“The essential question is, ‘Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write?’ Into that space, which is like a form of listening, or of attention, will come the words your characters will speak, ideas–inspiration.” Doris Lessing
Here’s more about what I’ve been up to lately. I’m writing a novel, set in a logging town in southwest Washington state in 1925. The main focus is marriage and I’m experimenting with multiple points of view (literally and figuratively, as it seems). The main character is a woman who, after the death of her first husband (and father of her two children) in the Great War, remarried for all the wrong reasons. Husband number 2 was a close friend of husband number 1, and he is a good provider. He represents financial security. She meets a man, of course, who promises passion (that’s the story). A second “main” character is a man whose wife left him two years earlier. His story is how to make himself a large enough person to win his wife back.
To write this book, I realized early in the process, I was going to have to dig deeper into my own stuff.
In May I wrote 500-1000 words a day (sometimes more), just drafting and dreaming. In June I determined to get it all typed up and to begin arranging it. I also, prompted by two books on journaling, determined to dig deeper into my…well, my stuff.
The first book was Writing the Mind Alive: The Proprioceptive Method for Finding Your Authentic Voice by Linda Trichter Metcalf and Tobin Simon. The second was Writing Down Your Soul by Janet Connor.
I have been writing every morning in a journal for years and years and years. If you read my blog regularly, you already know this. So why would I need any guide to journaling? Why would I recommend one to you?
One reason is that I have been recognizing how shallow my journal habit is. Okay, not always. But sometimes it’s quite shallow. When I read back through old journals they often sound like chronicles of what I’ve been up to with my family. Old journal entries are often to-do lists. Especially annoying, I find that I have griped about the same things, over and over and over. For years. This, however, 2014, is my breakout year. I’ve left full-time teaching. My main excuse for procrastination, for not finishing writing projects is gone. My main excuse for not doing the kind of teaching I would really like to do–that’s gone, too. (Are you listening, Margaret?)
Now, how do I dig down below the surface and write into the heart of my deepest desires and dreams? That’s why I read these books, and that’s why I’m recommending them to you.
Light a candle, put on the music, and write for 20 minutes. Ask yourself–your deeper self (your soul, God, spirit, or whatever you wish to call it) what your assignment is. Then, as Janet Conner elegantly points out, once it tells you what your assignment is, then you have to do that assignment.
Writing this blog post was my assignment today.
I am in the process of moving out of my office at the college, an office completely filled with books. My husband went with me the other day and helped me fill 8 boxes with books, which took care of about a quarter of them…it was discouraging. I didn’t touch the file cabinets full of…stuff. An alphabetized file for authors I teach, being the most useful (and probably most useless now). I find it very very hard to part with any of it.
At home I’ve managed to empty 5 boxes by double shelving some books in my writing studio, and designating a lean 1/2 box to give away. (The shelves in the house are already stuffed full.)
This weekend I visited my mother. On Monday morning we went to see my 92-year-old aunt who recently moved from her one-bedroom apartment at the retirement center (where my mother lives) to a studio apartment in her son’s backyard. The new apartment may be a bit larger than her digs at the retirement center, but there is no closet space. In recent years, I’ve watched my aunt downsize from a house to an apartment, to the one-bedroom apartment, and now, again, to living quarters with no closet, and it’s been–inspiring. She commented, “After this, I’ll be moving to an even smaller space!”
There’s no baggage check in heaven. They don’t want your stuff.
And, still, it’s hard to give up my books. This one? I think, picking it up and opening it, reading a passage and then wondering if I wouldn’t like to read the whole book again.
Maybe I’d like to blog about this book! I could quote from this page!
And maybe, if I really want to read this book again, I can find it at the library.
Oh, dear books.
“Like many societies, the novel is a hybrid construction pretending to be an organic miracle. From its beginnings, fiction has had borderless relations with nonfictional sources, has found ways to incorporate and exploit journalism, biography, historical texts, correspondence, advertisements, and images. But, since fiction is an invention masquerading as a truth, the riot of intertextuality is often craftily smoothed into a simulacrum of orderly governance: these different materials, the novelist seems to say, possess an equivalent fictionality, and just naturally belong together like this–trust me. Some of the pleasure of reading novels, perhaps especially modernist and postmodernist ones, has to do with our simultaneous apprehension of invention and its concealment, raw construction and high finish. We enjoy watching the novelist play the game of truthtelling.” James Wood, The New Yorker (June 23, 2014)
A lot of three-dollar words there (sorry), but a rather splendid idea, and one I had been thinking about all day, even before coming home and finding that a new issue of The New Yorker had arrived.
My new writing project is a novel set in 1926. Its point-of-origin is a family story, an anecdote really, about my great uncle and his courtship of a married woman. I know NOTHING about this, mind you, only the anecdote, that’s how my family tells stories, one line. But that’s been enough to entice me into creating an entire fictional world around a couple in a small town between the world wars. My main character is the woman, and I’ve made her husband (the current one) her second husband. Her first, the love of her life (or so she thought) and the father of her two children, died in the Great War.
While getting my initial 30,000 words scribbled and typed (now at 23,000…and another notebook still to be transcribed) one of the issues I’ve wrestled with is HOW to bring the Great War more into focus. Yesterday, I found a book of oral histories, The Last of the Doughboys, by Richard Rubin, which is basically an answer to prayer. Interestingly enough, the timeline I had developed for my married woman and her first husband exactly fits with the history of the 91st Infantry Division, which started out from Camp Lewis near Tacoma, Washington. Synchronicity. Or a big old miracle. Anyway, that was my moment of joy yesterday, sitting in a book store with a grin on my face, lapping up the pages.
That, and meeting a dog trainer last night who totally “gets” our dog.
I am writing about a character who, in the first stage of her journey (of my journey with her), realizes that she no longer feels joy. It’s something she experienced in the past–when she fell in love with her first husband, when her children were born. But now she is just slogging through life. She doesn’t see how it can be any different. What I need to do (writing this) is figure out what wakes her up and makes her see differently–to see that she has a choice.
So I have been thinking about choice. Even though I’m writing fiction, I find myself thinking about the choices I make that I don’t think of as choices…that I think of as impositions, burdens, millstones around my neck.
What if, when one of these impositions or burdens or millstones appear, I stopped and thought. Do I have to pick that up? Is that mine?
What if I said no?
What if, when someone says something to upset me, instead of becoming upset myself, I asked for clarification?
Creativity is, itself, a choice we make. I get to choose how this character gets joy back into her life. I also get to choose my own moments of joy. Can I choose joy? What might that look like today?
I found this video at Aerogramme Writer’s Studio, and wanted to share it.
“We are graced and limited by our own pair of eyes.”
Yesterday the Writing Lab had its fifth annual end-of-year party and reading. I wanted to post something–even though today has been a little crazy at my house–just to say “What an amazing group of people.”
We are a small but dedicated band of writers, all of us in some way associated with Everett Community College. We meet once a week for an hour and half. And we write. We are not a critique group, though after we write for 40 minutes or so, we are welcome to read some work aloud, and sometimes there is a very gentle critique. Mostly what we do is witness one another. In fact, one member, Louise, calls it “Writing with Witnesses.”
For a long time, when I was teaching alongside everything else I try to do, the Writing Lab kept me alive. I have a very sturdy habit of writing in a journal every morning, but writing for an audience, even a very small, intimate audience of 3 or 4 other writers is a gift.
If you’re looking for a writing group, you may want to think, first, about what you want from your writing group. Maybe you’re ready for critique, but if you’re not, you will still benefit from having some witnesses to your process. (Lauren Sapala wrote about this topic on her blog this week, too.)
Good luck finding your witnesses.
And thank you to mine (on the blog, too!).