Writer’s Log, December 1: Pandemic Planning

I don’t know about you, but if you’d asked me a year ago what I’d do if I were suddenly unable to leave the house for the better part of a year, I’m pretty sure I would have come up with a fantastic, fantastical description of all the writing I’d get done and all the quality time I’d have with my family. I’d probably also throw in a profound-but-catchy line or two about all the hidden gifts and opportunities embedded in the chance to simplify and go inward.

Well.

Things started out OK. My sisters and I agreed that Mother Nature was giving us a much-deserved time out. I reminded myself that my parents are essentially hermits anyway, so they’d probably be fine. I laid down the law around family time and exercise for the kids. I pulled out David Copperfield and tidied up the corner of my bedroom I use to write. I took walks, and stared out the window, and enjoyed ALL THE FOOD. But after about 12 hours of this behavior, something became abundantly clear to me. Yes, I was suddenly free of having to drive my three kids to kingdom come and back, and it was kind of glorious to have everyone home and healthy, and I did have more time to write, but THERE WAS A PANDEMIC GOING ON.

In my defense, I do love to daydream. And I am an incurable optimist. But I’m also a seasoned realist,  and I’ve been in the thick of creative work for the better part of two decades, which means that I really should have known better.

I should have known that creativity does not answer to open stretches of time or clean writing spaces; it’s not, in other words, usually a matter of scheduling or outside constructs. Instead — as I found out while writing huge swaths of my first novel in five-minute increments by my kids’ nightlights and on receipts in the car console — it answers to what’s going on within. When my kids were young and flourishing and I was both desperate to express myself and saturated with experience, the writing came freely. It follows, then, that I experienced just a bit of a hitch in my step while watching the world take a nosedive into a catastrophic outbreak.

And so I’ve immersed myself in a different kind of study. When I’m not feeling shattered, or wildly hopeful, or enormously discouraged, or navigating the curious sensation that I’m on an unending vigil – I don’t know exactly what I’m looking out for, and yet I can’t stop looking out for it – I check in. Sometimes I write. Sometimes I don’t. I remind myself that it’s a good sign of mental health that I’m not responding to a global panic at the disco with equanimity and the sangfroid needed to dive in regularly to one’s work. I remember that rich experiences – especially those that turn us inside out and upside down – are the key to germinating worthwhile material. I remind myself that pandemic planning is an oxymoron. I try to just see what the day or week looks like, and visit with my creativity as best I can.

And while this might look like I’m spending most of my time puttering or plotzing, the only real block I experience now is when I try to sideswipe my reality with lofty goals and great expectations. Instead, as always, when I keep my nose to the ground and my antennae flickering toward whatever is available in the moment, my work continues to unfold. Some weeks this means I write regularly, some weeks I simply work out problems in the shower and at the stove. Either way, by staying in touch with what is, instead of what I hoped would be, some essential thing almost always takes route or blossoms. And by tending when I’d rather reap, pausing when I want to run ahead, writing five words instead of moaning over being unable to write 500, the work gets done. My creativity begins to trust that I’ll spend my energies working on whatever is there, instead of getting my knickers in a twist about what isn’t. And when I’m really on my game, I even remember that I want my writing to ebb and flow, like all flourishing, organic things.

Art: Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave Off Kanagawa

Writer’s Log, October 3rd: Kindness

Early last month, my seventeen-year-old son and I got into a heated argument in the waiting room of our dermatologist. The doctor was running late, and I was having a stressful day, and despite the mask on my face, he could see the rage simmering in my eyes. “You shouldn’t get angry, Mom,” he said, watching me like a soldier watches a minefield, “it’s not very nice.”

Poor kid. He had no idea that ‘nice’ has become a trigger word for me in recent years, that ‘nice’ has so little to do with what I want for both of us. But let me back up just a bit.

I’ve always been a passionate reader, but when I began to make my first, tentative steps toward writing a novel, I began to look at books in a different way. I’d been reading for almost thirty years at the time, but I’d rarely stopped to think about what it was that I loved most about the books and authors I returned to, time and time again. When I tried categorizing them as I’d been taught to as a scholar, I failed to isolate a common genre, time period, movement, subject matter, or storyline. It took me many moons to realize that, in seeking an external classification, I was missing the point. As it turns out, it was the heartbeat of these books that I was responding to, the way almost all of them tussled with kindness, in the deepest sense of the word.

This type of kindness is not about yielding to niceties, or doing favors, or otherwise compromising yourself in an effort to calm the waters. It’s not, in other words, about being nice. Things that are nice prioritize the agreeable, the amenable, the unspoken word. Kindness, on the other hand, is about showing others who we are, in the hopes that they will show us who they are. And kindness is what I hunger for, whether it be in books or in the dermatologist’s waiting room.

He was right to chastise me, not because I wasn’t being nice, because I could give a flying you know what about being nice. I do, however, want to be kind. Because kindness isn’t about compromising your own feelings, it’s about taking a deep breath at the end of a long day and asking yourself if a beloved doctor really needs to see daggers shooting out of your eyes because she kept you waiting. It’s about asking yourself if your anger really belongs in someone else’s chest, whether it be at the end of a long day or the end of a long couple of years. It’s about stretching our definitions of what kinship might be, to peek beyond the bruising materials that seem to get lodged between us, even if we have to stand on tiptoes in a stiff wind. It’s not about dropping our eyes and folding our hands in our laps. It’s about having the courage to look in someone else’s eyes, and opening your arms. It’s about expanding our capacity for paradox, for knowing that while we have an infinite capacity for difference on the individual level, we also all hold lifetime memberships to the collective whole. This, for me, is why literature is so vital, why story is so essential, why a conversation that involves more listening than speaking can save lives.

And yes, kindness is also about being soft when others are telling you to be hard. Giving even when you fear something irrecoverable might be taken from you. Giving because something irrecoverable might be taken from you. Like hate, or hardness. Isn’t it funny how the steeliest parts of us are the first to rust? How our softest words are the ones that bear repeating, the ones that carry, the ones that last?

Art: Sakai Hoitsu, Poppy from Primrose

Writer’s Log, September 1st: Unicorns on a Racetrack

It’s hard to be a parent in the 21st century without having to grapple with standardized assessments of your kids. There you are, puttering merrily along, enjoying and supporting your kid quirks and all, when out of nowhere a letter arrives in the mail reducing said kid to a series of rankings, percentiles, and scores. In five seconds flat, you’re projecting twenty years in the future, trembling with the kind of specific, long-reaching projections even biblical prophets wouldn’t dare to make.

It’s entirely possible that you’re harboring just a smidgen of PTSD over however you were also unwittingly pigeonholed at a young age. Thanks to a very literary household, I started reading when I was four, but I was placed in the lowest reading group in second grade because I was much more interested in staring out the window than answering questions about the cat on the mat. And it only went downhill from there.

Maybe, like me, you’ve found a silver lining when it comes to navigating these tests for your kids, learning how to advocate for what they are, rather than get tripped up by what they aren’t. But even if you have, I’d wager good money that you haven’t extended the same kind of protection and support to yourself. Yet how can we teach our children to stand up for themselves if we’re not doing the same for ourselves? How can we tell them to carve out a meaningful place in the world if we insist on keeping up with the laundry instead of staking out time to write, or answering every email within 24 hours instead of fiddling around on the piano, or seeking a promotion we’re not even sure we want instead of staring out the window?

When I was studying education in graduate school, I continued to feel like I was swimming upstream, struggling to find a toehold for a more fulsome concept of lifelong learning. With so much work to be done on the K-12 front, it’s understandable that many of my colleagues looked at me askance. But I still believe that the most beneficial learning environments are community based, that our children will only be willing to remain curious, open, and brave if the adults who are asking this of them are also working to remain curious, open, and brave. It can be so hard, though, particularly in a society that views education so narrowly.

Last year, my fifth grader was applying to an accelerated program for sixth grade, so we were navigating tests galore. When the admissions team emailed to ask what I made of his glacial processing speed relative to his other scores, I thought of my sweet, daydreaming, pokey son, and was immediately transported back to that window view that fascinated me when I was younger. “I suppose it’s a bit like putting a unicorn on a racetrack,” I wrote back. “Sure, he might run the race, but if you focus only on his speed, you’ll miss all the magic.”

Similarly, I often get unpublished clients or students bemoaning how little they’ve accomplished, or pawing at unyielding ground and twisting their tightly braided forelocks when asked if they think of themselves as writers. But what is a writer if not, simply, someone who writes with intention, care, and hope? Why must we continue to measure even artistic success by the stalest of parameters?

So I ask you: What can you do to release yourself from false constraints? How can you honor your truest self, no matter how she might be measured? How can you start your own, small rebellion from within?

Art: James Emmerson, Sunlight through Stained Glass

Writer’s Log, August 1st: Listening

Earlier this week, I unwittingly managed to make my normally even-keeled, happy-go-lucky teen daughter dissolve into a weepy, angry ball of misery. It was a really nice addition to the already crowded, shadowy side of my parenting hall of fame. I’d like to say it was because I needed to teach her a tough lesson, and that I was gritting my teeth and standing up to a significant parenting challenge despite the emotional shrapnel ricocheting around us. But that’s only what I thought I was doing. Toward the end of the conversation, I realized I just hadn’t been listening.

Sometimes, life teaches us so much more about our writing than the writing can. When we write, it can be so tempting to think only of what we have to say, to focus on what others make of our words, to mistake the output as more critical than the input. But how can we learn to say anything worthwhile if we’re only listening to ourselves?

This failure to listen to my daughter was particularly notable not just because she is so notoriously hard to rattle, but because the question of whether to listen or speak up was the actual subject of our argument. That’s right. I failed to listen during an argument that was, essentially, about listening.

Like many young women, my daughter has developed a very appealing outward persona. She has a tendency to lead with empathy and warmth, to be helpful before anyone even realizes help is needed, to soothe the lost sheep around her as she organizes them into tidy lines. But although she receives a thousand compliments for this behavior — or because she does — I’m terrified that she will fall into the same trap so many women have before her, believing that her worth lies in how agreeable her behavior is.

And my concern is amplified by the fact that the only complaint I ever hear from her teachers is that she doesn’t speak up enough in class, which makes me afraid that she is hiding her true opinions for fear of making waves. What’s more, I find her classroom silence particularly baffling because when she’s home, she loves nothing more than a good verbal sparring match with one of her brothers, frequently makes her ideas and directions known, and is even occasionally snappish, moody, and temperamental. I just love it. Because from where I stand, the spicier parts of her personality are those that will be most beneficial to her once she goes out into the world, the ones that will keep others from using her kindness to walk all over her.

Or so I thought.

It took me a reaallllly long time to hear this, but what she was trying to tell me was that she doesn’t speak up in class because it doesn’t benefit her. She learns by listening and observing, and trying to go against her nature to speak up just because someone else wants her to creates exactly the kind of external pressure to be someone she isn’t that I so want her to avoid.

And when I say it took me a really long time to hear this, I mean a good 45 minutes of back and forth that made her feel, by turns, misunderstood, miserable, and furious.

It’s hard to resist the appeal of strong defenses for both our children and ourselves. My entire life, I’ve also been told that I am too nice, or too gentle, or too soft spoken. I’ve worked very hard at being comfortable taking charge and speaking up, and I do both quite effectively. But the only time I ever need to draw on this learned behavior is when I’m on the verge of losing ground in a crowded room or a crowded profession. And when it comes to adequately expressing my power, intellect, or perspective, being disingenuously outspoken only works against me. In fact, when I’m at my very best, I’m doing what my daughter does, which is listening very carefully to the world. Not because I am afraid to speak up, but because I learn so much more when my head isn’t dominated by the sound of my own voice. This, incidentally, is also the place where my best and most genuine writing emerges.  

And at this moment of heightened sensitivity around the insidious effects of loud, privileged, narrow-minded voices who have a tendency to only get louder and more self-righteous when the chips are down, it might not be a bad time to revisit the power of listening. Listening to ourselves, to our children, to those voices we’ve never really heard before and those we don’t want to hear. Listening not because it protects us, but because it opens us up. Listening because, as writers, what we take in is impossible to separate from what emerges on the page, and because having the courage to soften, learn, and challenge our favorite viewpoints is the only way we can ever hope to grow.

Art: Erin Clark, Quiet Forest

Writer’s Log, July 1, 2020: Cultivating Ease

Consider this as a hypothetical situation: For the past three months, you’ve been holed up inside your house, trying to be on your best behavior while secretly nursing a seriously bad attitude and getting blindsided by tsunamis of anxiety. Maybe you were OK at first, and maybe around the second week or so you looked up and realized that every fantasy you’ve ever had about having enough time to write was actually coming true. But maybe, just maybe, instead of sitting down every morning with a cup of coffee and a quiet mind, you are now, instead, either (A) a Words with Friends ninja, (B) carrying around 15 new pounds of self-loathing, (C) thinking that you’d rather peel your own fingernails off, one by one, than return to your writing, or (D) all of the above.  

Congratulations! You’re on your way.

Every single time we make a new level of commitment to our writing, we run head on into our own hidden caches of misinformation around writers and the writing process, most of which we build up unwittingly as participants in a culture that knows diddlysquat about creativity, artistry, and authentic expression. And the longer you’ve waited to make the kind of commitment to writing you’ve been craving, the harder this collision will be – sort of like how thunder comes in after days upon days of unshifting heat. This isn’t because you aren’t talented, disciplined, or driven enough, and it breaks my heart into a million pieces every time I hear this from a writer. It’s because finding your way to an actual writing practice probably looks a lot different than almost every single impression you’ve been given of the writing life. It’s highly unlikely, in other words, that you’re going to find yourself able to sit down at the same time every day for a set number of hours and turn out a set number of words before you break for lunch. And even if you do, this rhythm, like most, will run its course. Again, this is not because you are a failure as a writer. It’s because you’ve failed to understand what it means to actually invite writing into your life.

I could make a laundry list of what I have found – after two decades of writing and teaching – to actually be the essential elements of writing, and I sort of have, in the form of this log. But today’s subject is ease, primarily because we all seem to be living in the midst of a storm of concrete emotional boulders from which there seems to be little protection. Indeed, cultivating ease might feel like the very last thing you can do right now, but so does drinking a glass of cool water when your throat is parched and inflamed.

Even in the best of times, many of us have a natural suspicion around ease. It is, after all, just one letter way from the word ‘easy’, which probably means that we’re one slip of the pen away from sloth and disaffection when we dare to court ease. And so many of us are so freakin’ exhausted from the onslaught of social, political, and emotional hailstones out there that we secretly fear that the minute we give ourselves some breathing room, we’ll wind up on the couch eating bonbons for three months.

Here’s where the real work begins. Instead of running from that thought, try to gently ask yourself what’s behind that impulse. If you spend three months on the couch eating bonbons, so what? Maybe that’s exactly what you needed to do. Maybe you needed that time to release a lifetime of bottling yourself into small, acceptable containers. Maybe becoming zaftig and glossy-haired with good eating is the best possible thing you could do for yourself. Or maybe you’re eating bonbons to anesthetize yourself, hoping that if you can cram enough chocolate and sugar and fat down your throat, you’ll be able to suppress the voice that wants to come out, the one that will express what you really think and feel. You know, the kinds of things you need to say to get anywhere near the writing you need to do to feel fully actualized. Maybe you’ll have to go waaaaayyy down deep into the realm of self-loathing in order to finally put a line in the sand and do something meaningful for yourself. But I promise you this. If you really want to write, there’s nothing like a few months of not writing to get you itching to return to the page.  

The point is, you need to start trusting your creativity before it will show up in any meaningful way for you. And at first, it will be like a 90-pound weakling trying to lift the 200-pound barbells you’ve hoped to bench press all your life. But creativity does not flourish if you bear down on it with all your weighty intentions. If, however, you listen very carefully to it, and appreciate, respect, and nurture what it has to offer you on a daily basis, it will show an astonishing amount of strength.

“But, but, but…” you say. What if it tells you it has nothing to say, and wants to go to the beach? Well, you go to the goddamn beach, if you can, and bring a notebook. Follow your nose for fifteen minutes. Jot down three sentences. Go back to following your nose, and make it thirty minutes this time. I promise you will have opened a line to your creative self far more quickly and efficiently than if you shoehorned all your efficiency and rigidly good intentions into a schedule designed to be both resistant to all Acts of God and waterproof.

The key is to remember that the writer’s job isn’t just about nurturing the writing; you’ve also got to nurture the writer. Before you start rolling your eyes, think about it. What happens when a pianist stops tuning a piano? Or when a writer leaves all her paints in the sun to shrivel up and die because they’re not covering 40% of the canvas, as per her excellent plans?

Instead, devote your vigilance to developing a keen awareness around the fact that you are the instrument of your writing, and you are an organic, changeable, unpredictable thing. So instead of insisting that you must write every day, insist instead that you must check in with your writing brain every day. At first, it will be a bit like checking in with a straightjacketed lunatic who can’t decide if she wants orange juice or the blood of virgins for breakfast, but that’s just because you’ve kept her locked up all these years just for being a little bit weird. Or unconventional. Maybe even stubbornly resistant to common wisdom around writing. Most of my favorite authors, incidentally, are weird, unconventional, and uncommonly wise.

Perhaps this means you’ll have to drop the stellar advice you once received from a Published Author to write a minimum of 20 minutes a day and exchange it for writing for five minutes twice a week, but who cares? Will you shrivel up and die if, after dedicating yourself to your writing, you enter a dry spell? Sometimes the writing doesn’t come for a reason. Maybe you’re defining it prematurely, like a stage mother with too much access to blue eyeshadow. Maybe it needs time to gestate or cook or otherwise wander freely around those areas of your brain that are gloriously wireless. Maybe reading this week, or walking, checking in regularly and honestly all the while, is what will get you where you need to go. Expect the dry spells. Expect that every so often, you’ll find that you’ve had to beg, borrow, and steal just to gain three uninterrupted hours over the weekend, but you wake up on Saturday thinking that everything you’ve ever written is crap and that the cat secretly hates you. Rather than put on your best Victorian look and descending dramatically into a spiral of misery by sticking to your plans, try to work with what you have instead. See if you can summon five minutes without having to get a restraining order against your inner critic. There are certainly days when I can get more done with five minutes of depressurized writing than I can with three hours.

The point is that to find flow, you often need to do some seriously releasing. You need to soften, and trust, like the earth does when we plant seeds in it. Who knows what will happen beneath that rich, impenetrable dirt, but time and time again, that miraculous sprout of green fights it way toward the sun. Not because you want it to, but because with the right tending and dedication, it gains enough strength to bypass all your grand ideas and blossom anyway.

Art: Pablo Picasso, The Dream