Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Necessary Change

I’ve been quiet on this blog recently. Besides dealing with the death of my dad, a motley of illnesses, and difficult unplanned events, I’ve been thinking. About writing, about self-promotion, about blogging, and primarily about my life. Where I want to focus, how I want to carry on. A change is needed, and though this was evident before Dad died, I was managing okay and planned to finish up the projects I’d chosen to do before making any alterations to my lifestyle. Dad hastened all that along. With the bottoming out of my energy and the going to sleep of my work-related brain, I’ve been forced to do what I was able to more or less ignore before. Rest. Take care of my physical health. Lower the stress in my life. And ask myself what my priorities really are, because clearly, there isn’t enough of me to do the many things I want to do.

“Where I want to focus, how I want to carry on.” This question is different in weight than when I first asked it in my teens. I realized then I had to choose between a flood of interests, that I would benefit from narrowing in on and really exploring just a few of them. Years later, I wanted to focus still more tightly, to become adept at one or two things and let other activities—beloved or unfulfilling—go. Now, with chronic tiredness and pain, and a very slow thought turnover rate, I have to cull as never before. Yet after Finding Creatures & Other Stories* came out, I actually did the opposite. I opened up my sights and welcomed in the world.

Is it 19 months since my book came out? Something like that. With that event I no longer settled down to ponder stories and flesh them out. I waded into the world of self-promotion and social networking, and I began working on other people’s writing projects more. It was a lot of work, often fun, and I learned a great deal. I even got a few stories written and some of them published. I wrote the second draft of a novel I’d written the year before. All good. But all very wearing, as well, and instead of waking up and wondering what writing I’d do that day, I woke up wondering if I’d ever have time AND energy to write again. Not a good thing.

Writing is nothing new, and it’s not the only thing in my life that matters. But it is the lens through which I revisit and interpret and re-experience life, the way I return with heightened senses to matters that fly too quickly by, to realize and appreciate them deeply. You could say it's my meditation, or part of it—you could call it my prayer. When I'm worried about who I'm keeping waiting or whether I'm making sales or how to keep my profile up, when I'm digging in to help other people lift their careers and am investing too much time in that, I don't come back to that still place where I remember why I chose writing over singing and art, why I chose it over science and religion and all my early loves.

The nearest thing I can compare writing to is staring. Being a kid, and a young adult, with nothing I had to do and lots of time to do it, I would stare close up at a spider web, a slick of machine oil on dusty water, crumbs of cement, shadow on tile. I would notice precisely the air touching my skin. Would stare at an idea, a book, an animal, a friend. Stilling to wait for the next breath of an insect, the next turn of a leaf, I found something far more profound than I could guess at when headlong. In not rushing by, I was discovering some part of them, and in discovering, bringing them into myself.

When I write, I touch these things once more, bring them out of me again, hold them up, meld them with other ideas, beings, sensations, questionings, and offer them to the page, where with luck another person will pause some time, read, and see still more than I have seen.

It isn’t about producing something, but about making contact with what already is, with noticing and perhaps celebrating it; at the very least, whispering it aloud.

Last week for the first time in months I was able to start and complete a piece of creative writing. I had to give up the thought of writing a story I owe someone, or working on the novel, or any other such constructive thing. Instead, I just wrote like I used to, letting the words and images that needed to come, come, and welcoming them. Not surprisingly, it’s a three page observation of dying and death. It made me cry. It made several other people cry, too. And talk. And smile. Those are very great rewards.**

The last 19 months of producing and promoting have changed my life, and they have changed the way I write. Although the output has slowed, my writing has deepened, or at least my sense of things has done. Doors have opened in my mind and heart, I have greater expertise in bookish things, and my appreciation of my own and other people’s limits has sharpened accordingly.

But it isn’t the life for me. I would love to support all the inspired people I find around me, and to learn well the skills of layout, cover design, and editing. I’d love to hang out online regularly with all sorts of writers and readers, share ideas and promote our work. But what I need is a quiet life where I am rested and cared for enough that I end up moved and inspired to write a little, now and then, rather than dragging myself from commitment to commitment with the guilty feeling that I’m just not doing this right. That someone with more energy than I have should be taking these things on.

I’ve never, luckily, been interested in being famous. The idea scares the bejeezus out of me, actually. I’m unlikely ever to write anything that hits big in the popular canon, and I’m unlikely to fill a bookcase with publications before I die. But I can let writing be the essence that makes the details of life weave together for a moment, now and then, into a pattern I can recognize and delight in and not forget. I can let writing be an oar, not a compass. An awareness, a sensation, instead of a statement, a summing up, a pressing on. Something to rest in, in other words, rather than something to grapple with. And if my writing can offer the same for a reader, well—wonderful. I couldn’t ask any more.

* Finding Creatures & Other Stories, by C. June Wolf.

** The story is “The Corpse Pose”, and it will be published in Room Magazine’s “Women and Spirituality” issue in December 2010.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Coming Publication: "The Corpse Pose"

I'm happy to report that my story "The Corpse Pose" has been accepted for Room Magazine's Women and Spirituality issue, coming out in December 2010.

"The Corpse Pose" is the first thing I have completed since my dad's death in December. I tried to write about something else but, as you might guess from the title, death is still very much on my mind. I'm happy to say that the story is getting wonderful reactions. One reader said, "You've written about death, but you've given us life." I'm grateful for this kind of response.

The submission details are below for those who are interested. I know there is not a lot of fiction coming in, so if you have something, fire away.


Room Magazine's Call for Submissions on Women and Spirituality

Room's 2010 December issue (33.4) will examine Women and Spirituality. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines "spiritual" as "...relating to the human spirit or soul; not of physical things." How do you define it? We're looking for writing that transcends the material realm and explores what lies beneath, beyond, and above. Send us your best original, unpublished fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry. We are also looking for suitable artwork and illustrations. For submission guidelines, click here. Submit to the attention of Clélie Rich by June 30, 2010.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Shekhar Kapur: We are the stories we tell ourselves | Video on

Okay. You are getting the idea that I think TED is great. A rich store of short films offering ideas, inspiration, observation--wonderful! Here is a talk by Shekhar Kapur on the creation of stories.

Where does creative inspiration spring from? At TEDIndia, Hollywood/Bollywood director Shekhar Kapur ("Elizabeth," "Mr. India") pinpoints his source of creativity: sheer, utter panic. He shares a powerful way to unleash your inner storyteller.

'...When I go out to direct a film, every day we prepare too much, we think too much. Knowledge becomes a weight upon wisdom. You know, simple words lost in the quicksand of experience. So I come up, and I say, "What am I going to do today?" I'm not going to do what I planned to do, and I put myself into absolute panic. It's my one way of getting rid of my mind, getting rid of this mind that says, "Hey, you know what you're doing. You know exactly what you're doing. You're a director, you've done it for years." So I've got to get there and be in complete panic. So it's a symbolic gesture. I tear up the script. I go on [unclear]. I panic myself. I get scared. I'm doing it right now. You can watch me. I'm getting nervous. I don't know what to say. I don't know what I'm doing. I don't want to go there. 

And as I go there, of course, my AD says, "You know what you're going to do, sir." I say, "Of course, I do..."'

"He was completely and utterly unusual, and deeply unafraid."
Cate Blanchett, in Time

Shekhar Kapur: We are the stories we tell ourselves | Video on

Friday, April 02, 2010

Ryan Lobo: Photographing the hidden story | Video on

What storytelling can be.

From TED: Ideas Worth Spreading:

As a photographer and filmmaker, Ryan Lobo uses his exquisite lens to capture humanity and nature at their most open and vulnerable moments.

"...the theme of Lobo's career: breaking down stereotypes while reframing the landscape. 

"Since 2001, Lobo has been taking haunting stills of everything from Yakuza tattoos and the illegal organ trade to the Indian middle class. He's worked as a field producer on many nature-oriented shows for National Geographic and founded Mad Monitor Productions, a production company based in Bangalore and Washington, D.C. There's no scientific, economic or sociopolitical boundary Lobo isn't willing to cross. His intense fieldwork continues to illuminate his traveling (you can read about his journeys and see photographs on his blog) and a forthcoming book project."

The video:

Ryan Lobo: Photographing the hidden story | Video on

The transcript (which on TED Talks is interactive: click the words in the transcript and it starts the video at that spot. Is that cool or what?):

My name is Ryan Lobo, and I've been involved in the documentary filmmaking business all over the world for the last 10 years. During the process of making these films I found myself taking photographs, often much to the annoyance of the video cameramen.

I found this photography of mine almost compulsive. And at the end of a shoot, I would sometimes feel that I had photographs that told a better story than a sometimes-sensational documentary. I felt, when I had my photographs, that I was holding on to something true, regardless of agendas or politics. In 2007 I traveled to three war zones. I traveled to Iraq, Afghanistan and Liberia. And over there I experienced other people's suffering, up close and personal, immersed myself in some rather intense and emotional stories, and at times I experienced great fear for my own life.

As always, I would return to Bangalore, and often to animated discussions at friend's homes, where we would discuss various issues while they complained bitterly about new pub timings, where a drink often cost more than what they'd paid their 14 year old maid. I would feel very isolated during these discussions. But at the same time, I questioned myself and my own integrity and purpose in storytelling. And I decided that I had compromised, just like my friends in those discussions, where we told stories in contexts we made excuses for, rather than taking responsibility for.

I won't go into details about what led to a decision I made, but let's just say it involved alcohol, cigarettes, other substances and a woman. (Laughter) I basically decided that it was I, not the camera or the network, or anything that lay outside myself, that was the only instrument in storytelling truly worth tuning. In my life, when I tried to achieve things like success or recognition, they eluded me. Paradoxically, when I let go of these objectives, and worked from a place of compassion and purpose, looking for excellence, rather than the results of it, everything arrived on its own, including fulfillment.

Photography transcended culture, including my own. And it is, for me, a language which expressed the intangible, and gives voice to people and stories without. I invite you into three recent stories of mine, which are about this way of looking, if you will, which I believe exemplify the tenets of what I like to call compassion in storytelling.

In 2007 I went to Liberia, where a group of my friends and I did an independent, self-funded film, still in progress, on a very legendary and brutal war-lord named General Butt Naked. His real name is Joshua, and he's pictured here in a cell, where he once used to torture and murder people, including children. Joshua claims to have personally killed more than 10,000 people during Liberia's civil war. He got his name from fighting stark naked. And he is probably the most prolific mass murderer alive on Earth today.

This woman witnessed the General murdering her brother. Joshua commanded his child-soldiers to commit unspeakable crimes, and enforced his command with great brutality. Today many of these children are addicted to drugs like heroin, and they are destitute, like these young men in the image. How do you live with yourself if you know you've committed horrific crimes? Today the General is a baptized Christian evangelist. And he's on a mission.

We accompanied Joshua, as he walked the Earth, visiting villages where he had once killed and raped. He seeked forgiveness, and he claims to endeavor to improve the lives of his child-soldiers. During this expedition I expected him to be killed outright, and us as well. But what I saw opened my eyes to an idea of forgiveness which I never thought possible. In the midst of incredible poverty and loss, people who had nothing absolved a man who had taken everything from them. He begs for forgiveness, and receives it from the same woman whose brother he murdered. Senegalese, the young man seated on the wheelchair here, was once a child soldier, under the General's command, until he disobeyed orders, and the General shot off both his legs. He forgives the General in this image. He risked his life as he walked up to people whose families he'd murdered.

In this photograph a hostile crowd in a slum surrounds him. And Joshua remains silent as they vented their rage against him. This image, to me, is almost like from a Shakespearean play, with a man, surrounded by various influences, desperate to hold on to something true within himself, in a context of great suffering that he has created himself.

I was intensely moved during all this. But the question is, does forgiveness and redemption replace justice? Joshua, in his own words, says that he does not mind standing trial for his crimes, and speaks about them from soapboxes across Monrovia, to an audience that often includes his victims. A very unlikely spokesperson for the idea of separation of church and state.

The second story I'm going to tell you about is about a group of very special fighting women with rather unique peace-keeping skills. Liberia has been devastated by one of Africa's bloodiest civil wars, which has left more than 200,000 people dead, thousands of women scarred by rape and crime on a spectacular scale. Liberia is now home to an all-woman United Nations contingent of Indian peacekeepers.

These women, many from small towns in India, help keep the peace, far away from home and family. They use negotiation and tolerance more often than an armed response. The commander told me that a woman could gauge a potentially violent situation much better than men. And that they were definitely capable of diffusing it non-aggressively. This man was very drunk, and he was very interested in my camera, until he noticed the women, who handled him with smiles, and AK-47s at the ready, of course. (Laughter)

This contingent seems to be quite lucky, and it has not sustained any casualties, even though dozens of peacekeepers have been killed in Liberia. And yes, all of those people killed were male. Many of the women are married with children, and they say the hardest part of their deployment was being kept away from their children.

I accompanied these women on their patrols, and watched as they walked past men, many who passed very lewd comments incessantly. And when I asked one of the women about the shock and awe response, she said, "Don't worry, same thing back home. We know how to deal with these fellows," and ignored them.

In a country ravaged by violence against women, Indian peacekeepers have inspired many local women to join the police force. Sometimes, when the war is over and all the film crews have left, the most inspiring stories are the ones that float just beneath the radar. I came back to India and nobody was interested in buying the story. And one editor told me that she wasn't interested in doing what she called "manual labor stories."

In 2007 and 2009 I did stories on the Delhi Fire Service, the DFS, which, during the summer, is probably the world's most active fire department. They answer more than 5,000 calls in just two months. And all this against incredible logistical odds, like heat and traffic jams. Something amazing happened during this shoot. Due to a traffic jam, we were late in getting to a slum, a large slum, which had caught fire. As we neared, angry crowds attacked our trucks and stoned them, by hundreds of people all over the place. These men were terrified, as the mob attacked our vehicle.

But nonetheless, despite the hostility, firefighters left the vehicle and successfully fought the fire. Running the gauntlet through hostile crowds, and some wearing motorbike helmets to prevent injury. Some of the local people forcibly took away the hoses from the firemen to put out the fire in their homes. Now, hundreds of homes were destroyed. But the question that lingered in my mind was, what causes people to destroy fire trucks headed to their own homes? Where does such rage come from? And how are we responsible for this? 45 percent of the 14 million people who live in Delhi live in unauthorized slums, which are chronically overcrowded. They lack even the most basic amenities. And this is something that is common to all our big cities.

Back to the DFS. A huge chemical depot caught fire, thousands of drums filled with petrochemicals were blazing away and exploding all around us. The heat was so intense, that hoses were used to cool down firefighters fighting extremely close to the fire, and with no protective clothing. In India we often love to complain about our government bodies. But over here, the heads of the DFS, Mister R.C. Sharman, Mister A.K. Sharman, lead the firefight with their men. Something wonderful in a country where manual labor is often looked down upon. (Applause)

Over the years, my faith in the power of storytelling has been tested. And I've had very serious doubt about its efficacy, and my own faith in humanity. However, a film we shot still airs on the National Geographic channel. And when it airs I get calls from all the guys I was with and they tell me that they receive hundreds of calls congratulating them. Some of the firemen told me that they were also inspired to do better because they were so pleased to get thank-yous rather than brick bats.

It seems that this story helped change perceptions about the DFS, at least in the minds of an audience in part on televisions, read magazines and whose huts aren't on fire. Sometimes, focusing on what's heroic, beautiful and dignified, regardless of the context, can help magnify these intangibles three ways, in the protagonist of the story, in the audience, and also in the storyteller. And that's the power of storytelling. Focus on what's dignified, courageous and beautiful, and it grows. Thank you. (Applause)