When I was twelve years old, I found my late grandmother’s diary, one of those with only a few lines for each day. What I saw was not important. What was missing could have been very important. Gram died when I was seven, and to this day, decades later, I wish I had known her better. Even my memories of holidays are sketchy. That diary was a lost opportunity for me. And a few years later the old family house burned, and her history became hearsay.
At this time of the year many of us fret over the busy buying season, lose sight of the personal routines that otherwise soothe us. For me, of course, writing is all the more a relief and a solace. And this year I plan to bracket each day with writing. I won’t give up morning pages because they are now a vital form of clearing my head. And I will add a reflection of each day in this busy, potentially distracting month.
This morning I pulled from my stash a small red notebook with a little white snowflake and wrote on the first page my intention to capture what I can for this month. I’ll write about the traditions, the expectations and the disappointments. I may tuck in pictures, holiday cards, even ads that reflect the commercialism of the season. The view may widen to public issues, or narrow to my emotional reactions to whatever happens. I may write about decorations or potlucks, worship or worry. Whatever comes is fodder. And at the end of the month I’ll slide that small notebook into an envelope, label it, December Diary 2017, and set it aside.
Admit it, if you are like me, you collect words you’ll never need. I go further in this vice: I collect quotes, whole sentences, even paragraphs. These snippets are not necessarily related to what I’m working on; in fact, I may never use them. Like a crow with shiny objects, I carry them in my beak from a library book to my nest which is a journal and hide them from jealous eyes. It’s not just the words that shine so much as it is how they cling together, like the roots of a tree, hidden but intricate, nourishing resources.
Language is more than a list of words, isn’t it? It’s a harvest of phrases and sentences, images and sounds, some of them heard silently in my brain as I read. It’s a gathering, which like any other healthy community, welcomes immigrants. In fact, it needs strangers in its midst or it stiffens like rheumatic knees. A vast array of word groups from many sources brings news of other villages and cultures, news we need to grow on.
David George Haskell, in his wonderful book Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors, repeatedly demonstrates the interconnectedness of life over time and place, whether in the canopy of the rain forest in Ecuador or the balsam firs of the frozen north. He listens and brings back what he hears. We who write must do the same or risk ignorance, a false understanding of the web of life which is so much bigger than we can imagine. But we might just grasp it through a web of words.
There are at least two ways to cook up a new story or poem: #One is the stockpot process. You take out the stockpot with the intent to make chicken soup. You go to the refrigerator, get the chicken and carrots and an onion, find in the pantry the rice, reach down the sage, salt, pepper and bay leaf. You know in advance the ingredients and the process. You boil the chicken till the meat is tender and falling off the bone, remove the chicken, strain the broth and shred the meat. Chop and add the veggies, measure in the rice and seasonings and there you have it, just what you intended.
If you’re writing a sonnet, a short story or a novel, you know the size of the pot you’ll put you ingredients into and you may know the ingredients ahead of time–characters, plot, theme, etc.
But another time you look around the kitchen and find one potato, a couple of eggs and two slices of bacon. What to make of this? Quiche? Or a traditional breakfast? You get out the skillet, cook the bacon, use the bacon grease to fry the potato and the egg. This time you began with no preconceived idea but the inspiration of ingredients.
I often do this when I see an image that triggers my imagination. The shadow of low-flying Canada geese, a phrase that seems loaded with mystery, or an interaction between strangers. The new novel that is coming to life started this way: I made a silly pun in my journal, “Dear Paige,” the way writers used to say Dear Diary. Well, turns out Paige is a fully rounded character and she gets into trouble without too much help from me. I go to work every morning not knowing what she’ll do next. So far it’s working. Spicy!
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You know my four words? The ones I use to describe the writing process? Commit, Discover, Create, Connect–those words? This week has been rich with the fourth word. I’ve connected with more writers and readers than I can count without boring you. And this morning I’m off to a workshop with Columbine Poets in Denver that will add to the list and then to a reading at Book Bar this evening. I just counted up my connections and it seems that I meet other writers at least twenty times in any given month. There are poets, memoirists, technical writers, science writers, novelists, beginners and professionals. There’s a pheromone that draws writers together.
Connection is in the air. Sitting with my cli-fi writing partner yesterday it turned out that the five women sitting along the back wall of the Brewing Market at Basemar in Boulder were connected by twin threads of science and writing: we two writers of climate fiction, an environmentalist, a science professor and a middle school teacher who has her students write regularly. Within minutes ideas were flying and contact info was shared. How did it happen that we five were in the right place at the same place at the same time? Fate, good luck, predestination? Any or all of these.
If you carry the image of writers as lonely depressives in cold garrets, rethink it. G0 out into the wider world, let your writing show, flash that notebook, show off your laptop, keep business cards handy. Strike up conversations. You’ll honor your commitment to BE a writer, even in public.
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Without intending to, yesterday I took the day off. Call it a personal day, a mental health day, or an unintended consequence, it doesn’t change the fact that I planned to write this week’s blog entry at the Denver Art Museum. I took my iPad and notebook, sure that some ekphrastic writing would magically appear and you, Dear Reader, would be entertained by my sharing. Didn’t happen. Technology failed me. The guest wifi at the museum was taking the day off too.
That glitch forced me to give up on product and just be there. Be one of the early birds rocking in a long line of huge lounge chairs in the plaza, being one of the visitors waiting for the doors to open, talking to tourists from Kansas and comparing museum notes. Feeling awed by a 30-ft tall stack of blankets in the American Indian section. And lunch at a window table in Palettes, watching people ride bikes, push strollers, stroll along holding hands on a sunny day.
I watched people of all sizes, shapes and skin tones, bulky, skinny, bared arms and legs, long dresses and short hair. We human’s are so beautiful, no matter what our costume. The young man with dreads wearing a Planned Parenthood tee shirt, he was beautiful. So was the woman discreetly breast feeding her infant in the museum. And the dad teaching his two middle-school sons to appreciate fine pottery.
Here’s the takeaway: a day spent looking is as good as a day spent writing. I’m the boss of me and I approve that day off. I’ll do it again.
It’s been a good week: five poems accepted for publication and acknowledged, a time-consuming project cancelled and a new poem written. Of course, I did my daily morning pages and insisted on a focus. I updated my submissions list and noted the next round of subs. But I did not tackle the long projects on my to-do list. It’s not that I don’t want to write the family history that’s outlined and started. And I would happily write a long essay about the need for writers to be vigilant in following the news, no matter how unsavory it is. I should sort and revise the short-fiction manuscript lurking in a fat notebook. But big projects don’t reach the finish line quickly. And that’s where I give up, curl up with the cat and a jigsaw puzzle, defeated by my own expectations: that I need to finish everything efficiently, right now.
Writing doesn’t work that way. It needs to incubate, grow in the dark, gestate. Pick a metaphor. I forget this regularly because our consumerist society demands efficiency and products with a price tag. What I need is to turn off all the media, stack up a dozen good books and withdraw from society for a while. And I don’t mean one afternoon. I mean a deep retreat from the angst and pace of public life. An article in the new Poets & Writers advocates a writing retreat.
Ah, yes, a writing retreat shimmers on the calendar, so bright that I squint at May 23rd, when I will fly back east for three weeks. I’ll house/dog/cat sit and stuff the TV remote under a couch cushion, post my absence from social media, and stop the clocks. I’ll write whatever comes, play with the dogs, and sit by the ocean. From here that feels right and easy. The catch, of course, is I’ll still have my own attitudes to deal with, my need to reassure myself that I am, in fact, a writer, no matter what shows up on the page.
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