Sunday, July 13, 2008


Literary-Mystical Puzzles for Writers

Jill Dearman

Letter Meditation Number One: The Aleph

I get my best ideas in the country.

Although I was raised on the mean streets of Queens, New York (there's a reason Archie Bunker called the borough his home!) and spent much of my life as a certified city mouse, in recent years my soul has pulled me (feet first) into the country. Over 4th of July weekend we were upstate with our good friend, our good dog, and a cavalcade of wild life. Chipmunks and cows, rabbits and vultures, hawks and hummingbirds, foxes and badgers, deer and fish, horses and frogs, cats and crows, and so many other creatures that we did not have strong enough sensory powers to see.

Ah, to be a human with six lame and lazily developed senses!

Driving up from Brooklyn on Friday, the 4th, I felt at one with the universe, so very peaceful and alive as we turned off the main highway into our weekend town. We rolled down the windows to breathe in the country air. Within moments I felt a jolt of adrenalin surge through me as a low-flying Buteo Hawk, holding a gopher in its beak, passed right in front of our windshield, so close we could almost hear its broad wings flap. I'd already eased my foot onto the brake, in silent sync with the predatory bird. There was a thrill of life and death existing all at once; my mind immediately flew back in time to countless rides through Times Square with my cab driver father, now dead for over two decades. He hadn't lived long enough to teach me to drive; and I waited till I was 33 before getting my license. But driving out of the boroughs, and into Colombia County, made me feel like I was traversing a series of opposite universes: the living and the dead, the animal and the human, the city and the country. At once I was inside of all of them, and my vantage point was clear and clean; I could see through each lens, with no overlap, no confusion.

And then I thought of The Aleph.

Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Each of the letters contains within it a primordial meaning, in the case of the Aleph it is simultaneously a letter of individuality (the number "one"), and a letter that contains within it the whole universe. "The Aleph", of course, is also an iconic short story by Jorge Luis Borges. A Kabbalist himself, Borges explored the concept of the Aleph as an earthly as well as spiritual creation, which contains multitudes within:

"Does the Aleph exist within the heart of a stone? Did I see it when I saw all things, and then forget it?" Borges wrote.

In Kabbalistic thought (the ancient Jewish mystical tradition) the Aleph is formed by drawing the letter Yud, signifier of the spark of an idea and the momentum that follows, two times, and separating the one above and the one below with the letter Vav, symbol of connection.

As writers, it seems we are always trying to navigate two worlds and find the connection between them –– the world inside, and the world outside. Buddhist Baritone Leonard Cohen nailed the cold, lonely and vivid experience of the former through his song "In My Secret Life". And as for the world of the latter, the world outside, sometimes it seems that we are less connected to it now than ever before, during this era of dominating technology, when each of us is encouraged in a
myriad of different ways to tune out "the other" and claim myspace (sic), how do we look beyond our secret worlds, and into the lives of others? How do we form a meaningful connection between the two?

On Sunday, while I happily puzzled over this, my mind turned to part of our Saturday night entertainment at the country house. On the piano sat the most random and amusing collection of sheet music, all gathered into one silly sing-along book. The songs ranged from the Alka Seltzer commercial theme ("Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz, Oh What a Relief It Is!") to Gospel shout-outs, Gershwin tunes, and a whole mess o' '70s and '80s hits –– eternal ("Evergreen") to hysterical ("Eye of the Tiger"). I practiced "As Time Goes By" (it was easier than I realized), Steven provided bassy anti-Bette vocals for "The Rose", and I karaoked like Krazy as Anne banged out a rocking rendition of "Stairway to Heaven."

What an epic song! And how at one with the universe once more I felt as I sang-bellowed, "And as we wind on down the road, our shadows taller than our souls …there walks a LIIIDY we all know-whoa…!!!" all of us sharing the live experience of our exuberant moment together, yet all of us inside ourselves.

And on that next morning, a mercurial Sunday in which no one could predict whether there'd be sun or rain, as I walked downstairs to make the coffee and take a moment to meditate and to let Roody the dog outside, I had a memory of a Hopper painting, "Stairway". A set of stairs in a country house, an open door exposing a background of mysterious countryside. Although it is a scene far away from the city, because it is Hopper, it contains the feeling of the absence of the city within it.

And so it was that morning, before that first sip of coffee reached my lips, I already felt awakened by a dazzling moment of recognition: every bite of literature and music, taste of art and experience of nature has nourished me, so that within me an entire labyrinth of imagined and observed worlds co-exist magically with the memories of experienced life and the fresh moment of life I experience with each breath. I felt caffeinated and nourished and hungry to write. And so I did. And so can you …so read on, write on and Right On, Baby!

Letter Exercise #1 "The Aleph": Write one page exploring (in whatever form you choose) a scene in which the first moment of an experience is somehow embedded in the last. Try making the first letter of the first word the same as the last letter of the last word. Your job is to use all the words in between to form a connection between the beginning of your tale and the end.

Puzzle of the Moment #1: Write one page (invisibly) using any three of the references (mystical, artistic, animal or otherwise) above as jumping off points. Find a way to narratively connect the dots.

I hope it leads you down a stairway to a shadowy country path that contains within it an endless series of invisible cities! May the Aleph be with you!

Further Reading, Listening and Looking (please write in with illuminating comments on the text above or on the delicious list below!)

"The Aleph" (short story, 1949) by Jorge Luis Borges
Invisible Cities (novel, 1972) by Italo Calvino
"In My Secret Life" (song, 2001) by Leonard Cohen
"Stairway to Heaven" (song, 1971) by Led Zeppelin
"Stairway" (painting, 1949) by Edward Hopper


Jill Dearman, the "BLOCKS-Busting Writing Coach" is the author of the forthcoming book, Bang the Keys: 4 Steps to a Lifelong Writing Practice. Her short stories, essays and journalism have been published widely in books, magazines and newspapers. Jill is a writing coach and editor as well as a part-time Professor of Journalism at New York University. Please visit her at and write to her at for more.


Baboon Lady said...

I'm blessed to have Jill as a writing coach. Her keen insight, wicked wit, and passion for the written word will inspire your writing to new levels. Are you looking to perfect your craft? Satisfy your soul's craving to tap into imagined and observed worlds? Seek expert guidance on your journey to writing enlightenment? Then work with Jill Dearman! Jill isn't just a wonderful writer and coach. She's a force of nature.

P&R said...

Compelled to read Jill's blog, I couldn't help but use sacred writing time to read the latest entry. Slap on the hand, but enjoyed much needed exercise to break through creative block!

Shotmonster said...

Much to chew on here. Thanks for putting so much passion and energy into what you do. It really fires me up.

Jill Dearman said...

and all this creativity has me fired up! thanks and keep sharing your thoughts. very inspiring.

Anonymous said...

Am returning to writing after many years away. Thanks for reminding me that it is a game, not a chore. Please excuse my ignorance, but what is "invisible writing"?

Jill Dearman said...

so glad the muse is returning! as for "writing invisibly" - I meant try using any of the "jumping off points" for your page -- without referring to them directly. Have fun!

Laura Esther Wolfson said...

Jill you are blessing to writers everywhere. Keep it coming.

The Loup

Judy - not a changing millie said...

But have you heard Dolly Parton's cover of Stairway to Heaven? Divine!

v-Ita-logy said...

Not a writer (yet), if you don’t count some occasional entries in my private journal, but still enjoyed reading your blog, Jill:). In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I forwarded it to some terrific people here in France who are hungry for some old whitty, funny and insightful reading. Keep blogging – you do this soooo well!

pianoman said...

This blog sent me back to "In My Secret Life," to dark and not-so-dark days listening to it. A beautiful and haunting song. Yes, that struggle continues--solitude or connection. Both inspire and, at times, inhibit me. Thank you.

Deborah said...

This was really beautiful, Jill. As you know, I don't share your passion for the country (I get all my best ideas while walking through Times Square) but you almost talked me into finding a little patch of green to see what would happen.

Jill Dearman said...

yes, but do you prefer to read about the city or the country? write about one over the other? curious!