Fiction, Revisions, Writing

Writers as Heroes

How many times have I started a story or a novel that sucked? The despair and depression began as soon as the original spark began to fizzle, the images began to fade, the ideas began to deflate. The narrative lacked some kind of spine or heart, some kind of engine that could carry it through to its resolution. I always thought there was something wrong with me when this happened.

As a writer I had a fight to fight. I wanted to fall in love with my characters and their pain, but words kept getting in the way. I kept pushing too hard, trying to find a point of view that wasn’t really mine.

When this stuff happens (and it happens frequently) I freak out and reach into my bucket o’ anti-depressants. Nothing to do but hit the DEL key and the trash becomes my best friend.

Imperfect memory. Mis-heard voices. Grabbing things as they fly past. I thrive on these. The truth is, I have no idea what I’m doing until I’ve spent days, weeks, months with visions and re-visions, and sometimes they just won’t gel.

But it’s all right. Blame it on the liquid of language we’re all dissolved in, as Modest Mouse says. “Everyone’s a building burning with no one to put the fire out.”

Freaking out and saying good-bye are part of the package. Life is nothing except a series of moments, and writing fiction is a subjective experience, created through our own viewpoint. Although great literature remains timeless and deeply satisfying because of its exquisite descriptions of the human condition, it’s not really a corroboration of direct personal experience. That’s because language is an imperfect transmitter and receptor. So, we have to come to terms with our own experience and trust it because no one else is having it, only us.

That means that in the end we are all our own writing teachers. Being our own writing teachers brings with it freedom, curiosity and wonder. The difficulties of process and any “objective” understanding we claim to have of the world is built entirely from scratch with each story.

What we build depends on the books we’ve read, the people we’ve met, and the experiences we’ve had. It means that although we share the same objective world, we will never represent it quite like anyone else. And this is why it’s self-destructive to think we have nothing “original” to say or to allow others to tell us how we should write. It also lets us disregard extraneous, non-useful criticism.

Subjectivity is primary experience — it is real life, our real life, something each of us builds on top of objectivity in our minds, privately, in order to make sense of it all, and even if no one else reads it, if no one else cares. Each raindrop matters, even if no one notices it fall. This truth could have important implications for us as we develop as writers. In the end we all have to be our own heroes.

Humor, Lists, random thoughts, Words

Things to Think About During Bouts of Insomnia

  • every mistake you’ve ever made that put you in your current situation
  • that remark you made that turns your face 50 shades of color
  • all the stress you’ll have when it comes time to get that job you had to get to pay off that student loan
  • how to spin your perpetual absent-mindedness as edgy risk behavior
  • how you drank too much coffee. Yup, drank too much. Too much coffee. Drank too much. Coffee
  • but you’re not a recluse; you’re just playing hard to get with other people
  • that if we all put our heads together we might figure out where our brains went
  • that you’ve been reading Beckett again. Malone died alone, slowly eaten by cats.
  • the depressing knowledge that instead of that huge dream library you’ll have a Kindle
  • the state of the world and those tweets that prove it, like “YOUR AN IDIOT”
  • you forgot to drink those 32.2 oz of water and now you’re going to die
  • all your neighbors with guns that accidentally go off inside their homes
  • that canned coconut milk product tasted a little off, now that you think of it
  • secretly admit that all cats are girls and all dogs are boys
  • wonder if you forgot to burp your Tupperware
  • how much the word “fizzle” has been part of your vocabulary lately
  • those creepy blackened car windows where you can’t tell who is seeing you (or not)
  • dragging yourself around the grocery store looking for cheap ways to stay alive
  • if you only had one day to live you’d just keep doing the same things

My First Kayak Trip

Today’s post isn’t about writing. It’s about my klutz-style kayaking on the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon. I’ve never gone kayaking until today. My arms feel like they’re going to lift off my body after two hours of steady rowing. Luckily I wasn’t the only one in our group who had never done it before. Before we carried them down to the dock, they sat inside a structure where the guide assigned all fifteen of us a specific kayak. I noticed that only one of them was yellow, with an odd-shaped opening, and was the only one facing backwards. Something told me that was the one he was going to put me in. I was right,  genetically strange and awkward oddball that I am. After we found out which was our kayak, we paired up and hauled one or two down to the dock and the guide gave us a brief and upbeat introduction.

We got them waterborne and I got inside all right, but when I began to paddle I didn’t know how to make the kayak go the way I wanted it to and found myself headed out mid-river and on my way to the sea. People who were still getting in their kayaks were shouting at me to turn around. It was like one of those bad dreams where nothing works the way it’s supposed to, and no one gave you advice about how to do it. As the dock and everyone else got smaller and smaller I began to wonder if getting in the kayak had been a good idea in the first place. Everyone else seemed to be in control of their craft. And why not? It was flat water. I don’t even want to think about where I’d have wound up in white water rapids. I finally figured out the difference between pushing the oar back and pushing it forward. Turning was another matter. You know that feeling when it dawns on you that you made a big mistake. Continue reading

Craft, Fiction, Process, Revelations, Writing

It’s 1:13 am Again

I thought yesterday’s post needed a follow-up, something that could be useful to someone like myself who struggles to write truth through the art of fiction. So I wrote some words about it:

It’s important to get those little
things down
those things that seem
unimportant, and if
you’re lucky,
to connect them with red
and unexpected
threads: with the quality of pain
and light
and sound,
of feeling and color,
shape and texture. It’s the
least we can do, touch the
hem of the infinite with
this small bravery of truth
and the terror of knowing
that another small part of
you will fade and can never
return. But for now
your swallow clicks
in your ears, and the wind
howls in the night. Beside
you the cat sleeps easily
on the bed, and it’s
1:13 am.

[For some reason WordPress's tag bot recommended "1 Corinthians 13" when it picked up "1:13 am." I'm not a Christian and I know little or nothing of the Christian Bible, so I looked up the reference and it seemed to fit, somehow. Serendipitous connections are also a part of life, apparently.]

poetry, Writing

Why We Tell Stories

…a poem by
Lisel Mueller

For Linda Foster

Because we used to have leaves
and on damp days
our muscles feel a tug,
painful now, from when roots
pulled us into the ground

and because our children believe
they can fly, an instinct retained
from when the bones in our arms
were shaped like zithers and broke
neatly under their feathers

and because before we had lungs
we knew how far it was to the bottom
as we floated open-eyed
like painted scarves through the scenery
of dreams, and because we awakened

and learned to speak

We sat by the fire in our caves,
and because we were poor, we made up a tale
about a treasure mountain
that would open only for us

and because we were always defeated,
we invented impossible riddles
only we could solve,
monsters only we could kill,
women who could love no one else
and because we had survived
sisters and brothers, daughters and sons,
we discovered bones that rose
from the dark earth and sang
as white birds in the trees

Because the story of our life
becomes our life

Because each of us tells
the same story
but tells it differently

and none of us tells it
the same way twice

Because grandmothers looking like spiders
want to enchant the children
and grandfathers need to convince us
what happened happened because of them

and though we listen only
haphazardly, with one ear,
we will begin our story
with the word and

Craft, Fiction, Personal, random thoughts, Writing

Writing in the Midst of Things

More or less a stream-of-consciousness post today, a day of brilliant sun showers, quivering puddles, and outside my window robins flit through bare lilac branches and emerald green humming birds sip at crimson quince blossoms. Daffodils, camellias, hyacinth, and plum blossoms have burst open, and the early leaves are a profusion of bronze and peridot.

I love that the great writers patiently teach me how to write, to notice things, to savor them, to observe how clouds move across the new landscape dimming it and turning on its lights as they pass. Darkness and light in infinite shades and the day passes imperceptibly. I love the blue-gray clouds that huddle on the horizon filled with rain and the stillness of the infinitely patient trees.

Skies where I live

Spring term. My first class starts tonight: Research for Writers. It’s also when the Mr. and I have begun house hunting. Spring is when people in my city come out blinking, pale and waterlogged , into the sun showers after a long wet March and decide they want, no they MUST buy a house. Spend their last cent on a house with south-facing windows this time, and a few fruit trees in the yard. They crawl all over each other to be the first to put an offer on some adorable property that comes available, in a city where such places are scarcer than footprints on Mt. Everest. This is a highly desirable area, our agent tells us, as if we didn’t already know. He asks us what we want. The Mr. just wants a garage and a basement. He’s set. Me, I want a Craftsman bungalow with a patch of land both which have been lovingly cared for by previous owners. And a kitchen that is the center of life. And, of course, a Room of My Own in which to write. I’m not asking much, but in this city it’s what every cultural creative wants. It’s what I settle for, since I know I’ll never move to the UK and live in a country cottage, which for me would be absolute heaven on earth.

Yet I write this knowing how much suffering and misery are going on in this world as I write it, and it percolates up through my stories and sets the mood like the color of wallpaper in a room, immutable and silent. This, too, is part of a writer’s sensibility. To create art regardless of what is happening, that is how I test myself.

Books, Craft, Process, Revelations, Writing

At Swim Up-Hill

I spend most of my days in front of the computer, reclusive and huddled down into my own confusion, discomforts, fears, and peculiarities. Sometimes I read and write poetry and fiction. Sometimes I go on a run, usually at night. Sometimes I eat a little of something. Sometimes I sleep a little. But I never go anywhere or do anything unless it’s absolutely necessary. There are reasons for this. But I don’t know what they are.

Life comes to a close too fast, and a lot of the times goes grim both inside and outside. That’s why life must change, must take out its trash. It needs to eat itself, as in autophagy, which is a healthy thing.  Self-consumption is the process of ending. But unlike we’ve been taught, endings aren’t a bad thing. They mean This is ending so that Something Else can begin. It’s like coming to the end of a book. But life, unlike a book, has no full stops (processes continue after the heart stops and the brain dies), only commas, dashes, semi-colons, page breaks, chapters, or sections (unless you count the illusion of time; but unlike the best literature, lives have expiration dates).

I cling to everything. I cling to life because I’m afraid of un-existing and of un-possession of things because I’m afraid of exposing my fear and nakedness and inadequacies.

Being around people makes me extremely nervous. I look around for the nearest escape and make my excuses. Sometimes I’m trapped in a room with people, say, in a classroom or at dinner. I have to make sure I know where the door is and my mind flies beyond the walls and strictures to other things. Hence, I miss whatever is being said, going on. That’s not always a bad thing, but it’s rude.

Art to me is a big deal. It’s the only thing I’ve ever found that opens things up with questions. Things that aren’t art are usually more like answers. They don’t like to be changed. I like the quote (don’t know who said it) “Turn your fear into curiosity.” That’s good, because I’m fueled by fear, or rather, anxiety. A certain amount of fear is healthy. But letting it carry me is chasing an answer, while curiosity is an opened-ended question. If I ran on questions rather than answers I might actually get somewhere.

As a writer in training one of my goals is to learn how to de-familiarize myself with everything. Things and places and people I see every day. I want to see all of it with new eyes. I want to write about it with new eyes. But this will take some doing. I’m working on it like a turtle crossing the highway backwards, up-hill.

The title of this post is a nod to the masterpiece, Flann O’Brien’s At Swim Two-Birds which begins with words spoken by its protagonist Dermott Trellis (who unfortunately isn’t here to defend himself)

Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression. I reflected on the subject of my spare-time literary activities. One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with. A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings.

Exactly. Same as a good life.

Emotions, poetry, Revelations, School, Writing

Eight Intelligences

As a writer I have to make a concerted effort to observe things with my eyes and ears, what’s going on around me, what people are there, what they are doing and saying, and what’s in the room or on the street. Observation is the lifeblood of inspiration and depth in one’s work.

But as a poet, I don’t have to try to feel things deeply. I’ve always done it effortlessly on a level that can’t always be articulated.

At the risk of sounding spoogey, I can only describe it as though an invisible, permeable membrane surrounds my body. I’m not psychic or anything like that, but I do feel things deeply–empathic, perhaps. I think most of us have this ability. But we’re also taught to ignore our feelings, to push them down as a sign of weakness. They are, after all, irrational and they don’t serve commerce.

We are, most of us, hyper-aware on some level that something is going very wrong on our planet–unprecedented climate patterns, mass extinctions, irrational human behavior, and so forth. Often we can point to what it is, but just as often we cannot.

I watch nature for signs, for meaning, for warnings. I didn’t read a book to do this. No one taught me. I feel it. For example, I know if it’s going to be a wet winter if a lot of orb spiders spin webs around our house. I know something is really off when our evergreen Portuguese bay tree leaves begin to turn yellow and it produces massive amounts of purple berries–something it’s never done before. I know something is weird when spring birds have already begun arriving in early January.

My reason for writing this blog is that as a writer, although I know I must write every day no matter what’s going on no matter how I feel, sometimes the silent wail of the planet and its creatures is too alarming as it pushes against me like a fist. It crushes my heart. It all seems just too overwhelming, you know what I mean? Sometimes I just sit, frozen in a theater of images that make no sense.

Apparently we have not one but eight intelligences. Yet we use only two of these in our current education system. This is unfortunate, to put it mildly. They are silent because they’ve been shut out for so long. But we carry all of them within us. If we were to tap into more than two of them, perhaps we could regain our rightful gifts as a species. We have only to sit very still among the trees, under a night sky, in a quiet room, or other environment outside the blinding and deafening human world and listen.  For me that’s usually around three or four in the morning, staring up at the dark ceiling when I wake feeling very, very alone.

The Eight Intelligences

Emotions, Journals, Notebooks, Personal, Revelations, Writing

Notebook as Time Machine

While I’m on the subject of re-reading old notebooks, another thing I found in the one I wrote about yesterday was a list I’d made of all the people I’ve known since I was ten. I lay in bed last night until after midnight adding to it. It was an odd rush of memories all muddled together in the present. A distinct feeling that time is an illusion, since most of the names weren’t listed in any particular order. My third grade teacher just above my neighbor from a few years ago just above my first (and only) high school crush. Each  name brought with it a flood of memories frozen in time, scraps, really–places, relationships, emotions, objects, regrets, dreams arrangements, failures.  All stuff of fiction. The list was a goldmine of characters who could be sorted, mixed, and re-invented into countless stories.

A commenter on yesterday’s post mentioned my sentence about shame and suffering. I don’t remember why I wrote those two words in my notebook a few years ago, but I think they must be at the heart of human experience.  I don’t remember if it was my idea or someone else’s.

an occasional striking [notebook] passage, which, lacking the quotation marks, [the writer] is not sure whether to attribute to himself or to someone far cleverer, funnier and more articulate, whom he happened to be reading at the time. (from the blog I mention below)

Shame and suffering. Maybe one causes the other. Shame implies judgment, that we don’t measure up somehow. Who is judging us? At first it’s authority figures, but then we begin to judge ourselves by their standards, which amounts to suffering. I used to think I had no shame, but if I didn’t, I’d be okay running around without clothes and being honest every time I said something. But I’m prevented. I do not want to suffer. I came across the following words in a blog on notebooks by Charles Simic in The New York Review of Books. They seemed relevant to my pursuit of paying attention to shame and suffering:

I opened a book in the [library] stacks and found a passage on1830s France by Charles Fourier, the utopian French philosopher, in which he talks about the dishonesty of business transactions, the tedium and deceit of family life, the hardship of small farmers, the miseries of the poor and near-destitute in great cities, the evils of naked greed, the neglect of genius, the sufferings of children and old people, the stupidity of war, the coercive mechanisms of society disguised as law, morality and the benefits of civilization. Can you believe this? I thought to myself. Everything this man said one-hundred-and-eighty years ago is true about us today. I had no choice but to write it down, so I could prove to my friends that nothing ever changes.

Proust must have understood that memories captured in a notebook can be like a time machine. But do any of us really learn anything? Like most people I know, I follow the path of least resistance. I avoid suffering and pain, when maybe they can teach me lessons I need to learn. Maybe that’s the definition of a hero: someone who steps outside the boundaries of time and shame and suffering. There are many stories tucked away in all this material. All the private moments where I realize I can’t sit still in a room by myself yet.