Writer’s Log, January 16th: Perspective

There’s an old Yiddish saying that goes, “To a worm in horseradish, the world is horseradish.” I can’t think of any other nugget of wisdom that more perfectly sums up the experience of living in today’s world, unless it’s one that swaps “radish” for something stronger. The constant bombardment of information, the increasingly breakneck pace at which we’re expected and encouraged to respond to what’s thrown at us, the head-snapping rate at which new and increasingly disturbing reactions emerge from a White House under turmoil – it can feel next to impossible to catch your breath, never mind a little perspective.

Writing, for me, has always been something I need to do to maintain some semblance of mental health, and that has never been truer than it is now. When our country first started to take a moral nosedive, I felt sucker punched, creatively speaking, sure there was nothing to say or do in the world of words that could make a difference. But that was my reactive mind speaking. My deeper mind, the only one that’s close to capable of getting anything worthwhile done, just forced my butt back into the chair to sit for a while and see what was there. And, as always, doing just that reminded me that it’s not our first reactions that matter most, but the reflections that stand the test of time. The ones that benefit from some degree of perspective, that take our noses out of our asses or wait until we’ve managed to unwrap those protective arms we’re clenching around ourselves, squeezing so tight we sometimes forget that we are the most constrictive thing in our lives.

A dear friend helped start a wonderful non-profit several years ago called The Art of Yoga Project, an organization that seeks to help incarcerated teenage girls develop self-regulating skills. One of its other founding members was a local judge who noticed that many of the young girls she was seeing as victims in assault cases wound up as defendants several years down the line. As it turns out, many trauma and abuse sufferers experience far faster than average reaction times when confronted by threats. As a result, many of these kids act before they think, and get into trouble accordingly, thus perpetuating a cycle of victimhood that can seem impossible to break. Yet, simply by teaching kids to practice taking a breath to reassert control over the choices they make with their bodies and minds, The Art of Yoga Project and ones similar to it have been able to achieve noticeable results in the rate of recitivism among juvenile offenders.

It’s a surprisingly simple and inexpensive intervention, and one that might benefit just about anyone who’s ever felt rushed to leap before they look. But developing perspective takes practice, which is something we’re all that more likely to shelve when we’re in the daily throes of rushing to meetings and answering texts and checking email and scurrying around like chickens with our heads cut off. Yet imagine what we could do, as writers, as workers, as parents, as people, if we reacquainted ourselves with the ancient art of taking a step back and/or taking a deep breath. For me, this practice looks like writing, and sometimes yoga, and sometimes just setting everything that’s literally or metaphorically in front of me aside and listening wholeheartedly to one of my kids. For you, it might look entirely different. But what it looks like doesn’t matter; what does are the small revolutions that can start the big ones, the meaningful steps we take in daily life to live as we wish to, not as we’re driven to.

 

Art: Wassily Kandinsky, “Color of Squares”

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Writer’s Log, January 9, 2018: New Year’s Revelations

Is it just me, or is the New Year’s resolution a peculiarly fearsome ideal? We are graced with yet another year of this mysterious thing we call life, and we decide to celebrate by controlling the living daylights out of it. This year, we promise ourselves, we will constrict or constrain or prevent or lose or otherwise fix the things that we’ve decided didn’t work for us last year. Or maybe we’ll attempt to master or gain or achieve something else we are sure will complete us once had. Usually, numbers are involved. Usually, we are at the center of our resolutions, as is some kind of attempt to change ourselves.

I’m actually not totally against New Year’s resolutions, but the way they are generally hatched seems to encourage us to simultaneously focus on ourselves and identify something unacceptable about ourselves we should try to change. It’s no wonder, then, that so many resolutions “fail,” and good riddance, if this is the stuff they’re made of.

But I love the idea of taking a moment to pause every year and soak in the wonder of being able to choose who we are in this world and what we make of it. And this wonder makes me glad that I am still open to wonder itself, that I’m still willing to learn, and be surprised, and see something as new. It makes me want to dedicate myself to New Year’s revelations – to hold the cold of winter and be a little frightened and a little nervous and a little excited all year long, to be committed to being surprised, and maybe a bit upended.

There’s a poem by Jane Kenyon that I love to read every year around this time, and by way of closing this post, I’m going to share it with you here. I suspect it’s usually taught as a poem about death, but it really strikes me as a poem about life. I think it so beautifully captures what it feels like to face the unknown and embrace it – not attack or shape or change it – but embrace it just as it is: terrifying, electrifying, and full of limitless potential.

 

Let Evening Come

Jane Kenyon

 

Let the light of late afternoon

shine through the chinks in the barn, moving

up the bales as the sun moves down.

 

Let the cricket take up chafing

as a woman takes up her needles

and her yarn. Let evening come.

 

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned

in long grass. Let the stars appear

and the moon disclose her silver horn.

 

Let the fox go back to its sand den.

Let the wind die down. Let the shed

go black inside. Let evening come.

 

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop

in the oats, to air in the lung

let evening come.

 

Let it come, as it will, and don’t

be afraid. God does not leave us

comfortless, so let evening come.

 

Photograph: Rudy Sulgan, “Central Park in Winter”

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Writer’s Log, December 26th: The Art of Disappointment

Every now and then, I’ll have what feels like a terrifically successful day of writing – so good that I have trouble falling asleep that night, my mind busy with what will happen next and to whom and how. But then, curiously, I often find myself painfully and suddenly blocked when I next sit down to pick up where I left off.

This is what I confronted when I sat down to write early this morning – and midmorning, and afternoon. To make matters worse, I actually had time to write today, so not only was I standing in my own way, I was doing so on one of those rare days when opportunity and inspiration come together. Yet it wasn’t a fear of failure that was getting in my way, or a fear of success – I’ve played these cards, and know what it feels like when I’m drawing one of them. It took me a while to understand the particular beast I was grappling with because it was far more mild and far more difficult to avoid, more of a niggling disturbance than an outright threat. But thanks to the hours I spent not writing, I finally saw it for what it was: the fear of disappointment.

Outright failure, in some ways, is easier to deal with than disappointment; it’s far rarer, for one, and you get to write it off, to look back on it from a distance. Disappointment might linger after failure, but it hovers more commonly in the region between loss and gain, that place that doesn’t warrant a total restart, but has a terrible tendency to drain you of enthusiasm. It’s no wonder that “I’m disappointed in you” can be one of the most demoralizing statements to hear. It suggests not just that you came up short, but that you came up short when more was expected of you. It’s sort of the emotional equivalent of that cousin of yours who’s always recovering from the flu because his job is harder than any of you could possibly imagine but always says yes to any invitation lobbed vaguely in his direction and spends the evening lazing on the couch, drawing silent but undeniable attention to his need for a shower. He’s yours, yes, but every single time you see him – and you see him far more often than you want — you really wish he weren’t.

Eventually, I managed to spend a half hour eking out a few paragraphs after several agonizing hours worrying about them, and while I’d like to tell you that all went swimmingly and my fears were unwarranted, guess what? They were pretty darn disappointing. Not failures, not paragraphs that warrant throwing the entire chapter or plot direction in the garbage and starting fresh; just uneven lines needing a lot of patient and non-judgmental rewriting.

But I feel ten times better than I did this morning, simply because I got the writing done. And nothing – not disappointment, or failure, or even the dangerous and dizzying effects of too much praise – is worse than being a writer who isn’t writing what she needs to write.

Today the problem was disappointment, but I am noticing a pattern to those days when I can’t seem to string a sentence together to save my life: they are almost always days when I’ve come to my writing defensively. When I’m worried about the negative effects of vulnerability or hope or public opinion or whatever monsters might be lurking under the bed, my creativity armors up — and shoots itself in the foot. Because nothing is sure to result in diminishing returns more than writing that tries to avoid disappointment, or stumbling blocks, or rewrites, or whatever unglamorous thing you can think of that is part and parcel of any dedicated writer’s life. Not only will you fail to avoid these things, you’ll probably enhance them by all the helicopter parenting you’re doing to your creativity, hovering and wringing your hands when all it wants to do is go out and risk doing a face plant in the mud because the last time it did that, it was also running and laughing and having a wonderful time.

It can be particularly difficult for us perfectionist writer types to remember that when we truly welcome the kind of deep engagement with writing we ache for, we must also welcome disappointment and frustration and a deeply uncomfortable familiarity with our largest pores. In fact, if the underside of this up-close-and-personal experience with writing doesn’t show up with some regularity, it’s likely that we aren’t taking the kinds of risks that result in our most powerful and genuine work. This isn’t to say that these difficulties will be any easier, but maybe by understanding that they, too, are a necessary part of our art, we can teach ourselves to stop wasting time trying to beat them back. And who knows? In the process, we might release untold hours to really get out there and get dirty, to trust our creativity to find its fullest expression by simply stepping out if its way.

 

Art: Mourning Tulips, John Dugdale

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Writer’s Log, December 19th: The Art of the Gift

There’s no denying the pleasures of giving the right gift, especially in the dark of winter. Giving to someone else, particularly when the gift is unexpected and thoughtful, can be more enriching than anything we might receive. But this time of year – the week before Christmas – is such an odd one, full of so much hope and anticipation, but also anxiety and dread. What if a loved one doesn’t receive what she expected? What if someone gives to you unexpectedly, and you have nothing to put in their hands in return? What if the day comes and goes and you are left looking cheaper than you wanted to, or less thoughtful, or otherwise diminished in the eyes of those you most adore – or whose judgement you most fear?

It’s no wonder that we lose sight of the power of giving – and not just during the holiday season. When we’re bombarded with advertising and culture that subtly stokes the fear, giving becomes a way to shore up insecurity rather than assert connection.

I think of this often when it comes to writing, too. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of wondering how the writing will be received, and just as easy to get tangled up in knots wondering what readers will make of what you have to offer – so much so that the offering itself is oftentimes in danger of getting warped to reflect the desire to please. Yet at the end of the day, I think most of us know that the best things we have to offer come from writing something we ache to release, even if that involves sticking our necks out to speak to a truth that might frighten us a bit, the sort of truth that might make us look far more awkward and unpolished than we might otherwise appear were we to wrap our writing up in neatly tied packages. When we really writing well in other words, I think we’re writing toward something we feel needs to be said, not something that makes us look good. This isn’t just writing well in the sense of writing our best work; I think it’s also writing in the interest of our own health as artists.

It’s certainly an uphill battle, and I can’t say that I never get sorely tempted by the writerly equivalent of just going to Walmart and bringing home the shiniest, cheapest, biggest thing I can afford for the money. My agent can attest to this: every now and then, I decide it’s time to just toss my latest literary endeavor to the wind so I can write a series featuring vampire-witch-werewolf hybrids fighting with magic wands against an unseen evil with an insatiable hunger for world domination. Fortunately, one of us always has the good sense (hint: it’s not usually me) to steer me back in the direction of giving from the place of offering something real, rather than giving to look good.

I won’t gild the lily: this is not the way to win friends and influence people – well, maybe it is the way to influence people, but the odds are low that walking into the wind will end in a movie deal. But while the idea of sacrificing quantity of readers for quality used to keep me up at night, as I’ve truly woven writing into my life — instead of just reaching for it as some sort of unrealistic, unfriendly ideal – I see how much more profoundly rewarding it is to be able to speak truthfully whenever and however I can, no matter who might be listening. It has introduced a quiet steadiness to my writing practice that resonates deeply with the reasons why I became a writer in the first place – to embrace the power and potential of words, not just their beauty. In this way, it’s become a gift all its own, one that doesn’t distinguish between receiver and recipient, but instead just taps into the natural abundance available to us all.

 

Art: White Trumpet Flower, Georgia O’Keefe, 1932

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Writer’s Log, December 12th: How’s Your Reception?

Every year around this time, one or more of my children comes home from school with the following old chestnut: “It’s not what you get, Mom, it’s what you give.” And while I absolutely appreciate how this represents a heroic effort, in our consumer culture, to encourage children to see the holiday season as something other than a chance to rake in as many Shiny New Objects as possible, I fear it sidesteps an opportunity to talk about how profound and important it can be to receive gracefully.

This is something I’ve had to teach myself on the fly and out of desperation, and it isn’t exactly my strong suit. But as both a writer and a teacher of writing, I see how often we get tripped up by our unwillingness to fully receive what’s being offered to us. Take criticism in a workshop, for example. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of your least favorite fellow writer tearing your work to shreds, you know what it feels like to engage in a resistant reception. Perhaps that sort of rejection of what’s being offered seems excusable. But what happens when your favorite reader smiles tightly after reading your latest favorite work? Historically, I tended to do one of two things: Either willfully ignore my screaming intuition and somehow wheedle them into saying something positive; or poke the bear by proclaiming that nothing they could say would bother me, encouraging them to take me and my work down so cavalierly that I could go home and grumble to my spouse that maybe they had a point, but that they really crossed the line. In both cases with my favorite reader, and probably even in the case of my least favorite one, my ability to receive what was on offer was severely compromised by my desire to nurse my sore feelings.

As the years of writing diligently accumulate, I’ve become much better at receiving criticism, mostly because I’m now much more aware that the ability to generate my best work makes me infinitely happier than the desire to receive positive feedback. It’s never easy, however, especially when the criticism comes in the form of a snarky review or packaged along with a load of hooey, but I have found that the more good criticism I can find, no matter what the source, the better. Because once you get over the sting, you find that good criticism is its own kind of fuel, sort of like fiber for your creativity, if you will – if taken in the interest of your ongoing health, you’ll soon appreciate that the benefits of integrating it far outweigh the unpleasantness of taking it in.

I find that the work, too, has frequently offered me things that I’m reluctant to receive, much to the detriment of both me and it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read and reread scenes that never quite feel right to me, blaming them as liberally as I might a puppy-kicking pundit, or determined to “fix” them into what I’ve already decided is their ideal form. After wasting what has probably added up to years of time engaging in these strategies, I am finally beginning to recognize that a scene that refuses to smooth itself into submission is oftentimes a true blessing in disguise, the red flag waving you toward the disconnect between what you think the writing should go and where you’re ignoring its potential. Perhaps it’s showing you that despite how much you want those two characters to fall in love, doing so would sacrifice a far more interesting, complicated, and authentic relationship. Or maybe it’s showing you that as much as you want to be an unimpeachable historical novelist with impeccable credentials, without some healthy doses of magical realism, your work just doesn’t reflect how you actually see the world. No matter what the case may be, listening to the work, really receiving what it’s offering you without your ego trying to beat back whatever it’s not sure it can take, is often the difference between lingering indefinitely in the creative doldrums and catching a new and exciting wind to a place you never even knew existed.

 

Art: Bustling Aquarelle, Wassily Kandinsky, 1923

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