Mendocino Talking: Hal Zina Bennett

by Dave Smith, December 7, 2016

halbennett(Hal lives in Lake County with his wife, Susan Sparrow, and is the author of more than 20 successful books, including Write From The Heart -- Unleashing The Power of Your Creativity [2011], The Lens of Perception -- A User's Guide to Higher Consciousness [2012], and a book of four short novels titled Backland Graces [2012]. Hal has taught creative writing workshops throughout the US, and is a personal writing coach who has helped over 200 writers develop successful books. The Writers Read monthly poetry readings at the Art Center in downtown Ukiah, started by Susan, has been going now for over eighteen years. Susan also started the Poet Laureate program and helped start the Ukiah Haiku Festival for Mendocino County. I asked Hal what he is currently working on…) 

I’m writing a mystery story, kind of a classic murder mystery which I haven’t done before. I’ve written fiction before, but this is the first time I’ve stuck to a formal structure. A lot of Shakespeare is in mystery form, and some of the great theater, like Sophocles, is classic mystery. I’d say that in the last four years I’ve tried to do things to recapture the excitement that writing had for me at the beginning. I really enjoy what I’m doing now, in retirement,  because I don’t really care if it gets finished or is ever published.

As a kid, I started writing on my own, but could never figure out how to connect it into my school. I flunked all my English classes, but meantime I’d be excited about writing all the time, and reading adult fiction. Then I spent most of my life making a living as a writer. It got to the point, of course, where it was just work. When it is something that you have mastered where part of the craft is writing for a broad audience, and working under a deadline for a publisher, it is no longer fully satisfying. It doesn’t have the zing in it that you felt in the beginning.

A musician who plays for an audience, or a journalist who has a column, gets feedback. And there’s some real energy in that. Whatever we do, we want to communicate… we want a connection to the other person. Story telling started with people talking to each other, telling each other stories around the campfire. They didn’t study language, but they did study the interaction… “when I’m hooting sounds, when I jump up into the air, everybody’s eyes get wide”… there’s something fulfilling about that communication with another human being.

When you write a book, you may never meet anybody who has read it. In all I probably have a million books in print, and I get maybe 10 letters a year from people who love my books and tell me that.

The average book in the United States by all kinds of publishers sells less than 500 copies in its lifetime. If you include self-published books, it’s under 100 copies. Only 1% of the books sold support the industry.

I grew up in Michigan, born in Detroit. My dad was an engineer of a bank building. When he was in his late fifties, he got fired by new owners of the building and he said that he was not going to go back to that life anymore. He loved wood work and that’s what he ended up doing… making Shaker type furniture that sold pretty well.

The first years of my life we lived in Birmingham, an upper class suburb of Detroit. Everyone in our neighborhood were executives. I never could relate to it. My friend’s dad was a Vice-President of General Motors and they lived a couple of doors down from us. They had servants who were pissed off and his mom was always drunk and un-present. It was a terrible environment. So he spent a lot of time at our house which was more laid back.

I was about 12 when my dad lost his job, and we moved to the country and became really poor, although we had nice real estate. It was difficult, but at the same time, I hunted and fished, and that was part of our food source. There was never any pressure, I just liked to do it. We gardened. That quality of life was a vast improvement to me than what we had in Birmingham. So with what’s happening in the country today, for me, that life is a piece of the puzzle for our future.

My first book was No More Public School [1972] when back-to-the-land was popular. I helped set up a few small cooperative schools in the Bay Area, and people were moving up north and home schooling their kids. It sold pretty well. When I moved here, I met former Supervisor David Colfax — who famously home schooled his kids that were accepted at Ivy League colleges — and he told me that book was really important to him.

The Well Body Book [1973] which I co-authored was my first best seller, ultimately selling about half a million copies.

When I was giving creative writing seminars, the first thing I did was say to the participants that I wanted them to sit, close their eyes if they wanted, and then write in the present… whatever that meant to them. People always have something on their minds, or are hearing something, or some part of their body hurts, or birds singing… whatever that is to them. What ever they feel, whatever they hear, whatever is going on in their mind, write about that. I would then ask them to write about their “essential wound”… that time in their life when they discovered that the world does not think or feel the way they do. Then people would share their writing. There was always a lot of interaction between them. There would be lifetime bonds formed.

I did one here in Lake County where we published a little book of the collective writings. One of the writers did some interviews with people and then produced a theater production in a nice little theater in Lower Lake. She packed the house of about 150 people for three performances each. Things like that would grow out of the workshops.

Writers are nothing if not good observers of life. Crafting the words is no doubt important but without our observer self we are only typists with an attitude. From the observer self we quiet our minds and let our senses take in what’s there, without projecting meaning.

For the first time we may notice patterns of light instead of the shadows of the apple tree’s branches. Or we may hear the rhythm of the old dog’s claws clicking slowly across the kitchen floor instead of that sound only being a signal to feed him. We notice how we are lifted by the scent of our friend’s perfume as she enters the room. When recorded in a poem or story, these observations transport our readers out of their everyday worlds into a world unlike their own, where they become open to new possibilities.

The observer self slows the constant motion of the mind, when instead of simply observing we label, interpret, or are moved to action, obliterating what our senses might otherwise take in. The busy mind fails to hear the quality of the sound made by the dog’s claws on the floor. In conversations with a friend our busy mind looks for ways to insert our own ideas, to say our piece, to argue — never hearing the quality of that person’s voice, the cadence, the musical traces of inflection.

We tend to see the world only through a lens that is familiar and safe to us. When our observer self comes alive, we see through a different lens. Our brains create new connections. We draw closer to our own souls and connect with a deeper part of others. The shortest path to the present, to the now, is beyond the busy mind and through the more open senses of the observer self.

I once wrote this advice to writers:

Writing and the Fine Art of Observation

1. Be Silent. Are you intimidated by silence? Instead of looking for ways to fill the void with music, talking or your own thoughts, become silence. Minimize your personal impact on the moment.

2. Be Curious. Do you feel a need to explain, interpret, tell or exclaim? Let all your thoughts begin and end with question marks. Einstein said: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle; the other is as though everything is a miracle.”

3. Be Accepting. Do you judge, sort, and exclude? Be discerning — don’t stand in harm’s way — but for now suspend judgments. See neither good nor evil, wisdom nor naïveté, beauty nor ugliness, skillfulness nor awkwardness, innocence nor proficiency. Instead, let it be as it is.

4. Be Open. Are you attached to knowing? Learn to be comfortable with not knowing. Warm yourself in shadows instead of sunlight. Be awed by the beauty of the thorn, not just the rose. Bask in the mystery of your friend’s being rather than limiting yourself to whom you believe they are.

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