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

Writer’s Log, February 1: Chains and Choices

My favorite Dickens work has always been A Christmas Carol. I fell in love with it long before I read any of the novels, when Walter C. Scott appeared on my parents’ black and white TV in all his scruffy, miserable glory. Despite the fact that I had been banned from anything scarier than Wonder Woman because I spooked so easily, and barring the fact that I was being raised in a conservative Jewish household, everything about the story spoke to me: the raw pain, the stubborn adherence to said pain, the vocal and vehement spirits, the terror, the cruelty, the bittersweet joys, the final reckoning and hope. For a kid growing up in the 80s, when it seemed like everyone was bottled up and hairsprayed and armored in neon, this kind of balls-to-the-wall treatment of everyday, fundamental suffering was like tonic.

And despite the fact that it’s been rinsed and repeated ad infinitum, the story never fails to enchant me. I think that’s because we still live in a world where so many of us would rather drag heavy chains of regret behind us than release the hold we have on whatever stubborn patterns we’ve developed over a lifetime. The capacity old woes have to cripple us can really not be understated, and their insidious nature cannot be underestimated.

I still get a thrill, too, when I remember that all I need to do to cast off any number of rusty, weighty chains is to simply release my grip. Even if I can only manage to do so for a moment, the thrill is electrifying, probably because it’s so easy to get unknowingly mired in my own preciously cultivated shit. I’m in particular danger of this during the long, post-holiday winter, when I haven’t yet found my way back to a regular writing schedule and my creativity seems quite content to snooze until spring. It’s so tempting to tell myself terrible stories about what I haven’t done, about what I’ve missed, about the plans I made and failed to meet. I can get my knickers in such a twist that it becomes virtually impossible to sit down with myself in a quiet room and get back to work.

But then I remember that that’s really all I have to do. I don’t actually have to listen to those stories, no matter how persuasive I’ve found them in the past. I just need to loosen my grip on the chains long enough to start writing. And when I remember to do this, the writing comes back unbidden, like those first slips of green emerging from the permafrost of an urban winter. What we don’t know is always there to surprise us, no matter how well we’ve convinced ourselves we’re past surprising. Spring always comes, no matter how cold the winter has been.

Art: Katsushika Hokusai, Tiger in a Snowstorm

Writer’s Log, January 15th: Passion vs. Productivity

This’ll be a brief one tonight, as my sixteen-year-old son is trying to convince my husband that we need to install solar panels unless we’d rather just be complicit in letting the world to come to a screeching halt in fifteen years; my daughter looks like she swallowed an aging lemon because her homework is getting in the way of her reading (honestly don’t know what to do with that one); and my youngest is ostensibly receiving a trumpet lesson, but is actually – and inexplicably – peppering his music teacher with Irish trivia.

Le sigh.

Yet it’s precisely this sort of night that reminds me why I turned to writing fiction and rearing children so many moons ago. Up until that point, I’d been driven by a sense of productivity. The more I could say I’d accomplished – whether it be a doctoral dissertation or yet another pile of folded laundry – the better I felt. But it was a superficial contentment I was fueling; one that felt less like satisfaction and more like relief at having kept the wolves from the door for one more day. I think that’s because, like so many women of my generation, I’d learned to engage in those activities that were most likely to prove my value to the outside world, rather than trusting those uncertain, nebulous aspects of life that truly lit me up from within.

It’s been hard to wean myself off the sweet, temporary hit of external affirmation. Sometimes, I still slip. But even tonight, when I’m kinda sorta hiding from the children AND my novel, I am, beyond a shadow of a doubt, so much more profoundly satisfied knowing that I set aside the pursuit of professional labels and pats on the back in favor of diving deep into the relatively anonymous world of parenting and creative work. And because children and writing can never be perfected and never fully captured, I know that while they might be temporarily exhausting, anything I give to them only amplifies the kind of mysterious, bottomless wonder that never grows old.

Art: Cueva de las Manos, 7300 BC

Writer’s Log, January 1: Renewal

Isn’t it odd that we great the new year with resolutions? Faced with the possibility and opportunity of renewal, we meet it with an already hatched plan? And not just any plan; usually one spawned from a Grinch-like session of hyperfocusing on where you fall short and vowing to change the future via some psychologically medieval system of self-shaming, bullheadedness, and pop culture logic. To add icing to the cake, the next step usually involves giving your power away to an expert who promises a solution to the infinitely complex, gloriously unsolvable problem that is you. It’s no wonder so many of us wind up carrying around a little extra weight.

What if, instead of focusing on what hasn’t worked, we focused instead on what has? Instead of resolving to change, what if we simply renewed our commitments to those few, essential things that have always brought us joy? We all have them, though sometimes we wind up so far down other paths we forget our way back to our origin points. What’s worse, sometimes we’ll accidentally find our way back to them and then stop ourselves when that joy and freedom comes bubbling back up to the surface. You’ll know yours when you find it, though. It’s not a quick hit – a piece of chocolate cake, sex with a glamorous stranger, blowing off work – rather, it’s that deeply satisfying recognition that you’re engaged with something that lies on the same frequency of your most essential, unvarnished self, and it usually accompanied by a gentle hum of awareness that artifice, compromise, or self-consciousness have no place here. Perhaps it’s creative work, or caregiving, or simply reconnecting to the power of your body. Or maybe it’s something you’re tempted to dismiss because the judgy part of you that wants prestige and invulnerability and the jealous admiration of your peers is shouting in your ear again with the horrible voice and breath of whatever toxic substance she’s been smoking. No matter what it is, the question remains: If it brings you joy, why are you not letting that be your guide?

Art: Franz Marc, The Fox