Only Myself to Blame

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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Beginners/Middlers/Enders

This week, emptying the box in which I had stashed a year’s worth of journals,  I found that all too many had blank pages at the back because I rushed to start a new one before I finished the old. I love a new journal, a new pen, a new car. (Though in truth I have kept a few cars for a decade, but that’s finance riding herd on my impulses.)

My writing plans sprout like radishes. I start stories, poems, essays, reading lists, but too soon, I fade. I’m a sprinter, not a marathoner. My tendency to quit before I’m done might have started in childhood. (Always fair game, eh?) From the age of six months I was moved from state to state, house to house, a chess pawn in adult hands, not much staying put. Then as a military wife, I fell under the spell of the DOD. As a nurse I was so employable that I changed jobs easily, never got the gold pin for longevity.

As a writer, this impulse to move on like Alice at the Mad Hatter’s tea party means that I draft a story, maybe revise it a time or two while it’s new and full of exciting potential, but then I’m apt to stuff it into a file and not finish it. I wrote my novel Providence in scenes, small chunks that I then had to wrestle into a more or less logical structure. That challenged me.

Poetry comes more easily, the bright-light beginnings seduce me and, given the brevity of my poems, I usually finish them. If one can ever call a poem finished. I admit that my revisions folder gets cobwebby and the resident house spider is no help. As I type, I realize that I’m in the middle of this little essay and I can’t see the exit sign. But you get the idea. Identify your patterns and adjust to taste.

Seasonal Sadness

Whether we call it seasonal affective disorder or the winter blahs, we know that this dark time of the year can suggest never again being warm and free of gloom. So for millennia we have created festivals of light–candles, holiday decorations, elves in bright red suits, and a reindeer whose nose is a beacon in the fog. These lights help, but when they don’t do enough good, there’s writing.

But when our culture encourages us to shop, wrap, celebrate, over eat, drink too much–when the hell do we find time to write? To which I say, we never find time to write; we make time. And if we suffer the blahs, writing helps. The Jan-Feb 2017 Poets & Writers includes an essay by Frank Bures, “Writing the Self: Some Thoughts on Words and Woe.” It’s worth your time and dollars to find it and absorb his words. Basically, he cites studies that demonstrate the benefits of writing about our own sadness, frustration, disappointment.

These findings should not be news, but we live in a consumerist world that values book sales, best-seller lists, and honorifics that lead back to sales. We are urged to write for other reasons than to lift ourselves out of a murky turn of mind. Writing, though, can be the candle in the window, a path through deep snow. Each of us, the Scribbler Tribe, wander in an  imagined wilderness made from words, a world of beauty as well as beasts. When sharp criticism or lack of ambient light wound us, we can slap on bandaids, build splints made of language, and drag ourselves to the light that is our freedom to write what we need to say, to see two lines elongate into story, poem, essay, history. It’s black magic or white every time. It’s blood letting and vomitus and feces. It’s also a long exhalation and muscle stretch. It means we still live, active animals who write. Do it, daily. Happy Holidays.

 

Commited?

For the past hour I have committed myself to solitaire instead of posting this blog. Why? Because my dog is sick, because the news of yet more shootings sickens me, because . . . because . . . because. Because the world is too much with me today, not getting and spending as Wordsworth said, but because there is no time out for peace. Life has historically been a violent enterprise. Plagues, war, abuse–a hellish place this world. But it’s the only one we’ve got. We will not colonize a new planet, although we seem bent on destroying this one.

How to shake this ennui, despair, meanness? Yes, I feel mean. I want politics to go jump off a cliff–oh, wait, that’s already happened. I want to regain my usual calm and get on with my day. The weather is mild right now. I have a poetry group on the agenda. The dog is not going to die today. And I am committed to my life as a writer, a truth teller, a scribe. Today the truth is that I’m scared. Scared for our country. The violence, racism and hate have percolated into my cells and I want to play turtle, draw back into mindless digital games until the despair blows over. But here’s the thing: my distress won’t pass unless I face it and commit to doing what I can to be a better citizen. I have to vote. I have to work at equality among the people I know and respect. I have to give the dog his medicine and pay the vet bills. I have to go take a shower and be glad for that simple opportunity. Commitment starts now, again, with gratitude for hot water on demand, for eggs in the frying pan, and for the safety of home.

 

Off to the Races

Recently I wrote about my top shelf favorite books. This week I reread Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. The first time I read that book, I was angry, awakened and stunned by turns. For the first time I understood my history as daughter and mother in a new/old way and the gender inequality that, after three decades, still exists and has spread beyond the male/female heterosexual world to emerge as LGBTQ issues. Even our current political rhetoric mirrors these issues: the woman card, the bully in the schoolyard–which we call the presidential race.

And, as I often do, I had another book going, Because You Asked, edited by Katrina Roberts. These essays on writing include one by Elizabeth Bradfield, in which I noted this: “Write into a world that is strange and particular with your own experiences and associations. Don’t leave anything out” (180). My strange, particular experience involves harness racing. For several years I was first a barn rat and then a race judge and finally a horse owner. Track lingo is my secret second language.

Words spilled onto my journal page and clicked like magnets to the issues of gender: hobbles and women in high heels and pencil skirts, blinders and limited views, off stride, scratched, qualifying races, win-place-show. There are more correspondences between the breeding, selection and training of a young racehorse and the roles of women in society. I’ll let your imagination take the reins at this point. But before I close, let me encourage you to read  widely in many genres in order to open your mind and let creative thinking make connections that sizzle and snap. That’s what real writers do.

Index Cards & Buffalo Chips

You’ve heard the adage about using the whole buffalo? Hold that thought. I read this week James Alexander Thom’s The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction, in which he warns about the danger of relying on the digital storage of extensive research, and the need to retain the material after a book is published, in case some picky sniffer challenges you, or better, you are asked to speak about the book in the future.

I was reminded of the laptop I killed by watering a philodendron hanging over my desk. Ouch! Further more, the CDs on which I had backed up don’t meld with my current computer. (In fact CDs are pretty much obsolete, a fact driven home when I realized that the only device I own that plays my CD music is my car.)

Alternatively, I’ve long touted the use of index cards–cheap, portable, easy to sort or color code, and impervious to dripping plant pots. (Realistically, you can lose them or have your tote bag catch fire. So far I’ve lost a few but the tote bag is intact.) Given Thom’s convincing argument for hardcopy back up, I spent a useful hour this week tidying my card catalog. I tossed index cards that had lost the connection to whatever topic I had researched. I kept the bibliography cards, where I record the author, title, and location of books or online information that I’ve found useful. I record where I made notes from the source in question. Because I date my journals/notebooks, a typical entry might be “Notes: Jan 2016, p. 7.”

Ta da! I can continue my compulsive scribbling as I read, and I can retrieve the scribbles if I need them. Some part of the beast has become unexpectedly useful, like burning dry buffalo chips in a new campfire. All my “chips” are arranged alphabetically by topic in a file box made for index cards. If the house doesn’t flood or burn or get ransacked, my research is safe. That’s a relief.

Beethoven, Yo Yo Ma & Me

PW bookYears ago I first encountered Proprioceptive Writing, a process with a daunting label that attracted me because it seems to have originated in Maine and I lived there, still visit often and was curious to know what other writers in my then-home state were up to. For reasons that I have forgotten, I tried it and set it aside.

About a week ago, it rose to mind and I decided to visit it again. As some of you know, I’m a strong advocate of daily journaling. I do Morning Pages, a la Julia Cameron, and I keep a notebook with me at all times, a la Natalie Goldberg. Now I’ve added half an hour each morning for PW. My first attempts were frustrating. I felt fenced in. The process calls for Baroque Music, a lighted candle, no interruptions, not even to sip coffee, and a deep listening to the thoughts that fly through my head at the speed of sparrows before the cat catches them.

Thanks to Apple Music, I found exactly the recommended Beethoven cello concerti by Yo Yo Ma. I bought a candle that will last a long time if I dedicate its flame to that half hour. I found a stash of unlined white paper and a folder, a little stapler. Okay, no problem with the tools. But the process? I resisted and persisted. And this morning, on my fourth Write, I broke through that resistance. I think I’m hooked. Traditional mediation has not worked for me, although I am drawn to whatever reveals the inner workings of my mind and personality.

If you are curious, I suggest you get the book (see above) and jump in. I started the process as soon as I understood the Three Rules and Four Questions and that seems to be a good plan. I’m aware of the values that Linda Metcalf and Tobin Simon espouse as I go along. My copy of the book is underlined, marked and close by. It’s my instructor and my solace when I’m stymied by writing not meant to be shared. The relief I now feel with this process may well be a reaction to having just formatted the ms of a novel about to go out to beta readers, to be critiqued, chewed up, spit out, panned and praised. The PW Writes are all mine and will remain so.