Writer’s Log, December 1: Winter Light

I’m not a big fan of the holiday season. I hate the sense of pressurized joy, where the faith and wonder at the core of the holiday season is so frequently eclipsed by materialistic frenzies and high stakes expectations.

Admittedly, I am a woman of little organized faith, but if I could choose to celebrate anything this month, it would be the miracle of winter light. I was raised Jewish, which means I was raised to question everything, and recently I’ve been reflecting on the miracle at the crux of the Hannukah story. To recap, for my fellow Hebrew school dropouts and all friendly gentiles: After the small group of rebels known as Maccabees defeated the Syrian-Greek armies, they returned to Jerusalem to reclaim and reconstruct their temple. Once there, however, they discovered that they only had enough oil to light the menorah for one night, which would not have been enough to guide their work. Miraculously, that oil lasted for eight days, and now, more than 2,000 years later, Jews all over the world light candles for eight days in remembrance.

It’s a beautiful story, but in all honesty, I think the oil/miracle is a bit of a scene-stealer. What I find infinitely more compelling is the fact that, in the wake of a devastating, decades-long invasion, the temple rebuilding began while the city was still smoldering. They didn’t wait to see if the coast was clear, or Home Depot was restocked, or if any wounds wanted nursing. They just went for it. Not only that, they didn’t know the oil was going to last for eight days when they began the reconstruction. So this small group of exhausted Jews, who had literally just fought an uphill battle against one of the world’s mightiest armies, returned to their decimated temple and, with little to no resources, rolled up their sleeves and got to work.

This kind of act feels like the real miracle, and it reminds me so much of winter light in its most mystical form. In December, the days grow shorter, the sun gets thinner, and all our instincts tell us to hunker down and wait for spring. But on those days when we appreciate that any light is light worth celebrating, we walk out on a cold morning or a frigid moonlit night and marvel in the hidden magic it reveals: the undisturbed beauty of snow, the spine-tingling thrill of a predator’s call through frigid air. We’re reminded that life isn’t at its best when it’s full of warmth and readymade gifts and groaning tables. It’s at its best when we keep standing and looking up when we might have no reason to do so, when putting one foot in front of the other is an act that defies the very darkness itself.

And isn’t winter light at the heart of most of our writing practices? So many writing days can feel poorly illuminated, lacking in warmth. So much of the time, we are working with only a glimmer of inspiration, or the hint of an idea, or just blind faith. And from the outside, our friends might be wondering why on earth we continue to stumble around in winter light when we could just go to a tanning salon. But that readily available, manufactured lighting blinds us to an awareness that there is an infinite amount of softer luminosity within us, provided we recognize that it cannot be bought or commanded. It only expands when we have faith that it just might, when we keep putting one foot in front of the other, not because we expect a miracle, but because we don’t.

Art: Claude Monet, The Magpie

Writer’s Log, November 4th: It might be time to take a vacation…

Anyone who’s ever spent a few hours trying to wrangle their words onto a page knows that writing is hard work – never mind those of us who are nuts enough to do that on a daily, weekly, and yearly basis. And yet, even after more than a decade of doing this work, I find that because I love it, I rarely think to take a break, even when I’m really stuck on a project and boring down on it like a teenager in the grips of unrequited love. And to make matters worse, it feels like the more I dig my heels in, the further the object of my attention drifts away from me. One great thing about writing, though – as opposed to love, say, or politics – is that it responds really, really well to taking a vacation.

I don’t mean the sort of vacation you take when Ed McMahon (Sheeran?) shows up with a million dollars and you leave the milk out and hightail it out of there faster than you can say “fortheloveofgodgetoutofmyway.” This is not a bad sort of vacation to take, though it’s best not to stay too long in a place where you arrive in a sweaty and desperate panic. That’s what we might call a temporary solution. Because while it might make you feel like throwing your computer against the wall and making a dramatic exit, your writing is a part of you, and needs to be honored as such, even if you sometimes need to just shut it down and walk away to get a little perspective.

The type of vacation I’m thinking of is one that keeps you connected to yourself as a writer, but puts you in a new scene where no one knows you and you might need to pick up a new language. For those of you with darker, more subversive streaks, you might think of this type of vacation as the writerly equivalent of taking a mistress. Either way, this kind of vacation involves your setting that stubborn, no-good, totally unreasonable project you once thought you could hang the moon on aside and taking on another.

Yes, you read that right.

Start something new – and make sure it’s categorically different from whatever you’ve been obsessing over, er, working on. Maybe you’re a fiction writer who takes on a biography; or a journalist who starts a mystery series; or an academic who starts a novel. The most important thing to keep in mind is that this secondary project, or dalliance, should feel like everything the intractable project is not: fun, undemanding, different, and entirely free from expectation.

You might find that you don’t even need to refocus for long to find your way back – or you might find that what you once only thought of as a vacation spot might be where you need to live for a while. Either way, it’s incredibly refreshing to release your creative energies into unexpected and unexplored spaces. Because the most dedicated, most productive kind of creativity must allow for a healthy amount of play. Otherwise, you become like the kid who’s always making everyone play dolls and lines them up and doesn’t let her friends touch their clothes or dirty their shoes. So please, give yourself a little breathing room. Remember that it’s rare that great things come out of unrelenting pressure, and that the most beautiful voices sometimes emerge from the most unexpected of places.

Art: Vincent Van Gogh, The Yellow Books

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