what’s “literary” and what “sells?” Have you been asked to choose? If so, what would you choose, and why? Is there a line we have to toe, and how do you find it? And I wonder, if I write a thousand novels, will I ever know the answers to these questions? Or are there no answers?

Well, I’m getting verklempt. Talk amongst yourselves!

In pockets of silence: Yoga, stillness, and making art

“Every day the sun rises/ out of low word-clouds/ into burning silence.”–Rumi, “Secret Places”

Writers, like the lovers in Rumi’s poem Secret Places, also often dwell in secret, silent places. As writers, we have an intimate relationship with language. Yet it’s what is beyond the words that matters; it’s the evocation of emotion in the reader that gives art meaning. As Ursula K. Le Guin puts it, “The artist deals with what cannot be said in words. The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words.”

I’m thinking about this because last night, after a long hiatus, I came back to my yoga practice. My hamstrings were tight, and there were a couple surprise moments where I realized how much tension I’d been carrying around with me. It’s the letting go, the paying attention to the silent tension in our bodies and releasing it into relaxation, that makes yoga so wonderful for mind, body, and spirit. We’re all carrying things we didn’t realize we were carrying. In yoga, we feel the weight of each thing, each tight muscle, each pocket of unacknowledged stress, and we work toward letting it go. At the end of my practice, I felt calmer, lighter, and grateful. Yoga practices, composed of studied poses, bring us to awareness and to stillness. Through movement, we make our way to stillness and repose.

I see yoga practice as a form of composition; if not its own art form, yoga is at least linked to my artist craft. Writing is about finding stillness and silence, and listening. It seems strange that a 95,000-word novel, with all of the energy and the flurry of activity that goes into its creation, is made up of so much listening, of so many moments of quietude.

The words are there. We’re just listening for them. We are scribes in the truest sense of the word. Someone else is talking; we’re just jotting down what they say. I don’t “create” my characters. I’m not even sure I find them. I believe they find me.

There’s so much talking in the world. A student of rhetoric, I’m fascinated by the way we make meaning, by the way we reason and debate, and by the way we communicate our ideas and beliefs to each other. It’s everywhere, in newspapers and shopping malls, in conversations in our homes and Starbucks and around the water cooler. We are creatures of meaning, and I could spend the rest of my life trying to understand how we make meaning—or how we find it.

But I don’t believe writers get to make meaning. I think we share stories. It’s up to communities of readers and individual readers to find the meaning in a story or a poem. The writer’s idea of what something means carries as much weight as each reader’s; it’s the writer’s interpretation of his or her own work as read through the writer’s eyes (the writer-reader). I’m so eager to send stories out into the world because it’s there they find their voice. Art is meant to be shared.

But it’s always the silence that I come back to, searching for the words that, if I cup an ear and stay still, will find their way to me. The notes are already there, humming in the air around me. I find a place of stillness and repose, and I listen. And then I write the songs of my characters. It’s their words, their melodies I’m writing. They are the singers. I’m just the scribe.

Here’s to a little Svasana to help us find our way back to our center and ourselves. Namaste.

Witchin’ in the Kitchen:

Sometimes, kitchen magic is born out of necessity. While in my daydreams (which are many), I live in a city with a new-age scene the size of San Francisco and can find any old herb or magical ingredient at the drop of a hat (Mugwort? Sure, no problem. Frankincense? Oh, just let me pop over to the shop down the street!)

Snap back to reality: I live in a small college town in a beautiful part of the country. A girl just can’t buy incense in this town, which is probably why I stock up on incense and essential oils like a squirrel gathering acorns for a long winter whenever I get the chance. I might be a new-age girl, but this isn’t a new-age town. And so my journey into kitchen witchcraft begins.

Let’s face it, we’re blessed with a lot of perks that are thoroughly 21st century. Online bulk suppliers of herbal goods (Mountain Rose Herbs is a personal fave.) and three-hour drives down the interstate to bigger cities weren’t an option long ago. So, I’d infer–feel free to slap me ;)—that, for centuries, magic-workers worked with what they had (often known as hedge-witchery). Gathering moss in the woods, snipping some rosemary from the garden, and allowing the kitchen knife used to cut last night’s potatoes to serve as the sabbat athame might be a far cry from high magic but were most likely a reality for magic practitioners throughout the ages. And since every witch has his/her own style, born of personal preference and circumstance, I’ve found my way to kitchen witchin’. This blog entry shares some of the tips and tricks I’ve picked up on the way.

The magic of herbs makes for a wonderful read whether you plan on practicing some magic on your own or if you’re cooking up a spell for a character. For characters, it’s fun to pull out all of the stops and call upon those rare plants and incenses that give a book that otherworldly quality. But it’s also fun to see what our magical beings can brew with a bit of cinnamon or allspice!

Books like those mentioned below[i] are full of practical spells and magic-workings that don’t call for an extensive Internet shopping spree (‘cuz I told my husband I’d stop those…). What I love about kitchen witchin’ is that I can grab some cinnamon or basil from the cupboard and, Voila!, magic is in the air. Magic is in everything, from the farthest land to the closest cabinet. Spices from India or the backyard each contain their own correspondences and have uses for magic.

What I love about kitchen witchin’ is that I can grab some cinnamon or basil from the cupboard and, Voila!, magic is in the air. Magic is in everything, from the farthest land to the closest cabinet. Spices from India or the backyard each contain their own correspondences and have uses for magic.
Here are a few favorites from my own kitchen.