I have been mucking out my writing cabin. It is a lot like mucking out a stable, or should be, could be. Except I find that I have difficulty letting anything go. So all the pieces of paper get taken out of boxes and then put back in. I managed to part with a little under two boxes of books, when I really need to let go of 8 or 10 boxes of books. Honestly. (And I will still have plenty of books. No worries of staring, bookless shelves here.)
Yesterday, after several hours of this sort of dithering, I had made a little progress. I put my Scarlet Letter books down on a bottom shelf and put my WWI books up on the go-to shelf, in preparation for my new project. I boxed up drafts of my novel (which is now on its honest-to-goodness final read through…I hope), and when the box wouldn’t hold them all, I put two copies (the least marked up) into the recycling bin. I took pages out of notebooks and set the notebooks aside to be used for new projects.
But there were still all those books, and not enough space on the shelves. I don’t want to have books on the floor and the desk and the chair.
If you had sneaked up to my window and listened you would have heard me saying–
- I can’t stand to give up my books!
- I LOVE my books!
- I have a VERY HARD TIME giving up any books!
- I NEED my books!
- My books make me feel SAFE!
After saying these things enough times (or just thinking them, very loudly), I finally heard myself saying them. And I remembered the advice I give my students: Don’t say what you don’t want.
I can’t write. I hate to write. I’m no good at writing. My job, when I hear statements like this is to help students revise what they are saying about their own unlimited abilities and inner resources — into something kinder. I am willing to try this. I can get better at writing. I’m really good at learning and I can learn to write. I’m not afraid to give this a shot and see what happens.
One of my favorite illustrations of this principle came from the woman who cuts my hair. One day, as I sat, ready to be shorn, she held up a brush, a ruined brush, and said, “Would you look at that! Last night while I was getting ready to leave, I kept telling myself, ‘You are going to forget your brush in the cleaning solution! You shouldn’t set it in there this late, because you’ll forget it and it will be ruined!’ And sure enough,” she finished, “that’s exactly what I did!”
Of course it was. Don’t say what you don’t want. Say what you want.
- There are more books where these came from
- The library can help me find any books that I decide, some day, to reread
- I am safe even without so many books
- A peaceful, uncluttered space is so great for my writing
- Books that are stuck in boxes might as well go to someone new who will treasure them
- My shelves are not going to be empty; I can let go of some of these books and STILL HAVE A LOT OF BOOKS
Okay, so I’m working on it.
This morning I woke up at 3:30…gave up trying to go back to sleep around 4:20…and crawled out of bed. I am officially between novels (don’t know how long that will last — one will come back, or I’ll dig out the one I plan to work on next), so I wrote a long time in my journal, then I reread a short story that I would like to submit somewhere. After that, feeling too restless to revise the story, I resorted to listening to inspirational podcasts on my laptop and tidying my office (which badly needs it). I didn’t make a huge amount of progress on the tidying, but I did find a CD of family photos, given to me by my sister a few years ago.
Among the photos I found this postcard from 1917. The text reads, “Dear friend how / do you like the East / by this time / I will write more next time / anser soon / Thurman.” It’s addressed to my grandfather, Eugene King, in Sparta, North Carolina (in the military?) and the picture is of a driveway (if the caption is to be believed) in Sheridan, Oregon. I think the bottom line on the back of the card says, “In car of JT Carpenter.”
While you’ve been in Sparta
the world has tipped sideways
and spilled out a barrel of shiny new things.
Among which, J.T. bought a Ford.
When you get home we’ll fix you up
with Hazel M., who, if you look
hard enough you’ll see peeking into
your future from the rumble seat.
I glanced at her and took my glasses
off — they were still singing. They buzzed
like a locust on the coffee table and then
ceased. Her voice belled forth, and the
sunlight bent. I felt the ceiling arch, and
knew that nails up there took a new grip
on whatever they touched. “I am your own
way of looking at things,” she said. “When
you allow me to live with you, every
glance at the world around you will be
a sort of salvation.” And I took her hand.
I prepared by collecting short poems that I loved, by other poets, and thinking about what it was that that made me love them. I decided that it has to do with the way a short poem quickly captures an image, and then makes something more of it, something symbolic and surprising. In this poem (above) by William Stafford, you don’t expect the glasses to sing or buzz, but while you’re distracted by that, here comes a new voice, “belled forth,” and the awakening is so keenly drawn that even the nails in the ceiling insist on a role in it.
This awakening, it strikes me, is what all poetry is really about. Be awake. See the world with new eyes. Be saved by what you see.
The poem itself is a pair of glasses. And then there’s the legerdemain — the magic — of the seeing with/without them at the same instant.
Along with a whole bunch of other poets and writers, I will be reading at Colophon Cafe in Fairhaven/Bellingham tonight, visiting the Chuckanut Sandstone Writers. Open Mike sign-up is at 6:30; reading commences at 6:50. You should join us!
And if you watch the Events tab, I’ll soon be announcing a whole line-up of readings in November, both close to home and in Portland, Oregon. (If you know of a great venue or open mike there, let me know!)
But why should anyone wish to read to a live audience?
When I was a poetry student at the University of Washington, I was lucky enough to be invited to read at the Castalia Reading Series, hosted by the one-and-only Nelson Bentley. I read every quarter, and sometimes more often, and I found a huge difference between writing for myself, secretly, or at least privately, and writing for others. You can experience this to some extent simply by sharing your work with a small group, and by sending your work out to journals. But performing your work aloud, to an audience? That’s magic.
It’s partly hearing the words aloud, which of course you can do in your room all by your lonesome. Except, it’s partly knowing that other people are hearing your words — knowing, as you prepare, that they will hear your work. When it’s your turn to get up there, you notice what your audience responds to, what sort of trills and riffs resonate. Sound matters, and (I’ve found) something happens to the images, too. You see what makes people sit up and pay attention. Then, all of that information has an effect on revisions, and on future poems. For me, it was a long process of becoming more and more my best writing self.
Listening to other readers is a whole ‘nother part of the experience, of course. All of it extremely scary (at least the first time) and extremely valuable. (Take notes!)
My post yesterday sounded a little…judgmental. I love our small group at Writing Lab, and though I can imagine a few people more in it, for the most part, I like that we’ve stayed small. There’s time to write, and to share work at the end, because of our size.
I love groups that write from prompts, and I’ve done this in the past. Prompts can get you out of your linear, logical brain and into your creative, wild mind (Wild Mind is another Goldberg title).
Critique groups are great and I belong to one that meets sporadically. When I’m procrastinating on finishing a story or an essay, the critique group date gives me a deadline.
For the record: I think ALL writing groups are fabulous. You get to decide what works for you.
Posted: 03 Aug 2015 09:04 PM PDT [on ADVICE TO WRITERS]
“When you’re writing, it’s rather like going on a very long walk, across valleys and mountains and things, and you get the first view of what you see and you write it down. Then you walk a bit further, maybe you up onto the top of a hill, and you see something else. Then you write that and you go on like that, day after day, getting different views of the same landscape really. The highest mountain on the walk is obviously the end of the book, because it’s got to be the best view of all, when everything comes together and you can look back and see that everything you’ve done all ties up. But it’s a very, very long, slow process.” -ROALD DAHL