Writer’s Log, October 4: Harvesting

Ah, harvest time. The time of pumpkins and colorful leaves and crisp air and getting the kids’ Halloween costumes on time and figuring out whether they need masks under their masks and deciding whether or not you’d like to make a real effort at losing the COVID 19 or would rather just polish that Family Size bag of Snickers because you’re probably doing Christmas and New Year’s on Zoom anyway. I bet it makes even Huda Kattan want to crawl under the bed with a box of Oreos and a backlog of People magazines until 2022 comes creeping around.

Isn’t it strange that harvesting is sort of supposed to be the opposite of all that? A time for reaping the rewards of patient waiting and gathering essentials for the long winter ahead? But who has time? After all, if you plant something, aren’t you supposed to be constantly tugging at the fruit or adding MiracleGro or insisting that if it isn’t ready according to schedule, heads will roll?

Here’s the thing, though: lots of things, including novels, will simply refuse to develop under these conditions. Sure, we can force them to deliver some premature, shriveled version of themselves ahead of schedule, but they’ll never really blossom. And their fruit definitely won’t be productive in turn. After all, things only grow in concert with the earth, not simply because they’re on it. And in order to do so, they also usually need to be out of our sight and out of our hands.

Am I actually saying that if you’re dead set on finishing a big project, written or otherwise, you should just take your hands off the wheel and trust that it will come to fruition in its own time? I am (at least for a little while, though you might want to stop the car first and roll down the windows). Think of it this way: you can gestate by bouncing around with your fetus and reading pregnancy books that make you want to check your urine every hour and/or avoid every gram of sugar within a ten mile radios and/or call up your long-suffering obstetrician to demand a weekly sonogram, OR, you can put your hands on your belly and think warmly about what you can’t see, and/or feed the person it rests within good food, and/or talk to it, even when it’s not answering. Because underneath all that noise and hurry and worry and demand, there’s a quality of waiting that’s graceful and observant, a self-settling that helps you get quiet enough to really listen to what’s developing and maybe actually hear what it has to say.  

Art: Daphne Brissonet, Indigo Garden

Writer’s Log, September 3rd: The Physics of Writer’s Block

What, exactly, is writer’s block? When most of us talk about it, we don’t mean that we are literally negotiating a boulder between ourselves and our computer, or stuck under something heavy. I think we’re talking about being at a creative impasse, a terrible no man’s land where the desire to write and actual writing are inexplicably staring each other down. In other words, writer’s block isn’t so much a thing as it is a perspective, one that doesn’t necessarily require nearly as much muscle to budge as it might seem.

Have you ever seen two kids fighting over a toy in a sandbox? All other toys fall away in the conflict, and they lock on that piece of plastic like it’s the only source of joy any child can ever hope to know. Almost always, there are other toys within reach. But whenever we start grasping at something, it’s usually a good indication that we’ve lost sight of everything else around it.

Here’s a little exercise to do the next time you have writer’s block: Describe it. What does it look like? When and where does it come up? Who or what are you thinking about when it rears its ugly head? And, most importantly, what’s around it, or on the other side of it?

Once you’ve described it, realize that you’ve also defined it – and given it parameters. Now ask yourself this question: How might I go around this block? Try not to ask how you can get rid of it; in my experience, if you try to move writer’s blocks, they get agitated and blow up, not unlike supernovas. Instead, take a minute or two to consider what, exactly, it’s standing in the way of. And if you get stuck again, remember that you’re not trying to summit Mount Everest; you’re trying to move past something you’ve constructed in your own mind.

If I’ve learned anything about writing in the fifteen years I’ve been doing it, it’s that if you want to write, you have to write. Isn’t that the most obnoxious advice ever? Especially when it feels like in order to write you have slog through the sort of psychological resistance that would make General Patton go weak in the knees. But more often than not, the problem isn’t with the writing. The problem is in how we see the writing.  

Just as an example, my own writer’s block frequently takes the form of unreasonable expectations. I get stuck because I feel like I need to produce work that meets a certain standard, which of course totally ruins me for the natural process of herky jerky lurky writing that must unfold in order for anything to get done. I can’t get rid of those standards and expectations, because they are the dark side of how much I believe in the power of the written word, but I have learned to step around them. In other words, I peel my sweaty, grimy fingers off the red bucket, give myself a cookie or a snack, and pick up the blue one instead. It may not look anything like what I think I want to play with, but if I can get myself to play again, after a while I forget what I thought I needed and just enjoy the playing.

This is not my best metaphor. But I do think it’s enough to give you the idea. You don’t need to solve your writer’s block or wait for a future in which one won’t exist (spoiler alert: such a future exists in the land of unicorn-riding yetis); you just need to see it for what it is and get creative about walking around it. Maybe today isn’t the day you write what’s going to win you that Pulitzer, but it probably is a day where you can write five sentences. Maybe those five sentences will be some of the worst you’ve written since you kept a journal in seventh grade, but maybe their awfulness will make you laugh, which will almost certainly loosen up something interesting inside of you.

The point is, I think we tend to lose sight of the fact that the products of our writing are not what give it vibrancy; they’re just what we leave behind. The actual vibrancy exists in the writer herself, and anything you can do to get out of her imperfect, impulsive, insightful way will give her the space she needs to get going again.

Art: Wassily Kandinsky, “Colour Study”

Writer’s Log, August 2nd: Don’t Quit Your Day Job

It’s always heard as an insult, this particular piece of advice. It’s what we tell people who’ve gone out on a limb to seek some kind of fulfillment that doesn’t offer immediate pay or benefits, usually after their early efforts at fulfillment result in singing/dancing/writing/macramé that doesn’t sound/look/read/hold its knots together so well. It’s also yet another reason lining up behind the thousands that are collecting to take a shot at artistic exploration, like so many disproportionately hostile kids waiting to dunk their beloved teacher in a shallow tank of water. And like the other members in its gang, this reason has a kernel of truth to it. It makes a certain amount of sense to never quit the job that keeps a roof over your head and food on your table. More than a certain amount. And it’s also unlikely that artistic endeavors, no matter how successful, will provide quite so successfully.

But is this such an ugly truth? It’s true that the lens through which we view our lives can sometimes change how we live them. I grew up with a mother who could not afford to quite her day job, which was raising the four of us while my dad worked 60+ work weeks to provide the shelter and education they both wanted for us. And in this household, don’t quite your day job was an insult. It was what my mother told herself when she couldn’t make time to work at her writing, and the writing stagnated, or didn’t develop according to plan, or was never seen as something that could develop and improve just as certainly as children can. So when I started to write, and the writing didn’t look good, I walked away from it, certain there would never be a reason to quit my day job(s).

But then, in an ironic twist of fate, my day job became full time caregiver to my own three children – and something critical shifted in my thinking. I suddenly didn’t have as much time to write, so the time I had I used ten times better. I suddenly cared about something more than my writing, and it freed up my creativity and sense of play. I suddenly realized that being a writer was nowhere near as interesting as living a life worth writing about. Not quitting my day job, it turns out, made me a heck of a better writer than hours spent in ivory towers and libraries, mooning about talents I could only hope to have. And lo and behold, I wrote a book. Then another. Then a few more.

It has never been easy. I still fight against my demons almost constantly. But in a sense, my mother did me the favor of showing me how dangerous it can be to swallow common wisdom about what make a writer a writer, what makes a mother a mother, and so on. And if I think about it too carefully, it doesn’t make sense that I can be a mother to three children and still write novels – just like it doesn’t make sense to look at a bee and suddenly understand the alchemy of honey, or to look at a great stretch of land in Texas and know that the world is round. Time and perception are much more flexible than we usually let on, and there are great reasons for this. Some of those reasons may never make sense to us in our lifetimes, but that doesn’t mean they need to work against us. Just because we don’t understand something, or don’t have a clear understanding of what lies ahead doesn’t mean that we must be suspicious of it, demonize it before it’s even drawn close. Which makes me wonder what other kinds of perceptions we might shift toward greater kindness and creativity if we can shift the ones we make about ourselves.

Art: The Opposite of Idleness, by Kari Taylor

Writer’s Log, July 1: Renewal

Last week, I went to my first in-person yoga class in fifteen months. It was on the beach near the small town where I work, and when I arrived, the only people in the parking lot on the bluff were a handful of weary tourists flummoxed by the electronic pay station. But after a magically clumsy hour in the sand and fog and wind, I climbed back up to where I’d parked, and found myself in the midst of crowd of surfers and smokers and skaters and families andI friends and dogs and horses, all of whom were intermingling in an atmosphere of casual delight. It was sort of like a funky Brigadoon, where instead of a Scottish village emerging from the mist, a motley crew of Northern Californians and their favorite charges had materialized in the foggy sunset. As I walked up the path, a very smiley, slightly manic toddler grabbed my hand and wouldn’t let go. To be honest, I didn’t really want her to.

I had gone to that class hoping to find a way to return to the practice I’d enjoyed so much before, but being in that wonderful maelstrom for even just a few moments reminded me of what I had truly been missing. It wasn’t what was lost, but rather the sense of what can be – the promise of renewal.

I know it’s hard to be anywhere these days without thinking about where we’ve been, how long it’s been since we’ve done such and such, or seen so and so. We can’t help but ache to return to where we’ve been, to try to take back the reins and find a path back to normalcy. For a long time during this pandemic, normalcy was all I expected, and then all I wanted. But now that I’m coming out of my mental and physical stagnation, I’m realizing that the normal ship sailed a looooonng time ago. Even when we reenter the most familiar of spaces, they will have changed.

Next week, if all goes well and I survive my first honest-to-goodness camping trip this weekend, I’ll have my forty-seventh birthday. You’d think I’d be contentedly sliding into a jaded middle age, happy to linger in my sophomoric wisdom, but the truth is, I’m just as addicted to wonder and renewal as ever. I think this is why writing never grows old, why it’s always just a little terrifying, a little electrifying, terrifically humbling. It would be easy to assume that the more we’ve written, the closer we come to knowing what to say and when, but I think that the real pull of writing is its ceaseless ability to surprise and refresh me. Sure, we can stagnate and maybe even rest in our laurels at any time, but where’s the fun in that? If we have another year, another month, another moment, isn’t it so much more life-affirming to continue opening into wonder? To forge a thirty-second soul-deep connection to a small, wild-haired changeling you just happen to pass in the parking lot? Maybe even to remember how you, too, once wanted a horse, and to drop directly back into that daydream, as if time is irrelevant, because the heart knows its song when it hears it.

In some ways, it’s just as scary now as it was fifteen months ago. In the wake of a pandemic, fear, grief, and uncertainty can rage like wildfires. Healing is a challenge in its own right. But in all honesty, complacency is far more contagious, and far more dangerous. Complacency is what allows us to become acclimated to injustice, to avoid stirring from our comfortable nests to see how our fellow citizens are faring, to grow attached to what is. As I move forward, I hope to keep this in mind, to stop searching for what I’ve imagined has been lost during this seemingly interminable holding pattern, and to instead expect to be surprised. To seek renewal, rather than recollection. To grow and live and be vulnerable, even if – and especially if – that means I can be sure of almost nothing.   

Art: Katsushika Hokusai, “Mount Fuji with Cherry Blossoms”

Writer’s Log, May 2nd: Practice

Today I want to talk about practice because it is just so unbelievably, tooth-pullingly, maddeningly hard. We’re designed to grow, right? We all want to get better at the things that are important to us, right? And we all know that only through genuine practice – showing up and putting in face time with those parts of us that could benefit from a little improvement – will we get any better at anything worthwhile. It should be a no brainer, something we come to eagerly, knowing how it can get us through over the worst humps or blocks. And yet most days, convincing yourself to practice – whether that be honing some shaky job skills, or starting that new novel, or trying to run just a few feet further than you could the day before – is like trying to convince yourself that it’s a really great idea to run out into a freezing January morning in the nude and jumping into a polluted, piranha-infested lake. (Am I exaggerating a bit? Maybe. But mutant piranhas sound just about right.)

Practice has never been my strong suit. When I was a kid, I was pretty talented at the piano, but my piano teacher scared the socks off of me. She was an octogenarian patient of my dad’s who bartered medical care for music lessons. Every Thursday afternoon I’d be dropped off at her apartment for my hour of supervised practice, and almost every Thursday afternoon I’d walk very, very slowly down the very, very long hallway in her apartment building until I arrived at the elevator to graciously allow several people to take it before I did. When I could no longer convince anyone I was lurking with purpose, I’d step in it, press the button for her apartment on the fourth floor (and depending on my level of desperation, sometimes buttons one through three, too), then tiptoe down the hall to her apartment and knock ever so softly on her door. Then “knock” again. After a minute or two, I’d attempt my most innocently baffled expression and make my snail-like way back down to the lobby where I’d inform the doorman that she wasn’t answering her door. At this point, I’d have used up a good fifteen minutes of my hour long lesson, which was totally worth the painful deception because it felt like the only way I could possibly reduce my sentence. (And something told me that the doorman sort of understood what it might mean to someone to have to do twenty-five percent less time.)

But it was inexcusable. Even though my piano teacher sometimes came to the door without her wig on, frequently slapped my hands when I made a mistake, and clicked her lipstick-stained dentures before she spoke, she was skilled at what she did, and she adored me. When I quit at the ripe old age of twelve, she told my mother that she’d left her grand piano to me in her will. (Needless to say, I was quickly relieved of this generous gift, which was everything I didn’t deserve.)

I loved the piano. I loved music. I still love both. But I think that what I really dreaded about those music lessons is what they might reveal about me. Because as much as I loved music and the piano, I never practiced. And as strict and frightening as my teacher could be, the worst thing she could do was ask, directly, if I’d practiced. And because she really wasn’t born yesterday, I’d have to acknowledge that I hadn’t.

The thing is, no one in my life had ever shown me what practicing really looked like. I grew up around people who glorified raw talent and disdained poseurs. And I’m not just talking about my family. I’m talking about the education I was privileged to have, the stories I encountered about writers and great artists, the legends swirling throughout our culture about writers who seemed to look nothing like haphazardly practicing, insecure, lying-to-her-piano-teacher me.

But now I know that acknowledging my faults was what I needed to bridge the gap between frustration and fulfillment. Instead of hiding from the fact that I sometimes spend more time daydreaming about how I’ve missed my calling than I do daydreaming about my book (because obviously I need to go back to vet school in my mid-forties or learn to teach aerial yoga), or the fact that I dread encountering the half-baked writing that comprises 93% of my drafts, or the fact that I sometimes adopt a martyred attitude around the toils of laundry and proceed to sigh and blame everyone else for my failure to write – I bite the bullet and acknowledge them. Because with that acknowledgment comes softness and humor around my obvious foibles and missteps. The willingness to return to the work anyway. The awareness that practice will never, ever make perfect. And thank god for that. When it comes to art and its ability to speak from the heart about the human condition, who wants perfection, anyway?

Art: Kazimir Malevich, “The Lady at the Piano, 1913”