Category Archives: imagination

Sky, from the toes up

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“I thank you God for this most amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirits of trees, and for the blue dream of sky and for everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes.” – e. e. cummings

When I was in the first or second grade and learned that the earth revolves, I wondered why the ground did not move beneath my feet when I jumped. How perplexing; I come down just where I started, I thought.

My dad explained that the atmosphere moves with the earth and, in fact, if it didn’t, there would be a substantial windstorm blowing us down around the clock.

For years, I viewed the sky as something far way, especially on clear nights when the stars—according to my observations—moved on flight paths much more distant that clouds, airplanes, or the helium balloons that escaped our grasp at the county fair.

I supposed at an early age that an ant’s view of the sky includes everything from my toes up. My feet are shadows and my hands are clouds and my head is a far planet. I believed they were misinformed and/or had poor eyesight because the sky was miles away.

Dog Island (marked with an “A”) is three and a half miles off the coast.

Early on a Saturday morning when I was in high school, I went to Alligator Bay on the Gulf Coast south of Tallahassee, Florida, with Tommy and Jonathan for a boat ride over to Dog Island. Jonathan’s family had a speed boat anchored just off the beach near his family’s summer cottage. The faraway sky was blue and cloudless, and the water was tranquil.

After a day of swimming, snorkeling and sand-dune exploring, we headed back just as a storm began developing farther to the west. The sky grew very dark before we reached the bay sheltered by Alligator Point. The high chop of the waves slowed our progress, so the afternoon was winding down before we set the anchor and waded ashore. We were quite relieved we hadn’t swamped the boat, something we hadn’t done for a year or two.

As we stood watching the storm pass by outside the bay, the setting sun appeared low on the western horizon with one of the most spectacular golden sunsets I have ever seen. The beach, the boat, and the surf were bright orange and glowing with light. Meanwhile, the lightning from the passing storm to the south of us, was also bright orange, and it hissed as it snaked across the sky over our heads and shook the world with its hollow thunder.

We stood without saying a word, and to this day, I think those moments still represent one of the most mystical experiences I have ever had. On that golden beach just out of the storm’s reach, everything was possible and yes and hopeful and connected. “The sky is everywhere, it begins at your feet,” wrote Jandy Nelson in her young adult novel. Yes it is, and on that afternoon, it was clear to me that I stood within the sky and not below it.

–Malcolm

This post originally appeared on my Magic Moments weblog. As I get ready to shut down that blog, I thought I’d run a few of my favorite posts from the archive. Looking back on that day on the beach made it easier for me to understand a quote from “Seth” in the books by Jane Roberts: “There is no place where consciousness stops and the environment begins, or vice versa.”

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How a writer sees locations for prospective stories

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In How to be doomed as a writer, I mentioned that author Stephen King prefers to look at story possibilities as situations rather than plots.

Over time, a writer becomes attracted to certain kinds of settings and the kinds of situations that might occur there. I’m attracted to natural wonders, especially mountains, as well as old buildings. My novels The Sun Singer and The Seeker both arise from a natural wonders setting, Glacier National Park. When I contemplated writing about the park, my first thoughts were about the kinds of things (situations) that might happen there. My Kindle short story “Moonlight and Ghosts” came to mind when I looked at an abandoned building near the house where I grew up.

Suppose you’re in a writing class and the instructor shows you the following picture obtained from the Florida Division of Historical Resources. All you’re told is that it’s an old and restored opera house in a small north Florida town.

PerkinsOperaHouse

Perhaps the instructor has influenced your brainstorming about this picture by showing you the building on a sunny afternoon with cars along the street. If s/he had shown you a photograph of the same structure as it sat on a moonlit night with the trees missing leaves during December, you’d come up with a different set of situations.

  • If you’re a fan of TV police shows, perhaps this looks like a place where a crime is committed.
  • If you’re drawn to opera and/or to theater, maybe you’ll think of stars, set designers, directors, little theater groups, professional “theater people” or amateurs coming together to put on a play that somebody hopes will fail.
  • Maybe there’s a secret about the building, some old legend or a will uncovered in a dusty attic that describes how, when the building was constructed, several hundred bars of gold were hidden beneath the box seats.
This picture gives you a very different feeling about the building.

This picture gives you a very different feeling about the building. – Florida Division of Historical Resources.

Okay, I’ve withheld some information, so with a few more facts, are your prospective story situations the same or do you change them?

  • The Opera House, which consists of a large second-floor theater and first floor shops, was built in 1880.
  • Traveling productions, including vaudeville groups, put on shows at this theater for a number of years. But then, when the railroads re-routed their lines and there was no easy way for out-of-town visitors to get to town, the theater fell into disuse.
  • Ghost hunters claim the owner died of a broken heart and still haunts the now-restored building. Purportedly, the former owner has been “seen” by the ghost hunters and a glowing orb of light.
  • The building is now used as a venue for weddings, local-area stage productions, and other functions where a seating capacity of 600 is desired.

If your instructor asked you to write a short story about this building, would you see it as just a building where anything might happen, a setting for a theater-oriented tale filled with clashing egos and temperamental stars, or would you try to link the local legends and the history of the building into your story? The only catch is, the instructor will expect you to convey–one way or another–a sense of the building. So, it can’t be a generic structure.

Well, unless you know the building already and/or are a historic preservation specialist, you’rre at a disadvantage when you try to describe it. If I were the instructor, I’d have several information sheets prepared as handouts.

  1. Those who wanted to use the building as a place setting would get a general description of the interior and some architectural information about the architectural style of the building, it’s size, etc.
  2. Those who wanted to use the location for a theater-oriented story, would receive information about the stage, the seating, the lighting, and the dressing rooms.
  3. Those who didn’t know yet what was going to happen but wanted real background, would be told about the building’s history and the ghostly legends.

What do you see here?

Interior as it looks now. - The Florida Center for Instructional Technology, University of South Florida photo.

Interior as it looks now. – The Florida Center for Instructional Technology, University of South Florida photo.

In a classroom exercise, you’re “research”–if you think any is needed–is limited by what you see in the photograph and what the instructor will tell you either in a lecture, a question and answer session, or via handouts. Since I am attracted by legends, especially paranormal stories, I’m going to see this as a place where something ghostly will happen.

How you tend to view real locations, whether they’re lakes, mountains, buildings, or city streets, will influence what “your muse” draws you to consider. Your inclinations may suggest that the instructor should have had several more handouts about the building. One might be how the building is used today. Another might be the kinds of businesses on the first floor and on adjacent streets.

As writers, we look at locations as places where something might happen or where something did happen. Whether you like tying in real history and legends or whether you see locations in terms of what’s happening there in the present day, once you’re attracted to a setting for who knows what reason, story situations may come to mind as you Google (or go to) the setting.

When I first saw pictures of this building, my first thought was, “Good, here’s a cool old building in the Florida Panhandle where I’ve been placing many of my recent stories.”

As I learned about the building–its history, its ghosts, its restoration–ideas began to float around for prospective stories. As this process unfolds, we may never write a story…unless we’re in a classroom and have no choice. If a story comes out of it, the setting was the catalyst and the result was a marriage of the real and the writer’s imagination.

Malcolm

P.S. If the actual building intrigues you, you can learn more about it here.

Turning (selected and well-disguised) Secrets into Fiction

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While growing up in Florida, my secret story often sounded like old Florida adventure novels.

“A secret story should be yours alone: about who you are, who you want to be. Who you believe yourself to be, under all the social conventions and expectations. Are you secretly a sorceress? A priestess? A charmer of animals or teller of fortunes? Are the trees your friends? There is something wonderful about having a secret identity, something that no one knows about you.” – Theodora Goss in her post “Your Secret Story”

Along with “Where do you get your ideas?” the question people ask me the most is, “How much of each story is true?”

Some of the actual events merged into a short story or novel come from an author’s experiences. For example, my Kindle short story “Moonlight and Ghosts” draws slightly on my experience as a unit manager years ago in a center for the developmentally disabled. Other events in an author’s work come from what author Theodora Goss describes as one’s secret story.

A secret story, often begun in childhood, is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, a lifelong imagination-run-wild romp of the things we fantasize about doing or being. In childhood, many of us imagine being wizards or Knights of the Round Table or Superman.

As we grow older, perhaps we change our story to make it more plausible. These stories can be, but usually aren’t, the same as our dreams and goals. Perhaps they come to mind as an all-in-good fun episode we imagine while we’re falling asleep or mowing the yard. Perhaps they have a deeper impact and become our personal myth.

What ever they are, we seldom tell them to each other. Yet, to a writer, they are so much a part of his/her imagination, selected fragments of them wind up in stories or, in some cases, serve as the catalysts for stories.

I wonder if we become truly happy and/or in a state of bliss when our secret story and our daily life become one. Before that happens, these stories are a great source of ideas for the next novel or short story.

You May Also Like:

  • I have brought back my “Book Bits” writing links posts twice a week on my Sun Singer’s Travels blog. Each post includes 8-10 links for recent book news, reviews, how-to articles and features.
  • The Real Magic of the Unlimited Self tells the story behind the story for my “Moonlight and Ghosts” Kindle short story. (Sometimes the magic is real.)
  • Or, see my website for my latest news.

-Malcolm

Contemporary fantasy for your Kindle.

Briefly Noted: ‘My Yehidah: A Journal into the Story of You’

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We often hear people say they’re feeling centered or feeling uncentered and take such comments to mean they’re having a good day or a bad day. True enough, but for those who want to know the true unity of the self, there are deeper personal explorations and stories to discover, tell and experience.

As I often suggest in my fiction, discovering the transcendent magic of oneself is often difficult in a science and technology world where we’re directly and indirectly taught as children that “the answers” come from books, experts, and the latest polls.

Years ago, we used to say that everything that influenced a child to seek answers outside himself/herself was akin to programming, and that by the time one reached adulthood those programs were often “running in the background” and very hard to get out of one’s system.

That said, I’m pleased when I see fiction and nonfiction for children that encourages them to think outside the box and discover the power and joy of the imagination. That’s how we get to the unified center of ourselves. The words “My Yehidah,” in Melissa Studdard’s new book My Yehidah: A Journal into the Story of You refer to an individual’s essential essence.

Studdard’s writing prompts, in combination with artist Cheryl Kelley’s illustrations, offer children—in and out of classroom or camp settings—a wonderful and lighthearted way to take exciting trips into the worlds of their imagination. We might call this a personal voyage of discovery.

The book can be used in combination with Studdard’s novel Six Weeks to Yehidah (reviewed here in August), showing young readers how the fairytale protagonist Annalise learned to explore her magical dreamscape; or it can be used as a standalone volume with or without adult mentors (parents, teachers, camp counselors, workshop facilitators).

The workbook was a joy to read and almost made me wish I was a kid again with no pre-programed horizons in front of me, setting off on my journey into my own center with a box of stories, some crayons and colored pencils and a copy of My Yehidah: A Journal into the Story of You as my private drawingboard.

Malcolm

Breathing in the Land

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Virginia Falls - NPS photo

During the summers I worked in Glacier National Park, I hiked the same trails many times, partly because they served as feeder trails to longer hikes, or somebody suggested going for an after breakfast walk, or the sky and the air seemed to be offering an invitation.

Over the course of three summers, I learned a lot about my favorite trails. Most of it was five-senses knowledge. The number of miles between one place and another. The steepest climbs. The best-tasting water. Mountain sheep meadows. Wildflowers. Birds. But, over time, a fair amount of what I picked up was intuitive knowledge. I came to know those trails the way one knows any good friend. And, like what we know about a good friend, that knowledge as in large measure a felt thing.
In earlier times before we became entertained and enslaved by such distractions as cars, cell phones and the Internet, people walked the same paths everyday to get to school, work, the high pasture, the fishing hole, or to buy supplies. While the walking was focused on the practical need to get somewhere and do something, it nonetheless became a ritual, supplying the individual with a great deal of felt knowledge over time.
Breathing in the Land

Glacier cedars - NPS photo

As a writer in love with symbols and metaphors, I like thinking of what I learn about the land as breathing it in. It takes time and commitment to breathe in anything or anyone. You don’t walk into the woods once and come away with a head full of knowledge any more than you learn everything about your prospective soul mate on the first date.

Anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson calls this breathed-in-over-time knowledge a longitudinal epiphany. In her book Peripheral Visions: Learning along the Way, she likens this knowledge with what a husband and wife experience from taking time to have breakfast together every day for 40 years or in making it a habit to go somewhere and watch the autumn leaves falling every year.
Our attention spans have become too short for very much ritual whether it’s formal, as in a religious service or a meditation, or whether it’s informal as in eating dinner with one’s spouse every night or hiking between Many Glacier Hotel and Grinnell Glacier every morning while in the national park.
Bateson writes that “Rituals use repetition to create the experience of walking the same path again and again with the possibility of discovering new meaning that would otherwise be invisible.” One has to walk the path, I think, to gain the knowledge; you don’t learn it by reading what somebody else experienced on the path or by using MapQuest or Google Earth to look at the path.
A Favorite Tree or Meadow
One need not visit their favorite national park and can hike, for example, around Lake Josephine every evening at dusk or listen to the water at Virginia Falls at the break of day. Like the Glacier Park cedar in the photograph, the old oak tree in your backyard will work or, perhaps, a meadow, lake or stream in a nearby park.
Decide how much time you can spend, and then sit in or walk through or around this place once a day, once a week, or once a month. Listen, observe, smell, touch with nothing on your mind other than where you are and what you are breathing in with your five senses and your  intuition.
Don’t expect a psychic experience the first night that fills your head with a hundred years worth of history nobody knows about the place. Instead, experience the changes from visit to visit.In time, you will form a relationship with that place.
You will trust it and know it because you have made the commitment to go there and be there. In time, you will know that place through the loving ritual of your walking and your breathing in everything you encounter.
–Malcolm

contemporary fiction set in Glacier Park

Favorite Place of Relaxation

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Some guided meditation techniques begin with the leader/facilitator saying, “Close your eyes, take deep breaths, and as you slowly exhale, visualize your favorite place of relaxation.”

In most groups, a fair number of people will choose real or imagined sunny meadows, mountain valleys, quiet ocean beaches, and silent lakes. These are soothing places.

I tend to pick actual locations for my favorite places of relaxation because they are so easy to visualize. And then, if the meditation–or shaman’s style journey–calls for me to move around, I can quickly see myself walking along an actual trail I know well.

Whenever I return to that place “in real life,” I find that a psychic bond has been created via my frequent visualizations of it. In ways difficult to describe, I am closer and more attuned to the land, the animals, the trees and the flowers in that location than I would be if I had never visualized the spot in meditations and dreams. The favorite place of relaxation has now become a place of power.

The land “gives back” in response to our appreciation of it. As we honor it, it honors us in return and in greater measure.

Copyright (c) 2005 by Malcolm R. Campbell

On the road to Thanksgiving

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The excesively polarized political debate in recent years focused the consciousness of the nation on negatives, on what we purportedly lacked, on what we didn’t have, on what somebody somewhere was doing wrong. During this time, the country and our lives were not without value, yet the daily whining tended more than anything else to obscure what we could have been and should have been thankful for.

My belief system is quite unwielding on one point: What you resist, persists.

To our detriment, lack–even before the nasty political bickering of the last eight years–has long been a favorite topic of conversation, in barber shops, over the backyard fence, on street corners with strangers, beneath satin sheets with lovers, and one could almost laugh at it as the tragicomedy of the human experience if it weren’t making such a mess of our lives.

If one’s lumbago wasn’t acting up, if it weren’t too cold or too dry or too wet or too windy, if the President hadn’t just said something idiotic, if the promotion hadn’t gone to company clown, if the neighbor hadn’t just painted his house pink with green stripes, if if if if, then for goodness sakes, there was veritably nothing to talk about. Lack, for many, makes the world go around.

Like attracts like, the gurus tell us, and so it is that those who focus a fair amount of their waking thoughts–not to mention their dreams–on lack seem forever surprised on the constant deluge of additional lack into their lives. Many, as we have seen, have been quite willing to mortgage their souls as well as all of their temporal assets in a blind attempt to escape from lack.

When we focus on lack, what we already have is slid onto the back burner. We don’t think about it. We’re not grateful for it. We take it for granted. We even hide it on purpose because–should it be seen–it might diminish our argument that fate and other people have cast an unfair amount of lack into our lives.

As Thanksgiving approachs, a large part of our daily conversation remains focused on lack, on just how bad the Black Friday sales figures are likely to be or on how early we need to get up on that day after Thanksgiving to get to the store before anyone else does so we can beat them to the sales tables and get rid as much of our lack as possible at the lowest possible cost.

The cost, I think, is far too high regardless of the amount we spend, and the consequences of worshipping the daemons of lack are far too dear to leave the house with credit cards in hand.

I have an alternative proposal. It’s not my invention. Thousands have already said it and said it better. Stay home with what you have rather than going out in search of what you think you’re missing. It’s a difficult habit to break, I know, but it’s the only way to your heart’s desires.

Each day on the road to Thanksgiving, we have an opportunity to ponder that which we are likely to be grateful for if and when we give it a clear focus within the mind’s eye. What we have requires more of our attention than what we don’t have. Perhaps it’s a warm coat or a lover or a house filled with friends or a job or a perfect weekend or a full pantry or a pleasant disposition.

Gratefulness leads to more gratefulness and thanks leads to more thanks, do you think?