Montaigne's Tower

The Mystery of Strangers

August 3, 2017

Tags: art, portraits, painting stories of strangers

Most portraits are of people we know. I prefer to paint strangers: people I saw on the street or met briefly at an art opening or workshop. When you know a person, your perceptions are filtered through the stories you know about them, but a stranger is like an unopened book, asking to be read for the first time; for a story to be made up about them. I met the woman “Juliette” (her real name unknown) in Italy; she is a handsome woman that I imagined in her youth (“Juliette at 25”), middle age (“Juliette at 50”), and old age (“Juliette at 100”). “Hair” is of a woman who seems to be hiding behind her hair; I’ve painted her as if I just discovered her in the jungle of her hair. “The Dwarf King’s Daughter” was inspired by a photograph taken in the 19th century in a book called Princely India: in the midst of a royal gathering, a small man, richly dressed, holds an unhappy child. Or perhaps she’s ill, and this is the last photo taken of her. The man portrayed in “Beauquet,” the trio “Id,” “Ego,” and “Superego,” “Death with Dignity,” and “The Man Who Doesn’t Matter” is a man I met at an art opening several years ago in Forest Grove. I asked if I could take his photograph and paint him, which he kindly permitted, but I never asked his name. Who is he? Would he recognize himself in the stories I’ve created? Does it matter? I think of art as a pilgrimage through unfamiliar landscapes; my job is to stir the pot and see what boils. ("The Mystery of Strangers," art exhibit at New Seasons Market, Orenco Station, Hillsboro, Oregon, August 2017)

"Queen Victoria's Secret": publicity interview from 2011

April 22, 2017

Tags: Queen Victoria, Nameless Playwrights, Fertile Ground

My play “Queen Victoria’s Secret” was presented by Nameless Playwrights as part of Portland’s Fertile Ground New Play Festival on Monday, January 24, 2011, at the Someday Lounge, 125 NW Fifth Avenue, Portland. Publicity for the production included responses to the following prompts:
Short prompts:
1. A Writer I Admire Is . . . Cormac McCarthy.
2. My Writing Style Can Be Described As . . .J.M. Synge Meets Emily Dickinson.
3. The Celebrity I Would Most Like To See Star In This Play On Broadway Is . . . Helen Mirren as Queen Victoria and Paul Lynde as Dr. Lavalle. (more…)

London Semester Journal 2008

April 14, 2017

Tags: London, London Semester California State University Fullerton, study abroad, travel memoir, travelogue

During the winter of 2008 I served as the Resident Director of California State University Fullerton's London Semester and posted a blog about culture shock and transformation as experienced by fifty students from CSU Fullerton and CSU Long Beach. I'm reposting the blog in the form of a weekly journal with three primary audiences in mind: existing students; future students (those who want to know what the experience was like, and who would like some evidence to gauge whether or not the program is worth the expense); and also an imagined audience of readers who enjoy travelogues—who view them as philosophical, literary, and personal journeys of discovery.

Week 1: January 7-13, 2008
The Pre-Tour and Arrival in London

Every journey should start with a disaster. (more…)

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it (George Santayana)

April 10, 2017

Tags: discrimination, immigration, citizenship, what it means to be an American

In July 1941, a small paper in Oregon called the Columbus Record gave four columns to a New York prosecutor, John Harlan Amen, who railed against discrimination against immigrants. "The growth of America was accomplished through the centuries...Generations of people from every corner of the world came to settle on these shores. They represent races, creeds, religions, and nationalities from practically every known group of human beings. America is composed of each and every one of these men and women and citizenship means that each and everyone of them enjoys the same rights and privileges. America does not belong to any one particular man or woman, or group; it is the symbol of all its citizens."

He was talking about discrimination against German-Americans and Italian-Americans in the context of World War II.

"...the only way that discrimination could successfully be wiped out would be for an aroused public opinion to demonstrate itself against any and all individuals who are found guilty of such practice."

My version of the writing process

January 23, 2017

Tags: writing, book writing, Camino de Santiago, Solitaire, Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus

It’s double-down time, the 50,000-word stage in the book where I feel as if I’m on my knees pushing a cheese puff along the Camino de Santiago. I’ve erased Solitaire from my cell phone. My Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus is a barbed-wire thicket. I open the refrigerator to pull out yesterday’s cooling scene and all I see is limp cilantro and velveeta.

Blogs vs. narrative arc

July 8, 2016

Tags: blogs, narrative arc, ravens

Why are blogs organized with the most recent entry first? What about narrative and arc? Does it have to do with here and now vs. the long view? Why is a blog like a raven?

Blogging

July 7, 2016

Tags: poetry, Heraclitus, blogs

Blogging is like putting a poem in a bottle and throwing it out to sea. It’s short and may never find an audience.

When Heraclitus said, in fragment 123, “being inclines intrinsically to self-concealment,” he didn’t know about social media.

Advice

July 6, 2016

Tags: doubt, silence, Salvator Rosa

If in Doubt, stay there.

Aut tace, aut loquere meliora silentio.
Be silent, unless what you have to say is better than silence. (Salvator Rosa)


Guest Blog Interview with Bacon Press Books

February 2, 2016

Tags: Bacon Press Books, M.E. Hughes, Letting Go, Tolkien, The Antioch Review, Oregon Writers Colony, bird metaphors, writing process, workshops, art, surprise

Sue Parman's essay, "The Holy Ghost Bird," appears in Letting Go: An Anthology of Attempts, M.E. Hughes, editor. Bacon Press Books.

1. Letting Go is an anthology of true stories. As a writer of fiction, did you find it harder to write a nonfiction story?

I love the power that fact lends to story-telling. Fiction is always grounded in nonfiction (the details of memory and observation), and nonfiction requires the rules of fiction to take flight. A story about a bird requires knowledge of birds; a detailed description of a bird would be boring without the underlying structure of plot and character. Having said this, I think it’s harder to write nonfiction for two reasons: one, you can get so mired in “facts” that you go off the rails of a good story; and two, the details of memory are frequently painful. I found it very difficult to write “The Holy Ghost Bird” because the memories that inspired it were so painful; but it was cathartic to shape it into a story. Fiction can heal.
Birds make great metaphors. Because they fly between the ground and the sky, they can represent freedom, or messengers between gods and men, or vehicles to convey souls to the land of the dead. In New Guinea, men call themselves “dead birds” because of a myth that explains why men must die. In 2012 a short story of mine called “The Spirit Bird” was published in The Grove Literary Review. Similar title to the one in Letting Go, similar emotions of longing and loss, but a completely different story vehicle: a young Muslim widow visits the grave of her ancestors in Sulawesi. Fiction gives us wings.

2. What do you enjoy most about writing?

I find writing to be cathartic and freeing. I love the words themselves (I read the OED as a form of play and source of poems), and I love the rhythm of language and its capacity to build worlds, arguments, persuasions, expressions of love and hope, fury and disdain. I miss letter-writing but am intrigued by the potential of social media for haiku-like utterances. Writing takes me to a liminal zone where I can transform the mundane realities of life into beauty. The pursuit of beauty is paramount—it is the essence of a creative life well lived, whether as a writer or any other occupation.
At the close of a Navajo Blessing Way ceremony are the words to walk in beauty. With beauty all around me may I walk. In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk. To be a writer is to walk in beauty—immersed in it, gathering it, experiencing it, sometimes capturing it. To be a writer is not poetry or journalism, school or reputation. It’s a way of life, consciously living from one unpredictable moment to another without a skin--a kind of pilgrimage to live out all the lines of one’s body. As a writer, my goal is to have created beauty that leaves people breathless and thinking what, where, how, why, and I am.

3. How much time each week do you devote to writing?

I write every day. When I was teaching, I got up at 4 a.m. and wrote until 7 a.m., then went to work. I still get up at 4, but now I can write in chunks throughout the day, and how long I write depends on what project I’m caught up in. Sometimes I get caught up in art projects instead. I worry sometimes that I’m less systematic and disciplined than I was when I was working, but I’m having a lot more fun.

4. What are you working on?

Last June I joined an art critique group, and after one of our meetings I dreamed of a flower that was shades of brown. I woke up with an art mantra running through my head: “Color gets the credit, value does the work.” I sat down and wrote a short story, “The Brown Study,” that I entered as a first book chapter in a contest sponsored by the Oregon Writers Colony. It won first place, and within two months I had the first draft of a book tentatively titled The Flowers of Rappaccini from the Nathaniel Hawthorne story about a woman raised by her father in a garden of poisonous flowers who herself becomes poisonous to others. I’m now on the third draft, and have been describing it as a literary-eco-thriller set in the Amazon rainforest.

5. What has been the most surprising about learning your craft?

At the heart of every creative act lies a burst of spontaneous humor, a form of play. I’ve come to recognize this feeling, this sense of surprise, without which a writing project is flat, uninspiring, and boring. I touch on these ideas in my essay, “An Evolutionary Theory of Poetry,” VoiceCatcher (posted July 29, 2013)

6. Do you have any advice for other writers?

Are you kidding? Writers take advice?

7. Do you think workshops have helped you become a better writer?

Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that workshops, critique groups, and First Readers provide useful feedback, training in getting used to putting your writing up for public view and criticism, and the opportunity to learn from other writers. No, in the sense that unlike an art workshop, you can’t really learn from other people’s techniques; you only catch little glimpses of finished writing. The usefulness of a workshop depends a lot on where you are in the writing process. New writers benefit from discussions of craft—how to construct plot and character, for example. Writers who have finished two or three drafts of a manuscript would benefit from workshops that work on whole manuscripts. I’ve found very helpful information about workshops from magazines such as Poets and Writers, and from fellow writers in local writing organizations (such as the Oregon Writers Colony).

8. Tell us any secret rituals you have for getting started each day.

I write as soon as I wake up. Sometimes I have an idea from a dream; sometimes from something I’ve been reading, especially nonfiction (e.g., James Prosek’s “Eels”). I write my initial ideas sitting in my favorite chair that looks out a window; I use a yellow pad and pens that vary with what I’m writing (a fountain pen for poetry, a liquid gel pen for prose—I LOVE pens). Once I get going, I write with a computer on a treadmill desk—a great alternative to sitting. But the most important ritual: write. Or as my father used to say, “Don’t get it right, just get it written.”

9. Any writers you like to read to inspire you to write (or if you're blocked)?

I’m an omnivorous reader, from Tolkien to Sci-Fi (The Ship Who Sang, The Foundation Series, Something Wicked This Way Comes) to poetry (Anne Carson, Kay Ryan, Dylan Thomas) to mystery (Raymond Chandler, The Bee Keeper’s Apprentice, Scandinavian noir) to literary (Cloud Atlas, J.M. Coetzee, Dickens) to books about writing (Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel, The Making of a Story). The OED inspires me to write. The writing on the back of cereal boxes inspires me to write. Michael Frayne’s “Copenhagen” makes me want to write plays; Montaigne’s Essays make me want to hole up in a tower and blog.