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Entries in #thewritinglife (5)

Thursday
Feb062014

The Loyalty of Water: Women on Writing

Of this there can be no question--creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity. A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this--who does not swallow this--is lost. He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home. Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist. Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only. Such a person had better go off and fly an airplane.

Mary Oliver, Blue Pastures

My first novel is currently out on submission.

It took a long time to get here, but at least during that process there was something that I could do, something productive, even if it was beating myself up about not doing the things that were productive that I knew I could be doing.

Now, however, it's out of my hands. My agent, a wise woman, recommended that I not let myself in for the blow-by-blow of each individual non-response and pass. Listening to her has probably been a smart move for my marriage and relationships in general; I'm not precisely good at ignoring things, but at least I'm not constantly reminded of the small failures inherent in this process. I've been going about my life much as normal, albeit with a small, steady ringing of tension in my ears that never quite goes away.

There are a lot of failures inherent in this process. Recently I spoke on a small panel to potential St. Mary's MFA grad students, and that's what I told them: you're going to fail, so let your MFA program be the safe space where you learn to get back up again. Invaluable, really.

Some of the best advice I've been given: Keep going. When your book is out on submission, start another project. Keep busy.

I'm doing my best. But as I wade deeper into my thirties, what I figured out at about 28 or so only becomes ever more apparent; I will never have this balancing act perfected. There will be moments of pristine performance, true, moments when the hours on this project, the hours on that, the hours for the immediately-paying-work, the hours needed for this person, and the hours for myself, all carefully arranged and maximized, will look like an ancient Greek mosaic.

Those will only be brief moments. The rest of the time, things will more closely approximate a bag of skittles emptied on the kitchen floor. Maybe two bags. Of different flavors.

It's become a truism of our times that social networks make people feel bad, or if not a truism, then at least a frequent topic of half-think pieces on various news websites. Those carefully-curated versions of life obscure so much, whether deliberately or no, and it's easy to forget that we're all up against our own monsters. My own personal reality check is my female writer friends. In the past year I've been reminded again and again how remarkably easy it is to feel isolated as a writer and in how little time some personal connection can remedy that. They have this breathtaking range of wisdom and experience and insight and honesty. They keep me both grounded and committed to the long haul of being an artist. In our conversations they give to me perhaps the most essential thing: the story of how they, too, struggle, maintain, fail, and, on occasion, succeed. Their stories have to be heard to be believed—after all, they do have a way with narrative, a way with words.

So why expect you to simply take my word for it?

This is the inauguration of a mini-series, The Loyalty of Water, a virtual meeting of the minds and a reflection on the challenges and failures, the grind and the joys, of being a writer and a woman today. Contributions will come from writers in as many places and stages of life as I can drum up.

Watch this space. 

Tuesday
Dec032013

Touching the Mask

Loved this piece in Poets and Writers by Kamilah Aisha Moon, especially this part:

So much of one’s character and spirit can be revealed in the smallest of gestures, gleaned from our choices. This scenario has played out in my life again and again, a hallmark of the way I’ve moved through experience after experience thus far. The decisions to move from city to city, building from the ground up in strange towns and new jobs, with someone and alone. The willingness to try and often fail at new things and travel solo abroad. The decision to put my writing first and leave a good career to move to New York for graduate school, despite considerable odds.

Reminds me both of my own constant balance and re-balancing acts and a passage from one of my husband's favorite Vonnegut books, Mother Night:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

I could wax philosophical, but I have work still to do, so I'll just say that one of the most fascinating things about growing older is having more of life to look back on, a broader tapestry in which to find patterns.

Friday
Feb012013

Repost: A Manifesto

“It is six A.M., and I am working. I am absent-minded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.”

From Blue Pastures, by Mary Oliver

My college professor, perhaps my favorite, one who led me to write in such a way that my own writings, unbeknownst to me until far later, dovetailed uncomfortably with her own life, assigned her students this passage from Blue Pastures. Mary Oliver is never a bad way to begin a course on writing, but I can’t help wondering now, ten years later, whether she was intentionally frontloading us, giving us tools and information that would not come to fruition until, aptly, just now.

Let me explain: we were good writers, all of us, in a freshman year non-fiction writing class. We knew how to put together a sentence; we knew how to construct a line that would knock the socks off of our high school English teachers. And this knowledge had brought us to where we were, curled up awkwardly in stiff wooden chairs around an enormous wooden seminar table, deep in the bowels of institutional intellectual history--not far, in fact, from where the brave new psychologists of the 1950s had found that people not unlike us would shock others until the point of near-death if the man in white coat said so. That happened just around the corner, down a flight of stairs, back when the building had been the psych department.

But now it was the English department; the psych people had moved over, appropriately, to the base of Science Hill (always aspiring to be taken seriously by the hard scientists running down towards Commons from the nuclear labs), and we were there, at least twice a week, with our essays printed out and phrases turned and barely tamped-down egos. (The tamping would come, more fully, later on, after the towers crashed down and took the economy with them.) And we sat there, discussing Mary Oliver, as though we knew what we were talking about. My professor read her favorite passages as though the words had a taste to them, and we listened, nodding, professing awe at how she had gotten it right, just right.

Except. We had no fucking clue.

Click to read more ...

Tuesday
Dec112012

Why Are My Eyes Sad?

Not actually our tree, but still a Swedish Christmas tree.

So I bought a Christmas tree today from an Egyptian guy who had a bunch of them stuck out in the snow right by our house. It's a lovely tree, and it's currently in our apartment, upright, with two cats circling. (After all, not only is it a tree, but it came in with snow that they didn't have to go outside to experience.)

While he was wrapping it up in the tree-netting, though, after we'd discussed the relative merits of our home countries' political systems, he told me he wanted to ask me something.

Oh boy, I thought. Here we go. "Sure," I told him, preparing to turn down a date.

"Why do you have sad eyes?"

That one wasn't what I expected.

"Well, I don't know," I said finally. "I mean, I'm not actually sad."

"Ah, okay. Some people just have sad eyes. That must be it."

This wasn't the usual "Smile, gorgeous!" that creepy guys like to give women on the street now and then. And he didn't seem like a creepy guy. The conversation drifted to tree technicalities easily, and then I paid for the tree and dragged it home.

But this still begs the question: are my eyes actually sad? No one else has ever told me that. So either everyone has just been protecting me from the horrible truth, or maybe I really did look sad. The possibility that the young, lonely, cold guy who spoke no Swedish was trying to prolong the conversation and hit on me notwithstanding (my husband and my father, I know well, will pick this option), what could be causing sad-eyes?

1) Allergies. Definitely a contributing factor.

2) I'm deeply depressed but have no idea.

3) I was actually a little bummed about something just before I bought the tree and it showed on my face.

Yeah...it's number three (with a touch of number one). I didn't realize that it was going to be obvious, but as I walked from the mall to the tree place, I had just realized why I've been so reluctant to get to work this week. After a wonderfully productive retreat with the Stockholm Writers' Group, I now have a full draft. This will be (knock wood) one of the last full drafts of this book I ever write. In the new year, I'll send it off to my agent, and I hope with all sincerity that she'll then take it away to be sold.

In short, while the rest of you might get to enter this imagined world sooner rather than later, my own period of intimacy with it is almost done. For six years and change, I've been at it, off and on–but mostly on. I've spent so much time with these characters that they are as real to me as many famous real people out there I hear about but have never met. More real, even. And just now, just as I'm getting things to where I am really happy with what the book is and does, I have to send it away. Maybe it's kind of like sending a kid to preschool just after you get them toilet trained. And I do joke that I'll tell our kids (when they exist) that this book is their older sibling.

Jokes and comparision to kids aside, I know I can't be the first writer or artist to feel this way near the culmination of a large project. I'm actually pretty bad at finishing projects in general. I took a personality test once that gave you indices of how driven you supposedly are by all of these theoretically-motivating factors. And guess what I got for "Completing Things," or whatever it was called. Yes, that's right: 0. That was my lowest score, even lower than "Neatness." (Swear to god, Mom, it really was!) It's probably tied into why I write novels vs shorter pieces in the first place. This way, I get to sit with these characters and their world for years.

I wish for all possible success with this book, I really do. But it's still bittersweet to give it up.

Thursday
Feb092012

One Hundred Meals Without Mustard

“It is six A.M., and I am working. I am absent-minded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.”

From Blue Pastures, by Mary Oliver


My college professor, perhaps my favorite, one who led me to write in such a way that my own writings, unbeknownst to me until far later, dovetailed uncomfortably with her own life, assigned her students this passage from Blue Pastures. Mary Oliver is never a bad way to begin a course on writing, but I can’t help wondering now, ten years later, whether she was intentionally frontloading us, giving us tools and information that would not come to fruition until, aptly, just now.

Let me explain: we were good writers, all of us, in a freshman year non-fiction writing class. We knew how to put together a sentence; we knew how to construct a line that would knock the socks off of our high school English teachers. And this knowledge had brought us to where we were, curled up awkwardly in stiff wooden chairs around an enormous wooden seminar table, deep in the bowels of institutional intellectual history--not far, in fact, from where the brave new psychologists of the 1950s had found that people not unlike us would shock others until the point of near-death if the man in white coat said so. That happened just around the corner, down a flight of stairs, back when the building had been the psych department.

But now it was the English department; the psych people had moved over, appropriately, to the base of Science Hill (always aspiring to be taken seriously by the hard scientists running down towards Commons from the nuclear labs), and we were there, at least twice a week, with our essays printed out and phrases turned and barely tamped-down egos. (The tamping would come, more fully, later on, after the towers crashed down and took the economy with them.) And we sat there, discussing Mary Oliver, as though we knew what we were talking about. My professor read her favorite passages as though the words had a taste to them, and we listened, nodding, professing awe at how she had gotten it right, just right.

Except. We had no fucking clue. We talked about the writing life, we talked about committing ourselves to the noble cause of our art, but we didn’t know anything about the forces that come upon you after graduation, when there are suddenly bills that must be paid and you are, for the first true time, responsible for payment. We didn’t know what it was like to have someone besides yourself care about whether you’ve gotten the milk, whether you’ve mopped the floor, whether you’ve considered what they want to do as you come across the weekend and all you want to do is sleep, but you know you shouldn’t. We had (and many of us admittedly still do not have) no clue about what children ask of you and your time and your ability to even get that weekend sleep, to allow those proteins to fold precisely on the dotted line, as they should, so that when you awake you are a functional human being. Our meals were set out for us, lines of salad food, lines of deli meats, stacks of breads and bagels and buckets of cream cheese and tuna salad, pan-fried meat in strange glazes that we turned up our noses at, we cafeteria vegetarians, reaching for unlimited cereal, hot chocolate mix, ice cream, orange juice, coca cola, overcooked pasta and gloppy red sauces, imperfect, as we saw so clearly, but THERE, no chopping required, no shopping required; all that world asked of us was to partake, three times a day, provided that we got up early enough for breakfast. 

But the image of the mustard stayed with me. I promised myself then that I would never fall victim to its siren call. But I didn’t know—how could I know?—that there were things more attractive than mustard. There was the job, not quite art, but emotionally demanding and largely fulfilling. There was the idea of the ideal community you should create with your friends post-college, of even how many friends you should have, and how many of them should brew beer and make worm bins and throw all-local dinner parties--don’t all your college friends of friends have friends like that? What’s the matter with you? There was the call of official recognition, the kind that comes so easily in the academic world and so rarely, infrequently, when you are no longer there, and it makes you want to go back, and don’t certain kinds of lawyers achieve certain kinds of social good? There was, is always, the allure of the shock of pavement or trail on my sneakers and knees that keeps me sane (and isn’t sanity worth nearly all of its weight in gold?). And these things are important, but it falls to us only now, ten years on, to decide how important they really are.

And so I thank you, my professor. You were probably sitting there in class snickering behind your entirely-appropriate look of literary satisfaction and intellectual enjoyment. You were training us, I suspect, planting the seeds of ideas that didn’t matter much then, didn’t mean nearly as much to us as we thought they did, but they’ve stuck, at least in my mind. I take out my copy of Mary Oliver now, and I laugh when I can at my freshman year marginalia, at what I thought I knew. With several bumps in the road, I continue to write, and I continue, now that I have some idea of what it actually means, to commit myself, over and over (because so often I forget), to a writing life.