Proof of Seriousness?

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For years I wrote while holding down some sort of job that had nothing to do with writing. The jobs were not glamorous. House cleaning, bartending, carpentry, costumer, clerk in a grocery store, cocktail waitress. Have I mentioned house cleaning? I held that job off and on for fifteen years.

While working these jobs, I occasionally carved out time and finances to attend a writer’s conference. I always got something out of the conferences. I always picked up some new clue to the craft of writing, or some new way of looking at what I did. I made friends and enjoyed being around other writers. But attending conferences can be an expensive proposition. It takes time away from earning an income, and it takes money to attend. I wasn’t able to do it often.

Recently I was alarmed when I heard some advice being dispensed to young writers to attend lots of conferences and list these when submitting a piece for publication. The purpose of this was to prove to an agent or publisher that one is serious about writing.

Attending conferences is a wonderful thing to do, but frankly it proves nothing except that you have somehow found the time and resources to attend a conference. To gauge a list of conferences as proof of seriousness about writing is simply to value writers with money over writers without money. I’m not sure agents or a publishers actually use that gauge. Somehow I doubt it. I imagine agents and publishers gauge a writer’s proof of seriousness by their writing, and their willingness to work.

But perhaps I’m wrong.

Agents and publishers are bombarded every day with manuscripts from writers of every ilk. There are some who could be searching for a simple way to winnow the pile. Perhaps there are one or two (or more) who find a list of conferences attached to a manuscript as reason to read on, and a manuscript lacking such a list as a reason to not read on.

If so, this is a sad thing for literature. Work done outside of the publishing world and the academic world can only enrich a piece of writing.

Listing one’s crappy jobs (in my own list I left out milker on a dairy farm, assistant drum maker, and telephone surveyer) is probably no way to endear yourself to a publisher or agent. Yet, I value my crappy jobs as experiences that have helped me a great deal with my writing, with getting a scene right, or stepping into the mind and body of a character. I know what it is to stand on my feet eight hours a day. I know how small-minded some bosses can be. I know what it’s like to get kicked by a cow and smacked with its shit-encrusted tail. I can write about these things. The back aches, the frustrations, the quickness developed when that mean cow is in your stall. These things are not trivial. They’re important to fiction.

And they’re important to the world too. I stand by my belief that people who do blue-collar work are no less intelligent than people who don’t. This also helps with writing fiction. A basic respect for all people means a basic respect for all characters.

Writing benefits from engagement with the world. Travel is good, and like the writer’s conferences, it’s highly recommended as a way to expand one’s mind. But work can also expand one’s mind. Besides it being a way to pay our bills, it can also be a way to reach out to the world that surrounds us. And reaching out to the world that surrounds us, the non-writing world, is proof of seriousness. In my book, so to speak.

The Art of Listening

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If you are a writer, you must listen. You must listen to your instincts. You must listen to the world. You must listen to the things that lack conventional voice. You must listen to the trees, the river, the deer, the rocks, the fungus, the rust, the sunrise and the moon. You must listen to your characters, to the sound of vowels, to the rhythm of language as well as its meaning. You must disengage, every day, from the noise and commerce and traffic and politics of the world. You must not let anyone tell you how to do it. You must not let anyone tell you what’s important. You must not let anyone tell you that you must do A, B, or C.

What fed your soul as a child?

Find it.

What did you do before the serpent of social media?

Find it.

Where were your secret places before you became an adult?

Find them.

What calmed your heart?

Find it.

What quieted your mind?

Find it.

What circumvented the chatter?

Find it.

What is the last thing you picked up off the ground and put into your pocket?

Resistance

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When they say upgrade, go outside and chop some wood.

When they say new and improved, tell them you like the old ways better.

When they say get fit and fabulous, tell them you’re misfit and fabulous.

When they say there’s an app for that, tell them there’s a nap for that.

When they say buy this, ask why?

When they say buy this, ask again.

When they say buy this, make art.

When they say be more of a woman, tell them that’s funny.

When they say you don’t have to be grey, ask if they would dye the heron.

When they say here’s a free sample, tell them you’ve sampled enough.

When they say heart healthy, ask them to define heart.

When they say identity theft, ask whose.

When they say season premier, say, yes, four times a year.

When they say fast food, soak some beans.

When they say consumer confidence, ask in what.

When they say more value, tell them the world needs that.

When they say instant, tell them about cicadas.

When they say but wait there’s more, tell them to be quiet so you can hear it.

 

Written from the prompt, resistance.

The Chase

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Twice a week I teach a prompt writing class. We write to a prompt, provided by me, without editing, thinking, or worrying. The rules are: Let it rip. This past week the prompt was: Running out of something. Here’s what I wrote.

 

This morning, I felt as though I was running out of fresh ideas for prompts. I sat at my desk and looked out the window and said out loud, “I know you’re out there.” The leaves rustled in the breeze showing their white undersides. It felt like a taunt. A tease. “You’re looking too hard,” the leaves said. “You want too much. Your head is too filled.”

I know. I know. I know.

But it doesn’t change the fact that I sometimes feel I am running out of ideas for prompts. And it doesn’t change the fact that I believe there are a million ideas surrounding me that I’m just not capturing. They are like little fairies in the woods. Lithe and free and quick and laughing at the lumbering writer who tries to catch them. They call out, “Here we are. Here we are. Here we are,” and then vanish, a puff of smoke left behind. An idea that could have been mine, but instead remains its own.

I wonder if I shouldn’t go to a mall. Not that there is a store where I can purchase ideas, but that it might help to expose myself to the mass of humanity. Perhaps ideas among people are less illusive. Less playful and teasing. In the mall I might see a mother, harried and stressed, tugging a child behind her like a suitcase – and this might trigger an idea for a prompt, or a story. I might overhear a man tell someone on the other end of his cell phone that he is in a meeting. “Just taking a break,” he adds, realizing his friend might overhear the muzak, the clang of cash registers, the sloosh of Coca-cola descending over a cup of ice.

I might sit in a mall and capture the rhythms of conversation in my notebook. I might find ideas jumping onto the page instead of hiding on the undersides of leaves among the eggs of insects.

The woods are my home. There, a deep peacefulness settles over me. The woods make my mind go cottony like a cloud. Thoughts are less important. They flit through and don’t land. They are like the waterbugs across the surface of the pond. Glittering in the sunlight they skim across the surface before being eaten by turtles and fish. They do no mind being turtle food, or fish food, or eventually fertilizer dropped by a heron lifting off from the branch of a tree. They are afraid of nothing. They are not even afraid to be my ideas, the ones we use for prompts to write about on Friday mornings. But ooh – they do love a chase.

Holding Space for Yourself

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In teaching, one of the things I try to do is hold space. In my private prompts classes, we close our eyes and take some deep breaths and get quiet, letting the workweek fall away, the effort that went into getting the kids off the school, the traffic we drove through to reach our destination, all the little niggling energy that we carry with us to the next place. My studio, where I teach my private classes, has, over time, taken on a lot of creative energy from my work there, and the work of others. The space supports our creative endeavors, and the work of holding space is made easier by this concentrated energy. But the energy in my public classes is also concentrated, and held collectively.

The class I teach regularly, for free and open to the public is called Prompt Writing. I teach it in a book store, and here I have a different ritual for opening the space. I ask each person to say their name, and give one or two sentences about their writing practice, and in this way we settle into each other.

I then introduce myself and tell the class what we’re going to do, I give the prompt and we write. There are rules for responding to others’ writing when it’s read out loud, and they are rules I believe in, so I try to enforce them gently, but firmly, and consistently. I do not waver from these rules.

The rules are meant to create a safe space for writers. It’s important. This is what is meant by holding space. Holding space is holding safe space, and there are lots of different ways to do it, and lots of different ways to not do it, or to undo it.

Competition is anti-safe-space holding. Overly critical thinking and analyses also. Hierarchy. Self-promotion. Comparison. Trying to fix something for someone, be it their writing or their life. Sometimes asking digging, probing questions can make a person feel challenged and defended instead of heard.

Recently I have been thinking about how powerful this is, and how I might try the same techniques for myself. In other words, when I am feeling low and anxious, perhaps I could recognize that I need something that’s not being provided and try to provide it. I might try to hold space for myself.

I don’t think it would be any different than holding space for others. The first step would be to get quiet, and the second step would be to create a safe environment for myself. One without competition, without over-thinking, without hierarchy, without self-promotion, without comparison, without trying to fix it, without digging at myself. In fact, when I need to hold space for myself, it’s always because I have let these things in. It’s natural that they should creep in. We live in a world of low thoughts. The trick is to see it, and to say no to it, and to open the space for yourself again.

The Easy Way is Hard Enough

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I have an obsession with hand-built houses. To feed my obsession I look at pictures in books with a magnifying glass, and in doing so I become curious about the people who live in these houses. I look closely at their knickknacks, the pictures hanging on the walls, the shampoo they use, and especially the books on their shelves. I am a voyeur. All writers are voyeurs.

I don’t believe that writers are born with special spy genes, or eavesdropping genes, but that early on in our lives, for some reason, we learned to observe. For me honing the skill of observation came from being terribly shy and lacking confidence. Later it was honed further through writing.

One day, looking through my magnifying glass at a picture of a woodworking shop, I read a sign on the wall that said, “The Easy Way is Hard Enough.”

That’s writing, I thought. That’s my writing philosophy. Why fill a room with six characters who stand around invisibly witnessing an important interaction between two characters? Why have a character go to bed, and then get up, and go back to bed, and then get up, and then finally do the thing that needs to be done to advance to story? Keep it simple. The easy way is hard enough.

My first novel, LIFE WITHOUT WATER, grew from my first short story, written for the first writing class I’d taken since high school. The assignment was simple: Write a short story. I had no idea what to write about and I only had a week to do it in. Time ticked by as I stabbed and stabbed at that story. Three days in I was at my kitchen table stabbing some more. I decided to take a walk to clear my mind, and ended up in a used bookstore where I found a small paperback about communes in the sixties. I flipped through the center section of black and white pictures: bearded men chopping wood, naked gardeners, dirty children, a kitchen filled with pans of rising bread dough, a woman outside a shack sawing a board for some repair. I came of age in the sixties. This was my era. These were my people. I knew about these wild reclaimed places with the slippery driveways and the crummy insulation and the snakes in the walls. I’d reclaimed a few myself, and suffered through a few winters, and thrown a lot of wood into a woodstove. While I no longer lived this lifestyle, I still loved these places. I still drove out into the country some times, just to find and visit an old abandoned house.

I purchased the book and decided to write about the reunion of a commune, which quickly became far more than I could handle. All those people who’d once shared an old house had dispersed, abandoned the lifestyle, become what they’d become and had their own stories to tell. Too many stories. The noise of that many characters became too loud and unfocused. And so I decided to write from the point of view of one child who’d grown up on a commune.

This was my first lesson in “The Easy Way is Hard Enough.”

I don’t always know my journey as a writer. I don’t always know my journey as a teacher. I don’t always know my journey as a human being. But I do know journeys, and I have found that “The Easy Way is Hard Enough” is good philosophy for nearly every undertaking – from writing to teaching to cooking a meal to life itself.