Everything is gestation and then bringing forth. To let each impressions and each germ of a feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s intelligence, and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity: that alone is living the artist’s life: in understanding as in creating.
Some time ago I wrote a post about what Julia Child taught me about writing. This might be surprising for readers who don’t know Julia’s history, or the fact that she’d always wanted to write novels!
Julia’s long been a role model and mentor for me and in that post I wanted to call attention to the ways in which her skill in the kitchen translates and adapts to the writing life. (To find out how, click on the link above and read the post — the kitchen and the writer’s desk are not as far removed as you might think!) Julia truly had an artist’s heart — not only was she a splendid chef, but she was a prolific writer and lived life with a contagious joie de vivre which in turn brought joy to others. Living was an art for her.
In addition to reprising my earlier post, I’m happy to point interested readers in the direction of two delicious Julia tidbits that came my way in the last few days — aptly timed since Julia’s birthday was only a week or so ago.
The first is a glorious new visual biography of Julia’s life — thanks so much to Cinzia Robbiano for bringing it to my attention! The illustrations are vivid and charming, just like Julia herself, and depict with great accuracy and enthusiasm the vastly varied life experience of this amazing woman. It’s perfect for kids, of course — my son, who only recently became interested in watching old episodes of Julia’s The French Chef and is slowly developing a fascination with her, would truly appreciate the book — but Julia fans of all ages will be thrilled with the whimsical art and the humorous writing. Be sure to check out this beautifully detailed post about the book by Maria Popova at Brain Pickings.
And that post by Maria led me to a review she’d written previously about the recently collected letters between Julia and her dear friend Avis DeVoto, which I also encourage you to read and enjoy. The book is called As Always, Julia:The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto. Maria provides a detailed review of the book, which catalogues the challenges Julia faced in writing and publishing Mastering The Art of French Cooking via her years of correspondence with Avis. The book also demonstrates the wonderful support a committed, giving friendship can provide to the realization of one’s art and is essential reading not only for Julia fans, but for artists of all sorts who are struggling to find a place for their work in the world. (On a side note, if you haven’t yet discovered Brain Pickings, you should. It’s a revelation, pure and simple. Consider the secondary purpose of this post a “heads up” for those readers who’ve been slow on the pick-up.)
One of the things that helps me the most as I soldier on towards deepening my living of a literary life is the example set by other artists. Mentors come and help us along on the journey from all fields and times. If you’ve not met Julia, or haven’t thought of her as a mentor in your creative endeavors, I hope this post and my previous one, as well as Maria’s reviews, will encourage you to make an introduction and strike up a friendship. Cheers!
I’ve never been much of a princess chick. Not only have none of them ever looked like me, but they are almost always passive, helpless, and silent, waiting for someone to come and rescue them from life. This has never been my style.
Enter my hero, Merida from Disney/Pixar’s film Brave (well, she looks nothing like me either, but just go with me on this) — spunky, obstinate, independent, spirited, intelligent, gifted, and perfectly capable of speaking and acting for herself. She’s feisty, quirky, graceless, and wild and she simply doesn’t fit in to the prescribed roles available to her. Boy, does she have a lot to learn. But that’s one of the things I love about her. She’s flawed and growing and not afraid (to adapt a saying from a dear friend) “to go through life hard.” Merida is certainly unlike any other princess unleashed by Disney. But I think that’s the point. Merida is authentic in a way no other “princess” is: she’s a person first, as opposed to a type, and that is key.
My favorite scene in the film is when Merida secretly enters the archery competition to determine which one of the clan suitors will be given her hand in marriage.
This scene speaks to me for a number of reasons, both as a woman and as a writer. Merida deliberately resists the conventions that seek to confine and define her. It isn’t so much that she doesn’t understand or respect these conventions; it’s simply that she feels she cannot follow them, at least not at this point in her life. She rebels against the fact that there are no other options, neither are any other options considered. When she rips through the ornate gown restricting her natural movements, she is in effect tearing through the cloth symbol of the suffocating life that awaits her if she bows to the pressure to marry one of the “men” on offer. It isn’t that she WON’T marry, she simply doesn’t want to marry in THIS way: because she is told to and has to for the sake of preserving tradition. Her reasons are good, even if she goes about defying them in the wrong way.
Words as much as arrows are Merida’s tools. Words are important to Merida; throughout the film we see her use them to express her feelings, articulate her needs, tell stories, think through problems, argue and curse and warn, and finally forgive and ask for forgiveness. She speaks, loud and clear; she isn’t a passive, helpless observer or victim. In the scene shared above, Merida proudly asserts that “I’ll be shooting for my own hand!” She states clearly and emphatically that no one can take from her what she herself refuses to give — her ablility to choose her own path in life.
And this is why I believe as a character Merida has such value and why she can serve as a model for women and writers. Merida lives in a world where story is paramount, where decisions are made and relationships are built upon the stories and roles of the past. These are important, both to her people and to who Merida is, but ultimately Merida’s desire is to write her own story, one in which she isn’t wholly defined by anyone else, but one in which she can coexist with the stories of those who have gone before, necessarily bridging with those elements that still hold true, but with the complementary freedom to write bridges to new ways of thinking, doing, and being, as well. The scar on her cheek in the close-up in the archery scene is telling: Merida is real, not a pristine untouched and untouchable beauty. She has been hurt in the past and has survived. She isn’t afraid to get hurt again fighting and speaking out for what she believes in. In this, she reminds me so much of the Madonna of Czestochowa, whose cheek is also marred and who serves a symbol for millions of people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, for resilience, perseverance and the growth, power, and quiet strength of character that come through suffering properly ordered.
As a result, one of the things Merida has to learn is that her words and choices have great power: to heal and bring positive change — by way of telling the truth and being honest — as well as to inflict great pain and destruction — through lies and uncontrolled anger. Merida has to confront the truth not only of her bad actions, but of her failure to use words accurately to reflect and illuminate truth: because of her pride, she chooses wrongly to use words to obscure and manipulate truth. As women and as writers, this is always the wrong choice and Merida’s journey shows us the cost — to self, family, and community — when we fail to act and speak in union with truth.
So often, bravery is based on the way the world judges actions. But Merida shows that true bravery first means letting go of pride and having the humility to acknowledge the truth about oneself, including one’s needs and limitations. This is a quiet, everyday type of bravery, but at times no less daunting than an all-out physical battle. Bravery also means refusing to be silenced when the core of who you are and what you believe is being violated. Bravery means using the gift of language and words to express yourself in clear precise truth, it means having the courage to hear another’s truth and listen fully and honestly without judging, and it means telling the story of that sharing and listening in the very best and most accurate way you know how. Being a woman and a writer requires the tempered kind of bravery Merida exemplifies every day, often on a very great scale.
I have a picture of Merida, poised to let that arrow fly with extreme accuracy and precision, to remind me to go through hard, and to tell the truth of my experience, in both words and deed, with all of the accuracy and precision I can muster.
As an extension of this reflection, my dear friend sent this Sara Bareilles song my way today — a very happy event. Entitled “Brave,” it seems to me an apt theme song for all of us “Meridas” in the world. I include it here as a thank you to K., who inspired this post, and as an inspiration to others who might be searching for the courage to let their arrows fly. Cheers, all.
In the film 42, the major curveball rookie Jack Robinson has to deal with is his race. As the only black man in an all-white ball club in all-white league at the height of the racial segregation issues that plagued America through the better part of the 20th century, Robinson simply isn’t able to remain near where the other players live, at least initially. There is a poignant scene near the beginning of the film where Robinson and his wife are taken to a place apart, a “safe” place where he can reside while starting on the farm team, thus allowing him to keep his focus on the game and not on the major disruption his race will cause. The fact of this evasive action in light of the curve isn’t right, but it is necessary, both for Jack’s safety and for the practice of his craft.
When curveballs create an imbalance in our own lives, sometimes the best way to deal with them is to go somewhere else. This doesn’t mean ignoring them; rather, it means simply acknowledging that they exist and that there is no right way to deal with them head on, at least maybe not right now. Sometimes it becomes impossible to continue writing in the place you’re used to. Going someplace else doesn’t mean you can’t ever come back to where you were. It simply means that the place you had before no longer serves, no longer functions for you, the way it did before you began struggling with the curveballs.
What kind of space a writer needs and even if the writer needs a place apart depends upon a lot of factors. I need complete quiet to think, especially to get into the fantasy world of my novel. I do not thrive on noise and busy-ness, though I know some people who do. My temperament is such that I simply shut down after too much stimulation. Other writers may be able to tune our external stimuli to a greater degree. In my case, a lot of health problems and emotional challenges at home, coupled with the chaos of indefinite construction projects, the ensuing drastic schedule changes and nearly constant interruptions by the work crew have engulfed both my writing place and time and have made quiet in my home next to unknown – the conditions under which I wrote previously simply no longer exist. There will come a time when my schedule will revert back to what it was and my space and time will be more my own again. For now, however, to continue to write at all it’s become necessary to leave the emotional and physical chaos of my home. For the last few months, I was blessed with a quiet room of my own where I could escape the chaos for hours at a time on alternate weekends, a place where I could write, think, read, nap, and recharge. There I was given the concentrated quiet I need to enter deeply into the made up world of my novel and live there awhile. It was a place where I could breathe and think clearly and process everything that I was struggling to deal with. My place apart helped me to both work and strategize my troubles with the curveballs, enabling me to better see my way clear to dealing with them. And that’s what a place apart should do for you.
One additional curveball has been the recent loss of my studio. Even though it’s difficult to give up the space, it has served its purpose. The most important lesson having a room of my own has taught me is learning to commit to making the time to going there and doing the work. I know that I can still take those alternate weekend times and maybe head over to the library to work by one of the fountains for a couple of hours. It’s the work that matters and being in the space taught me to see possibility where none seemed to exist before. I’ve learned to take the initiative, find a space, and continue on with the work.
In a recent inspiring interview on the radio show Writers on Writing, memoirist Allison Singh Gee recounts how she composed her new book, Where the Peacocks Sing: A Palace, A Prince, and the Search For Home, at a table at work on her lunch breaks. As a busy working mother with a three year old at home, Singh Gee says she just couldn’t find a way or a place to write except to do it somewhere else. Finding a place didn’t mean she was abandoning her child and her home. It simply meant that in order to practice her craft and do the work of being a writer she needed to find a place elsewhere – home was not conducive to doing the work she needed to do. Finding a place apart enabled Singh Gee to deal with the curveball and complete her book.
Your place apart could be anywhere – a library, a café, a park, even your car. If you simply cannot physically LEAVE, then maybe try working outside or in another room. A friend of mine shuts herself up in the bathroom just to have some peace and quiet. Doors work wonders – don’t be afraid to close a door, position a screen, hang a drapery to block out the noise or chaos or whatever it is preventing you from focusing on your project.
If you simply can’t grow where you’re planted, don’t beat your head against the wall trying to force the situation to conform to your expectations or your old way of doing things (see Tip #1). Find another place to put down roots, even if only temporarily. Doing so can make the difference between writing and not writing.
Where do you write? How do you create a place apart to ensure your creative life is able to weather the curves?
“There is one myth about writers that I have always felt was particularly pernicious and untruthful — the myth of the ‘lonely writer,’ the myth that writing is a lonely occupation, involving much suffering because, supposedly, the writer exists in a state of sensitivity which cuts him off, or raises him above, or casts him below the community around him. This is a common cliche, a hangover probably from the romantic period and the idea of the artist as Sufferer and Rebel . . . . I suppose there have been enough genuinely lonely suffering novelists to make this seem a reasonable myth, but there is every reason to suppose that such cases are the result of less admirable qualities in those writers, qualities which have nothing to do with the vocation of writing itself. . . . Unless the writer has gone utterly out of his mind, his aim is still communication, and communication suggests talking inside community.” — Flannery O’Connor
Any writer serious about her work has undoubtedly heard or read the “written in stone” prescription for success: anywhere from 2 to 6 hours daily must be spent writing or the writer simply isn’t – either a writer or writing. This level of diligence and commitment should be applauded and if a writer has the sort of life, temperament, and/or physical make-up and stamina that allows for that kind of daily time-on-task, even if that means surviving on 4 or 5 hours sleep a night while still accomplishing all of the other myriad tasks of a busy family and work life, then I think that is fantastic. It is a remarkable feat and inspires awe.
But the truth is that not all writers are cut from the same cloth and various factors contribute to one’s ability to commit to so many hours a day, or even every day, to work on a project. And when life starts reeling off major curveballs, such as those I’m experiencing, finding a more REALISTIC, and less stressful, schedule that allows you to keep flexing your writing muscles while still allowing you to attend to the have-to’s can make the difference between moving forward (albeit at a snail’s pace) and abandoning the project altogether.
You can see this playing out on the ball field all the time. For example, the Los Angeles Angels star pitcher Jared Weaver was put on the disabled list for an elbow fracture and so was unable to continue his usual (epic) pitching schedule and performance. As of this writing, he still has not been returned to the line-up. Similarly, the Angels new 1st baseman, Albert Pujols, was moved to designated hitter in the lineup when a heel injury prevented him from handling the responsibilities of his field position — not quite the performance the team, the fans or Pujols himself expected from his gazillion dollar contract.
My point here is that things change, often drastically. Ball players know this and need to deal with the curves accordingly. Sometimes they’re benched for an entire season because of the intensity of the curves they’re dealing with. Why can’t we writers cut ourselves some slack and reorient our vision and our schedule in consideration of the way our ability to work has changed?
So ask yourself this question: Before your life took on the velocity and complexity of piloting a Stealth bomber, how often and for how long were you able to write? If your typical 3 hours every evening during the week suddenly proves to be impossible, can you write for 90 minutes two or three times a week instead? Or if you were writing for an hour every morning before you went to work, can you try cutting back to 15 or 30 minutes on several days? Taking some of the pressure off may just make it possible for you to keep writing through whatever difficult situation(s) is demanding the majority of your time, attention and energy.
In my case, before the curves started coming in hard and fast I was writing for 15-20 minutes nearly every morning and often more on some weekends. (Wait! Do I hear snickering and snorting? The prelude to incredulous laughter? Before you start wondering why you are reading this and what kind of writer I could possibly be at that commitment level, do yourself a favor and check out Barbara DeMarco-Barrett’s brilliant and wholly unique book Pen On Fire: A Busy Woman’s Guide To Igniting The Writer Within. The book changed my life: Barbara’s approach is that a book CAN BE written in just 15 minutes a day. I haven’t seen this advice in any other book on writing. And guess what? It works. In a little over a year, I’ve got nearly 300 pages, and I didn’t even write every day. Guys, don’t let the title of Barbara’s book deter you from reading it. It’s hands-down one of the best books on the writing life out there.) Now, as I was saying . . .
. . . when the curves came in hard and fast and made even those precious 15 minutes impossible, the first thing I had to do was to make peace with the fact that THINGS HAD CHANGED. This is essential to letting go of the pressure, both the pressure you place on yourself and the perceived pressure the “industry” places on you. Both Weaver and Pujols had to get their heads around this fact — they’d have been foolish to think they could continue to play the game the same way in light of these new curveballs. As a writer, I needed to do the same.
Then I came up with a plan that could work in light of the new challenges I was presented with – I’d write for several hours a few weekends a month. These days got blocked out on my calendar and I made a promise to myself to set some boundaries around this time so that I actually could continue writing. This meant saying “no” to some – but not all – invitations and events. The important thing to remember is that no one is going to come up to you with a silver tea tray and serve up hours for you to write in. You need to find the time and take it, make it your own. This can be done, provided you make peace with the reality that things have changed. You may not be able to control the curveballs coming your way, but you CAN control yourself and how you approach the challenge they present. Look for niches of time that work best for your process needs. And don’t laugh off something so small as 15 minutes. Even 10 minutes. I’m proof a book can come out of miniscule increments of time.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember in negotiating how to let the pressure off is that you also make a promise not to beat yourself up if you CAN’T do it. That means that if you’ve blocked off a certain time to write, but the baby cries and you need to tend her, DO IT. If your nephew’s wedding is on that weekend and attending it means you won’t write until three weeks from now, go to the wedding. If you’re thoroughly wiped out from dealing with the curves and desperately need a nap, take one. Guess what? Your book will survive and will be waiting when you get back. Life happens. The key here is to be realistic and protect the time against less important commitments and distractions.
If your life and your body are in complete turmoil, chances are you have enough pressures and worries weighing on you – don’t let your project be one of them. Keep working, but get pragmatic: let the pressure off, come up with a plan of action for dealing with the curves, and move forward with a changed game.
What are some of the ways you have found to let the pressure off so you could continue working on your creative project even amidst major life changes? I’d love to hear what’s worked for you, and perhaps some one else who is struggling can benefit from your strategy!
This is part one of a six-week series. You can find the series introduction here.
One of the most difficult aspects of the writing life for me was just getting started. Just doing it. It was like I was paralyzed or something. My mind was going — ideas were swarming, stuff was being written already in my head and squirreled away until the card file was threatening to burst — but my body refused to cooperate. It was only through sheer force of will that I finally sat down and began to write.
I attended the “Getting Started As A Writer” workshop at the recent UCLA Writers Faire because, though I am now in the habit of writing, the truth is that I’m always beginning. And the fear that paralyzed me and kept me from starting in the first place is a daily threat I deal with. So I wanted to hear what accomplished authors had to share about how they continue to make the perpetual choice to begin.
What the four panelists offered wasn’t so much advice on how to get started, but tips for keeping the proper attitude, which is more than half the battle, isn’t it? And having the proper attitude in part means doing something other than dwelling on that paralysis. For these four writers, that means focusing on community, craft, and continuous reading.
Leslie Schwartz emphasized repeatedly that writing is about community and sharing our stories with each other. She stated that we are all born as creative beings and we can learn to be writers with the proper support from a positive community and others who may act as constructive mentors. This means cultivating relationships with other writers who can offer feedback, ask you the hard questions, and push you forward with critiques that come from a place of respect.
This emphasis on community was a theme that came up over and over again, in all of the workshops. Writers necessarily need solitude to create; however, those words cannot exist in a vaccuum. Books, poems, memoirs, all are written to be read. And so a developing writer, a serious writer, needs to surround herself with other serious writers who can help her and her work become their best possible selves. To that end, Ms. Schwartz said taking ourselves seriously as writers means having at least one person, or a workshop that you trust, to read your work and give you feedback. liz gonzalez said that the serious writer will also do what needs to be done to make room in her life to write and that she “needs to be willing to write a lot of crap to get to the good stuff.” And to do this, according to Ms. Schwartz, means cultivating great patience — good writing takes time, a lot of time, and the serious writer needs to commit to making that investment and be willing to revise, revise, revise…… and revise some more.
The serious writer also pays attention to the world around her because everything is useful material. Everything. The poet Laurel Ann Bogan said a writer needs to “keep her antenna up because you never know when inspiration will hit.” The good writer is open to what happens, to the things that cross her path, the people she meets, the experiences she has, because they may be the germ, the seed, the spark of her next project. This is why the good writer is never without her handy-dandy notebook — I prefer the Moleskin, but any notebook will do, so long as you have something to write down the brainstorms that come to you in the shower, in traffic, or while making dinner.
Ms. Bogan said that “the only thing that keeps one from writing meaningful work are the limits of your imagination.” All of the authors were emphatic about the need to feed the imagination continuously by reading. In this way, other writers become your mentors. Ms. Schwartz said it wasn’t out of place to read a book a week, no matter what it is. Reading well teaches you how to write. This reading is ESSENTIAL — all the authors agreed that you cannot be a writer unless you read. (For new writers or those who might be skeptical of this sage advice, I recommend Francine Prose’s excellent book Reading Like a Writer.)
The author panel never did talk about how to overcome the devastating paralysis of fear that keeps many writers from starting in the first place and perhaps there wasn’t anything “new” in what I heard. But their emphasis on attitude, on redirecting the mental activity away from fear to concrete applications of the writing life, is truly the way to get started. Sometimes, while the advice remains the same, we are changed and in a different place to be able to finally hear and understand it. One must cultivate the mind of a writer, and think the way a writer thinks, and then she will behave the way a writer behaves. Actively applying these simple principles of community, craft, and continuous reading mean that the sheer force of will necessary to actually apply the butt-to-chair rule, which initiates the ultimate writing behavior, might just be more manageable.
How long has it been since you’ve read (lingered over) a poem? How long since you’ve shared one? Or (gasp!) written one? How long has it been since you embraced the rewarding work of committing a beautiful poem to memory? “Too long,” you think, in answer to all of the above…..and perhaps feel bereft of something necessary but inexplicable…..
Tomorrow can be a day to change all that and fill the void. Its National Poem In Your Pocket Day and Poets.org has everything you need to give the gift of poetry to yourself, your family, children, and friends.
The Gift of Poetry
I’ve written before about the great gift poetry can be, both as an expression of beauty and hope in this fragile world, as well as how it can assist in sharpening and refining the writer’s skill and ease with words. In a culture in which so much of our thinking and perception is reduced to ambiguous sound bytes and abbreviated made-up acronyms that barely resemble what they mean to suggest (l.o.l. — really?) poetry and the deep immersion in thought, emotion, and lived experience it reflects is, I would argue, crucial to our maintaining a sense of human dignity and reverence for language and the existence it signifies.
I was blessed to grow up surrounded by poetry and the written word. My grandparents saw to it that I had the best books to satisfy a burgeoning craving for literature that was evidenced from a very young age. And my grandfather, a skilled orator and lover of words with a poet’s heart, would regularly burst in dramatic recitations of Hamlet‘s soliloquies and speeches, Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” Poe’s “The Raven,” and any random bit by his beloved Robert Service. He held me in awe and taught me many lessons about life and language from these great pieces. And he gave me a great gift in that I remember what he shared even now. He took a serious interest in my early efforts to write and he read everything I scribbled with enthusiasm, always encouraging and giving me helpful feedback. Later, whether I was charged with choosing a poem to memorize and recite in front of my English class peers, learning to recite a scene from Shakespeare, or committing to memory and reciting Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales in perfect Middle English as a final for my university exams, my grandfather was there to coach me and help me see the beauty and truth in the task I’d been given. He always told me it was important to commit poems or bits of poetry to memory because that way you could carry them with you always and share them with others. Ever faithful, they’d be there when you needed them, proffering their gift of beauty immutably.
That is the beauty of National Poem In Your Pocket Day. What poem will you choose as a gift to yourself? What poem will you share?
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years –
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate – but there is no competition –
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.