A colleague is battling cancer, a neighbor’s mother the same, a friend’s mother passed this last week: we are in the midst of the messy business of life … and I confess to feeling during the nadir of these bleak moments that sustaining writerly momentum is “not worthy.”
I have invited these feelings to reside in a pleasant, albeit windowless, room at the top of an imaginary house and locked the door on them. I have plugged my ears to their cries with metaphorical earplugs and returned to my creative kitchen (again, an imaginary space: my family can attest I have pretty well nigh given up any pretense of Real Cooking since the new year). In that cozy space writerly momentum simmers on the stove: I have a short story nearing completion, an essay out for critique, and I’ve honored my resolution to have three submissions out at all times. My search for an agent progresses tortoise-like but the verb weighs more than the metaphor.
And. But. The real and imagined kitchen is a space of continual traffic: hubby, children, dog, cats, friends. The messy, dare I say unhygienic?, cookie-making of writing and parenting continues to be an endeavor that consists of equal part flour dust, spilled sugar, butter underfoot and fragrant, edible product.
Belle Boggs, author of the lovely short story collection Mattaponi Queen, has an essay, “The Art of Waiting” in Orion where she checks out her assumptions about how children change your life by asking her dad, “Do kids really kill all your dreams?” He pauses before replying, “Yup. And they take all your money, too.”
She also cites Virginia Woolf (a child-free woman) as noting, in her journal after a good writing day: “children can’t touch this” – this being the feeling of euphoria, of satisfaction. Today we’d call Woolf’s feeling the state of flow. It arrived for Woolf, and does for me, too, during and after a day spent in the company of words, sentences, paragraphs. If we’re lucky, we all have one or two activities in which time stops for us, and we simply are.
Since Woolf’s journal entry, brain science has demonstrated that the experience of “flow” is based on brain chemicals that give us a natural high. Most relevant to my writing/creative practice is: we’re learning that it’s possible to train ourselves into habits that give us that high AND support creative, functional practices across a range of our lives: exercise, diet, writing … See this intriguing New York Times Sunday Magazine article by Charles Duhigg about how our shopping habits reveal us to companies.
This probably also explains why the DTs arrive with all their relatives and stinky cheese when I don’t put pen to paper.
And. But. Much of my no-time-to-write this past week has been on account of my role as Support System for the 14 y.o.’s preparing for, participating in, and subsequently recovering from, a cello competition at the Tennessee Cello Workshop. This as Engineer Hubby travels for three of the last four weeks, and the 11 y.o. needing, per teacher conference, “additional strategies to focus,” and the male cat peeing in every room, presumably to prevent the other two felines from usurping his sunny spots (this strategy also works on humans: I don’t like to sit near that smell, either).
The 14 y.o. prepared well (with his teacher’s help and some parental nagging), and then: he performed well (with himself and the fabulous pianist Erica Sipes). Last year at this same competition he Flubbed Big Time: forgot the music, had to come to full stop. And find his place again, in front of an audience. So this is a Major Victory.
He sought and won this victory on his own; I avoid all high-pressure situations requiring live performance on a stringed instrument. He continues to leave behind the child that was “my” little boy: he is too tall, his voice too deep and his feet too smelly for that. He possesses himself. And as I watched him perform in the final round of the competition, in front of a goodly-sized audience of strangers, peers, parents and judges, I was struck by his resemblance to my brother and my mother. Because of his dark hair, I think, and his (temporarily) serious face.
As those who have read my earlier blog know, my mother’s side of the family was dysfunctional in ways I’ll certainly exploit in a memoir when everyone has died off.* And what struck me as I watched him was: this happens when energy is well-directed. When it has a place to go, and be, besides drinkinggunsfighting.
My mom, despite being raised around drinkinggunsfighting got me off that path (with my father’s steadfast presence), tho’ not without collateral damage. I lamented to Engineer Hubby, during a bus ride on a rainy night in Medford Massachusetts, about my challenge of integrating critique comments, not realizing at the time that my struggles were connected to that collateral damage. He said, well, maybe your son will be a better writer than you because you’re doing all this work now and can share it with him from the time he’s little.
First I had to correct him: I was the eldest daughter of an eldest daughter of an eldest daughter. MY first child would be a girl. (My first lesson in how everything you think you know about children is wrong: I have no daughters.)
Second, I was miffed. Why would my CHILD get to be a better writer than me? Wasn’t I working hard enough? Didn’t I care enough? Wasn’t I good enough?
But the fact of the matter is, whether or not my children will be better writers, they are already reaping the benefit of our understanding of habits, of practice, of motivation – and all the information our civilization has gained, and is gaining daily, about our brains, our Selves, how we work, how we are put together and why some things work in manner X and others Y, etcetera.
And even as I am, most days, grateful to know why it’s worth fighting the battle of regular music practice with my sons, I am also oh-so-hopeful that this old dog can learn some of those new tricks. Here’s a quick run-down of some I’m trying with varying levels of success:
>> Specify the next day’s intention at the end of the current work day. Not, “rewrite short story” but “rewrite first paragraph of short story to convey protagonist’s emotional state.”
>> Work hard with full intention for 45 minutes, then take a break for 10-15 (my thanks to Ellen Sussman for articulating this so helpfully in a Poets & Writers essay).
>> Meditate, even if for only 15 minutes.
>> Put on your walking shoes (or running shoes or basketball shoes) at least five times a week … and then get outside to walk run or shoot hoops. Or sit on the porch and stare at the weeds I mean flowers.
>> Drink plenty of water and nourish your body with good food.
>> Read, read, read.
>> Keep a journal or log of how your practice actually went. Review this bi-weekly and tweak your intention-setting based on how the writing is really going.
>> Take one day a week off of “hands-on” practice – read a new journal, do the crossword, listen to an interview with a writer.
>> Attend a master class-type event at least twice a year.
When I’m able to implement a few of these strategies, I find my real and imaginary kitchens are much more cheerful places for all involved. Even the peeing cat seems a tad less inclined to micturate on the furniture.
And those feelings of unworthiness? Becalmed by the state of flow wafting up the stairs, they have made their prison a playroom, and are ready for some cookies.
* I know, I know, all the memoirist/creative nonfiction writers out there admonish us to write our truth, anyway, and let the familial chips fall where they may. I have begun jottings for a memoir, but I’ll wrestle the Extended Family only if (and when) I feel called to share those stories.