Lessons from a Virus

Each person has a unique response to life within the edges of home and neighborhood. Here in Colorado we are open, somewhat, so yesterday we had a driveway happy hour with our neighbors, well apart but close enough to talk, share a plate of ribs, and sip a favorite beverage. It was odd to maintain social distance and reconnect with those fine folks. Makes one measure what’s valued.

And individually, I suspect that many of us are reviewing our “normal” activities and adjusting accordingly. What does matter? What do we miss? What can we let go? I’ve done just that and, given the ghost of mortality flitting around us, asked myself how I want to spend whatever time is left to me. It’s been illuminating, an emotional temperature monitoring. And as a result I’ve advised friends and colleagues that some long-lived habits will change. I’ve trimmed my responsibilities (Were they really that?) in order to spend more time doing what matters most: fewer writing groups, more deep reading, getting back to my genealogy project and expanding it. I have enough material on hand without visiting the nearby NARA, and–ta da! I want to study archaeology. I’ve been watching a long series of programs that feature digs in the British Isles. Most of my ancestors come from that part of the world, so a balance exists  between the macro of deep history and the micro of my family tree.

Would I have arrived at this decision without the enforced time to consider my options? I’ll never know the answer to that question. But I do know that it feels right to back off and move forward. #genealogy #archaeology #SocialDistance #NationalArchivesRecordsAdministration

How Do I Do? Very well, thanks.

Natalie Goldberg says to free write until you get past monkey mind and she’s right. Then again, for decades she’s been right about writing. So, thanks to her I’ve altered my morning writing sessions. For years I’ve clung to Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and filled three pages, much of which was truly monkey mind, full of to-do lists or rambling self-castigation about my insipid journal. Then, for a short while I tried to model my morning writing after Eric Maisel’s Deep Writing, attempting to “clear my mind” and write “deeply” about the first object in my line of sight. That approach ended when I wrote deeply about my slippers or my coffee table.

Recently I’ve been adhering to Nat’s advice in The True Secret of Writing. (I feel free to refer to her by her nickname, having once met her briefly at a book fair.) More often now, I’m having fun, not as quick to judge, believing most days, that if I don’t censor and don’t quit at the bottom of page three, something interesting and fresh will pop up, sort of whack-a-molish. But lately I don’t smack the pop-up, keep the pen moving, excited to see where the words lead. And I’m through, I think, demanding that every page I fill must be productive.

For all my years of preaching process and practice over product and publication, I see now that I often didn’t take my own advice. Now I have a purse-sized notebook full of Nat’s advice–like “Don’t waste this one precious life.” Writing is again discovery, getting beyond my own opinions and, you know, it’s fun. And the more fun I have, the less I ration time and paper.

Morning Routine

Rereading poet Kim Addonizio’s Ordinary Genius, I was again inspired by her advice to love what you first see. Such prompts don’t always work for me because I’ve found similar advice in other books on writing. But this time it clicked and here’s what poured out:

Purring and head bumping, Haiku leaps onto my bed to announce the time, 6:00 am, “Feed me, feed me, feed me,” although he has cat chow left in his white bowl. Black cat, white bowl yet nothing as clear as black and white, that sleek shadow on my bed mysterious and familiar. He speaks a tongue I cannot quite mimic and if I do come close, I don’t know what I’ve said, his vowel-rich voice varied and vague to me as Latin, though his language is not dead.
The house dogs think him a marvelous toy, until he takes refuge in a nook too small for them. His only work is hunting—a rare house mouse and the spiders, whom I respect as part of our small biome. I top off the food bowl to reassure him that, yes, ours is an opulent life full of Hills Science Diet for Indoor Cats. He eats two bites, bids me goodbye and makes his rounds: from the front window he supervises sunrise over the lake and takes stock of visitors at the bird feeder. He does not read and if I have a book in my hands, he nudges the nuisance  to clear space on my lap, which he thinks, I think, rightfully his alone for the asking.
And you will understand, please, that living with another species can lead to tolerance and peace. Toward those who see only utility—the rodent haters—Haiku is a demonstrator, demanding his rights to regular feeding, a warm spot on a soft bed, a measure of affection, safety and good health (Yes, he has health insurance.) and clean water in his bowl. Surely you see this house cat, once a stray, has a better life than many a refugee.

Stuck? Go with it!

No one I know proceeds through a writing project without the occasional stutter step. Sometimes I fall, not from grace, but a face plant. Dry docked, shut down, blocked. Ouch! And that’s just the day that some skeptic asks how the book is selling, or when I’m doing a public reading. All I can do is shrug and own my stalled “career.” It’s momentarily embarrassing, a suggestion that, as my inner critic sometimes reminds me, I’m not really a writer. A real writer has an agent, an editor, a PR person, and a house on a hill. So what am I doing living in a basement apartment (which I actually like) and counting my dimes and dollars?

This angst is part of creative writing, as opposed to the popular image of authorship. My “ship” is a dinghy dragged up on the shore until I push it back into the water and take up the oars again. And row, maybe with no destination but an intent to go where the tide takes me. Just see what’s there and enjoy the sun and the breeze. It’s not a lost day if all I do is journal, muse on paper. (Hmm, that sounds like a line for a poem, or a new sandwich.)

If you too get stuck, just go with it. You might need a break, but I doubt you’re broken.

My Mind’s a Sieve

I often complain that my “mind is like a sieve” given the limitations of an overstuffed memory. Because I read a dozen or so books a month, I cannot recall the juiciest parts of most. Sometimes I scribble into my journal what strikes me as worth saving. But my journals, once full, go into a box in the closet and might not be seen again until the box overflows and I pitch the whole mess into the recycling bin.

And there go the nuggets of wisdom or grace that I took the time to write down. There is a better way. According to Wikipedia, the English philosopher John Locke wrote in 1706 a book titled A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books, “in which techniques for entering proverbs, quotations, ideas, speeches were formulated. Locke gave specific advice on how to arrange material by subject and category, using such key topics as love, politics, or religion. Commonplace books, it must be stressed, are not journals, which are chronological and introspective.”[1]

I’ve not read Locke’s advice, but I’ve known since my first graduate school course that I need a system to preserve the wonders collected in my sieve-like mind. Hence, the turquoise journal reserved for the best of the best quotes and details worth the ink to copy them. I have another book that I call my reading log, in which I note the author, title and shiny little bits of language or ideas that I would otherwise forget. I think I’ll give Locke a look and take notes about his note taking. An addition to my endless search for the gold that is good writing.

December’s Diary

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.

The Promise of Connection

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.

READ FOR EQUALITY

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Invitation to a Refugee

The US is big, diverse, argumentative, and not always united, not always kind. So far we have things to be grateful for: no outbreak of cholera, mostly clean food and safe water, but I cannot promise you a living wage, a free education, or adequate health care. Maternal and infant deaths are too common. Tax rates are confusing and rarely fair. Our government is weak and confused. We kill each other. Citizens kill cops, cops kill citizens.  But come anyway if you are brave and desperate. Our history lies, is bloody and greedy. Come anyway. Maybe you will teach us tolerance and compassion. Many of us spring from immigrants and some of us keep our origins in mind when there’s a knock on the nation’s door.

***

My name is Karen. We are yet strangers, even to ourselves, but I’m glad you’re here. Please, sit. Do you drink coffee? We drink a lot of coffee. Cream? Tell me about your trip. Tell me your story.

Half Day at the DAM

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.

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.

 READ FOR EQUALITY

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