My daughters don’t read my blog (though a couple of their friends do), so I feel pretty safe coming here to gripe about Emma, who is my excuse this morning for not working on my novel.
I don’t imagine that it is going to be all that shocking or even interesting to any of my readers to hear that a 15-year-old girl is in conflict with her mother.
This morning, driving her to school in total, aggravated silence, I thought about how Emma came into our lives. I thought about how, sitting in church one Sunday morning about three months before her birth, I broke down in sobs.
I already had two very busy little girls! I was 43 years old! My husband was even older! I was only one year into a tenure-track, full-time teaching job! Were we insane? What did we think we were doing? What if Emma’s birth mother changed her mind and we didn’t get her? After all this…angst! How on earth was this all going to turn out?
I was crying because I didn’t know the future and because I had no control over what little I did know.
I cried (a lot) this summer when my mom was so ill for pretty much the same reason. Whenever anyone asked my sister and I if we had any questions, I asked, “Do you have a crystal ball?”
Certainty, in theory, would be a wonderful thing. But it seems to me, sitting here in my writing cabin and avoiding my characters (who can also refuse to do what I want them to do), that we don’t really want certainty. Certainty, like the stasis my 19th-century American Literature professor used to talk about, is possible only in the grave. Life is change.
I will have to track down who said this (besides my friend Paul), but: The whole point of writing the truth is to write not what happened, but what it made you feel.
What we want is to feel. What we want is to have our hearts ripped open. That’s why we have children. And that’s why we read novels.
If it looks as though I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time reading other people’s blogs of late, it’s because I have been. Even so, I felt pretty blessed to come across this post from Kathleen Kirk, at Wait! I Have a Blog?! (As well as the amazing Death tarot card depicting Emily Dickinson.)
The bonus is Kathleen’s link to Cat-at-Strophe, a special poetry and images feature at EIL.
Rumi. Toni Morrison’s A Mercy. Claire Cook’s Must Love Dogs. Okay, so my reading list is eccentric…or is that erratic? (I meant eclectic…)
On a whim, a few weeks ago, I checked out what else Claire Cook has written and I downloaded Must Love Dogs: New Leash on Life and Never Too Late: Your Roadmap to Reinvention. Then I followed her advice and visited her website, ClaireCook.com. Now you can, too.
When I attended the Stringtown reading a few weeks ago, I exchanged books with two other poets. A few days later, poet Koon Woon asked if I would like to see a review of my book in the on-line journal Five Willows. I am very, very pleased to share it with you. (Click on the link below.)
At last night’s workshop, Shawna and her students didn’t need to talk about resistance. They brought notebooks and pens! They also brought up some additional important points about keeping a journal, and they jogged my mind to come up with a couple others.
Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, or penmanship. Just write.
Writing in a journal can be a lot like meditation. It’s about observing and not judging. I suggested that one might avoid whining in a journal entry, but even whining can be therapeutic. You put it on the page and then you can see it, and maybe you can do something about it. Write about what you can do, too.
You don’t have to write in a journal. You can draw, you can doodle. (A good book to help you combine the writing and doodling is Gabriele Rico’s Writing the Natural Way.)
One student said she keeps a journal already, but that it’s boring. I think that my best advice would be when trying to change up a practice is, again, to start small. Imagine you’re drawing your entry. Describe an object using shape words and color and texture. Add one sentence about how the object makes you feel.
When you have a lot of entries compiled, you might try opening your journal to an old page and using one thing on that page as a prompt for a new entry. An old dream, or something odd you ate that day months ago can trigger new thoughts.
This evening I am taking a class on “Mindful Living” from my friend Shawna Michels, and I get to talk for a few minutes about keeping a journal.
I think I can credit Heather Sellers with the denigration of that phrase “keeping a journal.” She said (somewhere) that she didn’t want a “kept journal,” that it reminded her too much of a “kept woman.” Personally, I like the idea of keeping a journal — it makes me think of keeping it close, keeping it with me, keeping it daily…even being kept by it.
I keep two journals. One is a big, bound book that I buy (several at a time) from Lee Valley. I write in it every morning, usually for 20 minutes or so.
I also like to pack around a smaller journal, one that will fit in whatever bag I’m carrying that day. And if you find yourself at all resistant to the idea of keeping your own journal, this is the one I want to especially recommend.
Because, in truth, there’s nothing magic about writing in the early morning. I know people who keep a notebook beside the bed so they can write when they first wake — so they can get their dreams down, I guess. These people would disapprove of my lazier — or at least less disciplined — habit of getting coffee first, maybe reading first, sometimes doing my “real” writing first. In my opinion, there’s no one right way to do this. Being in a liminal state is a good idea (like the threshold state between sleep and waking), but I find I can slip into that state pretty easily — I’ve had decades of practice, after all!
But how do you establish a journal writing habit, when you don’t have one, and perhaps can’t even imagine one? If you’re still with me, here are my five suggestions for getting a journal habit underway.
1. Buy a journal that you will enjoy writing in. While you’re at it, pick up a pen you’ll like, too. They don’t have to be expensive to be pleasurable. A spiral bound notebook with a tiger on the cover is just as good as the fancy leather ones. But make it special to you.
2. Write every day. Really. If you’re just getting a habit underway, you want to get it underway. Later you might cut back to 4 or 5 days per week, but just for now, try for a daily habit. Like brushing your teeth or combing your hair, it will soon feel intrinsic to your routine. Writing more than once a day is okay, too, by the way. It will help you establish a habit of beginning to write.
3. You do not have to write for a long time. In fact, if you’re feeling considerable resistance, you can fight it by reducing your expectations. Write for 15 minutes — or 5! (I predict that your 5 minutes will quickly turn into more. You can read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way for inspiration to write more…but here I just want to open up a little space.)
4. If you don’t know what to write, try writing down your questions about the process. You can even write a numbered list of them and challenge yourself to write as many as you can. (Lists are my go-to strategy when I’m feeling balky.) If you don’t know what to write, try describing what’s in front of you. Five minutes of description, how hard can that be?
5. I know that computers are here to stay; I will even admit to liking computers. But I have my limits. (The last time I taught my Creative Nonfiction class, a student wrote her first freewrite on her I-Phone!) Let’s agree, however, that technology, while useful, can also be a tad bit overwhelming; there’s just so much of it. Your writing can get lost in there. Please, please, please give writing in a cool notebook, with a pen, with your hand a try. If you don’t believe me, take an experimental approach and see what happens.
If you’re still wondering what to write, there are lots and lots and lots of books with writing prompts. One of my current favorites is The Pen and the Bellby Holly Hughes and Brenda Miller. Another (especially for fiction writers) is The 3 a.m. Epiphanyby Brian Kitely. The old standard, however, is Writing Down the Bonesby Natalie Goldberg. (There are lots of websites and blogs with prompts, too.)
You can keep a food journal with a five-minute a day habit.
Still dragging your feet? One more word about resistance. Okay, two more words.
One) There is a neat little book called The War of Art by Steven Pressfield that in brief (and humorous) chapters may help you conquer your resistance to writing (or anything).
Two) The poet Rilke said that the fiercest dragons guard the most precious treasures — in other words, if you are over-the-top resistant to the idea of keeping a journal, it may very well be because there is something magical awaiting you.
And now, I won’t need to print a handout for Shawna’s class. (See, technology really is useful!)