Less cess, more fresh

If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story. Think of a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment. The only way to get clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap. Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stories, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama. We must get all of them out of our system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the freshwater underneath.

Ann Patchett, from This is the Story of a Happy Marriage


Thankful Thursday (on Friday)

I’m steeped in the why bother?

It’s a fugue state — maybe you know this place — somewhere between ennui and fatigue in which the answer to every question: want to write? run? see friends? get out of bed? is met with two debilitating words: why bother?

Mired in this action-less funk, I consume more than produce. This week, I lost myself in books: a wonderful collection of essays (This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, by Ann Patchett), an engaging novel, (Astonish Me, by Maggie Shipstead), a brutal novel (An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay), an odd novel (We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler), a poetry collection (Aimless Love, by Billy Collins), another poetry book (Tender Hooks, by Beth Ann Fennelly), and a variety of newspapers, magazines, cereal boxes, junk mail, and college course catalogs. If it has words, there’s a good chance I’ve read it.

And so, in this fog in which I’ve traded my life for the pulse of print, I was encouraged when I found this nugget:

“Oh, who cares,” we sometimes think at our most blue moments. “I am boring and it is boring and writing about it all is boring too.” At times like these we need to imagine that we are writing to someone who listens to us with the rapt attention of a new lover. Someone who wants to discover all there is to know about us, all we think, all we have thought, even all we might soon think.”

— Julia Cameron, from The Sound of Paper

Remember Julia Cameron? Twenty years ago she wrote The Artist’s Way, a powerful book that gave me (and thousands of other mopey writers and artists) permission to explore our creativity — despite the outcome, despite the quality, despite all the despites.

I’d forgotten Julia. The book went big, she got popular, and she wrote more of what I thought was the same great book, just repeated and diluted. I moved away, found other fabulous books that encouraged me to keep on (What books? I’m glad you asked: Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott, poemcrazy by Susan Wooldridge, to name just two).

The other day I was wandering through the library in that wonderfully receptive mood in which all good books are found and discovered The Sound of Paper, a Julia Cameron book published in 2004. Yes, much of it echoes The Artist’s Way but it turns out I needed a voice from the past to bring me back to myself:

“And so, the first act of loving kindness is to start from scratch — the scratch of a pen to paper. The filling of blank pages without specific likes and dislikes, our heartfelt and regretted losses and sacrifices — this is the beginning of being someone and somewhere again. When we ignore ourselves for too long, we become exhausted and weakened from trying to get our own attention. We become disheartened—without a heart. The gentle pulse that we are meant to attend to, the ear-cocked, mothering side of ourselves that listens to a newborn and springs into action on its behalf, must be mustered now to come to our own rescue. But the rescue begins with the act of writing. Writing is how we “right” our world.”

We hear what we hear when we need to hear it.

And so, here I am. Showered, dressed, writing. Just for now. Just one page. Just today. Why bother? Why not?


It's Thankful Thursday (ahem, on Friday). Please join me in a weekly pause to express gratitude for the people, places & things (books, music, and more) in our lives. What are you thankful for today?



You need to love words (and other advice)

Photo by Don Harder via Flickr Creative Commons

"You need to love words," says Nick Ripatrazone, a writer and high school English teacher. "You don’t need to love a certain type of book or a particular writer, but you need to love letters and phrases and the possibilities of language."

With 55 Thoughts for English Teachers, Ripatrazone offers wise advice. I'm not a high school teacher, but I do lead after-school writing programs and workshops for teens and adults, and robustly applaud Ripatrazone's  "thoughts."

It's a good, long list. Here are some of my favorites:

• Students can sense a lot of things.

• Speaking of poetry: they will hate the idea of it, but they already love and live the soul of it. Condensed narratives and emotions tucked in abstractions? Those are their existences.

• Write. Talk about your writing. Show them your drafts, your edits. Write along with them.

• Students want to know about you. Sometimes their personal questions are a clever distraction. Be more mystery than memoir, but never be cold.

• You may be the only person who will ever read their sonnets, or their prose poems, or their dystopian novellas. Don’t take that privilege lightly.

• Read aloud. Every day. 

• For some students, you are their only light.


Doesn't that last one just say it? Read the entire piece, published at The Millions, here

What's your favorite advice? Is there anything you'd add?



Are you a writer? 

"The Written Word," Paloetic Photography, Creative Commons
Are you a writer, teacher, or both?

And which comes first?

"I used to consider myself a teacher who writes, now I'm a writer who teaches," says Ann Staley, who has taught for 40 years, in high schools, community colleges, universities, prisons, creative retreats, and more.

A prolific poet, she'd written hundreds of poems but didn't consider herself a writer until her second book was published, at age 68. “I do feel that I am a writer,” she said recently. “It really took the second book for me to feel that way.”

I met Ann-the-teacher years ago at a writing workshop celebrating the poetry of William Stafford. A good teacher leaves you wanting more, so I took her week-long writing workshop at Menucha - Creative Arts Community, and it was one of the best workshops I've attended.

And so I was surprised to learn that she doubted her place as a writer. Ann was a great teacher, so, of course, I saw her as a writer too.

Sometimes it seems we carry so many uncertainties, leaving us to wonder where writer ranks in our lives. We are mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, husbands, wives, givers, takers, teachers . . . But in the clamor is there time and space to be a writer first?



Love that line!

I've become stormy and difficult, mean and sad. If I was confronted with someone like myself I'd feel so sorry for them. Then I'd get bored by them, and then I'd hate them for their sad, sad story. Each day I start out wanting to do better, to be kinder. Each day I fail.

— from The Possibilities
a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings