Digging Deeper

On Friday I drove with a couple of friends to Tieton, near Yakima, Washington, to attend Litfuse: a Poets’ Workshop. While there, I took classes from Samuel Green, Elizabeth Austen, and Ellen Bass — and others — and every class had time built in for opening a notebook and writing. I came home Sunday afternoon, with my head spinning.

Sunday was the blood moon, of course, and having spent the weekend with poets, there was no way I was going to miss it, no matter how exhausted I was. My youngest daughter refused to go with me. My other daughter still living at home was at work. My husband said, If you find it, sure, give me a call.

I was not going to miss it. I took the dog with me and drove, searching for a place without trees obscuring the eastern horizon. Not easy where we live. I drove down to the Sound, but that didn’t work at all (even though quite a number of people had gathered there). Finally, over the airfield, there it was! Very faint, low to the horizon, not all that big, but definitely in eclipse, pinkish-red. Lovely. I pulled the car over and Pabu and I got out to watch. One other car pulled up: everyone leapt out of the car, a woman took a picture with her cell phone, and they all leapt back into the car and drove away. I called my husband and told him to bring the binoculars. We stood in the parking lot of QFC, near a Jack in the Box, leaning on our car, and watched for an hour. We talked about where we are likely to be in 2033 when this particular combination of Blood Moon and Eclipse take place again. Older daughter got off work and joined us. Husband went home. I watched until the moon was back to its usual, brilliant self. High in the sky and easily visible from our house. No searching required. My 16-year-old’s sort of boyfriend showed up (Do you want to go look at the moon?) and they disappeared into the night.

“Be the sort of person on whom nothing is lost,” Henry James advised a young writer. Sherman Alexie, speaking at Seattle Arts and Lectures this past year, said something on the order of, You can make a poem out of anything — it’s what happens, and what you think about what happened (and then he read a poem about doing laundry).

I remember once being told that you can’t write poems about the moon — it’s been done too often. But at Litfuse, when Ellen Bass brought up how love poems are a little overdone, she then added, But of course we’re going to write love poems! We just have to write really good ones. Elizabeth Austen called it digging deeper.

In my reading this morning, I came across this quote, from novelist Jonathan Franzen: “With every book, you have to dig as deep as possible and reach as far as possible. And if you succeed in producing a reasonably good book, you’re going to have to dig even farther, or else, again it won’t be worth writing. And what that means, in practice, is that you have to become a different person to write the next book. The person you are already wrote the best book you could. There’s no way to move forward without changing yourself.”

For every poem. There is a poem in this material for me about the frustrations of having a 16-year-old daughter, about my husband indulging me even when he thinks I’m cracked, about being a poet, about seeing what we’re given to see. Here I am, shovel in hand…


P1040277I was working on a poem this morning, an old poem with the title “Aporia,” which means, in rhetoric, the expression of a doubt or question, but can be seen, imagistically, as a kind of log-jam and exactly the place where one should focus her attention and efforts. Something I’ve written about here before. Feeling stuck (nice, huh?) I drifted onto the internet, and I came across this quote. (Thanks to Gretchen Rubin.)

“The serious problems in life, however, are never fully solved. If ever they should appear to be so it is a sure sign that something has been lost. The meaning and purpose of a problem seem to lie not in its solution but in our working at it incessantly. This alone preserves us from stultification and petrification.” -Carl Jung

So, back to the poem, not (this time) to solve its problems, but to sit with them and see what else they may offer.

Imagine that You Are Dying

P1050357A friend sent me an email yesterday taking me to task for not telling y’all where I am in my novel-writing process:

“No one reading your blog would ever suspect that you have accomplished a major milestone of your writing career. Over the past 7-8 months, you have successfully restructured and completed a major novel. You now have merely minor polishing left to do. How much credit do you suppose you deserve for that?  Tremendous credit!”

I told her, “But it’s taken me SO LONG! It’s EMBARRASSING!”

She didn’t let me get away with it. It takes as long as it takes, she said. How long does it take for a tree to grow? And who was teaching full-time until two years ago? Who has three daughters? And other stuff? And kept writing poems (too)?

So, here I am, telling you where I am in the process. I have a printed-out reader’s copy all marked up with last-run-through, mostly small edits (only three chapters with slightly more major cuts still needed). I have typed in these changes to the first fifty pages, and after a little time playing amid the poems intend to get back to it. (I feel the need for a breather.) Over the past week, I wrote a synopsis and cover letter and sent it to an agent who was recommended highly to me. If need be, I’ll send it to 10 — or 20, or 50 — more.

On a journey of this length friends are necessary.

This quote from Advice to Writers resonated with me:

Imagine that you are dying. If you had a terminal disease would you finish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this 10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book. So change it. Stop arguing with yourself. Change it. See? Easy. And no one had to die.


The Boat

cabin4It is raining and I have been in my writer’s cottage all day, listening to the rain on the shingled roof, and writing. Well, not writing, so much as revisiting stuff already written. I’ve sent out a poetry submission (that makes 11 total so far this month), and I’ve been working on a cover letter and a novel synopsis to send to a new agent. (Scary, that.)

I’ve also been thinking about writing a blog post about how I work…and dragging my feet.

I have not been blogging much lately, to be honest, because I feel as though the chirpy persona I generally adopt here is not true, at least not lately. Part of my problem is my angst about my mom and about my 16 year old — no way to dodge those. But I have finally realized that another part of it is exactly what I describe above — this process of sending out work, to total strangers. I’ve worked on my novel for 10 years…or 13…on and off…and I haven’t sent out poems in five years. I promised myself, all summer I promised myself, that September would be the month for moving on.

Yes, I get a little bump of energy when I hit “submit” for the poems each day, but first I have to fight through a great deal of inertia, about five years of inertia, to be accurate. I have to look at poems that have been abandoned for long time. I have to renew my relationship with them somehow (typing, writing notes, retyping, thinking). It drains me. Every afternoon it’s a complete toss up whether to go back to bed or to the gym (this week, the gym has been winning, which is probably another thing helping me to dig my way out of this hole).

The gym helps, and I’ve had some helpful conversations with friends, too. On Tuesday, I was able to talk with a friend who is in the process of self-publishing his book. I love that he is doing this — finally someone I have helped is getting to the publication stage (!); also, it’s a book that one-hundred per cent deserves to be out in the world where readers can find it and enjoy it. (Some day soon I’ll have more information for you.)

The book begins with my friend’s grandson asking him what that thing is, hanging up under the roofbeams of the garage. It’s a boat, or what could become a boat, an abandoned start of a boat from 30 years earlier. The book is about taking it down and finishing it. 

Literally then, and not just figuratively, it was a project that had been hanging over my friend’s head for 30 years. (What’s
not to love about this story?)

It doesn’t matter how long it will take. Your work hangs over your head, too, and it is weighing you down. If you will just get it down on the ground, then you can look at it. If you will just pick up your tools and do a tiny amount of work, you will feel better. No doubt you’ll have moments when you wish you could burn the whole thing, or just walk away, but if you keep tinkering, productively, getting a little bit down (and sending a little bit out into the world), I promise you it will begin to make you feel lighter and lighter and lighter.

I’ll keep you posted on how it goes for me.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

image of American Goldfinch by Loren Webster

Writing Lab reconvenes tomorrow after a hiatus of a few weeks — and a break for some members of most of the summer. As we begin our sixth year writing together, I know that one of the things we will talk about — and maybe write about — is what we did over the summer.

Summers are never about getting lots of writing done — not when you have children still living at home and on vacation from school. Not when you decide to take the family to Orlando, or your mother is ill, or and your nephew is getting married, or your kids want to go camping. Or all of those.

Except I did manage to get more writing done this year, and I thought I’d tell you how I did that — just in case your fall is already shaping up to be busy.

  1. I committed to writing every day. Nothing new for me, as you know. (Fifteen minutes counts.) I stepped it up, however, by committing to write one new, original postcard poem every day in August. Some of the poems were pretty awful. Some of them…maybe more can be made out of those. One hopes. During my sojourn in Idaho I wrote some poems that I really like, and my 45 minutes or an hour hidden away each morning, writing, were a really good way to begin my days of camping with four girls, days that were great fun, and exhausting.
  2. I took several mini-retreats. When my sister and her husband took off for exotic locales like Montana and Portland and Arizona, I took advantage of their offer to use their house. One night, or two — it wasn’t two weeks at Yaddo, but just having even a smallish chunk of time in which no one needed me (except my mother, who lives five minutes from my sister) — were a huge bonus. I got up every morning, opened my notebook, and read, reread, scribbled, dreamed. When my friend Carla invited me to join her in Port Townsend for a few days to work on poetry, I took advantage of that, too.
  3. One more thing I did was to carry a small notebook with me — everywhere. I carried it when I walked my dog at Picnic Point beach park, and when I walked in Port Townsend with Carla. I also carried it on a 3-mile walk through the Theler Wetlands in Belfair. (I was inspired by Loren Webster who frequently walks at Theler with his camera, and writes about it at his blog, In a Dark Time…the Eye Begins to See.)
  4. A fourth thing, that (it occurs to me) does not go without saying, and perhaps deserves a little emphasis, is that I was willing to write badly. I had no expectations of what I jotted down in my small notebook. A few notes toward something larger, a description, a piece of overheard conversation. No judgment.

And now that I look at it this way, a pretty good season for writing.

“To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.” -Robert Louis Stevenson

If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough.

This quote hangs on the wall of my writing cottage. Looking for an image of it on-line, I found this one, in which the quote is credited to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Wondering who the heck that might be, I went searching again and I learned that she is the President of Liberia, and the first democratically elected female head of state on the African continent.

Big dreams!