In Norway, this time of year is called the M?rketid, the dark time, and the Norwegians, who are used to it, light candles at four pm and have dinner early and snuggle into their warm houses. Or, if it?s snowed, they put on their skis and head to the lighted trails that exist all over the country and ski and ski and ski. They cheerfully get up in the dark at dawn and go to work. Their creativity in dealing with more than 12 hours of darkness is impressive.
When we lived in Oslo, I started a new teaching job at a public high school just after New Year?s. I was three months pregnant with L and terribly morning sick, and two days a week I had class at eight. So I rose at six in the pitch black and attempted not to vomit as I navigated the shower, some clothes, a cup of tea, and the Trikk, the streetcar that took me to Majorstuen, where I would hop on the subway for two stops. By the time I arrived at Berg Vidergaendeskole there was a gray light, but the sun didn?t really rise until the end of first period.
We humans can romanticize all kinds of things.
We?re in our own dark time in California, which is never sure how to be winter, but tries, and I?m still setting the alarm for six as many mornings as I can muster. It is a strange sort of push and pull, for I really do loathe getting up early, but ever since I learned that the poet Lucie Brock-Broido calls the morning being ?wet from the other side? I?ve been unable to shake the notion that this time, this liminal time between night and day, is when the creativity is awakening and the words best flow?or sputter, or crawl. (And, because life is so busy, sometimes it?s the only time of the day, anyway.) Sure enough, I?ve been getting at least a poem a morning, though which are any good, it?s hard to say.
But creativity is a funny thing. Earlier this fall, I took a poetry class and vowed to just write, to generate work, to make, for as long as it took. And I did, all fall. It was glorious. But now, mere weeks later, I feel a familiar antsyness as I start to worry, to push, to want to force that raw, unfinished work into something meaningful?a book, a record, a testimony to the world that I am not lazy, that I am not, uh, bad, that I EXIST. In September, when I read up in Portland with the poet Stephanie Adams-Santos (who taught me about Lucie Brock-Broido), she said that when she writes she tries to scratch some metaphorical itch, to find something inside herself that needs fulfilling and, well, fulfill it. (She actually said this much more clearly and beautifully than that!) In answer to the same question, I said that I turned to my readers to tell me if something was any good. And then I thought about what she said and wondered, what if I did that, too?
So, I guess here I?ve answered my own personal logic puzzle: because I have taken a little break from reading from Little Prayers,?because I don?t have something else to publish NOW, because I always feel the glow from a published essay for about a month before it fades, I have been inhabiting this space, on and off here in the December dark, where I don?t feel like I?m any good. Hence the rush to publish something, to finish something, to frantically get out into the world a thing that isn?t even ready yet, just so I can prove something to?to whom? I don?t even know.
How stupid I am, sometimes.
I?m still learning to be a writer: to chase the joy and to find that balance between playful, creative inquiry and brass tacks. And I feel enormously comforted here at the end of this blog post, because somehow writing all of this down, I feel like I have permission to be in the playful inquiry stage a while longer. Brass tacks, be off with you. Glad we had that little chat.
So! In the meantime, while you (and I) are waiting for my second book of poetry (!), if you need a great little gift, you can buy my first, Little Prayers, and I?ll sign it for you. There are more good gift ideas for writers here and here.
And here?s to the beauty and the difficulty of this season. If you want to share what you love or loathe about December, I?d love to hear from you in the comments below.
Warmly and with my best wishes for happy holidays and a fruitful new year,
**Note! Special offer for writers interested in my Saturday, March 19 workshop?Releasing Your Body, Revealing Your Story?in Oakland (1:00-3:45 p.m. at Flying Studios?at 4308 Telegraph Ave.) Bring a friend, both of you get $10 off the workshop fee.?Email me through the contact page on this blog or contact Sandra firstname.lastname@example.org to register.**
I’m really excited about this upcoming workshop I’m teaching with my friend Sandra Stringer on March 19th in Oakland: Releasing Your Body, Revealing Your Story: A Writing and Movement Workshop for Writers.
I’m excited because I’ve been ruminating a lot on the nature of fear, and how it prevents?us from doing good creative work. Truthfully,?I feel like the thing that hinders?me is more like procrastination, and grading papers, and parenting, but nonetheless I think it’s all of a piece: I get?tense in my body?and in my mind?because of work, social, and familial obligations, and I worry that I won’t get everything done, so I act frantic, and then I?don’t carve out enough space to write, and then I?feel bad, and then I?can’t work because I?feel bad, and then…
Anyway, it goes something like that, and I’m excited to do a workshop where we simply slow down for a couple of hours, let the body do its thing (e.g., release), and see what happens. I realize, in fact, that I’ve been craving this kind of time to just be still for several weeks. This is always a busy time of year; the papers-to-grade seem never-ending, spring break is fast approaching, somehow we’re supposed to plan for summer already (!), and we’ve had family visiting and more family coming. (I love seeing them all, so much, and it also means that I lose some writing time.)
So it should be a good afternoon.
In preparation for the workshop, I’ve been reading the famous book The Artist’s Way, which I’ve heard of for years but never picked up. The book is full of interesting practical ideas and an overarching theory that some would probably find a little too much: this notion that, to be an artist, writer, or creative person generally you need to put your faith in some kind of higher power. It’s all a bit 12-steppy, and yet, and yet?there is something about it that really resonates with me. Julia Cameron, the author,?talks about the divine plan and how creativity works through us, like God working through us, and how, in a sense, you just need to make yourself receptive and then do the work and then, poof, it will all work out: you will become a creative and successful person. If you’re not religious, it might sound crazy (and I am not, so at first it was a little alarming for me), but it echoes notions of creativity that seem to be finding me everywhere these days: in this terrific Radiolab episode featuring Elizabeth Gilbert, and in a TED talk she did a few years back, both of which, when I first listened, absolutely blew my mind.
In a nutshell,?Gilbert?suggests that creativity is something outside of us, that creativity finds us, like a muse, or a little floating angel, as long as we’re open and receptive to it. There is something very anti-Puritanical about this notion! I, personally, was raised to work hard and not to expect too much. But for Gilbert, and Cameron, there is this belief that if you’re a good and dogged creative person, if you put the words on the page again and again and again, the universe will reward you with little gifts: a first chapter, a beautiful painting, the faith to keep going.
Whether you believe it or not, it’s?kind of comforting, wouldn’t you say? It reminds me, actually, of my decision to name?my chapbookFaith a few years back. I was obsessed with the word; it cropped up for me in everything I wrote. I think my entire notion?of “faith” at that time?centered around the belief that the words would keep coming, that things would work out if I kept at it.?And in a way, I guess that’s what Julia Cameron and Elizabeth Gilbert are trying to say.
I hope, in my way, to bring some of that wisdom to the workshop the 19th.
Enough philosophizing for today; I need to go get some work done.
But I hope to see some of you at my workshop on the 19th, and, as ever, I’d be terrifically grateful if you spread the word to anyone else you know who might be interested. Note the special offer for bringing a friend! ($10 off for both of you.)
This morning, meditating on the back deck, I noticed California’s subtle signs of fall. As a New England transplant?who grew up with?dramatic fall weather and the trees in flames, the signs here are a little too subtle for me, but today was pretty good: a gorgeous late sunrise (we all piled into L’s bed to watch it through his windows at 7:15), walnut-tree leaves littering the deck, crisp air, and that slightly maudlin fall light that seems to strike diagonally. This weekend I’m planning to spend a lot of time in the woods, watching fall, clearing my head.
Fall’s diagonal light
Last night at my writing group I asked a few veteran fiction writers how to approach writing a novel. When I wrote my memoir, the plot was laid out in front of me; I didn’t have the blessing or the curse of having to make things up. (Sometimes, I wish I had, since many traditional publishers have been calling the story “too quiet.” What can I say? That’s my life. Quiet.) Given all this freedom, I have no idea what to do with it. I have 100 pages from last year’s NaNoWriMo, and then about 25 of a “new draft.” I have my main plot points. But deciding what happens in between?what should go on?in, say, chapter 2?is beyond me. I stare at the laptop, longing for someone to tell me what?to write.
Of course, I suppose the character could do that. In this terrific podcast, writer Elizabeth Gilbert talks about having a conversation with your book, and while I haven’t quite done that yet, I’m open to the idea that my main character, Hilly, could?somehow tell me what’s next. Is that ludicrous? Yes, and no. Maybe I’m just not listening right.
But anyway, back to the writing group. We talked about writing exercises and introducing conflict and what the characters want and pushing myself to be more outrageous and maybe losing a major thread that’s not interesting me after all. But mainly what I took away from the conversation was to just make a big mess of things, for now. You can’t know what a character will do until you’ve written her, and then written her some more, and then written her some more. And maybe none of those scenes will make it into the book, but maybe they will. And maybe, as I write, keeping notes, starting new files, disorganizing everything and trying new things and then sticking it all back together again, I’ll learn what’s supposed to happen, what’s important to me, what’s important to Hilly and her friend V.
Making a mess terrifies me. As you know from posts like this, in my old age, much to the shock of my parents and brothers, I’m sure, I have actually become a hyper-organized individual. One of the beautiful things about writing, for eight years, a memoir with the plot?laid out for me, was that I spent much of that time tinkering. Polishing. Moving things around. It felt joyful and straightforward (or maybe I’m misremembering all the hours I spent pulling my hair out, freaking out?probably). There is nothing straightforward about writing a novel, not when I’m?in what we might call the ideation phase.?Not when I have so little time to actually write these days. And especially not when I’m hoping against hope to finish this book before another decade has passed.
Nonetheless, I?am resolved to try: to see what happens, to make a mess, to not know what’s coming next. Maybe there’s a metaphor here? (There always is.)
And, lest I leave you on that dubious note, here’s an old poem about fall.
It?s raining colored paper.
No, birds?cardinals, orioles, and canaries,
swooping, dipping towards the hard surface
of the road, then gone. It?s the cornfields
have turned to paper, and a pumpkin
spills its guts on a front stoop.
A boy discovers it and starts to cry.
Who would do such a thing,
bring down the jagged grin, hard, on the steps?
Something in him falters.
He imagines his house on fire: water boiling
in the goldfish bowl, floating, weightless fish.
He thinks about God and Judas
and seventeen-year locusts, how they ruin things,
wringing his hands, worrying his fingernails
to splinters. He stares out at the fields,
counts minutes till schooltime, his breath
a neat circle on the window,
because it?s cold this October, already?
and there in the road is the flock of leaves,
swooping, dipping into the hard surface,
then gone. They touch down, and then they?re gone.
The cornfields have turned to paper,
and behind them the sky.
? Susie Meserve. This poem originally appeared in Indiana Review, Fall, 2001
Just this junky old room with moldy?brown carpet and three flavors of paint (one puke green, one puke pink, one puke indeterminate).?This was the studio adjacent to our apartment, which had sat empty?for years and years on end, except as a dumping ground for various items of hardware that had been used in the renovation of our place. When we moved in next door, the landlord told us he was planning to renovate the studio?for Maya, the eccentric and kind older woman who gardens here every Tuesday. Of course neither B nor I particularly wanted anyone to move in next door, but what could we do? Maya is very nice. Our landlord said he would begin fixing it up in January.
Then it was February. Then March. As May arrived, we realized he had no intention of ever getting to it?or at least, not any time soon.
And then one day Maya announced to B that she had found a different place to live, and it occurred to me that?without the incentive of fixing it up for Maya, George really might not get to it for a while. In other words, right next to my house was a small sunny room with its own bathroom that was….
And perfect to become a writing studio.?
I emailed George and asked whether he would consider letting me rent it. I can’t pay you much, I said, but it’s more than you’re getting now, and I’ll do all the work. And after an agonizing two weeks, he wrote to say he thought that would be fine. (!!!) Then?he agreed to let me paint, pull out the carpet, and generally make it mine. And so, a few weekends ago, I got up early and went to work. I sanded the walls and painted them a soft, soft gray. We hauled the nasty carpet out to the driveway. I scrubbed?the floors, cleaned the bathroom, put up a shelf, washed the cover on the dusty old futon that lives here. I moved in a lamp, a chair, some throw pillows, a rug, and finally, a desk.
And here I sit, writing this blog post.
I have wanted my own writing space for?well, forever. In grad school, in Northampton, Massachusetts, I had a pretty great two-room apartment with large windows and high ceilings and lots of space, and I had an office there, though it was one half of the room I used as my bedroom, so not totally ideal. Since then, though, we’ve never had the extra space, and I’ve worked in coffee shops and at the library or, occasionally, at the kitchen table.
The trouble with any of these places, of course, is that they’re noisy and you can’t pace around reading things out loud or debating the finer points of a sentence or shouting “why is this so f%^&*#g hard?!” You can’t hang up on the wall all the bits and baubles of paper and notes and whatnots that have come to you in brilliant moments or procrastinating moments. You can’t casually leave your laptop and go make a cup of tea, because someone might steal your last five years of work.
And at the kitchen table, it’s far too easy to feel guilty about the dirty dishes or the bills that just came shooting through the mail slot and get distracted.
You’ll see, on the wall to the left of the desk, a series of pieces of paper. To christen my new writing studio, I hosted the Creative Women’s Cocktail Hour here last week, and we did an exercise:?we used a couple of one-word prompts and responded to them using paper and pens and crayons and markers, scissors and collage and glue.
The Lion Prompt
The first prompt, given to me by a certain five-year-old, was “lion.” I loved the way these all looked next to each other when we hung them up, like they all spoke to each other somehow. I could feel the space warming up with color and words and intention.
We went on to do more; we riffed on “illness,” on “middle.” We worked independently but all together, and eventually, we?filled the whole space with paper.
It reminds me of a poem from a mentor I miss, the terrific late poet Agha Shahid Ali:?
The moon did not become the sun.
It just fell on the desert
in great sheets, reams
of silver handmade by you.
The night is your cottage industry now,
the day is your brisk emporium.
Lately, everything has felt busy. Sometimes I think this is the mantra of my generation, at this time in our lives: we’re working parents, we’re social beings, and we’re ambitious, and many of us feel like things?are about as full as they could be. In the past year, my life has amped up in several ways, and it’s left me simultaneously dizzy from the excitement of it?I’ve felt, finally, like a real adult, a real breadwinner with a real career path?and overwhelmed by the day to day.
In general, I’ve been proud of the way my family has?adjusted to me working more and L starting Kindergarten and all the other things we’ve added to our plate. B has become an extraordinary caretaker, making bread for us every week and planting the garden with veggies and folding all the laundry. L is a pain about doing anything to help out, but he’s five, after all. And I’ve loosened the reins on certain projects and I still manage to get a good dinner on the table most nights and keep us in groceries and a clean bathroom. Our life together has felt?very manageable, and very happy, if at times a little too…full.
But something small can throw a huge wrench in the gears, and that’s what March was: this weird cold/flu I had that migrated to my ears and became a double ear infection. For the past month, I’ve had tinnitus (no fun) and this constant sensation like a valve in each ear is popping open, closed, open, closed. I missed a week of classes, which I had to make up, and once I felt a little better I found that my work ethic was shattered: it didn’t feel like much fun to sit at my computer and listen to the roaring in my ears, so I started to postpone grading and planning until the last possible second. And of course, when you get sick, you end up having doctor’s appointments, which means time away from work and writing, and then there are those bills to pay and meanwhile everything else continues unabated. I’m not complaining?it’s been an interesting reminder to me about the nature of life, and in particular the nature of my life, and now that’s it’s all getting a little better I’m much happier seeing it in a different light?but nonetheless, all the worry and sickness and anxiety and discomfort have been…disorienting.
And so, on the most practical level, I had a few days there where I felt quite firmly that my life was spinning totally out of control. I worked a lot over the weekend, just trying to get caught up with a book proposal and all the grading I’d been neglecting, all the while feeling like I was barely making a dent. Hardest were the liminal spaces, the hours and minutes in between classes or events, when I’d expect to accomplish small tasks or phone calls and for whatever reason, utterly fail. Finally, on Monday night after a full day, I spent a few hours catching up with travel plans and my son’s school activities (oh, how I had been neglecting the various appeals from the PTA) and filing bills and paying bills and generally trying to get my head to clear.
It?was amazing how much better I felt once I’d done all that.
But one thing I still hadn’t managed to do was blog, here in National Poetry Month, of all times, when I always feel I should be blogging.
And then, a certain poem came barreling into my consciousness yesterday and I knew exactly what I wanted to blog about.
Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year?s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.
? James Wright, from Modern American Poets: Their Voices and Vision (Random House, 1987)
When I read this poem in college, the?professor asked us to interpret the last line. And I recall many of us, then on the cusp of becoming adults, saying?that the last line meant that lying in the hammock, looking around, was a waste of life. I felt quite firmly that what Wright had meant when he wrote this poem was that he had been lazy in his life, that he should have been more ambitious.
How wrong I was. Now, saddled with all the things I’m saddled with at 41, bills and obligations and worries, I see clearly that what Wright meant was that all the noise we fill our lives with is, truly, the waste. Now, this poem speaks to me in a way it never could have when I was twenty-one.
And so, yesterday, after I’d taught two three-hour classes back to back, and used all my liminal spaces for phone calls or emails, I came home to a quiet house. I calmly washed the dishes, changed my clothes, and sat quietly at the table filling out raffle-ticket stubs before picking up L at school. And when we came home, and he decided to run off to play with the neighbor, I sat in the hammock in my backyard for fifteen minutes, reading The Remains of the Day and listening to the birds and the sounds of the guys working on the house across the way.