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.



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.


Music to Write By

Last week I mentioned that because of my tinnitus I keep instrumental music playing while I do my morning pages and often while I’m working on a writing project. I formed this habit partly as a defense against noise and partly because I had experimented with a technique called Proprioceptive Writing, a method meant to deepen the act of personal writing using music, candles, and an exploration of what was not said. I liked it, but as with so many things I like, I let it go in favor of an individualized method. Yet the music plays on.

This week I have turned away from the classical radio station I loved for a long time because we just weren’t happy together. They wanted more money and I wanted less talking. So I now depend on two sources of music: my iPhone and a short stack of CDs and a used CD player. The phone is easy, always there and, thanks to Apple Music, offers a huge selection of free music. The CDs are slowly becoming less useful, but I do pull them out when I crave some of my old favorites.

Here’s a partial list of writing music that works for me: Gregorian chant (especially Hildegard Von Bingen’s music), The Best of Yo Yo Ma, Sphere Ensemble’s Divergence, Kitaro, The Sounds of Acadia (music and nature sounds from Acadia National Park where I used to ride my horse), Keith Jarrett (classical), Kalin Yong, Brother Hawk.

Music is miraculous to me. I cannot carry a tune or play an instrument and had I lived in a time or place where the music was what you could make, I’d have been lonely.

The Courage of Writers

This week I sat in a local diner with other writers who impressed me by their willingness to approach tough stuff. One had the courage to describe his mother in more or less balanced terms without the sentimentality or vitriol that inherently sneaks into this mother of all topics. Another wrote about her insecurity and hesitancy to publish what she believes is the real value of her independently owned business, and a third dared to say that she’s out to change the world. Then there was the story of a childhood hurt that reduced the writer to tears. Such courage!

Truth abounding. And Truth is not beauty, no matter what Keats claimed. It’s temperamental and often ugly. It was ugly in Paris last week. It will be so again and again. But the writers I know and admire, either through their published work or their work in progress, wrestle with this harridan and sometimes they pin her to the mat. They force her to hold still long enough for us to see her complexity. This struggle is not, unfortunately, a given in the world of books. Many authors write to publish and ignore the struggle. They rely on formulas that fatten their wallets but do not nourish us or help heal our wounds.

So here I was this morning, in my green pajamas, noodling in my journal, remembering a time when even with personal writing I drew an innocuous picture of who I was, imagining a ghostly reader who would otherwise point out my flaws and ridicule my aspirations if I wrote the truth, even in my journal. No more of that.  Truth is no easy ally, not willing to bend or change her stance to suit my tender ego. But, Truth, you are my best teacher. I’m glad we’ve finally met. I’ll try to be faithful.

Break Time, Brake Time

By the time you read this I will have driven five hours north to visit friends in South Dakota. We’ve been waiting for all the omens to bode well and finally they do: nothing on the schedule for the next three days, good weather forecast, and the price of gas is down. All of which says, go. I like to drive and have just rehabilitated my ten-year old Toyota, so I’m looking forward to this trip. It’ll be three days of good music and good conversation with people I know well.

And, gulp, I think I’ll take the whole weekend off, no writing. I can’t quite believe I’m saying this, addicted as I am to the pen, but I’m brave. I’ll try. Yes, yes, I admit that there will be a small notebook in my old blue paisley duffel bag, and the voice recorder on the phone will serve for those moments when I cannot write without breaking the law or my bones. Writing and steering are, or should be, incompatible, mutually exclusive, verboten. Worse than texting. So the drive just might cleanse my brain enough to avoid any dangerous withdrawal. I’ll let you know when I get back. Have a safe Halloween, set the clocks back if you’re in the US and write on. Carry the flag for me, huh?

Writing Is a Business

You see that title? Do you believe it? I do, I do, but I have not always acted on that belief. Well, this week I got fed up with the helter-skelter nature of my work and decided to do something about the practical side of life.  Not the writing side. I’m compulsive about that, as my regular readers know. I write morning pages 365 days a year. Five days a week I shoot for 500 words a day on the novel in progress, a new poem every week and a memoir piece every two weeks. This in addition to prepping for my coaching groups and the research that I mentioned in my last blog.

So while I was doing all that, who did the marketing, the financials, the day-to-day stuff that any small business needs to keep it breathing? Mine was more like gasping. Oh, no! I meant to renew that membership, to send off those submissions, to pay that bill. Well, we all know where good intentions get us.

Someone had to take control of this chaos and when I looked around my little office, no one was there but me and the dog, who cannot sign checks or type. He cannot remember passwords or count to ten. Duncan tells time, but he cannot use a calendar. I did a Winnie the Pooh “think, think” thing and came up with two solutions. One, I hired Mary Walewski of Buy the Book Marketing and spent two hours with her this week creating a marketing plan. Whew! It’s organized and doable. And I marked my planner every Wednesday morning as “Business Morning.” On Wednesday, I put my derriere in the chair and in three hours I had clipped off most of the frayed ends. I still have to get back to those submissions next Wednesday, but it’s only the first of the month, so the deadlines are not closing in on me yet. Now, excuse me for one second. I must see if I pushed send on those first of the month bills. (I never said I’d be perfect at this business.) Yup, so now I’m off to write. That’s the fun part of my busy, crazy life.

A Writer’s Prayer

Whether you pray to an old man in the sky, a saintly woman in blue, a statue, or a light pole, it won’t hurt to think about praying like this:

May I be well enough to get to my writing place;
May I be safe from the critics in my head;
May I know the joy of finding the right words;
May I be free to write what I want.

Adapt this as you will. Say it often, be happy.