"Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart." ~ William Wordsworth

The Writing Life Too

And if you're reading this, it means you're not writing.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Once a writer is born into a family, that family is doomed. Czselaw Milosz

When I’ve fallen behind with a friendship we get together for dinner or go for a walk to catch up on each other’s lives. It seems to me that if people don’t eat meals together we’ll never know enough about each other’s struggles and triumphs. Last Friday my friend S and I went to a downtown Thai restaurant for dinner and since the service was horrendous, there was plenty of time to talk. In fact, we were seated so near the kitchen that the fumes from roasting hot peppers were making us cough and the scents that drifted out to our table were tantalizing. But our waiter, who when we arrived was jogging and dashing through the place trying to keep up with his tables, disappeared after he took our order. After awhile it became funny to watch dish after dish leave the steamy kitchen destined for other tables as we speculated on our order. S who hadn’t eaten a solid meal all day, kept gulping her tea while I polished off a glass of wine. We were both practically gnawing our knuckles when the waiter finally reappeared, shocked that our appetizer salad rolls hadn’t arrived.

After we finally ate, the conversation settled into the sort of speculation and planning and confidences that women are prone to. We had driven to the restaurant in S’s red Mercedes that warms the seats for you, (the butt warmer really is a lovely invention) so that when we emerged from the car into the rainy night with our backsides warmed, the downpour wasn’t daunting. S is a real estate agent and spends a lot of time driving around Portland scoping out properties, sometimes with her perspective clients, sometimes on a scouting mission. She described what it was like to drive people around who are house hunting. That week she was working with a lesbian couple looking for a house when the conversation erupted into a fierce argument that really had nothing to do with the enclosed porch on the house they just looked at and everything about their differences. Apparently such arguments about house features—the powder room, the deck, the extra room that one person visualizes as a home office and the other as a nursery---are common. S concentrates fiercely on driving until the eruption fades.

“Ah, that’s subtext, “I explained. “It’s the river of true emotions that runs beneath the words that are being spoken.” I went on to describe how arguments are often not about the topic at hand but deeper issues in the relationship. Subtext is exploited by fiction and screenwriters to enhance tension.

On Saturday night I drove to meet a friend for dinner the sky striated with lavenders and pinks as a storm ended and clouds scuttling east. My friend E who works as a private investigator and had recently visited two Caribbean islands looking for documents and evidence for a federal case she’s working on. Along the way she and the retired cop she was partnered with stirred up a hornet’s nest and the body guard to the prime minister (recently indicted on murder charges) was trying to stop them. By the time they discovered they were in trouble it was Friday night and the only way off the island was a fishing boat. So they stayed and enlisted a local for help and eventually all was well, but I cannot mention the islands or the case she’s working on except to say that it’s generated a million pages of pre-trial discovery.

Since I’m never privy to the sort of scenes and people E has access to—death row inmates, houses filled with meth addicts, and farm homes in Mexico—our conversations are generally fascinating and her adventures exotic. About twenty years ago I was hiking around a nature preserve in northern Wisconsin. It had been formerly owned by the Sears Roebuck family, but the estate with its outbuildings and stables had been torn down and the land was a wide, wide swath of whispering forest. As we walked along we found a single wild orchid. It was a soft orange and its discovery, so far north. etched a memory that has lasted all these years. Sometimes when I talk with E it seems like she is collecting a lifetime of rare orchids.

She described government officials so inept, lazy and uncaring that they made the Bush administration look like a bunch of Eagle Scouts. Of walking into a government office where everyone was playing video games and had crowds of people standing around them offering suggestions for their next move. Of unairconditioned basement offices in the tropical heat so miserably hot that her glasses steamed up.

And then I was driving home on Saturday night after dinner, listening to the car radio. All day there had been updates about the death of Buck Owens, describing him as the creator of the Bakersfield sound because he lived there and drew inspiration from his surroundings. Bakersfield, California is a place where many Dust Bowl refugees arrived searching for fertile farm lands in the 1930s. Buck was born in Texas and grew up in Arizona, but he and his wife moved there after he traveled through the region during a truck-driving stint. When Owens began recording his string of hits he went against the pop-influeced trend of the time and recorded songs that had a rawer, honky-tonk approach, influenced by the Mexican polkas he had heard on border radio stations while growing up.

When I was a kid and my parents played Buck and his Buckeroos, I’d howl in protest. Now that I’m older, I think Buck really knew how to swing and his sound was clean and crisp and true. His rendition of Act Naturally and Santa Looked lot Like Daddy are just plain fun. Every time another icon from my childhood or teen years leaves the planet, I see the shape of the world I once knew growing smaller and less authentic. I see less real genius around me. Or am I only missing it so busy at my computer with Air America strumming political talk in the background all day? The music scene is now populated by Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, Tim McGraw and Jay-Lo and these new celebrities just cannot fill the shoes of the bigger-than-life music idols who have gone: Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Marvin Gaye, John Lennon, George Harrison, Jimmy Hendricks, Jim Morrison. I want them back so I can sit in the audience one more time and hear the gravel and heat and knowing in their words. Watch them hunched over a guitar or piano. Feel the music enter and my veins and lift me up. Hear their lifetime stories in every note.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

If myths were bound by time and place, then they would not be myths. Negel Spivey

More rain and blooms and the sky has dawned with pale blue lacing through the clouds. Just before waking, I was dreaming about my new book. It was one of those dreams that meld from a mini-horror story then on to dabs of normalcy to then segue into a preposterous scenario. In one segment I’m throwing a party for my upcoming book and I see the book for the first time. It’s a gaudy horror of childhood and retouched photos of people I mentioned in the preface (in real life I didn’t mention anyone), lots of movie stills from a Disney movie (perhaps Mary Poppins) about half a dozen pages of the stills and the colors mostly in turquoise. The book is, in a nutshell, tacky and strange and the art direction has overshadowed the content. Shaky from this discovery, I frantically start trying to play hostess to the crowd, popping open some champagne which has not been chilled enough and assembling plastic champagne flutes that leak.

Back to real life where yesterday I submitted a proposal for an upcoming book about writing fiction. I’m fairly sure the proposal will be accepted because the editor is already interested and I’ll be working on the book in May or June. I’m planning on spending about a week outlining and preplanning before I start writing—perhaps go to the coast with a pile of notes to mull things over before I plunge in….When writing Between the Lines I realized I had bit off too much and was forced to submit an abbreviated table of contents. With this book—I want a roadmap laid out before I begin.

Saturday afternoon I spent some time reading Nigel Spivey’s Songs on Bronze, The Greek Myths Made Real and A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong. Armstrong’s book begins by stating that humans have always been mythmakers then traces the evolution of myths from the Paleolithic period until now, when mythmaking has declined. I’ve been mulling over her conclusion ever since.

She writes: “We may be sophisticated in material ways, but we have not advanced spiritually beyond the Axial Age: because of our suppression of mythos we may even have regressed. We still long to ‘get beyond’ our immediate circumstances, and to enter a ‘full time’, a more intense, fulfilling existence. We try to enter this dimension by means or art, rock music, drugs or by entering the larger-than-life perspective of film. We still seek heroes. Elvis Presley and Princess Diana were both made into instant mythical beings, even objects of religious cults. But here is something unbalanced about this adulation. The myth of the hero was not intended to provide us with icons to admire, but was designed to tap into the vein of heroism within ourselves. Myth must lead to imitation or participation, not passive contemplation. We no longer know how to manage our mythical lives in a way that is spiritually challenging and informative.”

Armstrong goes on to recommend that we go beyond nineteenth century thought that myth is false or represents inferior thinking. In other words, we need myths to fully experience our humanity.

Although Armstrong decries storytelling as inferior to mythmaking, I believe we can write about people with heroic qualities we want to emulate, burdens we can imagine carrying, and dilemmas we can solve. Sure sometimes we can write stories that are are a vicarious thrill ride or frothy as cotton candy on a sticky July afternoon, but we can also touch the deep heart of knowing that lies in all of us. We can write to understand birth and death and pain and love. We can write to untangle all the knots of human emotions, to lend hope, and expose troublemakers and monsters in human clothes for what they are. When stories are contrived with artistry, empathy, and intricacy, reading or watching them is not a passive experience, but a deep experience of shared humanity.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

“I find stories everywhere,” she told me, her voice coming over the telephone line. I jotted down her words immediately on the back of an old envelope and we went on to talk about this phenomena –stories everywhere. Everyone a story. The story collector’s name is Kathleen and she had called to enroll in a writing workshop I’m teaching in April. As we talked, I looked out my living room window to the cherry trees blooming pink in the neighbors’ yard, the sky smudged with gray, the vibrant greens everywhere. The world offering up its own story.

And I’m still thinking about this and how I walk for exercise, but also to collect stories. About a month ago I was walking on a March afternoon when the sun was blazing but the temperature was still in the 40s. I came across two boys, about nine years old, lying shirtless across the sidewalk as if to sunbathe. I asked them if they were cold and they assured me solemnly that they were not. As I walked along I could almost feel the bite of the cold sidewalk against my back and thought about the pranks and derring-do of childhood. Thinking back to myself at their age—a girl with a thick ponytail and freckles, on my red Schwinn racing down the hill on Matthews street to freedom, my grandmother’s house, or the Wisconsin River. In the March of my childhood, there would still would be snow piled in vast drifts, but a spring thaw usually came in March and the gutters would run wild with melting snow and a patch of sidewalk would be commandeered for hopscotch or jumprope.

Nowadays I like to walk at dusk when people are flicking on their kitchen lights and pulling out pots and pans they’ll need to cook dinner. Sometimes the smells of chicken roasting or a backyard barbecue perfume the air and I can imagine their meal, the murmurs at the table as they bite into a chicken leg or spoon potato salad onto a plate. Sometimes the flickering screen of the television is glowing in the dusk. Sometimes kids are hunched at the kitchen table doing their homework. Sometimes a screen door slams. Once I walked past an old house and the garage door yawned open and inside the darkened garage it was festooned with tiny Christmas lights in every color, glimmering. And it was as if I’d stumbled on a child’s treasure box.

Kathleen is right about stories simmering everywhere for a writer to scoop up and elaborate on, but it requires that your mind quiet down so that the stories can slip in. It requires wonder. It requires asking the next question—what if, why, how does it work? Who is the person who strung the lights?

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

(written March 9)
It’s snowing in Portland this morning. Snow is always a rare event here but especially so in March when the forsythia, cherry trees and daffodils are blooming and turning the landscape soft with lavenders, pinks and yellows.

I am traveling to Vancouver later this afternoon to teach two fiction workshops. Canada beckons as a haven of sanity in these times as the morning news reports that there were “irregularities” with Florida voting machines in yesterday’s primary. Funny word irregularity. Used to describe everything from constipation to criminal tampering with voting machines.

But on to writing. I am in the final laps of writing three books in about an 18-month period. Yesterday a meeting with Sisters Of The Road, the nonprofit organization I’m working with, writing a book based on 625 interviews with homeless people in Portland. The book will be finished by the end of March and I’ll miss my friends at Sisters. I am also waiting for my editor at Running Press to send the draft of the I Ching book for my final edits and Between the Lines, master the subtle aspects of fiction writing is going to be in stores in April. So the marathon writeathon has been worth it, but when I look back at the past year, it’s a blur of eyestrain, back pain, and brain overload. So this is the wrap-up phase and I’ll be soon into the next phase of submitting new proposals and starting new books.

But there’s something about endings, isn’t there? I joke with my students that finishing a book is like giving birth to an ugly baby. Toward the wearying end you just want the little beast out of you, will pay a king’s ransom to be rid of it. And then when it’s arrived in the world, you’re sure it’s so hideous it will spend its life locked away from the world’s harsh view. All your doubts about your skill level start blooming, after all, who are you to write a book? But then one day, when you’re not quite so exhausted, the baby grins a crooked smile at you, and you start to think maybe this kid isn’t so ugly after all.
Maybe I can write after all.

Whoever said that mothers forget the pain of birth is lying. Birth pain lives in your cellular memory always and lingers there on your child’s thirtieth birthday or whenever you recall the hours of delivery. There is nothing quite like it—so searing and seemingly unsurviveable.

And so there are times when slogging through a manuscript that you don’t think you’ll survive the struggle, the pain, the doubt. But like birth, somehow you do. I am not one of those writing teachers that preaches the airy-fairy bliss of writing. Yes, it brings joy and meaning and depth to my life. I love writing, but I know it’s mostly hard work and endless decisions and analysis. And I’m thrilled with sending my new children out into the world of readers and kindred spirits. But there is a price to be paid. I pay it gladly, but I’m always aware of the cost.