No good reason to write

I hate when I get out of the habit of writing. I feel life’s pointless; I feel I will never catch the momentum of my creative life again.

It’s like the train is idling in the station and I have to run and catch it. This has happened a million times when I drove down from Lake Champlain to Albany-Rensselaer. I had to run to catch the train, back to the city, back to work.

Once I missed the train and I was so pissed. Couldn’t they have radioed down to tell the conductor, “Wait one minute!” I watched the train pull away.

I digress. I was writing about writing. And how hard it is to write.

I have been preoccupied with winding down from my day job; vacating up in the Adirondacks; teaching my first boot camp workshop; caring for kids, spouse, family; trying to get my freelance biz going; and now organizing the Adirondack Memoir Retreat (Oct. 25-28 – Please come).

The point of my life is to make stuff.

Yet all things conspire to get in my way when I sit down to to write. Everything and everyone. And they don’t even mean to. And besides, I tell myself there’s no good reason to write. No one’s asking me, “Can you please blog?” (But kids ask me, “Can you fix some dinner?”)

There’s no good reason to blog because it doesn’t make any money. And why do anything but make a buck? our capitalist society asks.

Yet our souls hunger for art. Our lives need to make things of beauty or else it’s all for nothing. It’s all spent grasping for the stupid gold ring on the merry-go-round. And you can never grasp it. You can never have enough. Money does not satisfy.

Art satisfies. Creativity gives back. Handmade dinners, crafts, and poems thank you. If they don’t, well, then you have something to write about then too. Write about the disappointment and the tragedy of all that lack of return on your investment.

Most of the time, you get the return, you catch the train. The conductor waits.

I have caught the train more times than I have missed it. I hopped on. I watched the cities roll by my window. I opened my laptop. I caught my breath from the run to the train and started writing.

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This picture has nothing to do with this post. But yesterday I went to the Staten Island Yankees game. On the free ferry, you pass Lady Liberty. You are free and at liberty to pursue your happiness.

The Muse Will Show

The muse will come when you stop messing around on Facebook or goofing off on Twitter. Reading other people’s stuff sometimes inspires the muse, but the muse can be prickly, even jealous. Ignore your own creativity? The muse runs away. The muse doesn’t like when you spend too long working for other people and not long enough on your own. If you don’t care about your creativity, the muse won’t either.

This is where I am writing, — in a room with a window seat, looking out on Lake Champlain. The muse likes a room with a view.

The muse will show up when you let go of perfectionism. When you stop comparing yourself to all of the successful, rich people you get bombarded with every single day. Those beautiful people get to your muse. Those people are like vampires, making you run into your house and lock your front door.

The muse doesn’t like when you choose safety over the midnight walk in the woods. The muse loves to roam too and wants you to live on the edge of a cliff, not in the cocoon.

The muse will show up when you put fingers on the keyboard and wipe away the blank screen.

The muse will show up when you stop cleaning the kitchen.

When the muse shows up, it’s not work. It’s play. You just have to get out of your own way. Something, some brilliance — seriously! – will flow through you. You will sit back when you are done and go, “Wow! I did that!” But no, you didn’t do that. Not alone any way. You were the conduit. The creative spirit, the muse, flew through you and is now flying away because your ego — such a barking dog — chased it away.

And tried to take all the credit. But that’s okay; that’s the ego’s job.

The muse will be back tomorrow. Or later. But won’t/can’t stay forever, because you have to eat and go to the bathroom and chat with your kids and make dinner and throw a load of laundry in the washer and gossip about the neighbors and, don’t forget, you’ve got to pay the bills.

I know, as an artist and writer, I can visit the muse when I jot my ideas and images in a little notebook, even when I am away from my keyboard or canvas. I use Field Notes, a product. But I get no money (or respect) from Coudal Partners for this endorsement. Although occasionally, I swipe pack of Field Notes when I am at the Coudal household.

As Field Notes saying goes, “I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now.”

I want to write more about my prickly, beautiful, sensitive, strong muse. But I have to go for a walk. I have to stretch my body. I have to take my time. I have to let my muse fly.

This post was inspired by the Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, a book that made me to take my muse seriously.

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Starting Anew

Elaeocarpus holopetalus - Mount Imlay Rainforest

Elaeocarpus holopetalus – Mount Imlay Rainforest (Photo credit: Poytr)

I have loved my job for so many reasons for so many years. Just because you love someone or something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t let it go. Like parenting. My kids want to go to camp or on school trips. I love them but let them go.

Without going into all the deets, my workplace has offered a voluntary severance package to everyone. And I’m taking it (effective within the next couple of months).

Sometimes work grows around you like a vine in a tropical rain forest, hitting the top layer and you’re still on the forest floor. Or sometimes work’s part of the undergrowth. And you’re reaching for the sky.

According to the internet, (which we all know is NEVER wrong!) there are four layers to the rain forest (and these coincide with where we are on any given day):

  • the emergent layer
  • the canopy
  • the understory
  • the forest floor

I think the point of life is to grow wherever you are. Life is only about growth. Or maybe the pursuit of happiness. That’s all.

And I need to grow. And pursue my happiness. We all do.

To such an end I’m starting some projects such as offering a querying and getting published workshop in New York on August 16 in partnership with Kelly Wallace who’s offering the workshop in Portland on August 18. We’re working on the website. We’re onto something.

We’re on the forest floor or the emergent layer, continuing to grow, starting anew.

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Revising

pages from my art journal

I love the creative process. I love the brilliant idea as bright as a candle flame. The revision process? Not so sexy.

I wish I could fall in love with rewriting. These tips for writers as they revise at Necessary Fiction really got me thinking. Here are a few useful ideas from the post:

  • write the plot on sticky notes then organize in columns
  • retype the whole thing
  • change fonts
  • make sure what your character wants is an impediment to what others want
  • raise the stakes
  • get rid of introductory clauses

I am in love with the short form. I love blogging. I sit down. Write for 20 minutes. Add a photo or two. Hit publish. Done! Go about life.

For me revising is endless. There’s no Done!

Thanks to NaNoWriMo, I now have two half-baked novels written during the months of November (2011 and 2009). Due to their unwieldy length, slightly more than 50,000 words, I can’t bear to open the first chapter. Just maybe if I set out the plot on colorful sticky notes or cut up my scenes with scissors, the story could emerge more like a work of art, a collage, than a mess of incomplete plot points.

collage – perhaps upside-down?

I have been crazy making collages lately. I get into a Zen mode and throw paint and color and images down on paper or on discarded library books.

Done! I love the haphazard process and the chaotic result. Maybe I could see the process of revising my writing as a visual art project.

As the blogger Matthew Salesses says, “a lot of these thoughts are about seeing. Remember: re-vision.”

I, too, can repurpose, rewrite, rethink, rewind, rework, and revise. Re-vision.

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Getting Rid of Stress

Stress has visited you like the devil in days of yore. It has caused your heart to race, your hands to dampen, your throat to dry. So let’s beat back stress with these 11 steps.

1. Do a daily act of kindness. You know you can’t think your way into good action, so you must act your way into good thinking. You must do one act of kindness and service daily. Open a door for a stranger. Donate to the subway musician. Anything.

2. Get up early every day and write in your journal. This private brain drain will add years to your life. Studies show people who write about their stressful moments boost their immune systems.

3. View your life as a hero’s journey. You have read about Joan of Arc and Odysseus. Now there is YOU. You are no less remarkable. You have fought your battles — an abusive spouse as fierce as a dragon? Look at your life as a quest. Your purpose is to complete your mission.

4. Find your mission. Mine is to parent three awesome children, to write, to teach and to make the world a kinder, better place than I found it through my words and actions.

5. Work out three or more times a week. Or just move your body more regularly from the sitting position. Yes, our ancestors were hunters but mostly they were gatherers. Get in touch with your inner gatherer. Get in touch with nature.

6. Pamper yourself. Manicure? Haircut? Massage? Once a month — is this too much to ask? Take care of the vessel you were given.

7. Get to bed early. Get a book. Get several. Get horizontal. Pull the covers up. Go to bed by 10 pm every night.

8. Have sex regularly. Sexuality is a gift from God. Why else does it feel so good? Because it is a beautiful part of the human, adult experience. Do it your own way but do it.

9. Listen without talking so much. You have a lot to say, a lot to share. But you will be remembered on this earth, not by how well you have said what you have to say, but by how well you compassionately listened.

10. Eat healthily. Okay, a bacon cheeseburger and a beer is okay once in a while. But do not use unhealthy food as a way to pamper yourself or indulge. Healthy tastes good.

11. Give seven hugs a day.

Thanks to Alicia Pitterson who provided the prompt at yesterday’s Wednesday Writers lunch time series. She asked us to create an agenda for an event called, “Don’t let stress get the best of you.”  

Powering Down

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I can’t get my kids to unhook both of their ear buds. When I come home from work and they’re lounging on the couch, I ask them about their day and they unhook one bud. They’re, literally, half listening and half answering.

If I reach over and pull out the other ear bud, they scream, “You’re abusing me. I’m calling Child Services.” (They love to joke like that.)

I feel like putting in my own ear buds. In my ear, I will arrange for a preteen to whisper, “You’re such a good mother. Thank you for caring about me. Thank you for working every day. Thank you for your kindnesses and humor. Now, mother, I will go make dinner for the family. And I will set the table.” Sure, it sounds robotic and saccharine. So? What’s wrong with that?

I like having and giving my full attention. I like giving and receiving household help.

I ask for help getting dinner. No one answers. They are bopping their heads to invisible music or smiling as they look at the small screen in their hands.

At least, when family dinner is on the table and we are seated together about to say grace, they are fully present. No, wait, why is my son smiling at his lap and why is his lap buzzing and glowing? That little brat! Give me that! (I take his iPhone.)

I am writing this on our vacay on the West Coast of Florida by the pool. At this moment, I don’t really care that no one listens to me. I’m not listening either. I hear only the gentle splashing sound of the fake waterfall by secluded swimming pool. Life is good. Tune out. Power down.

Keep Practicing

I love a daily discipline of writing. I loved doing NaNoWriMo in November. Writing is a solitary experience. So a shared blogging platform, like PostADay2011, made writing a communal experience in 2011

work in progress, my book for book of days

Today I signed up for 365 Grateful and Book of Days for 2012. I like a push, a reminder, shared misery, and shared joy.

I respond well to a gentle and encouraging nudge.

If I’m creative on a daily basis, then I have a vessel in which I can dump my creativity when something really cool pops into my head.

It’s good to keep practicing. Writing is a practice. I love that Buddhism is considered a practice, not a fixed religion. The practice of a religion or creativity is not idolizing an icon, but living creatively and staying open to the creative spirit.

Somewhere in my brain there’s a quote about the reason that firefighters shine the pole in the firehouse every day. It needs to be smooth for that one day a year when there’s actually a fire. That is why I write daily, for that one day a year. That”s why I practice.

The Westport Workshops

Went well.

I love when people open up — give me stories about your divorce, depression, cancer treatment, or dysfunctional childhood. And then half-way through your writing, lay it on me about how you handled the whole thing with faith, resilience, humor, or alcohol.

Better yet, write about your most embarrassing moment — the time you felt so humiliated you thought you’d never crawl back into civilized company again. You’ve got an epic fail? You’ve got an epic tale.

The stories of our struggles are the ones that will get published, get a laugh, get a tear, get a friend to open up on her crappy/crazy/resilient/hopeful life.

I’m not saying we wrote about any of these things (Maybe we did, maybe we didn’t!) at the Westport Creative Writing workshops, which I offered the last three Saturdays of August 2011 at the Heritage House.

But even if we did, I wouldn’t tell you, because the rule in my writing classes is confidentiality.

I will tell you generally what we wrote about — in the first class, among other topics, we wrote about a safe place from our childhoods; the second class, we wrote about our mentors from high school; the third class, with Hurricane Irene on her way, we wrote about riding out a storm (literal or metaphorical).

At the first class, we had 6 people, then 3, and then at the last class, 8. Hooray! It felt great. There were so many brilliant writers with brilliant life stories. It was an honor to be a part of and facilitate a creative writing experience for non-writers and professionals alike.

I believe there is something healing and transformative about writing your life story. It is sometimes unbelievable, but never never dull.

I will offer these “Story of Your Life” workshops (inspired by Dan Wakefield’s book of the same name) again.

Creative Writing Prompts

A colleague emailed me that she was feeling creative and wanted some writing prompts. Here are the two I sent her:

  1. Write about the last time you were really mad. After 10 minutes, stop, breathe. Now continue the story but make it funny.
  2. Write about one memory from a kitchen in your childhood. Be sure to include the smells.

There is something warming about memories of food and there is something healing about making an infuriating incident comical.

Once when I did this first writing exercise, I wrote about how a fellow drama student blamed me for our acting scene having gone awry. To add a funny twist I conjectured that she had a crush on our teacher and was just trying to ingratiate herself in his good opinion by dissing me. I don’t know if my take on the incident was true, but writing that scenario made me feel better.

Writing naturally makes you feel better and boosts the immune system. Lots of studies show that journal writing every day can improve your health. I don’t know why this is true but I believe it has something to do with our human need to see things anew.

And the human body is just wired to love and respond well to stories, even the stories we tell ourselves, which is why we dream.

I have been thinking about performing and teaching because  this morning I taught three one-hour classes at my son’s school. I taught, “Writing and Performing Comedy.” Almost all of my 60 or so students were 7th grade boys.

In their comic scenes, the boys often made choices that had to do with shooting one another and/or putting on funny accents. I tried to encourage them to see that humor has to do with being authentic and saying the thing that everyone thinks but no one says. Comedy is about getting to some truth. Sometimes saying the truthful thing with a funny accent works, but not usually.

I love teaching but after the morning session, I was exhausted. I don’t know how teachers do it day in and day out.

10 minutes a day

I work on my unwieldy novel most days for so little time. It’s the Swiss cheese method of writing. You just poke a tiny hole in the task. You punch a moment into that insurmountable infinity.

I read this method in Alan Lakein’s book, “How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life” a long time ago when I was Barbara Weaver’s assistant in the Women’s Division. Sometimes I wish I was somebody’s assistant again. More often, I wish that I had an assistant!

“The underlying assumption of the Swiss cheese approach is that it is indeed possible to get something started in five minutes or less. And once you’ve started, you’ve given yourself the opportunity to keep going…Swiss cheese is supposed to lead to involvement,” Lakein says. I’m not so sure.

I start my Stopwatch app. And I glance at the numbers. Occasionally, I will go past 10 minutes, but usually, I watch the time flip over to 10:00 and then I go, “Phew.” I put the novel away. The Swiss cheese method has not led me into the zone. I do love to enter the flow of writing — when time passes without being noticed. When writing is bliss. I like that. But it’s okay when it’s Swiss cheese too. It’s something. It’s edible.