Staying The Same

My birthday today, and I sorta just like the same things as always: My family, books, teaching, rivers, camping, poetry, great stories, and this place – The Columns, Eugene, Oregon (@jskorty pic):

climbing poster Columns

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Happy Birthday, Toni Morrison

It is Toni Morrison’s 88th birthday today, February 18th. Hard to believe that she’s 88, but we all march toward death – the unavoidable – and hopefully she won’t go soon.

My favorite Toni Morrison novels in order:

  1. A Mercy (I know this is a controversial choice, but I’ve read it four times and I know what I know)
  2. Beloved (Pulitzer Prize, 1988)
  3. Song Of Solomon (National Book Critics Circle Award, 1977)

On writing novels, Morrison once famously said, “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

Thank goodness that she chose to write rather than continuing as a book editor. Her work on other writers’ novels would never have equaled her ability as a writer.

Also:

Dear Ms. Morrison,

If you would like to get together and talk about writing, I would love to drink coffee or tea with you.

Please contact me through my agent (or directly here at this website).

Thank you.

Love,

Don Pedro

Rest In Peace, Mary Oliver

Photograph of Mary Oliver raising a glass at her home, Pembroke Lodge, Richmond [1930s] by Eileen Agar 1899-1991

Although Mary Oliver won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, she was never respected by serious critics the way she deserved. For example, she was never given a full-length review by The New York Times. She earned a full-length review from the Times but did not receive one.

To be clear though, Oliver wouldn’t have cared about this. She wasn’t in love with mere things. Instead, she loved the natural world, geese, the sun, grasshoppers, and – of course – her dogs (I’ve gone through her poems and attempted to count her dog companions, and it’s impossible. She rescued too many to count).

Mary Oliver passed away today at the age of 83. What she left behind is incredible.

For people who don’t know much of her work, here’s a short poem called “Praying”:

Praying

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

– Mary Oliver

oliver

And for readers who don’t know her work at all, here is her most famous poem:

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

– Mary Oliver

My New Book Of (Not Too Serious) Essays Is Out!

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This week, my new book came out. I would say that this is an important moment, except essays like “How To Make Out With A Raccoon” and “Why Carrots Should Be Afraid Of Me” don’t sound very important.

But if you like to laugh: Click here for the paperback.

If you have a Kindle, click here (Note: the book is free through Kindle Unlimited).

Don’t Listen To The Negativity

As you finish writing projects, you’re going to hear a lot of negativity. Even in the most exciting moments, when a draft is out to editors for example, or when there’s interest from film producers, people are going to talk to you about their concerns. They’re going to ask a “serious question.” You’re going to get rejected, or face delays, or told what doesn’t work.

But don’t listen to any of this. Don’t focus on the negative.

I always make a goal of one in ten. If one in ten editors loves something, that’s great. Or as my agent – Adriann Ranta at Foundry – always says, “We only need one.” And it’s important to remember that goal.

Because in the gate-keeper moments, it’ll feel like most of what you face is negativity, sometimes even from friends or family. But remember that your fans, your readers, the average people out there, they love your work. They think you’re a good storyteller, or an interesting poet, or an engaging essayist, or whatever.

Also, you can only control what you can control. You can’t worry about other people’s concerns. You can’t worry about other people’s strong opinions. You can’t worry about what bothers people who aren’t making art.

You simply have to create your best work. Draft, revise, edit, and produce.

Then move on to the next thing.

Junk In And Junk Out

As a teacher and writer, I’m constantly thinking about the trap of social media, how much time it takes, the emotional trade off, and how little I learn, all of this balanced by the relationships I make online (which I do value). So is it worth it?

I also think a lot about how much we consume in our culture – entertainment-wise – rather than create, the scales not being balanced in the least. I worry about each time I zone out watching a screen for more than a few minutes. If I want to create, and to create quality work, I have to consume less and create more. And when I do consume, it has to be high-quality art (great books, poetry, lyrical rappers, paintings, sculpture, essays, etc.).

But that’s me – how I would say it. Here’s someone else’s voice…

Quoting Benjamin P. Hardy (from Medium):

“Invest At Least 80% Of Your “Off” Time Into Learning

Most people are consumers rather than creators.

They are at work to get their paycheck, not to make a difference.

When left to their own devices, most people consume their time as well. It is only by investing your time that you get a return on that time.

Nearly every second spent on social media is consumed time. You can’t have that time back. Rather than making your future better, it actually made your future worse. Just like eating bad food, every consumed moment leaves you worse off. Every invested moment leaves you better off.

Entertainment is all well and good. But only when that entertainment is an investment in your relationships or yourself. You’ll know if it was an investment if that entertainment continues to yield returns over and over in your future. That may include positive memories, transformational learning, or deepened relationships.

Even still, life isn’t purely about being entertained. Education and learning is also key. And although both are essential, education will provide far greater returns in your future.

The world’s most successful people are intense learners. They are hard readers. They know that what they know determines how well they see the world. They know that what they know determines the quality of relationships they can have and the quality of work they can do.

If you are constantly consuming junk media, how can you possibly expect to create high value work? Your input directly translates to your output. Garbage in, garbage out.”

Pretty good, right? Blunt and to the point, but accurate.

On the topic of high-quality art, here are three novels I’ve read this year that were incredible:

1. Zadie Smith’s NW (Note: the structure of this book is so mind-blowing, it could never be made into a movie.)

2. James Welch’s Fools Crow (US and native history collide with fiction – I’ve thought about the perspective in this book every day for two months, since I finished it).

3. Kent Haruf’s Our Souls At Night (I don’t know if I’ve ever read protagonists as real as the ones in this book).