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Creative Process

Creative Process The Body

The Blessing of a Bruised Right Buttock

March 18, 2017

My whole body is a bit tweaked from the fall I took two nights ago. The rather magnificent bruise on my right buttock (which turned into quite a fun #rightbuttock joke on Facebook) has deepened into a shocking and marvelous set of purples, and I thought that was that.

But yesterday, my neck started feeling achy and I was nauseous, to boot, enough so that I rescheduled an afternoon client so that I could take an Epsom salt bath and a rest rather than pushing through and pretending to be present. There are few worse and more disrespectful things than pretending to be anything, especially present. I was fine the day after the fall; amazing how these things can both take time to become apparent and creep up on you.

Earlier in the day, I’d listened as a different beloved client 3,000 miles away told me about a moment of sitting in her own tangled places — emotional, personal, professional. The entire call, I’d been watching a huge sheet of ice and snow melt in slow, steady drips just outside the south-facing kitchen windows. I told her about it, as it seemed symbolically fitting somehow, then sent her a photo after our call.

This morning, she reciprocated with a texted picture of a Buddha outside in the rain, pointing out that the face was half wet and half dry. It reminded me of the both/and of things; how we can be ok, be calm, be, period, even when we are exposed to the elements.

Sometimes I feel like I’m just recycling the same thoughts and ideas over and over again. I commit to things and then find myself unprepared, literally scrawling noted on the back on an envelope minutes before it’s my turn to speak. I judge myself harshly for being out of my league, but not unkindly for showing up in the first place. Ego is apparent here in many ways: Ego says, you suck. Ego says, you’re amazing. I’m wary of both messages.

My bruised right buttock slowed me down this weekend. After a shower, coffee, and breakfast, Mani went to work on a puzzle in the front hallway. I was debating between reading a book and taking a nap when I heard a crash.

I ran to the other end of our apartment to see if she was ok; she was fine, but her puzzle table had gone down the front steps (what’s up with us and the stairs in our place this week?!), and pieces had gone flying everywhere.

It was while picking them up that I came across  a folder filled with short bits of writing, report cards, awards, and recommendations ranging from 1982 to 1991. I didn’t realize it was in that wooden peach crate with all the photos we’ve been meaning to hang in the front hallway for the last two and half years.

Once she got back to her puzzle, I sat down in the bathroom doorway and started reading through the contents of the folder.

“The most intellectual member of her class,” wrote my guidance counselor in 1990. “Jena is a warm, empathetic, articulate, and spirited individual with a twinkle of humor in her eyes. She is a good listener, and her peers actively seek and value her opinions. Jena is comfortable with herself, and she has a gift for making others feel relaxed whenever they are around her. It is difficult to describe Jena in a few words as there is much depth to this strong-willed, generous and engaging young woman.”

Now, it’s evening. I sit here with that folder at my side, the folder with newspaper clippings announcing national prizes I won for poems and essays about the Holocaust, short stories I started and never finished, a drawing from fifth grade of African-American anti-slavery activist and poet Charlotte Forten Grimké, and the one that really cracked me up, from a P.E. teacher who said I had “weak abdominals” (some things really never change).

There’s an uncomfortable sensation but I can’t fully put my finger on it. And then it hits me: I am wondering if I have lived up to this girl’s promise. And then something even bigger hits me: She wondered the same thing.

Suddenly, here we are, the two of us, my 43-year-old self and my 10- and 15- and 17- year-old selves. And I want to sit and look her in the eyes. I want to say: Hey you, in there. You don’t have to be amazing, you know.

As I sit here, another wave of thought comes rushing up to me. It goes something like this:

See? This is why it’s best to close the doors and leave them closed. What purpose is there in revisiting this old stuff? You can either use it as evidence of how totally YOU you were back then, or of how totally NOT you you were then. You can make it a badge or a weapon. You can spin any story you want, and they will all be true and none of them will be true. 

I find a collection of ten poems I put together in 1998, after my first year of grad school. One is called “After an Absence,” by Linda Pastan. It begins:

After an absence that was no one’s fault
we are shy with each other,
and our words seem younger than we are,
as if we must return to the time we met
and work ourselves back to the present,
the way you never read a story
from the place you stopped
but always start each book all over again.

Sometimes life is like this. We start the same book all over again. And again, and again. We forget who we were, carrying only memory ghost imprints of our younger selves. The once who were bursting with ideas. “Enthusiasm and delight” is how my Amherst College professor described my relationship to the Spanish language; I was 15, a junior in high school.

And then there is “Kannon” by Sam Hamill. How bizarre; he doesn’t know me from Eve but we are Facebook friends now 20 years later, and I watch from afar as his health dwindles. As a woman in my early 20s, his poetry spoke to some deeply human and impossible part of me.

I adore you. I love you
completely. Nothing to ask in return.

Each act of affection a lesson:
I fail, but with each failure, learn.

Like studying
under Te-shan:

thirty blows if I can’t answer,
thirty blows if I can.

And William Stafford’s “Awareness,” yet another hint of what I knew I didn’t yet know. Here are the final two stanzas:

Of hiding important things because
they don’t belong in the world.

Of now. Of maybe. Of something
different being true.

And Mary Oliver’s “March,” which ends:

“Something touched me, lightly, like a knife blade. Somewhere I felt I was bleeding, though just a little, a hint. Inside, I flared hot, then cold. I thought of you. Whom I love, madly.”

The girl I was, the teenager, the young woman, the young wife, the new mother — all of these matryoshka dolls stacked one inside another. I sit here this evening as the light fades. Much of the snow on our neighbor’s roof has melted from the storm a few days ago, and soon soon soon, spring will come for real. I feel like a grown up, even though I question what that actually means.

Oh, life. You have such a way about you.

I think it has to do with a bruised buttock — a fleshy one, too, not like the underweight ass of my youth. It has to do with mad love and evenings in, with poems as portents, with potential unfolding and dying in every single moment, rather than as something to bottle up and stash for emergencies. It has to do with being the mama now, who is strong enough to sit still, to say, “you are safe.” To mother and live in such a way that my kids can find their way to being truly themselves. And it definitely has to do with what happens when I stop trying to be good enough and instead, just love the person I’ve always been.

I look out the window at the dark, then turn to myself and say:

Keep reading for hints and watching for clues. Keep scribbling notes and paying attention to which poems grab you by the heart. Keep sharing delight and enthusiasm — for language, for learning, for stories and poems. Keep showing up, whether you feel prepared or not. Keep diving in where things are tangled and keep coming up for air where the sun shines and melts away what seems impossible and permanent. Let the seasons change. Listen to the body. It knows how to heal. Healing is possible. 

Creative Process The Body

It Was Only a Matter of Time

March 9, 2017

It was only a matter of time. Twenty-eight days, to be more specific. Only a matter of 28 days before I’d stand up against the wall I’ve come to know so well. This wall is pock-marked, like skin that healed unevenly after years of acne. Or scarred, with years of stories painted in layers across its surface, chipping here, thicker there. It’s a wall that can support the entire weight of me, weight that feels like it will fall from between my legs like an unnamed planet, leaving a trail of blood across the sky of my white thighs. This is the rhythm of the body.

It was only a matter of time before I began to question everything again. My purpose. My karma. The kind of thing I talk out loud to myself about as I trudge up the hill carrying a bag of groceries, shifting the weight from one hand to the other as the straps cut lines across my palms. Questions like these have no answers; they are circular in nature and always close in on themselves, like moons. I put away the organic cream, the unscented dish soap, the bags of rice. I fold the bag and toss it to the closet floor. This is the rhythm of the lunar month.

It was only a matter of time before the noise of the world started sounding like wind on the other side of old windows, not rattling so much as whooshing, soothing as an ultrasound seeking a heartbeat. I curl into the womb of her arms and count my breaths, blankets pulled up close under my chin. I see why home can be called a crib; I am a tiny unborn body floating in darkness. If it weren’t for the sky I can hear outside, I would tell you this bed was made of ocean. This is the rhythm of knowing when to pull up the shades and when to leave them down.

It was only a matter of time before something in me snapped awake again and I cried out to some presence that may or may not exist. Show me the way! Knowing, always, that there’s more than meets the eye, more than the mind can conjure and that the body, this belly, this blood is a barometer of time and what it’s time for. I still don’t know, but as sure as I want to close my ears and eyes I will listen on the inside for the sound of that knowing. This is the dark rhythm of something like faith, though language feels thin today, and worn.

It was only a matter of time before I remembered the starlings in the plaza at dusk and how happy they made me feel. How much I belonged there in a country where my body had no explanation but youth and skin. I listened then, as the sky changed to indigo, and I could not tell where the percussion of leaves changed to the rioting of so many birds. That was long before babies grew inside of me, long before my name changed and changed again full circle like the belly and the moon, long before the longing that would lead me here. This is the rhythm of deliverance.

It was only a matter of time before I rebelled against wanting what I didn’t have and was never meant to be mine. Why am I here? To open again and again. To empty again and again. To realign the walls I stand against with new fabrics, dried blood-red stone walls that fortify the insides of me you’ll never see. This is my own wind howling in the deserted spaces. My own song of hollow canyons filled with air you can’t hold in your hands. My voice that came screaming out after the panic in the silent movie of a recent dream. This is the rhythm of the eyelids, the hidden places.

I come here tonight to honor this cycle rather than resisting and fighting it. To breathe sound into rage that has no source and sadness that has no outlet. Let it not pool but rush and gush forth unobstructed, like words when you open the valve and so many centuries come competing for airtime. Let them all speak at once. Let them take turns. Let a thousand languages overwhelm your senses until you rock yourself to sleep and dream of hands holding the fullness of you until you’re ready, again, to carry your own.

Creative Process Writing Groups

Yoga + Writing: Parallel Practices

March 5, 2017

PART 1: THREE POSES

Each time she said “yoga,” I substituted “writing.”

“Don’t do it with great willpower, but with great affection.” ~ B.K.S. Iyengar

“I don’t know what happened to my grit,” she said.

My coaching client was referring to the passion and will she remembered having as a much younger woman. She’s been working on a children’s book on and off for years now. But after a health scare last summer, she shelved it completely for reasons that didn’t even make sense to her. What those are don’t matter; we were talking now, because she wanted to get back to the writing. Back to some semblance of discipline and grit, but in ways that reflect who she is now at 50, not who she was then, at, say, 20.

This woman, whose writing and being I adore, is also a mom and a yoga teacher.

I asked her about her yoga practice. What gets her back to the mat after a hiatus? She thought about this and then responded: “I know what I need to do.”

As an aside: These are words that make a coach jump out of her seat to do a happy dance before further inquiry.

Then I asked her to tell me more. And she talked about how B.K.S. Iyengar, whose tradition of yoga she follows, instructed his students to do just three poses. Three poses constitutes a practice. I mentioned Mani’s “rule,” which it to simply “get on the mat” once a day.

Once there, anything goes; even if she rolls it right back up, if she gets on the mat once a day, she can know that she showed up. Most times, of course, once you’re on the mat, you might as well move around a bit. Three poses often opens to a longer practice, because the body is so hungry for breath and length and movement, and the spirit for the sheer relief of not having to be anywhere else.

So, I asked her, what “three poses” are your writing equivalent? In other words, what is the bare minimum you must commit to in order to know that you’re showing up to your practice and your intention of returning to this book?

She considered this for a few minutes.

Number one, she said: “Take your seat.”

Sound easy enough, but I would argue that this may in fact be the hardest part of writing. Just sitting down. You can circle the wagons all damn day, or you can take your seat. You can open and close the fridge door 20 times, or you can take your seat. You can text your BFF, run errands, watch Netflix, obsess about the news for good reason, or just scroll on Facebook, or you can take your seat.

I do all of the above — the avoidance, the fridge the circling like a dog trying to find that absolute most perfect spot. It’s fine. As long as you eventually TAKE YOUR SEAT.

Number two, she said: “Write one scene.”

Mind you, we talked about what this means. Will she measure a “scene” by word count or number of pages or because she has a predetermined list of scenes that remain unwritten? Yes. In other words, she is building in freedom to the plan. “Scene” is flexible. The important thing at this stage is to write one, whether it’s a paragraph or five pages.

And last but not least, number three, which addresses what to do on days when number two isn’t happening.

In other words, what about when she takes her seat but doesn’t know what to write? We all know that these moments are like surprise parties for our inner critics, with ribbons and balloons and pizza and cake. Every inner critic I’ve ever met will happily waltz through that door, get on her soapbox, and proceed to give a speech we’ve heard a thousand times. You know the one? About how we don’t really know what we’re doing, and this book probably isn’t even going anywhere, and every time you try some great new plan (like “three poses”), the whole thing unravels, and who do you think you are anyway?

STOP. That is NOT how this is going to go, sister.

Nope. Instead, step three, or “pose” three, is this: Come up with a reminder, an affirmation if you will. For example: “Don’t panic. The story always finds you.”

You have permission not always to know what’s next. Explore. Meander. Set a timer and freewrite without stopping for 10 minutes. Everything counts, and sometimes it’s from staying inside of these “not knowing” times that something new comes through. It requires faith and patience. And, come to think of it, grit.

I emailed her a few days later to say hi, and to ask her permission to write about our conversation. I also asked if she’d started the new routine yet. Here’s what she wrote:

“And yes, the ship has set sail. Friday I created a ‘not etched in stone’ weekly schedule that encompasses everything: writing, yoga, meditation, walking dogs, cleaning toilets. Lots of flexibility built into it, so I can shuffle things around when needed. But writing… writing comes first.”

Amen.

Just for fun: What are your three poses?

If you’re looking for your grit or can’t get yourself to sit and write on a regular basis, take a look around. What works in some other area of your life? How can you transpose that and come up with something to try? If you practice yoga, what do you know about your time on the mat that might in fact relate to your time with your notebook (or wherever you face down the unknown)?

PART 2: Props / Prompts

Some people see yoga props and writing prompts as the tools of novices.

“The fewer our demands on life, the greater our ability to see its bounty.” ~ B.K.S. Iyengar

Saturday morning. Mani and I got up at our usual 6:30am time. When her alarm went off, I could barely open my eyes. In a weird role reversal, she was chipper and wide awake and greeted me with a kiss. “Good morning! Shabbat Shalom, darling!”

“It’s Shabbat,” I groaned, covering my head with the pillow. A nice way of saying, WTF why are we awake? But then I took a long, hot shower while she prepped our Very Strong Coffee, and I joined her in the kitchen somewhat more awake.

Sitting at the table with our morning coffee has been one of the biggest rewards of our new daily schedule. Even though I work at home and we see each other all day long, there’s something special about intentionally beginning the day together this way, and we tend to have interested, meandering conversations.

This one somehow went in the direction of yoga. Mani mentioned that when she couldn’t fall asleep right away the night before, she’d “pinned” a bunch of Iyengar quotes to her Yoga Life board on Pinterest.

“That’s so crazy,” I told her, mentioning the Iyengar reference during a coaching call last week. And from there, somehow we were off and running. We got to talking about props, and because I am a word dork, I lit up at realizing that the word “prop” fits neatly inside the word “prompt.”

Some people see yoga props and writing prompts as the tools of novices. I think of these rather as useful tools to help the practitioner meet the blank page or enter a pose, supports to use for gradually growing stronger and going deeper.

“Until one day…” a beloved yoga teacher of mine used to say, before showing us the “full expression” of the pose (if she herself had mastered it). I can still hear her soothing, steady voice in my ear. “Until one day your practice is so steady and strong that you don’t use a prop/prompt.”

I always loved that “one day” thing. So different from the elusive “someday,” it implies something more concrete and even inevitable. A faith, a confidence. One day you will do this, whether that day is next month or not in this lifetime.

Mani started reading me Iyengar quote after Iyengar quote. Each time she said “yoga,” I substituted “writing.” Then I started scribbling quotes and notes like crazy on unlined paper. We finished our coffee. A new writing group was born.

Part 3: The Republic of the Body: A New Writing Group, May 1-26

“Love must be incarnated in the smallest pore of the skin, the smallest cell of the body, to make them intelligent so they can collaborate with all the other ones, in the big republic of the body. This love must radiate from you to others.” ~ B.K.S. Iyengar

It doesn’t matter how sporadic and erratic my practice gets. The mat forgives me every time. So does the blank page.

Details + Registration

 

Creative Process

Walking Thoughts: Why Bother Writing?

March 2, 2017

While Pearl was at her piano lesson, I went for a walk on the country roads around her teacher’s house. I’d been holed up all day against a wild wind, and although the temperature has swung a full fifty degrees since this time last week, it felt good to move my body.

After five minutes or so on Station Road, I turned onto a small side street with a view of the mountains that are really more like hills. The sun was getting low in the sky and my ears burned with cold. It was right about then that I heard it. The tinny voice of doubt. The swimming thoughts, so familiar, old and worn:

There are so many voices. What do I have to add? Why bother writing? 

If you look very closely and the light is just so, you can see the faintest blush of red in the treetops this time of year. It’s not even a blush yet, more like a tease. Easy to miss, and easy to doubt what you think you just saw: Color. As I walked, bare hands stuffed in coat pockets along with my wallet, keys, and phone, these lines came to me:

Oh, just love your restless heart. Love it the way the wind whips the craggy apple tree and the solemn birch. Love it like the light lowers before snapping you back to attention.

And it was then that I said hi to God.

(Some folks will stop reading now at the mention of God. That’s ok; it’s none of my business what “God” evokes for you. If it smacks of white patriarchy, I can assure you that’s not it for me. I could not describe God if you asked me to. All I know is that in that moment on my walk, I realized God and I have not been hanging out as much lately, and that’s exactly what I said. Out loud.)

“Hi, God. It’s me. We need to get together more often. Want to walk together?”

In the next part of the walk, a new series of thoughts came rolling in like waves. I looked at the still-bare trees, the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t hint of spring color, and got super existential all of a sudden. (Sometimes talking to God gets me way down in the microcosms, but today was the opposite.)

The sky I was looking up at, the ground where each footfall landed — none of this will be here forever. The word “forever” echoing into infinitude, impossible to grasp.

I took out my phone and sent myself a text.
Whirlpools in a vast ocean. The radical suggestion of not having to hurry. The suggestion of loneliness. A pull to stillness and movement and the paradox of these together. And the question of “why bother” now subsumed by wind, the kind that swallows even silence whole, like prey.

Earlier in the day, I had written a poem after Wind, Water, Stone by Octavio Paz:

WIND, SKY, SILENCE

Wind swallows silence,
sky lashes wind,
silence scolds the sky.
Wind, sky, silence.

Sky conspires with silence,
silence is a bowl of wind,
wind shapeshifts to sky.
Silence, sky, wind.

Sky keeps its distance,
wind moves carelessly,
sharp silence, deep slice.
Sky, wind, silence.

These refuse to be contained:
always becoming each other
and changing form.
Wind, silence, sky.

There really is nothing to figure out. In fact, as a phrase, “figure out” is a dicey one-two punch guaranteed to tumble me deeper into tiny whirlpools of even smaller thoughts. I could stir them with a stick from the woods all day long and discover nothing; all the really exciting stuff is happening out in the open waters where I live and love and work every day.

I’ve always gone through cycles with my writing, as well as with just about everything else in my life. I imagine we all do, in our own ways.

Clarity feels fantastic. It feels like power and momentum. Depression is a weighted blanket that makes it hard to get out of bed in the morning. The smell of thawing earth and warm rain makes my whole body want to run, like a dog in an open field. I favor periods when I’m focused, when ideas are flowing, and when I feel confident and loved. I’m still learning how to relax into and during times of relative quiet and calm. It’s easy to get addicted to emergencies or reliant on periods of prolific, if inexplicable, creative urges.

Here’s the thing: The internal landscape changes. The external landscape changes. The writing is sometimes an anchor, other times a buoy. It’s both a constant variable in my days and an ever-changing one. Kind of like God. Like love.

As a kid, one of my favorite books was Amos & Boris by William Steig. Amos is a mouse and Boris is a whale. They become the best of friends during an ocean crossing. They experience times both peaceful perilous. In the end, each saves the other’s life, and though one must live on land and the other at sea, they remain dear friends for all time. It is truly a love story.

What stays? Why bother writing?

Our time here is so short. Your voice — that singular vehicle for the stories only you can share and the thoughts only you can reveal — ripples like so many waves in this vast impermanent ocean of love.

I am sometimes Amos and sometimes Boris. Boat and water. God and walker. Silence and wind. Ocean and ground. When I’m starting to get swirled into questions about purpose and meaning, it’s usually a good time to just walk. To just talk to God. To not know. To settle into that, letting the questions rest and the answers come and go as easily as the wind, the light around the bend.

Creative Process Fierce Encouragement (for Writing + Life) Writing Groups

Thoughts on Conformity & Cherry-Picking

February 12, 2017

“I attribute much of [my] self-discovery and resultant empowerment to Jena. To the space she has always offered me and so many of us. A space inspired but not overly scripted, a space accepting and not conforming.”

Emily Nichols Grossi wrote these words late last week, in a beautiful statement about returning to the Get Your Muse On group.

For a long time, I thought I was cheating by not bringing more scriptedness and convention to my work as a coach and a group leader. It felt easy, and therefore surely I was getting away with something, right? (Like the board chair who once told me, when I was a 20-something executive director of a nonprofit with a newborn trying to find my way, that I was “cherry-picking.” Ouch.) Starting to trust that this was actually a legitimate and sincere approach to connecting with and supporting people’s growth continues to be profoundly freeing.

Yes, some folks bring all kinds of forms and evaluative exercises to the table. I am just not one of them. For me, showing up as myself, being real, and trusting my intuition — these are my power tools. I used to be afraid of using them, as if they might cause harm to myself or others. But what I’ve found is that the more harmful thing is to deny what I’m good at. When I do, I make it about ME instead of about YOU. Ironically, this is where my ego gets all in a twist. When I’m just here doing my thing, that’s when I can get out of the way and just appreciate the gift of calling this my work in the world.

So here is what I want to say to you:

Trust the parts that come easily to you and question the ones that are always a struggle. It doesn’t have to be hard to “count.” Fuck conforming. Come be you and write from that place. The world needs your voice now more than ever. Go ahead, pick all the cherries.

* * *

Do you love writing but long for a place to practice and play with other fabulous and non-conforming humans? Come get your muse on. Madhuri Pavamani, author of the paranormal romance trilogy “The Sanctum” (St. Martin’s Press) calls the Muses “the best place on the internet.” Join us today.

Creative Process The Resistance

On Creativity and the Resistance

January 30, 2017

“My friends, appreciating beauty in our world and fighting for justice are not mutually exclusive activities.” – Erin Coughlin Hollowell

The world is scary and so much is urgent. I am fending off images that must be epigenetically encoded in my DNA– men at the door kind of thing. Looking for elusive balance between staying informed and awake and getting work done and being present to others and taking care of my body and spirit. My desk is strewn with tax documents, a beautiful photo book I received today as a gift, a guide called “26 ways to be in the struggle beyond the streets,” and unpaid bills. I have a headache despite having taken an Alleve a couple of hours ago.

This morning, the kids had dentist appointments early — we had to leave the house at 7:30am. I thought about how keeping routines can be very grounding when the world is so unstable. Same goes for beauty, laughter, and small moments of ordinary connection. It’s when we lose ourselves to fear and fatigue that we become powerless; there have been some great pieces in the past few days about this, such as this one. Ironically, even reading pieces like this keep your body on high alert, so I think part of the long-haul here may be taking time to unplug.

This is not the same as checking out. After all, if we relinquish our wellbeing, what will fuel the resistance?

Earlier today, amidst mental images from Germany around 1938 that won’t stop flooding my consciousness, I found myself reflecting on the nature of creative work during times of political, national, indeed global crisis on an unprecedented scale. We can learn from history, yes, and at the same time there, there is no roadmap for this moment.

Some artists and writers will turn their gaze in the direction of resistance, and thank God for this. And some will not; there will be poets and essayists and journalers and journalists and novelists who continue their creative work, without an explicit focus on the current state of affairs. Others still may be seriously doubting the importance of continuing at all.

We need all the voices now, and any hierarchy here will only fragment our efforts.

I turn to Pirke Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers for guidance:

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

I consider the voices of folks in my current writing groups. So many of us finding it difficult to concentrate at best, and questioning the purpose of our work at worst. There’s the conventional wisdom that none of this is accidental; the current administration is clearly intent on overwhelming us, hitting so many fronts at once, from cabinet appointments to sweeping travel bans to purging the State Department; I’m sure they are depending on us becoming exhausted and uncoordinated. We will prove them wrong.

Our creative work — whatever form that may take for you — is more important now than ever. Do not allow this insanity to overtake your creativity. Let your commitment to sitting down and showing up not shrink, but grow in direct proportion to the madness around us.

Creative Process Fierce Encouragement (for Writing + Life)

A Side of Breakthroughs with Extra Ketchup

January 23, 2017

I’ve been staring at a blank screen on and off for well over an hour. I tell people, just start, and keep going. But fuck me, it’s hard. I could start and delete and start and delete — this is where the “keep going” part comes in. But keeping going is not easy when nothing is flowing and you are doubting that you have anything worthwhile to say at all. Couldn’t the world use more silence? How is it contributing to write this kind of unedited dreck? I just listened to Julie Daley on Facebook Live talking about the status quo and about creativity and how creativity is so much more than what we relegate to what we call “The Arts” but really life itself. Life force.

And, there is also this balance — one I’m so aware of — between listening and speaking. Reading and writing. Taking in and adding to. I share my practice in part because it’s the behind-the-scenes stuff we too rarely get to see, of how creativity actually happens. It happens in fits and starts. Sometimes it’s insufferably stuck-feeling and you need to step away and get into some other state, some beta state let’s say, like walking or showering or reading, where your creative brain can catch a breath instead of you breathing down its back, demanding output. It doesn’t work like that. We are not machines. Creativity-on-demand doesn’t exist. Can you imagine, if we could just put in our order:

Hello, yes, I’d like three chapters of my novel today, two epiphanies, and a side of breakthroughs with extra ketchup?

I came down with a cold today, a bad one. It came on like bam, out of the blue. I worked and napped — a fairly usual Monday. And then I stared and started and deleted and thought, this whole start and keep going thing may be bunk. It doesn’t work. It’s awful and stupid and I hate it. Ever thrown a tantrum and realized it had nothing to do with anything and maybe was a sign to wave a white flag of surrender to effort and try again tomorrow?

It is ok to try again tomorrow. It is ok not to be creative all the time. It is ok to read, to listen, to absorb, to ring it all out in a hot bath or a cold sweat, and to notice the ways in which sitting still is squirmy. Where creativity is in its dormancy, where beauty is the growing mountain of Kleenex telling you to get in bed, sister, and get some sleep. We have miles and miles to go, and so much to learn. If we worry so much about saying it right or waiting until it’s perfectly crafted, we might never step foot outside our comfort zones again — which is exactly where the world needs us.

Can both be true? I think of the old “two Jews, three opinions” axiom and chuckle. Yes. Both can be true. Be gentle with your creativity, your spirit, your words — but ask a lot of them, just as you might with your own children. Love means holding each other to the highest expectations, while forgiving each other’s constant and inevitable failings. And I’m here writing, not deleting, because I love you and this life and this work and this world. And because the world needs your patience and your urgency. Your imperfect offerings. Your best effort and your unwavering commitment to growing things that feed others — literally and creatively.

Now let’s order another basket of fries. I’m buying.

Creative Process Fierce Encouragement (for Writing + Life)

Works in Progress

January 18, 2017

Photo: Les Anderson

I am a work in progress dressed in the fabric of a world unfolding. – Ani DiFranco

On days like this, when I’ve started and deleted three different blog posts, it can be easy to feel discouraged or doubtful. All or nothing thinking spills over, threatening to flood my thoughts. I take this a signal to step back and give it a rest, and turn to reading other people’s work instead. I have no idea what I will write next; what will have legs, what will stand up on its own two feet and dance a two-step around the kitchen.

It’s time to pick Pearl up from Hebrew School. Our synagogue has not received any bomb threats today, a fact that is made remarkable only by the fact that 20 JCCs on the East coast did receive bomb threats today, and this is the second time this month there’s been a spate of such calls. Aviva runs in to sign her out while I wait in the car. Parents and kids leave the building in twos and threes. I realize that every time I’ve entered the building since November, I’ve scanned the exterior for graffiti. For swastikas. It seems more like a “when” than an “if” at this point, a fact that makes me angry and frightened.

One of the failed blog posts I wrote and scrapped earlier was about parenting and time going by and kids growing up. It’s the kind of thing I would have written 10 years ago, and while it was fine and nice, it felt stale and safe. I don’t want to write safe and I don’t want to write stale.

If there is one thing I’ve learned about writing, it’s this: Not every blog post is a winner. Not every freewrite has hidden gems. Not every poem makes you weep.

I know there are writers who only share with the world the pieces that do hit a home run, whatever that means — who would never share unedited pieces or drafts or one-offs. I share so much of the latter that sometimes I wind up perverting my own practice.

Perfectionism is sneaky like that.

I want to wrap this up neatly with something inspiring, like “it gets easier.” But fuck that noise; platitudes don’t help us get stronger, and neat endings certainly don’t help me expand my ability to show up even when the writing just ain’t flowing. Nope. There’s no pretty ending here, no ribbon, no gift wrap. What I do know is this: I don’t give up nearly as easily as I used to. And if I waited for perfection, you would never read another word of mine, no exaggeration.

Real life happens every day; great writing happens sometimes, if we’re lucky — and if we take our seat, even when it doesn’t. And days like this? They are a gift in their own way, reminding me, as Ani wrote, that the writing, like life itself, is a work in progress, ever unfolding.

Now pull up a chair. At least we can order another espresso and do this thing together.

Creative Process

Walking on Water and Writing as Dowsing

January 2, 2017
Photo: Sarah Benoit Weir

Photo: Sarah Benoit Weir

When I was a kid, my friend C. from Buffalo moved to a small Boston suburb right around the time my family moved to Western Massachusetts. Like any moment of profound change, my memories from that first year are densely concentrated, like a nebula; I go to touch one and my hand moves right through its gases and vapors. But sometimes, a word will become available, something more solid to grab hold of.

“Aqueduct” is one of those words, from 1983 or ’84. C. lived on a pretty, quiet street with her mom and older brother. Her mom and my mom were pregnant with us at the same time, and there is a famous-in-our-family photo of me and C., age three or so, looking miniature in a giant armchair, each of us holding a book and looking seriously at the camera.

Our move to Massachusetts meant a somewhat rural existence overtook an urban one. It was disorienting to say the least, and I felt lonely in my new fifth grade class. On a visit to see C. and her family in the eastern part of the state, I remember just two things: Her brother had painted the walls of his room black, and I learned a new word.

Down the street from their house — I think it was a dead-end — was an aqueduct. I’d never heard of an aqueduct and had no idea what it meant. C. explained to me that there was water under the ground. You’d think that at age nine or ten, I would have known this already, and maybe I did. But there was something about naming it, and her description — vague and mysterious — that lit my imagination.

I tried to picture it, this water. Was it flowing, river-like? Was it a lake, so many feet under? We were actually *walking* on water, I thought to myself, as we crossed the field.

Deep underground places where water flows freely. No wonder the notion appealed to me; even then I was looking to tap something inside of myself. My dowsing rods were my voice and my pen: I literally sang and wrote, sometimes bringing myself to tears whose source I couldn’t name but that I knew had to do with God and my deepest self — perhaps one and the same.

– – – – –

This morning, I looked up the definition of “aqueduct,” and saw that for more than thirty years, I’ve been misunderstanding this word. From Websters:

“a conduit or artificial channel for conducting water from a distance, usually by means of gravity”

or

“a bridgelike structure that carries a water conduit or canal across a valley or over a river.”

It turns out that all those years ago, C. and I were not walking on water after all, at least not in the way I’d so vividly imagined it. Yes, there was water beneath us, but the aqueduct itself was created not by nature or mystery but by a human feat of engineering. The aqueduct was not below ground, but above it! And just like that, “aqueduct” loses some of its former cachet.

What this newly clarified definition doesn’t change though, is the quest. The way writing remains a form of listening for something inaudible; just as you’d hold a divining rod in your hands to find untapped wellsprings, a pen moving silently over paper is feeling its way to some source, something that makes it vibrate with truth. You know when you’ve touched it, for something in you has found sustenance.

And in this way, maybe the writing is in fact an aqueduct — a container, a bridge to channel and cross that which flows beneath the surface, unseen and unguided.

When we write, we find a way to guide the invisible upward, where we can drink from it and bathe in it. Your words, your memories, your underground springs — these are precious resources. May they be of use, to you and to the world.