Do you ever ask yourself, why do I write? What are my values and how are they connected to the writing I do?
This week I’m at a writing conference in Port Townsend, Washington, on the Olympic Peninsula. In one workshop we spent time thinking about what landscape(s) we feel most drawn to and how those landscapes were evocative of our personal values. I wrote down two landscapes: the Desert Southwest, where I was born, and the Pacific Northwest, where I have lived all my life. To me, the desert represents eternity in its rocky minimalist landscape, while the northwest represents renewal in its prolific greenness, but both of these landscapes convey a yearning for beauty. We talked about how the things that are important to us keep popping up as themes in our writing and in our art. Thinking about what themes come up in my work, I have to say it’s often about what it means to be human. What makes us act and think and believe a certain way? Can we become better versions of ourselves? – More fair, more generous and kind, more knowledgeable?
I’ve been doing a LOT of journaling in the past few weeks, trying to learn more about my own creativity and about the barriers that keep me back. Sometimes in the past I’m tempted to think of journaling as the “lazy way” to write, because you just have to write down your thoughts and feelings and you don’t have to make up characters, or try to use poetic language. But let’s face it, in journaling we can drill down into our thinking. We can elicit core beliefs. We can put together our approach to life and to our art.
Through journaling and in some of the workshop sessions this week I’m starting to realize more of a vision about my writing. When I get up in the morning here the winter light beams across the water, over the lightened cliffs of Whidbey Island in the distance, and onto the rocky-sandy shore. Clouds mass over the water in whites, browns, and grays. It’s a complicated landscape. Like writing!
Here’s something I’ve been working on recently:
Now that I have your face by heart I look at the way it looks back at me. The eyes, the eyebrows more, the curve of the cheek, the half-smile, these all reflect back the long pearl-chain of women who came before you and I. My mother, my grandmother, her mother, and so on and so on. The female mitochondria that don’t lie. They carry such a burden. My mother’s insouciance, my grandmother’s cratchetiness, a great-grandmother’s long-suffering, another’s dogged perseverance. They all lie together in our shared DNA, that X in my cells that became an X in your cells. Don’t forget you have an X from your father, an X that takes you back through his mother’s line, mothers of mothers of mothers of mothers. We all have the burden of Xing back to the lines out of Africa. There is, somewhere, a DNA-based Eve. Or more than one. Perhaps seven, a lucky number. They who scratched in the dirt for roots, who climbed down from the trees to the savannah, gathering nuts and berries and who dried the meat hunted by men, they who carried babies on their backs and around their chests, they who dried the tears of children who cried, they who cried themselves when they lost their own children to illness, to injury, to stealing raids by attackers.
Now that I have your face by heart I look at the way it looks back at me and I feel the presence of all those lineage ancestors. The hearted burden of inheritance brings danger, brings knowledge, brings love.
It’s another morning, a gray Seattle morning. And it’s raining this morning. On days like today I really love the green-ness of Seattle, but it can also be hard to get going on projects that involve creativity. It’s hard not to feel dull, like a blob, when it’s gray-gray-gray outside. Reaching in vain for inspiration. Feeling like nothing is interesting, nothing is promising, nothing is worth writing on. Hmmm!
Last week we had a lunar eclipse and the skies in Seattle cleared just a couple of hours beforehand. It was cold! and I bundled up to go out and stand in my driveway to watch the eclipse. I had never seen a lunar eclipse before! The feeling of seeing a thing happen on such an immense scale, the moon passing into the shadow of the earth, me standing on this one tiny place on the planet and watching it – I can’t really describe it. Goosebumps! Eventually the moon became a bumpy orange dot on the background of the sky, almost like an Asian lantern. And it stayed that way for quite a long time before going back to “normal.” As I mentioned, I can’t really describe the feeling of observing this event, except that it reminded me how immense nature is, and that it’s always worth taking a moment to view what’s going on outside. Right?!
If you’d like to see more on the lunar eclipse, including a video of the event, click here.
Other things that inspired me this week:
Visiting a friend-poet in Arizona. I had a chance to meet in person with my blogging friend and colleague and accomplished poet, Luanne Castle, when I traveled to Arizona last weekend to visit family in Phoenix. I was born in Tucson, and we moved here to Seattle when I was very young, yet I’ve always felt connected and at home in the desert. (All those summer trips visiting the grandparents!). Luanne has a new chapbook out last year, Kin Types, and we had a chance to talk about the poems I enjoyed best in her book, I got her autograph! – And we also brought three “favorite poems” to discuss with each other. Since Luanne has a Ph.D. in Literature and she also has a graduate degree in History along other graduate studies, it was a great chance for me to “pick her brain” about poetic constructs and concepts. You can learn more about Luanne’s work by clicking here. Thanks, Luanne!
Touring Taliesin West. If you’re interested in architecture, design, or in the desert and desert plants and environment, you might want to visit the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation’s site, Taliesin West. They give tours of the historic buildings, as well as of the surrounding desert habitat – in winter – that provide a lot of information on design principles, what it’s like to live in a small closed community focused on the arts and design, and on the historic development of this iconic site. In the afternoon we had a chance to go on a student-led tour – it’s still the site of an architecture school – that included the student-built shelters out in the desert area. Very minimalist, and the designs ranged across a huge variety of visual and spatial forms and structures. I didn’t want to take photos of student shelters – they sleep in these shelters in the desert, so it felt too personal – but if you’d like to get an idea of the student shelter projects, here’s a link to a portfolio of one student’s final project to re-construct an existing shelter.
Images, story titles, lines of poetry. I might have mentioned before that, when I’m really stuck, or even when I’m starting my day of writing, I will often look for an image that intrigues me – what does this picture tell me, what questions does it ask, how can I use it to write something new? Or, I pull up a book of short stories, look down the list of story titles, find one that jumps out at me, and write the story for that title. Recent story title: “The Poetry Cloud.” If nothing else, I take a look at today’s “Poem of the Day” and look for a line that intrigues me; then I’ll set a timer for fifteen minutes and write.
While in Phoenix I had a chance to view an art exhibition in the Olney Gallery in Trinity Cathedral. One of the paintings. a stack of suitcases on an old-fashioned luggage trolley by artist Julie Frye (at right), inspired this brief flash fiction below.
The suitcases pile up on the old luggage cart. It is like a piece of performance art, Renata thinks. Blue, orange, gray, green. Brown. They sit atop the platform, each balancing the other, each a piece of a pyramid working with gravity. Straps, buckles, corners, hinges. Renata has been waiting on the platform between two brown hills, putting her in mind ever so much of that Hemingway story.
Hills like White Elephants is the name of the story Renata is thinking of, the story she is living inside of on this hot tired railway station with the blistered luggage settled on the old iron hand trolley. She wants to remember the image for her new story she’ll write next week, but the heat, the oppressive heat makes her feel like she cannot root around in her bag for the iPhone she knows is in there, that even if she made the effort she would miss the bright colors, the contrasting wrinkles and sad-sack straps that make this image stick to the part of her brain that writes stories. She has tried this before. Short of dragging along a bulky old-fashioned SLR to faraway remotes like this one, she has to compromise. Make do. It is not a thing Renata is good at. Only the best will serve. First Ballerina, principal in her big-city dance company, now aged out by injury and the inevitable loss of flexibility, she is trying career number two: writer. She has come to this dust-bedeviled part of the country to get away – no second-stage choreographer career for her, no telling other dancers what to do when she is consumed by envy with every step they make and which she cannot. And certainly no teaching.
The train is not due for some time yet, she has checked her watch. She takes out a notepad and her lucky pen. Not to waste the moment, the present of puckered leather baggage resting atop iron-wheel trolley in the oppressive heat of the place, she begins. The blue suitcase belonged to Ophelia. A trip, a long voyage, was what she needed. The brown was Laertes’s, or the actor playing the part, her lover since Hamlet had dismissed her. All the world’s a stage, Renata thought, she and Ophelia together. All the world.
If you’re like me, you fervently hope that your work will be recognized by an audience. When you’re making your artistic work you do it partly, yes, for the creative expression; and you also do it partly for having your work recognized by an audience, by having it published/shown/purchased/displayed.
And when one of my friends or colleagues has their work published or selected for an honor, I’m really happy for them. But – sometimes – I’m also feeling a little sad, like I didn’t measure up to the same standard, that I’ll never achieve success, that my work will languish in the darkness of never-read, never-viewed work.
And yet I so often forget about the relative success I have enjoyed! What’s up with that?
What have I done? I’ve achieved an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. I’ve written three novels. I’ve written countless stories. I’ve had my work published in professional-level fiction markets – recently!. Not only that, but I regularly receive compliments on my work in the form of personal rejections from submission editors. “We like your writing, we just couldn’t use this story.” I have a blog that connects me with other writers and artists who are pursuing their own artistic paths, who share suggestions and encouragement for writing and art processes, and who often take the time to read and respond to my blog posts. All achievements, all successes.
We are wired to compare ourselves to the next person. Last year I read a helpful article in the New York Times about how to diffuse the intense envy that comes from learning of the success of someone close to you. The research indicates that yes, it does hurt more when the success is for someone you know well, friend or family member; isn’t that interesting? The suggestion to counteract the sting of this personal form of envy was to reflect on your own path and how it has been different from the successful person’s path. So, for instance, if one of my fellow MFA colleagues published a memoir and he seems to be getting rave reviews and large-audience book reading events (as happened recently), following the suggestion in this article I might say to myself, “Yes, that’s great that he’s finally got his book published, hooray! And even better that it isn’t just sinking into oblivion, that’s wonderful . . . and unlike him, remember, you have a Ph.D. in engineering, a successful and happy relationship with spouse, children, and extended family, not to mention the work you’ve been doing recently as a community and neighborhood activist. Making a difference. Along with all that you’re getting somewhere with your own writing!” And indeed that helps me to feel much less like a failure and much more forgiving of my friend’s success.
As an aside, if you’re like me, it’s temping to think that you’re running out of time, that if you don’t achieve X success by Y date, you’ll never make it. Well, I read another article recently about research indicating that the “big discovery” or the “big achievement” in well-known accomplished people’s lives has come at all different points in their career; not necessarily at the outset, not necessarily when they are toward the end of their career, not necessarily in the middle. That Big Success can happen at any time along the way! So, even if like me you’re in a later phase of your artistic career without having won a distinguished award or having seen the success you are hoping for yet, that does not mean you won’t achieve an amazing accomplishment down the road!
And of course, we’re at our most envious when the other person’s achievement hits home, when they have a success that is exactly the kind of success we are hoping for: a published book, the sales record of a best-seller, a particular award or honor that is the same field as our own work. Right? But a good friend always reminds me, “When you’re feeling super-envious, that only points to the thing that is most important to you.”
So, in this early part of the year, perhaps you’ll take a moment, like me, to remember that that “ouch” point of another person’s success is like a compass pointing to the thing we want most. And then, we might take a moment to reflect on what we have already accomplished, and remind ourselves of the successes we have already achieved. And if you’re feeling particularly hopeful, perhaps you’ll take a moment to imagine that “big success” that may still be ahead in your artistic career. Woo hoo!
I have a friend who tells me he really enjoys the little flash pieces when I post them. This week I did a small flash in my “word improvisations” that I wanted to share. Here’s it is!
When the sea curls its granite lip
The poem found itself gleaning, gleaning, what was in the poet’s mind. Turbulence, seagulls, fortresses. Foundational elements of poetry. Meter and rhyme.
And yet detritus, so much detritus in among the salient bits. Robert Hass’s book is somewhere on my bookshelf, where did I see it last, I would like a clubhouse sandwich for lunch but I’m hungry now. Where did that pen go, I only want to use my good pen, my lucky pen, the pen I used for that last poem that the New Yorker almost took, but that pen seems to have disappeared. Oh, now the dog has come in, she needs a walk but I won’t get anything done if I take her out now, old Mrs. Pendleton waters her lawn at this time of the morning and she stands there with the hose hoping people will walk by and she can corner them and talk to them about the city’s inability to pave the streets properly and hasn’t she been here since 1949 and they should know that there is a law about citizens being served properly by city government since her husband was a city attorney for many years before he died in that awful plane accident and left her a widow with only her schoolteacher’s salary to raise four boys on, and do they ever call her or see how she’s doing? Not a one, those ungrateful boys-turned-men who married women that moved them out of state and for all she knows there are grandchildren now who she’s never put eyes on thanks to those women with their cutting-remark eyes and avaricious tendencies, but she was only a widow who did her best, including doing her best for all the students in her classroom who didn’t follow rules but made her life more difficult, not easier, as a teacher in the schools, where did the discipline go, where did it all go away, once they took away juvenile hall and detention everything went to pot, but now all she has is this house and the unevenly paved streets the city should have taken care of long ago and not only that, there was this cat that hung out, peed in her garden and killed her vegetables, must have belonged to the new neighbors who look like they moved here from out of the country and she’s not saying anything against them but you can tell things have changed since they moved in.
And now the poem is writing itself, all about xenophobia but not in a direct way, the poet using the pen that is not her lucky pen but just her second-choice pen lying next to the desk lamp and the white-white watercolor paper she salvaged from the kids’ art class when they were still in school, no need to let it go to waste, and the poem spools itself out over white textured paper as though it were the watercolor paint spilling, spreading, falling into microscopic crevices prepared for paint.
Ah, the poem thinks, this is the life, this is really the life, spilling and falling like a waterfall, like the enormous waterfall pictured in so-and-so’s blog that the poet viewed yesterday, the poem can feel the fluidity of movement in the words, the vocab the poet is trying out, juxtaposition of words that is a thrill all its own, and then and then and then the final sweeping phrase, the turn at the end that cinches it, the feel of cleverness that is not too cloying, and the poem breathes, breathes, breathes until it is closed and the draft is done and the poet sits back and smiles. Smiles because there is something new that was never there before and it has taken the form of poetry and movement and a waterfall despite there being no water in sight. A good day.
This time of year really entices you into thinking of renewal. Maybe it’s the dark-dark well of Dec. 21st, the shortest day of the year, reminding us that when we round the corner of the solstice in late December we do see light beginning to come back into our days. For some reason I noticed the bleak feeling of the absence of the sun on Dec. 21st this year more than I have before. It might have been my late-afternoon walk with my son that brought me right up against the darkening air around me. At our latitude here in Seattle we get the sun setting around 4 pm at its earliest, where I noticed in Arizona where I was born the sun seems much more forgiving, setting as late as another hour or so beyond what we have here. Not only that, but we have had some blustery rainy storms (yay!) in the past couple of weeks that I’ll be remembering with fondness when we get to summer’s blistery 85- and 90-degree days without rain next August.
So. New Year’s resolutions. This time of year we get lots of media attention on changing our habits. In this morning’s paper I noticed articles on how to diet better, how to exercise more, how to get things done around the house, how to be more productive at work. January is the month for aspirations, for expectations, for hoping that things will be better. Isn’t it? How often we are asked, “Do you have any New Year’s resolutions?” And just as often we suspect that making a New Year’s resolution is just the first step to failure in whatever we have resolved to do.
I’m not sure how you like to think about New Year’s resolution, but a few years back I shuffled off the idea of resolutions and instead thought: what would I like to have more of this year? At that time I said to myself, I want more humor in my life. As it turned out, that year (2014? 2015?) I did succeed in laughing more, in paying more attention to the amusing, or the bemusing, rather than to the “must-dos.”
This year I was thinking about a new theme for the year. Here’s what I came up with: I’d like to try being more mindful (hah!), to enjoy the experiences around me, to take the time away from the “must-dos” and to dabble in the “would be nice to do”s. As far as my writing goes, I am in the process of learning, really learning, what it takes to be a novelist. This sounds strange, yes, partly because I have already written a couple of novels previously, and also because, don’t we all think if you know how to write, that’s all it takes. But there’s more to it, I’m discovering. With a story you can hold the entire plot in your head and write in out, usually, in a few days. After having spent the past three years writing short stories, editing and sending them out, and having a few published, I feel like I know HOW to write a story. But a book takes much more. It is an endeavor that brings you out into a vast sea of scenes, characters, subplots, developments, description, dialogue, and on and on. You may be paddling around in a rowboat – or a kayak – touching base here and there with your oars, now coming to an island or a long sand spit where you can pause temporarily, figure out where you are, get your bearings, and then you have to set out again into the borderless waves. I’m learning to do this. It may take the entire year, or longer – and it puts me in a place of uncertainty and questioning of my skills and ability – but I’m also looking forward to the journey!
Here is an excerpt of some of my writing this week!
The adobe house with the tin roof
Her grandmother had left Vivian the house in her will. She thought she didn’t want it. But she went to the town to take a look at the house before making a decision about what to do with it.
When she came into the village, the first thing she saw was the newly refurbished downtown. In her mind she remembered the last time she had visited, was it ten years ago? Back then the shops downtown along the Main Street were all sadly in need of repair, half of them empty, and the ones still occupied were nearly mordant. Now she saw a brightly decent hardware store, a crafty bakery. The old diner had been spruced up, and the Main Street was bookended by two brewpubs.
She turned left onto 4th and drove the three blocks to her grandmother’s house. As she came toward the end of the block where her grandmother’s house sat, Vivian winced inwardly. She prepared herself for shabby, rundown.Yet the houses she passed were brightly painted, the yards decked out with cactus and succulent plants. Everything looked done up and cozy. Where had this miracle come from?
When she came to the end of the block she slowed the car and pulled over to the curb. There it was, the white-gray adobe exterior she remembered, complete with green baize canopy over the front door to shade the entrance. The paint was peeling, yes, around the window frames, starting to split and curl where the wood had not been properly maintained. Perhaps the only hope for the house she could see was the front door, the bright green-Irish color gleaming amid the dull-dishwater color of the house itself. It was strange that the door should still be in such good shape given the neglect that the rest of the house had sustained, but there it was.
But when she stepped out of her car, when she saw that friendly welcoming front door greet her, Vivian found herself stepping onto the porch with warm remembrances of her grandmother’s baking and gardening. She could almost smell the hot biscuits her grandmother used to make. She took out the key from the envelope sent by the estate attorney and slid it into the lock above the ornate wrought-iron door handle. It went in smoothly, as though she belonged her.
She swung open the door and stepped inside.
Wide-slabbed hardwood floors. Open-beamed ceilings. She walked through the little hallway to the kitchen, which had Mexican-ceramic tiles on the floor and painted-ceramic tiles on the counters, still in good condition, from what she could see. She remembered wonderful times of baking in this kitchen. She caught a glimpse out the kitchen window of the little garden her grandmother used to keep, or the remnants of it. Yes, it was weedy and overgrown, but the outlines of the vegetable garden on the right and the flower garden on the left tugged at her heart. Her grandmother had spent many afternoons watering and caring for those little plants that grew in her garden and it had been a treasure to have the fresh vegetables in the oven and fresh flowers on the table. She turned back to the interior of the house. The familiar feeling of the rooms surprised her. It was almost like the house was haunted, or un-haunted. The house was putting on its best effort to keep her here.
Last week my spouse and I were driving on a short road trip north of Seattle. Having nothing to do in the car but pass the time, I started talking to him about what started me as a writer. Confession time: I have had an on-again, off-again relationship with writing. It’s complicated by a huge amount of perfectionism (hah!). But now, as I was remembering back to my youth, I recognized that there had been a kernel of hope and heart for becoming a writer when I was very young.
When I was young we had a couple of neighbor girls a few years older than me who babysitted me and my younger sister. They told me: You should write books! I was flattered, of course, but I said to myself: But I can’t even finish a story of my own! Yes, I was a reader. I read constantly, even in bed, especially in bed under the covers with a flashlight – how many of you did the same? Yes, I told long and detailed stories in our make-believe games after school with other kids on our block. But write a book? I couldn’t even imagine how I would get started.
As I started to tell my “story of writing” to my husband in the car, hurtling past mountains up by Bellingham and past the clear blue water of Lake Samish, as I floated back into the past and talked about how I didn’t think I could be a writer when I was young, I suddenly realized that I shouldn’t feel ashamed of believing that I couldn’t write, even when others encouraged me. Perhaps they could see what I could not.
It’s a funny thing that one feels ashamed as a child of what you cannot do. I have these wonderful gem-memories of the times when a teacher inspired me about my writing, or encouraged me to become a writer. At the same time I have feelings of futility, of not being able to do it. Another name for this is “Imposter Syndrome,” right? – When you’re afraid everyone will find out you really can’t do it (whatever it is they think you can do).
This week I had a chance conversation with an acquaintance who told me, hesitantly, that they hoped to write a book someday, a children’s book, or another book. Usually this is just wishful thinking (sorry!) but this person seemed very sincere and I thought she might have good stories to tell. I always try to be encouraging, especially if it’s a young person. Maybe because I didn’t have a good way to break down how-to-be-a-writer when I was young, and that stymied me for many years (“you just start writing,” right? hah!). So I told her I’d put together a few “starter” writing books and resources for her to take a look at.
There’s a ton of “how-to” writing books out there. I know, I’ve read a lot of them! Most of them are very prescriptive – they tell you how to plot, how to devise characters using bio worksheets, how to amp up the tension, etc. But that doesn’t work so well for me. And it took me many years to figure that out. Disclaimer: external plotting, outlining, character worksheets, index-card scene designs, all work for SOME people. So if that’s you, hurrah! But, also, it helps to figure out what YOU need, which may not be what someone else is telling you to do.
Here are a few suggestions for books I’d recommend to my younger self, if I had the chance:
Steering the Craft, by Ursula K. Le Guin. This wonderful book is accessible in its content, but it also goes “beyond the obvious” in lessons about storytelling, characterization, and the rich richness of language that Le Guin always brought to her writing. She includes wonderful exercises to try, and if you can do them with a friend-writer, even better!
If you’re looking for nitty-gritty craft “starter books,” you can’t go wrong checking out Writer’s Digest books. I’ve found a lot of value in their catalog over the years. Again, if the information in those books is helpful, great! If not, then move on. (Don’t forget, Writer’s Digest publishes Writer’s Market, updated every year with thousands and thousands of short story and novel markets, and agent contacts.
AND: for writing inspiration, don’t forget to read books by authors whose writing you’d like to emulate. Getting their words steeped into your brain, noticing what they do with dialog, with description, with character development; with beginnings and endings and middles; with titles and the mere flow of language. It’s gold!
Listen. Put on morning. You’ll wear those pinks, those pale blues, with such aplomb. You were made to be on the horizon, you were made to fly along the rainbow. Put on the morning sadness, the morning feasting, the morning that you knew you were a foreigner. Think of French bread, think of croissants, think of the one center of raspberry jam that you know fills the filling of a pie. Of jam. Of a biscuit-scone of the State Fair. Think of how much you love butter, melted butter on hot toast, and of how much you have to give. How much you are looking forward to the next time you are gone.
Listen. Put on morning. You’ll feel much better later.
Take a little biscuit, go out on the patio, with a cup of tea, and make your day start over. Put on morning.