Category Archives: writing

“You Need More Art in Your Life”

I had a lovely moment of serendipity today. I don’t believe that “the universe provides” for those who ask — unless the universe seriously hates the Congo and has a mad crush on upper-middle-class Unitarians — but I do believe that having ears that hear and eyes that see happens more often when you know what you’re looking for.

Last night I had dinner with my husband while my girls were out trick-or-treating with other friends, and I took advantage of the time between my girl-tini and the arrival of the sushi platter to talk to him about the stuff I thought I might figure out by writing (sporadically) on this blog. In short: how did I wake up this side of 40 somewhere I didn’t plan to be, and how do I get somewhere else, somewhere I like a little better?

I don’t believe in trying to reclaim your younger self, but as I said to him over little scallop purses, there was a time when I paid more attention to making things and making them well, and learning things, and mastering them. When it didn’t seem the point of the day was to get to the end of it as quickly as possible, ideally — oh, the high standards! — with enough energy left to watch a sitcom before going to bed.

“You need more art in your life,” he said: art as in making, art as in beauty, art as in creating something for the sake of creation.

Today while I was cleaning up in the basement, I found stacks of old notebooks, mostly containing useless notes about ancient freelance projects. But in one of them I happened to find this. It’s so old I can almost share it without being too embarrassed, like a poem by a relative rather than something of my own. It’s a poem I wrote, no revisions, for no reason, 10+ years ago. It’s not great, but that’s the thing: I made it to make it. And it’s about doing things just to do them.

Housekeeping

These days
I sweep my floor like
my daughter does . . .
Not yet two, she gently
strokes the hardwood with a hairbrush
or maybe a comb.

Her purpose is not to whisk away
the dirt, the crumbs, the onion skins,
but to care for the floor,
lovingly,
like you might pet a cat,
like I might stroke her brown hair
while she sleeps,
imparting a tender blessing.

I can’t go back to being the person who wrote that poem: the person who was waking up from a terrible depression, or the person who was, consequently, falling in love with being a mom and discovering an earthy, messy joy in a way of life that had seemed, only a few years before, a lame consolation prize in the race to the top. I can’t be her anymore than I can be a teenager again, but I can remember some things that she knew.

Finding that poem reminded me that I know how to have art in my life. Everybody does; we’re born that way. Why I stopped, I don’t know. Stuff gets away from you. But starting again doesn’t have to be a big deal. I’d like to start playing Chopin again, or publish a book of essays, or audition for a play, but I can also just pick up a pen and a notebook, or a broom.

After dinner last night we went to pick up one of our girls, drank some wine with friends, and then drove home singing Elvis songs. The day had been insanely long, and almost 4 hours of it had been spent driving in construction and traffic. My most creative act of the day was making green cupcake frosting, most of which ended up in the trash anyway. I stretched out on the sofa to watch 30 Rock but I couldn’t get to the end; my eyes kept closing and then the storyline kept changing in nonsensical ways until my husband woke me up and told me to go to bed. It was a fine day, but no art. Not even a wakeful sitcom viewing.

There’s been precious little art in this day too, but I still have about 4 hours to go. What will it be: the salad? a little piano practice? another poem for the archives?

And you: do you have enough art in your life?

Stuckety Stuck Stuck

I’ve been feeling stuck for awhile now. What is most relevant to 40Questions is my feeling of stuckness as it relates to what’s going on in my head and in my life and how that translates to my fingers being stuck in the absence of motion above my keyboard.

I’ve been a writer all my life, but not consistently. I have often gone through long stretches of time where the only actual writing on paper or computer is grocery lists, essential emails, and in recent years, Facebook posts. It’s true that I’ve always been a mental writer (ha) in the sense that even long complicated assignments were often composed entirely in my head for days before the deadline and then flowed out, nearly in finished form. But in this case, that’s not what is happening. Or, at least, I don’t think that’s what’s happening.

Instead, I’m dealing with some harsh, unkind demons. I’m dealing with the critical voices that live in my head that cause my shy and private self to self-protect against exposing myself to others. When Mina kindly asked me to join her in writing a blog, I felt honored and…terrified. I love to write, and I love the feeling of connecting with others through writing, but I hate exposing myself. My life thus far has included some really great people around most every bend, but there have been some very judgmental and critical people in important roles too, and they have done some damage to my sensitive self.

I wish I could be more kick-ass, and just say “screw you” to the people who would judge me, for whatever reason. But that’s not my nature.

I guess, in a small way, agreeing to blog, is a whispered, “screw you.” Small steps.

So, why the stuckness? Why now? The why doesn’t matter so much to me as the how. The how to move forward from here. What helps you when you are stuck in your writing and/or in your life?

Do You Have a Mentor?

I pride myself on being pretty independent minded, and I like to think that this trait has developed nicely over the decades.

But when I’m stuck, really stuck, I often cast about for someone or something to say simply: “Take this step next.” Or, “you’re wrong, he’s right, deal with it.” Bad as I am at dealing with authority, sometimes an authority is exactly what I want. Just for a second.

Ideally we all have someone to play that role now and then, just for a second. Someone who stops being neutral and humble and “oh I’m sure you know best” long enough to tell you something that gets you unstuck.

Tons of (now faceless) people told me as a young person to be realistic and have a Plan B, but it was the one who said things like “Somebody has to write the books” that I remember. I think the best advice my dissertation advisor gave me, and I don’t even remember what it was in reference to, was “Aww, fuck ’em.” That one is truly multipurpose.

The thing about growing up and finding a little success is that your mentor pool gets smaller. Everyone likes to give advice to cute college girls.

For now, most of my mentors are in books. Sometimes it’s an author, like Anne Lamott. Often it’s a character, like Anne Elliot or Esther Summerson or Propsero or Granny Weatherwax.

As you might guess, most often I want a mentor to help me figure out how to deal with difficult people, to be the calm center of the storm. I want mentors for taking charge, and for letting go. I want mentors for practical creativity that isn’t sappy or mystical, but sharp-edged and real.

Who have your mentors been? Who would you choose as a mentor now? What do you want mentors for?

What Makes a Writer

I wrote my first stories when I was about 5 or 6. I had a three ring binder full of them. I don’t know if I thought of myself as a writer then, but I know I’ve been leery of calling myself a writer since then, even though writing is what I do for pay and has been the most consistent thread in the fabric of my life for a long time.

One of my first published pieces, in high school, was an op-ed essay against sodomy laws and in favor of gay marriage. I didn’t think of myself as a writer then, either. Then I was an activist.

In fact, the last time I was sure I was a writer was when I was studying writing in college. Then, nobody was paying me; in fact, I had to pay others to read my writing.

After that I went to work writing copy for video catalogs and direct mail marketing. That did not make me a writer.

Then I went to grad school, where I was a very earnest academic. I wrote all the time. I published some of my writing. I won an award for some of my writing. I wrote more than ever, and felt like I had given up writing.

Then I left grad school and worked as a freelance writer, writing for small magazines and educational publications. At the request of my clients, I wrote about the potential for hemp as a cash crop and the kinds of trees used to make harps. What was the operative verb? “Freelancing,” not writing.

Twenty years after my first paid writing gig, more paid publications than I can even remember, and I am still embarrassed to call myself a writer. I stumble over the word and go vague: “I work in publishing.” Sometimes I use one of my current job titles, “Project Manager,” which is even more unclear. Why?

For one thing, there’s an awful lot of embarrassing drama around writing. I was in high school when I first heard the quotation “Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” Apparently that is by someone named Gene Fowler.

Yeah, I haven’t heard of him either. (But, most awesomely, he apparently wrote a book called “The Demi-Wang.” Make of that what you will.) In any case, my goth phase is over.

And sometimes there is not quite enough drama around writing. One PhD and twenty years into plying my trade later, and I still wonder what it means when I tell a non-writer what I do and they say, “Oh yeah, I was an English major too.”

A silly thing: If you introduce yourself to someone as a writer, they assume you are a novelist. Heck, for a long time I accepted the notion that the novel was the pinnacle of literary expression, the point at which a would-be writer knows she has arrived.

All of that is to say that I was surprised when, last week, I found myself being a writer.

Of all the losses I mentioned in an earlier post, by far the sharpest was the death of a father and two children, leaving his widow and two other children behind. This tragedy cut through the heart of our community of friends, leaving all of us gasping for breath, struggling for words.

When you are struggling for words, who do you call?

And so, among other things, I found myself helping a father and son prepare words of tribute to share at a funeral that should not have been happening. It seemed an obvious thing to do. There are limited ways of truly helping in a tragedy of this magnitude, but I had a part I could play, because I am a writer.

It’s a small part. Only in books and plays are authors the secret stars: for spectators the wizard Prospero (Shakespeare’s stand-in) is the hero of The Tempest, but in the lives of the lovers, the leaders, even the fools and the villains, Prospero is mostly behind the scenes. He sets the stage, but he does not play the major roles.

So I spent time encouraging, making connections, and helping to find words that would express some portion of what my friends wanted to say. When a shy 14-year-old boy stood up before hundreds of mourners with words directed toward a family still raw with grief, I felt proud of him, not proud of myself. With simple language that was mostly his, he provoked laughter in a morning full of tears and expressed a sincere friendship that I have to believe brought some comfort.

I hesitate even to tell that story because I take no credit for his job, well done. But as I watched what his words could accomplish I felt honored to have had any role in bringing them to life, and satisfied that in this smallest, most humble of actions I was doing whatever it is that writers do. Someone needed words and turned to me to help find them.

That doesn’t mean I won’t cringe and bite my tongue to stop a long string of qualifiers if I need to tell someone I’m a writer again. I’m not a novelist, I’m not a drama queen, and I’m only a wizard when I’m reading fantasy books. (Though come to think of it, I might like to go a week telling people I’m a wizard by trade.) But if 20 years of doing something earns you anything, maybe it ought to be dropping that angst-y stuff and walking through the next 20 a little more lightly.

I was a writer back then, of course, even if I was writing about aftermarket bike accessories or neoclassical prose style. What I’m not anymore is a novice. (Caveat lector: You may not always get my most polished stylings here on the blog.) It’s not so much that I’ve “arrived” as that I noticed there wasn’t anywhere else I had to go.

You may not share my hang-ups about writerly-ness, but what about you? What—or who—makes you feel like you’ve arrived? Have you ever surveyed the landscape of your life and thought, “I’ve come a long way” or even “This old place is better than I thought”?