Instructions for living a life and being a writer


“Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” — Mary Oliver

In my experience, the same thing works for being a writer: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.

I like to tell stories about life as it is lived by real people. I like to include some magic realism, because it exists if and when we look for it, and go where the stories and their characters take me. Sometimes it takes a while to tell a particular story, sometimes a story just flows, sometimes life intervenes. The important thing is to  pay attention, be astonished, and tell about it in a story, a poem, an essay and living. Each new day, each new moment, a gift. I have a love affair with life. I enjoy telling about it in stories and poems, stories about heroes and monsters, celebrations, songs, strange characters, hidden people that are there but seldom seen, mundane events that aren’t so mundane once you look at them. Is it possible to live long enough to wear it all out, to have nothing left to say? At eighty, I don’t think so. There is so much yet to be explored, so many stores yet to tell, poems to be written.

The sun is out

On the veranda                                                                                                                                    my wife hangs laundry

In the distance                                                                                                                                            thunder

– – –

The days move                                                                                                                                 swiftly by

While the nights move slowly                                                                                                          and are filled with dreams.

– – –

A young boy and his mother, carrying his baby sister, run for their lives toward the Sumida River Park as sheets of fire fall from the sky. Falling asleep, he wakens as the sun comes up and realizes he is the only one in the park alive. What is going to become of him? That is the story of eight-year-old Seiji, a story published several years ago in “A Rainbow Feast: New Asian Short Stories” edited by Mohammad A. Quayum. The story was written quickly.  I’ve been working on a novel about seiji for the past three years. Some stories take their time to be told. Others appear quickly, like “Grandfather and The Raven” and the story about old Genjiro Yamada and his monkey friend Yukitaro.

The point? Be patient. Stories come as they will. My job as a writer is to be ready when a story is ready to be told. Forty-one years ago I went to Mexico City, where I lived for two months. It was an unforgettable experience in which I fell in love with the city. Returning home to Minneapolis, I wrote a poem, “Mexico City Dream Trip,” which was published in 1974.

I began writing a novel about it. Several years later, frustrated, I set it aside and forgot about it. Finally, in 2013, I began again. “The City Has Many Faces, a love story about Mexico City is the result. It is ready to go to my editor, then will be published later this year.

city has many faces front cover only

Mexico City                                                                                                                                           from the mountains which                                                                                                        surround it                                                                                                                                               it seems to be                                                                                                                                           a sea of moving lights,                                                                                                                            & once inside it,                                                                                                                                        it is like being caught up                                                                                                                          in a dream                                                                                                                                               that captures                                                                                                                                          your whole imagination                                                                                                                        & you don’t want to wake                                                                                                                      up from it.

                                                                                                                                                                     No matter                                                                                                                                              what you try to do,                                                                                                                                 the city has its hold on you,                                                                                                  shimmering there in the mountains                                                                                           cloaked in smog                                                                                                                                      & sounding like a volcano                                                                                                                  about to erupt,                                                                                                                                 swelling & subsiding                                                                                                                                   & beckoning                                                                                                                                                  & whispering in your ear.

– – –

More next time.

About gwpj

Originally from Seattle, I now live in Sapporo, Japan, where I write, explore this city, read widely, and ask questions about things that i see as important. I'm also an author, with three novels published ("The Old Man and The Monkey", "Grandfather and The Raven", and "Bear: a story about a boy and his unusual dog"). For more information about my writing, drop by my website, at
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