Writer, teacher, essayist, author of the essay collection Made Holy from the University of Georgia Press (2019). Mother of two boys, runner, and activist. Wife and partner to Kindergarten teacher and singer songwriter, Mr. Martin.
Tonight at 8pm CST (9pm in Vermont), my sister Alida and I will be discussing my book, Made Holy, in Chisholm, MN –my hometown! We plan to go live downtown in the Pocket Park.
I want to have an opportunity to talk about the process of writing this book & why I wrote it.
I never thought I would write a nonfiction book about my life. I have always been a private person, secretive even. So crafting essays about some of the most intimate parts of my life would have seemed like a nightmare to my twenty-something self.
Yet, everything changed in my life around the age of 28. And slowly over the years these essays came to me in the dark hours between feeding my babies, in the early morning light of winter over cold cups of coffee, and at the edge of sleep. Writing is a solitary endeavor one toils over, drafting and redrafting, crafting and cutting apart, refining and redoing. Nobody becomes a writer casually or on accident. It has taken me years to perfect sentences, develop my craft, harness the stories that flew like kites at the edge of my dreams. They always presented like siren calls from somewhere deep within that also felt far away, and every time I built the ship that would sail them, it took months and years. I know, it sounds crazy, but that is writing and the deepest joy comes out of writing well and giving the gift of one’s labor to the world–a tiny boat in a massive sea that sails into oblivion.
Mid-summer and I am dreaming of bees. My husband, dream midwife, has given me seven days to ride a horse in my dreams, but I sleep late and wake and forget as my youngest nudges me up, Come, play. In the field adjacent to the house, a hidden stream between us, my husband and oldest son are tending the plants. Music winds its way to me from the little speaker they have brought. I lift my hand to them.
Rural Vermont feels like the shire, my husband says. It blooms full towards autumn ripeness. I prefer fairy lands and secret hovels and hidden cabins in the woods. I prefer bodies of water, long fields, a distance when looking.
I drink coffee and I think of bees. Erotic buzzing, multitudes, queen-ruled, a song like lips making a sound the ear only feels. I walk in the grass barefoot and do no work. I cut wild flowers and place them in a clear glass vase. My husband leaves for work. The two boys have a tea party with mint licorice tea, round crackers, stuffed animals. They hum and bicker and love. They grow hungry, thirsty, tired.
My husband dreamed of a golden horse dancing in the field outside this house the night before our first son was born. We did not live here. His grandfather did at that time. Cavallo means horse in Italian, which is something they also eat in Italy. It is one of our first son’s names, for his grandmother’s line–Italians and for the horse in the field where her mother once lived, June. I knew that he would be irrevocably mine, but I tethered him to Nana in this small way, like a spell. Eventually this magic worked and he dotes on her as she does him.
He was born under the sign of my mother, Aquarius. Like her he is thin, red-haired, original. Moses, is his first name. A name that came to me like a storm that never lifted. No, not Mo or Mose, I would say to my husband. It must be Moses. After he was born and grew, I wondered over the name. Why it possessed me. Why I insisted he carry such a mantle all his life. Mo, I say. Mo, like a quiet place one might find respite.
On and on they go, the two of them creating worlds. For a moment, I listen. They are fetching a pen for “research.” They lose interest. “Want to have a battle?” one asks. “No, I’m doing research,” says the other. “After my research,” he repeats, the word a charm on his tongue. He has no idea what it means, he is only four. Something to do with a pen and paper. I think about what I would like to research: bees, linens, islands, furniture carved of wood, large beds with fluffy pillows, tea that clears the mind.
We leave in two days to travel halfway across the country. To land in the bay of loons. To romp and rollick and read. Sun, water, wave. Tree, bird, stone. Wind. Summer, in the life of teachers: its soft and balmy breeze, its blanket of sun each morning, its long evening flush with fireflies, a scrap of moon above the treetops. The late fire around which we speak of things we would not, by any other light, admit.
I laze and consider the quickness of flies, how I would move if I moved like an ant, what I will make the children for lunch. I do not think of the third child I want. I do not think of the fortune teller’s words. Two children, she said. Perhaps a third, but they might not make it through. I was twenty-something then. Now this phantom child haunts me. I try to call her name: Ruth, June, Jude, Camilla, Matilda, Matisse, Elouise. I imagine if I find her name and sing it out to her she will come. Yes, she. But dare I taunt the gods.
I think of a line of poetry I once wrote: Bee, bee, bee. Once, you called the bee from me.
I make lists. Gratitude. To do. To pack. I make calls. I feed the children. They go on creating worlds–houses made of pillows, chairs in a line become a path to keep their feet from hot lava. Cars, podcasts, horses. Dragons. Stones. Scrap of blanket balled up and smelling of the blackberries they picked from the yard.
We moved to this house two years ago and have been slow to make it our own as we do not own the house. This spring I dug up the grass and planted a garden. My husband began farming the field. I made a rock garden and planted flowers. We cristened a fire pit in the early spring air. Each season here like a thickening emotion, a scent I call forth in my mind–always, the way it feels occupies me most.
Though I have avoided this out of a sense of fear and anxiety, my first book will come into the world this September. Its birth, a long coil of labor, a fierce abandon-ing of allegiances for truth, a hope of another world, a whisper at my ear–this is what birth feels like, which is what Peggy, my midwife whispered to me during the birth of my second son. The first had been born by C-section. I am the kind of person who needs a midwife at my ear whispering these words all the day long–this is what it feels like. This life.
Now the bee and the horse and the children still wrapped in their games. Now the turn of the day, the leaving, the work, the labor, the speaking and planning and doing. Now the sun hot in the sky and the field, a green expanse. Now the laundry, the dishes, the organizing, the pitch and purchase of the day.
Summer arrives in the North like a dream. Exuberant, joyous, freeing. One thing I love about my summer is watching my sons run wild. Bedtime is extended, the outdoors becomes a roving playground, and I see their swift transformation into wilder versions of themselves. They find a freedom in the unscheduled hours we occupy. Planned activities feel more exciting after hours of fluttering time that spreads like a quilt of wind over days.
They also fight and bicker and meltdown. But that’s to be expected. I try my best to stay hands off and to avoid nagging and scolding and demanding they clean up. Right now they are wrestling on the futon in the living room with a bunch of pillows. I hear screaming, laughter, shouts, demands, giggles. All of it necessary. All of it good.
Since school got out last week, I’ve struggled to get back to my writing practice. It’s difficult to focus with them here and my husband is currently away for a training. I have come to see my writing practice like a meditation practice. I listen to Tara Brach – meditation teacher, Buddhist – talks often and much of what she says about meditation, applies to writing. I’m also a big fan (as you all know) of Brene Brown‘s work and highly recommend her current Netflix special. Taking from their work and my observations, I’ve come up with some principles for summer writing practices.
Make a goal and track it. I think this is essential. Write down what you plan to do and then write down what you do. It really helps if you work with a buddy on this and either start a shared google doc to set goals and track actuals OR text each other. You can either track words or time. Think about how many days a week you want to write, how much time, and whether or not the word count matters to you. If, for example, you’re a poet or you’re editing, word count isn’t a helpful measure.
Develop your writing boundaries. What are boundaries? People talk about them all the time but I don’t know that we all understand them. Brene Brown highlights how in order to be vulnerable we need to feel secure in our boundaries because then we know that we are taking care of ourselves and we won’t let anyone take advantage of us–we need to develop self-trust. So, create your writing boundaries. Mainly this is about carving out space and time on a regular basis that is all yours. Your own space. Your own time so that you can write. You have to keep it sacred. I find that when I leave my work for too long, I lose it. My characters hide, the story falls apart, and I feel scared of going back to it. This is why we have to stay in practice. If you do stop or take a break. You simply return to the work and begin again. No drama. No story. No judgement.
Be free. Like my children, open time and open space creates new energy and new ways of thinking. Nurturing our writing can be the same. We are looking for our voice or we are developing it. We are trying to find a way to articulate the parts of life that feel wholly voiceless and without words or taboo and shameful or too sentimental and precious. Go into the woods or the museum with a paper and pen, sketch pictures or images that have to do with your work, dig in the garden, swim in the ocean. Do nothing for a day. Find ways to break up your routine and breathe new life in to your work.
Fail. Failure is essential. Brene Brown talks about the essentiality of failing. If you’re going to be innovative, creative, and successful, you’re going to fail. Let yourself fail big time. Stretch yourself out. You will fail to keep your schedule, you will fail to hit your word count, you will fail to finish that story, you will abandon your novel. What matters is that you keep going. That’s all. Head down, keep writing. Don’t listen to the critics in your life, especially the one on your shoulder.
Risk everything. If you want to connect with your readers, if you want to be a good writer, you must take risks. In my first graduate writing workshop, one of my instructors, Clint McCown, gave us two pieces of great advice. First, whenever your character cries on the page you miss an opportunity for your reader to cry. But more importantly, because my characters never cry, he said, good writing risks sentimentality, it drives write up to that cliff but never falls off (well, it does, but that’s a fail). In writing, we expose ourselves either by writing about our own lives in intimate ways or creating characters that expose our greatest hopes and fears. You know the feeling you get when you’re onto something. That feeling comes from pushing up to the edge of an idea, a character, a feeling, a longing and laying it bare like an offering before your reader.
I’m filled with it. It’s a tension in my spine. A desire to pummel. I sick echo in the belly. A longing to turn away. A desperate sadness that women are dehumanized, that my body is not considered my own in this country.
The white female governor of Alabama is now signing a law that criminalizes not only abortion but women who choose to go out of this state to have an abortion. So, one can easily imagine how this terrorism will play out. How women will be hunted down and locked away in the institution of deep trauma, abuse, rape, and torture AKA our prison system. They will take these mothers away from their real children to lock them away if indeed this law is allowed to stand. Of course, the grand master plan is to get this to the supreme court where keg party Kavanaugh sits making it a ruling conservative majority.
Please, women, run.
Sometimes it doesn’t feel worth the effort it takes to keep on trying to say the same thing over and over again in a million different ways, hoping to be heard. Abortion is not murder. My body is my own. I have the right to own my own body and to make my own medical decisions.
Growing into middle age, there are moments now, I glance down the long hallway of my knowing –the long education of coming to know– what it is to be woman in this world. I hold on to the acute awareness, the visceral sensation, of knowing that my body is only tentatively my own. That my life is secondary to the lives of men. That because I fit into categories of privilege I am somewhat safe or safer for now. But if one, as a woman, remains vigilant in her looking, does not turn away into illusion, blow the candle light out, she maintains the knowing truth that her body is no safer than those brutalized, murdered, locked away and beaten bodies of the others who share her gender but not her class, color, status, sexual orientation and cis-bodied-identity. Or those others who have not been so lucky.
Run for office.
Please, women, run for office. Hundreds of us must run and continue running if we are to make this change possible. The white men in suits from the ruling class minority are not going to change. They work for the boss and the boss is not you.
I think of women’s art and how so much of it is called craft though the skill and expertise of say, making a quilt, goes well beyond most paintings we decide to call art.
I think of the way women tell stories—of the lyric, of the body—and how close, how intimate we draw up to our readers.
I think of the back-handed obsession with denouncing certain ways that women write—just a journal entry, a mess of self, navel-gazing.
We are not hiding behind the walls of high art or the institution of such and such,
For a few weeks now I have been working with some fabulous writers on a panel proposal for next year’s AWP Conference in San Antonio. Before this, in preparation for a job interview lesson I was to teach, I had returned to Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric and while I re-read it I began to think about how I could create a panel on the White Imagination, which is what I have been working on. In many ways, whites do not understand what this constitutes because we can’t always see it. It is the water we swim in as fish. The struggle for even well-meaning, white allies who want to address racism in our nation, is the internal discomfort and fear that our whiteness, when called forth for examination, creates in us. We want to wiggle out of it. We want to “but” our way through it. We want to point our finger at other “bad” whites. But not ourselves. We don’t want to be white anymore, not during this examination.
This array of emotions–shame, guilt, fear, humiliation, mild discomfort–leads to and perpetuates our blindness. Our unwillingness to sit silently and listen. The irony, of course, is that people of color have to live in this feeling of discomfort every day. A woman of color never knows who might consciously or unconsciously judge her, misrepresent her, slight her in hopes of creating intimacy, ask her to join as a representation of her “race,” expect her to be certain ways, speak a certain way, and so on. The irony is that as white people we can’t tolerate discomfort and yet we not only perpetuate discomfort, but we–our very whiteness–uphold the institution of white supremacy in our country that has determined it’s okay to kill, cage, and destroy bodies of color. This is the hard truth of our whiteness. The truth we keep pushing away because it feels bad, it really does. We don’t want it to be this way. And yet it is.
I will say this. My ignorance is vast but I continue to work on the issue of whiteness and to work towards dismantling the white imagination because it’s unacceptable. It’s unacceptable that one and three black men will be imprisoned in this country while only one in eighteen white men will go to jail; it’s unacceptable that our police are legally allowed to kill/ lynch Americans of color; it’s unacceptable that every week we have new shootings aimed at minority groups in our country because radicalized white supremacists continue to terrorize our nation, their power unchecked, their crimes not considered a reflection of all whites but an anomaly of concentrated hatred.
But all of this should be obvious. What isn’t obvious is that whiteness and white supremacy is upheld and proliferated by the white imagination, which limits the identity and the narratives of people of color to only those in relation to whiteness and stereotypes — always in relation to the dominance of whiteness. For example, the story of a woman of color overcoming/ coping with racism, the story of a Begali woman in relation to her cultural identity, the story of a Native American as living on a reservation, in poverty, drunk, and so on. These narratives are prized over narratives that might go in other directions, say, discussing an interest in sculpture, a novel about a haunted swimming pool, a collection of interviews of women artists or a history of farming, and so on. That’s not what white publishers want (that’s not what sells?). They want a story in which the identity of oppression is held up and examined and we get to see that despite all this terrible hardship the individual is able to find the beauty in their life and the good in people, or whatever. (This is not to say that those narratives aren’t important, but they are not the only narratives.)
Why do we want these narratives? I suspect that they make whites feel better about their whiteness and the consequences of oppression. We think, see, they’re okay, they overcame so much. What a victory! I suspect too, that we want to examine the “other” under the microscope of oppression. There is something thrilling in the voyeurism of hardship and pain.
Aisha Sabatini Sloan, in her keynote at NonfictionNOW, Iceland 2017, titled “The Dangerous Lure of Writing for White Readers in an MFA,” discusses the way her MFA program pushed her away from her original scholarly and creative interests into writing narratives that fit the white imagination. She didn’t feel like she could write for black readers. She explains what happened to her writing: All of the overtures that are made to “explain” the experience of being a minority are tiny coded signals that the reader is presumably unfamiliar with this experience. And the reader who doesn’t have to guess at that reality can feel those signals as a distancing. In some cases, these are teeny, tiny gestures. But the reality is, even the smallest of those gestures can feel huge.
These words carry a certain sorrow, perhaps, that she was pushed to write in a way that would distance a reader like herself. Sloan wondered where her work might have gone if she hadn’t felt this pressure to conform and had been able to pursue her passion projects. If she had not been forced into the small box of the white imaginaire. Luckily, she has returned to that former self and is pursing the projects and work that she feels inspired by.
What I return to as a white woman, an American, a writer and activist, is the need to sit in discomfort and not attempt to slough it off on other white people. To point a finger at the actual racist. To deny my part in it. I say this because just as people of color are forced to represent their otherness, white people represent the life of racism in this country. There is no way around this in our current moment.
The fact of the white body is supremacy. The fact of the white body is oppression. The fact of the white body is violence and death. The fact of the white body is erasure of all others that don’t bare sameness.
Rankine writes: because white men can’t/ police their imagination/ black people are dying
What imagination does she mean? The one that fears the black body his culture has created as a figure onto which the white imagination has projected all it’s ugliness. Just think for one moment about the way black men were turned into rapists to be feared by white women (and lynched by white men) when in fact it was white men, slave owners, with the most egregious history of rape of Black female slaves.
But that isn’t what this is about. This is about learning to listen, to absorb, to feel, to hear, to read about, to know with great familiarity the legacy of whiteness that a white body carries. And then, brick by brick, to dismantle your own imagination. To find your own way through this history that unless we come to recognize, to know with great intimacy and vulnerability, we will continue to pass on. Trust me, when I tell you (with great love) that it is your own work to do.
It’s that time of year. Time for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference and this year it’s in Portland, Oregon. Come see me talk about writing and find out what the game Neon Daycare, which I played with my sisters and cousins as a young girl, has to do with writing.
S228. The Landscape of Memory: Writing Places That Don’t Exist. (Kelly McMasters, Miranda Weiss, Emily Casey, Jericho Parms) While setting is often seen as the purview of fiction writers, place has become its own sub-genre in the creative nonfiction community. Whether tracking breaking stories in situ or casting generations into the past, the writer’s job is often to create the landscape of memory out of the ether. How, aside from Proust’s madeleine, can we gain access to places to which we no longer have access, and landscapes that are essentially make-believe? How do writers render a remembered landscape real?
We talk about the weather here. All. The. Time. It shifts and changes and plays tricks. It’s March and the cedar waxwings have returned, or so they say. The robins must be on their way. Wild turkeys stalk our woods like soldiers. I follow their tracks up the mountain. I have been ill and then not ill and then ill again. But I cannot stay inside another day. So I have put on snowshoes and clomped across the field to the road that leads out to the pond and the mountain, which is perhaps more of a hill. My head spins all the way across the field until my breath slows into it’s rhythmic hum. Just walk and you’ll be changed, I tell myself, and everything about these woods changes me. Any woods, any nature, any body of water gives me reprieve. So here I go out into the awful March of endless winter hoping for relief from my sick brain and cooped up body.
I would like to spend hours here in the woods. But my anxious mind lurches from lists and tasks to plans and hopes and fears. I can only stay so long. Though I wish I could live in this solace always, I haven’t quite figured that out.
The other day I learned while listening to a podcast, attempting to fall asleep, that people with higher anxiety dislike neutral scents because of the way they trigger fear in the brain. If it is not a good smell it must be a bad smell, the anxious, fear-triggered brain reasons. I found this amusing because my father and I seem to have highly sensitive olfactory receptors, and we are also the most anxious neurotics of the family. It is true that I have a certain animosity towards potentially harmless smells when I was feeling particularly anxious. I shout out to my husband, “What is that awful smell?!” And he rolls his eyes and shakes his head at me. I am keenly aware of his various scents, which tend to be strong, and yet my children always smell right to me.
While listening to NPR, another nervous tick outlet for me, I heard a story on workers that monitor Facebook posts, which is a job Facebook contracts to another company. The workers aren’t well paid and they’re forced to look at horrific shit all day, including, reportedly, live feeds of murder and sexual assault. The workers must raise their hand and log out to use the bathroom. They are given a nine minute processing period, which they can use once a shift if they need a break after viewing disturbing content. I cannot, as hard as I try, seem to locate this story online. Nor can I stop thinking about it.
Though I care for these workers, I am more obsessed with the concept at play. I keep thinking about how we would never have been able to creatively predict such employment decades ago, but, had we, it would have made for excellent dystopian lit.
Much of what is happening in our world feels dystopian to me. And yet I’m convinced we continue to evolve as creatures–our brains shifting and rewiring towards what MLK has called “the moral arch of the universe.” Its tiresome to hear certain grownups talk about how well behaved children used to be–you mean, well manipulated, I think, well threatened?
Yet, these monitors of Facebook are real people who are suffering from exposure to traumatic content, and they are not well-cared for and their working conditions are abominable. They have an increasingly important role in the shaping our political and social landscape. But we often seem to overlook the most important jobs in our society. And, in terms of social media, as my friend, the Historian Jill Mudgett has said, we are like babies in the social media universe, we are bound to make endless mistakes; we have no idea what we’re dealing with.
Hibernacula means “tent for winters” and refers to the spaces in which animals hibernate. Frogs partially freeze in winter and their hearts stop. They form ice crystals in their lungs and body cavities but a high source of glucose keeps them from completely freezing or dying. When the hibernacualum around the frog warms up they unthaw and their heart and lungs begin working again. Some frogs just climb into cracks to hibernate for the winter. I have often hoped to find one. This trick of nature fascinates me. If I could find a frog hibernating I could bring it home and watch it come to life. This seems like the ultimate party trick.
In Beijing, in my twenties, I once took a one-block cab ride for which I paid, up front, ten dollars. I had missed a flight to Siberia and had no idea how to navigate the city. My anxiety then was extremely high. Luckily I found a hostel, booked a room, and hit the lounge where I downed three beers and turned in for the night.
I am convinced my anxiety would disappear if I quit coffee. But, alas, that shall never come to pass. In the evening I think longingly of coffee before bed. In the morning I do not get up until my husband has made the coffee and brings me a cup. Yes, I know, I hit the husband jackpot. But all my luck went into that.
Long distance running is the only effective way I’ve been able to manage anxiety. But sometimes I get tired and quit. I’m training for a half marathon in May, in which I hope to beat my PR. Competition has always motivated me until it doesn’t, and then I’m paralyzed. At the gym, where I go to run on the treadmill, which is extremely boring, I like to watch the others. There is one woman who seems to have disappeared inside herself–her choice in clothing and obsessive reading on the treadmill makes me think this. When I tell my husband about her he is uninterested. I want to explain the way her face personifies this concept of self erasure but my husband finds me cruel.
The other night I returned from the gym and he was sleeping and I was outraged because I had wanted to tell him all about how I ran into our friend Sigrid and she taught me to hula, which I’ve never been able to do. Instead I ate a bowl of rice and beans in the kitchen and thought about how my baby sister was about to turn thirty.
The passing of time has been the most disturbing part of my life. I dislike stasis, so I am unsure of the alternative. While it is clear from mere observance, that we will grow old and die, we do not believe it.
On the evening of my snowshoe in the woods, as I was clomping up the hill-mount, I saw a fluff of fur in the snow and stopped. It looked beautiful and alive but also dead. I could not see the entire body. I bent down with a stick and poked it, then lifted it up and flopped it around. A possum. It was not stiff and it bore no marks of injury. Yet I did not remember the thing about possums — playing possum.
I am a person stunned by wild animals. Despite having grown up in the woods, whenever I see a real live wild animal, especially up close, I feel excited. Here, in our cabin in the woods, whenever we spot deer in the field or rabbits in the yard we call out to each other to come and look. I couldn’t decide what to do about the possum in the snow. Leave it there and let it become another creature’s dinner or burry it beneath the snow. I laid my bare hand on it’s back and tried to feel for a heart beat. I did not think it was alive though, so I didn’t spend much time doing this.
The paws of a possum are particularly delicate; they have long slender fingers with elaborate padding and sharp nails. I pressed my index finger to this possum’s palm to feel the grooves and curves there.
When I finally shooed the children outside into frigid temperatures, I spy on them from my bedroom window. They are attempting to slide down a small hill along the side of the house on broken parts of a sled. Later I hear the younger one yapping like a wolf. Everything about this child surprises me.
The silence of this house is a kind of warmth. Not every house offers such delicious silence. But every empty house after children has given me this. To know I am alone gives me immense relief.
I decided to bury the possum beneath the snow. It wasn’t deep, just a layer to keep it safe. I’m not sure why I wanted to do this or why I feel a need to engage in sacred acts–or at least acts imagined as such. I said goodbye and climbed on. I passed the turkey tracks, deer, and wolf or coyotes. I stood at the peak and looked out for a moment into the trees and setting sun before I returned to the lower ground near the pond. I have been told that once a person falls through frozen ice into frigid waters, they only have around eight seconds before their body shuts down.
Later, I looked up the possum online when I realized that it could have been playing dead–something I had not recalled in the woods. Playing dead is involuntary for them. When facing danger, their body goes into a coma-like state that can last from between forty minutes and four hours. They are conscious but they cannot move. When I think about this odd evolutionary trick, I’m slightly horrified to imagine a comatose possum with consciousness, unable to move as it becomes prey. Or, in my case, unable to move or run away while a woman buried her in snow.
I once read War and Peace alone on a half empty train from Prague to Paris and the memory of this remains a kind of myth in my mind.
How’s your writing practice? Have you set writing goals for the year, month, or week? This post offers practical ideas and advice for writers who are working on strengthening their practice or trying to get back into one. Remember, everything takes time; be kind to yourself, relax, and celebrate the work you’ve already done. Happy writing!
There are no rules for having a writing practice. However, I once read the following advice on writing from a very successful novelist: Get to your desk immediately upon waking and begin writing immediately. If you drink coffee, brew it the night before and have it ready in a thermos at your desk. I couldn’t get past the coffee part, which is why I remember the advice at all — I cannot be expected to write without a fresh, hot cup! This famous novelist believed that the closer we were to the liminal state of our dreams, the greater our access to creativity. There’s a lot to be said about getting creative, but most writers understand that it’s simply the act of writing that gets you to the spaces of creative insight and not the other way around. So my first bit of advice about your writing practice is this:
Put in the time: You’ve got to put in the work of writing in order to become a better writer. This may seem obvious but many of us simply do not put in the hours because our lives are busy and full. We have children, jobs, partners, homes, pets, dinners to make, vacations to plan, businesses to run, groceries to buy and so on. The reality is that we can and do make time for the things that are important to us. So, to start, keep track of how many hours you spend writing a week. Decide if this is the right amount for you or whether you can put in more. I can promise you one thing: the more you write the better you write.
How Important Is It? Writing isn’t easy, so you have to ask yourself: Do I need and want to do this? Actually, the question we often pose is, will I be able to live with myself if I quit writing? If the answer is yes, well, then congratulations, you’re lucky. I know for the casual writer this seems silly or even disheartening, but for those of us who’ve been at it for a while it makes total sense. You’ve taken breaks, you’ve put your projects aside, you’ve moved on to new things, you’ve changed jobs, but you keep coming back to it: writing. To be an artist in this world, one that rarely values art beyond financial gain, requires a willingness to sacrifice: time, money, energy. So, the choice is yours but know that it is a choice that you’re making and a sacrifice. I find the rewards worth it but I always remind myself that I’m free to move on.
So, if you’ve decided that you’re a writer or you want to write (because I know many of you are afraid to call yourselves writers even though that’s what you are), my next suggestion is to make a writing schedule. After you track how many hours you write a week, decide what is reasonable for your schedule. It may only be three hours a week or it may be twenty or thirty. But keeping a schedule is essential for reaching a goal. Regular writing is essential for reaching a goal. There are two ways to do this: First, you can commit to a number of hours per week and fit them in when convenient. However, the second and preferred method, is to schedule the hours so that you can be sure to get them in. Block them out in your planner; write them down on the calendar. But get them in. Pretend, if you will, that you’re training for a marathon and in order to complete the big race you need to get your hours in. Or pretend you’re getting paid for them. Just get them done! Oh, and PS, you’re not going to enjoy every minute of it. But if you keep your butt in your seat and write, you will get to where you need to go (great advice from Anne Lamott, see her classic, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life).
Set a timer: When it’s writing time I suggest you set a timer and focus solely on your work. If the timer’s going then you are less likely to drift over to email and social media and fall into the black hole. Try thirty minutes to start–make it short and manageable. Take a break and if you’re feeling good try another thirty. Staying focused works.
Give your work time: Certain essays have taken me years to complete. Others were written in a fever over the course of weeks. I once completed a short story for an anthology in four days. I was alone and grieving the death of a beloved auntie and the story just came out. A friend of mine insists that some poems take an entire lifetime. Perhaps that story took my whole life to write and it was only then that I was ready to create it. Yet, most of my work has taken years, so give your work time. Never ever ever finish revising a draft of something and send it out in the same day. On the other hand, Annie Dillard writes that if you spend too much time away from your work, the project will die out. She likens writing a book to stoking a fire. If you leave it for too long it goes out. I have about three cold, burnt out novels to date, and countless other writings.
Avoid Perfectionism at all costs: There is a great Brain Pickings on this topic, which I highly recommend. But the gist is that if you’re trying to be perfect you’re not going to create anything. You must allow yourself the space to write crap… and lots of it. Get messy, write crap, follow your instincts even if they make no sense in the moment. Creativity is about making connections where none exist and bringing to light new ways of seeing, being, and therefore existing. Perfectionism, it’s said, is the highest form of self hatred — so ditch it!
Keep the Faith: Being a writer is a lot like being a profit wandering through the wilderness. Yes, there’s help out there but it is your vision and your individuality that matters. What you have to offer is your specific, intimate understanding of the world– There’s only one you! That’s the one we want to understand; the mind we’d love to access. And while writing is a solitary endeavor, it’s your friendships and connection to other writers and writing that will keep you going. My readers (two people) have kept me going for years. Without them I have no one to bounce ideas off of, to get feedback from, to share stories, and to kvetch with. Building up this community is essential to your success. And remember, success is mostly about whether or not you’re practicing as opposed to your publications. It takes courage to keep going. Here’s a lovely piece on Keeping the Faith.
Finally, create the right space. OK, I will admit that I’m writing this at my local coffee shop and that most of my writing occurs in bed; however, we need a space that feels right to us. Writer Dani Shapiro has written that she spent two years in her favorite chair writing her memoir Inheritance. She had an office but she couldn’t bring herself to go there. A former teacher of mine told me he can only write in his bedroom with the blinds drawn. Others seek out beautiful spaces, a room with a view, and so on. But essentially, what you need is a place to be alone (the coffee shop counts!) and feel comfortable.
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Last fall I fell into a clinical depression. Partly, I suspected, it had to do with an abrupt change in my running activity–from training for races to a few short runs a week–and perhaps the change of seasons. In Vermont, the darkness can be crippling. Days are cut off around 4pm in November and the lack of sunlight imposes a sense of doom for some. I suspect others cozy up to the wood stove and find solace in that same darkness. But I found myself frozen in a state of grief and fear that I hadn’t felt in years.
Poet Jenny Xie writes in “On Melancholia” of Freud’s distinction between mourning and melancholia. Here are her words:
In “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917), Freud traces the distinction between the psychological state of mourning, a normal response to loss that is finite, and melancholia, a pathological mourning whose labor is endless. Whereas in mourning, the object of loss is clear and can be released by the mourner with time, in melancholia, what has been lost can remain hidden and becomes internalized—”devoured” by the ego, as Freud writes. The ego absorbs the lost object and feeds on it interminably.
I read Freud as literature as I suspect Xie does as well. I like the idea of thinking of depression as a lost object. Something we’ve misplaced without realizing it. Devoured by the ego, we can’t stop mourning–the labor is endless. In many ways I see my own bouts of depression as moments when I have lost access to my life. By which I mean, I’ve lost touch with the life I want to lead; I have become estranged from myself.
I imagine my estranged self wandering along a forest path, through a city street, stopping for coffee… Romantic, yes. But this is not at all the way depression feels. Depression is a feeling akin to drowning that I imagine would mirror the experience of falling through ice with all your winter clothes on and not being able to get out. You try to kick off the boots but they’re stuck on; you try to climb out, but the ice breaks; you call for help, but no one’s there–or at least that is the way the mind imagines it. The mind imagines a life or death situation.
Even when I’m not in the throws of depression (which is normally) in my mind the voice of doubt is strong. I have talked to her for years and have learned to talk her down as well as to simply detach and observe the workings of the mind. Thoughts are not reality. Repeat after me: thoughts are not reality.
Tara Brach, meditation teacher, writer, and speaker, has noted that the ego doesn’t like it’s own training and thus turns on itself. I would equate this notion with her (and the Buddhist) notion of the second arrow. The first arrow is the harm done and the second arrow is the voice that scolds: how did you let this happen, you’re bad, worthless, etc. Thus, the voice of the second arrow is always telling me that I’m failing (it is also the more harmful arrow, the poisonous one, if you will). As in this morning when my four year old was having an epic tantrum and I held him down to brush his teeth before school–fail! I thought, what have we done? We are awful parents, bad bad bad. But my own training popped up (luckily) and said, it’s just a bad day, it’s temporary, he won’t be four forever, he’ll learn to brush his own teeth.
Failure is relative. You decide. You can change your thoughts, I’ve learned. Yet our sense of not being enough (doing, having enough) is a powerful part of our conditioning as human beings. We are locked into this conditioning and unless we see it for what it is we can’t get free. Even when we intellectually understand it, there are powerful triggers in our lives that catch us up again and again. But if we practice noticing and choosing different thoughts, which lead to different feelings and in turn different actions, we can overcome this.
Perhaps, as long as we are walking our path and engaged in what we love and what interests us, we mostly feel content. Do you believe that you deserve this? Do you think you have to suffer? Why? Alienation from our path (our best lives) is when depression and melancholia arise, in my experience. Often the texts go like this: What am I doing with my life?!?
Me: I’m fucked, seriously fucked!
Friend: What’s going on?
I admit to being a little dramatic.
The lost object, then, is not (of course) an object but the action of living our lives in ways that feel meaningful, purposeful, and right for us. A sense of being engaged in our right work, supported by our communities, and well-loved. A belief that we deserve to have all our needs met.
Last fall I began therapy again, which I have done off and on my entire life. I’m a huge fan, but you need to find the right person. I found someone magical, which has felt like a gift. She began by telling me that my expectations were way out of synch and that I was trying to do too much so I was crashing. My body was protesting the expectations I had forced upon myself. I thought of the previous two years, the insane amount of work I’d been doing to form and build our faculty union while revising my book, teaching, parenting, running, editing, and all the other life stuff. I let that sink in and then I said, predictably, but I’m not enough and I listed to her all the ways I was failing as a writer and grown-up person.
Her response: What if you just stop trying to do all that? What if you just write in your journal everyday and see what happens? What if you take a break? Have you ever done that?
No, I thought, I cannot take a break. I have too much to accomplish. I’ve got to start my second book and it needs to be a money-maker, I’ve got to promote my first book, I’ve got to generate shorter pieces for publication, I’ve got to get a new full-time job. Whooeee…. that sounds stressful. I told her I felt behind as a writer, publishing my first book at the tail-end of my thirties instead of my twenties. (Yes, I realize how ridiculous this idea is! But, conditioning!)
What if you aren’t that kind of writer?
What kind? I ask.
The rich and famous kind.
Well, that’s obvious.
We laugh. Then she says, what if your life, what you’ve been given, is the material you have to work with as a writer. What if your life is the material of your work?
I like that. I say, and think of my two children.
And so, I began to write to “X” everyday in my journal, a blue covered wireless notebook. I quit the novel I was working on. I didn’t attempt any essays. I just wrote to X. The Winter Solstice passed into the new year. Slowly I felt myself returning and in my hands a lost object emerged, small and quiet, a well-loved path.
Clinical depression often requires medication, medical attention, and other care. I do not mean to imply that we can simply think or journal our way out. Rather, I believe that depression can be rooted in our life choices and needs, triggered by responses to fear.
I want to be clear that seeking to live your “best life” and be your “best self” are somewhat privileged notions when most of the world is forced to labor in tenuous survival mode. I want to recognize this. And I believe I have a responsibility to use my privilege in service to others to help everyone access opportunities for growth and success. Some of the ways I do this is through teaching at the community college level, mentoring students, activist work, listening to and promoting the ideas (and work) of marginalized individuals/communities, teaching students how oppression functions, and donating money or time. I believe we all want to live our best lives (regardless of our socio- economic status) and there is enough for everyone.
To Read Jenny Xie’s extraordinary poem “Melancholy” click here