writing life

Write On Wednesday: Writing it Down

"The most important function my writing serves is to help me make sense of life in general - and my own in particular."

Those words are as true for me today as they were 10 years ago when I wrote them in the “about” page on my first blog. Writing things down in almost any format - from a hastily scribbled list or a soul searching journal entry to  a carefully considered essay  -writing clarifies my thinking, opens a channel for new ideas, and relieves anxiety and tension. 

Because writing is often the midwife to new ways of thinking, or a working out of one’s feelings on the page, it’s most appreciated when one is in the midst of a particularly unsettling period of life.

So it begs the question: How does being happy with life in general play out in one’s writing? Does a writer need a pinch of angst as seasoning for the pot? Is being happy and content a deterrent to deeply expressive writing, the kind that connects emotionally with readers?

On Stewardship

Be a good steward to your gifts. Protect your time. Feed your inner life. Avoid too much noise. Read good books, have good sentences in your ears. Be by yourself as often as you can. Walk. Take the phone off the hook. Work regular hours.  

Poet Jane Kenyon intended these words as instructions for writers, a set of inviolable regulations to both promote and protect the creative thought process and the work ethic. Like most people who want to write - or pursue any kind of artistic lifestyle - I yearn for a set of rules to follow. I want someone to lay it out point blank, someone to give me a roadmap. Just do this and thus and so, and at the end you’ll have the masterpiece you want so badly. I want the protocol like the doctor in the emergency room, or the chemist in the laboratory. I want the boilerplate an attorney might use, or the set of formulas an engineer would employ.

In the sense that there are any such things for a creative person, I suppose Jane Kenyon’s principles come as close as anything to fulfilling that role. Protect your time. Have good sentences in your ears. Work regular hours.  Be a good steward to your gifts.

Like anything worth doing, being a good steward to your gifts takes a conscious effort. It starts when I stop scheduling appointments in the morning so I can have that hour or two to work. It continues when I disable the internet (the 21st century version of taking the phone off the hook) and bring both dogs upstairs to my office so they aren’t barking at every other Fido, Max, or Maddie walking by. It’s fed by the inspiration in a select group of books on my desktop, the words of my “teachers” - Dani Shapiro, Katrina Kenison, Anne Lamott, Karen Maezen Miller - who stand before me with gentle encouragement and well-wishes.

Most often the things that derail me from good stewardship are the demands of ordinary life. The grocery shopping and doctor’s appointments, the dog whose hair needs trimming, the laundry that overflows the basket in my closet. These tasks are my job. They don’t pay the bills, but they keep our lives humming smoothly along, which is important for me.  Truth? I am obsessive-compulsive enough that I need that full pantry, clear calendar, and empty laundry basket in order to focus my attention on anything else - like writing.

Or at least I think I do.

Good stewardship, the kind Kenyon talks about, must start with the belief that this writing thing is worth all the effort. And there is the most difficult concept of all. The belief that what I do matters, that the words I try to weave into a coherent whole can make something meaningful. That even if I’m the only person who feels excited about what I put on the page, it’s still necessary to spend the time putting it there.

What I need more than anything is an unwavering conviction in the value of my gift. Only then can I make the dedicated and concerted effort necessary to protect it, nurture it, fulfill it by following Kenyon’s prescriptions. And if I look at her precepts even more closely, I see that they fulfill most of my personal requirements for a good life, irrespective of writing at all.  They are the backbone of a calm and collected way of being that is among my highest aspirations. Feed your inner life. Read good books. Walk. 

Anne Lamott writes about this kind of life in the final pages of Bird by Bird. “This life of reading, writing, corresponding...is nearly ideal. It is spiritually invigorating. It is intellectually quickening. One can find in writing a perfect focus for life. It offers challenge and delight and agony and commitment. We see our work as a vocation, with the potential to be as rich and enlivening as the priesthood."

“In this dark and wounded society,” she concludes, “writing can give you the pleasures of a woodpecker, of hollowing out a hole in a tree where you can build your nest and say, ‘This is my niche, this is where I live now, this is where I belong.’"

So here I am, in my quiet room at the top of the stairs, my notebook on my lap, my dogs napping peacefully beside me, surrounded by words of my own making and those of writers I admire.

This is my niche. This is where I live now. This is where I belong.

This is my gift.

TLC Tours for The Sunday Salon: Because You Have To: A Writing Life

I’m a writing book junkie. Sometimes, I'm one of those people who loves to read about writing more than I actually love to write. There is a mystique surrounding a writer’s life, especially for those of us who are wannabe’s, who worship at the throne of “real” writers - you know, the ones with actual books that have been printed with paper and ink.

So when TLC Tours offered me the opportunity to read/review Because You Have To: A Writing Life, by Joan Frank, I readily agreed to feed my reading-about-writing habit.

Frank contends that those who are called to write must do so, no matter what the privation. She uses herself as a prime example, discussing the ways she has supported her writing (a published body of work that include two short story collections and three novels) with mostly low-paying office jobs. She talks about co-workers who complain that she is unresponsive when she drifts into a daydream about her latest work. She relates tales of ekeing out moments to write between fielding phone calls and typing letters. “There is never enough,” she titles one of her chapters. Never enough time, money, silence, appreciation.

She talks about the isolation that writers sometimes feel, the need to “build a kind of coherent wholesome scaffolding around the essentially lonely, aberrant, and certainly unjustifiable act of writing.” She advises the writer to “be careful whom you tell,” about your writing, because “Americans tend to feel uneasy when confronted with someone professing to practice art.” She shares some “gruesome stories” about marketing and rejection.

She does not sugar coat the writer’s life, oh no she does not.

But still, this reader can sense on every page how compelled she is to put words to paper, to express ideas, to work out emotions and scenarios and possibilities on the printed page. Frank looks at the writers life -well, frankly - but in a way that makes you still want to be part of that mysterious brotherhood.

She even writes about those writing books I love to love so much.

You can collect dozens of technique books. In the end, writing that has life in it can’t issue from someone else’s formula, like dance steps painted on a plastic mat. Anyone with an instinct for the shape and sound and movement of language must somewhere in her heart recognize this lonely truth, and agree to trust herself to go forward, absorbing the advice that fits along the way, tossing the rest.

Because You Have To: A Writing Life.  Joan Frank tells it like it is in this very personal, sometimes funny, sometimes acerbic, sometimes joyous book about what keeps her coming back to the page.

We write to investigate, attend, witness. When even the biggest literary names make victorious reading tours, they often admit how unhappy they feel until they have settled into the next writing project - how hungrily they miss working on something, amid whatever aclaim. I believe them. The itch, the yearning, the glimpse of the next tantalizing, disturbing idea - how can I broach it, solve the inescapable problems? Where might I take it; more accurately, more excitingly, where might it take me? The call of the dream: getting back to it, getting it down. Product is good, but process, we learn the hard way, it the real tugging star. One following onto the next, a whole sparkling cosmos of them.