Writing Time

Once upon a time I lived in suburban Massachusetts and worked as a temp and raised my children while writing an historical novel.  It took me almost a decade of researching and writing and trying to fit my protagonist’s life into the known facts of her time and place.  It was hard, challenging work, sometimes overwhelming to the point of discouragement.  And I often got stuck.

hut2I fantasized a lot.  (It goes with the territory of writing fiction.)  Mostly about writing retreats and writer’s colonies.  Sometimes I fantasized about building my own writing cabin in the woods like Henry David Thoreau.  It would have big windows that filled the place with sunlight and let me look out on my peaceful surroundings, where nobody was waiting for me to fix dinner or do the laundry or take them to soccer practice.  It would just be me and the blissful uninterrupted quiet.  In my fantasy, the novel would just pour out of me onto the page.  I’d become unstuck in a heartbeat for there’d be no interruptions, no demands on my time except for the work itself.

Because that’s what was making me such a slow writer – it was external demands on my time.  The problem was other people, other obligations.

Then, five years ago with my children grown and my husband approaching retirement, we moved to Vermont and rented a home in the foothills of the Green Mountains.  It’s a lovely little place tucked into the side of a hill surrounded by woods and fields, and even has the remnants of an old apple orchard behind the house.  I work in a tree-shaded study that overlooks a meadow and an ancient stone wall.  Here I have all the quiet and peace I’ve ever dreamed of.  No one but my dog interrupts me.  It’s the writer’s idyll that I always dreamed of.

But I still get stuck just as often as I did before.

At first it was simply puzzling.  I blamed myself for not working hard enough. I’m a professional writer and I know better than to wait for inspiration before sitting down to write.  But no matter how much time I sat at my desk, I could only produce a paragraph or two.

I tried all the tricks I knew – reading the very best contemporary fiction to prime the pump, doing more research, freewriting, and so on.  Finally, I wrote a story unconnected to my novel.  I found myself more caught up in it than I expected and spent several weeks working on it – much more time than it probably warranted.

When I finished it, I returned to the novel.  And to my surprise I found I’d somehow become unstuck during that month.

It’s not really magic.  I’m pretty sure my unconscious was still working on the novel during that time.  In fact, I think that break was necessary.  I need time to gestate, to let my characters and their actions jostle around and bump up against each other and grow.  All those frustrating “stuck” times are actually part of my writing process.

The funny thing is, I still fantasize about that cabin in the woods.

Some habits are hard to break.

HDT's cabin

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Losing Power

On Saturday afternoon a series of violent thunderstorms swept across Vermont, felling trees and downing power lines, knocking out power to tens of thousands of customers, including us. In a rural state such as ours, where residences are widely scattered and there are 13,000 miles of road (the majority unpaved), it can take many hours – sometimes days – to restore power to everyone on the grid.

Copy of late July 060In our little pocket in the foothills of the Green Mountains, the storm came up fast – dark clouds boiling over the western hill behind the house and fierce gusts of wind tearing through the forest and rocking trees around the house. It rained hard for about half an hour. Then it was over and the sun came out.

The power flickered, went out, came back on, then went out again.

And stayed out.

Usually when we lose power it comes back on in an hour or two. This time, we lost it for twenty-four hours. It was only one day, but it seemed a lot longer. Partly because it was inconvenient. When we lose power we also lose water. And because we’re in a cell phone “black hole” we don’t have phone access either. We’re renters and, unlike many of our neighbors, we don’t have solar panels or a backup generator. So instead we store buckets of water for washing up and flushing toilets and keep our fingers crossed that there will be enough to outlast the power outage.

Once I get over my initial annoyance I’m usually philosophical about these things. It’s the price we pay for living out in the country, which I consider a great blessing. If we’re lucky enough to lose power before it gets dark, as we did Saturday, we assemble our stock of flashlights and candles on the kitchen table, make sure our buckets of water are handy, and curl up with a book. As time passes and it gets dark, we light candles and break out our Kindles. We wonder aloud how long it will be before power’s restored, how many people in our area were affected, what to do about supper, whether any of our kids are trying to reach us.

In the quiet and the darkness time seems to expand. We talk and read and make jokes. Cool night air flows in through the open windows. We hear our neighbor’s generator come on. The only other sound is the river. We step outside. The waning moon hasn’t risen yet and the stars are amazing.

Slowly but surely life slows down and peace flows in.

candle

Spending Time with Emily

ED in frameI recently attended a weekend workshop led by a kind and generous poet. We deconstructed a few of Emily Dickinson’s poems, in an effort to understand that most elusive of American poets. It renewed my appreciation for her work – for her cryptic voice and stunning facility with words. However, I came away unsettled and a bit melancholy – which is always the danger after a close encounter with Dickinson, I suppose – a bit wobbly from claustrophobia and the feeling I’d spent too long in a tiny, airless room.

Part of my reaction is Dickinson herself. Reading more than two or three of her poems in one sitting makes my head hurt. But it’s also the rarefied literary air that students of poetry so often bring to such endeavors – the subtle competitive elitism, and the unspoken assumption that everyone in the room is coming to the table with the same cultural and aesthetic assumptions. In this case there was something else that annoyed me – a palpable derision aimed at Christianity. And my fellow workshoppers appeared to believe that Dickinson was their ally in this scorn

It seems to me that any thoughtful examination of Dickinson’s work quickly bumps into her twin obsessions with God and Death. Some have concluded that she was a non-believer, or an atheist. She was certainly resistant to the Congregational Church orthodoxy of her day. But I think an insightful reading of her work will show that Dickinson’s refusal to opt for a simplistic blueprint of salvation places her securely among the ranks of the great Christian mystics. I believe that her constant quest for the meaning and reality beneath the surfaces of life – even the ebb and flow of her doubting – bound her in a profound way to the “Eternity” she always sought.Getty rose2

So while I understand how tempting it is for a poet to align herself with Dickinson, I remain impatient with any attempt to box Dickinson in – or out. Ultimately any analysis of her thought will come up short. Because – like all mystics – she was always pointing both beyond and through the world as we know it to a reality we can’t yet see.

On Beauty

Zadie SmithRecently I went with a friend to hear Zadie Smith speak at Dartmouth. Smith is the author of wonderful contemporary novels, including On Beauty, which I read several years ago and loved. It’s been quite a while since I’ve listened in person to a writer whose work I admire as much as Smith’s and though I was eager to go, I wasn’t sure how I’d react. I often find academic settings a bit rarefied for my taste and the sphere of literary award winners is one that’s always been beyond my reach. Over the years some of the allure of that sphere has diminished and I’ve become more comfortable with my own literary limitations, (though I still want to be the best writer I can, to shape the sort of novels that I love to read).

So it was a pleasant surprise to hear Smith’s unpretentious and candid comments, to watch her flick away cherished academic theories and abstractions about the writing process and just speak directly from her own experience — and her heart.

A lot of what she said rang bells for me:

She mentioned that she had been an obsessive reader in her childhood that she, like me and other writers, had created “a supplementary life made out of words.” She spoke of her aversion to viewing creative writing as self-expression and said that for her writing fiction is closer to copying something than expressing herself. “So much is stolen and reshaped,” she said and she wasn’t talking about plagiarism but about emulating other writers’ works.

She said that she never knows where she’s going when she writes fiction, that she needs a lot of time and emotional space around creating fiction. Time to wonder and “time to moan.”

When she was asked how she’d revise one of her earlier novels if she had a chance, she demurred, saying “once I’ve written a thing it’s over for me.” She doesn’t go back and rehash old work or feel an interest in rewriting it.

And then she was asked what sorts of things fire her imagination, and make her want to write. “I’m drawn to beauty,” she said. “If it’s beautiful, I’m interested.”

I came away feeling inspired and affirmed, eager to read more of Zadie Smith’s work. For I, too, am mostly drawn to beauty.

Finally Falling in Love

440px-Emily_Dickinson_daguerreotypeI’m falling in love with Emily Dickinson. It’s not exactly a head-over-heels kind of thing. And it’s not overnight.

Far from it. I’ve been reading her poetry since I was in junior high school where I began to absorb the conventional wisdom about the poems’ meanings and references. But whenever I read her poems on my own, I found many difficult to decipher. They were like little candies with hard, sometimes bitter, centers that I couldn’t chew.

Why did it take me so long? Probably partly because I have a contrary streak and I’m wary of following the crowd, (even a literary crowd). And partly because the frail, overly precious “Belle of Amherst” image has always turned me off.

But now, because I’m doing research on a novel set in her world, I’m spending extended time with her work. I’m seeing a different, edgy side of her –a “tooth that nibbles at the soul” to use her own words. And it’s her words – or more precisely, the way she juxtaposes them – that’s making me fall in love.

They’re startling, these juxtapositions – strange and provocative and altogether new. And they’re everywhere – phrases bright as flowers scattered across a summer meadow. No wonder so many book titles have come from her work:

evenings of the brainIMG_0668
auctioneer of parting
experience is the angled road
metropolis of homes
a tooth upon our peace
gilt with sacrifice
economical of bliss
arctic confidence

They shake me up and spin me around and make me see the world in new ways. I end up feeling the same awe so many of her admirers before me have felt.

I came late to this party, but I’m finally here. Like so many others before me, I’m falling in love with Emily.

The Writer’s Bible

EOSThere are hundreds of great writing advice books available today as well as magazines and blogs and blogs of reflections on the writing life. But the one book that belongs on every writer’s shelf is The Elements of Style. It’s been on mine for nearly forty years and it’s one of my most-used books. In fact it’s received so much wear I’ve replaced it – twice.

First published privately in 1918 by Cornell University professor William Strunk, Jr., The Elements of Style was later revised and expanded by the wonderful writer E. B. White and published by Macmillan in 1959.

It’s one of the slimmest books I own. But in only 85 short pages the authors zero in on some of the most frequently broken rules of English usage and form, commonly misused words and expressions, and the basic guidelines of good composition. My favorite section, though, and the one I return to again and again is the last one: “An Approach to Style.” There, twenty-one “reminders” capture the essentials of style mastery. From the caution against using unorthodox spelling to the importance of revision, all the fundamentals are here.

The book is also filled with the kind of gems I like to print out and stick on my refrigerator, such as these:

  • The the surest way to arouse and hold the reader’s attention is by being specific, definite, and concrete.
  • Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.
  • The mind travels faster than the pen; consequently, writing becomes a question of learning to make occasional wing shots, bringing down the bird of thought as it flashes by.

I’ve found the advice just as useful for writing fiction and poetry as for prose.  I always recommend the book to my students and clients and reread it myself at least once a year. Does the book contain everything a writer needs to learn and master?  Probably not.  But it’s the best kind of foundation: solid bedrock.

The Elements of Style is the writer’s Bible.  It belongs on your shelf, too.

 

 

 

 

Cheer Up

This is a tough season for many of us to get through, especially if we live in northern states where the cold and darkness are pervasive. The holiday season with its lights and parties and cheerful frenzy may help to buffer us a bit, but it’s hard to completely escape the effects of shortening days and below freezing temperatures. Add the news cycle and you’ve got a recipe for despair. This year the news seems especially grim. TV, radio, newspapers, as well as social media are filled with distressing reports of shootings and drug overdoses and political buffoonery.

I reached the Age of Complaint some time ago. That’s the phase of life when conversations with your peers focus on lamenting how badly young people are being raised, how dismal social and educational standards are now, how grim the future looks because young people are entitled, spoiled, and lazy. In writing circles, we also talk a lot about the death of the novel, the demoralizing state of publishing, and the disheartening lack of interest in reading among young people.

I suppose there’s a grain of truth in all these complaints, but I remember my parents complaining about very similar things.  And I know that a little history checking will show that similar laments were voiced more than two thousand years ago.

On a recent bleak winter afternoon, I spent a few hours as a visiting writer sitting in with two classes of ninth graders in a nearby public school. The classroom atmosphere was a lot more chaotic and effervescent than the classrooms of my youth. We sat behind tables (not desks) in a big square. The boys clustered on one side of the square and the girls on the other. (Some things don’t change.) The students’ clothing and postures were non-conforming and individualized. They were relaxed but respectful – and brimming with energy.

They asked questions and so did I – we talked some about my novel, but mostly about writing and reading. And I came away with something I didn’t expect: optimism about the future.

Contrary to the complaints of my peers, these young people were curious and creative and motivated to learn. And they loved to read. They got very excited about books they loved, and they told me that many of them spent a lot of their free time writing fan fiction and posting it online where they received feedback and inspiration from other young writers. They were bubbling over with ideas and the desire to express them. It truly warmed my heart.

So if the complaints of your peers or the apocalyptic sound bytes of the daily news cycle have got you down, here’s a solution worth considering: Turn off the news and social media and spend some time with a class of ninth graders.

It just might cheer you up.

kids