Where Do You Write?

In Poets & Writers March/April 2014 I read a good essay in the “Where We Write” section and it led to this reflection on where I write. As someone who has moved around a lot, I don’t have the regional attachment that essayist Mary Stewart Atwell has to her Virginia origins. So where do I write?

I write in my daughter’s basement where I live. I write in retirement from my former work as a psych nurse. I write in coffee shops where no one has expectations or claims on my attention. I have written in Georgia, Louisiana, California, New Hampshire at the Frost Place, Maine, Manhattan and Vermont. Now I write in Colorado. I write in the future and in the past. I write in hotel rooms and lobbies where I people watch (all in the name of research), the same in airports and train stations. I write in friends’ living rooms.

I write in the wing chair near the door of the mansion that houses Lighthouse Writers’ Workshop in Denver. I write in church when the minister makes a good argument for a life of the spirit, of justice, of generosity. I write in bars and bookstores while other poets read or recite and trigger a tingle in my brain. And in Burger King while the mechanic magicians next door change the oil in my old Camry. I write on the magnificent deck of a cabin 9000 feet up Black Mountain near the Colorado/Wyoming line.

One whole summer I wrote in my sister’s spare room and had to report my progress every morning when I came down for breakfast. I write in the margins of books (only ones I own). I don’t write in libraries because the miles of unread books seduce me. I write wherever there’s ink, paper and a semi-flat surface, though that surface is often my own lap. I write in the cloud and in my journal. I write in restaurants between the seating and the eating. I write in dreams and in daylight. I write in meetings to keep myself focused. I write in workshops for fear that I might forget something. I write in my sleep and wake up scrambling for pen and paper. I’ll write in the next life if someone will put a pen into the urn with my ashes.

Writing as Privilege

Often when I drive I25 through Denver, I feel a sort of global despair. Bumper to bumper across four, six, sometimes eight lanes. And this is one city in the world. The realization springs to the forefront of my silly mind that there are just too many of us. Sure, I fear the environmental impact of all those vehicles and all  those drivers. I feel too the falsity of telling every one of them that they can write. I’m guilty of making this assertion, sure that each of the billions riding along on this big-wheel Earth has a unique story and the ability to tell it. A good writing coach, teacher, editor can bring that story out, make it beckon like a hundred dollar bill on the sidewalk. Just pick up a pen or sit in front of a computer and write your heart out.

Yes, we all have that right, but please don’t everyone do it. I cannot keep up with all the good writing as it is. I know that the world does not need another book and I have no right to clutter the market the way those cars and trucks clutter the highway. However, I am one of the privileged people in the world who has claimed the name of “writer.” Having done so, here I am in front of a screen in a hotel “business office” clacking the keys and showing you what I think. The ability and the right to do so may be universal, but the practice and the will to speak out divide us into a world of read-write and read-only creatures. My job requires me to stay on the binary side of this divide and to coerce others to support me in my semi-exclusive, second-hand life wherein I recycle jeans and tote bags and metaphors. Even today when I’m supposed to be taking a break, I want to see the words assemble like a marching band, each one playing its part in the whole damned creation.

Writer as Whirling Dervish

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I feel a bit like Garrison Keillor–it’s been a busy week in Lake We’ll-Be-Gone. We often hear how lonely the writing life can be. Well, it can be just the opposite, like carving ice to find the writing hours. Just look at my week:

 

Sunday–CIPA Focus Forum with Mary Walewski on social media for writers

Monday–Gamuts poetry critique group

Tuesday–Live Poets Book Club at Boulder Books focused on Dorianne Laux’s The Book of Men

Wednesday–consignment applications completed and delivered to Book Bar in Denver

Thursday–Cannon Mine Poetry, feature reader Deb Shirley was ON!

Friday–Fri 500 at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, where I actually did write a scene for the next novel

Saturday–CIPA (Colorado Independent Publishers Assoc.) monthly meeting, to which I am headed as soon as I hit “POST”

Each of these meetings fall into what the late Jack Myers called “po bizz”– the business end of writing that helps us write better and put our work in the hands of readers, that important final link in the communication loop.

Meet Mr. Mumbles, QCO

Recently my friend Carolyn Jennings posed a question to a writing group: What would be in a letter reviewing the upcoming year? Yes, throw your mind to the end of 2014 and see what bounces back. My letter came in the voice of my inner critic, whom I have named Hubert Mumbles. Hubert was the first name of my high-school English teacher, who insisted on an essay due every Friday. He instilled the need to produce a piece of writing on a regular basis. It’s all his fault that I sit here throwing words around. Mr. Mumbles is my Quality Control Officer. He tells me when I’m falling behind on product. I try to ignore him, but he insists that my dallying with process will not do. Here’s his letter:

Hey, Girl,

You did it, another calendar ripped off the wall. I had my doubts. First of all, you had the nerve to publish that ridiculous novel. Magical realism, really? You are lucky anyone wanted to read it, let alone pay for it. And let’s talk about that trip to New Orleans. All that money and what did you do? No parties, no Harrahs, no jazz and gin joints that might show up in a piece of fiction. No, not you. You had to sit in Café du Monde and people watch. You had to ride the street cars and the ferry. Boring! Of course, you said it was relaxing. You wanted solitude. Sh*t, girl. And speaking of travel–that whole month back east, more laziness, family fun, as you called it–watching reality TV with your sister! That behavior and a dollar won’t get you anything. If  you would just listen to me and write one whopper–a romance novel or a bloody thriller, then we’d have something to brag about.

As it is, I’m fed up with this creative gig. Get yourself a different attitude or I quit.

Sincerely,

Hubert Mumbles

Nah, Nah, Nerdy Bird

ImageA nerd goes to the dictionary to find the definition of nerd. Finds that word nerd comes from Dr. Seuss (If I Ran the Zoo) and must, then, be a rare and wonderful thing. A nerd, instead of watching football, even this Sunday, would rather read a book about the history of punctuation, a book like Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks, by Keith Houston. Said nerd now knows the name and history of the pilcrow, manicle and diple. Nerds are, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, “single minded” and “socially inept.” Don’t you believe it. This nerd plans to socialize on Sunday afternoon with writing friends who will not worry about half-time buffalo wings or fourth quarter fumbles or Budweiser ads (although the Clydesdales are grand) or the guilt that comes from betting on the pursuit of a misshaped hunk of leather up and down a field. Nerds are smart.

I Write . . .

  • To make a mark, like initials carved on a tree, because the digital world is not enough.

  • To play with words and sounds because I can sing a tune only on the page.

  • To run wild and barefooted through a vast field of images with all their sparks and connections.

  • To be heard as a silent voice in the reader’s head because I am still that reserved, observant child  finding her voice.

  • To hand the gift on as a teacher, coach, mentor.

  • To participate in creating the world.

Fill ‘er Up, Percy

When I was a kid, my mother never had enough money to fill the tank on her old Chevy with one missing back fender. She would pull into Percy’s garage and buy a dollar’s worth of gas at a time. In those days that would last us a while and she’d parcel out the funds and do it again. I think about that dollar’s worth when I need to fill up my own tank, the one in my imagination.

For many days I have rationed my time in order to meet a writing deadline. The book has held me tight and now it’s done. I’m thinking about a personal retreat. I want time to watch the huge flocks of geese that cohabit Colorado in the winter. I want to walk without the dog. I’m thirsty for the sight of birds and tree tops, not just dog pee on the trunk.

Yesterday, while said dog was with the groomer, I was busy saving a dollar’s worth of poems that didn’t work, copying into my journal  lines and images that might some day be useful. I tore up the old copies, stacking the scraps on the table between me and the woman reading in the next chair. At one point I thought about my noisy ripping-up and apologized to her. That apology was a door into her life story.

We’ll call her Josephine: she’s in her early eighties, a tiny woman, threads of gray in still dark hair, dark eyebrows, deep-set eyes. She reminds me of my aunt. Even her accent was familiar. Sure enough, another easterner. She grew up in an orphanage in New York, placed with her two siblings when her parents separated, her father remarrying, her mother falling into depression and hospitalized. No one would relinquish custody, so she was never eligible for adoption. When she was old enough to work she was fostered out for the benefit of the families she served, a nanny in one, a house maid in another, an assistant to a woodworker in the last. Finally, she ran away, moved west, had six kids by an abusive husband, divorced, put all six kids through school, took one course at a time at CU and educated herself at the same time, graduating after ten years.

Head injured as a small child, she cannot drive. As she says, “Can’t get around the block,” because she has no spatial visualization. She cannot recognize faces. And she cannot write because she cannot describe a scene, so she tells her story to a few people who will listen and not try to edit the story for her. I was happy to listen. Thanks, Josephine. You are just what I needed, a full tank of fuel to run on.