Writer’s Log, May 1: The Rules of Engagement

So recently, my sister got me hooked on this particularly odd show on the History Channel called “Alone.” It features 10 survivalists who are each flown to an uninhabited area of Vancouver Island during the rainy season. It features a surprising number of grown men crying, curious bears and indignant cougars, and an up-close-and-personal exposure to what happens when people are left to wander the recesses of their own minds unimpeded.

I began watching because I’m fascinated by humans who can do things way beyond my own capabilities, so the last thing I expected was to feel solidarity or recognition in their experiences. But as the footage from their personal cameras started rolling in, there was far more white-knuckled, panicky-eyed references to spending time alone and in your own head than I ever imagined. Oh! I thought by the end of the first episode, it’s just like writing!

Sure, with writing, many of us have snacks and couches and central heating to help us navigate the inner reaches of our own minds, but if you’ve ever been on the wrong side of a trip down memory lane, you know that these things are worth jack when it comes to confronting your inner demons. And now that so many of us are spending far more time alone or away from those delicious distractions that seem important but are really just there to keep us from going down those dark paths, I’m sure this is feeling more real than ever. Maybe, when the quarantine started, you thought you might get some more writing done. Maybe you secretly hoped you’d get a lot more writing done than you have for a while. And maybe you did, or are, or have.

Or maybe you started out with all these great plans, only to run inwardly shrieking from the unleashed thoughts that started piling up after a few hours in the wilderness of your own head. Because when you open the gates to your unbuttoned thoughts and let yourself soften into the truth and vulnerability of what you most want to say, lots of creepy crawlies are going to make their way through, too. There’s no filter or watchdog at these gates, no sign that says “No Neuroses Allowed.”

And so your best intentions might have left you feeling like you should throw in the towel. But the truth is, if this is happening to you, it’s an excellent sign that now might be an ever greater opportunity to move your writing forward than you imagined. Just now might be the perfect time to notice that these demons aren’t going anywhere, and managing them has less to do with shouting word counts at them and more to do with establishing some boundaries around how much attention you’re going to give them. Naturally, you’re going to notice them. But if you find that you can draw every inch of their craggy faces from memory, it might be time to set up some of your own rules of engagement.

You might, for instance, remember that you are 99.9% responsible for whether or not you are writing. It doesn’t matter what invisible monsters or visible toddlers are shouting in your ear; you can put your hands on a keyboard or grab a crayon for five minutes a day and scribble something down.

By the same token, you might set yourself very low expectations, production-wise, and very high expectations, integrity-wise. Instead of wrassling with that horrible childhood memory, trying to wrangle it into 2000 words, maybe you just ask yourself if you can release it for five minutes and see what else comes forward.

Or maybe you choose to stand up for what you believe in and the meaningful life you want to model for your children and get clever about merging parenting and self-care. Maybe you write for 20 minutes by the nightlight, or lock yourself in the bathroom for 20 minutes if you’ve got another responsible adult around. You might insist on this M-F, like it’s your job to, say, show the people you love that you respect your creative impulses and dreams and think that tenacity in the face of a culture that regularly demeans and discourages artistic work is worth cultivating.

Just saying.

I hope you’re already writing. I hope you need none of these reminders. But I need them approximately every 14 minutes, so know that you’re not alone. And please consider that this incredibly rare moment is one that is calling for you to shift your focus, at least temporarily, to refining your engine, rather than covering great distances. It’s not that you won’t write a lot. You might write acres, particularly once you ease up on that throttle. Or you might write two sentences before deleting five. Just don’t forget that some of your greatest accomplishments as a writer will happen not when the words are flowing, but when they’re not.   

Art: Henri Matisse, Icarus

Writer’s Log, April 2nd: The Uncertainty Principle

download.jpg

Physicists tell us that the more we know about where a particle is, the less we can know about how fast it’s going. This idea is meant to help us understand the limitations of our knowledge in the quantum realm, but it seems to pretty handily capture what it’s like to sit on your sofa in a Netflix-induced coma for weeks on end, knowing that the closer you get to becoming one with your upholstery, the harder it is to tell if you’re coming or going.

We live in Northern California, so we’re well into week three of quarantine, and while I’m happy to report that it finally feels like we’re settling into a rhythm – a very jangly, jazzy rhythm, but a rhythm all the same – that shift has also come with the sudden realization that I finally have the chance to do many of those things I’m always claiming I never have time to do. Go through all those old family photos and make a scrapbook. Sketch, paint, draw, decoupage, dance. Get the kids to bed and go straight to my writing, knowing that having nowhere to go in the morning means I can sit up with it as long as I want.

So why is it that I fall asleep, slack-jawed, at 9 PM, after spending the day devoting laser-like focus to Words with Friends, re-watching Sherlock for the umpteenth time, and napping with the cat?

Because uncertainty isn’t just a principle, it’s also a condition. Usually, creativity flourishes within it. Uncertainty causes us to question what we know, to imagine possibility, to perhaps even see the world in a different light. It is, in fact, essential to creating art. But even though air is essential for breathing, expecting to take a refreshing constitutional in gale-force winds is nuts. And even though water makes up more than half of our bodies, that doesn’t mean we thrive when fully submerged in it. By the same token, a little uncertainty can be the sand that creates your creative pearl, but when it lands in your life like a ton of rocks, it will probably squelch any and all desire to voluntarily court vulnerability or wander gleefully into the unknown terrain of your mind.

As I’ve said before, an artist’s primary medium is herself. And when the self is heroically navigating unprecedented levels of stress, perhaps it’s OK to say it can’t be relied upon for much of anything. Perhaps, if you’re kind and gentle and appreciative of it, it will actually want to talk to you when all this passes. Because once you’re on the other side of this, once you’ve given all you have to slog through what feels unbearable and impossible, you’re going to be even braver and stronger, with more than a few stories to tell.

 

Art: The Fog Warning, Winslow Homer

 

 

Writer’s Log, March 1st: Hard Work

When I was younger, I thought the toe-curling reaction I had to a few hours of writing time stretching out before me made me abnormal. Either I had confused what I thought was a feverish passion for writing with some other fever – a delusional one, perhaps – or I didn’t have the chops to make it as a writer. In fact, I hate to admit this, but the truth is that I avoided writing for many, many years because I was sure that my desire to run quickly out of the room with my tail between my legs every time I faced a blank page was a sign that I had no hope of growing into the writer I so wanted to be.

I’ve since learned that (almost) all writers hate writing. Bear with me here. I’m not saying that all writers hate all writing all the time, or that writers are mentally and/or emotionally challenged individuals who compulsively indulge in self-destructive behavior just for kicks (though that has been said before, unfortunately, since it’s such a gross misinterpretation of authorial behavior). But I have learned that almost every writer I know experiences an excruciating amount of unwillingness to just sit down and write. Even writers I don’t know own up to this. Amy Tan has a wonderful story in her memoirs about getting stranded in a cabin after a flash flood – when a rescue team finally arrived, all she could think was that if she got out of there, she’d have to finish her novel.

So why do writers hate writing? I want to know your thoughts, but I have a few theories of my own. First, I think many writers are perfectionists, because a writer must be incredibly driven and incredibly detail oriented in order to wrassle (not a misspelling: think alligators and jello pits) her thoughts down into the medium of language. This perfectionism does not, however, prove very helpful when one needs to step into a creative space that courts risk and the unknown. So there’s that (which I’ve written about extensively already), but I think I’m ready to expand on that theory. I think another reason why so many writers hate writing is because AT FIRST – and this is critical, since the rewards of a writing practice are too numerous to begin to list — writing demands so much, yet it promises so little in return.

Again, a moment to clarify: the act of writing can be thrilling and centering and inspiring, all at once. But more often than not, it’s just a slog, and the more you write, the more slogging you must do. Moreover, you must come into the slogosphere with your most heightened sensitivities tuned to their highest frequencies, and you must keep your heart open and either leave your assumptions and baggage at the door or find a way to authentically shape them into something that doesn’t resemble the tear-and-ink-stained rant of a diary you kept under your bed when you were fourteen. In other words, most of the time, writing feels a bit like working up the courage to share the contents of your heart with the crush of your life who has barely ever noticed you, or, I don’t know, showing up to a middle school dance naked.

No matter what answer we come up with, though, I will say that I think it’s pretty amazing that writers write anyway. It takes extraordinary courage to enter the lion’s den with nothing more than a magic wand with iffy batteries. I try to remember that when I get hard on myself about avoiding my writing. It’s not always about how well you do what you do; it’s also about how well you manage to keep your head held high even when you’re tripping over your own feet.  

Art: Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation Sans Titre

Writer’s Log, February 1st: Self-Promotion

Self-promotion is rarely easy, but I think it’s particularly difficult for writers. For starters, many of us come to writing because we’d much prefer to be on a cozy couch with a book than marching a sandwich board down Broadway. And to make matters far worse, if we manage to take those first, tentative steps toward honoring our own work enough to want to publish, sell, or share it, we get bombarded with a slew of dusty, crusty old ideas about what it means to be successful, much of it similar to the kind of persistent shaming I imagine Victorian virgins had to endure. If we’re really worth having, we shouldn’t have to draw attention to ourselves. We should wait for others to invest in our futures, rather than take such matters in our own hands. If we linger in obscurity indefinitely, it’s probably because we deserved it.

For several years, I’ve been writing this log and promoting it on Facebook. I was not on board with this, at first. I don’t like social media, and I liked the fact that my publisher was pushing for me to engage with it even less. But I’ve come to find my off-label use of Facebook to spread the word (as it were) about the realities of the writing life an increasingly rewarding process. And, for the most part, it’s been received far better than I ever could have hoped.

But, of course, nearly every time I promote a post, the very fact that I am promoting it ties someone’s knickers in a vicious twist, and they make sure I hear about it. I know, I know. Haters gonna hate. But I don’t find it useful in the least to hate them back. I’d much rather look at that hate and see what it represents, how it places its owner in shackles, how something I posted gave them a way to show the undersides of their wrists, where the metal has dug in.

In my experience, 99% of the time, hate is fear with an ingrown toenail. And in this country, where we’re taught to consume our feelings and conceal our vulnerabilities, so many of us have been told that we have no right to share ourselves openly with others. As a result, many of us only want to appear in public with impregnable reasons for doing so. But how does waiting until one’s star is firmly placed in the firmament do anything to support the rest of us here on earth?

So here’s what I think. It’s never too early to start promoting your work and yourself as an artist, and doing so is not really about how great you think you are or how much genuflecting you think you can inspire. It’s about standing up for art, and artists, and meaning. Not because those things are invulnerable, but because they aren’t.

Art: Georgia O’Keeffe, Abstraction White Rose

Writer’s Log, January 1st: Nutritional Information

In defiance of New Year’s resolutions, which oftentimes stem from the idea that a life must be fundamentally changed in order to improve, I like to use this time of year to wonder how I might rededicate myself to some meaningful aspect of my life. This approach works even better if I try to identify something I’ve started to neglect because I feel like I don’t have enough time or energy to devote to it. Because usually, when I’ve convinced myself I don’t have time for something I think I care deeply about, I either don’t care as much about it as I thought, or I’m avoiding the kind of next level attention I could bring to it because doing so feels too hard.

And in recent months – maybe even in recent years – it’s becoming clearer to me that I don’t give a certain kind reading nearly as much attention as I used to. This is significant not just because I’m a writer, but because I’ve always believed that the information we consume signifies where we direct our attention and why.

It’s not that I don’t read. I probably read more now than I ever did. And reading, in a sense, has never been more of a preoccupation for all of us. Social media is, after all, a form of reading, as is the textosphere, and the internet. The problem is that I’ve become hooked on immediately digestible and available information, frequently filling my head with the intellectual equivalent of a coffee and a donut.

And I’m definitely starting to feel the long term effects. It’s not just that I feel overstimulated and empty after ingesting this kind of information. I think many of us are aware of such intellectual bloat, and wish to do something about it. But a deeper problem reveals itself the moment I try to invest my energy into the intellectual equivalent of kale or, to be honest, just a single, flavor-packed blueberry. I’ll sit down with the best intentions, but after just a few minutes, my mind immediately reveals its most recent training. It assumes that anything worth reading will grab me just as readily as the phone that pings, tsks, and wriggles in my pocket all day. It wants to sprint, to fly, to be tickled and tantalized. It does not want to complete even a single page of Dickens.

The problem, in other words, is not just that I’ve become an unknowing consumer of relatively empty information. It’s that my mind is so accustomed to this kind of fuel, it has lost its taste for the good stuff.

And I’m not alone. You can’t get through a positive rating of a newly published book without encountering star-spangly adjectives, many of which refer to things like pacing or drama or humor. Pick up one of those volumes, and the chances are excellent that you will encounter a birth, death, or maiming in the opening chapter. And while many of these volumes deserve the praise they’re given and more, should the immediacy by which a piece of literature grabs us be so important? And while literature might be evolving to involve more spark and shimmer, do we leave anything behind when we kick slower reads to the curb? Can we trust that these evolutions protect literary integrity, knowing that many modern readers want the same hit out of their novels as they do out of their television shows?

In all honesty, I’m not sure I know the answer. But I plan to find out. This year, I resolve to rededicate myself to reading. Or, more specifically, the kind of reading I’ve neglected. The books that are quieter or refuse to be digested quickly, the ones that might take a month – or more – to read, but give me enough to chew on for a year. Maybe even a lifetime.

It won’t be easy. I’ll have to reread many sentences and put my phone in quarantine, which means I might get the shakes from the FOMO. I’ll have to relearn how to focus and use proper lighting. My eyelids will need to take on some strength training. But I think all these muscles are worth redeveloping. Perhaps in all of us.

Art: Octopus, Lantern Press