Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Walking to Write: An Exercise in Observation and The Abstract

I'm sharing a writing exercise I'm giving to my writing students tomorrow.

I'll be taking the students into the woods along Brushy Fork Creek here in Berea, Kentucky. This is a quiet area (pictured here as it appears in early spring) full of old beech trees and the meandering creek that begs for people to wade in it, offering a music of running water that is instantly calming.


Once there, they will be given the following handout, which includes a prompt directing them to make a list of sensory details which they will use to write about an abstract emotion. I'm sharing this exercise because I want to encourage more people to incorporate walking into their writing lives. It is absolutely the door to all writing for me.

I hope you might print out the handout below and use it for your own writing exercise. And even if you don't, I hope you'll go into the woods, or walk amongst trees, wherever that may be.

Comments or questions are welcome in the comments section below.

Walking to Write | Silas House | ENG 382

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil--to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society….I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least--and it is commonly more than that--sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. Henry David Thoreau, “Walking

Nothing like a nighttime stroll to give you ideas. J.K. Rowling

Writing is one way of making the world our own, and… walking is another. Geoff Nicholson, The Lost Art of Walking

What is it about walking, in particular, that makes it so amenable to thinking and writing? The answer begins with changes to our chemistry. When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen not just to the muscles but to all the organs—including the brain. Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them…Because we don’t have to devote much conscious effort to the act of walking, our attention is free to wander—to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind’s theatre. This is precisely the kind of mental state that studies have linked to innovative ideas and strokes of insight.
     Where we walk matters as well. A small but growing collection of studies suggests that spending time in green spaces—gardens, parks, forests—can rejuvenate the mental resources that man-made environments deplete. Ferris Jabr, “Why Writing Helps Us Think,” The New Yorker

This will be an exercise not only in observation and capturing sensory details but also in articulating the abstract emotions that are so important to writing.

· Observe in silence.

· Explore the woods. You don’t have to walk far (unless you want to), but move around for a little while, walking along the creek or on the paths.

· Make a list of sensory details. Look around and list what you see, fear, taste, feel, and smell. Heighten your senses, getting closer to things to get their full sensory effect. Actually touch trees, mosses, water, etc. Take deep breaths to smell properly. And so on…

· Be still for a time, studying things.

· Allow yourself about 15-20 minutes to write, focusing on capturing an abstraction through your observations. I’d like for you to imitate this passage from Their Eyes Were Watching God wherein Zora Neale Hurston does a remarkable job of exploring the abstract. Imitation does not need to be exact but keep in mind the way Hurston is doing this and come up with your own way of imitating her device (or stick closely to the way she’s done it...up to you):

So Janie began to think of Death. Death, that strange being with the huge square toes who lived way in the West. The great one who lived in the straight house like a platform without sides to it, and without a roof. What need has Death for a cover, and what winds can blow against him? He stands in his high house that overlooks the world. Stands watchful and motionless all day with his sword drawn back, waiting for the messenger to bid him come. Been standing there before there was a where or a when or a then. She was liable to find a feather from his wings lying in her yard any day now. She was sad and afraid too. –Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Here are a few partial sentences that could be possible prompts:

o Death is like the woods on spring day

o God is the trees

o Belief is a creek in March

o Sadness is the color of moss in early spring

o The beech trees are doubt

More Examples of Expanding the Abstract Emotions

She tried to go on with her letter, reminding herself that she was only an elderly woman who had got up too early in the morning and journeyed too far, that the despair creeping over her was merely her despair, her personal weakness, and that even if she got a sunstroke and went mad the rest of the world would go on. But suddenly, at the edge of her mind, Religion appeared, poor little talkative Christianity, and she knew that all its divine words, from 'let there be light', to 'it is finished' only amounted to 'boum'. Then she was terrified over an area larger than usual; the universe, never comprehensible to her intellect, offered no repose to her soul, the mood of the last two months took definite form at last, and she realized that she didn’t want to write to her children, didn’t want to communicate with anyone, not even with God.—E.M. Forster, A Passage to India
(boum is French for “a party,” “a tremendous success,” or “a loud noise”—Forster’s meaning is left up to our own interpretation)

The earth was warm under me…queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadrons around me. Their backs were polished vermilion, with black spots. I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. –Willa Cather, My Antonia

At the center of his own faith there always stood the convincing mystery--that we were made in God's image. God was the parent, but He was also the policeman, the criminal, the priest, the maniac, and the judge.--Graham Greene, The Power and The Glory





(c) 2016, Silas House
Find out more at www.silashouse.org

Friday, January 1, 2016

What I Know: A Prayer Essay

This year:

Find a creek, river, lake, or ocean, and be still beside it for a time. Sit by an open fire and watch the flames. Sit on the porch and lie on the grass. Light candles. Take a deep breath. Write a letter to someone.

Discover something new everyday. Learn. Tell stories. Listen to old people. Ask them questions.

Do something nice for others when you can and don't hesitate to be kind to yourself.

Read actual, real books and newspapers.

Spend an entire day without looking at your phone. If you feel the urge to post a selfie everyday, take a picture of some other beautiful thing instead.  Remember that there is power in moderation.

Learn to cook or bake something new. Enjoy every meal. Savor your food. Drink water.

Be completely quiet. Turn your favorite song up as loud as it will go.

If someone makes you feel bad all the time, get away from them. Laugh with others. Laugh while you're alone.

Spend time with animals. They make us better people.

Don't judge. Think this: "There but for the grace of God go I" or "Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."  Forgive others.  Forgive yourself.

--Silas House, from "What I Know: a Prayer Essay"

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Another Country

I hope you might check out my newest short story, "Another Country," which is a contemporary Appalachian retelling of James Joyce's "The Dead", which was just published in the latest issue of Blackbird.  And let me know what you think.


Sunday, July 19, 2015

Summer Playlist

Here's an eclectic mix of recent songs I'm loving during these hot, sweet days and nights of summer. Mostly new stuff, but some old great ones occasionally.  Here's the playlist and below you'll find videos for each one.

1.  Nothing to Lose-Andrew Combs
2. Woman (Oh Mama)-Joy Williams
3.  Something More Than Free-Jason Isbell
4.  Anderson East-Satisfy Me
5.  Biscuits-Kacey Musgraves
6.  Better Man-Leon Bridges
7.  Tropics-My Morning Jacket
8. Ain't There Something Money Can't Buy-Nick Waterhouse
9. In a Week-Hozier and Karen Cowley
10. Roll the Bones-Shakey Graves
11. Dixie-Ashley Monroe
12. Go Home-Lucius
13. Tennessee Whiskey-Chris Stapelton
14. My Love Took Me To The River To Silence Me-Little Green Cars
15. Be My Husband-Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aiofe O'Donovan
16. Zero in the City-Great Lake Swimmers
17. Done-Frazer Ford


Friday, February 6, 2015

A Public Conversation: Silas House & Barbara Kingsolver

Back in November I was delighted to sit down for an hour-long conversation with my friend Barbara Kingsolver.  We talked about writing, living a conscious life, our place, books, and everything in between.  I hope you'll enjoy listening in on this public conversation.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Prayer for 2015

This year:  

Find a creek, river, lake, or ocean, and be still beside it for a time. Sit by an open fire and watch the flames. Sit on the porch and lie on the grass. Light candles. Take a deep breath. Write a handwritten letter to someone. 

Discover something new everyday. Learn. Tell stories. Listen to old people. Ask them questions. 

Do something nice for others when you can and don't hesitate to be kind to yourself.

Read actual, real books and newspapers.

Spend an entire day without looking at your phone. If you feel the urge to post a selfie everyday, take a picture of some other beautiful thing instead. Remember that there is power in moderation.

Learn to cook or bake something new. Enjoy every meal. Savor your food. Drink water.

Be completely quiet. Turn your favorite song up as loud as it will go.

If someone makes you feel bad all the time, get away from them. Laugh with others. Laugh while you're alone.

Spend time with animals. They make us better people.

Spray someone with the kitchen sink sprayer. Sing while washing dishes. Dance.

Don't judge. Think this: "There but for the grace of God go I" or "Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." Forgive others. Forgive yourself.

--Silas House, from "What I Know: a Prayer Essay"




Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Favorites Books Read in 2014

I normally don’t post a Best Books of the Year list because I so rarely read books that come out during a particular year.  I’m not much on reading whatever the big hyped book of the moment is (in fact, all the hype usually turns me against a book).  This year I read dozens of books and out of them only a handful were released this year.  But despite all of that I wanted to talk briefly about the books I loved reading this year…three of which were actually published in 2014…and also about the books that weren’t published this year but that I really loved reading. 

Favorite reads of the year that were published in 2014:

All the Light We Cannot See-Anthony Doerr.  So many trusted friends of mine loved this book so much that I caved in and picked it up, too.  I was quickly swallowed up by the world of WWII era occupied France and came to care deeply for all of the characters, but especially the main two:  Werner, a young German boy who gets swept up in the tide of Nazism and loses all of his dreams while sacrificing everything for a leader he doesn’t understand, and the lovely, strong, and defiant Marie-Laure, a young blind French girl who has to flee Paris with her beloved father to go a doomed walled city on the Brittany coast of France.  I don’t want to say too much for fear of giving away the intricate and masterful plot but I will say that this is one of the best books I’ve ever read.  I could not put it down.  Nor could I find one false note in the entire epic.

Long Man.  Amy Greene’s debut, Bloodroot, in 2011, ushered in a stark new talent in Southern literature, and her second novel is even better.  This is a novel with prose so lovely it threatens to rise up and take flight from the page.  Add to that a suspense-fueled plot people by characters you come to love and a vivid sense of place that allows you to luxuriate in the hills of East Tennessee.  This is the best Appalachian and Southern book of the year, to my mind, and definitely one of the best American novels of the year, too.

Lila.  Marilynne Robinson is one of my five favorite writers (along with Hardy, Lawrence, Cather, and Hurston) and I love each of her books (Housekeeping, Gilead, Home) in a deep way but I think that Lila may have touched me deeper—and more unexpectedly—than any of the others.  I found this novel very hard to get into.  It was slow-going for the first 75 pages or so, but then suddenly it bloomed in my hands and I began to see what Robinson was doing.  Told from the point of view of a young woman who has been through incredibly hard times, this novel is about the beauty found in not judging others, in the way our country thinks it understands poverty but does not at all.  Lila is about many, many things but most of all it is about a way of life that is gone forever and about maintaining dignity no matter what.  I thought it might never start but then I realized that I was in the middle of a meditative prayer.  I’m also adding this to my Favorites of All Time list.




Favorite reads of books that weren’t published this year but were read by me this year (parentheses denote when books were first published):

Ron Hansen is my new favorite writer.  He's probably best known for his novel The Assassination of Jessee James, which became a Brad Pitt film.  I read his books Exiles (2008) and Marietta in Ecstasy (1991) this year, although I have been hearing about them for ages.  Exiles is a novel about one of my favorite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and centers on when he wrote one of his most famous poems, about a shipwreck that killed several nuns.  The novel also gives us insight into the nuns' lives.  Phenomenal. Mariette in Ecstasy is about an American nun who starts to experience stigmata in the early 1900s.  It is like a long poem.  Some of the most beautiful language I've ever read, and a plot that will keep you up into the wee hours, turning the pages.  

The Daylight Gate (2013).  Jeanette Winterson is one of the most inventive and wonderful writers I know of.  Her book Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? is my all-time favorite memoir and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a modern classic.  Only Winterson could take the story of a witchhunt in the 1600s and make it so original, sensual, and completely readable. This novel was a big hit in England but never gained traction here, probably because its historical basis is so widely known there, but not here.  At any rate, a very fine and short read. 

I devoured Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (2013), one of the most readable and beautiful novels I’ve ever read.  Completely original and inventive and moving and powerful.  READ IT.  I was so taken by that novel that I read two more of hers:  Case Histories (2004) and One Good Turn (2006).  Both of those are mysteries and thus very different from the more literary bent of Life After Life.  They didn’t touch me the way Life After Life did but they were hugely entertaining and very well-written page-turners.  I’m an Atkinson fan for life and can’t wait until the 2015 release of the companion novel to Life After Life, which is called A God in Ruin.

I am a slow reader and sometimes avoid long novels because of that.  I had toyed with the idea of reading Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna (2009) ever since I got it when it was first published but something finally came over me to start it earlier this year.  From the first page on I never looked back and now would list it as my favorite book of hers.  She manages to seamlessly take us to Washington DC, the mountains of western North Carolina, and Mexico and making all of those locales vivid and knowable.  She also has created a completely memorable lead character and uses language more beautifully than she ever has before.  I think it’s a modern masterpiece. 

I had read, and loved, many of William Trevor’s short stories before but had not read any of his novels until this year, when I read Love and Summer.  I’ve continued to think about it ever since.  He is a master at creating a mood so that each time I opened the novel I fell under the spell of him, his characters, and the complete world of the small Irish village he created in the book.  I loved every word.


Honorable Mention:  The Good Lord Bird (2013) by James McBride was compulsively readable.  I structured my day around when I was going to be able to spend time with it.  The story of a young slave—disguised as a little girl—who is taken under the wing of the abolitionist John Brown is storytelling along the lines of Mark Twain, mixed with real historical events that keep you guessing even though you know the real outcomes.  The problem is that I think it fails in the third act where it becomes too tied to the historical details of the raid on Harper’s Ferry.  And I didn’t think it rang true that none of the ruffians encountered along the way tried to mess with the boy-disguised-as-a-girl except for a very handsy Frederick Douglass.  Despite those problems I still think it’s a real feat of storytelling.

There are many others I read this year (including the very enjoyable and light mysteries of Ann Cleeves, most of which are not published in America yet, but are the basis for the great British TV show “Vera,” which you can watch on Netflix;  the mysteries of Agatha Christie are never a disappointment; and I read every biography of Willa Cather I could get my hands on this year, as well as re-reading My Antonia, O Pioneers!, and many others of Cather’s) but these are the ones that stuck with me the most, in one way or another.  There’s so much great literature out there, just waiting for us.