Artisitic Process

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.

Soul Work

“Soul” is not a thing, but a quality or dimension of experiencing life and ourselves.  Thomas More, Care of the Soul I’m in a soul searching group.

It’s disguised as a food optimizing, weight loss, slimming group.  But, really, it's a soul searching group.

Kind of a high-falutin' term for a weight loss group, you say?

Could be, but, I’m sticking to my terminology.

I’ll try to explain.

Soul work and truth work are close relatives. Writing and soul work are Siamese twins.  Over the last several years, I have been writing, commenting, observing on paper (or whatever this medium is) on subjects ranging from theology & spirituality, raising children, marriage, growing up in an Irish-Catholic New York City community with all the gifts and baggage that entails and bringing that with me to a suburb in Dallas.

And all the while ignoring the scale.  Refusing to look at the number when the mean nurse made me stand on the truth device for a doctor visit.  Hiding under big blouses until they were no longer big.  Then having to buy the next size, just to be decent.

I was ignoring the truth.  I read all sorts of ‘soulful’ subjects, like spirituality, mythology, literature, psychology.  But that was stuff that went on between the ears.  Soul work takes place in the body, in the real, tangible, hot, cold, freezing, stifling, bright, dreary, windy, rainy world where our bodies reside.

The ‘salvation of my soul’ was drummed into me courtesy of the Baltimore Catechism.  I thought it had to do with sins and bad thoughts.  I had no idea that it had anything to do with groceries.

When I first encountered the teaching that Catholicism was a ‘sensual’ religion, I was taken aback.  I was raised in a more ascetical version of the faith, which turns out to be not so kosher. The use of very ordinary elements of life raised to be vehicles of the holy: the bread and wine, the olive oil, the beeswax candles, the incense, the lighting, the kneeling and the standing, all have to do with body. They are the ‘smells and bells’ of Catholicism of old and of scary movies of Hollywood.  Body in the service of the sacred.  Body in the service of soul.

As a student, I studied theology.  When I was a new mother, I learned what theology meant.  Theology, body/soul/spirit work, happens when you care for someone.  When you change diapers, stay up all night, rock a baby to sleep, prepare meals, put off your own plans for the good of someone else, make sure they are healthy, safe, happy.  When you give yourself away without counting it as sacrifice.  And then, do it all again someday with elderly parents who once did all that for you.

You have to be conscious to do soul work.  Eating whatever was handy or tasty or filled a need, just for the moment, was not being conscious.  It was a form of oblivion.  Like drinking.  Or and other kind of addiction.

So, yes, I am doing soul work.  In the kitchen.  It’s as good a place as any.

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.

What is the Price of Memoir?

I have a bookshelf full of how-to-write books:  Strunk & White, Natalie Goldberg, Julia Cameron, Dorothea Brande, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera to quote Yul Brenner. Perhaps I missed it, but I don’t remember reading an important caveat:  if you write a personal essay, a memoir, and it gets published and you win a plaque and get a lovely check, there is a price to pay.

Memoirs of a life lived in Happyville don’t often get published.  There needs to be conflict, confusion, battles, secrets, overcoming obstacles that still pop up every once in a while and punch you in the proverbial nose. And of course, there needs to be characters, otherwise known as real people, otherwise known as your parents, your brothers and sisters, your friends.  That is, the first people you loved and were loved by.  Family.

It would be the unusual family who cheers you on while you expose their faults.  Most families don’t like that so much.

We are in the tell-all, dashboard confessional, tabloid era of opening our lives for strangers to read.  Some argue that writing memoir is healing, liberating, or standing up for yourself against forces that oppressed or damaged you.  Some argue that in writing about the pain of your past you will find strength in claiming your story.  You will reveal yourself as a person of depth because of your suffering and survival. Your soul has heft, and therefore, you are wise.

Or maybe you just have hubris.

I have two published pieces out in the world that are memoir.  I felt I needed to write them, I felt that the depth of feeling I had sharpened my writing, I felt I had processed enough of the past to bring a mature perspective on things.  I gambled that I might feel further exiled from my family because of my decision to write these pieces, but some other need, some other ambition, was stronger than my hesitation.

Here I would like to open this blog up to a discussion:  What is the price a writer pays for memoir?

As a for instance, to get the discussion started, I became a mute writer, stuck in a limbo of stories going nowhere.  My success in getting those pieces published should have goaded me on to write more, but, adversely, I have written less.  I feel exposed and vulnerable and more keenly aware of pain I may have caused.  I suppose you call that regret.

There are out there, not quite written on stone, but I cannot take back words once uttered.

To end with another movie quote:

So shall it be written, so shall it be done--- Yul Brenner, the imperious.