The Prompter Room

For Friday, December 21, 2018:


You must learn to hush the demons that whisper, ‘No one wants to read this.  This has already been said.  Your voice doesn’t matter.’  In the rare moments when the voices finally hush, you might hear the angels sing. (h/t PB)


The Prompter Room

For Tuesday, April 18, 2017:


I want (your reader wants) you to ‘tell me something I can’t forget.’  Gossip.  Tell the tale.  Forget that you are writing.  Just talk onto the page.  There is a rich, colloquial speech – the language of home – that you learned perfectly.  Use it.  Your own first-learned speech is the primary color on your artist’s palette.  Everything else you learn will add variety, but the language of your own childhood home is your greatest treasure, your primary source.


The Prompter Room

For Friday, September 9, 2016:


“In my own original voice lies the foundation, the authority, the orientation, the perspective I need in order to use other voices.  I find it nothing short of a tragedy that so many teachers of writing have not understood the primal need for young writers to use first – and be affirmed emphatically for – the power of their own voices of home.  Almost all of the primary problems of beginning writers are rooted in their effort to sound like someone else.  That first voice, the voice of home, is the one the writer must protect from the contempt or disdain or disregard of any critic, no matter how famous or capable that critic may be.  It is not all that a mature writer needs; surely every writer needs the tools of literary criticism and as much knowledge of various traditions as possible – but a profound acceptance of and trust in one’s own voice is the first and most important thing the writer needs.”

Pat Schneider, HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN: WRITING AS A SPIRITUAL PRACTICE (Oxford University Press, 2013.  Page 125)

The Prompter Room

For Wednesday, February 10, 2016:


“If you hear a voice within you say, ‘You cannot paint,’ then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.”

Vincent van Gogh

This story may be familiar to some of you who have been here from the beginning, but I think it’s worth a bit of a repeat, given van Gogh’s statement above.

When I was an adult learner in the process of choosing the rest of the studies I needed to achieve my BA, one of the fields I chose was art.  I have always wanted to make art, but almost all of my artistic ventures received negative feedback.  Despite the fact that I have stellar artistic genes in my family, this apple fell far away from that tree and I knew I would never be able to paint or draw in a way that people would enjoy.

Part of the problem is that I have trouble with depth of field, even in everyday life.  This means I cannot do perspective.  I know the purpose of it, and I can do the beginners’ road or pathway that starts wide in the foreground, then narrows to the vanishing point somewhere in the background, but that’s all I can do.  Eventually I turned to photography so the camera does the depth of field for me.  I’m actually pretty good at it and I enjoy it, but it wasn’t the same.  I wanted to paint and draw – at least try to – so because I was blessed with a safe place to explore, one where I knew I wouldn’t be laughed at, I did a semester’s work doing just that.

That’s when I first read these words of van Gogh, and the account of how he’d been scorned and ridiculed but persevered and taught himself.  Imagine my surprise when I found that some of his early sketches look remarkably like my own attempts.

A little more exploration found the story of Grandma Moses.  She, too, was self-taught, painting first on a wooden fireplace screen and other things for her house and family.  She was 70 years old (or thereabouts) when that fireplace screen was ‘discovered,’ and the rest is history.  One has to do some digging, however, to find out that she also had trouble with perspective, and if you study her iconic paintings, especially her earliest ones, you’ll see how true that is.

The more I read about and studied the progress of these two and other artists, the more I found myself saying, ‘Okay, then.  I can do this, too!’  Then one day I was in a restaurant that had the work of a locally-famous folk art painter on the walls.  Looking at those paintings and prints, I realized there was no sense of perspective in them at all.  And soon I discovered that a whole heck of a lot of folk art has little to no perspective in it.  Woo hoo!

Even more important than all of this, I learned that my vision – my literal vision – and, therefore, my painting and my drawing, was just as valid as that of some of the most revered artists of all time.  Different, yes, but still valid – and valuable.  I’ll never be van Gogh or Grandma Moses, but that’s okay.  I’m not them.  I am and I will be Genie.

The most important thing I learned in that semester years ago, though, was that I had to try.  van Gogh was right: I learned I had to answer the voice inside my head.

So, please, if you have a voice that says you can’t write a book – or paint a piece of artwork, or dance, or design a house – please try.  Respond to that voice with a positive action instead!  My voice tells me you can and you will.

The Prompter Room

For Tuesday, November 10, 2015:

“To gain your own voice, you have to forget about having it heard.”

Allen Ginsberg

Yesterday I heard the story of a friend’s colleague who wants to write a book, but who spends all her free time doing research instead.  Every day she visits at least one library or bookstore.  Every weekend she travels farther afield to peruse the shelves of libraries and bookstores, coming away with stacks of books each time.  She’s taken whole weeks to do the same.  Apparently this has been going on for years, but as the books pile up she hasn’t written a word.

Now I certainly don’t want to poo-poo research, or going to libraries and bookstores.  Some of my best times are spent pursuing those avocations!  But there comes a time when, if one truly wants to write a book, one must start putting words together.

I’ve suggested time and again, here and elsewhere, that it doesn’t matter what you write, but that you write.  I think one of the reasons ‘wannabe writers’ don’t is because of fear: a fear of failure, a fear they’re not good enough, the fear of starting something they won’t finish.

I wonder, too, if some are afraid of their own voice.  I wonder if the woman of research above has so many other voices in her head now, her own may be lost or disappearing.  Or she compares her voice with others and, at some level — conscious or, more likely, unconscious — doesn’t like what she hears inside.

If that’s the case (and I suspect we’ve all been there at one or more points in our writing lives), then we have to reach the point where it just doesn’t matter what others think.  We have to believe in ourselves, believe in the value of our own words, in order to go forward.

That’s a lot easier said than done, of course!  But that’s one reason for these daily prompts: I want to encourage and support others’ words and writing because I believe in every single one of us, each of you. Consider your writing a safe place, where you don’t need to worry how your voice sounds, or what others will hear.  Once you can jump over that hurdle, you’ll be well on your way.

The Prompter Room

For Saturday, October 17, 2015:

“You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.”

Annie Dillard  

Every time I read this line from Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek, I think of the passage from which it comes.  She describes seeing a tree afire from the sunlight within, and it’s one of the most magical pieces of writing I’ve ever read. I can’t begin to do it justice here, but ever since then I’ve seen several trees lighted by that kind of fire.

What is your own astonishment?  It doesn’t need to be a moment of magic in nature.  Perhaps it’s a longtime relationship, or a thought, idea or blessing that comes unbidden, or a glimpse of humanity at its best (or, to be honest, at its worst, for we can be astonished at stupidity, selfishness, and thoughtlessness, too).  Perhaps it is even you yourself.  Imagine if we could all see ourselves as astonishing!

Use your voice, your pen, your brush, your hands to show us so we can share those moments and remember them.  Then we will know to keep our eyes open to look for our own. We are made aware of more around us because of your voice.  Your unique vision makes the world a better place.

Guided Meditation

This dreary, rainy day and the soft music on TV have put me in a meditative mood, so I thought I’d post this piece I wrote a few years ago for a workshop.

The workshop never happened — the weather was horrendous — and the time of year was autumn, not summer, but I think the meditation is still appropriate. A Native American flute CD was supposed to play in the background, so find something similar or just as soothing to listen to. It’s best if someone else can read this quietly for you.  If that can’t happen, read it over a few times first and then just listen to the music as you settle in and close your eyes ……

Relax into the music, let it refresh your spirit as you take a few minutes to release any demands on you or concerns you have. Take some slow, deep breaths and feel the oxygen regenerating your body.

We’re going on a short journey together, to find our muses and to find our own unique voice.

By now you may see an aura behind your closed eyelids … maybe a brilliant sunflower, stars, or flashes of green and blue lights. Enjoy them for a moment, thank them for starting your journey for you with such beauty.

As these slowly fade away, you see you’re on a wide path deep in the woods. It’s a crisp, invigorating day in the early fall. Sunlight streams through the trees, a breeze sends a shower of multi-colored leaves around you as you walk, and you spot a partridge gliding past you on feather-covered feet that make no sound at all.

As you enjoy the sounds of the leaves joining those that make the tapestry in which you move, you inhale the rich, fertile fragrances of damp earth, the humus of the pine duff, the whiff of wood smoke that reached you just now.

You’ve come to a small glade of hemlock, oak and beech trees and you spy a granite and marble boulder among the intertwining roots. It’s as if the trees and the boulder are anchors for each other, holding the other into and onto the ground just for you. Near the granite ridge of the stone’s top, there’s an indentation that makes a comfortable place to sit.

So you sit … and listen to the silence of no traffic, the rustling whisper the leaves make as they fall … to the occasional bird murmurs, chattering of the red squirrel, squeaks of the chipmunks … As the silence fills up around you, you hear the sound of water and discover this peaceful spot is just above a mountain stream, heavy from a recent rain, rushing over boulders and stones placed there eons ago by a glacier as it scoured the mountainside.

You take a deep, deep breath, enjoying the cool air that rises from the water below to meet the warm drafts of sunlighted breezes playing among the trees. You’ve slipped off the boulder seat onto the musty ground; lean now into the stone behind you and close your eyes ……

Sometime later you awaken. The sun is lower, the woodland creatures are quiet, even the breeze has stilled. You’ve lost all track of time, but you know it’s that magical time when afternoon seems to hold its breath before it slides into dusk. It’s time to start back.

You start to rise from your nest of ground and boulder … and in doing so, your hand overturns a palm-sized stone smoothed and ridged from the stream.   Then your foot dislodges another one of similar size. Turn them over to admire their simple yet complicated beauty, the marble veins gleaming in the late sunshine tilting through the trees, and appreciate their soft heft and weight.

When you turn them over, you find there is writing, something roughly etched as if with a smaller, sharper stone or knife, or maybe woodland faery spirits.   A close look reveals a word on each: “Voice” on one, “Sing” on the other.

Curious now, you kneel to dig a little more and find an irregular circle of similar stones underneath the leaves, each with its own word.  You place the first two stones inside the indentation on the boulder, and each subsequent stone finds its place there as well. The stone words include ‘Risk,’ ‘Promise,’ ‘Empty,’ ‘Find’ … and there are several more.

Without intending to, you realize you’ve made a poem as you placed the stones onto the boulder. Perhaps this is where they started, then, after that unknown person or spirit scraped these words and placed them on the altar of the boulder near the stream.  Perhaps a squirrel or a heavy wind sent them into hiding, to wait for you to find them.

You place the last stone in the center of the circle, its word “Gladness” uppermost, and you back away. It’s time now to retrace your steps along the woodland path. You give thanks to the spirits of the woods, the stream, the stones and boulders, the creatures. Dusk is nearly here and you must be able to see your way out; but it seems that a light from behind you shines in just the places you need to put your feet.

It’s the words, you think. They’ve made the way easier and brighter. When you come through the woods again, you turn around and the light is gone. Gone along the pathway, yes, but there is new light in your heart.

You stand there for a moment or two because you want to remember the poem you left back in the glade. You want to write that poem … or song … or paint a picture … or tell a story ….

And you want to come back and add your own words for another to find.

© ERR/November 18, 2009


Poetry puts starch in your backbone so you can stand, so you can compose your life.

Maya Angelou

It’s been too long since I’ve read anything but snippets or quotes — like the above — by Maya Angelou, and this memoir by Tavis Smiley (with David Ritz) reinforced that lack on my part.

Even though the book is about Dr. Angelou, not by her, I could hear her voice throughout.

As the title suggests, Smiley writes of the decades-long journey he shared with Angelou as his mentor and friend.  In addition to specific times that they met, visited and spoke with each other, he highlights some of her poems along with her humor, wisdom, and insight. The quote above is not in the book, but it could have been, for that observation seems to be much of what drove the deep relationship between the two, even if it’s only implicit.

One of the things I most enjoyed were the accounts of when Maya Angelou and Smiley together broke into the gospel hymnody in which they’d both been raised.  I loved, too, the descriptions of her appearances before crowds and audiences and her more intimate times with friends.

According to Smiley, she was always comfortable, poised, and gracious, even as her health deteriorated, but he made it clear that her first priority was hospitality for others and to put them at ease.  It’s easy to see why when one reads the heartbreaking story of her rape as a child and the subsequent five or so years when she was rendered mute as a result.  While her famous poem I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and her first memoir are based on the trauma, and while both she and Smiley acknowledged what happened, the courage of Angelou’s life and works more than transform that horrific time.  And she has transformed the world, one person at a time, one poem, one book, one class, one friend at a time.

My Journey with Maya by Tavis Smiley, with David Ritz.  2015: Little, Brown and Co., NY.