Consciousness Is the First Step

penIt was quite a long time ago that I read Julie Morgenstern’s Organizing from the Inside Out (maybe it’s time to reread it). But what I still remember from that book was her advice to look around you (dear reader) and take note of what you have already organized. For me, that was the bathroom. Back then I was trudging off to the college every day; I had three little girls (ages 8, 8, and 2), and I desperately wanted to figure out a way to get some writing done. My house was very very low on the list of priorities. My make up and hair and teeth stuff, though? I knew exactly where each item was. I could open a drawer or reach up to the shelf, and grab what I needed. It was always there, always in the same place. Every day, just when I needed it.

Sadly, I did not go on to organize my entire house. What I did accomplish, was organizing my writing life.

I realized that my morning routine in the bathroom did not take oodles of time, and yet somehow I managed to fit it in every day. What if I could do that with my writing?

Whenever I hear a famous writer say that she doesn’t write every day, I think, Then when toothbrush-390310_960_720do you write? For me, it’s like brushing my teeth. Okay, so I have a bit of a focus problem (that’s what the fifteen minutes is about — dedicated, intentional focus for 15 + 15 + 15, etc. on the work), but sitting down with my journal and some poetry? That happens every day. If I am on my way somewhere — to visit Mom or to drive a daughter somewhere or whatever is needed — it might be only for 5 minutes. I might pack my journal with me and write on the ferry to Kingston, or parked alongside the road somewhere. But every day, the writing happens. It begins with my journal, and it builds from there.

As I understand Morgenstern’s advice, the first step to making a change is to build some awareness of your ability to achieve your goal. Awareness is so much better than despair. I practice this with my girls, too. When I focus on how messy they are (!) or my almost-23-year-olds’ seeming inability to emancipate from us, I get discouraged. When I remember to make small good choices, just like when they were little girls, and to catch them doing something right — and point that out to them — it helps.

Noticing what is working in my writing life helps, too. Two clean pages yesterday. A blog post today.

Consciousness is the first step.

 

 

How to Set Goals

sundialI am a failure at meeting big goals.

This year I tried to game the system — my personal system, I mean. I signed up for on-line goal setting challenges. I read books about setting goals. I wrote down all of my goals. I opened an Evernote account and wrote all of my goals there. I downloaded Evernote onto my phone.

Finish current novel. Return to previous “new” novel and finish that, too — by July! Put together a new poetry manuscript. Submit 50 sets of poems for publication. Submit all short stories. Lose ten (more) pounds. Declutter house. Submit novel to ten contests. Attend PNWA conference in July. Send novel to 30 new agents.

After setting it up, I never opened my Evernote file again. I did not finish the work I had planned for either of the novels. I did not submit any poems or stories. I entered one novel contest and didn’t even get a reply, let alone a place. (Scratch “attend conference” off list.)

Not long ago I confided in my friend Priscilla Long that it isn’t working. What do you want? She asked me. I want to make progress, I said. Specifically? she prodded. Okay, I hemmed and hawed a little, then answered, I want to write for four to six hours a day.

You can’t work for four or six hours, Priscilla said. You can only work for fifteen minutes. 

Oh, I said.

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“Be Gentle with Yourself”

It’s so irritating to realize (at my advanced age!), that this lesson, which I have already learned and more than once, must be circled back to and learned again.

It’s the wisdom of small steps. It’s the wisdom of accumulated effort. I don’t know if it’s true for everyone, or if Priscilla, having gone through this with me numerous times before, just knows that it’s true for me. But I have to start with fifteen minutes. I have to turn over my quarter-hour glass, or set my phone timer, or go to  http://e.ggtimer.com/ and set that. Then, I focus. I can focus, intensely, for fifteen minutes. Frequently (usually) I end up working for fifteen minutes 2 or 3 times in a row. Frequently (usually) I end up working for a few hours. But it starts with fifteen minutes.

I am a genius at meeting very small goals.

 

 

Poets in the Park

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Next weekend I’ll be reading in Redmond at Poets in the Park. I’m on the schedule twice (to my surprise), at 4:00 with writers Priscilla Long, Holly Hughes, and John Wright, and again a little later in the day, 5-5:30, along with Polly Buckingham of Stringtown, and Robert McNamara.

Click here to see the full schedule of readings and workshops.

When Women Were Birds

IMG_0181I bought this lovely book last summer while on a mini-retreat in Port Townsend. Then, as I often do, I mislaid the book and didn’t read it. The other day, a friend asked if I wanted to see Terry Tempest Williams with her at the Mount Baker Theatre in Bellingham (tonight!). Despite my usual crazy-busy schedule, I said yes. She will be talking about her new book, but I found my copy of When Women Were Birds and began reading it again.

The subtitle, Fifty-four Variations on Voice, is one of the aspects of this book that first drew me to it. And it doesn’t disappoint. It’s a a holder of stories: Terry Tempest Williams’ ancestors, especially her mother, are here; writer progenitors; the voices of birds; the voice of myths, both familiar and unfamiliar, domestic and international.

The concept behind the book is the gift of Williams’ mother’s journals to her, journals that turned out to be blank. When Women Were Birds seems to include everything Williams has read, and everything she reads between the lines (as it were) of what she has been denied. It’s a gift of interpretation, and a faithful rendering of a woman’s own complex and multi-vocal life. It is the story of a woman finding her voice.

“Rufous-sided towhees scratched in the understory of last year’s leaves; lazuli buntings were turquoise exclamation marks singing in a canopy of green; and blue-gray gnatcatchers became commas in a ongoing narrative of wild nature.”

Williams’ reverence for landscape is well known. Here, she reminds me that we are, each of us, an interpreter of our experience, of all that comes before us, and all that we co-exist with. What if we were reverent instead of defensive? What if we stopped and felt wonder, instead of looking for something to buy, or denounce, or attack? Reading this book, I’m reminded of the miracle of my own existence.

“I had been reading The Tongue Snatchers, by the French writer Claudine Herrmann. She focuses on the French verb voler, which means ‘to fly’ or ‘to steal,’ the two paths traditionally available to women when we speak. We either flee and disappear or steal, adopt, and adapt to the dominant language of men, often at our own expense. Herrmann offers another route, that of the ‘Mother Tongue,’ the voice with an authentic vernacular akin to our experiences, fierce and compassionate at once; the voice as a knife that can slice, carve, or cut, shape, sculpt, or stab.”

Whenever I feel the impulse to buy several copies of a book and distribute it to all of my friends, I come here instead. You’re welcome.

 

 

 

“a freely chosen task”

P1050035I seem to have a lot of conversations with people who want to write, but “not now.” I’ll do it when I feel more of an urge, they tell me, when I feel inspired, when the spirit moves me. And years go by and the writing still hasn’t happened.

This is what I’ve learned from my own process — my own mistakes and foibles and triumphs. Inspiration comes after the work begins. If you want to write, start creating a little time and space in which to write. Practice writing. Practice beginning to write. If you can’t think of anything to write this time, copy something out or do an imitation. Begin again, practice beginning, again tomorrow, at the same time, if humanly possible.

If you want to write, that is reason enough to write. You don’t need inspiration. You need a habit.

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.”

– Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

The Whole Fam Damily

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This picture of my mother’s family hung on the wall of my childhood home, and I saw it in many of the houses I visited frequently as a child. Mom is about fifteen years old here, the first girl on the left in the front row, sitting beside her father. All told, my grandparents had fifteen children. One died as an infant; the others grew up to have families of their own. My mother was the eleventh child, daughter number ten. She often joked that she didn’t have friends, she had sisters, and because I grew up on the family farm in southwest Washington, where my mother was born, I knew this reality intimately. My grandparents lived in a house a little ways down the creek, a house which their sons and sons-in-law built.I had cousins who were only a year or two younger than Mom, and their children were my age-mates. Who needed friends, when I had so many cousins?

When my Aunt Aronda died in March, at the age of 94 (she is to the left of the oldest brother, in the back row), it left us with only six of the original siblings. Aunt Aronda’s death reminded me of how much loss my mother has endured in recent years. And I felt keenly my own loss.

Losing my aunt, who took me in when I was twenty and couldn’t figure out how to leave home, a woman who I continued to visit and call over the years, felt especially hard. She was smart and always full of news. “Sharp as a tack,” as we say. Since my mother’s decline began a few years back, I had gotten into a habit of telling her she was my role model. She liked to wake up in the morning and sit outside with a cup of coffee. She liked to talk on the phone. And she still liked to read, which is just one thing among many that my mother has lost.

At 94, I would like to still be getting up every morning and writing. No matter what I write about, I know I’ll keep circling back to that over-populated childhood, and that farm that nurtured so many childhoods besides my own.