To write, perchance to produce?

World Cup Cafe

World Cup Cafe

I returned to Taos for the third consecutive year last week, for the Taos Summer Writer’s Conference. It’s a highlight of my year. It’s a highlight because it’s in the desert southwest; because its attendees are, to a one, interesting, informed, and intriguing; because it’s an excellent “reset” button for my writerly self; because it’s near Taos’s World Cup Cafe; because the World Cup Cafe serves a mocha borgia; because I feel like a brilliant writer after a mocha borgia; because when I fell like a brilliant writer I am a more productive writer.

Productive writer. An abstract concept that toddled into my thinking three years ago when I first read Prisicilla Long’s must-have-if-you’re-a-writer book, The Writer’s Portable Mentor – an abstract concept that steadied itself and began walking, sure-footed, during the time I worked with her (for the second time) at the Taos conference this year.

Prisicilla Long's book ...

Prisicilla Long’s book …

Long, like Macklemore, notes that the greats aren’t born great. They’re great because they paint/write/practice a LOT. Long suggests writers make a “list of works,” an inventory to track their pieces’ completion dates, where they’ve been sent, and when they’ve been accepted. In The Writer’s Portable Mentor, she says,

The list allows you to see the work you’ve done and it signifies respect for work done. It allows you to track your yearly production. It allows you to find any given piece to take up again. The list gives you a practice that you now share with those high-achieving creators who do quantify their works. (Georgia O’Keefe, 2.045 objects; Edouard Manet, 450 oil paintings among other works; the American painter Alice Neel, about 3,000 works; dare we mention Picasso? — 26,000 works; the remarkable short-story writer Edith Pearlman has published, according to her website, more than 250 works of short fiction and short nonfiction. That of course, does not tell us how many works Pearlman has composed.

I have a modest list of works that has grown incrementally for the past three years. And I do mean incrementally, because I haven’t been able to focus on more than one writing activity each day: if I’m generating a new short story, that generative free writing takes all my writing time. Ditto editing and conceptualizing.

But this year, for the first time, I managed two, sometimes three, types of daily writing during the conference: generative, editorial, and conceptual. And I did this because I told myself, per Long’s advice, that I only had to do it for 15 minutes. Those 15 minutes, for five days, yielded a found poem, an improved short story, and several roughed out story concepts.

I’m sure this capacity was enhanced by the total absence of my Domestic Goddess responsibilities, Engineer Hubby, our two sons, the dogs, the cat and that pesky groundhog in the backyard — a lot of my writing is done while it appears I’m daydreaming, and there’s no daydreaming time in my Real Life. Nonetheless: I’ve managed the 15 minute practice every single day, for a week, so I know I can make progress on several fronts simultaneously.

Here’s to slow, steady and productive. May it be so.

I’m not myself when I’m not at home. For which I am grateful.

Fresco from Spanish Romanesque church

Fresco from Spanish Romanesque church

I had the good fortune to spend eight days in Spain for family vacation this June, the latter four in Madrid, a Big City with the expected hordes of tourists like ourselves, and the Prado, and churros, and late-night dining at outdoor tables. Madrid was hot, but “it’s a dry heat,” said the tour guide.

I will testify: it was a dry heat. So dry that toweling off after a shower was hardly necessary. So dry that I bought an extra tube of body lotion and depleted it. So dry that my curly hair didn’t curl.

At the risk of seeming weirdly obsessed with my hair, let me note that for better and for worse, while I was growing up (my formative years!) the reactions of strangers and friends to my unruly curls heightened my already-extreme self-consciousness of adolescence to a point of mild hysteria about the frizzes — I didn’t see another caucasian person with hair like mine ’til I was 25 years old.

But I digress: my hair changed, dramatically, in the dry heat of Madrid. I’ve been to deserts, lived in one for three months during a field study program, but never had it go so straight. By the afternoon, it dangled, limp and disinterested, into my eyes. Obscuring my view of Spanish men society.

While stumbling about thus blinded, I nonetheless caught glimpses of the locals talking, eating and drinking on a wildly different schedule from my American one. They have a light breakfast of espresso and maybe a pastry, because they were up late the night before. They work a bit (those lucky enough to be employed — Spain’s unemployment rate hovers around 25%), have another espresso and snack at 11, then break at two for lunch and/or siesta. They return to work from 4-7 PM, and eat dinner after that. Itty-bitty toddlers stroll with their parents until 10 or 11 in the evening; those without children head to clubs or bars. As my 16 y.o. put it, “up late at night, nap in the afternoon: this is a great schedule for a teenager, Mom!”

I’d read the guidebooks about Spain before going and knew what to expect. Being in and amongst that daily routine, however, was like standing next to the speakers at a live concert instead of listening through earbuds. Anyone who’s traveled or lived in a non-American country has probably shared this experience.

At the risk of stating the obvious, watching myself slip into a different lifestyle, be it for only a few days and only during vacation, I tiptoed into my brain’s quiet little side room of “what if.” What if I’d been born in a country less hell-bent on self-improvement and less interested in acquiring stuff? What if my hair hadn’t been that big a deal during those formative years?!

Grandma's espresso cup

Grandma’s espresso cup

I’m old enough now, and enough at peace with my life, to indulge in speculation without triggering regret that will in turn trigger life-choices-analysis-paralysis. Thus, I noted in my journal those elements of Spain that nurtured me. Some are vacation-dependent: It’s easy to manage siesta time without daily life, simple to stay out late when the dogs don’t need to be walked. But I found a short, doable ritual to bring home, too.

In the morning now, I sit in quiet with a (teeny tiny) cup of scalding-hot espresso, without reading the paper, listening to the news, or even reading a book. Just sipping, tasting, and swallowing. It takes five minutes (10-12 if you include espresso-making, which is not as snooty-patooty as it sounds and does NOT have to cost a thousand dollars for a snooty-patooty machine!). I use my Gramma’s pretty espresso cup. I stir in a scant spoonful of sugar. I finish, rinse the cup and spoon and I’m done.

Perhaps this is a ridiculously small new habit; perhaps if I had been born into a different time and place I would be weirdly obsessed about a non-hair aspect of my physical self; perhaps if I weren’t born into this time and place and culture I’d never travel and never know the difference ANYway so what does it matter?

Gaudi's church. I bet he had espresso every morning.

Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia church. I bet he had espresso every morning.

I believe it matters to be taken out of our normal routines and shown different approaches to everything because we are so interestingly, almost infinitely different. Because it’s fun.

Because when we are reminded that our habits are creations of time and space and place and not, in fact, Deep Truths, the door of possibilities is cracked just that little bit wider. You never know when that bit-wider is going to let in a big amazing don’t-know-what-it-is-yet that will blow the door off its hinges and change everything.

Here’s to paying attention to small actions every day, and opening ourselves up. Here’s to doing so in our writing, too. May it be so.

 

Perennials are the plants that come back every year. Unless they don’t.

This (in)famous explanation of perennial versus annual plants is one that I stumbled across about ten years ago, when I was gung-ho for gardening. It’s accurate: several perennials I carefully placed in the ground at fall planting time have showed nary a slender stem of themselves aboveground the following spring. Maybe the groundhogs ate the bulbs, maybe there was too much rain and the roots rotted in the damp soil. A more-experienced, faithful gardener could probably posit a few other reasons and make an educated guess about which was the most likely culprit.

But I’ve discovered that focusing on writing is not compatible with gung-ho gardening: each demands attention to detail at a level that precludes the other. So the rhubarb flowered before I harvested it, and the black-eyed Susans are running amok over the thinly-mulched paths, and the foxglove is begging to be divided.  My only gardening indulgence thus far was on Mother’s Day, when I requested a gift of labor from my sons and Engineer Hubby. We cleared a grassy bed and put in tomatoes, basil, and tomatillos. That’s gonna be it for the year. I swear. I will not procrastinate by weeding. I will not avoid the blank page by deadheading any flowers. I will not wander in the garden humming a song of despair about my lack of productivity.

Yeah, I don’t believe me either.

Purple petunias, in need of deadheading.

Purple petunias, in need of deadheading.

Besides, as Dr. Noa Kageyama notes in his blog post “Pride Yourself on Your Work Ethic? Why You Might be More of a Slacker than You Think,” forcing ourselves to sit down and “practice” when we really really really wanna take a nap or a walk or drink a cappuccino may be counterproductive — we’re not working efficiently or effectively when we’re tired, or dispirited, or hungry. That said, today I really really really didn’t wanna sit down and write. I wanted to, well, weed the garden and deadhead the purple petunias.

Discerning whether or not my resistance is grounded in a real need for rest, or not, is the tricky part. The most effective tool for discernment, for me, is writing. The type of writing I intend to burn before I die. Whiney, self-indulgent, wallow-in-my-first-world-problems writing. But here’s the thing. It works. When I put my whiney self into words, on paper, then they become just words. Words that I can re-read after the second cup of tea, words that I can then consider and compare to my now-cleared heart and head.

Today, I smiled at my words of angst — they were eerily similar to my angst as a younger woman, when I was parenting younger children, when 45 minutes to write was the highlight of the week. I hadn’t noticed, before I whined into my journal, that although I still feel I don’t have *quite* enough hours in the day, I have many, many more hours than I once did — and that I am doing much, much more writing than I did then. That the sense of “not enough” was based in my own choices to add (writing) work to my plate. How fascinating that I nonetheless was telling myself I didn’t have enough. Is that inherent to me as a human being: whatever we get we want more? Or is that unique to just me, the individual? Or a subset of humans, all of us sharing a delusion about time, energy and capacity?

I decided I don’t need to answer those particular questions today. Today, it is enough to notice that the stories I’m telling myself are perennials – they come back year after year. And to know that today, I can plant a different story. A big bushy annual that will shade out the perennial. Or I could dig up that tiresome perennial and relegate it to the compost bin.

Ah, the joy and power of words and overused metaphors. Onward to the blank page!

The Origami Penis

Disclaimer: there will be hardly any origami, and no male genitalia available for viewing or download in this post.

Origami fun

The “origami penis” phrase arose in a meeting of the New River Writers Project, when one of our members mentioned that his life is “too boring to blog about.”

No, some of us countered, your life is  not boring. Tell us about your eccentric clients! (I shall only reveal that he is a handsome fella of a certain age whose living demands he have extensive public contact. Not literal contact. Get your mind out of the gutter!)

The blog would have to be anonymous of course, someone added. You couldn’t reveal where you actually live. That’s true, he nodded. He paused. “I could call it the Handyman of Love,” he said.

Vulnerable

Vulnerable (Photo credit: S.H.CHOW)

We howled and moved on to the critiques, one of which was for a writer who’s hesitant about starting a blog without having at least a dozen posts ready to go. Another member joked that she didn’t really want to know what anyone else thought and would she have to receive comments on her blog? It was at this point that I slipped into writerly observation mode.

Ten of us were circled around a table; we all have stories in various stages of “polish” and professionalism; we write for a variety of reasons; we range in age from under-thirty to over-sixty.

But the humor within which we conceal-revealed our concerns led me to guess that we all share a worry that maybe we’re not unique enough, not literary enough, not funny enough, not interesting enough. Is this because we’re not in NYC? Because we don’t have MFAs from prestigious writing programs? Why do we think our lives don’t meet the “interesting-enough” criteria?

Spinning Tanoura

Spinning Tanoura (Photo credit: puthoOr photOgraphy)

Robert Boswell noted, in the Taos workshop I reference here, that writers must steal ruthlessly from their own lives. Writing is an ever-spinning dance: between arrogance (sitting down and writing my stories is worth the time and energy and money!), and humility (if I want anyone to read my stories, I need critiques of my drafts). Sometimes the whirl makes me dizzy. I am a Goddess! vs. I am a sh*t-shoveler in the lowest circle of hell. And who am I to tell anyone else what they should or shouldn’t do?

I’m betting this is not a surprise to anyone who undertakes a creative endeavor. And as I write this, I’m thinking sheesh, so WHAT, everyone knows this, shut up already.

connection

But the responses I receive to my words surprise and humble me, and that’s the thing: when we don’t share our creative acts, we don’t know what connections we’ve missed.  The what-ifs are infinite. Every kind word suppressed because I felt self-conscious, every deleted phrase, every un-remarked-upon link between X and Y: each of these might have opened a whole other path to venture down. Not necessarily a better path, or a worse path, but certainly one with more connection.

Why do we shy away from those connections? I have found that people, on the whole, tend toward decency and kindness. Those who don’t are great “testimony” for our writerly selves. Tell your stories!

That fellow-writer with a boring life? He speculated about making origami penises as part of a handyman of love business and sent us all into a borderline-hysterical orbit of giggling. He inspired my words here. Connections galore!

Time: is it a sandwich?

My 13 y.o. waxed somewhat rhapsodic on our ride home from his cello lesson last week. What if time didn’t matter, he said. What if everything is happening all at once, and time doesn’t move forward like we think it does but instead is a big thick layer (a Dagwood sandwich sprang to my mind) and time travel wouldn’t take us forward or backward but just to the other layers that we’re in.

I’m not sure where he gets these ideas, tho’ it’s a good bet that his leave-no-crumbs wolf-down consumption of nonfiction helps. And Engineer Hubby hooks up podcasts about science on road trips and that helps, too. But I never, and I mean NEVER, thought about what time might be like when I was a child. I never think about it now. Except when he’s talking and then my little mind gets blown.

I think about people and why they do what they do and what would happen if they did something else and how could someone get away with shoplifting or embezzling or murder and how hard it would be to go into hiding from the mafia, and alternative outcomes for country song story lines. Usually all of these jumble together in my brain while I shower.

There are plenty of theories and studies about creativity; environment certainly has a lot to do with it, and being supported by someone who cares about you is also important (I have an informal theory that every artist has had at least one teacher who said YES! to whatever they tried) but ultimately: we are unique collections of molecules. And the organization of those molecules into the human form, the human brain, follows a regular DNA pattern book, a pattern book with a lot of variations but not an infinite number of combinations. Why do some of our pattern books lead us to think about time instead of about people? Or is the we-are-molecules-and-an-electrical-system concept too limiting, failing as it does to account for the soul, or spirit?

It has taken me most of my adult life to glom onto the fact that others are Different From Me. Profoundly, completely different. That not everyone cleans their dishes before going to bed. Or washes their sheets once a week. These dish-in-sink, clean-sheet-slackers appear to be happy, healthy, content.

Photo by Mickey Destro

Photo by Mickey Destro

These days, as I do said dishes and load aforementioned sheets into the washer, I find myself thinking: Andrea Barrett doesn’t do this. Lionel Shriver doesn’t spend this much time on domestic duties. Writers must write which means dust bunnies will be free to frolic and breed. Maybe, just maybe, if I imagine hard enough and write long enough, I’ll be able to release my inner dirty-dish-lover, and she in turn will surprise me by creating that which I cannot yet imagine: a sandwich of words, comprised of pastrami particles and swiss cheese holes and mustardy molecules, the crumbs left for the ants.

Fear and salvation

Unknown-1I am heading to a week’s training in the Amherst Writers and Artists writing workshop method. Aka the Pat Schneider workshop method.  We’ll be working with Schneider’s book Writing Alone and with Others. I cannot recommend this highly enough! Buy it today if you can! The “Five Essential Affirmations” she articulates in this text resonate deeply with me:

1. Everyone has a strong, unique voice.

2. Everyone is born with creative genius.

3. Writing as an art form belongs to all people, regardless of economic class or educational level.

4. The teaching of craft can be done without damage to a writers original voice or artistic self-esteem.

5. A writer is someone who writes.

Ah. That last one. A writer is someone who writes.

I am afraid I have not been writing. I have been fussing with stuff in my house, liberating books and tchotchkes to create a clear writing space.

I have not been writing.  I have been telling myself everything else is more important than my writing: the college visits for the older son, the dog walks, the volunteer work for my faith community, the exercise to whittle the extra five pounds from my belly.

I have not been writing for a couple of months, since I gave a very rough (as in, splintery!) draft of a story to a writers group without a clear request for the type of feedback that would be most supportive for my writing.

Unsurprisingly, the feedback was uneven; there were positive and negative responses. Somewhat surprisingly, the less-than-positive responses really got under my skin. I ranted and raged and cried and whimpered my way through Julia Cameron‘s recommended three longhand “Morning Pages” for a couple of weeks. Then for another couple of weeks I donned the TaskMasterLesley hat in my Morning Pages: you know full well how to handle this! Buck up! But I can’t, I whined, scrawling my heart’s distress across the pages. I just can’t write anymore. I’m dried up. I’m barren. I’m a wasteland.

You can imagine the gaping abyss of terror that my squirrel brain has come up with. In fact, if you’ve read any of my previous posts, you are probably overly familiar with my squirrel brain.

But this morning, seven weeks since that critique, my Morning Pages delivered me to a new place. My squirrel brain … bored me. When it started its high-pitched chatter, today I simply noted: h’mm, there’s that squirrel, desperate for nuts. And I strode forward past the tree it perched in. I did not engage in a loud chattery chirrupy shouting match while flicking my tail in wild anxiety and circling the tree trunk like a maniac.

Creative Commons

 

 

 

I wound up in a clearing wherein I laid out a plan for how to find the sandpaper to begin to smooth my story’s splinters. And furthermore, the Morning Pages said, look at how much you’ve written! You’ve written your Morning Pages every day. It’s whiney writing, non-brilliant writing, repetitive writing, prosaic writing.

But it’s writing.

Saved again.

 

 

 

 

 

That pile in the basement …

Longed-for warmer temperatures have graced us this past week, eliciting the usual assortment of cliched remarks about the flora and fauna (crocus, daffodil, spring beauty, snowdrops, forsythia, redbud, chipmunks, baby rabbits, robins, wrens).

I undertake my version of spring cleaning: open the windows and let the breeze amass the swirling dog fur and dust bunnies into one massive fluff ball in a corner; hook up vacuum and suck up mass. I tidy and I rearrange; I sort my books and I file my papers. I stop and drink coffee and browse thru’ the Sunday paper.

In the March 20th New York Times “Museums” section, I stumbled upon Golden Age of Discovery … Down in the Basements by David Wallis. Who knew?, but some of our capital-C, Capital-I Cultural Institutions share my lowercase-d, lowercase-g domestic goddesses struggle of staying on top of STUFF.

Of course, what they discover when they go to their basement archives includes Picasso sculptures, rare war helmets of indigenous peoples, and notes from Famous People of History. I find adolescent journals, my grandmother’s account books and timesheets tracking my hours on a federally-funded redevelopment project.

ledger enlargedI’ve tossed the timesheets, but my Grandmother’s account books, with their tidy columns and itemized rows of expenses: they tell me a lot more than she ever chose to share, or I ever know to ask, about her daily life. She, too, struggled with the tension inherent in running a household and creative work. There are entries for groceries, laundry, coal, magazines, stamps. Charmingly, under “miscellaneous” there is, twice-monthly, 35 cents for roses; every three weeks or so is one dollar for “H’s candy” — her husband must have harbored a sweet tooth. There are no entries for weaving supplies though the outstanding feature of her house, when I was a child, was two huge looms. She traveled with a smaller table-top loom. She wove placemats, table runners, samplers, towels, decorative coasters, scrabble tile bags, chair coverings, bookmarks, napkins. You name it, she wove it.

I still use, daily, one of her woven bookmarks. I have always enjoyed it, and find it elegant. No polyester junk, but for-real, finely-patterened silk and linen threads. Having seen her careful accounting for the very real expenses of her daily life on this spring day, and the lack of any such entry for her artistic life, the bookmark becomes dearer.

Some of Gram's weaving

Some of Gram’s weaving

The work we do for love, the work we are privileged to do above and beyond the grunt work of daily necessity: that beauty lasts, to be held and felt and loved. On a breezy spring day, in a basement crowded with life’s leavings.

Let’s look for the treasures in our archives basements. Find whatever we’ve forgotten, whatever scraps of paper and memory may unexpectedly reconnect us, remind us, restore us, return us: to ourselves.