Luck and Greed

I’ve been nose to the cliched grindstone since February, working on the required 30+ page essay for my MFA. I ran the gamut of emotion about the essay itself (hated it. feared it. dismissed it. cowered before it. fell in love with it.). And I learned more than I realized I hadn’t known, a terrific lesson in both humility and craft.

Humility because: I’m fifty. I’ve been reading and writing since I was four. Not intensely, or with a clear purpose, necessarily, but steadily. I’ve read lots of books about craft. I’ve read a lot of fiction. Some poetry. I’m not un-schooled, I’m not stupid, and I’m not afraid of pain: I birthed one of my children without painkillers and have managed to parent the second one without pharmaceutical assistance. Yet.

All that said, I had no idea what it was like to dedicate myself to my writing with the intensity that this essay demanded. I’ve been getting along just fine in my low-res MFA by devoting three to four hours per day, on average, to meeting its requirements–writing and reading and annotating.

But the essay: my first two efforts, totaling almost sixty pages of writing, were not coherent. There was no thesis. It was muddled. I was muddled. I could not figure out what to do differently: I was working as hard as I had my first two semesters. What the what?

Essay drafting bits and pieces

Essay drafting bits and pieces

The essay’s deadline began to loom, sounding like Darth Vader, waking me up at three AM but not letting me fall sleep before midnight.

So I got greedy. I got greedy about my time. I quit cooking entirely, didn’t scrub the toilets, allowed the dust and dog hair to gather into balls the size of watermelons. I said no to volunteer requests, no to the weeds in the backyard, no to a potential client.

I went to my favorite coffeeshop and I took the table in the back and I sat and I wrote for six to eight hours a day. I bought multiple cups of coffee and various snacks to fuel me, but what I really did was get very very very greedy about my time.

I know, I know: I am, after all, doing a low-residency MFA: aren’t I already greedy? But this is the first time I placed my need for writing time above everything else. Everything. I disassembled the words I had already written and I spent two days just thinking about the “thesis” in my introduction. And then I rewrote the introduction and then I revised it four more times, reading it aloud each time. (Yes, I looked a little crazy at that back table. I didn’t care.) Then I went fishing in my first two drafts for the parts that addressed my now-coherent thesis, and roughed in what was missing. And then I set out to fall in love with each section, and then each sentence in each section and then each word. That takes a ton of time.

Is my essay a work of art? No. Do I love it? Yes. Did I learn a ton of writerly craft stuff? Yes. All the pedagogical reasons to write an essay were definitely met.

And maybe learning how to be greedy about time is an implicit pedagogical goal, too. Because here’s the thing: having spent six to eight hours a day on my writing, I want more days like that. I’m not gonna get them with the frequency that I forced to meet the deadline, but now that I know what I can do when I get greedy with my time, I want more time. I have spent a half-century putting my writing below all the other sh*t that fills our lives. Statistically speaking, I don’t get another fifty years. And I can tell already that I’m slower than I was a decade ago.

So, yeah, I’m greedy. Yeah, I’m privileged to be able to have this time. But what good comes of my guilt, my angst, my hand-wringing, my volunteering for activities I resent for taking me away from writing desk? How does the suffering of the world abate when I turn away from what brings me to life?

I’m lucky this lifetime. Thank you, dumb luck. And yes, I’ll take all I can get.

I know the world is on fire. But it’s also an “inhabited garden.”

 

There’s been a group of dedicated volunteers collaborating with my town for at least twenty years, to develop an interconnected trail system. Part of the funding comes from “selling” benches that are placed along the trail–sponsors may attach a plaque in memory or honor of someone. Here’s one:

img_3994

 

When I passed by this bench on my walk last week, I was kerfufflating about a newspaper article that described the dishevelment of our government. I was planning when to make my phone calls and where to make my donations.

Then Rosie the dog began snuffling around the edges of the bench and I thought, what the hell, I have five minutes. I sat down.

I let the weight of my body be held by the bench, the bench that a worker’s hands held steady while settling it into the ground, the bench that held the words of long-gone Goethe, the bench that held a reminder of a mother’s vision of the world, and that held her children’s memories of her.

So much has gone before me, so much is alongside me, so much will come after me.

It was good to be held while I rested in the expansiveness of the so-much-ness of us all.

I took a deep breath. It smelled like rain and crisp wild onions. It smelled like enough.

And then these words floated into my mind, given to us by Alice Walker (and shared most recently with me by Suzi Banks Baum during one of her terrific online Powder Keg Writing workshops)

“And so our mothers and grandmothers have, more often than not anonymously, handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see – or like a sealed letter they could not plainly read.”

The spirits, alive and dead, who make ours an inhabited garden are not served by my despair, by my angst, by my kerfufflating.

Eleanor Wilner, at this year’s AWP conference noted that writers, particularly poets, are “writing to break out of constricted thought–out of the gated white community of minds.”  She stated that writing changes the world because the world we live in, lives in us; thus, by altering the world in an internal creative act, the writer also shifts the external world she lives in.

Rosie finished her sniffing and looked up at me: ready?

I was.

May it be so.

 

 

The metaphor that writing about metaphors has uncovered for me . . . .

The terrific folks at The Write Practice have put up the final post in my three-post series about similes and metaphors. These were great fun to write, and I’m tickled to share them with TWP’s readers.

Most interesting to me is that explaining metaphor for an audience that ranges from novice to advanced required me to re-ground myself in the basics. Like, what is a dictionary definition of metaphor? And will that make any sense to those who are embarking on their writing journey?

It’s easy to forget the good, the bad and the ugly of the early days of learning something–parenting, music-making, knitting, writing. And it’s impossible to fully return to not-knowing, once we’ve learned something.

But having learned something, I believe it is our responsibility to share it. Those who take the time to remember their beginning steps and who make sense of those steps give everyone a gift–a gift of wisdom, of strategy, of beauty, of possibility.

img_3872These days, as I aim to figure out how to manifest my ideal of “democratic citizen,” I’ve been leaning on the wisdom of those leaders and activists and students of history who wrote down their stories. My favorite tome at the moment is The Impossible Will Take a Little While, edited by Paul Rogat Loeb

So pick up your pen and write!; we want to witness your journey, learn from your regrets, sustain and extend your advances.

May it be so.

Focus: Writing and Engaging

Last Friday, I finished my MFA semester work and emerged blinking like a teenager at noon into the post-election world.* During those days of deep writing, I have again had the chance to guest post at The Write Practice–this time about metaphors–and the estimable Donna Thompson has featured my colleague Jenny Zia and me on her Women Influencing the Arts blog.

Taking the time to engage with the broader writing community has upped my focus on time management. Two months ago I promised myself I’d experiment with craft learning in the evenings, followed by a morning practice of that craft. I was looking at complex-compound sentences at the time. And I thought I’d experiment for about a month and then share what I found.

Noting the irony inherent in claiming to have focused on time management but not having met a self-imposed deadline, here’s what I found: I can write after three in the afternoon. In fact, some days I generate powerful first-draft material in the afternoon. But learning writing craft before I go to bed? Not so much. Maybe this is because I exhaust my focus muscle during a day of writing, or because my metabolism prefers dawn to night at this point in my life. But what I found is that evenings are a great time for me to catch up on reading my Writer’s Chronicle and Poets & Writers and the interviews in The Paris Review. In fact, sometimes the ideas I find in those sources jump-start my next-day’s free write. Plus: I don’t spend precious daytime focus hours reading about writing.

* Re: the election, from my FB reply to a friend: I walked in the woods and cried a little and when I looked up, a leaf was floating slowly slowly slowly down down down in that stop start and swirl way that leaves do and then . . . it landed in the uppermost branches of a sapling; it did not fall to the forest floor. And I thought: we will be held through this. Blessed be. Blessed unrest. Blessed be the peacemakers.

Have you played around with your writing life schedule? I’d love to hear what you’ve done, and how it worked — I’m especially curious to know if things have shifted for you at different life stages. Let me know in the comments section below.

 

Writers: messy or meticulous?

Ever come across a notebook filled with your handwriting but no memory of it? Or a book with sticky flags adorning its pages, but no idea of why you attached them? Me too. When it comes to tracking my free-writes, story drafts, my analytical papers, I have verged on, and crossed into, chaos for much of my writing life. But pursuing an MFA has made it very clear that my creative impulses are worthless, and my craft analysis superficial, unless I can find what I need, pronto.

I have organizational tendencies–my grocery lists are made according to the store layout. My books are alphabetized. I meet deadlines. I’m sure there’s a Deep Psychological Reason that I haven’t treated my creative writing with the same respect I do food, books and freelance assignments. But since I spend plenty of time in therapy already, so rather than muse about what that Reason might be, I’m going to share the quick-and-dirty organizational habit I have begun forming.

I’ve come up with  three main components of my Effort at Organization.

  1. Deliberate intentions
  2. Direct interaction
  3. Daily integration

    Year-long planning to keep the Big Picture in mind.

    Year-long planning to keep the Big Picture in mind.

Deliberate Intentions: I spend 5-10 minutes each morning with my calendars. Two on the wall, a year-long, dry-erase one (available from Neuyear.net) and a weekly one (based on Jeffrey Davis’s Mind Rooms Guide). My third calendar is my online/phone calendar.

From Jeffrey Davis's Mind Rooms Guide

From Jeffrey Davis’s Mind Rooms Guide

I review what I’d intended to do yesterday, figure out if  I need to change today’s plan. Then I take a square of pretty paper and jot down rough time guesstimates for each activity and adjust if my total is more than the time I have available. Note: the process of setting up a year-long calendar will get another post. That’s a Big Process.

Notes . . . to action

Notes to action!

Direct Interaction: I scribble all over my books, my drafts, the feedback from my MFA supervisor. It’s the way I think. When I’m done, I put a big sticky note on the front cover of the book or the first page of the draft or the feedback sheets, and I jot down what I want to do next: type into ss draft ASAP. Type into “ideas file.” Ignore until after winter break. Re-read in June 2017. Submit to WHR by Nov. 30. These go into the Daily Integration pile.

Daily Integration: I allot time each day to tackle the accumulated direct interaction pieces. The pile of these isn’t so high that it’s wobbling, but I have yet to eliminate it entirely.

It has taken me YEARS to get here. And every single week, there’s at least one day where I completely, and I mean completely, fail. Maybe because the book I’m reading is so good I ignore everything else for the day (Like So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell. And The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder.)

I’m befriending failure; all that therapy has gotten me to the place where I can forgive myself, take a nap, or just go straight to bed and start again the next day.

I’d love to hear how you organize your writing life–and if you occasionally verge or cross into chaos, how do you extricate yourself? Share with us in the comments.

 

 

 

 

Today I went live at The Write Practice . . .

. . . as a guest blogger. What fun! Check it out at The Write Practice blog.

Thanks to Joe Bunting and his terrific Write Practice team for giving me the opportunity. I’ll follow this post — about similes — with another one or two about metaphors later this year. Onward!

This wasn’t what I was going to write about . . .

I was going to write about beauty. I had lofty plans, including references to neuroscience.

But yesterday this quote caught my eye:

On a day when the wind is perfect,

the sail just needs to open

and the world is full of beauty.

Today is such a day.

–Rumi

And today Sara Dobie Bauer’s blog holds a terrific video of Benedict Cumberbatch reading a letter from Sol LeWitt to Eva Hesse about the practice of art.

Sharing these says enough about beauty and the art of practice, for now. Neuroscience-y post will come next week.

May you and your writing open your sails and abide by LeWitt’s advice to DO.