Tag Archives: Emerson

Input vs. Output


I have two boards in my office: one is a whiteboard of due dates and projects, the other is a bulletin board of colorful images clipped from magazines, books, and catalogs. The whiteboard is a to-do list of crossouts and dates, and it looks important. The bulletin board is where my eye goes, however, with its mix of vintage maps, postcards, advertisements and book covers.

The whiteboard represents where most writers focus their time: Output. Whether mounted on the wall, tucked into a notebook or etched into their brains, the to-do list looms importantly. We should be producing something, we should have goals, we should get published.

My whiteboard contains a list of free-lance stories due over the course of this year; some short creative projects I’ve been submitting; and a novel that’s still under revision.

But just as important is Input, an area to which we pay scant attention. Arguably without Input there will be no Output. Input is where we get our ideas, our spark, our inspiration. Because it seems to come out of the ether, we are loathe to quantify it. But Input can be listed and analyzed; we can boost our Input to increase our Output.

My list of both might look something like this:


Reading “Emerson and his Eccentrics”; rereading Thoreau’s journal – Thinking with intention about my memoir

Research into medicine – Free-lance stories on hospital history

Reading the New York Times and other papers – Ideas for op-eds and letters to the editor

Browsing the Times archive – Random sparks of interest for fiction and nonfiction

Posting on the Creativity Bulletin Board and collecting new images – Same 

Reading books about moonshining – Novel on moonshining in Rhode Island

Gardening on this homestead where I grew up – Ideas for my memoir

Plays and books – Writing reviews of same


Most of this Input comes from magazines, newspapers, online sources, and vintage ephemera. I’m low on one vital source of Input: experiences. Other than gardening and the theater, I don’t list any. A few trips to museums, hiking trails, and art galleries will boost my Input considerably.

In her seminal work on creativity, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron refers to these experiences as the “artist date.” She prescribes a weekly foray that will feed the artist within us. “Your artist needs to be taken out, pampered, and listened to,” she writes, suggesting long walks, a visit to a new neighborhood or browsing through a secondhand store as possibilities. 

My list of experiences will not be your list. I find a trip to the dump shack (where used books are dropped off and picked up) or an antique bookstore is always rewarding, as is any cultural experience that doesn’t involve reading or writing: a play, art gallery opening or musical performance. 

Sometimes these experiences sneak up on you. A family outing, a bulletin board in a coffee shop or a trip to the post office can provide that sudden “aha!” moment that writers need. You increase your odds of benefiting from these experiences if, instead of spending all day at your computer, you take time to mingle in the real world.

We cannot minimize the power of images and texts, either. I’m in the middle of reading two books (one on Emerson, another a novel I’m reviewing) and listening to a third book on audio (Pearl Buck in China, a fabulous biography by Hilary Spurling). My bulletin board is saturated with images: a 1968 Pontiac Bonneville ad; a postcard of a motel in Rutland, Vt.; a Nancy Drew cover; a vintage map of New England; one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s poppies; and photography by Maurine Sutter, an artist who spent two weeks in the dune shacks of Provincetown. All of these speak to me on some level, and all of them in some small way fuel my writing thoughts.

The conventional to-do list is a necessary evil, especially for those of us writing free-lance on deadline. But spend some time on another kind of to-do list – the experiences and interactions that fertilize your mind – and you’ll find your writing will benefit enormously.



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Lilac time

May is the month of beginnings, and beauty, and beatitude. It has always been this way. The obvious reason unfolds outside the window: fresh leaves, plum blossoms, grass stretching toward the sun. May’s attributes are too long to list – the lilac, with its heady fragrance; bobbing red tulips; rhododendrons and apple blossoms and flowering pear, on and on, but May rests in the simple and subtle as well. The unfolding of a petal; the maple leaf that, unfurled, hangs low in its newness, as though weighted down by dew.

I remember discovering Emerson and Whitman in May, their birth months, but maybe I am exaggerating. I read them in June and July and August too, but nothing quite compared to lying on the grass with Leaves of Grass in my lap, or leafing through Emerson’s essays under a canopy of new leaves.

I have been considering my life as a sort of natural history. To that end I recently combed through my journals and transcribed all the natural description, hoping to find some magical moment when the atmospheric became symbolic, when I saw the world as metaphor, as Thoreau did in Walden. And I found some Mays that were dark and rainy, and some even stormy; but mostly May overpowered me with her perfume, her explosions of color, her possibility.

Dusky sky is heavy with overpowering scents of apple blossoms, lilacs, forsythias, I wrote one year, noting the soft, syrupy air, a few days later finding springtime lushness, fragile, delicate flowers, the cherry, dogwood and elm. Finally, I decided, Moderation is heady enough.

May has many meanings. It is a word of permission. Yes, you may walk out into the world now, feel grass on your bare feet, follow the bees’ buzz. My old Webster’s describes the verb as “liberty; opportunity; permission; possibility.” May is a door ajar, a reopened ice-cream stand, a forest path.

In its most archaic meaning, May was a substitute for maiden. It is a woman’s name, and I gave it to the grandmother in my first novel, Roberta’s Woods: May, so like Mary, my real grandmother’s name, and a tribute to her.

The name derives from the Roman goddess Maia, who fathered a son by Zeus. One of the seven sisters (the Pleiades that appear in May’s night sky), she is Arcadian, a mountain nymph, which is why May seems like a sylvan month, of forest glades and dirt paths and greening meadows; not a month of the sea, it is more green than blue, more earth than water.

June was cluttered with holidays, bookended by my sister Andi’s birthday on the fifth and my grandmother’s on the 30th, with Father’s Day in between. June was graduations and end-of-year picnics and trips to the beach. Summer already seemed too short, demanding lists and plans to capture it all.

But May had only Memorial Day. I would accompany my grandmother to the cemetery, bringing our potted plants of geranium and pansy and petunia. Along the grassy lanes, she would stop at my sister Mary Jane’s grave, weeping for the granddaughter gone too soon, and that of her own daughter Sylvia, the baby who never grew up. I would feel tugged between the pull of Mays past and the lush explosion of the present, with its intoxicating lilacs and fresh-cut grass, my attention divided between my grandmother’s gentle sniffling and the shirtless boy pushing a lawn mower.

Let April be cruel, with Eliot’s evocative rains, and October stun us with fruitful Keatsian displays, but May in her quiet way always gets to me. May is the anticipation of summer, rather than its sandy, gritty, sun-blistering reality. May is the reality of spring, which never disappoints, even under cloud. May is the romantic poets of England – Wordsworth’s “splendor in the grass” – and their transgressive American counterparts – Whitman’s “spear of summer grass,” what the child demanded to be defined, what the poet could only guess at.

Like moderation, each May is heady enough, more than enough, for one soul to experience in a lifetime.

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Houses’ mysterious (writing) allure


It was a house that drew me to Nathaniel Hawthorne, and a house that brought me back to him.

I was probably 10, browsing through the Book of Knowledge, when I first came across a condensed version of The House of the Seven Gables. Who could resist the title? Never mind the pen-and-ink sketches of the house with all its twists and turns, the gaunt Clifford, the dusty shop opened by Hepzibah. I barely understood the story, but its gothic ambience was irresistible.

Years later, my husband and I visited the house that inspired the novel, in Salem, Mass., on a brutally hot day in the summer of 1986. I don’t remember much about it, except for the steep stairs and the nooks and crannies. At some point I read the book entire. I moved on to other writers.

Since then, we have toured dozens of New England houses; some sheltered writers, others merely inspired them. Last week we found another – the Old Manse in Concord, Mass., where Hawthorne brought his bride, Sophia Peabody, after their marriage in 1842. As he recounts in Mosses from an Old Manse, this house that had sheltered many a minister – and witnessed the first shots of the Revolution, literally in its backyard – drew in the couple with a warm embrace of old timbers and the shade of black ash trees.

Set back from the road, the house was fronted by a tree-lined path; in the back, the Concord River slipped peacefully past, near where the old North Bridge had stood on that first day of the Revolution. The interior was rambling and drafty, although its front and back doors afforded a nice cross-breeze in the summer.

In her book about the Concord renaissance, American Bloomsbury, Susan Cheever senses a barely disguised sexual energy in both Hawthorne and Sophia’s writings at the time. Though their stay would be tinged by sadness – Sophia lost her first baby – they used her diamond to etch messages of hope into the window glass in Hawthorne’s study: “Man’s accidents are God’s purposes.”

Standing in that study last week, where Hawthorne wrote the classic short story “The Birth-mark” and Emerson composed the essay “Nature,” I felt the pulse of both men’s creativity beating in the air. I sat in a reproduction of the wide-armed chair Emerson used for writing, feeling a little like I was about to give blood. Hawthorne’s desk, cleverly notched into the wall, is original, as are the books throughout the house.

Notes Brenda Wineapple, author of Hawthorne: A Life: “The Manse is another of Hawthorne’s old houses, fragrant with the spirit of former tenants and, perched on the banks of the past, fit emblem of his imagination.”

The houses, always the houses. After “The House of the Seven Gables,” I was drawn to a series of books in which the house is a dominant character. Just as with Hawthorne, I discovered the Brontes in the Book of Knowledge, where Thornfield Hall looms over Jane Eyre, especially in that pivotal scene when the first Mrs. Rochester stands behind the flaming curtains of the burning hall. I read the entire novel at 12, again not completely comprehending it, but drawn in by those drafty halls and stone-lined corridors.

Later came Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and a host of gothic imitators, including Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, with its doomed Manderley. Louisa May Alcott wrote captivatingly of four sisters in Little Women, but where would the book be without Jo’s garrett, the private escape of which every young (writing) girl dreams?

No coincidence, then, that my first two novels feature houses on their covers, or that the early stories I scribbled always seemed to revolve around intriguing real estate: Tug Hollow, the old Cape Cod house where my father grew up, and what we called Howard’s House, the 1728 Cape in Escoheag that belonged to his stepfather. It didn’t take much imagination to conjure their early residents. Old ancestors’ portraits were piled upstairs in Tug Hollow, and  Howard’s mother had kept a boarding house, with the registers of their guests still extant for my fervent examination. Was it true that my grandmother had made booze in the cellar of Tug Hollow, during Prohibition? (Yes.) And that a guest had died in a mysterious hunting accident at Howard’s? (Probably not.) Already I was learning that authors didn’t write history, they just used it to spark their imaginations.

Hawthorne, Wineapple writes, needed the tangible to kick-start his tales – the red A of The Scarlet Letter, the house that (once) had seven gables, the dusty records in the Custom House where he earned his bread. It’s the past he’s sifting through, and houses are the largest embodiment of it, their rooms so metaphorically akin to our own bodies: the windows as eyes, the rooms our heart and mind, the shutters the masks we hide behind.

Not only did other residents walk the halls of the Old Manse, and peer through this wavy glass, but other writers did the same, imagining the original dwellers’ presence, a tantalizing layer of observers and observed.

Rare, however, is the house that bestows inspiration on its occupant while the writer lives there. Houses achieve their highest magnetism after we leave, and we are forced to bang together their rooms from memory. Hawthorne wrote the introduction to Mosses from an Old Manse while back in Salem, working at the Custom House. The House of the Seven Gables came to him while he and Sophia lived in a cramped rented house in the Berkshires. Alcott was living in Orchard House in Concord when she wrote Little Women, but the house she fondly remembered was the Wayside (so named by Hawthorne, when he later lived there), and the March girls’ garrett came from another house altogether – Fruitlands, the ill-conceived experimental community where Alcott and her sisters nearly starved to death.

Now, staying in a modern apartment while we await the renovation of the house where I grew up, I wonder if I will be able to write once I get there. But all that will remain is a shell, the walls, roof, and floors, for the old house only exists in my mind, the best place for writing inspiration to begin.


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File this under Indexing and Journal


Both Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson practiced a deliberate form of inspiration, by referring back to their old journals for ideas. In Emerson: The Mind on Fire, biographer Robert D. Richardson Jr. describes the transcendalist’s method: “… Emerson spent a good deal of time methodically copying and recopying journal material, indexing, alphabetizing indexes, and eventually making indexes of indexes.” Emerson found these indexes particularly useful for his lectures, because they tied together his many thoughts on a subject in one place, for easy reference. Thoreau, too, revisited his journal entries, particularly as he drafted and redrafted Walden, which would undergo seven iterations before its publication in 1854.

I had both men in mind this month as I began, rather haphazardly, to start an index of my journal. I began by picking a volume at random. One notebook – I use the Apica brand, ranging in size from 5.5 by 8 inches to 7 by 10 inches – typically covers three or four months. Immediately as I leafed through the first, ideas for stories, dreams, thumbnails of people, and old memories rose to the surface. Each time an interesting subject heading arose, I started a new file card. Eventually I had about 20 of these, ranging in topic from people’s names to story titles to various nouns.

A typical card I headed with my grandmother’s name, and the following subheadings: Her aprons; Love/grief/cemetery visit; Memories of; Attitudes and superstitions (“Superstitions” would soon get its own card); Garden; Money. One subject card I headed “Handwriting, cursive,” after finding  two rather elaborate entries on this, in 2011 and 2013, including one in which I practiced the Palmer method I remembered from school. Other card headings included Ice; Thoreau; and Writing, General.

Among the abandoned projects I thus unearthed was an essay about my great-grandmothers and a novel I started in 2013, about a man who collects dictionaries.

The most haunting entry, in 2014, described a dream my sister had about her own suicide. Two years later she would die of cancer, although I had no idea then she was sick – although this suggests she may have suspected it.

This exercise appears to have several benefits: 1. The compilation of related material into one place, for  future reference. 2. Comparing ideas, good and bad, for writing projects. 3. The discovery of material within the journals that might still have life. 4. The assurance that, despite our daily anxieties, a wealth of material exists, waiting to be found, connected, and rewritten into a new form.

I’ll leave you with writing advice I gave myself in March 2014:


Write in my journal every day – check!

Attack this book as though it’s the most enjoyable thing I’ll ever write.

Pursue whatever writing project I want.

Face the earth in all its substance every day with every pore of my writing self open, absorbing, receptive.

Trust that my critical/revision/editing self will be dogged, will be immersed, and will not stop revising too soon.

Celebrate the opportunity to write without giving in to guilt, depression, or despair.

Tell myself, just for now I will not doubt my ability or my determination.

Continue to read and review with the idea of learning from others.

Not a bad manifesto for the new writing year.

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A year of reading great writers

Each year I compile a “best of” books list for two newspapers, The Providence Journal and The Day of New London, Conn. These lists sometimes differ (if I can give a shout-out to a local author for either publication, I do), but they share the same failing: limited to 2017 releases, they don’t begin to plumb the depths of the year’s reading.

I read 54 books last year, 13 more than last year and a new personal record. Part of this was due to a June reading binge that coincided with an embarrassment of riches from my book review pile and the end of the spring semester. My audiobook habit also contributed to this total, at 11 titles. Of the 54 books read, 23 were novels; 10 were biographies; and 13 were memoirs or diaries. More than half of the books, or 32, were written by women.

Scanning the list, I can see how one book leads to another, or one interest expands outward, enveloping other authors and genres. My interest in Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson continued, bolstered by a summer trip to Concord, Mass. I reviewed Kevin Dann’s Expect Great Things: The Life and Search of Henry David Thoreau, but it was Robert D. Richardson Jr.’s 1986 tome, Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, that resonated. Richardson exhaustively traces Thoreau’s intellectual interests and pursuits and manages to bring him to life; at the end, when HDT utters his cryptic last words (“Moose. Indian”), I nearly cried.

At the Walden Pond bookstore, I found Richardson’s Emerson: The Mind on Fire, another exemplary intellectual biography that held in me in thrall in August after our visit to Emerson’s house. This time, however, the ending felt muted, despite the masterful job Richardson does of unweaving both Emerson’s state of mind and writing influences. A bonus: finding an errata tucked into the book that had been initialed in Richardson’s own hand.

Thoreau and Emerson were never far from my mind as I “discovered” another 20th-century nature writer. Much like Edwin Way Teale, Donald Culross Peattie was a best-selling author in his own time and has since faded from view. I found reprints of The Road of a Naturalist and An Almanac for Moderns at Bank Square Books in Mystic, Conn., which consistently shelves an eclectic selection of fiction and nonfiction. If Teale is ultimately a journalist of nature, Peattie is a poet, painting evocative pictures of terrain ranging from the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina (where his mother, also a writer, retreated to a cabin) to the American West. Here’s Peattie describing the all-too-brief blooming of desert flowers, like blue gilias and Mojave aster:

We used to wonder, at the ranch, how far this flood of rare flowering washed across the desert floor. You couldn’t tell; you only knew it went on to the rim of the horizon. And you knew it was brief. It must be loved while you had it, like the song of the thrush in the southern states. Something that each morning you dread to find gone at last, whelmed by the advance of summer heat. (p. 14)

Peattie is writing about so much more than desert life cycles. “It must be loved while you had it” could be a philosophy of life. I had to look up whelmed, which, derived from the Middle English, means “to turn upside down” or “cover or engulf completely,” clearly the origin of our contemporary and, as I now realize, redundant overwhelmed.

The best writers send me to my dictionary. They prompt me to keep a pencil or pen in hand so I can annotate favorite passages. Emerson and Thoreau, of course, were both insatiable and wide-ranging readers; if you tour Emerson’s house, you can see his floor-to-ceiling bookcase, in fact a series of stacked bureau drawers he would pull out and take with him on lecture tours. Richardson notes that it’s not the volume of reading that is important, but “the active filtration and the tight focus of constant intention which convert that reading into real life experience and then into adequate expression,” what he calls “the exclusive properties of the great writer.”

This year also brought continued focus on Anais Nin, whose diary created a sensation when it was finally published in seven volumes beginning in 1966. I finished vols. three and four this year, and then read Deirdre Bair’s Anais Nin: A Biography, which fills in the gaps created by Nin’s elaborate evasions. You can read Nin many ways – and she has been condemned as a liar, a “minor writer,” or what Bair calls “a major minor writer.” She has been criticized for posing as an independent artist while her banker husband supported her (and her many lovers and hangers-on). You could condemn her for both bigamy (she was married to two men, on the East and West coasts, and kept them each in the dark for years) and incest (with her father, the musician and ne’er-do-well Joaquin Nin). She had multiple abortions, slept with two of her analysts, and suffered the miserable death of the promiscuous, dying of cervical cancer at age 73.

The bottom line, for me, is that she was a writer and artist who fought to curate her own life, in the face of overwhelming – or should we just say whelming? – financial, cultural, and patriarchal odds. Her diary is not the spontaneous outpourings of a romantic, as cliché would have it, but an extensively rewritten document that has been polished, sharpened, and cut to illuminate hard diamonds of truth. In this she can be likened to that most unlikely of comrades, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who actually spent two years indexing his own journals to make it easier to mine them for lecture and essay ideas.

Nin’s diaries were both her well spring and her albatross. She carried them across continents, from Paris to New York to Los Angeles, and secreted them in bank vaults or hidden compartments in her own closets. She hid them from some and shared them with others; Henry Miller borrowed liberally from her work in writing Tropic of Cancer. She relentlessly hawked them to publishers and agents, behavior that even her biographer condemned but which eventually paid off when she found a sympathetic agent, Gunther Stuhlmann, who edited and sold the diaries to Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

If Nin had been a man, of course, her relentless pursuit of publication would have been lauded, not criticized. Her sexual habits would be the stuff of legend, not condemnation, and even her bigamy would be hailed as some sign of literary genius. We cannot separate her work’s reception from her gender, particularly as her life as a woman is such a predominant theme in the diaries (and in her fiction).

If there is any theme to this year’s reading, it is those writers and artists brave enough to create their own lives and talented enough to make them into art. In reading biographies of Andrew Wyeth, Tennessee Williams, and Daphne du Maurier, and memoirs by Joyce Carol Oates and Sandra Cisneros, I find this recurring struggle. From what well does inspiration come? How can the artist serve the dual masters of an intellectual life and a personal, human one? Who decides whether the artist succeeds or fails?

As a book critic, I make cold assessments of people’s work. As a writer, I pursue the seemingly impossible task of both living and reflecting, of trying to curate a life that is both creative and moral. It is a life that is firmly rooted in the written word. You cannot be a writer without being a reader, and the best books will lead you to the habits of great writers. So in 2017 I have considered the inspiration of the natural world; the possibility within journals; the necessity of never giving up.

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