Monday, October 24, 2016

On Seeing as an Artist or, Five Techniques for a Journey to Einfühlung: Remarks For the Women Writing the West Panel on "Writing Across Borders and Cultures"

TRANSCRIPT (slightly expanded and now with a proper title) of C.M. Mayo’s talk for the panel “Writing Across Borders and Cultures”
Panel: C.M. Mayo, Dawn Wink and Kathryn Ferguson
Women Writing the West Annual Conference
Santa Fe, New Mexico, Saturday, October 15, 2016


How many of you have been to Mexico? Well, viva Mexico! Here we are in New Mexico, Nuevo México. On this panel, with Dawn Wink and Kathryn Ferguson, it seems we are all about Mexico. I write both fiction and nonfiction, most of it about Mexico because that is where I have been living for most of my adult life— that is, the past 30 years— married to a Mexican and living in Mexico City. 

But in this talk I would like to put on my sombrero, as it were, as an historical novelist, and although my novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, is about Mexico, I don’t want to talk so much about Mexico as I do 5 specific, simple, powerful techniques that have helped me, and that I hope will help you to see as an artist and write across borders and cultures.

I start with the premise that truth is beauty and beauty is truth, and that seeing clearly, seeing as an artist, is what brings us towards truth. 

My second premise is that through narrative we become more human—and that sure beats the alternative.

My third premise is that writing about anyone else, anywhere, is to some degree writing across a border. The past is a border. Religion is a border. Gender is a border. Social class is a border. Language. Physical conditions— people who have peanut allergies are different than people who do not have peanut allergies. 


The challenge is this: As Walter Lippman put it, “For the most part we do not first see and then define, we define first and then see.” And I would agree with Lippman that in our culture, for the most part, and of course, with oodles of exceptions, we are not educated to see, then define. Ironically, the more educated we are, the more we as literary artists may have something to overcome in this respect.

The poet e.e. cummings put it this way: “An artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself.” 


Betty Edwards, the artist who wrote Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, calls seeing as an artist “a different, more direct kind of seeing. The brain’s editing is somehow put on hold, thereby permitting one to see more fully and perhaps more realistically.”  

How many of you are familar with Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain? 

How many of you have tried that exercise in there where you take a black and white photograph of a face, turn it upside down, and copy it?

Turning the picture upside down tricks your brain so it gets past the labels of that is a nose, or, say, that is an eyelid, a wrinkle, a cheek... You are just drawing what you actually see, this weird jumble of shapes and shadows. 

You turn it right side side up and, wow... it’s Albert Einstein!

And why is seeing this way, seeing as an artist so important? Because if we as writers cannot see as artists, with that wide open, innocent sense of attention and wonder that would see first.... and then, maybe, define, whether we are writing about a Mexican or a Korean ballet dancer or a Texas cowboy or the old lady who died in the house next door one hundred years ago... whomever we are writing about, if we cannot see that human being with the eyes of an artist, our writing about them will not be fresh, it will be fuzzy, blunt, stale, peculiarly distorted—in a word: stereotypical. 

It will be distorted in the same way that people who do not know how to draw will make the eyes too big, the foreheads too small, and ignore most of the shadows—the face they draw looks like a cartoon, not the way the face actually looks, because the left side of their brain was busy labeling things.

Seeing as an artist, on the other hand, is seeing without labels, without filters. Radical seeing. For us as writers this means seeing without prejudice, without bias, without the... shall we say, enduring presumptions. 

It is, to quote the artist Betty Edwards again, “an altered state of awareness.” And “This shift to an altered state enables you to see well.”

So how do we get to that altered state? And then see? 


Technique #1
It starts with slowing down, being here now, in your body. Breathe in and breathe out, slowly, keeping your attention on following each breath, in and out. In and out. Five to 10 of these usually works just fine. If you’re really stressed out and distracted, maybe more. Whatever works for you. 

Technique #2
Set asides. This quiets the so-called “monkey mind.” Using a pen and paper, and using the present tense—using the present tense is key—simply writing down what you want to set aside for the duration of your writing session.

I write:
The phone might ring.
I am concerned that the front tire of my car looks low.
I am worried that so and so will say thus and such... whatever.

You just set these aside. And because you are writing them down, no worries, they will be there for you when you need to pick them up again. 

Really, it is that simple. And incredibly powerful. 

Now to actually seeing as an artist. I think of it as adopting the mindset of a four year old child. A four year old is old enough to speak and maybe even read and write a little bit, but young enough to have no presumption, no bias, no definitions, no worry about time, no social status to defend. No need to be “cool.” It’s just, you’re four and you’re noticing things, playfully. Innocently. Dangerously. Like that little boy who asked, Why isn’t the emperor wearing any clothes?

So we can start noticing things. Like, ooooh, the person sitting next to us. What is the shape of her hair? What’s on her left hand? If you could touch her sleeve what would it probably feel like?

Other people may inform us that a wall is, say, pink. But if we can see as an artist, get past all the filters, we will see that the wall is cotton candy pink, over there. Down in the corner, away from the window, it might be more of an ash rose. Over there, where it catches the glow from the reflection, it’s a salmon pink. Up near the ceiling light, almost white. It’s gray, it’s lavender. That wall might have hundreds of different colors.

As Matthew B. Crawford writes in The World Beyond Your Head:
“The uniformity of the wall’s color is a social fact, and what I perceive, in every day life, seems to be such social facts, rather than the facts of optics... To perceive the wall as variously colored, I have to suspend my normal socially informed mode of perception. This is what an artist does.”
Other people may inform us about other people, such as, say, Mexicans. Mexicans are like this or, Mexicans are like that. But if we can see as an artist, we may see something, someone who does not fit into, shall we say, the enduring presumptions. Such as Maximilian von Habsburg. 

Speaking of emperors, Maximilian did wear some very nicely made uniforms. 

Who has heard of Maximilian?

Most Mexicans will tell you that Maximilian was not Mexican, that he was Austrian, he was the Archduke of Austria, he was a puppet monarch imposed on Mexico by the French Imperial Army. But at the time Maximilian died, executed in Mexico by firing squad in 1867, there were many Mexican monarchists, a minority of Mexicans certainly, but many, who considered Maximilian Mexican, as he did himself—he considered himself the mystical embodiment of his people, his subjects, the Mexicans.

His skin was very pale and he had this down-to-here red beard. As you might recall, the Habsburgs had once ruled Spain. So to Louis Napoleon and the Mexican monarchists, for the throne of Mexico, Maximilian seemed a logical and very apt choice. And the Pope thought so, too, by the way.

Technique #3 
Do your reading and research, and I could talk for an hour or more just about reading and research...archives and handwriting and photographs and newspaper clippings... but the clock is ticking.

One thing I would urge you to consider is to read for perspectives outside your comfort zone. For example, I am the last person who would willingly pick up such a book as the memoir of Princess Di’s butler. But in fact, that memoir, Paul Burrell's A Royal Duty, as well as many other dishy English and European palace memoirs that have oozed out over the past couple of centuries,  helped me see palace life in ways I might not have been able to otherwise—to crack its brittle surface of glamor and glimpse some of those oh-so-very human beings.

Technique #4
Always, always question the source. You might be surprised— I certainly was— by how many “facts” turn out to have originated in wartime propaganda or were complete fictions tossed off by political enemies. Whenever someone says something about someone, ask, what was their aim? What was the information they had at the time? Their biases? And what were their incentives?


Technique #5

Visit relevant places, if you can, always trying to see them from the point of view of your characters. When you’re there, put yourself in their shoes, as it were. You may or may not have sympathy for them, but your artist’s imagination, your artist’s eye, must.


I’d like to end with a brief reading from the novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, from a flashback in Maximilian's point of view.

When he was a twelve year-old boy, there was a distinct moment of a gray winter’s day in the Hofburg when he looked up from his schoolwork, the endless hieroglyphics of trigonometry, and caught sight of his reflection in the window. Four o’clock and it was nearly dark outside. He had been horrified: how old he looked. The life drained out of him! In a whisper that neither his older brother Franz Joseph nor their tutor could hear, he solemnly swore: I shall not forget who I truly am.
Adults, it seemed to Max, were as butterflies in reverse: they too, had been beautiful and free, but they had folded in their wings, cocooned themselves, and let their appendages dissolve until what they became was hard, ridged, little worms. One’s tutor, for example, reminded one of a nematode.
Twiddling concern with numbers, “practicality” in all its Philistine guises makes Maximilian stupendously bored.  He needs vistas of sky, mountains, swift-running, sun-sparkled water; he needs—  as a normal man must eat— to explore this world, to see, to touch its sibylline treasures: hummingbirds. The red-as-blood breast of a macaw. The furred and light-as-a-feather legs of a tarantula. God in all His guises: mushrooms, lichens, all creatures. As a boy, Max had delighted in his menagerie: a marmoset, a toucan, a lemur. The lemur had escaped, and left outside overnight, it had died of the cold. A footman had opened the door in the morning, and there the thing was, dusted with snow and stiff as cardboard.
“I detest winter,” Max had declared. Franz Joseph, Charlie, and the little brothers, bundled in woollens and furs, they could go ice-skating or build fortresses for snow-ball fights; Max preferred to stay inside with his pets, his books, and the stoves roaring. The one thing he relished about winter, for it was a most elegant way of thumbing his nose at it, was to go into the Bergl Zimmer and shut the door behind him. Its walls and its doors were painted with murals, trompe l’oeil of the most luxuriant flora and fauna: watermelons, papayas, cockatoos, coconut trees, hibiscus. Where was this, Ceylon? Java? Yucatan? Sleet could be falling on the other side of the Hofburg’s windows, but this treasure of the Bergl Zimmer, painted in the year 1760 for his great-great-grandmother the Empress Maria Theresa, never failed to transport one into an ecstasy of enchantment.

Mexicans, walls, in the news. Couldn’t resist. 

So in this excerpt I am writing across multitudinous borders and cultures: about a man, when I am a woman; about an Austrian turned Mexican, when I was born in Texas and grew up in the suburbs of California; someone whose native language was German, when mine is English; one of Europe's highest ranking aristocrats, when I have no title nor did any ancestor I know of; someone who was born more than a century before myself; furthermore, someone whose personality, religious beliefs, political values, pastimes, intellectual interests and aesthetics were all dramatically different than my own. 

Did I get Maximilian “right”? I don’t know. There is no triple-certified committee of quadruple-authorized red-bearded blue-blooded Austrian-Mexican-monarchist-Catholic-sailing-and-botany-enthusiasts to tell us. Neither is Maximilian himself available for us to consult. And even if he were, by means of, say, time travel or, say, a credible séance, would Maximilian have the self-awareness, confidence, and good will  to communicate a valid yea or nay? God knows.

What I do know is that what I wrote, that bit I just read to you, is the product of my applying these five techniques, including heaps of reading, archival research, and a visit to Vienna's Hofburg Palace, and however good it may or may not be
let the gods and the reader decide it is a mammoth stretch beyond what I could come up with in my first drafts.


The stretch is towards empathy. Empathy is not the same as sympathy. I do not have sympathy for Maximilian von Habsburg, so-called Emperor of Mexico and all that he represented and fought for; but for Maximilian the human being, I do have empathy. That empathy was something I achieved because I wanted to see him.

In The Faraway Nearby Rebecca Solnit tells us that,

“Recognizing the reality of another's existence is the imaginative leap that is the birth of empathy, a word invented by a psychologist interested in visual art. The word is only slightly more than a century old, though the words sympathy, kindness, pity, compassion, fellow-feeling, and others covered the same general ground before Edward Titchener coined it in 1909. It was a translation of the German word Einfühlung, or feeling into, as though the feeling itself reached out... Empathy is a journey you travel, if you pay attention, if you care, if you desire to do so.”
In other words, such seeing takes heart and the writing that results is a journey of the heart, both for the writer and for the reader although the latter may not choose, or perhaps may not be able to take such a journey. One can proffer "the pearls of the Virgin," as they say in Mexico, and there will always be unhappy souls, such as those who haunt the book review sections of, who loudly proclaim that they do not like hard little white things.

In the spirit of seeing past stereotypes, I would like to leave you with a quote not from an artist nor a beloved poet nor an esteemed literary writer but a Harvard Business School Professor of Marketing. In her wise and provocative Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd, Professor Youngme Moon writes, “Wherever you go, what matters less is what you are looking at, but how you have committed to see.” 

Thank you.

# # #

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

My Recollections of Maximilian by Marie de la Fere; Introduction by C.M. Mayo 
(A rare eyewitness English-language memoir published as an ebook 
by permission of the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley)

(podcast and transcript)

See also my other blog, 
of the Tumultuous Period of Mexican History Known as 
the Second Empire or French Intervention

(Transcript of my talk for the panel on "Why Tramslate?"
American Literary Translators Conference, Milwaukee, 2015)

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

In Plain Sight: Felix Sommerfeld, Spymaster in Mexico, 1908 to 1914 by Heribert von Feilitzsch


My review, just published in Literal:

by Heribert von Feilitzsch
Henselstone Verlag, 2012

It was Mahatma Gandhi who said, "A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history." Like Gandhi, Francisco I. Madero was deeply influenced by the Hindu scripture known as the Bhagavad-Gita and its concern with the metaphysics of faith and duty. And like Gandhi, Madero altered the course of history of his nation. From 1908, with his call for effective suffrage and no reelection, until his assasination in 1913, Madero received the support of not all, certainly, but many millions of Mexicans from all classes of society and all regions of the republic. But the fact is, during the 1910 Revolution, during Madero's successful campaign for the presidency, and during Madero's presidency, one of the members of that "small body of determined spirits," who worked most closely with him was not Mexican. His name was Felix A. Sommerfeld and he was a German spy. >>> CONTINUE READING

Monday, October 17, 2016

A Reading List for Writing Across Borders and Cultures

This was my handout for the panel "Writing Across Borders and Cultures" with Yours Truly, Dawn Wink and Kathryn Ferguson at the Women Writing the West Annual Conference, Santa Fe, New Mexico, October 15, 2016.



C.M. Mayo
+ Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, Spiritist Manual
+ The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire
+ Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico

+ Sky Over El Nido: Stories
+ (as editor) Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion


Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Crawford, Matthew B. The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction. 

Duffy, Patricia Lynne. Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens: How Synesthetes Color Their World. 

Said, Edward. Orientalism. 

Scarry, Elaine. Dreaming by the Book. 


Edwards, Betty. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. 

Ricco, Gabriele Lusser. Writing the Natural Way.

Smith, Pamela Jaye. Inner Drives: How to Write and Create Characters Using the Eight Classic Centers of Motivation. 

Zinsser, William, ed. They Went: The Art and Craft of Travel Writing. 


Baum, Kenneth. The Mental Edge: Maximize Your Sports Potential with the Mind-Body Connection. 

Pressfield, Steven. The War of Art: Winning the Creative Battle.

P.S. Gigazoodles more recommended reading at my writing workshop page (on tips, on craft, process, editing, publishing, and more).

>> Stay tuned for the transcript of my talk for this panel.

>> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Five 2 Word Exercises for Practicing Seeing as a Literary Artist in the Airport (or the Mall or the Train Station or the University Campus or the Car Wash, etc)

Later this week at the Women Writing the West conference in Santa Fe,  I'll be talking about seeing as an artist, apropos of which, this brief exercise:

Wherever there be a parade of people, there's an opportunity for a writerly exercise. This is a quick and easy one, or rather, five. The idea is to look-- using your artist's eye, really look at individuals and come up with two words (or 3 or 4 or 7) to describe them. Yep, it is that easy. 

It helps to write the words down, but just saying them silently to yourself is fine, too. The point is to train your brain to pay attention to detail and generate original descriptions.

As someone walks by:

1. One word to describe the shape of this person's hair; a second word (or two or more) for the color of his or her shoes (referring to a food item), for example:

knife-life; chocolate pudding
She had a knife-like bob and slippers the color of chocolate pudding

curve; pork sausage
His head was a curve of curls and he wore pinkish clogs, a pink that brought to mind a pair of pork sausages

sumptuous; cinnamon candy
She had a sumptuous do and spike-heeled sandals the red of cinnamon candy

stubbly; skinned trout
He had stubbly hair and tennis shoes the beige-white of skinned trout.

(By the way, it doesn't matter if the words are any good or even apt; the point is to practice coming up with them. Why the color of a food item? Why not?)

2. Is this person carrying anything? If so, describe it with one adjective plus one noun, e.g.:

fat purse
She carried a fat purse

lumpy briefcase
He leaned slightly to the left from the weight of a lumpy briefcase 

crumpled bag
She clutched a crumpled bag 

white cup
On his palm he balanced a white cup

3. Gait and gaze

loping; fixed to ground
shuffling; bright
brisk; dreamy
tiptoe; squinty

4.  Age range

older than 10, younger that 14
perhaps older than 20
I would believe 112
obviously in her seventies, never mind the taut smile 

5. Jewelry

a gold watch; a silver skull ring
feather earrings; a toe ring
eyebrow stud; hoop earrings
a wedding band on the wrong finger; an elephant hair bracelet

One need not use all this detail; the point is to generate it in the first place-- to get beyond stereotypes (eg she was a short Asian woman) and write something more memorable and vivid. 

She had a knife-like bob and slippers the color of chocolate pudding. She carried a fat purse. Her walk was brisk, her gaze dreamy. Perhaps she was older than twenty. She wore a wedding band on the wrong finger and an elephant hair bracelet.

>> How to select the detail and avoid clutter? See "On Respecting the Integrity of Narrative Design: The Interior Decoration Analogy."

More anon.

Monday, October 03, 2016

Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion and the Whereabouts Press series

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the publication of my Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion anthology. This week I'm off to the American Literary Translators Association conference in Oakland, California, where, thanks to my amiga, Jill Gillian, editor of Argentina: A Traveler's Literary Companion, I will be participating on roundtable discussion panel of editors of the Whereabouts Press Traveler's Literary Companion series: founding editor David Peattie; Jill Gibian (Argentina); Alexis Levitin (Brazil); Ann Louise Bardach (Cuba); and William Rodamor (France).

Whereabouts Press founder David Peattie's concept of the series is visionary, and I was truly honored to have been invited to edit the Mexico collection. 

As the Whereabouts Press website says, "unlike traditional guidebooks, our books feature stories written by literary writers. Through these stories, readers see more than a place. They see the soul of a place."

Isabelle Allende praised the Whereabouts Press Traveler's Literary Companion series: 

"We can hear a country speak and better learn its secrets through the voices of its great writers. An engaging series— a compelling idea, thoughtfully executed."



Webpage for Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion

> Table of Contents

> List of writers and translators

> Preface

> "Lady of the Seas" by Agustin Cadena

> About the cover-- the beautiful painting of the "Cocina verde co arroz al horno" (Green Kitchen with Baked Rice) by Elena Climent 

> National Public Radio interview about this book with Yours Truly

> Q & A plus other interviews

> Links to buy this book from amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and more.

"It will open your eyes, fill you with pleasure and render our perennial vecinos a little less distante." 

Los Angeles Times Book Review

"One of the outstanding contemporary works on this country"
David Huerta, El Universal, Mexico City

"Highly recommended."
Library Journal

"Discovering it was like opening a door and walking into a brightly lit room filled with all kinds of literary treasures" 

Mexico Connect

"This delicious volume has lovingly gathered a banquet of pieces that reveal Mexico in all its infinite variety, its splendid geography, its luminous peoples. What a treat!"

Margaret Sayers Peden, editor, Mexican Writers on Writing

+ + + + + 

Because I am at work on a book about Far West Texas, my translation endeavors have slowed to a bit of a crawl this year. That said, I should soon be finished with my translation of Mexican writer Rose Mary Salum's award-winning collection of short stories, The Water that Rocks the Silence. More about that anon.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Cal Newport's DEEP WORK / Study Hacks Blog / On Quitting Social Media

Find out about a must-read book, a must-read blog, and a must-watch TED Talk by Georgetown University Associate Professor of Computer Science Cal Newport, all in one handy post at his Study Hacks Blog, "Quit Social Media."

What Newport says in that post is provocative-- undoubtedly just the title will rub many people's fur the wrong way, and no surprise, it already has many commenters a-huffing & puffing. 

Here is my comment on Cal Newport's post:

"Thank you for this blog, for your TED Talk, and for your books, especially Deep Work. I am a writer with 2 finance books published under another name, plus 4 literary books, plus an anthology– all of which is to say, I understand the nature and immense benefits of deep work.
But dealing with the Internet… that has been a challenge for me over the past several years, and especially when all these shiny new social media toys seemed to be so necessary and (apparently) effective for promoting one’s books. Every publicist, marketing staff, my fellow writers, all seem slaves now to social media. I can assure you, every writers conference has a panel on book PR and social media.
For a while, at the enthusiastic urging of one of my writer-friends, by the way, a best-selling and very fine historical novelist, I maintained a Facebook page, but when I realized what a time-suck it was, and how FB made it intentionally and so deviously addictive, I deactivated my account. I had also come to recognize that people addicted to FB, as seemed to be not all but most of my “FB friends,” often as they might “like” and comment on my posts there, are probably not my readers. (My books require sustained focus; I admit, they can be challenging.) I deactivated my FB more than a year ago, and I breathe a sigh of relief about it every blessed day.  
As for your book, Deep Work, much of what you say was already familiar to me from my own experience as a writer, but I appreciated the reminders, especially in light of these contemporary challenges to sustaining focus. What was especially interesting and intriguing to me was the new cognitive research you mention. Next time I teach a writing workshop you can be sure that Deep Work will be on the syllabus."

Do I miss interacting with friends and family on FB? Yes, but now I have more time for higher quality interpersonal interactions, such as, say, emails, telephone conversations, and--Land o' Goshen!!-- actually getting together in person.

However, for the record here at Madam Mayo blog, I'm not (yet) giving up the three social media tools I still use, LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube, because:

(1) With LinkedIn and Twitter I appreciate having a way to contact certain individuals when email is not a workable option (nieces and nephews, you know who you are!);  

(2) I appreciate the broadcast opportunity, modest as it is (usually I just zip in to tweet a blog post or a podcast, then out, and not every day);

(3) I turned off their notifications (wondering why I didn't do it sooner); 

(4) I do not find these services addictive, as I did Facebook, hence, I am not tempted to constantly check them. 

In sum, for me-- and of course, this might be different for you-- at this time-- and no guarantees for the future-- the benefits of maintaining my LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube accounts outweigh the costs. 

Speaking of costs, one of the vital arguments Cal Newport makes in Deep Work is that pointing out the benefits of utilizing any given social media tool is not enough; one must also take into full account its opportunity costs in your actual practice. Oftentimes these costs are devastating. But fear of "missing out," fear of admitting that one could have done so much better than to have spent weeks, months, even years of precious hours agog at mindless trivia-- in short, the fear and pride behind cognitive dissonance-- make many otherwise highly intelligent people blind to this simplest of common-sense arguments. 

>> Speaking of cognitive dissonance, I have plenty to say about it in my wiggiest book review yet.

One question that popped up in the comments there at Study Hacks blog was about the definition of "social media": Does it include blogs? 
Ironically, since he publishes comments and on occasion responds to them, I consider Cal Newport's "Study Hacks Blog" to be social media. I do not consider this blog,  "Madam Mayo," to be "social media," however, because an eon ago I closed the comments section. 

That said, dear thoughtful and civilized reader, your comments via email are always welcome. I invite you to write to me here.

P.S. My recommended reading lists for my writing workshops are here. You will find Cal Newport's excellent Deep Work on my list of works on Creative Process. And you can read my review of Cal Newport's earlier book, So Good They Can't Ignore You, here.