Hey, Don't I Know You?

I've just had a revelation. No angels or skies opening up. (That would have been cool, though.) Just a regular ordinary revelation.  A recognition.  Yeah, I like that word-- recognition.  Like you've met somewhere before, and you realize, oh, that's right.  That's what I've been waiting for. This is the beginning of week 2 of NaNoWriMo-- National Novel Writing Month.  I started out amazingly well, for me.  I am a slow writer.  I dally. I dilly. I dilly-dally around  words, around thoughts, around characters.  That's okay.  All writers have their own style and pace.

All last week while I was trying to get my daily production of about 1700 words a day on-screen, I realized that no matter how I tried to steer the work, I kept coming back to the same themes and characters I've been working on in my novel-in-progress.  I have about 23,000 words that I'm relatively pleased with (countless words of notes and trial and error and scenes that went nowhere), so, I thought, I'll cheat.

NaNoWriMo is supposed to be 50,000 new words churned out with the internal editor away on vacation, too far away to interfere with the writer who's hiding behind the censor.  My editor/censor doesn't take vacations. My censor like to work. What a pain.

But, that's where I am.  So be it.  I can still try to shake up my censor and get one over on her once in a while.  Like, this morning.  I was so sure I had my first chapter written and the novel would proceed from the themes I set up in that chapter.  But, I was stuck.  Which is one of the reasons I started the NaNo process.  I want to become unstuck.  Free those words and ideas that the censor has cowering in the corner with the threat of being sent to the principal's office if they squawk.

They squawked.  The principal was kinder than the censor.  HaHa!

Here's how the revelation/recognition happened.  Gene transferred my NANo words to Scrivener.  Scrivener is this fairly new tool for writers that is supposed to be easier and more intuitive. This morning I was looking at this new creature and I could not find the last chapter I had written.  So I summoned it from my Word files.  I re-read it.  I liked it.  And then, (drum roll, please) I recognized that this chapter should be the first chapter because it introduces themes and characters that play out in the rest of the work.

So, thank you NaNoWriMo, for jiggling loose some thoughts that might have stayed in the wrong place if I hadn't taken your challenge, and then modified your challenge to my own purposes. It's good to recognize a friend you've met for the first time.

A Nice Problem to Have

A writing friend of mine sent me the following quote: A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. ~Thomas Mann, Essays of Three Decades, 1947

Well, that sounds a little self serving, doesn’t it? I mean, if you are having trouble writing, if the spigot won’t spig and no words or clever phrases pour forth, then you can claim association with the likes of Thomas Mann, and say, I’m having trouble writing because I am a WRITER. (Back of hand to forehead, profile to the audience, a loud sigh and eyes pleading to the heavens for a more productive muse.)

This friend of mine is a marvelous writer. Reading her work you might think she sits at her computer and great characters and dialogue jump from her fingertips and appear on the screen, ready for publication in one draft. That’s because she’s a master craftsman. By the time we get to read her work she has gone over each and every word, phrase, telling detail of character and place with deftness and we laugh or cry rolling along her narrative arc to a clever conclusion. Then we want more.

But, talented and hard working as she is, sometimes nothing comes. Her muse goes to the Caribbean to work on his tan.

It’s good to have writing friends, writing circles, critique groups. We have a Salon. We have aspirations of being literary. And occasionally, we are. We’ve granted the term enough elasticity to include us. And we’ve granted each other enough grace to affirm each other’s status as writers. That’s because we know what it takes to get a story, a poem, a book ready for anyone besides trusted friends and a tight circle of like-struggling word crafters to read.

Writing difficult? Well sure it is. But what a fortunate and precious thing to complain about. We get to play with words, phrases, phonetics, meter, rhythm, subtle meanings contained within the exact choice of word. To most writers I have encountered, these are the ‘things’ that have delighted and amused us since we could hold open a book of nursery rhymes in our little round baby hands.

Blaze of Light

[For Sophia Ann] There’s a blaze of light in every word, it doesn’t matter which you heard, the holy or the broken hallelujah! Leonard Cohen

In the beginning was the Word. Gospel of John

And God said…Book of Genesis

When I taught Adult Ed courses on spirituality and theology, one subject, theme, if you will, that I kept coming back to was: God spoke us into being. Our name thundered in a mighty whisper and here we are. Romantic view of conception? Perhaps. But it resonates with me. Resonates as in resounds somewhere deep within. Deep within beyond my conscious mind. Further back. Then further back from there.

As far back as I remember (and I have some very early memories), words have fascinated me. The way they bounce around your mouth, play with your tongue, escape over your teeth. The way they look on a page. The origins of words and their associations in history that thread us together through time. The language we speak now is built on many languages and cultures mixing words while they mixed the gene pool. And the simple reality that sounds bind us together or separate us dependent on what they mean and the manner in which they utter forth. What power.

Now, I am a slow writer. Thoughts, memories, words, ping around me and make connections while I try to compose. If I am lucky, and patient, words will just pour from my fingertips onto the ‘page’ like water from a fountain. But, often, I just wait. Oh, I’ll scribble—that is jot down all sorts of non-sequiturs and lines of songs, nursery rhymes, and bits of conversation that pop up in my mind like jack-in-the-box—but something else has to happen in order for me to write something that feels true.

And that something feels like a blaze of light. Well, not always a blaze, sometimes a small lit candle or the proverbial light bulb. But there is heat and warmth and illumination. There is a yes, and if I am mindful, an amen.

Memoir, continued

An archeologist recently found a shoe that dates back to 5500 B.C.  Reading about it in the NYTimes, I couldn’t help but smile at the journalist who had to wonder who wore this shoe, what kind of life did he or she lead, what was their culture like, why was this item carefully filled with grass and set within a burial cave?  All these questions from a leather shoe with broken and repaired laces. Archeological references are apt when speaking of memoir.  A flash of memory, an old photo, a conversation around the dinner table, or a Thanksgiving family gathering, and voila! memoir is being articulated.

Some of us, though,  whose natural position is either pen in hand or fingers bent over a keyboard, take those nuggets, those snapshots of memory and imagination, and need to turn them into story.  We need to take the anecdotes, the characters, the situations, the culture and the specifics of history and find a thread of meaning, a connection, an overriding narrative to weave through our lives so we can perceive more of the whole, so we can argue against theories of randomness and anarchy in our own history.

It all ties together.  Processed through our filters, our language, our various talents, we create something new with memoir.  Not quite a transcript of history, but an interpretation of history, an annotated version, if you will, of a life.

But, it comes at a price.

A friend of mine, a writer who has produced some beautiful pieces of her life in a West Virginia coal mining community, wrote in answer to my question on the price of memoir: The short answer is that writing memoir was harder than anything I've ever done as well as more fulfilling. I was totally unprepared for the emotional toll it exacted because, after all, I wrote mostly happy memories. Didn't matter. It like to have killed me - and I'm not over-dramatizing this. Well, maybe a little..

After a few essays of the memoir variety of mine were published something happened to me.  I was nearly mute in writing.  I struggled for words.  I’d sit and try to write and so little would come, just notes and thoughts and threads that I couldn’t follow.  I thought I’d try my hand at fiction, so I would have a different kind of freedom, a different set of rules of structure and form and creativity.  Again, I stalled.

I think some part of me was shutting down, telling me that I had said too much, that I need to pull back, retreat.  I became rather reclusive.

I closed down much of my life, my contacts with people.  I pulled away, pulled in. Only recently, after three years, I am emerging from this retreat and stepping back into the world, finding my voice again.

When all is said and done, hopefully, memoir can be an exercise in forgiveness, in understanding, and in love.

You Can't Live There

I’m pretty certain you cannot live in the same place you write. Now, I don’t mean you cannot physically live in the house/ office/ coffee shop/ park bench, etc where you write, but that you cannot stay there if you have to also be, in your other time, a functioning human being.  If you go grocery shopping in the same 'space' you write, you will a difficult and touchy customer.

Writing requires some dropping down into that other place, the place that is messy and chaotic and full of feelings and observations and pain and humor and mud and desert and all that stuff that we cannot bring to the grocery store.

We probably shouldn’t bring it to the dinner table either and give more credence to the classic picture of the brooding alcoholic unwashed cranky writer who is a lousy companion.

So if you have other responsibilities in life and have to switch between several roles you have to learn how to drop down, stay long enough to come up with a story, a character, a sentence even, and then emerge from that place, like Persephone out of Hades, and interact like a normal human being.

I need quiet to write--- I prefer to have the house to myself and not have to chatter or check in with the other people---- but this is not always possible. If I want to produce something I have to have time to submerge into that writing space and root around in the dark for memories or characters or bits of conversation that can lead to a story. Sometimes I have to manage that when I don't have the house to myself, but I find that needs the cooperation of an understanding family who can tell by my expression that I am elsewhere and not available for chatter.

Naturally there are exceptional writers, such as Jane Austen, who managed to produce classic literature while balancing a writing box on her lap and exchanging witticisms with her companions.  But I am not Jane Austen.  And from what I gather, very few can manage that wonderful feat.

I imagine writers like Jane Austen have an ability to be in two places at once, while sitting in the parlor.  She must have been able to navigate between her writing self and her social self.  What a gift.  A rare gift, I should say.

But I'm pretty sure that if I was always in writer mode I'd turn into a curmudgeon and miss out on the lighter side of life. Not to mention getting groceries in for dinner.