Long ago, I held writing workshops in my living room. There were eight people in a group, and I was one of the eight. We met once a week for two hours. My courses lasted eight to ten weeks. There was no homework, nor did people bring stories or poems to share with the group. The purpose of the gathering was to do writing exercises I invented to illuminate various aspects of the writing process, and after each exercise, to share what we’d written.
No one had to share what she or he wrote. Sharing our work was voluntary. No judgments were made by anyone in the group, and the only outward responses to shared work permitted during the sessions were smiles, nods, and positive humming. If a participant had a negative reaction to something, they kept their response to themselves.
In every group, despite my assurances to the contrary, there were people who thought they would be judged and critiqued for what they created during the sessions. In fact, most of the people I worked with over the years were sure they would be criticized and judged, though I told them when they signed up for the workshop there would be no analysis or criticism, and I restated that rule at the outset of every session.
And so for the first few exercises of every first session, only I and a few other people (usually those who had previously taken one of my workshops) would read aloud what they wrote. Then once it became clear there would be no judgment or criticism, most people were emboldened to share some of what they created.
There were often people who would wait until the second or third sessions before sharing something with the group, and one person waited to share something until her fifth session. When she finally got up the courage to share a few lines of what she’d written, and her offering was greeted with smiles and positive humming, she wept, and thereafter eagerly shared her work.
What I learned from working with hundreds of writers, teenagers to oldsters, was that virtually everyone had been shamed and traumatized regarding their writing. The main traumatizers were unskillful teachers, though parents and fellow students were frequently traumatizers, too.
And though my
exercises helped people practice their writing skills, the greatest boon of the
sessions was that people got to experience sharing what they wrote without being
punished for doing so.
Paragraphs, as I’m sure you know, are collections of sentences usually related to each other. If a paragraph is the first one in a story or essay, it introduces what will follow. If a paragraph is the last paragraph in a story or essay, it will conclude the collection of paragraphs composing the story or article. Any other paragraph in the story or article springs from the preceding paragraph and leads to the paragraph that follows.
A paragraph, as you know, is a series of sentences describing something. If the paragraph is the first in an essay or story, it will act as the introduction to all that follows. If the paragraph is the last paragraph of the piece, it will end the story or essay. However, if the story is a chapter in a longer work, the last paragraph of the chapter may (or may not) hint at what is to follow. Any other paragraph in the story or essay is usually influenced by the preceding paragraph and usually suggests what the subsequent paragraph will be concerned with.
You almost surely know what a paragraph is: a sequence of sentences arranged to describe something to the reader. The paragraph might describe what a person looks like. Or it might describe a particular action, someone making coffee or jumping out a window. If the paragraph is the first one in a story or an essay, it will act as an intro, though not necessarily as an introduction to whatever follows. If the paragraph is the last one in the collection of paragraphs composing the piece, it will be an ending even if whatever is happening in the piece doesn’t necessarily end. If the paragraph is not the first or the last, it will be sandwiched between two other paragraphs, rubbing shoulders with them, as it were, and feeling connected to them if only by proximity, but also maybe by a continuum of content.
Let us begin by assuming you are aware, at least in a general way, of what a paragraph is, and my saying a paragraph is a sequence of sentences describing something to the reader is perhaps annoyingly obvious, though I have no intention of annoying you. I’m merely rewriting the previous paragraph in an attempt to… what? Demonstrate the process of rewriting? Maybe. We’re not sure. In any case, assuming you know what a paragraph is, you don’t need me to tell you that the first paragraph in a story kicks off the show, so to speak, and the last paragraph closes the act, in a manner of speaking, and the paragraphs in between the first and last paragraphs are the body of the story, the first paragraph the head, the last paragraph the tail. And I do hope you’ll forgive me for mixing my metaphors or similes or whatever they are.
You know what a paragraph is. Right?
A collection of sentences, or one long sentence with lots of dependent clauses,
a mass of words describing something that doesn’t want to be broken into two or
more paragraphs, but wants to be one unit of (meaningful?) words describing a
particular something. And you also surely know the first paragraph in a story
is like the opening act, the comedian who comes on to loosen up the crowd for
the main act to follow, and it, the paragraph, should be enticing and
intriguing, so the readers will want to read the next paragraph, and the next and the next until they, the readers,
come to the end of the collection of paragraphs composing the story, for which the
final paragraph is the last hurrah of the ensemble of paragraphs. Or maybe not
the last hurrah. Not if the story turns out to be a chapter in a longer work, a
novel or a memoir, in which case the first story or chapter is the opening act
of a longer work composed of multiple chapters, each chapter composed of
paragraphs, each paragraph containing sentences, and each sentence made of
words. In that case, the first story (or chapter) is some sort of harbinger
(comedian or seer?) of what is to come in the subsequent story chapters, and
the first paragraph of the first chapter is the comedian’s opening joke or the
seer’s opening prophecy. For instance: So a guy goes to see a psychiatrist or
Beware the Ides of March.
Here I am starting to write a story I’m calling Beginnings. This is the beginning of the story. Or is it a story? Maybe this is a musing. Maybe, probably, when I have the first draft written, I’ll rewrite this beginning and then the beginning will be a resuming.
Why do I want to write something called Beginnings? Because spring has sprung! The apple trees are just beginning to leaf out. The chard and collards and lettuce babies are emerging from soil in which I planted seeds from packets promising lettuce, collards, and chard.
Yesterday I planted potatoes and sugar snap peas, while all around me the Japanese maples were disporting new leaves, the bare branches bare no more.
When I used to help people with
their writing, I discovered beginning was difficult for most of them. They kept
trying to figure out what they were going to write before they wrote anything,
as if writing was akin to building something, and one had to conceive of something
and then design the thing and then figure out the dimensions and secure the
necessary building materials, and then
begin constructing (writing) whatever the thing was.
They were afraid they might make mistakes. I told them they couldn’t make mistakes; that the rough draft is anything that wants to come out, including random words, sentence fragments, nonsense, doodles, gibberish. Anything. Alas, school and society and parents and silly books about writing taught them otherwise. They believed fiercely in wrong and right and good and bad. They felt they might be punished for something they wrote. They were stymied by lies they’d been told and believed.
I was tempted to compare writing to
meditation, but I didn’t want to confuse my writers with comparisons and
abstractions. They needed basic training, not poetical philosophizing. However,
today, as I’m in the midst of expanding my daily meditation practice, I understand
the purpose of meditation is to meditate, not to get something from meditating.
Hoping to get something from meditating creates an obstacle that gobbles up
many minutes better spent meditating instead of hoping. The same is true for
writing. Hoping to get something from writing creates an obstacle to writing.
This article is a meditation of sorts, except I’m thinking as I write. In meditation, thinking is something to become aware of and let go of. Non-attachment to what comes up is the essence of meditation, which is true of writing, too. Had I been attached to a certain idea about where this musing should go, I might never have veered off into talking about meditation.
Everything changes. The tiny lettuce
and chard and collard plants – little leaves collecting sunlight to empower the
growth of secondary leaves – will soon be mature plants destined for our digestive
systems and a return to non-being.
The first sentence of this piece – Here I am starting to write a story I’m calling Beginnings. – is no longer true. Now the truth is: There I was starting to write something I’m still currently calling Beginnings, though who knows what the title will be when I finally post the piece, if I post this.
Simply begin. Now begin again. All our
beginnings will merge into a flow that is the process. When we meditate, ideas
and images and feelings and sensations arise and dissolve, are born and die.
Writing is a process of writing down what arises, and once the words are
written, they vanish for the time being, and maybe forever if we don’t revisit
them. If we get attached to something we’ve written while we’re writing, the flow of words will slow and tangle and
The first draft, the beginning, springs
from seeds that sprout underground and send forth shoots growing up through the
soil and emerging into air and sunlight.
My mother told me that until I was two-and-a-half, I barely spoke. She said this was because my two older sisters, close to me in age, would intuit what I wanted and speak for me. My mother further informed me that when I finally began to speak, I did so in paragraphs.
In school, from First Grade through Twelfth, I was forever speaking when I wasn’t supposed to be speaking, much to chagrin of my teachers. I understood intellectually why I wasn’t to speak unless given permission, but I found such a dynamic emotionally abusive, so I rebelled and suffered the consequences, which were not usually dire, but frequently annoying.
I remember learning the word obese when I was eight. The moment I learned the word, I encountered obese everywhere, as if the word had been waiting for me to know its meaning before manifesting in the rest of my reality.
In Tenth Grade, I seriously overused the word naïve, having been called naïve
by a young woman who was briefly my girlfriend. “You are so naïve,” was the denouement of her breaking-up-with-me speech, as
if that particular word explained everything wrong with me as a boyfriend. And
so, while recovering from the breakup, at every opportunity I would respond to things
my friends said with a sarcastic, “How can you be so naïve?”
However, I did not know how to spell naïve, and one day during my senior year of high school in Advanced English – oh God the
embarrassment – we were taking turns reading aloud from some famous work we
were supposed to admire, and when it came my turn to read, I encountered the
word naïve and pronounced it knave, which inspired great mirth and
guffawing among my classmates.
And my teacher, who had long endured my aforementioned habit of
speaking without first gaining his permission, declared with vindictive delight,
“The word, Mr. Walton, is pronounced nigh-eve,
not knave as you have so grievously
To which I, red-faced, replied, “Oh how could I have been so knave?”
Which rejoinder brought the house down and killed my teacher’s momentary joy.
When I was in my forties and living in Berkeley, I was listening
to a cassette recording of the Monty Python sketch The Cheese Shop, in which one of the characters enters a cheese
shop and explains to the proprietor, “I was passing by and suddenly felt
The proprietor replies, “Say what?”
And the first character repeats, “Esurient. You know. Peckish.”
So I looked up esurient,
found that it means hungry, and thereafter
used the word zealously, which informed me that almost no one I knew had the
slightest idea what esurient meant.
Not long after learning the new word, I went to San Francisco to
have lunch with a friend who was vain of his vast vocabulary and loved
displaying his familiarity with Latin. When it was time to leave his flat and
go to lunch, I said, “None to soon, for I am profoundly esurient.”
He frowned and said, “Say what?”
With a British accent I replied, “Esurient. Surely you know this
His eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Something you made up?”
“Nay,” said I. “Esurience
is hunger. When one is hungry, one is
He rushed to his OED, looked up the word, and for years thereafter
used esurient at every opportunity.
Marcia showed me a cartoon e-card today of some people on a bench in an art museum looking at the most famous of Monet’s water lily paintings. After a moment, a big black dog jumps into the lily pond, swims across the pond and disappears out of frame, and then appears beside the people looking at the painting and shakes himself, thereby spraying the people with water.
My response was to say, “That’s just what those paintings have always needed.”
Some time later, thinking about my response to the humorous desecration of that iconic work of art, I recalled the many times I’ve seen Monet’s water lily paintings on walls in various art museums. Monet made hundreds of water lily paintings, which is why they’re in museums all over the world.
I once was in a gigantic room in a gigantic art museum, and all the walls in the gigantic room were full of big Monet water lily paintings, all quite similar to each other. And though part of me thought the overall effect was beautiful, another part of me thought the room resembled a wholesale interior decoration warehouse – the water lily paintings this week’s special, the paintings being cranked out by the thousands in a factory somewhere.
Then I recalled going to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the early 1980s when I was a “successful” writer and I’d go to New York twice a year to talk to editors and visit my agent and go to plays and museums.
On this particular visit to MOMA, I was accompanied by a friend who was a painter becoming a professor of art. We walked through the current show, a retrospective of Andrew Wyeth paintings, complete with Wyeth’s sketches and watercolor studies for each of his famous oil paintings, along with the famous paintings themselves, and then we made a quick trip through the rooms of MOMA’s permanent collection.
I am the kind of person who, after seeing three or four great
paintings, has no more aesthetic synaptic space in my psyche, if you know what
I mean, so the experience of looking at dozens and dozens of paintings, one
after the other, was dizzying and made of the many masterpieces so much
As we were leaving the museum, my friend said, “The arbitrary
defining of culture by a few narrow-minded people.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, feigning innocence, though I knew the
same was true of literature and music.
“I mean a few people in control of the cultural spigot determine what is defined and will be defined as ‘great art’ for generations. Never mind the thousands of other artists of equal greatness who no one will ever know about because they weren’t chosen by the privileged few.”
Some years later I saw the movie Basquiat, about the heroin-addicted abstract painter Basquiat who
was chosen by Andy Warhol and a few other powerful cultural arbiters to be “the
one” for a while, and Basquiat went from poor and unknown to wealthy and famous
virtually overnight, and then he died of an overdose at the age of
twenty-eight. The movie depicted the arbitrary nature of who gets to be famous
and who doesn’t.
As my mother liked to say, “Thus it has always been.”
Which is why you will sometimes see a painting by someone not famous or hear a song by someone not famous or read a story by someone not famous and you’ll think, “She’s every bit as good as Monet or Dylan or Dickens, well, maybe not Dickens.” And then you’ll tell yourself that can’t be possible, that if she was really any good she’d be famous, right? So you must be imagining things or you had too much coffee or something.
But maybe you didn’t have too much coffee. Maybe a thing is great because the thing is great, not because someone tells you the thing is great. As my friend Murray likes to say, “When it comes to art, open your mind and trust your feelings.”
I woke from a nightmare I can’t remember and had the feeling it was about the war in Ukraine.
I got up this morning, I remembered other wars that have gone on in my life. I
remembered protesting various wars, and I remembered ignoring wars. I
remembered feeling sad and distressed about war, as I feel about the Russian
invasion of Ukraine.
we’re at the beginning of learning to live with yet another ongoing war, just as
the covid pandemic settles into an endemic we may have to live with for the
rest of our lives, in the same way we live with the Israeli-Palestinian nightmare
that has been ongoing for seventy-five years, and the war against nature we are
As a young boy I played Army with my friends and we fought against the Japanese and Germans because we’d seen John Wayne and Gary Cooper fighting Japanese and German soldiers in movies on television. The imagined enemy soldiers were not people to us, but vague soldier phantoms we shot at with our pretend guns. We fought battles, not wars. We had no concept of war, only skirmishes that ended when we imagined we’d killed all the soldiers attacking us.
I went on my first anti-war march in 1963 when I was thirteen. My father and I marched on Market Street in San Francisco with a small group of people protesting US involvement in Vietnam. I wasn’t sure where Vietnam was and I never dreamed the Vietnam War war would blossom into the horror it did and shape our society and the world so profoundly.
of the people watching us march up Market Street had no idea what we were
protesting. I vividly remember a red-faced heckler shouting at us, “Go back to
Russia you commies!”
In 1966 I went to Europe with my family. In Paris, my sister and I went to a movie, and before the movie they showed a newsreel of US jets bombing and strafing villages in Vietnam – women and children fleeing American tanks and soldiers. None of this was yet being reported in America.
When we came home and I told my friends about the newsreel, they didn’t believe me. And then the war started being covered on television in America and everyone got to see the horror. Since then, the leaders in America, and apparently in Russia, too, know not to show anything resembling the truth to the home crowd. Spawns resistance.
In PE my senior year in high school, 1967, I lined up for roll call beside a guy named Jim who had lied about his age and joined the Army at 16 and was sent to Vietnam during what would have been our junior year. He’d been wounded within a few weeks of arriving in Vietnam and spent three months in a hospital recovering, after which he was discharged when they discovered he was only 16.
here he was in my PE class, standing beside me for roll call. One day I
overheard him say something about Nam to another guy, so I asked him about the
war. His eyes narrowed and he said, “You don’t want to go over there, man. Go
to Canada if you get drafted.” Then he gave me a sad angry look and said, “I
mean it, man. You don’t want to go over there.”
I remember my huge relief when I got a medical deferment in 1969 and could safely drop out of college. A couple years later, some of my friends drew high numbers in the draft lottery and rejoiced, and some friends got low numbers and joined up or fled to Canada. A college friend, Jon Sumida, went to prison rather than join the Army, and a high school friend, Elgin Juri, got killed in Vietnam.
In 1970 I travelled to Central America and crossed the Honduras/El Salvador border during the war between those two countries. My companions and I were traveling in a big van, and as we drove across the long bridge over the river dividing the two countries, we were stopped at three checkpoints erected by soldiers extorting money from travelers.
I was the most fluent Spanish speaker in our group, I negotiated our way
through these roadblocks. As I spoke to the surly young soldiers armed with
automatic weapons, I was keenly aware of how easy it would be to anger them and
get us all killed. We paid them whatever they asked for and didn’t try to
our return trip, having gone as far south as Costa Rica, the war was over,
peace established, the roadblocks gone.
I wrote my novel Inside Moves in 1975, the year the war in Vietnam ended, and the book was published in 1978. The narrator of the novel, Roary, is a Vietnam vet, wounded and disabled in that war. In the years after the movie of Inside Movescame out in 1981, I met several Vietnam veterans who told me they loved the book and were disappointed the movie makers changed Roary into a failed suicide rather than leaving him a man disabled by the war. I told them I had begged the filmmakers not to make that change, but the people who made the movie were not interested in what I thought.
of those disappointed veterans explained, “That’s because the people in power
never want to tell the truth about war.”
A fact most Americans are deeply uncomfortable with is that many more American soldiers committed suicide after coming back from Vietnam than the 57,000 American soldiers who died fighting in Vietnam. More than three million Vietnamese died in that war.
In 1983 I met a man who had been a medic in Vietnam. He had written a novel about his experiences as a helicopter medic. We had the same literary agent and she asked me to read his book and give him suggestions for his rewrite. I thought his book was brilliant and important. Unfortunately, his book was never published.
My next-door neighbor in Sacramento, a man exactly my age, fought in Vietnam and survived two horrific jungle firefights. In his first battle, he was one of two survivors out of three hundred American soldiers. In the second battle, he was one of three survivors out of four hundred American soldiers. Each time, he was saved by grabbing onto a rope dangling from a helicopter and being lifted out of the carnage into the copter. His comrades were not so fortunate.
Just prior to the first Gulf War, I was asked to speak at a rally at the California state capitol protesting America’s impending invasion of Iraq. I stood at the microphone on the steps of the capitol and gazed out at the few hundred protesters surrounded by a huge army of heavily armored riot police, and I felt we were in the jaws of a monster who would never negotiate with us.
Today I noticed the white water bowl on the big
flat rock in front of our Ganesh statue was in need of cleaning, so I brought
the bowl to the kitchen sink, dumped out the seven stones I’ve kept in the bowl
for a couple years, washed the bowl, and was about to wash the stones, too,
when I thought, Time to return these
stones to the ocean.
So I put the stones in a bag to take with me on
my next trip to the beach where I will scatter the stones along the shore, thus
doing the opposite of what I did for most of my life until I started returning
stones to their source.
And when those seven stones are reunited with
the ocean, I will have set free all the stones I’ve ever collected save for
five, two of which are little pocket stones. Of the larger three, one is a
shard of obsidian I submerged in the Ganesh bowl, and another is a rock I found
when I first moved to Mendocino, a big heavy perfectly flat stone we keep on a
coffee table in the living room to use for a coaster and to keep the table from
floating away. The third kept stone is a roughly diamond-shaped flat stone the
size of a big human hand that serves as a coaster on my computer table.
I started collecting stones when I was a little
kid, as many kids do, and I kept on collecting them into adulthood, as many
adults do. Over time I accumulated a great many stones ranging from the size of
a button to the size of a football. I got rid of many of the stones here and
there along my way, collected many more, and when I moved to Berkeley from
Sacramento in 1995, I transported with me three large boxes full of stones.
When I moved from Berkeley to Mendocino in 2006,
I gave away some of my stones and threw a whole bunch into San Francisco Bay. However,
upon my arrival in Mendocino, I discovered I’d landed in beach rock heaven, and
greedily collected hundreds more stones, who, of course, demanded space on
tables and desks and shelves – magnificent dust collectors.
Then a few years ago, while cleaning my office
and rearranging the furniture, I was confronted by five large bowls full of
stones sitting on tables and shelves, as well as dozens of stones living on my two
desks; and I had an epiphany: time to integrate some of these stones into the
rock wall bordering our deck and return most of the others to the ocean.
That’s when I put seven of my favorite stones in the Ganesh bowl, fit a dozen or so of the larger rocks into the rock wall, and took the rest of my stones to the beach where I dumped them in a big pile on the sand close to the water where I knew the tide would disperse them.
My two pocket stones are small and round, one
for each of the front pockets of my pants. These carrying stones are a source
of comfort to me, though I rarely think about them unless I’m anxious about
something. Then I might hold one or both of them to facilitate my prayers to
the unseen ones. I suppose one day I might find other stones to replace my
pocket stones, though I don’t intend to accumulate more stones for any other
I think collecting stones was my way of trying to bring wild nature home with me. Yet I’ve come to feel if I’m not going to pay attention to the stones every day, each individual one of them, it isn’t kind of me to deprive them of their exciting lives on the wild shore.
In 1968, at the beginning of my second (and last) year of college at UC Santa Cruz, I grew a beard and kept that beard for two years. Yet for many years after I shaved off the beard, several people who had seen me multiple times since then would greet me with, “Hey, you shaved off your beard.” Apparently Todd with a beard made a deep impression on some people.
I played on the university basketball team my last year of
college. Our team was composed of students and faculty and we played in a local
city league. The league included a team from a Bible college as well as teams
sponsored by Sylvania, lumber companies, and a commercial mushroom factory.
During a game in front of a boisterous crowd, I made a long shot while falling
out of bounds, and someone in the stands shouted, “Way to go Ulysses!” Had to
be the beard.
This is my favorite picture of me with a beard. I was nineteen. My companion is the inestimable Robert Smith and we are drinking wine and eating cheese and French bread bought at the San Gregorio general store. Along with our pal Dick Mead, who took this iconic photo, and somebody with a car, we had driven up from Santa Cruz for a day of Frisbee and beach walking and a picnic on the dunes at Pescadero Beach. Happily, Robert and Dick and I are still pals fifty-two years after that glorious bacchanal.
With my impressive beard, I could buy alcohol without being asked for
proof I was old enough to legally buy liquor, which I was not. Hence, I was
often asked by guys in my dorm to buy booze for them.
Near the end of my college days, two fledgling filmmakers put me
in their little movies, no doubt because of my beard.
When I quit college, I adventured around America and Canada in a school-bus-yellow GMC panel truck with the aforementioned Dick Mead. Hard to believe now, but beards were unusual in much of America in the late 1960s, and in some places, especially in the South, people were clearly offended by my beard and my not-very-long long hair, while in other places…
Dick and I were walking in New York City on a balmy summer evening. Not really knowing where we were or where we were going, we wandered into a predominantly Jewish neighborhood full of people sitting on stoops and stairways, and gangs of kids playing in the street. As we passed a group of men gathered in front of an old apartment building, two of the men approached us and one of them asked me, “Rabbi? Would you help us settle an argument?”
“I’m not a rabbi,” I replied, surprised by his request.
“Not yet,” said the other man. “But you’re studying, yes?”
Some months later when I was getting ready to travel to Mexico and Central America, I was advised my beard might be problematic south of the border, so I shaved off my beard, kept a mustache for a couple years, and never grew a beard again.
Now I shave every three or four days, and when newly shaven I
always appear (to myself) to be much younger. How much younger? A good year.