Still Writing

Write On Wednesday: Desperate Distractions

I’ll be honest - I nearly cried when I looked out my window this morning.

Snow fell in wet, white sheets, and the sky was gunmetal gray. Skeletal tree branches rattled in the wind, and the chickadees clung desperately to the feeder as it swayed dizzily back and forth.

It wasn’t going to be a good day.

This winter has seemed plagued to me, with illness and unrest, bitter cold and gray skies. I’ve been sick again this week, some odd combination of maladies that appeared out of nowhere.

The winter of my malcontent, I’m calling it. 

So far, 2015, I am not impressed.

I had great plans for the day too - nothing scheduled outside of the house, so I was going to catch up on writing, make headway on publicity for an event involving both my handbell ensemble and the community theater I volunteer with, and maybe even do the taxes (or at least gather the paperwork - yes, I’m one of those tax procrastinators.)

But my energy and ambition fell with a wet thud, just like those snowflakes that were piling up on the porch. 

 Most successful writers will say it’s necessary to put yourself in inspiration’s path: show up at the page every day, don’t wait for inspiration to come find find you. 

One of my favorite writers, Dani Shapiro, whose book Still Writing sits on my desk, talks about the pattern she has for her writing life. “Three pages every day, five days a week,” she maintains. But then she goes on to note that if you “do the math,” this means she could write a novel length manuscript in half a year. 

“I have never written a novel length manuscript in half a year,” she admits. “In fact, two years would be fast for me."

So what happens? As author William Styron put it - “the fleas of life” get in the way. Shapiro agrees. “The dog has a vet appointment; the school play is at noon; it’s flu season, a snow day, who knew there were so many long weekends? The roof springs a leak; the neighbor’s house is under construction; a friend calls in a crisis. Life doesn’t pause to make room for our precious writing time. Life stops for nothing and we make accommodations."

There is an incredible amount of willpower necessary to write, especially when writing isn’t your “bread and butter.” Distractions abound - not only the alluring call of the internet, but homelier distractions as well. Like the bed sheets that should be changed, the towels that needed washing. There is always tea to be made, maybe it would help settle my queasy stomach - or if not that, some toast, dry but still something after all. While the tea brews, perhaps just a few more pages in that new novel I just started. Maybe I’ll finish the chapter before the tea cools, and then go back upstairs to write. By then it’s time to take the dogs outside, which means another pass with the shovel so their short legs don’t become encumbered with icy snowballs.

Ah yes, you know the drill, I can see you nodding your heads guiltily out there. After a while, it all becomes a little desperate, doesn’t it? Sort of like the way we feel when we open the window and see another snowstorm, another gray sky, hear the thunk and scrape of the snow blade as it passes down the street for the 10th time today.

Perseverance. I managed to put myself into the chair, open the page, start to write. Time slips by, you get lost in whatever world you’re creating. For the writer - and I suspect for the musician, the painter, the cook, the seamstress - it’s all part of the same battle. Put yourself where ideas and inspiration will find you. 

And hope it doesn’t get sidetracked by distractions of its own on the way.



Begin It

BeginJust begin. Let your fingers hover over the keys, let the tips of them settle into the gentle concavity of each black square, let them select one letter after another and, with a gentle pressure, place that letter on the screen. Do that again and again while those letters become words, sending sparks to the engine that is your brain until it begins to fire and then to rumble insistently. Let the words multiply, let them trail across the screen like so many miles across the desert, wheels turning ever faster across thoughts and emotions and opinions and ideas, automatically making those thousands of decisions necessary to propel this thing, this writing, further and further along its journey.

Just begin.


Beginning has become difficult for me. It’s hard to find a way in to the things I want to write about. I’m reminded of those jump-rope days from long ago, two friends on each end swinging it tautly so it arced above my head, hearing the rhythmic swish as it swiped the pavement on its way around. “Jump in, Beck!” they’d call. “Jump in! Do it now!”

Oh it was so hard, so scary. If I missed, the rope would puddle over my head, all that momentum come to a dead stop, all that energy wasted, leaving me stranded in all my uncoordinated gracelessness.

But when I made it in how effortlessly simple it seemed to follow that pattern, to get into the groove and stay there. It was like riding a bicycle - you mustn’t think about the mechanics of it, about how to keep your balance on those teetering two wheels, you must focus first until you get the rhythm, but then let go.

Let go of that tight-fisted control.

Let go of the nagging “you’ll never make it” fear.


I pick up Still Writing, a book that stays on the desk in front of me, a book I use as talisman and devotional. It opens first to these words: "Writing is hard. We resist, we procrastinate, we veer off course. But we have this ability to begin again. Word after word, sentence after sentence, we build our writing lives. Today, we need to relearn what it is that we do. We have to remind ourselves to be patient, gentle with our foibles, ruthless with our time, withstanding of our frustrations. We remember what it is that we need. The solitude of an empty home, a walk through the woods, a bath, or half an hour with a good book - the echo of well-formed sentences in our ears. Whatever it takes to begin again."

So today I begin again, with my fingers now falling more surely and confidently on the keys - at least as surely and confidently as they ever do. The road unwinds strong and clear before me, the rope sails above my head and I lift my feet at exactly the right moment.

I jump in.

I just begin.







Still Writing

desk 2It’s a fine line we writers walk, the line between wanting to be a writer and actually doing the work of it. As Dorothy Parker said, “I hate writing. I love having written. Sometimes, sitting at my writing desk in the mornings, trying to restrain my itchy fingers from clicking on the Facebook icon one more time, I sigh in frustration. Where is that inspiration they kept promising me would come if I showed up faithfully every day? I want to go downstairs and make myself a cup of coffee. I really should put in a load of laundry. And there is, of course, Facebook and Twitter to check.

Instead, I pick up Still Writing, Dani Shapiro’s new book. I open it up and read:

It’s so easy to forget what matters. When I begin the day centered, with equanimity, I find that I am quite unshakable. But if I start off in that slippery, discomfiting way, I am easily thrown off course - and once off course there, I stay. And so I know that my job is to cultivate a mind that catches itself.  A mind that watches its own desire to scamper off into the bramble, but instead, guides itself gently back to what needs to be done. This kind of equanimity may not be my nature, but I can at least attempt to make it my habit.

If, as I have said to myself, that for this year at least what matters to me is this writing work I have set out to do, then I must be ever vigilant about guiding my mind back to what needs to be done, shepherding it gently away from the list of distractions all too ready to lasso it and wrestle it to the ground.

I must learn to be still. And write.

This book of Shapiro’s, this small square volume,  sits now always on my writing desk, always at hand. It serves as a guide, when the writing road becomes rocky and my mind has wandered into the bramble. It is my devotional, a dose taken daily even before I touch my finger to the keyboard, before the screen blossoms into life. “The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life,” the book is subtitled, and Perilous it can seem at times, to have chosen a life of words, of weaving expressions smooth as silk from nothing but rowdy thoughts that flit and flicker across the valleys of my mind.

But oh, the Pleasure to be had when mind and fingers work in tandem, when thoughts form as tangible things in tiny icons of black and white, marching steadfastly across the blank page. When words mirror the images in your head, brush them with the glow of painter’s finest bristle, and set them alight for the world to see. When you finally understand that thing that has eaten away at you for most of your sad, sorry life, when the words have worked it around in your head until at last you say “Aha! Of course! That is why I am the way I am!” When you write, and write some more.

When hours go by and -  still - you are writing.

There it is, then, the reason I sit down at this table every morning, the reason I shush the voices that beg me for coffee, that chide me about laundry, that niggle me for news from the Internet.  

Be still! I tell them. Go away with you.

I’m writing.


Still Writing 

Author: Dani Shapiro

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press

Pages: 230

Buy A Copy: Amazon|Barnes & Noble


Hieroglyphs on a Rock

I endured these (childhood) fantasies and premonitions by writing about them. The stories I made up were medicinal. My inner life was barbed, with jagged edges. Left untended, it felt dangerous, like it might turn on me at any moment. Intuitively, I understood that I had to use it. It was all I had. By writing, I was participating in a tradition as old as humanity. I was here. Hieroglyphs on a rock. I was here, and this is my story. Dani Shapiro (Still Writing)

Novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro often writes about the way her childhood influenced her writing. The only child of older parents who “fought constantly” and “whose greatest source of conflict was me," Shapiro says she “felt as if she were navigating the world on a borrowed visa.” She turned to writing as a way of coping, of marking her territory, of staying safe. 

I was here, and this is my story.

I can relate to Shapiro’s sense of danger and unease about her place in the world.  As the cherished only child of over-protective parents and grandparents, I was treated more like a china doll than a normal little girl. Ever fearful of my getting broken, my mother tried her best to keep me in a safe cocoon. In her eyes, disasters lurked around every corner like potential land mines waiting to explode.  I often had bronchitis and asthma, and so many of the activities my friends engaged in were off limits to me. Things like running (which made me short of breath), swimming (chlorine in the pool aggravated my asthma), ice skating (I might fall and break something), overnights with friends (their houses might have too much dust which would set off my allergies) were all verboten.

I developed a sense of fragility about life in general and my own in particular, a belief that I should never put myself in harms way- even if the potential for harm was practically negligible. So I learned to be content with quiet pursuits like writing stories, many of which were potboilers about young girls in dangerous situations - locked in haunted mansions, being pursued by ghosts or kidnapped by gangs of thugs. Interestingly enough, I rarely finished these epic tales, probably because I couldn’t conceive of a way to reach the happy ending I wanted so desperately.

I think I was in fourth grade when I first heard about the cave paintings in Lascaux, those images etched into the walls of a dark cave that appeared to be a form of primitive communication. I remember a chill running down my spine as the teacher explained how scientists believed these drawings to be early man’s first efforts at leaving a message or telling a story. Preserved for eons, these odd images were proof positive that some sentient being existed, one who was compelled to leave a message for posterity.

From that moment on, I became fixated on the idea of using words and images to leave a lasting legacy. My belief in the power of our individual stories was born on that day. No matter what might happen to me  (a fatal asthma attack brought about during a secret playdate in my friend Lisa’s dusty basement!) my mark on the world could be ensured through writing.

I was here, and this is my story.

This year I will publish a book called Life In General, a collection of essays from the past 8 years. These pieces will tell the story of my here and now, my life in this 21st century - what makes me smile and laugh and cringe in fear. They are the compilation of my hopes and dreams, my thoughts about family and home and reading and writing. They are the shared stories of women I know, those of us who struggle to balance our lives with the needs of children and grandchildren, spouses, aging parents, and employers. They are all aspects of my story, each one a hieroglyph on the wall of my cave.

I was here, and this is my story. 

And I’m excited to share it with you.