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Not in one place. Not in another. Not past the spell of the past work; not yet caught up in the new. The writer between books.

I am at the house. And I am not here. I am listening to the birds, to the wind in trees, to the absence of human sound, and it is only the placing of the description on the page makes any of it real to me.

A tilled field, I am. The fertile growth has been harvested, the remains plowed under. The fragile, exposed ground is left open to the sun and air, waiting for new seed and rain to green it; to turn it into something worthwhile again. Letting the field lay fallow is a familiar concept. The reality isn’t nearly so fulfilling. For now, I am a dustbowl waiting to happen, waiting for the substance of me to be blown away.

As a character reflects in the last work, “he hadn’t expected to be so…without.” I am, in this moment, without.

I mourn this lack, and I don’t. I don’t like it, but I understand it. Understanding it hardly makes it easier. Nothing will heal the raw and naked ground but the verdancy of a new work taking root. The feeling is a revelation of how deeply involved we were; of how exhausted the break has left us. Knowing doesn’t help.

We stand in the space between raindrops, writers do. In the vacant place that is suddenly us, we don’t dance between the drops—we wander, restless, wanting to be touched by something, hoping for the cloudburst (for the drizzle, even) that will make something grow. From that cloudburst will come discontents and gifts, separations and conflicts. And purpose. But that time isn’t yet.

In this arid country, we are praying for rain.

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There comes an inevitable moment in writing a book when you realize that you don’t really need your tape recorder any more.

You hold its lifeless little body in your hand; the soul of its urgency has fled onto the page. You don’t keep it strapped to your wrist at night. Days pass without your feeling the desire to touch the button combo that scribes your thoughts. The tiny tape, once hot with ideas, lay cooling behind its clear plastic window. You keep the device close, even so, because without it the juju might disappear.

Sad. And not. It’s a wonderful awareness, knowing how the absence defines the work’s progress. Yet, how sad because you know that obsession has less of a daily place in your life.

Then one day, a thought born of a dream or insomnia or something somebody said on NPR. The tickle of a small thought that might flee without your capturing it. You run to the recorder’s place at your bedside, a warm body in cool plastic, the lover you don’t have. You run, wet from the shower, to capture the idea that must be held in trust for a book already completed, a germ that will change everything. A phrase. A cadence. A seed that contains all the DNA of the unplanted plant, waiting for earth and sun. Like love rediscovered, if only for a moment.

Soon the reluctance will come; the sad severing from the completed book. Soon enough, the process will start again—new ideas, breathless new love, new characters more real than real. The little recorder will safeguard them as it does the ideas past. The recorder will be the keeper of my spirit, the prover and champion of my midnight notions. My confidante and companion. For now, I’ll hold it in my hand, in memory and hope.

I will be a literary cyborg. And happy for that.

An awakening at 4 a.m. Of the best kind. A dream.

A living space on water, although in the dream I never saw the main house. This was a kind of exposed, semi-circular under-story, with accoutrements all around that offered the possibility that this could well be a living space: chairs, a lovely old enamel stove, tables…and, incongruously, water beneath, an ocean that should not have been there.

People were there in the space. I didn’t know them, yet didn’t mind that I didn’t. Creative, they were. Eagerly so. Generous in their shared inventiveness, unlike the experience in so many other creative fields. Somewhere, there was a creative director, a guiding force that we never saw—but it didn’t matter. The presence was felt.

This creative engineer encouraged unusual forms of expression without limiting the forms they could take; a mentor invisible. The creators were encouraged to find the possibilities even in the unlikeliest of products. In the dream, I found great power in something that was a cross between a seashell and an exotic spiral pastry…and it occurred to me that some unrevealed potential might be found there. Any object could be the spur to creativity—a tactile expression that wouldn’t require words on paper to express what one should think or feel about the project at hand. An unlikely method ever to adopt, certainly, but an encouragement of non-traditional ways of thinking. The legitimizing of wild fancy as a tool for the imagination. A realization that ideas are findable in every possible form.

And the dream, strangely enough, informed another lightning bolt about the book-in-progress: The freedom to redefine how creativity is generated…the essence of the group of artists at the center of the story, a group for which competitiveness is nonexistent and cooperation and encouragement are all.

The dream’s environmental imagery—as real as reality, although I have never seen any of it—gave me a way to richen the story’s physical space. The energy in the dream room gave me other ways to expand the idea of art’s Divine light and send it into other places throughout story; told me how much richer the metaphor would become if I applied multiple touches. The dream pushed the concept; reminded me of a solution where I hadn’t even seen a problem.

The channel to the invisible. In the constant slog that the commerce-job has been, in this craft-driven stage of the book’s re-writing, that clear channel has been rarely in evidence. I’ve missed it. Last night, I went back to the place of the gifts in dreams. And heard lessons I’m even now trying to decipher. Lucky me. Very lucky me.

An experiment that led to an idea that led to a question.

I opened my head and let the words spill out. Into a tape recorder, during a wide-awake evening visited by no special muses. Hmmmm.

I often use the tape recorder for late-night visitations of phrase or plot or character. I am often found with my head bent over my desk, trying to catch some flitting thought with the butterfly net of my microphone. I have recited long, outlined sequences to get my head around their slippery substance. But opening the heart and letting fly, never.

Have I unearthed a viable technique? Riffing a scene without plan or forethought…then transcribing those notes into Word as the literal bones of the chapter?

Throwing and idea off the top of one’s head, to learn later whether it is real and writeable—a scary thing.

There are several asks in the task, I think; several requirements. The writer/reciter must be fearless. Like dreams written down in half-sleep, what is revealed in daylight may well be complete crap. Listening to what is spoken live and unconsidered is terrifying stuff.

To pull off this impossible feat, I think that one must be in love with the sound of one’s own voice. To hear one’s self cough up garbage, one must grow a thick skin. To listen to crap—as enthusiastic and well-intentioned as it might be—is to court shame. One must face down one’s own capacity for bullshit and stupidity; must be fearless in the very real possibility that we will discover how absolutely ordinary our brains are. Great notions aren’t always great—even if we convince ourselves that they are.

Perhaps the value of the exercise is in the exercise itself, rather than in what the exercise reveals. The on-your-toes of it. The open Chakras of it. The no-fear of it. And, of course, the off-chance that something surprisingly good will come of it; that we will indeed see some tiny brilliance that we struggle so hard to believe is alive in us.

Riffing, live. Fear and love. At the same time. The endless and essential challenge of being a writer.

One of those “Oh, Crap” nights. One where the pillows feel like rocks and the noise in the head sounds like a party in the next-door apartment . One of those nights where one hears the clock chime one, two, three, four. Where the next day is going to feel like a colon-detox.

The Oh, Crap Night. The night with an idea in it that repeats itself over and over between your ears. An idea that may change the form of the end of the book. And idea that leaves you with 150 tape-counted seconds of nots in your little silver bedside memory. An idea you can’t wait to try on for fit, as tired as you’re going to for-sure feel. And idea you can’t wait to get to.

Because Oh, Crap Night leads to Oh My Morning.

Rarely does a Friday morning e-salon pass that I don’t come away with a number of ideas for posts. These extraordinary fellow artists (Joan and Donna, talented writers, Marc an exceptional musician/songwriter) give me a once-weekly touch with a humanity and sensibility that takes my breath…and gives it.

Today’s session, no exception. We talked about the isolation of the creative life…the need for the aimless, formless energy that the company of others brings us. Energy as food. Energy as oxygen.

Being hermetically sealed in one’s own head can be like oxygen deprivation. Literally. The spirit slows down. The thoughts get muddled. Eventually, one lapses into unconsciousness—a creative immobility that precedes the inevitable death. It’s an oddly paradoxical situation for those who regard creativity as an essentially solitary act. Those of us who eschew the energy of company also find ourselves in need of it…a shaming realization.

Does the acknowledgment of the need for others undermine the integrity of our solo-ness? Perhaps not as much as I’ve been inclined to believe. Perhaps the need is no more unreasonable than the understanding that, even though we have eaten we will need to eat again.

The energy of smart, caring others fills our lives with oxygen. We breathe differently in that cherished company. We carry the breaths through to the rest of our daily lives, in the soul and head and heart. We buzz, we sparkle, we effervesce. Through that rare air, we have found our way into the light, if only for a short time. We have reconnected with that in-common Divine, the gift to ourselves that creativity is.

To Joni and Marc and Donna: Thank you for the big inhale and for what it carried; thank you, with all the oxygen in me.

We are builders who dream, dreamers who build.

The book is the house. The house has a shape, hammered together through hours of solitary work. We know where the walls and floors will be. We can envision the passages that will take us from one room to the other. If we sit in the middle of the space, we can hear ourselves think.

But no one lives here yet. Only ghosts and hope.

This is the house of Approximate Poetry, the place our story is right now. We know what colors will surround us. We can see them on the not-built walls. We know where the draperies will hang, where our favorite chair will wait, what corners the lamps will warm. Some of the nearly-finished rooms are beautiful and promising. In others, the wind whistles through.

The lovely parts…those are already solid, even unfinished as they are. They welcome us and embrace us and invite us to stay. These are the rooms with music built into them. The spaces we can look at proudly, knowing that the intention was sound, the execution impeccable, the poetry rich and real.

The raggedy, muddled, half-built parts—the parts the builder abandoned in a fit of self-doubt…. Ah, those. We doubt whether even the most diligent craftsmanship can redeem them. We worry that the rest of the place will crumble while we’re waiting for skill to overcome the builder’s hinkiness. We worry whether a vacant, overgrown lot might not be better there, after all.

In the meantime, we content ourselves with knowing that incomplete means incomplete; that the troublesome things can still be fixed, rethought, moved around. Nothing is finished until it is.

We are eager for the housewarming; the celebration of what made this house what it was. Yet, we’re afraid to finish it. We know that when we’re finished with this house, we’ll move to the next one. And we’ll love that one as much as we loved this. Because the moment that the poetry goes from approximate to real is the moment we live for. Because in each new space we build, we will discover that possibility can sing.

I’ve written here before about my reliance on my little analog tape recorder. It is my constant companion in bed, on walks, in the car. A frightening amount of whatever gold tumbles out of my head is entrusted to mysterious machine-guts and a tiny strip of vinyl. It is the first stop on the way to transposing that promising, precious metal into written notes (early in a book’s life) or into the keyboard (for works in progress).

I need my little helper; I rely upon it—to help me hang onto what is most fleeting and irreplaceable. Which made the episode of night-before-last all the more horrifying.

The recorder failed me.

Notes for this book. And the next one. Important ones. Secrets revealed. Falling-sleep thoughts. Under-the-covers musings in the middle of the night. Waking revelations. A lovely immersion; some solid clues to making the final polish gleam; some fluid passages that sang. Substantial, valuable stuff.

I sat down in the morning ready to transcribe.

Nothing.

The “Record” switch hadn’t done what it was meant to, despite new batteries and a perfectly serviceable tape. Press the buttons, speak; press a button and play back. Simple. But no. No response from my tapey lifeline.

Like the notebooks I carry with me everywhere when I’m freefall thinking, like the computer that never leaves me when the book is nearing completion, the stuff that comes out of my head in the quiet of night can rarely be duplicated—nuances, constructs, phrases, cues…like dreams, written down while still warm; thoughts that almost always prove themselves worthy in the light of day. Last night’s stuff, just gone. Smoke.

Okay. Not a total-total loss. Three notes remained in my head. Three I got to keep. But I can only wonder what else escaped me in that epic mechanical fail. I hope that it’s still up there, playing hide-and-seek among the synapses. I hope that it will turn up eventually, like buried treasure in a new-plowed field.

Worst thing is that now, every time I hit “Record”, I’ll worry about what else I might be about to lose.

Where’s my quill pen and papyrus when I really need it?

Am I the only person who feels a sense of panic at the holidays?

Forgive me for this self-indulgent psychological exorcism but, on this morning of brutal honesty with myself, I’d have to say that I do; that I always have.

The high expectations placed upon the emotions…the enforced bonhomie…the relentless desire to please: These things are enough to send me screaming from the room.

As a kid, I had such high hopes for holiday joy that, if I didn’t manage to find the requisite excitement, I would come away disappointed. When did I actually fall out of love with the holidays? It was during my 13 years with K., a time in which my holiday hope and delight were so certain to disintegrate that I simply stopped trying to reach for them.

The irony is that I love giving things to my friends—and not just at Christmastime (although I haven’t nearly lived up to my own expectations in this, lately.) I love the little for-no-reason offerings that can, if just for a moment, change the course of a day.

Perhaps—probably—I am just a child in a cynic-suit. The Christmases I spent with Belinda’s family have been perhaps the most extraordinary in my life. A dark, starry Christmas sky, the smell of pine boughs, the sparkle of a foil garland–they give me goosebumps. Acts of kindness still have the lovely power to make me cry. And I do like buying a tiny potted tree and planting it in the yard when the holiday is finished (the one in the front yard is about 12 feet tall, now.) But the thought of what the holiday requires? Wake me when it’s over.

Do I want this post to be a rallying cry for every holiday-phobic reader? Hell no. Am I chasing the ghosts in the corners? Probably. Now that I’ve confessed all this, I’ve probably cleared a place for the joy to come. With the first package I take to the post office, bound for a place under a beloved friend’s tree, the panic will vanish entirely.

And the bigger question: What does all this icky self-examination have to with writing?

Everything, probably.

Creating a sense of immediacy and intimacy in a story is no easy task. When the characters ask us to be in the moment with them, sometimes the conventions of the King’s English won’t do.

Fortunately, when it comes to nowness in writing, we have a number of tools to help us.

Rhythm. We don’t necessarily think in complete, fully-shaped, grammatical entities. Sentences with a formal construct can be perfectly fine—exquisite, even—but sometimes fragments and phrases that approximate living thought can bring us into the character’s reality, into his head.

Here, rather than there. I realized this one a few mornings ago. Describing the immediacy of a place can mean nowness in the place. “The hilltop wanted them here” vs. “there” is being there rather than observing it.

Present tense. A tough one to use inventively and still keep the flow. As an experiment (not a finished product), try juxtaposing two paragraphs, either sequential paras or the same one written in a different tense. One will jump toward you. That’s the one to use.

And then there is the nowness of creating itself—the struggle to find the time or mental energy to immerse ourselves in the work. Sometimes, this is time spent at preparation, surrounding myself into the character’s life—becoming the character for a time. Other times, it’s finding an image, an emotion or a sequence that I love and wrapping my head in that; a passing glance, an angle of light, a smell in the air. Still other times, immersion requires transcribing the notes from the tape recorder…sheer copyist work.

Nowness. Being there. It’s necessary and invaluable. Because when we write—even if we’re writing about the past—we are always writing in the now.

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