Artisitic Process

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.

Little Bo-Peep

Little Bo-Peep has lost her sheep and doesn't know where to find them. Leave them alone and they'll come home Wagging their "tales" behind them.

I sit at my desk almost every day waiting for words to come.  I probably should be doing something useful like dusting or cleaning the kitchen.  But, I always promised myself that when my kids were grown I'd take all that energy I thought I had stored away for years and churn out story after wonderful story.

Now, I have not been totally negligent in turning out stories.  I've turned out some that I quite like and others have shared my opinion by publishing them. Sometimes words come to me.  Sometimes I wake up from a dream with an opening line.  Sometimes I am in the middle of doing something useful, like dishes or laundry and I receive a word, a line, a beginning.

But, way too often I try to court words and story ideas and nothing sparks. Maybe I'm scaring them away by searching too hard.

I court words in a few ways:  I play solitaire.  Yep, dopey, minimally engaging solitaire.  Sometimes it works, I think, because it makes my brain turn on just a bit to get the gears working  thus allowing words that are streaming in my mind a chance to get together and form a sentence, a picture, a scene.

Recently I have added nursery rhymes to my method of distracting my "monkey mind" ( thank you Natalie Goldberg) long enough to let the undercurrents gain a little strength.

Bo-Peep was going through my mind this morning and I realized that some of my most ancient memories are of sitting with a book opened on my lap as a small child, reading the classics.  The classics of children's lit, that is. Nursery rhymes are a lot like the Book of Proverbs for the pre-K set.

I think Bo-Peep showed up to tell me to let go, stop searching so anxiously.  Leave them alone, and they'll come home, wagging their "tales" behind them..

Boy, I hope those nursery rhymes have as much wisdom as they're supposed to.

To Live, To Write, That is the Question

John is in the kitchen teaching the Tango to one of his friends.  She brought a pair of high heels, because everyone knows a woman needs heels to tango.  A twirling skirt would be helpful too, but this is her first lesson. Our house has resembled a dormitory or a frat house this past week.  My oldest son and his band from Boston are in town for the SouthBySouthWest music festival in Austin. My middle son came in for the weekend, so we had all of our own sons, plus several honorary ones, these past few days.

Being an (almost) empty-nester, I welcome the life, the creativity, the high spirits, and yes, even the noise.

This situation hasn't left me a lot of time to write, but I am of the school of thought that if you don't take the time to live what have you got to write about?

I do know of some purists who go and lock themselves away in a cabin in order to produce their great literary opus, but a very long time ago I made the decision (and life in all it's wonderful messiness led me to this decision) that writing is a reflection on life, not a substitute for life.

Creating is an act of will, as much as it is a function of temperament and talent.  My husband and children all devote a great deal of time and energy to their various pursuits like music, art, photography, writing, and, naturally actually living their lives.  They continue to be my best teachers and have provided the fodder for much of what I have written.

One of these days I'll put on a pair of high heels and a twirly skirt and ask my son to teach me how to tango.  Then, after that marinates a bit, I might write about it.

Grain of Wheat

It's noteworthy that much of the 'self-help' and 'self-improvement' advice sounds an awful lot like phrases taken right out of scripture.  A wide variety of scripture, I might add. I read a lovely essay about a woman who discovered that the child she was carrying tested positive for Down's.  Some advisors advised her to end the pregnancy.  She did not.  The essay was not about 'choice'; it was about letting go of her expectations of what her life should be and allowing life to happen, with all its twists and turns and surprises. She quoted a Buddhist phrase at the beginning of her essay which sounded so much like words from the New Testament reminding us that a grain of wheat must die in order to become more fully itself.  Let go of your little mind and let life surprise you.

What has this to do with writing?  Well, quite a bit actually.

I'm currently working on a series of short stories that I have culled from the novel  I had poured much work and struggle into. I have been banging my brain around the structure of the novel for several months, perhaps even a few years. Recently I decided to let go of the novel format and take the characters, scenes, conflicts and settings that I had invested in and re-shape chapters into work that could stand alone as short stories.

Now it's a bit more complicated than lifting chapters from a novel and re-labeling them short stories.  Short stories have their own set of rules for structure, narrative arc, beginning and end, and construction.  In order for some of my scenes and characters to stand out in the world by their lonesome, not cradled by chapters, I had to (and have to) re-think the direction and let myself be surprised by what developes.

I have sent one such story out into the world to be judged.  I am working on getting the others in fighting shape to join it.

A friend of mine once said what most writers know:  I don't know what I'm going to write until I write it.  Isn't that grand!! It's grand because it demonstrates a letting go, a release, a freedom to become a channel between the thoughts and characters that have moved in to our heads and that process, that encounter, dare I say, that grace that happens between pen and paper, between keyboard and screen, between mind and fingers taking off in a flurry of tapping.

None of this is as magical as I wish it were.  It's hard work.  It takes a great deal of logic and organization and thinking and criticizing and often years of training and straining.  But then, we need to let it go and see if the seeds we have been sowing are strong enough to take root and grow into something we can look upon with delight.

Snowed In

I've been running into the idea of finding God in the darkness, in the cloud, in the quiet places lately.  Maybe it's the kind of thing folks write about during winter.  One of my complaints about living in Texas has been that there aren't any real seasons.  We have summer and we have something else that is not quite summer, but hardly qualifies as Spring, Fall or Winter. My son and daughter-in-law live in Boston and after a while the winter doesn't so much look like a gift as much as it looks like a prison term or a very cold Purgatory.  But closer to the equator here in Texas we usually skip right over winter and step into something that is a little chilly, often quite warm, just fixin' to cuddle up to a long stretch of HOT that starts in March and hangs around through Thanksgiving.

Maybe it's my conditioning of growing up in a part of the world where there are four distinct seasons, but I think that a stretch of winter is very important.  We need, that is our souls, our hearts, our guts, our minds, need a time to be pulled away from the rush of sunny warm activities and dig in a little.  It's nature's gift of retreat, whether we think we want it or not.

If we don't have a little winter in our souls I think we run the risk of becoming ninnies. Yep, ninnies.  All activity and busy-ness and self-centered stuff.  We need a little heft, a little gravitas, a little snow shoveling once in a while to pull us down to the quieter places where we can listen and just be.

Yes, the snow is pretty as it weighs down the branches on the trees and covers the brown lawns.  Yes, the snow will turn to slush and then to mud with just enough layering of ice to make driving or walking treacherous.  But it makes us pause, and often taking pause is the only way we will ever learn anything.  There is something sacramental in the snow.  Not safe, but sacramental.