the magic of storytelling

Month: April 2020

Mannequin Monday – A Sense of Compassion

Mannequin Monday – A Sense of Compassion

Clothing our blank forms again, with an awareness of suffering. A sense of compassion. This week’s short story Friendship and Art comes from Alan Ziegler, courtesy of Narrative magazine. This week’s interview is from NPR, Scott Simon talking to Dr. Suzanne Koven, formerly with Massachusetts General Hospital. And I offer a writing sample of my own about street art.

This Week’s Story

Read Alan Ziegler’s iStory here.

“It’s nice,” I reply, the words you use when you want to break a poet’s spirit..” As Alan Ziegler says in Friendship and Art, the words you use to break a poet’s spirit. A writer’s spirit. Narrative magazine again brings us a compelling piece of fiction, one of four iStories. How devastating to an artist to say something like, your work is nice. And in this story it’s said deliberately. Intended to break spirit. A moment of compassion extended to a friend has two years later become a poetic description of a cold person’s tolerance.

This reminds me of an interview my wife and I conducted with record producer David Malloy in Nashville years back for Music and Sound Output magazine. David was walking us through his Emerald studio, explaining the equipment, listing his gear. He introduced us to young singer/songwriter Anthony Crawford. He played one of Crawford’s songs that he was producing. I commented naively that Crawford’s voice reminded me of another established country singer. David jumped on me immediately. Don’t ever tell an artist his work sounds like someone else’s work, he said. His work stands alone. I never forgot that message.

Words can be harsh. Intended or not. Written or spoken.

This Week’s Interview/Podcast

Scott Simon from NPR interviewed Dr. Suzanne Koven on dealing with compassion among medical personnel. Here’s the transcript:

NPR Interview

Suzanne Koven, a medical doctor and Massachusetts General Hospital’s first writer in residence, says the healthcare center is the setting for thousands of real-life stories.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST: 

Hospitals are real-life settings for human drama with thousands of stories. Massachusetts General Hospital has a writer in residence to encourage writing and reading. And Dr. Suzanne Koven says that the interest from hospital staff is now greater than ever. We’re joined now by Dr. Suzanne Koven, who was a writer and a physician with Mass General for more than 25 years. Doctor, thanks so much for being with us.

SUZANNE KOVEN: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: And what does a writer in residence do at a hospital?

KOVEN: It’s a fairly unique role in my hospital because my focus is primarily on the staff. So I do a lot of writing, coaching, mentoring and editing. And I run reading and writing groups and also organize literary events, poetry readings and so forth.

SIMON: Is the idea to encourage reflection and to say to them, look; you’re going through weighty experiences; this is one way of getting your emotions around them?

KOVEN: Yeah, I think that’s actually a good way of putting it. Health care workers are exposed to a lot of human stories – probably more than the average person. And yet, because of the restrictions of time and confidentiality, we can’t share those stories too much. Reading, writing, particularly looking at literature together provides a different kind of window into the human condition, which we’re steeped in so much day to day in our work.

SIMON: You have a poem that you favor, I gather, by William Carlos Williams, who was, of course, also a doctor. Here’s a reading of his poem “Complaint.”

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED READER: (Reading) They call me, and I go. It is a frozen road past midnight, a dust of snow caught in the rigid wheel tracks. The door opens. I smile, enter and shake off the cold. Here is a great woman on her side in the bed. She is sick, perhaps vomiting, perhaps laboring to give birth to a 10th child. Joy. Joy. Night is a room darkened for lovers. Through the jalousies, the sun has sent one gold needle. I pick the hair from her eyes and watch her misery with compassion.

SIMON: My gosh, those final lines – and watch her misery with compassion. What does this poem let doctors and health care workers at Mass General talk about and open up inside themselves?

KOVEN: To me, what this is about is this physician’s sense of what, in this case, his duty is. And at the very end, having gone all the way to thinking of the sick room as being darkened as for lovers and the golden needle – needle, of course, being a medical term and here being a needle of sunlight, so really complicating our sense of what the medical role is – he finally seems to land where he needs to be – a witness, a companion to suffering. And I think that health care workers I’ve read this poem with very much recognize themselves in it.

SIMON: I think people listening to us will point out that doctors don’t get any time to talk to patients these days. They always have to be, you know, typing into a laptop. How do you have that bond of trust exist between a physician and a patient now?

KOVEN: I think that reflection, such as that we do in these reading and writing groups, really helps connect us to the deepest meaning of our work. And the truth of the matter is that if we’re entering data on a computer and not looking at a patient, we’re not watching anybody’s misery, or joy, for that matter, with compassion. And so I find that reading poems remind us of what our calling is and what actually gives us the greatest joy. And, of course, there are practical constraints. But I think many of us and, in fact, even many right now on the front lines – there’s so many stories coming out of people in goggles and masks who are still able to have intimate interactions with patients and their families at absolutely the most difficult time.

SIMON: Dr. Suzanne Koven is Massachusetts General Hospital’s inaugural writer in residence. Her book “Letter To A Young Female Physician” comes out next year. Dr. Koven, thanks so much for being with us.

KOVEN: Thank you so much for having me.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

***

The writer-in-residence program at Massachusetts General uses writing, literature, poetry to help medical staff deal with the human drama inherent in hospital settings. Words that induce heightened compassion. As the cited poet, William Carlos Williams, says, “I pick the hair from her eyes and watch her misery with compassion.” The physician, the medical person, is a witness to suffering.

Such an appropriate message in these days of widespread disease. COVID-19 has devastated so many lives, medical personnel among them. In some cases being a witness to suffering, compassion, is all anyone can offer.

My Writing

Six years ago I photographed a street art depiction of the Trojan Women. What struck me the most was the artist’s willingness to create a piece of art, knowing that it would be painted over to make way for another work of street art. The artist, whose name I never discovered, was not only creating the piece to advertise a play being performed in a theater inside the building. They were also creating a wonderful sense of compassion for the long-ago plight of the Trojan women.

As Though Your Words May Die

Posted on January 15, 2014 by Bob Gillen

All creative artists reach a point where they have to let go of their created work. Publish it, display it, sell it, screen it. Let it go.

For some artists an even deeper sense of abandonment is at play in their creative process.

Street Art: The Trojan Women
Street Art: The Trojan Women

Several years ago I attended a performance of Euripides’ The Trojan Women, his epic indictment of war written in 415 BCE.  Outside the black box theater, located in the arts district of LA, a street art mural publicized the current production. The artist – I don’t know who – created the piece knowing that it would only be there for a month or two, then be painted over for the next show’s ad.

Here are a few pictures of the street art. Can you see the desperation that the street artist captured? The dread, the bloody horror in the women’s eyes? The Trojan women’s nation had just been defeated in war. They lost their husbands and children. They faced a life of servitude.

Closeup of The Trojan Women
Closeup: A Trojan Woman
A Trojan Woman - closeup
A Trojan Woman

The artist knew going in that the art would be destroyed. It reminds me of the Zen monks who create intricate sand mandalas (paintings), only to ritually obliterate them, as a testament to the impermanence of life.

For a writer, this holds a lesson. Create with abandon. Let the abandonment free up the creative process. Don’t worry about whether your words will endure. Ray Bradbury once said, “In quickness is truth. The more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for a style, instead of leaping upon truth which is the only style worth deadfalling or tiger-trapping.”

Mannequin Monday – Last Flight from Bordeaux

Mannequin Monday – Last Flight from Bordeaux

This week we have fun dressing the blank page with colorful graphic stories and illustrations. Artist Sofia Warren brings us Last Flight from Bordeaux. Warren documents her attempts to leave France and get back home to the States in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And cartoonist Liza Donnelly sketches a graphic memoir of her life in Portrait of the Cartoonist as a Woman.

To cap off the week, I offer a playful writing sample of my own. Enjoy.

This Week’s Story

Sofia Warren, who has been living in France for a time, struggles to return home to the United States in this time of pandemic. Warren has put together for Narrative Magazine a cartoon story titled Last Flight from Bordeaux. In a series of 45 sketches, Warren gives us a taste of her efforts to leave Paris and fly to Boston. The drawings bring to life her frustrations in getting a flight and dealing with the threat of the pandemic virus.

Sofia Warren

We get a feel for, almost bond with, the handful of other passengers on the sparsely booked flight through her drawings. Her drawings capture the emptiness of the airport and the flight. The unaccustomed loneliness of her air travel home.

What I like best about Warren’s trip sketches is #21. No one wants to be out and about in a time of pandemic, but if one has to, it’s comforting to be in the vicinity of real people.

Real other people…

Sofia Warren is a cartoonist and animator living in Brooklyn. She was born in Westerly, Rhode Island, and holds a degree in film studies and psychology from Wesleyan University.

This Week’s Interview/Podcast

We “talk” with cartoonist Liza Donnelly this week. Donnelly’s graphic story, Portrait of the Cartoonist as a Woman: A Memoir, appears in Narrative Magazine as well.

Donnelly’s memoir highlights her journey as she comes up in the 1960s, deals with the label of artist, moves to New York City, and establishes her career as a cartoonist. In 32 frames she captures her life’s story. Her strengths, her insecurities, her relationships.

Frame 12: Donnelly’s mom encourage her individuality. “I don’t want dolls, mother. I like bears.” “Let’s make you a bear house.”

Frame 12

Most of us who would attempt a memoir would produce a 300 page book, filled with anecdotes no one cares to read. Donnelly reveals herself in 32 cartoon frames. That’s a challenge for any writer. Tell your story with the fewest words possible. How many of us could rival Donnelly’s memoir? Reveal ourselves in 32 frames? If you can’t draw, just write the words. Try it!

Liza Donnelly, credit Craig Semetko

Liza Donnelly is the author of Funny Ladies: The New Yorker’s Greatest Women Cartoonists and Their Cartoons and When Do They Serve The Wine?: The Folly, Fun and Flexibility of Being a Woman. Along with her husband, Michael Maslin, she wrote Cartoon Marriage: Adventures in Love and Matrimony with The New Yorker’s Cartooning Couple, and her newest book is Women on Men (Narrative Library, 2013). Donnelly is a founding member of Cartooning for Peace and teaches at Vassar College.

My Current Writing

I’m going to play with writing the copy for a small graphic story, ala Sofia Warren, without the sketches (I am no artist). Imagine the images, or draw your own. My last trip to the market in time of pandemic.

Last Trip to Market

Parking at the outer edge of the supermarket lot.

Walking in empty-handed. No one wants re-usable bags now.

It’s 7 a.m. Store sign says, Open from 6 to 7 for seniors and those vulnerable to the virus.

Paper goods aisle. Empty but for bamboo-based tissues and Scott toilet paper.

All aisles marked with one way arrows and social distancing markers.

No milk, no butter. Worker stocking eggs.

All shoppers wearing masks. Most are homemade.

Fresh-baked goods all packaged now. Bread on shelves not my brand or preference.

Pasta selection sketchy. No rigatoni.

Baking aisle empty of flour and sugar. Are people actually baking?

Checkout clerk covered in large face mask, hat, jacket, apron. No conversation.

Hand sanitizer before leaving the store.

Home, without talking to anyone out there.

Graphic Novels

For solid information on graphic novels, check out the AdobeCreate website. The resource is titled: Stand-out Storytelling in Graphic Novels. Included on the site are downloadable digital coloring books. A fun resource.

Mannequin Monday – Africa Rasta Hair Salon

Mannequin Monday – Africa Rasta Hair Salon

Another mannequin waiting for someone to dress it. Words, sketches, clay, film, whatever media you choose. This week features a short story by writer, dramaturge and activist Bibish Marie-Louise Mumbu. And a brief interview with photographer Mark Seliger, done for The Creative Process. Lastly, a piece of my current writing.

This Week’s Reading and Discussion

On this Monday I’d like to share a story, Me and My Hair, by Bibish Marie-Louise Mumbu. The author, originally from Democratic Republic of Congo, now lives in Montreal. The narrator begins by walking the reader through her five hours in the Africa Rasta hair salon. Her thoughts run to the man who dumped her after three years together. She talks of “her anger in being scorned and her pride in her identity.” She muses on changing her hair style, shedding her dreadlocks for a lighter style. “I’m coming out of my dreds,” she says.

Photo of author Bibish Marie-Louise Mumbu at a microphone
Bibish Marie-Louise Mumbu, RFI, Pascal Gely

One of the truths expressed by the narrator: “Now I’ve been dumped, I’ve gotten used to the word, you know, it’s like I told you sometimes; we think we’re safe from some things, we trust time, words spoken, tender little words in writing, until the very same mouth that says I love you says something else, and you hurt so much that you want to hurt somebody else, but if it’s not your style, then what do you do?”

She finds her revenge. A new hair style. A hot outfit. A party. A new man.

Thanks to the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa for sharing the story with us.

This Week’s Podcast/Interview

Photo of renowned photographer Mark Seliger.
Photographer Mark Seliger, Mark Seliger Studio

Check out the podcast from The Creative Process with photographer Mark Seliger. It’s a brief 20 minute conversation about Seliger’s work photographing well-known celebrities. Interviewer Mia Funk asked Seliger how he finds a fresh approach to photographing people we have seen so many times. “Well, I think it’s all about the idea. You start from an idea.” He goes on to say, “And then when you come up with a great idea, then you’re basing the outcome in terms of the way that you perceive it, pre-emptively see it, rather than necessarily just go out and take the picture. So I try to work from an emotional aspect of the way that I think about a photograph either through, I call it a wink, which is like giving it a sense of life and a sense of humor. Or just like an emotional response from my viewer.”

Funk talks to Seliger about the hours of preparation that go into a photo shoot. “Usually, it’s just one or two things, and it’s either taken from a discussion I have with my subject, or it’s basically my own creation of getting to know them through the music they make, films they make, books they write; the world they live in. And so I just try to find out something about them and create a storyline.”

A great insight, I think, one that can apply as well to writers getting to know their characters. Finding out something about them and creating a storyline.

And in the shoot, Seliger says, “…there’s a moment where they let the guard down. That’s a sense of vulnerability.” Again, something a writer looks for in a character. The revelation of vulnerability. The moment of letting the guard down, showing themselves to the writer. Spilling emotion onto the page.

See the Mark Seliger Studio home page for touching, almost haunting, images of New York City under quarantine this April, done for Vanity Fair. It’s titled Silence in the Streets.

My Current Writing

I’m sharing my first attempt at writing a haiku in the traditional 5-7-5 format. Thanks for reading it.

Malibu

Blue sky canopy  

White-fringe surf at ocean edge

Bare feet on hot sand.

Mannequin Monday – After the Light Cracks the Sky

Mannequin Monday – After the Light Cracks the Sky

This week on Mannequin Monday we dress the naked form with words of poetry. The work of Maria Hummel, novelist and poet, and the poems of Naomi Nye. Both pen words that can comfort us in these days of fear and quarantine. And to cap the week, I include an excerpt from my novel Apart.

This Week’s Reading and Discussion

Maria Hummel, Narrative Magazine

I enjoyed reading some of the poetry of Maria Hummel this past week. Thanks to Narrative magazine for posting it. Narrative’s website is a goldmine of excellent fiction, poetry and non-fiction.

Here’s one of Hummel’s poems that kind of fits what we’re all going through right now. It’s titled The Shroud.

Hummel’s poem rings true for what so many of us are experiencing now: A storm bulging across the sky, fierce, purpled, fisting its rain. The uncertainty, fear, the massive scope of what the quarantine represents. And there is a cave. Hummel says we may not see it, realize it’s there, until “the light cracks the sky.”

The “cave” could be as direct as the shelter of our own homes. Or more of a metaphor. The love of family. The strength of loved ones. The comfort of pets. The wonderful view out our window.

Perhaps the cave is an activity of ours. Exercise. Hiking. Cooking. Writing. Knitting. Crafting. Drawing.

And when we all come through this storm, when the light cracks the sky, then we’ll know where the cave was all that time. We’ll know what is important. What is life-saving.

This Week’s Podcast/Interview

Head shot of poet Naomi Nye
Naomi Nye, UC Davis School of Education

This is not so much an interview as another poetry reading. I thoroughly enjoy the poetry of Naomi Nye. This one, The Art of Disappearing, is my favorite. It speaks of priorities, of doing what is most important. Here are a few select lines.

The Art of Disappearing

When they say Don’t I know you?
say no…

If they say We should get together
say why?…

When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage…

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.

I first discovered Nye’s poetry through Bill Moyers, in his book, The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets. Nye’s The Art of Disappearing always brings me back to focusing on what is important: decide what to do with your time. I am reminded of Parker Palmer’s book, On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old. While not admitting to aging, I will say that Palmer gets it right when he says that so many older people focus on lightening the load, clearing out the nest. What can I get rid of? He says we should be centered on: what will I give my life to now? For all of us, regardless of age, it’s a key question: what will I give my life to? As we pass through these dark days of quarantine and disease, as we begin to see light cracking the sky, we will ask: now what will I give myself to?

My Current Writing

This is an excerpt form my novel Apart. A business salesman, Cabe Wray, abruptly quits his job to re-focus on his decades-long search for his missing sister. Enjoy.

Chapter 1

Almost ninety days had passed since Jackson McCabe Wray walked out on his sales job and his career. Now sixty-one, and no longer resolving technology problems for retail businesses, he retreated to his condo tucked into the shadow of the Simi Mountains in Southern California.  

Only one thing sustained him now—the search for his missing twin sister, Gail.

“Call me Cabe.”

Cabe extended his hand to a young man who looked late twenties. An inch or so taller than Cabe’s five ten, black hair pulled back in a long, tight ponytail, dark stubble, cargo shorts and a black sweatshirt. A canvas messenger bag hung over the young man’s shoulder. 

He met Cabe’s handshake. “I am Turo Fonseca.” 

Cabe and Turo stood outside an always-busy coffee shop in Cabe’s neighborhood. A gray morning, too early for the sun to break through the typical SoCal “June gloom.” At a patio table six young moms clustered in conversation, their infants’ power strollers tucked in around them.

Inside, moms who had just dropped off their kids at school lined up for drinks. Local lawyers and accountants in slacks and ties grabbed coffees on their way to work. A couple of independent business people with rolling briefcases met with clients.

“Can you find us a table?” Cabe said. “I’ll get coffees.”

“Iced tea would be fine for me, man. Nothing tropical or sweetened.”

Cabe got in line for the drinks. Looking around, he saw Turo cutting off a guy balancing a coffee and a laptop to score a corner table. Good hustle. Barely audible over the din of coffee machines and clanking utensils, a familiar tenor sax jazz track played in the background. Sonny Rollins was Cabe’s guess. He felt the tension in his shoulders ease. Maybe this will work.

The young barista handed the drinks to Cabe. “Have a good day.”

“Thank you, sir.” Cabe said.

The barista looked at Cabe. “They call my father sir.”

Cabe turned away. They must call you asshole.

Sitting down, Cabe said, “I appreciate you meeting me here. You found the place okay?”

“Yeah, man. Your directions were good.” Turo leaned back in the chair. Pulled the paper off his straw. Stuck it into the cup lid.

“My friend Mark Field suggested I talk to you. He’s a film director and knows your work, apparently.”

“Yes, I met Mark eight years ago when he spoke to one of my film classes. I kept in touch with him and sent him my work for his comments.”

“Where did you do film school?”

“At NYU. The Tisch program. Do you know it?”

Cabe shook his head. “No, I don’t. A good one?”

Turo nodded. “One of the best.”

Cabe passed his business card across the table to Turo.

Turo fingered the card. “Your card says Jackson Wray. Where does Cabe come from?”

“Old story. My middle name is McCabe. Everyone has called me Cabe since I was a little kid. No idea who started it.”

“Cool. I like it.” Turo flashed a thumbs up.

“What about you? Where’d Turo come from?”

“Arturo.”

“Got it. So… Mark said you make documentaries.”

Turo swirled the straw around in his drink cup. “I do, right.”

“What are you working on now?”

Turo grinned. “Between films, looking for a new project.”

Cabe squinted. “Do I detect a slight New York accent?”

“Born and bred.”

“What brings you out here to LA?”

Turo paused to sip his iced tea. His face scrunched up. “This tastes like panther piss.” He put the cup down.

How bad could iced tea be?

He went on. “I came out for a project on street artists. The funding dried up, but I decided to stay for a while. See if I can find a challenging documentary subject.”

“Isn’t New York thriving as a film and television center?”

“It is… but I would like to clear my head and explore something new.”

Cabe sipped his black decaf. “What’s new about LA?”

“Nothing, if you look in the same old places. You have to have a fresh set of eyes.”

A bit unfocused, Cabe thought.

“Why your interest in documentaries?”

“For their truth, man. I see them as portals into souls… portraits of real people, gritty situations. I want to broaden our collective horizons by making a difference.”

Sounds like bullshit?

Turo must have read Cabe’s face. “I made several documentaries back in New York. I like digging into what makes people tick.”

Cabe took another sip of his coffee. Hoisted the cup in Turo’s direction.

“Tell me something, from your experience in film and TV. Why don’t they put liquid in these paper coffee cups all the actors carry around in their scenes? It drives me crazy; it’s so obvious the cups are empty.”

“I never noticed.”

“Sure. Take an office scene, for example. One character walks in holding four cups in one hand with one of those cardboard carriers. He sets it down like it weighs an ounce or two. Not like it’s actually heavy with four hot drinks.”

Turo stared at him. 

He wasn’t getting it. “Okay, just a pet peeve.”

“So,” Turo said, pointing at Cabe, “tell me what you need.”

Cabe paused. From the serving counter came the sound of someone singing. He turned. The serving line was momentarily empty. A tall barista with short blond hair, half hidden behind the dessert case, was singing Christine’s song from The Phantom of the Opera. The other baristas stopped their work to listen.

“See,” Turo said, “everybody’s in the business.”

Cabe turned back to Turo. “I want to talk to you about making a video for the Internet. A video about my missing sister.”

_____

Last month, after a brief conversation with his friend and neighbor Mark Field, Cabe had shot and edited his own video about his sister’s disappearance. He avoided mentioning this to Turo. Mark had thought the video was a piece of crap. A director in both film and television, Mark knew good from crap.

“Cabe, you can’t do this alone,” Mark had told him.

“Why not?”

“Seriously, Cabe. This won’t work. Do you really want to find your sister?”

“Yes… It’s that bad?”

“For one thing, it’s too long. YouTube may accommodate more than ten minutes, but with today’s attention spans, shorter is better.”

“I put in everything I thought was important.”

“You can’t do a data dump. This has to pop if you want people to take notice.”

“Okay, I surrender. How do I make it pop?”

“Hire a director.”

_____

“Let’s talk about that,” Turo said. “Mark told me your sister went missing. He said you’d fill in the details.”

Cabe shifted in his chair. Okay, here goes. He looked Turo in the eye. “I have a sister. A twin sister. She’s been missing for a long time. I now have more time to give to searching for her. Mark suggested a short video about her would help my search. Someone who knows her might see it.”

“How long has she been gone?”

This is where Cabe loses him. “Forty years.”

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