taking my own advice

grazing laying down cowI blog and write columns about writing and facilitate writing workshops. I’ve been polishing my handbook, Moo of Writing: How to Milk Your Potential, for months. The whole schmear sort of takes on a life of its own. It’s as if advice about the craft becomes what I do rather than actually writing. I’m in two critique groups, but they’ve already critiqued my handbook chapter by chapter; I haven’t brought them anything new. An agent query letter and a book proposal squirm around in my brain trying to materialize, irritating me.

So, it is with delight when I rediscover that Moo of Writing actually works.

The back of my mind carries a goal to write more poems for a collection, “Black Dirt Days,” about life on an Iowa farm where I grew up. But I was just moodling on a warm, sunny morning this week, when I hit the track for my walk. A man on a big riding mower was cutting the old football field in the center. First, I noticed the roar of the machine. It reminded me of noisy machines on the farm. Almost simultaneously, the smell of grass tickled my nose. It’s quite similar to the smell of alfalfa, which carried me on its wings straight back to hay-making time when I was a kid. As I walked, I heard a new poem in my head, line by line. I kept walking, and when I was finished, drove home, not listening to the radio, not listening to a phone message, not pouring cereal into a bowl. Instead, heading for my laptop and getting it down.

Wow! Moo of Writing really works, I thought.

Important to moodle, to get some fresh air and exercise, to let the mind lie fallow and not “try” to write. The words are there. They will come.

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the moo of boo hoo


Dawn by Nan Lundeen
Dawn by Nan Lundeen

Silly title of this entry aside, I want to blog today about writing when you feel blue, when you’re down. It’s “when I’m weary of considerations;” it’s when “one eye is weeping/From a twig’s having lashed across it open,” as Robert Frost so brilliantly writes in his poem, “Birches.”

Last week, I wrote that when you free your creative process you will delight in the debut of stories you’ll find hidden inside.

Your stories will delight, but they may not all be happy. At times, pain or grief will surface. When that happens, should you cast those stories out because they risk bringing somebody down with you? I think not. I can’t tell you how many times Frost’s poem has brought me comfort. Frost balances the poem with the fun and risk of swinging on birches and with his choice to live. But it’s his five lines expressing the down-and-out feelings we’ve all had that I remember the best.

Consider the tenderness in Theodore Roethke’s “Elegy for Jane,” a student of his who was killed by a fall from her horse. He speaks of her: “the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils;/ and her quick look, the sidelong pickerel smile.”

Contemporary poet J. Stephen Rhodes shares inspired work in his book of poems, The Time I Didn’t Know What To Do Next. Some of his poems address his daughter’s suicide. I was honored to share a podium with him at a reading in Greenville, South Carolina. His work expressed the hard edge of grief tempered by grace.

I grappled for words when we laid to rest a grandbaby who never had a chance at life. It was a bitter winter’s day, and our hearts felt as cold as the sleet stinging the open grave. Some time later words came to me in the form of a poem I wrote, “Digging for Mercy,” published by The Petigru Review. I share the last stanza of that poem with you here:


Grace, grant us wisdom

to wrench open our hearts

lest mercy meet a closed door.


Brenda Ueland, a 20th-century writing guru, said, “Writing is not a performance but a generosity.”

I agree. When you include grief or pain in what you share with others, you may be giving expression to something that another person cannot. You may be giving voice to pain. And that can be healing.

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the mu of moo

grazing laying down cowThe creative process has long bragged of a tint of magic, and indeed, it sometimes does feel that way. A eureka sentence or two appears on the page or a new character shimmies into your writing space and voila! Magic, right?

Maybe, sort of. And if you want to believe that, go for it! But although wise folk have suspected as much for a long time, neuroscientists are reaffirming one of the paths to creativity—relaxation. When brain waves slow to an alpha state as opposed to a busy, busy, busy, firing-away beta state, wonderful associations emerge from our subconscious.

Like the cow, the writer ruminates. The writer takes in the fodder of life and digests it in the subconscious. There it lies waiting for release. When the writer relaxes, words flow.

Here’s something I was delighted to discover: Cows are Zen masters. They’ve been known to utter the sound that is spelled mu rather than moo.

Mu is a Zen koan. A koan is a paradox that Buddhist monks meditate on. They hope the process will lead to intuitive enlightenment. When writing, you can choose to relax and produce. Mu (or Moo) is about stepping aside so that your creative spark has a free connection to the page. It’s about staying out of your way and finding your way. Free your creativity, and you will delight in the debut of stories you’ll discover hidden inside.

Happy writing!



from a column first published at femalefirst.co.uk.