You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Writing’ category.

My folks never had much. I don’t think my dad ever broke $30K a year. I was the kid you hear about who can’t pay their lunch card for the week; the kid that a particularly sadistic teacher would humiliate loudly and often. My dad took early retirement from SW Bell, though times would be tight. He and my mom bought a mobile home park here in Arkansas. Sweated over it. Groomed it like a garden. And hated it, babysitting a bunch of people who didn’t want to care for themselves.

I have a photo of the first time they saw this house. My dad was standing on a gravel bank, looking downriver at the limestone bluffs like a man viewing the Promised Land. In many ways, he was.

The first time I got to see the house, we had driven across country from a visit to my sister in Baltimore. My dad wanted me to see the place in daylight; pouted when mom and I, weary, didn’t want to drive a third day. As we rounded the corner onto Push Mountain Road near sunset, the view stopped the breath: hills wreathed in mist against an pink and orange sky. One of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. A portent. A welcome.

This house was Native American land, once. It carries a peace that grows out of the ground. My father died here, in his hospital bed in the living room, in view of the river he so loved but lacked, in his last days, the energy to turn his head to see.

My mom sold the house to me. She acknowledged something we’d never spoken about, something I didn’t think she ever knew: what a hard time I’s always had dealing with life. How wide open I’d always been; how challenged. Of everyone, she told a friend who confided her words to me, I was the one of her three children who needed this place, who truly appreciated it, who would care for it.

I’ve always tried to honor this sacred trust. I came here every weekend for eight years when I was within driving distance. I visited as often as I could when I was in Denver. Now, in retirement, I’m doing all the things the house deserves, things that I never had time to do—renovating, improving, clearing; removing the flotsam of years of stuffed closets and musty drawers, cleaning the cobwebs of “stuff”, purifying the place down to where the spirits live.

I hope mom and dad approve of the changes I’m making. I’d like to think they do. Perhaps that’s the gift behind the gift…a way of honoring that I can do without discussion or debate. Changes made with respect and love, and a daily thanks for the scared trust.

 

 

Be stillness, says the little tile on my wall. In retirement, I am remembering how stillness is made.

After so many years sealed inside the apartment, the office, the subway, the restaurant, I discover again the ancient familiarity of the soft, green morning. The breath of warm air on skin. The scents of this place, unlike other scents, other places. The smallness of we, the infinite connectedness.

These are the joys of looking at the same location for 30-plus years, and now, at last, for all the minutes in a day. There is an infinite changeability here. When new leaves fall before their time, when the sky goes milky or the river richens to emerald green. To that before-dawn moment when the night creatures all fall silent at once. Or when eagles call from beyond the road or a screech owl speaks in the late hour. To the stars that tell us how our small planet moves. To the fox or possum or armadillo that shows itself rarely, but beautifully. To unfamiliar butterflies that seem as large as pterodactyls. To the mystery sundown that dyes everything pink.

My days are mine. My schedule is mine. Nature and I sit and smile at one another. Just sensing, seeing, is wonderfully enough, and nothing is everything. I drift. I float. Occasionally, I act. The silence is not bigger than I am. In the privilege that is the house that belonged to my parents, stillness takes me to the ancient skin touched by breezes past, the eyes given the same greens, for the nose the delights of the same smells…the things we remember that are built into us. The something we remember before we were us.

Not a new revelation. Not a great one. Not an original insight. But an elemental truth in an unexpected moment. The grand, gentle, beautiful awareness of what I am grateful for. It’s a thing we all might find in an evening realizing what we are grateful for; the things that we find courage in this small moment to take into our hands.

I have spent my life trying to realize the connections I felt. To justify a too-small existence, diminished by a social structure I didn’t understand and was ill-equipped to accommodate. Otherness–outsiderness–has always been the definition of who I am in a world in which acceptance is the expected norm, I have lived in a miasma of confusion and resentment. People’s motives, their selfishness, their self-involvement, their isolation from the surrounding world of perceptions, reactions, needs, sensitivities has been an unending chafing on my heart. I am not an innocent. But the understanding of others’ truths has been a source of endless pain. Too often in my life, I have accepted definitions of me that weren’t me, seeing the possibilities of them.

In all of that–in the bubble of me-ness in which I exist, I find the wonder of it all. Today was such a day. Errands in the sunshine on a chilly day, in the little car I love. The smallish gifts I gave myself for my birthday ( a fountain pen; a bottle of 20 year-old port; a pot of miniature daffodils; the elemental good quality food that is central to my life; a bar of French Verbena soap). Firm resolve in response to the frank talk with a supervisor that has gnawed on me, one that will never bring men satisfaction in a world in which she has created an unassailable, self-defined kingdom where the truths she creates are utterly her own.The mastery of an elusive cocktail that is still a wonder to me. The lovely curled-up-on-the-couch nap with a spooning cat. A wonderful gift of birthday flowers from a dear friend. The receipt of a card that made me cry. The prospect of visiting Findhorn with a friend…or living for a month or two in the UK. The knowledge that a few extraordinary friends are better than a truckload of acquaintance “friends”. Today I am lucky. Tomorrow I may be low and angry. But the gratitude is closer to me. Simpler. More wonderful.

I am lucky. The residual strengths are things I can share, can pay forward. All things aren’t as I would have them. But sometimes, “is” is enough.

 

 

As writers, we don’t always go sanely toward our solutions. Instead, too often, we suffer toward them. Reasoned arguments are lost to us. Our little mental slot cars that get us from Chapter One to The End have flown off their tracks.

And, suddenly, everything we know is wrong.

There may be no worse feeling for a writer than suspecting that the thing we’ve done, the thing we’ve committed to, sweated over, felt such complete confidence for, is crap. And maybe not just the passage or the page, but the whole thing.

Crap.

Each of us has a critical little gremlin on our heads that speaks to us as we write, and waits to have its say when we’re not. Is its voice right or wrong? Is this our surreptitious, lurking, ever-present self defeat getting the boot in? Or is truth and awareness speaking to us as frankly as it can?

If you’ve ever twisted the water out of a washcloth—if you were the washcloth, not the twister—you can imagine how writers feel at times like this. If you’ve ever walked a maze, lost, too far in to turn around, too anxious to continue, you know that there’s no easy way back.

We want to believe that a hard-won ability that lives under the surface of us. If we sink into black water, get in over our heads, we want to believe that that a foundation of craft or talent or instinct will give us a solid place to stand; a place to catch our breaths and recover. But sometimes our feet never touch down.

Better sense tells us that, with a little distance, a little more hard work, we can recover. We can see the story’s honest faults and fix them. But unlike the place of pain that yields answers—eventually—panic makes everything impossible. We flail. We get sucked under. We lose our direction and the will to find the surface. And we drown. We get eaten, as the Radiohead lyrics say, by weird fishes.

For writers, so completely defined by the act that drives us, this is a paralyzing, terrifying place. Without the writing, there is no us. The brilliant, three-dimensional world is still and grey. We float like ghosts in the airless space, not wholly dead and nowhere near alive.

So, in the midst of such a moment, I’m turning to this confessional. And here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to shut down the page and set the work aside. I’m going to eat something. Take deep breaths. Clean the apartment. And find the faith in myself that will let me see the work’s flaws with a cool, unhateful eye and find the whatever to address them.

Those weird fishes? They’re all around. The trick is to swim with them. And not be eaten alive.

I know some. Not all. Not yet.

I know the sound of your voice.

And the shape of your body as you stand.

I know why you smile. I know when.

I know you, fingertips and feet, and the gray in your unshaven face.

I know you in the morning, your eyes across the pillow.

I know your silences and your guilt and your mistakes;

your secrets and the mask you hold against the world.

I know what you do in this world—I know what you intend there,

although I don’t yet know why.

I know the passion you will not confess.

And your resistance and refusal and the generous you.

I know what will shatter your world,

and the assassin role that authors play.

 

To write, we must first love.

And hope that our plot obeys that love.

We must know the character down to the faintest breath,

and still hope, always, to be surprised.

To imagine completely, love helplessly, ruin willingly,

is a control, a luxury, that real life does not permit us.

Did we see these moments clearly and remember them well,

in the hyper focus alive behind the writer’s eye…

or did we  merely imagine them?

The adoration of  characters in a created world

elevates our private silences, and yet spoils us for so much else.

It sours us for the mundane, even as it exalts the fleeting and the ordinary.

And, in our most closely held honesty,

we know we have surrendered the truths of the beating-heart life

for something that will never keep us warm or hold our hands;

the friend that a solitary grownup can cherish,

perfect, outlandish, imaginary, and undeniably real.

 

The island me. Surrounded by not-there, not doing.

Waiting happens. It’s what writers go through—a kind of lying fallow to replenish ourselves; a waiting for the story to happen. I understand it. I don’t have to like it.

In the emotional stall that is the search for an agent (a combination of day-job demands  and inertia born of the outright, consuming, paralyzing fear of non-acceptance), one observes and one wonders:

Where is that line for defining what defines a writer? Where does our creative identity live? How do we find ourselves between the hairline cracks that lay between want-to-be, need-to-be and absolutely-is?

Those hairline cracks are fissures, sometimes. Chasms. Without the writing (or painting or sculpting or poetry writing or musicmaking or dancing or acting), what are we? Do we exist at all? Or are we just fooling ourselves?

A self-condemning stealthy fear waits to ambush us; tells us that a writer without readers is a failure; a mere wanna be. And that wanting is never, ever, ever going to be enough fuel to take us the whole way to is.

The need to write churns and prods, sometimes more, sometimes less…but is that need a legitimizing worthy of the claim I am a writer?

Perhaps the asking is a kind of answer. Recognition of need is, in itself, a confirmation of need, a pointing to a place in our natures that wants filling. But how do we get the rest of the way?

Is-a-writer is achievable only by the actual doing. And when one is gathering straw for the story’s brick, when one is waiting for the one agent, the one publisher, to see one’s voice as unique and worthy, that affirmation is a faint voice crying in an inner wilderness. We’re back to the uncrossable gap between is and want; to the self-fulfilling, self-defeating oroboros of wondering whether we’re truly what we’ve spend hours and years telling ourselves we are.

Why wait for that acknowledgement, that approval? The fact is, we do—no why about it. The most magnificent operative voice in the world wants an ear other than one’s own. We sing/dance/write for our own pleasure, but a creative effort without an audience is an effort half complete. We tell stories. Tell. Tell to someone. Without the someone, the story is just a magnifier of doubt. A self-indulgence. An unfulfilled and perhaps frivolous desire.

And that razor line? It’s the one that cuts through our hearts. Cuts our souls in two.

This is the afternoon I’ve been waiting for. NotebookNot the ultimate one, with real writing in it…but one nearby. The exalted silence. The alone-ness, full, not empty.

The city is quiet on this July 4th holiday; abandoned by people with other places to be. My city, now. Mine.

I have turned my seat toward the window, not the wall. This is what I see: Out the big window, the brassy silver of a hot day. The air is fuzzy; a haze of unresolved clouds to the south. Cars countable on one hand down the long length of Denver’s Lincoln Street.

Entry hall and desk to the right in the open plan space. Kitchen and dining in a counter clockwise sweep. Art everywhere, in every minute-hand tick of view. Kristina’s green painting. July 4v1Beside it, a Van Gogh print with the same green; the artist’s rope-seat chair echoed in the antique chair below it. Through the door to the bedroom, an encaustic abstract in brown wax and black ink, like looking at the lath of a very old house. Paintings, small ones, faces, small angry cat, abstract; then left to a new monotype that explodes in the eye, black like Franz Kline and Motherwell, red-dotted like Adolph Gottlieb asking for attention in the space. swezyBlack chair, black coffee table, a march of street art on the slanting gallery wall behind.

Pressed to my side, little grey Amelia, full of insistent need, face on the laptop, paw resting the length of my thumb, a furry tracer of my movements on the keyboard, dozing in her crunchy purr.

Not in the writing, yet. But in the head where the writing happens; the place of molecular attention and itchy contentment. The full place. Notebook and tape recorder offering up small feasts. Quiet fluttering with thoughts, directionless, seeking a place to land. No one. No other place. Nothing missing. No regret. No need in the where I am.

These are the writer days. The best ones. A most peculiar zone of comfort that resists explanation—although I guess I’ve done exactly that.

Happy Fourth of July.

 

I’m going to tell on myself.

A once-a-year quirk, a lapse, a moment of ditz: In the excited anticipation of an event, I show up early. Sometimes a week early. Sometimes, as in last year’s Frieze art show in NYC, a whole month.

In the minutes of puzzlement about why nobody else has appeared to attend the event, I learn to laugh at myself. I look for the lemonade in the lemons I’ve handed myself. And it’s okay.

Sometimes, it’s more than okay.

Tapas, I told myself tonight…a way to redeem a gaff from total loss status (not that any redemption was needed.) A few blocks’ walk. A restaurant noisy with an after-work gathering of fellows.

Suddenly, in the willingness to bare myself to myself, the writing comes. Nothing earthshaking. Not the ahahhh lightning bolt that I’ve been waiting for. But instead, that rare place where apartness and honesty come together in something wonderful.

I am alone; separated from the intimacies that other people take for granted. I like it there.

My mind is free to wander without distraction. My own reflection in the restaurant’s mirror tells me a truth about myself that will become part of a character for the next book…a me-in-part, as they all are. The apartness soothes. It embraces. It stings, then kisses the hurt place better.

In the mile-plus walk home—and the choice to walk rather than cab ride the distance—in the milky light between storms, in the reflections that soften the hard glass of tall buildings, in the streets emptied of outliers gone home after the workday, wonder is. And it belongs to me utterly.

I don’t know whether I’d be willing to trade this cherished apartness for the human pairings that seem so normal, so desirable, in everyone else. I exist without the mechanism to shut out the world. In constant companionship my attention is channeled in the direction of The Other; pulled like a tide to an unavoidable shore. I can’t be alone without being alone. And knowing that I have loved ones in the world is made even more sweet by the absence.

I’ve always been apart. And on evenings like this one I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

The holidays can be tough enough. Throw in a case of the flu and the challenge becomes more…interesting. Interesting—a nice word for it.

Christmas retreated from my catalog of enthusiasms a number of years ago. In the bad, long-term relationship that I wasn’t self-possessed enough to escape, I adopted a smiling, benign indifference to it. Safer that way. In the years since, I’ve used the cherished silence of the house to let words find me; in the vacation week between Christmas and New Year’s, I’ve braved the chill in long, thoughtful walks on the goes-nowhere road outside and let the universe find me. Days were filled with the page; nights, with the thought of the page. The hours were full.

Not this year.

Being between books is hard. Being beset by the challenge-to-confidence that is the search for an agent makes everything harder. Keeping one’s emotional balance is a difficult thing when the winter silence is silence only. Then, enter the flu.

The 900-mile drive to the house was almost alarmingly easy, even after a 4 a.m. departure. No visits from the Muses during the long drive…but never mind. By the time I’d arrived and unpacked, the illness set in for real: the body-twisting cough, the hammering exhaustion, the Niagara of sinus.

Keeping one’s heart open to creativity is pretty impossible when you’re sleeping 18 hours a day. So be it. Job One is the dutiful avoidance of self-pity. Exist to get well—fair enough. Do the dishes five at a time, the length of time one can stay upright. Read. Indulge in movies that take little attention. The other stuff, the good stuff, the stuff that takes psychic strength and confidence…the reassurances that yes, you are a real writer and, yes, it’s just a matter of time and added effort until an agent finds you and your friends actually get around to reading what you’ve written and, yes, the story is in there even if it’s hiding…those understandings will just have to wait until you’re well.

Yes. But.

When you’re sick, the darkness lets the black dog in. The holiday is a festival of expected happiness and the promiscuous see-what-a-wonderful-life-I-have celebrations of others. The night is not Possibility, it’s just night. The silence is just silence. The blessed, glorious week of solitude is an hourglass of lost minutes. And that damned, ever-present self doubt, that knowledge of the too-thin veil that lay between you and the big, empty, indifferent world: That, my dear ones, is the very real wolf at the door.

So, here is the list of tasks at hand. One: Get strength back. Two: Find the joy that’s so clearly around you—the peeks of sun on grey days, the birds in the back yard, the eagles circling behind the house. Three: Get back on the horse. Write those letters. Transcribe those notes. Pet a cat. And four: Kick the black dog out into the darkness from which he came. You can’t overcome a feeling by pretending it doesn’t exist. Feel it, face it, move on. We are not held hostage by truth: The door is right there, and the key has been in our hand all along.

We hear voices, writers do. A word, a thought, an expression, a rhythm, an idea.

In the sweet silence of our self-defined isolation, we close ourselves off from what the eyes can see, uncork the tops of our heads and let the universe float in. We marry the invisible. We know mystery. And joy. And ecstasy.

We don’t try for this, not deliberately—not in the blessed woolgathering phase of a book’s creation, anyway. Is just…is.

Charles Wright called it “the silence that turns the silence off.” But sometimes, in that silence, in that waiting, we are alone.

Without the voices, who are we?

I’ve been living in the limbo between worlds, facing the realities of selling the current book while making space in the head for the next one. I have three books in the hopper, and energy enough to work toward selling only one of them at a time.

And the silence right now is only silence.

Knowing doesn’t help. Knowing that the voices will rise in me like a choir. Knowing that my voice will find a shape. And an audience.

But now, the high, tight ringing in my ears is the only thing that comes close to a word from elsewhere. The characters and the world they inhabit still stand at a stubborn distance, knowing what they know, yet sharing none of it with me.

I am the slow-witted, patient animal in the empty field, waiting for her master’s call; hearing nothing but the damndest silence.

Sing, self. I’m ready.

Top Posts

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 415 other followers

%d bloggers like this: