Writer’s Log, April 15: Volume Control

Here’s what I’ve learned this week: mindfulness is all well and good, unless you’re 11, 14, or 16, and your amygdala is (age-appropriately) on the fritz. Don’t get me wrong: I love that my kids have even been introduced to the idea of mindfulness, especially since when I was their age, the closest thing we got to mental health awareness came in the form of gymnasium assemblies featuring pre-packaged “Just Say No” programs. And After School Specials. Oh, the After School Specials…

Anyway, as thrilled as I am that we live in a world where the mental health conversation is finally beginning to see the light of day, most of us who’ve already been fighting the good fight for our sanity for, oh, I don’t know, three decades or so, can tell you that it’s one thing to know how to stay on an even keel; it’s another thing entirely to convince your mind to release its death grip on its favorite slobbery, grisly chew toys.

I bring all this up in the context writing work because most of the time when I luck into being able to actually give my kids some good advice in the moment, I simultaneously realize that I could use the advice myself. Take my 11-year-old as an example. He’s in this terrible loop of having let a few tears fall at school, which led him to naturally believe that EVERYBODY noticed and EVERYBODY thinks he’s a baby, which makes him anxious about crying at school, which makes him start crying at school. Oof.

Let me just pause to say right here and now that I couldn’t be prouder that I’m raising a white male to be vulnerable and willing to articulate some of his more difficult feelings. Still, as those of us who were born ever-so-slightly-nervous and might have had a life experience or two that launched those nervous tendencies into the stratosphere, I know that ongoing anxiety is no picnic. What’s more, I also know that anxiety is a self-enforcing behavior; the more anxious we tend to be, the more likely we will react anxiously, and so the vicious circle chases its own tail.

But thanks to the fact that my 11-year-old is my third child, I remembered something that eventually worked for my first. Here’s what I told him: For most of human history, our anxiety has learned to command our attention because it usually arose when our lives were actually in danger. So while anxiety can feel like a shouty, inescapable mental bully, it evolved to assert itself that way because the messages our minds needed to give us to run when a lion appeared had to be much more urgent than the ones it gave us when a lovely field of clover might have presented itself as a nice place to lie down and take a nap. So while it may feel like your anxiety is the most important thing in the world to listen to, it’s actually just speaking in the voice it was given. And just as we know that people who are shouty bullies have nothing more important to say than people who aren’t, anxiety doesn’t actually need as much of your attention as it demands. You can turn the volume down on it.

Now my kid is pretty smart, and he’s been around the block more than once with his mother’s analogies. “I can’t turn the volume down,” he insisted right away, “that’s impossible.”

Yes, it can feel that way. But his mistake lies in thinking that he needs to know how to turn the volume down all the way, when life has taught me that even being able to turn the volume down a little can shift the balance away from being ruled by anxiety to learning how to live with it.

This has been so true in my work. When I sit down to write, I necessarily have to open the floodgates to the less tame aspects of my mind. And when I do, LOTS of beasties want to come walking through. This can be enormously defeating, but it doesn’t have to be. The trick, I find, is not to expect them to go away. You just do what you can to work around them. Throw them a steak or two while you sneak around behind their backs. Find some music that puts them to sleep, or white noise. For some reason, mine hate recordings of nature sounds, particularly rain. They must be tropical beasties. The point is that even if you light on a way to get them to roar at your knees instead of straight into your ear, you might just free yourself up enough to shift your focus toward something you care about. And even if you can only steal a few minutes to tend to the voices in your head that really matter to you, you will strengthen them. And their strength, being substantive and meaningful and sustaining, is all you need to move forward, with or without the shouting matches in the background.

Art: The Beast of Hollow Mountain, photographer unknown

Writer’s Log, April 1: The Nervous System

Usually, when we talk about the challenges of writing, we focus exclusively on the challenges of working with words. And while I’d be the first to say that working with a medium that is both abstract and concrete (not to mention elusive and pervasive) cannot be understated, I firmly believe that the work we do with words pales in comparison to the work we have to do with our primary instrument: ourselves. To put it in simpler terms, the words usually come only after we’ve done some serious wading through our own shit. And no matter how hippy-skippy-trippy your life has been, you’re still going to need your galoshes, because a mind rich enough to want to create and communicate is going to have come out the wrong side of more than a few wackadoodle rodeos.

At the same time, writing tends to draw reflective souls, and it can be all too easy to get mired down in the stories we create about our own shit long before we even begin to set words down on paper. Believe me, I know this particular tendency all too well, having ensnared myself in more navel-gazing procrastination than I’d care to admit. I have so many delicious, slightly Victorian storylines about how I can’t get to my work because of how tragically compromised I am at the very deepest levels. But you know what? Those storylines get really boring and repetitive after a while, and I came to this work in the first place because what makes me feel alive is wondering my way through new stories, not wallowing in old ones.

So, what’s a girl to do? The trick, for me, has been to fully recognize that usually, when my mental angst is getting the better of me, it’s usually because I’ve forgotten, once again, that the nerves that are fueling all that angst are part of a nervous system. The mind, in other words, does not exist in an inorganic vacuum. This might sound relatively obvious, but it’s all too easy when you’re investing in creative and conceptual work to neglect anything that doesn’t take the form of a beautifully packaged idea. It can also be hard for those of us who might have spent our childhoods (or, say, first three decades) behind books and snacking on Devil Dogs to get up and go outside and eat something that is not first enrobed in sugar and fat before arriving on our plates. Those books and carbs are brain food, in other words, and we need to feed and care for more than our brains if we want them to function optimally.

I know, I know. It may seem self-indulgent and counterproductive to go for a walk or try to get a better night’s sleep or invest in less and higher quality food in order to jumpstart your writing, but it’s actually some of the most practical work I do. When I neglect the system that supports my mind my creative work tanks. Unfortunately, I learned this the hard way. I consider myself to have been a faithful product of my elitist New England upbringing, where I was raised to believe that it’s far more sexy and intellectual to stay up all night talking and drinking, or to be seized with so brilliant an impulse that you forget to eat and sleep and work yourself into a state of metal or physical disorder, or to sit all day within the four walls of an educational institution and spend all night behind the pages of a book in order to dedicate yourself to your craft. I faithfully lived the life of the mind, which is a nice way of saying I spent a little time writing and an inordinate amount of time worrying about how good my writing might or might not be, who might or might not read it, and how it might or might not be received.

On the other hand, what actually got me moving on my writing practice and to complete a handful of books was a far more kaleidoscopic approach to life. It involved having three children and slowly realizing two critical things: one, that I had been wasting an extraordinary amount of my precious time, and two, that I was encouraging my kids to live the kind of life I had never even considered for myself. A simpler, more obvious life. A life filled with good food and laughter and movement. A life that leads to the kind of richness my work had been begging for all along.

Art: Andrew Wyeth, Master Bedroom

Writer’s Log, March 14th: Wait for It

Historically, I haven’t exactly been the paragon of patience when it comes to my writing. It doesn’t help that, like most of us, the lion’s share of written work I was producing was on deadline – first for school, then for work. But even now I’ve allowed my diplomas to gathering dust in a box somewhere and I’ve stepped out of the corporate stream, I think it’s impossible to live in the 21st century and not get bitten by the bug of busyness, to constantly suffer from the feverish desire to produce as quickly and as completely as possible.

That said, showing up regularly (not daily, or even methodically, but regularly) to writing practice for the past decade or so has taught me that the ability to wait for work is just as important as the ability to produce it on command – perhaps even more so. In fact, I’m convinced that 99.9% of writer’s block is a fundamental and essential hallmark of the writing process: your intuition or creativity putting on the breaks when your rabbit brain and A+, #1, get-the-bus-there-on-time personality traits are scurrying around, full of their own empty self-importance. Think of it this way: we think nothing of the importance of aging wine, or curing meat, or even the wisdom that (sometimes) comes with age, but god forbid our best work not flow from our fingers like water every time we want it to.

I’d even go so far as to say that putting misplaced pressure on a writer’s block has caused me to ultimately slow progress. When I rush just to put something down, oftentimes I’m not listening or capturing the depth of what my subconscious is developing, and the dough deflates prematurely as a result.

I know we’re all worried that we could grow to indulgent on such an approach, allowing ourselves to sit back and eat bon bons when we should be muscling our way through the next chapter. To that I say, it’s a tough world, and your life comes first, so if you’re happy sitting back and eating bon bons, even if you could be muscling through your work, please take your pleasure. But if some small part of you is uneasy as you munch away, if even chocolate isn’t quite sitting right, you’ll know that you’re avoiding something that needs your attention, and you’ll have to get up and stab around a bit until you find it. Taking your time isn’t always easy or comfortable, but it’s a quality of attention that is every bit as important as whatever you might process and produce at lightning speed.

The bottom line is that the importance of learning to trust yourself cannot be underestimated when it comes to producing creative work, nor can we continue to dismiss the peace and self-satisfaction that comes with self-awareness as signs of indulgence or complacency. A writer’s work is often cultivated over time, and for good reason. The point of writing is not to get somewhere faster, after all; in fact, it’s often to find out what we’ve been running away from all along.  

Art: Vincent Van Gogh, Wheatfield under Thunderclouds

Writer’s Log, March 3: Happily Ever After?

When I first started writing, I thought that happily-ever-after endings were taboo, the hallmark of less “serious” scribes and, literally, the easiest way out. I cut my teeth on poetry, after all, the sort of dark, dismal stuff that was so popular during the late 20th century and which my mother enjoyed reading to us in the dimmest light possible, or while we were potty training. (So many stories there, so little time.)

Anyway, I grew up thinking anything of serious value (there’s the word again) must incorporate a hefty amount of depressing and/or demoralizing material. And I don’t think the world has changed all that much. Books, films, and art that garner the most attention and acclaim usually have an edge to them, and a large part of me thinks that’s the way they should be, but not because the point is to be edgy for the sake of being edgy, like ticking a box whose frame was sketched out by Hemingway and has been passed from hand to hand until hipsters got ahold of it and started coloring it in with artisanal pencils. Rather, I think an edge is a good sign because it suggests dimensionality. The right kind of edge, in other words, invites people to reconsider the shape of things, to wonder if the world they’ve constructed in their minds might have hidden dimensions.

Toward that end, I often think of happy endings as rebellious. It’s our responsibility, as writers, to explore the gamut of human emotions, instead of dutifully sticking to the sort of brooding, wry, tongue-in-cheek tone that usually signals we are in the presence of Literature. This sort of darker approach feels as if it were born, well, not in the Dark Ages — because people might have literally killed for light in the Dark Ages — but certainly in a time when most of what was being said – and heard – about “good” writing was being said and heard by white men whose emotionally constipated ancestors were too busy keeping stiff upper lips to crack a smile.

Indeed, the biggest problem I have with happily-ever-after endings is not really the “happily” part, though that word speaks volumes to the limitations we persist in having around positive emotions, but the “ever after” part. Just as we shouldn’t stick faithfully to the edge, we also shouldn’t blow sunshine up each other’s asses. A happy ending – or beginning, or middle – doesn’t have to be a tidy one. The point is to work with complexity, to do the work we so desperately need writers to do, which is to fully explore the gamut of human emotion, and to do that justice. The point, on other words, is not to stick to an emotional point, but to enjoy and embrace the miasma that represents the far more kaleidoscopic truth of our experiences.

Art: Leonardo da Vinci, Head of a Woman

Writer’s Log, February 16th: Finding Your Voice

It’s hard to throw a stick in a writing class without hitting someone who’s flummoxed about voice. What is voice, anyway? How do I know if I have one? What if I don’t, and I’ve spent all this time/energy/angst on this writing craft for nothing?

I think the question of voice has become simultaneously far too mysterious and far too infrequently addressed. When many people think of a writer’s voice, they think of some unique, ineffable thing that is difficult to capture but undeniable when encountered. Let’s consider that language for a moment, though. Does it bother anyone else that we tend to speak of voice the same way we talk about a Sasquatch?

Perhaps the trouble lies in trying to develop a definition of voice that can be pinned to a dictionary page and slammed shut. In my experience, voice isn’t so much shifty as shifting; it’s not so much difficult to define as it is resistant to stagnant parameters. Just as we speak differently in real life depending on whether or not we’re talking to a close friend or a loathed work colleague, I think we can fall into many voices that feel at least temporarily fluid. Over time, of course, I think we discover that the voice we use for Griselda in Shipping is less flexible and resonant than the one we use when speaking to a deeply trusted friend, but even so, how we speak to even our most intimate companions can vary depending on the day and the mood. In my experience, I find that weaving together an authorial voice depends both on the project and what aspects of my creativity I’m drawing on to develop that project. In a sense, I choose voice the same way I imagine a painter chooses paints, brushes, and canvas.

Furthermore, I think that our sensibilities around voice can change over time. An authorial voice that might have felt absolutely right for a particular project at a particular time might not be the same voice I’d use to tackle that same project today. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it’s certainly not a sign that my voice can’t be trusted. It’s simply a sign that voices can evolve depending on how our lives unfold and our sensibilities shift.

So instead of trying to find your voice, I encourage you instead to think instead about what you want to say. What project is tugging at your sleeve right now, and how can you write about it in a way that helps you capture what you find important about it? Try to worry less about being distinctive, and more about being in the service of the work. As always, it’s not about defining yourself as a writer that matters, it’s about doing whatever it takes to free yourself up enough to write.

Art: Katsushika Hokusai, Bouvreuil et Cerisier Pleureur en Fleur