My friend Dan Beauchamp emailed me the other day, offering his thoughts on the weird but amazing book that I am writing, on a blog called Sister Mysteries. Dan's thoughtful observations have got me thinking about a book by one of my all-time favorite writers, John Steinbeck.
Dan is a leading national authority in the field of public health; now that he is retired from his academic/university career, he and his wife Carole have taken up residence in a beautiful old mining town in Arizona called Bisbee. It's not far from the Mexican border and when my husband and I visited Bisbee a few years back, Dan drove us to the border for some "authentic" cocina mejicana. For a while, Dan Beauchamp was the Mayor of Bisbee, Arizona.
Besides the academic books he has to his name, Dan is also a prolific writer of essays, memoir and fiction. For the last couple of years he has been keeping a blog called talesofcoppercity.com; his essays about politics and health care, as well as his fabulous writings on spirituality and religion, have appeared here on MyStoryLives. He also dabbles in fiction and recently he has written a memoir using the blog.
"Reading the candles story and your musings reminds me of one of my favorite writers, whose fiction constantly breaks out of conventional time and physical law constraints, to show the readers how different we can be if we let ourselves be led into a new reality. I'm sure you have read him and maybe you don't see yourself this way, but Sleeping in Flames in one of my favorite books of the past 10 years or so.
Here's my blog entry on Jonathan Carroll and his response to me from Vienna!"
Then he followed up the first email up with a second:
"Claudia, to put it another way, fiction is not about how the world truly works; it's about how the worlds we create believably work and how that changes us. In magical realism dogs talk to humans and we don't stop to think, "dogs don't talk!", we listen to what they say and wonder if they make sense. If the characters in your novel seem informed by the real world, your fictional world has grown larger. You need to write that in the story. Dan"
Dan's words got me thinking about one of my favorite topics: the power of words. The words we speak to each other. The words we tell ourselves. The words we write down and publish. The words we send to others.
A couple years back, I wrote a Huffington Post column on this topic and a textbook publisher later picked the column up and re-published it in a textbook about writing.
In that post I talked about the fact that words are magical. Say the words "a forest of pine trees" or "palms swaying on a sunny beach," and voila, there you have the reality the words create.
As I wrote in the Huff Po piece,
"There is immense power in words. Whether we hear them as spoken or written messages, words create new states of mind.
What kinds of things do we say to friends and family? What statements or casual comments are empowering, encouraging, supportive, postive and life-giving? What outbursts come from another space, a place of jealousy or envy or anger or resentment?"
In that same post, I encouraged people to rent the movie,
So Dan, I completely agree with you. "Fiction is not about how the world truly works; it's about how the worlds we create believably work and how that changes us."
This world I am creating in Castenata -- the nun accused in 1883 of murdering her lecherous cousin -- is changing me. Dramatically.
John Steinbeck did this once. He wrote East of Eden, his longest novel, a book about good and evil, and simultaneously, he wrote Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, a set of letters that Steinbeck wrote to his editor, Pascal Covici. He wrote the books literally side by side in pencil; on the left-hand pages he wrote the detailed letters to Covici; on the right-hand pages, he wrote the novel, East of Eden (which was biographical, about his family!)
The coolest thing about this writing project? Steinbeck actually constructed an amazing wooden box to contain the manuscript, East of Eden. He presented Pascal Covici with the box and the stack of manuscript pages inside. (I wonder who has that box today?)
Anyway, on the cover of the box, Steinbeck chiseled four Hebrew letters which spell out the word "timshel," a word that loosely translates as "thou mayest;" the word suggests that we as humans, with the consciousness we "achieved" by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, can in every moment CHOOSE our behavior; we can choose between good and evil.
We can also CHOOSE how we speak to people, and how we focus our consciousness in each and every moment we live. This is essential in meditation. We watch our thoughts and we step back from them and let them go. We cultivate "good" or positive thoughts, and we let go of the "bad" or negative thoughts.
We can, through the power of meditation or mindfulness, become happier people. I am convinced of this more and more. Toward this end, I am teaching a class in happiness next semester at SUNY Albany. As part of the class, students will be required to take an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction workshop, a workshop developed three decades ago by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Thousands of people have taken this workshop across the U.S. and have found relief from stress, chronic pain and depression. One of those people is one of my students, Allyson Pashko, who is taking my happiness class this semester, her final semester as a psychology major at SUNY. Read the amazing letter Allyson wrote a couple of weeks ago, about how the mindfulness exercises have made her a healthier, happier person. It really is rather astonishing!
Anyway, back to Steinbeck's books. I have always preferred that second book of Steinbeck's, the Journal about East of Eden, way more than the novel itself (I don't love that novel).
To me, the journey of writing a book is always where the biggest mysteries lie.
This post is excerpted from the blog-book Sister Mysteries, which is part of the Albany Times Union's Writing In Motion project. The project features seven writers committed to completing writing projects by the end of the year. Sister Mysteries contains within it a novel called Castenata -- a time-travel murder mystery featuring a nun, Sister Renata, who in 1883 was falsely accused of murdering her cousin Antonie. Renata's version of the story is contained within her diaries on the Castenata site.
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