#mywritingprocess

aqua typewriter vintageHello, friends. I’ve been invited to do another blog Q&A, the #mywritingprocess blog tour. The last one was fun, and I really like the idea behind this one, which is to delve into each writer’s process.

I was tagged by Shauna Hambrick Jones, a writer whom I met at the Creative Nonfiction writing conference I attended last May in Pittsburgh. Shauna and I were assigned to the same workshop, after which we went for drinks and talked about grad school, business cards and other items of interest. Check out Shauna’s contribution to the blog tour at mentalshenanigans.com, in which she discusses kaleidoscopes, red wine, her memoir-in-progress, learning to blog and—on a serious note—how Freedom Industries’ recent spill of toxic chemicals into the West Virginia water supply have impacted her family and her work.

Thanks, Shauna! And away we go…

Continue reading #mywritingprocess

Advertisements

Start Now

dorothy writing

10 Steps to Becoming a Better Writer
Write.
Write more.
Write even more.
Write even more than that.
Write when you don’t want to.
Write when you do.
Write when you have something to say.
Write when you don’t.
Write every day.
Keep writing.
 ― Brian Clark

 

I started this blog last February, a couple weeks after my birthday, to document the experience of writing my first book. As I approach these anniversaries — birthday and blog — I can’t help but take stock of where I am (writing, writing, writing), how I got here (see here) and where I’m headed next (I want to sell The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures before 2013 draws to a close). Last week I wrote about pep talks. I kind of feel like this blog has been a yearlong pep talk to myself and anyone else who’s working hard at a creative project — or maybe just working hard at, like, life. These posts have been my inquiry into how to balance plugging away on something that’s going to take a while to finish and manage at the same time to feel some measure of contentment with life as it unwinds. Continue reading Start Now

grace

Cat Stretching

When I was in college I tried to wean myself off sleep. I’ve never functioned very well on less than eight hours of zzzs, and I’ve always been profoundly jealous at those who can. Sophomore year I came up with a plan to gradually reduce the amount I slept each night until I made it to – I’m not sure what my goal was – six hours? four? Turns out I’m not the only one who has had this brilliant idea. When I typed “can you train yourself to need…” into the search bar, Google right away suggested “less sleep.” This was followed by the even more ambitious, “Can you train yourself to not need sleep?” Wow. At all? Most researchers say that although individuals differ in the amount of sleep they need, a person can’t deprive herself of sleep without suffering things like fatigue, sadness, stress, anger and diminished performance. My own sleep experiment did not meet with success: I caught colds, suffered migraines and continually dozed off in the library until, bitterly disappointed, I went back to sleeping eight-ish hours a night.

This is how I’ve tended to approach most things in life. I value self-discipline, hard work, endurance. I set monster goals. If I’m not pushing myself to the limit – running faster on the treadmill, soaring across writing deadlines, checking off every last to do – I feel lazy. This leads to a lot of anxiety. It’s never – I’m never – enough. Recently, I was struggling through an intermediate level yoga class – though I’m new to yoga, I skipped the beginner classes, wanting to instantly master the fancy poses, the handstands, to get the most intense workout. We were working on some insane pose – flying pigeon, perhaps – and the instructor told us to find the place in between pushing really hard – like working really hard for it and trying to be a tough customer – and the place of sinking into the pose and sort of surrendering to it. I think she said a word to describe what this place is, but I can’t remember it. Nevertheless, the idea that there was such a place and that one might choose to rest in it, breathe into it without ferocious effort or sitting back on one’s laurels, that was a revelation.

I’ve been Googling phrases trying to find the term – the Sanskrit word for that yoga place between. No luck so far. But I did find “Playing the Edge,” an interesting reflection by a yogi named Erich Schiffman who writes that,

“Edges are marked by pain and define your limits. How far you can fold forward, for example, is limited by your flexibility edge; to go any further hurts and is actually counterproductive. The length of your stay in a pose is determined by your endurance edge. Your interest in a pose is a function of your attention edge.”

Schiffman suggests that you pay attention to these edges as they arise, that you notice them, breathe there, wait until your body tells you to deepen the pose.

I want to learn how to do this in life. I am always trying hard, working hard, getting very breathless. Schiffman asserts that if you have to steel yourself to get through your yoga practice, you’re pushing too hard; you’re fighting yourself. “Keep tabs on whether you are enjoying yourself or not,” he writes. “If not, why not? Find a way of doing the pose that is enjoyable.” It reminded me again of that day that I got nowhere close to flying pigeon – the yoga instructor told us to try to keep the beginnings of a smile on our face. Just the feeling of being about to smile.

Here’s the thing: I like my life. I like writing and teaching. I like spending time with my friends and boyfriend. I like my pets. I like taking care of them. I like taking care of my home and cooking good meals. I like exercising. But way too often, all of these good things add up to ohmygodhowamigoingtogetallofthisdonei’mfailingatlife?

So I’m going to work at finding that space between pushing and surrender. To keep tabs on whether I’m enjoying myself or not, and if not, to see what I can shift. To be interested in myself, in the moment and in what’s happening in it. And since I still don’t know what it’s called in Sanskrit – that in between place, that balancing of effort with ease – I’m going to call it grace.moon trees 2

Letting Go, Part 1

The last chapter in The Saltwater Twin (don’t hold your breath, friends, I’ve months to go yet) is going to be about letting go. It’s something I wish I were better at. It’s a little bit of a pickle, actually, because as a writer, it’s sort of my job to notice and hold and catalogue details, but as a human being who prefers to feel mostly happy and relatively untortured, I find letting go to be a useful skill. It’s something I keep having to learn, maybe the most important thing. As such, it seems like a fitting topic for the last chapter of a book that is something of a piecemeal memoir of my whole life so far.

It’s been a challenging month. (More on that in the next post.) This old song has been playing in my head. I couldn’t remember all the words, but I knew it was Irish; I thought The Clancy Brothers sang it. Yesterday I went online to find a version to download. Turns out “The Parting Glass” dates back to at least the 18th century, and The Clancy Brothers did often play it to end their concerts. There are different versions, of course, because it is an old, old song with, as it turns out, both Irish and Scottish roots, but here are a couple of the verses that are often sung:

Of all the money e’er I had,
I spent it in good company.
And all the harm I’ve ever done,
Alas! it was to none but me.
And all I’ve done for want of wit
To memory now I can’t recall
So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be with you all.

Oh, all the comrades e’er I had,
They’re sorry for my going away,
And all the sweethearts e’er I had,
They’d wish me one more day to stay,
But since it falls unto my lot,
That I should rise and you should not,
I gently rise and softly call,
Good night and joy be with you all.

Okay, so it makes sense why this song has been playing on the record player in my brain recently, since it’s about letting go – well, saying goodbye, anyway – for a short time or a long time or forever. The melody sounds sweet and old and wistful, like the song is trying to teach you how to let go gently before the last note fades. The Pogues did a rendition and The Wailin’ Jennys, The High Kings and, of course, The Clancy Brothers. I was listening to the latter when a thumbnail image in the margin caught my attention: “Bob Dylan: Thoughts on Liam Clancy.” I clicked. In the clip, Dylan tells a story about drinking pint after pint of Guinness with Clancy someplace in Greenwich Village when Clancy said to him, “Remember Bob, no fear, no envy, no meanness.”

Yes, I am now getting my life lessons from YouTube. Because that’s one of the best things I’ve ever heard. The best advice for writing and for life.

No fear. Yep. Fear suffocates. We are our best when we throw ourselves into our work wholeheartedly without worrying about the outcome. I, for example, don’t know what will happen when I finish this book. What if no one publishes it? No one reads it? What if I’m fooling myself that I have something worthwhile to say? There are a million what ifs. But I think I’m best, I’m smartest and happiest when I can let go of the fear that things won’t turn out the way I hope.

No envy. Yep. I’ve been reading a lot of essay and memoir while working on this book. The Saltwater Twin is a collection of personal essays, a new form for me. I want to get a sense of the ways it has been done, how best to assemble a collection of work, how to create a dynamic narrative arc from stories that felt random when they were happening, how to strike a satisfying balance between story and non-narrative (but hopefully still diverting) musings. Sometimes I envy the writers I’m reading. They’ve already published books. They already have fancy websites and checks from publishers and book signings with plastic cups of wine. That envy is a fruitless pursuit, and it leads, frequently, back to fear. Who am I to think I can do this thing?

No meanness. Ah. I like that meanness has multiple meanings. Meanness, as in unkindness, does not make good art. The voices that hiss “stupid” or “worthless” or “give up now” do not make me want to sit down and type. But neither does meanness as in stinginess. I can’t hold anything back. I want to give my whole self to the work – everything I have – and freely.  This goes for life, too, of course. You are a genius, Liam Clancy!

So, my lads and lasses, my comrades and sweethearts – letting go of fear, of envy, of meanness. Will you fill a glass and toast with me to that?

And Now, the Octopus

I’m working on a chapter that’s based on a monologue I performed a few years ago at Live Bait Theater in Chicago. Every summer, my friend Tekki, the artistic director of Tellin’ Tales Theatre, curates an evening of solo performance based on a theme. That particular year she titled the show “Potholes on the Path to Enlightenment,” and she asked us to write about an epiphany. That’s not really so hard, I thought: almost every story is about some kind of discovery – some little or big a ha! But she wanted it to be something pretty major, something that could, like, change your life. When I started working on the piece, I became a little obsessed with octopuses. For weeks, I read and wrote about octopuses. (By the way, octopuses is the correct plural – either that or octopodes. Octopi is frowned on by most references because the –pus derives from Greek and not Latin.) I wrote about an octopus I remembered from Sesame Street, which I watched as a kid. A man’s voice said, “And now, the octopus,” then this octopus swam around a tank for a minute, and that was it. Anyway, I was trying to write this piece about epiphany; I thought I should be writing about God, transcendence, the search for meaning, and I kept coming back to the octopus.

Figuring out what my brain is onto is one of my favorite parts of writing. The work is making clear the dot-to-dot of connections I’ve made in my head and finding a way to take the reader along on the journey. I don’t want to make it all too obvious or the reading won’t be any fun. But I can’t make it too obscure either – I can’t lead the reader into the woods and leave them with no trail to find their way back. I want the reader to make the discoveries I made in the living and the writing of the story – in this piece, for example, how the search for God and meaning relates to octopuses (also Clash of the Titans and Esther Williams).

An epiphany is an insight that comes about because of something ordinary. I probably watched my octopus on Sesame Street every day. It was ordinary. But the octopus itself, all rippling flesh and unfurling suckers was extraordinary. The octopus was an epiphany billowing across our black and white TV.  It said, wake up! Look at what’s out here in the world. Look and look and look.

Tell me, friends. What is it that makes you wake up and look?

the courage of your lungs

It’s June already. Summer is breathing down our necks. How did this happen? I’ve been working hard all spring, but teaching a full load of classes and workshops (oh, and trying not to be a hermit because that never ends well) has meant that I’ve only completed one 7,000 word chapter, “Law of the Jungle” over the past several weeks. But summer’s nearly here, and that makes me feel energized and alive and ready to run. I know just a few weeks ago I wrote a post “In Praise of Slowness,” but now I’m kind of in the mood to go fast. Not a teeth-gritted-when-is-this-hell-going-to-be-over kind of fast, but the kind when your body just begs you to run.

One afternoon this spring I asked the students in my after school program to write images that showed relationships. They wrote of grandmothers dancing at family reunions, a woman chasing a man and throwing her high heels at him, a father marveling over his infant son’s feet. One student wrote: Two girls running, the wind blowing their hair back.”

(If you want to, you can pretend you’re listening to the “Chariots of Fire” theme as you read the rest of this post.)

That’s the kind of running I mean – when your lungs ache and your legs get a mind of their own, running like a kid, running toward nothing. The goal is not the goal, you just open up and run like a smiling dog on the beach. So that is my summer plan. I have a goal in mind. It’s a big goal, a lot of chapters. But I’m going to set my mind on running for the joy of running and see how that works out.  And when my lungs ache I will remember running in my college town through fields of corn you could practically hear growing, wisps of clouds in the sky, worn pavement rising to meet my feet.  I’ll revel in my fleet feet, my capacity to move and breathe and feel the sun and wind on my skin.

This summer I’m running. Who’s in?

You could go in any direction, fast or slow as you wanted, fighting the wind if you felt like it, seeking out new sights just on the strength of your feet and the courage of your lungs.

                                                                                                        – Jesse Owens

listen

I’m working on “Law of the Jungle” which I’m thinking is going to be chapter three of The Saltwater Twin, and I feel like it’s taking forever. It’s one of those essays I’m pretty much figuring out as I go along. With chapters like this, I start out with a sense of the general direction, but the writing is investigative, exploratory, the terrain shifting. I’ll get an impulse to include some image or anecdote, then have to figure out why and how it’s connected to the other stuff I’ve put in. It’s like assembling a puzzle but first having to find the pieces; there’s a lot to sift through, and I have to ask each piece where it belongs and listen to what it says.

My mind is a noisy place sometimes…fine, almost all the time. Today, for example, it is saying that the cemetery I saw on my drive out to Palatine, IL to teach five workshops looks beautiful in the rain and also I love cemeteries and also I’m remembering certain magical cemeteries in Paris and New Orleans and walking through them when it was cold and when it was hot and my mind is saying remember, I have to get a cashier’s check to send in for my health insurance and should I get some vegan cake and also I need to do some fairy tale research for the Lyric Opera study guide maybe on Bettelheim and I’m recalling how my neighbor’s bitchy bunny sounded when he hissed at me when I put his salad in his cage and I didn’t even know bunnies hissed and my mind is also saying rain! I love the rain, also I need to get to the gym and why is it so hard and also I want to sleep and also what if after all this work this book never gets published, what then and also what do people eat on backpacking trips because I’m going backpacking for the first time ever in a few weeks? It’s like my brain is a concert hall where the orchestra is tuning up and the lady next to me is unwrapping candy and I’m in the middle of 360 degrees of conversations about workdays and affairs and trains, and amid the noise, I have to listen for the voice that is telling me the story of the thing I’m trying to write.

It helps to remember a quote I love from Martha Graham.  (Ever since I read it a few years back, I’ve pretty much plastered it all over the place, including my artist page at urbangateways.org, the non-profit that sent me out to do those Palatine workshops.) Graham says,

There is a vitality, a quickening that is translated through you into action and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, not how it compares with other expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.

First of all, I love the word and concept of “a quickening,” a coming into being, coming alive. Second, she’s so clear: your job is simply to translate your own voice.

I like it when the things I want or need to do to earn a living or achieve something I want to achieve are also the things I believe I need to learn to be a better human being. This lesson is about listening, getting still, paying attention to what matters in the moment. Trusting your voice to emerge. Those are good things to learn.

How do you pay attention to what matters? And what does your voice say in the stillness?

tarry a moment

My evil genius Procrastination has whispered me to tarry ’til a more convenient season.
Mary Todd Lincoln

Oh, Mary Todd, you were so right.  Procrastination is an evil genius. Once I procrastinated by looking up procrastination. It derives from the Latin, procrastinare, to delay until tomorrow. Synonyms: delay, put off doing, adjourn, be dilatory, cool, dally, dawdle, defer, drag, drag one’s feet, give the run around, goldbrick, hang fire, hesitate, hold off, lag, let slide, linger, loiter, pause, play a waiting game, play for time, poke, postpone, prolong, protract, retard, shilly-shally, stall, stay, suspend, tarry, temporize, wait…

I am actually not procrastinating today.  At least not right this minute. I’m writing this blog post just like I said I would, and then I’m going to work on revisions for chapters one and two of The Saltwater Twin. But sometimes I do.  Procrastinate.  It happens. And it comes in so many flavors. Here, for your delectation, or in case you are interested in procrastinating yourself, are some of my favorite interwebs spots to visit when I ought to be doing other things.

At the speech accent archive you can listen to people speaking English with almost any accent under the sun. Why do I love this so much?  I don’t know.  But I do.

Here are the sounds of so many kinds of animals.  Extra fun: turn up the volume if you have a dog (maybe even a cat) and watch him cock his head to the side. Also, here’s where to find out what people say in different languages to mimic animal sounds.

Watch the All Blacks rugby team doing the haka on youtube. This makes me very happy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

At freerice.com you can take quizzes and donate rice.  Genius.

Browse etsy.com to buy one of a kind things and support artisans and craftspeople all over the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Look at cute animals.  It raises your endorphins. So it’s actually good for you. And it will probably help you do a better job on whatever it is you finally intend to get around to doing.

I think a little procrastination is okay. Growing crops season after season without a break depletes the soil. Farmers let a field lie fallow to allow the land to renew itself. So I try not to be mad at myself when procrastination happens, and I try to build in some time for it so I don’t snap and go on a three-day bender.

How about you?  Favorite flavors of procrastinating?

finding the trail

Image

Friends, I love me some research.

It’s just so satisfying finding stuff out about stuff.

While writing this latest chapter, I’ve looked up the paleo-diet which recommends that you eat the way our Paleolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors supposedly did (my favorite proponent is this guy whose catchphrase is “Die biting the throat;” you can get it on a t-shirt!), Isaiah 11: 6-8 (The wolf shall lie down with the lamb and so on), Quakers, how long it takes to grill a rare steak, if fish are capable of feeling pain, evolution and natural selection and, as I wrote about in this space a couple weeks ago, predatory animals, especially the ones that sometimes eat humans.

I’ve come to think that even if it seems like procrastination at times, research is a fundamental part of my writing process.  I’m trying to emulate one those super wilderness scouts who can look at the-ever-so-slightly-bent twig or the barely-there footprint and gauge exactly how far off whatever you’re looking for is and what it had for lunch.

Admittedly, I do sometimes get a bit sidetracked.  The other day I was looking up Edward Hicks’ famous painting “The Peaceable Kingdom,” which my mom always used to take us to see at the National Gallery of Art in D.C., and which always fascinated me not only because of the animals’ really odd expressions but also because they were playing with those weird-looking, early American folk art babies…Image

and then I had to read about Quakers because Edward Hicks was a famous Quaker and then I started thinking, wow, I’ve always thought Quakers were really cool and maybe I should be a Quaker and then I started looking up Quaker meetings in Chicago —

that was maybe a tich off the beaten path.

So I try to balance research and writing.  But when I stumble across some semi-hidden sign, catch a trace scent in the air that leads me to a brand new thought or connection or story, it’s really kind of thrilling.  I don’t know if I’ll find exactly what I’m looking for (a thorough understanding of why and how everything in the world universe is what it is and does what it does) but at least I’ll have an account of the expedition.