I’m Back

i'm backWhat I did not do on my summer vacation: too much thinking.

Thus, trying to write new fiction: impossible.

Trying to revise fiction (my favorite part of the process): impossible.

Meaningful conversation: impossible.

Being alone, driving long distances, showering, retrieving words like washing machine, errand, looking around me at the room/the burnt lawn/the neighbor compulsively deadheading: impossible.

I never have been able to meditate because I don’t get the clearing your mind stuff. I didn’t get it, that is, until this summer. Or maybe since there was nothing to clear, this was not a fair test.  

Not thinking left me with the following:

  1. Making and unmaking and remaking mosaic stepping stones while listening to a novel with earbuds in
  2. Watching everything on ID Discovery
  3. Reading headlines only of the upcoming election (oh, and FiveThirtyEight’s Chance of winning stats)
  4. Babytalking to Enzo, my cat
  5. Sleeping
  6. Watching my other cat, Minx, watch fish videos on YouTube

Things that made thinking lethal:

  1. The 2016 election
  2. The fact that my oldest daughter will be leaving to attend college in August

Finally, in late July, I went to a poetry reading given by a new acquaintance to celebrate the publication of her new collection  (a book I will highly recommend to you while I’m at it, even if you are on the kind of non-thinking hiatus I have been on. Buy The Uncanny Valley by Jennifer Martelli and find out how to hear her read, too.). To get to such an event, I have to summon the kind of courage I used to call upon to jump into a quarry (okay, I only did that once but I’m still exhausted from the effort). Since those days are (blissfully) behind me, I now use those resources only to usher me into potentially awkward social situations. Jennifer was gracious, welcoming. But me in a room of people I don’t know. That’s what I’m talking about.

You will, it turns out, be required to shove yourself into these situations throughout your life. Go on out there, my mother has told me in various versions of the phrase, and make some friends, you strange girl. Many times in my life, my friends might have said: Take a chance. Get involved. Join a playgroup. That kind of stuff. The option is, after all, sitting home and either thinking or vacuuming places that will never been exposed to light. Because, let’s face it, this is one of those goddamned new chapters. The world might be ready for the President of the United States to be a woman, but you aren’t quite ready for your kids to be grown up, for the house to echo around you as you babble to a completely disinterested cat and compulsively check to see if the new season of Project Runway has started yet. There are things looming that you don’t want to mull in your usual strange-girl fashion.

But poetry. Once again, it elbowed me. Wake up, poetry says, as if it’s sitting beside you during an interminable dinner party full of talk about obscure zoning laws and tips on how to improve your golf game. But poetry wants you to know: Finally something worthwhile is being said. Remember, poetry says, how nice it is to be able to think? To feel? To rush headlong into something besides housecleaning? Sit up now. Take note for Christ’s sake. Get your sleeve out of your bouillabaisse.

Hearing Jennifer read, remembering what powerful words can do –how could I not venture back, slowly, slowly to the world of thinkers worrying, spinning theories, wittily reacting, conjecturing, reflecting, remembering (oh god, remembering), shouting across the room, curling up in a ball on the sofa and listening, probing the universe, in all its bleakness and light?

 

Weekend Write-In: What to do When You Can’t Write

Some people (like my husband) say I should run every day. Just a mile. Ten minutes! Anyone can do that much! But I can’t. My legs hurt; my lungs explode; the thoughts of the quitter I am derail me.

Sometimes writing is like this. Same advice. Same expectations. Same torment. Same defeat.

So when I can’t write. When I absolutely can’t think of anything, here’s what I do, instead:

  1. I rewrite. Even if it means rewriting stuff I’m not particularly excited about. A day can’t be wasted if you improve something, right?
  2. I add a page to the journal I keep for my daughters (and you can start one anytime for anyone!). What’s great about this is that a) the audience is guaranteed and b) I end up writing something down that I’m thankful I recorded. I suppose letters would work here, too, and everyone loves receiving real mail.
  3. I research possible places to submit my work. When else do people do this tedious stuff? Compiling submission guidelines, website links, etc. when I’m not writing means that, when that urge returns (and it always does no matter how much I despair), I don’t have to stop to do the business of writing.
  4. I look at what I have already and try to decide: what should I do with this? A few years ago, after my agent rejected (in this order) my novel and me, the blues came to stay for a long, dark, lonesome winter. One day, I took out the stories I’d already written and laid them across my bed. Do I have enough pages for a collection? I wondered. I did. Then I researched where to send it. Hmm. AWP Grace Paley Prize. What the hell?
  5. I read other people’s stuff and leave comments of encouragement, blogsites, Goodreads, FB posts. It’s writing, right? And, again, there’s an audience.
  6. I read.
  7. I people watch.
  8. I try not to beat myself up.

I wish I could write every day. But I’m like most writers I know: I have a job that isn’t writing; I have a family; I get my teeth cleaned; I feed my cats. And so, I console myself with some other writing-related pursuit.

What about you? How do you fill the muse-less hours??

The Story of the Stories, Part IV: Letting It Be Bad

In my Hetzel Hall single, I sat agonizing over how to write a short story. Stayed away from nickel night at Nick’s. Closed my dorm room door and ignored knocks. Let the phone ring and ring down the hall, people with reasons to chat be damned.

How Jumpin’ Joe got in, I don’t recall. He’s an unavoidably buoyant person, hard to discourage.

“Look,” he said, not standing still. Bobbing, probably, using hand motions, wiggling his Marx brother’s eyebrows. “Why don’t you take a poetry class, instead. Have a little fun for a change?”

“I know nothing about writing poetry,” I said to this animal science major, to someone whose first real job would be as an egg inspector for the USDA during the day and a bass player in a band at night.

***

Poetry derailed me (fodder for another 100 blogs).

But it was loss that brought me back to writing stories.

First, my father’s death and a summer workshop for teachers in Amherst. We had to tell name stories and one woman said: “I was named Margaret after my grandmother, but her name had originally been Mexico. When she married, her in-laws forced her to change it to something more appropriate.” There was no poem in that, only something vital being erased, something unimaginable. The dorm room I slept in was stifling. The group of teachers assembled not writers but earnest educators hoping to learn something that they could bring back to the classroom with them. Peter Elbow led some weird kind of writing therapy session that made me itch. I could still summon my father’s smell, cotton and starch, Ivory soap. I had memorized the cracks in his fingers, the missing nails. I wouldn’t let my mother throw his comb away.

In my conference with Peter Elbow, I said I wanted to write an essay based on the Mexico story. “I thought about writing something fictional,” I said, “but I can’t.”

“Do you know what word I hear?” he said, leaning forward. “Can’t. You can’t write it, you said.”

“That’s right. I can’t.”

He asked me what I was afraid of and I thought of standing up, walking to my car, driving back to my mother’s house. My mother’s house that used to be my parents’ house.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said. This quack. This witch doctor. “Just let it be bad.”

***

I had learned long before that writing didn’t bring anyone back. Had spent my sophomore year in high school chronicling my friendship with two girls whose companionship I had lost. For Christmas that year, I had received an electric typewriter. I set it up in my room beside my stereo and banged away on it, filling page after page with the scenes from our lives together. When I’m finished, I thought, I’ll show it to them and they’ll remember: Oh, right. That’s how it used to be.

***

I didn’t write Having Your Italy because I believed it would bring Dan back. Older, wiser, more accustomed to the way loss inserts itself into life and how we surge forward, grateful even for the loves that cannot last, I wrote the story for me. But I loved many things about him and one of those was his longing, his restlessness despite my own realization that these things meant he couldn’t stay.

One day when he listed all the things he wanted to do, that he couldn’t imagine doing, I thought about how I might console him. Finally, I said: “I went to Italy without a map, without anything, really, except a good friend and the absolute wrong wardrobe.”

He said, “Well, I haven’t had my Italy.”

In the weeks after he left, I sat at my desk and clicked away at the keyboard of my Apple IIGS and wrote a story based around the line that forced a painful and necessary goodbye. The Mexico story was an invitation to write. The Italy story, I thought, might be something more important. Outside, night fell. Inside, I batted away all the never-again’s. I wrote the first draft and I let it be bad.

***

Teaching, too, derailed me, but motherhood? That sat me down in one place and threatened to hold me there, my beautiful daughter, Beatrice, busy with plastic things, her diapers dry, the electrical outlets sealed off.

I hung signs in local libraries: Writing Group Forming, Please Call (Please) — the parenthetical is just a reference to the little prayer I said each time I punched a staple in.

We met in the Rowley Library when it had a basement room with red shag carpet. Of the five people who assembled, four returned for the next four years. Mostly, we met in Newburyport at Jane’s condo, every Thursday night. Her children were grown; her husband tucked himself away in the spare room while we listened to one another’s attempts. When my middle daughter was born, Miriam filled me a water bottle and lectured me about the importance of hydration as I nursed Apphia through the critique. When I was finished, they took turns passing her around: Jane, Brian, Miriam. When my third daughter arrived home from Guatemala, I brought them all gifts.

But the writing stalled, story after story rejected. “I might just start writing poetry again,” I said, threatening the indifferent air and houseplants.

Then the phone rang. Landline.

Ten years after I had finished Having Your Italy, someone said, “We’d like to publish your story.”