Tag Archives: Virginia Woolf

Helloooo, Bagels! Or, I want it all.

When we moved from Boston to Blacksburg, 20+ years ago, I had a “quality of life” checklist. It included access to the New York Times and a particular brand of chocolate. Both were available at that time; tellingly, a daily NYT is no longer available (tho’ Sundays edition is) but the sheer variety of chocolate available now has increased by a factor of ten. You can get organic, you can get fair trade, you can get single-source, you can get flavors: cocoa nibs, burnt caramel, candied bacon. Quality of life indeed!

Hello Bagel is on South Main Street, a few doors down from the Vintage Cellar.

Hello Bagel is on South Main Street, a few doors down from the Vintage Cellar.

However, until this past Monday, there was no decent bagel shop in Blacksburg. There was a spot about ten years ago that folded. There are frozen options. There’s a supplier that comes to the farmer’s market and the local food coops.

So when I heard about the “soft” opening of Hello Bagel, I set my alarm for 6:15 and I stumbled to the car in the dark and I drove ‘cross town and I paid for still-warm bagels and a cup of coffee and lo, it was almost a religious experience. It certainly restored my faith in the virtue of rising early.

And here’s the rub, for me: the only reason Blacksburg now boasts a bagel shop is that this small town ain’t so small anymore. (When we arrived in ’92, I could get anywhere in town in 10 minutes, tops. Today, I plan on twenty, or thirty if I want to be able to walk into my meeting instead of run (yes, big-city dwellers, I realize that’s not a “real” commute). I miss the small town I moved to.

BUT: if there weren’t so many people here, the writing workshops I’m offering (another shameless plug: The Joyful Quill) wouldn’t have enough participants to come alive. The writers’ groups I work with would have no new faces.

And those those who live in Real Cities will point out: uh, you do live in a small town. They’re right, of course. And so am I. Blacksburg is small. It used to be smaller. And it’s smaller than it (probably) will be in ten years.

Holding both these perceptions without denying the accuracy of either one acknowledging that more than one thing may be “true” is uncomfortable: we want Our Way to be the Right Way. If Other Ways are equally valid, then what does that make me? Wrong? I don’t want to be wrong!

A colleague recently shared an observation of me as “too worried with what other people may think.” I can’t argue. More often than not, in any given group of people, I am more interested than others in considering the possible ways my actions, or the actions of my group, may be perceived.

And don’t the Great Writers ignore what others think? Wield a machete through the thicket of conventional writing? What if Virginia Woolf had done nothing but worried about what people thought of her work? No Mrs. Dalloway? Perish the thought!

But I’m not aiming for Great Writer status. I’m aiming for sustaining my self through my writing. I’m aiming for connecting through well-crafted stories. I’m aiming for providing a writing space where people leave feeling *more* like writing than when they arrived. I’m aiming for accepting people where they are as writers, not labeling some “good” and the rest “bad.” *

I want it all: a town where I can get a terrific bagel and arrive ten minutes later at my writing group, with said bagel still warm, its schmear of cream cheese a little melty.

Bagel flavors galore!

Bagel flavors galore!

I’m not gonna get it all. I am gonna enjoy sitting in the middle of it all, noticing the contradictions inherent in my big small town, in writing with and against conventions, in considering what others may think, and deciding if and when to cast it aside.

There’s a lotta bagel flavors out there. I’m gonna try them all.

*I can hear the critics thrashing and gnashing: but some writing IS better than others! There are so “right” and “wrong” ways to write! And I agree: for publication, you betcha there are standards. I also note that standards deemed James Joyce’s Ulysses obscene. Standards pilloried Kate Chopin for The Awakening. We want it both ways but that’s a tough row to hoe: be a Great Writer that ignores standards AND adhere to the conventionally-accepted “right” and “wrong” ways of writing or your work won’t see the light of day, and your career will be kaput. I’m all about figuring out what we want to say and saying it to the best of our ability but hey: eyes wide open, folks. Every rant is not genius, today’s anointed geniuses may be tomorrow’s remainders, and every unpublished, half-way decent writer who keeps getting up early, making coffee, and setting their thoughts down, on anonymous paper in an anonymous house in an anonymous life — they are countless. I don’t know how to fit them into this paragraph. But I honor their attention to their writerly selves.

Craft, Chronological Age, and Life Experience

Taos Mtn. from El Prado,New Mexico

Taos Mtn. from El Prado,New Mexico (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am in Taos, New Mexico for the Taos Summer Writers Conference. I loved it so much last year, I declared to one and all upon my return that I am going to retire out here.  And, my Life Experience has taught me that sometimes the sweet honeymoon period in a beautiful new place isn’t, in fact, representative of what it would be like to live there. So this year I’ve rented a tiny one-bedroom house on the outskirts of the town, bought groceries. I’m cooking and doing a bit of laundry, creating a sort-of-like-I-live here experience in addition to wallowing in the blissfully rejuvenating mudbath that a writers conference often is.

I am also wrassling with the (usual) writerly anxiety: is the story I submitted to my workshop any good? Will anyone laugh at my effort, tell me to give up? I know, intellectually, that this is unlikely. And I suspect that the story I’m currently laboring- procrastinating on requires a mastery of craft that I am to-the-bone afraid I lack.

Penguin Modern Classics 0 14 00.0808 X

Penguin Modern Classics 0 14 00.0808 X (Photo credit: scatterkeir)

I know my intentions for the story, my aim for the reader, but the way in which I imagine that happening requires a decades-leap-foward in time for my protagonist, and it’s a short story. I want to create something similar to Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. But in six to eight thousand words. I’m not sure I have “the chops” to pull it off. I’m pretty sure she’s considered a genius, right? I am an increasingly-dumpy middle-aged woman who doesn’t do very well on those online IQ tests.

As I pondered this, I recalled a years-ago conversation with an acquaintance whose child was learning the Vivaldi double cello concerto, at the age of twelve. She didn’t think it was appropriate for someone who’d just entered puberty to attempt the music. I’ve heard similar sentiments from other parents and musicians: they’re too young to play (Mahler, the Bach cello suites, the fill-in-the-blank).

As usual, I am of two minds.

The first page from the manuscript by Anna Mag...

The first page from the manuscript by Anna Magdalena Bach of Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I agree: the depth and breadth of technical musicianship some of our children possess outstrip the depth and breadth of their Life Experience. The layers of emotion available in much of the musical canon cannot possibly be expressed by those who have never had their heart broken; sat with a dying parent, spouse, or child; seen their world shift, sighing, onto its side after gunfire, bombs, mortars.

And I disagree: making an imperfect, shallow-er version of beauty is tremendous. Copying out the “moves” of another writer, observing how they got from point x to point y: fantastic. Doesn’t mean I can do it, but if I don’t walk down the path, how will I ever know if I’m getting closer? How will I know what is available to me when my life throws the Big Issues at me if I haven’t seen them, touched them, tasted them, before I need them, or before I’m “ready” to play them?

One of my (now long-defunct) book clubs had a member who declared that she didn’t want to invite anyone under thirty to join. “They just don’t have enough Life Experience,” she said. Being close to thirty at that point, I was pretty offended: who are we to say what another’s experience is based on their Chronological Age?

Reynolds Price

Reynolds Price (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reynolds Price wrote the haunting A Long and Happy Life when he was twenty five. He notes in a later interview that it was dumb luck, in many ways, but nonetheless: if he’d listened to those who say “you can’t because you’re too young” instead of sitting down and trying to write, we wouldn’t have that gem of a book.

Who knows what resides within us unless we grant ourselves the time, space and permission to try to express it? Given the privilege many of us currently have, of having at least some time and space, let’s give ourselves and each other permission. Even though this means I now have to go wrassle with my incomplete, imperfect craftsmanship.

The Best Pooper Scooper Ever


Three cats ...

We have three cats and a corresponding number of litter boxes. We do our best to keep our cats indoors, for the usual range of reasons (wildlife, poop in neighbors’ garden beds, cat safety, plus there is nothing ickier than ticks), and hence we (mostly me) scoop the litter boxes twice a day. Yuck, I know.

But years of experience with the reality of the job’s daily tedium have honed my a appreciation for a well-designed litter box, litter that truly “clumps” and control odor, and a scooper that holds up to the very real physical stress of frequent use.

LOTS of litter, litter boxes, and scoopers are shoddily made crap* that breaks and must be unceremoniously deposited in the trash can in shockingly short order. No wonder parts of the ocean are full of tiny bits of plastic. I recently found a metal scoop with a comfortable handle and a large “sifting” basket and it is a JOY to use. Seriously, a joy. And yes, this all connects to creative practice.

Creative practice, for me, requires a regular scooping of the poop in my mind: the debris that’s built up due to the grocery list, kid-related problem/injury/emotional drama, or latest political scandal (no one in my family may utter the name of a certain politician because it throws me off my game for half a day, easy). I do this through Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages” – though I wind up writing these pages sometimes in the afternoon, or sometimes not writing them at all but muttering them while walking the dog. Walking the dog even without a muttered litany often serves as my poop-scoop.

But before the morning pages I floundered. On those days that I rated as “good writing days” I wasn’t sure what was different from the “wretched writing days.”  I didn’t know why I couldn’t write on the wretched days, I just … couldn’t. Didn’t wanna. Wasn’t in the mood. Didn’t think I had anything to say. Felt snarled up in an angsty ball of twine. Everything I wrote seemed autobiographical claptrap.


Pay attention to the little things in life ...

Part of figuring out how to scoop-my-poop was, of course!, the Artist’s Way. But the other big part of it was finding the right paper, the right pen, the right place: my muse is shy and demands certain elements be in place before she starts singing audibly. [Interesting side note: an interviewer asked whether it was true that when van Halen toured their contract had a “rider” stipulating they be provided a bowl of M&Ms withOUT any brown ones. Short answer, yes. Long answer: if the coordinators in charge of the venue didn’t read the contract requirements in detail –the details were extensive, expensive and important, safety-wise – they also wouldn’t come across this apparently whimsical request. So if the band arrived in the dressing room and there weren’t any M&Ms at all, or a bowl that had brown ones, it served as a heads-up that there would likely be other issues with the venue. My muse doesn’t require ANYone to remove ANY chocolate at ANY time from ANY location, but the point is: pay attention to your requirements. Heeding the little needs is part of practicing attention to the big things. Like the muse’s happiness.]

And. But. George Clark tells me one of his songwriting instructors writes in cheapie notebooks because the nice ones freeze her up. While I don’t disagree that any sort of paper suffices for capturing ideas, I unashamedly ADORE the fancy-pants paper and it makes me feel special every time I use it. There’s summat to be said for things that are comfortable and functional and lovely and dare I say it, make one feel “pretty” – whatever pretty looks like for you.

Image via Wikipedia

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

Virginia Woolf addressed this in A Room of One’s Own almost a century ago; blogger Julie Reiser addresses the same issue in her “The Care and Feeding of a Writer” post.

Don’t shortchange the physical aspect of your writing/creative practice. However you undertake to work – via pencil, pen, and paper, oil paints, yarn, recycled newspaper, pebbles, laptop, or audio recorder – do it in the way that feels funnest, loveliest, prettiest and most productive for you. If the nice paper freezes your creative soul, get rid of it! It’s simultaneously irrelevant and foundationally important.

It took me a while to feel like I “deserved” to write my morning pages in a notebook that cost more than two bucks. But I’m at a point in my life where I can afford the $2.01 notebook, and frankly, the quality of the paper vis-a-vis how quickly I can “scoop my poop” in my longhand scrawl is important to my productivity. Plus I love things that are pretty. [A fact the Engineer Husband was unaware of when he married me. It’s evened out, as his sports-fanaticism also hid out until we’d tied the knot. I spend money on original oil paintings; he shells out the big bucks for season football tickets.]


Pretty! Image by Sarah Parrott via Flickr

I encourage you to indulge in that pretty something that’s called to you more than once. Play with what works for you. Play a few times, with different things. You may have to admit the yellow notebook lined in silky threads was a mistake, but if you poke around patiently and with an open mind, you will eventually find a tool that makes your heart sing. You can share what didn’t work for you at a creative-stuff-that-didn’t-work-for-me swap party.

And if the pretty stuff you find is useful for the daily poop scoop, all the better. It’s a crappy job*, cleaning up sh*t. You might as well make it as pleasurable as possible.

* All puns and scatological references are intentional.