Yesterday I took the two-hour trip to see my mother. It was a sparkling blue day and the ferry crossing was blue, blue, and blue.
It was Earth Day, and we all might continue celebrating by reading something about Science and our besieged planet, or by checking to see if there’s a March for Science coming up in your hometown.
You might write a poem. Here’s an old one by Amy Clampitt:
Late in the day the fog
wrung itself out like a sponge
in glades of rain,
sieving the half-invisible
cove with speartips;
then, in a lifting
of wisps and scarves, of smoke-rings
from about the islands, disclosing
what had been wavering
fishnet plissé as a smoothness
of peau-de-soie or just-ironed
percale, with a tatting
of foam out where the rocks are,
the sheened no-color of it,
the bandings of platinum
and magnesium suffusing,
minute by minute, with clandestine
rose and violet, with opaline
nuance of milkweed, a texture
not to be spoken of above a whisper,
began, all along the horizon,
gradually to unseal,
like the lip of a cave
or of a cavernous,
“It would grieve me if despite all the liberties I allow myself, this took on the air of a collection. I never wanted butterflies pinned to a board; I’m looking for a poetic ecology, to observe myself and at times recognize myself in different worlds, in things that only the poems haven’t forgotten and have saved for me like faithful old photographs. To accept no other order than that of affinities, no other chronologist than that of the heart, no other schedule than that of unplanned encounters, the true ones.”
This is the first blogpost of some ramblings about where my thoughts are lately. Read at your peril.
Some years ago I bumped into a former colleague from Everett Community College, and asked her how early retirement was going. It had been two years since she left, and she admitted, smiling, that it had taken her two years just to figure out “how” to be retired.
Her smile baffled me. Wry? Chagrined? Embarrassed? No, it seemed genuine. But I can still remember thinking to myself, That won’t be me. If I get to retire from teaching–ever–I will make hay while the sun shines! I will write, and I’ll never look back.
But here I am, a little more than two years into this thing, and still learning how to be the writer I have dreamed all my life of being.
I tried to explain this yesterday to my poetry-group friends. I am aware that from the outside it looks as if I’m a successful writer. I have books! I blog! I send out poems and they are published! I finished a novel rewrite last year, and I’m so pleased to discover that I’m more than 100 pages into my new novel manuscript (abandoned in spring of 2014).
Putting it that way makes it sound so great.
Even so, I don’t feel as though I’ve learned how to really work as a writer. I scribble in my journal. I write down my goals and I think about them. I read inspirational books. Eventually I actually read a few pages of poetry or of a chapter.
And everything calls me away. I have lunch with an old friend. I go to the gym. I visit my mom. I read a novel. I clean my house (!). I sort through boxes and throw papers away. I take my 16 year old to Barnes & Noble for a study date. I join a church committee. I register for a conference. I read several blogs about setting goals. I read another novel. I watch 3 episodes of Dr. Who (only in the evening, mind you). I decide to find a new blog theme!
None of this is bad, of course, and some of it is utterly necessary. But, getting back to my former colleague, what do I want to be doing with my time? What was it I meant to be doing with my time? Now that I’ve spent those two years floundering around and finding myself, what am I going to do with myself?
Imagine that an anthropologist is studying your life.
Based on the evidence, what will she infer is most important to you?
Subject is devoted to Spider Solitaire. (That would be me.)
Whenever the cellphone beeps or pings or kaboodles, subject picks it up as if it were a fussy baby and soothes it.
Subject watches television for several hours every evening.
Subject devotes substantial amount of income to espresso drinks.
Not that any of this is necessarily bad (and maybe “creates beautiful family dinners,” or “knits sweaters” is what your anthropologist discovers), if these activities are what you wish to spend your life on. As Annie Dillard says, “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.”
But would your anthropologist be able to infer that you are a writer, based on the evidence?
It doesn’t apply only to writing. A few years ago when I read Jeff Olson’s The Slight Edge, I realized that despite my flaky youngest daughter’s difficult behavior, if she was actually a priority for me (and she is), then I needed to find a way to have at least one positive interaction with her every day.
I once asked a boyfriend of one of my older daughter’s what was most important to him. He got all glowy (it was kind of inspiring!) and went riffing off. Anything outdoors! Snowboarding! Hiking! He made his ideal life sound like it could be profiled in Outdoor magazine.
Whenever I saw this young man, he was staring at his cellphone (one arm wrapped around my daughter) while watching television. Or (no arm around my daughter) he was playing a video game. As far as I could tell, he spent most of his income on games.
Bless him for highlighting a lesson for me, but it isn’t just him. We all spend inordinate amounts of our time doing what is not important to us.
If writing is important to you, you should be writing. Every day.
I was awake at 5:30 this morning, eager to crack open my notebook and begin writing. But it’s 30 degrees here, and I am not good at being cold. I turned on the heater in my cabin, and then I carried my journal and my favorite pen inside. I turned on a lamp and I sat down in my comfy green chair.
Then, I stalled. Every word I wrote felt like an ice cube stuck with all the other ice cubes. I had to chisel each one free and it wasn’t rewarding. My fingers were blunt and stiff. Surfaces. Temperature. What I ate yesterday. What I might do later today, if I ever get out of this chair. I grabbed some poetry off the bookshelf next to my green chair and I read. Nothing grabbed me, but I copied out a short poem, and then I tried to write a poem using the same sort of gestures.
But what was the point?
And then, I remembered to ask, What is this? What exactly is it that I’m feeling? Can I name it? Where did it come from? What is it trying to tell me?
I remembered something I read yesterday in Tracey Cleantis’s book, The Next Happy. Fear can masquerade as lethargy. I wrote down that question, too: What am I afraid of?
The pages began to warm up, and the words weren’t solid little cubes of ice anymore. They began to flow.
“This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be.” Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit (273)
Before you change your life, it helps to know what exactly it is that you want to change.
So, Bethany, what would you like to see more of in your writing life?
If I had a more organized send-out habit, that would be wonderful.
If I could be more organized, I think that would help me to finish more work, and so have it available to be sent out.
On those days when I’m not driving to see my mom or on some other errand, I’d like to actually write for several hours. Several? 3 or 4? 6?
If I could go to bed earlier, and fall sleep earlier, I could get up earlier in the morning, and write, even on days when I’m traveling. As mornings are my absolute, best time of day to do creative work, this would be ideal.
The other day, I suggested that you jot down what you want to accomplish. But now, what does one DO with that list? The key, I’m convinced, is to focus on one item, and break it into parts. Into the smallest parts possible. Or as some writers would emphasize that phrase: The. Smallest. Parts. Possible.
In order to send out my current mss., what small actions can I take?
Find the emails about PEARL’S ALCHEMY that I’ve sent most recently. Draft a new email. Find addresses for all the agents and editors I met with last summer. Get a copy of the PNWA 2014 program?
Decide what exactly I need to fix in the closing section of the book, in order to follow up an initial request, or a 50 page excerpt, with the whole book.
When I look at the small parts, just one each morning, it doesn’t sound that difficult.
In her book, Juicy Pens, Thirsty Paper SARK includes a wheel of small, intentional actions. If I still had the book, I’d take a picture of her version — but here’s mine (messier, less colorful) for this project of 1) making a list; 2) choosing one item; 3) breaking it into small parts; 4) figuring out what small, action I can take next.
If I’m remembering it right, SARK’s wheel says “5 seconds or 5 minutes.” When you’re trying to create a new habit, the smallest action can help. Alongside other small actions, repeated over time, it can start everything sliding downhill.
One action, I find, encourages another.
In my next blogpost, I want to add 2 cents more to this thread on habits — this time about finding or creating a supportive community.
After an argument — over the phone, at dinner — with my youngest daughter (I am supposed to be on a getaway with my husband), I spent a sleepless night. This morning when writing in my journal didn’t resolve all my angst, I went on-line and looked up articles on how to fight fair with teenage daughters. Don’t try to oppose her growing up and finding her own identity. Don’t sweat the small stuff (hair, clothes). Be awake to the big stuff (drugs, alcohol, sex). Look for the win-win. Be responsible. Expect responsibility. Expect that your daughter will want to be with her friends rather than you; spend time with her anyway.
“Kasischke’s poetry is noted for its intelligent, honest portrayal of domestic and familial life; its explosively accurate imagery and dense soundscapes; and its idiosyncratic use of narrative. According to Stephen Burt in the New York Times: ‘No poet has tried so hard to cut through suburban American illusion while respecting the lives, young and old, that it nurtures or saves. No poet has joined the chasm of ontological despair to the pathos of household frustration so well as Kasischke at her best.’”
The chasm of ontological despair IN household frustration!
Now that you’ve drafted (yesterday?) a list of I am lines, maybe this will give you an idea of where to go next.
I am the coward who did not pick up the phone
I am the coward who did not pick up the phone, so as never to know.
So many clocks and yardsticks dumped into an ocean.
I am the ox which drew the cart full of urgent messages straight into
the river, emerging none the wiser on the opposite side, never looking
back at all those floating envelopes and postcards, the wet ashes of
some loved one’s screams.
How was I to know?
I am the warrior who killed a sparrow with a cannon. I am the
guardian who led the child by the hand into the cloud, and emerged
holding only an empty glove. Oh —
the digital ringing of it. The string of a kite of it, which I let go of.
Oh, the commotion in the attic of it — in the front yard, in the back yard,
in the driveway — all of which I heard nothing of, because I am the
one who closed the windows and said, This has nothing to with us.
In fact, I am the one singing this so loudly I cannot hear you even now.
(Mama, what’s happening outside? Honey, is that the phone?)
I am the one who sings, The bones and shells of us. The organic broth of us. The zen gong of us.