Archive | writing

A Year To Live — 364 Days

Yesterday, during a somewhat innocent meditation class, I received a prognosis for an untreatable condition called Life. I have only one year to live. Perhaps less. The prognosis did not surprise me too much. I had been preparing for the class (which is based on the book, A Year to Live, by Stephen Levine) and for the prognosis for a few weeks now. What struck me, though, was the realization of how fleeting my life really is.

Eight years ago, I signed up for a trip which fascinated me to no end. It was a backpacking-and-mountaineering trip into the depths of the Olympic Rainforest to climb Mount Olympus. Who among us did not long, at least for once in their life, to visit the abode of the gods? I never wondered at the Greeks for believing that their gods lived on top of a seemingly unreachable, snowy mountain. Had I been a god, I would have wanted to live on a pristine snowy peak, with the view of a thousand mountains, valleys and plains around me. Best of all, reaching Mount Olympus required passing through all these mountains and Valleys. I loved the idea of backpacking 15 miles in order to reach the mountain. The remoteness, the scenery, the adventure, all appealed to me.

A few days before I was due to leave, my son fell off a slide and broke his arm, a moving fracture that looked terrifying and required a reduction at the hospital. For a moment, I was not sure if I would be able to leave for my trip, but then it was the day of my flight, and I was going. My son was alright with the cast, not really requiring any extraordinary amount of care other than, perhaps, with showering. His dad was to take care of him, and I gave myself permission to go.

I still remember getting to my hotel (it was a Holiday Inn Express not too far from the Seattle Needle). I remember having breakfast the next morning, inquiring about leaving my huge, now mostly empty white bag with clean clothes and some toiletries with the front desk till I returned, dragging my blue pack, so full of stuff that my ice axe and boots and crampons were hanging off the back like I was some medieval peddler. I remember seeing Pat and Alan, the two guides, and thinking they might be a father and son. I remember the equipment check on the floor in the Mountain Madness office, and what I thought when I first saw Mel, Mel who turned out to be my best friend on the trip.

And then we were away and driving and crossing the sound and driving some more and in the parking lot, checking equipment again and splitting up the food and group equipment, and I remember shouldering the heaviest pack I had ever carried, quite possibly 45 or 50 pounds to my barely 115. And then we were off, hiking fast through some of the most beautiful scenery I had ever seen, swallowing up the miles.

Seemingly, I remember everything about this trip: the rainforest teeming with green life, the Hoh River flowing merrily and twinkling next to the trail for most of the way, how cold it was in the early morning when we began our climb, and how steep Snow Dome was. I remember getting to know the other seven men in the group (I was the only woman), crossing the avalanche zone, the beauty of the Blue Glacier. And of course, the top of Mount Olympus, and rock climbing up and down-climbing and rappelling down. But most of all, I remember our last night on the trail. We slept on an island in the middle of the Hoh, except, I couldn’t sleep. I lay on the sand in my sleeping bag, and the echoes of the trip pounded in my blood and the river flowed through my veins, both calling to me to stay forever. Stay, every leaf whispered, every grain of sand. There was only the river and the forest and the wonderful people on the climb. Home seemed far away and unreal. Only the Here was alive and true, and it seemed impossible to me that the night, stretching starry and bright around me, would ever end.

On Snow Dome with the tip Mount Olympus peeking in the background.

Mel and I on breaking our first camp, comparing the various sizes of our packs. His weighed more than I did.

Mel and I on breaking our first camp, comparing the various sizes of our packs. His weighed more than I did.

 

I climbed Mount Olympus in August of 2008. Back in the car, we drove with the windows slightly open — everyone stunk after five days with no showers. We had lunch together (I remember the waitress asking Alan for an ID — he was twenty-two at the time), and then we were dropped off at our hotels. I showered and soaped several times before I was clean, wandered around Seattle for a time, and had dinner by myself at a pizza parlor near the Needle. The next day I flew home. The adventure was over, then it was gone, and then, before I knew it, it lay buried under the dust of many days, weeks, months and years, a shiny memory with mothballs.

This year, my last to live, I would like to live as I have lived on Mount Olympus, enjoying every breath, every smell, the sight of every blade of grass, feeling raw and real. Because this year, the last year of my life, is going to go by the same way as my trip had. Here today, with 364 days to go, it seems like it would go on forever, but as I blink, only 60 days will remain, and then 3 and 2 and 1, and soon a marker will be the only thing reminding you where you put the last physical remnant that I’d been here. And then, while you blink and take your breaths, it will be 2025, and you would wonder, could it really have been seven years?

Isn’t life surreal? Isn’t life just so, so real?

The adventure, so soon to end, begins, and it was only appropriate, you know, that it would begin with a blog post.

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The Runaway Novel

At 36,853 words, my novel has finally broken through all my attempts to control it, and it is now running amuck, making its own decisions and running its own show. I really intended, this time around, to be organized and meticulous. I was going to follow all my themes, keep track of all my characters, their names, and the relationships between them, and in general hold tightly to the reins of creativity in order to prevent my two most dreaded of problems: chaos and loss of control.

My novel and characters, however, had different ideas. “Creativity,” they said, “means just that, giving free reign to possibilities and opportunities, allowing growth and risking danger, being open to new ideas, and altogether letting go of, well, basically everything.” To them, apparently, creativity means that they can run around the novel doing whatever the fairies they want to do, using a lot of adverbs in the process, a big no-no in the writing industry today, with a special favorite being “suddenly.”

Suddenly, she saw this, and suddenly he did that, upon which, suddenly, that happened, suddenly, suddenly!

Seriously, it’s a disaster!

I had a completely different vision of writing the first draft. In my vision, the characters and the novel were all of them going to behave. They were going to be as polite and accommodating as notes on a sheet of music. Surely Mozart was not able to hold complete symphonies in his head by allowing the bassoon to run away with the flute. And I am sure Tolkien did not consent to have the dwarves and hobbits take over his plot. But somehow my characters think they can do whatever they want, and I am helpless to prevent it. Worse, a part of my seems to enjoy this train crash down creativity lane. She’s even pushing some of the train cars along!

Despite my intention to concentrate on just getting the first draft down on paper, I can’t help but be scared of what the novel will look like when that first draft is done. I fear it’s going to be a huge, big balloon of a mess, with a lot of scenes that the characters insisted on, but which make no sense in the plot, and with a lot of themes missing or characters showing up unannounced. How will I ever revise this into anything that makes sense? How would I ever revise it into one homogenous novel? There is a reason why twenty people don’t sit together and write the same novel all at once.

At the same time, the train-crash accomplice part of me is not just participating in the chaos but luxuriating in it. She’s throwing words in the air like confetti, wanting to write more and more and more. 36,853 words in sixteen days really is a great accomplishment. And so far, knock on wood, I managed to keep the critic at bay. I sent him to Hawaii where he’s relaxing next to the pool. Every day, however, he texts me to ask: “Nu? (He’s a bit Yiddish, I think) Are your words any good?”

I don’t want to think about whether the words are any good right now, or about the upcoming revision, or even about whether there will be a revision (of course there will. I feel there will). I just want to write, and if half of my words are suddenly then so be it. The other half might very well be diamonds waiting to be unwrapped.

I’m not sure what is making this novel come out so happily and easily (relatively happily and easily, and pardon the adverbs) out of me. Perhaps participating in NaNoWriMo is motivating me to write, and perhaps I was just ready. Perhaps it’s the fact that there’s an endpoint, a date after which I don’t have to stress over 1666 words a day, and perhaps I am creating a habit right now, and I’ll keep going this way, like Stephen King, forever, churning one novel after another till I die. I don’t know yet, and I guess I’m happy being in the unknowing right now. Right now, all that matters is the next scene, the next surge of words, bringing those characters, this novel alive.

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NaNo Update

Today is day 8 of NaNoWriMo, and so far, so good, I’ve been able to write 17,245 words. That’s an average of over 2,000 words a day! I am making an effort to write first thing in the morning, when I’m at my best and when I am less likely to be interrupted. Usually that means I am sitting here at my computer between 6-8am.

I’ve been writing and only writing, not reading over what I previously wrote, and I think this method is working well for me. If I start reading back at what I wrote before, my inner critic becomes engaged, and all of a sudden it is not about being creative but about excellence and perfection or, worse, embarrassment and shame. I find that I really work much better if the critic is off to the side, minding his own business. Every once in a while he rears up his head and comments on my progress, and I politely ask him to back off. I don’t need him right now. I want to allow the words, unhindered, to flow.

I hope that when I am done with the first draft (as I feel fairly confident I am going to do) I can engage the services of my inner critic not as a critic but as a “feedbacker.” I think there’s a lot he can help me with, as long as he remembers that his job is to support and build and not to crush and shame. My cousin told me a good quote in Russian for this (and I’m using her translation): The first pancake always comes out in a ball. Similarly, I expect that this first draft is not going to be the end of the process. There’s going to be a second, and a third, and maybe a number twenty-third draft as well. There’s going to be revision. But the only way I can move from a ball to a beautiful pancake ready-to-be-served is with encouragement and love. It’s impossible to cook a nicely-shaped, yummy pancake — or a magical novel — with censure and hurt.

Other than discovering that NaNoWriMo does in fact motivate me to write, I’ve also noticed something else. I have more self discipline than I used to. I think all this meditation and qigong and Reiki practice is really paying off. I am better able to concentrate and to sit down for something that I know deep down inside to be very important to me. I am also, somehow, better able to let go. I put down the words, and whether or not the critic mumbles something from his place of semi-exile, I let my written words flow. There will be a time to review them later.

Having written one novel before, even if I did decide, after who-knows-what-number version, to leave it, I feel both awed and overwhelmed by the thought of what comes after the first draft. I know the task that is ahead of me, and I know what it feels like to have put so much effort into something meaningful to me only to discover that it is just not going to bear fruit anytime soon. I try to let these thoughts go too. Right now there are only two things I am doing, and they are allowing the story to tell itself and myself to feel the fun of it without thinking too much ahead.

Tomorrow I am going to a meditation daylong at Spirit Rock about releasing the inner critic. Very apropos, I think. I hope it will help with the writing as well. I have dreamed about writing a novel for so long, I’ve written and hoped, cried, shut down, avoided writing for months and months, and then found myself trying again and again. A part of me wants so, so much for it to happen finally, but I’ve decided to let go of expectations and hopes, and even of dreams. I have decided to let whatever happen, happen, and to stop interfering.

Many years ago when I was a student at Stanford, one of my professors said to me that in order to write a doctorate you need to have a fire burning in you. For me, the fire has always been in writing a novel. Sometimes it was on low heat. Sometimes on high. But it was always there, burning away, sending desire after desire into the sky. So we will see, won’t we, what will come of this new endeavor, this new concept for my novel. I will keep you updated as I continue following the NaNo path. For now, all is well. I hope all’s well also in your life.

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Setting an Intention for NaNoWriMo

There is a novel in my head, with characters and a plot, that is yearning to come out. It’s been there for years. So many years, in fact, that they can be numbered in tens rather than ones. Princess Anna Mara first came to me as I was sitting outside Ostrovsky High School waiting for my friends to get out of class. It was October, I believe, and my sister and I were visiting Israel while our parents decided where our family was heading next. Not that there was much question about it. They were not going to stay in South Africa, where we had lived for the past 9 months, nor where they coming back to Israel, no matter how much my sister and I hoped they would.

Partly out of that hope, and partly because I truly loved to learn, I got permission from the high school to attend classes with my friends. I took that permission and my request very loosely, only going to classes that interested me, namely math and physics. The rest of the time, I sat in the courtyard and wrote funny stories to amuse my friends while they had to sit in their dreary classrooms. Annamara, as I named her then, was the protagonist of a short fairy tale about a princess living in New York who is kidnapped by a wizard in a flying car. She screams so loudly in the car that he loses consciousness, whereupon she jumps out of the car and into a chimney (no one said I had to be historically consistent). Down the chimney she goes and into a room with (surprise, surprise) a chimney sweep. The wizard climbs through the window, fights the chimney sweep, loses, and, now consistent with fairy tale rules, the princess marries the chimney sweep.

Somehow, Anna Mara stayed with me through the years, popping out again when I was in the army as the subject of a presentation (which was so successful it ended up being filmed and used as an example), and again, ten years later, when I took a class writing for children. There, when I began writing her in earnest, I discovered Anna Mara was not some silly screaming princess but a fully-fledged character with a novel behind her who wished for independence and truth and disliked being a damsel in distress. Anna Mara wished to be a revolutionary, a heroine.

Seven years later, a full novel lay on my desk, printed and ready to be sent to publishers and agents, and that was when the rejections began to flow in. Something was wrong with my novel, and I could not quite figure out what. Something was wrong enough that perhaps, just perhaps, I couldn’t fix it. Version 4, version 5, version 6 later, I had to admit that perhaps it was time to let Anna Mara go. Perhaps it was not meant to be, this novel. Perhaps it was time to move on.

No matter how much I tried, however, Anna Mara stuck to me. She, her new beau Anders, the Wizard Calypso Maximilian the Great, the wonderfully compassionate aquatic monster Fangarm, and the dragon Gozlianus, evil and yet wise at the same time. They simply wouldn’t leave. A new frame was required, I realized, something different to breathe new life into them. I began to rethink my old story. What is it these characters want? Where do they want to come to life? What is it they want to tell? And slowly but surely a new story began to take form, similar and yet different, full of exciting possibilities.

This new story is what I plan to work on during the month of November through NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. The goal: 1,666 words a day for 30 days, reaching a whopping total of 50,000 words, or, you could say, the length of a first draft novel. I am hoping that working within a structure and a deadline (especially one that has an end in sight) would encourage me to write. I’ve made myself a profile with the username sigaljoy, and I uploaded a summary and excerpt and applied to be part of their cover lottery. I even have one buddy, my wonderful cousin Iris, who is also an aspiring author, and who is going for it too at NaNoWriMo this year.

I wanted, however, to set an intention for the month, especially with the new direction my thoughts have been going lately with regards to simply being instead of taking on goals and purpose and such. This may sound strange when I’ve elected to take on a 1,666 word a day goal.… But, since this novel inside me simply burns to be written, here are my intentions for this month:

I am letting go of ego
I am letting go of fortune and fame
I am letting go of my needs with regards to this novel
I am letting go of any expectations
I am letting go of any hopes
I am letting go of control
I am letting go of direction
And I am letting go of all external or internal goals

I am writing because writing seems to flow in my blood
I am writing for the passion of writing
I am writing because I always wanted to write and still do
I am writing for the life of this novel whose heart is beating inside me, yearning to be born
I am writing for love of words and for the pictures and scenes those words create
I am writing for me, and for the characters, and for the sake of the story
I am writing for the love of these characters who are chattering away in my mind all day
I am writing because I want to read my own book and get to know my own characters
I am writing because I want to know what happens to these characters, kinda in the end, though it will never be the end
I am writing because I want them to be free to tell their own stories and live their own life
I am writing because, quite frankly, I must write

I am letting it happen, the way it will happen, even if I don’t quite know what “it” is, but I am allowing for the possibility that this novel, just the way I always imagined it, will flow out of me, one words at a time, coming into shape and structure and plot and conflicts in the way that I dreamed it would. I am realizing that all “I” need is to get out of the way, and so, this is my intention: to get myself out of the way and let the writing happen.

Wish me luck. 🙂

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Tree Dharma

One of the questions which often haunts me is what my purpose in life is. Is there a higher purpose? Am I here, on this earth, for something specific, something special? Am I meant to do something, or expected to do something, in order to fulfill a destiny? This question somehow both attracts and repels me. I dislike (and am ashamed of) the feeling of ego that seems to me almost gelatinously attached to it, as though I am somehow unique or different from other people. At the same time, however, I long for a higher purpose, for meaning, in what I do and the way I live.

Another problem with this obsession with a higher purpose, when combined with a thread of (both inherited and nurtured) over-achiever-ness, is that no matter what I do, I never feel it is enough unless it brings fame and fortune. This means, for example, that I can’t just write a book. It needs to be on the best seller list and change people’s lives. Not an easy task, to say the least, when you’ve only got a few words on the page and are not quite sure where the plot and characters are going next.

The other day, while talking about this higher purpose business, my IMC mentor asked me what I see when I look inside — what is most important to me in there. I looked inside myself, and a tree materialized, clear as day. “There is a tree inside me,” I answered. But how is a tree a higher purpose? Can I connect it somehow to a higher purpose? My thoughts churned: hiking, climbing, protecting nature, growing tall, expanding….. aaaaaghhhhh! Too much obsessing!

I like the idea of having a tree inside, of my essence being the essence of a tree, even if I am not sure I understand what it means. After all, I love trees. I hug trees. I kiss trees (I really do). Then, on Sunday, at a group conversation about this subject at Insight Meditation Center, someone said, “A Tree does not feel the need to have a life purpose.” A part of me leaped at this sentence. Is it true? It can’t be, I thought. A tree gives us and other animals food and shelter, shade, oxygen, a place to rest, an appreciation of beauty. What is more a purpose than that?
tree
I started to play with this idea in my mind. Do peach trees feel superior somehow to a Joshua tree because they give fruit and can provide (at least in the spring and summer) more shade? Or does a Joshua tree feel superior because, in the California desert, it is really the only tree there? Do trees care about these gifts they give to us, or do they simply give them, without asking for either internal or external recognition? And, if the essence of trees is also their higher purpose, could I apply it to my question by saying, what could be a better way to achieve a higher purpose than by simply being me?

Perhaps, after all, this is the difference between animals, plants and humans. We humans continually search for more. We don’t just write a book because we want to write a book. We write because we want other people to read it. We don’t just live our life — we continually seek to influence others, change others, make an impact. Trees breathe in CO2 and breathe out oxygen. They extend their limbs to the sun. In spring they renew their coat of leaves and in fall they drop them. They allow tiny blooms to blossom out and fruit to grow without a need for any to see or use them. If one blossom is never visited by a bee, the tree does not think it is a failure. If fruit drops on the ground uneaten, the tree doesn’t obsess about the waste. Whatever comes, comes. Whatever is, is. The tree, stoically, just “be”s.

What I would like to happen, in all areas of my life, is exactly this: this calm, stoic, quintessential being. Writing a book because I want to write. Working with the Reiki because I wish to give Reiki. Spending time with the kids, with Dar, and the dogs because I wish to spend time with them. I wish for my higher purpose to be just being. No proving anything to anyone, no trying hard to be different or more than what I am. Just to be, happy with being what I am right here, right now. A tree.

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Fool’s Leap

Let’s build a box together,
Shall we?
One side made up of limitations
The second expectations
The third is disappointments
The fourth frustrations
The top from judgements
The bottom from beliefs
With some nails, scattered on the floor,
To symbolize our fears.

Let’s build a box together
A box to keep us small
To keep us safe from any need to
Grow
Expand
Or fly
Can you imagine flying in this box?
The nails shaking up a storm inside
The walls closing in
Crashing imminent.

Willing to give
Anything, anything at all
Just so there would be
No
Crashing.

And yet
What if
By crashing
Something new could come
Something fertile
Something blooming
Something green
And red
And pink
And yellow
And colorful all over?
What if
By crashing
The walls could disappear
And then
I
Could
Fly?

I’m listening to OneRepublic’s music in my car
Safe in the box
Safe in the car
Safe in my fears
But the music is beating, beating, beating
Calling me out of the box
And I find myself squirming
One part a sedate, responsible driver
The other dancing with the beat.
I want to leap out and explode
Instead of staying stuck
In this hurtling metal car
Inside of staying stuck
In my own self-built box.

Dancing, dancing, singing, dancing
My spirit’s hands reach up and out
Fingers tickling the stars
Sending storms into the stratosphere
I need to dance so I can write
I need to sing so I can write
I need more space
No box can fit
I dance and sing and sing and dance
With this creative, freedom trance.

The metal box, its speed, are gone
And in their place my soul explodes
To outer space, creating storms
Bringing blessed rain and more
Flowers, fruit, a golden shower
Words to fill out seven novels
Words to fill the heart with joy
I knew somewhere, somewhere within
This passion smoldered hid
Awaiting a single lighted match
To give it this release
Into a fool’s trusting leap.

And now,
What now?
No change.
No change at all.
After all,
That’s who I was,
You know,
Before.

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Peeling the Onion

The poem this morning is for Jeanne, who is helping me peel the onion, and in the process, understand myself.

One day
I know
All these layers
I’m peeling
Will be
Not gone
But ingested
A part of the
Richness
Of me
And then
On that day
That marvelous inner sunshiny day
Writing
Will be
Not a fear
Not a black heavy cloud
Not a choking in my throat
Or a tightness in my heart
But instead
A song
And a dance
Light and free.

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It’s All in the Details

It’s all in the details, I’m told,
Eyelashes lined up like bamboos in the wind on a blinking eye
Veins sending droplets of water stretched on a leaf
Whiskers trembling on a dog sniffing the breeze
A glint of fiery green on a hummingbird’s wing.

It’s all in the details, I’ve heard say,
The oxygen-sucking scent of a match lighting a dark room
The spicy smell of an orange peeled, tickling the nose
The remembered sea, sun and sand smell of sunscreen lotion slathered on suntanned skin
The pungency of teenager boy, sweaty after a hot football afternoon in the field.

It’s all in the details, some claim,
The touch of a newborn butterfly’s wavering, skinny legs on my hand before it opens its slow-drying wings
The sun rays burning the neckline under my hair as I hike on the trail
A dog’s curvy head, nudging itself under my palm, its short tickling hairs
The ever-cool, scratchy-smooth feel of a manzanita branch in the shade.

It’s all in the details, you know,
Chocolate melting in sweetness down an eager throat
Lemon juice curdling the tongue
Tomato and cucumbers, sliced salad, bursting in a flavor of my grandma’s love,
Papaya, pulpy and velvety, a taste of Hawaii.

It’s all in the details
It is?
But what if
I’m near sighted
My eyes are weak
What if the only details I see are blobs of color
What if I spent the last twenty years too depressed to see anything other
Than fog and blurriness and smooshed up
Somehow
Togetherness of nothing?

It’s all in the details, the experts say,
Scent
Sight
Taste
Touch
Sound
So they say
But what if I can’t taste the trace of blackberries in wine
Or see the golden flakes in a girl’s eyes
Or smell anything in my allergy-stuffed nose that dreads working its neurons
Or hear anything other than a mess of sound in a jazz concert?

It’s all in the details, I guess,
But I’m afraid,
What if
After all these years of depressing my brain
I’m too closed off to see anything other than color blobs
And smell anything other than strong smells (aversion) or weak (blah, but fine)
And touch anything but hot and cold or soft and rough
And taste anything but good or not (chocolate is good)
Or hear anything other than a cacophony of sound (that jazz concert I misunderstood).

And so, part of me wonders
Has there been a depressed writer before (my heart whispers, sure)
Has there been a blind writer before (surely sure)
Has there been a writer who had parts that went berserk whenever writing was mentioned
Whose perfection refused to allow anything other than perfection
Who couldn’t write more than a few words on the page
Whose only way to release the pressure
The earthquake that threatened
The need to express
To write
To tell
Was
This?

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On Originality, Influence, and Plagiarism

naomi shemerMy mother sent me an article the other day about a popular Israeli song, “Jerusalem of Gold,” written by Naomi Shemer, one of Israel’s preeminent songwriters. This song is such a staple of Israeli musical and Zionist culture that I am certain that any Israeli you meet, independent of how musically inclined, would be able to sing from memory and on the spot at least the first stanza and the chorus. This claim probably includes most second-generation Israelis living abroad. “Jerusalem of Gold” has over 3 million hits on the web, including its own English-language website, and countless videos on youtube. I especially recommend the video I found in the article, sung by Shuli Nathan.

Many Israeli songs I know seem to have in their origin Russian folk music. In the article my mother sent, the journalist, Avner Hoffstein, mentions his discovery that Naomi Shemer borrowed the music to this song from a Basque folk song. Fourteen years ago, Hoffstein confronted Naomi Shemer about the similarity between her music and the folk song, but Shemer insisted that she has never heard that song before. After her death a decade ago, a letter was published in which Shemer acknowledges the influence. Scandalous? Surprising? I can’t say that I’m shocked.

When listening to popular music, I often wonder how the songwriters avoid repeating the musical themes which have been written before them. Here and there, I can hear a melody which reminds me of another song, by another band or singer. Is it a tribute to this other singer? Is it influence? When is using another person’s material a salute to that person’s genius and when does it become that dreaded word, plagiarism?

As an aspiring author, I have heard over and over again the advice to read a lot. Read everything you can in your field. Be familiar with what readers enjoy and love. This advice, however, is always tempered by the caution: Write what you know. Be true to your own voice. In the past, I’ve noticed (and sometimes was irritated by) authors using elements from another writer’s work. Most notably, in the Harry Potter books, I was annoyed by how J. K. Rowling built the school so like the wizardry school in Ursula K. LeGuin’s infinitely wiser A Wizard of Earthsea. On Wikipedia, I found the following comment: “Le Guin has claimed that she doesn’t feel Rowling ‘ripped her off,’ but that she felt that Rowling’s books were overpraised for supposed originality, and that Rowling ‘could have been more gracious about her predecessors. My incredulity was at the critics who found the first book wonderfully original.’”

There is a myth about writing that says that everything’s already been written. Now, all we poor hopefuls can do is repeat the same themes and stories and try to do it in as fresh, edgy, humorous, or newly insightful way as we can. Some works, in fact, use as an inspiration (or even clearly follow) a particular story, as in the many Pride and Prejudice novels (including Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which came out in 2009), or novels like Cinder, which rewrite a popular folktale (in this case, Cinderella). You could argue that many romance novels follow the exact same script: boy meets girl; something prevents boy and girl from coming together; boy and girl come together; a secret is revealed which causes the boy and the girl to separate; boy and girl find a way to come together again in a happy ending.

I googled “famous authors who have been accused of plagiarism” on the web, and found some interesting stories. Helen Keller, for example, was accused of plagiarism in her short story, “The Frost King.” According to Wikipedia, this caused the young Keller to be so worried about plagiarism in her later writing that it inspired her to write her autobiography. That, indeed, seems safe enough to assume, would all be original enough material. Martin Luther King was also accused of plagiarizing his dissertation. Other people whose names I recognized included artist Andy Warhol, authors Dan Brown and Stendahl, and songwriter George Harrison. I can’t help but think that, if Naomi Shemer plagiarized the music to her famous song, she seems to me to be in pretty respectable company….

I am not, of course, condoning, suggesting, or defending copying other people’s work. I do, however, want to point out the difficulty of being completely original in our world of crazily-available media. Creators, whether consciously or unconsciously, probably cannot help but model their characters, lyrics, music, or words on what is going on around them, on this absolute bombardment of creativity that is going on in our world. Gorgeous work is being born on a daily basis, and, mostly, its originality astounds me every minute of every day. Since we don’t live in a vacuum, the delicate boundary between influence and plagiarism needs to be kept and maintained, and, perhaps most importantly, credit, as LeGuin so aptly said, should always be given. My admiration for Naomi Shemer’s work is the same despite her having (probably) borrowed elements from another song. I do wish, however, that she had admitted it and given credit to the original before the discovery by Hoffstein.

Read the article, in Hebrew, by Avner Hoffstein.

Listen to the Basque folk song.

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Getting Lapped

Every once in a while I find myself hiking the Dish, a nearly-four-mile loop in the Stanford Hills, where seemingly all of Palo Alto and the neighboring communities come for a taste of nature and some daily exercise. An eclectic crowd: healthful Stanford students, mothers pushing strollers, athletic women in sports bras, shirtless sweating men, joggers, hikers, people of all sizes and shapes, even irritable-looking children. Like a London height-of-the-season promenade, the Dish is the place to people-watch and be seen, and it is all too easy to fall into comparing myself — my pace, my level of fitness — with those of the other hikers and joggers there.

Sadly, the comparison nearly always falls short. I would like to sing songs of my glory, but I am a slow hiker, and my fate at the Dish is to be passed by. Worse, I often see the same joggers or hikers twice. I am not just passed, but lapped! Lapped by younger, sexier, fitter looking individuals! And it doesn’t help to remind myself that I’ve climbed mountains, or excuse myself by saying that my legs are short, or to imagine that my perseverance is great even if my speed is nil. I am getting lapped, and in the moment of seeing one hiker or jogger after another zoom past, it seems to me as though I am barely moving, or even standing flat.

The impression of standing still while getting lapped often plagues me in my writing and my spiritual work. I struggle with feeling left behind, with stuck-ness. Just like when lapped at the Dish, in the dust of other people’s seemingly speedier achievement of dreams, I imagine that I am standing motionless. Comparing myself to others (always a dangerous pastime) and the feeling of lack of forward motion is dispiriting. At the Dish, signs on the trail, trees or other features give me a sense of movement even when lapped, no matter how slow I walk. But in the path to spiritual enlightenment or to publishing a book, I am left not only with the question “Am I there yet?” but also with, “Am I anywhere nearby or even on the right road?”

downriverWriting these words, I am reminded of Abraham’s metaphor of the river. Everything we want, Abraham promises, is down the river. All we need is to let go and allow the river to carry us there. The struggle of how far along I’ve come is really a desperate swim against the current, an attempt to see progress back where I came from. But there is no going back to the past, no retracing my steps. Words cannot be unwritten and steps climbed on the spiritual path cannot be undone. And yet, to surrender to the river can be as scary as struggling against it — depending on my perspective, going with the flow can also give the illusion of lack of motion, or, perhaps worse, it can give the impression of too much speed. And how would I be able to snatch at anything I want if I am hurtling uncontrollably along?

Just as in everything, it is up to me to track forward progress, to notice changes, to appreciate my own work. Only I can remind myself of the twenty thousand something words in my new book, give credit to myself for the ideas I wrote in my head during a morning hike, or appreciate that this blog has now been alive for more than 28 months. Only I can really remember where I was emotionally eight years ago and notice where I am today. Am I there yet? No, probably not. But am I on the right road? I believe I am.

I guess all that is left is to surrender to the flow of the river, to believe there is meaning in where I’ve been so far and in all I’ve done, and to trust that the river knows best —  that I had manifested well what is to come. And perhaps some folks who are good at the letting go will pass me by, cruising on tubes, or on a gondola or two, looking enlightened and well-to-do. I will wish them happiness and joy on their journey and let go of comparing our relative speed. Whether I am ineptly flailing around in the water, floating on my back, or carried downriver by twin silvery dolphins, I have chosen my path. The path is enlightenment, alignment, joy, grace. All I wish for now is the confidence to follow it through all of its different twists, waterfalls, and turns.

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Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109