Writer’s Log, March 1: Intentional Wonder

As many of you already know, I have not found popular writing advice particularly helpful. I find word counts and keeping my butt in the chair and strict writing struggles to be overly rigid techniques that make incorporating a writing practice into my daily life even harder than it should be. As a result, I’m always playing around with ideas around what does work for me, and why. And while I do know that regular attention to my writing practice is vital to its health, it can be difficult to describe what that attention looks like, when it doesn’t look like typing on a keyboard. This is an interesting problem to have, because approximately 88% of my writing practice does not involve typing on a keyboard.  

Yet, because I’m convinced I cannot be the only one for whom traditional writing advice falls flat, I still feel compelled to try to describe the kind of practice that resonates with me. Recently, I’ve found it helpful to take some of the focus away from trying to describe what the practice looks like, and consider instead the mental landscape I’m seeking to cultivate. And I’m certain that one key feature of that mental landscape is intentional wonder. This is the kind of wondering I do when I have a general idea of what I want to say, but sharpening and clarifying that idea feels as appropriate as trying to sharpen and clarify a cloud. This is one of the main reasons why I don’t force words down on the paper when I’m entertaining something that refuses, as of yet, to materialize; I might get a few sentences written, but if I try to milk an idea too early, I risk getting much less out of it than I might if I wait until it’s ready.

I suppose cultivating such intentional wonder might be usefully understood as a pre-drafting state, but so much of my work happens within this space of intentional wonder, I’m not sure “pre” belongs anywhere in a conception of it. Four years into my current work, for example, I’ve spent the past few months trying to decide how I want to get my primary character through a particularly critical and sticky transition point. Much of this time has been spent stopping and starting and hemming and hawing and reading and walking and staring into the middle distance, which is another way of saying that it’s been progressing beautifully, despite the agony that always accompanies this nebulous state of being. But even though I am finally beginning to emerge from this lengthy period of slogging through, even though I have finally determined what scenes I will be writing and how they will generally unfurl, I’m not yet ready to go slashing through the underbrush.

Because despite this rare and delicious road map that I’ve fought tooth and nail to develop, despite the clarity and satisfying plan it offers, something even more powerful still calls, asking me to stay still just a moment longer, to listen for the possibility of just one more strange visitor, even though everyone else appears to have arrived. And it’s not doubt – in fact, it’s quite the opposite of doubt. It’s a conviction that arises out of the feeling that if I can resist definition just a moment longer, if I can just lightly set my characters into the time and space I’ve carved out for them while still giving them plenty of freedom to wander around however they might wish, something strange and curious and wonderful is likely to emerge from the shadows. Sure, I’d love to just forge ahead, writing scenes and chapters and swallowing pages whole, but I know that nothing is more important than listening when intentional wonder tugs at my sleeve. I might have finally caught sight of the mythical creature I’ve been stalking that no one else believes can exist, but I know that trapping it in a net is going to be far less rewarding than seeing how it might move freely, on its own. Perhaps there will be less proof of its existence, but in the end, I’ll have a much better story to tell.  

Art: Jerusalem Window, Sketch, Marc Chagall

Writer’s Log, February 1st: The Shelf Life of Social Media

It seems that if you show even a glimmer of potential these days, you will be immediately encouraged to devote your energies toward getting on the internets and doing everything you can to get the popular people to notice you. And if you grumble about the constant interruption and inanity that creates in your life, someone is always there to remind you that this is simply the way it is. But after years of consideration, I have to confess I’m just not sold. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who wonders: Is social media really all that sustainable?

Let’s take creative work as an example. There we are, making our art or sketching our designs or cooking up our inventions, and the moment we produce anything saleable, we are pressed to devote as much time as possible to getting attention for them. We must milk Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and SnapChat and TikTok and Whatevs – because the more platforms you can hit the better – for all we’re worth, and in so doing we must also make ourselves as adept as possible at creating content that keeps up with the attention span of gnats, because if we don’t generate something daily, or at least weekly, we’re sunk. And if you choose to bow out, well, good luck decorating your hobbit hole of obsolescence.

But let’s just take a step back and look at the logic behind this behavior, shall we? If we must devote our time to scurrying around and waving our hands anywhere they can possibly be seen, then what happens to the deep reservoirs of attention required to create anything of substance and meaning? What happens to forging the kinds of lasting connections that inspire us in the first place? Do we really want to forego the benefits of pondering, contemplation, slow builds, and gradual learning curves? More importantly: Can we even hope to survive without them?

I honestly don’t think we can. Not because social media is the problem, but because the human condition cannot be sustained nor captured through Twitter alone. Superficial communication has its place – not least because it’s expedient, fun, and easy – but our collective mistake lies in failing to consider and choose its place in our lives. Because while it may feel like social media has plenty to chew on, at the end of the day, most of it is mental junk food – thrilling and entertaining in the moment, empty and depleting in the long run. And while we might complain that we don’t have the time or attention to read a book or get on the phone or make a meal from scratch, isn’t it important to ask why that is?

After all, no matter how conditioned we are to jump when our devices tell us to, we are, in fact, free to choose other options. And every time we choose to step away and power down, our brains awaken to new possibilities. Every time one of us sees another reading a book, or sketching, or taking a walk without clutching a phone, we offer a subtle reminder that this is a viable option.

I know this perspective is not new, but sometimes we need to stop worrying about how clever or inventive we are, and simply show up for what matters. Especially when we’re at a tipping point, when what we choose to shine a light on can mean the difference between yet another flash in the pan and true illumination.

Art: “Gallery of the Old Library, Trinity College,” Bruno Barbier

Writer’s Log, January 1: Point of View

Now that we are facing a new year, it seems like the perfect time to talk about point of view. Like any perspective, when we needlessly reduce it, it becomes that much harder to understand. I used to think there was something wrong with me when I found it so difficult to choose between first or third person (G-d forbid I should even begin to entertain second). After months of agonizing, I would eventually just pick one out of sheer exhaustion. It never felt like much of a victory. More like walking down the aisle of a rained-out wedding. And being forced to choose between Mr. Bill and Mr. Bean for a life partner.

But after years of watching other writers trying to navigate the rusty-nailed seesaw that is making this choice, I started to develop a little perspective on perspective. And the first thing that dawned on me was that, given the variety of narrative voices that are out there, how can it be that we are meant to understand point of view as a matter of only two, or if we’re really ballsy, three choices? Why is it that after we’ve finally summoned up the tremendous courage it takes to capture our unique voices on paper, instead of taking a clearing breath and wandering off on the wild path into our imaginative landscape, we feel we must choose between Door #1 or Door #3?

As with most writing instruction in our culture, I believe the problem lies in a stalled – and frequently stale — conversation on the subject. An assumption that as long as writers know what point of view is, they should have no trouble putting it to good use. Because the truth is, that while it is indeed useful to choose whether your narrative voice will refer to itself in the first person or default to the third, these pronouns are really nothing more than blank canvasses to work from. And like any brush strokes we make, the point is not to get the perfect perspective on paper; it’s to capture the one that speaks to us.

What’s more, as all good readers know, no point of view is really the same as any other. Orson Wells’ third person is literally worlds away from Tolstoy’s. And Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert and Zusak’s Death might both represent ultimate darkness, but boy does some distinctive light get into those stories.  

But what if you get it wrong? Well, you can’t. Yes, it’s true that by making a choice about point of view, you must leave several, possibly excellent choices behind. But that’s EXACTLY what artists are supposed to do. We are not meant to capture an objective, indefensible voice. We are meant to seek one true voice, and know that it stands among millions of others.

The point is, writer’s make choices. And the most spectacular results of this lie not in the bigger picture – the perfect point of view or astonishing subject matter or gorgeously stylized prose – but in the thousands of careful, thoughtful choices we make along the way. Maybe this is true for our lives, too. But for now, I just hope it helps you fling wide whatever door stands before you and have faith in the extraordinary act that is putting one foot in front of the other.

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