Resistance Is Futile

img_3119Friday evening, while I was out of town and hanging out with writers, my youngest daughter began a torrent of texts requesting — no, demanding — money for a Halloween costume. Little Red Riding Hood. Everyone at dinner was amused at how this absorbed my attention. How the $$ kept adding up. A perfect costume (on sale!), then a cape, then shoes, then stockings. Etc.

The argument kept ramping up, too. “I didn’t ask for a dress for Homecoming.” “I  didn’t go to prom my junior year.” “I didn’t buy a costume last Halloween.” “I’ll clean my bedroom.” “I’ll clean the whole house!”

At some point, apparently too lily-livered to say “no,” or simply to hide my phone, I decided to go for it. I transferred the money from my account to Emma’s (damn smart phones, anyway). I had to put up with some mostly kind teasing, but I was able to eat my dinner and enjoy the conversations swirling around me, and the reading that followed dinner. For whatever reason, I felt entirely satisfied with my decision. Perhaps it is only that I have been held hostage by darker forces than this kid.

Today, feeling considerable resistance to diving into my work, I started thinking about how parenting and writing both conjure up resistance, and how resistance this morning in fact is rearing its ugly head — more persistent than any 17 year old wanting moolah — how it cajoles and whines, how it makes excuses for you and pulls you away from what you in your heart-of-hearts really, really want to do. You deserve to have some time off. You need to rest your brain. What harm can a game of computer solitaire do? The book will still be there when you’re ready. There will be time later. No one wants to read it anyway. How about lunch out? How about dropping everything and going to Bellingham for the weekend? Maybe you should buy the new Tana French novel. Maybe you should go back to bed. 

As Steven Pressfield says, “Resistance has no conscience. It will pledge anything to get a deal, then double-cross you as soon as your back is turned.”

My daughter is small potatoes compared to that.

What I do when I’ve had a few days away and I face this awful not-wanting-to-work feeling, is list all the very very small moves I can make.

  • Open my novel notebook and read a chapter.
  • Write out a scene or just a few sentences and see what I might change or add.
  • Describe a character that’s giving me trouble
  • Write a scrap in that character’s voice.
  • Walk out to my car and fetch my poetry notebook.
  • Type up one poem. (5 minutes!)
  • Write a blog post.
  • Use any momentum I can build by doing this post to do one more thing. 

Sometimes I do give in to resistance. Sometimes I go back to bed. Sometimes a nap (or a healthy breakfast) is just the break I need. I think the key, though, is to be conscious. What am I doing? What am I doing now? 






Piano Lessons

music-1753207_960_720I have now had three piano lessons. “You are on the verge of being able to play a song,” Susan promised me on Monday. “You are right there.” During the lesson, which thus far has been a lot about naming notes and counting, she had me play some pages of exercises. One of the exercises required me to play three notes at once with my left hand, then the “e” above middle c with my right. “Now play them at the same time,” she said. I did. “Ta da! You’re playing with both hands at once!” She gave me my first actual song (a Halloween song) to work on and I went on my merry way.

Easy peasy.

And not easy at all. Taking piano lessons is reminding me of some of the most basic, opening gestures in starting a writing project. They may as well remind you, too.

Put your project in a notebook. A nice notebook, a dignified one — for piano, the notebook has to have firm covers that stay open, allowing you to read the pages inside while your hands are on the keyboard. For piano or a writing project, the notebook becomes a home for whatever material you accumulate, a safe place where it can gather and wait for you to return to it. Susan suggested that I decorate the notebook’s cover (it had a clear pocket that a picture can be slipped into); for a writing project, I suggest that you create a working title and a title page. As Louise Erdrich says, “a title is like a magnet. It begins to draw these scraps of experience or conversation or memory to it. Eventually, it collects a book.”

Practice every day. Yes, I know that some people will argue with me, but I don’t think art happens without discipline. Especially at the beginning, and no matter what other demands there are on your time, your goal is to dedicate a few minutes each day to establishing your practice. Kim Stafford, in The Muses Among Us tells a little science story about how someone examined a violin microscopically and found, just after it was played, that there was a rippling effect in the wood, just as there is in water. And the ripples persisted for about a day. After 24 hours or so, they were gone. This explains so much!

Haven’t you seen a piano that is never touched, an ornament in someone’s living room, or a stringed instrument displayed on someone’s wall? They don’t look alive, not the way an instrument that is loved and played regularly is alive. Just like the Velveteen Rabbit, musical instruments come to life when they are loved. Loved = not left in a corner to collect dust; loved = picked up and hugged.

I’ve found that it is not so easy to fit practicing the piano into my routine. It isn’t, after all, already there. I have to intentionally put it there. When I lament about how busy I am to Susan, she says, “baby steps.” If I don’t have twenty minutes, maybe I have five. If I don’t have five, how about one? Could I establish a habit of merely sitting down on the bench and putting my hands on the keyboard, once or twice a day?

images from Pixabay

That’s my third bit of advice: nurture a habit of beginning. For now, don’t worry about how long you keep at it. Just pick up your notebook. Read a few lines. Take the cap off your pen and make a note. This small step will lead — eventually — to more.

I promise.






Be a Rookie Every Year…

P1050370.JPGI heard this advice at a teaching conference, about a million years ago (or so it seems). A guest speaker — I don’t remember who he was, but his specialty was teaching with technology — was telling us about some of the newest brain science. He said the best way to keep your brain moving as you age is to “Be a Rookie.” He suggested beginning some new project every year, and not just a “new” project, but something to learn. Every year.

I’ve been relearning. For instance, I’m taking piano lessons, again. At age eight or eleven (it seems I took them for several years, but that can’t be right), I never became comfortable with playing the piano. I am not that person who can sit down at the piano and play a song, or bang out a tune. I can’t play chopsticks! And I am filled with envy when other people do. I find that I’m intensely uncomfortable merely sitting down on the piano bench and facing the keyboard. I can’t remember the names of the notes. When I play, or try to, it sounds like a child’s tinkering. At my lesson I feel like such an idiot. How is it that it doesn’t come easier? The first thing, I’ve realized, that I have to learn, is how to sit with this discomfort until it abates. Just sit. Just keep tinkering at the keys.

Being back at the college this fall, teaching my one paltry section of English 101, has made me hyper aware of how other people learn, or don’t. It’s so easy — isn’t it? — to cobble together an English sentence. How is that my students can imagine that She was a lovely woman she had hair of reddish gold when she talked her voice… is one sentence and doesn’t need any punctuation? And these are students who placed in a college-level writing class, after all, not remedial students! After the first paper, I decided to spend some time on the issue, and I gave them an opportunity to resubmit a clean, corrected copy of their work. Three students took me up on the offer, none of whom had serious sentencing problems.

I feel as though I am having to learn how to teach again, how to mark papers, how to be kind in the face of mechanical error — it is another place that is not comfortable for me. By now — after twenty-five years of teaching — shouldn’t I know how to teach a group of freshman writers?

Having my seventeen-year-old daughter enrolled in Driver’s Ed. has been another source ofemma 16 enlightenment. The day we got her permit, I traded car seats with her on a back road and said, “Drive.” She jumped in, eagerly, and I gave her a very quick introduction to gas pedal and brake. She pushed down the gas, raced forward, swerved, stopped, raced forward again, and at the first turn very nearly ran us into the ditch. (“Brake! Brake!”)

I didn’t know how to teach her to drive, how to talk her through the mechanics of driving, even though I have been driving various sorts of vehicles since I was nine years old and my dad told me to climb into the tractor seat and move it ahead. (Luckily, Driver’s Ed. had an instructor who knew just how to accomplish this, and Emma is now driving.)

Similarly, I decided that I wanted to be a writer when I was seven. And maybe that has something to do with my persistent astonishment, throughout my teaching career, at how some people don’t already know how to write. The student writers who love this stuff, who can already write — they’re a cinch to work with. But teaching skills that I take utterly for granted? This is a challenge for me, and something I get to learn, all over again. What a blessing!

Radical Optimism

beatrice-bruteauSome years ago — 15 to be exact — a friend gave me a copy of Beatrice Bruteau‘s  Radical Optimism: Practical Spirituality in an Uncertain World. I have read this book several times, and when I came across it recently, I felt that the current political climate gave me call to revisit it.

What I’ve realized, however, as I’ve been rereading, is that I need this book for other reasons besides the presidential race. My underlinings and highlighting and marginal notes show how enormously helpful this book has been to me as a teacher and as a writer. Going faster, working harder may be the zeitgeist of American culture, and it’s an attitude that infects higher education, too, but we might think differently.

In that spirit, here are just a few of my favorite Radical Optimism passages:

“The most important thing is this: Don’t represent to yourself what you are doing as difficult. Don’t keep saying how hard it is, don’t remember your failures. Don’t imagine the project as a tremendous task, a huge effort. Be like a weight lifter who deliberately concentrates on the bar and imagines it to be light as a feather.” (32)

“Hearts can be hardened — or ‘tensed up’ — in the same way that muscles can…” (27)

“But the Latin word schola comes from the Greek scholé which means ‘leisure.’ What an interesting discovery! Before you can teach, you must learn, and in order to learn, you must stop your busyness and hold still for a while. You must give yourself leisure to learn.” (9)

radicaloptimismfinal300-dpi_page_1-e1425055109741“The contemplative is not a dweller in an ivory tower, cut off from the world, oblivious of the suffering of humanity. On the contrary, the contemplative is one who is devoted to seeking the way out of evil and suffering. If we can understand the roots of our distress and the secret of our release, then we can act in the world to alleviate the pain.” (73)

“We get the kind of world we ourselves create…” (134)

“One who feels this way [to be right] is convinced that the only way to be safe is to control everything oneself. This isn’t pride. This is fear. Terrible, rock-bottom, existential fear.” (83)

“You may try by sheer willpower to do something or resist something, but if you cannot convert the imagination to the desired position, you will probably not attain what you have willed.” (45)