Posts Tagged ‘Writing Life’

Bookmark it

February 21st, 2008    -    16 Comments


Updated to note the first come, first served below:

Jena tagged me for the meme that I’ve seen a number of you do already. Like most exercises, it is useful. I am to take the book closest to me and open it to page 123, then go to the fifth sentence and quote the next three sentences, or some such. I’m not being too exact with these instructions because, well, I wasn’t too exact when I did this and you’ll see that it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we do it at all, and the how just takes care of itself.

I honestly did reach for the book closest to me here at my desk. It is a book that sits, indeed lives, under my desk. A number of books live under my desk, because literally and figuratively, that’s where my writing grows out of: the underneath. A box of books I wrote sits under my desk. But the book closest isn’t one I wrote. It is a book that I endeavor to rewrite daily through my life itself. It is my muse and inspiration, “The Way of Everyday Life” by Maezumi Roshi. This happens to be a self-published publication from 1978. It is out of print. And because it has that circa-1978 zen spin, it doesn’t even have page numbers. So I turned to what I would like to think is page 123 and I scrolled down a bit and chose not three but four sentences:

Some people think that until they complete their practice and attain enlightenment, they can’t help other people. But such a time will never come, because practice is our life itself, and continues endlessly. So, according to the demands of each situation, we do our best. That’s our way.

We do our best. That’s not only our way, it’s the only way. We are always doing our best. When I see these words, so simple and clear, I want to weep for all the times that I have forgotten them.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading (and writing) lately. Because of these appetites and my deep belief in the beneficent and reciprocal power of circulation, I have books to pass on to you. This post gives me a way – the best way – to offer up some fine paperback reads for your taking, and this is the only kind of tagging I do. I will send any of these by very cheap, excruciatingly slow media mail service to anyone who claims a title by name in a comment. Then email me separately with your address. Please take only one so more can benefit. I enjoyed them all in their own original way. According each to its situation, they were the best. The one you choose will be the best for you. That is our way.

The books have been claimed by the following readers, many of whom pledge to pass their copies along in good faith, and whether they do or not it will be good enough. I am delighted to have heard from so many first-time commenters and I encourage you to keep coming so together we can keep going:

A Map of the World by Jane Hamilton/The Conspirator
Handling Sin by Michael Malone/Mama Zen
Life of Pi by Yann Martel/Jennifer The Word Cellar
Oil by Upton Sinclair/Kathryn
Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan/Someone Being Me
Snow Flower and The Secret Fan by Lisa See/Kirsten Michelle
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón/Jena
Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett/Backpacker Momma

Turning words

February 12th, 2008    -    5 Comments


In 2003 – March 16, 2003 to be exact, because I still have the paper– I drew a Wheel of Life as I described in yesterday’s post. My daughter was then two and a half years old. Under my “Career” aspect I wrote “Power of Pen.” I can recall being uncertain and inhibited about my ambition, but I was asking for something invigorating to come from my writing. I drew a quick sketch of an open book with little squiggly lines and a pen on top. The next day, a former PR client called me and asked if I’d be interested in writing a book with a man whose last name happened to be Power.

I had never written a book. I had written many things – articles, papers, brochures, websites, speeches, business plans – but I had never written anything published in my own name so that I could credibly call myself an author. Awed by the coincidence, I said yes to the invitation. Over the next weeks and months, I met and spoke to a series of people involved in the project so they could assess my ability. It was a very long shot, but each presentation was the opportunity for me to believe my own b-s about myself. In the end, not surprisingly, we didn’t do a book together. But by the end, I knew that there was a book to be done by myself. The little power trip was to empower myself.

This is the kind of thing that comes out of the wheel. Not always so immediately, so glaringly, but in its own time and fashion. Everything, you see, turns on the wheel. Just this weekend as I was fomenting this topic, it came to me how psychically and spiritually powerful the circle is. Familiar with the enneagram? Fascinating. The Celtic wheel? The labyrinth? The bagua? A mandala? We all know the wheel of the zodiac. How about the dharma wheel? And then there’s that little cheerio close to my heart, the enso. The list goes on and on, and it isn’t a list, but a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

It’s your life in motion.

I would write more but I’m already inspired to move beyond. And you are too.

All of the above

January 25th, 2008    -    12 Comments

I did a little something different here this week because:

A. I was busy elsewhere.
B. I hadn’t read this old writing in about 10 years.
C. When I see it now I see it with new eyes: the pictures, the words, the recollections, the purity, the pain, the truth, the teaching, the wisdom that was waiting on the page all along.
D. I don’t want you to worry about yourself or your children. I don’t want you to worry that they won’t know a grandparent or have picture perfect happiness or a certain kind of memory. I don’t want you to worry that your skills are lacking, or that your children will end up hollow or ruined because of something said or done, or because of something that wasn’t said or done.
E. Tell me, please tell me that you see what hangs so clearly from this tree, what hangs from every tree, the only living thing that lasts, what refreshes and nourishes us forever, what we carry from day to day and season to season in an undiminished supply, that we need only reach up with our own hand to take and taste as our own.
F. Love.

A happy girl

January 24th, 2008    -    10 Comments

First, a shout out to the wonderful parents at Serra Preschool in San Clemente, Calif., for welcoming me so graciously on a wet and wild Wednesday night. Your attention made me feel at home. And on that note, I’ll conclude this week’s story.

Home became a distant thing. She would write “Santa Monica” in the blank besides Birthplace, all those vowels imparting a faraway status. But they hardly ever returned there until they never went back at all. Her grandparents became faint and frail, even by phone. Grandma died first, a long and lonely departure. Then grandpa came to Texas for his turn. He was stooped and stale and forgetful, forgetting even to buckle his belt, since he couldn’t unbuckle it again. She had learned more about him by then. She had learned who he wasn’t. He wasn’t big and never had been, being a half-foot short of six feet tall. By then a young woman, she had already begun to choose big boys and men to stand beside, only later realizing the misperception. To a four-year-old, five-foot-six was big enough.

She held fast to what she later learned, the family secrets and perpetual failings, and forgot the rest. She forgot about California. Only recently, in the long sad summer which had just ended, and at the suggestion of a counselor running thin on weekly advice, had she looked through grandma’s photo albums, now in her closet, with open eyes. She saw herself again, and she was stunned. I was a happy girl.

A smithereen heap

January 23rd, 2008    -    8 Comments


Later, when she wasn’t near as small or cute anymore, but grandpa still glowed at the sight of her, her mom and dad moved to Texas. It was the week after Bobby Kennedy was shot right there in LA and on TV. Her dad had moved out first and alone, starting a new job and finding them a brand new Texas house with each their own bedroom and furniture. Her big sister graduated from eighth grade and they loaded up the new Ford Torino station wagon, her mom and the girls. They drove off and left California, the oranges and grandpa and grandma. Somewhere in Arizona or New Mexico, they heard a thudding crash and pulled over on the highway to see her mom’s master’s degree typewriter, a sacred thing, a centerpiece of their lives and a fixture on the dining room table for as long as they could remember, smashed in a smithereen heap in the middle of the road. It had flown off the wagon roof. Things weren’t tied down so good after all.

Her mom stood helplessly on the roadside in the desert wind. Watching from the backseat, she stifled tears for her mother, the tears she would cry in her princess canopy bed to the late night shouts in the living room in the years to come.

Milk and sugar cubes

January 23rd, 2008    -    2 Comments


Those might be any of the days but every night ended in the same way, doused in the ritual scent of Old Spice. Grandpa shaved in the evenings because he got up before dawn. Oranges were a life but they weren’t a living. He worked for Union Oil Company on Torrey Mountain, wearing blue work pants and carrying a painted black lunch box and when he got up in the dark to do it, she got up with him. He would fix a cup for him and her too in a tiny Tupperware tumbler, mostly milk and two sugar cubes, and they would face the coming day together in a fearless way, sipping coffee and sitting side-by-side in silence on the davenport.

And if it could ever be so, this was a place where leaving, even the leaving, was the best part of all. Grandpa would load them in his car for the two-minute drive up to the two-bit migrant town, park along the stubby curb and open the screen door to Lechler’s Grocery. These are my girls, Harry, he’d announce, as the three little ones shyly advanced on the cool cement floor. Harry would then fix up three identical bags of penny candy, precious cargo for the long trip home with mom and dad. When the dentist decreed and mom imposed, grandpa replaced the forbidden candy with two dollars each cash spending money and still took the girls to Lechler’s just for the showing off.

Yes I can taste it

January 22nd, 2008    -    7 Comments


And then there were the rose bushes, giant, taller than her with blooms that dwarfed her head when her grandma propped her there in her white gloves and patent leathers for an Easter snapshot. There was the honeysuckle vine that crept up over the shade arbor, eventually collapsing it, with the tiniest little filament right there, that one, that she pulled so carefully and touched to her tongue yes yes I can taste it. There were the tree swings and the black barrel barbecue for roasting marshmallows, the orange push-up popsicles kept in the freezer drawer. No evening without ice cream, no sir, gallons and gallons of Knudsen’s vanilla for grandpa and her, which might have been the death of him, but which she could take on the back porch in an ice-cold bowl carefully carefully and if it was still light, mash and stir to a frothy soup in the game called Making a Cake for President Kennedy.

There were long, sunny days with water sprinkler chases and front-room dance recitals, LP singalongs to Marty Robbins or Patsy Cline and black pitted olives in a glass dish on the supper table. She popped the olives like palace guard hats on her fingertips and ate them off one by one. Most everyone frowned at that but not him. He laughed out loud and so she did it every time, his Irisher.

Letter from home

January 20th, 2008    -    9 Comments


Because these are the days when we watch for the oranges to ripen, and I can once again see them about to burst.

Home was once a funny word, since it was rarely the place that she lived.

She had been born in California, the granddaughter of a big-shouldered Illinois Irishman who’d come to the golden brink and ended up in all ways empty-handed. She was one of three little granddaughters, all loved so true that none doubted she was grandpa’s favorite, or that his house was where they belonged.

At home with mom and dad was a prickly kind of place, where the air sometimes froze and the ground swayed and the safest place to be was tucked out of sight. You could find her there, or you might forget to look.

At grandpa’s was different. It was a little patch of parched ground at the end of the road called the Road to Grandpa’s, an hour or so up the way from their starter house in LA and long after the littlest one in the backseat asked, “Are we still in California?” Grandpa’s was a tidy four-room box of a white and yellow handmade house in an orange grove ocean with a mountain in the distance, a mountain with a name they all knew, because grandpa always called it by name, Torrey Mountain, like he called everything by name, the names he gave if there were none, to pet pigeons and doves and chickens and the rooster and duck and dogs, sometimes cats, her grandmother, her sisters and her, the one he called My Little Irisher.

They would tumble out of the wagon on these, which must have been weekly trips when she was young, and her parents were achingly young and the cord that connected them all was noose tight but not yet torn. Tumble into the dusty earth and the endless rows of oranges which she knew stretched on forever at least until the highway way far away which was where grandpa’s two-acre spread played out.

First, yes there were the oranges, very special oranges which would be the very Sunkist oranges that you saw advertised on TV, which must be irrigated on rare and significant days known as Irrigation Days which were serious from beginning to end and produced the most luscious grade of mud which they were allowed to slog and squish through calf-high in the game known as Grand Central Station, these little raggedy girls having no earthly idea what a grand or a central or a station might otherwise be.

First there were the oranges. And then, and then.

Return to sender

January 18th, 2008    -    12 Comments


And so we come to the end of our series on writing, the day that we confront the rather convincing body of evidence that no one likes you, no one wants to read you, no one wants to publish you and you’ll never work in this town again.

No, no, no, no, no, no. A million times no.

First you start showing people your work. No.
Then you start sending queries. No.
Then you try an essay or article. No.
Then you start sending proposals or manuscripts. No.

Not at this time. Not a right fit. Not a good match. No.

I mean yes.

Because every one of these dead ends is a beginning. Seriously. This is not cotton candy rainbow fairy talk. Every time you hear no, every time the door slams, it swings back open just a crack and gives you a glimpse of where you should go. And it’s never that far away.

Sure, every time I went to the inbox or the mailbox and saw that SASE shoot me straight back through the heart, I fell hard. I fell face first. I laid there in the dirt. I rolled in it; I covered myself in it; I was filthy dirty low. Then eventually I’d get up and dust off.

“I’m giving up!” I’d tell my husband as I crept back to the desk, opened a file and started over. We tell ourselves that these blind, idiotic, insensitive, stupid editors and agents are blind, idiotic, insensitive and stupid. But they are usually right. It really isn’t the time, fit or match. You really haven’t finished. You really aren’t ready. You still have a little turn or two to make.

Rejections usually point you to the last place you want to go, dammit. To the place you’re afraid of exploring in your work, to the discipline and the form, to the point you’re afraid to make, to the authority you’re afraid to claim, to the resistance you so stubbornly clutch.

One day I really did give up. I stopped trying to sound like someone I wasn’t. I stopped hiding from who I really was. I stopped making stuff up! The very place you fear you are lacking is your source of hidden treasure. Go there.

If you’re afraid to start, start.
If you’re afraid to say it, say it.
If you’re afraid to cut it, cut it.
If you’re afraid to send it, send it.
If you’re afraid to try, try.
If you’re afraid to change it, change it.
If you’re afraid to let go, let go.
If you’re afraid to give up, give up. It won’t be the last of you!

No matter where it leads, trust your life completely and you’ll end up someplace new. In that spirit, I make a deep bow to the glorious eye, hand and heart of Denise, who just this week proved my point in multitude. Not only did she give this gift to her beautiful pregnant friend Stacie, they both gave the gift back to me. You see it here. And that’s how it always ends. I mean begins.


Photo Credit: Boho Photography

The daily dose

January 17th, 2008    -    8 Comments


Overdosed on all this talk about writing? Try reading something else. You won’t lose any time and you’ll end up in the same place only better.

We all know that good readers make good writers. You’ll be more limber, daring, confident and inspired by reading good writing.

A few days ago Kelli at the Zen of Motherhood gave me a Daily Dose award. Despite the family resemblance, she and I are very different, but we always see eye to eye. In the world of no coincidence, her gift was no coincidence. It inspired me to tell you this story.

One summer when my book proposal was stuck in reverse, I lost all drive. After a year of rejections, I wasn’t sure what I had to say anymore and why anyone like me should say it. I was no writer. I had nothing new to contribute. And so I set aside My Writing Failure and took up reading instead. I devoted the summer to reading women fiction writers to see what I could see. I wanted to hear their voices, and how they managed to find one. And when they found a voice how they managed to keep one. I picked one writer at a time and I read every title of theirs at my little public library. Thank heaven for little towns with little libraries. And what I saw was that these great, original, fearless women weren’t contributing anything new. Or at least the stories weren’t new. The point of view was new. They were contributing themselves, their lives, in work after work, as only they could. They were writing from experience, from memory, from sense and scenery so intimate and real that it could only have come from the landscape of their own lives.

I started with the immensely popular and readable Elizabeth Berg, who captures the words, thoughts, and whispers of modern women so transparently. I read Anne Tyler’s many stories of misfits and misfortunes on what seemed to be the same funky street in Baltimore. I read Alice Munro, the Canadian short storyist, capture the vast and humbling spaces of emotional distance. I read others, and then I quit going to the library for a while.

I had read myself back to writing again. And like the authors I’d read, I would write life as I saw it.

So I pass the Daily Dose award (non-pharmaceutical variety) on to Elizabeth, Anne, and Alice. To Willa and May. To Arundhati, Amy, Lisa, Margaret, Eudora and Jane. To Flannery, Tillie, Jhumpa and Louisa May. To Toni, Isabel, Charlotte, and Joyce Carol. To the really good book sitting under your coffee cup.

Lift your cup and fill yourself up with a premium brew. You can’t get enough of the good stuff.

Writing time

January 16th, 2008    -    9 Comments


“How did you find time to write a book when your daughter was little?” This is the question I’m asked most frequently. The answer is: I didn’t. First, I never found any time. Second, I didn’t think I was writing a book. And so third, the writing took me a very long while. If I’d had any expectations, I would have failed them all.

That sounds dismissive, but it contains truths that we have a terrible time seeing. The time is always now. There is no hidden time someplace else; no extra time we can uncover or clear. No way to push or pry it free. Time is never apart from us. Time is just us. Time management is self-management. Now, how do you manage yourself? I hope you’re kind, patient and forgiving, because how you manage yourself is how you manage to write.

Shawn, who is busy enough as a working writer but also busy enough as a mother of two-year-old twins, asks how I blend my life with blogging, writing-for-hire and writing for myself. I don’t have to do any blending. It blends itself. What appears before me is the thing that I take care of. It’s just not always what I wish it to be.

Although I write all kinds of things, I do not distinguish between them, just as Shawn does not distinguish between the love she feels for one daughter and the love she feels for another. I do not have a particular voice for one thing and a particular voice for another thing, I just have my voice. With practice, writers develop a virtuoso range. With practice, I glide through my range with relative ease. What I never do is contrive or falsify my voice. I practice writing anything and everything. The more I write the more I write, so I welcome any opportunity to write.

What I also try to avoid is judging one type of writing as more elevated than another, as in writing a Book. Or a Novel. Or an Article. Or just a Journal or a Blog. When I do that, in the very labeling, I set my writing apart from me and my life as it is. Besides, sometimes I lift the words from one place and I find they fit perfectly in another. It’s all one place.

Now, which one do I pick up and work on? The one that needs doing, according to the circumstance. To determine the need, I use circumstances as they are, not my preferences, which are by nature ego-driven and therefore highly suspect. If I have a deadline, I meet it. If someone calls or emails and asks, “When do you think you’ll have that done?” I finish it up. If it’s time to cook, clean, drive, play, shop, rake, I do that first. Not always happily, but always. To do otherwise, to set up my writing up as a priority output and my life as the obstacle, is to do what a friend observed recently as being “at war with me wherever I go.”

I don’t want to be at war with myself or my family or my home or my work; that’s why I don’t go for arbitrary, self-imposed deadlines or sign up for 30-day writing marathons. Yes, by all means, practice your writing, but don’t brutalize yourself. Don’t be hard on yourself unless you know that you need a kick in the ass. Pain comes from that kind of pressure and punishment – pain too easily spread. Few of us need more bruises. Let your writing be fluid and joyful, let it be spontaneous and useful, and then your life will be too. Or at least a little more bearable.

Practically speaking, there are times when I need to hire help or get away to write. But they are few, and only when the circumstances require. I went away for the weekend when I started writing what ended up as a book. I spent two days and wrote 1,200 words. I went away for the weekend when my manuscript was due. I spent two days and wrote 12,000 words. Four years came between them. The funny thing is, both times I thought that I was finished!

I understand a writer’s romance with writing. I understand a mother’s romance with a life beyond. When Georgia was little, I wanted desperately to break free into another life for myself – a life of merit, worth and recognition. I didn’t then and I haven’t yet. I still have troublesome ambition but what I no longer have is a troublesome baby. So where does the trouble come from?

There’s time now and time yet for writing. One day soon you’ll have more of it. In the meantime, write when you can, whatever you can. Don’t judge, don’t weigh, don’t measure. Write now, and let the outcome arrive on its own. It always does. Imagine your surprise when you find out it’s all yours.

Sprinkles on top

January 15th, 2008    -    8 Comments


To study words you must know the origin of words. – Dogen Zenji

I love words. I love it when people love my words. If I could eat and breathe words I would be happy. If I could make my living with words I would be ecstatic. Unfortunately, the business I’m in isn’t about the words, but about what’s underneath.

What exactly am I trying to say?

I’m so fond of my own language that the hardest part of writing is not starting or finishing. The hardest part is changing a measly word, particularly if it’s not my idea to do so. I’m attached at the tongue to my own cleverness. I mistake the notes for the melody, the brushstrokes for the painting, the rainbow sprinkles for the cupcake underneath. Ever taste just the sprinkles? Do and you’ll see that it’s not about them.

So what’s the point here?

A long time ago I got a fortune in a cookie that said, “Cleverness is serviceable for some things, but sufficient for nothing.” Left to my own cleverness, I can string together pearls like, well, a string of pearls. A very long string of pearls. With no clasp on either end, and no way for anyone to get any use out of it. But such a pretty string of pearls! Doesn’t that count?

You’re losing me.

When I’d first assembled 50 or so pages of early writing, not knowing a thing about publishing, I judged the writing to be so good, so obviously special, that I sent it to an agent. Not an agent I knew, but an agent whose name I’d overheard from a neighbor at my three-year-old’s swimming lesson. This agent was so kind to reply at all, even with a gentle refusal, to this mound of – what, sprinkles? – and give me my first awakening. It’s not about the words.

Are we getting any closer?

Of course we use the words, because it’s all we have to work with. Words are the only way we can approach the unsayable essence. But we don’t exactly write our way there; it is more like unwriting. We dive back into the mush of our muddled language to extract the pure shine. Every time we’re sent by critics and editors and unguarded husbands back to the keyboard it’s to find the source under our skin, the precise truth beneath our words that anyone and everyone recognizes. That’s the one that looks good enough to eat.

And tastes great too.

Not by the book

January 14th, 2008    -    12 Comments


You should look after water and grain with compassionate care, as though tending your own children without expecting any result or gain. – Dogen Zenji

Perhaps you have children. Remember when you were trying to conceive, and you thought it was only about getting pregnant? Or how about when you were pregnant, and it was only about having a baby? Then the baby was born and all your expectations were obliterated in the first week of terror and chaos. But I only wanted a baby, you might have inwardly wailed, as if you could straighten out a terribly mixed-up order. What you got was a life, a whole new wonderful awful horrible miserable magnificent life – yours– that you could never have imagined before.

We never quite arrive at the outcome that we have in mind, because nothing is quite what we think it is. It is so much more, and it keeps going!

Before too long we forget about the outcome and focus instead on tending the baby before us with compassionate care, and without expecting any result or gain. (I’m raising a daughter. We’re both happy I don’t think I’m raising a pianist.)

The book you’re thinking about? It’s not about the book. There might well be a book that surfaces some day, a couple hundred pages pressed between two cardboard ends, but writing a book isn’t about a book. The book is a word for your life, the vast, unknowable dynamic process of turns and trips and thumps, that transforms you as you go along, as you go along becoming more of yourself. Somewhere along this road, somewhere well after you begin and before you end, you might finally be born as a storyteller and a writer; you might arrive at an authentic voice, an enlivened heart. You might finally see, in the very light of your day and in the words on your screen, that you have something to say. And that only you could say it.

But if you think you know that before you start out, I will say with unwavering emphasis: You are wrong. It’s true that mechanistic and unartful things get written that way: by the book. And there are probably 99,000 mechanistic and unartful books published every year. But that’s not what you aim to write, do you? Leave that to the experts!

You stand before a stove with a soup pot and a spoon. What will you put in? Everything you’ve got. How will it taste? You’ll find out as you go along. How will you know what’s next? You’ll know it when you see it. How long will it take? Long past the time you get hungry but before you’re dead. How do I start? You already have.

If you happen to have read this far and you aren’t writing a book, know for a fact that you are. Everyone is writing a book. And the book is called your life. You are the writer and you are the reader, and – no flipping to the last page first! – you don’t know how it will end.

***

This week we’re talking about writing. Send me your questions, and we’ll turn them into something you can swallow.

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